Like Magritte’s painting that was not a pipe, this is not a post about waterboarding.
Lawyers don’t fall for trick questions like “Is waterboarding torture?” By instinct – well, maybe not so much by instinct as by habit – we answer “for what purpose?” There are lots of laws and conventions that deal with torture, and if those are to be applied to the allegation that waterboarding violates them, one must decide whether waterboarding is torture. But deciding the issue for that purpose decides it only for that purpose.
How we feel about a particular thing – as opposed to what the law should do about it – ought not to be affected by whether it can be characterized as falling into a category – for example, whether waterboarding can be characterized as “torture.” Aside from the derivative issue of whether it is immoral per se to violate the law, violating a law against torture by doing something that is deemed torture for purposes of that law is not the same thing as “torturing” for the purpose of deciding how we should, or do, feel about our government’s doing it in our name.
Our feeelings about waterboarding - at least insofar as those feeling are ambivalent - do not turn on whether the technique is effective. If the only question is whether waterboarding is a necessary or unnecessary evil, there’s not much left t otalk about. The answer would await only the evidence, difficult to get as that may be.
No, the question is interesting only if we assume that waterboarding is effective, and the queston then becomes whether it costs us more in national self-esteem than it seems able to gain us in national safety. Obviously, that formulation entails some notion of effectiveness. It’s easy to hypothesize the situation where waterboarding unearths an otherwise un-unearthable plot to destroy the country completely. But that hypothesis puts the proverbial rabbit in the hat. What wouldn’t it be ok to do in order to acquire that particular piece of intelligence? Life is risk, and we simply cannot justify everything we do by the remote possibility that it will prove to have been the only thing that could have prevented our utter destruction. The working hypothesis, then, is that waterboarding does produce positive results but cannot be presumed to provide an otherwise unattainable, nation-saving piece of information.
As a practical matter, we cannot measure “how we feel about ourselves” or what a given interrogation technique “gets us,” and to the extent that we could, the measures would be less subject to comparison than apples and oranges. But whether or not we can do any calculus on them, we do each feel a certain way about the facts as we know them, and under the bell curve of feelings about the use of any particular interrogation technique lies an aggregate level of discomfort that affects the national spirit.
The psychic cost of waterboarding turns to some extent on how we feel about torture and how equating waterboarding with torture affects our feelings about the former. We do not like to think of ourselves as a people who “torture.” One tortures for only two reasons: cruelty or weakness. In “weakness,” I include vulnerability to attacks of the sort torture might arguably discover. The average American does not want to think of himself either as cruel and or as vulnerable. Being a nation that “tortures” forces us to opt into one of those explanations.
Does being a nation that waterboards have the same effect? I would say “no.” The term “torture” includes all manner of monstrous acts, whereas waterboarding includes only that specific practice. Thus, the argument “waterboarding is torture” is a rhetorical device intended solely to say “you should feel as badly about your government’s waterboarding as you would about its inflicting your worst horror.” That seems to me a false argument. We should feel about waterboarding as badly, and only as badly, as we feel about our government’s waterboarding. I don’t know how I feel about that, but I don’t feel as badly about it as I would about the government’s inflicting my worst horror.
But, as I said, this is not a post about waterboarding. It’s a post about rhetoric, about the particular form of argument in which one tries to tar something with the dirtiest brush one can and thereby change its impact to that of the worst members of the category to which one assigns it. The game can be played in the opposite direction (look for the word “merely,” just,” or only”), but in these tough times, one sees more and more efforts by our politicians and editorialists to work the negative side of the street. Waterboarding and “torture” strike me as a good example of the tactic. I’m not sure how I feel about waterboarding, but I am pretty sure how I feel about torture, and I’m interested in how rhetoric can collapses the psychic space between them.
Such inquiries have led me to the conclusion that I don’t like nouns. I like verbs better. Give me a name like “Dances with Wolves” – there’s a man who literally is what he does. Yes, we have categorizing verbs, too, like to “torture,” but something about verbs resists the temptation to use them as categories. We are not asked “Is to waterboard to torture?” Instead, we are asked “Is waterboarding torture?” and then, if our interlocutor can get a “yes,” we are told that we do torture and are dared not to cringe at the thought. The noun defines the verb, and the verb defines us. And that doesn’t seem right.
There are, of course, other examples. My post about President Obama’s treatment of the AIG retention payments and Chrysler’s senior creditors was about the same phenomenon. The all-purpose insult “TARP Recipient” is applied equally to banks in need and banks that accepted funds to provide cover for those that needed them. And then even to those banks acting in a fiduciary capacity. It’s all the same sophistry, and it makes me mad as hell, and I’m not gonna take it any more. (And don’t get me started on enthymeme!)