Thursday, September 3, 2009

Richard Cohen--Master Satirist

"Call him Ishmael" begins Richard Cohen's latest column.

Apparently, this is a reference to Moby Dick, the tragic tale of a man obsessed with revenge whose baleful charisma managed to infect his crew with his obsession, his mad vendetta. It is, of course, a complex tale, but ultimately a tale of hatred gone mad, a hatred that curdles the blood, darkens the soul and drives one to the brink of insanity. This vengeance drove Ahab and his crew on to self-destruction, so that Ishmael alone survived to tell of it. Indeed, the language here is more reminiscent of Job than any other Biblical book, implying that the self-destruction is a kind of punishment from the Almighty for Ahab's hubris. And Ishmael, as the survivor, is the one who alone learns this lesson, learns of the folly of a fixation on revenge. Thus, while it may appear that Cohen is simply reciting a phrase from a poorly remembered work, a phrase that might give his work a veneer of sophistication and semblance of gravity, the phrase conjures up far more. This phrase conjures up the tale of our own obsession with vengeance, our own White Whale, and of our descent into hell as our nation tortured itself more than its adversary. As we corrupted ourselves, we left the enemy untouched.

Call him a terrorist or a suicide bomber or anything else you want, but understand that he is willing -- no, anxious -- to give his life for his cause. Call him also a captive, and know that he works with others as part of a team, like the Sept. 11 hijackers, all of whom died, willingly. Ishmael is someone I invented, but he is not a far-fetched creation. You and I know he exists, has existed and will exist again. He is the enemy.

This is the terrorist as superhuman, a being so powerful he "exists, has existed and will exist again", ever after amen. It is an enemy whose existence is beyond our power to end--one who will exist even after we kill him--and whose evil lies far beyond our ken, one who can only be destroyed if we sink to its level of depravity and hatred. This imagined superhuman evil is the Moby Dick of contemporary America. We know this being in our imaginations as one invented, one Dick Cheney would have to invent, to maintain our state of constant fear. Just as Moby Dick appears ever on the horizon, ever just beyond our reach, but always known, remembered with tales told in the darkness of the night when the reasoning centers of our brains are lulled to sleep, when only the ancient brain, the hateful, vengeful, fearful brain still wakes.

Now he is in American custody. What will happen? How do we get him to reveal his group's plans and the names of his colleagues? It will be hard. It will, in fact, be harder than it used to be. He can no longer be waterboarded. He knows this. He cannot be deprived of more than a set amount of sleep. He cannot be beaten or thrown up against even a soft wall. He cannot be threatened with shooting or even frightened by the prospect of an electric drill. Nothing really can be threatened against his relatives -- that they will be killed or sexually abused.

The fear is here as well, the fear that dwells deep within the darkest heart of Dick Cheney. There is nothing we can do to this superhuman evil; we needs must destroy the Beast, yet nothing within our power as civilized humans can harm Him. Nay, even the softest wall, the gentlest squeeze--the briefest electrocution--of the testicles, the tiniest threat to capture their children and sell them to a lifetime of rape and sexual abuse are blandishments beyond the civilized world. Where is the harm, they say, in threats of terrorism, of constant fear for one's loved ones? Indeed, surely none could see threats of violence to these loved ones as harmful. Surely none could see the awareness of one's helplessness, one's inability to prevent one's doom or the torture and death of one's loved ones, as in any way harmful or wrong.

Here, in a masterstroke, Cohen shows that the torturer's terrorism is exactly the harm we have endured. The fear we engender in our captives perfectly mirrors the fear Al Qaeda causes us. Al Qaeda terrorizes by threatening us with death at any moment; we terrorize our captives by threatening them--and their families--with death and rape. In fighting terrorism, we have literally become terrorists. To fight the monsters without we have become monsters within.

Our pseudo-intellectual debates about torture are poor disguises for the childish terror within, the night terror of a wailing babe in need of solace but lost in a world without safety or love. We cover over this fear with false sophistication, false complexity. This false sophistication--say, in the form of rhetorical questions--places us at a distance from the reality of our deeds.

This business of what constitutes torture is a complicated matter. It is further complicated by questions about its efficacy: Does it sometimes work? Does it never work? Is it always immoral? What about torture that saves lives? What if it saves many lives? What if one of those lives is your child's?

Are we monsters? Cohen asks. Are we such febrile children that we need to disguise our degradation with feeble rationalizations? Must we hypocritically defend our desire for vengeance, for our bombings and our shootings and our burnings, for the deaths of countless children in Iraq and Afghanistan, of children taken into custody and tortured by our representatives, by masking it in a concern for our own children? Must we continue the pretense that the children he means are not in reality ourselves? Surely, these questions answer themselves.

Attorney General Eric Holder has named a special prosecutor to see whether any of the CIA's interrogators broke the law. Special prosecutors are often themselves like interrogators -- they don't know when to stop. They go on and on because, well, they can go on and on. One of them managed to put Judith Miller of The New York Times in jail -- a wee bit of torture right there. No CIA interrogator can feel safe. The interrogators are about to be interrogated.

Cohen shows us that with torture taken as acceptable, as common practice, one can no longer reject it in the common course of things. If torture is to be done, it can be done to discover the torturers themselves, just as we use it on the imagined terrorists, we must also allow that the torturers, the apologists for torture, should also be subject to it. Indeed, once that floodgate is opened there is no way to justify--save preening self-indulgence and special pleading--withholding torture's application to the CIA, the contractors, and most of all our media and political class that sought to justify these actions. If we consider torture part of the humane and civilized world, we can draw no distinction between polite questioning of a witness to illegality and careful examination of evidence to determine who may have violated the law, on the one hand, and crushing the testicles of a stack of naked detainees, hooded and freezing in sub-zero temperatures, tormented and broken by stress positions, on the other.

Moreover, Cohen advises, the sense of privilege and smugness that our media elite maintains makes them incapable of realizing the real harm they cause to others. They, like sociopaths, see only harm to themselves, no matter how trivial, as of significance while the agony of the man on the rack is of little consequence.

Yet Cohen knows that the media elites will play games, will pretend ignorance, will evade responsibility for the horrific crime of torture. If they pretend to an abhorrence of torture, they may sleep at night while still praying to kill the brutes, to exterminate them all. If only such measures can be proven necessary, we can take our pleasure in them. But, alas, pretends the elite, we shall never know whether it is necessary. Yet we must torture, we must kill and maim, on the off chance that this will prevent harm to us. It is in this pretense of ignorance and high-mindedness that the media elite's viciousness, filled with the secret joy of the sociopathic torturer, hides. Cohen pretends,

Maybe Mohammed [Atta] was waterboarded more than 100 times for nothing. It is an appalling possibility.

I am, as you can see, full of questions. I have, as you can see, few answers.

At last, the media's pretense at sophistication may be torn away and revealed in Dick Cheney's malevolent countenance. We cannot, pretend the media mavens, be associated with him, but we must have our torture. We must!

I am torn between my desire for absolute security and my abhorrence of torture. The one thing I know is that ideology does not provide an answer. For me, it settles nothing that Dick Cheney supported enhanced interrogation and that Cheney was wrong and deceitful on the war. It settles nothing that Cheney defined torture as something so extreme that almost anything less than, say, the rack is permissible interrogation. The issue is not Cheney. The issue is the issue.

The issue is, was and ever shall be, the issue. Nothing other than the issue shall be the issue, and the issue shall be all that it is. Amen. Pass the power drill. So sayeth the media prophets.

The questions of what constitutes torture and what to do with those who, maybe innocently, applied what we now define as torture have to be removed from the political sphere. They cannot be the subject of an ideological tug of war, both sides taking extreme and illogical positions -- torture never works, torture always works, torture is always immoral, torture is moral if it saves lives. Torture always is ugly. So, though, is the hole in the ground where the World Trade Center once stood.

As Cohen brings his cruel satire to a close, he exposes the Beltway pundits final, feeble gesture, the pretended equivalence of obviously distinct extremes. The media will say, says Cohen, that both extremes are wrong. Murdering everyone would be too extreme; murdering no one is too extreme in the other direction. Clearly the best solution is to murder just some. No one but an extremist could object to that.

Cohen's satire is subtle and barbed, both wicked and telling. Swift would be proud: Should the Irish eat their children? Should we torture people based on fantastic fears, covering over our fault with protestations of ignorance, all to satisfy a grotesque lust for vengeance? Surely not, says Cohen's truly brilliant work. I am only glad that none in our enlightened age could mean a word of such an article.

Updated for clarity.

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