American Values: Torture and Assassination
Where did the argument that American values don’t include torture and assassination originate, as so many like to argue? John McCain, may he rest in peace, opposed torture and was eloquent in his opposition. But he did assert that torture was not an American value, which is a really hard to argument to make given US history.
Slavery was of course built and maintained by means of torture. The indigenous peoples were also tortured and, of course, assassinated. Both the north and the south tortured during the Civil War and, of course, also assassinated. Lincoln was assassinated, as was William McKinley, JFK, while there were attempts on Presidents Ford and Reagan. The US tortured during the Spanish American War and afterward while its soldiers attempted to put down an insurrection in the Philippines. The US also tortured during the Korean War as well as during the Vietnam War.
Moreover, MLK Jr., Robert F. Kennedy, and Malcolm X were assassinated, along with Huey Long, governor of Louisiana, and an attempt was made on George Wallace’s life when he was running for president. And, of course, during the Global War on Terror, which is still ongoing, the US has tortured, even those it admitted later were guilty of nothing, and has assassinated, with at least one president bragging that “Hey, I’m pretty good at this killing thing!” And a Secretary of State gloated about the assassination of Gadaffi that “We came, we saw, he died!” And another Secretary of State said that the deaths of as many as 500,000 Iraqi children due to sanctions imposed on Iraq were “worth it.”
Why is it that Americans – and I mean both our elites and the rest of us – have tortured and assassinated as much as we have? What is it about our “values” that makes this possible? Just a brief answer will be offered here.
Under the doctrine of modern natural rights, all individuals have and are entitled to certain rights, like “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But what happens when individuals find their rights conflicting? For example, what is the situation between a slaver and a slave? The fact that the slaver is violating the rights of the slave does not mean that s/he is obligated to free the slave. And there certainly is not such obligation if freeing the slave would threaten or undermine the slaver’s rights or the rights of his or her offspring. All persons are created equal which means that all persons are entitled to assert and protect their rights even at the expense of others’ rights. It is common for people to say that “Your right to swing your fist ends where my nose begins.” But that’s not accurate because should I perceive that you are threatening, then my right to swing my fist - or shoot my gun - doesn’t end where your body begins.
This means, however, that questions of justice become questions of self-interest. It is unjust to enslave people but that does not mean that the slaver must forego slavery if it, slavery, is essential to protecting his or her rights. So, what happens in US society is that questions of justice are replaced by or reduced to questions of self-interest. So although it is unjust and inhumane to torture other human beings that does not mean that such torture is forbidden. If torture - or assassination - is seen to protect US society than it is legitimate even though it is unjust and inhumane. More generally, whatever serves the national security of the US is legitimate even though the means embraced are unjust, inhumane, grossly destructive, and/or tyrannical. When rights conflict, power will determine whose rights prevail. And in that mindset, only a fool would forego torture and assassination as legitimate tools of government.
The US tortures and assassinates then because such actions are not only consistent with but even promoted by the most basic of American values. Rights conflict, eventually but always and everywhere, and must be protected by the exercise of power. And, of course, inevitably the exercise of power, at least by governments, is always unjust and inhumane. This is called “political realism” and it lies at the core of American “values.”