A MATTER OF PRINCIPLE?
The most interesting facet of our national health care debate is how reluctant we are to discuss the topic as a matter of principle. Tens of millions of Americans are uninsured, or woefully underinsured, but for some reason the rest of us don’t feel any great compulsion to insure them. “What’s in it for us?” we seem to be saying. “We’re already in debt. Haven’t we spent enough money already?”
Actually, a strong argument can be made that you can reform the health care system AND save money – it’s that inefficient. But even if we discount that argument, we still have the problem that our nation seems to be an absurd profile in inequality. We have several hundred billionaires, and more than 800,000 families with a net worth of $5 million or more, and yet we can’t seem to pony up the money to insure the health care of hard working American citizens. What exactly does that say about us? And what does it say that in the age of Obama – an age where, supposedly, Martin Luther King Jr.’s dream has been realized – we don’t seem to give a whit about economic equity?
I raise these issues today, a Sunday, because this is “church day” in America. This morning, ministers all over the country will be talking about the mission of Jesus Christ – one of ultimate sacrifice, of passionate concern for the needy, of profound compassion, of … I can’t even finish the sentence. The absurdity of this being a “Christian country” that excels in In-equality has become a cliché. “Religious hypocrisy” isn’t exactly an oxymoron, now, is it? So it wouldn’t surprise anyone if, at a time of great opportunity to take care of our needy, our ministers’ sermons will neglect to mention our health care obligations to the working class. Rather than treating our health care debacle as a matter of “principle,” these ministers are more likely to treat it as a matter of “principal” – meaning that the principal on our national debt is huge, and we dare not ask our zillionaires to increase their taxes to pay it down. So, if you’re uninsured, best come to church and pray like hell you stay healthy.
The decision to insure our uninsured should be an easy one, for any ethical man or woman of principle. But believe it or not, it’s not the issue of “principle” most on my mind at the moment. To me, this nation faces an even more profound test than whether we intend to address our economic inequality. I say that because, deep down, we all know that we should care for our nation’s needy – just like, fifty years ago, every churchgoer knew they were obliged to treat African-Americans like human beings. The issue that’s on my mind isn’t nearly as obvious to the Abrahamic mind. It involves, you see, two goals that squarely conflict with each other – the goal of protecting innocent human lives, and the goal of behaving like a civilized people. I’m speaking, in case you can’t yet tell, about the propriety of Government-sponsored torture.
I can read your minds already. “Did he just say there are two sides to the torture issue? Is he serious? Torture is inhumane. Plus, it doesn’t even work. This is a lose-lose proposition. When we torture, we simply breed hatred of America – and inspire future terrorism. Case closed!”
I must say, that has been, and still is my perspective. You’ve smoked me out on that one. But just for laughs, what do you say we investigate whether that summary is a tad too simplistic? What do you say we channel Dick Cheney and sincerely inquire into the issues of whether sometimes Government-sponsored torture actually “works,” and if so – and if it works well enough, and saves enough lives – would Americans still oppose it as a matter of “principle”? I’m guessing that if we won’t even care for our uninsured, and the only thing at stake is multi-millionaires’ taxes, we’d go ahead and approve the torture.
So … back to the facts. Yesterday, in the Washington Post, the lead story involved Khalid Sheik Mohammed. You all know him as the “mastermind” of the 9/11 bombings. But did you know the following? According to the Post, he morphed “into what the CIA called its ‘preeminent source’ on al-Qaeda. This reversal occurred after Mohammed was subjected to simulated drowning and prolonged sleep deprivation, among other harsh interrogation techniques.” The Post quoted a source as saying that Mohammed “seemed to relish the opportunity, sometimes for hours on end, to discuss the inner workings of al-Qaeda and the group’s plans, ideology and operatives.” Why, you might ask, was torture so effective? Because, a source said, “once the harsher techniques were used on [detainees], they could be viewed as having done their duty to Islam or their cause, and their religious principles would ask no more of them. After that point, they became compliant. Obviously, there was also an interest in being able to later say, ‘I was tortured into cooperating.’”
The Post’s article went on to discuss how information from detainees allowed Government agents to round up suspected terrorists in the U.S. and abroad, and how in mid-2003, the Government was able to develop a list of 70 such suspected terrorists. The article’s implication was clear: for this harvest, we may well have torture to thank.
I raise these points not to stimulate some sort of torture-lust, but to remind you that being a “person of principle” often has its price. It’s simply too easy, for example, to oppose capital punishment because “nobody’s proved it has a deterrent effect.” The interesting question is, but what if it did have a bit of a deterrent effect; would you still oppose it as a matter of principle? And the same type of question can, and should, be asked about Government-sponsored torture. What if we believed that it could be effective in preventing terrorist attacks; would we support it? Or would we say to ourselves that Nazis and Klingons torture; civilized peoples do not. Period.
The latter is still my attitude, but I do understand why others disagree – they see big buildings and nuclear power plants NOT exploding because of the dirty work that, to them, simply has to be done. Human lives, after all, are at stake.
And that leads to me think, once again, about health care reform. Human lives (and the torture of untreated illnesses) are at stake there too, which is why many of us believe that reform is so essential as a matter of principle. What’s the principle at stake on the other side of the debate? Exactly why is our affluent society unwilling to provide health care for the working class? What great public interest would be furthered by denying these Americans the same health care the rest of us enjoy? The only thing I can think of is the “interest” of selfishness. I’m sorry, but particularly during the week that Ted Kennedy died, I’m unwilling to take that principle seriously.