What Would Thoreau Say About U.S. Torture Policy?

The U.S. torture policy has been buzzing around in my head like an angry wasp these last few days, making it hard for me to enjoy anything else.

I haven’t read the newly-released memos or followed the talking heads or read Obama’s recent speech at CIA head­quarters. I’ve only caught hints of this and that in headlines and blog commentary. I feel like I got the message in its essentials a long time ago, and the emerging details are starting to become just atrocity porn.

On the other hand, lots of people don’t seem to have gotten the message, or it doesn’t mean the same thing to them that it means to me. They don’t think it concerns them, or, at any rate, any further than requiring of them that they select an opinion to wear on appropriate occasions.

Others, smoking the same pipe Obama’s smoking, dream themselves a fantasy in which all the nastiness is behind us and we don’t have to much worry ourselves about it anymore except perhaps on rainy days when a sigh of melancholy reflection sounds like just the thing to match the weather.

I was reminded of what Thoreau wrote in his jour­nals as he was preparing what he would later deliver as Slavery in Mas­sa­chu­setts:

The effect of a good government is to make life more valuable — of a bad government, to make it less valuable. We can afford that railroad and all merely material stock should depreciate, for that only compels us to live more simply and economically; but suppose the value of life itself should be depreciated. Every man in New England capable of the sentiment of patriotism must have lived the last three weeks with the sense of having suffered a vast, indefinite loss.…

Thoreau is referring to the Anthony Burns fugitive slave case, in which Mas­sa­chu­setts — ostensibly a “free state” — arrested Burns and returned him as property to his owner, with the full cooperation of the state government.

…I had never respected this government, but I had foolishly thought that I might manage to live here, attending to my private affairs, and forget it. For my part, my old and worthiest pursuits have lost I cannot say how much of their attraction, and I feel that my investment in life here is worth many per cent. less since Mas­sa­chu­setts last deliberately and forcibly restored an innocent man, Anthony Burns, to slavery. I dwelt before in the illusion that my life passed somewhere only between heaven and hell, but now I cannot persuade myself that I do not dwell wholly within hell. The sight of that political or­gan­i­za­tion called Mas­sa­chu­setts is to me morally covered with scoriæ and volcanic cinders, such as Milton imagined. If there is any hell more unprincipled than our rulers and our people, I feel curious to visit it. Life itself being worthless, all things with it, that feed it, are worthless. Suppose you have a small library, with pictures to adorn the walls — a garden laid out around — and contemplate scientific and literary pursuits, &c, &c, and discover suddenly that your villa, with all its contents, is located in hell, and that the justice of the peace is one of the devil’s angels, has a cloven foot and a forked tail — do not these things suddenly lose their value in your eyes? Are you not disposed to sell at a great sacrifice?

I went out back on an unusually hot afternoon yesterday to do some weeding in the garden and try to keep my mind from dwelling on waterboarding and sleep deprivation. It’s Spring and everything is coming up, and the garlic are so vigorous they look almost like cornstalks, and on two occasions I lifted border-bricks and found clutches of wriggling baby salamanders, and Jay Bybee sits on the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals.

I am surprised to see men going about their business as if nothing had happened, and say to myself, “Un­for­tu­nates! they have not heard the news;” that the man whom I just met on horseback should be so earnest to overtake his newly bought cows running away — since all property is insecure, and if they do not run away again, they may be taken away from him when he gets them. Fool! does he not know that his seed-corn is worth less this year — that all beneficent harvests fail as he approaches the empire of hell? No prudent man will build a stone house under these cir­cum­stances, or engage in any peaceful enterprise which it requires a long time to accomplish. Art is as long as ever, but life is more interrupted and less available for a man’s proper pursuits. It is time we had done referring to our ancestors. We have used up all our inherited freedom, like the young bird the albumen in the egg. It is not an era of repose. If we would save our lives, we must fight for them.

There is a fine ripple and sparkle on the pond, seen through the mist. But what signifies the beauty of nature when men are base? We walk to lakes to see our serenity reflected in them. When we are not serene, we go not to them. Who can be serene in a country where both rulers and ruled are without principle? The remembrance of the baseness of pol­i­ti­cians spoils my walks. My thoughts are murder to the State; I endeavor in vain to observe nature; my thoughts involuntarily go plotting against the State. I trust that all just men will conspire