Down in the Dungeon with the Torture Trolls (warning: rated J for Japanese graphic violence)
posted at 5:38 pm on April 24, 2009 by CK MacLeod
To my knowledge, neither Andrew Sullivan nor Glenn Greenwald is a member of the HotAir community – though I suspect their requests for user-accounts would be granted. Closed registration keeps out the garden variety trolls that infest more open sites. Yet we do have a handful of left-of-right regulars to help us maintain contact with that interminable paranoid nightmare the Kossacks call “reality.” I’m thinking of two regulars in particular who came to dominate discussion under two prior posts of mine on or referring to the so-called (and prejudicially) “torture” issue: Their contributions exemplify why, inevitably, this topic is at once so fascinatingly painful, so dangerous and yet ineluctable for all concerned.
Many HotAir regulars know sesquipedalian and strangelet, and also know that, though they’ve been known to troll, or walk on the troll side, they’re not really trolls. Troll is as troll does, and, once you get past their initial reflexes (something virtually impossible with a true troll), past their compulsively expressed disdain for “gun freaks, jesus freaks and pro-life nuts,” once you’ve fended off their rhetorical elbows and massaged your verbal shins, and as long as you keep one hand in jugular protection position and the other one within easy reach of your snickersnee, and didn’t forget your cup, and wore your steel-toed boots, and your helmet, and you vary your schedule and avoid all other routines, they turn out to be smart, articulate, thoughtful – even witty – well-meaning idealists capable of dialogue and seemingly even looking for it.
Yet, in my opinion, they remain controlled, where not consumed, by emotion on this topic – expressing fear, shame, and anger in varying counterproductive proportions, and determined to share – just like many of their allies, and just like the Troll-in-Chief.
sesqui’s opening salvo on my “Where We Agree with Obama…” post, which included the above-linked “nuts/freaks” excerpt, ends as follows: “[Y]ou and your ilk brought shame to America.” “You” in this case would be yours truly. As for my ilk, if you don’t know whom he means, I understand that the DHS has published a highly informative report. Anyway, after selected ilk had their say, sesqui came back with another broadside:
torture is disgusting. anyone promoting torture is despicable, no matter who the victim is. i don’t care about your rhetorical tricks trying to reconcile having jesus in your heart with actively advocating the systematic torture of human beings. face your shame
When I pointed out that no one except him, either in the top post or in subsequent posts had mentioned religion, he decided to play the patriot card:
it’s despicable, whether or not you’re a christian. it’s unpatriotic and against our values. shining city on the hill, say [expletive] goodbye to that. you keep telling yourself that they didn’t suffer, that it was just a little roughing’em up – it wasn’t. it was planned, systematic torture, as described above.
you believe former bush people that torture worked. so far, no evidence, only hearsay. you want to believe them, because you can’t face the truth. that we senselessly tortured people, and gained very little from it. we tortured people not just to stop a ticking bomb, but to gather the “mosaic” info, random data that may be useful one day. we tortured people for that.
Notice how many times the word “torture” or close variations is repeated in the above and prior excerpts: sesqui has his hands on an implement that he expects will inflict pain, and so he pokes it in, and in, and in where he expects to find a nerve center.
At the same time, he helps ensure that the discussion is about torture, exploiting the pre-judgment of the issue briefly noted above, and seen everywhere these days in the phrase “torture memos.” Torture per se is never precisely defined in these discussions – among other things because it can’t be (see below). In most discourse from the left, it now appears to be peremptoritly equated with “what’s in the memos.” Now as before, it’s circular: We know the Bushies tortured because “what the Bushies did” is our definition of torture.
This approach works well for torture trolls for several reasons, prominently among them the fact that the Bush team was consciously struggling to develop effective interrogation procedures without “torturing.” Regardless of whatever moral judgments you make – if you believe, say, along with some 60% of Americans who usually tell pollsters that torture should remain an option at least in “rare instances” – the US has aligned itself against torture, by treaty with force of law, as ratified under Ronald Reagan, as re-affirmed by Congress under Bill Clinton, and as re-affirmed again by and under George W Bush. Here’s the United Nations Convention Against Torture, to which the US was a signatory as of 1988 – the full text having been helpfully provided to us by none other than sesquipedalian himself, with my emphases:
1. For the purposes of this Convention, torture means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.
2. This article is without prejudice to any international instrument or national legislation which does or may contain provisions of wider application.
1. Each State Party shall take effective legislative, administrative, judicial or other measures to prevent acts of torture in any territory under its jurisdiction.
2. No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat or war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.
3. An order from a superior officer or a public authority may not be invoked as a justification of torture.
In other words, US public officials and lawyers don’t have the option of freely indulging in thought experiments. They can’t, just for the sake of discussion, say, “Well, under a broad definition of torture, waterboarding and humiliating KSM was torture, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it wasn’t the right thing to do.” If they say that, then they’re outlaw torturers for life in every warren, grotto, and cave of the internet, the mass media, and the Democratic Party – coming soon to congressional committee or federal court near you. They can’t muse aloud about the history of torture, about cultures and whole civilizations, Christian and non-Christian, tribal and imperial, that viewed torture completely differently, and in ways that are arguably no more or less arbitrary than ours. They can’t, in their official roles, come on HotAir and say, “Well, if you put it like that, yes, I’d go medieval on Abu Zubaydah’s a$$ if I thought it was the only way to save a city – or to save my own family.” If they do give voice to such beliefs and sentiments – beliefs and sentiments shared by many, many of their fellow citizens, and by the vast majority of human beings ever to walk the planet (sociopaths being the main exceptions) – then they are putting themselves outside the law of the land, which has, in my view short-sightedly and dishonestly, spread-eagled us on a transnational table, and tied us down with all-encompassing ambiguity.
As Green Roomer coldwarrior asked, when confronted by sesquipedalian in an unusually calm colloquy, “What qualifies as severe pain and suffering?” There can be no single answer: We’re lost in the Derridean mirror-world in which definitions of words are merely other words, everything is everything, and the eye altering alters all. And there is no shortage of volunteers ready to don the hood and go right after our eyes.
Why did we put ourselves into the hands of future transnational inquisitors? It’s not just some international version of Stockholm Syndrome, where we’ve come to love our global captors. In a series of conflicts going back to the colonial era, Americans have defined themselves, justified themselves in war and conquest, against a series of enemies depicted as torturers: Native American “savages,” slavers, Imperial Japanese, Communists, Saddamists, terrorists. The Revolutionary generation’s “self-evident” truths against the British Empire were broader, but inclusive on this theme: A country founded with the inalienable rights of life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness in mind, deeply protective of the individual against the state as throughout the Bill of Rights, is implicitly a country founded against torture. What “shocks the conscience” – to use the oft-invoked American legal standard – isn’t just that torture is “disgusting” in the eye of whatever beholder, but that it inherently and immediately pre-empts and contradicts everything we stand for.
This is what, it seems, really gets to strangelet, and how could you not be sympathetic? Now, when playing droll-troll, she’s the smart-alecky grrl who knows us and our interests better than we do. One of her favorite tactics, when not l-ing ol at the conserva-rubes, is to cite some right- or middle-winger who appears to have broken ranks. It’s the “your friends are betraying you” tactic that every interrogator uses. Yet, strangelet is even less a good bad cop than she is a consistent troll. In the end, like sesqui, she drops the accuser pose and joins the parade of witness/victims, unforgivably tortured by our willingness to torture, exhibiting her wounds for a jury:
Don’t you think that Sesqui and I (and other likeminded Americans) would have protested if we had known?
I dismissed Cole and Sully [app. Prof. Juan Cole and blogger Andrew Sullivan] because I simply could not believe my country would torture.
I did look away, I was in denial, but not in the way you assume.
That last sentence refers to an earlier exchange in which she had equated herself with Alexei “Alyosha” Karamazov, the “good” brother Karamazov. Unlike us (Ivans, Dmitrys, Fyodors, Smerdyakovs all), she “could not do it,” could not, in her proferred example, harm the innocent child to save the nation.
In a somewhat similar vein, once drawn into expounding his own position (before lapsing back into attempts to shock and torment us with fragmentary narratives of “torture”), sesqui imagines some future regime under which heroic volunteers will protect him and us from terrorists, then willingly face the consequences:
in case of an impending attack, i’d of course hope that they would do whatever to stop it, but if they break the law, i’d see their punishment afterward as sad but proper. by torturing terrorists to stop an attack, they’d make themselves tragic heroes who compromised themselves for doing “the right thing,” that is, defending the country. immediately afterward, bizarre as it may sound, our priority becomes that they are brought to justice.in those extremely rare cases, if indeed it has ever even gotten close to that, there really is a bomb ticking somewhere, as a human being i’d expect them to go beyond the limit, but i’d consider it one of the great tragedies of life, when someone compromises himself to save something greater. he becomes corrupted by his act.
The dramatic recitation is also almost worthy of Dostoevsky, though alert readers may identify it instead as the predicament of warrior-saint Jack Bauer at the beginning of this season’s 24, willingly facing the music, undergoing crucifiction by congressional committee. As for sesqui and strangelet specifically, you almost have to admire the courage it takes to confess such cowardice, and the honesty of the commitment to dishonesty, the open denial, even under internet pseudonyms. In their America, the citizenry will be allowed to pretend innocence, beneficiaries of the actions of Bauer-like heroes, who, in order to preserve the former’s sense of inviolate moral sanctity, will then be subjected to the harshest possible retrospective judgment.
It’s ironic and telling in this context – and I don’t pretend to be the first to point this out – that our national self-torment regarding torture has played out during a period in which so-called “torture porn” has been one of the “hot” genres of popular art.
The poster to the right looks like it’s for any old torture porn movie – and maybe that’s a fair description (I haven’t seen the film). The imagery was intended to attract people to a documentary film detailing charges of severe mistreatment, what some would call torture, by the US military of Guantanamo inmates. The designer clearly understood that the elements that attract people to this topic include prurient interest, fear, sadomasochistic identification with both the torturers and the tortured, and other inchoate and complex emotional states and investments; many of the same things that draw people to movies like SAW or HOSTEL. Like rather similar poster images for the fictional torture porn films CAPTIVITY and SAW II, it was rejected for theatrical use by the Motion Picture Association of America.
This odd intersection of documentary and fictional torture film aesthetics is not purely a coincidence, in my opinion, just as it’s no coincidence that the torture trolls and others like to focus on childish and irrelevant SAW-like fantasy dilemmas: Would you torture a child to save Manhattan? Would you gouge out a suspect’s eyeball on a 50/50 chance of good intelligence? There is undoubtedly somewhere some pierced and tattooed hate-boy whose favorite blogger is Andrew Sullivan, whose favorite director is Eli Roth, and who is convinced of his moral superiority to Dick Cheney, Jay Bybee, and you, and is desperate to tell you all about it.
We’re all KSM on this topic – undergoing a harsh interrogation completely beyond our control, unsure of where it could be heading, wondering whether our very political and moral lives are at stake. We’re all Jay Bybee, too, asking ourselves the same questions, from the perspective of the master, not the slave, dreadfully responsible no matter what we do, morally endangered by our relative safety, in thrall to our very freedom to choose. And there’s no way to know where this process will end: In the shadow of another if very different “reign of terror,” the writings of the Marquis De Sade were said eventually to have reached every literate French citizen – and if they did any good, the corpses strewn from Paris to Egypt to Iberia to Moscow and back suggest that the effect remained long delayed, at best.
Or how’s this for torture porn? In the Concentration Camp at Buchenwald, the same building used for interrogations in the daytime was used as an SS-run for-profit inmates’ movie theater in the evenings, the instruments of torture moved aside to make for projector, screen, and seats. Over the course of that same war, on the good side, the US began with a posture that “area bombing” was inhumane and repugnant. Gradually, we accepted that our less well-equipped, already area-bombed major ally would engage in the practice – the strategic aerial version of “rendition” to torturing regimes. Finally, we began to do it as well, at first offering contingent justifications (we were attacking “communications” or “economic” centers), until finally we were incinerating whole cities in an express effort to compel the enemy to surrender.
Maybe we should never have done it. Maybe we should have been doing it from the beginning. Maybe we’re doomed (or maybe we’re lucky) never to recall at the outset of hostilities where the logic of war can drive us by their end, and where the logic of peace tends to drive us back.
Finally, I’ll say first that I appreciate (most of) sesqui and strangelet’s challenges, and I’m prepared to try to understand anyone’s position on these most difficult issues, and to defend my own. In brief, I support a policy that allows for the application of minimum necessary physical force (including drugs and other technical means) to obtain time-critical information from captive out-of-uniform combatants, subject to consultation with and review by all branches of government. In practice, I think it would look like a combination of Alan Dershowitz’s “torture warrants” proposal and the ad hoc, consultative and precedent-controlled decisions of the Bush Office of Legal Counsel and associated intelligence and law enforcement personnel.
There’s much said about what “message” we send by what we’ve done or by what we choose to reveal about what we’ve done. I’d like us to say – that is, to admit, to others and to ourselves – that we will take what measures we need to take in order to protect ourselves and our way of life, and the lives of innocents. We will strive to do so with pragmatism, honesty, courage, and reason, not fear or shame or evasion or convenient fiction or ad hoc panic.
And if you don’t want to trust our judgment about what’s necessary to achieve our vital objectives, then don’t commit acts of terror against us or our allies.
UPDATE: My estimate of 60% of Americans supporting torture in at least “rare” instances was based on scanning several polls conducted over the last few years (including some apparent outliers). James Taranto, in today’s BEST OF THE WEB, cites current Pew Research’s opinion polling that puts the numbers consistently closer to 70-30 regarding “torture of suspected terrorists to gain information,” with nearly half of the respondents regularly falling into “sometimes/often” aggregated from among the four options: “never,” “rarely,” “sometimes,” “often.”