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The Banality of Having to Draw Lines Between the Thinkable and the Unthinkable

April 4, 2008

THIS WEEK, we are once again regaled with a declassified torture memo [pdf] from apologetic for child testicle crushing, John Yoo the Baptist. If you know me at all, you know Your Montag is absolutely opposed to the use of physical coercion and torture as instruments of state power. You might wonder, though, what neoconservative, pro-victory, Associate Professor of Political Science, United States loving, Donald Douglas — who fully supports current U.S. military operations around the world — has to say about it:

Never mind the fact that for deeply principled, philosophical reasons we might need to consider the selective use of torture against our enemies. As Jerome Slater has argued in advocating agressive [sic] interrogations:

  • Put differently, so long as the threat of large-scale terrorist attacks against innocents is taken seriously, as it must be, it is neither practicable nor morally persuasive to absolutely prohibit the physical coercion or even outright torture of captured terrorist plotters—undoubtedly evils, but lesser evils than preventable mass murder. In any case, although the torture issue is still debatable today, assuredly the next major attack on the United States—or perhaps Europe—will make it moot. At that point, the only room for practical choice will be between controlled and uncontrolled torture—if we are lucky. Far better, then, to avoid easy rhetoric and think through the issue while we still have the luxury of doing so.

Slater was writing a few years ago, but now, more than ever, even the slightest mention of torture elicits the most violent knee-jerk reaction among the vanguard of the surrendering antiwar contingents.

But Yoo’s right: Sometimes we need to think about this stuff. Sometimes we have to draw those lines between the thinkable and the unthinkable, to think about what indeed needs to be done to protect American national security, unflinchingly, without succumbing to the natural human impulse to recoil from the commitment of requisite acts.
American Power: [Sometimes You Have to Draw Lines: John Yoo Responds]

Don’t get me wrong! I can imagine scenarios where I would fucking torture someone a second asshole to, say: protect schoolchildren: from a bomb: I saw an evildoer hide in a locker: and there wasn’t time to evacuate the school: and I was able to capture the evildoer: and the evildoer was the only person around who knew the locker combination and how to stop the bomb from going off.

I don’t know how deeply principled or philosophical these reasons are, but if such an imagined scenario were to ever arise in the real world*, I would feel ethically at ease in using violence and coercion to force a “good” outcome. And, even though the torture I would employ is rightfully unlawful, I would trust — when the cops came and asked, “holy fuck, why did you crush this man’s toes with a toilet tank cover, and knock his teeth out with a cold chisel?” and I answered, “to save the schoolchildren from that bomb over there,” — that justice would look kindly upon me.

The decision to use physical coercion or torture is not to be taken lightly! Having laws and policies does not stop individuals, even state agents, from using these techniques for “deeply principled and philosophical” reasons. Laws and policies only require that that individual stand behind their reasons in the interest of justice, and necessary checks and balances. This way it is the individual actor, presumably capable of applying ethical thought to the situation, who makes the call on whether the desired outcome is, in fact, the lesser evil than the means to achieve it.

Giving the long arm of the state the bludgeon of torture to wield, with the horrific strength of naked state power behind it — allowing institutions (not capable of applying ethical thought to the situation!) to determine desired outcomes, and call upon their agents to blindly “follow orders” to torture — is, quite frankly, fucking insane.

But, my selfless, unconditional loyalty, and unflinching will to protect doesn’t extend very far beyond my family and small circle of friends. I do suffer from a vague sense of community and a love of my home state — but blind, jingoistic nationalism isn’t really my cup of tea, which I daresay, allows me to perceive correctly. What I worry about is every nationalist, jingoistic yahoo with a government credential running around perceiving threats to The Homeland and living out dark heroic fantasies of torture, under the cover of institutional tolerance, or blanket immunity, or some shit.

By the way, you can say, “the next major attack … will make [the torture debate] moot,” all you want, but that don’t necessarily make it fucking so!

So let’s go back to this, which came earlier in the linked article than the above:

Yoo’s legal theories, of course, will never be forgiven by the paranoid left. It’s not the terrorists seeking our destruction who’re dangerous, it’s the Bush administration itself.

Now, let’s not reserve scorn only for the Bush administration, let’s say ‘the bipartisan American imperial adventure.’ And yes, let’s admit: terrorists can occasionally be dangerous. However, considering which of these groups ostensibly operates “in our name,” and recognizing which of these groups has the far greater amount of power to enact their agenda… Well, this is one of those problems of imposition of power and the “ethic of truths” — and the associated dilemma of people who find themselves faced with said power:

It’s easy to know how to react in case of a terrorist attack. It’s far more difficult to know how to respond in the face of an unjust exercise of state power.

A just society would not put its citizens in the latter situation.

What vexes me most about this is how this post 9-11 dystopian surveillance and security apparatus jibes with the political ideal of self sufficiency. The right puts a lot of stock in personal responsibility, and objections to the Nanny State; but seem to place an astonishing amount of faith in the increasingly brazen, unfettered exercise of power by the Daddy State to keep them safe from evil.

* So we acknowledge the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ in order to participate in this very polite and civilized debate. HOWEVER, one wonders which has happened more: all conditions being met to justify a real world case of torture; or the rhetorical use of the ‘ticking bomb scenario’ to justify a deeply principled, philosophical case in favor of instituting “legal” torture.

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6 Comments
  1. courtneyme109 permalink
    April 5, 2008 1:16 AM

    Yawn. Terrorists can occasionally be dangerous? Dude please – you’re torturing me with this psuedo, inapproppiate handwringing.

    Thanks for the link to AmPow. That cat does make a great case. And ironically – you really helped him out with this bit here
    “It’s not the terrorists seeking our destruction who’re dangerous, it’s the Bush administration itself.”

  2. April 5, 2008 3:33 AM

    The right puts a lot of stock in personal responsibility, and objections to the Nanny State; but seem to place an astonishing amount of faith in the increasingly brazen, unfettered exercise of power by the Daddy State to keep them safe from evil.

    Exactly! Distilled down: the bogey man is coming – give up your freedoms (in the name of freedom) or die. Which most of us would have seen straight through as a crock of shit when we were about five years old.

  3. April 5, 2008 7:57 AM

    you’re torturing me with this psuedo, inapproppiate handwringing.

    LOL.

  4. April 5, 2008 9:13 AM

    Yoo’s legal theories, of course, will never be forgiven by the paranoid left. It’s not the terrorists seeking our destruction who’re dangerous, it’s the Bush administration itself.

    Did a cold wind just blow through here? I could have sworn I shut all the windows.

    Oh wait. It must just be all those freedom molecules bouncing around outside!

  5. April 7, 2008 12:45 PM

    John the Baptist. That may need to be next in the Collectors Edition.

  6. April 7, 2008 12:59 PM

    that would be cool.

    though, it’s an honor just to be nominated.

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