Skip to content

Agreeing to Disagree on Torture

Reflecting on his brutal interrogation by the Gestapo, the Austrian essayist Jean Améry described torture as a psychic annihilation, an experience that obliterated the social world.

In his book At the Mind’s Limits, he argued that humans took for granted an assumption that assistance of others would always be available; this is the same expectation that the Nazis deliberately shattered. With “the first blow from a policeman’s fist, against which there can be no defense and which no helping hand will ward off, a part of our life ends and it can never again be revived.”

Torture, for Améry, produced an estrangement from the world that could never be overcome. It was something beyond human communication. “The pain was what it was,” he wrote. “Beyond that there is nothing to say.”

Améry died in 1978, and so he never encountered the phenomenon that is twenty-first century media. On torture, the media’s got plenty to say. But very little of it pertains to what Améry described.

This past Sunday’s political talk shows devoted no less than five hours to analyzing the CIA report and its implications. In Graham Greene’s Our Man in Havana, Captain Segura identifies a “torturable class,” which for him consists of “the poor of Central Europe and the Orient.” Today, we would add “Muslims.”

Naturally, the wealthy Western pundits gabbing away about rectal feeding and stress positions do not belong to the torturable class. They could not imagine being punched in the face by a cop, let alone being deprived of human assistance or stripped of the privileges to which the accident of birth has entitled them. That’s why the Great Waterboarding Question (“does it produce actionable intelligence or not?”) seems, to them, no different than the other controversies about which they are so well-paid to opine. And, in a sense, they’re right; the “torture debate” is just like all the other debates, only more so, a kind of reductio ad absurdum of public life in a liberal democracy.

The late, great Alexander Cockburn explained how the contemporary media worked to transform politics from a landscape of “crooked businessmen and lying politicians” into “a serious continuum in which parties may disagree but in which all involved are struggling manfully and disinterestedly for the public weal.” He offered the following script in Harper’s magazine (written for the old MacNeil/Lehrer Report, but applicable to just about every media program everywhere):

MACNEIL: Recently in Jerusalem on a fact-finding mission for the Emperor’s Emergency Task Force on Provincial Disorders was Quintilius Maximus. Mr. Maximus, how do you see the situation?

MAXIMUS: Robin, I had occasion to hear one of this preacher’s sermons a few months ago and talk with his aides. There is no doubt in my mind that he is a threat to peace and should be crucified.

MACNEIL: Pontius Pilate should wash his hands of the problem?

MAXIMUS: Absolutely.

MACNEIL: I see. Thank you. Jim?

LEHRER: Now for a view from Mr. Simon, otherwise known as Peter. He is a supporter of Christ and has been standing by in a Jerusalem studio. Robin?

MACNEIL: Mr. Simon Peter, why do you support Christ?

SIMON PETER: He is the Son of God and presages the Second Coming. If I may, I would like to read some relevant passages from the prophet Isaiah.

MACNEIL: Thank you, but I’m afraid we’ll have to break in there. We’ve run out of time. Good night, Jim.

Thus, pundit du jour Nicolle Wallace appears on Morning Joe and says that, because of 9/11, any brutality inflicted upon detainees is just fine with her. “I pray to god that until the end of time, we do whatever we have to do to find out what’s happening,” she says. Ah, but for the sake of fairness, a torture apologist could never appear alone. No, that would be unbalanced. Fortunately, Howard Dean is there to give the liberal response. He does not agree, he says, but then immediately adds: “I respect how you feel.” Some say it’s good, some say it’s bad. The truth probably lies somewhere in the middle. Certainly, honorable people can disagree.

Similarly, Dick Cheney fronted on NBC’s Meet the Press: “I believe [Rectal feeding] was done for medical reasons,” he said. “That was not something that was done as part of the interrogation program.” And that’s all we have time for, folks. Jim?

With the decline of the Left, and the general shrinkage of public space, it often feels that mainstream media is the only place that politics of any kind actually happens. So everyone feels pressured to accept the parameters on offer, however absurd, merely to get a hearing. Yet Noam Chomsky suggests that these “debates” are worse than useless, because they play a crucial role in the manufacture of consent to oppression. They give us “the sense that there’s free thinking going on, while all the time the presuppositions of the system are being reinforced by the limits put on the range of the debate.”

This is an argument that can be extended further, as well. Chomsky accompanies his analysis with a particular rhetorical strategy, one now adopted almost as a default by progressive media critics. To expose these kabuki debates, he identifies the political principles to which the powerful claim adherence, and then, with ruthless consistency, contrasts those ideals to their own conduct. “If the Nuremberg laws were applied,” he writes, in a justifiably well-known passage, “then every post-war American president would have been hanged.”

One wonders, however, whether we’re now past the stage when such arguments still bite. What happens to Chomskian irony in the face of a justice system that keeps about 2.4 million people behind bars, and yet excuses officials who torture men to death? Does not the presumption of consistency–even if deployed for rhetorical effect–seem faintly naïve? Indeed, mightn’t it be seen as an attempt to sow illusions in the mind of a public who understands quite well why the Nuremberg rules don’t apply to the 1 percent and their servants?

It’s easy to lament the disengagement of the ordinary people from the process of government, to bemoan their ignorance and apathy. But, actually, the mass indifference to the debates preoccupying the punditry only seems a bad thing until you reflect on what those debates actually involve: ephemeral disagreements that obscure the essential solidarity of the participants in respect of a system that serves their collective interests so well.

Torture, as Améry knew, is unspeakable. It’s not a topic for chatter but an obscenity to be destroyed.

The discussions we urgently need are strategic debates how that might be done–and they’ll never take place on network TV. The grotesque prattle about torture reveals how everyone who has been left out of the political consensus don’t just need a seat at the table. We need to kick the whole damn thing over.