Torture, Moral Clarity and Democracy

The Bush administration, clearly confident in its actions in the face of overwhelming popular opposition throughout the world, takes its righteous superiority from something it and its supporters on the extreme right wing of American discourse and your radio dial-from Dr. Laura to Dick Bennett-call “moral clarity.” Conservative pundits loved belittling Clinton’s supposed moral foibles. For example, they made great hay with his self-serving quibbling about what “is” was, as he tried to maneuver his way out of a scandal that involved an act of pleasure between two consenting adults. This supposedly immoral act became the great story of 1998, along with Mark McGwire’s home run chase and the rising stock market.

The new president also has a word that his handlers like to dance around and redefine. This word has nothing to do with those hideous acts of sexual pleasure that so shockingly failed to scandalize the French, Russians, and other barbarian immoral nations. This word is “torture.” Acts of torture, which not a long time ago were considered the absolute evil against which any conception of morality and “civilization” could be measured, are now openly bandied about on CNN and Fox. Smug, well-dressed men in suits and uniforms smile and laugh with pretty blond anchorwomen as they speculate about how long it will take some captive or other to break. The United States does not “torture,” they say, with a nod and a wink, as, far away, a man’s flesh screams. But we do apply “appropriate pressure.” This means keeping captives “uncomfortable,” chained naked in the cold, kept awake for days and days on end with limited food and water, and, if necessary, shipped to a friendly ally that does not share our “superior moral qualms” (a line always delivered with maximum smirking smugness) about certain kinds of interrogation.

Unfortunately, torture is torture, and anyone who has been kept up for days in a row by barking dogs or partying neighbors can imagine what it might be like to be kept, chained, in a brightly lit room while you are barraged by unpleasant sounds, endless rounds of fresh questioners, and forced to urinate and defecate on yourself. By any legitimate definition, the admitted practices constitute torture and violate international law, and the claim that shuttling captives to “friendly” sadists in different uniforms somehow ameliorates responsibility is of course absurd. The United States administration sees bans on torture as a minor bureaucratic hoop to jump through, and Bush and his cronies are creating a world of suffering in their own image. Amnesty International reports a dramatic rise in torture around the world over the last three years, as regimes follow the lead of the most powerful nation on earth, a nation that has used its influence to wink (at best) or actively encourage (more likely) the profound philosophical idea that “moral clarity” equals “might makes right” and the threat of “terrorists” (anyone the government in question doesn’t like) justifies the inscription of state power on thousands of bodies through exquisite refinements in the ancient apparatus of pain.

Of course, those of us who have looked closely realize that the smirking claim that the worst dirty work is left to our allies among the depraved races-as our upstanding American soldiers find this dirty work necessary but somehow beneath their elevated sensibilities-is of course bullshit. The American military has been training its Latin American comrades in torture techniques ranging from electric shock to genital skinning for decades at the School of the Americas, and many former captives in torture centers in Brazil, Mexico, and elsewhere have reported the presence of Americans during their sessions. In the same interviews where military spokesmen detail the limited nature of their “appropriate interrogation,” they (nod nod wink wink) admit that, in the hidden dungeons of Guantanamo, for example, “the gloves came off” after 9/11.

The Orwellian word play with “torture” has created significantly less public outrage than Clinton’s difficulty equating fellatio with sex. Perhaps this is because the American public has plenty of training in the strange semiotic universe in which torture represents moral superiority, as we devour movies and television cop shows that normalize and applaud police torture of suspects from Dirty Harry to Sipowitz. These characters embody the notion that the impulse to torture is the appropriate, natural response of the dedicated, sensitive “real man” who is opposed and held back by effeminate superiors removed from the “street”-bureaucrats who enable crime through their devotion to abstract regulations. The fact that some details about torture are openly admitted to the press shows that, in this country at least, torturing suspects probably tested well in focus groups and political polling.

At the same time that Bush proclaims morality by creating a world in which thousands of human beings are whisked out of their homes at night, subjected to calculated brutality, and then either held alone in secrecy for unlimited terms or else simply “disappeared,” he proclaims that his war against the people of Iraq will bring about something called “democracy” for the struggling peoples of the Middle East. Lets ignore, for a second, the fact that the United States is not itself a democratic nation in anything except the most literal sense (people vote). In truly democratic nations, that portion of the populace that does not support one of two official parties is not effectively disenfranchised, since their vote does not directly help the candidate on the opposite end of the ideological spectrum. In truly democratic nations, presidents do not come to office through blatant fraud and cronyism.

Ignoring Americans’ bogus claims to the superiority of our profoundly undemocratic form of democracy, lets take a quick look at how war plans in the Middle East directly undermine democracy throughout the world. First of all, we see the tremendous pressure that American leaders are placing, through bribery and threat, on governments-Turkey, Spain, Italy, Portugal, even Mexico-to ignore the wishes of the overwhelming majority of their citizens. This turns their democracies into jokes and deprives governments of any legitimacy they may enjoy at home, which creates frustration, which finally comes out in resistance outside the electoral system. Apparently, for this administration, the spread of democracy means the creation of a world of illegitimate states that take orders from Washington and not their own people, and are supported by American military power.

Will the war bring democracy to Iraq and other Middle Eastern nations? The answer given by the Bushies is an offshoot of the racist “clash of civilizations” hypothesis; it assumes that Americans have an innately democratic substance (a bodily fluid developed by those marvelous imaginary organs “culture” and “tradition”) that does not need to be related to any actual democratic practice. We simply are democratic. The presence of Americans-even if these are generals ruling through military force-oozes “democracy” onto the natives, whose naturally undemocratic “culture” will be improved through contact, just as colonialists believed that Christianity would civilize subject peoples, and some eugenics advocates argued that the gradual absorption of superior white genes by darker peoples was a necessary prerequisite of a democratic culture. Unfortunately, “Democracy” is not an innate attribute of Americans-it emerges through the practices of self-determination and organization by subject peoples as they seek a more just world for themselves and their children. The bombs that rip apart Iraqi households do not bring the civilizing “democratic values of the West” any more than slave ships brought the “civilizing benefits of Christianity” to Africa. They bring death, humiliation, and profit.

Bush would like, other things being equal, to see formal democracy in the Middle East–that is, a world where people vote–but not any democratic substance. Since the United States, along with international agencies like the IMF, seeks to impose an economic system that has created unprecedented disparities in wealth on the rest of the world, real, participatory democracy will inevitably bring to power governments that are hostile to the United States and its policies. These governments will then be defined as “undemocratic” or “not free”-listen to the administration’s definition of “freedom” and you’ll see why-and they will become targets of the American military and intelligence apparatus. This is happening now in South America, where popular movements have successfully challenged neoliberal hacks in Ecuador, Bolivia, Brazil, and Venezuela. Henry Hyde, the Republican chair of the House Foreign Relations committee, has called Venezuela and Brazil (along with Cuba) a “Latin American axis of evil” and called for covert actions against these freely elected governments. This is the future of the Middle East-perhaps phony democracies, perhaps good old fashioned autocracies; in either case, these governments will continue to lack legitimacy and depend upon support from United States military and security services to defend them from the wrath of their inhabitants. This works to the United States’ advantage. More enemies means more justification for more military bases throughout the region and the world. More desperate attacks by disenfranchised nativists means more wars to bring “democracy” to yet another corner of the world, and more support for crackdowns, using “appropriate physical pressure,” on all sorts of dissent at home and abroad. So as the terms “morality” and “democracy” fall away to reveal an expanding military empire based on torture and intimidation, we need new words to describe the Bush plan. There is a term for a regime in which the chief concerns of government are the military and the internal security apparatus. This term is “national security state.” Most Middle Eastern nations are national security states, and most Latin American nations were national security states in the sixties and seventies. This term seems appropriate for the new United States of Homeland Security, a land where thousands of people are whisked away and detained without charges, subject to brutal “appropriate pressure,” denied all contact with the outside world on remote bases and isolated islands. But there is a more historically resonant term that anti-war protestors should keep in mind as we confront a regime that celebrates torture and systematically creates more fearful threats (vote for the leading danger on! Is it Saddam Hussein, Kim Jung Il, or Osama Bin Laden? Sorry, no write-ins allowed) in order to increase the pool of candidates for this technique and distract the public from massive wealth transfers. When we confront the war on Iraq, we are not just exercising our freedom of speech to challenge the misguided policies of honest, but mistaken elected officials. We are confronting fascism. Let them dance around that word.

BEN FEINBERG is a Professor of Anthropology at Warren Wilson College in Asheville NC. He can be reached at: