RARA-AVIS: The Ethics of Noir

From: Frederick Zackel ( fzackel@wcnet.org)
Date: 08 Nov 2005

Somebody wrote me off-line about "the agents of Empire," and my answer seemed too glib. But then I read the following in the Chronicle of Higher Education which was dead-on the money. Andrew Sabl is an associate professor of public policy at the University of California at Los Angeles; he teach political ethics on the graduate level.

Let's raise the stakes on the politics of noir and therefore the ethics of noir. Remember what the CIA & Vice President Cheny want: no ban on torture. The Prez says the US does not torture.

Here's the noir plot. What you write next defines so much:

You work for the CIA. You personally do know what's right and wrong. A bomb is ticking. What would you do to get a terrorist to talk? How much torture is permissible? Is there a bomb?


He writes:

'Torture cases are a great way to teach moral theories. Students prone to believe in absolutes can be asked: Wouldn't you torture a terrorist to save a city from a nuclear bomb? And utilitarians, who judge right and wrong by weighing costs and benefits, can be pressed the other way: Would you torture 1,000 people to save 1,001? So ticking-bomb scenarios seem to further the best Socratic ends: to question received wisdom, cross-examine dogmatic beliefs, and make us all more humble in our judgments...

Skipping around his article:

After the Abu Ghraib torture scandal came out, Rush Limbaugh said that sexual humiliation seemed a "brilliant" and "effective" method of interrogation and resembled nothing more than a Skull and Bones initiation or "good old American pornography."

"In May The New York Times reported that U.S. soldiers in Afghanistan had beaten a detainee's legs so brutally that his pulped tissues resembled those of someone run over by a bus. He died. Those who questioned him admit they now believe that he'd been taken prisoner by mistake and knew nothing. The news didn't receive much notice."

"Meanwhile the TV show 24 has steadily turned the ticking-bomb scenario from a bizarre hypothetical of philosophy classrooms into a casual assumption about our likely future. In this context it invites us to cheer on an agent who routinely tortures anyone whom he thinks might have information - and who shows little remorse even when he finds that he tortured the wrong man.
"The bomb has never been nuclear - and may never be. We can never be completely sure - rarely even roughly sure - who knows about it or whether it even exists. And there are almost always alternatives to torture if we as citizens are willing to pay some costs and incur some risk." Sabel's key sentence, for me, anyway...
"When the agents of a democracy practice torture in their country's name, they will get away with it unless citizens do more than disapprove."

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This archive was generated by hypermail 2b29 : 08 Nov 2005 EST