The Myth of Moral Authority

The U.S Senate Select Committee on Intelligence last week released the executive summary of its report on the CIA’s interrogations of suspected foreign terrorists in the aftermath of the 11 September 2001 attacks on the United States. In short it did and did not confirm torture – depending on how you define the term.

Since the report there has been a lot of discussion regarding the loss of ‘moral authority’ as a result of being seen to engage in such acts. This is specifically in reference to the United States. Foreign discussion centres too frequently on our big cousins across the pond, yet often fails to truly question the role countries such as the U.K, France, and Germany played in both facilitating these acts and undoubtedly assisting in their enactment.

The rhetoric from within the U.S goes that due to its position as the foremost world power they are something of an example for us all, and as such should never be seen to fail in their duty as guardians of freedom (ho-hum). Let us quash that falsehood immediately. The United States, the U.K, in fact almost any significantly influential global force has about as much moral authority as the baying mob that stones to death the apostate.

The wonderfully named White House Press Secretary Josh Earnest recently referred to this moral authority as “one of the most powerful tools in our arsenal” to advanced United States’ interests across the globe []. Unsurprisingly ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ (as the hipsters at the CIA call torture) have a tendency to undermine such authority, though perhaps only in the United States itself.

No one outside of a specific demographic within even the U.S actually believes in this moral authority, yet like most things in politics, if you continuously state something is the case then over time it will end up being marked down in history as a fundamental belief of civilised humanity – these are the good guys, and those are the bad guys.

What is perhaps more nauseating to behold than any of the facts of the torture itself, are the eulogies for a lost innocence written by the press at large. This is an impression that anyone with even a modicum of foreign policy interest should realise is mournfully naïve, and worse still perhaps even deceitful as so many have reported on this previously (as summed up by John Pilger recently ). In fact, what the Senate report reveals is much more tame than many in the know expected. After all, when you are at the mercy of the most powerful state on Earth, and as such seen as an obstacle to their preservation, then tawdry concepts like your mental and physical health become somewhat nebulous to say the least.

This is symptomatic of the veil of delusion that such structures as the UN and EU have allowed for us. Surely if we have globally/continentally mediated structures of accountability this sort of thing simply cannot go on (so the thinking goes)? Please…

In some ways the foreign policy of old, exhibited with splendid aplomb by the pre-WWII governments of Britain in such conflicts as the Boer War and revolutionary Ireland, was much more honest. I feel this can be adequately summed up in the following exchange between John Connor and the Terminator in that classic of moral philosophy ‘Terminator 2: Judgement Day’:

John: Jesus, you were gonna kill that guy!
Terminator: Of course. I’m a Terminator.
John: Listen to me very carefully, OK? You’re not a Terminator anymore. All right? You got that? You just can’t go around killing people!
Terminator: Why?
John: Whattaya mean, why? Cause you can’t!
Terminator: Why?
John: Because you just can’t, OK? Trust me on this.

For all their reprogramming, face changes, and new methods of construction the USA and the UK are still very much the same goal oriented, machines of self-preservation that they ever were. They are still Terminators (though in the UK’s case certainly an older model surviving on borrowed parts).

Yet rather than responding with the indefiniteness of ‘Why’, as delivered by the inimitable Arnie, there now comes no response at all. The act of killing, or more accurately ‘harming’ (as John Stuart Mill would prefer to categorise it), is no longer acknowledged. The harm that is of importance is that of reputation and legitimacy, not an inflicted harm upon individuals. Certainly not any harm that might bring the great and the good into disrepute.

Richard Joyce (2007) argues in ‘The Myth of Morality’ that our attachment to moral discourse has left us hopelessly ill prepared for the reality of a world which so often fails to conform to our values. Torture is but one example of this. We are gradually seeing a culture of self-delusion take on a virtuous position within our day to day lives, at least in the UK and similarly sustained countries, to support this. It is of great importance to discuss death and pain, but never to see it. We may witness footage of aerial bombardments, but never the dismembered torsos of dying civilians, never the blood strewn streets of a perpetually vicious environment.

Morality comes to have a ‘useful function’ in regulating our individual behaviour, but rarely that of the wider collective. This in turn allows us to believe falsehoods about our states and those who seek to lead. The discourse used by our politicians embodied by platitudes like ‘hope’, ‘family of nations’, ‘just peace’ begins to appeal to some perceived fundamental nature within us which mirrors a normative ethical standpoint.

We are left powerless by this. Our only hope becomes an expectation that unaccountable supreme powers will regulate their own behaviour due to a wave of moral sentiment. It seems with supreme power comes supreme naivety therefore, and those wielding the sceptre can do little but smile as we coddle ourselves in the knowledge that we have said our bit, our attention soon moving elsewhere.

There will be reports and even legislative reflexes in regards to this issue, the question is; how firmly will they be adhered to when the next attack on European or North American soil occurs? How far does our sympathy stretch when fear guides our hand? Given it is not so long ago that Jean Charles de Menezes lost his life for the crime of looking like someone he did not look like at all, or the shame of Abu Ghraib was revealed and we are still feigning shock, you cannot but question whether we will be reading of similar acts in the years and decades to come.

But hey, at least we have our moral authority.


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