The Unkindly Ones

The Unkindly Ones

Before deciding that I wanted to try reading the French version of the “The Kindly Ones” by Jonathan Littell, I read the first chapter where the protagonist begins to describe his (eventual) role as an SS officer, and he poses the question: whoever says they want to become a murderer? “Those who kill are human, just like those are killed...But my hopes were dashed, and my sincerity was betrayed and placed at the services of an ultimately evil and corrupt work, and I crossed over to the dark shores...”(1)

After the release of memoranda by the Barack Administration concerning the use of harsh interrogation methods and their legality, we are faced with a significant question: did we cross over into dark shores? The response of the right-wing, led by Dick Cheney, had loudly condemned the release of the memos as detrimental to the security of the United States, bolstered by the ludicrous and offensive claim that waterboarding is not torture. Leftists, for their part, are calling for truth commissions, prosecutions or both, and certainly the release of even more material. The president one day says that no one will be prosecuted, then quickly backtracks and say that question is only appropriate for the Attorney General.

People can continue on and on about the moral blemish on America’s reputation, or try an out by proclaiming that we should be looking forward and not back but no one has focused on the deep and troubling question about how, and why, we ask people to do bad things in our name. It is far too cynical to describe the memos as nothing more than legal cover, as if federal agents or members of the military openly desire for the opportunity to torture someone, perhaps smiling with glee dangling an insect box in front an inmate with a confessed fear of bugs. It is also quite unbelievable that after eight years of smoke, we are supposed to take the word of the former vice-president that these methods had solid results and stopped terrorist acts, but fail to give us the specifics. The “trust us, we’re with the government” tactic has long been spent.

America owes its position and power to scores of unnamed men and women who are asked to do things that we choose not to do. While we want (read need) to believe that our military and law enforcement personnel acts by a strict code of morals, we blind ourselves to the ugly things that have to be done, things about which we will never know. In short, we force people into extraordinary circumstances that we will not face ourselves, but we depend on the moral choices of their superiors to do the right thing. Yet often, that “right thing” conflicts with our personal moral code and we fixate on those who have transgressed with great expressions of outrage and loud cries for prosecution. Unfortunately, those winding up with jail sentences are the very actors that we have pushed across those dark shores. For some, like Lynndie England of the Abu Ghraib scandal, the trip was probably very short, but she’s in prison while Janis Karpinski, the former Brigadier General of the prison, was demoted to colonel. Unpleasant, maybe, but not a jail sentence.

This is not to gloss over the gravity of these memos or express a desire to “get over it” and move on. But the issue about torture extends far beyond those convenient villains of the Bush Administration. (Indeed, was Bush lying when he proclaimed “we do not torture?” or did he really believe it? Which one is worse?) Who, in their zeal to make the higher-ups pay (something that never happens) is concerned about the people who waterboarded Abu Zubaydah 83 times? How do we deal with the fallout on those individuals who staffed the organizational structures in secret prisons, and were told the procedures were legal? These were not normal circumstances beyond the “expect the unexpected” scenarios we believe them for which to be trained. That dark shore was there, waiting for the crossing. If our moralizing about torture does not include addressing all those actors and what we told them to do, then all we are accomplishing is to gun for the suits who pushed them into that situation. And as stated, the higher-ups rarely pay for anything, so if there ever is a truth commission or indictments, expect the functionaries to bear the brunt of our wrath.

Is that fair?

1. Johnathan Littell, The Kindly Ones, p. 24. (HarperCollins, 2009).