Gina Haspel has been nominated to lead the CIA, and the question of American values and torture is on the table.
Senator Martin Heinrich of New Mexico, while questioning Gina Haspel at the confirmation hearing after her nomination to be head of the CIA, asked her about whether she considers the torture policies conducted under her supervision moral and consistent with “American values.” To the question “what do you believe?” she replied, “Senator, I believe very strongly in American values and America being an example to the rest of the world.”
Here is today’s 3D definition:
A range of feelings that include doing whatever subjectively seems best at any given time and believing that, because it is American, it sets an example for the rest of humanity
In her explanation, Haspel said, “I support the fact that we have chosen to hold ourselves to a stricter moral standard.” When asked to explain why she didn’t apply those “stricter” standards when she conducted torture, she used the famous Nazi defense at Nuremberg, “we were just following orders,” making it clear that the orders came from George W. Bush’s White House and were declared legal by the attorney general and that people in the field were too far away from the center of decision to reflect on moral issues.
If Haspel is confirmed, cynics may be justified in pointing out that the US is doing one better than the accused Nazis, who merely asked to be excused for past crimes but were no longer looking to be rewarded for their loyalty.
Interestingly, the further the senators pressed Haspel, the further she evaded the questions by retreating into her idea of what American values might be. When one senator complained that she was hiding behind legalese, she countered, “My parents raised me right.” She then affirmed with the intention of closing the debate, “I know the difference between right and wrong.”
“Raised right,” knowing the difference between “right” and “wrong,” Haspel appears to adhere to the idea of HGH adhere “right” without needing to define it. And it may very well be true that in the moral culture of the US, the belief in right makes might before “might makes right,” which is one way of characterizing the foreign policy of the US and the specific tactics used by Haspel as a CIA operative.
Sociologists specialized in intercultural analysis have for decades highlighted the importance of values to situate the most crucial differences between cultures. By this they do not mean moral sentiments, but assumptions about the world that have an impact — conscious or unconscious — on people’s behavior. In the analysis of US culture, for example, experts commonly cite the values of individualism, equality, self-reliance, control, speed, industry and the primacy of law.
Therefore, when relying on the notion of legal compliance, Haspel is on solid ground. She evades the question of morality by hiding behind the law. Self-reliance and individualism also permit Americans to distance themselves from what might be considered common moral standards. Americans understand the value of tolerance not as a factor of inclusiveness, but as the absence of shame for having opinions and behaviors that differ from the norm. This opens the door to different forms of moral relativism.
Had she been more clever, Haspel might have turned the questioning back at Senator Heinrich by asking him what American values he was referring to and where he imagines they come from. Heinrich appears to believe, in an absolute sense, that torture is contrary to American values. But is it?
If popular opinion and the moral culture projected by Hollywood and television are any indication, torture in the name of American exceptionalism appears to be acceptable and at times necessary within the culture. Values — as any intercultural expert will tell you — are not the same thing as ideals.
A deeper rhetorical analysis of this hearing would reveal that Haspel is appealing to the entirely sentimental ideal of the family as the ultimate source of moral guidelines and Heinrich to the letter of the law. Which one represents American values?
In defending Haspel, former CIA Chief of Staff Larry Pfieffer uses a particularly suspect form of consequentialist reasoning, which no serious ethicist — even extreme utilitarians — would endorse. He claims “there are Americans and other allied individuals who are able to walk around today free and are enjoying full lives because of those techniques [i.e. torture].” He does so without proof, but even if the proof existed, ethicists would condemn this line of reasoning as an extreme form of consequentialism which might be called militaristic political hedonism, according to which the good accruing to a specific class of people through acts of aggressive trumps all other considerations.
Most Americans would reject this attitude if formulated as an ideal, but many seem resigned to it as a permanent feature of their world. Does that make it a value?
*[In the age of Oscar Wilde and Mark Twain, another American wit, the journalist Ambrose Bierce, produced a series of satirical definitions of commonly used terms, throwing light on their hidden meanings in real discourse. Bierce eventually collected and published them as a book, The Devil’s Dictionary, in 1911. We have shamelessly appropriated his title in the interest of continuing his wholesome pedagogical effort to enlighten generations of readers of the news.]
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