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Why Torturing to Prove Torturing is Wrong is Never Okay: A Note to Keith Olbermann

by Cynthia Boaz

Although it has been several weeks since Keith Olbermann has used his MSNBC show as a platform to call for the public water boarding of fellow commentator Sean Hannity of the Fox News Channel, my concerns about Olbermann's former campaign have not diminished, and this pains me because I'm a big fan of his. But in the interest of media accountability, someone needs to point out to Olbermann that on this issue, he has been nearly as exploitative and irresponsible as his colleague on the right.

As progressives, we commit ourselves to several principles, one of which is the simple belief that the ends never justify the means. Olbermann has even used that terminology to take issue with the claim of Hannity (and Rush Limbaugh and Dick Cheney and several other prominent neocons) that torture "worked" in the "war on terror" because it produced "actionable intelligence." That may or may not be accurate (the reports on this are mixed), but for progressives, it should be utterly beside the point. We do not do unto others as we would not have them do unto us, not just because it's an ethically higher position (which is consistent with the jurisprudence that underlies the concept of the rule of law-which itself is the foundation of political democracy), but because reducing our actions to the lowest common denominator ultimately produces the worst possible results.

Given that, Olbermann's hypocrisy on the issue of torture confounds me. By calling-pushing, even-for the water boarding of his rival talk-show host Sean Hannity (who, in a moment of exceptional foolishness volunteered to be water boarded in order to demonstrate that it's "not that bad"), Olbermann gave away the moral high ground on this issue, undermined his otherwise unassailable argument against torture, and trivialized the very thing he wants us all to take so seriously. I would go so far as to say he's "normalized" it, if the ability of Olbermann supporters to twist themselves into logical and moral knots in defense of his campaign is any indication. Let's examine each of the main arguments behind the campaign:

1. Making the point that water boarding really is torture.

There are two serious problems with this justification. The first is that it presupposes that were he actually water boarded, Hannity would admit-finally-that he was wrong. Anyone who has followed Hannity over the years has surely noticed one overriding consistency in his commentary, regardless of the subject matter. He is never wrong. Facts have no effect on Hannity's conclusions. If anything, he will go out of his way to misrepresent reality in order to make it fit with his pre-drawn conclusions. Even if Hannity's mind was changed after the experience of water boarding, history tells us that he would never admit to it, ever. So the exercise is pointless if the objective is to get Hannity to admit to changing his mind.

The other problem here is more philosophical and even more serious. It is impossible to bring about constructive ends through destructive means. Even if the torture-condoning segment of the audience of Hannity's hypothetical water boarding session were themselves converted to the view that yes, it is indeed torture, it would be at the expense of our collective dignity. Surely we are capable as a people of understanding when an act is horrific without needing to witness it first-hand (which, ironically, might work in the just opposite way by desensitizing us to its brutality). Simply put, you cannot make a legitimate point that torture is wrong by advocating torture. Even if it's Sean Hannity on the board.

So not only is Olbermann's campaign hypocritical, but it is ultimately ineffective. It might even be dangerous because instead of shifting the underlying consciousness that tolerates a culture of violence, it reinforces it. While the outward message on Olbermann's part is "torture is never acceptable", the meta-message is "torture is never acceptable, except when I say so (or when I say it's not really torture)." It's a slippery slope.

2. "Holding Sean Hannity accountable" by shaming or humiliating him.

On his show on many occasions, Olbermann has referenced the wisdom of people like Martin Luther King, Jr. While Olbermann has never (to my knowledge) claimed to be an adherent of principled nonviolence, he has made it clear that he sympathizes with both the moral and pragmatic arguments that underlie the philosophy advanced by MLK Jr. and others like them. In the world of nonviolence, the second most important rule after "the ends never justify the means" is to always respect everyone, including your opponent and yourself. Don't get me wrong, I find most of what comes out of Hannity's mouth to be totally abhorrent, but when we accept humiliation (of ourselves or others) as a tool of conversion, everyone is degraded and genuine conversion becomes impossible. And while it may be true that Hannity's behavior and views are consistently egregious -even dangerous- and must therefore be addressed, by lowering himself to a tactic that Hannity himself would have used given the opportunity, Olbermann is not just disrespecting his opponent, but is more importantly disrespecting himself. In doing so, he loses credibility on the subject and should not, therefore, be taken seriously on it. Olbermann - if he is to be consistent with his proclaimed values- must be the bigger person in this discussion. Only then is his message likely to resonate with those whose minds are not already firmly fixed on one side of this debate or the other. And isn't that the real point?

And as an additional note, I have heard many justifications for this objective of Olbermann's campaign by fellow progressives. The most common are: a) it's not really torture since Hannity volunteered for it, b) Olbermann knew Hannity wouldn't accept the challenge anyway, and c) the need to hold Hannity accountable outweighs concerns about the hypocrisy of water boarding him. Each of those arguments is so weak that they hardly deserve mention. Suffice it to say that when you find yourself espousing a rationalization that any fifth grader could craft, it is time to take a closer look at your position. I expect better from the sophisticated media consumers that make up a large segment of Olbermann's audience.

3. Ratings.

Ironically, this is justification that concerns me the least. After all, Olbermann and Hannity are rival talk-show hosts, competing in an increasingly-growing market during a highly politically volatile time. I even have to wonder if Olbermann's past experience as a sportscaster contributed to his obviously competitive instinct here. In the era of the Fox News Channel and ubiquitous reality shows, it requires some serious provocation to keep an audience's attention. And what could be more provocative than calling for the public humiliation by torture of your most obnoxious professional rival?

Given that Olbermann's campaign seems to be motivated by a sincere desire to do the right thing in checking irresponsible members of his own profession, I would simply ask Mr. Olbermann to ponder this question: You have been compared- justly in my view- to Edward R. Murrow. Can you honestly imagine that Mr. Murrow would have condoned-much less engaged in-a campaign like the one you've run against Mr. Hannity? Murrow went up against the vilest of the vile, Senator Joe McCarthy, and never once did he reduce his tactics to those of his opponent. He found a way to reveal the logical weaknesses in McCarthy's views and the pathetic and desperate political motives behind it without sacrificing his own integrity. He simply gave McCarthy the rope with which to hang himself.

Trust me, Mr. Olbermann, that is all you need to do. The American people-your audience-want our public figures to help us access the better angels of our natures, not to continue exploiting what mystics call "the lower vibrating emotions"- anger, fear, judgment, envy, and in this case- a voyeuristic sadism wrapped in crude humor. You have apparently called off your campaign against Hannity, but it would be helpful to explain why (beyond noting that Hannity is a coward), and acknowledge that perhaps you were a little too human. That's what Murrow would have done, and it's what the Keith Olbermann I've come to respect would do as well.

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