October 22, 2006

Lies in the Service of Evil


I return to the eternal favorite example of all the secret (and some brazenly boastful) sadists and moral obscenities posing as human beings in our midst. I refer to those individuals who seek to justify torture by use of the "ticking bomb" scenario. Several examples of this fundamentally dishonest tactic have surfaced recently (about which, more below), so the subject perhaps merits treatment in the following form. Of course, since the "legitimacy" of torture has now been sanctified by the Military Commissions Act, one could argue that the debate is moot. Still, we do not know to what extent this legislation will be utilized. Since we may continue to speak freely (at least, until after the next terrorist attack on our own shores), the preferable view might be that we should battle evil as long as we can.

Make no mistake: the advocacy of torture, no matter how "limited" or how narrowly drawn, is the advocacy of evil. That torture's advocates must utilize lies to make their case is only one of the numerous ways in which that evil reveals itself. The deliberate and pointless infliction of unbearable pain on another human being -- the infliction of agony for its own sake -- cannot be other than evil. Advocacy of behavior of this kind must always disguise itself; it must always offer rationalizations in presenting its arguments. When evil's masks are removed, most people will shun it. When it covers itself with tendentious arguments that most people cannot untangle, it increases its chances for success. Today, in our country, evil is succeeding to a terrifying degree.

I have written about the utterly fictitious "ticking bomb" scenario on several occasions. Because I do not want to engage in this exercise ever again, I have assembled here the major relevant arguments, so that they will all be in one place. At the end, I will add some further thoughts, together with a passage from a critically important essay by Hannah Arendt. As a result, this is an unusually lengthy essay. I do all this for two reasons: first, I hope it proves to be of some general value; and second, since I don't want to engage in these arguments in the future, whenever someone brings up this supposed "justification" for barbarism, a justification which is unworthy even of monsters as long as they are capable of stringing two or more words together and thus still appear to be human, I can simply say: Read this, with a link to this entry.

I think one further general consideration makes this discussion appropriate, and necessary. I originally published the first part of my series, On Torture, in March 2003. When I republished it in December 2005, I added some introductory comments. In part, I wrote:
I wrote this first piece on March 15, 2003 -- more than two and a half years ago. I am proud to say that I think it has stood up very well indeed. It was, in fact, the second major essay I wrote on the subject of torture -- but the important points from the initial piece are indicated sufficiently in what follows. It may strike some as melodramatic to phrase the following observation in this manner, but I honestly know of no other way to convey my reaction accurately: when I wrote this essay and the preceding one, I was almost struck dumb with horror that we were having this national conversation at all. In the time that has passed, my horror has only grown. But I also think my own understanding of the mechanisms involved has increased considerably during the same time, so there are several new aspects and issues related to this subject that I will discuss in the final parts of this series.
When it comes to this subject and a few others, that horror has never left me. As I indicated, it has only deepened in many ways, as my understanding has grown. But certain profound problems commonly occur when we discuss evil. In certain respects, the central problem is the way in which we immediately seek to distance ourselves from its reality. I commented on this recently in connection with the Johns Hopkins-Lancet study about the death toll in Iraq.

It is understandable that we seek to protect ourselves from horrors in this way: living organisms can only deal with the terrors of our world to a certain extent, before shutting down entirely. But such distancing also carries great peril: it can lead us to minimize the danger we face, and it can prevent us from opposing its advance. Just recently, as I note below, we have seen both Bill Clinton and Hillary Clinton endorse torture. There was barely a response at all, and there was certainly no howl of outrage. We have become so desensitized to the horrors that assault us every day that we don't even notice them now. Our country may stumble along for a few decades more, and the now-empty forms of our societal and political arrangements may sustain us for a while -- but insofar as our moral integrity is concerned, we have already collapsed entirely.

Just a few further prefatory thoughts before proceeding: I have discussed the subject of torture at great length, and descriptions of the individual entries in my series, On Torture, will be found at the conclusion of this post. Very often, I dealt with what properly should be an extraordinarily disturbing topic in dispassionate, calm tones. But, and I must emphasize this point once more, that is a large part of the problem: we must never forget what torture actually is. An enormous amount of research and study definitively establishes that all the supposed rationalizations for torture are simply that: not one of them stands up to rigorous scrutiny. All of them have been disproven time and again. (See my full series for further details.) With regard to the primary justification, we know that torture does not lead to useful or accurate intelligence, and that other, humane methods of interrogation are infinitely more reliable. If one's goal, in fact, is the acquisition of information that will lead to the saving of innocent lives, torture is without question not the way to obtain it. That fact alone leads to only one conclusion: the motives that in fact lead to people to endorse even the very "limited" use of torture are not ones they care to identify or have known. In some form, they are aware of the deformity of their own souls, and they endlessly seek to hide it from themselves -- and from others.

Given these basic facts, I stand by the description of torture I have provided before:
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.
It is immensely difficult to keep the full scope of the monstrousness, inhumanity and evil represented by torture in mind. Yet we must struggle to do precisely this, and we must do so all the time when discussing this subject. It is not acceptable, it is not civilized, and it is not decent to analyze whether and in what fashion one should inflict agonizing pain on another human being for its own sake in the manner of desiccated bureaucrats, utterly devoid of feeling and compassion.

That is the route to a hell we cannot conceive of, yet one which has swallowed up entire countries too many times in the past. It leads us directly into the nightmare world described by Slavoj Zizek:
The problem for those in power is how to get people do the dirty work without turning them into monsters. This was Heinrich Himmler's dilemma. When confronted with the task of killing the Jews of Europe, the SS chief adopted the attitude of "somebody has to do the dirty job". In Hannah Arendt's book, Eichmann in Jerusalem, the philosopher describes how Nazi executioners endured the horrible acts they performed. Most were well aware that they were doing things that brought humiliation, suffering and death to their victims. The way out of this predicament was that, instead of saying "What horrible things I did to people!" they would say "What horrible things I had to watch in the pursuance of my duties, how heavily the task weighed upon my shoulders!" In this way, they were able to turn around the logic of resisting temptation: the temptation to be resisted was pity and sympathy in the presence of human suffering, the temptation not to murder, torture and humiliate.

There was a further "ethical problem" for Himmler: how to make sure that the executioners, while performing these terrible acts, remained human and dignified. His answer was Krishna's message to Arjuna in the Bhagavad-Gita (Himmler always had in his pocket a leather-bound edition): act with inner distance; do not get fully involved.

Therein also resides the lie of [the television series] 24: that it is not only possible to retain human dignity in performing acts of terror, but that if an honest person performs such an act as a grave duty, it confers on him a tragic-ethical grandeur. The parallel between the agents' and the terrorists' behaviour serves this lie.

But what if such a distance is possible? What if people do commit terrible acts as part of their job while being loving husbands, good parents and close friends? As Arendt says, the fact that they are able to retain any normality while committing such acts is the ultimate confirmation of moral depravity.
I repeat the central point:
Some of those purposes are discussed below.

Why the "ticking-bomb" scenario is a lie

Why is this scenario a lie? Here is why. From the introductory comments to Part I of my series, On Torture:
You will note that one issue I discuss below is the infamous "ticking bomb" scenario. That fictional invention continues to be criminally abused by the torture advocates. As I explained in the spring of 2003, the problem with this fantasy is an epistemological one: the example fails because of the specific means by which we acquire knowledge, and the patterns in how we do so. The "ticking bomb" scene is common in a certain kind of Hollywood thriller, and it has been made cheap and utterly unoriginal by endless repetition and imitation. However, it is virtually, if not entirely, impossible that such a situation would ever develop in this manner in real life.

The fact that those who advocate the "legitimated" use of torture find it necessary to avail themselves of such an obviously false hypothetical reveals that other concerns drive their campaign to make the most monstrous kind of inhuman brutality "acceptable" to any degree at all. They pretend to bring intellectual rigor to their unforgivable task -- but their allegedly "serious" arguments are full of the most obvious defects. The pretense at intellectual engagement serves a crucial function: it is the cover for much darker motives, which they do not care to face -- or to name. I will deal with those motives, and with the forces that drive advocacy of this kind of extreme cruelty, in the final parts of this series.
From the discussion of the "ticking bomb" scenario in Part I:
There is a serious, and fundamental, problem in the nature of the hypotheticals that are typically employed in discussing this issue. Those hypotheticals usually run along these lines: We know (for example) that a nuclear device has been planted in New York City. We know that it is set to go off within the next 24 hours. And we know that this individual we have just apprehended knows where the nuclear device is.

If the matter were not so serious, I would be tempted to say only that people who offer such hypotheticals have been watching too many movies. But since the matter is so serious, I will point out the following error: this is not how the situation is at all likely to develop -- in real life. Think about it for a moment. If you in fact knew all of those elements, don't you think it likely that you would also already know where the bomb is? How would a situation develop where you knew all the other variables, but it just happened that you didn't know where the bomb was? I submit that it is not at all likely, except in the imagination of a Hollywood scriptwriter.

The underlying problem is this: in real life, all of these facts -- what it is that is planned, where, when and by whom -- are precisely those facts which you will be in the process of discovering. It is fantasy to think that you would have all the answers, save one. And this doesn't even address the serious problem as to the accuracy of any information you are likely to get by employing torture on the individual in custody. To put it another way: in real life, it is much more likely that you will know that something terrible is going to happen, but you're not certain exactly what the nature of it is. And you might know the city, and you might know that it's probably going to happen in the next 24 or 48 hours (or "very, very soon," or "within the next week"). Finally, you might be 80% or 90% certain that this particular individual knows what it is that is planned, and where and when it's going to happen -- but I doubt very much that it would transpire that you would know with absolute certainty that a given individual has the single piece of information that you happen to be missing. Forget about fiction scenarios, and ask yourself how this type of situation would be likely to actually develop in the real world -- and you will see that the usual hypotheticals are hopelessly inaccurate and misleading.
From Part IV of my series, some excerpts from an article by Darius Rejali:
Few things give a rush quite like having unlimited power over another human being. A sure sign the rush is coming is pasty saliva and a strange taste in one's mouth, according to a French soldier attached to a torture unit in Algeria. That powerful rush can be seen on the faces of some of the soldiers at Abu Ghraib, a rush that undoubtedly changed them forever. The history of slavery tells us that one can't feel such a rush without being corrupted by it. And the history of modern torture tells us that governments can't license this corruption -- even in the cause of spreading democracy -- without reducing the quality of their intelligence, compromising their allies and damaging their military. ...

My research shows, however, that torture during interrogations rarely yields better information than traditional human intelligence, partly because no one has figured out a precise, reliable way to break human beings or any adequate method to evaluate whether what prisoners say when they do talk is true. Nor can torture be done in a professional way -- anyone who tortures is necessarily corrupted by the experience and is often turned into a sadist. The psychic damage to the soldiers who conducted the torture at Abu Ghraib is likely to be permanent.

What's more, a democracy that legalizes the use of torture in its desperation to gain information loses something more important -- the trust of its people, the foundation of a democracy. In Iraq, the United States was desperate as it sought to find and stop those responsible for the insurgency. When "intelligence" was not forthcoming from prisoners, senior U.S. Army officials decided to turn over interrogation to military intelligence personnel, who were instructed to use aggressive, even brutal techniques. These methods were rationalized as necessary in the overall global war on terrorism, but as my research has shown, institutionalizing torture in such a manner only ends up destroying all the individuals involved -- and the military and political goals of the government in whose name torture is carried out.


Aside from its devastating effects and the wasted time and resources, does torture actually work? Organizations can certainly use torture to intimidate prisoners and to produce confessions (many of which turn out to be false). But the real question is whether organizations can apply torture scientifically and professionally to produce true information. Does this method yield better results than others at an army's disposal? The history of torture demonstrates that it does not -- whether it is stealthy or not.


As a victim feels less pain, torturers have to push harder, using more severe methods to overtake the victim's maximal pain threshold. And because victims experience different types of pain, torturers have to use a scattershot approach. No matter how professional torturers may think they are, they have no choice but behaving like sadists. Even though many of the interrogators at Abu Ghraib were using techniques approved by their superiors, it is no surprise that they went far beyond these techniques, trying anything that worked.

Competition among torturers also drives brutality. As one torturer put it, each interrogator "thinks he is going to get the information at any minute and takes good care not to let the bird go to the next chap after he's softened him up nicely, when of course the other chap would get the honor and glory of it." Torture, as New York University economist Leonard Wantchekon has said, is a zero-sum game.


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.
I went on to say: "Those 'three things' are the medical limit, the resource limit, and the psychological limit. Consult the article for details." I could barely stand to read those details, and I did not choose to reproduce them.

And here are some extended excerpts from my analysis of Charles Krauthammer's monstrous and immoral "defense" of torture. As apologists for this particular form of evil must always do, Krauthammer also relies on the "ticking bomb" scenario:
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.


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.


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.


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.


One final dishonesty in Krauthammer's 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 tthe 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.
The Recent Endorsements of Torture, and Their Ultimate Purpose

Just last week, I noted that Hillary Clinton endorses the "limited" use of torture. I wrote:
Nothing reveals more starkly the boundless and unforgivable stupidity of our national debate about torture -- except for the monstrous fact that we have had such a debate in the first place -- than the fact that the "ticking-bomb" fiction is still regularly deployed. And as I mentioned earlier, I draw your attention to the fact that it is this entirely false scenario that Hillary Clinton uses to "justify" her "limited" endorsement of torture (note her recourse to the scene of "imminent" danger -- which she, like everyone else, gets from movies and television, and not from life). Nothing about this screenwriter's fantasy conforms to what actually happens in reality, as I discussed in detail here and here. Moreover, as pointed out in the second of those posts, it is precisely when time is very short that torture is of least conceivable value. I continue to be astonished that these points must be made repeatedly. Our appetite for vengeance and violence is now so insatiable that we insist on brutalizing others, and ourselves as well -- even when such violence is entirely futile and pointless, and when it achieves nothing other than the destruction of our humanity, of liberty, and of civilization itself.
By this announcement, Hillary Clinton has permanently rendered herself unfit for any elective office, at any level. I would say the same about any politician offering similar views. My opinion would change only if Clinton entirely repudiates her statements, and only if her repudiation makes clear that she fully grasps the enormity of the horrifying error she had made. Indeed, keeping in mind the points made above and in my other essays, she has made herself unfit for civilization itself.

The same is true of her husband, whose views on torture were included in a recent column by the moral obscenity who calls himself Alan Dershowitz:
SEVERAL YEARS AGO, I provoked a storm of controversy by advocating "torture warrants" as a way of creating accountability for the use of torture in terrorism cases. I argued that if we were ever to encounter a "ticking bomb" situation in which the authorities believed that an impending terror attack could be prevented only by torturing a captured terrorist into revealing the location of the bomb, the authorities would, in fact, employ such a tactic.

Although I personally oppose the use of torture, I recognize the reality that some forms of torture have been, are being and will continue to be used by democracies in extreme situations, regardless of what we say or what the law provides. In an effort to limit the use of torture to genuinely extreme "ticking bomb" situations, rather than allowing it to become as routine as it obviously became at Abu Ghraib, I proposed that the president or a federal judge would have to take personal responsibility for ordering its use in extraordinary situations.


Now I see that former President Clinton has offered a similar proposal.


Clinton summarized his views in the following terms: "If they really believe the time comes when the only way they can get a reliable piece of information is to beat it out of someone or put a drug in their body to talk it out of 'em, then they can present it to the Foreign Intelligence Court, or some other court, just under the same circumstances we do with wiretaps. Post facto….

"But I think if you go around passing laws that legitimize a violation of the Geneva Convention and institutionalize what happened at Abu Ghraib or Guantanamo, we're gonna be in real trouble."

It is surprising that this interview with the former president has received so little attention from those who were so quick to jump all over me. Clinton goes even further than I did. He would, in extreme cases, authorize the granting of a warrant "post facto" by a specialized court, as is now the case with national security wiretaps.
It is critical that we understand the fundamental difference between what Dershowitz and both Clintons propose, and what I discussed with regard to the Krauthammer-McCain example. What I suggested, and what it appears McCain also proposed (although he finally offered no serious opposition, and gave the administration everything it wanted in the manner of the most craven coward), is that the prohibition on torture always remain in place. Torture is never to be made lawful and legitimate. But, if a case should ever arise where members of our government and/or military utilized torture believing that an "imminent" danger made it necessary, and if in fact the result was information that saved lives, those individuals might then be granted mercy -- that is, the penalty for violating the prohibition would not be applied in that particular case.

But that is not at all what Dershowitz and the Clintons want. What they seek is the lawful, legally-approved use of torture: that the state may legitimately use torture as a means of "interrogation." Several points must be made about any such damnable proposal. I covered one of them in Part I of my series:
I also want to add another aspect to one of the major points of my earlier post: that the grant of any government power will always grow, including the grant of the power to use torture to elicit information. At this point, virtually everyone, at any point on the political spectrum, acknowledges the potential for widespread government corruption (and some of us consider it much more than merely a "potential"). In the general area of business regulation, for example, everyone knows how common it is to encounter graft, payoffs, kickbacks, and the like. Why do people who advocate the official endorsement of torture suddenly forget this fact, and seem unable to utilize the knowledge they already possess when the subject is torture? And I ask that question especially of [so-called, self-described] libertarians, who are known for their skepticism of the "wise" use of any form of government power. How hard is it to believe, once torture has been endorsed as a legitimate tool of the government, that some government official will "arrange" to have a longstanding personal enemy taken into custody, to be given some form of "special treatment"? After hearing of so many instances in the last decade or so of IRS audits being used against "enemies," forfeiture being used a weapon by the government, and far too many similar kinds of "punishment" to name, why would you think that torture would be exempt from this particular form of abuse? Face it, and face it now: it wouldn't be. Is that what you want to open the door to, by having our government officially sanction the use of torture?
I should add one further related point. As I noted, and as everyone knows, any grant of power to government always increases, and never diminishes. If torture is made "legitimate," and if the government is able to point to a case where a foreign terrorist threat was neutralized because torture "worked," why does anyone believe that the government would not seek to expand the use of torture to domestic law enforcement? Of course, the government would. You know it, and you had better acknowledge it now, not when it is too late. After all, if the "narrowly tailored" use of torture may help to prevent a burglary, an arson, or a murder, why shouldn't law enforcement use it, if it "works"? I'm not suggesting that any of that is true -- but the propagandists for state power will certainly tell you it is true.

And there is still a broader and more profound problem with the legalization of torture, in any form and to any extent. In Part I of my series, I offered some excerpts from Hannah Arendt's The Origins of Totalitarianism. With regard to this particular point, please note the following:
Torture, to be sure, is an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus; it is used every day to make people talk. This type of torture, since it pursues a definite, rational aim, has certain limitations: either the prisoner talks within a certain time, or he is killed. To this rationally conducted torture another, irrational, sadistic type was added in the first Nazi concentration camps and in the cellars of the Gestapo. Carried on for the most part by the SA, it pursued no aims and was not systematic, but depended on the initiative of largely abnormal elements.
About this, I wrote:
Please remember these sentences: "Torture, to be sure, is an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus; it is used every day to make people talk. This type of torture, since it pursues a definite, rational aim, has certain limitations: either the prisoner talks within a certain time, or he is killed." An essential feature. Do you truly want to endorse torture as a legitimate government policy -- and endorse "an essential feature of the whole totalitarian police and judiciary apparatus" -- and possibly open the door, even by just the smallest amount, to the further horrors described by Arendt?
These are the issues, and these are the principles, that people like Dershowitz, and both Clintons, never address, and which they desperately seek to avoid.

I excerpted Darius Rejali before on the subject of torture. With regard to why the use of torture persists, despite the fact that it represents a barbaric evil and despite the fact that it does not "work," I will quote him again -- from the conclusion of his article, "How Not to Talk About Torture: Violence, Theory and the Problems of Explanation" (I have omitted the footnotes, and the emphases are mine):
Of course, I've been arguing that torture does not work in any of the conventional ways theorists suppose. Torture does not increase labor productivity, produce any better intelligence results than ordinary police work, and has a detrimental effect on social and bureaucratic discipline. And I want to take a moment and spell out the implications of this thesis.

One implication is that if torture does not work, then there is little justification for the use of torture. Torture's apologists always assume that torture works; for them, it is just a matter of moral justification. Now it appears that even this assumption can be questioned. However, if torture does not work, then what needs to be explained is why the practice of torture persists today. The answer to this is clearly beyond the scope of this article, but I want to point out some ways in which this question could be answered. Perhaps it is because torturers are just protecting their jobs. Or perhaps intense social fear mobilizes social elites to engage in "permanent counterrevolution" in which torture may play a part. But I think a more promising explanation is suggested in Michel Foucault's work on the prison. Foucault asks what purpose is served by the persistent failure of the prison. He replies that although the prison does not reform offenders, its failure serves to extend dis[ci]plinary power and re-inforce its legitimacy.

If this is a credible explanation of why torture persists, then we need to pay more attention to the relationship between torture and the process of rationalization. In part, this involves examining the relationship between torture and other social institutions. In his book on torture, Edward Peters argues that, historically, torture was not a primitive practice that survived into the medieval period. Rather, torture was introduced in Europe in opposition to tribal punishments and its practice served to rationalize state power. My own research on torture in modern Iran seems to suggest a similar point, but it is worth investigating how the practice of torture today is related to different processes of rationalization.

At the same time, we need to pay careful attention to the process of linguistic rationalization. This means that we need to be careful how the use of increasingly specialized ways of talking can serve to mislead us about what is actually happening when torture occurs. Torture seems to thrive not so much on this or that ideology, but rather on gossip, rumor, media sensationalism, as well as bureaucratic, social scientific, and legal jargon.

Torture needs all the publicity it can get, but we have to be more careful about how we speak about torture. This does not mean that we should abandon the traditional ways we discuss torture, only that we should critically evaluate them at every opportunity.
The crucial point is Foucault's. Let me rephrase it as follows, in connection with torture specifically.

Torture does not work. Its use permanently damages all those who are tortured, and those who administer the violence. Its "lawful" use profoundly undermines the broader society and democratic institutions in ways that are irreparable. But its persistent, ineradicable failure is entirely irrelevant for those who seek to consolidate and expand state power. Moreover, its inherent failure underscores their aim: it does not work, everyone knows it does not work, but the state does it because it can.

In this view, power is all, and power is its own justification. It is a simple truth, and a terrible one. In a post you should read (and peruse the comments, too), Jim Henley correctly puts his finger on this precise point. After presenting a horrifying hypothetical involving the torturer's "justified" rape of his own child -- which is no less valid than any of the other "ticking bomb" scenarios -- Jim writes:
The ticking bomb scenario is presented as "What would YOU do?" but it’s not, in truth, got anything to do with you. The proper question is, "What should we prudently allow officials embedded in the security bureaucracy to do with impunity?"

You could construct a hundred hypotheticals involving utilitarian tradeoffs and terrorism before breakfast, none less (im)plausible than the first. You only hear about the one because only one serves the purpose of validating the State’s desire for more power.
All discussions about torture finally reduce to the question of state power. Those who manufacture justifications for the use of torture seek to validate that power, and increase its reach. All the rest is lies -- lies used to cover the use of power in ways that destroy life, humanity and civilization.

This is far too long, so I will offer some concluding thoughts, along with some further excerpts from Hannah Arendt, in a separate post: The Choice To Be Human, and the Choice to Stand Apart.


The following is a list of the entries in my series, "On Torture," most of which was written in December 2005, together with a brief description of the content of the individual parts of this extended essay:

I, State Violence and Brutality, and Totalitarianism: A discussion of the manner in which torture is an integral and necessary part of the apparatus of any totalitarian police state, relying in significant part on Hannah Arendt's immensely important writing.

II, Of Means and Ends: An analysis of the fundamental contradiction that fatally undercuts the opposition of a writer like Andrew Sullivan to the use or approval of torture: why 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.

III, Brutality and Sadism as National Policy, and the Monsters of Our Time: An examination of how torture has become a central and systematic element of the Bush administration's policies in the prosecution of its erroneously conceived "War on Terror," and why the administration has unforgivably and perhaps fatally branded the United States as a barbarian nation.

IV, Becoming Monsters, and Ensuring Our Ultimate Defeat: A discussion of articles by Darius Rejali and Mark Danner, explaining why torture does not work, how the official governmental adoption of torture eventually destroys any society, and further analyzing how the horrifying damage resulting from the use of torture expands in all directions, corrupting everyone in its wake.

V, A Monster's Confession, and the Choice to be Human: A dissection of the "defense" of torture offered by Charles Krauthammer (a "defense" widely heralded by many hawks), explaining the numerous dishonesties and contradictions engaged in by Krauthammer, and his profound immorality.

Addendum--More From the Annals of Horror: Some excerpts from a recent article about the horrific torture inflicted on one prisoner, and the utterly meaningless "confession" ultimately coerced by such barbaric methods.

VI(A), The Truth that Lies Within, and the Truth that Many Will Not Face: The first part of an analysis of the ultimate failure of Andrew Sullivan's answer to Krauthammer, including an identification of certain crucial questions that are ignored by both writers -- and an explanation of how both Krauthammer and Sullivan reveal psychologies dominated, above all else, by the demand for obedience. (In the near future, I will offer a lengthier examination of that last point.)

VI(B), The Truth that Lies Within, and the Truth that Many Will Not Face: The conclusion of my explanation of the vast chasm that separates Sullivan's approach to this subject from mine, and a consideration of the ultimate roots of torture and violence in the numerous cruelties inflicted on children by the majority of parents, relying on the work of Alice Miller.

With regard to this last issue, a related piece is also critical: When the Demons Come. That essay discusses certain tragically common barbarities in child rearing (such as "hot saucing" and the methods championed by James Dobson), the psychological dynamics instilled by such means -- including most notably obedience and denial -- and how those dynamics lead to atrocities committed by adults.