Daoism, Life and Politics

The themes of this blog are likely to be Daoism applied to life and politics, Aristotelian criticism applied to films and books, and reflections on art exhibitions. But we’ll see what emerges.

June 2013 – Terrorism and Torture

The Islamist extremists who send half-wits and bullied women out as suicide bombers and explode thousands of people indiscriminately and behead charity workers  and engineers on video are so ludicrously villainous, and so relish the role of cackling Doctor Deaths, that it plays right into the hands of those like Bush who react to provocation with predictable moral outrage and vengeful threats. There always have been, and always will be, very naughty boys who know just how to wind up authoritarian parents. Is the best way to play this game to torture them and drone them? This is our family, after all. It’s a form of dialogue, with two roles. It’s an eternal cycle. Do you think you will put an end to it by declaring war on terror?

Nelson Mandela did not face some naughty boys trying to irritate him into a rash indiscretion. He faced real enemies. He faced a powerful ruling population that had been brutalising his people for many decades. But he showed real leadership. He stopped his vengeful supporters in their tracks. Do not doubt, the South African blacks would have been very happy to take revenge. Many were ready for a blood bath. But their leader was a man of immense integrity and vision. Would that there was a Syrian Mandela, a Ruandan Mandela, an Iraqi Mandela, an American Mandela. Mandela led his people in Truth and Reconciliation, if not total forgiveness. He led them with a sense of their own dignity and their hope for a humane future.

The torturers of the Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld regime with their deniable extraordinary renditions, Guantanamo Bay, and extra-judicial assassination policies have fallen straight into Doctor Death’s embrace. They have conceded the one great advantage they once had. They have trashed America’s reputation for being legalistic and having moral integrity. They are no longer a beacon of justice and due process, an example to the world full of dictators and bigots, showing how things should be done. They have followed the lead of second rate dramatists writing for the Stallones, Seagals and Schwarzeneggers. They have cut corners to get a quick, clean, violent solution, assuming that their violence is qualitatively better than the violence of others because they have white hats on, and are goodies. Why are they the goodies? Well, of course, because they are Americans, and have the scriptwriter on their side.

Laozi and Sunzi would recognise that this is not a shooting war but a moral war. It is the kind of war that will not be won on the battlefield but in reputation. Laozi and Sunzi would be happy with this conflict because they always preferred to win a war without having to fight. You have to box clever, especially against an intimate who knows just how to wind you up and does it with stunning theatricality – airliners! into skyscrapers! on TV! in New York! It shocked us to the core, it really did. The naughtiest thing I’ve ever seen.

Watching two films this week I sat through many American torture scenes. Rendition (with Meryl Streep as the villain) and Zero Dark Thirty (a CIA heroine hunts for Usama Bin Laden) showed bluff handsome Americans who regretfully had to shoulder the burden of torturing their enemies – they were not like the Nazi torturers I have seen on film, oh no! not at all!

It would indeed be better, I concluded, that terrorists should blow up people in my city, or blow a plane out of the sky, than that we should stoop to torture in order to forestall them. “One life!” I hear you cry. “It is worth it if one life is saved.” Life, you will intone, is a value beyond all calculation. I have two answers to that. The first is, why don’t you ban cars? They kill more than one person. Because you have made a calculation that the improvement in transport and communications is worth a certain amount of collateral damage, a few hundred lives. And the second answer is another calculation. If using torture, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, drone assassinations, and bellicose rhetoric about evil create tens of thousands more recruits to the extremist cause, and prolong the conflict, and spread it to many other territories, and kill more and more people in the long run, you will not have saved lives but lost them by forestalling one atrocity against an airliner. Worse than that, you will find yourself with no moral authority with which to put the world back together when the dust settles. The only point of being outraged at terrorists is to show that the better way to be is to keep to the law. To respect superior, enlightened, civilised principles. Naughty boys will test your resolve to the limit. That is what they are for.

Let terrorists take responsibility for their crimes. We should mourn the victims but not ever indulge in disgusting violence against people unable to defend themselves, for whom we are responsible when they are in our custody.

Laozi writes (in the excellent translation of Addiss and Lombardo): “… the good person is the bad person’s teacher, and the bad person is the good person’s resource. Not to value the teacher, not to love the resource, causes great confusion even for the intelligent. This is called the vital secret.”