Justifying cruelty: how a hard look at torture is avoided
NO government admits it. Most constitutions forbid it. But the world is experiencing a torture epidemic. Torture can be tracked today in nearly a hundred countries. All you have to do is pay heed to the incredible accounts coming out in the trials in Argentina to see how deep and wide the cruelty has become.Skip to next paragraph
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Amnesty International battles that monster; sometimes we win. Currently in America we are concentrating on moving the United States government to use its influence with other governments to get them to stop torturing. As we move into political influence in Washington, the best bet is to stay simple and not to get lost in the traps the perverted forms of political ``realism'' can lay for us. Such as:
The progress trap. If the US government makes foreign aid contingent on a nation's human rights performance, how is that performance to be judged? What mode of judgment will work -- in the real world -- to end abuses?
An obvious, real-world criterion would be to assess whether the nation's performance is getting better. If the nation's human rights record is improving, the aid will continue; if not, it will be cut down or cut off. Like certain forms of welfare policy at home, progress-linked foreign aid policies would provide an incentive for nations to clean up their act.
But the trap is also obvious. Putting aside the many ways governments can play with numbers, what constitutes progress? In one country, the US was asked to continue and increase aid because, in a given period, death- squad murders declined from the thousands to the hundreds. Was that supportable ``progress''? What if the Soviet Union were to release Andrei Sakharov tomorrow -- should that good news constitute ``progress'' justifying a more generous economic policy by the US? We must not accept ``progres s'' in this sense as satisfactory. That would be like letting a murderer keep it up because he had been murdering fewer lately.
The US position should, I think, be clear and simple: Not one penny of the American taxpayer's money should contribute to a government which practices torture.
The cultural relativity trap. Twentieth-century anthropology brought home a useful observation: People live differently, not just as deviants from a Western norm, but in a rich variety of multidimensional cultural patterns. The liberal lesson is, judge not that ye be not judged; various cultures have their own dignity, their own integrity, their own respect-worthy differences from the American Way of Life. In policy terms, generally we should let them be as they want to be.
How does that relate to torture? Well, the argument goes, in some cultures they think it more just to flog a man in public than to lock him up for five or 10 years. In other cultures, what we call torture is to them nothing more than behavior modification or the treatment of mental illness by aversive conditioning. In short, cultures differ widely in the value they place on human life and the compassion they feel toward victims of torture. They let us be, we let them be.
To destroy this line of sophistry requires but a moment's reflection on the meaning of what Tom Paine called ``The Rights of Man.'' Rights in the human rights tradition reside in individuals, not cultures or groups. We assert the fundamental dignity of the person, not the clan. The doctrine of the American revolution declared men (read: persons), not cultures or ethnic enclaves, equal and possessed of rights, and applied those attributes to all human beings, not those in the ne ighborhood. The longstandingness of tyranny is no excuse for its existence one more day.
The blame trap. Intellectuals are notably prone to believe that when they have said something they have done something. Analysis can paralyze action, but it can also, curiously, substitute for action. Consider the allocation of blame for torture. Is torture worse in the Soviet Union or in South Africa? Then: Is torture by communists worse than torture of communists? Is ``authoritarian'' torture or ``totalitarian'' torture worse?