Friday, June 11, 2004

Torture and Chauvinism

Murray Wesson of Southern Cross has an insightful post up about attempts to justify torture and humiliation of others on the basis that the lives of one's fellow citizens are intrinsically worth more than those of foreigners.

Via Oxblog, one Steve Sturm questions opposition to torture:

How will you explain to the families of Americans killed in future terror attacks that their loved ones died because this country did not use all of the tools at its disposal - in large part because of your opposition - to learn of the attack in advance?

The obvious response to this must be: how do you explain to families of people who have been abused, assaulted and generally had the shit kicked out of them -- even if entirely innocent -- that this was justified because they might have known something that jeopardised US lives?

To my surprise, Sturm has an answer. US lives are worth more than the lives of other people. I kid you not. In fact he has a scale. A US life is worth 50 points, a French life (an ally, but not friendly) is only worth 20 points. A life of a nation that the US doesn't know much about is worth only 8 points. Given that I'm South African, and probably fall somewhere between these two categories, I imagine that my life weighs in at about 15 points. That means that the average US citizen has just over three times my value.

Despite this, I imagine that Sturm is one of these people who is bemused by why parts of the world are worried about American hegemony. Of course they are if you propagate the view that their lives are not of equal value! This, I thought, was a founding, absolutely fundamental, tenet of democracy (people have inalienable rights etc) -- the very political system that I thought the US was claiming to promote.

As I said, idiot.
The scary thing is that people like this Steve Sturm character are by no means rare. It's one thing to say that a state's first obligation should be to the preservation of the lives of its own citizens - fair enough, I wouldn't even think of arguing otherwise - and quite another to state that it ought to act according to a moral calculus in which the lives of foreigners are given less weight than those of one's fellow nationals according to some sliding scale of merit. Go down that path far enough and you find yourself in lebensraum territory - "my people deserve the land that these other people currently occupy because we are on a higher plane of humanity than they are."