Conscience and Consequences

When the Lady in the Harbor invitedamong othersthe “wretched refuse,” terrorists were not on her list of those she welcomed. In her innocence, she thought that everyone yearned to ‘breathe free.’ That is not the case. She could not have known that freedom is not a global aspiration. She could not have known that her lamp would not illuminate the rest of the world. She could not have known that for many she would be just another photo on a tourist’s postcard.

For others, her image is anathema. For them, freedom is the root of all evil. The Lady witnessed their hatred on September 11, 2001. Once again, America suffered a sneak attack. Unlike the sneak attack on Pearl Harbor, this attack was fueled by a vague entity without a flag. Like the Vietnam War, this war soon sparked a glut of controversial political views among Americans.

Did you know that the proliferation of new books is so rapid that if each of them were placed side by side on an imaginary track the moment they are published, their proliferation would match the speed of a train running at eighty miles per hour? I learned that fact about two years ago. Judging by talk shows peddling books on TV, I expect that the current speed now approaches the speed of light. Just about every guest on talk shows has written a book!

Most of us keep up with political views as best we can listening to the radio as we drive, or watching newscasters and commentators or talk shows on TV, or clicking those pop-ups when we are online. Keeping up with world events is something like being a hamster constantly running on a wheel. It’s time for us to sharpen Occam’s Razor.

I suggest the following:

1) Do not waste time on cliché partisan arguments. They are riddled with what I call ‘mind clots.’ Mind clots form when the flow of reason is obstructed by implacable partisan clichés. They paralyze the progression of thought and the development of coherent concepts.

I learned that the hard way when I was in my early twenties. I got into a discussion with a young black man who insisted that I had to be prejudiced because I am white. I offered every variation I could think of on the theme that I am not and have never been prejudiced.

After two hours or so of our tiresome ‘debate,’ I realized that reason was to no avail. He wanted me to be prejudiced, and there was nothing I could say to him that would make him feel otherwise (note that I use the word feel, not think). Since then, I have never attempted to prove that I am not prejudiced against anyone. In fact, for my own comfort, I never engage in circular arguments about anything.

Whenever I’m invited to engage in an unsolicited political discussion, I either respectfully suggest we do not talk politics, or (in rare instances) I talk politics until the first cliché rears its circular head. At that time (always early in political talk) I think, “Uh-oh, it’s time to move on to the shrimp salad.” I then politely end the dead-end ‘discussion.’

2) For political information, select the best sources. These do not include conspiracy theorists. Rosie O’Donnell claimed that the Twin Towers were destroyed by our own government (through the evil CIA, of course). When the Towers collapsed, Rosie, an entertainer, suddenly became a metallurgist and an expert on implosive demolition. When homosexual people in San Francisco demanded equal social rights, Anita Bryant, a fruit vendor, became an authority on morality. I ignore the rants of celebrity partisans like Jerry Fallwell, Michael Moore, Reverend This, and Reverend That. If you haven’t already ignored them, I suggest that you do. Militant liberals and conservatives alike, stifle reason.

3) Do not honor phantom issues. Debating Gitmo and Enhanced Interrogation (including water-boarding) is a political game that has nothing to do with human rights, let alone legal ones.

a) Rather than regurgitating the endless pros and cons about keeping Gitmo open, I think it better to simply accept the fact that what is done in a prison has nothing to do with where the prison is located in the free, press-sensitive world.

b) The decision to close or not close Gitmo should exclude consideration of what partisans here or foreigners anywhere think of us. I remember my experience with the prejudiced young man at a person-to-person level. At an international level, I’ve observed that people will think what they want to think of us no matter what we say or do. Let it go at that.

On a domestic level, President Obama thought he could close Gitmo when campaigning for the presidency. Being ‘inside’ now, he has learned otherwise. As far as I know, that is what happens to all presidents in reference to foreign affairs. In respect to foreign hostility, the Office of the Presidency makes the President.

c) Keeping prisoners indefinitely is a direct consequence of an undeclared war without specific leaders, clear boundaries, guarantees that freed prisoners will not fight again (there is a high rate of recidivism), and no end of war in sight. Unprecedented warfare creates unprecedented problems. We cannot allow prisoners to fight us again. That’s why prisoners in past wars were kept until the end of hostilities. It’s unfair to expect our soldiers to have to fight the same man twice or more. That’s stacking the odds against our soldiers.

War is rife with risks that include being captured, perhaps interrogated. Being released depends on the end of hostilities, not on the results of a trial. To exacerbate matters, prisoners at Gitmo were not part of a national army. More or less, they are freelancer hostiles. Unlike infamous criminals against humanity tried by an International Court after a war, our prisoners present a logistic dilemma. In the past, when a peace treaty was signed, soldiers simply went home. The war is not over. This ‘new kind of war’ makes repatriation virtually impossible. In effect, they are now men without a country.

Although some of them may be innocent of war crimes, they are all dangerous. Some of them openly say that if they are released they will kill again. In time, an individual may be reviewed for release even if the conflict has not ended, but a trial, whether in a civilian or military court, is at best inappropriate. Of exactly what may a prisoner of war be found guilty or not guilty?

Armchair Warriors

Obviously, there can be no hotter debate than there is about enhanced interrogation, especially water-boarding. Unfortunately, no distinction has been made between extreme discomfort and torture in the traditional sense of the word.

Before I go further, I’d like to address two personal experiences that have made the distinction between discomfort and torture quite clear to me. The first occurred when I was fourteen years old. I had an infected finger. It was swollen, it throbbed, and constantly delivered excruciating pain. A doctor came to my home, sterilized a dull pair of scissors, and proceeded to drive the steel into my infected finger. That’s torture.

The second experience occurred intermittingly for two or three years during late middle-age. It still occurs from time to time. It’s called apnea. In my sleep, I become conscious that I have stopped breathing. I am unable to move, let alone wake up. An instinct informs me that my life is being threatened and that I am about to die. I’m not afraid of dying, but I am suspended between ‘letting go’ or fighting hard to breathe again. There is no pain, but I’m terrified by not being able to breathe no matter how often I’ve had this experience before.

Now, to water-boarding. I’ve read widely disparate versions of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed’s water-board sessions. Some ‘reports’ claim there were none, others claim there were as many as 183. So much for ‘reports.’ So, I don’t know if Khalid did better than I at managing the threat of asphyxiation, but he had an advantage over me: he knew that he would not be allowed to drown. I didn’t.

As far as sleep deprivation is concerned, we’ve all been subjected to that at one time or another, usually because of injury or illness. When the waking nightmare is over, we quickly recover without permanent damage. The same is true of interrogation techniques like loud noises, uncomfortable temperatures, and being mocked. They are designed to break resistance, not bones.

I am disturbed by armchair warriors who sanctimoniously condemn ‘torture’ under any circumstances. In the comfort of air-conditioned TV studios or the embrace of living room armchairs, they self-righteously proclaim their moral superiority. Again, it is useless to argue in circles. Suffice it to say that abhorrence to torture is not limited to those who are passionately opposed to any form of coercion. I no longer make an effort to convince anyone that I am at least as compassionate as anyone else. That is a certainty deep within me that includes my concern for civilians and soldiers who are vulnerable to falling into enemy hands.

It takes denial, self-delusion, or dishonesty to attribute compassion as the sole reason for opposition to coercive interrogation. Blind opposition ignores a startling reality: In effect, those who oppose interrogation enjoy a clear conscience at the expense of soldiers, civilians, and their loved ones.

To be fair, I must add that most people consciously do not want to do that. Perhaps they are unable to imagine the consequences of their ideals. Perhaps they simply fail to make a connection between their ideology and reality.

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