Torture and the Rhetoric of Evil
Since it’s apparently “Torture Awareness Week” here at the League, yet another — I’m on the road, so forgive me if I continue to ignore the comments section until early next week. (But that also means my typos will be there for the world to see for at least the weekend!)
Why do people become terrorists? Such a question is often dismissed as evidence of “liberal softness” toward malefactors. But that is not necessarily the case. Such a question may also arise from the recognition that problems have causes. There is, however, no acknowledgment in “The National Security Strategy” that terrorism might have a cause that could possibly be discovered and possibly remedied. “The embittered few,” it seems, are merely “evil.”
My arguments against torture typically rely on the belief that there is an intrinsic value to every human life, and that torture, because it denies this value, is an unconscionable act. I typically leave this at an assertion, because, for me, this is a primarily religious belief. Nevertheless, we can see this belief underlying a variety of secular laws and institutions: most notably those respecting the individual’s life and liberty. Whether it is because “all men are created equal” or because “all are created in God’s image,” the line of thought leads to the valuation of human life and the individual being.
One who is “merely evil,” by contrast, has no fragment of good within them. To be merely evil is to be only evil; beyond repentance, salvation, t’shuva, change, or rehabilitation (choose whichever term your set of belief/non-belief prefers); beyond the possibility of anything other than evil. The merely evil are Steinbeck’s “monsters born to human parents,” the end result of “a twisted gene or malformed egg . . . [that] produce[d] a malformed soul.” And, like all monsters, the merely evil are wholly other. The defining characteristic of a monster is its monstrousness—that it is not human. The merely evil man, as a monster, is a man alone, cut off from what it is to be human, from any possibility of the good, the decent, or the simply not-evil.
This raises, perhaps, an objection to my arguments against torture. If the rhetoric of the early days of the War on Terror is to be believed and we are to accept that terrorists—or at least the leadership of al Qaeda and similar groups—are merely evil and it is our duty to rid the world of such evil, then how does my argument from the subjective value of individual life and experience apply in the case of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed? Or, had we captured him alive, in the case of Osama bin Laden?
My margin note beside the passage I quoted above reads: “Reduction of ‘the enemy’ to ‘merely evil’ as a strategy of pol. propaganda?” I remember writing it; it was the fall of 2008 and I was sitting on the sofa of my then-apartment, very angry, cynical, and pessimistic—too much so, in the case of this note. Political propaganda implies the use of “merely evil” as a post-facto justification of torture—what I was thinking about as I wrote the comment. “Merely evil,” I would say today, was no such phenomenon. It was an element of the rhetoric, perhaps one believed too much even by members of the Bush administration, that changed the atmosphere of our conversation about torture and the limits of acceptable treatment for fellow human beings generally. One can see how easy a jump it is from “merely evil” to the acceptability of a judicious, controlled “enhanced interrogation” (if such adjectives can ever truly be applied).