Tuesday, May 12

Dumpster Diving

Richard Cohen, "What if Cheney's Right?" May 12

MAYBE it was me, but I swear I checked the Times online three times yesterday, the latest being around 6 PM, for any sign of Ross Douthat. Fruitlessly, you should pardon the expression. And after I'd given up on him, and cyber-space-warped over to see if Richard Cohen was still outraged by Stephen Colbert, he finally turns up, with a May 11 byline and eighteen youth-pleasin' links in tow, or one every 41.7 words. I went over to the office bookshelves to see if I could find anyone who footnoted at that rate. Not Piaget, not Foucault, not my guide to 20th century Court decisions; in desperation I threw out the requirement of actual footnotes and grabbed Steven Weisenburger's annotation to Gravity's Rainbow, which might have reached that rate in spots, with a tail wind, but it'll take some serious counting to see if he sustains it for an entire page.

So, one, I'd already read Cohen, and I'm not going through that for nothing, and, two, I vow here and now to never read Douthat without checking every last fucking one of his hipster links, which probably means not reading him at all. We all must sacrifice in life.

And so Cohen, outraged by neither Colbert nor Wanda, for now; Cohen, outraged because the Obama administration hasn't released the torture documents like Dick Cheney now demands in order to prove what a liar Richard Cohen knows Dick Cheney to be. (That is, now knows him to be.) Because in the back of his "mind" there's a tiny voice telling Cohen that Torture just might work!

This is backed up by two pieces of evidence, neither conclusive, certainly, but which taken together might be called suggestive. For one, it is possible, while acknowledging the lexical and semantic constraints of the English language, to form the words "What" "if" "torture" and "works" into something recognized as a question by a large majority of native speakers; and, two, those dirty, smelly, dogskin-clad liberal bloggers clogging the WaPo gates are convinced that it doesn't. Which by itself is almost sufficient for a Q.E.D.:
In some sense, this is an arcane point since the United States insists it will not torture anymore -- not that, the Bush people quickly add, it ever did. Torture is a moral abomination, and President Obama is right to restate American opposition to it. But where I reserve a soup├žon of doubt is over the question of whether "enhanced interrogation techniques" actually work. That they do not is a matter of absolute conviction among those on the political left, who seem to think that the CIA tortured suspected terrorists just for the hell of it.

Now you gotta admit that's the sort of reasoning no mere blogger could produce, but we'd like to mark the 25th appearance of that bizarro-world "the question of torture is moot, since the Obama administration has announced it's not planning any" routine by asking a few questions. The first, perhaps not surprisingly, is, Th' fuck is up with that? Torturing persons in custody violates the laws of the United States of America. It did so all the while the Bush administration was sanctioning it. How does a Presidential directive put the question to rest now? And this violation, not just of our law but of the very foundation of our shared notion of Justice takes place not at a moment of grave threat to Our Very Existence, but because an administration, aided and abetted by mass-market press venality, gets away with elevating a commonplace of cheap action serials to a philosophic quiddity.

[And let us take this moment to note what Cheney obviously knows, but what, having strolled several times through the bog garden of Richard Cohen's "thought", we're convinced he might not: that not only will no undisclosed memo "prove" Cheney's contention, none would ever be sufficient to dispel this nonsense. Viz, appropriately, the Shroud of Turin, which may have had no provenance before its sudden appearance in the 14th century, a shortcoming which was ham-fistedly and retroactively addressed by inventing a connection to the Image of Edessa, despite the minor difficulties that it, too, lacked provenance and was said to be some sort of magical life mask, not a shroud; which conformed, not to 1st century C.E. Jewish burial custom, but to the 14th century European; and which had nearly as many direct competitors in its day as does McDonalds in ours, but which, despite the transparent carnival geek-show aura and the apparent embarrassment of most Roman Catholics with the rudiments of a 20th century secondary education, engendered rabid belief even after being carbon-dated to that same 14th century starting point.]

Seem to think we tortured for the hell of it? Nay, sir, if you can dispel the notion, do so, and not on the abused back of that spavined warhorse, "Dirty Lefty Hippie Bloggers Think So, So It Must Be Wrong". (At this point, sir, we've been right about everything since Henry Hyde took the charge of Clinton Impeachment, Inc., so knock off the partisan rancor and Just A Lucky Guess routines.) What little we think we have learned at this point absolutely supports the idea: that Abu Zubaydah was waterboarded after he'd talked; that experienced CIA interrogators were superseded by the mysteriously-appointed team from Mengele & Starkweather, LLC, which had no interrogation experience whatsoever, but was reasonably adept at turning marginal psychological credentials* into the long-distance control of captive abuse; that the waterboarding of Khalid Sheik Mohammed begins almost immediately after his capture, despite the fact that it is now 18 months since even the Bush administration was able to figure out it needed to watch big buildings and inexplicably off-course jetliners; that the big intel from that one, and the only "foiled plot" the Cheney administration could find to tout that didn't involve cherry bombs and bogus pizza deliveries--the "Library Tower" "plot"--had already been discredited back before it passed its expiration date. For that matter, there's the treatment of Iraqi citizens under US military control, at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere, abuse which was tied to little if any expectation of usable information, and none to any Ticking Time Bomb of Total US Destruction. Yes, these people tortured for the hell of it, though maybe the CIA did so only under orders. We tortured prisoners for the same reason irate 9/11 mobs attacked Sikhs, except without the Stupidity defense. Well, the Abject Stupidity defense, anyway.
Cheney, though, is adamant that the very measures that are now deemed illegal did work and that, furthermore, doing away with them has made the country less safe. Cheney said this most recently on Sunday, on CBS's "Face the Nation." "Those policies were responsible for saving lives," he told Bob Schieffer. In effect, Cheney poses a hard, hard question: Is it more immoral to torture than it is to fail to prevent the deaths of thousands?

It's curious--okay, it isn't curious--how, under the hand of a master punditaster, the argument jumps from one pocket to another so clumsily that a nine-year-old magician would be embarrassed by it. Oh, woe is me! Could torture possibly work? And suddenly when it does it saves thousands. Presumably because millions is considered a mite gaudy.

Not Remarkable, too, then, how the argument shifts its ground again when we turn back to results: not saving thousands in imminent peril, but disrupting plans, which, had they succeeded, would have proven Cheney's point. Assuming, that is, that you accept it in the first place.

What really is remarkable is how grown men are supposedly stumped by a junior-high essay question. Somehow we're all in a quandry over that Ticking Time Bomb, but we're never at a place where torturing the suspect's wife and children would get us the info that saves millions. We're never even at the point where waterboarding fails us, but bolt cutters applied one digit at a time ride to the rescue. It's like The Godfather re-edited so all the violence is off-screen. No, in fact, it is the fact that we try to keep our little kink clean in public which is most suggestive:
Cheney is barking up a storm on the efficacy of what can colloquially be called torture.

Yes, that quaint little colloquialism torture. Not like those nasty partisan bloggers, with their rough talk, and their insistence on calling beatings and animal attacks and multiple scalpel cuts by their real names, and bringing up the fact that colloquial waterboarding is why we colloquially executed other country's war criminals. Which just ruins the fantasy.
In political terms, Cheney has been a free man ever since he eschewed any presidential ambitions. He became the most impolitic of politicians and continues in that role, taking neither a vow of penitence nor a vow of silence in his vice presidential afterlife. He says the issues are too important for him to be, as is traditional, mum.

He is right about that. The run-up to the disastrous Iraq war was notable for its smothering lack of debate. That served us poorly then and it would serve us poorly now if people who know something about the utility, not to mention the morality, of enhanced interrogation techniques keep their mouths shut. The Obama administration ought to call Cheney's bluff, if it is that, and release the memos. If even a stopped clock is right twice a day, this could be Cheney's time.

Oh, right; suddenly we need an open and free-ranging debate, sez Richard Cohen, who--stop me if you've heard this one before--wore out two sets of pom-poms cheering the Iraq war before that became untenable and he had to blame Democratic presidential candidates for falling for Bush's case. Y'know, we not only believe that someone with Cohen's track record is unfit to tout the odds that Cheney may have accidentally been right about something; we think somebody who writes Richard Cohen's column once a week has no moral standing to discuss anyone else's use of torture.

* aren't they all?


R. Porrofatto said...

Well, if torture worked so well than how come we never found those weapons of mass destruction? Surely the boys from Mengele & Starkweather, LLC (ha!) would've posed a few "Wo sind die WMD?" questions -- the "Is it safe?" of Cheney's war crimes novel -- while eliciting all that prime intel on the Saddam/al Queda connections.

Speaking of colloquialisms (more like euphemisms -- they've almost got as many for the damage they do than the Victorians had for sex), I wish our torture apologists would stop calling waterboarding "simulated drowning." It's actual drowning. The difference being they stop before the victim simulates death.

A side note. Provenance aside, the Shroud of Turin inspired Into the Light, a stunningly ill-conceived musical, or, as we called it, Jesus Christ, Tablecloth.

D. Sidhe said...

Douthat was on CSpan2 this weekend, BookTV. Me, I feel overexposed to him.

Anonymous said...

I looked for Douthat, too, with that creeping uncertain hope that he'd again say something confirmingly stupid. I didn't find him in the usual places, but at 4 PM somebody'd printed him off and left him in the faculty men's room. The links were there, faintly underlined, and I marveled at their density too. Maybe I'm you, but not as smart. Anyway, I read it, and it was tripe, and I couldn't resist, so habituated to the internet am I. I took out my pen, between grunts, and annotated the dumbassery for the next customer. I resisted the temptation to use the column for its most obvious use, not because of the discomfort, but because I wanted my comments to be appreciated by someone else.

Cohen wasn't there, but he was in the Times, or the Star-Tribune, I forget which.

Keep it up.


Rugosa said...

What's interesting about the Shroud of Turin is how it provides an occasion of the catholic church's ability to spread a lie while speaking a technical truth. The S of T appears in the news every few years, usually because a new de-bunking of it has happened - carbon dating, microscopic analysis, whatever. A spokesperson for the church always responds with something like, its origins are still mysterious. Technically true, since we don't know who painted the image or how much money they made showing the thing to rubes; patently false if the issue is whether it is an image of Jesus' face, since it clearly is not.

Republicans could learn a lot from the catholic church.

Porlock Hussein Junior said...

A free man ever since he eschewed presidential ambitions, eh? The most impolitic of politicians.

That seemed to remind me of somebody, and it wasn't hard to see who it was. "Better to reign in Hell, then serve in Heav'n." That's the flavor of it. As politicallly incorrect as you can get. John Milton knew his Dick Cheney. (And was not on his side, whatever they say.)

Brendan said...

Oh how I wish Fred Hiatt's purported love for a debate extended to his running this post on the WaPo's op-ed page.

heydave said...

That little shit head Cohen really pisses me off, and I am getting exposed to him secondhand!

BTW, nice touch on the wonderfully insane Ms. Bamford's photo!

jackd said...

The late David Foster Wallace's Infinite Jest has about 400 end notes, but the brick of a novel is over 900 pages.

satch said...

"Cheney is adamant..." Is that how it works? Cheney is ADAMANT? Oh, well...OK then... I really liked Jesse Ventura's idea; that if we gave him Cheney, a waterboard, and one hour, he'd have Cheney confessing to the Sharon Tate murder.

Anonymous said...

In effect, Cheney poses a hard, hard question: Is it more immoral to torture than it is to fail to prevent the deaths of thousands?
Ironically Cheney, Bush, Rumsfeld et al, with their feckless disregard for warnings in the months leading up to 9/11, did both.