Richard Cohen, Conflicted About Torture


It’s 2013 and Washington Post columnist Richard Cohen is still conflicted about torture. Why? The proximate cause is that he went to the movies, and saw “Zero Dark Thirty,” which impressed upon some viewers the efficacy of torture in unearthing the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden. Cohen considers the movie “fantastic,” Oscar worthy “in the category of ‘thought-provoking.’” The fuller explanation is that Cohen is a crackpot pragmatist.

The radical American sociologist C. Wright Mills coined the term “crackpot realist” in The Causes of World War Three, a broadside against the men, ideas, and habits of mind driving the Cold War to what seemed its inevitable conclusion in 1958. The crackpot realist is that no-nonsense operator, a Dick Cheney or Donald Rumsfeld, who appears cold and hard, capable of making the tough decisions. These decisions are typically cloaked in “high-flying moral rhetoric” (Mills). Problem is, the ‘tough decisions’ of this sort invariably make matters worse.

Cakewalk wars for ‘freedom’ (even when it’s not easy as in Iraq or Afghanistan) rather than uneasy and unsettling peace. The clarity and release of armed force for ‘peace and stability’ over the murk and anxiety of diplomacy.  Bombardment over negotiations (even when the former makes the latter, universally agreed as necessary in the end, more difficult). Problems are solved, and conflicts resolved, through the application of violence (even and especially when they aren’t and can’t be). Robert McNamara and Henry Kissinger’s conduct of the Vietnam War was crackpot realism par excellence. Crackpot realism remains a touchstone in Washington, DC, a vital element of the conventional wisdom that must be accepted should one want to be taken seriously.

Crackpot pragmatism is a close cousin of crackpot realism. The defining characteristic of the crackpot realist is his readiness to use military force under most any foreign policy circumstances regardless of the abundance of alternatives. The crackpot pragmatist is obsessed by what “works,” by what gets the public policy job done now. The crackpot pragmatist has a narrow time horizon; his obsession with practicality extends only to the near-term. He is unconcerned about the fuzzy future, about whether what allegedly works today might create more problems down the road.

Senators Feinstein, Levin, and McCain, Cohen tells us, “protested the film’s depiction of torture as instrumental in locating and . . . killing bin Laden.” This gives Cohen pause because the three are “as a group, a somber lot” (i.e., they are crackpot realists), and because of course, they are powerful people. They may know something he doesn’t because they are privy to “highly classified information” (a crucial, mythical component of the self-justifying system of crackpot realism; ‘trust us, we know secrets’).

The senators’ complaint is a screaming siren for everyone but the torture advocate and the crackpot pragmatist. Feinstein, Levin and McCain voted in congenial bipartisan fashion for unimaginable horror and death over their many years in the Senate, and are ready to do so again, at a moment’s notice. They are Minutemen of Death. They are complicit in virtually all of Bush and Obama’s War on Terror atrocities. These non-gentle souls are sanguine about preemptive war, warrantless domestic spying, indefinite detention, military commissions, extraordinary renditions, drone strikes (even against US citizens), covert operations in dozens of countries and all the rest of the Devil’s Toolbox. They draw the line, however, at torture. But Cohen is unable to follow their lead because he’s bothered by “all these declarative statements about the morality of torture . . . from various journalists.” Such certainty is too “basso profundo” for him. He draws the line instead at what “works,” at what “saves lives.”

That those with first-hand knowledge claim that torture “doesn’t work” is not enough for Cohen. He justifies his stance by pitching it as reasonable uncertainty over unreasonable certainty. Everybody else is so sure of either the evils or merits of torture, but not the crackpot pragmatist. What, after all, of extreme emergencies?

Is it immoral to waterboard someone who knows of an imminent Sept. 11-type attack? Wouldn’t it instead be immoral not to do everything in your power to avoid the loss of thousands of lives? Torture in that case might be hideous, repugnant and in some rarefied way still immoral, but I could certainly justify it. . . . Morality and the clock are, inescapably, connected.

For Cohen, morality only enters our decision calculus should time permit. What became of his discomfort with certainty? He appears ready here to torture “someone who knows” of an imminent attack. How can we be sure this someone knows? By torturing him? Circular logic escapes the crackpot pragmatist. Cohen ought to know that not a single instance of the infamous ‘ticking bomb’ torture-scenario exists (outside Hollywood).

Drawing lines, proscribing certain practices, is what civilized societies do. Those lines are often mere segments, insufficiently bright, or morally wrong; hardly the last word. But whether the practice “works” is what the crackpot pragmatist cares about. Concern for aftermaths, backlash, spiritual death, or moral degradation simply evince a lack of seriousness.

“[I]t would be all right with me,” writes Cohen, “if the government were silent on torture so that no detainee could be confident of civilized treatment or if, in a crisis, an understandable looking away was permitted. Life ain’t neat.” Such a view would’ve placed Cohen in grave danger before the Nuremburg Tribunal. Note the use of “detainee” rather than “prisoner.” Even Cohen might require “civilized treatment” of someone for whom due process was required. Cohen likely believes capital punishment deters those contemplating homicide.

The upside of all the fuss about “Zero Dark Thirty” for Cohen is that “we are getting a robust debate over torture that we should have had years ago.” Where has Cohen been the past decade? Could he truly be ignorant of Bush’s lies—“we don’t torture”–or Alan Dershowitz’s grotesqueries in defense of it? Eight years of official prevarication about torture, and four more of failing to demand accountability for it? This is why Cohen retains his job. Alex Pareene named Cohen the number one “hackiest pundit in America” on his list of thirty pundit-hacks in 2010. His columns since may be even worse. Anything goes in the name of crackpot pragmatism, and inconvenient facts go down the memory hole.

Steve Breyman served as William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow at the US State Department in 2011-12. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

Steve Breyman is a former William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the US State Department.   Steve Breyman teaches energy and environmental policy courses at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute. He serves as EPA Administrator in the Green Shadow Cabinet.   Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

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