Editore"s Note
Tilting at Windmills

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June 10, 2004
By: Kevin Drum

TORTURE....Writing about the recent revelations of memos justifying torture against Taliban and al-Qaeda prisoners, I said this on Monday:

The United States has fought many wars over the past half century, and in each of them our causes were just as important as today's, information from prisoners would have been just as helpful, and we were every bit as determined to win as we are now. But we still didn't authorize torture of prisoners. FDR, Truman, Eisenhower, LBJ, Reagan all of them knew it wasn't right, and the rest of us knew it as well.

Michael Froomkin cited this approvingly, and his post then caught the attention of the Curmudgeonly Clerk at Crescat Sententia, who suggested I was taking a rather too rosy view of the past. What about the firebombing of Dresden and the Japanese internments during World War II? Or, more recently, Nixon's bombing of Cambodia. Surely these examples show that George Bush's wobbly moral compass is hardly unique?

I feel like there's an answer to this, but I'm not quite sure what it is, so I'm going to talk out loud a bit and see if I can puzzle out why I feel more strongly about torture than I do about the other excesses of war that CC mentions. Let me toss out a few thoughts:

  • Am I minimizing past injustices simply because they happened a long time ago and are merely historical to me? Maybe. It's a point worth paying attention to as we consider what follows.

  • At the risk of splitting hairs, it strikes me that while torture is universally condemned (in the west, anyway), bombings that kill civilians are treated more equivocally. That may or may not be justified, but I think it's true: more than almost any other practice, torture is something that we associate only with the very worst regimes on the planet. (On the other hand, CC specifically suggests that torture might not be quite as universally condemned as I think, and sadly, there's some evidence to back that up.)

  • When I turn this over in my mind, one of the things I keep coming back to is the idea of coldbloodedness. There is something about excesses on the battlefield that, even if wrong, are at least understandable since they happen in the heat of battle. Torture of prisoners, on the other hand, is a carefully planned, coldly executed, and highly personal tactic against people who are no longer capable of fighting back. There is, in my mind, something uniquely amoral and corrosive about this kind of coldblooded infliction of pain.

  • There is also something about the present circumstances that makes this even more egregious than usual. We spent a lot of time before the Iraq War rightly condemning Saddam Hussein for his use of torture, and this makes it even more repugnant than otherwise to find out that we're employing some of the same methods.

  • And then there's secrecy. The Japanese internments during WWII, as appalling as they were, were at least the subject of some debate and were carried out in public. It was, in a sense, a case of mass hysteria. The Bush administration's obsession with torture, on the other hand, was kept secret precisely because they knew the public would never support it. In other words, they knew how wrong it was but went ahead and did it anyway.

  • It's also worth noting that FDR and Nixon aren't exactly primo examples of presidents with strong personal senses of morality and you can add LBJ to that list too. However, it's also worth noting that even so, none of them ever approved the torture of prisoners.

I've been careful when I talk about torture not to make legal arguments, since I don't think that condemnation of torture should depend on sterile discussions of specific laws or treaties. I've also avoided arguing about cleverly invented "ticking bomb" scenarios, since this is basically just a way of changing the subject by picking the most extreme possible case for consideration.

Rather, I want to get to the hard, moral core of this issue: namely that routine state sponsored torture of prisoners is a barbaric practice more barbaric than almost anything else we can think of and that tolerating it does indeed put the current administration in a class by itself. This post, however, isn't a thorough defense of that thesis, merely a few notes in that direction. Comments are welcome.

Kevin Drum 1:26 AM Permalink | Trackbacks

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