The courage not to be brutal

Thuong Duc, Vietnam….A Viet Cong prisoner is interrogated at the A-109 Special Forces Detachment in Thuong Duc, 25 km west of Da Nang. (Photo by PFC David Epstein [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons)

Torture and war are intimately related.

Torture is a subset of war: brutality directed at an individual and justified in the name of “defense.” What was the justification across the Bush administration for the CIA’s recently revealed program of brutal “enhanced interrogation”? The “war on terror.”

Torture is the intentional inflicting of terror on someone judged, without a fair trial, to be “guilty”; torture is a totalitarian act, as Sen. John McCain understands.  War is similar, but on a broader, less discriminating scale: everyone involved suffers greatly.

War and torture are justified, some say, by the ultimate ends of peace and democracy, or as  national self-defense. But a nation is not a self or even a vast collection of selves. A democratic nation is a brave and generous idea realized by humane laws and

noble ideals we hold in common. If a nation defends itself by inflicting various forms of “cruel and unusual punishment”, including capital punishment and solitary confinement, is it a democracy, a bold defender of human rights? I fail to see how.

If we want to encourage democracy at home and abroad, we should take humane and peaceable risks in its name: not torture, not prison cruelty, not police brutality, not war. Instead, we need a better faith in the power of democratic courage–

the courage not to be brutal.

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