OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The moral relativism that supports torture

Where is the outrage?

Are we Americans truly savages or merely tone-deaf in matters of morality, and therefore more guilty of terminal indifference than venality? It’s a question demanding an answer in response to the publication of the detailed 370-page report on U.S. complicity in torture, issued last week by the Justice Department’s inspector general.

Because the report was widely cited in the media and easily accessed as a pdf file on the Internet, it is fair to assume that those of our citizens who remain ignorant of the extent of their government’s commitment to torture as an official policy have made a choice not to be informed. A less appealing conclusion would be that they are aware of the heinous acts fully authorized by our president but conclude that such barbarism is not inconsistent with that American way of life that we celebrate. [complete article]

Editor’s Comment — There are many reasons that torture, as a moral and political issue, has never really gained enough traction to concern Americans as much as does, for instance, the price of gasoline. It’s not simply that it’s an issue that has very little direct impact on most people’s lives. Most importantly, we live in a culture that adheres to no moral absolutes when it comes to the use of violence.

Three out of ten Americans believe that torture is never justified. That’s the same number who oppose the death penalty. So, given that most Americans do believe that the state should be invested with the power to take away someone’s life, it doesn’t seem particularly surprising that a similar number would condone the use of torture.

Although moral relativism is supposedly the sin of the secular left, nowhere is it more starkly evident than in the co-existence of the “right to life” and support for capital punishment. What this conjunction reveals is that far from any absolute value being attached to life, the key issue for those who see no contradiction between these two views is the presence or absence of innocence. If most Americans thought that the victims of torture were also innocent, then there would undoubtedly be popular outrage.

The war on terrorism as a popular cause has always relied on the willingness of the Bush administration to toss aside the legal principal, innocent until proven guilty. Willingly, the public has accepted the idea that a terrorist suspect is no different than a terrorist. And this blurring of a distinction between guilt and suspicion is rooted in the use of the word: terrorist. It labels the person rather than the action.

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One thought on “OPINION & EDITOR’S COMMENT: The moral relativism that supports torture

  1. dharmalover

    Excellent analysis, Mr. Editor. Your point about the assumption of guilt of most detainees — rooted in the essentializing phrase “terrorist” — explains the willingness of a lot of people to condone torture. Of course, racism (or class bias in some cases) contributes to it, too, as does more generally the sense that it’s only “other” kinds of people who would be detained as terrorists, not someone like me. The constitutional scholar John Hart Ely has a brilliant analysis of the death penalty that argues that by its very nature the most extreme punishment will be applied in unfair (e.g. racially biased) ways because it is something people will be willing to apply only to people they consider “other” — for racial or class reasons. That for me has always been one of the strongest arguments against the death penalty. In a strange way, then the detention and torture of “terrorists” becomes one tool by which a government gets to draw the boundaries b/w the good us and the dangerous them — both scaring people into thinking they need the government’s protection and reassuring them that they are being protected.

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