Human strip mines

Thursday, June 24th, 2004

“How many people need to be at risk before you would approve of using torture in order to save them?”

What do YOU think, Mr. or Mrs. John Q. Public? Only one or two? A few dozen? Hundreds or thousands? Millions?

Ain’t it nice to live in a virtual democracy? Thanks to the miracle of technology, we can make simulated government policy from the comfort of our own basement rec rooms. This little poll, which I found last week on MSN Messenger, thoughtfully neglected to encumber the reader with the slightest hint of moral context, such as, for instance, this quote from Immanuel Kant: “Treat everyone, whether in thine own person or in that of others, as ends in themselves, never as mere means.”

You wouldn’t want to get people lost in the murky depths over this, or troubled by principle. That’d be downright unrealistic.

What becomes ever more stunningly clear, as the fallout of the torture scandal spreads, as the stench refuses to go away, is the moral vacuum in which the Bush brain trust planned our adventure in Iraq. According to outed Defense and Justice Department memos, they pretty much converted 9/11 into an all-purpose justification for barbarism.

And now the PR chickens are coming home to roost. Way sooner than expected (before the election). It’s one more miscalculation they made.

For instance, lawyers for the low-ranking fall guys of Abu Ghraib are threatening to push the scandal all the way up the chain of command. “We will ask to have the president of the United States as a witness,” declared Sgt. Javal Davis’ civilian counsel, Paul Bergrin.

The very soul of civilized society is a recognition that the ends do not justify the means. After 9/11, when we needed nothing so much as principled restraint and an affirmation of our deepest values, such a recognition utterly collapsed; and the result was strategic planning reduced to the sheer physical dynamics of power. Let’s get ’em!

The problem is that such hyper-simplified strategizing, devoid of human understanding, didn’t work even in the war makers’ own terms. The occupation of Iraq is out of control. Our troops are dying. We’re losing. And the planners are driven to increasingly desperate use of the single tool they possess: brute force.

For instance, Army Lt. Col. Steven Jordan, the top military intelligence officer at Abu Ghraib, described to USA Today the pressure he was under, not only from his own commanding officers but also from no less than an aide to Condoleezza Rice, who visited the prison last fall, to “pull the intelligence out” of the detainees.

“Inmates at Abu Ghraib did produce some highly valuable intelligence,” USA Today reported. “One female detainee, for example, provided detailed information on the disguises and whereabouts of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein. … that Saddam ‘had a big white beard, that he was basically living in a hole, that he was driving a taxi.’”

This is worth torture? This is worth regressing American culture to the point where a general-interest Internet site would breezily poll random surfers on when torture should be employed? What’s next, the rehabilitation of Dr. Mengele and the Nazi human medical experiments? (Think how many lives could be saved, at the cost of so few.)

If 9/11 was an attack on democracy — on Western civilization — the terrorists succeeded.

We went into Iraq with high-tech weaponry and a monstrous contempt for the people we were liberating. Until the Abu Ghraib scandal broke, we’d disappeared some 18,000 of them in our far-flung gulag. Most were ordinary Iraqis who were in the wrong place at the wrong time. They were “suspects”— it hardly mattered of what. Once in custody, they became sources of intelligence, whether or not they possessed useful information.

And we proceeded to mine them, with no more concern for what was left of them afterwards, physically and psychologically, than a coal company has for the mountain it has stripped.

“Treat everyone, whether in thine own person or in that of others, as ends in themselves, never as mere means.”

The ghosts of our failure to do so don’t go away.