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Posted by on Dec 18, 2008 in At TMV | 3 comments

Meditations on Torture

954632029_5aa70b9e77_m.jpgI wrote a post earlier this week about the likability of George W. Bush that came in for some criticism. Some readers seem to conclude that my assertion of Bush being likable was, in some sense, an exoneration of Bush’s decisions and actions as president. As I explained in the comments, this is not the case.

I’m not interested in backpedaling from the idea that Bush has a certain a likability about him. While not universal, I think this is still the case for at least some proportion of people. But there have been aspects to his presidency that are horrifying. Case in point: the recent bi-partisan report on Bush’s and other administration official’s role in setting the stage for “enhanced interrogation techniques”, a euphemism that many prefer to call by its layman correlate: torture.

There seems to be a general consensus of condemnation when it comes to this issue, agreed upon by most questioned about the propriety of using or condoning such techniques. But a reader of Andrew Sullivan’s Daily Dish takes a step back, making an important point about our conception of something like torture,

The problem is that the actual visualization of “enhanced interrogation techniques” takes a kind of difficult, forced empathy that is very easy to glide over unless you sit still mentally and actually take your mind to the circumstances, the conditions, the minutes of what that experience might be like.

Quite right.

I found myself stopping to consider how deeply I had really looked into the horror that is sanctioned torture. Had I stopped to imagine what it would be like to be snatched from my life with no notice or warning, placed in isolation without any concern for due process, and then exposed to physical and mental violence for an undetermined amount of time? Have I really quietened down the many thoughts in my head to imagine the feeling of sitting in a cell in Guantanamo Bay without any sense of what my future might be, alone, frightened, and, in all likelihood, poor physical condition?

It is near impossible to truly understand what that experience is like unless one has either gone through it or is close to another who has. But one can at least come a step closer to understanding the depth of failure that such an experience represents in the civility of society by considering, to the best of their ability, the full invidiousness that it contains.

Such meditations leave a dense shadow over one’s soul, but are, perhaps, a necessary exercise in ensuring that such actions never occur again.

It might be argued that most of the people in Guantanamo Bay are not average citizens who have been plucked from their lives, they are enemy combatants whose lives are led on the battlefield. This may be true, in many cases. But can we say with certainty that every person who endures such conditions in Guantanamo ought not to be there? Are we even willing to say that enemy combatants deserve to endure such conditions?

The safety of a nation is paramount. At core, that is the Hobbesian charge of government: to provide safety and security. But at what cost? At what point does the way of life that is being preserved begin to degrade in the very act of its preservation? At what point does the line between terrorist and interrogator begin to blur into indistinguishability due to the actions of each?

Perhaps only through a painful and considered acknowledgment of what torture or, if you prefer, enhanced interrogation techniques, can we really come to grapple with those questions fully with the gravity they deserve.

In this regard, though I might motion to a seeming likability of George W. Bush, no degree of friendliness can wipe away the stain of what he and others have let occur. The most odious acts can be performed with a smile on one’s face, be they the turning of screws or the use of a pen.

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  • Guest


    Well I live in the UK and an on the left politically speaking, however I thought it was absolutely right to acknowledge that George Bush has a likeable personal style. I think that was very helpful to him in his elections.

    It is much better to acknowledge these things than to pretend they are not there.

    Just because G. W. Bush had a likeable style doesn’t make his policies any less terrible.

  • Rambie

    I agree with the above comment. President Bush has a likable character personality that did get him elected in 2000 and again in 2004. However, he has squandered that likability in many peoples eyes.

  • Donnajean

    Ramble, I appreciate trying to see the best in people, but Bush wasn’t elected in 2000, the popular vote went for Gore, Bush was selected by the 9 wise men of the Supreme Court who went AGAINST the popular vote.
    The 2004 election results in Ohio were highly questionable and Bush had campaigned by impugning, by proxy, Kerry’s war medals.
    Likability wasn’t what got him the presidency.

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