FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

Richard Cohen, Conflicted About Torture

by STEVE BREYMAN

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 was a William C. Foster Visiting Scholar Fellow in the Clinton State Department, and serves as an advisor to Jill Stein, candidate for the Green Party presidential nomination. Reach him at breyms@rpi.edu

More articles by:

CounterPunch Magazine

minimag-edit

bernie-the-sandernistas-cover-344x550

zen economics

Weekend Edition
May 26, 2017
Friday - Sunday
Anthony DiMaggio
Swamp Politics, Trump Style: “Russiagate” Diverts From the Real White House Scandals
Paul Street
It’s Not Gonna Be Okay: the Nauseating Nothingness of Neoliberal Capitalist and Professional Class Politics
Jeffrey St. Clair
The ICEmen Cometh
Ron Jacobs
The Deep State is the State
Pete Dolack
Why Pence Might be Even Worse Than Trump
Patrick Cockburn
We Know What Inspired the Manchester Attack, We Just Won’t Admit It
Thomas Powell
The Dirty Secret of the Korean War
Mark Ashwill
The Fat Lady Finally Sings: Bob Kerrey Quietly Resigns from Fulbright University Vietnam Leadership Position
John Davis
Beyond Hope
Uri Avnery
The Visitation: Trump in Israel
Ralph Nader
The Left/Right Challenge to the Failed “War on Drugs”
Traci Yoder
Free Speech on Campus: a Critical Analysis
Dave Lindorff
Beware the Supporter Scorned: Upstate New York Trump Voters Hit Hard in President’s Proposed 2018 Budget
Daniel Read
“Sickening Cowardice”: Now More Than Ever, Britain’s Theresa May Must be Held to Account on the Plight of Yemen’s Children
Ana Portnoy
Before the Gates: Puerto Rico’s First Bankruptcy Trial
M. Reza Behnam
Rethinking Iran’s Terrorism Designation
Brian Cloughley
Ukraine and the NATO Military Alliance
Josh Hoxie
Pain as a Policy Choice
David Macaray
Stephen Hawking Needs to Keep His Mouth Shut
Ramzy Baroud
Fear as an Obstacle to Peace: Why Are Israelis So Afraid?
Kathleen Wallace
The Bilious Incongruity of Trump’s Toilet
Seth Sandronsky
Temping Now
Alan Barber – Dean Baker
Blue Collar Blues: Manufacturing Falls in Indiana, Ohio and Pennsylvania in April
Jill Richardson
Saving America’s Great Places
Richard Lawless
Are Credit Rating Agencies America’s Secret Fifth Column?
Louis Proyect
Venezuela Reconsidered
Murray Dobbin
The NDP’s Singh and Ashton: Flash Versus Vision
Ron Leighton
Endarkenment: Postmodernism, Identity Politics, and the Attack on Free Speech
Anthony Papa
Drug War Victim: Oklahoma’s Larry Yarbrough to be Freed after 23 Years in Prison
Rev. John Dear
A Call to Mobilize the Nation Over the Next 18 Months
Yves Engler
Why Anti-Zionism and Anti-Jewish Prejudice Have to Do With Each Other
Ish Mishra
Political Underworld and Adventure Journalism
Binoy Kampmark
Roger Moore in Bondage
Rob Seimetz
Measuring Manhoods
Edward Curtin
Sorry, You’re Not Invited
Vern Loomis
Winning the Lottery is a State of Mind
Charles R. Larson
Review: Mary V. Dearborn’s “Ernest Hemingway”
David Yearsley
The Ethos of Mayfest
May 25, 2017
Jennifer Matsui
The Rise of the Alt-Center
Michael Hudson
Another Housing Bubble?
Robert Fisk
Trump Meets the New Leader of the Secular World, Pope Francis
John Laforge
Draft Treaty Banning Nuclear Weapons Unveiled
Benjamin Dangl
Trump’s Budget Expands War on the Backs of America’s Poor
Alice Donovan
US-Led Air Strikes Killed Record Number of Civilians in Syria
Andrew Moss
The Meaning of Trump’s Wall
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail