Sunday, February 21, 2010

Tortured Defense

Andrew Sullivan dissects former Bush speechwriter Marc Thiessen's disreputable attempt to square his support for torture with Catholic moral teaching better than I could ever dream of doing. While reading it, however, something nagged at me: this sounds familiar. I couldn't put my finger on it until reading
Mark Shea's post on the same subject, when he said that Dick Cheney is "pressing hard to defend the use of torture as a positive good." That was it--"positive good"--the same phrase that defenders of slavery used in the decades before the Civil War.

There are at least two distinct eras in the American defense of slavery. In the age of the founders, slavery was largely defended as a "necessary evil." Jefferson in 1820 famously wrote that slavery is like having "a wolf by the ears, and we can neither hold him, nor safely let go." But he did not seek to defend slavery on any other than practical grounds: "Justice is on one scale, and self-preservation in the other." In general, the attitude was that if slavery did not exist, they would not now choose to adopt it, but given its existence, the price of its destruction was too high.

By the 1830s, with slavery under attack by abolitionists as an inherent moral evil, the defenders of slavery took on a new tact: the positive good argument. It was impossible to defend slavery from the moral arguments of its critics while admitting it was an evil. That, they believed, would doom slavery. Instead it must be defended as a good thing.

The foremost proponent of the "positive good" theory was John C. Calhoun of South Carolina. In a speech to the Senate in 1837, Calhoun forthrightly stated that he did not believe slavery to be "an evil--far otherwise, I hold it to be a good.... a positive good." By that, Calhoun explicitly meant it was good for the slave. Under slavery, he said "so much is left to the share of the laborer and so little extracted from him."

The defense of torture since 9/11 has undergone a similar evolution. Back in 2003, Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz argued that torture could be justified in extreme cases--the so-called "ticking time bomb" scenario. But in such situations he called for "a torture warrant, which puts a heavy burden on the government to demonstrate by factual evidence the necessity to administer this horrible, horrible technique of torture." Under certain extreme circumstances, Dershowitz argued, torture can be a necessary evil that may prevent something worse. Self-preservation requires it.

Seven years later, people like Marc Thiessen are, as Calhoun did with slavery, taking it a step further: torture is good for the prisoner being tortured. He asserts that Abu Zubaydah, who was subjected to waterboarding over 80 times, "thanked his interrogators for waterboarding him" and told them: "you must do this for all the brothers." This, Thiessen claims, is because the jihadist mentality is that, having resisted until "he has reached his limit," someone subjected to torture is released from the "moral burden" of continued resistance and can talk without shame. In other words, we're doing the jihadists a favor by torturing them. It is good for them. (It is worth noting that by tacitly admitting that waterboarding pushes people to their "limit," Thiessen by implication admits it is in fact torture.)

This attempt to portray torture as anything but an intrinsic evil is uncannily like Calhoun's defense of slavery. And like that earlier effort, future generations will see it for what it is: morally bankrupt.

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