As a child of German heritage growing up in the United States, the most significant moral question for me was, had I been an adult in Germany under Hitler, would I have had the courage to hide Jews in my attic? Clearly, most Germans simply went on with their lives, ignoring signs of the horror going on in their country. While there were a few brave souls, the majority of people just shut their eyes, even if they didn’t agree with what they may have suspected was going on, because they feared becoming a target.
Also having Norwegian heritage, I wondered if I would have been brave enough to defy the Nazis in Norway, helping, for example, to transport Norwegian gold to ships waiting on the coast for safekeeping in U.S. My family had a children’s book about this effort which actually involved children and mothers putting bricks hiding the gold on their sleds as they moved the gold, brick by brick, from a cave in the mountains to the coast. How brave of the Norwegians, we thought! How heroic, especially compared to the Swedes, who capitulated all too swiftly, we thought, smugly.
But now, it is clear that on our watch in this country, torture took place. And we will have to answer for our lack of moral spine for generations to come. While it is comforting to know that some law enforcement officials objected to the practices, it is disturbing to know that it took this long for the objections to take place:
“FBI agents assigned to interview key terrorism suspects repeatedly objected to harsh — and possibly illegal — interrogation tactics used by other U.S. officials two years before abuse of detainees at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison became public in 2004, a Justice Department review found.” USA Today, May 21
So where did the pressure come from?
“It says the controversial treatment of detainees by the military and U.S. intelligence officers persisted because of a view ‘at a very high level that this was a military situation and the military approach should prevail.’ The CIA has acknowledged using waterboarding.”
Of course, there are those who believe that the torture was not only justified, but strategically important. They, of course, would likely have believed that to be the case if they were royalists in Europe before the American revolution, or supporters of fascism in Spain, or supporters of apartheid in South Africa.
But, if you believe that torture is wrong both morally and strategically, the moral question remains: if you saw torture in action, or knew about it, would you have had the moral courage to object? privately? in public?