Monday, February 22, 2010

More on Sullivan on Torture


basman “Nits aside, what you find “pompous” and a “cliché”—in a phrase, “body against soul”—I find radical—not necessarily original, but radical, to be sure.”

I don’t think it’s radical at all, basman. Had you read as many papers on and some books on the uses of force (torture is an extreme use of force) as I have you would how standard an argument it has been for the last quarter century. Many of this arguments originate in the work of Levinas and of Bakhtin (the Russian philosopher). I am not claiming btw that Sullivan got his argument from them (his writing doesn’t show any direct philosophical influence); he probably got it from some other source.

Still, I am surprised that you should accept an argument as radical that is religious in nature. (Both Levinas and Bakhtin are religious thinkers---the first is Jewish the other Russian Orthodox---and they both belong to the dialogic tradition as does Martin Buber.)

“Because it goes to the root of the issue and the starting point for any thinking about torture, too easily paid lip service to, or written off with a shrug as in “I am against it as policy because the information gathered from forced dialogues is notoriously untrustworthy.””

Yeap, that’s me I am against torture because the information is untrustworthy. (The forced dialogue comment is not something many other writers have used.)

In any case, Sullivan’s argument equating torture to totalitarianism is unsupported and unsupportable.

You say that:

“Sullivan nowhere simplistically suggests—as you imply in your “rhetorical question”-- that torture leads populations to embrace totalitarian regimes. Nor does he say torture today Nazi Germany—or any other poison—tomorrow.”

But that is the subtitle of his text: “Saving the United States from a totalitarian future” and it’s implied throughout his article:

He make assumptions and claims completely de-historicized about the conduct of the US war against Japan and Germany which was meant to lead to democracy:

The fact that these countries became democratic has many causes but the allied war effort was not one of them; not unless you consider dropping atomic weapons and bombing campaigns that destroyed whole cities a way of creating democracy.

This is what happened and this isn’t something Sullivan could acknowledge. I, on the other hand, will say that yes the ferocious assault of Japan and Germany left these countries unable and unwilling to fight back. In Germany’s case the fear of Soviet attacks left them eager to accept whatever terms the Western allies imposed on them including democracy.

There is no neat correlation between establishing democratic regimes and the use of force. (The US in its infancy did a lot of fighting against Indians, (lots of torture there) British, Canadians (our attack on Canada in the war of 1812 was pretty savage). It also enslaved large numbers of people yet it’s democratic character wasn’t stunted by these experiences.

Now, is torture worse than the destruction of cities and the killing of hundreds of thousand of people?

Will Sullivan support a sustained bombing campaign against say Iran or Saudi Arabia if it would lead to democracy (I ask myself half seriously)

“Krauthammer and Dershowitz wrestle too with the profound horrors and dilemmas of torture and in roughly the same way, albeit coming to different conclusions—though not necessarily, as I suggested, but probably….”

They have, and though I disagree with their conclusions I do take their arguments a lot more seriously.

Sullivan on the other seems fixated on this issue, it seems to me, because it gives him something to rant about and attack the “Jewish” neocons. It also allows him to keep posting pictured of near naked bodies of torture victims. There is something pornographic about his obsession with torture.

To quote, Dylan Thomas his position is to “love thy neighbor, and covet his ass.”


We’re dancing around Sullivan’s essay. Let’s get at its substance. The in a following post I’ll make a few brief comments about your penultimate post.

Sullivan begins by asking why torture—which I am confining to water boarding— is wrong and notes the then urgency of the issue and Krauthammer’s essay arguing for it. In contextualizing that urgency he notes Bush Administration policy and pervasive foreign examples of it under American aegis. He further notes, as I mentioned, that those against torture assume rather than explain why, as he sees it, it “is always a moral evil.” His position is that torture is contrary to basic American principles and a huge obstacle to America winning the war against Islamism.

He sets—and this is radical, while not necessarily original—a legitimate opposition between torture and freedom. And he does so provocatively and interestingly. Torture is the complete trammeling of the free self and its free will that are at the foundation of liberal democracy. Torture is the complete subjection of the self by intolerable pain. It is a grain of sand in which to see a pure, singular example of the totalitarian—the sheer, pain caused subjection and domination of one by powers over him, the very nullification of agency, autonomy and the human. Ramified, it is the pervasiveness of these inflictions as a means of state domination of its citizens. Western freedom is, “in part”, the sunlight emerging from the long shadow of torture cast over its history.

And so, the basis of the argument is set: “Any polity that endorses torture has incorporated into its own DNA a totalitarian mutation.” If the point of the U.S. Constitution is preserving individual liberty, torture is its antithesis. Therefore, the argument goes, allowing torture means a failure in the American political experiment in the freedoms flowing from inalienable rights, protected by the rule of law. Sullivan argues the founders were particularly alive to these ideas noting a historian’s account of Washington:

"Always some dark spirits wished to visit the same cruelties on the British and Hessians that had been inflicted on American captives. But Washington's example carried growing weight, more so than his written orders and prohibitions. He often reminded his men that they were an army of liberty and freedom, and that the rights of humanity for which they were fighting should extend even to their enemies. ... Even in the most urgent moments of the war, these men were concerned about ethical questions in the Revolution."

Krauthammer in his essay called Washington’s concerns dispensable “pieties”. His argument, by way of Sullivan, is that torture is an unequivocal moral evil but morally compelled by the enemy America faces. And Sullivan locates in Krauthammer the argument the notion that this enemy is “entitled to no humane treatment.” Therefore, for Sullivan, in Krauthammer pragmatic necessity coexists with moral necessity.

At the level of morality, Sullivan argues otherwise. To torture is to nullify humanity; it is an unwitting exoneration. To retain humanity is to retain moral accountability. And to torture, to become a torturer, is to betray the most fundamental values and principles.

At the level of practicality, Krauthammer argues for torture in the case of the “ticking time bomb”. Krauthammer’s next move is to say if we can do it one instance, we can do it others. The manifestation of that extension is its legalization. For the sake of the argument, Sullivan grants Krauthammer’s conditions precedent and remote example but rejects the corollary: “It is possible to concede that, in an extremely rare circumstance, torture may be used without conceding that it should be legalized.”

Sullivan’s first argument for that rejection is the analogy of civil disobedience. By it laws are broken but respected. The disobedient are prepared for the consequences of their action. In the highly remote instance of the ticking bomb, the executive will decide to break the law for a greater good and be prepared for the consequences. Michael Walzer said, as Sullivan paraphrases, “…if we are to have dirty hands, it is essential that we show them to be dirty.” For Krauthammer, nothing urgent is lost in legalizing what must be done. For Sullivan, legalization is a white wash that sanctions a descent into unfreedom.

His second argument is the slippery slope, the inclination for torture’s use to spread and to grow out of itself: “Torture follows itself down new born streets, fleeing its own shadow”. Abu Ghraib manifested that spreading and it did America incalculable damage.

The third argument is the illegitimacy of deriving a general rule from such an attenuated, remote example as the ticking time bomb.

Krauthammer also argue for torture in the case of high level, “slow fuse” detainees like KSM. Understanding that torture generally yields highly unreliable information—your argument—Krauthammer doesn’t concede it never does. And if it does, it should be an option.

The first argument against this “slow fuse” argument is that is exemplifies making a general rule out of an extreme exception.

The second argument is that if the inclination to spread is true of the time bomb situation, that inclination is “blown wide open” by its optionality in other cases.

The third argument is that the sheer unreliability of the tortured’s information compromises intelligence generally due to: the near impossibility in any practical context of distinguishing good from bad information; and due to compromising the trust of those otherwise willing to cooperate. Trust will lessen if torture and humiliation leads to a perception of moral equivalence in the Muslim mind.

The fourth argument is cost benefit: the costs of an Abu Ghraib, for example, or the use torture generally, outweigh decidedly the smatterings of good information that might be gained from torture’s use.

A more general and concluding argument against Krauthammer by Sullivan also marries the moral to the pragmatic: if America maintains its rectitude—including by not torturing, Petraeus just said incisively in answer to the question of torture, “America should lives its values.”—then that stands to redound to its benefit in the war against Islamism.


Having revisited Sullivan's essay closely, I'll say this about your second last post--granting you that you have read more than me on the subject and that I have never read Levinas or Bakhtin:

1. The essay is radical not because of, or lack of, originality but because it starts, and carefully deals, with the very roots, the very bases, of the issue.

2. The argument is nowhere near to being religious. I am an atheist but also have a conception of the soul, the very seat of our humanness.

3. Sullivan folds one your one stated ground for rejecting torture--bad information--into the sweep of his comprehensive essay that deals with the moral and the practical.

4. Subtitle aside--and I don't even know if it's his--this essay is no argument for the lockstep from torture to totalitarianism. It is an argument for torture as a pure and singular microcosm of the totalitarian and it is an argument for America's loss of its "soul" by the institutionalizing of torture and finally it is a an argument about the danger of torture's use to spread and ramify through the body politic as a rotten apple.

5. I agree with you that he is too rhapsodic about American goodness leading to the emergence of democracies in Japan and Germany--and it is telling that he doesn’t mention the atomic bombing or the firebombing of Dresden-- and that he is too rhapsodic about America the good in winning the war against Islamism. But his underlying point is valid for all the rhapsody and historical omissions.

6. So the essay is marred by that rhapsodizing but it doesn't fail because of that. The rhapsody does not turn the whole thing into a rant. And al least in this essay, there is no obsession with "Jewish neocons" betrayed. In fact he calls Krauthammer his friend and a most highly respected conservative intellectual.

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