Too often left out of the debate over whether the abuse and humiliation of Iraqi prisoners by American military personnel was the unauthorized work of a few rogue guards ("bad apples") or the result of decisions made at a higher level of command are two profound questions about individual character, ethical judgment, and the principles of right and wrong behavior that go beyond the horrors of the present crisis.
The first takes us into what the Chilean writer Ariel Forman calls "the impossible heart of the matter": Is torture ever justified?
One feels shame and resentment when innocent victims are subject to the worst forms of cruelty and human violence, a pattern of conduct routinely practiced today in countries throughout the world. But this begs a more disturbing question: What if the person being tortured is guilty? What if the person has just been taken into custody for planning a terrorist attack on the United States and knows where and when a series of bombs will detonate that would kill thousands of people? Would torture then be acceptable?
The issue can be put more directly: If we were part of an interrogating group using instruments of torture, would we dissent and be actively opposed? If we believed the interrogators were "just following orders," would we stand up and disobey those in authority? Or would we consent because under these circumstances torture was permissible?
That, says Forman, is the real question thrown up to all of us by the pictures of human degradation in the prisons of Iraq, Afghanistan, and who knows where else.
The second question has haunted the history of humanity. Is an all-powerful, all-loving God responsible for a world filled with evil, or does the fault lie in ourselves? Fyodor Dostoevsky, in The Brothers Karamazov, provided some disturbing insights into the bases and appeals of authoritarian power. Most men, he said, are restless, confused and childlike, unable to use their freedom wisely. Their "troublesome consciences" can only be restrained by "miracle, mystery, and authority." Undercutting democratic assumptions, this remains a savage indictment of man's nature and needs.
It was an argument often put forward to explain the acceptance of fascism by the German people. Overwhelmed by the burden of individual responsibility in a chaotic world, they willingly surrendered their rights to Hitler in exchange for a sense of security established by the state.
Somewhere in what Isaac Newton called "the great ocean of truth" are answers to the never-ending questions about the mysteries of good and evil, raised most recently in Abu Ghraib prison. They are questions that need to be asked—especially in democratic societies—even if we are far from answering them. Are decent, ordinary people capable of "crossing the line into barbarity"? As individual moral actors, can we justly be held responsible for our actions? Or, following Marx and Freud, are we simply the agents of stronger forces that determine our moral choices?