Friday, March 24, 2006

Poison fruit of a poison tree, part II

Time and time again, whenever allegations of abuse and torture by US troops appear, we are told that it is just the actions of a few "bad apples", and that such treatment "does not reflect the nature of the American people".


A survey by the Pew Research Center in October showed that 15 percent of Americans believe torture is “often” justified, and another 31 percent believe it is “sometimes” justified. Add to that another 17 percent who said it is “rarely” justified, and you have two out of three Americans justifying torture under certain circumstances. Only 32 percent said it is “never” justified, while another 5 percent didn’t know or refused to answer.

So, two-thirds of the American public (and slightly more Catholics) are sadists - and we they wonder why we see scenes like this or this or this when they go to war. I don't think there's any reason to wonder: American torture is the poison fruit of a poison tree, the result of toxic social attitudes which tell people that it is acceptable.

Meanwhile, I think that the differential religious results - Catholics are significantly more likely to approve, "secularists" significantly less - ought to put paid once and for all to those Christian myths about religion, morality, and the valuing of human life.


I would be interested to compare the US results with a similar survey in other countries -- NZ, UK, Switzerland, etc.

While the results seem extreme with a cursory examination, I doubt they'd be that different in most "western demoracies". The concept and reality of torture is simply too foreign to citizens of such countries, let alone the moral and ethical questions.

It is my experience that most Americans believe torture is unacceptable (bare in mind I live in a *very* Blue region), however they feel disenfranchised from their government (rightly or wrongly) and unable to influence it's actions.

Also consider that a *lot* of the material you reference never makes it to the mainstream media in the US.

Apathy and ignorance are the enemy here, not maliciousness and sadism.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2006 11:01:00 AM

"Apathy and ignorance are the enemy here, not maliciousness and sadism."

I believe it was Franklin D Roosevelt who said the hottest place in hell is reserved for those who sit on the fence.

America seems to be a society enamoured with violence as a simple solution to complex problems.

Torture is everywhere, in its penal system, in its school system, in its military. I am of a view that the acceptance of torture at all levels of American society is the OUTSTANDING difference between their public policy and civil society and the rest of the Western World.

Posted by Sanctuary : 3/24/2006 12:13:00 PM

"I am of a view that the acceptance of torture at all levels of American society is the OUTSTANDING difference between their public policy and civil society and the rest of the Western World."
That's revolting. You have a very selective memory that borders on outright racism.
a) - the US is far from homogenous in the beliefs of it's citizens. To generalise as you are doing is very disrespectful of the huge number of people who are not of violent mind.

b) - let's take a short tour.. the UK in Ireland and it's other colonies, as well as within the public schooling system. Australian policy towards it's indigenous people and asylum seekers. French behaviour in their penal and foreign colonies (not to mention Paris at present). German and Italian recurrent fascism.
There's plenty of belligerent arseholes in the US foreign policy front allright, but let's not start pretending they're anything new in a historical context.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2006 12:49:00 PM

Catholicism has always been the religion of choice for SM adepts. All those martyrs, all those deliciously original torture methods - did any martyr saint die in the same way? The original and choice methods invented by the Inquisition. All those flagellants and celibate abstinence denial. In comparison, that "Passion" gore fest cooked up by Mel Gibson was just par for the course.

Posted by Hans Versluys : 3/24/2006 01:19:00 PM

I am struggling to see how saying that US civil society and its public institutions acceptance of torture is the major difference between, say, their penal system and ours is racism. Its a fact. A society is judged not on the calibre of its individual components but on how it expresses itself through its public institutions.

Posted by Sanctuary : 3/24/2006 01:59:00 PM

Well for a start there is no single "US penal system". Different juristictions within the US have widely different rules and practices. To generalise them all into a single entity and judge the entire system based on the practices of specific states or counties is dishonest.

To say, without giving a shred of evidence, that the population of the US is outstandingly different in their attitude to torture/violence just sounds like bigotted prejudice. ie racism.
I don't think the US is outstandingly different in their capacity for violence than many of the other western colonial powers that've preceded them. They have a great *capability* for violence due to the technology of today, but the mindset to apply that capability is in no way exceptional from historical precedent. To paint the US as somehow exceptional in this respect is to risk falling into the sort of demonising mindset that sets up the nazis as the ultimate evil and their opposition as morally spotless.

Posted by Anonymous : 3/24/2006 03:08:00 PM

There were some international results floating around last year; Americans tended to rate significantly higher than Europeans, with Japanese or Koreans (I can't remember which) being shockingly blase about the whole thing. I'll try and dig them up over the weekend.

As for apathy and ignorance, I'll accept the former, but the latter? After Abu Ghraib and repeated stories in the media about waterboarding, strapado, black sites and people dying because of these abuses? After the President and Vice-President have stood up on the national stage and said "we should be allowed to torture people if we want to"? I'm not sure that that's really an available excuse any more.

Posted by Idiot/Savant : 3/24/2006 06:05:00 PM

Off course there are plenty of perfectly nice, cosmopolitan Americans. But as idiot says, apathy is everywhere in the United States.

Since you mention the Nazi example, i am sure that many Germans disliked the Nazi's policies toward Jews and Gypseys and gays etc etc. But here is the rub: Most Germans were also perfectly happy to enjoy the fruits of the Nazi empire, through apathy, moral dishonesty and deliberately repressed knowledge.

Today it is fashionable to try and shift the blame from the people for the collective expression of the peoples will, but to me its case closed even decent Germans were more or less tacitly complicit in the crimes of their leadership.

It seems to me that by the standard we applied to all Germans, all Americans are tacitly guilty of the crime of torture simply though their acts of omission, not just comission.

Posted by Sanctuary : 3/24/2006 07:05:00 PM

I wonder how often people in the US, or in any of the other countries mentioned, actually sit down and consider the ethical implications of condoning a practice like torture. The problem is such issues only come to the fore in highly charged situations when to even reflect on them openly can be seen as partisan. Maybe we're looking at the failure of the US education system to equip people to recognise ethical dilemmas.

Posted by Jarvis Pink : 3/25/2006 02:28:00 PM

Sanctuary, white NZers are enjoying the fruits of the British Empire. Are we tacitly complicit in the crimes of that leadership? If so, what punishment do you plan to apply to yourself?

Posted by Psycho Milt : 3/25/2006 05:45:00 PM

32% didn’t really think about the question, 68% have varying definitions of often sometimes and rarely.

Calling someone a sadist just because they might torture a person in order to save life on earth (as a hypothetical) is a little ridiculous.

It would be interesting to compare results and yet if you use words like rarely and often then it will be hugely culturally dependant. However I expect collectivist countries like china and Korea will be far more likely to kill/torture you if they are sure this will save a larger number of people. that would be pretty fundamental to their society, so I expect that approach to gain in influence.

Posted by Genius : 3/26/2006 10:53:00 AM

Yes, ignorance.

You assume that, the "repeated stories in the media about waterboarding, strapado, black sites and people dying because of these abuses?" actually reach the majority of the population.

It received some coverage on the national news networks, but not a lot. It received excellent coverage in the more liberal papers, but they're not widely read outside their core distribution.

As far as the President and VP's comments on torture, I've seen it heavily spun here.

Heck, lots of Americans don't watch TV news. Lots don't read newspapers. They have no idea what's going on outside of American Idol!

Of course, lots and lots of Americans do follow the news. But if they're following some of the more heavily biased media outlets, then they're even more out of touch than those who don't follow any news at all.

Ignorance. It's not an excuse, and it doesn't justify anything, but you should never attribute to malice what can be more easily explained by ignorance.

Posted by Anonymous : 4/01/2006 05:46:00 AM