Thursday, September 16, 2010

The Torturer's Horse's Innocent Behind

Dwight Garner in the Times this morning reviews Kwame Anthony Appiah's book, 'The Honor Code: How Moral Revolutions Happen', and quotes him:

“Whatever happened when these immoral practices ceased, it wasn’t, so it seemed to me, that people were bowled over by new moral arguments. Dueling was always murderous and irrational; foot binding was always painfully crippling; slavery was always an assault on the humanity of the slave.”

Appiah, Garner says, argues for change not out of new data, or internal reconsideration, but out of a personal, and national, search for what John Adams calls 'the esteem and admiration of others', mindful of what Jefferson called 'the decent opinions of mankind.' I recall here Jacobo Timerman's 'Prisoner Without A Name, Cell Without A Number', his searing indictment of torture, in particular that practiced in Argentina under military rule. Timerman demanded not only that we look at the victim of the torturer, and the views outsiders have of torture, but of the effect torture has on the torturer, on the society that sanctions torture. Perhaps, when we lose our way, we can recover it by seeing ourselves more clearly in the mirror of others' eyes. Appiah argues that internal considerations are insufficient. Timerman argues that the practice of evil itself perpetuates evil by changing the actor internally.

It's all too common these days to hear those angrily opposing the 'Ground Zero mosque', or Islamic terrorism, citing the Saudi ban on Christian churches in that land, or the excesses of Sharia law dogmatically and cruelly applied, as somehow justifying intolerance on our part. They oft hold such a stance not only reasonable but the only possible realistic response to the reality of Islam, denying even the possibility of moderate Islam, demanding that we respond to a lower bar by lowering ourselves to it rather than challenging it, offering an alternative, showing both ourselves and the world that an alternative can work. Islam, in Appiah's model (I haven't read the book, so I'm probably simplistic here), and Islamic countries, will more and more characterize themselves as peaceful, moderate and reject ever more firmly violence done in the name of their religion, given the decent opinions of the mankind of which they, too, are a part. When we lower ourselves to the level that we perceive to be characteristic of the worst of Islam--for all too many, even of all of Islam--Appiah would say that we are hindering precisely the change we most wish for, both in terms of human rights and our naked self-interest. And, too, Timerman would say that when we torture, when we embrace intolerance, we above all change ourselves.

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