Monday, July 28, 2014

A Rights Analysis Doesn't Work for Torture. Here's Why.

I believe that torture is wrong. Yes, even if you’re Jack Bauer and lives will be lost, it is still wrong for anyone to torture the bad guy. But why? In all the anti-torture arguments that I have seen, there is some kind of appeal to universal human rights. Everyone (they will tell you), American or not, combatant or not, has a right not to be tortured. And further, this is a right that cannot be waived. It is a universal human right. I appreciate what this argument is trying to do, but I find it inadequate. Of course there is such a thing as a right to be safe from torture. Everyone knows this. But equally, in real life, everyone knows that you can waive this right. Why do I say “everyone knows” this? We need look no further than the war-, spy-, and police stories that we find all over our culture. Popular wisdom is often revealed in our narratives, and that is true here. A person waives his right not to be tortured when he tortures someone else. Take the handy example of Jack Bauer. As we all know, the producers of 24 employ a double standard. If Jack (or another “good” guy or gal) is tortured, this proves how despicable the bad guys are. But if Jack brutalizes someone while interrogating them, he had to do it to save lives, and it is commendable. Whatever the good guys do, however evil it may be, is considered good, as long as their cause is just. But this is where things get interesting. Even though the producers commend Jack for his acts of brutality, the narrative rule of do-as-you-would-be-done-by is so strong that it still applies. His acts of cruelty, done from good motives or not, have moved him into a realm where he is eligible to be tortured by the bad guys. And, he is. Once he has crossed the line into the world of brutal, desperate measures … the same measures will be applied to him. The producers may not even realize it, but they are following this narrative rule. By the same token, we do not feel that injustice has been done to the bad guys that Jack torments, because the producers have taken care to first establish that by committing previous cruelties, they had already entered that brutal world themselves. This simple law makes it hard for me to sympathize with your average terrorist who is about to be unjustly tortured. If he comes from Saudi Arabia, for example, he is from a place where men routinely sexually torture women. (See the book Princess .) Has he done this himself? We can’t know for sure, of course, but the odds are good that he has. He probably had no idea (or interest in) how those poor women felt. If he is tortured unjustly by the Americans, he is about to find out. But now, behold the beauty of the non-rights analysis. On the non-rights analysis, we don’t need to invoke universal human rights when deciding what to do. We are forbidden to do certain things just because they are wrong. It doesn’t matter if the guy deserves it. It is still wrong for us to torture him, because torturing another sentient being is always wrong. A major comeuppance may be long overdue to the bad guy, but it is not the sort of thing that human beings such as ourselves can rightfully dish out. Ever. Voila. Torture is wrong, and there’s no need to invoke rights. Rights are slippery, and they will turn on you faster than you can say, “I need you to trust me.”

Monday, July 7, 2014

Dystopias: When the World Goes Wrong

I love a good dystopia. By which I mean, of course, a book set in a very dark version of the future rather than in an idealized (utopian) one. Some dystopias project present trends or the author's worst fears quite far into the future. For example, Brave New World shows a society in which genetic engineering plus entertainment have achieved a very advanced level of control over humanity, far more so than was the case at the time of writing. Other dystopias are actually about the present day. 1984 was originally meant to be titled 1948, and to be a description of life under a totalitarian regime that is constantly at war, which was of course already happening at the time. Similarly, Lord of the Flies, about the descent into barbarism of a group of boys stranded on a remote island, was apparently a critique of the adults, who were fighting a world war back in "civilization." Other classic dystopias, which they tended to make us read in high school, include Fahrenheit 451 and Animal Farm. The genre is alive and well, and it seems that new dystopias are being written every year. Lois Lowry has written some terrific ones, such as The Giver and Gathering Blue. There is Agenda 21, which has Glenn Beck's name on the cover but was actually written by Harriet Parke, where the future is one of regimented, cultureless starvation brought about by environmentalist totalitarians. On the other end of the spectrum, The World Made By Hand and The Witch of Hebron by James Howard Kunstler bring to well-written life his vison of a future in which oil shortages, plagues, and an energy crisis have returned North Americans to a preindustrial lifestyle within one generation. (See, you can write a dystopia from any point of view!) A very good recent dystopia was The Office of Mercy by Ariel Djanikian, in which one group of human beings exterminates another group at the slightest sign of suffering. That one will make you cry. Dystopias, especially the classic ones which do not tend to have happy endings, are not good beach reading. They will wrench you, haunt you, and stay with you for weeks. But they tend to be intense page-turners, as well as being an important source of wisdom about our world. So what have I missed? What's YOUR favorite dystopia?