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Sony's Self-Censorship, CIA Torture. How Readily Fear Trumps Wisdom and Morality
Second-guessing of Sony's withdrawal of "The Interview", and of CIA torture in the 'War on Terror," ignores a basic truth about human behavior: When we are afraid, reasoning and morality readily give way to whatever feels like it might keep us safe.
Here we go again, criticizing decisions made out of fear with the clarity afforded by safety and hindsight. This time it’s everyone second-guessing Sony’s decision to pull their satirical film “The Interview” from its planned Christmas-season release. (The company now says it is exploring how to release the film “on other platforms.”) Several days ago, many were second-guessing the CIA’s brutal post-9/11 torture program. In both cases the second-guessing gets it right. Sony was wrong. So is torture. But the second-guessing overlooks what both instances teach us about a basic truth of human nature; fear trumps morality and wisdom every time. It always has. It always will. Facile hindsight will not keep these things from happening again.
Do you doubt that? Then put yourself in the shoes of the parent in the imaginary scenario below, and see how you feel at the end.
It’s 8 a.m. and you and your family are in your car, fleeing as smoke rises from where a bomb went off fifteen minutes ago a few miles away from your home. The road is jammed with cars full of frightened people like you. Flashing red and blue emergency lights are everywhere. Sign boards and waving police officers with bullhorns along the road command “KEEP MOVING!”
News announcers on the radio, fear and drama in their voices, urgently warn everyone to keep their windows closed or stay inside, because the smoke carries radiation from the dirty bomb set off by terrorists inside the city transportation hub. Stuck in stop-and-go-traffic, you look in your rear view mirror, over the heads of your frightened kids clutching the family dog in the back seat. The smoke is drifting your way.
Now move ahead a couple weeks. You are living out of state with friends, your only possessions the things you threw into the car as you fled. You and your family had to wait nine hours in a line of refugees to be decontaminated…scrubbed down…at a local fire station, where a nurse in full protective clothing ran a radiation detector over you and your kids before trying to reassure you by saying that “The dose you were exposed to was measurable, but not enough to be dangerous”. Reassured?
Ten square miles around the blast site has been cordoned off because of radioactive contamination. The closed area includes your home. There is no word yet on when, or even whether, you will be allowed to return. The death toll is 350. Hundreds more are injured or unaccounted for. The terrorists boasting of the bombing have not been found, and they are promising more such attacks.
And now imagine one more thing. You hear on the news that three foreign nationals in custody on other terrorism-related charges may know who did the bombing, and may know something about other dirty bombs the bombers might be planning to set off.
What would you be willing to do to those three suspects to get them to tell you what they know? How far would you be willing to go to keep another attack from happening? Where would your moral line be?
After that exercise, it shouldn’t be hard to put yourself in the shoes of the Sony executives. After a hard week of embarrassing public revelations about hacked emails, you learn that the hack was pulled off by the North Korean government, which is also apparently the source of direct threats to you personally and to audiences at the theaters about to show your film. This is a government so angry that they have mounted a major cyber attack that has already cost you millions. What else are they willing, and able, to do? Are their threats real? Could they possibly actually mean to do you harm? How safe would you feel? What would you do about releasing “The Interview”?
It’s easy to philosophize about choices like these when we’re not afraid. It’s facile (and correct, by the way) to say that caving in to threats from North Korea sets a dangerous precedent of self-censorship that can only lead to worse. It is easy (and correct), 13 years removed from the horror and anger and fear of the 9/11/01 attacks, to criticize CIA torture as immoral and a violation of American values.
The problem is, the critics say not only that we shouldn’t have acted that way in the past, but that we shouldn’t do these things again. Honorable as that is, it is intellectually naïve. Fear readily trumps morality. Fear easily supersedes rationality. And for good reason. It keeps us alive.
That’s not a justification for torture. Fear is no justification for the myriad horrible things humans do to others, not just in the name of tribe or nation but as individuals. It’s no excuse for a publisher caving in to a threat and not printing a story or releasing a book or film, or for the dumb choices we make in our own lives – to drive several hundred miles because flying is scary, or expose ourselves to unnecessary medical screening or treatment because we’re afraid of cancer.
But it is an explanation. And it makes clear why, as much as our hindsight about torture or our second-guessing of Sony’s self-censorship might challenge us to rise above our instincts, it is naïve to expect that we ever really can overcome the most basic instinct of all, the instinct to keep ourselves alive. Rational decision making may seem intelligent. Moral decision making may seem honorable. The survival imperative trumps them both. Always has. Always will.
As Richard Nixon said:
People react to fear, not love—they don’t teach that in Sunday School, but it’s true.
Photo: Duc Dao, Shutterstock.
What is human dignity? Here's a primer, told through 200 years of great essays, lectures, and novels.
- Human dignity means that each of our lives have an unimpeachable value simply because we are human, and therefore we are deserving of a baseline level of respect.
- That baseline requires more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose.
- We look at incredible writings from the last 200 years that illustrate the push for human dignity in regards to slavery, equality, communism, free speech and education.
The inherent worth of all human beings<p>Human dignity is the inherent worth of each individual human being. Recognizing human dignity means respecting human beings' special value—value that sets us apart from other animals; value that is intrinsic and cannot be lost.</p> <p>Liberalism—the broad political philosophy that organizes society around liberty, justice, and equality—is rooted in the idea of human dignity. Liberalism assumes each of our lives, plans, and preferences have some unimpeachable value, not because of any objective evaluation or contribution to a greater good, but simply because they belong to a human being. We are human, and therefore deserving of a baseline level of respect. </p> <p>Because so many of us take human dignity for granted—just a fact of our humanness—it's usually only when someone's dignity is ignored or violated that we feel compelled to talk about it. </p> <p>But human dignity means more than the absence of violence, discrimination, and authoritarianism. It means giving individuals the freedom to pursue their own happiness and purpose—a freedom that can be hampered by restrictive social institutions or the tyranny of the majority. The liberal ideal of the good society is not just peaceful but also pluralistic: It is a society in which we respect others' right to think and live differently than we do.</p>
From the 19th century to today<p>With <a href="https://books.google.com/ngrams/graph?year_start=1800&year_end=2019&content=human+dignity&corpus=26&smoothing=3&direct_url=t1%3B%2Chuman%20dignity%3B%2Cc0" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Google Books Ngram Viewer</a>, we can chart mentions of human dignity from 1800-2019.</p><img type="lazy-image" data-runner-src="https://assets.rebelmouse.io/eyJhbGciOiJIUzI1NiIsInR5cCI6IkpXVCJ9.eyJpbWFnZSI6Imh0dHBzOi8vYXNzZXRzLnJibC5tcy8yNDg0ODU0My9vcmlnaW4ucG5nIiwiZXhwaXJlc19hdCI6MTY1MTUwMzE4MX0.bu0D_0uQuyNLyJjfRESNhu7twkJ5nxu8pQtfa1w3hZs/img.png?width=980" id="7ef38" class="rm-shortcode" data-rm-shortcode-id="9974c7bef3812fcb36858f325889e3c6" data-rm-shortcode-name="rebelmouse-image" />
American novelist, writer, playwright, poet, essayist and civil rights activist James Baldwin at his home in Saint-Paul-de-Vence, southern France, on November 6, 1979.
Credit: Ralph Gatti/AFP via Getty Images
The future of dignity<p>Around the world, people are still working toward the full and equal recognition of human dignity. Every year, new speeches and writings help us understand what dignity is—not only what it looks like when dignity is violated but also what it looks like when dignity is honored. In his posthumous essay, Congressman Lewis wrote, "When historians pick up their pens to write the story of the 21st century, let them say that it was your generation who laid down the heavy burdens of hate at last and that peace finally triumphed over violence, aggression and war."</p> <p>The more we talk about human dignity, the better we understand it. And the sooner we can make progress toward a shared vision of peace, freedom, and mutual respect for all. </p>
Scientists find that bursts of gamma rays may exceed the speed of light and cause time-reversibility.
- Astrophysicists propose that gamma-ray bursts may exceed the speed of light.
- The superluminal jets may also be responsible for time-reversibility.
- The finding doesn't go against Einstein's theory because this effect happens in the jet medium not a vacuum.
Jet bursting out of a blazar. Black-hole-powered galaxies called blazars are the most common sources detected by NASA's Fermi Gamma-ray Space Telescope.
Cosmic death beams: Understanding gamma ray bursts<div class="rm-shortcode" data-media_id="cu2knVEk" data-player_id="FvQKszTI" data-rm-shortcode-id="c6cfd20fdf31c82cb206ade8ce21ba3f"> <div id="botr_cu2knVEk_FvQKszTI_div" class="jwplayer-media" data-jwplayer-video-src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"> <img src="https://cdn.jwplayer.com/thumbs/cu2knVEk-1920.jpg" class="jwplayer-media-preview" /> </div> <script src="https://content.jwplatform.com/players/cu2knVEk-FvQKszTI.js"></script> </div>
Philosophers have been asking the question for hundreds of years. Now neuroscientists are joining the quest to find out.
- The debate over whether or not humans have free will is centuries old and ongoing. While studies have confirmed that our brains perform many tasks without conscious effort, there remains the question of how much we control and when it matters.
- According to Dr. Uri Maoz, it comes down to what your definition of free will is and to learning more about how we make decisions versus when it is ok for our brain to subconsciously control our actions and movements.
- "If we understand the interplay between conscious and unconscious," says Maoz, "it might help us realize what we can control and what we can't."
Puerto Rico's iconic telescope facilitated important scientific discoveries while inspiring young scientists and the public imagination.
- The Arecibo Observatory's main telescope collapsed on Tuesday morning.
- Although officials had been planning to demolish the telescope, the accident marked an unceremonious end to a beloved astronomical tool.
- The Arecibo radio telescope has facilitated many discoveries in astronomy, including the mapping of near-Earth asteroids and the detection of exoplanets.
Bradley Rivera via twitter.com<p>In 1963, the concave dish was built into a natural sinkhole on the northern coast of Puerto Rico. The location was <a href="https://www.space.com/20984-arecibo-observatory.html" target="_blank">picked because it was near the equator,</a> providing scientists a clear view of planets passing overhead, and also of the ionosphere, which is the uniquely reactive layer of Earth's upper atmosphere where the northern lights form.</p><p>Since its construction, scientists have used the Arecibo telescope to map near-Earth asteroids, detect gravitational waves, study pulsars, detect exoplanets and <a href="https://www.seti.org/goodbye-arecibo" target="_blank">search for alien civilizations</a>, among other projects. Here's a brief look at some of the discoveries and accomplishments made using the Arecibo telescope:</p><ul><li>1964: Astronomer <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gordon_Pettengill" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Gordon Pettengill</a> discovers that Mercury's rotation period is 59 days, significantly shorter than the previous prediction of 88 days.</li><li>1974: Physicists Russell Alan Hulse and Joseph Hooton Taylor Jr. discovers the first binary pulsar, for which they won a Nobel Prize in Physics.</li><li>1974: Scientists use the telescope to transmit the "Arecibo message" to <a href="https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Great_Globular_Cluster_in_Hercules" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">globular star cluster M13</a>. The message, when translated into image form, contains basic information about humanity and human knowledge: the numbers one to 10, a map of our solar system, an illustration of a human being, and the atomic numbers of certain elements.</li><li>1989: Scientists use the telescope to image an asteroid for the first time.</li><li>1992: Astronomers Alex Wolszczan and Dale Frail become the first to discover exoplanets.</li></ul>
The Google-owned company developed a system that can reliably predict the 3D shapes of proteins.