• • • • •
What is it about being a great power that renders the imagining of its own demise so potent? Why, despite all the strictures about the prudent and rational use of force, are those powers so quick to resort to it?
Perhaps it is because there is something deeply appealing about the idea of disaster, about manfully confronting and mastering catastrophe. For disaster and catastrophe can summon a nation, at least in theory, to plumb its deepest moral and political reserves, to have its mettle tested, on and off the battlefield. However much leaders and theorists may style themselves the cool adepts of realpolitik, war remains the great romance of the age, the proving ground of self and nation.
Exactly why the strenuous life should be so attractive is anyone’s guess, but one reason may be that it counters what conservatives since the French Revolution have believed to be the corrosions of liberal democratic culture: the softened mores and weakened will, the subordination of passion to rationality, of fervor to rules. As an antidote to the deadening effects of contemporary life—reason, bureaucracy, routine, anomie, ennui—war is modernity’s great answer to itself. “War is inescapable,” Yitzhak Shamir declared, not because it ensures security but “because without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.” Though this sensibility seeps across the political spectrum, it is essentially an ideal of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which found its greatest fulfillment during the years of Fascist triumph (“war is to men,” Mussolini said, “as maternity is to women”)—and is once again, it seems, prospering in our own time as well.
Nowhere in recent memory has this romanticism been more apparent than in the neoconservative arguments during the Bush years about prewar intelligence, how to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, and whether or not to use torture. Listening to the neocon complaints about U.S. intelligence during the run-up to the war, one could hear distant echoes of Carlyle’s assault on the “Mechanical Age” (“all is by rule and calculated contrivance”) and Chateaubriand’s despair that “certain eminent faculties of genius” will “be lost, and imagination, poetry and the arts perish.” Richard Perle was not alone in his impatience with what Seymour Hersh calls the intelligence community’s “susceptibility to social science notions of proof.” Before he became secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld criticized the refusal of intelligence analysts to use their imaginations, “to make estimates that extended beyond the hard evidence they had in hand.” Once in office, he mocked analysts’ desire to have “all the dots connected for us with a ribbon wrapped around it.” His staffers derided the military quest for “actionable intelligence,” for information solid enough to warrant assassinations and other preemptive acts of violence. Outside the government, David Brooks blasted the CIA’s “bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians” and praised those analysts who make “novelistic judgments” informed by “history, literature, philosophy and theology.”
Rumsfeld’s war on the rule-bound culture and risk aversion of the military revealed a deep antipathy to law and order—not something stereotypically associated with conservatives but familiar enough to any historian of twentieth-century Europe (and, indeed, any historian of conservative thought more generally). Issuing a secret directive that terrorists should be captured or killed, Rumsfeld went out of his way to remind his generals that the goal was “not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.” Aides urged him to support operations by U.S. Special Forces, who could conduct lightning strikes without approval from generals. Otherwise, they warned, “the result will be decision by committee.” One of Rumsfeld’s advisers complained that the military had been “Clintonized,” which could have meant anything from becoming too legalistic to being too effeminate. (Throughout the Bush years, there was an ongoing struggle within the security establishment over the protocols of machismo.) Geoffrey Miller, the man who made “Gitmo-ize” a household word, relieved a general at Guantanamo for being too “soft—too worried about the prisoners’ well-being.”
By now it seems self-evident that the neocons were drawn into Iraq for the sake of a grand idea: not the democratization of the Middle East, though that undoubtedly had some appeal, or even the creation of an American empire, but rather an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression. The gaze of the neocons, like that of America’s perennially autistic ruling classes, does not look outward nearly as much as it looks inward: at their restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything—not even by the rules and norms they believe are their country’s gift to the world.
If Torture, Sanford Levinson’s edited collection of essays, is any indication of contemporary sensibilities, neocons in the Bush White House are not the only ones in thrall to romantic notions of danger and catastrophe. Academics are too. Every scholarly discussion of torture, and the essays collected in Torture are no exception, begins with the ticking-time-bomb scenario. The story goes something like this: a bomb is set to go off in a densely populated area in the immediate future; the government doesn’t know exactly where or when, but it knows that many people will be killed; it has in captivity the person who planted the bomb, or someone who knows where it is planted; torture will yield the needed information; indeed, it is the only way to get the information in time to avert the catastrophe. What to do?
It’s an interesting question. But given that it is so often posed in the name of realism, we might consider a few facts before we rush to answer it. First, as far as we know, no one at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any of the other prisons in America’s international archipelago has been tortured in order to defuse a ticking time bomb. Second, at the height of the war in Iraq, anywhere between 60 and 90 percent of American-held prisoners there either were in jail by mistake or posed no threat at all to society. Third, many U.S. intelligence officials opted out of torture sessions precisely because they believed torture did not produce accurate information.
These are the facts, and yet they seldom, if ever, make an appearance in these academic exercises in moral realism. The essays in Torture pose one other difficulty for those interested in reality: none of the writers who endorse the use of torture by the United States ever discusses the specific kinds of torture actually used by the United States. The closest we get is an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in which she writes:
Is a shouted insult a form of torture? A slap in the face? Sleep deprivation? A beating to within an inch of one’s life? Electric prods on the male genitals, inside a woman’s vagina, or in a person’s anus? Pulling out fingernails? Cutting off an ear or a breast? All of us, surely, would place every violation on this list beginning with the beating and ending with severing a body part as forms of torture and thus forbidden. No argument there. But let’s turn to sleep deprivation and a slap in the face. Do these belong in the same torture category as bodily amputations and sexual assaults? There are even those who would add the shouted insult to the category of torture. But, surely, this makes mincemeat of the category.
Distinguishing the awful from the acceptable, Elshtain never mentions the details of Abu Ghraib or the Taguba Report, making her list of do’s and don’ts as unreal as the ticking time bomb itself. Even her list of taboos is stylized, omitting actually committed crimes for the sake of repudiating hypothetical ones. Elshtain rejects stuffing electric cattle prods up someone’s ass. What about a banana [pdf]? She rejects cutting off ears and breasts. What about “breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees”? She condemns sexual assault. What about forcing men to masturbate or wear women’s underwear on their heads? She endorses “solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.” What about the “bitch in the box,” where prisoners are stuffed in a car trunk and driven around Baghdad in 120° heat? She supports “psychological pressure,” quoting from an article that “the threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.” What about threatening prisoners with rape? When it comes to the Islamists, Elshtain cites the beheading of Daniel Pearl. When it comes to the Americans, she muses on Laurence Olivier’s dentistry in Marathon Man. Small wonder there’s “no argument there”: there is no there there.
The unreality of Elshtain’s analysis is not incidental or peculiar to her. Even writers who endorse torture but remain squeamish about it can’t escape such abstractions. The more squeamish they are, in fact, the more abstractions they indulge in. Sanford Levinson, for example, tentatively discusses Alan Dershowitz’s proposal that government officials should be forced to seek warrants from judges in order to torture terrorist suspects. Hoping to make the reality of torture, and the pain of its victims, visible and concrete, Levinson insists that “the person the state proposes to torture should be in the courtroom, so that the judge can take no refuge in abstraction.” But then Levinson asks us to consider “the possibility that anyone against whom a torture warrant is issued receives a significant payment as ‘just compensation’ for the denial of his or her right not to be tortured.” Having just counseled against abstraction, Levinson resorts to the greatest abstraction of all—money—as payback for the greatest denial of rights imaginable.
If the unreality of these discussions sounds familiar, it is because they are watered by the same streams of conservative romanticism that coursed in and out of the White House during the Bush years. Notwithstanding Dershowitz’s warrants and Levinson’s addenda, the essays endorsing torture are filled with hostility to what Elshtain variously calls “moralistic code fetishism” and “rule-mania” and what we might simply call “the rule of law.” But where the Bush White House sought to be entirely free of rules and laws—and here the theoreticians depart from the practitioners—the contemplators of torture seek to make the torturers true believers in the rules.
There are two reasons. One reason, which Michael Walzer presents at great length in a famous essay from 1973, reprinted in Torture, is that the absolute ban on torture makes possible—or forces us to acknowledge the problem of “dirty hands.” Like the supreme emergency, the ticking time bomb forces a leader to choose between two evils, to wrestle with the devil of torture and the devil of innocents dying. Where other moralists would affirm the ban on torture and allow innocents to die, or adopt a utilitarian calculus and order torture to proceed, Walzer believes the absolutist and the utilitarian wash their hands too quickly; their consciences come too clean. He wishes instead “to refuse ‘absolutism’ without denying the reality of the moral dilemma,” to admit the simultaneous necessity for—and evil of torture.
Why? To make space for a moral leader, as Walzer puts it in Arguing about War, “who knows that he can’t do what he has to do—and finally does” it. It is the familiar tragedy of two evils, or two competing goods, that is at stake here, a reminder that we must “get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do,” that “the dilemma of dirty hands is a central feature of political life.” The dilemma, rather than the solution, is what Walzer wishes to draw attention to. Should torturers be free of all rules save utility, or constrained by rights-based absolutism, there would be no dilemma, no dirty hands, no moral agon. Torturers must be denied their Kant and Bentham—and leave us to contend with the brooding spirit of the counter-Enlightenment, which insists that there could never be one moral code, one set of “eternal principles,” as Isaiah Berlin put it, “by following which alone men could become wise, happy, virtuous and free.”
But there is another reason some writers insist on a ban on torture they believe must also be violated. How else to maintain the frisson of transgression, the thrill of Promethean criminality? As Elshtain writes in her critique of Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, leaders “should not seek to legalize” torture. “They should not aim to normalize it. And they should not write elaborate justifications of it . . . . The tabooed and forbidden, the extreme nature of this mode of physical coercion must be preserved so that it never becomes routinized as just the way we do things around here.” What Elshtain objects to in Dershowitz’s proposal is not the routinizing of torture; it is the routinizing of torture, the possibility of reverting to the “same moralistic-legalism” she hoped violations of the torture taboo would shatter. This argument too is redolent of the conservative counter-Enlightenment, which always suspected, again quoting Berlin, that “freedom involves breaking rules, perhaps even committing crimes.”
But if the ban on torture must be maintained, what is a nation to do with the torturers who have violated it, who have, after all, broken the law? Naturally the nation must put them on trial; “the interrogator,” in Elshtain’s words, “must, if called on, be prepared to defend what he or she has done and, depending on context, pay the penalty.” In what may be the most fantastic move of an already fantastic discussion, several of writers on torture—even Henry Shue, an otherwise steadfast voice against the practice—imagine the public trial of the torturer as similar to that of the civil disobedient, who breaks the law in the name of a higher good, and throws himself on the mercy or judgment of the court. For only through a public legal proceeding, Levinson writes, will we “reinforce the paradoxical notion that one must condemn the act even if one comes to the conclusion that it is indeed justified in a particular situation,” a notion, he acknowledges, that is little different from the comment of Admiral Mayorga, one of Argentina’s dirtiest warriors: “The day we stop condemning torture (although we tortured), the day we become insensitive to mothers who lose their guerrilla sons (although they are guerrillas) is the day we stop being human beings.”
By now it should be clear why we use the word “theater” to denote the settings of both stagecraft and statecraft. Like the theater, national security is a house of illusions. Like stage actors, political actors are prone to a diva-like obsession, gazing in the mirror, wondering what the next day’s—or century’s—reviews will bring. It might seem difficult to imagine Liza Minnelli playing Henry Kissinger, but I’m not sure the part would be such a stretch. And what of the intellectuals who advise these leaders or the philosophers who analyze their dilemmas? Are they playwrights or critics, directors or audiences? I’m not entirely sure, but the words of their greatest spiritual predecessor might give us a clue. “I love my native city more than my own soul,” cried Machiavelli, quintessential teacher of the hard ways of state. Change “native city” to “child,” replace “my own soul” with “myself,” and we have the justification of every felonious stage mother throughout history, from the Old Testament’s rule-breaking Rebecca to Gypsy’s ball-busting Rose.