August 25, 2004 | Graham

Original sin and Abu Ghraib.

Two of my recent themes collided with each other on Stephen Crittendon’s Religion Report this morning, and also with the release of the US Army report into Abu Ghraib prison. On the OnLineOpinions list I have recently been arguing that you cannot understand classical liberalism outside of the context of original sin. In a couple of posts here and here on this site I have also argued that the events in Abu Ghraib were all too human and predictable, and that to view them as special was to dehumanise all of the participants and exculpate ourselves from the blame that should accrue to us from what happens in most prisons around the world.
Stephen’s interviewee, theologian James Allison, who is both Catholic and gay, appears to share my philosophical and ethical interests in this respect. He says:

The doctrine of original sin says Look at those pictures from Abu Gharib, and see yourselves, that any one of us could have been young, white trash soldiers, sent away on a ghastly war for no real purpose, and finding ourselves curiously attracted by being given strange power over people and finding ourselves humiliating them and abusing them in ways which we would never have done at home, as it were. That any one of us could be that. They are not unlike us in that.

I’d disagree with him in one respect. You don’t need the cover of war, or readings about its purpose, or to be young and “white trash” to be capable of doing those sorts of things, or to be in that environment. Even middleclass, middleaged writers like Allison, and me, have it in them to do those things, here at home in what we think of as civilisation. But Allison seems to accept that later when he says:

They aren’t monsters, this could happen to any of us and resisting it, or in the traditional language, overcoming our concupiscence, resisting concupiscence, and concupiscence of course does not mean in the first instance, to do with sex, it’s the disturbed pattern of desire, resisting concupiscence is a struggle for all of us. Now that’s what the doctrine of original sin says, and I think that learning to see our similarity with people, and therefore not regarding them as monsters, is a vital learning tool for all of us.

In fact, he sees original sin as being almost a democratising force. “…the purpose of the doctrine of original sin is not a mat accusation of how awful you all are, but please recognise how all of you are in this together, and none of you is better than each other, therefore none of you can judge each other.”
He certainly believes that Christianity lays the foundations for the secular society by making a system of government separate from religion possible. This fits in well with the theme of Samuel Huntington’s latest book, reviewed in On Line Opinion by Professor deBats later today (the privileges of being editor), that the culture of the USA springs from protestant christianity.
It also fits in well with classical liberal conceptions of the good society. Liberals are often criticised for undue belief in “the market”. The market is impersonal and therefore inhuman, according to its socialist critics. In fact, in Allison’s terms, it is original sin at work because at its heart lies a refusal to adjudge the judgements of our peers as being a matter for anyone other than themselves. Classical liberalism eschews the arrogance of state intervention in preference for the humility of non-intervention, which leads inevitably to markets. Markets may not be right, but who gives me the right to tyrranise over my friends and tell them that their bargains, freely entered into, are wrong?
Which brings us back to Abu Ghraib because some activities by others may absolutely demand that, despite an appreciation of our common humanity, individuals and society have a duty to interfere. In this case, that interference was too late.

Posted by Graham at 11:51 pm | Comments Off on Original sin and Abu Ghraib. |

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