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Roderick Spencer Headshot

Yes We Are Them and They Are Us

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I had a philosophy professor in college who described human savagery, and grace, and everything in between, by using the metaphor of a dial. He suggested that a couple of circumstantial clicks in one direction or another can render any human capable of luminous compassion, or obscene cruelty. What matters, he said, is recognition of ourselves in others, even -- in fact especially -- in others who do terrible things.

His point was that there is no 'them', only 'us'. We are all capable of anything, and the moral universe does not have roped-off VIP sections where only good people are allowed. He confronted us with the idea that there is only one kind of human being, and it's therefore perilous to assign less capacity for redemption to others, than we hope for ourselves. In fact, he continued, the impulse to separate along rigid moral lines is the very thing that leads to gas chambers, inquisitions, and suicide bombings. He asked whether, if we acknowledged our own capacity for cruelty, we'd be more or less inclined to act upon it under duress. I remember the way he turned the metaphorical dial with his hand, suggesting that just because we feel exalted by Good, we should not deny the dark thrill of so-called 'Evil'.

He finished that memorable lecture with what I still consider to be a profound moral assertion, that neither darkness nor light, both of which we all carry, exempts us from capacity for the other.

I miss my professor's metaphorical dial these days, because I think it might help elevate the debate over President Obama's recent decision not to release the photos and video of American military and civilian personnel doing hideous things to their fellow humans at Abu Ghraib and other less infamous prisons.

Instead of a dial, the loudest on all sides seem to have embraced a much cruder vertical metaphor: with 'us' at the top of a radiant ladder of virtue, and 'them' at the bottom of a dark pit of corruption. The Left brays highfalutin outrage at President Obama for his 'capitulation', 'hypocrisy', 'pandering', and 'abandonment' of the very values that 'we' are supposed to stand for. And the Right honks with equal certainty that 'our' morality is unsullied by these sins, since 'we' don't like having to commit them, and only do so because 'they', our evil enemies, force our hands.

I suggest that until both sides have the courage to recognize themselves in each other, and in those terrible pictures, the debate is useless. People on the Left are just as capable of rationalizing cruelty as people on the Right. The only difference, at the moment, is that after eight years of decisions based on a particularly questionable set of moral absolutes, the Right's assertions are flimsier than the Left's.

To even begin a fair consideration of President Obama's decisions, both sides need to step off their pedestals and first examine the inconvenient notion of consequences. The question of what will happen to Americans in uniform throughout the world, if the classified images of torture are released now is not unreasonable just because it's being asked more often by conservatives. Nor is it proof of capitulation that the President has stepped back from a promise to release this material, since the truth is that anyone with an internet connection can find previously unseen horrors online right now, courtesy (most recently) of the Sydney Morning Herald. It is a very good bet that horrifying pictures will keep coming, and the story of our extended visit(s) to the dark side will continue to be told, whether or not President Obama gives an order now, later, or not at all. Meanwhile he does have an urgent obligation to protect our men and women in uniform, almost all of whom are as appalled by what happened at Abu Ghraib as the civilians they are sworn to protect. And yes there is also the politics of the moment, which again appears to have resulted in Obama doing what he's done throughout his career, creating space for compromise, on his terms, with people whose cooperation he needs.

I am hopeful that Barack Obama recognizes the humanity of even the grinning torturers in the recently revealed pictures from Abu Ghraib. If he does, it will help him make the right decisions regarding the wretched mess the previous administration dumped in his lap. And I am hopeful that he recognizes his own ruthlessness, and affinity for power in, say, Dick Cheney. If he does, it might help him understand what not to do, if he really means to leave a legacy of renewal and hope. And I am hopeful that he recognizes his own vanity and economical relationship with the truth, in, say, Bill Clinton, who squandered so much of his promise by never admitting, to himself or anyone else, how unbelievably full of shit he could be.

More troubling than his current maneuvers, is Obama's unwillingness to rescind the expanded presidential powers captured by Dick Cheney and his operatives and then approved by frightened legislators of both parties, over the last eight years. Troubling, but not surprising. Who among us would spend one minute of our first term in elected office figuring out ways to reduce our own power? Anyone that quickly answers, "I would!" hasn't thought it all the way through, or wouldn't really want the job. This president will not find it easy to give back the new powers that his predecessors left behind, even if he knows he should. After all, 'they' were using them to do the wrong things, while 'we' aren't like that at all.

Yes 'We' Are! It's not as catchy as Yes We Can, but it's just as true.