by Bruce S. Thornton
Whether for partisan advantage or out of delusional utopianism, the jihadists win.
We can speculate endlessly on why Attorney General Eric Holder appointed a special prosecutor to investigate interrogation techniques and detainee abuse by the CIA, a charge already investigated by the Justice Department several years ago and deemed to be baseless or beyond prosecution. Yet whatever the reason — whether misplaced idealism or partisan politics — this decision reveals the delusions and dysfunctions that afflict our culture and leave us more vulnerable to the enemy.
The most important cultural delusion is what one can call juvenile utopianism. This is the creation of unreal expectations and the attempt to realize them in a hard world of evil men and tough choices. Such a mentality measures an imperfect world of imperfect people — a world of chance, unforeseen change, and unexpected consequences — by the standards of an abstract perfect justice easy to imagine but impossible to realize given the persistence of an irrational, unpredictable human nature. When these standards aren’t met, when the people charged with taking action, making hard choices, and choosing between the bad and the worse don’t measure up to this imagined perfection, then those who believe in the possibility of achieving their unreal expectations become angry and begin looking for scapegoats to punish — just like children when their inflated expectations are disappointed by reality.
The fight against jihadist terror has been the occasion for serial demonstrations of this peculiar cultural pathology. Many of us seem to think that a passionately committed enemy, one fired by absolute certainty that his terrorist murders are divinely sanctioned, can be fought according to exquisitely calibrated rules that will ensure no one, not even the enemy, suffers even psychological discomfort. Hence the absurd, unreal standards of treatment the violation of which sparked the outrage over what went on in Abu Ghraib or in Guantanamo. Only by comparison to utopian fantasy, rather than to the more typical practice of human beings in similar situations, could the treatment of those prisoners justify the hysterical adjectives — “horrific” has been a favorite — used by the media and critics. In reality, given what goes on every day all over the world (or in many U.S. prisons, for that matter), what happened in Abu Ghraib could be considered s sign of civilization’s progress.
The same inflation of standards has characterized the outrage over interrogation techniques and the treatment of detainees. The smoking-gun report that supposedly is so damning lists, according to The New York Times, “suggestions about sexually assaulting a detainee’s relatives, mock executions and intimidation with a handgun and power drill.” Ask an Iranian protester detained by the mullahs during the protests against Ahmadinejad’s theft of the election whether he’d prefer being beaten and raped to being intimidated by a power drill. Or poll the millions of political prisoners held all over the world, people daily tortured when they are not summarily executed, whether or not the CIA’s behavior wouldn’t be a vast improvement over what they currently suffer.
But shouldn’t we hold ourselves to a higher standard? Of course, but the standard must be realistic, one that takes into account the tragic limitations of human nature and our actions, and that factors in the need to acquire information in order to protect ourselves against attack by an enemy that scoffs at the careful distinctions we honor. We have to recognize that there is a big moral difference between actions taken to save lives, and actions that reflect sadism or cruelty meant to put an end to dissent or deter political rivals. In short, we have to balance our ideals against the reality of a dangerous world filled with evil men who want to do us harm.
Yet this sort of balance between idealism and realism is rare in our public discourse. Even those one would expect to recognize the tragic complexities that accompany action in a world of evil go astray. Senator John McCain has the right ideas on most issues, but his own experience with being tortured while held captive by the North Vietnamese has muddled his thinking. Thus torture whose aim is sheer sadistic pleasure or vengeance or humiliation is not differentiated from physical and psychological coercion — carefully monitored to avoid as much as possible permanent damage — meant to elicit information that could save lives.
Some of McCain’s other assertions are questionable as well. The claim that those being tortured will “say anything” to stop the pain, thus rendering any information useless, forgets that some of the “anything” they will say can include the truth. The idea that the revelation of these interrogation techniques damaged relations with our allies or aided Al Qaeda in recruitment is equally suspect. Our allies will formulate their foreign policies based first on their perceptions of their interests, not on their self-righteous discomfort with our behavior. And who of them has hands clean enough to sit in judgment on what we do to protect our citizens? As for al Qaeda, they already have a powerful recruiting tool in Islam’s theology and traditions, in which jihad against the infidel is a spiritual duty. It’s not what we do but what we are — atheists, polytheists, and infidels — that justifies pursuing jihad against us. The cataloging of our offenses against Islam is for our benefit, a way to exploit our cultural failure of nerve and weaken our resolve through the acknowledgment of our guilt.
Holder’s investigation promises to be yet another of those public self-flagellations that embolden the enemy and convince him to fight on for another day. Our ability to forestall attacks will be compromised, and the people charged with protecting us will be demoralized. Whether for partisan advantage or out of delusional utopianism, Holder’s investigation will endanger our security.
©2009 Bruce S. Thornton