Thursday, 23 April 2009

Remind me again – who did you say are the good guys?

Ah the Cold War. We knew who the villains were, we slept soundly in the knowledge we were with the good guys and James Bond movies had blissfully uncomplicated plotlines. Ok so that last bit hasn’t changed. But everything else has.

Now did I actually sleep soundly thanks to the Cold War?
No, not really.
I personally lived in constant fear of nuclear annihilation and could not possibly figure out why that terror of a man, Reagan, was supposed to be the good guy ahead of cuddly, smiley Gorbachev. But I was barely 10 when perestroika started so I am obviously nothing to go by here.

Still the fact remains: those who thought they knew where they stood with the cold war can say that no more. Sure, the Arabs are today’s bad guys. And they fit into the civilisational ‘us vs them’ battle over liberty and ‘our way of life’ (as well as banal questions of military supremacy and global power).
But not all Arabs are bad, now are they? Some are friends. But how do you tell them apart? And then, of course, those who are foe are not alone, are they? So many other bad guys to keep an eye on. Plus, this new generation of bad guy is very mobile. You don’t know where to point your missiles any more.
Add to that the fact that there are all sorts of allies we don’t really like all that much and you have a right headache in your struggle to safeguard freedom and the way of life we were talking about.

Take China for instance. Now that’s a good subject for someone interested in freedom, fairness, justice and democracy. A trading partner, of course. So we try not to bug them too much. Although, if truth be told, we are not too fond of them. Or their human rights record. Or their tendency to execute people en masse (and then sell their bodies to the West to be used in art exhibitions of dubious taste. Yes, yes it’s the Bodies exhibition I am talking about and, yes, I am squeamish). And now China has created an ever more degrading, even less controlled and monitored and even more outrageous way of killing off its own people: the mobile execution vehicle, the death-mobile, a van that can come to you and administer lethal injection in your own location. Trivialising life and death and laughing in the face of UN representatives speaking of China’s ‘improving human rights record’.

But stop press for a moment.
Have you thought that China’s record may well be improving, not out of any concerted effort to democratise, liberalise or play nice but simply because everybody else’s record is deteriorating at the speed of light?
I’m sure you all read the articles earlier this week – the CIA waterboarded two suspects 266 times during interrogations. Now 9/11 plotter Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and alleged terror commander Abu Zubaydah are bad guys. But that used to mean that they were prone to do things we wouldn’t do, us being the good guys. Thieves are bad because stealing is wrong, murderers are bad because life is sacred, rapists are evil because violation and violence is a sin, a crime and an abomination. So we are the good guys, not because we are victims of badness but because we wouldn’t do what bad guys do. Right?

Then explain torture to me, will you?
And before you tell me that Obama – blessed be his name – has banned waterboarding, let me tell you that it was happening till 2 months ago and, as Obama has not instructed a wide-spread inquest and purging of the CIA, waterboarding will stop but torture won’t.
Because 266 instances of waterboarding on 2 people says one thing and one thing alone: it happened a lot. And that, in turn, tells us an awful lot of things about how the CIA go about interrogating bad guys. And none of those things are good.

Now if you are of the ‘an eye for an eye’ school, you obviously disagree with me. Especially as we have now seen memos outlining how medical experts prevented waterboarding from causing severe mental or physical harm to the subject. So it’s not even an eye for an eye as we keep them alive.

Is that the measure of our humanity, then? Ensuring the pain doesn’t kill the suspect?
When did ‘who we are’ stop mattering?
Because who you are is measured half against what you do with you life and half against what you refuse to do. So, no, torture is not ok. Even if you have the worst of villains sitting across the interrogation table from you. And it’s not ok for three reasons:

1. What if you are wrong? What if hours, days, years from now you find that the guy who looked so evidently guilty on paper actually wasn’t? What if?

2. Revenge is not what our legal system is based on. Revenge is a bad motive and a bad reason for action. Revenge leads to the dark side.

3. If who you are entails a capacity and drive for violence, inflicting fear and pain on a defenceless – however horrible – human being, then you too my friend are one of the bad guys. Not as bad, perhaps, but bad all the same.

And making waterboarding illegal far from solves the problem
Because, don’t tell me that, when not using waterboarding, the CIA just had stern chats with their charges? And don’t tell me that, since Obama is not prosecuting any officials (not those who devised the policies, not those who carried out the interrogations, not those who failed to stop them) there will be a real change in how the supposed good guys interrogate the suspected bad guys?

And before you tell me that all’s fair in love and war, tell me how turning into what you are fighting against helps protect what you are fighting for?

Some fear that taking techniques off the table will make the enemies even more daring. More daring than what? What’s more daring than a suicide bomber?

And while experts debate whether torture ‘works’, whether accurate confessions are exacted through the medium of pain and the associated panic simulated drowning would cause, I maintain that this is not the point.
As a citizen, as a person, as an one-time ‘expert’ I refuse the ulta-right dismissal of the anti-torture argument as naïve and stand by my original proposition: humanity and morality cannot be fully separated. If you stand against the bad guys, don’t be a bad guy. If, in fighting a war, you compromise what you are striving to protect, you are your own worse enemy. And if you are fighting for freedom and democracy, well, then you can’t agree with Obama’s decision not to prosecute.

The point is that good is as good does. And no matter what desperate times call for, whatever popular wisdom absolutions you can think up, the fact remains: good guys should act like good guys, all the time, under any circumstances.
Even when doing so is difficult.
Particularly when doing so is difficult.

Monday, 20 April 2009

Why the folks running Greece cannot possibly be human

I have this theory.
That three things set humans apart from other animals: our ability for reflection, abstraction and compassion.

What do I mean?
I mean that unlike other animals, humans can deeply reflect on their behaviour, on life, on the universe. We have an ability and often a need to link the dots, poke in the shadows, truly seek to understand how things fit, why things are the way they are, why things feel the way they feel. Why did so-and-so do this? Why was I left feeling this way?
On top of that, we can do all this in the abstract. We can think about our own liberty and freedom writ large. We can think about rights, ethics, social reform. We can write poetry and debate religion. We can deal in things that cannot be touched or seen and yet we feel strongly about them.
And, most important of all in my mind, we are capable of compassion. Not just the fierce love of the lioness for her cubs. Not just the acute territorial protectionism of a wolf for his pack. Compassion. For complete strangers. On grounds of our shared humanity.

So, after thinking about it at length, I have concluded that, if my taxonomy is taken to its logical conclusion, we are left with only one option: the people running Greece are not human as they demonstrate no ability to reflect, no capacity for linking up the abstract with the concrete (the law they are passing with the problem they are trying to solve, say) and above all, no compassion whatsoever.

Let me demonstrate.
Mr Markogiannakis – successful lawyer, public prosecutor under the dictators and high and mighty within the current government. If he is not proof enough in his continued service that our leaders don’t reflect, let me give you more. He is one of the forces behind the stun guns our policemen carry – notorious for causing permanent health problems or even death – and is currently clamouring for the hire of ‘foreign’ policemen with the express job description of informing and keeping an eye on their compatriots, saving the day by arresting scores of illegal immigrants selling home-made CDs on street corners
Leaving aside his belief that illegal immigration is Greece’s most pressing problem at the moment (being stupid, sadly, fails to disqualify him as a human), his proposed solution fails to even for a moment consider what sort of society he would be building if the measure went through. No abstraction. He fails to consider how relations within the force and between the force and the community would fragment, sour and militarise. No reflection. And he fails to see – or fails to care – that this measure is preying on the poverty and despair of many an immigrant who would agree to anything that would feed their families in an honest, if not honourable way. So compassion is out the window too.

The really bad news, of course, is that Mr Markogiannakis is not alone.
Our glorious police force demonstrate a pitch-perfect ‘pack mentality’ looking after their own, covering up trespasses, crimes, violations of the law and police code of conduct. Evident is an inability to think in abstract terms of public service, order and an active contribution to democratic governance. Evident is their total lack of compassion for those they are meant to protect. Evident is also a total lack of willingness to reflect on their own conduct.
A recent study revealed that 4 or 5 policemen go down every year on charges of drug and people trafficking, blackmail, pimping and murder. That’s a tiny number in a corps that is notorious for its corruption. Yet even these few invariably come back into the force, having lost a few months’ earnings.
With more and more cases of evident police brutality being written up as people ‘beating themselves up’, tripping and, of course, suicide, ‘looking after one’s own’ is not just a figure of speech. The boys in blue don’t just keep an eye out for each other. They take out any eye that witnessed wrong-doing in a fierce protection of the pack.

Now ‘looking after your own’ is a natural instinct. Meerkats do it. Hyenas do it. Policemen do it. All humans do it, if we are honest. But they don’t do it to the complete detriment of everyone else. That’s the difference between hyenas and humans living in society. The latter know that survival does not need to be a zero sum game.

And while I’m at it – the priests? Not human either.
Sex scandals, appropriations scandals, land sale scandals and pure theft from charity coffers. Wanna talk compassion now? Wanna talk reflection? Why am I here, why am I wearing this funny black dress and what was it I set out to do?

Animals live meal to meal.
When humans have to live like that, we feel a crushing sadness as this life robs them of the basic tenets of their humanity – the ability to make complicated choices, the ability to live in the abstract, the luxury of showing compassion which you just don’t have when your own belly is empty.
But when you are fed, watered and sheltered from the elements, abstraction, reflection and compassion are possible. And essential.

Which brings me to the subject of our prime minister.
Well-fed, undoubtedly. Safe, warm – even though a trifle tired.
He is in a position to engage in reflection, abstraction and compassion. And yet he does not. He allows his government to pass laws that at best fail to address the problems he has to solve and at worse manipulate society closer and closer to a repressive regime.
There are three options here.
Option 1: his ability for reflection and abstraction is impaired because he’s dumb. That doesn’t make him any less human although it does throw his suitability for the post he is holding into sharp relief.
Option 2: the lack of reflection and compassion suggests he is not actually human. And that explains a lot.
Option 3: he is reflecting all right. And he has a perfect visualisation of where he is taking us, so his powers of abstraction are unimpaired. The slow but sure descent into a controlled state of fear and state repression is part of the plan and the prime minister and his cronies are simply members of that species that can think like a human but not feel like one. Abstraction? Reflection? Yeah, sure. Compassion? No, not today.

And here we are, trapped in a weird fairy tale, a work of science fiction, with a dark and sinister plot, unexpected twists, beasts, demons, battle scenes, plenty of villains – and no good guys.
But if this is a fairy tale, and having demonstrated that we are governed by wolves and ogres, are we not due a prince to slay them all roundabout now?