Just Trust Us
*The story that served as the impetus for this post is a little dated, but this post, well…you’ll see*
On Thursday, Dana Perino, the White House’s new official liar, brought out the old “we don’t torture” mantra in response to the New York Times’ revelations about U.S. endorsement of torture. When asked to elaborate, she used the old “we won’t tell you because the enemy is listening” rationale: “You don’t hand over your game book to the opposing team.”
You see, children, the enemy trains itself to resist interrogation. If they know what we do, they will be better prepared to resist. Mind you, we don’t torture. You’ll have to take our word for it. Trust us. But we can’t answer questions about our interrogation techniques.
Fact: the torture methods are already well known, and have been public knowledge for years now. The notion that we’re not being told in order to protect us is another insult to our integrity and conscience. The Bush regime wants the American people in the dark as much as possible because our knowledge threatens their power.
“Just trust us” is not within the American tradition. If anything, it’s an ancient royalist concept of obedience to divinely ordained authority. If all we needed was to trust that our masters were doing the right thing, there would be no need of representation by legislatures, or trial by jury, or a Constitution, or for that matter, the vote. “Just trust us” is merely a doctrine of submission to a paternalistic power, like peasants submitting themselves to the will of an Emperor. This republic was not founded on trust, but in fact on a wise and healthy mistrust of the human capacity to govern itself without proper checks and balances. So for the government to refuse to give an account of itself, to keep the people in the dark as a matter of principle, is an inherently un-American philosophy. It’s a philosophy much more in keeping with dictatorships such as China or North Korea.
The Bush regime must make the pretense of being moral, because an amoral political philosophy of pure power is not completely acceptable to most Americans. Therefore we get this infantile insistence that “we do not torture.” They do in fact torture, and have been torturing for years now, but the denial is necessary in order to keep the mass of people, who are generally uninformed, in a semblance of moral comfort and apathy. It doesn’t matter if the statement has repeatedly been shown to be false, as long as this information is confined to a relatively small educated segment of the populace.
As part of this strategy of deliberate obfuscation, concepts which are incompatible can be combined without much consequence. Thus Perino emphasized several times that we haven’t had another terrorist attack here since 2001. The implication is that torture has helped prevent such attacks. (But of course we don’t torture.) Bush himself has used this ploy, as when he credited “tough” tactics last year in the cracking of terrorist suspect Abu Zubaydah. (The narrative concerning Zubaydah was a lie, but we can generally assume that any statement of fact by Bush is a lie.)
The moral stance is flimsily transparent. The real message, the red meat thrown to the rightist base, is that torture is good when used against the enemy. If you’ve got bad people who want to kill you, then you’re justified in torturing them. This really appeals to the basest, most primitive human elements, the part of us that hates and wants to make the enemy feel the pain of vengeance. I think this element is a big part of what motivates the base—pure rage and hatred against enemies. And “the enemy,” we know, is domestic as well. It includes liberals, leftists, feminists, etc., so implied in this appeal to the base is the prospect of using torture against the “domestic” foe as well.
Conservatives used to decry the “moral relativism” of the left. What could be more relativist than this desire to justify torture? If we can torture an enemy, who is going to decide what the definition of “enemy” is? What’s to prevent me or my family from being designated an enemy, if I protest, dissent, or say the wrong thing? If a Democrat were in the White House—say for instance Hillary Clinton—what’s to prevent the government from declaring anti-abortion groups as the enemy? But you see, when their political opponents do it, it’s wrong; when it’s their guy doing it, it’s right. This is the quintessence of moral relativism. It’s government by men instead of laws.
The use of public discourse as a means to hoodwink the uninformed masses is perhaps best epitomized by the “ticking bomb” argument. We recently witnessed the grotesque spectacle of a Supreme Court justice, Antonin Scalia, using the fictional character Jack Bauer from the TV show 24 to argue for torture. “Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles…He saved hundreds of thousands of lives…Are you going to convict Jack Bauer?” The utter contempt that this argument demonstrates is breathtaking. We’re considered so stupid that we will accept the confusion of a TV thriller with reality, by a Supreme Court justice no less.
When the ticking bomb defense comes up (and it does, frequently), I haven’t heard anyone ask, “So is that what we’re facing in these cases? Are we racing against time here to dismantle an atomic bomb? And if not, what possible relevance does this argument have to the debate on torture in Guantanamo and elsewhere?”
To which the Fox viewer might reply, “Yes, this is a ticking bomb. These terrorists are out to get us.” Who decides which person is a terrorist, and who gets tortured to save us from this metaphorical ticking bomb? The Preznit, of course. Just trust him.
Which brings me to another subliminal argument going on underneath all this talk of game plans and scorecards and tough tactics. The secret message is: “These weak, pansy liberals are more concerned about the rights of dirty Arab killers than they are about you, Mr. Decent White Guy, and your decent white family. So publicly we’ll say that we don’t torture (wink, wink) to keep these do-gooders at bay. But we know, don’t we, friends and patriots, that your glorious leader is doing whatever it takes to keep America strong, and if that means attaching electrodes to the balls of some filthy wog, then so be it. We’ll do what we have to do, like true manly men, and we’ll deny it so that the liberal traitors can’t sabotage our righteous work.”
We wonder why the constant exposure of lies hasn’t brought this regime down. I’ll tell you a story. I had a t-shirt made with a big picture of that hooded prisoner from Abu Ghraib on it. The shirt says, “If these are our values, we’re losing more than a war.” Yes, it’s provocative. I was wearing it a couple of weeks ago when I was in line at the grocery store. The cashier looked at me with a quizzical expression. “If these are our values…” she said, “What does that mean?” “I had this shirt made myself,” I answered. “The picture is from Abu Ghraib.” Can you guess what she said?
“What’s Abu Ghraib?”
I told her it was the prison in Iraq where they tortured people. She said, “You mean our soldiers?” I said yes. She said, “Oh. I…don’t like to think about the war.”
This person was not hostile, just curious. And I don’t blame people for not wanting to think about the horrific things going on in this world. But it was an eye-opener for me because I assumed everyone had heard of Abu Ghraib. The torturers have shown themselves less naive than I in this regard. They know that most people don’t pay very much attention to the news, beyond the most superficial aspects.
They count on it.