Torture ambivalence masquerading as moral and intellectual superiority

The consensus defense of the Bush torture regime -- "it was done with good motives" -- is almost as destructive as the torture itself

By Glenn Greenwald
December 24, 2008 10:44PM (UTC)
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(updated below - Update II)

Behold the now-solidified Smart, Reasonable American Consensus on torture:  the agreed-upon method for dismissing away -- mitigating and even justifying -- the fact that our leaders, more or less out in the open, instituted a systematic torture regime with the consent of our key elite institutions and a huge bulk of the American citizenry, engaging in behaviors which, for decades, we insisted were inexcusable war crimes when engaged in by others: 


Sure, it was wrong.  OK, we "crossed some lines."  Yeah, we probably shouldn't have done it, etc. etc. etc. (yawn).  But  . . . .  when American leaders did it, it was different -- fundamentally different -- than when those evil/foreign/dictator actual-war-criminals did it.  Our leaders had good reasons for doing it.  They were kind and magnanimous torturers.  They committed war crimes with a pure heart.  They tortured because they were scared, because they felt guilty that they failed to protect their citizens on 9/11, because they were eager -- granted:  perhaps too eager -- to keep us, their loyal subjects, safe from The Murderous Terrorists.

Here are Tufts University Political Science Professor Dan Drezner and Stanford Philosophy Professor Joshua Cohen demonstrating how good-hearted, profoundly reasonable, oh-so-intellectually sophisticated Americans diligently struggle with -- torture themselves over -- what they have convinced themselves is the vexing question of whether our leaders should be considered "war criminals" by virtue of . . . . having committed unambiguous war crimes: 


This is now the conventional wisdom, the settled consensus, of our political and media elites with regard to America's torture program.  It's perfectly appropriate that Drezner cites and heaps praise on the self-consciously open-minded meditation on the torture question from The Atlantic's Ross Douthat because -- as I wrote in response to Douthat -- our political elites have now, virtually in unison, convinced themselves that ambiguity and understanding with regard to American war crimes are the hallmarks of both intellectual and moral superiority.   

This is the justifying argument the political class has latched onto -- one that was spawned, revealingly enough, by Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith:  sure, some of this might have been excessive and arguably wrong, but it was all done for the right reasons, by people who are good at heart.  So common is this self-justifying American rationalization that it has now even infected the mentality of long-time Bush critics, such as The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page, which today argued that prosecutions for Bush officials are inappropriate, even though they clearly broke multiple laws, because "they did so as part of a post- 9/11 response to terrorism."  As this excellent reply from Diane at Cab Drollery puts it:  "civility and understanding is far more important to them than simple justice."

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There are so many fallacies with this mindset that it's almost impossible to describe them all in one sitting.  But the worst fallacy, the most destructive and self-delusional, is the stunted self-centeredness in which this view is grounded.  As I detailed in the post I wrote about Douthat's flamboyant "struggle" on the torture question, virtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking "excessive" measures.  Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality. 

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they -- Americans -- are situated at the center.  They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are:  the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal. 


If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes -- or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution -- then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a "war crime" that merits punishment.  Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense.  But advocates of this view -- "Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists" -- can't or won't follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.  

But the rest of the world's war criminals -- the non-Americans -- have no such complexities.  They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.  It's not an accident that, in the run-up to the war, our Government and media jointly issued a deck of illustrated playing cards to demonize Iraqi leaders, complete with cartoon villain names.  It's how many Americans have been trained to conceive of whoever the Enemy de Jour is, but never our own leaders.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression.  Russia's four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation.  Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs.  Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.  Freedom is on the March.


In the response I wrote to Douthat's piece, I wrote that this excuse-making for the Bush torture regime "isn't really anything more than standard American exceptionalism -- more accurately: blinding American narcissism -- masquerading as a difficult moral struggle."  But that almost gives it too much credit.  Really, this is nothing more than stunted adolescence.  The definitive adolescent mindset is pure self-centeredness personified; it demands infinite understanding of and sympathy with one's own predicament and choices, and offers none for anyone else's.  That's all this is:  our Leaders -- Americans -- had good reasons to torture and therefore it shouldn't be punished; others who do it (the ones with foreign, unpronounceable names) have no good reasons and should be treated as criminals.

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There's an irony to the fact that this infinite capacity to self-justify is purely adolescent in nature.  As the above-excerpted clip demonstrates, those who view American Torture as a fascinating moral dilemma over which Serious People publicly agonize -- as Drezner put it: "if you're a national security person, you don't care about the legal niceties . . .  it is a complicated question; it's not cut and dried" -- have actually convinced themselves that their refusal to make clear, definitive judgments is a hallmark not only of their moral superiority, but of their intellectual superiority as well.  Only shrill ideologues and simpletons on either side believe that the torture question is "cut and dried."  They actually believe that their indecisive open-mindedness on such clear moral questions is a sign of their rich and deep complexity, even though it's nothing more than an adolescent inability to assess the world through any prism other than their own immediate reflexive desires and self-interest.


Independently ironic is the fact that these self-styled complex intellectuals are actually embracing the most intellectually superficial and simplistic form of analysis possible.  On one side, they hear Dick "dunk in the water" Cheney and Rush "just blowing off steam" Limbaugh overtly justifying torture.  On the other side, they hear what they perceive as the Far Left "civil liberties extremists" arguing that torture unambiguously is a war crime and those who order it are and therefore should be treated as war criminals. 

But all good, smart, Serious Broder-esque elites know that the Truth is never found on either extreme.  It's always found in the center -- defined as whatever result is derived by randomly mixing the two poles.  Even on questions involving the clearest legal and moral lines -- such as torture -- the Center is intrinsically right.  Hence:  "yes, torture is wrong; but no, our Leaders don't deserve prosecution for it because their hearts were in the right place."  It's as intellectually shallow as it gets -- smart people always go to the center.  That it's intellectually shallow doesn't prove it's wrong.  But it's ironic indeed that these reflexive Centrists have convinced themselves that their reliance on this simpleton's crutch is proof of their elevated intellectual rigor.

More simplistic still is the very idea that the motives of Bush officials -- including Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld -- can be reduced to one clear and pure desire:  To Protect Us.  Even one's own motives, let alone those of others, are notoriously difficult to ascertain.  The certainty claimed by those who are defending Bush officials about what their motives were in torturing is absurd.  There are all sorts of reasons to believe that they were motivated, at least in part, by the power that comes from torture, or a desire for vengeance, or the belief that the detainees in our custody were sub-human, or just general indifference to law and morality.  How have those ignoble motives been ruled out by their defenders and noble motives so emphatically embraced?  Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant.  It's one of those few absolute taboos, and it's almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place.   

Recall the Ward Churchill controversy, when an obscure academic was catapulted to infamy for a deeply satisfying Two Minute Hate Session, so that he could be held up as the consensus symbol of perverted anti-American amorality -- because he suggested that the acts of the 9/11 attackers should be understood, perhaps even deemed mitigated, by the justifiable grievances that motivated them.  Yet just a few short years later, here we find that exact theory being hauled out in defense of our own leaders:  


Sure, they engaged in acts that are universally criminalized and despised by all civilized societies, but it's not enough simply to evaluate those acts on their own.  The underlying reasons -- their root causes -- need to be considered in order to determine how bad they really were.   The motives of our leaders were good, and therefore their acts were, at worst, morally ambiguous. 

A "root cause" theory that is deemed unspeakably evil in American discourse when applied to non-Americans is immediately embraced by our elites when we need a way to explain the fact that our own leaders committed unambiguous war crimes.

It's certainly true that the Drezners and Douthats are nowhere near as extreme as the Cheneys and Limbaughs.  After all, the former pay lip service to the idea that torture is wrong, whereas the latter explicitly defend it.  But I actually prefer the Cheney/Limbaugh candor to the Drezner/Douthat pseudo-intellectual conceit, which is, ultimately, more pernicious.  What they're offering is blatant excuse-making and mitigation-rationale -- the Ward Churchill defense -- thinly disguised as an intellectually sophisticated, profoundly reasonable moral struggle.  They pretend to be offended by what was done while offering Reasonable Person theories that justify forgetting about all of it and even implicitly believing that it was done for noble ends.  Most of all -- worst of all -- they seek to depict their own ambivalence about torture (American Torture, that is) as the only morally and intellectually respectable position, while those who call it a war crime and want it treated as such are blinded ideologues and extremists, impervious to the Serious, multi-layered complexities of the world.


UPDATE:  Back in June, 2004, Matt Stoller wrote a piece -- entitled "Daniel Drezner, the Mediocre Reasonable Conservative" -- that captured much of the mentality I'm describing here.  Matt's focus was on Drezner's various apologist behaviors for the Iraq War (which, needless to say, Drezner supported, and which I, too, wrote about before -- here:  see Item 6).  Back then, Stoller specifically said this about Drezner:  "The problem as I see it is the essential unwillingness of someone like Drezner to admit what he knows is true - Iraq is an attempt at empire perpetrated by deeply illiberal individuals."


In reply, Drezner wrote -- and, remember, this was in June, 2004:  more than four years ago:

Oh, please — an empire that sent in fewer troops than was necessary? An administration that now seems hell-bent on getting out of the country?  Where’s your evidence for empire?

"Hell-bent on getting out of the country":  that's from a self-styled expert in international affairs in 2004.  This is why I've become increasingly resistant to the notion that the abuses and destruction of the last eight years should be blamed exclusively on the Bush administration.  It's undoubtedly true they are culpable in all of it, but -- as several commenters here pointed out -- most of what the administration did was, with some notable exceptions, either actively cheered on or implicitly justified via this type of obsequious apologetics by our elite institutions:  Congress, the media, academia, etc.   As demonstrated by the collective attempt now to prettify the "pure-at-heart" torture regime and thus relieve these elites of responsibility for it, none of these apologist efforts has abated in the slightest. 

As always, it's important to emphasize that examining Drezner's comments here is worthwhile only as an illustrative endeavor -- not because his mindset is rare or unique to him, but precisely because it isn't.  In fact, so appropriately and revealingly, this pro-war, torture-mitigating, "hell-bent-on-getting-out" academic is about to become, beginning early next year, the official the official a blogger for Foreign Policy, the establishment journal of America's Foreign Policy Community.  

That's a perfect microcosm of the last eight years:  Support the Iraq War.  Spout patently false claims to justify it.  Rationalize and mitigate American Torture by insisting it's a complicated question and was authorized with good and noble motives.  Have your credibility, visibility and establishment credentials enhanced.  



UPDATE II:  Joshua Cohen, via email, objected to how his views here were characterized.  After exchanging several emails with him yesterday, I was entirely unconvinced that I had mischaracterized anything he said, but nonetheless invited him to write a response, which I promised to post in full, unedited form and append to this post. The reply submitted by Cohen is here

As I told him, it's a bit difficult to argue that one's comments have been distorted when the person criticizing the comments posts the full, unedited video of the original discussion, as I did here.  I'm perfectly content to have everyone compare his actual remarks in the video to what I wrote in the one instance I mentioned Cohen and decide for themselves if his comments were fairly characterized here or not.

On his own blog, Dan Drezner has also posted a "reply," one that -- as the comment section to his post reflects -- is almost entirely bereft of substance.   I replied to what he wrote in his comment section.


In the bloggingheads discussion with Dan Drezner, I speculated that the Bush crowd was probably feeling guilty in late 2001 because they had screwed up by not paying attention to the intelligence, not listening to people like Richard Clarke, about an impending attack. Thousands of people were killed in part because of their failure. I speculated that they were motivated by some guilt about that failure in doing what they did subsequently. What they did subsequently...tossing aside the Geneva Conventions, establishing a policy of torture, and invading Iraq....was wrong. (I organized a statement in the NYT in March 2003 opposing the Iraq War as immoral, signed by 14,000 people: not a johnny-come-lately on this issue.) In the discussion with Dan, I was offering a comment on their motives: a comment that, to my mind, does nothing to mitigate, justify, or excuse what they did. Explanation is not justification: to understand is not to forgive. Unfortunately, Glenn misconstrued the thrust of my remarks. Badly misconstrued them in my view, though I am sure that my tendency to indirection and qualification (professional deformations) may have contributed to his utter misunderstanding, perhaps as much as Glenn's tendency to grossly oversimplify for the sake of being provocative. Glenn says that Dan and I were "dismissing away -- mitigating and even justifying -- the fact that our leaders, more or less out in the open, instituted a systematic torture regime." Dan can, has, will speak for himself. As for me: I think this is an unfair and complete misrepresentation of what I said. More to the point now, it is a gross misrepresentation of what I think. There is an important issue about the extent of legal responsibility for the torture policy: in particular, and as I said in the discussion with Dan, a question about Secretary Rice's responsibility in her role, discussed in detail in the recent Armed Services' Committee report, as chair of the principal's meetings at which specific methods of "coercive interrogation" were discussed (then-Secretary Powell was also at those meetings, so we also have questions about his responsibility.) But in addressing those issues about responsibility for war crimes, I think that the motives of the players are basically irrelevant.

Glenn Greenwald

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