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Thursday, December 20, 2007

The Koan of Torture

The reverse side also has a reverse side.
--Japanese Zen Proverb

With the destruction of CIA videotapes showing "harsh interrogation techniques" -- a PR buzz phrase for torture -- we find ourselves having a national discussion about torture. This discussion often veers off into the stupid, the inane, and the insane. Over at FOX News, ex-CIA spook Mike Baker compares torturing people to shooting a woodpecker that was poking holes in his house.

Because my mind tends to wander, I had an interesting thought while tossing some dirt over the dead bird. By the way, he did receive a proper burial and headstone. I view the situation with the woodpecker with the same attitude I have towards terrorists and dealing with terrorists. Frankly, this could be my best segueway ever.

Here's where I'm going... I'm a family loving, god fearing, good neighbor kind of person. Be considerate, play well with others, work hard, provide for your family, be honest and don't whine. You can go a long ways in life just following a few simple guidelines.

Concurrently, while trying to be a good person, I have no problems with infringing on the rights of terrorists through the use of enhanced interrogation techniques. Conflicted? Not a bit. No angst, no moral dilemma, no fuss no muss.

It goes on like that. A sort of rambling, roundabout route to his point -- despite having come up with his "best segueway ever" (it's just "segue," BTW). That point being that people who oppose torture are "all frothy at the mouth" and that we can torture and still be good people. The piece is actually a not very compelling argument -- torture is both really, really evil and something we shouldn't worry too much about. Baker tells us, "Personally, I think we can have our cake and eat it too."

It's typical of the incoherent arguments of torture apologists. The argument works pretty much like this -- torture is OK, because the stakes are so high and if we don't torture people we'll all die in a big flaming terrorist attack. But don't worry about; we don't actually torture, because that's bad. If we don't allow torture -- something we'd never, ever commit -- the light of Liberty will be extinguished in the world. And that's why we have to torture, because we don't.

It'd be nice if they took a damned side in the debate. But they don't, they straddle the debate, taking both sides at once and complaining that anyone who disagrees is being naive or unreasonable. This despite the fact that, since they're saying torture is both good and bad, that it's something we do and don't do, that it's something we should and shouldn't do, it's pretty much impossible to agree with them. They can't possibly be right in their contradictory arguments.

Buying these arguments requires an almost Zen-like state -- minus all the enlightenment -- where "is" and "is not" are interchangeable and reason is discouraged. The irony is that the only way to excuse torture is to torture logic and language.

I say we're having a "national discussion" about torture only because I can't think of a better word. It's a discussion only if you define that as reasonable people making cogent points, while unreasonable people engage in doublespeak and smoke screens. As discussions go, it's pretty much onesided, with the pro-torture side arguing even with themselves.

If you ever needed an example of a lousy argument, that's pretty much the definition.

Unfortunately for the Bush administration, this leaves them with no argument at all. If torture is good, then they should be proud of it. But they've said over and over and over that "the United States does not torture." And, apparently, any proof to the contrary just kind of goes away. Hence, the destruction of the interrogation tapes.

Rosa Brooks, professor at Georgetown University Law Center:

Unidentified administration sources assure us, though, that [White House counsel Harriet] Miers recommended that the CIA preserve the tapes. (It's not hard to imagine her words: "Gee, if these interrogation tapes just happened to be lost or destroyed, it would sure make it tough for anyone to bring future war crimes or torture prosecutions against anyone in this administration, so I hope the CIA will take really good care of those tapes.")

If only those tapes still existed, then the Bushies could sort this whole thing out for us. Darn it. What a pity... Torture, it appears, is like photons -- both one thing and another until you observe it. Torture is both a particle and a wave, until you take a gander. Too bad we can't have a look at it. Now it's just this big, confusing mess.

"It will be interesting to know what the true facts are," Bush told ABC news, as if he weren't the President or anything. He's just some interested observer, wondering how this whole thing's going to turn out. He both is and isn't the Decider. Bush is the competent executive who has absolutely no idea what the hell goes on in his own office.

So that's where we are. Bush both is and isn't the President, torture is and isn't evil, the US both does and doesn't torture -- because we both have to and don't have to -- and this is all supposed to make some sort of sense.

It may be a discussion, but it sure isn't a debate. One side still needs to come up with some kind of an argument.


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