Although a large portion of the American media—including “liberal” outlets like NPR—continues to abjure the word torture, the release of the Senate’s summary (the report, of course, is classified) seems broadly to have cemented in the public mind that the United States, in the immortal words of one particular winner of the Alfred Nobel Guilty Conscience Dynamite Prize for Achieving a Certain Notoriety in Global Affairs, “tortured some folks.” In fact, it appears that we tortured, raped, and murdered them, but what is the saying? You can’t make an omelet without breaking into a grocery store in the middle of the night and smashing the dairy case with a golf club? It’s something like that, anyway.
This is all pretty straightforward, but America is a post-moral society, and therefore no obvious evil can be condemned without the palliating piping-in of Drs. Efficacy and Outcome. The principle pushers-back are those ineradicable voices pestering our relativist consciences with the crackpot and insistent doubt: what if it worked? And a great deal of the Senate summary addresses precisely this point, dissecting the claims that there is a direct, operative line between shoving a tube into a shackled prisoner’s asshole and pumping saline into his guts while threatening to rape his children to death and whatever money-hungry ex-Navy SEAL claims to have shot Osama bin Laden on a given weekday. Message: it didn’t work.
Well, that’s good to know, but my relief quails at the yawning moral chasm at which our almost-civilization has come screeching to a Wile E. Coyote halt, legs churning air, and the edge, in fact, behind us. Meep meep: what if it did? What if the Senate’s debunking is incomplete? What if, because this is just how the American media and the popular discourse operate, some doubt, some question, some uncertainty remains? Do we then temper our condemnation based on the possibility, however faint, of a desired result?
You can imagine the dark hole that kind of moral accountancy leads into. I mean, by the numbers, the Final Solution was effective. Not a 100% success, obviously, but within the reasonable tolerances for such a large industrial . . . If you can’t, as a society, find it in your metaphorical soul to proclaim—even halfheartedly and just for the cameras—that it is wrong under any circumstances to beat a man near to death, drive him slowly crazy, then chain him to a wall in a dungeon to let him freeze to death, then perhaps it’s time to reevaluate those core values you’ve got tacked to the wall in the break room. If your “Just Hang In There” poster features not just a kitten, but a noose, then perhaps you’re not quite that inspiration after all.