Saturday, July 21, 2007

America's Slippery Slope

I hate the need of some people to make monsters of others. I am a humanist. No matter what another person has done, he or she is still a person. This point may seem simple, and in little need of making, but in the noise of the present day media machine, I think it is actually easy to forget.

When I say a killer or a terrorist is nonetheless still a person, why is it assumed I am lessening or softening their offense? Not at all. Precisely because they violated the humanity of other people through killing, they are guilty of an essential betrayal.

Those who insist that Hitler or Saddam Hussein are not human – monsters – are guilty of a betrayal similar (if far smaller, of course) to the ones they carried out. Just as killers deny the humanity of others in order to carry out their killing, pseudo-moralists must deny the humanity of others in order to carry out their task. What is their task? To divide the human race between humans and “monsters.” I am not going to argue that this moral division is as serious as the bloody division of life and death perpetrated by killers.

But consider this: the beginning of killing is symbolic and moral. Hitler only succeeded in his task of killing because the prerequisite moral and symbolic segregation was accomplished. So in this present day “War on Terror” I insist on the humanity of terrorists. Why? For the simple reason that demonizing them is preparing the way for atrocities committed by us in the name of right.

In other words, we are preparing the way to follow in the de-humanizing footsteps of those we hate. We hunger to become like them. When one hungers to become a terrorist – a hunger many Americans feel – morality becomes a burden.

But I insist on this: morality is a joy and a freeing force. Morality frees me from hate and allows me to judge wrongdoing rationally, without myself becoming a wrongdoer. It worries me that so many Americans are eager to join in terrorism: first symbolic and moral, and finally actual.

In Harlem I passed a man wearing a T-shirt reading, "I support terrorist prisoner abuse." Such a statement is simply a hunger for revenge, as well as politically lazy. The very point is that without a proper procedure one does not in fact know whether people in custody are "terrorists." To simply trust the president is to believe that executive omniscience trumps facts.

What I want to point to, however, is that the slogan avoided the word "torture." Why this linguistic delicacy? I think this slight veil or censorship is the fig leaf that allows people to, on the one hand, divide the world into good and evil, and on the other, to pretend that they belong only in the former camp. We are copying the terrorists, goes the thinking, but we maintain a tiny symbolic difference that proves our superiority.

The other day I heard a typical symbolic or linguistic example of this thinking. I was listening to National Public Radio’s “On Point.” One of Tom Ashbrook’s guests was a journalist from the Philadelphia Inquirer. When asked about the situation in Pakistan, this woman said that the country was indeed home to “virulent” Muslims, and the borderlands with Afghanistan was a place where the Taliban movement is “nesting.”

I object to these descriptions because in dehumanizing those people, we participate in the logic of terror, we copy the tactics of those we fight. Could the attackers of 9-11 have carried out that act without first designating those attacked as cockroaches, less than human? Why, I ask, are Americans so eager to follow in their footsteps? While seeming to fight terrorists, these Americans – including the journalist from Philadelphia – dream of becoming them.

Hate is not essentially immoral. Hate is an important moral force. What is deeply immoral is to dehumanize. Dehumanization is a betrayal.

1 comment:

Starfire said...

I've noticed this for a while now. Why is it so little spoken of. Whilst i enjoy watching the series '24', why is it ever-necessary for the protagonist to torture his subjects- is this supposed to be exciting, enjoyable viewing? Is there some hind of attempt being made to diminish our moral values and the value we place on human life?

Whilst there has long been the inner city brutality, the world of gang warfare of the 'have nots', I see a taste for brutalisation entering 'pop culture' and approaches to world events. It is indeed a slippery slope, as morality is really our defence, as you say, our liberator. It makes refined thinking, a comfortable life, possible.

I believe that America has, historically, shown some great wisdom in dealing with her enemies- the rehabilitation of Japan and Germany stands out from maybe anything that had happened before. I hope these tendencies win out and the causes of violence are examined, so as to put an end to them, once and for all.

Unfortunately, it is much easier to see these things in terms of 'other countries terrorists'- the Tamil Tigers, the IRA, the Chetzens, formerly the Mujahadeen. Then, the terrorist is a desperate messenger for whom dialogue has failed. When it comes to the home countries terrorists, they are savage barbarians of a possibly savage race, unable to reason and in need only of destruction.

The main thing is to find out who it is possible to talk to and get the talking started, even secretly. We may need to fight with certain people in the short term, but in the longer term there is no need to fight with certain 'peoples' and we have to remember that we are all, ultimately, human beings.