Call me sentimental but I would like to believe that if Mr Bush and Mr Cheney had actually run for office on a programme of legalising torture, they might have lost the 2000 election. Possibly they had no strong opinions on the subject. Yet we see now the extraordinary spectacle of the Vice-President of the United States lobbying hard for executive branch to be granted the legal sanction to torture foreigners wherever and whenever it wants; and it is pretty clear that this is simply legalising a process already well-established.
Why does Dick Cheney love torture so? What's in it for the torturers? This is an important question, if they are going to govern us. Obviously, for some minority, there is a direct pleasure in the infliction of pain. But this is hardly going to be the motive of the vice president of the united states. Besides, he doesn't actually drown people, beat them or place electrodes on their tender parts. He might not even want to to watch it done, though he is determined that his servants should do it.
But for most of us, and for most of the people who acquiesce in it, the pain is the most shameful part of torture. It is a means, and not an end. The end is fear. Torture is worthwhile because it demonstrates that we can do it. It frightens people whom we want to go in fear of us.
After a while, this insight becomes incorporated into torturing practice. The Inquisition had "showing the instruments" as a formal stage of interrogation – and I'll bet that this got more truthful information than anything said at any other stage of the interrogation.1
What routine torture tells people is that they have to be afraid of the police. The effect does not require for most people to be tortured, or even most of those arrested. For fear to work, it's only necessary to understand that no one is safe. But it does require that some people be tortured, or else the lesson gets forgotten.
This was well understood by Niccolò Machiavelli, who wrote his books in retirement after himself being tortured, as part of the process of regime change in sixteenth century Florence. I do with our rules would read him. If their behaviour were really Machiavellian, it would be more intelligent and possibly less brutal. His advice is that "A prince must nevertheless make himself feared in such a manner that he will avoid hatred even if he does not require love since to the be feared and not to be hated can very well be combined."
This is a trick that large parts of America seem to have forgotten, perhaps because they are themselves too frightened and want to be feared instead; as torturers or the accomplices and enablers and apologists of torturers, even Ivy League professors can hope to reach this blessed state. Take David Gelernter, writing in last week's LA Times.
But of course you don't have to be 'pro-torture' to oppose the McCain amendment. That naive misunderstanding summarizes the threat posed by this good-hearted, wrong-headed legislation. Those who oppose the amendment don't think the CIA should be permitted to use torture or other rough interrogation techniques. What they think is that sometimes the CIA should be required to squeeze the truth out of prisoners.
McCain is a bona fide hero. But there's nothing courageous in standing firm with virtually the whole cultural leadership of this nation and the Western world, under any circumstances. It's too easy. To take a principled stand that you know will make people loathe and vilify you -- that's what integrity, leadership and moral courage are all about. This time Cheney is the hero. McCain is taking the easy out.
Here is a passage that may seem relevant to these meditations from Jonathan Glover's Humanity: a moral history of the Twentieth Century
The SS saw the very repulsiveness of what they did as evidence of a devotion to duty which made criticism particularly unfair. SS-Obersturmbannfüaut;hrer Strauch arrested seventy Jews employed by a colleague, Kube, who criticized him for this. Strauch said:
"I was again and again faced with the fact that my men and I were reproached for barbarism and sadism, whereas I did nothing but fulfil my duty. Even the fact that expert physicians had removed in a proper way the gold fillings from the teeth of Jews who had been designated for special treatment was made the topic of conversation. Kube asserted that this method of our procedure was unworthy of a German man and of the Germany of Kant and Goethe."
Strauch said it was regrettable that his men, 'in addition to having to perform this nasty job, were also made the targets of mudslinging'."
The more horrible the acts the SS committed, the more they were able to think of themselves as showing heroism, remaining morally pure themselves at the same time as overcoming revulsion against atrocities in order to obey the commands of duty. Himmler, in 1943, congratulated his men on this:
Most of you know what it means when 100 corpses lie there, or 500 lie there, or 1,000 lie there. To have gone through this and - apart from the exceptions caused by human weakness - to have remained decent, that has hardened us. That is a page of glory in our history never written and never to be written."
Of course, that's twentieth century Germany, and could have no possible bearing on the thought processes of 21st Century California. I suppose a defender of American standards might point out that Gelernter has in fact been sacked by the LA Times this week; not, I believe for this particular column, but as part of a general shuffling on the op-ed page.
1 If you had no truthful information to give in the first place, no doubt it was even more frightening – but you can't make an omelette without breaking legs..