Sunday, February 18, 2007

The Wide Gate of Torture

In Matthew's version of the "Sermon on the Mount," Jesus presents the following admonition:
Enter through the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the road is easy that lead to destruction, and there are many who take it. For the gate is narrow and the road is hard that leads to life, and there are few who find it.
Matt. 7:13-14 (NRSV).

This is pretty much the same thing that H.L. Mencken said 1,900 years later, which is that "There is always an easy solution to every human problem--neat, plausible, and wrong."

A recent article in the New Yorker talks about the growing acceptance of the use of torture in both the government and popular culture. The Bush administration is on record as claiming that the standards of human decency contained in the "common Article III" of the Geneva conventions do not apply to terrorism suspects in U.S. custody and, although the administration rejects the word "torture," they admit to "harsh measures" such as "waterboarding," which is universally recognized as a form of torture.

In popular culture, the use of torture as a plot device on television has exploded in the last few years, particularly on the Fox network show "24," where hardly a week goes by without the use of physical coercion or threats of physical coercion.

And the appeal of torture is obvious: It's simple and it's easy. Never mind the morality, or legality, or even the effectiveness of it; it's a simple solution to what is otherwise a complex problem. When we are threatened, all we need to do is threaten back. When they hurt us, we hurt them back. If we think someone knows something that we want to know, we hurt them until they tell us what we want to hear.

Of course, every suspect we abuse learns to hate us and becomes a terrorist for life. And the stories of torture and abuse become recruiting tools for the bands of terrorists who want to kill us. And our allies are becoming increasing disgusted by our behavior and have started to indict our agents (in Italy this week, for example, and perhaps soon also in Germany).

Yes, torture is simple. The gate is wide and the road is easy, and it leads to our destruction, not our life.

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