Torture Me Elmo

The unbearable lightness of being. This is a case history of what happens when good people trade good will for a stunned complacency.

Garrison Keillor, of all people, thinks that prosecuting the miscreants who attempted to square the circle on torture would be victor’s justice, a pallid, sour mockery of the real thing. Let’s have the truth, he says, then forget about its implications and go back to chuckling with the stolid, unflappable Protestants of Lake Wobegon, who never hurt anyone, and can endure anything if it doesn’t interfere with the return of Spring.

I like Garrison Keillor, and I’ve never doubted that his folksy wisdom is, in fact, wisdom, but here we part company. If you let people get away with murder, then murder will come to seem unexceptional, routine even. And then what? Do we just sweep the bodies up off the streets every morning, along with the horseapples, and go about our business proud that we can handle anything?

I think not, not while I have anything to say about it anyway. Refuse to criminalize policy, and as sure as God made little green apples, you’ll get policies which make the Swensons and Ericsons of Keillor’s fictional home town rue the day they were born.

Yes, torture is as old as the human race is. Yes, we might any of us resort to it if sufficiently provoked. No, you can’t trust public piety to be an accurate reflection of what’s really going on. So what?

We’re trying to build a decent, humane civilization here. We’ve been at it for centuries — God knows with mixed success. Garrison, you’re not helping.

11 thoughts on “Torture Me Elmo

  1. LWM May 2, 2009 / 10:06 pm

    Where do we begin? Or stop? This “we don’t torture” meme (or commit war crimes or atrocities we don’t own up to) is crap. I think we owe it to a few Vietnamese as much as anyone else. But the Tiger Force investigations were just about to come to fruition when the Bushies quietly put an end to that, all the while calling John Kerry an hysterical liar to his face and making fun of a real combat vets injuries. And Korea, and WWII and WWI…

    • William Timberman May 2, 2009 / 10:43 pm

      Well, if we’d begun when we ought to have begun, maybe we wouldn’t have such a godawful backlog. How long did Simon Wiesenthal pursue Mengele? As I remember it, right up until he got to stick a virtual pin in the bastard’s body to make sure that he was dead.

      Maybe it makes a difference if you’ve been on the receiving end of the torturer’s ministrations. (Then again, there’s John McCain, but I honestly don’t think that any of his experiences have been real to him since the day he was born, so I consider him a special case.) I keep remembering the scene in Marathon Man, where the little old lady totters down the street, pointing a shaky finger and shrieking Der Weisse Engel. Mein Gott, der Weisse Engel! My take is basically this: justice delayed is justice denied. YMMV.

      • LWM May 2, 2009 / 10:47 pm

        I’m all for it – putting those who attempted to legally sanction and codify torture on trial. I’ll believe it when I see it happen.

  2. LWM May 2, 2009 / 10:43 pm

    If you let people get away with murder, then murder will come to seem unexceptional, routine even. And then what? Do we just sweep the bodies up off the streets every morning, along with the horseapples, and go about our business proud that we can handle anything?

    Ambrose Bierce says:

    HOMICIDE, n.
    The slaying of one human being by another. There are four kinds of homocide: felonious, excusable, justifiable, and praiseworthy, but it makes no great difference to the person slain whether he fell by one kind or another — the classification is for advantage of the lawyers.

    TRIAL, n.
    A formal inquiry designed to prove and put upon record the blameless characters of judges, advocates and jurors. In order to effect this purpose it is necessary to supply a contrast in the person of one who is called the defendant, the prisoner, or the accused. If the contrast is made sufficiently clear this person is made to undergo such an affliction as will give the virtuous gentlemen a comfortable sense of their immunity, added to that of their worth. In our day the accused is usually a human being, or a socialist, but in mediaeval times, animals, fishes, reptiles and insects were brought to trial. A beast that had taken human life, or practiced sorcery, was duly arrested, tried and, if condemned, put to death by the public executioner. Insects ravaging grain fields, orchards or vineyards were cited to appeal by counsel before a civil tribunal, and after testimony, argument and condemnation, if they continued in contumaciam the matter was taken to a high ecclesiastical court, where they were solemnly excommunicated and anathematized. In a street of Toledo, some pigs that had wickedly run between the viceroy’s legs, upsetting him, were arrested on a warrant, tried and punished. In Naples an ass was condemned to be burned at the stake, but the sentence appears not to have been executed. D’Addosio relates from the court records many trials of pigs, bulls, horses, cocks, dogs, goats, etc., greatly, it is believed, to the betterment of their conduct and morals. In 1451 a suit was brought against the leeches infesting some ponds about Berne, and the Bishop of Lausanne, instructed by the faculty of Heidelberg University, directed that some of “the aquatic worms” be brought before the local magistracy. This was done and the leeches, both present and absent, were ordered to leave the places that they had infested within three days on pain of incurring “the malediction of God.” In the voluminous records of this cause celebre nothing is found to show whether the offenders braved the punishment, or departed forthwith out of that inhospitable jurisdiction.

  3. Patricia George May 3, 2009 / 6:42 pm

    Torture is torture. History will repeat itself if we don’t learn from the mistakes of the past.

    I read letters to the editor in newspapers saying anything we do to protect our lives is justifiable. These letters go on to explain their belief in these actions are based on the same principles of Manifest Destiny. Anglo-Saxon superiority, Jingoism, and smug ethnocentrism, along with our idea that our hegemonic class is superior to any other class due to our Christian values. Pardon me, but since when can we justify ourselves as superior to anyone else based on race, religion, class status, or sex? We justify torture because others are darker skinned? We justify torture because others are not Christian? We justify torture because we have more material goods than others? What country is this? Nazi Germany? Russia under Stalin?

    We are a different country because our founding fathers wanted a different life where justice prevailed. If we let these cretins get away with their actions, we are no better than they are. We have to protect our Constitution as a living document, growing with our country in Justice, Equality, and Ethics.

    • LWM May 4, 2009 / 3:54 pm

      Ms. George fails to distinguish between the act itself and the attempt, by our own government, to legally sanction and codify the horrific act, and for no real good reason. Of course torture is wrong, but most people recognize that if given the choice between the opportunity to “do the right thing” or to beat the crap out of an abductor of their own child, to determine that child’s whereabouts, tend to choose the latter, fully expecting the court will take that into consideration as a mitigating factor in their defense.

  4. Patricia George May 4, 2009 / 4:40 pm

    We are the government so when we allowed torture to be done, we did it. Revenge is wrong. We need justice, not revenge. Let’s grow up for a change.

    Committing torture is wrong just as is the condoning and ordering of torture by those in command. Hiding behind the excuse that you were just carrying out orders does not excuse the crime. I see no difference in the guilt between the two. Guilt is guilt.

    If you caught someone abducting your child and beat the crap out of the person/s, it is much different than seeking revenge after the fact. Seeking justice through law is the course we should have taken. We become the thug the abductor is.

  5. LWM May 8, 2009 / 5:00 am

    We are the government so when we allowed torture to be done, we did it.

    This is an interesting linguistic construct. I’ll let philosophers argue about whether we are all collectively guilty or not.

    If, as you say, we are the government, then we have a constitutionally protected right so we may not be compelled to testify against ourselves. The Fifth Amendment:

    “nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself”

    That is a little silly perhaps, but not really when you get into the brass tacks of representational democracy.

    And the way the law works, it doesn’t matter if you beat the crap out of someone for revenge or information. A crime is a crime and guilt is guilt.

    What happens is that guilt is examined in context with the circumstances surrounding the “crime”. Were there aggravating or mitigating factors and how do they affect the sentencing portion of the case, given a finding of guilty.

  6. Retzilian May 13, 2009 / 10:28 am

    I’m late to the party, here, but I think LWM is missing the point of living in a nation of laws and a free country that has been willing, over history, to die for freedom.

    I’m willing to live with the risk of a terrorist attack to secure my liberties. Your kidnapper analogy is specious, because I believe that even if you torture the kidnapper, you are no closer to saving your child if he tells you a lie. Besides the fact that there are better, more effective ways of negotiating with people than torturing them. If I beat up the alleged kidnapper, I might get a few minutes’ of catharsis, but it would not serve to save my child. If anything, it would waste precious time in finding him.

    Nevertheless, I am willing to live without fear of attack, without fear of other people’s religious beliefs, without fear of hatred and evil, because I’d rather live freely with risk than as a hostage to Fearmongers whose agenda is not to protect me (and I don’t want their protection) but to profit from war.

    Once you realize that “security” and “safety” are illusions, you don’t subscribe to being protected by an often inept and corrupt state.

    • LWM May 20, 2009 / 12:41 am

      What is “specious” about the “kidnapper analogy”?,_California#1976_bus_kidnapping

      It’s just a question of time, like people flying planes into buildings.

      I’m one of the few people I know who isn’t missing “the point,” which doesn’t speak well for the level of discourse on either side of the debate.

      I’m not defending Bush doctrine or arguing for enhanced interrogation to be sanctioned by law. I don’t even agree with Dershowitz and his “torture warrants”.

      I’m just telling you that the necessity defense is nothing new and it has a long history in our jurisprudence.

      That’s why we have courts of law, to be the trier of fact and sort out the real cases of self-defense from the ones that are really acts of premeditated murder.

      When push comes to shove, you’ll do whatever it takes to survive, like any other human being.

  7. LWM May 20, 2009 / 2:33 am

    And furthermore, just because torture works on occasion, it is not sufficient reason to employ it in most cases. But like it or not, during times of conflict and war, atrocities do occur, torture or enhanced interrogation techniques among them. That’s why generals like Washington and Bonaparte have spoken out against the practice.

    The Battle of Kadesh is probably the most well documented military engagement in the ancient near east, circa 1274 B.C. And the largest mass chariot battle in history. Perhaps the truth could have been obtained in another fashion. We will never know, but the fact that the actual location of the Hittite forces was ascertained by the Egyptians definitely saved their bacon or history would have been written by the Hittites. You’d have to be an idealistic fool to believe that torture does not work in some cases where there is information to be obtained and if it worked 3000 years ago it has probably worked since then.

    From Wiki:

    As Ramesses and the Egyptian advance guard were about 11 kilometers from Kadesh, south of Shabtuna, he met two Shasu (nomads) who told him that the Hittites were “in the land of Aleppo, on the north of Tunip” 200 kilometers away, where, the Shasu said, they were “(too much) afraid of Pharaoh, L.P.H., to come south.”[18] This was, state the Egyptian texts, a false report ordered by the Hittites “with the aim of preventing the army of His Majesty from drawing up to combat with the foe of Hatti.”[18] Egyptian scouts then returned to his camp bringing two new Hittite prisoners. Ramesses II only learned of the true nature of his dire predicament when these spies were captured, beaten and forced to reveal the truth before him. Under torture, the second group of spies revealed that the entire Hittite army and the Hittite king were actually close at hand:

    “When they had been brought before Pharaoh, His Majesty asked, ‘Who are you?’ They replied ‘We belong to the king of Hatti. He has sent us to spy on you.’ Then His Majesty said to them, ‘Where is he, the enemy from Hatti? I had heard that he was in the land of Khaleb, north of Tunip.’ They of Tunip replied to His Majesty, ‘Lo, the king of Hatti has already arrived, together with the many countries who are supporting him… They are armed with their infantry and their chariots. They have their weapons of war at the ready. They are more numerous than the grains of sand on the beach. Behold, they stand equipped and ready for battle behind the old city of Kadesh.”

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