Posted by: jackslife | April 22, 2009

The Good America

In the wake of the recent release of information regarding American use of torture during the Bush years, I have been thinking about my own feelings regarding morality and politics.  I have been mentally wandering from Burke to Tocqueville to utilitarianism to the Patriot Act, and a lot of my thoughts have had to do with what the proper conservative and Christian viewpoints are on the issues of the day.

Growing up in a conservative home I often heard quoted, both by my family and by conservative pundits, the Tocqueville truism that, “America is great because she is good, and if America ever ceases to be good, she will cease to be great.”  Although it appears that this phrase was not even used by Tocqueville, it still serves the purpose of the reference here.  There is no doubt that Tocqueville and Edmund Burke extolled the virtue of virtue and morality in politics, regardless of whether the above quote proceeded from their mouths.  Burke did say, “But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint.”  Virtue and morality have long been a hallmark of conservative thought, considered equal in importance to liberty.

Conservatives have, by and large, maintained a virtuous stance on a number of social issues.  When it comes to issues like abortion and same sex marriage, the conservatives are still faithfully fulfilling their function as the breaks on society’s unthinking “progress”.  It seems that they are far less reflective on issues like torture, choosing to take a far more utilitarian stance.  There have even been calls to just look the other way.  This kind of mindset is decidedly un-conservative for a variety of reasons.  It is also deeply embedded in the minds of many modern conservatives.

I have noticed a tendency by a number of Republicans to just dismiss this as a case where there are things that our government has to do to protect us, and that we are better off not knowing about it.  If you ask these people whether they would engage in this kind of behavior themselves, they would probably say that they wouldn’t.  But implicit in their, “father knows best” attitude is an approval of those actions.  This utilitarian acceptance of morally repugnant behavior from their government seems to fly in the face of conservative values.  Can we justify our actions by arguing for their effectiveness?  I don’t find this argument surprising for our culture, whose primary metric for judging anything is efficiency, but I find it startling from conservatives, and even more so from Christians. Much as the Patriot Act caused me to ask whether we are willing to sacrifice freedom for safety, this torture issue causes me to ask, are we willing to sacrifice our virtue to safety.

Can America really be called “good” anymore, when those who claim to believe in virtue and morality support immorality and sacrifice virtue on the altar of efficacy?  If conservatives don’t reclaim goodness soon, I fear American greatness will rapidly follow in retreat.



  1. Excellent post. This is a really difficult subject to discuss I think. As you’ve pointed out there is a very real sense among people that whatever is done by our military or authorized by goverment in what was called the war on terror is justifyable provided there are results. However these same people give no thought to their argument as I’ve talked with people this week who have tried to soften the impact of what we did by comparing them to the beheading of Americans at the hands of terrorists. I fail to see how this free’s us from any moral obligation to do what we know to be right. Comparing ourselves to how we are treated by our enemies isn’t quite the measuring stick we need.

    As with most everything else, there is no reflective thought on the matter, only those fiercely defending or attacking the practice based upon their preconceived notions. You have people like Sean Hannity (it’s just too easy) going on TV every night and blasting Obama for taking an almost apologetic tone as he visits other parts of the world. In Hannity’s mind we’ve done nothing to apologize for and only see’s the pure, clean viture of democracy and the shining light to the world that America is. He refuses to look at the issue from any viewpoint but his own, in much the same way say Keith Olbermann only see’s things in his evaluation of the country and the Bush administration.

    It’s difficult to envision our country reclaiming good and virtuous behavior while people are so willing to be divided in the name of standing up for the ‘truth’. Compromise is needed to a certain degree, but there doesn’t appear to be any willingness to do so. With each passing day the divide seems to grow wider.

  2. I don’t see that America has lost virtue by playing Celine Dion or showing people caterpillars. That is not torture. It seems far more virtuous to me to find the information that saves lives. The cost of not trying seems unbearable to me.

    As an individual, the teachings of Christ clearly say I am not to resist an evil person. I don’t know that He had much to say about how a nation should act. But Paul says the government “does not bear the sword for nothing. He is God’s servant, an agent of wrath to bring punishment on the wrongdoer.” (Romans 13:4)

    A nation as the “agent of wrath” is illustrated in Deuteronomy:
    “when the Lord your God has delivered them over to you and you have defeated them, then you must destroy them totally. Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy. … This is what you are to do to them: Break down their altars, smash their sacred stones, cut down their Asherah pols and burn their idols in the fire.” (Deut 7)

    There are many things that I don’t think it would be right for me to do that I think are completely just actions for a nation. America has a duty to protect people everywhere from these clearly evil agents of hatred and violence. To stand idly by is not virtue.

    • While I do find the idea of having to listen to Celine Dion for hours to be one of the most heinous forms of torture ever invented, I think that it is clear that this was not the extent of what was done to these prisoners. There was a litany of things that were done to these people, some of which we (the US) have previously described as torture. The information that was released has been described by a variety of sources as torture. I have no problem with us employing various pressures to people to find out information in order to save lives, but I do think that there is a line that should not be crossed. Our adherence to a moral code is what separates us from these other nations. It is what makes our country good.

      I don’t have any problem with our nation bearing the sword. I am not a pacifist. I just think that as Christians we should demand that our government bear the sword with justice and virtue. I am not opposed to us defending ourselves, or even fighting against a wicked tyrant (although I think this rationale has often been abused and misapplied). When we responded to 9/11 by going into Afghanistan I felt that we were completely justified, and I had no problem with the fact that we were killing people. Had we been running around torturing them I wouldn’t have felt it was right.

      Again, I’m not arguing that we stand idly by. One of my favorite conservative thinkers is Edmund Burke, who wrote “When bad men combine, the good must associate; else they will fall one by one, an unpitied sacrifice in a contemptible struggle.” I agree that we must fight evil. I think that hindsight clearly shows that an earlier response to Hitler’s aggression would have saved countless lives, and I certainly think that our involvement in WWII was justified. My only point is that I believe that torture is beneath the virtue of this country. It runs contrary to the entire history of our nation’s thought and values. Add to that the fact that we are bound by international law to not engage in torture, and I really don’t see how the use of torture can be justified.

  3. Caterpillars, Celine Dion, and Harry Potter are all “torture” according to the left. It won’t be long until they argue that just being confined is torture, or seeing female soldiers with uncovered hair is torture, etc. The word is losing all meaning.

    If you’re saying there’s “a line that should not be crossed” I think you need to clarify what that line is, unless you agree that bugs and bad music should be forbidden, since that is apparently what torture means now.

    Torture is what happens to captured military members in Mexico. “Fear Factor” is what happens in Guantanamo. If that saves lives, it’s virtue to me.

  4. “I have no problem with us employing various pressures to people to find out information in order to save lives”

    After rereading your reply I think I basically agree with you. My issue here is that the people who are arguing about “torture” in congress would not agree with your statement above – any “pressure” is now torture.

    I’m not arguing that everything should be allowable, but I’m certainly going to speak up to defend our ability to interrogate within reason. The harshest thing I’ve heard discussed has been waterboarding, which I guess is questionable, but still quite mild to be called “torture” in my opinion.

    • I think that the Geneva Conventions define torture as “Violence to the life, health and physical or mental well-being of persons, in particular murder as well as cruel treatment such as torture, mutilation or any form of corporal punishment” (Article 4.a), “Outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment, rape, enforced prostitution and any form of indecent assault” (Article 4.e), and “Threats to commit any of the foregoing acts”

      I think that the thing that makes this whole thing difficult is the “…or mental well-being” part, and probably also the “Outrages upon personal dignity…” These are where a lot of the most ridiculous claims are made. I agree that it is ridiculous to say that forcing someone to listen to Celine Dion would be a threat to someone’s “mental well-being” (although an argument can be made that voluntarily listening to Celine Dion is evidence of a pre-existing “mental well-being” issue). I think that it’s clear that these definitions are somewhat vague, and the Bush administration also made use of creative classifications of these prisoners in order to skirt some of the Geneva Conventions and other international law.

      I do think that sexual humiliation dehumanizes both the person being interrogated and the person doing the interrogation. I also believe that the US has previously defined waterboarding as torture, so I would find it disingenuous for us to reverse our stance on that. I also think that sleep deprivation has typically been considered torture. It is admittedly a difficult line to draw, but I think submitting to traditional thought on what constitutes torture is a good way to go. Caterpillars, Celine Dion, and Harry Potter would never have been considered torture in the past, and shouldn’t be considered such now.

  5. I don’t know that that really defines torture, since the definition includes “such as torture” – I don’t know that definitions can be recursive.

    I think the “in particular” sections go a long way towards clarifying what is meant by the more general statements preceding. Murder and mutilation are the given examples of physical punishment, and I don’t think anyone is arguing in support of those. Rape and forced prostitution are “outrages upon personal dignity,” and no one is trying to support those either.

    When we start considering some of the things currently in the news as “violence against mental well-being” or “outrages upon personal dignity” as torture, looking back I have to admit I was tortured by my parents in excess of the Geneva convention. Alisa was talking last night about how it was “humiliating” to have her name on the board for talking during class when she was in elementary school. Won’t someone think of the children? 🙂

    • Ok, you got me on the “definition”. 🙂 I was just looking for something that didn’t come from the UN that described torture. I think the UN rules might be even more open to interpretation.

      You are also correct on the “in particular” items. I do think that there is still room for having to determine what constitutes cruelty. My main argument here would be that I don’t think that we really have to start from scratch in defining torture, as these issues have already been thought about previously and there are some items in the memos that have previously been defined as torture by this country. Waterboarding has been widely accepted as torture since at least the 1800s. I read this quote in an NPR story –

      During the Spanish-American War, a U.S. soldier, Major Edwin Glenn, was suspended from command for one month and fined $50 for using “the water cure.” In his review, the Army judge advocate said the charges constituted “resort to torture with a view to extort a confession.” He recommended disapproval because “the United States cannot afford to sanction the addition of torture.”

      I also think that there are historical examples going back to Washington and Adams that support the fact that America was founded by men determined to take the high ground on torture in general.

      There is no doubt that some of the things that people have been up in arms about is incorrectly being labeled torture. Not to say that you were serious in your example of humiliation among children, but I think that it’s clear that there is a big difference between that level of humiliation and what is described in the memos. I’m not really sure what I think about some of that, but I feel that we have historically been “above” such things, at least as a matter of policy.

      All in all, I agree with your points. I don’t think I’m qualified to determine where the line should be on what constitutes torture, so I defer to history on that. Wherever the line is, to quote Shep Smith, “We are America, and we don’t f___ing torture!”

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