A Man with a Flashlight


“His great virtue and his weakness”
June 30, 2007, 9:07 am
Filed under: Hell, Let's Call it Torture, Politics, The War on Terror

I just finished part 2 of the Washington Post’s Cheney profile. Read it if you have any interest in understanding the mindset of an American who comes to embrace torture – and understand it we must, if we are resolved to begin the long and hard work of removing this stain from our honor.

It is striking to me that the torture crowd paints themselves as the realists in this debate. I submit that the entire foundation of their argument rests on a singular fantasy – the fantasy that if we just try hard enough, and compromise enough of our core values, we can ensure that Americans will be safe from another terrorist attack. If you believe this then all else follows. It means our historical disdain (and proud disdain) for torture is meaningless. It means the public interest in privacy and protection from government scrutiny is a bygone. And it may come to mean many other things, to our lasting regret. This fantasy – this dangerous fantasy – can justify anything, and it will, until we give it up for good.

My opposition to torture is not idealistic, it is realistic. I know – though of course I wish it were otherwise – that any government’s promise of security is hollow. When politicians bring us their sweet offers of safety – think Rudy Giuliani – I see the shrewd self-interest that lies beneath their reassuring strength. When has a politican ever won office by telling people what they do not want to admit? We are being targeted by killers, and they are bent on murder, and we can not stop all of them. That is the truth, and we can “double Guantanamo,” as Mitt Romney bravely suggests, and it will make no difference.

This is not defeatism; I believe we can defeat the jihadists, and we must. But show me the terrorist movement or insurgency that was defeated by torturing those who were captured. Show me one. You will find no examples of this, only examples of the opposite; movements which were fueled by oppression, and strengthened by it, and given the one thing we should find most repugnant to give them: a sense of justification.

We can never hope to erase the risk of attack, but it is completely within our power to uphold the traditions of democracy. Bush and Cheney notwithstanding, limits to the power of kings are an enduring monument of our civilization. That achievement probably took more toil than erecting the pyramids. Unlike the pyramids, it passes on a sweet benefit to every new generation, for as long as we can find the strength to honor and defend it. Also unlike the pyramids, it is being dismantled.

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