In Iraq, when Tony Lagouranis interrogated suspects, fear was his friend, his weapon. He saw it seep, dark and shameful, through the crotch of a man's pants as a dog closed in, barking. He smelled it in prisoners' sweat, a smoky odor, like a pot of lentils burning. He had touched fear, too, felt it in their fingers, their chilled skin trembling.
But on this evening, Lagouranis was back in Illinois, taking the train to a bar. His girlfriend thought he was a hero. His best friend hung out with him, watching reruns of "Hawaii Five-O." And yet he felt afraid.
"I tortured people," said Lagouranis, 37, who was a military intelligence specialist in Iraq from January 2004 until January 2005. "You have to twist your mind up so much to justify doing that."
Being an interrogator, Lagouranis discovered, can be torture. At first, he was eager to try coercive techniques. In training at Fort Huachuca, Ariz., instructors stressed the Geneva Conventions, he recalled, while classmates privately admired Israeli and British methods. "The British were tough," Lagouranis said. "They seemed like real interrogators."
But interrogators for countries that pride themselves on adhering to the rule of law, such as Britain, the United States and Israel, operate in a moral war zone. They are on the front lines in fighting terrorism, crucial for intelligence-gathering. Yet they use methods that conflict with their societies' values.
Reactions have been varied. There have been the, "Those monsters! They deserve to suffer for all of the pain they've inflicted!" There have been the, "Look at what we're doing to our own troops! Look at what we make them do!" And then there have been more than a couple responses like this one:
Maybe we should let him get captured by the Iraqis so he can see what real torture is and maybe he'll realize that what he did was baby shit.
I hate how this civilization has been pussified to a level where everything is exaggerated far from what it really is.
And that made me wonder when we started equating general humanity with "pussification."
As a society, as a civilization, we have rules. You don't hurt people on purpose. You don't kill people. You don't take other people's things. We also have established exceptions to those rules; we've laid out circumstances in which it's okay to bypass those rules if it's absolutely necessary. If a guy's bearing down on you with an AK-47, you're allowed a waiver on the "don't kill people" rule. If a detainee has information that you need, information that could save lives, and he's not giving it up voluntarily, you get a waiver (to some extent) on the "don't hurt people on purpose" rule. But that doesn't mean that those rules don't go away, or that they aren't still important; it just means that, in some extreme circumstances, other rules are more important.
When people say things like "This civilization has been pussified," they act like it's a bad thing to recognize that yes, on the whole, you don't hurt people on purpose. That hurting people on purpose is the necessary exception, not the rule. Do we want to raise a generation of men who are so very, very manly that they don't recognize "don't hurt people on purpose" as a basic rule of society?
These guys are coming home and dealing with the conflict between what's necessary to complete the job there and what is societally acceptable here. That conflict is to be expected and shouldn't really surprise anyone. Instead of calling them pussies and telling them that they shouldn't feel bad for hurting/killing people, ("Hey, man, he was a terrorist! He hates your freedoms! What're you all broken up about, you pussy?") maybe we, who are sitting at home on our asses and not out there, could be a little more understanding.
I don't wish that kind of emotional turmoil on anyone. And, while a definite baseline of human behavior must be maintained, the fact is that we also don't benefit from interrogators who are so soft that they're not willing to invoke that "lives are at stake" exception and do what needs to be done. But nor do we benefit from someone who's willing to pretend that those basic rules don't exist at all and say, "Hey, he's not even human, so it really doesn't matter what I do." There is a middle ground, and these guys are the ones who have to walk on it.
I don't want to live in a society where mistreatment of anyone - even suspected terrorists, even confirmed terrorists - becomes a matter of course, nothing to worry about, something that's perfectly acceptable and not worthy of a second thought. I also don't want to live in a society where our troops come home miserable and fearful and guilt-ridden about the things they saw and did in the name of our safety and freedom. The solution there is to live in a society where we don't ask our troops to do things that they can't be proud of, things that most human beings know, deep in our hearts, are wrong. And the solution to that is to get our troops the hell out of Iraq.