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The quantity of mercy is not strain’d?

Wednesday, August 12th, 2015

[by Charles Cameron — some remedial philosophy at age 71 ]
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I seem to be doing remedial political philosophy this week. As it happens, I read a Chinese comedian in my youth and was admonished against “sitting down while running round in circles” and have been aerating my brain with too much conscious breathing ever since — neither leaving me much time or interest for what in Oxford in my day was known, somewhat dismissively, PPE — Philosophy, Politics and Economics.

Which brings me today, and to grabbing lectures in just that sort of thing from Harvard’s Michael Sandel, courtesy of YouTube:

The video shows Sandel’s lectures, “Justice: Putting a Price Tag on Life”, and “How to Measure Pleasure” — salted with some dark humor:

Back in ancient Rome, they threw Christians to the lions in the Coliseum for sport. If you think how the utilitarian calculus would go, yes, the Christian thrown to the lion suffers enormous, excruciating pain, but look at the collective ecstasy of the Romans. .. you have to admit that if there were enough Romans delirious with happiness, it would outweigh even the most excruciating pain of a handful of Christians thrown to the lion.

I enjoyed the two lectures immensely — maybe I should rewind fifty years, and try PPE at Harcard?.

**

All of which caused me to wonder:

SPEC pinto and lincoln continental

Sources:

  • Mark Dowie, Pinto Madness
  • W Michael Hoffman, Case Study: The Ford Pinto
  • See also:

  • ES Grush and CS Saunby, Fatalities Associated with Crash-Induced Fuel Leakage and Fires
  • **

    I mean, all of which made me wonder about Jeremy Bentham, I suppose.

    We had Locke at Christ Church, staring disdainfully from his portrait during dinners in the Great Hall — but Bentham? I don’t think I saw any utility in utilitarianism.

    **

    But then I also wondered:

    SPEC trolley problem torture

    I wondered: how close is the analogy between the trolly problem and the ticking bomb torture questionn? Do we start from numbers of likely victims in each case and decide from there, or should we instead start by contemplating torture — and recognize the abyss staring back at us?

    Sources:

  • Wikipedia, Trolly problem
  • Michael Sandel, Justice: Putting a Price Tag on Life & How to Measure Pleasure
  • See also:

  • Kyle York, Lesser-Known Trolley Problem Variations
  • **

    What Shakespeare said, though — getting back to my title — was “The quality of mercy is not strain’d” — not the quantity, the quality — unquantifiable.

    In which John Horgan presents a DoubleQuote

    Friday, April 24th, 2015

    [ by Charles Cameron — taking a very brief break from Bach for once — but Kanye? ]
    .

    In what I’d term a DoubleQuote in the Wild, Dr John Horgan uses a simple textual and visual juxtaposition to good effect:

    **

    The juxtaposition here “works” because “the American Dream” textually links the two images the way a rhyme does at the end of this couplet, a long-time favorite of mine, translated by J. V. Cunningham from the Latin of John Owen:

    Life flows to death as rivers to the sea,
    And life is fresh and death is salt to me.

    Thus there’s a bond first established verbally between Adam Gadahn and Kanye West, two people we might not otherwise think of together — and in thinking of them together, we open a wide range of possible associations, including a sort of parallel match between Kanye and another American jihadist, Omar Hammami — like Kanye, a rapper — also mentioned in JM Berger‘s piece today about Gadahn’s life an death. And from there our thoughts can fan out to Anwar Awlaki, and his son, Abdulrahman Awlaki, or to Deso Dog, the German jihadist rapper.

    In a word, the juxtaposition is provocative: thought-provocative.

    **

    And what of the American Dream? Wikipedia currently defines it thus:

    The American Dream is a national ethos of the United States, a set of ideals in which freedom includes the opportunity for prosperity and success, and an upward social mobility for the family and children, achieved through hard work in a society with few barriers. In the definition of the American Dream by James Truslow Adams in 1931, “life should be better and richer and fuller for everyone, with opportunity for each according to ability or achievement” ..

    The idea of prosperity hrough hard work, it seems to me, has much in common with the Puritan ideal, captured by Ning Kang of the School of Foreign Languages, Qingdao University of Science and Technology, in these words:

    Puritanism shaped the Americans’ national character – acquiring wealth through hard work and thrift

    American Puritans linked material wealth with God’s favor. They believed that hard work was the way to please God. Created more wealth through one’s work and thrift could guarantee the God’s elect. The doctrine of predestination kept all Puritans constantly working to do good in this life in order to be chosen for the next eternal life. God had already chosen who would be in heaven or hell, but Christians had no way of knowing which group they were in. Those who were wealthy would obviously be blessed by God and in good standing with Him. The work ethic of Puritans was the belief that hard work was an honor to God which would lead to a prosperous reward.

    Is that about right? I’m not much of a puritan myself, but it seems to me that the aspect of the dream that has to do with purity gets lost when the American Dream becomes a Beautiful Dark Twisted Fantasy and the metric of success and prosperity equates to a Kardashian spouse — while on the other side, purity in the form of burqas and “religious police” is the fetish that drives the Salafi-jihadists: Consider this, from an IBTimes report:

    Isis chief executioner found beheaded with cigarette in his mouth

    The corpse showed signs of torture and carried the message “This is evil, you Sheikh” written on it. The severed head also had a cigarette in its mouth. It is unclear who carried out the decapitation but the message was obvious.

    Islamic State’s (formerly known as Isis) ban on cigarettes is one of its signature polices. It has imposed a strict set of Sharia laws barring the use of drugs, alcohol and cigarettes in the territories it has conquered across a swathe of Iraq and Syria.

    IS has declared smoking “slow suicide” and demands that “every smoker should be aware that with every cigarette he smokes in a state of trance and vanity is disobeying God”.

    **

    Contemplating John’s DoubleQuote, then, it seems to me that Gadahn has the puritanical streak in the original dream, adapted to its contemporary Islamist form, while Kanye has much of the prosperity side, largely detached from any kind of asceticism in preference for bling — but with a laudable concern that that bling not be derived from child labor, slavery, etc:

    Moral Degeneration in the Crucible of War

    Wednesday, June 12th, 2013

     

    The recent post on Is 4GW Dead? stirred a great deal of interest, so I would like to extend the discussion on a point that that is critical not only for those who have responsibility for conducting military campaigns, but for statecraft and policy as well.

    One of more important tenets of 4GW was the importance of “the moral level of war”, drawn from Colonel John Boyd’s thinking on the strategic impact of a combatant’s behavior, immoral  or exemplary, on all observers – belligerents, civilian noncombatants, neutral third parties, the media, the combatant’s own soldiers and citizens back home. Here is Boyd:

    Morally our adversaries isolate themselves when they visibly improve their well being to the detriment of others (allies, the uncommitted), by violating codes of conduct or behavior patterns that they profess to uphold or others expect them to uphold.

    · Morally we interact with others by avoiding mismatches between what we say we are what we are and the world we have to deal with, as well as by abiding by those other cultural codes or standards we are expected to uphold.

    In a Reader’s Digest version of Boyd,  heroic, noble and magnanimous  behavior is admirable and attractive while hypocrisy, cruelty and cowardice are repulsive and antagonizing characteristics. While the former won’t guarantee your victory and the latter, unfortunately, won’t ensure your defeat, they will be a significant factor in ameliorating or generating friction.  The impression given by an army impacts the will of the enemy to fight, the morale and discipline of the soldiers, the restiveness of the civilians, the loyalty of allies and the goodwill of neighbors.

    Boyd developed his thinking about the moral level of war in Patterns of Conflict  all the way up to grand strategy and above. The rub about the moral level  is that war is a crucible that puts every “cultural code” or “standard” to the test, as well as the character of the men fighting it and their leaders upon whom great responsibility rests.  Even with the best of intentions in policy and careful generalship in the field, the horrors of war can erode moral fiber and military discipline in an army, in a company or in the heart of one man. Nor does every army begin with good intentions and effective discipline – some fighting forces are scarcely to be regarded as “armies” at all while others embrace the darkness as a matter of policy.

    In terms of warfare, let us define “moral degeneration” as a degraded state of moral decline where a belligerent has effectively abandoned the operational and tactical restraints on conduct mandated by the Laws of War (i.e. war crimes are SOP) and in some instances, the vestiges of civilization.

    A textbook example of this kind of moral degeneration came to light a few weeks ago when a jihadi lunatic in Syria, a rebel commander Khalid al-Hamad, who goes by the name of “Abu Sakkar”, cut out the heart of a (presumably) dead government soldier and ate it on video. Charles Cameron expounded at length upon this minor atrocity here. I am not, to say the least, a fan of radical, revolutionary, transnational Sunni Islamism but I cannot honestly say that its proponents like Abul Mawdudi , Sayid Qutb, Abdullah Azzam, Osama bin Laden and their ilk ever openly advocated cannibalism. It is much more likely that Mr. al-Hamad’s behavior is explained by the ferocity of the civil war in Syria eroding customary norms of the combatants than  it is by Islamist ideology.

    Moral degeneration in war seems to spring from two directions:

    a) As a calculated act of Policy, from the top down, enforced by the leadership by military discipline and bureaucratic control.

    b) As a spontaneous reaction by soldiers or fighters, appearing from the bottom up, without orders and frequently, in spite of them, possibly due to a breakdown in the chain of command, an erosion of discipline or sheer mutiny for the age-old purpose of reprisal, pillage and rapine.

    The first category often occur with war as a convenient cover rather than a cause of grave crimes against humanity that leaders and  ideologues had long wished to carry out. The Armenian Genocide, as John Keegan wrote, belongs properly to the history of Ottoman imperial policy than it did WWI; in truth, the Genocide was the greatest and worst in a long succession of vicious pogroms that the Ottomans had launched against their Armenian Christian subjects during the reign of Abdul Hamid and the Young Turks. The Holocaust (which had some inspiration in Hitler’s mind, from the fate of the Armenians) was more closely tied to the evolution of  Nazi war policy but once Operation Barbarossa opened up the vast spaces of Soviet Eurasia, “the East” in Nazi parlance, the war itself increasingly took a backseat to expediting Hitler and Himmler’s ghastly and murderous racial priorities. This is a pattern of a priori planning, an escalating ideological radicalization of society that tends to be present with most of the large scale democides and genocides. It is the organizational powers of  coercion utilized by the state, or a mobilized faction of , it that makes the enormous scale of death possible, not the war.

    What is different and also dangerous about moral degeneration from the bottom-up, is that it is cultural evolution driven by the psychological effects of extreme violence at work and, unlike an act of policy, more likely to be diffused widely across society as a permanent change for the worse. Too many German soldiers in WWI, former peasants and artisans and boys from middle-class families, returned from the Western Front morally coarsened and addicted to the adrenalin rush of combat and became in succession Freikorps paramilitaries, Communist streetfighters, Nazi Stormtroopers and SS men. The World War also gave Russia the men of the Cheka, the Red terror and the first Gulags on the Bolshevik Left and brutal and mad warlords on the White Right.

    In more recent two decades, the break-up of Yugoslavia unleashed atavistic passions of ethnic hatred and atrocity, while organized society in Western African states and central Africa broke down entirely in transnational regional civil wars with unrestrained massacres and mass rape. As a result, there is little that is political but much that is primeval, at this juncture, to explain Joseph Kony’s motivations; he resembles nothing so much as a 21st century Kurtz. Mexico too is degenerating from the escalating violence of cartel insurgency and narco-cultas – there is not much tactical or strategic value in pagan death cults or human sacrifice but it is spreading:

    …Our impression is that what is now taking place in Mexico has for some time gone way beyond secular and criminal (economic) activities as defined by traditional organized crime studies.3 In fact, the intensity of change may indeed be increasing. Not only have de facto politicalelements come to the fore-i.e., when a cartel takes over an entire city or town, they have no choice but to take over political functions formerly administered by the local government- but social (narcocultura) and religious/spiritual (narcocultos) characteristics are now making themselves more pronounced. What we are likely witnessing is Mexican society starting to not only unravel but to go to war with itself. The bonds and relationships that hold that society together are fraying, unraveling, and, in some instances, the polarity is reversing itself with trust being replaced by mistrust and suspicion. Traditional Mexican values and competing criminal value systems are engaged in a brutal contest over the ?hearts, minds, and souls‘ of its citizens in a street-by-street, block-by-block, and city-by-city war over the future social and political organization of Mexico. Environmental modification is taking place in some urban centers and rural outposts as deviant norms replace traditional ones and the younger generation fully accepts a criminal value system as their baseline of behavior because they have known no other. The continuing incidents of ever increasing barbarism-some would call this a manifestation of evil even if secularly motivated-and the growing popularity of a death cult are but two examples of this clash of values. Additionally, the early rise of what appears to be cartel holy warriors may now also be taking place. While extreme barbarism, death cults, and possibly now holy warriors found in the Mexican cartel wars are still somewhat the exception rather than the rule, each of these trends is extremely alarming, and will be touched upon in turn.

    The crucible of war either tempers a people or it breaks them.

    The easy way or the hard way?

    Saturday, June 1st, 2013

    [ by Charles Cameron — thinking more in terms of challenge than of threat, and skipping via Chicago Law, Everest, and Handel’s Messiah to a Venn diagram of the workings of conscience ]
    .

    Well, I don’t always read the Chicago Law Review cover to cover, or even at all to be honest — but I confess I did like this opening paragraph from George Loewenstein† & Ted O’Donoghue†† (love those daggers after your names, guys):

    If you ever have the misfortune to be interrogated, and the experience resembles its depiction in movies, it is likely that your interrogator will inform you that “we can do this the easy way or the hard way.” The interrogator is telling you, with an economy of words, that you are going to spill the beans; the only question is whether you will also get tortured — which is the hard way. In this Essay, we argue that much consumption follows a similar pattern, except that the torturer is oneself.

    **

    Here’s the easy vs hard contrast I was thinking about as I googled my way to the Law Review — as you’ll see, it has nothing to do with interrogation:

    **

    So, a little background. Jason Burke has been covering Everest for The Guardian lately, since it has been almost exactly sixty years since Hillary and Tenzing were the first to “conquer” the highest peak on earth — and one of his reports caught my eye — Everest may have ladder installed to ease congestion on Hillary Step:

    It was the final obstacle, the 40 feet of technical climbing up a near vertical rock face that pushed Sir Edmund Hillary to the limit. Once climbed, the way to the summit of Mount Everest lay open.

    Now, almost exactly 60 years after the New Zealander and his rope-mate, Sherpa Tenzing Norgay, stood on the highest point in the planet, a new plan has been mooted to install a ladder on the famous Hillary Step, as the crucial pitch at nearly 29,000ft has been known since it was first ascended. The aim is to ease congestion.

    That’s what the upper panel, above, is all about — and I think it contrasts nicely with the bottom panel, which shows a rurp. Should you need one, you can obtain your own Black Diamond rurp here.

    **

    Rurps are awesome. Here are two descriptions of them, both taken from the mountaineering literature, and neither one of them focusing in too closely on the poetry of the name…

    Steve Rope, Camp 4: Recollections of a Yosemite Rockclimber, p. 107:

    Chouinard’s “rurp” was obviously something special. An acronym for “realized ultimate reality piton,” this ludicrously small fragment of heat-treated steel opened our eyes to untold possibilities.

    and Chris Jones, Climbing in North America, p. 273:

    It was about the size of a postage stamp. The business end was the thickness of a knife blade and penetrated only a quarter-inch into the rock. With several of these Realized Ultimate Reality Pitons, or rurps, Chouinard and Frost made the crux pitch on Kat Pinnacle (A4). It was the most difficult aid climb in North America.

    Chouinard named this postage-stamp-sized thing the realized ultimate reality piton (RURP) because if you willingly and literally hang your life on that quarter-inch of steel, you’re liable to realize, well, ultimate reality.

    Zen — yours for $15 and exemplary courage.

    **

    Here’s my question: should we make the hard way easier?

    When is that a kindness, and when is it foolish?

    **

    In its own way, of course, a rurp is an assist — it makes the hard way a tad easier for the serious climber.

    As indeed would the proposed “ladder” on Everest: here’s why it might be not-such-a-bad idea:

    This year, 520 climbers have reached the summit of Everest. On 19 May, around 150 climbed the last 3,000ft of the peak from Camp IV within hours of each other, causing lengthy delays as mountaineers queued to descend or ascend harder sections.

    “Most of the traffic jams are at the Hillary Step because only one person can go up or down. If you have people waiting two, three or even four hours that means lots of exposure [to risk]. To make the climbing easier, that would be wrong. But this is a safety feature,” said Sherpa…

    Besides, the idea is to set it up as a one-way street…

    Frits Vrijlandt, the president of the International Mountaineering and Climbing Federation (UIAA), said the ladder could be a solution to the increasing numbers of climbers on the mountain.

    “It’s for the way down, so it won’t change the climb,” Vrijlandt told the Guardian.

    Ah, but then there’s human nature to consider:

    It is unlikely, however, that tired ascending climbers close to their ultimate goal will spurn such an obvious aid at such an altitude.

    Bah!

    **

    Shouldn’t we just level the top off, as Handel and Isaiah 4.4 suggest, and as we’re doing in the Appalachians?

    A little mountaintop removal mining, a helipad, and voilà — even I could make it to the summit!

    **

    But to return to Loewenstein† & O’Donoghue†† — their paper’s full title was “We Can Do This the Easy Way or the Hard Way”: Negative Emotions, Self-Regulation, and the Law — how can a theologian such as myself resist a diagram such as this?

    The Battle of Algiers / Black Friday koan

    Saturday, November 17th, 2012

    [ by Charles Cameron — a tale of two films, two conflicts, two cities ]
    .

    Are these two positions — take one side, take both sides — reconcilable?

    That’s the koan, the paradox that’s facing me, after seeing two terrific films by these two directors again, this time back-to-back. The two films their respective directors are discussing are Gillo Pontecorvo‘s Battle of Algiers and Anurag Kashyap‘s Black Friday.

    Elie Weisel triggered this set of reflections for me when I saw his stark statement of the “one side” position:

    We must always take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented.

    Let’s turn to the films.

    **

    Pontecorvo’s Battle for Algiers is a rightly-celebrated classic, and it’s opening shot confirms the director’s claim to show compassion for both sides:

    That’s an unexpected question from torturer to the victim he has just “broken”, and speaks volumes about the director’s intent — as does this quote from the french paratroop commander, Col. Mathieu, speaking of Larbi Ben M’Hidi, a leader of the National Liberation Front (FLN) whom he has captured and questioned — and who in “RL” was in fact murdered, though his death was reported at the time as a suicide:

    Pour ma part, je peux seulement vous dire que j’ai eu la possibilité d’apprécier la force morale, le courage et la fidélité de Ben M’Hidi en ses propres idéaux. Pour cela, sans oublier l’immense danger qu’il représentait, je me sens le devoir de rendre hommage à sa mémoire.

    For my own part, I can only tell you that I had the opportunity to appreciate Ben M’Hidi’s moral strength, his courage and his loyalty to his own ideas. On that account, and without overlooking the immense danger he represented, I feel obliged to salute his memory.

    That reads to me as the respect of courage for courage.

    The Pentagon, FWIW, held a screening of Battle for Algiers in September 2003, issuing a flyer indicating their reason to be interested in the film:

    How to win a battle against terrorism and lose the war of ideas. Children shoot soldiers at point-blank range. Women plant bombs in cafes. Soon the entire Arab population builds to a mad fervor. Sound familiar? The French have a plan. It succeeds tactically, but fails strategically. To understand why, come to a rare showing of this film.

    Yes indeed, it does sound a tad familiar.

    **

    I’ll represent Kashyap’s Black Friday visually with a pair of images, the top one showing the Babri Mosque in Ayodhya / Oudh, which was leveled in December 1992 by an angry Hindu mob who claimed it had been built on the birthplace of Lord Rama, the avatar of Vishnu whose story is told in the Mahabharata

    while the lower one represents Muslim rage at that event, making use of voice-over and that remarkable phrase, “martyred our sacred mosque”, to good effect.

    Kashyap, then, can understand the feelings behind the horrific series of terrorist bombings that shook Bombay — as well as those of the bombed and terrorized population of that city. As Oorvazi Irani explains in her commentary on the film, Kashyap’s own views are expressed in the voice of DCP Rakesh Maria in the “chapter” on the interrogation of Badshah Khan:

    Badshah Khan very proudly takes credit for the bombings and says Muslims have taken the revenge for the atrocities done to their Muslim brothers. That’s when Kay Kay Menon who plays the cop says and speaks in the voice of the director “…Allah was not on your side, on your side was Tiger Memon. He saw your rage and manipulated you. He was gone before the first bomb was even planted. ..he fucked you over. you know why? Because you were begging for it. All in the name of religion. You are a fucking idiot. You are an idiot and so is every Hindu, who murders one of you. Everyone who has nothing better to do … but to fight in the name of religion is a fucking idiot.”

    **

    Can there be a right side and a wrong side in a game? There can certainly be a winning side and a losing side — but a right side and a wrong side?

    I ask, because the connection between wars and games is an ancient one. Can there be a right side and a wrong side in war? Looking at World War II, which was almost certainly the war that Elie Weisel was thinking of, the answer is pretty obviously yes. But what about the reasons given for “our side” being the right side?

    Is our cause just because God is on our side? Because might makes right, and the big battalions are on our side? Or simply because it is our side — my country, right or wrong?

    And then there is civil war to consider — for all wars are civil wars, when seen within the context of that greater “nationality”, the human race.

    Abraham Lincoln, from his Second Inaugural:

    Both parties deprecated war, but one of them would make war rather than let the nation survive, and the other would accept war rather than let it perish, and the war came. … Neither party expected for the war the magnitude or the duration which it has already attained. Neither anticipated that the cause of the conflict might cease with or even before the conflict itself should cease. Each looked for an easier triumph, and a result less fundamental and astounding. Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other. … The prayers of both could not be answered. That of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has His own purposes…

    The whole issue of the just war — or of jihad, its Islamic approximate equivalent — revolves around the question of whether there can be a wrong side in war.

    **

    If there can be a wrong side, it may be shredded. As Mark Twain once prayed:

    O Lord our Father, our young patriots, idols of our hearts, go forth to battle — be Thou near them! With them — in spirit — we also go forth from the sweet peace of our beloved firesides to smite the foe. O Lord our God, help us to tear their soldiers to bloody shreds with our shells; help us to cover their smiling fields with the pale forms of their patriot dead; help us to drown the thunder of the guns with the shrieks of their wounded, writhing in pain; help us to lay waste their humble homes with a hurricane of fire; help us to wring the hearts of their unoffending widows with unavailing grief; help us to turn them out roofless with little children to wander unfriended the wastes of their desolated land in rags and hunger and thirst, sports of the sun flames of summer and the icy winds of winter, broken in spirit, worn with travail, imploring Thee for the refuge of the grave and denied it — for our sakes who adore Thee, Lord, blast their hopes, blight their lives, protract their bitter pilgrimage, make heavy their steps, water their way with their tears, stain the white snow with the blood of their wounded feet! We ask it, in the spirit of love, of Him Who is the Source of Love, and Who is the ever-faithful refuge and friend of all that are sore beset and seek His aid with humble and contrite hearts. Amen.

    **

    There are things to be said for being on the winning side of a conflict: you get to write history. There may be things to be said for being on the losing side: you gain the sympathy that accrues to the underdog. There are things to be said for supporting neither side, for being on the sidelines to pick up the pieces.

    Then again, as Buddha observed in the Dhammapada, there are disadvantages to being on either side —

    Victory breeds hatred. The defeated live in pain. Happily the peaceful live giving up victory and defeat.

    while Christ muddies the simplicity of the whole business with a further contrarian note:

    love your enemies.

    Peace is not a bad side to be on, but perhaps love is more nuanced.

    **

    To bring us full circle, here’s another statement of the Elie Weisel position, this time in the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Lutheran pastor and theologian involved in the plot to assassinate Hitler and executed in one of the concentration camps — together with a response to the question I’ve been posing for myself here which may perhaps providinge some measure of reconciliation, this one from a contemporary Zen Buddhist, someone for whom the appreciation of koans is a way of life:


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