Krauthammer's psychopathic utilitarianism

>> Friday, May 01, 2009

This started as an update to today's intended post, but grew long enough to justify breaking up. You should probably read that post first, before you come back to this one.

Charles Krauthammer addresses some of these points in an op-ed piece in the Washington Post today, and unsurprisingly seems to draw the wrong conclusion. But what really makes his piece rich is the following bit of amoral Machiavellian posturing:

Some people, however, believe you never torture. Ever. They are akin to conscientious objectors who will never fight in any war under any circumstances, and for whom we correctly show respect by exempting them from war duty. But we would never make one of them Centcom commander. Private principles are fine, but you don't entrust such a person with the military decisions upon which hinges the safety of the nation. It is similarly imprudent to have a person who would abjure torture in all circumstances making national security decisions upon which depends the protection of 300 million countrymen.

(emphasis added)

It's that mentality, which is simply, plainly cretinous, that explains why America has frequently gotten the leaders we deserve and not the leaders we've needed. "Private principles are fine, but...." Yes, clearly: why would you want a President or Congressman to have scruples? Never mind the irony of the specific fact that the central theme of Mr. Bush's 2000 presidential campaign was that he would restore honor and character to the White House--there's no need to tar Mr. Bush with Mr. Krauthammer's blatant assholery, even he doesn't deserve it and it's only fair to consider that Mr. Bush may, like Lyndon Johnson decades before him, have agonized over the moral consequences of his bad decisions (I am trying to be even-handed, here, and give Mr. Bush some small benefit-of-doubt that may be unearned). No, consider what Mr. Krauthammer is saying as a matter of general principle: it's okay for moral people to exist as marginal characters, like conscientious objectors, just don't give them any actual responsibilities because they'll only mess everything up. (Actually, maybe he's onto something: Richard Nixon was raised a Quaker, and we all know how that turned out; then again, there's no evidence Mr. Nixon actually learned anything from his spiritual upbringing, so nevermind.)

In essence, Mr. Krauthammer's specious argument is a rationale for electing psychopaths to office. After all, if the safety of the nation at the expense of its soul is the only consideration, then where do you draw the line in Mr. Krauthammer's ends-based (a)moral calculus? A psychopathic President and Congress will not merely be willing to order torture and send men and women in uniform to their possible deaths without flinching, but together are presumably capable of taking all other steps necessary for national security: spying on citizens, rounding up undesirables, establishing work camps where the counterproductive efforts of dissenters and minorities can be channeled into useful production of matériel for the mother state, and mass executions if necessary for the general welfare. Mr. Krauthammer isn't defending George Bush, he's defending fascism, making an argument with unplumbed depths that even former Vice-President Cheney wouldn't have contemplated.

Leaving aside the point that Mr. Krauthammer's "facts" are largely wrong--e.g. there's no reason to think establishing a rapport with Khalid Sheikh Mohammed would have failed, since it doesn't appear to have been tried at all before the CIA turned to waterboarding Mr. Mohammed one-hundred and eighty-three times in March, 2003 (i.e. a year-and-a-half after Mr. Krauthammer's "aftermath of 9/11")--the bigger issue is really that his entire apologetic for torture is immoral and wrong, wrong, wrong. And it's baffling that seemingly-moral people will make similar arguments as if they're self-evident: I know few (if any) people who will claim that the end justifies the means in any other context, but as soon as one raises the "ticking time bomb" canard, otherwise empathic, rational and generally decent human beings will totally lose their shit. Utilitarianism has never been so in, but one doubts John Stuart Mill would find any comfort there.

Krauthammer is just as galling when he writes:

(To call some of the other "enhanced interrogation" techniques -- face slap, sleep interruption, a caterpillar in a small space -- torture is to empty the word of any meaning.)

To which one can only reply with the uncivil, "What a total asshole." Mr. Krauthammer disingenuously ignores the fact that torture involves a methodology and routine, and is not merely one simple small act administered once. Indeed, here are other things that are not torture, per Krauthammer's moronic attempt at duplicity: pinpricks, tiny little shocks from a battery, having to hold your arms at an awkward angle, leaky faucets, and the inconvenience of being a little chilly. Accordingly, the iron maiden, electrocution, stress positions and being hung by the arms, the water torture (name notwithstanding), and being hosed down while naked and left in a dungeon are not torture and calling them that is to empty the word of any meaning. Thank you, Mr. K.; where were you when the Ceauşescus needed you the most?

One reason that bit of blather might get more attention from me than it deserves: as I've written in this space before, the thing that gets me most about the caterpillar business is how downright Orwellian it is, echoing the climactic scenes of 1984 in Room 101, in which Winston is presented with the "worst thing in the world." In his case, it's rats; in Khalid Sheikh Mohammed's case it was bugs. The horror in 1984--and the scene is truly a horrific scene--is not that Winston is ever in any real physical danger: Orwell's description makes it quite clear that the small cage into which Winston's head is bound is gated so the rodents can't get anywhere near Winston's face, and anyway it certainly wasn't Oceania's point to have a dissident's face ripped to shreds. No, the horror that Orwell understood and conveyed to a forgetful posterity is the horror of getting inside another person's head and using it to break their soul (Winston betrays the woman he loves within seconds; that's only a spoiler if you're too innocent to be reading the novel in the first place--there's no room for a happy ending in 1984). Orwell's state is a dehumanized one, and Room 101 is the singular, iconic, beyond-all-redemption symbol of the how and why of Oceania's fundamental, nightmarish inhumanity. Is that really what Krauthammer would have us become?

Krauthammer gets one thing right, wrongly: he closes with an indictment of Congressional leaders like Representative Nancy Pelosi for knowing about torture, saying nothing then, and being outraged now. He says Pelosi et al. should have said something then, by which he clearly really means they should shut up now. He's right that they should have said something then, he's right that there's some shallowness or hypocrisy in only laying claim to a conscience now. And that is a national shame and that's a reason Congressional leaders who stood idly by should be investigated and, if merited, censured by their respective legislative body or criminally prosecuted if their actions or inaction rose to such a level as to incur criminal culpability. I suspect that Mr. Krauthammer, being a jackass, mistakes outcry for partisanship; on the contrary, if Democrats behaved unethically or committed crimes, they should be held as accountable as anyone. And if the nation sinned by ignoring what was done allegedly for our sakes and in our names, our sins must be expiated, not buried.


Nathan Friday, May 1, 2009 at 5:07:00 PM EDT  

What I'd like to see would be someone who was actually administering the "enhanced interrogations" to say, "yes, I knew it was an illegal order but I thought it needed doing. I'm willing to suffer the consequences."

I'd disagree with him regarding need, but I'd have infinitely more respect for him than for those up the chain of command. I'd also like to think that would shame some of his superiors into fessing up their part. (I also believe in pink unicorns and pots of god at the end of the rainbow.)

Jim Wright Sunday, May 3, 2009 at 12:54:00 PM EDT  

Well said, Eric, excellent post.

I've spent two days thinking about this post, and realize that I have nothing to add.

Again, great post.

John the Scientist Monday, May 4, 2009 at 2:24:00 PM EDT  

While I generally agree with your post, I would never vote for a pacifist to national public office. In that, Krauthammer is correct.

Eric Monday, May 4, 2009 at 4:18:00 PM EDT  

And that's your prerogative, John--of course if a majority of voters in every state cast their votes for a pacifist and therefore the electors voted for the pacifist, then we would entrust such a person with military decisions upon which hinge the safety of the nation, for better or worse. This is actually a secondary problem with Krauthammer's formulation: while he's right that there's very little chance of electing a conscientious objector to the White House, should the public ever do so, it's the will of the Republic, for better or worse.

Not to mention that Krauthammer's hypothetical is as facile as it is improbable: the fact is that Krauthammer isn't saying that personal principles might have to be reluctantly set aside for the good of the Republic, which would be at least a colorable argument. He's suggesting they have no place at all in governance. I would be far happier with a conscientious objector who reluctantly, agonizingly gives military authorization against his principles than with an unscrupulous President who does, enh, whatever suits him. In the former case, we have one who has done what was necessary after duly weighing what was right, and in the latter case we have a man who shouldn't be trusted with power of any kind whatsoever. The conclusion is the exact opposite of what Krauthammer advocates.

Moral scruples may not be sufficient: if President Bush had any scruples about torturing prisoners, I wish he hadn't authorized torture; but if he had scruples and reluctantly came to a decision, I can at least put him alongside LBJ as a man who did awful things detrimental to the Republic for what he thought were right and honorable reasons. It isn't an excuse nor does it absolve, but it is the fine difference between a tragic figure and a villain.

Krauthammer sketches out an extreme and cartoonish scenario, but it doesn't validate his conclusion.

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