Monday, August 07, 2006

Hiroshima, Haditha, and Hope: The Unintended Costs of Fear

This weekend marked the 61st anniversary of the use of the atomic bomb on Hiroshima and the 60th anniversary of John Hersey's article "Hiroshima" which gives a stunningly human face to the act. If you have never read this masterwork, please do. No discussion of contemporary warfare can be truly contextualized without the sort of understanding it provides of the reality of its human aftermath.

Of course, the use of the first atomic weapons on civilians in Asia was not the intention of those who initially advocated the development of the bomb. The drive towards the Manhattan Project was famously led by the letter by Leo Szillard to Franklin Roosevelt, signed by Albert Einstein. What would lead Einstein, a pacifist, to spearhead the drive towards history's most dangerous step? Fear. Einstein's experiences of his homeland growing up were not positive. The militarism in the schools of Wilhelmine Germany angered and alienated him. During World War I, when, "The Manifesto of the 93," an open letter to the world was signed by 93 prominent German intellectuals -- including some of Einstein's friends and colleagues -- declaring German militarism an ineliminable part of German culture, a deep mistrust of the nation was stoked. Hitler's rise, the Second World War, and the possibility that the Nazis were making progress towards a nuclear weapon scared Einstein to the point of advocating for an American program.

Of course, for those ends, it was unnecessary. Hitler was defeated and we did not need the atomic bomb. Einstein would later say, "I could burn my fingers that I signed that letter." He let fear make an action seem reasonable that he later regretted and that led to the horrible deaths of so many innocents -- some quickly in the initial fireball and others slowly and painfully.

We find ourselves today in similar situations, where fear is leading us to consider actions we would otherwise consider unimaginable. We have prominent intellectuals writings books justifying torture with much the same argument that led Einstein to sign the Szillard letter. Hypothetical "what if's" combined with a loathing of certain cultures that we think are inextricably bound to violence. We must pursue extreme measures, they contend, to make sure they don't hurt us, to make sure they don't win.

I have no doubt that one could concoct some sort of situation where the utilitarian calculation makes torturing someone morally necessary; some sort of ticking time bomb scenario in which the results override other moral aspects that, all other things being equal, ethically rule out torture. I'm an analytic philosopher and what folks like me do for a living is formulate sets of necessary and sufficient conditions to justify some seemingly common sense universal claim and then come up with degenerate, bizarro boundary case that show the proposed conditions fail. I have no doubt that someone could come up with a weird situation in which torture would be morally required...but that situation looks nothing like ours.

Torture doesn't work the way we are so often led to believe by its popular portrayal. It is terribly ineffective for extracting intelligence (It is very effective at getting someone to say or do something they don't want to say or do, but information derived from torture is notoriously unreliable because the victim will say whatever it is that he thinks you want to hear in order to get the pain to stop. You don't get the truth, you get what you are looking for which is doubly dangerous.) But not only does it not do what advocates think, it is also corrosive. It may be the case on shows like 24 that you can torture someone one episode and the victim, the torturer, and the larger culture will be fine the next. But real life doesn't work that way. There are larger unintended consequences to destructive inhumanity. Torture corrupts, it's brutality creeps and seeps into the larger mind. We see tragedies like what happened at Haditha and can only look to the dehumanization that had occurred. The lesson we need to take away from Hiroshima is that the effects of letting the genie out of the bottle are not often what you think they are going to be. You never realize exactly where it is going. If you are going to try to justify actions like torture with a quick cost/benefit analysis, you need to understand that other significant costs may appear somewhere you didn't count.

The terrorists are today's evil empire, today's Nazis, today's Soviet Union. But we defeated the Third Reich without nuclear weapons. We won the Cold War without torture. And remember that in Germany and the Soviets, we were facing opponents of comparable military might. Fear makes actions seem rational that later we see as unnecessary, ultimately as regrettable.

The Cold War was largely won because of a different sort of weapon, hope. Where we now seek to build walls and keep foreigners out, during the Cold War it was the inverse. The Soviets did everything they could to keep their own people away from our shores knowing that their artists, scientists, intellectuals, workers of all types would do whatever possible to defect. The larger population saw America as hope, as possibility. But now we send a different message, one of fear, anger, and hatred. Pictures of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo have not only tarnished us as a nation, but have been destructive to our most potent "weapon." The long war that came out of Hiroshima, fought in many small proxy battles and a forty year game of economic chicken where each side deprived its children to build more destructive bombs, was won not because of any of those munitions.

I am not saying that the United States should not be strong, that our military should not be the most powerful in the world, that we should not have intelligence agencies working their hardest and smartest in terms of human and technological intelligence gathering. But I am saying that we need to reflect upon the loss that was suffered in Hiroshima, to honor those innocents who perished, to account for the costs of the arms race in the second half of the 20th century, to understand the awesome power and responsibility we now hold in our hands. But also because it provides a lens through which we need to look at today. The phrase "hearts and minds" is rapidly becoming a cliche and losing its meaning, but we are truly strongest when we are at our most humane. The anniversary of Hiroshima must make us stop and examine the real human costs of war, the responsibilities we have to the people whose lives will be affected, and to the unintended consequences of rash, seemingly rational calculations based on fear. If Einstein could get such a calculation wrong, perhaps we, too, ought to think again.

[A related and powerful post is over at Are You Effin Kidding Me. check it out.]