Thursday, June 02, 2005

Live from the NYPL: The Torture Debate

Last night I went to a forum at the NYPL featuring Mark Danner, (who's not as hot now as he used to be, but is really, really smart), Mark Bowden, Elaine Scarry, Darius Rejali, and Aryeh Neier. Because of Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, etc. people been having these debates in print and in person a lot lately, as David Simpson notes in his February review of a whole set of books about torture in the LRB. Mark Bowden, author of "Black Hawk Down" represented the pro-torture position, though he denied that he was really pro-torture. He argued for what he called "coercive interrogation," which he said should still be illegal (but moral) only in the "ticking bomb" situation (the hypothetical scenario in which a suspect has information about an imminent attack.) As the discussion went on, it ultimately came out that his notion of the "ticking bomb scenario" was pretty broad, so that any interrogation with a high-value suspect in Al Quaeda could be called a "ticking bomb" one.
Simpson's LRB review brings us an excellent critique of the "Ticking Bomb scenario," via philosopher Georgio Agamben: "The state of exception or emergency presumed by the ticking bomb scenario is in fact the normative state of the nation at war, and the US is now indefinitely at war. Giorgio Agamben tells us that the power of the modern state is always premised on the state of exception and on its ability to dispose of bare life as it sees fit and with impunity. The Jay Bybee memo provides empirical evidence of just this, as it argues away any limits on the president’s ‘constitutional power to conduct a military campaign’. Indeed it finds that any efforts to impose limits must themselves be ‘unconstitutional’: even Congress is thought to have no say in how troops are deployed or how prisoners are interrogated."
Only one of the panelists, Darius Rejali, whose forthcoming book "Torture and Democracy" promises to be an encyclopedic history of modern torture, made such an over-arching connection between the modern state and the use of torture as Agamben, and commented on the widespread belief that democracy and human rights exist in opposition to security, that the punchline of the popular ticking bomb story, which he said comes from a 1961 French novel, "The Centurion" is that "democracy has made us weak, but real men know how to respond." The popular version of this notion in the US which I write about in my own (forthcoming) book appears in the heroic character of the "vigilante cop," most recently immortalized with the Dirty Harry character. And need we go further? Hannah Arendt, in Origins of Totalitarianism writes about the centrality of the leader who is accountable to no law, and whose awe-inspiring power as a leader comes from his embodiment as an exception to all law.
This was really an extraordinary discussion. The audience was enthralled for over two hours, and we could have stayed longer. The four anti-torture speakers were not only deeply knowledgeable, but also astute in their analysis of the issues at hand. One of the best parts of the discussion was in answer to an audience member's question about why the Abu Ghraib scandal had not elicited a national outcry. One reason was a lack of leadership from the opposition. As Elaine Scarry put it, it seemed that in the presidential election, the position was that torture was too serious, too grave to be part of the election. Thus, "only if something is minor should it be a major election issue," and this serious issue should just be "respected." Danner was a bit less abstract in his comment. John Kerry, he said, was in the bad political position of having denounced atrocities in Vietnam, and this was deemed bad politically, un-American. Finally, I'll end on this note, all of the anti-torutre speakers pointed out the use of torture is related to the US's weakness in Iraq, that it reflects a profound failure of intelligence gathering, which can only be done in an environment where the US's political mission has some support from the population. Clearly, the continuing, ongoing, use of torture by the US is an urgent problem that the US must face, not only because it is a moral outrage, but because it is so dangerous for the American people who fear terrorist attacks. One might say, in fact, the ongoing torture is itself the ticking bomb.
Meanwhile, Amnesty International has published a response to the Bush administration's dismissal of their 2005 report.


Anonymous said...

Vigilante cops - "most recently" in Dirty Harry? This theme is a staple of just about every cop movie nowadays, from Hollywood to Hong Kong. Just a few more recent examples:

Death Wish (1974)
Lethal Weapon (series)
Die Hard (series)
Man on Fire (2004)
Violent Cop (Takeshi Kitano)
City on Fire (Chow Yun Fat)

Matthew said...
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Matthew said...

I think the point here is important but rhetorical.
Simply-The risk of getting blown up is the price we pay for living in a just society.
It's rhetorical because, I mean, how much risk are we taking to begin with? and on the other hand how just a society do we live in even with out torture ostensibly in our name.

reb said...

Oh, I know, anonymous. I consider all the subsequent vigilante cop movies to be mere repetitions of "Dirty Harry." "Death Wish" is more a pure vigilante movie. I taught a class on vigilantism in US culture a few years ago and showed it. Did you know that Jeff Goldblum appears as one of the "dirty, spray-paint wieldin, hippy raper/killers"??? He looks really high in all the scenes.