The Torture Temptation
What I find most remarkable about America’s debate regarding torture — beyond the fact that such a debate could even be necessary in America — is the continual recourse of both proponents and opponents to the question of whether torture works. I can’t think of any other illegal behavior — not murder, not rape, not kidnapping, not assault — that receives this kind of rhetorical makeover. When a murder has been committed, you don’t hear people agonizing over whether killing can never, ever be justified. When someone has been raped, people don’t ignore the crime in favor of a discussion of whether a rapist’s satisfaction could possibly be proven to outweigh a victim’s trauma and horror. If a child is kidnapped, the airwaves aren’t polluted with discussion of whether kidnapping might actually be an effective way of acquiring ransom money. And so on. Torture, apparently, is different. Let’s talk about why.
Unlike other crimes, torture has a constituency, in the form of the architects who created America’s torture regime. These are the people who feed the public discourse with a steady supply of, “Can you really say that torture never, ever works?” And, “What would you do if your child were kidnapped and the kidnapper refused to reveal the child’s location?” And, “How can you compare enhanced interrogation techniquing one terrorist to the 3000 people killed on 9/11?” Etc. The architects, and their media allies, know that as long as the talking heads of television and gatherers by office water coolers, literal and electronic, are discussing the morality and practicality of torture, they won’t be talking about the illegality of torture.
But this supply-side explanation is only part of what makes torture different. The supply would have nowhere to go in the absence of demand. And the demand is what we most need to guard against. Purveyors of torture excuses will come and go, but our psyches will never change. I believe some deep place in the human psyche is attracted to torture.
A fundamental aspect of human nature is an abhorrence of powerlessness and a concomitant will to power. And what greater confirmation of power, and banishment of powerlessness, is there than utter control over another human being — body, mind, and soul? We also abhor helplessness. It’s horrifying to consider that over time we will never be able to entirely prevent terrorist attacks. We prefer to believe 9/11 happened because we failed to do something we could have done, that there’s some extreme we can still resort to that will make us safe again, that if we do that thing from now on, we can gain greater mastery over the possibilities that frighten us.
Because, for the reasons set forth in the paragraph above, torture is already seductive, we seize on it like a talisman custom-made for our fearful psyches. So it bears reminding that the reason torture is universally illegal in the civilized world is a consensus that torture is not only evil, but also insidious, and that therefore we must guard against the temptation to torture by enacting and enforcing strict laws against it. These laws provide not just a bulwark against a recrudescence of torture, but act also as a signpost, wisely erected by generations before us, warning us to stand fast against the dark sirens of our worst impulses.
Leave aside the irony that it’s self-styled “conservatives” who are so eager to ignore the accreted wisdom of generations past. That the consensus against torture is the work of generations — the product of generations of mistakes and of continual, improbable appeals not just to morality, but to wisdom, too, to the better angels of our nature — makes the more debilitating the right’s progress in once again coloring torture as something respectable, even desirable.
It is nothing of the sort. Torture is an abomination. It is without exception illegal. Those who have authorized it and those who have carried it out have committed crimes. In the face of clear laws and clear evidence of violation of those laws, a rhetorical resort to theory or morality or practicality isn’t just an attempt to obscure the commission of crimes. It’s also an implicit debasement of the value of the law itself. Most of all, it’s a profoundly unconservative attempt to reingest an evil seed civilization has over time and in the face of dark, conflicting impulses, managed largely to expel.
Cross-posted at Humanity Against Crime.