Torture and “The Ends Justify the Means”
By Dennis Loo
One of right-wingers’ – and others, including some liberals’ – favorite retorts to the revolutionary Left is that the Left supposedly adopts the utterly illegitimate argument that “the ends justify the means.”
Never mind that the genuine Left does not and never has held this position.
You can find this line about the Left – “the ends justify the means” – being delivered in films, including literally, by movie villains carrying out all kinds of evil deeds against the righteous forces of good while inflicting terror, harm, and death upon innocents. These villains are sometimes fighting for good causes in these movies, but they use such despicable means that their cause is tarnished irrevocably in the filmgoers’ minds by their egregious strategy and tactics.
This fiction trope is a nifty device for taking an issue that many or most people in real life regard as a legitimate reason for grievances – for example, Israel’s treatment of Palestinians – and discrediting the issue by making those most concerned in the film (book, article, etc.) appear to be irrational, humanity-hating criminals and terrorists.
Who’d want to be seen in the company of such crazies, anyway? It’s a clever means of backhandedly acknowledging that there are some injustices in the world, but then saying that anyone who tries to do anything about it is nothing but a crazed homicidal maniac.
(To be clear, the 9/11 attacks were the act of reactionaries, but what is missing in Zero Dark Thirty is any hint that the people being tortured by the U.S. and its allies in the real world include overwhelmingly people who have nothing to do with al-Qaeda and that these torture sessions, which have killed at least one hundred people, are part and parcel of a war of terror upon the world in the interests of U.S. empire, not part of the hunt for bin Laden. Even if you are holding an al-Qaeda terrorist (such as KSM), employing torture is wrong and by the way, for those who don’t know, it didn’t work either.)
The “ends doesn’t justify the means” strawman argument I have always considered among the most dishonest, meant to pillory all those who see injustice and have the courage to do something about it, rather than remaining complacent in the face of grave injustice.
While those who despise the Left like to invoke the noxious nostrum, “Do you consider that the ends justify the means?” (as if the extreme Right’s own ends and means were not utterly shameful), the genuine Left regards the means as inextricably tied to the ends. The means you choose must correspond to the ends you seek, or the ends you seek you will never see. The Left seeks a society in which authentic popular rule is increasingly realized, and for that to happen, educating people about what is really going on, treating people as ends in themselves rather than as spectators who cheer on the real actors and real leaders, and getting people involved in the political process directly—as well as in every other arena of human existence including science and art—are both necessary and desirable. (Globalization and the Demolition of Society, p. 322)
If you’re following the debate around Zero Dark Thirty, especially the comments by the filmmakers and by those who support them, it’s startling clear that those who endorse torture are now adopting with glee the argument that they and theirs have derided so passionately for so long: the end (supposedly saving lives, as long as they’re American) justifies the means (torture).
Even if one adopts the argument that torture does save lives, which they have not shown since bin Laden’s courier’s identity was discovered using old-fashioned detective work and not torture, despite ZDT’s distorted telling otherwise, and even if, most importantly of all, you adopt the argument that some torture is ok, as one G. Roger Denson does at Huffington Post[i] who angrily rebuked me. His retort came after I pointed out in his article’s comments thread that torture is intentionally indiscriminate because it is designed to terrorize whole populations and therefore torturing innocents is part of torturers’ strategy. In response to this Denson said that the CIA in the film never used “INDISCRIMINATE torture” and only tortured Ammar “to save lives,”[ii] and thus torture is ok, in other words, if your motives are pure.
That’s right Virginia: along with “legitimate rape” I want you to learn that there is “justifiable torture.”
Apparently, if you’re paying attention to what our government leaders and media pundits are now saying and doing, that slander against the Left all these years was really not a slander but envy.
They believe that the means of torture does justify the ends of saving lives, as long as those lives that you are claiming to protect are Americans. In fact, according to Kathyrn Bigelow and Marc Boal, this makes you not only justified, but a hero. The credo for the new age: The Ends DO Justify the Means, As Long as We’re Doing It.
What a great country this is, huh?
Dennis Loo is Professor of Sociology at Cal Poly Pomona, author of Globalization and the Demolition of Society, Steering Committee member of World Can’t Wait. His website is DennisLoo.com.