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Monday, November 21, 2005

Haggling about the price 

There's an old joke that goes like this:
A fellow approaches an attractive girl and says "would you sleep with me for a million dollars?" and she says "Well, sure!" Then he says "Would you sleep with me for a dollar?" and she says "Certainly not! What do you think I am?" and he says "We already know what you are. We're just haggling about the price."
I thought of this joke when I read Digby's article about torture and what the current torture discussion demonstrates about America:
To some extent civilization is nothing more than leashing the beast within. When you go to the dark side, no matter what the motives, you run a terrible risk of destroying yourself in the process. I worry about the men and women who are engaging in this torture regime. This is dangerous to their psyches. But this is true on a larger sociological scale as well. For many, many moons, torture has been a simple taboo --- you didn't question its immorality any more than you would question the immorality of pedophilia. You know that it's wrong on a visceral, gut level. Now we are debating it as if there really is a question as to whether it's immoral --- and, more shockingly, whether it's a positive good . . . When Daniel Patrick Moynihan coined the phrase "defining deviancy down" he couldn't ever have dreamed that we would in a few short decades be at a place where torture is no longer considered a taboo. It certainly makes all of his concerns about changes to the nuclear family (and oral sex) seem trivial by comparison. We are now a society that on some official levels has decided that torture is no longer a deviant, unspeakable behavior, but rather a useful tool. It's not hidden. People publicly discuss whether torture is really torture if it features less than "pain equavalent to organ failure." People no longer instinctively recoil at the word --- it has become a launching pad for vigorous debate about whether people are deserving of certain universal human rights. It spirals down from there. When the smoke finally clears, and we can see past that dramatic day on 9/11 and put the threat of islamic fundamentalism into its proper perspective, I wonder if we'll be able to go back to our old ethical framework? I'm not so sure we will even want to. It's not that it changed us so much as it revealed us, I think. A society that can so easily discard it's legal and ethical taboos against cruelty and barbarism, is an unstable society to begin with. At this rather late stage in life, I'm realizing that the solid America I thought I knew may never have existed. Running very close, under the surface, was a frightened, somewhat hysterical culture that could lose its civilized moorings all at once. I had naively thought that there were some things that Americans would find unthinkable --- torture was one of them.
Emphasis mine.
I have a couple of thoughts about this. It makes me wonder just how synthetic was American democracy, that a single horrific event, 911, could produce such an hysterical overreaction of the Patriot Act, imprisonment without trial, loss of habeus corpus, the doctrine of preemptive war, Guantanamo, assertion of a Presidential 'divine right of kings', and now Vice President Cheney -- the Vice President! -- promoting torture as state policy.
Maybe it was just the bad luck that Bush and Cheney happened to be in power when 911 happened - they are bombastic, incompetent and fearful men whose every instinct takes them toward the dark side. But no one stepped up to stop them, not in Congress nor in the media.
Maybe there really is some basic difference between Canadians and Americans -- even though there is a lot of rhetoric in the United States about democracy and freedom, maybe we Canadians actually do value our freedom and democracy more because we're had to fight for it in our own quiet way. Maybe our democracy has been tested more, and has matured, so we wouldn't haggle it away in a fool's trade-off for mythical security. Over the last fifty years, Canada has acknowledged Aboriginal self-government, dealt with the FLQ and the October Crisis and the War Measures Act, met many of the challenges of Quebec separatism and western alientation, adopted bilingualism and multiculturalism, approved gay marriage. And even though it took us a few months, most Canadians were eventually outraged at Mahar Arar's ordeal and the abuse of civil liberties which it represented. We are still grappling with separatism, I know, but even if Canada eventually loses that battle, I don't think we would let our country degenerate into violence. We know what we are, and what we are worth.

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