A while ago, Ross Douthat wrote a meandering, self-indulgent post about his feelings on torture, suggesting that while he felt torture was bad, he could also understand why the Bush administration had ordered it, mainly because Douthat himself was kind of scared after 9/11. Glenn Greenwald wrote a fabulous post pointing out that every regime that tortures thinks that it has good reasons for torturing; the point is the crime, not the motivation. Dan Drezner and Josh Cohen talked a bit about torture on Bloggingheads, which led Glenn to write a distinctly less interesting post questioning whether the two were torture “mitigators”. Glenn said yes, Dan said no, Josh said “what?“, Glenn suggested that Dan (and I paraphrase) was a douche, and Dan suggested that Glenn (and I do not paraphrase) tortures puppies. I don’t see it (the mitigation), but mileage may vary.
In the course of this, Glenn wrote:
More simplistic still is the very idea that the motives of Bush officials — including Dick Cheney and Don Rumsfeld — can be reduced to one clear and pure desire: To Protect Us. Even one’s own motives, let alone those of others, are notoriously difficult to ascertain. The certainty claimed by those who are defending Bush officials about what their motives were in torturing is absurd. There are all sorts of reasons to believe that they were motivated, at least in part, by the power that comes from torture, or a desire for vengeance, or the belief that the detainees in our custody were sub-human, or just general indifference to law and morality. How have those ignoble motives been ruled out by their defenders and noble motives so emphatically embraced? Ultimately, though, the reason leaders torture is irrelevant. It’s one of those few absolute taboos, and it’s almost as immoral to seek to dilute that taboo by offering motive-based mitigations as it is to engage in it in the first place….
A “root cause” theory that is deemed unspeakably evil in American discourse when applied to non-Americans is immediately embraced by our elites when we need a way to explain the fact that our own leaders committed unambiguous war crimes.
I have mixed feelings on this. On the question of war crime guilt, I would agree with Glenn, although of course the issue of motivation touches on several aspects of any criminal proceeding. But it also seems that Glenn is suggesting that there’s no utility in investigating the motivations behind torture; this may not have been his intent, but it’s how I read the argument. I suspect that there’s a disjuncture brought about by the difference between the academic and polemical worldview. From the polemicist point of view, it’s quite sensible to invoke the unfair manner in which the “root causes” concept is deployed, and consequently to deny its utility altogether. As an academic, I’m thinking that if an inquiry into the root causes of terrorism or torture is useful for non-Americans, then it’s probably useful for Americans, too. But allowing that, of course, reduces the polemical value of the assertion of criminality; this is true whether the assertion is being made about Americans or Cubans or Saudis or Zimbabweans. I should also note that it’s not my intention to assess any value to either the polemical or academic project, although obviously I have sympathy with the latter.
Regarding those root causes, I can think of a number of ways in which investigating the source of American torture could bear fruit. For one, I have to wonder why “torture porn” seems to provide such a box office draw, and what the relationship is between such porn (and I think that the CSI franchise would be an example of soft core torture porn) and the acceptance of torture in the Bush administration. I’m interested in how the torture narrative developed within the Bush administration, because I’m extremely skeptical that enhanced interrogation methods (so to speak) are actually the result of a serious concern with the safety of Americans. This is to say that I don’t really believe that the people who authorized such methods were primarily motivated by a “pure and clean desire to protect us” (not that it would matter in a criminal sense, anyway). Rather, I very much suspect that an understanding of “toughness” peculiar to the American Right, and in particular a desire to appear tougher than domestic liberals and foreign enemies, drove much of the consideration of the utility of torture. Joel Surnow, after all, put Jack Bauer on the torture train before the Bush administration opened Gitmo.
In some sense, it’s easier to account for torture in Saudi Arabia, Cuba, or Zimbabwe, because the regime in each case understands that torture is useful for destroying opposition political movements, but not so much for gathering intelligence. There’s at least, that is to say, a plausible connection between ends and means. In the American case not so much, and that’s a puzzle. [in comments, Martin rightly calls me out on this; the use of torture in Afghanistan and Iraq is fairly straightforward torture for repression, and has a history in US foreign policy. What's puzzling is the narrative that connects torture with intelligence; this is where the means-end relationship breaks down.] It’s a puzzle worth investigating, however; understanding the motivations of torturers is critical to understanding why torture happened here, and I daresay important to making sure it doesn’t happen again. As such, the stories that torturers tell themselves are valuable, even (and perhaps especially) if those accounts are self-serving.