In his ruminations about The Republic Plato wondered about the tendency of the guardians of society to become corrupt themselves — “Who will police the police?” is the shorthand phrase we debated in Political Theory classes back in the day when Plato seemed to have the right solution for the rampant episodes of police brutality during the height of the civil rights and antiwar movements of the ’60’s and ’70’s. The more enlightened force of human wisdom — the metaphor of the Philosopher King — supposedly governs the Republic and keeps the dark forces in check.
The Philosopher King seems to have gone into hiding for a long time after September 11, 2001. In place of a response to terrorism rooted in wisdom, our government responded with a dark and angry vengeance. The mood of the people matched the mood of our leaders for many years, with popular votes clearly rejecting any notion of a peaceful, humane solution to the terrible problem of the murderous outlaws known as Al Qaeda.
Last week, the Justice Department released a series of memoes produced during the height of the Bush Administration’s War on Terror (a name officially retired in the early days of the Obama Administration). These memoes reveal the extensive use of torture against suspected terrorists. The memoes also provide details of the extent to which the Justice Department of that era provided legal justification for the use of waterboarding, physical abuse, sleep deprivation, and a host of other physically disgusting and reprehensible techniques designed to inflict serious pain on the suspects in order to elicit intelligence. Today’s New York Times has a front page story providing details on 266 instances of waterboarding used against 2 — two — suspects.
Four former CIA directors and others have criticized the Obama Administration for releasing these memoes, claiming that the public exposure of such information puts the nation at risk.
Frankly, the nation is at far graver risk if we continue to permit the government to use secret acts of illegality and brutality against whomever the government deems a threat. Thousands of years ago, Plato described the slippery slope down into the cave. The whole point of organizing a democratic government is to ensure a more enlightened society, a civilization built on respect and dignity for all people. We cannot ensure our own liberation by torturing and abusing others, no matter how serious their crimes. “Justice” is not something the agents of the United States mete out blow-by-blow in dark rooms on foreign soil to escape detection here. Such thuggish conduct has no place in the security strategies of a true democratic nation.