War, torture and the political animal

By Michael Humphrey

Aristotle wrote, “Man is by nature a political animal.” But are we animals trapped by the primal urges developed for survival? Or do we have another element, the wish and will to grow beyond our base instincts, to lean towards redemption?

These ancient questions seemed relevant when I read the following in a New York Times article about waterboarding:

“Abu Zubaydah had provided much valuable information under less severe treatment, and the harsher handling produced no breakthroughs, according to one former intelligence official with direct knowledge of the case. Instead, watching his torment caused great distress to his captors, the official said.

Even for those who believed that brutal treatment could produce results, the official said, ‘seeing these depths of human misery and degradation has a traumatic effect.’”

There is more than politics in our nature. We know this by way of another ancient truth: trauma is the echo from the voice of our own violence. Today, for instance, the suicide rate for military veterans has reached a 30-year high. All of this suggests we are more than the sum of our creature impulses. For millennia, the weight of war has pressed upon men and women well after the battles ended.

So if this is an ancient story, are there any differences today? I can think of one. It was common for ancient leaders, when the cry for battle arose, to take the field alongside the soldiers. Is it any mistake that the 20th Century was the most brutal in human history, even while we convinced ourselves that we have become more civilized?

So when former vice president Dick Cheney says …

“Now we have an [Obama] administration that’s come to power that has been critical of the programs, but not only that, there’s been talk about prosecuting the lawyers in the Justice Department who gave us the opinions that we operated in accordance with, or referring them to the Bar Association for disbarment or sanctions of some kind, or possibly cooperating with foreign governments that are interested in trying to prosecute American officials, those same officials who were responsible for defending this nation for the last eight years. … That whole complex of things is what I find deeply disturbing …”

… I tend to agree.

It should be deeply disturbing to him, because it brings the concept of human trauma to his den. If he is right in his belief that all of these political actions were just, life-saving and legally sound, he need not be disturbed for long.

If Cheney is right that the reflex to defend America with shaky moral means – the survivor instinct that emerged after 9/11 – then he must sleep well at night. The interrogator or soldier’s trauma might keep them awake, but I’m sure the political animal believes that’s the price of war.

Cheney should be willing to pay his share of that price. He, and other administration executives, should gladly stand before their fellow human beings and explain why secret renditions, torture and public deceit do not cross the line of what it means to be human, or American.

And if America is to lean towards redemption, this defense must move from FOX News and CNN and CBS to the courtroom. Because as John Adams established in the Massachusetts Constitution, we have “a government of laws and not of men.” It is in that snare that we ensure the political animal is trapped when his nature has turned beastly.


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