"The Point": Double Plus Ungood
So it’s come to this: a poll on whether it’s acceptable to torture people.
Remember when engaging in torture was something that was seen as proof positive of inhumanity? But with the current administration’s “War on Terror” [sic], the folks that pledged to “restore dignity and honor to the White House” have eroded our collective character to the point where the relative merits and severity of various types of torture are an acceptable and unremarkable subject of our public talk.
Exhibit A: Mark Hyman’s call for viewer feedback on when torture is justified and what constitutes torture. Hyman claims that the American people are “split down the middle” (an apt metaphor, given the topic) on the issue of torture.
Actually, the data mainly shows that attitudes on torture depend a lot on the way the question is worded and what the context is.
According to data available at PollingReport.com, the overwhelming majority of Americans believe their government has tortured people (74%, according to a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll). When asked if they would be willing to support the use of torture against suspected terrorists who may know details about an attack on the United States, the same poll showed that 38% would be willing to support torture, while 56% would not.
When asked by Newsweek whether torture can be often, sometimes, seldom, or never justified in questioning suspected terrorists, 44% answered that it could be often or sometimes justified, while 51% said seldom or never. (Interestingly, 25% of Republicans thought it could be “often justified,” compared with 11% of Democrats who gave this answer).
When the same poll asked whether respondents would support the use of torture if “it might lead to the prevention of a major terrorist attack,” 58% said yes, while 35% said no. However, when the question was whether or not respondents would support the use of torture if it meant it would be more likely that Americans would also be subject to torture, the numbers flip almost exactly (36% would still support it while 57% would not).
This suggests that any pronouncement about the will of the American people about torture is on shaky ground, since so much of the issue rests with subtleties of the way questions are asked.
And this is exactly what’s so frightening. Whether we’re “split down the middle” or if only a mere four out of ten of us support the use of torture, the fact that this has become a matter of opinion polling and viewer feedback segments is appalling. That a slight twist in wording can elicit a positive response to torture from the majority of Americans asked about it is a frightening glimpse into where four years of fear mongering, lying, and government-sanctioned abuse of human beings has brought us.
We’ve become a brutalizing nation. What a tragedy for a country that made renunciation of “cruel and unusual punishment” a founding principle.
There’s not much to say to those who support the use of torture from an ethical or moral standpoint. If you think torture is justifiable, such arguments are impotent.
The justification of torture seems based solely on a “the ends justify the means” basis. That such an ethos is alive and well in America shouldn’t surprise us; after all it’s been the hallmark of the Bush administration from before it took office. From the bussing in of thugs to harass election workers, to the outing of a CIA operative in order to discredit an administration critic, to the launching of a preemptive war of choice, to the grotesque political use of the events of September 11, the Bush administration has openly embraced and championed the rationale of ends justifying the means.
But even if one throws morality out the window and only looks at the issue pragmatically, there’s little to be said for torture. Aristotle noted more than 2500 years ago that, although one could “spin” statements made under torture as probably truthful (if they happened to help your case), the reality is that what you get from torture is likely whatever the victim thinks will get the pain to stop. This may or may not have anything to do with the truth. Hence, Aristotle’s belief that any information gained from torture was unreliable.
What does this have to do with the “war on terror”? Only everything. As we’ve recently found out, one of the main sources of the (dis)information used to support the case for invading Iraq came from an al-Qaeda operative undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques” (how’s that for a euphemism?). Yet, despite misgivings about the truth of the operative’s claims (misgivings the administration was aware of), the use of this testimony formed a central part of the Bush administration’s case for war. The information was simply what the prisoner thought his torturers wanted to hear, then the Bush administration spun this testimony because it was consistent with what they had already decided they wanted to do.
Yet, right wing voices continue to offer apologia for torturers. Both NewsMax and Rush Limbaugh have lied about John McCain’s description of his own experiences with torture in order to suggest that torture works. McCain introduced legislation limiting interrogation techniques to Army Field Manual approved practices (legislation that passed 90-9 in the Senate) precisely because he understands that torture, in addition to being morally reprehensible, doesn’t provide reliable information. But the administration apologists at NewsMax, along with Limbaugh, have falsely claimed that McCain said torture worked.
Then we have Hyman. In his posing of the torture question, Hyman asks whether torture is only physical, or
do actions such as dunking a suspect's head in a bucket of ice water count as
torture? What about exploiting a suspect's fear of heights or abandonment,
claustrophobia or darkness? Is this torture?
Hyman’s phrasing (e.g., “dunking in ice water” to mean the practice of waterboarding; “exploiting fear” for inflicting psychological trauma) suggests where his heart lies.
But as readers of George Orwell’s 1984 know, the most terrifying torture—the kind that utterly breaks a person—is that which is never actually administered, but only threatened. Fear, not pain, will compel someone to say anything. This is why we have such disgust for practices such as the Japanese Army’s technique of carrying out mock executions on U.S. prisoners. (By the way, the U.S. is also thought to have carried out mock executions in Iraq.) Psychological torture leaves more horrifying scars than any thumbscrew or bull whip.
In any discussion of Orwell’s novel, though, it would be almost ludicrous to ask whether or not O’Brien was “justified” in strapping a cage full of snarling rats to Winston’s face. Orwell didn’t present with Big Brother, O’Brien, and Room 101 to get us to debate whether or not they were on the whole positive or negative influences; he counted on these creations to scare the daylights out of us and keep us on guard against their encroachment in real life.
I sometimes tire of knee jerk analogies involving Orwell’s dystopia. It’s become almost a cliché to equate today’s America with the world of the novel. But, as I reread the scene in which Winston is terrorized into renouncing the woman he loves, I can’t help thinking that if we’ve been taken to the point where we actually entertain when it’s justifiable to torture another human being in the name of state security, Americans have collectively been taken to Room 101 and, through the use of fear, been made to recant that which we once held most dear.
And that’s The Counterpoint.