December 12, 2005

ON TORTURE, VI(A): The Truth that Lies Within, and the Truth that Many Will Not Face

I have covered many aspects of torture in the earlier parts of this series. First and foremost, and the most crucial point in the debate over whether any government should officially condone torture in any circumstances, is the fact upon which the experts agree: torture does not work. As I've noted repeatedly, that ought to end the debate immediately. Yet it does not. Why doesn't it? The answer may not lie exactly where you think it does. We'll get to that shortly.

I've addressed the manner in which torture is an integral and necessary part of the apparatus of any totalitarian police state, relying on Hannah Arendt's immensely important writing. I've also explained the fundamental contradiction that fatally undercuts the opposition of someone like Andrew Sullivan to the use or approval of torture: it is not possible to continue to support the goals of our foreign policy -- which necessitate the imposition, by means of military force, of our form of government on cultures and societies that have no history, traditions or intellectual roots to sustain the specific political forms we have adopted -- while decrying the inevitably implied and necessary means of achieving those ends. If you want empire, you must use the means by which empire establishes and sustains itself. Moreover, it is simply not true that everyone wants what we want, and that everyone yearns for freedom in the particularly Western mode, as Barbara Tuchman has memorably discussed ("The assumption that humanity at large shared the democratic Western idea of freedom was an American delusion. 'The freedom we cherish and defend in Europe,' stated President Eisenhower on taking office, 'is no different than the freedom that is imperiled in Asia.' He was mistaken. Humanity may have common ground, but needs and aspirations vary according to circumstances.").

There is no question that torture has become a critical, systematic element in the Bush administration's policies regarding its ill-defined "War on Terror," as I discussed in Part III. I offered some indispensable excerpts from Darius Rejali's work on torture in Part IV -- concerning why torture does not work, and how it damages not only the person who is tortured, but the one who tortures. And much more than this is damaged: as Rejali explains, the systematic utilization of torture erodes and eventually destroys any political system that routinely employs it. Torture's destruction reaches in all directions: no one is exempt from the lethal power it exerts.

Even those of us who passionately protest against our government's policies in this regard are not untouched: how can we remain unaffected when our government engages in such monstrous acts, and does so allegedly to protect us, and in our name? It is not that I believe in notions such as collective guilt; I most emphatically do not. Guilt is individual, and belongs to those who have earned it by their wrongdoing. But when a nation's leaders institutionalize the methods of sadistic monsters and make them part of the government's formal policies (even if they simultaneously lie and insist they have not done so), the corruption affects the entire society. We live in this country and this society, and we cannot escape its atmosphere even if we wished to. That is precisely why those of us who deeply oppose our government's course must speak out in every way we can, and as often as we can -- that, together with the fact that the Bush administration does claim to commit these crimes in our name. It is our obligation, to ourselves and to all those who watch and judge what we do and all those who are affected by our actions, to make it clearly understood that this administration does not act for us in these ways. The Bush administration has polluted our nation's cultural and political atmosphere in ways that may not be reversible, at least not in our lifetimes. Now we all breathe its poisoned fumes. The administration's inhuman cruelty affects even those who so mistakenly support and encourage its policies. Their humanity is also diminished and perhaps destroyed, even if they accede in that destruction. In their case, the guilt is earned to varying degrees -- but better leaders would have chosen a very different course.

In Part V, I discussed the utterly flawed arguments offered in defense of the administration, and in defense of torture itself, by Charles Krauthammer. Every argument that Krauthammer offers is invalid -- but the issues that Krauthammer mentions only in passing or that he omits entirely are even more significant. Andrew Sullivan wrote a lengthy response to Krauthammer, disagreeing both with Krauthammer's arguments and with his conclusions. Even though Sullivan disagrees with Krauthammer on every aspect of the torture question, he omits the same elements from his own reply. That failure on the part of both men -- men who do not agree on any point in contention, but who both fail to raise or answer the identical questions -- is the central key, both to this debate and to what is so profoundly destructive and evil about torture itself.

In Part II, I explained the contradiction in Sullivan's views. The tone of that essay (much of which was originally written in May 2005) is admittedly very harsh. In addition, I scathingly condemned Sullivan for certain deeply offensive aspects of his own approach. Since he himself had brought those elements onto the field, it was legitimate for me (or anyone else) to criticize them in the manner I did. But there will be none of that here. These issues are much too important to engage in any kind of debate about "personalities." In fact, and this is why I hope you will be patient as I work through these points and follow me through these questions, I do not think there are any more crucial issues now facing us. In the end, I think these issues are the most critical ones for our future -- if we are to have a future that remains civilized in any meaningful way at all.

Sullivan makes a number of points in his reply to Krauthammer that are entirely valid and useful; in fact, he covers many of the same issues that I discussed myself. But Sullivan uses an entire framework that differs radically from mine, and that framework informs every element of his article. Sullivan essentially views the debate about torture in political terms. His most basic criticism of the endorsement of torture is that it will ultimately destroy the United States as a political entity. He begins by identifying torture as the antithesis of freedom and liberty:
Torture is the polar opposite of freedom. It is the banishment of all freedom from a human body and soul, insofar as that is possible. As human beings, we all inhabit bodies and have minds, souls, and reflexes that are designed in part to protect those bodies: to resist or flinch from pain, to protect the psyche from disintegration, and to maintain a sense of selfhood that is the basis for the concept of personal liberty.
For Sullivan, torture is the route to totalitarianism: "What you see in the relationship between torturer and tortured is the absolute darkness of totalitarianism. You see one individual granted the most complete power he can ever hold over another." This may appear to be closely related to Arendt's point -- but in fact, it is not the same point at all. I'll return to this question in an upcoming essay.

If we incorporate a "right to torture" into the United States in formal, political terms, Sullivan contends that we will destroy our country by inevitable implication:
Any polity that endorses torture has incorporated into its own DNA a totalitarian mutation. If the point of the U.S. Constitution is the preservation of liberty, the formal incorporation into U.S. law of the state's right to torture--by legally codifying physical coercion, abuse, and even, in Krauthammer's case, full-fledged torture of detainees by the CIA--would effectively end the American experiment of a political society based on inalienable human freedom protected not by the good graces of the executive, but by the rule of law.
Sullivan's approach grows out of the way he characterizes the current world conflict, which is, of course, also the way the Bush administration describes it. Sullivan sees the conflict as the "clash of civilizations" -- between Enlightenment values, liberty, and the possibility for achievement in all fields on one side, versus primitive fundamentalism, totalitarianism and nihilism on the other.

This claims far too much, and this approach easily shades into the vision of the Apocalyptic Crusader. That earlier essay of mine described this phenomenon at length, and relied in large part on James Carroll's invaluable work in this area. Toward the end of that piece, I wrote:
Even though we employ somewhat different terms, the extent to which Carroll and I are describing the same phenomenon is very striking to me. The dynamics we both discuss involve redemption through death on a mass scale, leading (its exponents hope) to an entirely new world – and the greater the scale of death and destruction, the better, from the perspective of the apocalyptic-millennialist world view. The same dynamics also lead to an "external" and an "internal" enemy. This time, the internal enemy comprises not only Muslims and Arabs, but everyone who fails to echo the administration line, and who thereby proves himself to be a "fifth columnist" who wants "the other side" to win, whether he will admit it or not.
It should never be forgotten that Sullivan was one of those most responsible for poisoning the cultural atmosphere after 9/11, with his interminable condemnations of the vile "fifth columnists" here at home -- which group was made up of anyone and everyone who failed to support Bush's plans for "benevolent worldwide hegemony" with the degree of enthusiasm Sullivan himself brought to the task. (On an issue of this significance, and given Sullivan's record in this regard, I will never hesitate to "personalize" these kinds of debates.)

As I've noted, Sullivan sees torture as perhaps the critical turning point for the survival or destruction of the Western form of government -- and survival or destruction depends on whether we reject or condone torture. This similarly claims far too much, and it misses several crucial points. To pick an obvious alternative hypothetical: our government could completely reject the use of torture, but it could simultaneously declare that it has the right to imprison all those it declares to be "enemy combatants" for the rest of their lives. It could say it is not obligated to defend or explain its actions, and it could maintain that its decisions on all such matters are absolute and unappealable. In fact, and with the critical exception of the rejection of torture, this is what the Bush administration claims it has the "right" to do. But it could ban torture altogether. You'll be in prison or in a detention camp until the day you die, but otherwise no one will harm a hair on your head.

The fact that the Bush administration has been rigorously pursuing its "right" to exert absolute dictatorial power in the Padilla case (and others) for several years can cause one to wonder exactly why Sullivan chooses the issue of torture upon which to stake his claim on behalf of liberty, and to write:
In order to retain fundamental American values, we have to banish from the United States the totalitarian impulse that is integral to every act of torture. We have to ensure that the virus of tyranny is never given an opening to infect the Constitution and replicate into something that corrupts as deeply as it wounds.
But it is tragically true that there are any number of other "openings" in addition to torture by which "the virus of tyranny" can fatally undermine liberty in the United States, and the Bush administration has been systematically and unrelentingly trying to exploit more than a few of them.

Or choose a less extreme example of the same kind, or one that at least appears to be less extreme. The government could ban torture across the board, but announce that it now has the power to decide what kind of work each of us must do. We live in wartime; our greatest resource is human labor and skill. Only the government can allocate human "resources" most effectively. So the government will decide how and where you will work, and what tasks will consume your days. You will never be tortured, and the government keeps its word on this point. You'll be a slave, but you will be unharmed physically. (In fact, there was talk for a while during World War II that the Roosevelt administration would do precisely this, and the debate about general "labor conscription" grew very heated. The proposal was ultimately defeated by the labor unions, who declined to let their members be made serfs belonging to government bureaucrats. The Roosevelt administration maintained, with logic and consistency on its side, that since almost everyone acknowledged that the government could draft people into the military -- and order them to be injured or killed -- it could draft citizens into any other occupation. After all, we were engaged in a world war, and the labor force at home was critical to victory. People who today so casually endorse military conscription would do well to remember this episode, because the same inexorable logic may still come back someday to enslave us all.)

Torture is not necessary for freedom to be destroyed; liberty can be lost in an infinite number of other ways, as human societies have proven throughout the tragic arc of most of human history. But Sullivan's approach is instructive: a danger to which those who defend our foreign policy are particularly susceptible is their unending effort to force every issue that arises into the pre-existing ideological framework to which they are already committed. In Sullivan's view, torture assumes such great importance because of its significance in the "clash of civilizations" and in the "War on Terror."

Sullivan's approach can be described in another way: it is very abstract, and it is almost entirely depersonalized. Yes, he talks at length about how torture assaults personal autonomy on the most basic level -- but consider exactly how and in what terms he does so. For example:
The infliction of physical pain on a person with no means of defending himself is designed to render that person completely subservient to his torturers. It is designed to extirpate his autonomy as a human being, to render his control as an individual beyond his own reach.
Or note the way Sullivan introduces his article:
In this inevitably emotional debate, perhaps the greatest failing of those of us who have been arguing against all torture and "cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment" of detainees is that we have assumed the reasons why torture is always a moral evil, rather than explicating them.
I would prefer not to use myself as the counterexample, but in this instance I have no choice. Consider my own essay condemning Krauthammer's position. I offer many facts, and trace through a number of arguments. But the tone of my piece and that of Sullivan's come from different universes: my tone is impassioned and, once I have set forth my reasons, I have no hesitation about identifying Krauthammer for what he is: a monster. Sullivan takes a clinical, almost textbook-like approach, and uses words like "extirpate" and "explicate" throughout -- when he is discussing the most brutal and sadistic of crimes. Part of the explanation for the difference may be simply that Krauthammer is Sullivan's "friend," and that this kind of "gentlemanly" style is typical of the chummy punditocracy. But that can't be the entire explanation, especially when the most basic issues of our humanity itself are involved.

And it is very far from the entire explanation -- because of what Krauthammer and Sullivan never discuss at all. In his defense of torture, Krauthammer writes: "Torture is a terrible and monstrous thing, as degrading and morally corrupting to those who practice it as any conceivable human activity including its moral twin, capital punishment." That is almost the only mention in Krauthammer's entire piece about what torture does to the torturer. Krauthammer broaches the subject only in one or two other instances, and the mentions are similarly fleeting. And Sullivan's focus is the same: his entire condemnation of torture focuses on what it does to the victims, to those who suffer the torture. And he talks at length about the consequences of torture on the United States as a political entity -- but what about what it does to those individuals who administer the torture?

It is obviously not at all the case that I do not care about what torture does to those who are its victims; consult all the previous entries in this series to see my repeated denunciations of these kinds of criminal and unforgivable acts, and the many other posts where I set forth the details of these acts of brutality (such as this Addendum to this series). But above all else, there is one fact that appears forever invisible to both Krauthammer and Sullivan, and one kind of individual who does not exist for them.

When the order comes down to treat a prisoner with unspeakable cruelty, to "waterboard" him, to electrocute him, to cut him, to hang him on hooks from the ceiling for days on end, or to commit any number of other unforgivable crimes, there is always the man or woman who will say -- without bravado, without show, without explicitly staking any particular moral claim, but as a simple, unadorned statement of fact:
No. I will not do this. You can torture me, or say you will kill me. I cannot and will not do this to another human being. I will not do this.

Every conflict in history sees such people -- people who will not be moved from what they know to be right, to be human, to be decent, to be civilized. Many of us celebrate their stories. We draw inspiration from their unbreakable courage. They are the people who will not compromise their most fundamental values, or what they know to be the essence of their humanity. They refuse to surrender it -- no matter the cost, regardless of the pain they themselves may bear as a result, setting aside all the consequences that may ensue.

They will not do it -- even when they know to an absolute certainty that their refusal will mean their own death.

Yet the defenders of torture, and even many of those who condemn it, never mention these men and women. For them, it is as if such people never existed, and are nowhere to be found in our world today. Why?

There is an equally important, critically related question: every expert attests to the fact that torture does not work. Surely everyone in our military knows that, or has access to this information. And yet, when the order comes down -- even if only indirectly or implicitly -- we know, all too tragically, that many people will become sadists. They know (or easily could know) that torture is worse than futile, that it will not help to acquire "useful" information and will most likely lead to the opposite outcome, and that it will lead to many other profoundly negative and destructive results.

But they do it anyway. They turn themselves into sadistic monsters, and far too many of them do so with genuinely horrifying enthusiasm and commitment. Why?

These are the most vital and crucial questions of all, and they deserve considered, careful and detailed answers. I'll turn to this subject in what will be, for the moment, the final installment of this series.