Tom Tomorrow and Torture

A Different President, a Different Debate

I know some folks don’t care much for Tom’s cartoons, but  this one, once more, hits some nails right on the head.  I’ve written a couple posts now on the horrifying torture debate that’s migrated north from Santiago, Chile to Washington D.C. in the last twenty years, and as I’ve noted, it’s not just Christian academics like me but even Cold-War-era, professional interrogators who see the current culture of torture as reprehensible.  (We have different reasons for detesting it, but we detest it nonetheless.)

Torture in the modern era is always about intimidation, always relies both on the openness of the practice (you’d better believe they knew about Abu Gharib in Baghdad before they did in Indianapolis) and its invulnerability to legal appeal (sometimes by means of a dictator’s decree, sometimes by means of burying the story by punishing the lackeys and cutting off inquiries into those who facilitated it).  Cold warriors knew this: in Cold War Latin America, spies and government agents from communist governments were subject to sophisticated, humane forms of interrogation because they had information to give and because if the interrogators remained on friendly terms with their marks, life would be better for all involved.  Their place in social and legal networks made their information too valuable to risk burying by means of torture.  Resistance among the workers met different fates: union leaders, activists against Pinochet, and other peasant agitators often landed in Pinochet’s torture chambers.  The aim of such activity was never information; terrorists then and terrorists now know that they have to change things up when one of their own gets captured.  By the time Pinochet’s goons got done with one of Chile’s citizens, whatever resistance he was part of had more than likely moved on to different locations and tactics.  But the story got out.

Insurgents often have only their bodies and souls in this world.  And unlike those high in government structures,  they are quite willing to sacrifice their bodies in fights against tyrants and foreign occupations.  But modern era torture understands psychology well enough that it doesn’t destroy the body but imprisons the personality in a world of pain that extends only as far as the prisoner’s skin.  Confined thus, prisoners may or may not give up (usually out-of-date) information, but when they tell their stories later (stories that governments officially deny but benefit from nonetheless), anyone who would resist them learns the lesson, written in the prisoner’s pain, that resistance to that power will result in one’s humanity being stripped away.  They might be electrocuted until they urinate on themselves; they might be put on leashes and sodomized.  They might be held underwater almost until they drown.

In any case, every act of torture is a small act of terrorism: there is no immediate military benefit, but psychologically, every act adds to the impression that the government or the occupation is to be feared, by body and soul, and never resisted.   Neither killing a few thousand civilians in a nation of three hundred million nor torturing a suspected terrorist is going to win a war on the ground, but it does plant fear in the mind.  And fear, not love, is what keeps peasants from becoming insurgents.  Just ask Machiavelli.

All this is not to say that the U.S.’s allies never tortured before George W. Bush’s presidency.  (I’m attempting to head off the predictable accusation that I’m simply a Bush-basher.)   The School of the Americas trained goons in terroristic suppression techniques for decades before anyone declared a War on Terrorism.  The issue here is not elephants and donkeys but torture.  The difference between the SOA era and the Gonzalez era is not the presence or absence of torture but a new acceptance of it among the general populace and a phony justification for it.  Torture is torture, but there is a difference between a government that hides it from its own citizens and a government that trumpets it to its own citizens.  Neither is good, but one extends the terrorism inward as well as out.

As I reflect on things, I realize that the torture debate and the abortion debate are not dissimilar: governments cannot stop either; the best a modern government can do in either case is to drive the phenomenon underground.   And I realize that my own take on both phenomena can be read as ruthless on one hand and naive on another, but such is the modern legal predicament: the best one can hope for, at least on a government level, is that those who would make unhuman those who otherwise would be human could not do so without fear of reprisal, that as far as the people’s authority can see, such things would not happen.  Ultimately, civil authorities can only do that much; infinite justice can only come from the consummation of divine redemption, not from any nation’s invading another nation.  But between now and then, we human beings would do well, at minimum, to eliminate those legal arguments that would take away the humanity of those who otherwise would be one of us, whether they be unborn or subversive or even enemy combatant.

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16 Comments

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16 responses to “Tom Tomorrow and Torture

  1. Another episode of Tom Tomorrow which has left me unimpressed. 🙂 Seriously, I don’t believe that water-boarding is torture…and there is a lot of debate on the issue. I don’t think that is as clear cut as the author of Tom Tomorrow seems to think it will be. I will also admit that I am a huge 24 fan! 🙂 But anyways, he seems to brush aside the ‘ticking bomb’ scenario. Most people do not support torture except for in an extreme emergency when that is the actual scenario. He can make fun of it if he wants but I think it is still valid to bring up that point. I often hear the arguement that we cannot do something because the other side will do it to us. Well, ‘the other side’ are the ones that are cutting off non-combatants heads with pen knives and video taping it. We are not doing that. I think that attempts to compare us with them or to Chile and not fair. Abu Graib (sp?) was not US policy. It was a bunch of idiots that did that. I know that this is an issue that we are on totally opposite sides of the fence but that’s ok.

  2. Out of curiosity, have you ever read of an actual “ticking time bomb” scenario, not a hypothetical one? In interviews I’ve read and heard, actual CIA interrogators from the Cold War era have said that U.S. intelligence has never once encountered such a thing. I would think that, given the number of civil wars in Latin America that the CIA would have known of or been involved with, that scenario would have come up at least once. Moreover they have said that good intelligence simply cannot be gathered in a day, much less an hour, and that the Pentagon’s insistence upon fast results likely was at least one impetus for Abu Gharib and other incidents for torture.

    When I say a culture of torture, I don’t mean that Jack Nicholson issued an order to give a Code Red; I mean that an impatient administration created a perfect storm for such things to happen and then, instead of condemning it and repenting of their ways, had Torture Gonzalez write a legal opinion saying that anything short of organ failure or death is alright by the U.S.

    I’ve never watched 24 myself, but the interviews I’ve read and heard didn’t have much nice to say about military and mercenary interrogators who worked prisons for the U.S. government and watched seasons of 24 on DVD between shifts.

    BTW, you did note that I placed torture policies in Democratic and Republican administrations, right?

  3. Incidentally, “what the other side will do” rarely if ever plays into my own moral reasoning. I also don’t think much about “what the other side has done.” If another has sinned greatly, that does not make my sins other than sins.

  4. “Out of curiosity, have you ever read of an actual “ticking time bomb” scenario, not a hypothetical one? ”

    Well, to be honest I don’t really read intelligence reports and I’m thinking that kind of stuff would be classified. I think it is important to think about hypothetical situations. Failure to do so would leave us unprepared for certain situations.

    “When I say a culture of torture, I don’t mean that Jack Nicholson issued an order to give a Code Red;”

    Ahh, you can’t handle the truth, Nate! 🙂 j/k

    “I’ve never watched 24 myself, but the interviews I’ve read and heard didn’t have much nice to say about military and mercenary interrogators who worked prisons for the U.S. government and watched seasons of 24 on DVD between shifts.”

    Aw, it’s a great show. I’m kind of mad about this writer’s strike going on…it’s cause these season of 24 to be pushed back a bit. It’s not just a show that pro-US, pro-military people can enjoy. I mean even Drew Costen likes it.

    “BTW, you did note that I placed torture policies in Democratic and Republican administrations, right?”

    Yup, and that’s why I didn’t call you a Bush-hater or some other thing like that.

    “Incidentally, “what the other side will do” rarely if ever plays into my own moral reasoning. I also don’t think much about “what the other side has done.” If another has sinned greatly, that does not make my sins other than sins.”

    I understand where you are coming from, but I think we need to be aware of how the terrorists function. I don’t think that sticking our collective heads in the sand and hoping for the best is going to work out very well.

  5. Just to clarify, do you mean to call me an ostrich and hold up Drew Costen as a moral exemplar, or am I misreading you? 😉

    I am aware of what terrorists do; what they do does not figure into my moral reasoning. That some people in the world do horrible things does not make slightly less horrible things right. That’s not sticking one’s head in the sand; that’s refusing to become a monster just because other men are monstrous.

  6. “Just to clarify, do you mean to call me an ostrich and hold up Drew Costen as a moral exemplar, or am I misreading you?”
    Ha! Obviously, I think that Drew is a moral exemplar. J/K!

    “That some people in the world do horrible things does not make slightly less horrible things right. That’s not sticking one’s head in the sand; that’s refusing to become a monster just because other men are monstrous.”

    I understand that, but what I am saying is that I am NOT in favor of doing nothing. Of course, we have differing views on pacifism, war, etc.

  7. My status as pacifist might disqualify me to comment on this in your mind, but I do maintain that war and torture are two very different questions. For what it’s worth, war is a question of Christian ethics in my mind, whereas torture is a question of morality. Nations have in their character the authority and privilege of waging war; my call to peace is mainly that Christians embody another Way.

    In other words, my teaching Christian happens mainly among Christians (I am aware of Romans 13, after all), while I would say that torture is a crime that nations should not tolerate irrespective of confession.

  8. “My status as pacifist might disqualify me to comment on this in your mind”

    No, no, no. I don’t think that you being a pacifist disqualifies you from commenting on subjects such as these; I ‘m simply noting that I can understand how we can come to different conclusions. By all means, comment. I like hearing what you have to say even if I disagree.

  9. robert

    Jon,
    You always echo Drew’s relativism when you’re on the wrong side of an issue and can’t defend your being there. 😉 ‘We can agree to disagree’ is true enough, but why is Nate’s account one you disagree with?

    Nate,
    I assume you’re relying heavily here on Cavanaugh’s T&E. I agree that his account of what torture is and does is much closer to the truth than is Jack Bauer’s. If Cavanaugh is right (in the case of Christian Chile) that the regime of torture was an attack on the Church and on its extra/counter-statist identity in the eucharist, what do you think that says for us as a nominally Christian society and, specifically, for us as a Church which participates in such a regime?

  10. Jonathan,

    I didn’t mean to paint you as dismissive, but I know that certain ideological frameworks dismiss any pacifist’s exhortations on the waging of war as categorically invalid. I tend to disagree, largely because the Christian just war tradition grew out of confessions of sins (i.e. every act of killing is a sin, but some might be sins for the sake of justice, or tragic sins), and in the medieval church, whence such things grew, the pacifist priests did in fact adjudicate the satisfaction for war sins. (War crimes were more severe forms of the same.)

    Robert,

    If the copyright on T&E weren’t 1996, I’d have thought that Cavanaugh wrote it specifically as a critique of Bush-era American capitalism. I think that the acquiescence of some evangelicals to torture did not happen overnight, that Cavanaugh’s larger critique of the capitalist state holds and explains a great deal leading up to it. In particular the “support the troops” rhetoric by which Pinochet silenced dissent and his attacks on those who would “politicize” politics echo in our own decade. I wish T&E weren’t such a prescient book, but it is.

  11. “Jon,
    You always echo Drew’s relativism when you’re on the wrong side of an issue and can’t defend your being there. ‘We can agree to disagree’ is true enough, but why is Nate’s account one you disagree with?”

    Yeah, you always say that but I don’t think that’s how it really is. I just acknowledge the fact that not every issue is black and white and I understand how people can come to different conclusions.

    One big problem, is that there does not seem to be a consensus as to what is torture. For instance, I just read that UN just came out saying that the use of tasers is torture. That just makes me laugh. Police forces use them because it is non-lethal. Would the the UN rather have cops shoot and kill people then taze people? Also, I don’t think that water-boarding is torture. Also, I think the government has a responsibility to protect it’s citizens. If some one has information that will save lives then I think it would wrong to not do everything possible to find out that information.

  12. I think the “everything possible” is where, as Christians, we should do some serious thinking. Jesus’ teaching about gaining the world and losing one’s soul comes to mind, and although no nation is a Christian nation, I do think that nations so bent on self-advancement that they would torture human bodies have begun to torture, one at a time, sacramental instantiations of Christ’s body and thus have transgressed what a nation rightfully can and should be and do.

    (BTW, if anyone’s next move is to note that other nations do the same, I would say that they’ve already mortgaged their own souls and will face divine judgment for it. Torture is wrong for everybody.)

  13. “(BTW, if anyone’s next move is to note that other nations do the same, I would say that they’ve already mortgaged their own souls and will face divine judgment for it.”

    How very Pat Robertsonish on you! 🙂 j/k

  14. I thought Robertson wanted somebody to put a hit out on a foreign leader. That’s not divine retribution; that’s Don Corleone! 😉

  15. Nate,
    I thought that you might find this interesting. I don’t think it’s quite fair to blame Bush and Gonzalez….

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2007/12/08/AR2007120801664.html?hpid=topnews

  16. As I said before, this is not a matter of elephants and donkeys. If a politician once gave the green light for this and now repents, good. If a politician continues to use his power to support it, bad.

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