Torture Ambivalence Masquerading as Moral and Intellectual Superiority

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:

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."

* * * * *

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.

* * * * *

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.