Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The Political Economy of Ham Sandwiches

A grand jury will indict a ham sandwich.

A torture victim will confess to being a ham sandwich.

When I was in middle school in the midlands of California, I enjoyed the peculiar fortune of living on a now-closed Army base, Fort Ord. At Fort Ord, there were I believe five residential subdivisions, each named after a general of note. Mine happened to be named after Ol' Blood and Guts himself, George S. Patton. Our ticky-tacky on-base clapboard house in Patton Park was maybe a five minute walk from the elementary school through the typical Central California scrubland you'll see on any randomly selected stretch of I-5 between Modesto and Bakersfield (Mythbusters uses my old neighborhood for road tests from time to time if you want to see it for yourself). Sure, you could take the winding sidewalk along the hilly roads, but that would tack on an extra five minutes to the hike, which is five minutes of after-school cartoons you'd miss. If memory serves, my younger brother was in the first grade at the time, and I was in the sixth. Even though the bus ride to my school was longer, it let out a little earlier, so I typically got home just before he did.

One fine, sunshine-drenched day, in the interval between shucking my backpack and switching on some Looney Tunes, I heard a warning from my brother outside the door: "Sam, don't get mad." An odd thing to hear, for sure. Concerned, I went into the wee courtyard formed by the toolshed, some fencing, and the side of the house to find my brother standing there, face bloodied, a ragged (if small) gash above his ear staining his Members Only jacket scarlet. Concern turned to fear as I, to the best of my 11 year old ability, assessed the extent of his wounds and launched an impromptu criminal investigation. Luckily for the field medic in me, he appeared to be otherwise uninjured. Luckily for the gumshoe in me, the case was pretty quickly closed, as the culprit who had thrown the rock at him came sniveling around the corner hot on his heels.

I'm just shy of five years older than my brother. The kid who threw the rock was a couple years older than him. I had a good twenty pounds and probably half a foot on the brat, and I was seeing red. For a brief moment, I entertained a righteously justifiable fantasy of pummeling this little twerp unconscious. I could have done it (so I thought): I could have bowled him over and pounded his mewling, craven little face into the concrete slab until it resembled old uncooked hamburger. I could have broken every single solitary tooth he had out of his simpering jaw and kicked him in the ribs until he couldn't breathe. I was protective rage incarnate, the sort of simian fury you can see when you get your hands on chimpanzee footage that shows what a pack of males will do to a stray non-tribe male when they catch him foraging alone. I literally wanted to tear this prick's arms out of the sockets and beat him with them. Obviously, something stayed my hand. It's now been close to 30 years since the incident, but I still remember pretty clearly what it was. It was, for lack of a better term, my conscience. I knew that beating up a kid three years younger than me would not mend the gash on the side of my brother's head and that any sense of vengeance I could summon would have no practical value other than slaking the incoherent beast that leapt from my darker sentiments. I even recall the intuition that pummeling the boy would do little to deter future attacks, noting as I did in that brief moment his genuine terror and honest remorse. I, age 11, stayed my hand and told him to go home.

I find at age 40 that the moral clarity I summoned that day when my brother came home from school bloody-faced and beset is somehow missing from some of my fellow Americans' response to the recently-issued Senate Select Committee on Intelligence's Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency's Detention and Interrogation Program, aka the CIA torture report. If you'll permit some paraphrasing, I've heard on the radio (the local classic rock station WBIG, no less!), read on Twitter and Facebook, and overheard in conversation the following sentiment: what the CIA did to those prisoners isn't any worse than what ISIS has done to journalists; we have to be willing to do what it takes to make Americans safe.

Some issues with that sentiment:
  1. If the national moral compass is aligned to the actions of terrorists, we should think long and hard about continuing to utter the blasphemous falsehood that the United States is a Christian nation.
  2. Centuries of evidence—centuries—reveals in no uncertain terms that torture does not produce useful information. Hiring psychopaths to pump food and water into the rectums of prisoners to yet again verify a very-well established empirical result is not an especially productive use of government employees' time and talent.
  3. If your model of human behavior is that by torturing prisoners, you deter future acts of terrorism, consider the alternative hypothesis promoted by the early Catholic church, wherein the tortured and executed faithful were sainted and canonized to act as inspiration for the flock. If Christianity can have martyrs, can't Islam?
It should be terribly obvious to anyone who's sat through even a cursory lecture on Torquemada or POW camps in Vietnam or... hell, take your pick—history is chock full of instances of false confessions obtained by cruel men with crude implements—that the telos of torture is torture. It should be terribly obvious to anyone with the moral sense of an 11 year old boy in the throes of a family-protecting rage that succumbing to intemperate fits of retribution is probably unwise.

It should be terribly obvious to responsible citizens of a democracy that there should be a default presumption of non-violence and that constituents should grant government agents license to wield violence only when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. By supporting the actions described in the report, the morning WBIG DJ (for example) appears to subscribe to the peculiar moral theory that petty vengeance inflicted by proxy is more valuable than honoring elementary conventions about the treatment of prisoners, 

Politics is exchange. I find myself experiencing buyer's remorse. I want my money back, please. 

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Do you have suggestions on where we could find more examples of this phenomenon?