Saturday, November 17, 2007

Food for thought

The image comes from an article by Lawrence Davidson, Torture In Our Times. The bulk of what Davidson discusses is or at least should be reasonably familiar to scholars and activists devoted to the prevention of torture. Part of what Davidson reminds us of is the Enlightenment-era contributions that led eventually to the Geneva Conventions - the standards by which we are judged when it comes to abuses of human rights. Although I've mentioned before leading intellectuals going back as far as the Roman Republic/Empire who had voiced skepticism and at least some opposition to torture (e.g., Seneca, Cicero), it seems that the Zeitgeist in western Europe was not ready to deal with such challenges until about the 18th century, when such folks as Locke, Beccaria, and Voltaire came along to reiterate and expand upon those earlier challenges to the efficacy and ethics of torture. At that point, a paradigm shift emerges among European policy makers such that by the end of the 18th century, torture was no longer accepted as an officially sanctioned practice (though as Davidson points out, unofficially the practice likely continued on some level with a wink and a nod). By the mid 19th century, we see the beginning of the Geneva Conventions, and some effort to come up with a set of uniform international standards for the protection of human rights.

The Geneva Conventions have hardly been a panacea of course, as Davidson notes the number of nations (including the US) in which torture has been perpetrated and the rather large subset of those nations that engage in torture on a regular basis. Apparently, under conditions of peace, it is relatively easy for folks to pay lip service to the concept of civilized treatment of prisoners. However, when there is some real or perceived threat, all bets are off.

There's an interesting psychology that Davidson seems to touch upon. On the one hand it becomes readily apparent that there are some individuals (probably a relatively small proportion) of any society who are eager to torture "the Enemy" whoever and wherever that Enemy may be. These days, we'd refer to such individuals as highly right-wing authoritarian (perhaps in combination with high levels of social dominance orientation). Even in the most enlightened and progressive of times, this is an element that will at bare minimum be latent. Under conditions of threat (again either real or perceived), there are many who would otherwise preach civil treatment for those imprisoned but who will side in with the authoritarians on matters such as torture. From a Terror Management Theory (TMT) perspective, this is of little surprise. Individuals tend to deal with perceived threats to existence by experiencing greater levels of anxiety and are more prone to accept punitive measures against those Others deemed to be threats to themselves or their way of life. There is evidence that for Americans the 9/11 attacks led to increased favorableness to various attitudes toward violence (such as war, and violent punishment of penal code offenders), and that attitudes can become increasingly authoritarian under perceived threatening conditions.

One thing to keep in mind is that the US has as part of its Zeitgeist a sort of siege mentality that goes back to the early colonizers. That said, the perception of threat from Others (be they American Indians, freed slaves, non-WASP immigrants, Communists, or Arabs) has waxed and waned somewhat throughout American history. The last half century has been one of almost unending "threat": the "Communist Menace" which led to genocide in Southeast Asia during the 1960s & early 1970s, as well as provided cover for the overthrow by the US of democratic governments across the globe, as well as the training in torture techniques provided to brutal right-wing dictatorships that has been on-going for numerous decades; after the fall of the USSR, communism was replaced by terrorism, with a new cast of shadowy and threatening Others to fear. For just about anyone from the Baby Boom generation onward, we have been well-trained to be afraid, and to turn a blind eye to those abuses perpetrated in the name of keeping us "safe."

There are of course, even in the current era, those who call for the use of reason and civility when it comes to human rights and humane treatment - perhaps not as prominent as Baccaria or Voltaire, but every bit as forceful nonetheless. What Davidson seems to be advocating is a new Jacobin effort (Jacobin perhaps in Gramsci's usage of the term) in which the advocacy of reason and tolerance in the struggle against torture is seen as a perpetual effort.

Hat tip to The Try-Works.

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