It's Okay When We Do It

Photos from a protest against waterboarding, o...
Photos from a protest against waterboarding, on the occasion of Condoleezza Rice's visit to Iceland, by Campaign Against Military Bases. Condoleezza Rice was invited to the protest and to try waterboarding for herself but as she didn't show some volunteers tried it out for themselves. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
As it started to come to light that the U.S. was using torture against detainees during the Bush presidency, President Bush and his aids took to the airwaves to reassure the American people. We were told repeatedly, "We do not torture." Many of us knew this was not true. We were aware that the U.S. has used torture and committed all sorts of other atrocities during our brief history. It would soon become painfully clear that the Bush administration tortured detainees after 9/11.

At the time, it seemed that the administration was just lying to us by insisting that they were not using torture when they were doing so. But simple lying and propaganda might provide an incomplete picture of what was happening. It seems possible that at least some people in our government convinced themselves that these public denials were not technically lies at all. They constructed an elaborate (and quite twisted) legal rationale and invented new terms (e.g., "enhanced interrogation") to justify their actions. If, for example, they legalized water-boarding by classifying it as something other than torture, they might be able to convince themselves that it was not torture.

Bush could appear on one channel insisting, "America doesn't torture" while Cheney could appear on another extolling the virtues of "enhanced interrogation methods" like water-boarding. They had legalized "enhanced interrogation" so that it was no longer torture.

I acknowledge that this seems a bit farfetched, and I do indeed suspect that many people throughout the administration knew full well what they were doing. But I have to think that there were at least some low-level operatives who might have reassured themselves with the thought that what they were doing was not torture even though it was. The power of self-deception can be quite remarkable, especially when it provides a justification for the unjustifiable.

I suspect that the methods we decided to classify as "enhanced interrogation" would be readily considered torture if another nation used them against us or our allies. In those circumstances, such methods would almost certainly be condemned as torture. But these methods are not torture when we use them. After all, the U.S. does not torture. A different standard is used to evaluate our behavior.

As the conflict between Israel and Hamas continues to unfold in Gaza, we see another example where many Americans find themselves increasingly tempted to apply the label "war crimes" to some of what appear to be attacks on civilians. And this temptation now seems to be far greater than it was in 2003 when the U.S. began air strikes in Iraq, killing countless civilians in the process. Again, it seems that a different standard is used for our behavior. We don't commit war crimes.

Why does this sound so damn familiar? There is a phrase I have heard again and again around the atheist community that keeps popping into my head that reminds me of this. How does it go again?

It's Okay When We Do It.

Right. "It's okay when we do it." And why exactly is it okay when we do it?

We are good people; they are vile "MRAs," "misogynists," and "dudebros." When they call us names, threaten us, mock our age, race, sex, and the like, it is "harassment" and "abuse." We don't harass or abuse others, for we are better than that! Sure, we call people all sorts vile names, threaten them, mock their age, race, sex. We even go a few steps beyond this and try to harm the careers of those we do not like, drum them out of our community altogether (i.e., shunning), or accuse them of committing serious crimes, but none of this is a problem when we do it.

Aside from a handful of people, I doubt that this attitude is consciously embraced. It usually seems to be a bit more subtle. I'm working for equality, diversity, feminism, and the like. If I step on some toes in the process, that's okay because my cause is righteous. This is war, and some "collateral damage" may be inevitable.

We are quick to condemn the behavior others but careful to do so in a way that will not restrict us from doing what we want. We have little interest in looking at ourselves, as we are blameless in this conflict. After all, we aren't the problem; they are the problem. It is okay when we do it.

My Bad Behavior is Justified

Dehumanizing the enemy and refusing to acknowledge our role in the conflict are great ways to reduce the perceived cost of one's bad acts. But railing against an "evil" enemy only takes us so far. Ideally, we must convince ourselves that our cause is righteous. We become "defenders of freedom" or a "chosen people." We are champions of truth, justice, and tolerance. We recite meaningless phrases like "they hate us for our freedoms" or "either you're with us or against us."

We concoct rationales to defend how we'd like to mistreat others (e.g., torture, attacks on civilians, shunning) without grasping how problematic they may be or examining the many ways we have contributed to the conflict. And if "an extreme measure" like shunning is okay when we do it, then there should be little problem with our utilizing less extreme measures (e.g., doxing, name calling, attempting to adversely affect how someone earns his or her living) to punish those we have deemed worthy of punishment. As long as our cause is righteous, our actions are justified. Why, it is almost as if we imagine having some sort of god on our side!

After we reach the point where we have a righteous cause, agree that "it is okay when we do it," and we find ourselves mobilized against a dehumanized enemy, no compromise is possible. Why the hell would you compromise with an evil enemy who seeks to destroy you? They threaten our very democracy, nation, socio-political ideology, or status in the atheist community. We've already established that our cause is just, and we have a rationale that lets us to treat people far worse than how we want them to treat us. There is little incentive to compromise in any way.