THE SIN OF ABSTRACTION
I’ve been in one too many discussions of “just war theory” recently. Though I realize there are thoughtful arguments for the justice of certain kinds of warfare waged, say, to protect a vulnerable population from immediate threat, I am troubled by the appeasement conscience such discussions can sometimes achieve without too much anguish over what, exactly, we talk about when we talk about war. Just recently I took part in such a discussion; the justifications for bombing Hiroshima were once again rehearsed without specific description of or even reference to what that bomb did to the skin and eyes and muscle tissue of women walking to market or children in schoolrooms. Or of the disfigurements and disease the blast left in its wide wake.
Our duty to be people who care sometimes trumps even the commitment to well-reasoned arguments. Abstractions are a dangerous refuge, especially for those of us who have been carefully trained, and for good enough reasons, to value the capacity for abstract thinking. One of the occupational hazards of academics is the possibility of becoming so accustomed to “critical” or “aesthetic” distance required for analysis, that we may unthinkingly use that distance as a zone of safety to retreat to when it’s too painful to feel what we’re thinking about.
Most of the academics I know, I hasten to say, are deeply compassionate people. But when we gather in programmed discussions meant to be “educational” and “civil,” a certain flight from feeling can begin to happen. The other day, in a conversation about torture (”In time of war, what are the justifications for torture?” “Who should define what exactly constitutes torture?”) with people who, bless their hearts, gave up free time to engage in it, my mind kept turning not only to the indelible horrors of the Abu Ghraib pictures, but also to the soft voice of a nun, Sister Dianna Ortiz, who I heard tell her story of being raped and burned with cigarettes and threatened with death and flung naked into a cell by a soldier “who spoke with an American accent.”
“Torture” itself is an abstract word. I wish that every time we use it, we would make ourselves pause to specify exactly what it involves, so the imagination would be required to follow where the intellect rather too presumptuously treads. “Torture”–you know, pulling a hood onto your head, tying it there with a rope, forcing your head underwater and keeping you there till your lungs are burning and you think you’re going to drown, then yanking it out and assuring you the process will be repeated. Oh, wait. That’s not torture; that’s a permissible “interrogation technique.”
I am thankful that thus far I have lived in safety and privilege, though that thanks has to rest upon a confession of what that privilege and safety have cost those at whose expense it is maintained (American troops, for instance–and also the many who labor in poverty to sustain our North American “way of life”). Still, as a simple act of solidarity with those who suffer what I can barely imagine, I can at least consent to imagine. I can accept the responsibility at least to name their suffering, witness it, bear witness to it, and take some practical action on their behalf. Write a congressperson. Boycott participants’ companies or media empires. Protest manipulated news.
Otherwise “Torture” will come to lie quietly in the growing lexicon of euphemisms we live by, along with “collateral damage” and “smart bombs” and “enemy aliens.” And “just war.”
(published in Torture Is a Moral Issue: Christians, Jews, Muslims, and People of Conscience Speak Out, George Hunsinger, ed. Eerdmans, 2008)