Tortured Illogic

A long time ago, a guy I knew said that there almost seems to be an inverse relationship between the level of one’s education and the level of one’s common sense. It’s a horribly overbroad generalization, but every now and then I come across something that affirms that sentiment.

Such is the case with this column by Professor Darius Rejali, published in yesterday’s Boston Globe.

Professor Rejali has a new book coming out, entitled “Torture And Democracy.” And his thesis seems to be this excerpt from his Globe column:

Torture isn’t an alien force invading our democracy from the benighted realms of dictatorships. In fact, it is the democracies that have been the real innovators in 20th-century torture. Britain, France, and the United States were perfecting new forms of torture long before the CIA even existed. It might make Americans uncomfortable, but the modern repertoire of torture is mainly a democratic innovation.

He goes to great lengths to spell out the intertwining of democracy and torture, and his conclusion seems to be that torture is inherent in democracies.

Far be it from me to quibble with such a learned scholar as Professor Rejali of Reed College, but he comes across as an overeducated idiot, who’s started with his conclusion — that Western-style democracies are bad — and worked backwards to justify that.

It seems to me that torture is not a trademark of democracy, but of government itself. All goverments are creatures of force — they all use force and the threat of force to ensure its citizens/subjects/inhabitants obey the rules and laws.

Democracies differ from other forms of government in that the authorities govern by the consent of the governed, and the governed choose who governs them.

But all governments will come to the point where they need to exert force to ensure compliance by individuals, and will wish information that the individual would rather not disclose. It is inevitable, and all governments will go to lengths to extract that information.

The difference in democracies is that they are constantly exploring the limits of what is acceptable and what is not. They balance multiple factors when re-evaluating their self-imposed rules, including efficacy, humaneness, and one factor that almost never comes up in other forms of government: the acceptance of the general public should the methods become known.

And then there is the factor that democracies tend to be capitalist states as well; the two are a natural fit. And capitalistic societies tend to be far more innovative than other forms of government — look around the world, and see just what countries are the greatest producers of patents and new technologies and intellectual property. It’s the democracies, the capitalists. The Chinese are the masters of copying and making stuff cheaply, but they need original ideas to steal. The Japanese started out as copiers after World War II, but began pushing quality and innovation after they got their toehold — I’m just old enough to remember when “Made In Japan” was shorthand for “cheap junk,” but it’s now an imprimatur of quality. And look at Israel — the only functional democracy in the Middle East, pretty much the only part of the region not swimming in oil, and they are intellectual giants of the region. I don’t have hard numbers at hand, but I believe they hold more patents and Nobel Prizes (in the hard sciences) than all their neighbors combined.

So therefore it should come as no great surprise that democracies are the ones who develop more new interrogation and detention techniques than other forms of government. As I said, every government needs ways of punishing people and extracting information, and democracies are no different. But they have both more restrictions and more innovative resources, so it should come as no surprise that democratic governments are constantly trying to find ways to achieve its ends while trying to live within those restrictions.

The people get upset when they hear about people killed by torture? Fine — find some way that doesn’t kill them. The people don’t like scars? OK, find some ways that don’t leave marks. They don’t care for seeing mentally broken wrecks? Gotcha, come up with something that leaves them functional afterwards.

That’s how I suspect waterboarding was developed. They found one of the most terrifying sensations a human being can feel — drowning — and then worked up a way to evoke that sensation without actually putting the subject’s life or health at risk. It’s instant terror, but a terror that can be turned on and off with a switch. And afterwards, the biggest consequence seems to be shame at how readily the subject gave up — note how one of the three Al Qaeda leaders we waterboarded rationalized his surrender as “a vision from Allah saying it was all right for him to talk.”

In other forms of government, they tend not to be so inventive about new forms of torture. The old ways work well enough for them, and should the people get uppity about the techniques, there’s a simple solution — show ’em just what torture is. A few sessions with the old, tried-and-true methods ought to still their tonges — one way or another.

The line between interrogation and torture is not black and white, it’s a gradient. As anyone who has ever raised a child or been a child, as soon as you draw a hard line, you have people trying to find ways to live up to the letter of the rule while weaseling around the spirit. And in a democracy, you can’t prosecute someone for living up to the letter of the law.

I defy anyone to come up with a definition of torture that does not resort to vague, unquantifiable language. The United Nations Conventions Against Torture defines it as:

Any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity. It does not include pain or suffering arising only from, inherent in or incidental to lawful sanctions.

“Severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental.” So slight and moderate pain and suffering are fine. And what is the definition of “severe?” Where is the line demarcating “moderate” from “severe?” There’s no lever with markings like in “The Princess Bride.” It’s a very subjective thing, and what one person would consider annoying another would describe as intolerable.

Yes, torture is wrong. And yes, it should be illegal and punished. But to say that democracies are the worst practitioners of it, to give a pass to the brutal, totalitarian regimes of yesterday and today is the worst sort of moral relativism.

Here’s the acid test: ask Professor Rejali — or anyone else who argues like he does — whom he would preferred to be interrogated by: agents of the United States, North Korea, Communist China, Nazi Germany, Syria, the Soviet Union, Putin’s Russia, Castro’s Cuba, the Taliban of Afghanistan, the medieval Catholic Church, or any other non-democracy — past or present —
they wish.

Despite all his pages and pages of assailing democracy, I have little doubt that Professor Rejali would — if forced to choose — he would choose the United States.

As would I. As would any honest, sensible person, with any sense of self-preservation.

Unfortunately, that excludes a lot of people who have been howling about how horrid the United States is.

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