Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Morality as a Weathercock

Abortion is wrong, but the death penality is fine. Gay marriage is wrong, but divorce (the true threat to marriage) is fine.

For the last two weeks, I have enjoyed listening to people (primarily on the political right) equivocate on the morality of torture. We have been given scenarios right out of the minds of Hollywood screen writers (see here). We have been told that just by looking at people you could understand the evil in place (see here). What we have not been told is why, after so many long years of trying to police our law enforcement, national security and military personnel, have we finally concluded that torture is alright (thankfully, there are those on the right who are quite upset as well).

It is easy for me to say that I cannot imagine any situation that would move me to order to have someone tortured. But, I am also a firm believer in the moral grounding that this country has built for itself over the years. There were things we simply did not do, precisely because we're Americans, and that was enough to end the debate.

We are now tacitly approving tactics for which we prosecuted the Japanese for exercising against Americans during WWII. What have we become?

I don't think that I am stretching it when I say that if this occured under Carter, Clinton or Obama, some of the most vociferous voices issuing plausible deniability or righteous platitudes for the Bush administration would have guns blazing about the moral authority held by the United States over time. We would be hearing about both impeachment and war crime proceedings. The media, smelling blood in the way that only the right can seem to draw, would join the chorus (while suffering blows from the right about how they, the media, are not doing enough to bring down that Democratic administration).

When national security trumps American morality, that morality becomes nothing more than a weathercock ready to move in the direction of the winds that blow the strongest. What's even more sad is that I cannot predict what will actually happen, even when what should happen is quite clear.


Scott said...

Well said Free.

The Cheney-Bush types like to portray the left as "soft." Liberals just don't have the guts to do the "hard things" to keep our country safe. They suggest that there's something almost cowardly about all this "hand-wringing" about torture.

Scuze me. Bullshit.

What is cowardly is the willingness to surrender the very values we purport to defend because we are terrorized.

Is it ok to torture because they were "bad guys?" No, it's not. What the right wing doesn't get is that it's not about the terrorists. It's about US. It's not about what they did, or even what we are afraid they might do. It's about WHO WE ARE.

The cowardly right caved in to terror and surrendered our core values. And they succeeded in making us less safe in the bargain.

Anonymous said...

Jeffrey—you write that "what should happen is quite clear" but I guess I missed your point, because I'm not sure what you think should happen…are you looking for a Truth Commission without convictions? Or are you looking to convict the policymakers who made legal conclusion you disagree with? Or are you looking for convictions of the civil servants who implemented policies which they were assured were legal?

I still agree with Obama's original position (not his now more wobbly position) that we should look forward rather than backward, but if I was forced to pick one of the options that I offer above, I would go for a truth commission.

By the way, if you did insist on a legal process, what definition of torture would you use?

Regarding the first comment, I would say that it is largely true that liberals are soft and don't like to make hard choices (I haven't seen Obama make one yet, though I hope he does), unless it means going after conservatives or a conservative cause.

Anonymous said...

A broader question—you write, "I am also a firm believer in the moral grounding that this country has built for itself over the years." Since you have also written in the past about how religion should is intensely private and [my conclusion] people should refrain from expressing any religious sentiment in public, what do you think the source of this "moral grounding" is?

By the way, can you give me an example of something that you would consider to be wrong, that is not, or should not be illegal? I have found that liberals generally believe that what they wrong believe is wrong should also be illegal, while conservatives tend to believe that there is a difference between the two.

Scottt said...

Mr. Anon #2, I'm confused. You say, "I have found that liberals generally believe that what they believe is wrong should also be illegal, while conservatives tend to believe that there is a difference between the two."So for example, conservatives support abortion rights even though they may believe abortion is wrong? Conservatives support repeal of existing laws against sodomy, gambling, drugs, prostitution? Because you don't believe that "what is wrong should also be illegal?"
Huh. Who knew?

Seems to me its the right that wants to write the Bible into the criminal codes.

hscfree said...

@Anonymous: One needn't be religious to understand that there is right and wrong. And it is certainly clear that religion, whether I want it or not has played a role in the shaping of our nation. I've never denied that, nor could I have controlled that in the past. Would I have preferred it to have been done differently? Probably.

I think it's clear that there needs to be investigations to determine exactly what has happened. And I believe that we should let the chips fall where they may. I have no problems with the idea that if it is determined that Democrats were involved and thus implicated. And the definition of torture I would expect to be used is the one that we argreed to use under the Geneva Conventions.

I don't think that liberals are soft and have difficulty making tough choices. In that statement you are stuck looking no further than the Carter administration. The standard should not be hard versus soft; it should smart versus dumb. Many of the "hard" choices conservatives have made of during the course of the last 8 years have been, in my opinion, dumb (insufficiently researched, impulsive, etc.). And please don't think that that standard I've suggested stops when a Democrat comes to power. It doesn't.

I think that most of our drug laws are unnecessary. I am no fan of drugs (beyond alcohol), and I think that the abuse of drugs is wrong.

And I just remembered something. As you have suggested that for liberals things that they think are wrong should be illegal, I think that you feel that any "hard" choice that Obama makes will only be "hard" (read correct) if conservatives agree with it. I think that the closing of Guantanamo, pushing for the stimulous plan, continuing with the TARP, and releasing these memoranda were indeed hard choices, though they may not be choices that you agree with.

hscfree said...

@Anonymous: Finally, I would suggest you take a look at what Andrew Sullivan is writing. I am almost in full agreement with his assessment of this situation.