Finding the Art in Everything

22 December, 2007

Smashing the World

“The war creates no absolutely new situation: it simply aggravates the permanent human situation so that we can no longer ignore it. Human life has always lived on the edge of a precipice. Human culture has always had to exist under the shadow of something infinitely more important than itself…We are mistaken when we compare war to “normal life. Even those periods we think most tranquil…turn out, on closer inspection to be full of crises, alarms, difficulties, emergencies…” –C.S. Lewis (Weight of Glory)

“One of the most dangerous errors is [believing] that civilization is automatically bound to increase and spread. The lesson of history is the opposite; civilization is a rarity, attained with difficulty and easily lost. The normal state of humanity is barbarism, just as the normal surface of the planet is salt water. Land looms large in our imagination and civilization in history books, only because sea and savagery are to us less interesting.” C.S. Lewis (Rehabilitations)

The Washington Post, this past few weeks, has had several articles discussing the fight over the detention center at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba. I am deeply bothered by this whole situation, and I have been for some time. There has already been the congressional vote over the issue of the detainee’s treatment; now, it’s under judicial scrutiny, where the latest battle is over a destroyed set of tapes that allegedly recorded a significant interrogation. It is true that the issue of the Guantánamo Bay Detention center poses a serious political and ethical dilemma, but this governmental action is bringing us no closer to solving it. I question the legitimacy of a bill whose passage is so clearly marked by party lines, like this last one.

The more we talk about Guantánamo in terms of presidencies, bills, and hearings the smaller we make it. Few meaningful things actually fit in the tiny context of partisan politics. One problem with the Guantánamo situation is that it is being shoved into the role of a banner issue—one must be for or against it. But it doesn’t fit a context this small, and it is not the only issue that doesn’t. I feel the same way about abortion.

It seems to me the issue of Guantánamo shouldn’t be part of the referendum debate on the current administration, but part of one of the greater debates in human history: between civilization and. anarchy, or between war and pacifism. It is a great historical paradox that war—in all of its brutality and savagery—must be waged to protect civilization. War and civilization are intuitive opposites, except in the case of preservation. Lewis reminds us that shreds of civilization are hard won and not the normal state of humanity. The prisons in Guantánamo are an ugly reality of war—war on those who threaten our young notion of civilization.

We are fortunate that, in the last 100 years, our attempts to mitigate the hideous effects of war with conventions and treaties has been relatively effective. I don’t disagree that these conventions are a good thing—in fact, they still fight for civilization in the face of its opposition on the battlefield. But our biggest problem with Guantánamo and its detainees is that they may exist outside the battlefield defined by our rules and conventions. It may exist, as a friend helpfully identifies, in a space outside “democracy” and “rights” and even the law.

Of course I would prefer that we could keep war within the confines of our civilized political conventions; Of course I am appalled by the legal and physical conditions of Guantánamo , just as I would be appalled by these conditions in any other element of war. One argument (all superficial partisanship aside) is that a place such as Guantánamo seems absurd because it tramples democratic virtues. But maybe the absurdity is trying to apply civilized, democratic conventions to War in the first place. War and civilization are opposites. It is no wonder that the issue of Guantánamo is so problematic: the government is attempting to drag an element of war into an element of civilization, the United States Congress (where civilization is a broader term than that which evaluates the individual behavior of our representatives) The degree of political infighting does not reveal the magnitude of this issue’s significance, but the absurdity of pursuing a political solution.

A friend pointed out, “the decision to use methods of torture is not going to be definable by law… [W]e need to face the fact that there are some issues that cannot be solved for all cases in advance, and that this is one of them. The decision to torture someone is a moral decision, one about which one must have absolute certainty, and the Congress will not be able to define all of these cases via legislation.” The issue of Guantánamo is not threatening because it represents the work of an evil executive or military with too much power; it is threatening because it exposes the weaknesses and flaws modern liberalism and its political manifestations bear. Every age seeks to hold their own laws and systems as absolute, and the issue of Guantánamo , among others, exposes that principle for the historical hubris it is. Our notions of Civilization are actually young and fragile and perhaps sometimes flawed.

We don’t defend our system because it is perfect and everything about it is defensible. We defend it because this civilization is ours—a civilization, that Lewis defines as, “the realization of the human idea…the life of beings for whom the leisured activities of thought, art, literature, and conversation are the end, and the propagation of the species is merely the means…” (Rehabilitations) All patriotic pomp and circumstance aside, the 9/11 attacks put us directly at war with people who seek to destroy our political, economic, and moral system based on the freedom of choice. Their preferred system (if there is one) is one of totalitarian control by a few corrupt elite (using the government of Iran, as an example). We are free to be critical of this system—to in fact, deem it inferior—because we love our own.

Just because two systems both lay claim to the label of “civilized” does not make them equivalents. History reveals the tactics used by a Civilization to defend itself do not have to be civilized to be in defense of it. It is the brutality of war that masks a key difference between the two. While the elements of war are horrifying, we can make the distinction in the case of combative defense based on purpose: the purpose of preservation is inherently noble and civilized, while the purpose of destruction is not.

We may in 100 years, or even 10 years, come to regret our behavior in Guantánamo . But we would certainly regret not doing everything in our power to preserve our civilizations’ freedoms. As Chesterton points out, those who love the world would be “ready to smash the whole world for the sake of itself.”

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