Tuesday, July 19, 2005


On Friday, I was driving to work at the usual time, listening to the usual radio show I listen to most mornings. It's an entertaining show. Even though it follows a time-worn format of pairing a conservative with a liberal and watching them butt heads, thanks to the personalities of the pair, it's done in a highly entertaining way and has become part of my usual morning routine. This time around, the usual conservative half of the duo wasn't around and was being filled in for by another conservative from the station. A story came on about the chemist suspected of being the mastermind behind the London bombings, Magdy Elnashar, who was captured in Cairo and how he was being questioned by Egyptian authorities with British representatives "in attendance." The conversation turned to the use of torture and whether the British were in essence letting the Egyptians torture the suspect to get information that they would use. Eventually, it led to the question of how far it was acceptable to go in getting information and whether the U.S. and Britain were in essence "farming out" torture to countries like Egypt, to get around our legal prohibitions on such tactics.

It was at this point that a caller named Chris came on the air. Chris had to be one of the scariest callers I've ever heard, even back when I used to listen to conservative talk radio a lot.

Chris's basic attitude was that it was OK to do "whatever it takes" to get information out of this suspect, whatever the Egyptians wanted to do. It's well-known that Egypt has an authoritarian regime that is not averse to engaging in torture when it considers it in its interest to do so; consequently, the unease some of us have at leaving suspects in Egyptian custody (or the custody of any of a number of authoritarian regimes in the Middle East or elsewhere). In essence, leaving prisoners in the hands of such regimes is all too often an obvious means of getting around human rights restrictions that countries like the U.S. and Britain are bound by. Chris, of course, had no problem with that. Then, in order to see how far Chris thought we should be willing to go, the liberal half of the duo started asking him specifically what "whatever it takes meant" by using specific examples of torture techniques that Egypt has been accused of doing (paraphrased from memory):

After Chris had ranted a bit about how we have to do what it takes to get the information, the liberal half of the duo asked if it would be acceptable to "rough up" a suspect Andy Sipowicz-style to get information about the bombing.

"If that's what it takes," Chris said.

What about physical torture?

"If that's what it takes," Chris said.

What about torturing the suspect's wife in front of him to get information?

"If that's what it takes."

What about killing the suspect's wife in front of him?

"If that's what it takes."

What about torturing his children in front of him to get him to talk?

"If that's what it takes."

Chris's blithe advocacy of torture seemed to bother even the conservative half of the duo, who appeared to have decided at this point to try to give Chris an out by saying that Chris really didn't mean that torturing children in front of suspects was justifiable. Chris would have none of it. He reiterated that he had no problem with any of the above tactics to get information out of terrorists.

Thank heaven a commercial break came up.

I suppose neo-fascists like Chris have always existed in conservatism (and have always made me uncomfortable), but for some reason I seem to notice them a lot more now than I used to. Considering the existence of someone like Chris, who has no apparent qualms about advocating the use of torture and or even the intentionally torture of innocents (like a terrorist suspect's wife and children) as a tool to get information, I wondered how he could think the way he does, how the liberty and rights that the Founding Fathers fought a seven year-long war to secure could mean so little to him. Granted, in this case, it was not the U.S., but I doubt Chris's attitude would have been different towards our detention of suspects for so long without trial at Guantanamo Bay.

Maybe I'm reading too much into Chris, but let me speculate for a moment. The answer, I think, is that people like Chris divide the world into "us" (meaning the patriotic and righteous--as he imagines himself to be) and "them" (enemies). Knowing that he is on the side of the righteous, Chris is unconcerned that he would ever fall victim to the human rights abuses that he espouses for others, because he knows he has not done anything wrong. It never even enters his mind to him that his government might ever make a mistake, might arrest the wrong person, might allow the wrong person to be tortured for information about terrorists that he doesn't have. If the government has arrested someone, people like Chris reason, that person must be guilty of something. Also, because he considers "them" to be somehow not quite as human as he and not as deserving of the rights he takes for granted, Chris considers it entirely justified to imprison them without access to due process, all in the name of what he perceives to be the protection of innocent lives.

One of the ironic things I've noticed about people like Chris is that, for all their support of government heavy-handedness in dealing with criminal and terror suspects, in other areas they are usually extremely mistrustful of the government. They don't want the government taking their guns (with their favorite amendment seemingly being the Second Amendment); they don't trust the government to tax them fairly and administer social programs; they don't trust it to keep crime under control; they don't seem to trust the government to do almost anything, it seems. Yet, when it comes to identifying a regime that supposedly had weapons of mass destruction and launching pre-emptive war, many of them are all for it, believing the government's line about the rationale for war, no matter how tortured. They trust that the government got it right and label those who express doubt about the war or are outright dissenter as traitors. When it comes to identifying terrorists, they trust the government enough that they don't care if these suspects are detained without due process or even farmed out to authoritarian regimes for torture. In extreme cases like Chris, they don't even care if innocent people are tortured in the name of protecting us from terrorists. They'll advocate mass internment of groups of suspects if they are told it will make them safer.

People like Chris scare the hell out of me. They are anathema to what conservatism should be about, namely limited government and increased individual freedom. Unfortunately, either there are more of them out there than there used to be or they are simply more vocal. Either way, the more I hear from them, the more I fear for our civil liberties.

17 example(s) of insolence returned:

At 7/19/2005 6:26 AM, Blogger OutEast said...

We'll have you describing yourelf as liberal yet, Orac:)

Nice post!


At 7/19/2005 7:20 AM, Blogger Orac said...

Not so fast. There's not that much difference between libertarian tendencies and liberalism...


At 7/19/2005 8:35 AM, Anonymous Bistroist said...

Apropos, it may serve your point to notice that the detained Egyptian may not have had anything to do with the bombings.

Good rant. Your kind of conservatism will be much needed to run the party once the current brand of neofascistm are out.


At 7/19/2005 9:02 AM, Blogger Rockstar Ryan said...

After enough torture, I think anyone would confess to something they didn't do. Hasn't this been proven time and again? See: Spanish Inquisition. Not a very good way to find the truth.


At 7/19/2005 9:20 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I suspect that these folks are just more vocal now - the current climate is hospitable to them.



At 7/19/2005 10:37 AM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

I agree with you about the deplorable, even frightening nature of the comments, but I don't understand the linking to conservatism.

If you live near a large university or elite college, take a walk through their Poli-Sci, Anthro, Sociology, Literature, etc. Department offices and look at the posters, signs, announcements, reading lists, etc. lying around and you'll find many leftist advocates of causes, ideologies, and regimes that commonly engage in all the practices that radio caller could only hypothesize about.

I'm afraid that resisting this evil impulse to torture is about far more than a political identity.


At 7/19/2005 10:40 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Not a very good way to find the truth.

Not quite true. If you are looking for quick (tactical information) torture is effective. Also depends on your definition of torture. Making them wear panties on thier head, or do stupid dog tricks, or shooting a pistol by their ear is not torture to me!
Selective use of physical/psychological torture is an effective tool in the arsenal.


At 7/19/2005 12:05 PM, Blogger IAMB said...

Ever had a gun go off next to your ear? It's more than just uncomfortable- it can be flat out damaging. The magnitude of said damage will, of course, be proportional to the round involved. Panties on the head and dog tricks do no permanent physical damage. A gunshot quite possibly will.


At 7/19/2005 1:00 PM, Anonymous Martin Wagner said...

Jeff Z: While I agree there are obnoxious left-wing extremists, I've never heard one blithely endorse the killing of someone's children. Can you give examples of these people who seem to be all over your campus?

In my experience, left-wing extremists might spike a few trees, but few seem to have the crazed bloodlust of the right-wingers, who are only too happy to do things like blow up government buildings with truck bombs and gun down abortion doctors to show how "pro-life" they are. I don't like extremists of either stripe, but I do at least feel physically safer around the leftists than the rightists.


At 7/19/2005 1:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

"Ever had a gun go off next to your ear? It's more than just uncomfortable- it can be flat out damaging"
As a matter of fact yes I have. My point was that it may damage his hearing, hurt, but I would rather that than lose my squad of men(Remember the officer who did this and saved his command??) Torture would have been sticking broomsticks in his ear and twirling them. That is unacceptable!
Making the man fear for his life is justifable.


At 7/19/2005 2:03 PM, Blogger Paul said...

Perhaps the presenter should have got more personal - "Would it be OK to torture you in front of him to get the information?"


At 7/19/2005 3:29 PM, Blogger IAMB said...

I would also, in a military situation, rather resort to almost anything than to lose those under my command who place their trust in me. Absolute trust in your commanding officer is crucial to the survival of a unit. My point is that we, who have placed ourselves as the moral authority, should at least try to stick with interrogation methods that cause no permanent damage lest we sink to the level of those whom we are combatting. I understand that this may not be possible at all times, but I still contend that firing a gun next to somebody's head is, in fact, torture as the results may be permanent physical damage.


At 7/19/2005 3:52 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Guess we will have to disagree IAMB.
To me there is damage and then there is DAMAGE, and to be honest I don't care if an enemy loses his hearing or suffers pain if it helps me save my troops. I don't agree with torture, but I may disagree with what you call torture.


At 7/19/2005 4:14 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

As a left-leaner myself, I just want to say: man, I wish there were more - lots more - conservatives like Orac.


At 7/19/2005 5:01 PM, Anonymous Mark Paris said...

You are right to fear someone like this. He sounds a lot like Eric Rudolph to me. Rudolph thought anything was OK in his own struggle, and remains entirely unrepentant to this day.

The Rudolph case also presents a pretty good argument against torturing "guilty" people for information. If you recall, the FBI was convinced someone else was responsible for the Olympic Park bomb. Despite a total lack of evidence, they played that person's name publicly in the print and electronic media, begging for information on him. Lucky for him they didn't torture him for a confession. But I suppose his innocence would have been merely an inconvenient and irrelevant issue in the larger scheme of things.


At 7/19/2005 11:23 PM, Blogger JM O'Donnell said...

"See: Spanish Inquisition. Not a very good way to find the truth."


In any event, people like Chris are good examples of individuals who shouldn't be allowed to run a country. There has to be a limit to how far you are prepared to go to extract information out of people that you don't know for certain are really terrorists!


At 7/20/2005 11:58 AM, Anonymous Jeff Z said...

Martin Wagner: Good point, but what I said was people that endorse the regimes that do this stuff. To me, it amounts to the same thing. By the way, I don't mean it in a, "They do it too, so there!" kind of way, but in the sense that there is a human tendency to justify doing evil in the name of goodness (and I wouldn't say there are not extreme-very, very extreme--situations where it might have to be considered) that must be guarded against, regardless of one's political opinions. I certainly wouldn't exclude myself from this impulse, by the way, and, as I told my wife just this morning, I am the very epitome of civilized enlightenment.


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