Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Torture, Health Care, and the Post-9/11 Corruption of the Cultural Soul

By now, many people have seen the audience members at the tea party sponsored Republican presidential candidates' debate cheering the hypothetical unnecessary death of a sick American without health insurance.Coming on the heels of the 9/11 remembrance, it made me think. And then I heard an interview with Ali Soufan, an investigator with the FBI who interrogated major figures in the aftermath of 9/11. He and his partner (a naval intelligence officer) took a traditional approach to interrogation and were responsible for determining, for example, the names of the 9/11 hijackers among other key bits of information that were crucial to national security, information that stopped flowing the minute the CIA stepped in and used torture. Waiting until the requisite documents were declassified, he recounts how torture fed us false information and how long-standing tried and true techniques succeeded until the pro-torture crowd forced them out.

It is not news to anyone who takes the torture question seriously that these techniques are ineffective. Torture is great for putting words in people's mouths, to get them to falsely swear to something they know is false. It is ineffective at getting true information out. But these are the short term effects, what of the long term? What does torture do to the culture that rationalizes its use?

I'm not claiming a direct A caused B connection between waterboarding and the response of the tea party audience, but at the same time surely the moral degradation of the culture from allowing us to consider evil to be justified would not make such hateful callousness unexpected. When you allow false arguments of expedience to overrun basic decency in a society, there will be reverberations. Yes, the dehumanizing of others -- especially the poor -- has a long history in America and accelerated under Reagan who gave it cultural legitimacy. But in the post-9/11 Bush era this dehumanizing ramped up to frightening heights in the rhetoric of commentators like Ann Coulter and politicians. It has gone one step farther with the tea party crowd. Consider the following passage from a story about Rick Perry:

Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man — Cameron Todd Willingham — and got this response from a primary voter: “It takes balls to execute an innocent man."
"It takes balls to execute an innocent man." If the person is innocent, that's not executing, that's murdering -- something that is supposedly so heinous that this person supports the death penalty to try to deter it. But the likely innocent victim here is incapable of being murdered because he has ceased in the eyes of this conservative to be a human being.

We just had the ten year anniversary of the tragic events of 9/11, but the question is what is it that is seen as the tragedy? Is it the unnecessary death? If so, Republicans would not object to plans that make sure that those affected are now assured health care to cope with the results so that more people don't unnecessarily die. Or is it something else other than the death? Is it the audacity of the insult? How dare you not fear us and thing you can take a swing? Is it a bruise to the country's masculine ego from the disrespect we were shown? Widows and grieving families, that's bleeding heart stuff, they insulted us and for that we need to beat the crap out of them and torture is just one way that we prove how manly we are to the rest of the world. It is not about information that saves lives -- the pro-life crowd is really not that interested in saving lives -- it's about making sure we regain our swagger.

And the price of this swagger is the health of our cultural soul. The ease with which others -- those from other countries, those who come to this country, those who hold different political views, or even those who have the misfortune to be without health insurance because they are unemployed in a terrible economy -- are stripped of their humanity is a deeply, deeply worrisome result. It is something that can lead somewhere truly awful. We can sweep it under the rug by claiming that it is just a few on the fringe, but the fact is that this fringe has tremendous influence and this influence normalizes that which is abnormal. We are in a scary place and these canaries in our cultural coalmine should be heeded lest things turn uglier.