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Armchair Warriors: Why Are Conservatives the Biggest Warmongers?

Conservatives in government have fetishized violence. Why?

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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.”

 
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