Tuesday, November 27, 2007
The Torture Paradox
ALWAYS RIGHT (CONT). Torture is a confused and confusing subject these days, so I won't try to hide the fact that the thoughts which inspired this post's title emerged from a series of confused, almost random responses to the Time Magazine interview with Stephen King. Here are some excerpts. Read the whole thing if you think the ellipses might be obscuring King's brilliance.
STEPHEN KING: So who's going to be TIME Person of the Year?
TIME: I really don't know, there's a very small group of people who make that decision.
I was thinking, I think it should be Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan.
Yeah. You know, I just filmed a segment for Nightline, about [the movie version of his novella] The Mist, and one of the things I said to them was, you know, "You guys are just covering — what do they call it — the scream of the peacock, and you're missing the whole fox hunt." Like waterboarding [or] where all the money went that we poured into Iraq....
You know, this morning, the two big stories on CNN are Kanye West's mother, who died, apparently, after having some plastic surgery. The other big thing that's going on is whether or not this cop [Drew Peterson] killed his... wife. And meanwhile, you've got Pakistan in the midst of a real crisis, where these people have nuclear weapons that we helped them develop...
So you've got these things going on... and instead, you see a lot of this back-fence gossip. So I said something to the Nightline guy about waterboarding, and if the Bush administration didn't think it was torture, they ought to do some personal investigation. Someone in the Bush family should actually be waterboarded so they could report on it to George. I said, I didn't think he would do it, but I suggested Jenna be waterboarded and then she could talk about whether or not she thought it was torture.
And the guy says to me — the Nightline guy — I didn't get the guy's name.... he said to me, "If we didn't cover cultural things, we wouldn't be covering you and The Mist, and promoting the movie." And I'm like, "Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan aren't cultural." They aren't political. They're economic only in the mildest sense of the word... Britney Spears is just trailer trash.... And yet, you know and I know that if you go to those sites that tell you what the most blogged-about things on the Internet are, it's Britney, it's Lindsay. So I think it would be terrific [to have them as TIME Persons of the Year]. There would be such a scream from the American reading public, sure. But at the same time, it's time for somebody to discuss the difference between real news and fake news...
...Britney is now famous for being famous. Her sales have gone down with almost every album, bigger and bigger jumps, so that nobody really cares about her music anymore. They care about the tabloid headlines and whether or not she's wearing panties. I mean, is this an issue that the American public needs to turn its brainpower on? Britney Spears' lingerie, or lack thereof?
I'll pass your suggestion along. So you're a news junkie?
I got hooked by my wife. You'd be surprised, or maybe you wouldn't be surprised, being that I'm around John Mellancamp a lot — he and I are doing this play. But it's the news 24-7. Always on.
Here are some of the random comments that ran through my mind as I read, in no particular order:
The first substantive issue he can think of is waterboarding?
"[H]e said to me, "If we didn't cover cultural things, we wouldn't be covering you and The Mist, and promoting the movie." And I'm like, "Britney Spears and Lindsay Lohan aren't cultural." Huh? This guy has sold more books than any other living writer and he says, "I'm like..."?
He seems to be saying that he only got turned on about politics by his wife and hanging around with John Mellencamp. And yet he's presumably "cultural" while Britney is just "entertainment" and "trailer trash." John Mellenkamp? And this is the guy who has sold more books than any other living writer? John Mellenkamp?
Yeah, the context suggests that his proposal to waterboard Jenna Bush is facetious, but this is a guy whose aggregated fictional body count makes 24 look like Heidi. Is there some part of him that really does want to see the President's daughter waterboarded? Maybe while staring censoriously at the latest media exploitation photo of Britney without panties? Or in his fantasy is Jenna not wearing Britney's panties, either? After all, that would make the tableau more politico-cultural than trailer-trashy, right? Sure it would.
This guy has been fictionally postulating the existence of evil as a definite living force for 30 years now, and yet he regards waterboarding as one of the prime issues facing a nation whose enemies cut off the heads of their own family members for sartorial offenses. Is all that imagery of evil phony -- pure empty "entertainment"? Or is evil for him really just a melodramatic symbol of whatever he happens to disapprove of?
Stephen King has spent his entire creative life thinking up sensational new ways to kill people and inflict pain upon them. And he's righteously indignant about waterboarding?
I actually don't disagree with Stephen King that Time Magazine should name Britney Spears and Lindsey Lohan as their "Persons of the Year." Although I would also add Paris Hilton. The trio does symbolically embody the transformation in the body politic (NSFW) the MSM are working so indefatigably to bring about. The citizens of the modern progressive state they deem necessary and desirable are weak, brainless, greedy, corrupt, vulnerable, and somehow aggressively supine. The government the media elite envision for us is well equipped to service those who have the animal instinct to fall on their backs and submit to the sugar daddy who already owns them.
That's why there's such a disconnect between the pyrotechnical outrage over waterboarding and the comparatively blase treatment of real torture. King's deliberate mixing of the subjects of torture and voyeurism forcibly invoked the memory of a photo so awful, and yet so sickeningly relevant, that I'm posting it only as a link. But I demand that you go look at it, especially if you're one of the ones who rant about waterboarding as torture and believe that our media are more disposed to flaunt sexuality than cover "substantive" matters like egregious human rights violations.
Here's the link. Here's the story that documents the facts:
“At first, they kept Ms. Wang in isolation. Two collaborators monitored her. She was denied sleep and forced to stand still in the corner of the room. The next day, she had to sit on a chair with her hands tied behind her back to the back of the chair. At night, they had her wear a motorcycle helmet.
“The guards kept chopsticks and a basin of cold water ready to use, and whenever Ms. Wang closed her eyes, they poured water over her and hit the helmet hard with the chopsticks.
Sound a bit like waterboarding? Unspeakable. Where's Amnesty International? Where's the New York Times? Somebody should do something. Somebody did. Her guards.
“Two guards from Benxi, holding electric batons, shouted, “We will see who is tougher!” The two men tore Ms. Wang’s shirt open and shocked her breasts with two electric batons for 30 minutes.
“Afterwards, they made her stand still for the entire night. The next morning, guard Guo Tieying asked Ms. Wang nastily whom she would follow. Ms. Wang replied, “I will follow the teachings of Falun Gong.”
“Guo Tieying immediately brought in two guards and several collaborators to torture her. They tore a bed sheet into strips and tied her legs in a cross-legged position (with legs double-crossed, as in the ‘full lotus’ position). Next they handcuffed her arms behind her back and tied her upper body to her legs, making Ms. Wang look like a ball. Then they suspended her in the air by the handcuffs, with her hands still behind her back.
“She suffered excruciating pain from this torture for seven hours.
“Afterwards, Ms. Wang could no longer walk with her back straight, but was bent over, nor could she sit straight. Her breasts were disfigured by the intense shocks, and eventually developed serious infections.”
So, all you hyper-moral pacifist purists, if you could learn Ms. Wang's location and save her by waterboarding a captured guard, would you do it? Or is her permanent crippling and disfigurement a satisfactory consequence of your own personal interpretation of right and wrong? That's what you seem to be saying by your absolute opposition to any form of physical coercion, even if it doesn't maim or kill.
But if that's really your position, then you've entered the paradox zone. You have to explain -- to your own satisfaction -- why it is less moral to commit a lesser crime in order to prevent a larger crime than it is to enable a larger crime by refusing to commit a lesser crime. You can't allow the SWAT sniper to shoot the kidnapper who's holding a knife to your spouse's throat. You can't acquit the woman who kills her rapist in an act of self defense. You can't acquit the father who kills a child-molester in the act of sodomizing his infant daughter. In all these examples the killers are guilty of the same order of crime you're too moral to commit.
Not the same thing? Well, not quite the same as the media depiction of such choices. Ordinarily, the comparison is put to us in terms of individual torture versus mass murder; i.e., would you torture a terrorist to prevent the nuking of New York? It's a deceptive shift in perspective, intended to be disorienting. It's so much harder to imagine death on a vast scale than prolonged, painful suffering on an individual scale. Your mind isn't wired to imagine a single horrible death multiplied by five million and further multiplied by five million varied individual experiences of suffering and loss. There's a subtle misdirection at work. Most of us fear pain and suffering even more than we fear death. Here's the better queston: would you commit one act of torture to prevent five million acts of slow, agonizing, sadistic, dehumanizing torture? If not, why not?
What's really odd is that the reputedly moral stance against any form of torture is so often adopted by the so-called progressives who are so busily insisting on atheism as a superior philosophical stance for the national culture. The anti-waterboarding lobby probably has more members in common with Richard Dawkins's anti-God army than with the backward Christian soldiers who are willing to torture a terrorist to save a city. But it's the Christians who are risking irrational damnation. The rationalists are defying their own devotion to mathematics as the ruling principle by refusing to take personal responsibility for a reprehensible act by one unit on behalf of millions of other units of their own species. Ironically, such sacrifices make more empirical sense in a godless universe than in a divinely judged universe in which death is not the final, fatal end of accountability.
The thing is, in reality, all of these philosophical paradoxes are beside the point. It's all so much simpler than that if we're a nation of brainless, characterless, spread-legged cows like Britney, Lindsey, and Paris. All the harping on waterboarding is undertaken in the certainty that most of us know we couldn't withstand even as mild a form of torture as this. In fact, waterboarding is about as far as our individual imaginations can take us. We're better able to envision not being able to breathe for a few seconds than to comprehend unanesthetized castration with a dull knife or public limb-by-limb amputation followed by disembowelment or -- well, something truly impossible -- like being beheaded live (!) on videotape by a religious fanatic with a rusty pruning saw.
If we can't imagine surviving it or doing it ourselves, that's supposed to be the end of the discussion. In the progressive egalitarian model, all people are basically the same. Regardless of our origins and cultures, we're no better and no worse than anyone else. If we couldn't commit acts of deliberate premeditated cruelty, neither could anyone else. Unless the evil handful of real oppressors in the world provoked us beyond endurance. So if ordinary people are committing acts of savage violence, it must be because of that handful of real oppressors, who are objectively evil -- because their crimes, even if they are nominally lesser, are codified and cold-blooded rather than spontaneous and passionate. The waterboarding of the oppressors is worse than the beheadings and mutilations of the universal everyman. There's no basis for comparison at all. Thus, no comparisons will be drawn.
But there's a hole in the egalitarian facade that is perfectly exemplified by Stephen King. Here's a man who has no problem at all with imagining in vivid detail the very worst things that can be done to a human being. Yet he still pretends that waterboarding is worse than any crime committed by the devotedly savage among us. His outrage about waterboarding has to be a pose. His suggestion that Jenna Bush be waterboarded for the purpose of humiliating his political nemeses is both hypocrtical and voyeuristic. And Time Magazine's willingness to give him print space without interrogating his lifelong penchant for sadism is evidence of the phony moralism of those who presume to be our philosophical mentors.
So: How do you pussies feel about all the MSM's Britney-Lindsey-Paris crotch shots (still NSFW) now that you know you're really leering at a portrait of what you've become? Don't know what to say? I'm sure America's Dickens would be happy to explain it to you better than I can.
John Mellencamp's Political Disciple
I feel better already. How about you?
UPDATE. Thanks to Glenn Reynolds for the link. If you're enjoying the comments here, you might also enjoy the reader comments on these posts at Vox Popoli (libertarian-Christian something-or-others) Transterrestrial Musings (Rand Simberg), and this forum (sci-fi/horror nerds?) What's most interesting is that those who are most critical of this post are unanimous in not attempting to answer the direct questions I asked here. They grab the hot potato and run off to some favorite ideological corner where they can deal exclusively in abstractions, statistics, and political/moral rhetoric. There's no sense that for them a debate of this sort ever passes from the academic to the reality of bitter choices and bloody consequences. They seem to think that war itself can be made sanitary if interrogations are polite. Simberg sums them up well as "morally unserious." I'm personally surprised at how many of them actually act out the dim, passive template I drew of them in this post. I'm less surprised at the additional evidence that many of them can't read, having misunderstood my argument as "we do it because they do it too." I'm amused that so few understand that what a fiction writer writes says a great deal about his psyche and desires. (If you're still not understanding me on this, try to write a fictional rape-murder scene. See if you can really do it. Then lecture me about why Stephen King's fiction isn't relevant because it's only fiction.) But go read what the people have to say and see what you think.
UPDATE 2. Hats off to Eric Scheie at Classical Values. Unlike Christian-libertarians and other pillars of ultimate morality, he experienced a visceral reaction to the example of Chinese torture and failed to dismiss it as irrelevant to American foreign policy or the predictable result of an alien authoritarian government dealing with a weird cult, but called it out as a shocking illustration of the difference between torture and severe unpleasantness. Even Reynolds was more affected by Stephen King's provocative Person of the Year nominations than he was by a demonstration of real torture.
I have a bigger question for all of you who understand Eric's response. How do you interpret the non-response of so many aelf-avowed moralists to such repulsively documented facts? For my part, I think the latter generations are chock full of functional sociopaths. They think they're moral, they (many of them) think they believe in God, but in reality all their thinking is really only about themselves and the various poses they adopt to appear estimable in the eyes of those whose admiration they seek.
The first question I asked -- "If you could learn Ms. Wang's location and save her by waterboarding a captured guard, would you do it?" -- was an easy one for authentic Christians, as 'Joshua Chamberlain' explained in his comment. He said: "As a Christian, I would be happy to stand before God and explain that, if I had a choice between harming the guilty and seeing harm done to the innocent, I would choose protecting the innocent every single time. If the Lord chooses to damn that, so be it."
The Vox Popolis of the world will never understand that faith is not entirely about unquestioning submission; it's also about conviction in the spark of goodness we carry as individuals. If it should turn out that God disapproves of Christian morality, then damnation is preferable to betrayal of what we hold sacred. If it's wrong to hurt or kill the malevolent in order to save the innocent, there is no divine justice worth having. And there's no secular logic that makes life worth living.