In America, we're taught that it's not always necessary to accept the bad with the good: the Internet has made it so that we can go Christmas shopping without the cumbersome lines, our phones have made it so that we can sit on the toilet without the boredom, and by now we are all used to the infomercials offering pulsating belts and magic pills that will deliver weight loss without the hassle of exercise or dieting.  But this consumerist logic has been pushed to the point of absurdity with the response to the publishing of the Senate’s report on CIA torture. We want to have our wars, but without the torture.
The response from the editorial board of The Washington Post epitomizes this logic. On the newspaper’s website, there is an article titled, “The horrors in ‘American Dungeon’ should never have happened”; scroll down a couple of inches and there is a link to another article by the editorial board, this one titled, “War authorization against the Islamic State should be a priority.”
The Post editorial board first condemned the torture program, which included things like rectal feeding and waterboarding, as ineffective; years of torture didn’t lead to the capture of any militants. But more important was their ethical stand against torture: Torture is just wrong. The editorial board concludes that, “This is not how Americans should behave. Ever.”
So, torture is to be condemned as irrational and immoral, but another round of wars against Islamic terrorists is deemed necessary. The obvious question, then, is: How clear is the line between war and torture? Or, what is waterboarding compared to the immense tragedy of war?
These questions, however, don’t necessarily lead to a pacifist conclusion. One could conclude that brutal CIA interrogation tactics are just a drop in the pond when compared to the horrors of an ongoing war in which more than half a million Iraqis have already been killed. But pondering the relationship between war and torture can just as easily lead to the opposite conclusion, as Dick Cheney showed on his appearance on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” When asked whether the actions detailed in the Senate report constituted torture, Cheney inverted the question: “With respect to trying to define that as torture, I come back to the proposition [that] torture was what the al-Qaeda terrorists did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11.”
A passage from Teju Cole’s novel, Open City, comes to mind. Here Cole is talking about attempts to justify Israel’s violence against Palestinians by evoking the Holocaust, but, to my mind, his logic applies to America’s post-9/11 violence in Iraq:
According to Cole, suffering is only viewed as unique when it is understood to be morally unacceptable. And this concept of “unique suffering” is at the heart of the American response to the CIA torture report. For Cheney, the suffering of those affected by the World Trade Center attacks was unique because American lives are more valuable than others. And since American lives are what matter most, Cheney’s solution to eliminate unique suffering is simple: Wage war after righteous war against foreign peoples whose suffering is morally acceptable so long as it keeps Americans safe.
For the Post’s editorial board, the people that were illegally tortured by CIA operatives have also suffered uniquely because there is no moral justification they can find for rectal feeding. However, the board’s desire to eliminate this type of unique suffering is complicated by the fact that they also support ongoing war. Their condemnation of torture must be predicated, then, on a certain view of history: History is not to be understood as a series of events from which we find inevitable patterns and necessary relations, such as, say, where there is war, there is always torture of enemy combatants.
Rather, in order to justify war while condemning torture, one needs to take the consumerist logic that allows us to have soda without sugar and apply it to the unfolding of history. This view is reflected in Thomas Friedman’s op-ed in The New York Times about CIA torture:
In other words, throughout history, when there is war, there is torture. However, we are Americans! If we want war without the torture, then we will surely find a way. And this means that instead of learning from history, we must instead try to transcend it.
The danger with this kind of thinking is that it’s easy to indulge in thoughts of how the world might ideally be and to forget how the world actually is. After all, aren’t thought experiments fun? If a militant was detained, and he knew about a terrorist plot that was imminent, and innocent people were surely going to be killed, should I torture this man in order to thwart the terrorist plot? Would it be right to torture this man? Would it be American?
But moral fantasies like these are beside the point. If we look into history, where will we find the example of a war without torture? Where is this sterile and rational war, this humane imperial force? Outside of our own minds, it does not exist. This is Teju Cole’s point: It might be comforting to think that morality is always the engine of the world, but history paints a bleaker picture. The ugly practices that the US engages in around the world are not unethical exceptions to the rule that can be slowly chipped away at over time; they’re just the cost of doing business for the world’s military power.
So, like Friedman or the Post’s editors, we can condemn torture as ineffective and immoral; or, like Cheney, we can condone it as a necessary instrument to protect our freedom. But unless we stop waging wars, history shows that the effect will be the same: more torture.
It is when we enter the political realm that America’s “anything is possible” logic finds its limits. Do you want to compose a text message with both hands, but don’t want to put down your beverage? No problem! Try this new iPhone case with a built in cupholder. But what if you’re concerned about the civilians killed by our perpetual drone strikes in the Middle East? You’ll hear that there’s no feasible way to end drone warfare. But don’t worry! The innocent casualties will decrease: the newly designed “Reaper drones” can safely pinpoint a terrorist from miles in the sky with near-perfect accuracy.
Does your love for sugar have you worried about the condition of your teeth? But do you also hate flossing? The solution to your problem is ready-made. Just try the new cupcake-flavored floss. But what if you are worried that the six-fold increase in America’s incarceration rate since the 1960s has failed to decrease crime in the US — what if you’re concerned that the ballooning prison population endures conditions that are often inhumane? You will hear that an end to imprisonment isn’t possible. Instead, you should be confident that prison conditions are steadily improving. All you have to do is open the Times to see an article titled, “You Don’t Have to be a Jew to Love a Kosher Prison Meal.”
There is a thin line between optimism and ideology. And for many of the political problems that we face in the US, there is no quick fix for us to be optimistic about. So, when we are told to imagine a war without torture, are we being told to dream of a better world? Or are we being asked to forget what really happens in this world? Sure, there may be such a thing as soda without the sugar, but there is no such thing as power without its dirty underside.
//Mark Jay is a co-founder of The Periphery.