Hitchens on torture again
December 12, 2007
Christopher Hitchens thinks the CIA ought to be abolished, according to his befuddled latest column in Slate. What is the latest example of its unfitness? Why, the destruction of those interrogation tapes from 2002. But wait. The reason the CIA destroyed the tapes, according to Hitchens, is a stunningly Machiavellian one:
At a time when Congress and the courts are conducting important hearings on the critical question of extreme interrogation, and at a time when accusations of outright torture are helping to besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world, a senior official of the CIA takes the unilateral decision to destroy the crucial evidence. This deserves to be described as what it is: mutiny and treason.
What exactly is Hitchens trying to say? Unspeak.net reader Peter offers his interpretation:
The implication of the word choice there, so far as I can see, is that the CIA is so set on destroying Bush, even though he’s about to leave office, that it has erased proof of its own agents’ innocence of torture.
Comical though it is, I believe Peter is right in thinking this is what Hitchens is saying: America doesn’t do “outright torture”, and so the CIA has destroyed the video proof that it doesn’t torture so as to hurt America’s reputation. Cunning! But let us trudge more slowly through this swamp.
The paragraph opens by contrasting two notions — that of extreme interrogation and that of outright torture. Now, Hitchens is tediously fond of saying, when it suits him, that a distinction between two things is a “distinction without a difference”, a term borrowed from the law. For example, there is a linguistic distinction between calling someone an “unmarried man” and calling him a “bachelor”, but no substantive difference in the claim of fact before the court. But Hitchens likes to use the concept more widely, glibly to shovel aside inconvenient phenomena. Earlier in this same column, for example, he calls the difference between civilian and military uses of nuclear power a “distinction without much difference”, which might be news to the IAEA.
But presumably Hitchens wants his distinction between extreme interrogation and outright torture to carry some weight, actually to denote a real difference. Extreme interrogation is a “critical question”, the kind of thing about which you soberly conduct “important hearings”; but “accusations of outright torture” are such as to “besmirch and discredit the United States all around the world”, and surely cannot be true.
But what exactly is extreme interrogation? Is it like being questioned by experts? Is it like extreme sports, say snowboarding or BMXing? Or is it more like that sportily named form of torture,
waterboarding forced partial drowning? Is it the kind of thing it obviously makes sense to practise on extremists, since extremity of action is the only language they understand? Or is it just a wordcake that Hitchens impatiently ovened to denote the most macho possible interrogative behaviour that nonetheless falls short of what he, personally, without saying, considers “outright torture”?
We know, for example, that Hitchens smirkingly approves of “rough” interrogation in a fantasy “ticking-bomb” scenario, as he explained in this column in 2005.1 Of course, that “rough” interrogation was itself torture. Is “extreme interrogation” even rougher? Are we finally invited, absurdly, to try to hold in our minds an idea of extreme torture, much worse than your ordinary kind of torture?
No, I don’t think it’s meant that way. Of course, Hitchens doesn’t say what he thinks “extreme interrogation” is, and how it fails to be “outright torture”. I suppose we can be sure, from his indignant protests about presumably ill-founded “accusations of outright torture”, that he thinks
waterboarding forced partial drowning is not torture, since no one denies any more that waterboarding forced partial drowning has indeed been perpetrated against certain “high-value detainees” or clients or what have you. But waterboarding forced partial drowning is torture, and to call it even “extreme interrogation” is to trivialize it. So “extreme interrogation” vs “outright torture” is, in the end, a distinction without a difference. One is merely a clumsy euphemism for the other.
And yet, what power a clumsy euphemism has! It can make all the difference between America’s name being “besmirched” or not; and all the difference between the CIA’s destruction of tapes showing them doing what they were ordered to do by the administration representing a case of cover-your-ass, and it being a plot to bring down the government through “mutiny and treason”! Such is Hitchens’s commitment to obfuscatory Unspeak — even when, as here, it is quite sloppily executed.
- Discussed at length in Unspeak, pp180-2. ↩