Saturday, September 09, 2006

Bush and Torture Explained

From Robert Bolt’s A Man for All Seasons (1960)
ALICE MORE: (Exasperated, pointing after RICH) While you talk, he’s gone!

MORE: And go he should, if he was the Devil himself, until he broke the law.

ROPER: So now you’d give the Devil benefit of law!

MORE: Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?

ROPER: I’d cut down every law in England to do that!

MORE: (Roused and excited) Oh? (Advances on ROPER) And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you—where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? (He leaves him) This country’s planted thick with laws from coast to coast—man’s laws, not God’s—and if you cut them down—and you’re just the man to do it—d’you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? (Quietly) Yes, I’d give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety’s sake.

I picked up A Man for All Seasons about a month ago when I was thinking about George Bush’s stubborn insistence that he be allowed to authorize torture. His recent admission that the secret CIA torture centers we heard about last year do exist brought it back to the front of my mind. So while I was running along the lakefront today, I tried to lay out what I think are the reasons why torture is so important to George Bush.

I found myself thinking in outline form for clarity’s sake, so that’s how I wrote. I apologize if my organization leaves something to be desired; I also apologize for the extreme length of the post—I’ll certainly understand if you don’t feel like slogging through it all. But for those of you who do, I’d really like to know what you think. Have I missed anything? Misunderstood anything? Mischaracterized anything?

Reasons that George Bush is so adamant that he be allowed to authorize torture
I. He believes that torture works and therefore is necessary

A. Because he’s utterly incurious, so he’s never looked into the matter on his own, and he never seeks out dissenting viewpoints. Therefore, he’s never learned of the conclusion of many who’ve studied the issue—including the British army, which made use of torture throughout its imperial heyday and even as recently as the 1980s in Northern Ireland—that torture is ineffective. The information you gain is less, and of a lesser quality, than what is gained through more nuanced interrogation techniques.

B. Because like a dismaying number of conservatives (and, to be fair, Americans in general), his worldview is largely shaped by action movies and popular culture. In action movies, torture works. And, in action movies, the “ticking time bomb” scenario—that favorite crutch of torture apologists, where a grinning bad guy in custody knows the location of a bomb about to go off—occurs fairly frequently, whereas in real life such a situation is extremely rare.

II. He dislikes being opposed in anything

A. Because his understanding of government is so limited and his sense of entitlement so overdeveloped that he really believes that, as President, he should be able to do what he wants.

B. Because his stubbornness very quickly comes into play, and his first response to opposition of any kind is to want even more what he’s being told he can’t have.

III. He supports torture because it seems like a tough-minded choice, and it thereby makes him feel tough

A. Because while Bush sometimes says that he’ll “do whatever it takes,” use any tool at hand, to make Americans safer, he is of course lying. He’s not going to suspend all air travel or make everyone who boards a commuter train endure a patdown and a scan. Those measures might make America safer, but at too high a cost. The cost of torture being nearly invisible, torture is to him an available tool. Deciding to support torture allows him to think of himself as someone who will do whatever it takes.
1. The fact that there’s opposition only makes him feel more like the clear-eyed, tough-minded straight-shooter that he and so many Republicans like to think he is. And that very sense of tough-mindedness resonates all the more for him because of the dichotomy it allows him to imagine between his approach and what he sees as the squeamish approach of the other side, who he believes aren’t willing to look at the facts and make the hard choices.
2. The more he is opposed, the tougher he feels for having made his decision, and therefore the more squeamish the opposition seems, and therefore the tougher he feels. Like so many other pathological aspects of the Bush administration, it’s self-reinforcing.

B. The position that a tough-minded approach to fighting terrorism must consider torture within bounds is easy to argue in an ill-informed, barstool manner. As we’ve seen from his interviews and press conferences, that’s the level of Bush’s argumentative skills at their best—and such a context is exactly the sort that leads a person to feel that taking unpopular positions makes him tough.

IV. He supports torture because he actually has no qualms about it in practice [I think this is the biggie, actually.]

A. Because he’s given astonishingly little thought (I imagine on the order of about ten minutes, total) to what life for people who aren’t Americans—or, more specifically, for Iraqis and Afghans—is like. Therefore, he has no real sense that some of the people his men pick up could be innocent bystanders.
1. He doesn’t understand the physical dangers and the psychological pressures of living in a war zone. He doesn’t understand why even an Iraqi who is firmly pro-American might not want to tell everything he knows about the activities of his neighbors. He doesn’t even begin to understand that an occupying army, whatever its intentions, breeds resentment, which in turn kills cooperation. Those who fail to cooperate must have something to hide.
2. In fact, I really believe that way down deep in his subconscious, he believes that pretty much anyone over there is a little guilty. After all, if you’re not a bad guy, why would you live in a war zone? In this, I don’t think he’s alone—and I think that subconscious judgment is one of the complex of reasons why Iraqi civilian casualties are largely shrugged off over here. This also jibes with the position of Bush and other right-wingers following Hurricane Katrina: surely anyone who remained in the city was suspect. After all, why ride out a deadly hurricane if you’re not socially suspect in some way?

B. Because he doesn’t actually believe that most people are innocent until proven guilty, and the guilty, by their guilt, have forfeited the right to any real concern.
1. Therefore, if his men—and by extension, in this case, all Marines, CIA officers, G-men, and Army privates are his men—pick someone up, that’s because the person is guilty. This applies both within the United States and without.
2. With regard to Iraq and Afghanistan in particular, because he is deeply incurious and ill-informed, he has never thought about the difficulties facing an occupying army that doesn’t speak the language, has an unclear mission, and is on edge because it’s in constant danger. Therefore he has no idea of the sorts of mistakes that such a situation breeds, and he continues to assume that anyone rounded up is, by definition, guilty.

C. Because he doesn’t believe that anyone has inherent human or legislated legal rights.
1. Therefore expedience is all when making decisions about matters of, as he sees it, life and death. It’s not even that expedience trumps human rights—there’s not even a contest.
2. This, I think, is where Bush is most clearly a totalitarian at heart. Rights are given, not inherent, and they can and should be taken away from enemies of the state. And it’s not too hard for me to imagine a nightmare situation where that category grows and grows, as it does in any totalitarian state, and suddenly Bush is calmly ordering people like John Kerry or Bill Clinton or John McCain to be tortured. I’m not saying we’re anywhere near that point—it’s a full-on sci-fi dystopia away—but I can picture it, because it’s at the far end of a continuum on which Bush has demonstrated that he is willing to rest comfortably.
3. He believes that those of us who do believe in inherent human rights and legislated legal rights are either just saying so to score political points, are actively anti-American and oppose his goals, or are so befogged by legalistic book-learning that we’re unable to see the real dangers before us. He has absolutely no understanding of the actual roots of a principled stand on this issue in opposition to him; he doesn’t believe a principled stand on this issue is even possible.

D. Because he is so incurious and ill-informed, he has no idea how horrible the act of torture is.
1. In this, he’s not alone; I imagine that very few members of our government have ever read accounts by torture survivors or former torturers. I think that’s a minuscule but real part of the reason that opposition to Bush’s torture policies has been so tepid. These people simply have no idea how horrid, brutal, and repugnant the physical acts of torture are. Despite the fact that nearly everyone breaks under torture, I would bet that most congressmen, if pressed, would say they think they’d hold up pretty well.
2. This lack of knowledge also helps to fuel points I and III, above. Because he is ill-informed, he can continue to feel tough (thinking that he’d be able to take it) and to believe that the information gained from torture is of great value (because, again, he doesn’t understand that eventually nearly everyone breaks and starts saying whatever they think the torturer wants to hear).

V. He believes his administration’s propaganda.

A. Because he is ill-informed, incurious, and not very smart (and because, as in I:B above, he learns from movies), he believes those who oppose us are evil. As he said the other day, the situation is as simple as “They believe the opposite of what we believe.”
1. Therefore, actual fighting against those who oppose us is really the only solution. To negotiate or compromise with evil is, de facto, to lose.
2. Therefore, any protestations of innocence or claims that the goals you impute to your enemy are not, in fact, their goals, are lies. Torture is a way to get past those lies.

B. Because he is actively hostile to complexity, he believes that we are inherently good.
1. Therefore, our actions should be judged both more leniently than Bush’s political opponents seem to want to judge them and they should be judged based on the intentions that underlie them, not on their actuality.
2. Therefore, not only may we condone torture, we must condone torture. To do less is to take a chance that the cause of the good might lose. In a Manichean battle, moral niceties must be discarded.

VI. He listens to and trusts Cheney

A. Who believes in torture. I think all of the above arguments would apply to Cheney if you replaced “ill-informed” and “incurious” with “calculating and Machiavellian” and “openly hostile to new information.”

B. Who actively reinforces points II and III. He tells Bush that he should be able to do anything he wants, and he tells him he’s a tough son of a bitch for making the hard decisions and sticking to his guns.

The fact that we have spent the past three years debating the ethics of torture is to the great shame of America. The fact that our President stood resolutely on the immoral side of the issue and was reelected is to the even greater shame of America. A hundred years on our hands and knees with the bleach won’t even begin to lessen this stain on our nation’s honor.


  1. I should note that Billmon is the one who initially reminded me to look at A Man for All Seasons. And, since I'm using Sir Thomas More to open a post about torture, I should also note that, though Robert Bolt presents More as an example of a man who held to his principles in the face of death, which he was, More also was a fierce anti-Protestant campaigner, ordering six Lutherans burned at the stake and having others tortured in his home. I still feel that Bolt's words retain their force, but it would be wrong not to note More's failings.

    If you feel you should learn more about the physical and emotional horrors of torture, two solid books are John Conroy's Unspeakable Acts, Ordinary People, which includes a long chapter on police torture here in Chicago, and Lawrence Weschler's A Miracle, a Universe. Both books are horrifying and likely to greatly damage any faith in humanity that you may be clinging to. But the Weschler also contains one of the most impressive stories of human determination, bravery, and fortitude I've read, the story of the ordinary Brazilians who smuggled thousands of pages of evidence of brutal torture out of the offices of their totalitarian government so that the evidence could be published. The resulting book, Brazil: Nunco Mas became a real first step towards acknowledging and healing the many brutal wrongs perpetrated by the regime.

  2. Very solid analysis of the tortured soul (pun intended) who unfortunately runs our country, and the world ... I was really hoping the Democrats would get it together and take back both houses of Congress this fall, but with their overreaction to this silly ABC 9/11 "docudrama," those hopes are fading fairly quickly