December 11, 2005

ON TORTURE, V: A Monster's Confession, and the Choice to be Human

With regard to everything that follows, I urge you always to keep in mind two crucial facts. The first is the very simple truth that ought to end all the debates about torture before they even begin: TORTURE DOES NOT WORK. Torture does not lead to accurate intelligence, it does not aid us in any ascertainable, identifiable way in preventing atrocities visited upon either combatants or innocent civilians, and it does not take us one step closer to victory over our genuine enemies. For anyone who remains at all decent, that stops the discussion immediately. But it does not -- only because of certain truths a dangerous number of us refuse to face.

The second fact, which cannot ever be emphasized too often or too much, identifies the actual nature of torture. As I put it in Part III of this series:
Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever.
I suppose it is only appropriate, in an especially grisly manner, that Charles Krauthammer, a leading and particularly vicious hawk, should have written a "defense" of torture recently published in what is probably the most profoundly irresponsible, dishonest and uncivilized periodical in the United States today, The Weekly Standard. The title and subheading of his article are themselves instructive: "The Truth about Torture -- It's time to be honest about doing terrible things." Krauthammer tells the "truth" and is "honest" in the same manner we might view Hitler or Stalin as "truthful" and "honest": his article is one lie piled on top of another. The distortions and contradictions are endless. Only a man who is deeply uncivilized and who is contemptibly dishonest could have authored such a piece; the same is true to varying degrees of anyone and everyone who has praised it, as many hawks have.

The deeply sickening and repellent tone of Krauthammer's paean to inhumanity is revealed in his opening paragraph:
DURING THE LAST FEW WEEKS in Washington the pieties about torture have lain so thick in the air that it has been impossible to have a reasoned discussion. The McCain amendment that would ban "cruel, inhuman, or degrading" treatment of any prisoner by any agent of the United States sailed through the Senate by a vote of 90-9. The Washington establishment remains stunned that nine such retrograde, morally inert persons--let alone senators--could be found in this noble capital.
Those who question the advisability of embracing barbarism as national policy are employing "pieties about torture," and they make it impossible for the monsters in our midst to have "a reasoned discussion" about what degree of sadism for its own sake is "proper," and precisely when it should be employed. Only "retrograde, morally inert persons" could oppose the McCain amendment. It is a wonder that even one such monster could be found "in this noble capital."

This is the cheaply sarcastic tone appropriate to a high school bully who happily terrorizes those he believes to be weaker than he is, not to any sort of serious consideration of an issue that directly calls into question whether we still deserve to be called "civilized" to any extent at all. The survival of our nation's soul is at stake, as it has been for at least the last several years -- and Krauthammer deliberately throws himself into the gutter and rolls around in the mud. Perhaps we should be grateful that people like Krauthammer finally recognize what is their natural environment. But the fact that a commentator who is viewed as "respectable" even in the most minuscule degree speaks of this subject in this particular way contaminates all of us.

Krauthammer very grudgingly and ungracefully concedes that John McCain "deserves respect" for his opposition to the official government approval of torture, but McCain's own history makes it impossible for anyone to do otherwise. (Actually, now that I recall the manner in which certain conservatives have smeared Murtha, Max Cleland, and others -- and McCain himself -- I probably am no longer safe in maintaining even that much. Certain conservatives will undoubtedly smear McCain himself in unforgivably ugly ways before this debate is over.) And I would not object to Krauthammer's statement: "But that does not mean, as seems to be the assumption in Washington today, that a critical analysis of his 'no torture, ever' policy is beyond the pale" -- if Krauthammer did not proceed to engage in lies and endless misdirection in the service of evil.

I will not spend a great deal of time on Krauthammer's effort to prove his "honesty" and "truthfulness," by beginning with "a few analytic distinctions." In the end, such distinctions are completely irrelevant: see the first two fundamental points above. Krauthammer identifies "three kinds of war prisoners" relevant to a discussion of "torture and prisoner maltreatment": "the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle" (in which case "we have no right to disturb a hair on his head"); "the captured terrorist," who is "by definition, an unlawful combatant" (and who therefore "is entitled to no protections whatsoever"); and "the terrorist with information." It is with regard only to this last category that Krauthammer maintains "the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply."

To demonstrate his "seriousness," Krauthammer immediately employs the utterly misleading hypothetical that he calls "the textbook case":
A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?
I discussed this hypothetical in some detail in Part I of this series. I explained why it is a fantasy concocted by Hollywood scriptwriters who are unoriginal hacks of the first order, and why it has nothing whatsoever to do with how this problem would ever arise in the actual world.

By employing this example, one which has been discredited countless times -- and many times by experts on these subjects -- Krauthammer confesses not only his intellectual dishonesty, but his utter ignorance of torture itself, and how it works and fails to work. See Part IV of this series, and Darius Rejali's treatment of the "ticking bomb" problem. Here is a brief excerpt:
With regard to the "ticking time bomb" scenario, so beloved of torture's advocates, Rejali writes:

"What if time is short, as with a 'ticking bomb'? Does torture offer a shortcut? Real torture -- not the stuff of television -- takes days, if not weeks. Even torturers know this. There are three things that limit torture's value in this context."

Those "three things" are the medical limit, the resource limit, and the psychological limit. Consult the article for details.
As is usually true of men engaged in evil of this kind, Krauthammer is well aware of what he accomplishes if he gets you to accept his invalid hypothetical. Here is the heart of his argument:
Torture is not always impermissible. However rare the cases, there are circumstances in which, by any rational moral calculus, torture not only would be permissible but would be required (to acquire life-saving information). And once you've established the principle, to paraphrase George Bernard Shaw, all that's left to haggle about is the price. In the case of torture, that means that the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.

That is why the McCain amendment, which by mandating "torture never" refuses even to recognize the legitimacy of any moral calculus, cannot be right. There must be exceptions. The real argument should be over what constitutes a legitimate exception.
Krauthammer knows exactly what is at stake here, and that is why his dishonesty is eternally unforgivable: "once you've established the principle" that torture would be required in certain circumstances, the argument is over. Krauthammer is hoping you won't notice that no meaningful distinction would exist any longer between us and the most loathsome, inhuman monster on this planet, in the entire span of human history.

The contradictions that Krauthammer permits himself, and which he hopes to foist on you, are further revealed in two other excerpts that deserve mention. With regard to "the terrorist with information," but not information about an allegedly impending catastrophe, Krauthammer writes:
A rational moral calculus might not permit measures as extreme as the nuke-in-Manhattan scenario, but would surely permit measures beyond mere psychological pressure.

Such a determination would not be made with an untroubled conscience. It would be troubled because there is no denying the monstrous evil that is any form of torture. And there is no denying how corrupting it can be to the individuals and society that practice it. But elected leaders, responsible above all for the protection of their citizens, have the obligation to tolerate their own sleepless nights by doing what is necessary--and only what is necessary, nothing more--to get information that could prevent mass murder.
As Krauthammer will shortly tell us, we are "morally compelled" to embrace measures that we know to represent and embody "monstrous evil." To translate this into plainer language: we are morally compelled to act in ways we know to be immoral -- and not simply immoral, but monstrously evil. Morality, according to Krauthammer, thus necessitates its own destruction. If the subject were not so horrifying, I would consider it ironic in the extreme that Krauthammer and hawks like him dare to accuse our enemies of being nihilists: to destroy the very concept of morality, and to do so in the name of saving it, is indeed a monstrous accomplishment that not even our worst enemies would have thought to attempt. The shrewder of our enemies might have realized that the worst among us would accomplish that particular destruction all on their own. But Krauthammer insists that "we must" cross this particular Rubicon -- but that "we need rules." The "rules" will save us. Every slaughtering dictator in history has said the same.

And then there is this:
[I]t simply will not do to take refuge in the claim that all of the above discussion is superfluous because torture never works anyway. Would that this were true. Unfortunately, on its face, this is nonsense. Is one to believe that in the entire history of human warfare, no combatant has ever received useful information by the use of pressure, torture, or any other kind of inhuman treatment? It may indeed be true that torture is not a reliable tool. But that is very different from saying that it is never useful.
Once again, let us translate this to make its meaning unmistakably clear: Because it is possible that on even one occasion torture might lead to "useful" information and save lives, there is no reason to resist the explicit embrace of the "reasoning" that has justified the most murderous regimes in history.

One final dishonesty in Krauthammer's article requires discussion. This particular dishonesty also reveals that Krauthammer and those who accede to this argument understand nothing at all about principles, or why specifically moral principles are so crucial to civilization. Krauthammer takes McCain to task for McCain's statement that, in the case of the invalid "ticking time bomb" scenario, McCain said, "you do what you have to do. But you take responsibility for it." Krauthammer then asks: "But if torturing the ticking time bomb suspect is 'what you have to do,' then why has McCain been going around arguing that such things must never be done?"

In this manner, Krauthammer and others of his kind eject themselves from civilization entirely, and forever. McCain's point is that we still do not consider sadistic, inhumane treatment as valid -- but if the circumstances demonstrate that, in the particular case, the use of torture in fact led to the saving of many lives, then, but only then, will we decline to impose the punishment that would otherwise be imposed. But the principle would remain intact. The exception would remain the exception: we still would not approve such conduct, and thus make it acceptable and sure to spread further in its use. We would recognize that a genuine emergency might carve out an exception only with regard to the punishment imposed, but not with regard to the behavior that we condemn in no uncertain terms.

Krauthammer wishes to convince us that he is "serious" and "truthful." Fine, then let us be "serious" and "truthful." I have no doubt, and neither does any other adult, that in a genuine emergency of the "ticking time bomb" fantasy variety, torture has been and will continue to be employed. But the point of the prohibition is to make those who may choose to use torture to remember the great and terrible significance of what they do: that torture is never to be used routinely, or even in a certain "category" of cases. Such "categories" are easily subject to manipulation and in the service of sadistic brutality. Even a scant knowledge of the twentieth century confirms that point, more times than we would care to remember. The rest of human history provides several encyclopedias of confirming evidence.

The further point is that, in such a case, the person or persons who used torture would be asking for mercy, i.e., that the law not be applied to them given the extraordinary nature of this specific case. If we were convinced that they acted with sufficient justification in this one case, we would grant them that mercy. Again, the principle and the prohibition would be preserved.

The full monstrousness of Krauthammer's purpose becomes clear in the scope of its horror at the very end of his article:
But if that is the case, then McCain embraces the same exceptions I do, but prefers to pretend he does not. If that is the case, then his much-touted and endlessly repeated absolutism on inhumane treatment is merely for show. If that is the case, then the moral preening and the phony arguments can stop now, and we can all agree that in this real world of astonishingly murderous enemies, in two very circumscribed circumstances, we must all be prepared to torture. Having established that, we can then begin to work together to codify rules of interrogation for the two very unpleasant but very real cases in which we are morally permitted--indeed morally compelled--to do terrible things.
This is the same justification that every cowardly, bloodthirsty murderer has always used: "You have left me no choice but to be a monster. Because I am helpless to resist what I know to be evil, I am still moral. I still uphold the values of civilization."

A word that is stronger and more damning that "evil" is needed to convey the nature of this kind of argument. Krauthammer seeks to make us all monsters, and to make us all accept that we must be monsters: "We must all be prepared to torture." And even worse: we are "morally compelled" to be monsters.

The confession is undeniable. Be absolutely sure to grasp what it is: Krauthammer thus confesses that he is already a monster, but he does not want you to condemn him for it. To the contrary, he wants you to become a monster too, to accept that you were "compelled" do so in the name of morality itself, all so that you will fear judgment in the same manner, and for the same reason.

Thus, these monsters seek to reduce every one of us to their level -- to make all of us sadistic brutes, who inflict pain for the sake of pain, and who continue to maintain that they are "morally compelled" to do so, that they are upholding civilization in so acting, and that they had no choice in the matter.

But it is all a lie. It is the single worst lie any human being can ever tell. We always have a choice. The choice is what makes us human. That is where the essence of our humanity lies -- and where the possibility for true nobility of action and spirit resides.

It is also where the capacity for evil lies. Krauthammer and those who believe as he does have told us in unmistakable terms that they are already monsters. They deny it, but the truth is that they have chosen to be monsters. Krauthammer's entire article is nothing but a series of lies, and a series of rationalizations to disguise his own evil.

They are monsters. They now seek to turn us into a nation of monsters. Never, ever forget it.