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Kicking Ass & Splitting Hairs
Torture doesn’t bother Krauthammer’s crowd
Allan Uthman

In all realms of political thought, Charles Krauthammer can be consistently relied upon to deliver the opinion which is most stunning in its cold arrogance, but which, for all its haughty majesty, never quite manages to make sense, unless you are a member of Israel’s Likud. His latest in the all-around terrible Weekly Standard sets a new bar for Charles, though, as the arbiter of the new grand inquisition. Presumptuously called “The Truth About Torture” (12/5), it is in fact a hapless attempt to embolden, even glorify America’s recent predilection for forced sexual humiliation.

Krauthammer first goes for the usual argument—these are terrorists and they deserve no regard. “Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire.” This is the most frequent and confident argument in favor of torture. But it completely ignores the possibility—nay, the reality—that many detainees have done nothing, will do nothing, and may simply have been sold to US forces by the Northern Alliance, or just looked too angry at a checkpoint. That’s one of the problems with not charging or trying your prisoners – you never know if they’re innocent.

In all of the torture-justifying columns I’ve read recently—and there’s been a glut—I haven’t once seen this point addressed. It’s as if the thought that there could be totally innocent men under those black hoods at Gitmo is just too much for the Republican mind to process. The very idea that these detainees are not “enemy combatants” to the last man is somehow blasphemous, no matter how true it obviously is. Why? Because there is simply no way to justify torturing an innocent man—it can’t be done. If we admit for a moment that even a significant fraction of these torture subjects are totally innocent, the whole thing collapses.

But not to worry; Krauthammer doesn’t bother to address the issue either. Instead, he indulges in creative fantasy:

Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Sorry, Charlie. That’s not a “textbook case;” it’s a movie trailer. This is what some are calling the “ticking time-bomb scenario,” in an effort to tap into America’s collective memory of action-thriller clichés. The time-bomb cliché is well-imprinted by repeated viewings of absurd movies and TV shows wherein suspiciously elaborate contrivances of destruction are always attached to digital clock readouts, so that the audience can feign suspense, always knowing that their protagonist will cut the right wire just at the timer reads 00:01. In real life, this kind of shit doesn’t happen, which Krauthammer very nearly acknowledges, while fantasizing more unlikely scenarios into existence:

Sure, the (nuclear) scale is hypothetical, but in the age of the car-and suicide-bomber, terrorists are often captured who have just set a car bomb to go off or sent a suicide bomber out to a coffee shop, and you only have minutes to find out where the attack is to take place.

What a bunch of crap. Really? Often, you say? “Hey, Khalid, could you do me a favor? Just pop down to Starbucks and explode yourself, will you?” I have to wonder where Krauthammer gets this kind of information. Oh wait, I know—he’s making it up! He doesn’t even go through the usual motions of attributing this information to “a senior pentagon official” or anything. He just says it like it’s true, and many people don’t even notice. The next thing they know, they’re telling their wives that they “know” that terrorists are “often” captured mid-bombing, and their would-be victims are saved through torture. And thus another rhetorical turd befouls the public consciousness.

Just in case we’re not convinced, Krauthammer asserts that we don’t have to believe such a situation could actually occur; it is enough that, if it did, torture could be the right thing to do:

And even if the example I gave were entirely hypothetical, the conclusion--yes, in this case even torture is permissible--is telling because it establishes the principle: Torture is not always impermissible.

Therefore, because in an extremely improbable set of circumstances, it would be okay to bring the pain, we need to codify the approval of said pain. If it’s permissible even once, then it is  permissible, period, and some kind of legal torture slide rule needs to be designed, so we can know when to hold ‘em, and when to hold ‘em under water for distressing durations. Krauthammer is trying to diddle a microscopic loophole into a gaping tunnel. It’s like passing a law mandating that all cars that run out of gas be authorized to stop—it’s going to happen, whether or not it’s legal, and is as stupid as it is unnecessary. It’s obvious that, should this time-bomb scenario manifest itself outside the Clancy-esque screenplay Krauthammer appears to be writing, no legal loophole would be necessary.

It’s not as if torture tactics have never been employed by US authorities before this whole “War on Terror” thing started, after all. No law would get between enforcement’s foot and a guy’s throat if he knew where “the time bomb” was, or whatever fantastic plot device the neocons can invoke. The legal exemption for torture in such situations is not needed, because the laws against it would simply go unheeded. “Torture never,” which has always been the law around here, always really meant “torture sometimes.” The problem with changing the rule to “torture sometimes” is that the result will wind up as “torture a lot, like way too much.” Making something illegal doesn’t make it stop happening; it only serves to make it less likely.

But Krauthammer, having established the end-of-Face Off scenario, avers that “the argument is not whether torture is ever permissible, but when--i.e., under what obviously stringent circumstances: how big, how imminent, how preventable the ticking time bomb.”

But what about another argument: that such an elastic justification can be stretched to suit almost any circumstance? After all, the whole point of torturing someone, aside from the cathartic release, of course, is that you don’t know what they know. By definition, this could be anything. That dude across from you on the bus may not seem like much, but for all you know, he’s got a grenade up his ass with the president’s name on it. How can you be sure he doesn’t know something, possess some terrible datum that could prevent the deaths of millions? Well, only one way to be sure…

Once you open the door to torture, once you say it’s okay in this or that circumstance, it’s not too far to travel philosophically before you’re torturing everybody, just to be on the safe side. Hey, you never know!

As to the argument that “torture works,” let’s consider just how well it works. Nothing could possibly do more to elicit hatred from people, any people, than torture. In fact, it can be argued that government-sponsored torture is what brought us to this state in the first place. Sayyid Qutb, considered the philosophical father of Islamic terrorists, was radicalized by torture, as was his disciple Ayman al-Zawahiri, Osama bin Laden’s main man. A good case can be made that, without their torture by West-friendly Egypt, this whole blowing-up-civilians thing never would have gotten off the ground in the first place. I don’t believe in karma, but people give what they get. And if they are smeared in animal fat and locked in cages with attack dogs (Qutb), that’s likely to taint their worldview somewhat.

Furthermore, as the New York Times recently reported (and Newsweek before them), Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, the man whose accounts of Saddam-Osama connections were relied on to justify the Iraq invasion, was subjected to torture in Egypt, where he had been “renditioned” by the CIA, and produced these Iraq-al Qaeda stories under duress. A Defense Intelligence Agency document, which predates the Bush administration’s embrace of al-Libi’s stories by months, determines them to be fabrications.

So: no torture, no terrorists. No torture, no mistaken war. Call me crazy, but maybe we should consider: no torture?

Krauthammer simultaneously admonishes the administration for so wantonly flaunting the very laws he seeks to mitigate. He says there is too much torture, but somehow he thinks that easing restrictions against it will help. The fallacy is all too easily illustrated by his further abject speculations:

Let's posit that during the interrogation of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, perhaps early on, we got intelligence about an imminent al Qaeda attack. And we had a very good reason to believe he knew about it. And if we knew what he knew, we could stop it.

Say we had information about a cell that he had helped found or direct, and that cell was planning some major attack and we needed information about the identity and location of its members.

Here’s the thing about this: Mohammed was tortured, despite all laws, domestic and international, against it. Krauthammer’s argument is that we need a new provision, so that we can do what we already did. Was it wrong to torture him? I’d say not; the guy is the apparent “mastermind” behind 9/11, and at the very least was actively working to kill innocent people. But my point remains: despite the lack of any legitimate legal justification for torture, we still did it. Do we really need to get more permissive?

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter that torture is illegal; it will happen, when deemed necessary. All that passing Krauthammer’s proposed exemptions would do is erode the standard by which it is authorized, which is not looking too good as it is.

Torture ain't no thang in Krauthammer's crowd. But why do the Feds want a legal exemption when they've been doing it all this time anyway?
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