Category Archives: good and evil

Not just monkey business

What happens if a person is brought up in a way that is more likely to cause them to act violently? Should they be criminally responsible for their actions? That’s a difficult enough question, but what happens if the perpetrator of a crime is a monkey? These questions are raised by the case of Chico the delinquent pet macaque.

Chico had already been in trouble with the law previously. When US Federal agents had visited the home of his owner some years ago, Chico had acted aggressively and threw faeces at the agents (although he was not the subject of their investigation, of course). This probably didn’t help his cause in the eyes of the law.

On the present occasion, he escaped from his home in Spokane and bit three people shortly thereafter. He was then taken into custody and held at a local humane society. Because he had bitten people, there was a chance that he could have infected them with rabies or herpes B, both of which are fatal to humans. The only way of testing for rabies is a post mortem test of brain tissue, and accordingly, it was decided that he should be put down.

One can’t help feeling sorry for poor old Chico. Apparently it’s a very bad idea to keep monkeys as pets, and they commonly become aggressive and violent. The bottom line is that in many cases, they can’t be “domesticated”, but nor can they then readapt to normal primate society either. Further, some monkeys carry diseases which can be transferred to humans. Many macaques carry Herpes B.

Should a primate like Chico have “quasi-human” rights or “primate rights”? Some might argue that we show no qualms about putting down dogs who bite humans, so a monkey is no different. However, monkeys are much closer to humans genetically speaking. Should they be given more of a chance than a dog?

Here it seems that Chico was put down primarily because of the health concerns involved, but it doesn’t seem fair that he has to pay the ultimate price for that: his misbehaviour is a direct consequence of his owner’s behaviour in treating him as a pet. Incidentally, it appears that his owner will be charged with keeping a dangerous animal. She is already awaiting sentencing for fraud proceedings in relation to a false college degrees sold over the Internet.

I can’t help wondering what would happen if a larger primate (such as an orang utan or a chimpanzee) killed a person. Should it be determined if the primate had understanding of its actions if it was proposed to put the animal down? To establish criminal liability, it is required to establish that there was an actus reus (criminal action) and a mens rea (criminal intention). It has been argued that chimpanzees could potentially be more rational than human beings (in an experiment involving the economist’s ultimatum game). Do chimpanzees and other great apes have the moral agency required to be prosecuted for a crime? I am sure I have seen a documentary where a grieving chimpanzee mother carried around her dead baby for days, until some other chimps from the group took the baby away. It was actually very distressing to watch. Clearly the mother and the other chimps had a concept of death, and what is more, the mother had a very human reaction to her child’s death.

On the other hand, having a “quasi-trial” for an animal could become farcical. There is a long and dishonourable tradition of animal trials. The most common animals which were the subject of such trials were pigs, bulls, cows or horses, or pests such as rats, mice and weevils. Edward Payson Evans wrote a book called The Criminal Prosecution and Capital Punishment of Animals in 1906, which cited a variety of cases, including the prosecution of a number of moles in the Valle D’Aosta in 824, the charges against a cow by the Parliament of Paris in 1546 and the conviction of a Swiss dog for murder in 1906. It’s well worth reading this article in Cabinet Magazine for more details of the book – I think I need a copy.

Back to Chico: a case such as this does raise serious issues as to how we deal with criminal offences, whether committed by human or primate.

  • How much should ill-treatment and bad upbringing explain criminal conduct?
  • If monkeys can become aggressive through a particular kind of upbringing, is the same true of humans?
  • How genetically close should an animal be to a human being before it is treated like a human before the law? (if at all)
  • What if it can be shown that a particular kind of animal has some sort of moral understanding akin to human understanding?
  • What if a human perpetrator has very little moral understanding of the consequences of his or her criminal actions? Does this make them able to be treated like an “animal”? (I would argue not – that’s what universal human rights are all about – but it’s an interesting question)

It’s a pretty sad case all in all. It sounds to me like the US is in dire need of some laws with regard to keeping primates as pets – primates are very like us in some ways, but they are not substitute children, and they do badly in a domesticated environment.

(Via Short Sharp Science blog, from New Scientist)

(Hat tip to Dave Bath for bringing this case to my attention)

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Filed under animals, crazy stuff, criminal law, death sentence, good and evil, Guilt, human rights, morality

“You have to die, so that I can live.”

Last night, I watched a rather depressing documentary on SBS called The Anatomy of Evil. It was about people who perpetrate genocide. I’ve been morbidly fascinated with this question for a while now, as I’ve explained in an earlier post. I’ve never quite been able to fathom how people could shoot/gas/blow up an innocent civilian.

This documentary consisted mainly of interviews with former members of the Einsatzgruppen and Serb paramilitaries, each of whom conducted ethnic cleansing of villages by lining up people and shooting them at point blank range. Some interviewees were unrepentant, and said they’d “do it again if it was necessary”. Some still regarded the people whom they had shot as sub-human. A few regretted their actions and felt less than human.

The director, Ove Nyholm, concludes that the trigger which compels ordinary people to behave like this is anxiety and fear of a threat. In such circumstances, people put aside normal feelings and become ruthless. This is a survival mechanism, and can actually be a positive thing. People can survive in terrible circumstances through sheer willpower. But in the scenario where a group of people who live alongside you are identified as the threat, there is a risk that you will become ruthless towards those people and cease to see them as human. Add to that a wartime context where violence and killing is condoned and people are forced to follow orders, and the results can be deadly. And there’s the notion of retaliating for past wrongs. One of the most unpleasant interviewees featured in the documentary cited the fact that his family had been driven from Kosovo by Albanians in the past, and that he felt satisfied and a sense of righteous revenge when killing villagers and burning down their houses. Another interviewee said that he became a member of the paramilitary group after his own parents had been brutally killed.

It occurred to me too that this analysis can also help explain other wars and ethnic and religious conflicts which do not involve genocide as such, but where innocent civilians are killed.

Take, for example, terrorist attacks. The way in which terrorists become galvanised to kill innocent people is by considering wrongs done to their own people, and desiring to take revenge. I recall that during the Israeli incursion into Lebanon, someone forwarded a Powerpoint slide of dead Lebanese civilians, including a young boy. The purpose was obviously to provoke outrage against Israel. If I was a radical Hezbollah supporter, I am sure that such pictures would be used to whip me into a state of righteous indignation and revenge. And I am sure that an Israeli defending the incursion into Lebanon would ask me to consider Israeli civilians injured or killed by Hezbollah rockets, or Hezbollah terrorist bombs. They might also point to the suffering of Jewish people in the past in Europe as a reason as to why Israeli territory should be staunchly defended. Personally, I consider the loss of life on both sides to be tragic. Neither side can be said to be blameless, but by the same token, the natural human propensity for revenge makes the outraged response of each side understandable. This is why I am so reluctant to “take sides” in discussions on the Middle East, although I am a firm believer that the State of Israel has a right to exist in its original boundaries.

Conflict is fuelled by the notion that the other group represents a threat to the way of life or security of the group. Sometimes, as in Israel, Northern Ireland or Cyprus there are settlers and occupying forces. Sometimes there are competing claims to the same piece of land, or the same holy site (as with some mosques which are targeted by Hindu militants in India). Sometimes the particular ethnic group wants to be separate from the rest of the country, as with Basques in Spain, Kurds in Turkey, Iraq and elsewhere and Tamils in Sri Lanka, because they feel that their way of life and culture is not adequately represented by the government of the particular country of which they are a part. Sometimes, the victimised group is a minority who have been made a scapegoat for a nation’s ills (as with Jews and Gypsies in Nazi Germany, who were targeted because they were different).

When terrorist attacks are mounted, there are retaliatory attacks, often by armed forces. So the US felt justified in attacking Afghanistan because its innocent citizens had been killed by a terrorist plot which had been planned from Afghan territory. One can understand this. The perpetrators had been sheltered by the Taliban regime. But the problem with attacking terrorist or guerilla groups with military force is that they tend to blend back into the normal population, so when you attack them, there is a risk of killing and wounding innocent civilians, which further fuels the fires of righteous outrage.

I don’t know what the answer to all this is, I just know that we should be wary of those trying to whip up moral outrage, whatever side they are on. Take the Cronulla riots in Sydney. Those organising the rally whipped up moral outrage against young men of Middle Eastern background who had been harrassing beachgoers. Yes, it’s true, harrassing innocent people at the beach is a bad thing. As a result of the rally/riot, several people “of Middle Eastern appearance” were beaten and attacked. Bashing people who happen to look like they come from the Middle East is also a bad thing. Then young men in Lakemba whipped up moral outrage to fuel a retaliatory attack. Attacking the houses and cars of people in Maroubra is another bad thing. The thing is that it’s all bad, and it’s mostly innocent people on both sides who suffer.

Perhaps it’s just instinctive that the “ruthless” switch is tripped when we feel that our safety, territory or way of life is under threat. Perhaps we need to recognise that it’s all just part of the way we’re hardwired. Of course one is outraged by injustice suffered by one’s family, friends or compatriots. How much worse would it be if someone in your family or friendship group is killed by a particular group? I’m not sure how I would cope in those circumstances. As Nyholm said in the documentary, he had to acknowledge that he had doubt as to how he would behave. I don’t know either. I’ve never known how I would behave if I were in the Milgram experiment, although I hope that I’m ornery enough to disobey orders. I do hope that if my “ruthlessness” switch was tripped, I would be able to recover my reason and morality. As one of the interviewees said, the scary thing is not that man becomes a beast, but how long he remains a beast.

Perhaps we need to consider that old piece of Klingon wisdom: “Revenge is a dish best served cold”. (Seriously, its first recorded use in that form is in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan…the things you learn from Wikipedia!) When our moral outrage switch is tripped, perhaps we need to be aware that our “ruthlessness” switch may also be switched on at the same time, and guard against taking out our anger against anyone who is or may be associated with the group who is said to be morally outrageous. It is difficult to look into the heart of human darkness, but I am glad that I had the courage to watch this documentary.

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Filed under Cronulla riots, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, middle east, morality, Political, politics, psychology, religion, terrorism, tolerance, torture, Uncategorized, USA, war

We ain’t that bad, really!

As a lawyer, my eye was caught by an excerpt from one of The Road to Surfdom’s latest posts:

In a country where the federal cabinet consists of little but grey soulless lawyers, it’s ironic that some of the most admirable characters in the struggle to defend personal liberty and democratic principle are also members of the legal profession. Major Michael Mori showed us the best of the US law fraternity and now along comes Stephen Keim SC, with terrific personal courage, to challenge the government’s contemptible attempts to exploit Dr Mohamed Haneef for political advantage.

On behalf of my species, I wish to reiterate that not all lawyers are grey and soulless. Many lawyers are defenders of human rights and fair process. Stephen Keim seems to be one of these lawyers. But he is not alone. Look at the guys over at A Roll of the Dice in this post here, or Marcellous’ posts and Law Font’s post, just to pick a few. Many lawyers are acutely aware of the power that the law has over people’s lives, which is why I think civil libertarian organisations attract more than their fair share of lawyers.

Just because one is a lawyer doesn’t mean that one is a bad person. On the other hand, nor does it mean that you are better or more moral than other people. Let’s have a look at a few prominent historical lawyers (and/or people who received legal training): Thomas Jefferson, Goethe, Nelson Mandela, Slobodan Milocevic, Gandhi, Bill Clinton, John Howard, Lenin, Franz Kafka, Jeremy Bentham, Abraham Lincoln, Karl Marx, Gough Whitlam. I think you’ll agree that lawyers, like any other group, are a mixed bag.

So many of the mixed bag mentioned above are politicians or involved in political thought. Why is it that lawyers are attracted to politics? As I have explained previously, I think the law is in itself intrinsically political. That is why this blog became political. The law proscribes what people can do, and imposes certain standards of behaviour on society. It is involved with all the important processes of life. Indeed law in the form of legislation is the end product of the democratic process.

Anyway, don’t blame us all for the sins of some of our brethren. Some of us are decent people. Seriously, we are! Wouldn’t you trust this face?

Puss in Boots

[Puss in Boots from Shrek 2]

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Filed under Australia, good and evil, human rights, immigration, law, politics

How can they do it?

Jane from Diversion Cubed was wondering how on earth people who had sworn the Hippocratic oath to heal other human beings could allegedly become involved with suicide bombing plots. I can’t fathom it myself. How can you work all day trying to heal people and help people, and then wish to wreak death and injury on innocent civilians?

In that context, I found this article by Shiv Malik on the London 7/7 bombers very interesting (hat tip to Larvatus Prodeo). Malik spoke with the family of bomber Mohamed Sidique Khan and others who lived in Beeston, Leeds. He found that the impetus to become radical is more complicated than one would think:

Khan may have felt indignant about western foreign policy, as many anti-war campaigners do, but that wasn’t the reason he led a cell of young men to kill themselves and 52 London commuters. At the heart of this tragedy is a conflict between the first and subsequent generations of British Pakistanis—with many young people using Islamism as a kind of liberation theology to assert their right to choose how to live. It is a conflict between tradition and individuality, culture and religion, tribalism and universalism, passivity and action.

When it is stated like this, the problem of Islamic extremism looks depressingly intractable. The government’s first reaction following 7/7 was to consult with a wide range of Muslim opinion, including the Muslim Council of Britain (MCB) and similar bodies. The government now argues that the MCB and some of its affiliates are as much part of the problem as of the solution, and the new initiatives to tackle radicalism stress the promotion of British values at a grassroots level and working more closely with the few liberal modernisers in Britain’s Muslim community. But maybe all that we can do now is remain vigilant and wait for the tide in the battle for Islam’s soul to turn in the west’s favour.

Malik explores the fact that many first-generation Pakistanis in Britain have a very traditional approach to life – one in which Islam is important, but so too are tribal values. It is expected, for example, that young Pakistanis will marry according to their parents’ wishes, often to a cousin or relative within the larger tribe. Radical Islamism offers an escape from arranged marriages. Malik explains:

So while traditionalist mosques carry on recruiting imams from back home, keep their sermons in Urdu and other Asian languages and neglect to publish material to engage new members, the Wahhabis and the Islamists give their sermons in English and take their recruitment on to the streets of Pakistani or Bangladeshi ghettos such as Beeston Hill. They have also encouraged the schooling of British-born imams, have learned to use the internet and have generally come to understand what makes the second generation tick. The Wahhabis and Islamists win new members by contrasting their galvanising message of world Islamic justice with the inactivity and irrationality of the first-generation traditionalists. (Among those who turn to violence, such as Khan, their beliefs are often a mix of fundamentalism and Islamism.) And by arguing that the traditionalists—with their saint worship, mysticism and forced marriages—have been corrupted by weakness and Hinduism, they provide useful arguments to those Pakistani and Bangladeshi youths who want to cling on to Islam but throw off their parents’ constraints.

Part of what pushed Khan towards fundamentalist Islamism was his desire to marry for love, not to marry the bride whom his parents had arranged for him.

Furthermore, in poor areas such as Beeston Hill in Leeds (where three of the four 7/7 bombers lived) there was an increasing problem with drug use. Traditional parents had no response for this problem. It was not within their ken. Malik continues:

Ali told me that the older generation didn’t know how to deal with the drug problem. They were largely illiterate and didn’t know the system, so they would sooner move out than try to fight the dealers. The only people who seemed to do anything about the drug-taking were a group of second-generation Pakistanis called the “Mullah boys.” This was a fluid group of 15 to 20 members that formed in the mid-1990s, initially as a response to the drugs issue. Mohammad Sidique Khan was a leading member. Ali told me that on several occasions, the group kidnapped young Pakistani drug addicts and, with the consent of their families, held them in a flat near the Wahhabi-inclined mosque on Stratford Street—and forcibly cleansed them of their drug habits.

What we learned from Ali was later corroborated by an ex-drug user called Asim Suleman. He had been cold-turkeyed by the Mullah boys in 1996, and Sidique Khan, Khan’s friend Naveed Fiaz and Tafazal Mohammed, Khan’s line manager in his youth worker job, had asked Suleman back to help with another round in 2001. Following 9/11, the Mullah boys had become increasingly religious. Initially, this new-found godliness was welcomed by the older generation in Beeston—until the group began marrying people of their choice.

I had wondered how men who had grown up in the UK could do this. Malik’s analysis makes sense. The second generation did not want to live like their parents. They wanted to marry whom they wanted, they wanted to escape narrow tribal restrictions and they wanted to do something constructive about social problems in their community, such as drug use. But they did not feel part of the broader British community either. There were two paths for young disaffected men – either to embrace violence and drug use, or to embrace radical Islamism. The latter seemed more honourable. It offered an escape to the conundrum of trying to fit in with traditional Pakistani or English social norms – reject both, embrace Islam, then you’ll feel part of society. Paradoxically, the radical Islamist movement is in some ways more akin to a radical political group from the West than it is to traditional Islam.

I’m sure it’s no coincidence that the background of radical Sydney cleric Sheikh Feiz Mohammed resonates with this analysis. Sheikh Feiz was a street kid who drank and took drugs in his youth. He saw radical Islam as the pathway out of despair.

A more nuanced understanding of what drives these young men might help a more nuanced response to the issue. An analysis which simply concludes that Islam is evil or that the West is corrupt and decadent misses the mark. As always, it’s more complicated than that. Radical Islamism is a child of a terrible congruence of both Western and Islamic values.

Update

An interesting piece in The Guardian by Hassan Butt, a former member of the British Jihadi network.

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Filed under England, good and evil, islam, morality, politics, terrorism, war

Moral consistency, torture and the Left

I read a very interesting book on the weekend, called “What’s Left?” by Nick Cohen. And then on Monday night I saw a documentary on Four Corners about torture, including the use of torture at Guantanamo Bay. This post is going to be a pastiche of my impressions of experiencing both of these things in a short amount of time. I was commenting on various threads, but found I was repeating myself, and wanted to go into things in more detail than I could manage in a comment.
As I have outlined, I tend to follow my own path, and I do not follow left wing or right wing orthodoxy blindly. It sounds like Cohen’s book arose out of the same process. I laughed with recognition when I read the following:

I still remember the sense of dislocation I felt at 13 when my English teacher told me he voted Conservative. As his announcement coincided with the shock of puberty, I was unlikely to forget it. I must have understood at some level that real Conservatives lived in Britain – there was a Conservative government at the time, so logic dictated that there had to be Conservative voters. But it was incredible to learn that my teacher was one of them when he gave every appearance of being a thoughtful and kind man. To be good you had to be on the Left.

When I was young, I briefly dated a guy who was much more right-wing than I, in a libertarian sort of way. He kept questioning why I believed as I did. “I think unions are good,” I would say naively and trustingly, and he’d say, “Why?” and then come out with all these reasons why unions could be negative. Then I’d have to try and justify my beliefs to him. I don’t think I’d ever thought about it before. I’d just presumed that my beliefs were the beliefs that all good and fair people had. Although I found it very confronting at the time to have my beliefs questioned, I am glad that I went through that process. It made me see that I hadn’t thought things through properly.

Cohen’s book essentially argues that the focus of left wing liberals should be the fight against totalitarianism, torture, sexism, homophobia and racism, but he feels that this has been forgotten by some on the left in recent years.

He notes that up until 1990, there was widespread left-wing support in Britain for the Kurds and Iraqis who were trying to fight the regime of Saddam Hussein. However, once Iraq became the enemy of America, the Kurds and the Iraqis found that the support dried up, and many left-wing groups concentrated on protesting about the American intervention in Iraq instead. In so doing, he argues that they sidelined the torture, intimidation, murder and genocide of the Iraqi people at the hands of Hussein.

This leads me on to a discussion of the Four Corners documentary about torture. The ABC website has the following description of its content:

Deliberately inflicting pain and humiliation on human beings is no longer something only Third World dictators do. The First World is starting to get its hands dirty.

In the war on terror, might it be justified?

Torture remains illegal worldwide. However the US has narrowly defined torture to allow a suite of coercive interrogation techniques, while giving immunity to interrogators and shutting redress for detainees. And with apparent acquiescence of other western powers, it has spirited terror suspects to third countries where they have been repeatedly tortured and questioned.

Thus far, the documentary looked a little at torture in general, but focused on the treatment of detainees at Guantanamo Bay by the US. On a few of the blogs I read, there has been a bit of a debate about whether this shows an anti-American bias.

Cohen explores this very phenomenon. He says:

God and the devil dwell together in the detail of great crimes. The more you know about monstrosities the more likely you are to make a commitment to fight them. For it is one thing to hear the screaming paranoia in the speeches of a dictator and realize that life in his country must be grim, quite another to know the names of the camps and of the torturers and the details of what they do to the camps’ captives.

He continues:

‘For every nugget of truth some wretch lies dead on the scrapheap,’ said H. L. Mencken. In his extravagant way, he had it right. Getting uncomfortable facts on to the record is the toughest struggle for journalists in democracies…

Consider how much tougher it is to get to the truth in a dictatorship where the penalty for saying a word out of turn is death. Asymmetries in access to information have the paradoxical effect of making it easier to expose the abuses of power in open societies than dictatorships. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, a former US ambassador to the United Nations, came up with ‘Moynihan’s Law’ to encapsulate the distorted vision that follows. It holds that the number of complaints about a nation’s violation of human rights is in inverse proportion to its actual violation of them. To put it another way, you can find out what is happening in America’s prison cells in Guantanamo Bay if you work very hard, but not in Kim Il-Sung’s prison cells in Pyongyang.

So the documentary concentrated on the US because, however flawed its practices may be, it is still a liberal democracy and there has to be some kind of scrutiny of its behaviour. Lawyers have to pass opinions on whether its practices are legal, the press has to be allowed at least some access to the detention facility, there have to be agreed detainee interview protocols and the like. Furthermore, people are free to comment adversely against the US processes without being killed. I have no time for Bush Jr, but on the positive side, he hasn’t sent his cousin to gas villages of people or ordered anyone’s tongue nailed to a post for speaking to the media. Okay, that’s not much of a positive, but it’s something.

However, what of al Qaeda or other jihadist movements, for example? Well, Four Corners would not be able to talk to Al Qaeda lawyers. There would be none. Nor could they talk to Al Qaeda interrogators or film captured Al Qaeda prisoners. Any journalists who tried to infiltrate it for information might be killed or kidnapped. Such organisations do not care whether torture is illegal. They do not care about UN conventions.

Hence the focus on the US. You can get information out of the government, and some good interviews and pictures. Furthermore, the US professes to respect human rights and to be “the” premier liberal democracy in the world, so its position on torture is, in my opinion, hypocritical. Everyone loves to point out hypocrisy. But Cohen’s book reminds us that by focusing on this issue, we on the liberal left may also become hypocritical.

Personally, I think that any torture should be condemned. It doesn’t matter whether the perpetrator is the US government, a totalitarian regime or a terrorist group. It is important to scrutinise the US, because it upholds ideals and should be made to keep to them. I don’t want to apologise for the US. And at least with public pressure such practices can be stamped out, and Bush can be voted out. So it is important to keep up the pressure.

But…

We have to remember that there are authoritarian regimes where the perpetrators can’t be voted out and we can’t easily see what kind of torture is going on. What to do then? Do we ignore the question and focus on the wrongs of our own leaders, demonising them? Or do we face up to the issue and try to support people who want to find a way of deposing authoritarian rulers who torture their citizens? I prefer the latter option. It’s the hard option, not the easy option, but who said life was easy?

The next question, then, is: what is torture? Article 1 of the Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment states:

…”[T]orture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

I think that this definition provides a good starting point. Clearly hanging people from beams by the arms, beating them, putting pins into them etc to obtain confessions is torture. Clearly, also, although it is undoubtedly unpleasant, incarcerating someone for committing a crime is not torture. It is a lawful sanction which society agrees is appropriate for the protection of other members of society, for the punishment and rehabilitation of the perpetrator and in order that the victim or the victim’s family feels that there has been just retribution.

However, to my mind, there is no doubt that sensory deprivation, waterboarding, locking people in coffin-shaped boxes, making people stand hooded with arms outstretched for hours and the like is torture. Just because there are no marks on the person’s body doesn’t mean it isn’t torture. It sends a person mad, and creates great mental suffering. Personally, I’d almost prefer needles to my flesh than being put in a coffin-shaped box and left there. Hopefully I will never be confronted with that choice.

What about shouting loudly? Or putting underpants on a person’s head? Or telling a person they are a pig when the interrogator knows that the person hates pigs? I think this kind of conduct is totally inappropriate, but I would not go so far as to say it was torture. There is a fine dividing line – for example, if someone threatened to harm a family member of a detainee, that is torture. Or if someone has a terrible fear of spiders, and the interrogators cover him in spiders? That is also torture. (Ugh. I’m having a moment of attercoppaphobia.)

There is an unpleasant feeling of vengeance about the use of torture against Guantanamo detainees. Sure, most of them are probably horrible people who would have shed no tears if we were all blown up by terrorist bombs. But the important thing is to distinguish ourselves from these people by our humanity, not to stoop to their level. Many of them have been incarcerated for years, and could hardly produce any up-to-date information anyway.

Further, as one of the CIA operatives was explaining, torture is notoriously unreliable. On a pragmatic level, one may as well administer truth telling drugs. According to that font of knowledge, Wikipedia, they aren’t very reliable either, but they’re just as likely to produce results as torture. If there is a desperate emergency and peoples’ lives hang in the balance, I think that this would be a better course of action.

Portions of the works that are quoted and/or reproduced above are “fair dealing for the purpose of criticism or review” (Section 41 of the Copyright Act 1968 (Cth)).

The Leunig cartoon is reproduced to illustrate the kind of left-winger I think Cohen is talking about. I’m not saying all left-wingers are like that. I’m not!

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Filed under book review, George W Bush, good and evil, human rights, Iraq, Leunig, morality, politics, Saddam Hussein, terrorism, torture, USA, war

Why?

“Acts of God”, natural disasters, terrorist attacks, random acts of violence…they are all terrifying. We can’t predict when such things will happen, and we can’t easily control them. It is for this reason that airplanes are more scary than cars. Although statistically, many more people have car accidents than have airplane accidents, we are not in control when we are a passenger of an aircraft. It is also for this reason that a random senseless massacre attracts more media attention than a war.

Ever since I was little, I have wondered why bad things happen to good or innocent people. No religion has ever been able to answer this question adequately for me. Why would a loving God allow this to happen to His people? The book of Job attempts to answer this question in part.

Many religions (including Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Hinduism) say that God must allow free will. The great medieval Rabbi Maimonides (aka the Rambam) posed the question as follows:

The Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows everything that will happen before it has happened, so does He know whether a particular person will be righteous or wicked, or not? If He does know, then it will be impossible for that person not to be righteous. If He knows that he will be righteous but that it is possible for him to be wicked, then He doesn’t know everything that He has created. …God’s existence is beyond the comprehension of Man. …[W]e do not have the capabilities to comprehend how the Holy One, Blessed Be He, knows all creations and events. Know without doubt that people do what they want without the Holy One, Blessed Be He, forcing or decreeing upon them to do so. Do not accept this fact solely because of religious acceptance, but out of common sense. It has been said because of this that a man is judged according to all his actions – if they are good or bad. This is the principle on which all prophecies are dependant.

(Maimonides, Mishneh Torah, Teshuva 5:5)

So Maimonides said that God must allow people free will, otherwise the universe cannot exist. If God decides who is good and bad beforehand, it is impossible for anyone to grow and change and learn. What is the point in behaving well towards others if this is so? But if we can decide whether we behave in a good or a bad way, God can no longer be omnipotent and omnipresent. So God must allow us free will.

All well and good: but I am by nature a meddler. I want to help people. I feel empathy. I sit and consider: if there is a God, how can He bring Himself not to meddle? What about cases where people die not because of their own actions, but because of a terrible accident, a freak of nature, a terrorist plot, a psychopath? How can God bring Himself not to intervene? Perhaps He did intervene, but I just don’t know how what His “big picture” is. Still, it seems unfair to the blameless victims.

I think of these questions in the light of the recent terrible shooting at Virginia Tech. How can someone do that to his fellow human beings, in cold blood? I even feel guilt in the rare moments when I squash a spider. I am freaked out by the notion that I can cause it to transform from “living” to “not-living” within a second. What terrible disconnection happened in this guy’s brain that he did not feel that horror? This is something I have never understood. It is why I will never be sympathetic to suicide bombers or organisations which condone terrorist attacks. I don’t care what the cause is. I abhor such behaviour, because it suggests a total lack of empathy towards innocent human beings.

What about other terrible events which happen daily, but which do not receive so much coverage (eg, people starving to death, people dying in wars)? I read an interesting idea the other day which said that we find it harder to “connect” with starvation and wars in distant places in the relatively peaceful, prosperous Western world. In contrast, I find it very easy to imagine how it must have been at Virginia Tech; indeed, I taught a class at a university campus today. We can easily “connect” with the familiar environment within which the events took place. It is the random nature of the event which is unfamiliar. It both fascinates and terrifies.

Certainly, I think that it is necessary to try to control gun ownership of civilians, but even that will not entirely prevent such tragedies. And it is hard to see how control of gun-ownership would work in the USA, where a culture of a “right to bear arms” is so prevalent. At the least, I think it should be tried, but I don’t see that happening any time soon. Even if other students had been allowed to bear arms, would they have been able to shoot down this guy? Such an argument seems fallacious to me – who is going to take a gun along to a German tute? Surely it’s better to try and prevent the tragedy happening in the first place? Of course, by restricting gun ownership, one restricts the freedom of all because of the lunacy of a few, but I’d rather have that than allow the lunatics to have semi-automatic weapons. {How come some on the “Right” are in favour of extreme limitations on various freedoms in response to the terrorist threat, but would balk at extreme limitations of gun ownership in response to the threat of a random loner-lunatic? Just a thought – I’d be interested to read any comments.}

It is in the nature of such things that I will never really get an answer to my question of Why? I cannot know all creations and events, and I cannot know the secret heart of humankind. All I can do is express my sympathy to those who suffer.

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