The Dish’s struggle to define “pro-torture” for readers who would say they’re “anti-torture”

I was about to finish a large post about The Dish’s current dust-up with Glenn Reynolds and others over who really opposes torture, whether Andrew’s zealous style of opposition is ineffective, whether it is self-righteous (and I guess, insincere and opportunistic is the implication), and whether both Reynolds and Sullivan have touched a “raw nerve” as The Dish put it.

Before I post about this topic, I’ve decided it’s important to collect some main ideas from The Dish’s ongoing discussion of torture, because I don’t want to misconstrue AS or misrepresent him. And it’s not as easy to distill from The Dish a set of definitive, non-conflicting ideas about torture, because I think Andrew’s thinking about the meaning of torture is more dynamic or less absolute than the impression he wants to give readers.

For example, compare the two quotes below from The Dish, which both try to get the reader to perceive torture as an axiom of moral wrongness from two opposing directions:

November 22, 2009:

Even the word “torture” can be too vague and abstract a term. So let us state in plain English how Bush, Cheney, Tenet, et al. actually got information. They did it by subjecting prisoners to repeated drowning, or freezing, or heating, or sadistically long sleeplessness, or shackling or crucifying them until the pain could be borne no longer, or beating them until they pleaded for mercy, or threatening to kill or torture their children or wife or parents. Or all of the above in combination, in isolation, and with no surety of ever seeing the light of day again, with no right to meaningful due process of any kind, sometimes sealed off from light and sound for months at a time, or bombarded with indescribable noise day and night in cells from which there was no escape ever. This is what [the Orwellian euphemism] “under coercive conditions” actually means.

April 17 2009:

This is the primary technique of those who endorse Bush’s torture regime – focus on the particular and ignore the whole. Any act – slapping, running prisoners headfirst into walls, stress positions, sleep deprivation, waterboarding, use of insects in confined spaces – is bad enough on its own, but can be made to seem minor annoyances in isolation. But when these techniques are combined they become deadly. We have the bodies to prove it.

[Emphasis mine, obviously.]  Most of the time Andrew relies on restating the specifics — in a rhetorically sharpened form, of course — of what happened to many detainees in U.S. custody, in order to dismiss his opponents’ theorization or abstractions in the torture vs more-than-politely-asking debate. (Funny how there are topics, such as recommending the candidacy of Ron Paul for a positive contribution to Conservative debate, when Sullivan turns a blind eye to radicalism by refusing to mention any specifics, and reiterates an argument based on theorization and abstraction.)

As in the second quote, sometimes when making his case that all Bush’s “enhanced interrogations” were torture, and all current calls for “enhanced interrogations” are calls for torture, Andrew seems to worry that the basic facts of the situation will abandon him. What if they only condemn the Bush administration for specific acts, against specific people, in the past, and don’t add up to a “torture regime” — a label in which he groups the U.S. circa 2000-2010 and some of the most evil autocracies and juntas in history — but merely a government that used torture, one of the most evil mistakes a democracy can make?

I do want to examine how Andrew argues for the final statement in the first quote, “This is what ‘under coercive conditions’ actually means.” What if someone reads his long description and says, “Yes, every example as you formed it is one of torture, pure and simple. But I will furnish you with examples of ‘coercive conditions’ that compare favorably to your list and I challenge you to show me why they constitute torture or why they would lead to torture.” And why hasn’t Glenn Reynolds or Clifford May responded to Andrew in exactly this way? Speaking of all the complaints about Andrew’s effectiveness and inner motivations — isn’t that strike against theirs?

To be continued soon.

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