FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail

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

More articles by:

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

Weekend Edition
September 21, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Paul Street
Laquan McDonald is Being Tried for His Own Racist Murder
Alexandra Isfahani-Hammond
Hurricane Florence and 9.7 Million Pigs
Nick Pemberton
With or Without Kavanaugh, The United States Is Anti-Choice
Andrew Levine
Israel’s Anti-Semitism Smear Campaign
Jim Kavanagh
“Taxpayer Money” Threatens Medicare-for-All (And Every Other Social Program)
Jonathan Cook
Palestine: The Testbed for Trump’s Plan to Tear up the Rules-Based International Order
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: the Chickenhawks Have Finally Come Back Home to Roost!
David Rosen
As the Capitalist World Turns: From Empire to Imperialism to Globalization?
Jonah Raskin
Green Capitalism Rears Its Head at Global Climate Action Summit
James Munson
On Climate, the Centrists are the Deplorables
Robert Hunziker
Is Paris 2015 Already Underwater?
Arshad Khan
Will Their Ever be Justice for Rohingya Muslims?
Jill Richardson
Why Women Don’t Report Sexual Assault
Dave Clennon
A Victory for Historical Accuracy and the Peace Movement: Not One Emmy for Ken Burns and “The Vietnam War”
W. T. Whitney
US Harasses Cuba Amid Mysterious Circumstances
Nathan Kalman-Lamb
Things That Make Sports Fans Uncomfortable
George Capaccio
Iran: “Snapping Back” Sanctions and the Threat of War
Kenneth Surin
Brexit is Coming, But Which Will It Be?
Louis Proyect
Moore’s “Fahrenheit 11/9”: Entertaining Film, Crappy Politics
Ramzy Baroud
Why Israel Demolishes: Khan Al-Ahmar as Representation of Greater Genocide
Ben Dangl
The Zapatistas’ Dignified Rage: Revolutionary Theories and Anticapitalist Dreams of Subcommandante Marcos
Ron Jacobs
Faith, Madness, or Death
Bill Glahn
Crime Comes Knocking
Terry Heaton
Pat Robertson’s Hurricane “Miracle”
Dave Lindorff
In Montgomery County PA, It’s Often a Jury of White People
Louis Yako
From Citizens to Customers: the Corporate Customer Service Culture in America 
Ernie Niemi
Logging and Climate Change: Oregon is Appalachia and Timber is Our Coal
Jessicah Pierre
Nike Says “Believe in Something,” But Can It Sacrifice Something, Too?
Paul Fitzgerald - Elizabeth Gould
Weaponized Dreams? The Curious Case of Robert Moss
Olivia Alperstein
An Environmental 9/11: the EPA’s Gutting of Methane Regulations
Ted Rall
Why Christine Ford vs. Brett Kavanaugh is a Train Wreck You Can’t Look Away From
Lauren Regan
The Day the Valves Turned: Defending the Pipeline Protesters
Ralph Nader
Questions, Questions Where are the Answers?
Binoy Kampmark
Deplatforming Germaine Greer
Raouf Halaby
It Should Not Be A He Said She Said Verdict
Justin Anderson
Don’t Count the Left Out Just Yet
Robert Koehler
The Accusation That Wouldn’t Go Away
Jim Hightower
Amazon is Making Workers Tweet About How Great It is to Work There
Robby Sherwin
Rabbi, Rabbi, Where For Art Thou Rabbi?
Vern Loomis
Has Something Evil This Way Come?
Steve Baggarly
Disarm Trident Walk Ends in Georgia
Graham Peebles
Priorities of the Time: Peace
Michael Doliner
The Department of Demonization
September 20, 2018
Michael Hudson
Wasting the Lehman Crisis: What Was Not Saved Was the Economy
John Pilger
Hold the Front Page, the Reporters are Missing
FacebookTwitterGoogle+RedditEmail