A Good Idea at the Time

You’ve been asked the question. What the hell were you thinking? Parents ask their teenagers that. Wives ask their husbands. Bosses ask their employees. And usually there’s no good answer, so you mutter that you guess you weren’t really thinking – sorry. You try to look sheepish and remorseful.

But it’s always more complex than that. Your decision to do that awful thing, whatever it was, was the end product of years of influences, some overt and some subtle, and of your agonizing for years over social norms and peer pressure, and over rules that bothered you and other rules you thought were absolutely necessary. And there is the culture itself, with its constant messages about what’s cool and what’s not – or what’s hot and what’s not, as Paris Hilton likes to say. There are public and private figures to emulate and others you know everyone mocks. That plays a part. And there are the immediate circumstances – even the weather. Out here perhaps the Santa Ana winds were blowing. As Raymond Chandler wrote in “Red Wind” – “Those hot dry winds that come down through the mountain passes and curl your hair and make your nerves jump and your skin itch. On nights like that every booze party ends in a fight. Meek little wives feel the edge of the carving knife and study their husbands’ necks. Anything can happen.” If you live in the south of France, perhaps Toulouse, it’s the Sirocco – the hot blast that blows in from the Sahara. Same thing.

So it wasn’t that you weren’t thinking – you were thinking, and much more. You did what was natural, given the gestalt – the holistic, parallel and self-organizing tendencies of the times in which we all live. Blame the zeitgeist – the spirit of the times. Or find another fancy German word. As for your reasoning, and your motives – that would take a doctoral thesis in social psychology and its influence on post-modern ethics. It always best to say you just weren’t thinking. It’s easier.

And in May of 2009 the nation finds itself in the same trap. The previous administration had devised and implemented a torture regime, and had in fact tortured people – and by all accounts more than a few died in the process. The current administration’s decision to release the four Bush-era memoranda which sought to rationalize torture – to say yes, this and that is torture, but if you do this and that precisely the way we explain, it really isn’t torture – really messed things up.

Of course people shouted. What were you people thinking? This was a war crime, a clear violation of our own laws, an obvious violation of treaties to which we are still a party – and not only is there no available proof any of it made any of us safer, what started at Guantanamo and spread to Abu Ghraib and to the other war zone prisons, and to our black sites, where we secretly stashed people and worked on them, and which ended with these absurd memos, enraged those already fighting against us. Their numbers swelled. More of our people died. What were you thinking?

You’ve heard all the answers to that. No one is saying sorry, we just weren’t thinking. You hear the opposite. Their motives were pure – to keep us safe. And their reasoning was sound – these people might have known something, and no one was really harmed, save for the few who went mad and those who died. But these were the worst of the worst, after all – no sympathy is appropriate. And the rules didn’t apply to them anyway – they weren’t prisoners of war or anything, just enemy combatants, which is, somehow, a different thing entirely. And anyway, one day, when all the facts are revealed, you’ll see this did real good. This saved lives. One day, some day, you’ll know that. So back off.

You can work with all this, and argue about the motives and reasoning until you, and the other side, are blue in the face. But of course it’s more complicated than that. What really makes people do what they do is that damned gestalt – the holistic, parallel and self-organizing tendencies that make us who we are, and more than careful reasoning, drive what we decide to do. There are no pure, isolated decisions. Someone will ask you, for example, why you married the person you married, the one who seemed so odd. The best answer is always that, well, it seemed like a good idea at the time. The key words are the last three – at the time. Context is everything. As for why we became a nation with a policy of torturing people, the context matters.

And as far as the context in this matter, there was that matter that CNN reported and passed without much comment, Survey: Churchgoers More Likely to Back Torture

The more often Americans go to church the more likely they are to support the torture of suspected terrorists, according to a new survey.

More than half of people who attend services at least once a week – 54 percent – said the use of torture against suspected terrorists is “often” or “sometimes” justified. Only 42 percent of people who “seldom or never” go to services agreed, according to the analysis released Wednesday by the Pew Forum on Religion & Public Life.

White evangelical Protestants were the religious group most likely to say torture is often or sometimes justified – more than six in 10 supported it. People unaffiliated with any religious organization were least likely to back it. Only four in 10 of them did.

There you have it – support for torture is lowest among atheists, agnostics, and those who claim no particular religious affiliation. Then come Episcopalians and such. And the evangelicals are at the far end of the scale.

That’s odd, but those evangelicals are more likely to see no metaphors in the Bible at all, just literal truth. Jonathan Turley explains what might be playing out here:

There is in fact a great deal of beatings in the Bible. For example, “And it shall be, if the wicked man be worthy to be beaten, that the judge shall cause him to lie down, and to be beaten before his face, according to his fault, by a certain number.” ~ Deuteronomy 25:2.

Indeed, the Bush administration may have gotten its technique of putting people in a small box while dropping in insects from Revelation: “And to them it was given that they should not kill them, but that they should be tormented five months: and their torment was as the torment of a scorpion, when he striketh a man. And in those days shall men seek death, and shall not find it; and shall desire to die, and death shall flee from them.” ~ Revelation 9: 5-6

In the Atlantic, Chris Good wonders if belief in the Crucifixion increases tolerance for suffering-for-a-purpose, and in this case the claimed purpose is national security. You could call that the Mel Gibson effect, if you remember his bloody and sadistic movie. And if you think about it, if you are one of those who believe in an actual hell – an actual location with fire and brimstone and all the rest – you know God has no problem at all with limitless suffering. Limitless suffering is a good thing.

UCLA’s Mark Kleiman says this – “You could play this game all day, and leave yourself with a pretty smug feeling about your low religiosity.” Then he goes on to deconstruct the survey and show that the whole thing is entirely based on bad statistical analysis. It doesn’t demonstrate much of what it purports to demonstrate. If you get a kick out of precise statistical analysis you’ll be amused. And if you get a kick out of precise statistical analysis, you’re a statistical anomaly yourself.

But he doesn’t mind how this tweaks the evangelicals:

“Who Would Jesus Torture?” is still a good polemic to aim at those who proclaim themselves “Christians” and also support defacing what they believe to be the Image of God in the form of another human being. And I wouldn’t be surprised if a properly-controlled study found that Hellfire religion did in fact have a pernicious effect on moral character when issues of cruelty are involved. Maybe we should find it shocking that weekly attendance at Christian services doesn’t have an obvious protective effect against support for torture. But as it stands the Pew numbers tell us roughly nothing interesting about how religion does, or doesn’t, influence attitudes toward torture.

But it does provide some context, as it is one more element in the mix – the odd stew of norms and opinion and cultural forces in which we swim. Or, to switch metaphors, this is part of the air we all breathe.

Publius at Obsidian Wings sees it differently: 

I’m not sure there are any grand implications to be drawn here. But it does seem strange that people who spend the most time discussing a man who was essentially a hippie pacifist (I say that with love) are the most likely to support torture.

I’d be curious to hear what commenters think about what these numbers mean. But part of the explanation, methinks, is simply that many evangelicals viscerally despise Democrats. And opposing torture has become “something Democrats do.” So naturally, that opposition must be opposed.

And that’s another bit of context, although in American Prospect, Adam Serwer has his concerns:

There are a large number of people committed to preventing consenting adults from having sex or getting married because of their sexual orientation who nevertheless think it’s okay to beat or waterboard people and shove them in tiny boxes.

But that is the world in which we live, the air we breathe.

Matthew Schmitz, on the other hand, thinks we should not shut down debate on motives:

One thing that we need to avoid at this point is imputing bad motives to torture advocates; when we do so we cease to do the important work of figuring out how so many well-intentioned people ended up supporting an abominable practice. As recent debates have shown, torture advocates used the ends to justify the means.

But this justification was only part of the story, because the advocates never full acknowledged the moral reality, the evil, of what they were doing. They didn’t say, “I will do a profoundly evil thing to avert a massive loss of life.” They still felt the need to find a difference between what they were doing and torture. They said, “This isn’t torture, it’s just advanced interrogation.” Had they been unable to falsely describe what they were doing, the argument would have fallen apart.

What you indeed have is a bit of changing the context. Your kid wrecked the car and you scream at him, what were you thinking? He says he didn’t wreck it – he was customizing it. Whatever.

Julian Sanchez here argues that listening to such changing of the context can drive you nuts:

You know that Simpsons episode where the doctor explains that Mr. Burns is simultaneously suffering from almost every disease known to man, but remains healthy because they’re in a precarious equilibrium, like a horde of obese men simultaneously trying to squeeze through the “door” of his immune system? And in honor of that image, they dub the condition “Three Stooges Syndrome”? This is often how I feel reading Michael Goldfarb, because when someone is confused in so many different ways over the span of two short paragraphs, it’s easy to get paralyzed.

Here are the two Michael Goldfarb paragraphs in question:

It comes at about the 5:50 mark. Cliff May asks [The Daily Show’s Jon] Stewart whether Truman’s use of the atomic bomb was a war crime, Stewart ruminates and then responds with an unequivocal “yes.” He’s certainly not the only American who would take that view, but it’s a useful reminder that the most vocal and popular criticism of the Bush administration’s war on terror policies comes from people who, if they were being as honest as Stewart, would also judge Lincoln (suspension of habeas), FDR (internment), and Truman (use of nuclear weapons) as war criminals or tyrants or worse.

Stewart repeats the charge again later in the interview, but you have to wonder whether this was one of the rare times that he just got outmaneuvered on his own show. Serious people have debated Truman’s decision for 60 years, but even those who disagree with that decision rarely describe it as “criminal.” And if it was criminal, whatever crimes the left alleges of President Bush seem pretty trivial in comparison.

Sanchez, however, points out that saying the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki were war crimes “is not, in fact, crazy or rare.”

A Japanese legal review concluded as much two decades after the fact, Albert Einstein claimed before the fact (in a letter to Roosevelt) that the use of an atomic bomb would be a war crime, and indeed, the Wikipedia article devoted to the debate serious people have been having for 60 years contains a lengthy section titled “the bombings as war crimes.” To the extent it’s a controversial claim, it’s controversial because we don’t like calling U.S. presidents war criminals, not because it’s a difficult question whether obliterating entire areas inhabited by large civilian populations with the flimsiest of military targets as a pretext should now be regarded as a war crime.

He says there might be some question as to whether it was a war crime under the understanding of international law as it stood in 1945, but it counts as a war crime under the current widely accepted definition, and for that he cites the perpetually fuming John Bolton:

A fair reading of the treaty [founding the International Criminal Court], for example, leaves the objective observer unable to answer with confidence whether the United States was guilty of war crimes for its aerial bombing campaigns over Germany and Japan in World War II. Indeed, if anything, a straightforward reading of the language probably indicates that the court would find the United States guilty. A fortiori, these provisions seem to imply that the United States would have been guilty of a war crime for dropping atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This is intolerable and unacceptable.

Sanchez comments:

Bolton, of course, takes this to be a knock-down argument against the ICC, but note that he doesn’t actually have an argument beyond finding it “intolerable” to acknowledge a rule of war under which Harry Truman would have been a war criminal. Whatever ambiguity existed in 1945 was a function of the fact that we had overt rules dealing with poison gas, not nuclear explosions; the broad principle that military attacks should be targeted to avoid indiscriminate killing of civilians is a long established one. You might argue that it was a “necessary crime” that avoided the far greater loss of life that would’ve otherwise been incurred in an invasion – and you would, given what we now know, be completely wrong – but that’s a different question.

All that said, it’s not clear exactly what the questions have to do with each other. At first blush, it looks like this is supposed to be a classic reductio: If you conclude Bush committed war crimes, then you will apply the same judgment to Truman; that’s outrageous; therefore the premise is falsified.

But “war crimes” isn’t some catch-all meaning “bad stuff people do in wars” – here are a series of specific but distinct codified and widely accepted laws of war. There’s a set of rules governing bombing of civilian targets. There’s a set of rules about treatment of captives and torture. They’re different. Goldfarb seems a little fuzzy on this, since he throws in the internment of the Japanese and Lincoln’s suspension of habeas corpus, both of which may have been unconstitutional … but neither of which would appear to be as war crimes.

Everyone is arguing over context:

The sorts of people who think Bush committed war crimes have an unseemly disposition to regard the actions of beloved presidents as criminal. I’m not sure what to do with that one either; it’s not a response to any particular claim about any particular purported violation, and Goldfarb doesn’t actually argue that the view of Hiroshima and Nagasaki as war crimes is wrong; he just falsely asserts that it’s an unusual one.

Dwelling on that last line a bit, I think the actual argument is something along the lines of: “Look, do we really want to risk the twilight of the idols that would ensue if we judged all our own leaders by the same standards we expect the rest of the world to follow? If we do it in Bush’s case, we’ll probably have to conclude that Truman’s decision was more heinous by an order of magnitude.” The cases are different enough that, again, I don’t think that’s so much a direct entailment as an “opening the floodgates” argument against the crimethink of passing moral judgment on the military decisions of American presidents. I leave it to the reader whether that’s a compelling consideration. To my mind, blotting out torture and the killing of civilians seems like an awfully high price to pay for keeping our monuments polished.

At the League of Ordinary Gentlemen, “Will” puts it bluntly:

Goldfarb’s argument has never made a whole lot of sense to me, but then Andrew Jackson was responsible for the Trail of Tears, so we may as well go ahead and waterboard away. After all, you wouldn’t want to lock up Old Hickory, would you?

Aside from how little Goldbfarb’s “Truman was a war criminal, too!” argument makes sense, I’m totally baffled by people who look to past atrocities for some sort of ethical guidance. Shouldn’t a just and decent society seek to improve its moral record? Shouldn’t we want to reevaluate past mistakes? Shouldn’t we be trying to make better moral judgments than our predecessors? One might assume that Americans would be interested in at least some introspection…

That would be a false assumption. It seemed like a good idea at the time. That will do. The problem is that in matters of the law, that won’t do. If you do try to explain what you were thinking, even that won’t matter very much. Mitigating circumstances was never much of defense for anything. But just what were you thinking?

About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
This entry was posted in Churchgoers More Likely to Back Torture, Cultural Context, Examining Motives, Rationalization and Absurd Logic, Torture, War Crimes. Bookmark the permalink.

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