I’ve tried to not get drawn in to lengthy arguments on the Internets. You rarely convince anyone of anything that they didn’t already agree with you on. What I look for, though, are well-argued positions and every once in a while, a truly new take on a subject. These are, unfortunately, rare, so I tend to only look for these things deeply on an issue that seems really worthy of the time and intellectual analysis involved in delving down into the comments section of a blog or a news story.
But I did make a comment at Right Wing Nuthouse last night, because like RWN, I too am absolutely appalled at the reflexive justifications offered to support the Bush Administration trying to legalize torture in the name of national security. Predictably, when RWN condemned the recently-released Yoo Memos, a chorus of so-called “conservatives,” claiming that the very survival of Western civilization is somehow at stake, stepped up to offer their thanks and praise for the people who are torturing the bad guys for information – or alternatively, they aren’t actually torturing prisoners, but it would be okay if they did.
The argument that there is a moral imperative to torture is the most disquieting to me. The “ticking time bomb” scenario is by now familiar to anyone who’s looked at the subject – “Tariq the Terrorist is captured and he reveals that his associates have planted a nuclear bomb in New York City, which will go off in less than 24 hours, but he won’t say where in New York the bomb is. Torturing Tariq to get the information, and thus save millions of innocent lives, is justifiable under those circumstances, and therefore we cannot categorically criminalize torturing prisoners.” What’s weird is that the people who advance this argument act as though there really are ticking time bombs ready to go off everywhere and guys like Jack Bauer from that great documentary on Fox is only doing what he has to do to save innocent lives. They’re heroes, not villains and anyone who says otherwise is a liberal pansy who may as well be inviting scimitar-wielding madmen to set up shop in the Lincoln Bedroom. You must torture, the argument goes, because otherwise innocent people, and eventually all of western civilization, will be killed by these madmen.
By itself, this argument is not laughable, although I think it is incorrect because it proposes a falsely limited range of choices and it can only be morally acceptable from the point of view of a rather narrow reading of basic utilitarian ethics. But, in reading the comments advancing this argument (or a variant of it), it seems to me that many of its proponents seem not just willing but eager to torture their hypothetical victims. They’re salivating at the prospect of imposing pain on people they think are their enemies – or perhaps more precisely, on their enemies who they do not think of as “people” at all.
Read the comments to the RWN article and tell me that I’m wrong. Some of these people are quite simply perverted in their desire to torture Tariq; you’d have to hold a lottery between some of these guys to see who would get the honor of dumping the first bucket of water on his face. There isn’t even a hint of reluctance or hesitation to do these things on their part, and they view the fact that someone else might even entertain doubts that this is the right thing to do as a sign of weakness and vulnerability. They’re not wrestling with the moral issue at all, because for them it’s not a moral dilemma but instead an opportunity to do something they’d really like to do anyway.
These people are sadists, not conservatives.
I’m tempted to offer a counter-scenario to the ticking time bomb: “Tariq the Terrorist is in the interrogation room and you confront him with the fact that you know that he and his associates have planted a nuclear device somewhere in midtown Manhattan. You know the device will detonate at some point this afternoon. Tariq says to you, ‘If you want me to tell you where the bomb is, you’ll have to [perform fellatio on me]. And I mean you, personally.’” My suspicion is that this in this hypo, Tariq is not all that unlikely to make such a proposition. But the Kool-aid drinker (who was chomping at the bit to torture Tariq) is likely to hesitate when confronted with the equally false choice of getting semen in his mouth and letting innocents die. After all, if it’s morally justifiable to strap electrodes on Tariq to find out where the bomb is, then surely anyone could forgive a little man-love. I suspect, though, that the Kool-aid drinkers would quickly challenge the premise of the hypothetical, desperately looking for some way, any way, to avoid dick-in-the-mouth and still save the day.
Now, you just might get a guy who’ll say, “If innocent lives were at stake, not only would I do it, I’d swallow, too,” but even if so, it very likely would take only minimal prodding to get him to admit that he’d look for other ways to get the information rather than doing that. And at that point, you’ve won the argument, because you’ve demonstrated that you ought to search, very hard, for an alternative to torturing Tariq – even under the most extreme of circumstances – because gay oral sex is surely a less morally grave act than torture, and look how hard the torture advocate is tap-dancing to avoid having to perform gay oral sex.
But all the same, sure, maybe the would-be torturer is okay with performing a gay sex act to save millions of lives and maybe he would rhetorically indicate that he would be willing to so debase himself. But Tariq need not stop there; I just picked gay oral sex as the starting point for shock value. The hypo can be changed endlessly – so long as the price to be paid for the information is personal to the torturer, and not for the prisoner. Convert to Islam. Assassinate some beloved national hero. Let Tariq bugger the torturer’s young son. The President must convert to Islam during a live press conference and urge all Americans to do the same. Have the torturer torture an innocent child or even kill one of his own children. At some point, as you escalate the level of evil to the torturer’s sense of morality, the interrogator is going to decide that what Tariq is asking is simply too abhorrent to do and eventually, he’ll resort to other means to save the city rather than give in to Tariq’s demands. But I think that you’ll start getting some questioning of the premise right away with the oral sex hypo, and the real goal of the exercise is to get the “torture” advocate to question the premise.
Happily, real life is almost never so dramatic as television shows or internet hypothetical scenarios. I’ve a good friend who served for a year in the National Guard at Camp X-Ray, serving as an interrogator. He finished his stint there about six months ago. A very honest, very morally upright guy. All he ever did was sit across from the prisoner at a card table and talk with a camcorder running. If he’d ever been out of line to the prisoners, he’d have been written up. To get information, he’d offer the prisoner better food than the prison rations; apparently, the Filet O’ Fish sandwich from the on-base McDonald’s was the most effective bribe. The reality of it is that if Tariq has been handled correctly by his captors, he’s as likely give up the location of the bomb in exchange for a vanilla shake as he is to demand a blowjob or, more to the point, require waterboarding. So to keep things in perspective, it doesn’t seem to me that we’re talking about anything that actually happens very often. If at all.
But if torture is happening, once is too many times. And more to the point, the government going to such lengths to actually justify the unjustifiable is morally reprehensible. And bigoted sadists masquearading as conservatives need to be called on the carpet for what they would have America do.