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Daniel Larison: On the Necessity of an Irrational Enemy

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May 20, 2008

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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