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May 30, 2008

No Torture. No Exceptions. Just a Few Qualms.

I'm really happy Nell Lancaster of A Lovely Promise is cross-posting this, and I have high hopes she'll appear here much more in the future—Jon

By: Nell Lancaster

A recent post by Digby alerted me to two pieces of good news. One is that Scott Horton hasn't followed through on his announced intention to abandon his excellent blog. Fans of Billmon in the olden days should be wise to the phenomenon: references to imminent closure of the Whiskey Bar were often followed by a torrent of especially good posts.

The other, even better news is the existence of a national initiative called No Torture. No Exceptions. The goal of the campaign is to get both major political parties to adopt comprehensive no-torture planks in their platforms at this year's conventions. These proposals (quoted in Digby's post) are strong and absolute. I support them unreservedly, and long to live in a country in which they represent the commitment of at least the governing party, if not both major parties.

But...several other aspects of the campaign as presented at the site make me uneasy.

1. The initiative completely accepts and adopts the framework of the "war on terror".

This is a false and dangerous construct, a political creation of the Bush administration with horrendous implications for foreign policy and our constitutional system. It obscures and undermines the legitimate effort to prevent terror attacks in the United States.

2. The arguments against torture are entirely pragmatic/consequentialist (and all are related to the "war on terror").

That's a perfectly good tactic when dealing with politicians, and it's fine for the 'talking points' section. But nowhere on the site is there even a nod to the fundamental reason why torture has been outlawed and must be rejected: that it is morally wrong, among the gravest crimes against humanity.

3. The "history" section is selective to the point of dishonesty.

Sanitizing past involvement of the U.S. government, military, and non-military operatives with torture is another tactical choice. It accomplishes several things, at a cost of some integrity (but then, this is an effort to influence our actual political parties):

• It maintains the future focus of the campaign: stopping torture from here on out.

• It creates the strongest possible contrast with the current administration, encouraging the belief that this period is an aberration (even if a serious one) and thus capable of being completely corrected.

• It reinforces belief in American exceptionalism and "American values" as the basis for rejecting torture, rather than commitment to universal human rights.

4. The effort to make No Torture, No Exceptions a nonpartisan challenge to both parties is admirable in principle. But this part, from the 'About Us' section, is just wrong on several levels:

The initiative's circle is growing larger, from its seed in the concern of two citizens, a 79 year old and a 27 year old, agonized by our country's use of torture in the war on terror. To list each name already involved would give the impression that this is an organization, which it is not, [and that] the circle is closed, which it is not.

First, a campaign unwilling to make public its originators and supporters is not likely to persuade skeptics of its nonpartisan nature. Second, an initiative that frames an issue of universal human rights completely in national security terms, much less in the false and dangerous construct of a "war on terror", is in no position to ask others to put themselves on the record while the authors remain anonymous. It is an organization, not a movement. Third, the "closed circle" bit is not only nonsense, but new-age-speak nonsense likely to repel the very people the "war on terror" language and consequentialist arguments are designed to attract.

I'm not a purist. I've made the case for using pragmatic arguments when dealing with elected officials, in comments on this very blog. In tackling a touchy issue, I appreciate the benefits of meeting Americans where they are rather than where one might wish they were. This makes understandable the efforts of the No Torture, No Exceptions site to address Americans' concerns about preventing terror attacks, and to keep the focus on what they value (American ideals, self-image, and effectiveness) rather than what they fear (the actual human beings who have been tortured).

In fact, I've written exactly the same kind of appeal myself. In the fall of 2002, in preparation for a local Veterans Day event, a group of us working to build opposition to the impending war on Iraq saw the need for a flyer to pass out that would make the case against the war entirely on patriotic and national security grounds. This is the result.

At the time that was written, only a year after the attacks of September 11, the "war on terror" was a much more powerful concept than it is today. No major mainstream politicians had questioned its assumptions, and the public had only gotten a glimpse of the actions by the Bush administration that would discredit it. Yet we saw that it was being used to promote a wider war, to hijack our grief and fly it into Iraq (h/t: Freeway Blogger). Indeed, it was clear that that was a vital part of the purpose of the phrase.

Those of us who feared the worst about the domestic and foreign-policy consequences of the way in which a "war on terror" fused the paradigms of war and law were determined not to legitimize the term. So we carefully avoided using it in favor of wordier but more accurate constructions like "the effort to end terror strikes from al Qaeda". At the time this seemed like an important distinction, more than mere hairsplitting, because our formulation didn't necessarily involve military action at all, much less "war". [see Note at end]

Now, six years later, with all the evidence before us of the administration using "war on terror" as a way to expand unchecked executive power to the functional equivalent of dictatorship, as a cover for multiple wars of aggression, and as a political stick with which to beat electoral opposition and policy dissent, it is beyond disappointing to find the promoters of a desperately needed initiative to end U.S. torture adopting it as the core of their argument.

Please don't let this stop you from urging your members of Congress, governor, and any other delegates to the national party conventions to commit to adopting the No Torture, No Exceptions platform. Just use your own words.

Note: Preceding sentence added for clarity, 6:10 pm 1 June.

—Nell Lancaster

Posted at May 30, 2008 02:34 AM

I don't understand - your flier uses the same sort of language. If that was an acceptable tactical decision for you to make, why is it unacceptable for them?

Posted by: saurabh at May 30, 2008 04:46 AM

I think the point is that in 2002, if you wanted to have an impact, you had to talk in terms of "the war on terror". Hell, I was more than a little paranoid myself in those days and I fully expected our government to use 9/11 as an excuse to start blowing things up.

Centrist liberals fell over themselves showing how tough they were and anyone who even mentioned the sins of US foreign policy was immediately condemned as someone who thought the victims of 9/11 had it coming. I remember telling a liberal friend that our war in Afghanistan might cause a huge famine and this didn't seem to register as something serious until I said "And that would result in even more hatred of us." He's not normally like that.

It's changed quite a bit since then--I think the change started with Katrina (showing just how little prepared we were in any practical humanitarian way when terrorist weather systems struck our cities) and then the upsurge in violence in Iraq in 2006, so now the notion that US imperialism exists and might even be bad in some ways is almost mainstream.

Anyway, good post, Nell.

Posted by: Donald Johnson at May 30, 2008 09:52 AM


As I said in the post, the flier was designed to make its arguments entirely on pragmatic, consequential national security grounds (rather than the immorality and evil of conducting a war of aggression). It was written for distribution at a Veterans' Day parade.

Participants in local antiwar activity made all kinds of arguments against the coming war on other occasions in petitions, letters to the editor, placards at our vigils and demos, lobbying visits, etc.

But, despite restricting ourselves in this case to arguments of national interest, we saw a large and crucial difference between adopting the administration's framework and language of a "war on terror" and the less graceful but more legitimate "the effort to end terror strikes from Al Qaeda" (which does not necessarily include war of any kind, and is a much more specific and limited objective).

A little discouraging to think that I didn't succeed in making that point clearly in the post, but lesson learned.

Posted by: Nell at May 30, 2008 10:59 AM

We have the 5th Amendent which addresses torture at its root, someone cannot be made to testify against themselves, and we have laws agaist torture, we have the Geneva conventions. WE also have a government that just don't give a damn and a Congress with NO stomach for oversight. The power structure of BOTH major parties are comprised of these very SAME people. One might think "If these torturers, these power people behind them, these torture friendly citizens could have a taste of what they are dishing out, why, they would see the light and stop, horrified at what they've done." Senator Mccain IS living proof that is a false assumption. Torture, domestic spying, the wars, the mercenaries, the subprimes, looting of the Treasury, one can go on and on, ALL symptoms of the same root cause. WE GOT GREEDY, WE GOT STUPID. The perfect marrage made in hell and they dance through this world hand in hand. Unless WE CITIZENS, WE TAXPAYERS step up to the bat, in mass, nothing will change for the better, only for the worse. If YOU AND I do not step up to the plate, if WE remain silent, then EVEN Mr. Obama will have the CIA torturing the little arab kids (or YOURS, ask Jose Padillia's mom)) so dad (or mom) will tell where the bomb is.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 30, 2008 11:20 AM

Don't get me wrong, WE've ALWAYS been somewhat GREEDY AND STUPID its just that the WISDOM OF THE CONSTITUTION keep us somewhat in check. (with dick and george, aka greed and stupidity, we dove ALL the way to the bottom of the bottle)

Posted by: Mike Meyer at May 30, 2008 11:43 AM


If that was an acceptable tactical decision for you to make, why is it unacceptable for them?

I'd say the main reason is the passage of time. For most of the people you're trying to reach, 2008 is mentally a very different place from 2001/2/3.

Donald Johnson:

Centrist liberals fell over themselves showing how tough they were and anyone who even mentioned the sins of US foreign policy was immediately condemned as someone who thought the victims of 9/11 had it coming.

In my experience, the very, very best you could do was get people to say "Sure, we can talk about improving US foreign policy LATER -- but there's no time for that now!!!" I actually once tried to pin someone down on exactly when this "later" would arrive, without success.


we saw a large and crucial difference between adopting the administration's framework and language of a "war on terror" and the less graceful but more legitimate "the effort to end terror strikes from Al Qaeda"

On man, I also remember participating in the linguistic hairsplittery of that period in peace groups. Important to do, but exhausting, particularly because at the time any words felt so futile.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at May 30, 2008 03:16 PM

I tend to agree with the commenters who think you might be nitpicking too much, but if you want to take the same basic stance from a moral perspective, you could go through the website of the national religious coalition against torture:

They take the same general stance (they even promote a link to the No Exceptions site), but with more emphasis on the moral argument, in their Statement of Conscience.

And, since citing religion on this website is like a red flag to a bull, the nitpickers among you ought to have plenty more to write about :-).

Posted by: Whistler Blue at May 30, 2008 05:37 PM

citing religion on this website is like a red flag to a bull

Does it really seem like that? If so, I have failed in my capacity as BlogMom. Which I accept is possible.

Posted by: Jonathan Schwarz at May 30, 2008 09:26 PM

personally, i don't think this even BEGINS to pass the stink test.

"anti-torture" arm in arm with the "war on terra"? who's kidding who here?

am i the only one to catch a strong whiff of the pentagon/cia/fbi/homeland insecurity/republican nutjobs out to infiltrate vegans in minnesota?

the fact that the so-called "authors" of this "great idea" are anonymous is the icing on the tip-off cake.

it's a great slogan and, in essence, a great idea, but given its precedents and the entire sandwich you're asked to swallow by this group that's not a group "but desires to be a movement" (another tip-off -- this one being that rich creamy filling) you'd have to be off your rocker to think this is just not a whole lot of trouble looking to happen.

Posted by: karen marie at May 31, 2008 01:57 AM

I just wrote a big long post about how I genuinely believe in American exceptionalism, and why that's kinda okay, and how even if it's not kinda okay it may be the precisely right tool to end American torture most quickly and efficiently. But then I thought, "Who gives a fuck what I think? I hope everybody would instead spend that time enjoying the world and themselves and each other, and that enjoyment will feed on itself and eventually, inevitably blossom into the progress we desire."

Yeah, I live in Southern California. Why do you ask?

Nice post, Nell. Do more!

Posted by: Mike of Angle at May 31, 2008 02:26 PM

why, mike of angle, do you tell us you wrote a long post then avoid offering a link, even if just to your homepage?

Posted by: Jonathan Versen at May 31, 2008 06:39 PM

Thanks, Mike.

Do you mean you just wrote a long comment on this post and then ditched it? If so, I'm saddened to hear it.

That would be an opportunity to point to an outstanding post with a similar perspective that might act as a stand-in. It would be, if I could locate it. It's by Katherine, a blog heroine of mine on this and related issues who used to be a main poster at Obsidian Wings. She helped edit and was credited by Joseph Margulies as a co-author of the book Guantanamo and the Abuse of Presidential Power. My memory is that it was on July 4th or a similar day of celebrating our exceptionalism...

Posted by: Nell at June 1, 2008 04:30 PM

Actually Reagan started the war on terra... him and that ankle biter Schultz.

Posted by: Dilapidus at June 1, 2008 08:09 PM

IN OUR SALUTE TO THE WEALTHY WE followed George and Dick down the primrose path to here. George and Dick are just someone to blame for something WE DID, WE PAID FOR. George didn't torture those people, he just told someone else that it was OK and they did it, and U&I didn't stop them. He or Dick may even have ordered those things done, but other AMERICANS did those deeds. They could have said no and probably would have been kicked out of the war. (a good thing)They didn't and not just a few did these things, but many. U&I not only did not stop them but WE WILLING PAID to have all this done in OUR NAME, not George's. WE refuse to stop these crimes yet even though one can reasonably assume that it all continues. Its just like Teddy Rosevelt said "We did it to the Indians and nobody seemed to mind." So really, if YOU are not an Iraqi, one can conclude that YOU really don't seem to mind.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 2, 2008 12:09 AM

A sincere question: what's the problem with relying mainly on pragmatic/consequentialist arguments against torture?

Don't get me wrong, I agree with the moral/deontologist arguments against torture as well. But I think trying to make those points in our mainstream political discourse is likely to be futile, and maybe the best place to consider them is in the classroom or on blogs or somewhere that's not mostly about outreach to those outside the "choir."

I might be too cynical about this, but I'm more than willing to be convinced.

Posted by: LadyVetinari at June 2, 2008 11:23 PM

One should ALWAYS speak out against torture no matter where, yet remember that one lives in a country where "The Bates Motel" is damn near a national monument.

Posted by: Mike Meyer at June 3, 2008 12:35 AM

what's the problem with relying mainly on pragmatic/consequentialist arguments against torture?

There's no problem with relying mainly on them when lobbying members of Congress, or making the case to political campaigns. There's a big problem with failing to acknowledge -- inwardly and in working with others -- that the fundamental objection to torture is moral, that it is a crime against humanity.

It's a problem when only pragmatic arguments are considered legitimate, when moral arguments are stigmatized as 'soft', 'touchy-feely', etc. It's one thing to make a tactical decision not to use them in favor of rationales judged more effective for a particular situation. It's another to fail to understand the particular horror of torture, to grasp what makes it necessary to return it to a settled question, like slavery or genocide, not just another policy debate.

People whose motivation to oppose torture comes from moral or spiritual impulses benefit from being able to make pragmatic arguments, and being able to work closely with others who do. People whose only objections are pragmatic can be allies, but can not really be counted on to drive the issue without some personal connection to it. This can and does happen over time, which is why it's worth engaging the issue with whatever arguments are effective; deeper understanding can follow.

It's an issue that is an absolute, and must be understood as such in order for anti-torture efforts to be effective. This remains true even as the actual work of pushing it forward involves, like any political work, alliances between "true believers" and people whose only interest is in alleviating some of the consequences.

Posted by: Nell at June 4, 2008 12:30 PM