The New York Times today revealed the existence of "secret memos" in the United States Department of Justice under Alberto Gonzales, which authorized "enhanced interrogation techniques" for use on terrorism detainees. "Enhanced interrogation techniques" is of course a euphemism; the same phrase in German, "Verschaefte Vernehmung" was used by the Nazis during World War II.
In either language, it means torture. The United States of America, our beloved country, now belongs to the long list of nations which have used and continue to use torture as a tool of public policy.
How does that make you feel?
The specific techniques -- a word that is far too sterile and scientific-sounding as a description for the sweat-stained, shit-streaked, brutal actions involved -- which Gonzales' Justice Department authorized, and the Bush administration used, include:
keeping detainees naked and shivering uncontrollably in extremely cold cells;
keeping them in a sleep-deprived, semi-deranged for extended period of time;
playing non-stop loud music;
hitting them on the head repeatedly;
This brings to mind the question of how to instill moral "first principles" in our children. By first principles I mean bright lines over which we simply cannot cross without losing a sense of who we are.
I believe that opposition to the torture of another human being is a moral first principle (just as the stirring statement in the Declaration of Independence about those rights which we hold to be "self-evident" represents a political first principle).
Let's examine what morality is at its core. I would argue that it starts with that most unique human characteristic: our capacity to empathize with other human beings by way of our imagination. It is this capacity, coupled with our pre-cognitive instinct to protect other human beings from harm if we can imagine them facing harm, that is the source of morality. With this small imaginative leap -- "Oh, that sharp stick will hurt him if I poke him, just as I have felt sticks hurt me when I am poked!" -- we begin a huge project, taking place mostly in our formative years but also throughout our lives, to build a sense of moral interconnectedness to others.
If you follow me so far, that the basis for morality is our capacity for empathy (by way of the imagination), then I am sure you will agree too that there can be no clearer violation of what we term "morality" than the intentional causing of severe pain to another person. If we do not renounce this act unequivocably and unmistakably, then morality becomes nothing more than a strategy for advancement, a code for proving loyalty to our own in-group. But morality is something else than a strategy or a code. It is a stop, a boundary, a means of knowing who we are.
Of course there are scenarios in which we would be tempted to physically hurt another person, even severely, for some larger cause. If you have watched a recent debate between the Republican Presidential candidates then you have been conditioned to think reflexively of the example of the nuclear device primed to explode in a major metropolitan area, and the one man that can defuse it glaring at us with defiance. Guiliani relishes this hypothetical -- there is a glint in his eyes when he brings it up. In such a situation, I would not predict how any of us would act. I suspect that most of us would do something that would qualify as torture under those circumstances. But this act -- which we must remember is an unlikely occurance, as it would require an astonishing constellation of events to create this scenario -- must be considered outside of our moral range. it would change the person doing it forever. It should be viewed as rupture of our moral principles rather than an adaptation within them.
For someone to claim that this would be a morally justifiable act shows that his or her sense of identity is simply not bounded by first principles. He may be a charming person; she may live a generally admirable life; but such a person, I would argue, missed out, at some formative stage, when it came to establishing a bedrock upon which to build a coherent moral outlook.
So back to the initial question of this post. How do we instill first principles, particularly moral first principles, in our children?
Already, when faced with an altercation between our 3-year-old and our 2-year-old (his birthday's today!) my wife and I say things like, "There is no hitting in this house!" But those are just rules, and they are understood as such. I believe that first principles are not taught through catch-phrases or "time outs." My sense is that first principles are taught by the everyday reinforcement of the values which define the relationships in the home.
If, as I would like to think, our compass needle points regularly to the practice of love and concern for others, then when the needle spins the opposite direction to the practice of dehumanization and cruelty to others our children will have an immediate gut reaction that something is off.
Those times in my life when I have managed to dehumanize someone enough to be cruel, I have felt an uneasy feeling, a gathering creepiness, inside. You can't always put it into words, but you know it.
I believe that it is up to us, as parents, to encourage empathy, to ask questions about other people, to speculate about our children's friends' feelings with them -- "Why was Jack crying? Was he upset that his bubbles spilled?" In short, to create a sense of a larger world of sentient human beings -- in which each of us happens to inhabit only one body. When we do this -- in a million ways, by the way we make sure they share their birthday cake as well as the vigor with which we wave goodbye -- we create the sense of first principles without ever overtly discussing them. The outer boundary, the web that holds our moral self together, if you will, is woven from countless, subtle, daily interactions, not from spoken rules.
In this way, as parents, we create citizens who would simply not endorse the physical abuse of detainees as matter of public policy. It is not even arguable -- regardless of the perfect-constellation hypothesis about a ticking nuclear bomb pitched by Tim Russert or Brit Hume on any given night.
One wonders what the parents of the polite, articulate John Yoo, architect of the legal memoranda in the Justice Department supporting these secret memos, did NOT do. Surely they taught their son manners. Surely they taught him how to succeed in the world. Surely they taught him much about equipose and patience. But why did he not acquire a set of first principles which would exclude torture? I would find it very interesting to know how much value, if any, John Yoo's parents placed on the imagination (and the capacity for empathy) when he was growing up.