Torturer's Apprentices: Learning to love, not hate, after 9/11

A prince, wrote Machiavelli, must be a great “feigner and dissembler,” for subjects “are so simple and so ready to obey present necessities, that one who deceives will always find those who allow themselves to be deceived.” Machiavelli’s infamy, alas, is exceeded only by his emulation. For in the wake of the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, we too have allowed ourselves to be deceived.

“We do not torture,” President George W. Bush assures us. Yet mounting evidence from the Red Cross, Physicians for Human Rights and the U.S. Army’s own investigators reveals executive branch complicity in what retired Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba calls a “systematic regime of torture.” Deception and evasion are hallmarks of the president’s brief for torture, abrogating the very human rights accords that provide our sole remaining casus belli in Iraq.


On the home front, immigration raids in the name of homeland security leave parents shackled, detained and threatened with deportation. Children born on U.S. soil are forcibly separated from their parents, whose greatest crime is their desire to work for their families at meager wages. Here too our readiness to be deceived belies our belief in family values and the sanctity of marriage.

We recognize, so we say, the rule of law; but we suspend its most basic provisions—the human rights of the deported and detained, for example—in the name of “present necessities.” Only “supreme emergency,” we say, warrants a suspension of the ethical. Only in extremis do we permit torture, renditions, detention of immigrant children and the like. But with postmodern terror, the extreme becomes quotidian, supreme emergency naturalized. Our Machiavellian logic is circumscribed within a moral world; to preserve this world we betray the very tenets that make it moral.

In the name of security, so different from the biblical promise of shalom, we moralize our evasions, persuaded that Americans value families and uphold the rule of law. We are not torturers, we do not detain or deport; but our ready obedience to “present necessities” makes us willing apprentices to those who would deceive. Laudably, our bishops have spoken on the questions of immigration and torture. As citizens, though, we do not seem unduly disturbed by what is done in our name. We like our heroes neat, our vengeance sweet. But victims become executioners—Machiavelli knew this—and there is a second act to the drama that began on 9/11, the one we are now living.

We have suffered, to be sure. And it is innocent suffering that rendered our anger righteous. At the heart of the Christian narrative, after all, is suffering innocence, crucified love. But to speak of lost innocence to justify torture or mass deportation is a fond illusion. That innocence, as H. Richard Niebuhr once wrote, was “slain from the foundations of the world.” And if the cross speaks of innocent suffering, it does so withoutqualification; not only Americans figure in the calculus of innocence betrayed, but all those “crucified on many an obscure hill”: the innocent Afghan and Iraqi civilians killed as “collateral damage,” the immigrant children detained, the parents deported.

Our righteousness has deceived us, letting us become the very thing we abhor. Are we truly so simple and ready to obey present necessities? Citizens of faith cannot evade the Gospel’s mandate. In St. Augustine’s words, for those called Christian, “love of enemy admits of no exceptions,” and those inflicting punishment in the name of law must “first overcome hate in their hearts.” A hard lesson, to be sure, after 9/11, but enmity cannot be a fitting memorial to our grief. Nature, graced even in tragedy, has equipped us with other, better weapons. If the 9/11 attacks have taught us anything, perhaps it is to allow the one we call Prince of Peace to undeceive us.

In the words of Dorothy Day, whom Machiavelli would have derided as an “unarmed prophet”: “Yes, we go on talking about love. St. Paul writes about it…and there are Father Zossima’s unforgettable words in The Brothers Karamazov, ‘Love in practice is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.’ What does the modern world know of love, with its light touching of the surface of love? It has never reached down into the depths, to the misery and pain and glory of love which endures to death and beyond it. We have not yet begun to learn about love. Now is the time to begin, to start afresh, to use this divine weapon.”

William R. ONeill, S.J., offers advice to perplexed voters. Read the article here.

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