The Philosophy Issue

Moral Collapse of a Nation

What the war on terror has done to America.
Moral Collapse of a Nation

The son of an Afghan farmer, who was killed on Jan. 15, 2010. A member of the "kill team" is posing behind him.

Audio version read by George Atherton – Right-click to download

The actual existence of torture in American jails is well known. Nonetheless, the publication on 16 April 2009, by the new United States administration, of documents that had hitherto been kept secret revealed details concerning the actual way in which torture was being carried out. I will briefly summarize these facts.

One is struck, first of all, by the incredibly persnickety regulations that were formulated in the CIA manuals and taken over by the legal authorities in the government. Up until then it had been possible to imagine that the practices of torture were what are called “blunders,” involuntary transgressions of the norms, occasioned by the urgency of the situation. Now on the contrary, it is clear that these were procedures fixed down to their least details, to the nearest inch and the nearest second.

They are divided into three categories, each of which comprises several degrees of intensity: preparatory (nakedness, manipulated feeding, sleep deprivation), corrective (blows) and coercive (being hosed with water, locked in boxes, or subjected to torture by immersion). Slaps on the face must be administered by the fingers spread out, halfway between the tip of the chin and the bottom of the earlobe. Hosing a naked prisoner with water can last for 20 minutes if the water is at 5°C, 40 if it is at 10°C, and up to 60 if it is 15°C. Sleep deprivation must not last longer than 180 hours, but, after 8 hours’ rest, they can begin again. Torture by immersion can last up to 12 seconds, no more than 2 hours per day, for 30 consecutive days (a particularly tough prisoner underwent this torture 183 times over, in March 2003). A prisoner should not be locked in a box for more than 2 hours, but if the box allows the prisoner to stand upright, he can stay there up to eight hours at a stretch, 18 hours per day. If you put an insect in with him, you cannot tell the prisoner that its sting will be extremely painful or indeed deadly. And so on and so forth, for page after page.

The indispensable partners of the torturers are the government’s legal advisers, who are there to ensure that their colleagues are immune from prosecution. This, too, is new: torture is no longer represented as an infraction of the common norm, regrettable but excusable; it is the legal norm. With this in mind, lawyers resort to another series of techniques. To get around the law, interrogations need to be conducted outside the United States, even if this means American bases. According to the official legal definitions, there is torture when the intention to produce intense suffering can be attested; so it will be suggested to the torturers that they deny the presence of any such intention. So slaps on the face are given not to produce any pain, but to cause surprise and humiliation. Being locked in a box is not meant to lead to sensory disorientation, but to make the prisoner feel uncomfortable! The torturer must always insist on his “good faith,” his “honest beliefs” and his reasonable premises. Euphemisms must be systematically employed: “reinforced techniques” instead of torture; “expert interrogator” for torturer. Care must also be taken to avoid leaving any material traces, and for this reason mental destruction is preferable to physical damage; for this reason, too, any visual recording of sessions is to be destroyed afterwards.

Tzvetan Todorov, The Fear of Barbarians. Todorov is a Bulgarian philosopher who studied at the University of Paris with Roland Barthes. He is the author of numerous books, including On Human Diversity and Hope and Memory, and has taught at Harvard, Yale and Columbia.

130 comments on the article “Moral Collapse of a Nation”

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Anonymous

" Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

A really great American, unlike the repulsive soldier in the photo.

Anonymous

" Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that." --Martin Luther King, Jr.

A really great American, unlike the repulsive soldier in the photo.

Anonymous

And people wonder why Americans are kidnapped and their heads cut off. Right here buddy. This is exactly why. This just earned another American family a headless child.

Anonymous

And people wonder why Americans are kidnapped and their heads cut off. Right here buddy. This is exactly why. This just earned another American family a headless child.

Anonymous

this happens in other countries as well...matter fact other countries don't have limits they torture you until your dead...you'll stay in a box for days instead of hours....North Korean Gulag run fatal experiments on their prisoners.

Anonymous

this happens in other countries as well...matter fact other countries don't have limits they torture you until your dead...you'll stay in a box for days instead of hours....North Korean Gulag run fatal experiments on their prisoners.

Ready to rock t...

There is a great and undeniable power in people to change. I have exercised it in my own life. It involves a great deal of self reflection and empathy which can be learned, believe it or not!

Take an absolutely terrible situation that happened to an enemy of yours, imagine yourself in that situation so thoroughly that you can actually feel the pain of it. Understand that this pain is universal, and that every human being should undertake the endeavor to ensure that no human being must ever feel that way, regardless of who that human being is. I'm not saying that could ever happen, everyone is sad/hurt/upset at times. I'm saying that in a world where people practiced this, it would happen a lot less often.

Recognize that what Mr. King says about a night devoid of stars is true and is a statement that could save us all. Yes, Osama Bin Laden did terrible things. So did Hitler. Those things took a great deal of thought, organization and leadership. Imagine if instead of killing these men, we had been able to meet them at a time in their lives when we could have made them better people.

Imagine that they did not meet the violence in their lives with more violence in others.

Imagine a world where we do not pass our sins of hatred and thoughtlessness down to our children. It starts on an individual level. We are all responsible. We are responsible for not speaking up soon enough if we saw the wrong in the world but ignored it with the phrase "there's just nothing I can do about it." We are responsible for standing aside and watching our friends, and even ourselves, make decisions that slowly eke away at our own moral conscience. We are all responsible for entertaining the notion that I am not as bad as he/she, so therefore I am not bad.

Take a minute to stop and think, truly think about your life decisions. All of them, right down to where you buy your diamonds or where the metal chips on your phone's sim cards come from. Realize that every decision in your life, no matter how small it may seem, has the potential to have moral and ethical ramifications.

Add this to your earlier explorations of others feelings.

Do all of this and then try to tell me that torture and murder are ever okay.

Oh, and give Saul Williams a listen. The man pours poetry straight from Yahweh's mouth and might just set some of you straight or, at the very least, brighten your day a little.

Ready to rock t...

There is a great and undeniable power in people to change. I have exercised it in my own life. It involves a great deal of self reflection and empathy which can be learned, believe it or not!

Take an absolutely terrible situation that happened to an enemy of yours, imagine yourself in that situation so thoroughly that you can actually feel the pain of it. Understand that this pain is universal, and that every human being should undertake the endeavor to ensure that no human being must ever feel that way, regardless of who that human being is. I'm not saying that could ever happen, everyone is sad/hurt/upset at times. I'm saying that in a world where people practiced this, it would happen a lot less often.

Recognize that what Mr. King says about a night devoid of stars is true and is a statement that could save us all. Yes, Osama Bin Laden did terrible things. So did Hitler. Those things took a great deal of thought, organization and leadership. Imagine if instead of killing these men, we had been able to meet them at a time in their lives when we could have made them better people.

Imagine that they did not meet the violence in their lives with more violence in others.

Imagine a world where we do not pass our sins of hatred and thoughtlessness down to our children. It starts on an individual level. We are all responsible. We are responsible for not speaking up soon enough if we saw the wrong in the world but ignored it with the phrase "there's just nothing I can do about it." We are responsible for standing aside and watching our friends, and even ourselves, make decisions that slowly eke away at our own moral conscience. We are all responsible for entertaining the notion that I am not as bad as he/she, so therefore I am not bad.

Take a minute to stop and think, truly think about your life decisions. All of them, right down to where you buy your diamonds or where the metal chips on your phone's sim cards come from. Realize that every decision in your life, no matter how small it may seem, has the potential to have moral and ethical ramifications.

Add this to your earlier explorations of others feelings.

Do all of this and then try to tell me that torture and murder are ever okay.

Oh, and give Saul Williams a listen. The man pours poetry straight from Yahweh's mouth and might just set some of you straight or, at the very least, brighten your day a little.

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