Saturday, July 26, 2008

Chesterton on fighting barbarism (torture)

My reading of Chesterton's articles continues, though not as quickly as I'd hoped. I came across one essay a few days ago that did something extraordinary: it changed my mind on a current issue, namely, that of the use of torture in the current war against Muslim terrorism.

Until now, I've been hard-bitten about the tactics that I'd use against the current crop of barbarians, which is why people like me are never put in charge of anything. First of all, I didn't see what was going on in Guantanamo as torture, and I still don't. Upsetting a prisoner is not torturing him; refusing to flatter his delusions that he is part of some master-faith is not torture, either. I've never agreed with transporting the scum of the Afghan war to Cuba, because I (correctly) foresaw that having "adopted" these losers, the U.S. would come to regard them as troublesome pets, and would have them on their hands forever. I think they all should have been shot upon capture.

However, that doesn't affect the general point about torture; we may not be using it NOW, but using lesser methods still basically concedes the point that it's permissable, and opens the door to escalating in the future, and what should we decide about that?

This is what Chesterton wrote in 1906, when the British Empire was dealing with various native uprisings and atrocities, and feelings were high for a similar "eye for an eye" approach to putting them down.
Whatever else is right, it is utterly wrong to employ the argument that we Europeans must do to savages and Asiatics whatever savages and Asiatics do to us. I have even seen some controversialists use the metaphor "We must fight them with their own weapons." Very well; let those controversialists take their metaphor, and take it literally. Let us fight the Soudanese with their own weapons. Their own weapons are large, very clumsy knives, with an occasional old-fashioned gun. Their own weapons are also torture and slavery. If we fight them with torture and slavery, we shall be fighting badly, precisely as if we fought them with clumsy knives and old guns. That is the whole strength of our Christian civilisation, that it does fight with its own weapons and not with other people's....

The elements that make Europe upon the whole the most humanitarian civilisation are precisely the elements that make it upon the whole the strongest. For the power which makes a man able to entertain a good impulse is the same as that which enables him to make a good gun; it is imagination. It is imagination that makes a man outwit his enemy, and it is imagination that makes him spare his enemy. It is precisely because this picturing of the other man's point of view is in the main a thing in which Christians and Europeans specialise that Christians and Europeans, with all their faults, have carried to such perfection both the arts of peace and war.

They alone have invented machine-guns, and they alone have invented ambulances; they have invented ambulances (strange as it may sound) for the same reason for which they have invented machine-guns. Both involve a vivid calculation of remote events. It is precisely because the East, with all its wisdom, is cruel that the East, with all its wisdom, is weak. And it is precisely because savages are pitiless that they are still--merely savages. If they could imagine their enemy's sufferings they could also imagine his tactics. If Zulus did not cut off the Englishman's head they might really borrow it. For if you do not understand a man you cannot crush him. And if you do understand him, very probably you will not.

(August 18, 1906)

This argument persuaded me, in a way that most current arguments against torture do not: because it approaches the question from a practical, as opposed to an emotional direction. I have no use for the strain of candied Catholicism that seems more intent upon demoting its opponents than understanding them. I never read Mark Shea's denunciation of his foes on this subject, because long ago I twigged that he was saying first and foremost, "You're an inferior Christian" to people who were trying to find their way out of a difficult predicament, and one, moreover, that their Muslim enemies have gleefully forced them into. And the similar attempts to shame opponents: "If you use torture, you're just as bad as the terrorists" don't work on me at all, either. I'm NOT as bad as the terrorists, and no amount of scolding will make me agree. Nothing any American G.I. in Afghanistan or Iraq has done can ever be as bad as what the Muslim terrorists did on 9/11, and for me that's the end of the argument. You can go on talking, but I stop listening at that point.

So when a person is impervious to being shamed on this subject, how can they be changed? Chesterton found a way: he says that the problem with using barbaric methods is not that we are Pearl Purehearts, and are making our tribe look bad, but that they don't work. And the minute I thought of that, I saw that he was right. Where does a savage, barbaric tactic like beheading work? In remote little backwaters in Asia, against little girls and unarmed farmers, ambushed alone in fields, far from help. It doesn't succeed against anyone armed with that wonderful Western invention, the gun. It doesn't succeed against people who carry the cheapest, most insignificant cellphone, and can call for help. The mighty warriors of Allah are feared by the lowest of the low, and the poorest of the poor, and nobody else. We would be fools to take the scum of the earth as our tutors.

And then I realized that where the jihadis HAVE been successful against us, is where they've adopted OUR methods - lawsuits and pressure groups. "Outwit the enemy", as Chesterton says, rather than stupidly lunge at him and get shot. Naturally, their only successes have come from using Christian weapons in Christian forums, but that's to be expected from a culture as comprehensively failed as Islam. They succeed when they ape the enemy, but they don't invent anything.

Having gotten this far, then, there's the other half of the equation to deal with.
We won't fight the enemy using his stupid, clumsy methods. Fine. But we must still fight him. It's not enough to say, "We refuse to fight like savages," and then give a holy smile and refuse to answer when asked, "Well, then, what will you do instead?" You can't take away one weapon and not replace it with another, better one. Nobody will listen if you tell them, "A good Christian is happy to die rather than dirty himself with immoral tactics" because people will not quietly resign themselves to death. If no better weapon is available, they'll use the bad one.

If we're to engage in a battle of wits, which we are sure to win against the imitators of Islam, then we'd better get started. Allowing them to tangle up their opponents in the courts, and not energetically engaging them in the same battle is futile. It's more of the averting of eyes and pretending that nothing is really happening that's discredited leaders all over the West. Now that torture is off the list, what is the next step?


Anonymous Anonymous said...

It is good to see that my own reaction to the torture issue has a trajectory that resembles yours. Like you, my first stop was at a "What's the problem?" ethos.

Then I heard about the Israeli rulings on torture. Not a very pacifist group there, the Israelis. Indeed, their judiciary specifically condoned torture for a while. But the practice -- and logic -- of torture could not be contained. The internal logic of the "ticking time bomb" dilemma leached over to the "neighborhood Arab hooligan" problem. Israeli society found it impossible to isolate such tactics for "special situations." For them, it just could not be done.

Those of us who deal with bureaucracies in general and courts and police departments in particular can predict the trajectory of torture. At first, it's a "special situation." Soon enough, it becomes "routine practice." Not because the people are bad, but because the system's internal drives are unrelenting.

I, too, wonder what tactics are appropriate. We have to disable the victime mentality. But I am convinced that we have to stop at some poiunt. And the point is upon us.

11:00 pm  
Blogger muerk said...

The other thing is that torture just doesn't provide good information. At some point, the person being tortured is just going to say whatever nonsense in order to stop the torture session. Sure he'll admit to blowing up something, but he'll also admit to being a purple elephant who lives on the moon.

Besides, torturing someone is sinful, and no matter what we can't ever use evil means to create a good end. The Catholic Catechism is very plain about that fact.

12:11 am  
Blogger xavier said...

Dr Mabuse:

I have some suggestions:
1) implement the Grima Wormtongue strategy. There's a lot of pride and vanity within Al Qu'ida and its affiliates. So begin a whisper campaign that undermines the trust and solidarity. Encourage betrayals since these are perfectly acceptable within Islamic society and have been quite successful
2) Engage the'intellectuals' and apologists with rational discourse like Benedict recommended. Watch the best the Moslems have to offer get stumped explainingg the contradiction in the Koran and hadiths and their heads explode as a consequences
3) Highlight Islam's abominable treatment of women and quietly constrast it with the west's. Sure we've lost our way somewhat but our treatment is still superior. We can reform our society; Islamic ones can't without self-destructing
4) Continue cutting off the money supply and killing the masterminds. The shooters will be running around like headless chickens


7:26 am  
Blogger Brian B said...

I'm glad at least that you do not try to employ anti-torture arguments based on morality AND practicality at the same time. If one firmly believes that torture is immoral, its practicality is irrelevant. I blogged on this about two years ago.

As for the argument from practicality, I'm unconvinced. It's easy to say "Torture doesn't work", but that's a pretty broad brush. In the same way that you assert (and on this point we're in agreement) that much of the treatment of enemy prisoners doesn't really amount to torture, I contend that its practicality depends on what you use it to do. Is it an effective means of extracting, for example, a confession of a crime that is then admissible in a court of law (at least, a U.S. court)? No. Even setting aside issues of constitutional protection, the confession is suspect because, as has been pointed out, a tortured individual will say anything to make it stop. Is torture an effective means of deterring enemies or prospective enemies for taking up arms against us? No, and history bears that out. In fact, in most cases it actually strengthens the resolve of the enemy.

But is it an effective means of, say, gathering actionable intelligence for use by military units, special operations units, and intelligence operatives? From what I've seen, yes. I can't for the life of me find the link now, and it's been some time since I read the article, but a year or more ago I read an article regarding a report indicating that intellignce gathered from high-ranking enemy prisoners using techniques that might (or might not) be considered "torture", had been used to forestall and pre-empt enemy action.

Maybe those methods fall in the realm of those that we agree aren't really torture. But even if they WERE really torture, if the provided intelligence that saved our troops' lives, I'm ok with that.

10:13 pm  

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