Comments: The Big Lie About Torture

I think the Greenwald piece was more an attempt to rob the whacked-out right of the ability to pigeonhole the "anti-torture" stance as something coming from the "extreme left," rather than an effort at Reagan hagiography. I mean, you have to start somewhere with these people--the idea that St. Ronnie at least paid lip-service to the idea that torture is evil has some purchase upon the jello-mold minds of the Bauer-lovers.

We're back to Square One in the long march of civilization: trying to convince people that torture is wrong. The Sick Ones used to value Plausible Denial because they felt certain that the public would be so horrified by such revelations as to topple the responsible government. No longer.

Posted by Oarwell at May 2, 2009 01:42 PM

Reagan was a scumbag who tried to look like Mother Teresa. Krauthammer is a scumbag who tries to look like a scumbag. Something refreshing about it.

Antisemitism was endemic in Germany, Hitler then came to power, and antisemitism was positively celebrated as a civic virtue and elevated to official government policy. Was that "refreshing"?

In the same way, I don't think many blacks living in the South felt "refreshed" by the open expression of racism through Jim Crow.

In each case, we have a society suffering from a disease (racism or antisemitism) and the open expression and celebration of the disease as a positive virtue and official policy is an indicator of how far the disease has advanced. But you have to be some distance from the victims to think that's "refreshing."

Posted by SteveB at May 2, 2009 02:24 PM

Why, I suppose liberals believe that hypocrisy is much preferable, because it allows the unwashed masses to be proud of their country and their leaders without worrying their unwashed pretty heads too much.

Posted by abb1 at May 2, 2009 02:25 PM

Oarwell: You're exactly right. But why is Greenwald doing it? What's wrong with being pigeonholed as crazy leftists just because we don't believe in testicle-crushing?

The problem with the torture debate is that no one seems able to articulate intelligently why it's wrong. Greenwald takes this incapacity to another level by saying "It's so wrong that even Reagan agreed." Frightening, no?

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 2, 2009 02:29 PM

GITMO/BAGRAM sez it all. WE torture today, right now, that IS who and what WE ARE.

ARREST and JUDGE&JURY TRY the GITMO Detainees, ALL of them.

ARREST and JUDGE&JURY TRY the torturers,ALL of them.

Posted by Mike Meyer at May 2, 2009 02:31 PM

SteveB: you're confusing two things. Everyone can engage in anti-Semitism and racism. You don't need a vertical power structure for that. So the less you express it in the open the better off the victims are. But torture is fundamentally different: it is only granted to a tiny group of power enforcers. In other words, whether you and I express our support for torture or not makes no difference whatsoever, except to the extent that it influences the powers-that-be. Krauthammer does not get to torture anyone (except his hapless readers) and the only reason people in Gitmo might care about the crap he writes is if it influences the deciders. Most racists get a chance to practice their racism. Most torture supporters don't get to torture.

Since torture, therefore, is channeled exclusively through the power pipes, the right question is whether hypocrisy is less or more likely to force policy changes. I believe that, in the US context, where being a beacon of human rights is part and parcel of US public diplomacy, hypocrisy is the more harmful course.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 2, 2009 02:50 PM

Because no one wants to fall out of the mainstream and be labeled 'insane' like Ramsey Clark.

Did you notice the incident this week where Jon Stewart was debating some wingnut and when the wingnut asked him something like: 'so, what about Truman's nuking Hiroshima and Nagasaki - was that a war crime too?' Stewart says - 'Yes'. And then the next day he publicly apologizes, says he was wrong. What was that all about?

Well, it's one of those things: either you're with The Good Guys or you're an Enemy of The People. Some criticism certainly is allowed, but you have to know where to stop. Or you can kiss all your media gigs good bye.

Posted by abb1 at May 2, 2009 02:51 PM

abb1: I hope you're not implying that I've blown my chances of becoming a CNN pundit? Which is the only reason I accepted this high-paying gig at ATR!


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 2, 2009 02:59 PM

Dr. Chazelle, it seems that you are writing more actively at Tiny Revolution. If I'm guaranteed more of....

"Reagan was a scumbag who tried to look like Mother Teresa. Krauthammer is a scumbag who tries to look like a scumbag."

There's nothing more sating.

Testicle mutilation aside, the “water cure” has been around for MORE than a hundred years.

(Curse my hyperlinking skills)

http://waterboarding.org/node/34

Posted by Nikolay Levin at May 2, 2009 03:18 PM

Why, you can always perform David Horowitz-style transformation, become a born-again American patriot. Happens all the time.

Posted by abb1 at May 2, 2009 03:24 PM

whether you and I express our support for torture or not makes no difference whatsoever, except to the extent that it influences the powers-that-be.

Does the level of public support for torture make a difference? If public officials say that torture (excuse me, "Enhanced Interrogation") is necessary and good, and a large segment of the population is persuaded this is so, doesn't that make it more likely that more people will be tortured?

the right question is whether hypocrisy is less or more likely to force policy changes.

So if your answer to that question is "no", then are you saying that the open practice of torture is more likely to produce policy changes? How? If people see their government openly torturing, are repelled by it, and then call for torture to be outlawed, won't they be hit by the same argument you're making? That they just want torture done on the sly, and are thus hypocrites?

The main question, it seems to me, is how you go from being a society that tortures to one that doesn't torture, without first passing through a phase where torture is at least illegal, even though the law is violated.

Here's a historical analogy: Reagan wanted to aid the Contras, and wanted to do it openly, through the Defense Department budget. The Boland Amendment outlawed this. Reagan didn't mind, he just went to some friendly oil sheiks and got the money, and then got even more money selling weapons to the Iranians. So the Boland Amendment made no practical difference to the people of Nicaragua who were being massacred by the Contras, and because the funding was now secret, most Americans didn't even know it was happening, while they would have known if Reagan had gotten his way and could have made Contra aid a line-item in the budget.

That's the equivalent of your argument about torture, isn't it?

Now, what happens when Eugen Hassenfuss gets shot down over Nicaragua, and the whole thing starts to unravel? Not that Ollie North or any of the criminal conspirators spend a day in jail, but it becomes possible to shut off the spigot of money to the Contras, once and for all, because it's illegal and the people who were funding the Contras were breaking the law.

Posted by SteveB at May 2, 2009 03:34 PM

In many ways, Dr. Chazelle, your treatise is spot on. I think, however, you do not expand enough on the "power team" that is generally the responsible party for our unofficial torture policies. I tend to think this "power team" is more and more a semi autonomous entity that grew out of our former intelligence branches and that no one, no liberal, no conservative, no one, has complete control over.

Time and time again, it is our CIA/DIA/NSA covert ops which always seems to circumvent the will of the people and the law of the land.

And not always with the open consent of the executive or legislative branches.

Posted by Xboxershorts at May 2, 2009 03:43 PM

Don't invaders ALWAYS torture captives from among locals/insurgents/the resistance? Then release them, as 'object' lessons?

Torture is a manifestation of terrorism on the ground. Terrorism of an invaded populace is necessary because an invader you're not afraid of, as an insurgent, is very likely to be an invader found face-down in the dust. It's a tactical requirement to keep the locals at bay...

It is almost always also a consequent of the mindset of the invading troops, who see their friends killed--often excruciatingly--by the insurgents and commit terrorist acts against the invaded people to alleviate their pain and frustration.

That's how it was in my war (1967-68, DaNang vicinity).

Posted by Woody at May 2, 2009 04:07 PM

Hello, I can’t discern how to add your blog in my rss reader
By.

Posted by federicoselero at May 2, 2009 04:15 PM

On the other hand, one can argue that the pretenders to virtue can only do such deeds as can be concealed under the dark of the moon. Charlie Cabbage-pounder would make it prime-time TV.

The lesson is that history by itself can't make evil people good. The purpose of the historical revisionists (by this I mean historians like Walter Karp, not the holocaust deniers) was twofold: by revealing the dark secrets of the past, they hoped to (1) debunk the myth of the altruistic and virtuous(though occasionally inept) American State by showing the dirty motives and the dirty deeds behind the facade, and (2) to prevent such things happening in the future.

Unfortunately, revisionist history can also be used to justify future crimes. (America The Virtuous has had to do some nasty things in the past in furtherance of the greater good. Gosh, what a wicked world we live in - but sometimes you just gotta make those tough decisions. And who are we to criticize?)

Posted by Bob Weber at May 2, 2009 04:51 PM


Daniel Larison at his blog on The American Conservative website just had two good posts on this. I've been scrolling through my favorite blogs and his comes right behind Tiny Revolution. (See how I get around?)

Posted by Bob Weber at May 2, 2009 05:09 PM

Yeah, all the greatest generation shit has to be called as just that. I mean, is it really surprising that Uncle Sam destroyed 137 sets of testicles when he was simultaneously firebombing or simply incinerating hundreds of thousands of Japanese civilians? A country that uses and lives by the bomb feigning moral indignation at torture? Move on, let's create new primary political allegiances.

Posted by Doug Johnson at May 2, 2009 05:51 PM

This one line bothers me a little:

Every liberal who opposes investigations today supported torture when torture was cool.

In this, I fear you paint with too broad a brush, because I seem to remember otherwise. Evidence:
1989
2002
2003
2007

Also, from here :

"After graduates returned to their countries and tortured political opponents in the 1970s, Congress banned urban counterinsurgency courses. The school cancelled the classes, then taught similar tactics under different course names."

That is to say, Congress opposed torture and attempted to outlaw it, and the Executive Branch evaded those efforts.

Posted by joel hanes at May 2, 2009 06:23 PM

On whether it's better for an evil government to be hypocritical or open about its evil, I think some of us (including me) have exaggerated the differences between Bush and previous Administrations. The Bush people don't admit that what they've done is torture--they deny it. They also try to pretend that the only deliberate examples of "enhanced interrogation" (not torture) were conducted against superevil James Bond level villains where the information that saved countless lives could have been extracted in no other way. They act as though Abu Ghraib was just due to a few bad apples in the lower ranks.

The Reagan Administration never admitted it supported death squads and tacitly endorsed their tactics until Congress forced them to crack down. They'd deny atrocities had occurred when possible, or they blamed them on leftists, or as a fallback position they'd admit that some occurred, but were conducted by rogue units.

It's not that different. I think the Reagan people were better at the plausible deniability thing, and so Americans who wanted to be fooled (which included many liberals) could pretend to themselves that the Reagan Administration didn't really want unarmed leftwing union supporters to be murdered by death squads. And in both cases you'd find rightwing supporters who were more forthright about their love of violence, but again, I don't know that there's a big difference between people who refer to Abu Ghraib as fraternity pranks and people who worshipped the "freedom fighters" in Afghanistan, Central America, and southern Africa.

Posted by Donald Johnson at May 2, 2009 06:32 PM

Is anyone else disturbed by the imputation of bad faith in these statements?

Some say we're a nation of laws and criminal investigations are the only way to return to our virginal past; others share the same objective but reject prosecutions as needlessly divisive; a third group advocates torture as the new post 9/11 norm.

A country that uses and lives by the bomb feigning moral indignation at torture?

Why must moral indignation at torture be "feigned"? Why is opposition to torture necessarily connected to a belief in a "virginal" past?

And this:

I suppose liberals believe that hypocrisy is much preferable, because it allows the unwashed masses to be proud of their country and their leaders without worrying their unwashed pretty heads too much.

From the context, it appears that "hypocrisy" consists of publicly advocating the prosecution of torturers and their enablers even though you know full well that we have tortured in the past, and will in the future.

I'm a simple fellow, so when I hear someone call for the prosecution of torturers, I think, "Yes, this is a good thing." It hadn't really occurred to me to cast aspersions on their motives, since I naively thought that the more people who opposed torture and want to prosecute torturers, the better.

Mind you, this is not the first time I've seen this sort of thing.

Nevertheless, I find it all a bit puzzling. Just at the moment when we're having as much of a "debate" about torture as this attention-deficit-disordered country is capable of having, is questioning the motives of other people who say they oppose torture really the contribution you want to be making?

Posted by SteveB at May 2, 2009 06:45 PM

Bernard: "You're exactly right. But why is Greenwald doing it? What's wrong with being pigeonholed as crazy leftists just because we don't believe in testicle-crushing?" Absolutely. And it's worth stressing too that respectable American leftists, the center-rightists we call American liberals, generally lined right up behind Bush, so it might just be true that only crazy leftists oppose torture. If so, then so much the worse for the respectable mainstream. (I've also seen this recently in the decent, respectable center-right pundits who lament that nobody criticized the War in Iraq before it started -- by which they mean to exclude everyone who opposed it on principle as aggression justified by lies. Only those who might have argued that the way the war was being planned and fought wasn't well-thought out. People like Barack Obama.)

Donald Johnson: "...I think some of us (including me) have exaggerated the differences between Bush and previous Administrations. The Bush people don't admit that what they've done is torture--they deny it." You're right, and it noticed this when I observed many if not most of Bush's supporters insisting that it is/was torture, and that's it's good to torture raghead terrorists. Which means that Bush's fans are calling him a liar.

I think it's worth looking at the passages I quoted from Norman Finkelstein at the end of this post. The Nazis claimed that they didn't torture either, and Himmler "did on occasion actually have SS sadists punished. In effect, there were two distinct categories of murder: the Final Solution, which, however ghastly, was sanctioned by German's 'historical mission', on the one hand, and the gratuitous torture of prisoners or "excesses", on the other."

Posted by Duncan at May 2, 2009 06:49 PM

"What's wrong with being pigeonholed as crazy leftists just because we don't believe in testicle-crushing?"


It's as Oarwell said. In order to build a sufficiently large coalition for condemning the atrocity of the day, some think you have to pretend to buy into the notion that what Bush did was so uniquely heinous, so far from anything we've ever done before that all decent Americans must condemn it. It complicates things if we admit "Well, actually, it's not really worse than what other Presidents have done and we should have put them on trial as well." People then walk away, shaking their heads at your leftist lunacy, or that's the fear. (Which is probably justified.) So according to this theory, we have to present ourselves as sensible moderate types who aren't in the habit of condemning American war crimes and so we can be taken seriously if we say that Bush should go to jail. I don't expect Bush to go to jail, and so in 20 years or so there will be future liberals saying that President Jindal is a uniquely evil person, not like the honorable Republican Presidents of the past like Bush II or Reagan.

It's a rhetorical tactic that turns us all into politicians who lie and flatter and encourage the national narcissism that makes it so difficult for Americans to realize we're capable of committing war crimes. It's the "bad apple" argument on a higher level. And of course it also fits in with the prejudices of mainstream Democratic liberals. I'm not really wild about it, as you can probably guess.

Posted by Donald Johnson at May 2, 2009 06:52 PM

Liked your commentary, Bernard. I just have one small quibble..The USA was not attacked 60 years ago...A US military base on a colony stolen from its original inhabitants was attacked...that's not exactly an attack on the USA...otherwise great post.-Tony

Posted by tony at May 2, 2009 07:06 PM

Summarizing, admitting that some apples were bad (and assuming the barrel is fine) is the leftmost boundary of acceptable discourse. We aren't willing to soften or disguise our arguments enough for mainstream acceptability; at least I'm not. What is to be done?

Posted by Save the Oocytes at May 2, 2009 07:10 PM

"We aren't willing to soften or disguise our arguments enough for mainstream acceptability; at least I'm not. What is to be done?"

Yeah, that's where I'm stumped.

Though on the positive side, the mere fact that the mainstream feels it has to argue against torture trials for anyone rather than just laughing it off is a good sign--they must be worried that the mere fact that such ideas are being advocated might lead to radicalizing thoughts among the great unwashed outside the Beltway.

Posted by Donald Johnson at May 2, 2009 08:59 PM

tony: You won't believe me but I thought exactly as you did when I wrote these words. Then I censored myself, thinking there are only so many people I should try to piss off in one go. :-)

joel: agreed. I should have written "many."


The main question, it seems to me, is how you go from being a society that tortures to one that doesn't torture, without first passing through a phase where torture is at least illegal, even though the law is violated.

Absolutely. Torture should be banned. No exceptions. All violators should be prosecuted.

Donald J used the key word: narcissism. I wish every time our fearless leader pitied the rest of the world for not being, like us, the most beautiful, most perfect, most sinless people on earth, and the last hope for mankind, a giant YouTube holographic movie would pop up in the sky with a torture video signed by the WaPo editorial board and playing right above the leader's head, with a giant caption: "That's How Beautiful We Are."

I do believe that what's holding back America is its oversized self-love. People love Obama because he indulges their self-love, starting with his election ("Only America can elect a black man. See how great we are.") "We do not torture. Or if we do (a tiny little bit) we say oops and move on to climb greater heights. Because that's how beautiful we are."

One thing about Krauthammer is that he does not indulge our self-love. In fact the mere idea of sharing the same nationality with that creep makes you want to move to a different continent. Perhaps he deserves some credit for that.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 2, 2009 09:57 PM

This may be my favorite site, and I wish i were as smart as Bernard Chazelle, but i think this post is premised on a misunderstanding of the last 50 years (or more) of American history.

I.F. Stone was correct in his observation that people need to remember governments lie. Governments lie when the President is a good guy, say for example Lincoln or FDR or JFK, and they lie when the President is a bad guy like Nixon or Bush (either one in my opinion). Of course torture has always been either condoned with a wink and a nod or, as in the case of the Phoenix Program, celebrated as crucial to national security. So, yes, of course there is hypocrisy, always has been and always will be. That doesn't mean we can't distinguish between good and bad governments or good and bad Presidents.

I think it is a big mistake to infer from the prevalence of hypocrisy or Tom Brokaw's idiocy that it makes no difference whether we permit torture and other brutal violence to be made part of our national culture. And that's really what I think this "debate" is all about. Cheney, Addington, Haynes et al aren't the only people in positions of power who think the US has gotten too soft for its job description--there's probably a consensus about that in the military, intelligence, National Security crowd. And that consensus did not result from 911--it predated it by years, among some people by decades. It's hard to run an empire based in a country where the civilian population really doesn't like war and won't put up with many casualties. I really don't think plausible deniability has much to do with the nature of the dispute among those who administer our Empire. In fact, I think our rulers gradually came around to thinking that the citizenry has been a little bit too shielded from the harshness of the world and the ugly realities that make possible our prosperity and perhaps even
our survival.

The goal of Cheney and Rumsfeld et al was to make the US fierce again. Their derision and disdain for leadership of the Clintonian variety is visceral. WOuld Bill Clinton have supported waterboarding? Only if most everyone else did. There would have been polls and focus groups, and in the end he wouldn't have made any bold moral decisions. That doesn't make his outlook the same as Cheney's, or make them morally equivalent.

I also think it's ridiculous to say every liberal supported torture when it was cool. As much as I admire Bernard Chazelle's intelligence and writing, I don't think that sort of criticism is constructive. Sure some liberals are hypocrites and assholes, especially those allowed to participate in the major media, but they aren't the problem. The problem is systemic.

We need to create truly democratic institutions that prevent torture and other brutality, and to do that we can't succumb to the deadening cynicism caused by the ugliness of human history, including our own national history. Sure the United States has done evil--that's what Power leads to. That doesn't mean we need to accept evil among us, let alone permit wicked men to make it a celebrated part of our national character in their futile effort to make the United States brutal enough to control a disorderly world. Our effort to do that will ultimately fail, no matter how many terrorists we waterboard. It would fail even if we started putting heads on pikes outside all our military bases. The United States will never be able to rule the world by striking terror into the hearts of the rest of the world. Even if we are capable of acting like the Nazis sometimes, we aren't them and trying to be like them will be a failed strategy. Maybe to the Cheney and Rumsfeld crowd, overcome by revulsion at Clinton's methods, it seems like we can waterboard our way into being tough and disciplined, but I don't think it will work. And plenty of people in the military and intelligence community don't seem to buy into that reasoning either. The National Security civil war over Iraq, which came to a head in the Scooter Libby trial, wasn't a civil war between liberal Jedi knights concerned about truth and justice and the American way and the Dark Side of the Force. It was a dispute between equally brutal factions about how the United States can effectively use its overwhelming military power and its economic dominance to hold this teetering neoliberal world together. The sanctions that nonviolently killed all those tens or hundreds of thousands of Iraqi children in the 90s might not have been as vicious and bloody as Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib, but that isn't really so clear.

But now I'm sounding cynical--it really is hard to avoid, because there is so much to be cynical about. Still, something else is needed. FDR once told people who clammored for him to do the right thing to FORCE him to do the right thing. If people want Obama to go to the left, they have to create a political landscape that pushes him in that direction. If they want to end torture and create a world less plagued by misery and destruction, they need to work for that. We can't make the world perfect, and maybe we can't really even make it that much better, but then again maybe we can, and we should at least be able to keep it from getting worse.

We can start with basic principles, such as the recognition that we aren't barbarians. Who cares if, with respect to the past, it's bullshit? Let's worry about the future and make it happen.

Posted by Not Exactly at May 3, 2009 01:48 AM

"We can start with basic principles, such as the recognition that we aren't barbarians. Who cares if, with respect to the past, it's bullshit? "

Because lying about the past is a poor foundation for becoming non-barbaric. It's not just moral purity, which is the accusation I've heard a few times--facing up to the fact that we are and have been hypocrites is probably part of what we need to do if we want to change our behavior in the future. People who believe that Bush was uniquely barbaric are going to relax when some supposed good President is in power. They relax--one of our own is in power. Assuming they really do care about the US human rights record, this is a very bad mistake. OTOH, if they only care about style and image, then they might be right. I think that when you actually look at US policy with "good" Presidents and "bad" ones, a lot of what exercises some liberals (not all) is style and image. Reagan and Bush II were cowboys, so they were bad (though Reagan is now far enough in the past that some liberals have gone with the flow and put him back into the good category).

As for "all liberals", you're right that not all liberals are bad, but there's not really two simple categories of left vs. liberal or good vs bad with people falling neatly into one or the other. There's a continuous spectrum that runs from very far left to centrist liberal and there's also a spectrum (not quite the same one) that goes from "completely consistent and honest on human rights issues" to "cares only about human rights from a PR perspective".

That word "cynicism" can be used to mean two different things. It can mean "someone who doesn't think it's worthwhile to make any effort to change things". It's also used to describe people who get irritated by comforting lies about the nobility of our past. You're using in this way about yourself when you start talking about our pre-Bush crimes and saying that there is so much to be cynical about. Is it cynical then to tell the truth about our past crimes? If anything, the belief that we have to pander to people's false beliefs or no change can occur might be called cynical, but whatever. I don't know what the right approach is for changing the future for the better, but telling comforting stories which aren't true seems wrong in itself, and perhaps unlikely to lead to fundamental changes in outlook.

Posted by Donald Johnson at May 3, 2009 09:17 AM

"U.S. has a 45-year history of torture"
The difference between American involvement in South American atrocities in 1964 and 'enhanced interrogation' now is that some modern-day officials appear proud of themselves.

Above taken from
http://www.latimes.com/news/opinion/la-oe-langguth3-2009may03,0,4295574.story

The govt MUST renounce torture ABSOLUTELY, under ANY CIRCUMSTANCE as inflicting physical pain on a fellow human being is the most immoral thing to do. It also has to accept responsibility for it's actions of the past and apologise. Otherwise, "We must adhere to our values" will ring hollow and and will have no credibility. And the perpatrators have to be brought to justice to end the nightmares of the victims.

Posted by Rupa Shah at May 3, 2009 10:35 AM

it's ridiculous to say every liberal supported torture when it was cool.

Not what I said. I said that liberals who oppose investigations today "for the good of the country" have a dog in that fight. Investigations will put a spotlight on their bloodlust and they hate the idea.

We can start with basic principles, such as the recognition that we aren't barbarians.

Based on what evidence? Wishful thinking? The evidence shows that since WWII, the US has been among the most barbarian countries in the world, causing the unnecessary deaths of at least 5 million innocent people.

Until we recognize that fact, no amount of Kumbaya singing is going to help.

It's pretty hard not to repeat the mistakes of the past, while going around thinking there were no such mistakes (just momentary glitches).
In particular, the worship of the military (this country's particular disease) will not stop until people realize that the US military is there, not to liberate, but to kill. That is its primary function and it's very good at it. This is not a judgment call. It's a statement of fact.

In fact, I think our rulers gradually came around to thinking that the citizenry has been a little bit too shielded from the harshness of the world and the ugly realities that make possible our prosperity and perhaps even
our survival.

I agree with our rulers. Americans have been too shielded. They need to be exposed to the ugly realities. As long as Americans remain convinced that "Human rights are in our DNA," no change will happen. This is not being cynical. It's being realistic. I cling to this old-fashioned idea that it's impossible to improve once you think you're perfect.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 3, 2009 10:42 AM

Not Exactly:
Excellent post, I hope you write more often.

Throughout this discussion, I've felt that we're tussling with a straw man, and the straw man looks like this:

"outrage" at torture = "shock" at torture = "surprise" at torture

That is, a person who claims to be outraged about torture must necessarily be shocked and surprised that torture is happening. This then leaves us with only two possible conclusions: 1) the person is being dishonest and is "feigning" concern about torture, or 2) the person is ignorant of our history and longs for the "return to our virginal past."

Weren't we all outraged by the invasion of Iraq? Were any of us the least bit surprised by it? I remember thinking that there was something uniquely brazen about Bush's invasion in the face of massive public opposition, but I don't remember assuming that anyone who expressed opposition to the war must automatically think that the United States had never done anything of this sort before.

It would help if commenters here, when they refer to "liberals" who think the U.S. has a "virginal" past, or refer to those who "relax" now that "one of our own is in power" would link to an example of that sort of person.

The only person linked to so far who could plausibly be described as "liberal" is Glenn Greewald, and he is clearly not someone who thinks our past is virginal, and has not relaxed, now that "one of his own" is in power.

I've actually been very pleasantly surprised at the number of online liberals who haven't bought Obama's "look to the future" bullshit. Digby, for example, as loyal a servant of the Donkey Party as can be found, hasn't let up on the torture issue at all.

In fact, it's because of the efforts of online liberals and organizations like Democrats.com that torture is still even on the radar, when our ruling class in unanimous in its conviction that we should "look forward, not backward."

Posted by SteveB at May 3, 2009 10:54 AM

Glenn G is a good guy and I admire his work. His piece on Reagan was poor (almost laughable in fact: Mr death squad himself rejecting torture...
Whatever). I picked it up because it's indicative of a mindset. When Kristof tried to find precedents for Gitmo and Abu Ghraib, he mentioned McCarthy and the internment of Japanese-Americans. Lovely, no? Vietnam was bad because of My Lai, etc.

Maybe you wouldn't call Kristof a liberal. I call a liberal anyone who calls themselves liberal. It's a more useful definition than the more common one found in the left blogosphere (ie, "a liberal is anyone who agrees with me").

That said, I am sure you're right it's thanks to liberal bloggers that that issue has been in the spotlight -- as it should be -- and that should be celebrated.

But that was not the point of the post. The point was not about whether people are surprised either. It was about the loss of plausible deniability as the reason for the significance (perceived and otherwise) of the torture memos, and hence of the whole story.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 3, 2009 12:37 PM

Interesting post, but I'm still not sure of what you're hoping to accomplish here? By saying that we have a history of barbarianism, are you saying it's useless to demand something more? To speak in outrage at things done on our name for which we are repulsed? It's wonderful information and has sparked something of a debate here, but what, in fact, are we who are opposed to the Bush/Cheney interrogation program supposed to do with it? Should we *really* applaud Charles Krauthammer for being so upfront about his barbarism? I just don't think so. I also don't feel any less outraged over what has happened at Gitmo, Basra, etc. because of what may or may not have happened in WWII. We have an ugly history. That goes without saying. That doesn't mean we should throw up our hands and despair of a better future.

Posted by Lila at May 3, 2009 01:29 PM

I agree that good liberals must be recognized as such. Their goodness must be acknowledged and when the time comes they should be hanged on good lampposts.

Posted by abb1 at May 3, 2009 01:53 PM

Plausible deniability has been lost on several occasions in the last forty years, and yet each time the country returns to telling itself the pretty story that "we don't torture."

I go back and forth on the question of what will make the biggest difference towards ending actual U.S. torture, which is what matters most to me.

What matters next most is something closely related, which is the commitment to enforcement of the laws against torture against those who promoted it as a policy (rather than only against some who perpetrated it).

It's possible to criticize formulations of anti-torture arguments that reinforce falsely benign stories about our government's history without finding the "honesty" of thug-enablers like Charles Krauthammer and Dershowitz refreshing.

Bernard: What values?

The values that led Alberto Mora to fight Rumsfeld's and Haynes' effort to set a torture policy for the military. The values that inform my and those of hundreds of thousands of other Americans' efforts to stop torture, which I've managed to keep, and to see that at least half the population of the country has kept, despite not being able to pretend that the country or the government hasn't massively and repeatedly violated them.

There's a vast excluded middle between rejecting pretty lies about our history and not being satisfied until everyone in the country accepts as the norm all the acts of cruelty by our government for the last seventy years. I don't think that's possible or helpful in ending U.S. torture.

Posted by Nell at May 3, 2009 02:04 PM

While I was writing, Lila said it much better.

Posted by Nell at May 3, 2009 02:05 PM

Lila: You're asking a fair question. Judging from many of the comments, I didn't do a good job explaining what the purpose of my post was.

If it was not clear, let me first say this. I wholeheartedly support the efforts of everyone involved -- in particular, on this blog, Nell -- to make a stink about torture, the torture memos, and all of that. I hope (against all hope) that prosecutions will take place and something better will come out of it. I am thrilled to know that Kissinger no longer travels to Europe because he's scared. And I hope Garzon and the other Spanish judges succeed in their efforts, at least to keep Bush officials from traveling to Europe ever.

The point of my post was not to say, Nothing to see here. Big deal. Old story. Let's move on.
On the contrary, it was exactly the opposite. It was to say, Why are we doing this? The reasons I hear make no sense. Have Americans discovered a new revulsion towards torture? No evidence of that. (A recent polll shows that a majority of Christians approve of torture.)

All "I am trying to accomplish here" is understanding why it's a big deal now. And my theory is that it's not the torture itself but the torture memos. In other words, if no evidence had filtered out that torture was approved at the top, there would not be the same fuss.

And that is actually an opportunity.

My post is trying to say 2 things: one is that the sea change is the loss of plausible deniability. Without it, no torture memos, no running series in the NYT. It's not merely a technical point. It matters because of this:

Point 2: I argue that it's therefore all about self-image. Hence the importance of Kraut and friends to highlight the hypocrisy behind that self-image. They're the useful idiots for the cause of torture. The more Krauts the easier it will be to win the battle. Unwittingly they're on our side. It's Ignatieff who's the real danger.

2 facts: The French won the Battle of Algiers because of torture. Torture in fact sometimes "works" (by the way, the surest way to guarantee that torture will never go away is to say that it does not work). But the subsequent blow to the nation's self-image precipitated the most thorough anti-imperialistic blowback in the west. And France had its local Krauts to thank for that because their ugly mugs served as a mirror to the French: their great civilizing mission was shown to be really nothing but a giant thuggish racial enterprise of loot and domination.

To see the ugliness you've got to see the ugly.


Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 3, 2009 02:47 PM

And, with a nod to our artist friends, to recognize the ugly you've got to have some working definition of beauty. We've all read accounts of Nuremburg, and Chile's dirty war, and Hannah Arendt's 'Banality of Evil,' etc, so we have a pretty good idea what ugly looks like. Those who remain blind to this reality, I think, are often those who have no useful background in the humanities by which to check their atavism. Some of the more shrill (Krauthammer a glaring example) wilfully ignore the awfulness of their positions in order to advance a political agenda (basically, Imperialism in one or other of its contemporary manifestations). After all, Krauthammer is a psychiatrist, and should have some working understanding of psychopathology. Yet he ignores the monster in the mirror and goes on rationalizing his support for evil. I guess no one told him 'primum non nocere' doesn't mean "first, the thumbscrews."

Thank God for people like General Taguba, who knew what beauty was, and called bullshit on his commanders for ordering him to create ugliness.

Posted by Oarwell at May 3, 2009 04:31 PM

"To see the ugliness you've got to see the ugly."

I don't have an issue seeing the ugly-I came of age during Reagan, after all-but still, I think you're comparing apples to oranges here, at least in terms of public outcry. Yes, we have a long hiostory of torture and mistreatment, and perhaps people appeared blase about it-but there also was a far more closed government (most of the atrocities didn't come to full light until decades after the fact), no internet, very few human rights activists, and very few methods of banding people together to collectively express their disgust about what was being done in the name of liberty. If there were, there's no telling what the response might have been.

Different times, different America. IMO, comparing them straight up is like trying to compare Grover Cleveland Alexander to Pedro Martinez.

Posted by Lila at May 3, 2009 05:45 PM

I disagree with Bernard's assessment that the current reaction to the OLC memos is the first big public groundswell of revulsion to U.S. torture; it's the latest of a series since 1970*. It is the first time many Americans have faced that the torture during the Bush-Cheney regime was a policy set at the top. Jane Mayer articles, powerful as they are, have only reached the thin stratum of people already interested in the topic.

But the relationship of the pretty story and the reality is important to examine. In that light, this recent post by Marcy Wheeler is both timely for this discussion and bitterly amusing: The timing of the CIA's demand for legal ass-covering memos may have been due to Bush's eloquent anti-torture speech on June 26, 2003 (on the annual international day of recognition of torture survivors).

* To name just some: 1980s - outrage at CIA terrorism manual distributed to contras attacking Nicaraguan civilians; 1990s - publication of the KUBARK manual, School of the Americas demos and legislation to close.

Posted by Nell at May 3, 2009 06:08 PM

I disagree with Bernard's assessment that the current reaction to the OLC memos is the first big public groundswell of revulsion to U.S. torture

I think you're comparing apples to oranges here, at least in terms of public outcry.

I marvel at your ability to read and attribute to me things I never wrote nor implied.

The only reference to the past I made was about the torture memos and why now everyone's agitated about it. I never made any comparison. Is my writing really so unclear?

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 3, 2009 06:38 PM

Nell--

"There's a vast excluded middle between rejecting pretty lies about our history and not being satisfied until everyone in the country accepts as the norm all the acts of cruelty by our government for the last seventy years. I don't think that's possible or helpful in ending U.S. torture."

Well, that would be mistaken IMO, if someone said "We won't try to end torture or combat any other evil until everyone admits the full list of horrors our government is responsible for". IOZ seems to think this, to the extent that he thinks it's worth talking about combating evil at all. And Arthur Silber doesn't want torture trials for reasons you can read at his blog. But I think the majority of people here think the two battles go hand in hand. Yes, we can end US torture and maybe also punish (or at least scare or expose) some of the people responsible. But we've ended it before and had outrage before, as you point out and yet here it is again. The ending will be more likely to be permanent if more Americans recognize that this stuff keeps happening because of our imperial arrogance and this has bipartisan roots and so they should expect that some future US government will torture again or farm it out or else do something equally bad unless the root causes change. I think one could reach more people if we admitted that it's not a partisan Democrat or even liberal/left cause-- there are some highly principled conservatives like Andrew Bacevich who don't think the US has any right to behave thuggishly overseas. And there are also the libertarians of the Jim Henley variety (though I don't know how many of those there are, or how many decent principled conservatives either).


Btw, I thought it was clear (and Bernard confirmed) that the "refreshing" comment was about how useful it is to have people on the pro-torture side who are too stupid to successfully cover up their crimes. Most administrations have done a much better job lying about the crimes they support. You spend 90 percent of your time in an uphill battle just trying to persuade people that yes, the US really did support what amounted to terrorist policies against people in country X. Surely everyone here has had the experience of being treated by friends as a crazed lunatic because we said the US was guilty of that or that atrocity. (In my case it doesn't help that I usually get irate and have the aura of a crazed lunatic when I talk about this stuff.) That's not happening now (though it still happened to me last year on the torture issue), and it's because we have torturers arrogant enough and dumb enough to admit at least a portion of what they've been up to though they still deny that it's torture and they also try to cover up what even they must realize are damning details. But they've been exceedingly bad at the coverup. Which is very refreshing.

Compare this to the I/P conflict. You can't condemn Israeli war crimes and take it for granted that everyone will agree what happened. Instead, the Israelis deny they ever target civilians and their cover story, which is that the Arab terror groups use civilians as human shields, is widely accepted in this country, or at least most politicians profess to believe it. That's more the typical situation when the US or a close ally is accused of war crimes.

Posted by Donald Johnson at May 3, 2009 07:34 PM

" think one could reach more people if we admitted that it's not a partisan Democrat or even liberal/left cause:

That was poorly phrased. Certainly nobody here thinks the anti-torture cause is inherently partisan. I meant that it's perceived that way by some people who might (in some cases) be reachable if we said "Well, actually, both political parties have done things overseas that should make us ashamed" it might at least take off the partisan sheen and anyway, it's true.

Maybe there are more potential Jim Henleys and Andrew Baceviches out there that could be reached by people who are perfectly comfortable bashing both political parties for their rotten human rights records.

That's a pragmatic political argument for doing it and my pragmatic political instincts are possibly worthless.

Posted by Donald Johnson at May 3, 2009 07:46 PM

Lila: "Should we really applaud Charles Krauthammer for being so upfront about his barbarism?" I agree with you that we shouldn't. But I like it when people are upfront about their barbarity and/or bigotry, because then I can attack them. The trouble is, even that can be hard to do, because so many liberals get cold feet about it; I had a weird experience on another liberal blog after Gerald Ford's death because so many people of ostensibly liberal/progressive politics thought that we should forgive people like Nixon and Kissinger for their crimes, that it was rude and "inappropriate" to debate people because disagreeing with them might hurt their feelings. These people don't mind attacking activists quite harshly, but attacking bigots and torturers is bad. Putting them on trial, putting them in jail would be totally beyond the pale.

I don't agree with Arthur Silber either (and was attacked for saying so, quite hilariously) in another thread). Nor do I think that the US must acknowledge all its crimes before we can put Bush and Cheney and Pelosi in the dock. It's just going to be a long haul to do that much, and I think it is true that the corporate media and corporate Congress would, if we did that much, would then try to shut down all further discussion of the larger historical context (now that we've lanced this horrible wound on the body politic, it's time for healing, not more terrible inquiry or criticism). Is that a surprise? It shouldn't be; it's not as if the corporate media have ever encouraged serious discussion of any issue. Those who refuse to go along with their agenda can and should expect to be vilified. That's why I get annoyed when nice liberals like Greenwald (who has, nevertheless, come a long way) try to distance themselves from nasty left-wing extremists, reflexive America-haters, pacifists and knee-jerk opponents of the use of American power. "I'm not one of those!" such people protest. A better answer might be along the lines of "So what if I am?", and I'm open to other suggestions. People like Noam Chomsky have been brushing off such abuse for decades. We might have gotten further if, instead of trying to distance themselves, more people accepted those epithets as a badge of pride.

Posted by Duncan at May 3, 2009 08:24 PM

@Bernard: The 'apples and oranges' comment was made by Lila, not me.

I should have quoted the passage of yours to which to which I was responding in my comment at 6:08 pm. It's this:

Bernard: All "I am trying to accomplish here" is understanding why it's a big deal now. And my theory is that it's not the torture itself but the torture memos. In other words, if no evidence had filtered out that torture was approved at the top, there would not be the same fuss.

I understood this as your saying that the current public response was a bigger deal, or a bigger 'fuss', than in the past. Sorry if I misunderstood you and therefore responded to something you weren't saying.

Posted by Nell at May 3, 2009 10:01 PM

Conservative ideologues play on your (and my) tribalistic sentiment to justify whatever the powerful do. Liberal ideologues prefer more humanistic rationalizations, 'human rights' and so on. In some instances (like justifying torture) conservative bullshit works better, in other instances (like the 'free trade' or bailing out the banks), liberals have an advantage. They need each other and they work together.

Posted by abb1 at May 4, 2009 05:26 AM

Hi,
Ugh, I liked! So clear and positively.
Have a nice day

Posted by Pett at May 4, 2009 08:12 AM

Yes, Nell, I realized it was Lila's. But I interpreted both comments as being somewhat similar. By "big deal," I only meant, compared to 1-2 years ago. I was not being very clear. That's true.

If you go earlier I think the public outcry was at times even bigger than now. I also disagree there with Chomsky that somehow we are living now in this golden era of activism. Or maybe, I guess, it depends on how one defines activism. I certainly get no sense of that among my students.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 4, 2009 10:51 AM

Erm, Bernard, I don't think Chomsky says that we're in a "golden age of activism". As I understand him, he's concerned to counter the belief that the 60s were a golden age of activism, and he argues that a lot more people are involved now than then. That doesn't make this one a golden age, but I don't believe in Golden Ages and I don't think Chomsky does either.

The big "fuss" now has nothing much to do with activism, does it? The biggest, most visible/audible fuss seems to be coming from the Right, who deny that Bush/Cheney sanctioned or used torture, insist that they were right to sanction and use torture, and condemn Obama for falsely accusing their demigods. (The whole god, of course, is Reagan *sign of the cross*.) Are you mistaking media buzz for activism?

Posted by Duncan at May 4, 2009 02:44 PM

refer to those who "relax" now that "one of our own is in power" would link to an example of that sort of person.

How about linking to the sort of person who said this.

Rather than square off in a bloody battle over war crimes, let's return decent train service to the Midwest and test out the German maglev (magnetic levitation) system -- the 360 mph trains -- and connect Chicago and St. Paul-Minneapolis, Cleveland, Detroit, Omaha, Kansas City. Let's restore education to the public schools so that our kids get a chance to hear Mozart and learn French.
Posted by empty at May 4, 2009 05:04 PM

How about linking to the sort of person who said this.

Thank you. Of all the arguments against prosecuting war criminals, this one has to be the battiest. Because we know that the people who would be building those maglev trains and teaching our children Mozart are exactly the same people who would be prosecuting John Yoo and Jay Bybee. In fact, by the strangest of coincidences, my next door neighbor is an unemployed maglev engineer/music teacher/war crimes prosecutor! Which job should we hire him for? The man can't do everything, you know!

Posted by SteveB at May 4, 2009 07:06 PM

Oh, and one encouraging thing is seeing the response that Mr. Lake Woebegon got from over three hundred Salon readers.

This one is worth reprinting verbatim:

It's been an average week at Camp Woebegon, the police came around and arrested our dark-skinned neighbors, the Al-Humahdis, on suspicion of something or other...

...we got word down at the diner that little Ahmed, who would have been a junior at Camp Wobegon High this year, was to be held for years without trial because he happened to be related to someone who might at one time have been a driver for someone who may have known one of the 642 number two men in Al-Quieda. But we didn't worry about it. After all, a little adversity is good for a young man. Make a sound Lutheran out of him, full of compassion for those who are suffering.

The father of the Al clan, Omar, was waterboarded over a hundred times in an attempt to get him to say that Obama really was born in Damascus, and had personally hidden weapons of mass destruction in his wife's afro in the 1970's. But that's all right. We midwesterners are hearty folk, and are stoic about a little water up the nose.

All the boys down at the diner were saying that they were just a bit tired of hearing about what happened to the Al's, even the ones that we have no idea what happened to, since we have more important things to worry about that a little junket to an unregistered resort somewhere in Bulgaria where the health plan includes being chained in positions that cause your legs to swell until the skin bursts.

...and that's the news from Camp Wobegon, where the men are ruthless, the women are forgetful, and the children will learn that you pay a higher price for underage drinking than you do for torturing the helpless.

Now here's a musical number from the all-star stress position band. HEAVENS, they're tasty.

Posted by SteveB at May 4, 2009 07:14 PM

REMOVE JAY BYBEE FROM THE 9TH CIRCUIT BENCH, call Pelosi @1-202-225-0100. I called today, now its YOUR turn.

Posted by Mike Meyer at May 4, 2009 08:00 PM

As one who thinks all drug offenders should be released from prison (hyperbole, people, hyperbole!), I bizarrely think that torturers should be incarcerated. All of them. No pardon.

Posted by Bernard Chazelle at May 4, 2009 10:33 PM

Thanks for the link, Empty, and to SteveB for quoting that comment. Gods, but I hate Garrison Keillor.

Posted by Duncan at May 5, 2009 10:53 AM

Greenwald's point is that hypocrisy is better because it keeps the debate more civilized,....

That's a really thumbnail sketch of Greenwald on just about any issue -- being "civilized" is more important than being honest, or working for real improvement.

Greenwald is a Process Maven, a Think Tank-Wannabe, a dull-witted person whose audience size gives him more heft than his analysis merits.

Greenwald's specialty is putting a golden frame around a canvas smeared with feces. This means he's a rather easy target for anyone who has at least half a functioning brain and a mote of insight on how politics works in America.

Posted by micah pyre at May 5, 2009 02:10 PM

By the way... "Duncan" isn't far removed from how I've described Greenwald. "Duncan" seeks civilized debate and incrementalism, even though he proffers a pretense at progressivism. Nothing progressive about white kid gloves seeking and decrying the ugly dust of dissent. It's not unlike Naomi Klein's pseudo-radicalism... "radical" in that it assumes being against Republicans means being "radical."

Posted by micah pyre at May 5, 2009 02:16 PM

Oh, look. A purity troll. I just love those.

Posted by SteveB at May 5, 2009 02:31 PM

Garrison Keillor is a Republican? Who knew?

Posted by Duncan at May 5, 2009 09:28 PM

Duncan: Possibly Lutheran too.

Posted by Mike Meyer at May 5, 2009 09:37 PM

What's a "purity troll"? Is that a synonym for "SteveB" or "Duncan" perhaps?

I love people who refuse to assess the quality of others' observations, and instead cast off the observations with a dismissive accusation of "Troll!"

I bet Steve loves to imagine I'm a "rethug" or similar. That's how most partisan pissers ply their puerile puffery.

Actually, Steve-a-rooner, I'm a real person who thinks and writes. Can't say the same for you, though, based on your posts. Your posts read like the rehashings of some donklebot maroon.

Posted by micah pyre at May 5, 2009 09:49 PM

Micah:
Sorry for not responding more substantively to your comments, it's just that I couldn't find any substance to comment on.

Lots of creative metaphor-making, though:

Greenwald's specialty is putting a golden frame around a canvas smeared with feces.

Nothing progressive about white kid gloves seeking and decrying the ugly dust of dissent.

See, if you could explain why you think Greenwald is "putting a golden frame around a canvas smeared with feces," or what the hell "white kid gloves seeking and decrying the ugly dust of dissent" means, then we could have an intelligent conversation.

Seriously, go back and look at what you wrote. Take out the insults, and there would be nothing left except "the" and "and."

Care to try again? I'll be happy to read what you have to say.

Posted by SteveB at May 5, 2009 10:57 PM

I have to say that the idea that Duncan and SteveB are Democrat-leaning incrementalists is one of the funniest things I've heard in a while.

Posted by John Caruso at May 6, 2009 03:26 PM

Yeah, funny, isn't it? Like the internet doesn't have enough real liberal Dems to go yell at? Oh, if we could only find out where they congregate!

But I think the same thing pretty much any time Smithee posts here.

Posted by SteveB at May 6, 2009 09:35 PM

I'm also highly entertained by the idea that I seek "civilized debate." (GWM, increasingly senile, seeks same for civilized debate. No smokers, Rethugs, teabaggers; more and better Democrats only pls.)

Posted by Duncan at May 6, 2009 10:45 PM