Thursday, July 07, 2011


There is a quote in a Saul Bellow book,

"We're funny creatures, We don't see stars as they are, so why do we love them? They are not small gold objects, but endless fire."

This is precisely what it makes us think when we face a moral dilemma. We want to see the correctness of our actions as a vindication of our conscience. We want to look moral & fair in our own eyes. We want to live with no guilt for our decisions, but only glow in the relief of a favourable outcome. But what if the outcomes are not in our favour? Most of us don't have the strength to gut it that it's not us who failed entirely, but also the odds were against us. We miscalculated & erred & that's that. We can come up with thousands of post hoc explanations, but that isn't going to resolve the failure of that one action.

Basically, we have to live with it.

I think a lot of religious texts create this disconnect between the process & the outcome. If we are at least following a process which we think is correct at the time, we can detach ourselves from the outcome. We can say, we tried our best - & that would be true in that situation. Perhaps thats why there is a constant focus on rituals, to engrave the importance of the process.

I watched a film recently (spoiler alert), called "Unthinkable". I picked it up with no expectations, being a direct to dvd film. It turned out to be a crazy ride down morality lane & a very well acted one too. I don't think any amount of ethics lectures are capable of preparing us with how to deal with the threat presented in the film.

An American citizen releases a video tape of planting three nuclear bombs across the country. Then ensues an enquiry, everybody till the very top is rattled by the threat & especially since there are no demands made, yet. Then a secret military operation, involving the FBI for the bomb hunt & the military, who have already captured the terrorist. Till this point we are led into the trap of assuming how straight this film is going to be. It's a typical terrorist situation, "We don't negotiate with terrorists" blah blah & then the investigation to find & disarm the 3 bombs. But the situation is far too complicated under the surface. We come face to face with a series of moral dilemma's. This is, as it's obvious by now, the interrogation of the terrorist & the methods used thereof. We are aware of the various ways torture is used to extract information, by using intimidation, scare tactics, physical abuse & finally, leverage. What we don't naturally think of is the limit for all these actions. How far can we go with this one person, who clearly intends to harm other people, to save millions? We also fail to look through the eyes of the torturer. We look at him as a heartless human being, perhaps as bad as the terrorist itself. But we never really try to figure out the nature of his actions. The nature of belief that he creates in the mind of the terrorist - that all this will stop if he reveals the locations of the bombs. That's where we fail. That's where we do not understand the limits of both the terrorist's ingenuity, his tolerance & the torturers ability to withstand the personal, moral guilt of inflicting the pain.

We must stop to question, then are the terrorist & the torturer made out of the same fabric of thought? Do they share the same mental makeup to inflict pain & suffering upon their own kind? How do they individually assess the morality of their actions? In short, what is right & what is wrong for each of them?

Sadly the answers we get are not black & white. Throughout the film we watch the brutality of the torturer in detail & his cold & calculated ability to deliver pain. We also face the cold & calculated suffering of the terrorist, who is one of the military's very own & his ability to withstand intimidation. These scenes feel like a slab of ice against the cheek, after a point we give in to the pain of watching it. The terrorist puts across a lot of moral points, chief of which is the ability of humans to torture or hurt one of their own, under some pretext. In his case, a terror suspect. The point is, should the terrorist as a human being have any rights & the dignity of a fair trial? Surprisingly, this question is not as easy to answer as it seems, when we have to work within the terrorist's rules of sharing the information. Then should we applaud our Indian judicial system to win a trial against a terrorist or should we applaud the tortures being conducted all around the world under some or the other pretext of counter-terrorism? Both can act as a deterrent to terror, but which one is more effective?

The torturer, it seems is not part of the moral quagmire that regular people face. He is like the prosecutor who has to prove the guilt of the suspect & extract vital information to proceed with the investigation. Both work within their systems, one, within the system of man's fear & pain, the other within the system of law. The torturer knows that he has to deliver, he must have the strength to make those tough choices about the limits of pain & rely on nobody's judgement. He can't give in to the weakness of human dignity & suffering. He has to push through & in many cases make enemies for life, of all the torture survivors.

The film is a lot more than what I am trying to convey. For obvious reasons I won't discuss the ending. On watching the reactions of all the other characters facing certain death if the bomb explodes along with a few million more deaths & the torturer's fight with himself & the terrorist, brings this film to a hair raising conclusion. The torturer is focused more on the process of getting the information out whereas all of us want to get the information (outcome) & move on with our lives. It makes sense when we read Saul Bellow's quote now, that we try to look at things for what we think they are rather than what they actually are. We choose to be blinded from the obvious & are happy to live within a perception, of course until the bomb blows up in our face.

No comments: