For shame

Andrew Sullivan points to a deeply troubling poll result: 54 percent of Americans who attend church more often say that torturing suspected terrorists is acceptable, compared to 42 percent of those who “seldom or never” go to services. Have these people even read the Gospel? Even heard it preached? In the most literal sense, this is a damning discovery about American Christians.

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“No exceptional circumstances whatsoever”

Jesse Lava runs through the actual, on-the-books, law of the land regarding torture. Bottom line: torture, and even “acts of cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment which do not amount to torture” are illegal, regardless of how useful it is, or how scared we are, or what we saw Jack Bauer do in last week’s episode. (It’s impressive, and sad, the degree to which the language of the Geneva Conventions actually anticipates the justifications being bandied about in the media right now.) You’d think all this would go without saying. And, apparently you’d be wrong.

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Assuming the conculsion

Yesterday I posted this exchange between Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Attorney General nominee Eric Holder without comment. Thinking about it since, it occurred to me that, apart from its tremendous satisfaction for those of us in favor of the rule of law, this mini-argument sums up a lot about how we think about violence in general, and not just the kinds that are, technically, illegal. As a starting point, here’s the Cornyn-Holder exchange in summary:

Cornyn: If torture were the only way to prevent a terrorist attack that could kill bajillions of innocents, would it be OK to torture?
Holder: Uh – that never actually happens.
Cornyn: But what if it did?

Cornyn’s logic should be familiar to any of us who believe that violence is unacceptable, because it parallels (or, indeed, directly copies) an argument every pacifist has faced from skeptics at some point. It typically goes something like this:

But what if some guy broke into your house and put a gun to the head of your [pick one: child, wife, grandmother – or really any helpless (usually female) loved one], and there was no way to stop it except to shoot him? Wouldn’t you kill to save her?

Apart from how much this question tends to lean on certain ideas about gender roles (I once had a skeptic directly question my masculinity in the course of a conversation about this scenario), its weakness is that it assumes its own conclusion. That is, it asks whether you’d use violence if there were no other option but to use violence. But those of us who refuse violence do so because we’re convinced that there is never such a condition.


Photo by julianrod.

The best elaboration on this position is John Howard Yoder‘s pamphlet What would you do?, which points out that the grandmother-under-threat scenario assumes you have perfect knowledge of the attacker’s motives and intentions, that negotiation is impossible, and that Grandma has no moral interest in the situation besides her own survival. (Both my grandmothers are pacifists, too.) In other words, it’s nothing like real life.

It is, however, a lot like television. It almost seems facile to say this, but most of the plot of your average cop show, thriller, or other “action” drama is an exercise in creating assumed conclusions of violence. Excuses, that is, for violent, exciting, entertaining stuff. There’s nothing wrong with that as entertainment – how much of, e.g., science fiction is about coming up with a plausible explanation/excuse for why our heroes are, e.g., on another planet? There is something wrong with using the logic of a television show in real life, as a matter of national policy. Fortunately, the era of television-show logic for torture seems likely to end on 20 January, 2009. Here’s hoping it puts the U.S., and the world, a little closer toward ending the use of television-show logic for all violence.

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Paper trail

The Washington Post has copies of two secret memos in which the Bush Administration officially endorsed waterboarding. What forced the Administration to go on-record? The CIA wanted cover:

The repeated requests for a paper trail reflected growing worries within the CIA that the administration might later distance itself from key decisions about the handling of captured al-Qaeda leaders, former intelligence officials said. The concerns grew more pronounced after the revelations of mistreatment of detainees at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq, and further still as tensions grew between the administration and its intelligence advisers over the conduct of the Iraq war.

Prosecution, alas, remains an open question.

Via the Daily Beast.

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Hitchens: Waterboarding is torture

Christopher Hitchens underwent waterboarding to determine whether or not it’s torture. He’s pretty unequivocal in his report for Vanity Fair:

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—-or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method.

I’m going to say this improves my opinion of Hitchens quite a bit – it’s hard to refute a personal experience like this one. But it’s kind of sad that he needed to experience waterboarding firsthand in order to conclude that it’s beyond the pale. It’s sad that Americans seem not to have (or want to have) the imagination or empathy to understand how cruel and ultimately unproductive “extreme” interrogation methods like this are. Instead our President says that all options need to be “on the table.”

Via BoingBoing.

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