Why Do Torture And Increased Police Authority Increasingly Appeal To Americans?

The Economist has a chart on views on torture which reports a disquietingly high amount of tolerance among Americans for the practice:

OPINIONS on whether the use of torture should be prohibited appear to vary widely around the world. According to opinion polls conducted early in 2008 respondents in western European democracies such as Britain and Spain were most hostile to the idea of even some degree of use of torture, whereas residents in big but poorer countries such as Nigeria, Turkey and India seemed most willing to tolerate the idea (perhaps in these three cases because of violent domestic threats to political stability). Surprisingly, democracies are not necessarily more hostile to the practice than non-democracies. According to the polls, Americans are more willing to tolerate the use of torture than are Chinese.

While it is clear that democracy does not necessarily correlate with approval for torture, I wonder what psychological forms the democratic approval of torture specifically takes.  What democratic attitudes can lead to pro-torture mindsets and why?  I’m interested in why specifically American values are increasingly morphing into a desire FOR a police state and for the right to torture (at least among sizable minorities or slim majorities)—what is it about our culture that unmoors us from democratic idealism that knows how to protect the abstract principles which preserve our freedoms? I think, in short, that it’s a combination of many things and so offer these tentative, philosophical speculations, subject to correction from empirical and historical studies and from salient philosophical objections::

Pragmatism Run Amok
First: our pragmatism which gets insanely frustrated with inefficiency. Civil liberties deliberately make state power inefficient for the protection of the innocent and the rights of the individual against the state and the collective mob.

Technological Ethos

Second: technology both creates practices of efficiency and an ethos of efficiency.  Our police have more tools and with them comes a more efficient way of controlling and habits and attitudes which prefer such efficiency.  So, the technological ability combined with our pragmatism has us saying, “why not?” about letting state power creep further into the lives of suspects.

Positive Experience With Police

Thirdly, the assumption that the police are always in the right and that those they deal with are either criminal or are criminal if they question police power comes from identifying with the police.  Since a majority of Americans (but not groups chronically victimized by the police like African Americans) don’t experience “police state” abuses, they identify with the cops as the good guys as their default and trust them.  They assume since they’re innocent, they personally have nothing to worry about and it’s only the “bad people” who have anything to worry about.  The total opposite of our founders’ view of the state.

Because most of us feel so relatively free to pursue our course in life and to express ourselves, it is easy for us to lose sight of the horrors of what it would be like to live in a police state or what it will be like when our liberties keep eroding.  Similarly, it is hard for us to empathize with the victims of torture because we do not associate innocent people with state crimes against them.

Ethnic Religious Nationalism

Fourth, this breaks down along insidious color barriers (like this example makes exceedingly clear).  The “tea party” movement is a white Christianist movement that considers themselves the true heirs to the founders while simultaneously being members of the same fascist right wing that advocates Cheney’s horrific torture regime as legitimate.  The mere presence of an African American president gives rise to all manners of call for revolt and charges of “betrayal of the constitution”—but torture, murder, rogue contractors, etc. employed by Bush and Cheney?  That’s “patriotism.”  What this bespeaks is pure nationalistic, reflexively racist, authoritarianism.  The tea party movement evokes the founders with no respect for their ideals but rather as the traditional authorities.  And in their authoritarian mindset, the traditional authorities and racial legacy are trumping any other considerations of fairness.  It’s a really classic barbaric, tribalistic spirit.

And in this tribalistic mindset the cops and the inreasingly fundamentalist Christian military are taken to be on the side of the Christian-American anointed order, defending what was bequeathed to us by Moses, Jesus, and George Washington.  Morality and legality are purely relative to membership in this tradition.  The designated representatives of Christian nationalistic thinking can make laws that preserve the Christian State even if they involve torture because, being inherently good and guided by God, leaders like Bush and Cheney mean well and advance the cause of the just people.

Super Powers Corrupt Superbly

Fifthly, being a superpower helps corrupt our consciences to feel like our might makes everything we do beyond reproach.  The brute realities of equal power force people to respect each other.  The corruption that comes from our feelings of omnipotence (we can blow up the world) and our invincibility is that we are tempted by the view that the rest of the world must appease our will, that it has no right to criticize us, and that we are so powerful because we are inherently good and favored by God.

Considering ourselves to be invincible because of our status as reigning “world’s only superpower” we are easily tempted by the fantasy that the rest of the world is beneath us, that people outside our country are dependent on our generosity, morally inferior to us, and unable to retaliate against us.  Such hubris likely plays a part in our attitude that anyone who we deem to have “misbehaved” outside of our borders is someone we may do with as we wish.

Because we do not respect their power, it’s easier to feel diminished sense of obligation to be careful in how we treat them.  We feel like the rest of the world lives at our mercy to begin with—we could nuke you all if we wanted.  And since we like to tell ourselves that we never fight a war for ignoble reasons but get dragged into them by the Hitlers and Saddam Husseins of the world, our every use of our disproportionate powers of violence is wholly morally justified and even our most fatal mistakes cannot be held against us because we always have only the best intentions at heart.

In short, American “exceptionalism” when connected to fantasies of omnipotence correlates closely with the dangerous psychology of the powerful which reasons that they are exceptional and therefore the rules do not apply to them (or apply in the same way).

Terrorism Traumatizes Invincibility Fantasies

Sixth, this superpower, omnipotent mindset was traumatized by a breach of the myth of our invincibility.  And so the right wing backlash has been against the inefficiencies that that make us vulnerable.  So the Patriot Act and the John Yoo memos, et al. are introduced as pragmatic means to reassert our feelings of invincibility.  And now, because we have been so spoiled, with the belief in our invincibility, we do not take vulnerabilities well and so are manipulable according to our fears.

The Wrong Lessons From Experience of Personal Sovereignty

Seventh, our wide latitude of personal political freedoms and personal abilities to easily manipulate the world technologically make us less willing or able to cope with frustration.  Again making efficiency paramount and the ability to cope with the frustrations of a justice that sometimes hinders a good acceptable to us.

When you live with the attitude that you are in control of your own life and that no one has any inherent right to force you to do anything against your will, you are encouraged in an kind of attitude that in other places and times only sovereigns were entitled to.  Of course democracy can, and hopefully usually does, encourage a Kantian mindset for which all of us are equally sovereigns and subjects who must respect each other’s personal sovereignty over their own lives just as they respect ours over our own.  Now, of course, this spirit of personal sovereignty can also be the impetus for rabid civil liberties vigilance (like it is in me and which I would hope it would be in others).

But it’s also possible that we can get carried away with our expectation that everything will go our sovereignly chosen ways and become impatient with the resistance of our enemies, or the world itself, to conform to our wishes.  And hence, there might be a heightened willingness to spin irrational justifications for what we want to believe and to be tempted by violence to coerce those who defy us.  And then torture and other fascist tactics become very understandable.

Our Softening Personal Virtues Compensated For With Violent Protection

Eighth, because we are so insulated from the immediate harshness of war in our homeland or even brute struggles against the elements or even the rough and tumble of a more macho personal ethics, many of us are softer and more prone towards fear of violence and instability and will latch onto those who protect our feelings of safety.  We’re a sociable, polite, laissez-faire people who frown on almost all interpersonal physical harm to an unusual extent, so to protect us we grant the state the right to kick the shit out of the violent for us.  Very Hobbesian.  Plus, for those of us personally so soft and inexperienced with real violence, we simultaneously underestimate how serious violence is.  It’s all revenge fantasy.  See the infamous and despicable chicken hawk phenomenon.

Guilty Gratitude Towards Service People Makes Us Too Deferent To Their Moral Authority

Ninth: Because the majority of us do live in relative comfort and freedom and need not kill for ourselves (neither our enemies nor our food), we feel extremely guilty about having to send some of us into harm’s way.  And since we are no longer the sort of people for whom military service is something everyone feels obliged to do, we are tempted by increasing feelings of guilt to praise military service as itself ennobling.  Service people, by simply donning uniforms and risking death are in another moral category and wind up being revered out of a guilty gratitude to the point that they can do no wrong.  Because it’s been a couple generations since it was considered just a minimal dutifulness to serve one’s country with arms, we are now split between those who serve and those who feel ashamed to criticize those who serve.

In other cultures (or for past generations of Americans), courage was proven on the battlefield.  In our culture, it’s now proven in the enrollment office.

Soldiery itself becomes for some an unqualifiedly virtuous existence and soldiers are confused for the providers of freedom and justice rather than one of the means just leaders use to attain or maintain authority by which they provide justice and freedom.   This is a fundamental difference obscured blithely by the right wing in this country when it holds dissenting thinkers, artists, journalists, and politicians in contempt for ever daring to question the military.  The corruption is when they say that the soldier himself guarantees freedom and justice.  Soldiers only seek to overthrow orders or maintain them.  It is just thinking and legislating that leads to justice.  Soldiers, of themselves, protect both tyrannies and just societies.

And, so, the esteem for soldiers and police gets raised up since these are superior moral people to the rest of us and so the attitude becomes that they deserve our deference, we must not be so selfish to put our rights before their concern for the law and order they provide us.  We should assume they are rightly inspecting us out of justifiable fears of danger and their hands should not be tied by abstract civil liberties that would free the guilty on an inefficient technicality which some soulless lawyer is going to try to exploit.

In Sum

So, for different people, some different combination of these various attitudes and practices are making it so that a democratic people adopts fascist views of law enforcement and military operations.

And anyone familiar with the historical pattern of democracies transforming themselves into tyrannies (just as Plato described would happen) is justly worried about these trends.

Your Thoughts?

About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • Evangelos

    All excellent and valid points; there is no accident that many are quite interconnected. I might also venture to add one more: the culture and drug wars. These are ostensibly moral and personal issues that are pressed upon the country for the sake of some subjective good with violence. It’s especially dangerous that “war” and military terms are used to create the sense of urgency that allows people to willingly give the State terrifying power. Hence we have the spread of the SWAT teams long before 9/11. This fascination with the police state and military power at the price of liberty is the biggest keeping me from ever being a conservative.

    It’s very interesting that you bring up Plato who was no friend to democracy by any stretch. I would almost be inclined to blame democracy or a tyranny of the majority (or plurality) myself here, but I think much can be traced to a more insidious top-down rhetoric from the political class rather than a bottom-up popular psychological cry for action.

  • Dan Fincke

    Excellent points, Evangelos. They remind me of some really creepy news that Andrew Sullivan featured a short time ago that they were giving the DEA (or an agency just like it) full latitude to run the “drug war” in Afghanistan. As Sullivan noted, this is a dangerous further militarization of the domestic police in general (and the drug warriors in particular) which we simply do not need.


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