September 28th, 2006

blowhard

And now, another installment of TORTURE IN THE NEWS!

See, you go and post something sarcastic about how torture isn't always so bad, and along comes Jonah Goldberg to moot your whole point.

Consider killing. In every society in the world, murder is punished more harshly than non-lethal torture. If I waterboard you, or lock you in my basement with Duran Duran blasting at you 24/7, even if I beat you for hours with a rubber hose, my punishment will be less severe than if I murder you, simply because it is worse to take a life deliberately than to cause pain, even sadistically.

Well, no. As Jonah himself will point out below, we make all sorts of exceptions for killing, because we tend to believe that sometimes it must be done; whereas we never believe torture is necessary. We allow and even encourage killing during wartime; we never encourage torture of our enemies. The police killing a criminal is a tragic but sometimes unavoidable event, while the police torturing a criminal is a scandal; many people believe we should be allowed to kill prisoners, but hardly anyone believes we should be allowed to torture them. We allow for the possibility of accidental killing; there is no such thing as accidental torture. Even within the framework of murder, torture is an exacerbating factor: a woman who shoots her philandering husband will rightly be punished, but a man who tortures a woman to death is far worse. Goldberg is engaging in sophistry at its worst, pretending he doesn't know how universal an evil torture is -- even worse than killing -- in order to defend the indefensible. (Also pretty repulsive is his citing mild-sounding tortures like waterboarding -- or even comical ones like being forced to listen to Duran Duran -- to lessen the gravity of the debate. Note that he doesn't cite actual tortures used against Iraqi detainees, like being wrapped in a carpet and beaten nearly to death, or having a light stick crammed up your ass, or being raped, or having your genitals electrically shocked by car batteries.)

Would you rather take some lumps in a dungeon for a month, or take a dirt nap forever?

Well, gosh! When you put it that way, I guess torture is fine!

Yet, according to the torture prohibitionists, there must be a complete ban on anything that even looks like torture, regardless of context, even though we'd never dream of a blanket ban on killing.

Hmm. Could that be, maybe, because TORTURE IS A COMPLETELY DIFFERENT THING THAN KILLING? Could it be because there's an element of moral evil in torture so indefensible that no one thinks it can be done with any moral justification whatsoever? I mean, for Christ's sake, if you pose in a Goldberg's Choice way -- "Would you rather get slobbered on for five minutes, or take a dirt nap forever?" -- then clearly, killing is far worse than rape. But you don't hear anyone going around saying that we should make exceptions for rape, or that the complete ban on rape is stifling and doesn't allow for legitimate exceptions. Because there aren't any! Good grief.

Anyway, next Jonah admits that there are reasons to kill, but not to torture -- not because there are no good reasons to torture, but because we just haven't given enough thought to finding them:

One reason for this disconnect is that we've thought a lot about killing and barely at all about torture. Almost no one opposes killing in all circumstances; wars sometimes need to be fought, the hopelessly suffering may require relief, we reserve the right to self-defense. Indeed, the law recognizes a host of nuances when it comes to homicide, and the place where everybody draws an unambiguous line on killing is at something we call "murder." But there is no equivalent word for murder when it comes to torture. It's always evil.

Clearly, we just haven't tried hard enough to find reasons to support torture! Really, when you think about it, people oppose torture because it has a bad name. If it was called 'puppy-flowerism', everyone would love it! We just need to work hard to come up with situations where sticking a flashlight up a guy's rectum and smearing shit on his face and bashing his fingers with gun butts is acceptable, and then call it 'proactive pre-terrogation', and all of the sudden it will be morally justifiable.

Yet that's not our universal reaction. In movies and on TV, good men force evil men to give up information via methods no nicer than what the CIA is allegedly employing. If torture is a categorical evil, shouldn't we boo Jack Bauer on Fox's "24"?

Well, there you go, folks. There's Jonah's hole card. There's his big reveal. There's his "AHA, GOTCHA!" moment by which he proves that torture is okay: because some people think a fictional character on a TV action show is neat. This would be a jackass argument even if you ignored the fact that lots of people do boo Jack Bauer.

There's a reason we keep hearing about the ticking time bomb scenario in the torture debate: Is abuse justified in getting a prisoner to reveal the location of a bomb that would kill many when detonated?

Actually, the reason we keep hearing about it is because people like Jonah Goldberg constantly dredge it up in order to have a tiny thread on which to hang their repulsive pro-torture agenda. We certainly don't keep hearing about it because it keeps actually taking place.

We understand that in such a situation, Americans would expect to be protected. That's why human-rights activists have tried to declare this scenario a red herring.

Another reason is that IT NEVER FUCKING HAPPENS.

I tell you, man: there's a lot of shit I can't believe I'm hearing these days. There's a lot of things going on that I honestly can't believe is taking place, that it just doesn't seem possible is allowed to happen with little to no public outcry. It's stunning to me that health care in the world's wealthiest country gets more and more inacessible instead of less and less; it's absolutely shocking that a major American city was basically allowed to vanish while the government sat on its hands. And I continue to be obsessed by the total lack of public outcry over the massive looting, fraud, misappropriation and corruption in Iraq by American corporations and government agencies. But more than anything, the fact that any day of the week I can turn on the radio, TV or computer and hear my fellow Americans, from everyday citizens to blowhard pundits all the way up to the President of the United States, demanding the right to torture people, is beyond unreal. America-hating comsymp traitors like me are constantly being accused of harboring feelings of shame over what is the freest country on earth, but it's pretty goddamn hard to be proud of your country when its leadership is bitching and moaning about how they aren't allowed to torture prisoners.
flavored with age

How many of us have them?

Thanks to:

- rum_holiday, for checking up on me via phone and making a much-appreciated offer to wrangle my stuff.

- thaitea, for continuing to be an amazing friend to me.

- rjwhite, for the boss-jock '59 Sox program.

- Many of the rest of y'all, especially ezrael, mckennl, janehex, and solipsiae, for being generally helpful and supportive of me via phone, e-mail, IM and here on LJ.

- Lara, for the excellent postcard.

- ninafarina, for making sure that I got some important mail forwarded to me.

- Any of you who have called, written, or commented. These are some shit times to be sure, but without the lot of you sparing me good thoughts, they'd be a lot worse. I know a lot of you are having pretty serious problems of your own right now, and to think that, facing what you're facing, you'd take the time to lend me your support, means a hell of a lot.