(Title from W.H. Auden, via Benjamin Britten.)

I’m having a great deal of difficulty lately coming to grips with the fact that I live among brutes and torturers. We are in the middle of a public debate right now in the United States about whether torture is effective enough that we can excuse it. Dick Cheney and his squadron of soulless goons are taking to the television studios to argue that we obtained highly valuable information from the people we tortured, and that that makes it OK. They are lying. This is a monstrous debate, designed to distract us from the fact that torture is ineffective and illegal, and that torture is wrong.

But my heart sinks under the feeling that they are succeeding. I see surveys like the Pew Forum’s and am stunned with anguish that three out of four of my compatriots can imagine circumstances in which they’d approve of torture. It troubles me to look at those graphs and see that support for torture—let’s be direct: sadism and bloodlust—increases with religiosity, but that’s beside my main point, which is that I don’t know how to live among people who can’t understand that torture is wrong.

Perhaps these people are not monsters and ghouls; perhaps they’re simply uninformed and unimaginative. Perhaps they don’t know

Insects were used on a 7-year-old and a 9-year-old in order to find out where their father was; after locating their father, the CIA drowned him 183 times in one month. Prisoners were raped by way of gasoline enemas. A man was chained to the ceiling and kicked in the legs until he died. Young boys were raped in front of their mothers—on video. And this is only some of what’s already publicly known. I dread to think of what more is being kept from us.

But then, perhaps the torture advocates do know. As digby has come to realize, we are a torture nation: “The United States of America tortures its own children. It tortures prisoners. It tortures average citizens whom any policeman believes is failing to smartly comply with his orders and it tortures suspected terrorists.” I don’t know how to be a part of that society.

Let me approach the problem from a different path.

Ever since I became consciously aware of my own moral agency (when I learned about the Enlightenment in 10th grade, I’m pretty sure), I’ve made it a point to assume the best of people. I feel a duty of empathy, generosity, and openness to my fellow human beings, and the only way I can do right by them is to take a default attitude of care and optimism. This amounts to a general creed that people are fundamentally good. I know there are caveats to this assertion—I’m the one who brought up Dick Cheney before. But I see him and his kind as freaks, inevitable statistical outliers.

I have built my moral framework on this foundation. The ways that I relate to the people I know and the society I inhabit are rooted in my faith that all human beings are basically decent, under whatever fog of fear or ignorance or distrust may obscure that nature. But faced with a regime of torturers and their cheerleaders in my country, I am losing that faith. I am no longer blithely confident, as I was before, that if during a political discussion I bring up my strenuous objection to torture, I will find agreement. For all I know, the person I’m talking to may find the strappado a perfectly cromulent law-enforcement technique. And I don’t know how to recognize that person as a human being.

This uncertainty hasn’t yet infected all my interpersonal dealings, of course; I know, for instance, that my husband and my friends have moral compasses that don’t point “straight down to hell.” Unfortunately, for fear of what I may hear, I have not brought myself to confirm the same about all of my family.

The disorientation and paranoia I’m describing reminds me somewhat of the aftermath of Prop. 8′s passage. For a couple days, I felt like a character in a World War II movie who had parachuted in behind enemy lines and couldn’t tell the resistance from the secret police. I went to the grocery store and couldn’t help wondering whether the mother I saw digging through the tomatoes with her toddler had voted to revoke my right to marry the man I love, or whether the chef at the sushi counter had a Yes on 8 sign hammered into the ground in front of his house, or whether the high-school seniors sneaking wistful glances toward the liquor aisle had told their classmates to vote yes so that I wouldn’t come after their little brothers. As I said, that only lasted a couple days; it helped to have maps showing vote distribution, and to feel the palpable outrage at the proposition’s passage among everyone who is important to me. It also helped to have official support: Lawsuits to overturn Prop. 8 were filed immediately, and city and county governments from all up and down the state joined in. Both houses of the state legislature passed resolutions condemning the proposition. I felt like I was part of a community that recognized a wrong, and that recognition reached upward into positions of power.

And that’s missing, when it comes to torture. I know I am part of an anti-torture community: digby, Marcy Wheeler, Fred Clark (and his wonderful commenters), Christy Hardin Smith, Glenn Greenwald, Scott Horton, Jack Balkin, Marty Lederman, and Brian Tamanaha—these people are not monsters. These people are fundamentally good. These people are decent. But these people only represent about 25 percent of us, and I don’t know how I’m going to get back to trusting the other 75.

3 Responses to “O Weep, Child, Weep, O Weep Away the Stain”


  1. Batocchio on May 21st, 2009 12:15 pm

    If you’re a fan of Auden and Britten, I imagine you’re familiar with Wilfred Owen’s poems and Britten’s War Requiem. Thanks for linking the Hymn.

    I know the feeling – but I also take heart in pieces dissecting those torture polls. Many of the questions in the “pro-torture” polls are highly misleading. The poll on religious people supporting torture at higher rates than the general population is most easily explained by authoritarianism and an ‘Us versus Them’ attitude. For authoritarians, the only real “principles” are tribal identity, following authority and “tradition,” all of which results in the attitude that torture is wrong when done to us, but fine when done to those other folk who aren’t like us. That self-described Christians could essentially ignore a defining tale in their own faith is very sad, but sadly not surprising.

    And I imagine your husband and friends are not defending torture insistently, nor are they professional talking head opining on these matters on TV while ignoring all the major evidence on the subject. I’m not trying to condemn average citizens who have been ill-served by the press. People of good faith can talk about these things, and come to better understandings.

    With Prop. 8 and related issues, we’ve seen tremendous progress over the past few decades due to the wider population simply realizing that their fears about scary gay people were unjustified. It depends on where you live, of course, but a growing number of teens view homophobia as un-cool. We’ve also seen opponents fear-monger and lie relentlessly about measures such as Prop 8. On torture, we can see the same dynamics. A group of dedicated torture apologists (some of them true believers, but mostly knowing better) is lying and muddying the waters to prevent trials, a full investigation or even full disclosure. Most of the Beltway crowd doesn’t want accountability, either, because that would be terribly unpleasant and they’ve been complicit to various degrees. There will be some who won’t be convinced by any amount of evidence, but the more the public learns – and the more pollsters start asking good questions – the more those numbers will shift. The anti-torture crowd is currently closer to 50% or above, when the right questions are asked – and surely go even higher when the questions David Waldmam poses are asked (he’s now got a Facebook group that proves a community exists, and I hope is growing). It has to start somewhere.

  2. Jeff on May 21st, 2009 1:25 pm

    Thanks for coming by, Batocchio. Yes, I know the War Requiem, and I’m still upset I missed the LA Phil’s performances last year. I knew “Dulce Et Decorum Est” from high school, but wasn’t familiar with any of Owen’s other work until I heard the War Requiem. “Futility” and “Parable of the Old Man and the Young” are the ones that always get me.

    I reread that Greenwald article while I was writing this post, because I was hoping to find counter-evidence. Some of it’s encouraging, but the poll he raises is from February, which was before the full-court press from the torture brigade hit the airwaves. (Such metaphoric facility there…) I’d like to see a more recent poll on the question of investigation/prosecution, to see whether they’ve managed to corrode the notion of accountability with their misdirection and lies. (And that awful speech from Cheney today.)

    It looks like my link to your post might have come across as defensive, which is certainly not how I intended it. I agree with you, about all of it. I just meant to say that the suspicion that has been instilled in me by this whole business of torture apologetics isn’t strong enough to overcome what I already know: that the people most important to me are firmly opposed to torture. I don’t have to worry about them.

    And thanks for the reminder about the Altemeyer book! I somehow missed making that connection, which is kind of ridiculous, given how strongly Kit Whitfield has beaten that drum in the comment section at Slacktivist. She’s had her eye on that ball the whole time, and I plum forgot.

    (Prop. 8–related matters are for the next post, so I’ll keep mum on them now, except to say that you’re right.)

  3. Batocchio on May 21st, 2009 3:26 pm

    You’re right, Greenwald’s data is a bit old. Dan Froomkin at the WaPo follows torture news pretty closely, and I’d check his column for more recent polls. He always dissects them nicely.

    Ah, I misread your paragraph, although I didn’t think your reference to my post sounded particularly defensive – I’m just wary of not being clear… or slamming people of good faith who aren’t shameless hacks. ;-)

    Altremeyer’s book is good, and we’ll see with the Prop. 8 decision.