Thursday, September 28, 2006

Falling Up the Slippery Slope

mtreiten mentioned torture in a comment to a previous post of mine. I didn't reply then, because the whole subject depresses me, but then I read Jonah Goldberg's article in National Review Online, which expresses at least a part of my view. I'll try to express a little more of it here, although it's fairly large and amorphous, so I'll probably state it poorly.

What I see Goldberg saying here is that we need to have a serious discussion on just what is and is not torture, and I agree. However, I'm not sure that such a discussion is possible anymore, because the two sides in this debate are literally speaking two different languages. We've known for years about the political power of framing the debate in terms favorable to your side, which is why opponents of abortion call themselves "pro-life" (rather than "anti-abortion") and proponents call themselves "pro-choice" (rather than "pro-abortion").

The problem is that this tendency, along with an exaggerated fear of the "slippery slope," have resulted in people (and I'm going to characterize this as being mainly people on the left with nothing but my own anecdotal evidence to go on - skewer me if you must) defining terms downward until they become almost meaningless.

In a society where simple insults are redefined into hate speech, where normal behaviors can be redefined by the mental health industry as new diseases, where an actor on a Public Service Announcement can say without irony that "tolerance means celebrating our differences," where an insurance company may raise your premium if you have one cigarette a year and where some folks argue that having even one beer constitutes "drunk driving," where moronic celebrities will bleat "First Amendment" when their record sales drop because they said something offensive to their audience, where eating cockroaches is protested as animal abuse (I had more, including at least one on the right, but my brain is going numb), it is not surprising that people will regard hoods as torture.

We are so in horror of falling to the bottom of the slippery slope that we keep pushing things the other way, just to make sure we don't slip. People who live in horror of the Christian Right and Bush's theocracy have no problem pushing their own style of Puritanism on society for our own good.

But torture has a long and rich history, with some weirdly beautiful terms (strappado and bastinado come immediately to mind). Read the Malleus Maleficarum sometime to get a sense of what real torture is, and then try to square that with what we've been debating recently - loud music, cold rooms, hoods. Where is the line between discomfort and torture? My gut says somewhere around waterboarding, but then I think, if we do it to our own troops as training, how bad can it be? Is inducing momentary panic equal to torture? Should we expand the arsenal of allowable techniques based on the extent of the immediate threat (the "ticking time bomb" scenario)?

Oh wait. I forgot. There is no real threat. So we can all just go back to whatever we were doing before. How could I have ever doubted that serious discussion was possible?

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