Daniel Larison: On the Necessity of an Irrational Enemy

By Daniel Larison, Eunomia at the American Conservative Magazine

One of the most important things to understand about the authorized use of torture by agents of the United States government is how closely it is tied to the portrayal of the enemy as utterly irrational. Once that is conceded, excessive measures will be employed against them with much less argument and resistance than if they are accepted as rational, self-interested people as we are.

Torture and America

This portrayal makes it possible to excuse and explain away every illegal and immoral action against them with the constant recourse to a much-abused rationality, which absolves the wrongdoing in a dubious calculation of utility: a deeply unjust, wrong act has been committed, but it is justified and rationalized because it is ostensibly useful.

Should torture prove to be useless, as it typically does, the unnecessary nature of the practice becomes hard to avoid, which is why two different rhetorical tactics are employed. First, you will have the outright denial that torture is taking place (“we don’t torture,” Mr. Bush has said on more than one occasion) and then grudging acknowledgements that “extreme” measures have been used (“enhanced interrogation techniques”), and finally a justification of the actual inflicting of mental and physical duress on detainees. Mr. Bush’s cheerleaders on blogs and radio are quite explicit about this. Blogger Dean Barnett once wrote, “The torture opponents’ entire premise rests on the erroneous notion that one can successfully wage war without cruelty and savagery. I wish they were right. But they’re not.” Challenged by one of his listeners that he supported torture in recent weeks, radio host Michael Medved unflinchingly agreed that he did. What is first wrapped in euphemisms is then openly defended and even celebrated as necessary. Central to this is the denial of the rationality of the enemy, which is tantamount to a denial of their humanity.

Having labeled someone a terrorist, whether it has grounds for this or not, the government takes it for granted that all terrorists are irrational actors. Enemies have been excluded from the realm of the rational, and necessarily terrorists must be irrational, else they would not be terrorists and would not be our enemies — no rational person could be our enemy, as the tautology would have it. Now rationality is one of the basic marks of humanity, and in stripping the enemy of this the government strips him of his humanity, and thus of any claim to humane treatment in the eyes of his captors. Never mind that humans would owe humane treatment even to those who are not human — the perverse and simple logic of dehumanization is quite effective in silencing such doubts. With this process of dehumanization of captives, it becomes easier to abandon restraint and conscience. As the rare exception becomes the more common practice becomes the authorized policy, the severity and gravity of the atrocious fade. What was once the heinous crime reserved only to the worst of our enemies becomes the essential and vital “tool,” the perfect instrumental description for a crime against the dignity of man.

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Anonymous

Did you not know that Arabs only understand the language of force?

Anonymous

Nicely said. I'd like to add a theme I've been developing in my work. The irrational enemy frame is part of a larger picture. I use "frame" here in the sense of George Lakoff, with an important addition. As lakpff points out, the reactionary world view uses a simple "one size fits all" model of causality. It is called "direct cause". AGENT ----> EFFECT. The real world is not like this. Causality in the real world involves intertwined multiple causes. (Look at the myth of the unwanted effects from prescription drugs being "side effects" when all are effects of the drug). Since the direct cause model really doesn't help to explain events in the real world, the believer in this model is forced to rely on authority for explanations. Hence the wrote, parroted mantras we hear so often. I just wanted to say this to weave what you are saying into a larger, and useful model of what we are dealing with in this kind of approach.

Anonymous

Since we are immersed in a culture of entertainment, films like "Rendition" may be helpful in diluting the position of the Michael Medveds of our society. We know most of our citizenry will not read books like Johnson's "Inverted Totalitarianism" (see a superb summary at http://www.alternet.org/democracy/85728)to show how critical the ACLU fight is on this and other fronts; thus, Robert Greenwald, Michael Moore and other courageous producers and directors like Rendition’s Gavin Hood (who tacked on an ACLU torture/rendition documentary to his Rendition DVD release) are essential for us to have any hope of a turnaround.

Anonymous

Not only do I not know that but find my Arab friends among the most gentle people I know. Could it be that you are projecting your own violent tendencies onto them?

Anonymous

Judging an entire group of people by the actions of only a small percentage of that group is illogical and provocative. Torture has never proven to be an effective tool in the course of attaining and maintaining freedom; it is, in fact, a deterrent toward that cause.

Anonymous

P.S. on Inverted Totalitarianism: sorry, Wolin's book, Johnson's summary. Actual primary title: Democracy Incorporated: Managed Democracy and the Specter of Inverted Totalitarianism

Anonymous

I think Daniel Larison confounds the rationalization for torture with the justification for torture. All of the examples he cites are attempts to justify the use of torture; however, one needs also to ask why torture is selected as an appropriate tool for obtaining a desired outcome (Note that this ranges for eliciting information to punishment for a misdeed). Why is it that despite evidence that torture does not elicit valid data or permanently change behavior, authorities still resort to it? I believe that the answer, in part, is that they find the eliciting act so personally offensive that they use torture, in part, as an act of vengeance. If this notion is valid, then it suggests that we need to educate and select our interrogators more skillfully.

Bernard T. Engel

Anonymous

Great idea. I look forward to reading comments and adding some of my own. Thanks, Anna

Anonymous

An intriguing argument. Then if torture is typically not effective anyway, why exactly is it used?

Anonymous

The ACLU is correct to tie the torture of alleged combatants and domestic surveillance. Torture is hardly reserved for al Queda operatives in this second term of the Bush administration. Since the torture memos became public and Geneva Convention disbelievers AG Gonzalez and Secretary Chertoff were elected in 2005 torture has become a way of life in America. Death rates are up, the economy is in shambles, primarily because of a mysterious "housing correction".

What is wrong? Torture has been popularized by public debate on a subject that is irrefutably in the wrong and that TV show 24. Torture your children with psychiatric drugs to avoid the "hard" stuff being passed out by cardiac laboratories. Torture your account holders by prosecuting bad bills with unlawful entries in conspiracy with landladies that may or may not have been authorized by the local police to poison. Torture the men until they can't work, 800,000 unemployed since last year, so women can work, 300,000 more are employed, the article making this report was censored from Google. Most of all torture the population so that they will help liquidate, for health care providers, the 16% of the GDP frozen in health sector.

If the US economy is going to recover torture must be taboo. Politicians and landladies need to stop peddling their "angina" to every Tom, Dick and Harry prosecuting corporate America. Until the housing correction ceases to turn homes into torture chambers the economy and public health is going to fail and so are the corporate conspirators. Torture is not okay in any circumstance and the legislature really needs to make this clear to the landlady who is getting away with murder and destroying the economy.

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