Two Wrongs Make a Right Mess

U.S. Senator Cruz speaks to members of the Texas Federation of Republican Women in San Antonio, Texas

(Image: Reuters/Joe Mitchell)

It is enhanced interrogation, it is vigorous interrogation, but it does not meet the generally recognized definition of torture….I would use whatever enhanced interrogation methods we could to keep this country safe. 

– Ted Cruz

Ted Cruz believes torture is wrong. So it’s a good thing waterboarding doesn’t “meet the generally recognized definition” of torture. Otherwise, how could he excuse using it to torture people?

Incidentally, we don’t know who he means when he says “generally recognized.” More than likely, it’s anyone who agrees with him that waterboarding isn’t torture. Or, anyone who knows it is but wants a loophole that allows them to do it anyway.

We also don’t know, because he didn’t say (nor did anyone ask him), where he got his claim that the legal definition of torture specifies “excruciating pain that is equivalent to losing organs and systems.” The UN definition references “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person” and which is undertaken “at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.”

I dunno. Sounds like waterboarding to me…

Of course, Cruz at least tried to maintain a foothold on the moral high ground. Then there’s Trump, who in characteristic fashion hurtled the wall between good and evil and left it in the dust: “I would bring back waterboarding and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” The Donald may be right: Ted Cruz may not have a heart. But it’s fairly obvious that Trump has no conscience. It’s not that he’s not aware of the difference between right and wrong. He just doesn’t really care.

So, we have one guy who’s at least inferentially open to whatever form of torture is most likely to yield results, and another guy who’s redefined the concept of torture into near meaninglessness, so that he can do whatever he wants. And, heading into New Hampshire’s primary, these are the two Republican front-runners.

See, hard as David Muir tried to shed light on a murky subject (murky, at least, to those who believe ends justify means), he only granted the candidates leeway to make it even murkier. Why? Because the question he asked wasn’t the question that needs asking.

Not “Is waterboarding torture?” Because if we can argue, however transparently, that it is not, then we can remove it from the larger conversation of right versus wrong. If torture is wrong, but waterboarding isn’t torture, then waterboarding may be conceived of as value-neutral, merely a tool of truth’s trade. And so “enhanced interrogation techniques” enters the American lexicon, by way of dodging moral obligation and our own national rhetoric.

The real question is this: “Whether or not it fits Webster’s definition of torture, is waterboarding right?”

We can say, with Marco Rubio, that there is a difference between law enforcement and anti-terrorist operations–which, while true, avoids the question instead of answering it. Does the presumed urgency of a situation alter its moral nature, or our obligations within that situation? Maybe yes, maybe no–either way, we have a much richer conversation here than with either Cruz or Trump.

But even Rubio’s dodging the question: this is as much about where we’ve been as it is about where we’re going. So much of our self-image as a nation seems to rest on a fictitious moral superiority that, when the least bit of scrutiny is applied, vanishes in a puff of smoke and mirrors. And we know it. And it scares us. So we jingo all the more.

You see, we never ask the same question Muir never asked the Republican candidates last Saturday night: Is what we’re doing right? We never ask; we just assume it is because of Who We Are. We are America, Land of the Free and Home of the Brave. And our shit smells of rose petals and lavender water.

If any other nation on earth treated American prisoners the way we have treated Middle Eastern prisoners, we would go to war. (Incidentally, perhaps we’ve solved the riddle of continued radicalization around the globe.) Just like if another nation tapped our president’s phone; or anytime another country shows signs of developing nuclear capability. We can do whatever we want, and it’s in the interests of Truth, Justice and the American Way. If anyone else does it, they’re chalked up as a Bond villain at best, the devil himself at worst.

As we gear up for November, and face the real possibility of having our own raving megalomaniac at the switch (pick your poison), it pays to think these things through. Newton taught us that every action produces a reaction; the Eastern sages taught us that karma’s a bitch; and anyone who ever ran up to a moving carousel knows that what goes around comes around, and tends to knock one on one’s ass.

We cannot just assume we are right, or change the definitions whenever it suits us. What we do as a country, who we are as a people, how we behave ourselves as global citizens–these things matter. And there is more than semantics at stake here. If a given action is deemed evil when enacted by our enemy, then it is equally evil when we do it ourselves, no matter how just we judge our goals to be.

Two wrongs do not make a right. No matter how hard we insist that they do.

 

One thought on “Two Wrongs Make a Right Mess

  1. All of this! Yes. You’ve said so many important things in this post. What confounds me even more is that torture doesn’t even seem to save lives or get us accurate information. So why is this even a discussion?

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