A History of Maltreatment
by Fred E. Foldvary, Senior Editor
Many causes can be pointed to for the abuse of Iraqi detainees. American troops have been undermanned and ill prepared. The prisoner policy condoned and even encouraged rough treatment in order to extract information. The top chiefs did not lay down a clear policy and failed to monitor what was happening on the ground.
But we need to understand that this pattern of abuse has deeper causes that have been within American culture since colonial days, and is part of a broader European culture of cruelty. When the Europeans began to conquer and colonize the Americas, they murdered, enslaved, and pushed out the native Indians. In part, this reflected a European culture that was racist and also supremacist, as they regarded Christianity and European ways as inherently superior to the ways of the heathen natives. They treated the Indians as subhuman, like animals, so that they had no moral concern about killing them.
Slavery too reflected this racism and cultural supremacism. This cruel and supremacist streak in European culture goes back to the ancient Roman and Greek civilizations, in which the conquered nations were enslaved and subservient. Conquest and enslavement have been practiced world-wide. The American Indians created empires by conquest, the Mongols conquered a vast empire in Asia, and there were wars of conquest and domination in Africa. Violent cultures have come to dominate the world, because peaceful cultures get conquered.
Other nations and governments, such as Japan and Germany during World War II, and the previous regime in Iraq, have committed atrocities many magnitudes worse than the abuses committed by Americans in Iraq. But Americans have to acknowledge their historical maltreatment of persons. In addition to the evil of slavery and the genocide against the Indians, Americans lynched Blacks in the old South, mistreated captives in the Philippines during the rebellion after the war of 1898, and violated human rights in Vietnam. Moreover, there is plenty of cruelty inside prisons in the US, and few Americans are concerned.
Non-Americans who properly condemn America for its failings should equally admit their own evils. Every nation that is casting stones is not without sin. There are Muslims and Arabs massively violating human rights now in Sudan; where is the outrage for that?
Why do nice people do evil acts? In the old South, White folks who were polite to their families and neighborhoods would gang up to hang innocent Blacks. Germans who listened to classical music and were kind to their children would turn around and send Jewish children to death camps. Why? It is because human beings compartmentalize their thinking. We mentally divide the world into categories with different standards.
There is a human propensity to put our own tribe into the human category, to be treated with politeness and respect, and to put an enemy or a perceived inferior group or those who do disapproved acts into a separate category, 'them.' 'Those' beings are not regarded as fully human. There is no moral problem in inflicting pain and death on 'them,' because 'they' are the enemy or inferior. We are good, they are bad, so we can spit on them, and it's OK, even good.
Human beings rationalize their actions. Religious texts are extracted and switched to a different context. Means are excused as justified by a greater end. Folks blank out the pain and suffering of the target group because it is commanded by higher up, and they would get in trouble if they questioned the policy. Moral perversion gets reinforced by moral cowardice.
Everybody is pointing and wagging fingers, but we also need to recognize a very deep moral problem that is rooted in human instinct and needs to be rectified by human reason. Human beings seem to be genetically programmed to generalize and compartmentalize. We generalize from a couple of green snakes that bite to the inductive conclusion that all green snakes bite. This propensity has survival value, but unless this is filtered by reason, it is the root of racism and harmful stereotyping. Generalities don't apply to everyone in a group, so we should treat people as individuals.
Secondly, it is natural to have a greater concern for oneself than for others, and for one's family and tribe than for strangers. But that becomes lethal when this gets turned into hostility against the stranger. We can use our reason to avoid compartmentalizing our moral standards.
Humanity is still in its ethical infancy. The concept of human rights has now been recognized, but very few people understand what are our natural rights and how they can be respected. Few people understand that there is a moral imperative that applies universally to humanity. Even those who want to support human rights have little idea of what these rights are. The schools don't teach it, and most reformers don't want to be bothered learning it.
A universal respect for human rights has to begin with those who seek reform. Reformers need to understand natural moral law, expressed by the rules of the universal ethic. Reformers need to understand the principles of ethics, governance, and economics. As Henry George stated, first comes right thinking and then follows right action. Right thinking comes from focused learning. The knowledge is here and free for those who wish to be righteous reformers.
-- Fred Foldvary
Copyright 2004 by Fred E. Foldvary. All rights reserved. No part of this material may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic or mechanical, which includes but is not limited to facsimile transmission, photocopying, recording, rekeying, or using any information storage or retrieval system, without giving full credit to Fred Foldvary and The Progress Report.
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