Monday, January 19, 2009

Cultures of Vengeance and Abu Ghraib (Reprint)

This is an article that was published by TechCentralStaiton (now, TCSDaily.com). I am publishing it here because I can no longer find it in the archives at TCSDaily.

Cultures of Vengeance and Abu Ghraib

When the Abu Ghraib prison scandal broke, many asked how it could have happened. The first assumption many jumped to was that the corruption must have come from the top – as though corruption were unusual, and could only be explained if one top person was corrupt. This is a safe assumption when dealing with dictators, as the majority of the corruption is indeed at the top. But, as the subsequent investigation showed, in a country where power is decentralized, corruption does not have to spring from the Presidency, or even the military leadership. Even the head of the prison was apparently unaware of what was going on under her watch. So we are still left with the mystery of the source of such corruption as would lead to the abuses at Abu Ghraib.

My answer at first sounds like a cliche: it is institutional. When most people say this, they mean that the institution’s rules create corruption, and if we only had the right rules, we would eliminate corruption forever. What I mean to suggest, however, is that the very institution of the military – and of the police, for that matter – is corrupting, regardless of the rules. Now, before you get angry (or, if you are of an anarchist slant, jump for joy), let me explain.

The purpose of a military in a just society is to protect the country from invasion or otherwise being threatened. When an invasion or attack occurs, its purpose is to take vengeance on those who hurt or try to hurt us. In the same vein, the purpose of a police force in a just society is to protect the citizens from criminals. And when a crime is committed, its purpose is to take vengeance on those who committed the crime, by tracking them down and arresting them – though sometimes this vengeance is necessarily more direct. This is the very definition of what a military and a police force are supposed to do in a just society, to keep its people safe. When someone performs an injustice, it is their job to punish that person, or capture them so they may be punished. It is also the reason why these institutions are inherently corrupting.

What is Revenge?

Revenge is the punishing of an injustice already performed; it is defined as the returning of evil for evil. Killing a fellow human is evil – murder is prohibited in all cultures, even if the definition of murder sometimes varies – yet it is sometimes necessary in self-defense. But even if killing someone is justified, any time you kill someone, it corrupts you. This is why so many who have killed in self-defense feel guilty afterwards, even knowing if they had not done it, they or others would now be dead. This is why the military and police departments have psychiatrists. The doing of evil, even when necessary to prevent a greater evil, is corrupting. Since the military and the police are our institutions of revenge, they become cultures of revenge, and cultures of revenge are always corrupting.

The word “avenge” comes from the Latin a-, “to” and vindic_re, “punish,” which is derived from deik, which is also the root of the Greek word dik√©, which is typically translated as justice, but which carries with it the idea of balance. There is a sense of balance in doing evil for evil, but it is a balance that leads to escalation, making the world less just, not more. There is a balance in everyone being equally evil, but is this any sort of balance we really want?

In his Rhetoric, Aristotle points out that there is a kind of good that is good because it is better than another choice – but that this is the worst kind of good (the best kind of good is that which aims at the beautiful). Vengeance is this worst kind of good, when it is a good. If corruption cannot be eliminated in a culture of revenge, can one at least reduce the corruption? A bad kind of vengeance would be one where a greater evil is given for a lesser evil. A better kind of vengeance is then one where an equal evil is given for an evil. But I think we can agree that we do not want a police or military force with members as evil as those they are fighting. If we want better, less corrupt protectors, we need laws where, if revenge is needed, the revenge is a lesser evil than the one originally perpetuated. To do this, of course, would require the identification of “evil,” including levels of “evil,” so we do not make the mistake of using a greater evil against a lesser one. A historical example is prohibition in the early part of the 20th Century in the United States. Since alcohol was illegal, buying and selling it could get one put in prison. This was a greater evil (putting someone in prison) for a lesser evil (buying and selling alcohol), and most would now say it was using an evil against something that was and is at least morally neutral, since drunkenness and alcoholism are bad (these being actions), though the social benefits of drinking and the health benefits of at least red wine are good. During prohibition, we saw dramatic increases in all crimes, particularly murder, organized crime, and police corruption. When prohibition was repealed, the crime rates all dramatically decreased. This is why it is important to be able to identify what is good and what is bad, or even evil.

Forgiveness is the giving of good for evil. Forgiveness is not rewarding evil – rewarding evil would itself be evil – but rather a gift of love to those who do wrong. Nor is forgiveness the elimination of punishment for doing wrong. Forgiveness occurs both during and after punishment, after the person has been corrected. One has far less corruption in a culture of forgiveness, as no evil is returned for evil. Thus is evil lessened in the culture. As a gift freely given, forgiveness is good, and makes the culture in which it is practiced good. Forgiveness is, like kindness, a gift which makes the recipient better for having received it. To get forgiveness and kindness, we must first give it. If the world is not as forgiving and kind as you would like it to be, it is no one’s fault but your own. You can give forgiveness and kindness, but you cannot take it. You thus cannot make anyone forgiving or kind – you can only be forgiving or kind yourself.

It is impractical for a government to forgive even if it is best for its people to be forgiving. The purpose of a military and a police force is to practice vengeance for a society so the other members of that society do not have to do so – and are thus protected from its corrupting influence. The people who volunteer to serve the military or as a police officer are thus volunteering to put themselves in moral jeopardy so the rest of society can be good. Corruption occurs among those who do not have the moral fortitude to withstand the corrupting influence of vengeance. This is why the military and the police must always be policed, to weed out those most easily corrupted.

The Tragic Institutions

To have a free and ethical society, we must have a military and a police force. But these institutions, even when we reduce the corruption by making our vengeance less evil than the evils perpetuated, are still corrupting. We thus create a tragic situation: we must have corrupting institutions so that everyone else may live free of the corrupting influence of vengeance. As a society it is our duty to those who would put themselves in moral jeopardy to make sure we always have laws and engage in wars that give less evil punishments for the evils they are meant to fight, so these institutions will be less corrupting.

There are, of course, a few who will join the military or police because these institutions are corrupting. They look forward to abusing others, and expect they will not get caught. These must always be weeded out – before they join, when possible. But the vast majority of people who join the military and police join up to do good, to protect their fellow citizens. Among those are many who are morally good enough to withstand the corrupting influence inherent in these institutions. One could say that such people are, for all intents and purposes, heroically good. However, there are also those who join intending to be good, but who do not realize they are not good enough to withstand the corruption. When they succumb to the corruption, they become tragic heroes, in the tradition of Oedipus – who also fell because of his good intentions and because he had overextended himself. And, like Oedipus, such good people who have succumbed to corruption must be removed, for the good of society.

When we look at what happened at Abu Ghraib, we can see it is an institutional problem. We now know who among those who worked at Abu Ghraib, as well as their superiors are either most corrupt or most susceptible to corruption, meaning we can now remove them from the ranks. What should be most remarkable is how very little corruption Abu Ghraib actually represents. Considering how many armies through history made it a practice to murder, steal, rape, and torture, we should be proud of ourselves for having as little corruption as we do in the military – just as we should be proud of ourselves for being so outraged by it when it does occur. This suggests that our institutions of vengeance are working as they should.
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