Pop Torture

by digby

The other night when I was feeling particularly under the weather from the smoke in the air, I was surfing through the channels and landed on one of the ubiquitous "Law and Order" shows. It was a meandering tale about a cub reporter who had been killed tracking a story about rendition and torture. It ended as these shows always do, with a trial, in this case of a female psychiatrist who had volunteered after 9/11 to help the government interrogate prisoners and ended up being implicated in one of the victims' deaths. The trial ended in a mistrial, and as these shows are wont to do, it took no strong stand, although in this case anyway, it seemed to be at least saying that it was dicey for a medical professional to lend her expertise to something that caused terrible pain and ultimately death. (No kidding.)

Anyway, I was curious about the show and went online to see who wrote it and what people were saying about it and it turns out that the NY Times "TV decoder" blogger had discussed the episode that day and says the idea sprang from the fact that shows like "24" were depicting torture with an unambiguous slant and they wanted to explore it with a little bit more nuance. The headline was "A Screenwriter's Dilemma: How To Address Torture" (which says a lot right there.)

Here's an excerpt of the only comment to that item:

When I saw the DA give that “I’m going to get them” nod after hearing the tales of “torture” - “they made me eat pork” or “I peed myself” - I didn’t know whether to laugh or scream.

Torture, real torture, is perpetrated by our enemy in this war. They chop off heads, they burn victims, and commit other unspeakable atrocities.

What the left-wing forces of this country - Hollywood and hardcore liberal newspapers like the New York Times - deem torture is merely a way to interrogate or deprive prisoners to gain important information to save innocent lives and our armed forces. These are terrorists that we are talking about.

Every regular on the show took the liberal viewpoint. I doubt seriously if real cops would all join in lockstep on this subject. That’s why screenwriters, by and large, can not be trusted to broach these subjects. Their bias can’t help but overtake a rational, intelligent discussion of this issue.

Unusually literate for a torture advocate, but typically wingnutty nonetheless. (And naturally, he neglects the important story point, based on true accounts, that long term hypothermia causes a serious form of heart disease, which is what killed the fictional victim --- or the horrors of the victim's prolonged "interrogation" in a stress position for more than 36 hours that tore both of his rotator cuffs.)

I then clicked on the show's fan site and found these kinds of comments:

When lives are in danger from Islamo-fascists you do what is necessary to save the lives. Western values are so totally foreign to these terrorists that they laugh at our attempts to be "humanitarian" in our attitudes toward them. They will give any infidel 3 choices: 1)become a muslim, 2) become a dhimmi (recognize the superiority of islam and pay a tax for the right to exist as a sub-human), 3)die. I reject all three choices in the sure and certain knowledge that one day there will be no more islam and no more muslims.

and this:

Yeah..I think I'm pretty much over this show. I bet if those same tactics were used and 911 had been stopped ,,people would be alittle more open to the idea. We torture by depriving sleep and giving cold baths..well..I bet ya its better than having your HEAD CUT OFF! [...] This country and some of it's people amaze and sadden me.To all you Islamic sympathizers,please do us all a favor...leave the US...

This is an old and tiresome (basically racist) argument, and because it features the usual right wing neanderthal ranting, one that wouldn't normally be worth discussing at this point. But the show featured something I thought was unique and important: it drew a direct parallel between torturing terrorism suspects and torturing criminal suspects, something I have blogged about many times but which I've rarely seen argued by others.

I've always felt that logic dictates that if you think it's ok to torture terrorism suspects, even if only in a "ticking time bomb" situation, you cannot believe it wouldn't be right to torture a criminal suspect in similar situations. In this show, one of the characters bluntly says that he affirmatively believes in torture because when he was a cop he broke the arm of a suspect in three places to get him to reveal where a kidnapped child was being held and ended up saving her. He is disgusted by the fact that the perpetrator could not be tried because of what he'd done.

The DA in the show replies, "what if you'd been wrong?" which is, to me and I assume most others, the ultimate question. Torturing an innocent person and, worse, forcing them to confess to something they didn't do is one of the worst sins you could commit in my book. On some level it's just pure evil. And yet, that is what torture is really all about, going all the way back to the inquisition and before. It's not designed for finding the truth. It's designed to coerce confession, which is not the same thing.

(This is not to say that I think torturing guilty people is morally permissible. Cruel and unusual punishment is banned in the constitution for a reason --- it makes barbarians of all of us. Even that bleeding heart Antonin Scalia, stretching as hard as he can to say that intent, original and otherwise, is what counts, would not be able to uphold the Bush torture regime as proper punishment under the 8th Amendment.)

I don't believe that people who think the way those angry "Law and Order" fans think, are concerned with any of that, though. They just don't care if someone is wrongly accused, and they could not care less about torture or cruel and unusual punishment. In other words, to people like this, our entire system of due process is absurd. Terrorism is the least of it. They would not care if it were you, or their neighbor or anyone else --- and they are unable to see that it could be them. They simply don't have the imagination or the empathy to do it. And if you were to read these horrific stories to them, or even show them pictures, they would believe that the victims deserved it.

I don't think these people are all that unusual, which why we ask leaders and judges and priests and teachers to sort out moral questions like this for people who have no natural human empathy and cannot deal with such abstractions. It's why we need the rule of law. And that's why it's so dangerous to see so many people in leadership positions not only fail to promptly and decisively condemn these acts, even though most of them know very well that it is a matter of fundamental American values, but actively endorse it. The best the right wing can summon on this issue, including the religious right, is to simply assert that we can believe that the United States doesn't torture or we can believe what our eyes tell us:

Yesterday, Republican front runner Rudy Giuliani confirmed that he thinks waterboarding is not necessarily torture --- as long as it's done by the right sort of people:

At the town hall, Rudy was asked about Attorney General nominee Michael Mukasey's hedging on the question of whether waterboarding is torture.

"I'm not sure it is, either," said Rudy. "It depends on how it's done. It depends on the circumstances. It depends on who does it."

And as for the media, Rudy said they've exaggerated the nature of waterboarding.

"Sometimes they describe it accurately. Sometimes they exaggerate it," Rudy said. "So I'd have to see what they really are doing, not the way some of these liberal newspapers have exaggerated it.

Actually, it's pretty much the same, no matter who does it.

Spanish inquisition:

Cambodian Communists

here's how it was done then by the Inquisitors:

Here's how it's done now by the United States:

Water boarding

Source: Guantanamo commanders requested permission to use "wet towel and dripping water to induce the misperception of suffocation" in an Oct. 11, 2002, memo to the Pentagon. Rumsfeld denied permission in his memo of Dec. 2, 2002. The New York Times reported in May 2004 that water boarding was used by CIA officials to interrogate "high value" detainees like Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Binalshibh, held by the United States at secret locations.

Description: According to University of Wisconsin history professor Alfred McCoy, this technique was first developed by the French and published in a 16th - century interrogation manual. Practitioners of "water torture," or "question de l'eau," placed a piece of cloth over the victim's mouth and nose, and then poured water into the mouth to force the cloth down the victim's throat. The effect was to make breathing impossible, thus creating the psychological perception of drowning.

If you believe that anything the US does is by definition "good" then you might agree that whether or not this act is torture "depends on who's doing it", I suppose. But the technique is exactly the same down through the ages, so there is no way that it depends on "how it's done."

The administration and the Republicans running for president refuse to admit that this practice is immoral and illegal. So does the president's nominee for Attorney General, a man who is currently a judge and someone that anyone could point to as being among the most elite, establishment legal thinkers. You can't really blame all those "Law and Order" fans for publicly going ballistic that their show would even tepidly imply as it did that such practices may be wrong. Their leaders certainly don't seem to think so. Whatever taboo there once was has been completely removed.

And I believe that everyone should brace themselves for the inevitable stretching of this concept to the criminal justice system. If the current belief is that torture is necessary to protect people from terrorist attacks, there is simply no way to argue that it isn't also ok to use torture to protect people from criminal attacks. Why wouldn't it be?

President Rudy Giuliani will be the first in line to do the stretching, I'm sure. He already knows all about it.

Anonymous Liberal has more on this.

Update II:
Joe Conason has some information for Rudy should he decide to go waterboarding.