Should there be a commission to publicly investigate the use of torture by the Bush administration?

Pragmatic Democrats argue no, that it will divert our attention from all the other, positive things that have to be done.

I disagree. But not for the usual reasons, all of which are good reasons: Maintaining the rule of law. Punishing the criminal activities of the Bush administration. Beginning to reclaim our moral stature in the world. Refusing to accept the we-were-just-following-orders defense that must never again be tolerated. All good reasons. But there is one overriding reason behind all of the others.

It is crucial to understand why torture is so overpowering an issue. Not killing and maiming hundreds of thousands of innocent civilians in the shock-and-awe approach to Iraq. Not ignoring the horrors of Darfur. Not the thousands of gun deaths and maimings in America each year. Not all the deaths and illnesses that come from the denial of care by a private health care system that cares about profits over people. There are plenty of things to be outraged about. What is it about torture?

The clearest clue comes from Greg Mitchell of Editor & Publisher in his piece at Huffington Post, retelling the story of a female American G.I., Alyssa Peterson, who committed suicide after refusing to participate in the torture of Iraqi prisoners.

"The official probe of her death would later note that earlier she had been "reprimanded" for showing "empathy" for the prisoners. One of the most moving parts of the report, in fact, is this: "She said that she did not know how to be two people; she … could not be one person in the cage and another outside the wire.""

Repeat: "She did not know how to be two people…" Reprimanded for showing “empathy.”

We now know from the study of mirror neuron systems in the brain that empathy is physical, a capacity built into our very bodies. It is what allows us to feel what others feel and appears to be the basis for human connection and the capacity to care about others. Our native neural capacities for empathy can be strengthened by how we are raised, or it can decay when empathy is not experienced — or we can be trained to develop neural circuitry to bypass natural empathy.

President Obama has argued that empathy is the basis of our democracy. It is because we care about others, he has argued, that we have principles like freedom and fairness, not just for ourselves but for everyone.  I have found, in studies of largely unconscious political conceptual systems, that empathy is the basis of progressive political thought, and the basis for the very idea of social, not just individual, responsibility. Conservative political thought is otherwise structured, based on authority, discipline, and responsibility for oneself but not others. The major moral, social, and political divide in America centers around empathy.

Alyssa Peterson “did not know how to be two people…" But many of us do. Our brains permit circuitry for what is called ‘mutual inhibition,” in which the activity of one of two circuits inhibits the other. That’s why it’s possible to have two opposing moral systems operating in your brain – one for Saturday night and one for Sunday morning. Many of us can be one person Saturday night and another Sunday morning. Or a progressive on the environment and a conservative on the freedom of gays to marry. Or a torturer in Iraq and a loving dad at home … maybe.

To understand the importance of torture as issue, it helps to know the basics of how mirror neuron systems work in the brain. The same neurons that fire when you move your muscles in performing an action also fire when you see someone else moving the same muscles. The emotional regions of the brain are linked to muscle movement: you smile in joy and writhe in extreme pain. Your mirror neuron system picks up their muscle movements, activating the same part of the brain in you, which is linked to your emotional system. Thus, when you see someone jumping for joy or writhing in pain, you can sense their joy or feel their pain. That is, if your empathy system is working normally—if it has not decayed in your upbringing and if you have not acquired other circuitry to inhibit or bypass it, or in other words, if, like Alyssa Peterson, you have not learned to be two different people.

Alyssa Peterson was a religious Mormon, apparently in the tradition of the true Christian, who sees Christ as preaching and living empathy. She was one person with one identity, not two. She was in Iraq to serve her country as an Arabic interpreter. She understood, as Barack Obama told Anderson Cooper on 360 (March 19, 2008), “…what I think is the core of patriotism, which is, you know, are we caring for each other? Are we upholding the values of our founders?” In short, patriotism begins with empathy, with people caring about each other. Alyssa Peterson could not turn off her empathy or the patriotism based on her empathy. She could not live with a patriotism that precluded her deepest sense of identity.

Torture violates empathy in the most direct way. The very neural system we use in creating inhuman, unbearable pain in someone you are looking at, hearing, and touching is the same neural system that equips us to feel the pain we are creating. It is the same neural system that creates human connections with others. And the same neural system that lies at the heart of political democracy. Turning it off is turning off humanity, and with it democracy.

That is why torture is THE issue that we cannot ignore.

All of Obama’s proposals are based on empathy as their moral and political foundation. That is why a commission to bring out the facts about torture is about the future, not just the past.

George Lakoff is the author of The Political Mind, which will be out in paperback June 1. He is Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley. 

George Lakoff

George Lakoff

George Lakoff is the author of Moral Politics, Don't Think of an Elephant!, Whose Freedom?, and Thinking Points (with the Rockridge Institute staff). He is Richard and Rhoda Goldman Distinguished Professor of Cognitive Science and Linguistics at the University of California at Berkeley, and a founding senior fellow at the Rockridge Institute.