What is it like to be a torturer? Certainly some of them are just sadists, and they will naturally gravitate to that kind of work. What about the “good people,” though? What about the people who are initially repulsed by what they’re doing and have to rationalize it? I’m sure some of them find the sadistic part of themselves and cultivate it, convincing themselves that the people they’re torturing are scum who deserve it. But there’s also another, bolder strategy for retaining one’s moral self-image — thinking of the very immorality of one’s actions as a paradoxical kind of sacrifice for morality. This means viewing oneself as the primary victim, forced to sacrifice your everyday moral integrity, and viewing the tortured person as an antagonist who is forcing you to do such terrible things. If only they’d confess, none of this would be necessary! Look what they made me do!
Not everyone in America is a hands-on torturer, of course, but these stances seem to have propagated themselves beyond the black sites. The sadists are easy to identify, as a critical mass of Americans become dominated by spitefulness — these are the people who embrace the dystopian vision of a society of “go fuck yourself.” The “good people” are just as prevelent, though, if not moreso. Think of all the liberals who managed to convince themselves that they should vote for Obama somehow because of his betrayals on civil liberties, as though this showed that they had a truly grown-up and realistic attitude and were willing to do what needed to be done. Of course, we have long been a nation of victim-blamers, but it’s becoming increasingly clear to me how fine-grained it is, how it seeps into everyday interactions. We can see it in the blogger who becomes verbally abusive in defense of civility, the public figure who persecutes women to show he’s not misogynist: “Look what you made me do! I’m a good person, and look what you made me do!”