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Torture, Empathy, and Democracy

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Joanne98 Donating Member (1000+ posts) Send PM | Profile | Ignore Sun Apr-26-09 03:32 PM
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Torture, Empathy, and Democracy

Should there be a commission to publicly investigate the use of torture by the Bush administration?

Pragmatic Democrats argue no, that it will divert our attention from all the other, positive things that have to be done.

I disagree. But not for the usual reasons, all of which are good reasons: Maintaining the rule of law. Punishing the criminal activities of the Bush administration. Beginning to reclaim our moral stature in the world. Refusing to accept the we-were-just-following-orders defense that must never again be tolerated. All good reasons. But there is one overriding reason behind all of the others.

It is crucial to understand why torture is so overpowering an issue. Not killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the shock-and-awe approach to Iraq. Not ignoring the horrors of Darfur. Not the thousands of gun deaths and maimings in America each year. Not all the deaths and illnesses that come from the denial of care by a private health care system that cares about profits over people. There are plenty of things to be outraged about. What is it about torture?

The clearest clue comes from Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher in his piece at Huffington Post, retelling the story of a female American G.I., Alyssa Peterson, who committed suicide after refusing to participate in the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

"The official probe of her death would later note that earlier she had been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners. One of the most moving parts of the report, in fact, is this: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she ... could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire.""

Repeat: "She did not know how to be two people..." Reprimanded for showing empathy.

We now know from the study of mirror neuron systems in the brain that empathy is physical, a capacity built into our very bodies. It is what allows us to feel what others feel and appears to be the basis for human connection and the capacity to care about others. Our native neural capacities for empathy can be strengthened by how we are raised, or it can decay when empathy is not experienced or we can be trained to develop neural circuitry to bypass natural empathy.

President Obama has argued that empathy is the basis of our democracy. It is because we care about others, he has argued, that we have principles like freedom and fairness, not just for ourselves but for everyone. I have found, in studies of largely unconscious political conceptual systems, that empathy is the basis of progressive political thought, and the basis for the very idea of social, not just individual, responsibility. Conservative political thought is otherwise structured, based on authority, discipline, and responsibility for oneself but not others. The major moral, social, and political divide in America centers around empathy.

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