Torture's Easy Embrace
October 13, 2006
Geoffrey Nunberg is an adjunct full professor at UC Berkeley's School of Information , a researcher at the Center for the Study of Language and Information at Stanford University and a consulting professor in the Stanford Department of Linguistics . He also does a feature on language on the NPR show " Fresh Air " and write commentaries on language for the Sunday New York Times Week in Review, as well as for other periodicals.
In 1978, the philosopher Henry Shue wrote an influential essay about torture that began with the sentence, "Whatever one may have to say about torture, there appear to be moral reasons for not saying it." Once we bring the subject up, he asked, mightn't we risk loosening the inhibitions against the whole terrible business? It was easy to have that feeling over the last month or so, as you listened to the country debate just how much cruelty and degradation we were going to allow in interrogating terror suspects. I mean, were we really having this conversation?
In the end, Shue himself wound up saying that torture had to be talked about—as he put it, "Pandora's Box is already open." But then the topic is irresistible to philosophy professors, since it seems ideally suited to getting students to question their most cherished moral certainties. On the face of things, you'd figure the prohibition of torture would be a top candidate for a categorical moral rule; as the U.N. convention on torture puts it, there are no exceptional circumstances that justify torture. But what about the scenario of a captured terrorist who has hidden a nuclear bomb that's set to go off in a couple of hours? Would torture be justified then?
Some people try to dodge the dilemma by saying that torture never works anyway. But that "never" is a leap of faith—how can you be sure? And anyway, that response leaves the deeper moral question open: would it be okay to torture the terrorist if you were convinced it would get him to tell you where the bomb is? Say no and you're risking a million lives; say yes and you've suddenly become a situational relativist, balancing the moral cost of inflicting pain and humiliation against the potential saving of lives.
Most of us find these hypothetical scenarios troubling, as we damn well should. But if we're honest we'll admit that the idea that torture might sometimes be justified can also kindle a prurient thrill. That explains the appeal of the last two seasons of "24," where episode after episode presents agent Jack Bauer with another opportunity for shooting someone in the kneecap or shocking him with electric wires, always in the interest of getting him to reveal some bit of life-saving information. Whatever your intellectual position on torture, you don't change the channel.
This may be a morbid fascination, but it has deep roots in the folklore of childhood. Who doesn't recall all the ordeals and torture games that children visit on each other? Depending on where or when you grew up, you called them pink belly, the Indian or Chinese rope burn, the noogie or the Russian haircut—the names often evoked alien archetypes of cruelty and inhumanity, since even then we knew that Americans didn't do this stuff. (I distinguish these from the purely opportunistic assaults like the wedgie and the Hertz Donut.) But the rituals were compelling even so—a setting for acting out our forbidden fantasies and proving our toughness.
Not surprisingly, the administration was at pains to keep any of that atavistic fascination with torture from bubbling to the surface. We're not suggesting permitting actual torture, they insisted—if a terrorist doesn't break under waterboarding or sleep deprivation, we're not going to go all Jack Bauer on him, ticking bomb or no. The challenge was to find language that made the appropriate distinctions: carving the grave breaches of the Geneva Convention from the lesser ones, the inhuman from the merely regrettable, the stuff that shocks the conscience from the stuff that merely rocks it back on its heels a bit.
"Alternative sets of procedures," "enhanced interrogation techniques," "vigorous questioning"—the phrases had a comforting sound of professional routine. In his September 15 speech , in fact, President Bush used the word "professionals" 26 times, by way of reassuring Americans that the people administering the procedures would not only know what they were doing, but would presumably take no pleasure in doing it.
Still, some of the administration's supporters were clearly enjoying the discussion, particularly when it came to making light of the procedures under consideration. We're not talking about maiming or killing, they said, and these people have it coming. And anyway, what's the big deal? When the subject of sleep deprivation came up at a House Judiciary Committee hearing last week, Republican Tom Feeney of Florida observed that "there is not an American mom that is guaranteed eight hours of sleep every night." And if playing loud music is inhumane treatement, he added, "virtually every teenager I know is torturing Mom and Dad." Bill O' Reilly reported that one terrorism suspect had broken when subjected to Red Hot Chili Peppers music, then added, "Well, wouldn't you?" And The American Spectator 's Emmett Tyrell argued that waterboarding was infinitely less dangerous than skateboarding, which causes sprained ankles and broken bones.
The point of those comparisons, of course, was to contrast the tough-mindedness of the administration's supporters with the wimpy moral fastidiousness of its critics—when Colin Powell voiced reservations about the proposals, William F. Buckley called his objections "maudlin." But there was something disturbing about that ostentatious unconcern about what we might be getting ourselves into. Thoughtful people might reluctantly conclude that the terrorist threat really does require us to augment the techniques that were deemed adequate for interrogating the Viet Cong or Jeffrey Dahmer. But that's a conclusion that you ought to come to with a sense of gravity and unease, not with belligerent gusto. People have often said that state-approved torture coarsens a society; yet, even so, it's remarkable how eager some people are to embrace their inner schoolyard bully. But then we knew that in fifth grade.
Reprinted with permission.