“Zero Dark Thirty”

The Americans kill, and kill, and kill a lot more, and their military-industrial-ideological complex is the single greatest threat to international peace and security in the world today.  And along Hollywood to craft one after another the-ends-justify-the-means-narratives out of it, and even give themselves honors for it, and when a little push-back is mounted against a very narrow part of this massive totality (i.e., When the Americans resort to torture against designated enemies, does it work, or doesn’t it?), hardly anybody notices (with some notable exceptions) the larger contribution these flicks and the ensuring hyper-atrophied debates make to U.S. imperial power.  

So, with Hollywood flick-crafter Kathryn Bigelow’s Oscar-nominated Zero Dark Thirty in mind, I’ve decided to resuscitate an eight-and-a-half-year-old-blog of mine that I had thought at the time dealt with these issues rather well, in the context of the Abu Ghraib- and Guantanamo Bay-torture crimes.  (See below.—My thanks to Brian Dominick and Chris Spannos for having in the past rescued these old blogs from the Internet’s graveyard.)

Remember: The morally proper question for you Americans to answer is never, When can Americans resort to torture and murder and economic sanctions and war-outright in the name of an alleged higher good?, but, rather, When can Americans be tortured and murdered and sanctioned and attacked militarily in the name of an alleged higher good?

Because if you Americans can’t bring yourselves to ask, let alone to answer, the latter type of question, then ipso facto you have proven your lack of moral standing in the world to ask and argue the former.

David Peterson
Chicago, USA



Rocinante—ZNet Blogs
June 18, 2004

Torture and the Americans

"It is difficult to argue that there are no circumstances under which torture might be justified," ABC-TV's host of Nightline, Ted Koppel, said Wednesday night during a "Closing Thought" segment of the show. ("Chain of Command," June 16, 2004.—For a copy, see below.)

"The possibility, for example, of preventing the imminent death of thousands of innocents," Koppel went on to elaborate. "But it should be unthinkable for any defender of the US Constitution to argue that there should be no clearly defined rules, no limits, no boundaries, no consequences for anyone who exceeds those boundaries. That is the territory that must be clarified beyond ambiguity. We insist that there will be clear labeling on our foods. Defining torture and when it can be applied in the name of the American public should require know less."

The argument that, at times, it is morally permissible to engage in torture—for example, when the use of torture may prevent the imminent deaths of thousands of innocents—seems so persuasive on the face of that I suggest we don't even go there. Indeed, that we run from it, screaming at the top of our lungs, in the opposite direction. As fast as our legs will carry us.

Still, I have another line of ethical inquiry that I'd like to open with the Americans. It goes like this:

Forget the defenders of the U.S. Constitution, and forget its subverters. Forget, too, about the alleged problematics of defining 'torture' and the sticky semantics thereof.

(Though, I should add, as with 'terrorism' and 'pornography' and a host of other intuitively clear concepts, reasonable and helpful definitions of 'torture' do exist.—One begins by asking the object of the action.)

(More to the point, check out the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment (1984). But then please recognize the fact that although the U.S. Government has both signed (1988) and ratified (1994) this Convention, on June 3, 1994, the Clinton Administration wrote to the UN Secretary-General, informing him that "nothing in this Convention requires or authorizes legislation, or other action, by the United States of America prohibited by the Constitution of the United States as interpreted by the United States"—a proclamation widely taken to signify that the U.S. Government had effectively immunized from the jurisdiction of the Convention any conduct the U.S. Government wants immunized, thereby tearing the Convention to shreds.)

No. Instead of asking when the Americans can practice torture in the name of an alleged higher good (as in Ted Koppel's Introduction to Ethics example of saving thousands of innocent lives), how about asking this question: When can Americans be tortured in the name of an alleged higher good?

Or: How many U.S. citizens might a collection of individuals be justified in detaining and torturing in order to prevent, say, the Chief Executive from carrying out plans to bomb or invade yet another country?

Or, better yet: If the expressed goal of an action were the higher good of international peace and security, even to free succeeding generations from the scourge of war, how many Americans would a collection of individuals acting to achieve this end be justified in killing?

Come on, now. Let's not be shy about it. Since Americans are such experts at proving their moral bona fides by discussing when it's okay for them to do really rotten things to others, what I want the Americans to explain to the rest of the world is, When is it okay for others to do really rotten things to Americans?

Now there's a whole line of inquiry in the field of ethics worth opening, it seems to me. On Nightline. On the pages of the New York Times. At Ivy League symposia. During a lull in the ballgame. Over breakfast at Denny's after Sunday morning's sermon. At the mall. In bed at night.

FYA (For your archives"): Am depositing here the complete transcript of ABC-TV's Nightline program for June 16, 2004. Since Nightline's host seems to be particularly impressed by questions to the effect, When is it okay for US to torture THEM?, doubtless this transcript is but the first of what will be many more to follow in the weeks and months ahead.

[[ To access this Nightline transcript, use the following hyperlink and scroll-down to it: http://web.archive.org/web/20041028234632/http://blog.zmag.org/rocinante/archives/000653.html .]]


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