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Armchair Warriors: Why Are Conservatives the Biggest Warmongers?

Conservatives in government have fetishized violence. Why?

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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 TortureSanford 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.

 
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