December 10, 2005

ON TORTURE, II: Of Means and Ends

[All of the essays in my series, On Torture, together with a brief description of each entry, are listed here.]

[This essay was originally published on May 20, 2005, and was titled: "No Sympathy for Any of Them, None at All." I include it in the group of earlier essays concerning torture for a few reasons. The most important of those reasons is to once more make the point that it is not possible to support the overall purposes of our current foreign policy, as for example Andrew Sullivan continues to do, without also supporting the particular means of implementing that policy -- means that are logically necessary and inextricably woven up in it, and used to advance it. To be precise, I should say that it is not possible assuming a certain degree of analytic ability and intellectual honesty. Sullivan has failed to demonstrate these qualities (among others) on numerous occasions. The lesson is one I had thought people understood by now, but many obviously do not: the ends determine the means. Invalid, and sometimes loathsome ends, require and necessitate cruel, barbaric and sometimes loathsome means. You cannot have these particular ends without certain means, Sullivan's self-obsessed wails of protest aside. He will not question the goals he still endorses, but he rails against the logically implied means of trying to attain them. Even a cursory appreciation of history would have informed Sullivan of the futility and error in his approach.

After this essay, I've included an excerpt from a Naomi Klein article that I initially noted on June 7 of this year, when Klein's piece appeared in the Los Angeles Times. Klein drives this same point home using the horrifying example of the French experience in Algeria. As a character in the film "Battle of Algiers" notes when defending the use of torture by the French -- and it should be emphasized that the character is based on an historical figure and on the facts of the French catastrophe: If this is what you still want, "then you must accept all the consequences." This is the stark truth that defenders of our policies like Sullivan still refuse to acknowledge. Tragically, those who have died or been maimed as the result of the policies of the Bush administration did not have the same choice -- and that choice is still denied to the innocent victims of our actions today.

This is why I have no patience whatsoever for Sullivan and others of his kind -- those people who support our foreign policy but who recoil at its barbaric elements. Tens of thousands of people are now dead or have suffered untold agonies because of policies they continue to support to this day -- but they still refuse to take responsibility for any of it. They cling to their so-called "noble ideals" -- while every day provides further evidence that those "ideals" are drenched in blood. There is nothing in the least "idealistic" about their program: it stinks of death and of untold human suffering. But Sullivan and others like him insist that if the policy were implemented in the way they recommend, none of these horrors would come to pass. They forget, and hope we too will forget, that every monster in history has made the same claim -- and with as little justification. The problem lies not in the specific means, as detestable as they are, but in the nature of the "ideals" themselves. But they will admit none of this, and so the destruction and the horror continue.]

As regular readers here know, although I recognize that we have genuine enemies who need to be defeated (which requires that we narrowly target the threats we face), I am profoundly opposed to Bush’s purposely never-defined “War on Terror” and his plans for “benevolent hegemony” via endless war, with nation-building as an inextricable and crucial part of his strategy. A brief review of the relevant history reveals that such delusions have always led finally to the destruction of the nation that attempts to put such plans into operation.

With that brief prefatory note in mind, I will say that I view it as an unqualifiedly good thing when those who enthusiastically support Bush’s foreign policy begin to fight among themselves. With regard to all such internecine battles, I emphatically join our president in saying: Bring it on! So in many ways, the current feud involving Reynolds, Sullivan, various denizens of The Corner and assorted other hawks is altogether a delight to behold, and balm to the soul.

Given Sullivan’s abhorrence in reaction to torture and abuse meted out by U.S. troops, some might think that I would take Sullivan’s side. They would be wrong, for reasons I have explained at length. These are a few key passages from my earlier essay:
It is true that Sullivan provides a good overview of the barbaric torture story ... but so have any number of other people. And in his U.K. Times article, he indulges himself in a truly repellent practice, one which is habitual to him. What seems to concern Sullivan just as much as the barbarity of torture or the disaster in Iraq is the exquisite agony that Bush’s failures have visited upon his, Sullivan’s, precious soul. In fact, the Torments of Sullivan as endlessly detailed by Sullivan himself for all the world to witness—assuming, without any grounds to do so, that any sentient being actually gives a damn—appear to be of considerably greater moment to him than the sufferings visited upon many thousands of people because of the policies he so endlessly championed.


And if you consult his blog (assuming you have a much stronger tolerance for this kind of melodramatic self-dramatizing than I do), you will find many more instances of this adolescent self-examination. Here’s a news flash for Sullivan: an endless number of people, Americans, Iraqis and others, have suffered genuine agony and injury—and are now dead—because of people like you, and as the direct result of your unquenchable desire for absolute safety, which in your view requires “benevolent American hegemony” exercised over the entire world by means of military force. Never mind that this fatal Utopian delusion has never led to anything other than death and destruction; you’re scared, you want to feel safe, and you will see the world destroyed before questioning the absolutely mistaken ideas that you treat as axioms never to be challenged.

And Sullivan’s crimes are even worse than this: it was Sullivan (along with many other warbloggers) who fatally poisoned the cultural atmosphere after 9/11, with his interminable rants about the “fifth columnists” who allegedly are enemies as dangerous to us as foreign terrorists. Recall that those “fifth columnists” included anyone at all who failed to embrace George Bush and his program for world domination in the manner that Sullivan himself did. But now—now that everything that many of those opposed to the Iraq war predicted before the fact has come to pass, and now that the details of abuse and torture have surfaced—now Sullivan is having a few second thoughts.

But there is a deeper problem here—namely, that Sullivan’s second thoughts do not go nearly far enough. Sullivan has not given up the program he endorses at all—or even seriously questioned it. He still believes "in this war as a war of liberation and increased security." This, too, fails to pass the sanity test. Sullivan apparently has never read the numerous articles by any number of experts on terrorism (genuine experts, I emphasize, not dilettantes who blog in between jaunts to Provincetown and walking the dog)—all of whom have pointed out at great length that the invasion and occupation of Iraq, as well as every other aspect of Bush’s “War on Terror,” have only served to increase the actual dangers we face.

But none of this for Sullivan. (None: "I’ve long admired Bush’s recognition of the life-and-death struggle against Islamist fascism as the central task of his presidency. And it’s hard not to value his grit in pursuing what will, I think, eventually be regarded as critical wars in the defense of freedom and democracy in the Middle East. He comes across as a genuinely kind and warm man, of solid values and clear objectives.") Sullivan still wants his American Empire (with his other hero, Tony Blair, as a very junior partner), he still wants American hegemony, and he still wants us to impose "freedom" by force on countries that have no history or culture to support a political system modeled on ours. He’s still an apocalyptic crusader, seeking to create a new world through sacred violence and death just like his hero, Bush.

He just doesn’t want any of the mess. Here’s another news flash for Sullivan: if you want empire and military domination of large swathes of the world in an endless, woefully defined “War on Terror,” lifelong detentions and torture are an inseparable part of what you’re going to get. That kind of mess (and much worse) is woven into the very fabric of the program you so enthusiastically supported—and which you still support.

Of course, to understand that brutality, cruelty, torture, death, the disregard of individual rights, and the undermining of what are supposedly “American values” inevitably accompany the drive to empire requires that one is capable of grasping the lessons of history, that one can engage in meaningful and accurate analysis of political and cultural dynamics—and that one can think.

It also assumes that a person understands that he cannot continually express admiration and support for the political equivalent of Al Capone—and then recoil in shock when he sees that blood has been spilled on his immaculate carpet. Oh, the horror! His carpet has been soiled, and his soul is tormented—while countless other people are maimed or dead.

In addition to everything else that is so deeply repellent about his writing and "thinking," Sullivan’s sense of priorities is so fundamentally twisted and perverse that no regrets he expresses at this point deserve even a moment of sympathy. He made his bed, and he deserves to lie in it. That’s the very least he deserves.
Therefore, in one very limited sense (and leaving aside the lunacy of other aspects of these comments), Reynolds is correct when he says:
When Andrew was a champion of the war on terror, writing about martial spirit and fifth columns composed of the “decadent left,” did he believe that nothing like Abu Ghraib would happen, when such things (and much worse) happen in prisons across America (and everywhere else) on a daily basis? If so, he was writing out of an appalling ignorance.
However, for the reasons explained in the essay excerpted above and in many others here, I obviously think both Reynolds and Sullivan are wrong, and not just wrong but gravely, hopelessly wrong.

With regard to a few more minor points, I will note that John Podhoretz has revealed a degree of ugliness and hatred which is truly sickening to contemplate. There was this post ("If he’s going to go all camp on us, couldn’t the Sullied One have quoted Mae West or Joan Crawford or Bette Davis or something?"), and then this one. Podhoretz’s view of what is "clever" is as shallow and disgusting as is his complete inability to appreciate the gravity of the issues raised by the allegations of torture. And his treatment of Sullivan is utterly despicable, regardless of Sullivan’s own many sins.

The fact that National Review tolerates and even seems to encourage this kind of naked hatred and bigotry places that once somewhat respectable magazine beyond the pale, for all time as far as I’m concerned. This is the territory inhabited by mindless, violent thugs, consumed by hatred and lashing out at anyone who disagrees with them, no matter how well-founded those disagreements might be. And these are the people who would see the world consumed by nuclear clouds, rather than ever admit they might be wrong.

All in all, it’s a thoroughly sickening display. As my headline says: no sympathy for any them, none at all. I only wish that there might be some way that this squabbling in the prowar ranks might translate into a weakening of Bush’s drive toward empire and perpetual war. But, alas, indications of any such weakening are scant to non-existent. Even though the signs of disaster mount day by day, as was true of Vietnam—which constituted a national tragedy from which we now see we learned absolutely nothing—we will not have second thoughts and change our direction until the costs become thoroughly unsustainable, and until a sufficient number of Americans become disgusted and fed up, and threaten retribution on their elected political leaders.

May that day come very, very soon.


[Originally posted on June 7, 2005: "You Must Accept All the Consequences."]

Naomi Klein ("Torture's Part of the Territory"):
Brace yourself for a flood of gruesome new torture snapshots. Last week, a federal judge ordered the Defense Department to release dozens of additional photographs and videotapes depicting prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib.

The photographs will elicit what has become a predictable response: Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld will claim to be shocked and will assure us that action is already being taken to prevent such abuses from happening again. But imagine, for a moment, if events followed a different script. Imagine if Rumsfeld responded like Col. Mathieu in "Battle of Algiers," Gillo Pontecorvo's famed 1965 film about the National Liberation Front's attempt to liberate Algeria from French colonial rule. In one of the film's key scenes, Mathieu finds himself in a situation familiar to top officials in the Bush administration: He is being grilled by a room filled with journalists about allegations that French paratroopers are torturing Algerian prisoners.

Based on real-life French commander Gen. Jacques Massus, Mathieu neither denies the abuse nor claims that those responsible will be punished. Instead, he flips the tables on the scandalized reporters, most of whom work for newspapers that overwhelmingly support France's continued occupation of Algeria. Torture "isn't the problem," he says calmly. "The problem is the FLN wants to throw us out of Algeria and we want to stay. ... It's my turn to ask a question. Should France stay in Algeria? If your answer is still yes, then you must accept all the consequences."

His point, as relevant in Iraq today as it was in Algeria in 1957, is that there is no nice, humanitarian way to occupy a nation against the will of its people. Those who support such an occupation don't have the right to morally separate themselves from the brutality it requires.