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The greater aesthetic affront

Dreaming of nukes in the National

Bruce Anderson in the Independent ((Thanks to aeonofdiscord.)) says that, sure, torture is “revolting”, but!

Yet men cannot live like angels. However repugnant we may find torture, there are worse horrors, such as the nuclear devastation of central London, killing hundreds of thousands of people and inflicting irreparable damage on mankind’s cultural heritage.

Men cannot live like angels, it is true, because they don’t have wings and not everyone can play the harp. To abjure torture, evidently, is to live like an angel, ie a mythical creature of absolute good and infinite self-control who doesn’t exist. Only angels would refuse to torture one another, and we are not angels, therefore torture is okay!

Plus there are worse horrors than torture, such as nuking our cultural heritage? And so we should definitely torture anyone who is plotting to nuke our cultural heritage. What’s that you say? It’s not yet possible for terrorists to nuke our cultural heritage? Just you wait!

Admittedly, there is no evidence that the terrorists are in a position to produce dirty bombs yet, let alone fully nuclear devices. But we know one thing about technology. It spreads. Difficult processes become easier. Today’s remote possibility becomes tomorrow’s imminent danger.

Ok, so no one is currently plotting to nuke our cultural heritage, but technology spreads, and in the future we will definitely see, along with flying cars, iPads, and computer programs that can produce maniacal pro-torture op-eds, terrorists planning to nuke our cultural heritage – and we’d damn better torture those guys.

There have been frequent objections to the use of the term “war on terror”. None has been cogent.

Evidently, Anderson has not read pp152–162 of Unspeak?

Moving swiftly on: hey, the Elizabethans used torture, and yet some of them also wrote some excellent plays, so torture is really fine?

Our enjoyment of Shakespeare and Elizabethan madrigals is not blighted by Walsingham’s rack-masters in the Tower of London. We lament the premature death of Robert Southwell, but despite Tyburn and the rack, we would still speak of Elizabethan civilisation. So let us be more generous to the Pakistani authorities. Their difficulties are at least as great as those faced by Francis Walsingham and Robert Cecil in the 1590s. Can we blame the Pakistanis for employing some 1590s methods?

1590s methods are cool, but technology progresses, so 2000s methods might be even better. And luckily on that point, the Americans have been conducting some useful research into robust interrogation methods:

Even so, there is one benefit from the Americans’ experiments with robust interrogation methods: water-boarding. Christopher Hitchens wanted to demonstrate that it was absurd to demonise water-boarding and that it was only girlie-man’s torture. So he subjected himself to it. He cried off after seven seconds. That is comforting, and not only to Mr Hitchens’s critics. Thus far, there has been no need for either the UK or the US to consider torture, because neither of us has been confronted by a ticking bomb. As a result of the Hitchens trial run, we know that we have something which could work.

So let me see: the fact that Christopher Hitchens could not tolerate forced partial drowning means that it is torture, which is brilliant, because we need us some torture that “could work”, just like the repeated forced partial drowning of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed worked so well in persuading him to confess to being Jack the Ripper and Zorro, and having plotted to blow up the Moon? Of course, there is a slight failure of fact at this point in Anderson’s insane babble: the claim that “there has been no need for either the UK or the US to consider torture” is auto-refuted by his glad acceptance that forced partial drowning is torture, since it is a matter of record that forced partial drowning has been eagerly practised by the US on many of its prisoners — at the acknowledged behest of dead-eyed calcified-potato-head evilist Dick Cheney, who squeaked only the other day: “I was a big supporter of waterboarding.”

But never mind actual historical facts, let’s stick to those unhinged fantasies about nuking our cultural heritage — with “a ticking bomb”, hidden in an art gallery!

There is a threat not only to individual lives, which is of minor importance, but to our way of life and our civilisation. Torture is revolting, but we cannot substitute aesthetics for thought. Anyway, which is the greater aesthetic affront: torture, or the destruction of the National Gallery?

Well, since you ask, I consider that the greatest aesthetic affront in all this is that any old falsehood-riddled and logically incoherent pro-torture rant is in our day considered a sign of political seriousness, and such minatory gibberish from a wannabe-manly mafflard with dishwatery broccoli soup for brains and a spittlesome fetish for comic-book fantasy violence can be printed in an ostensibly serious newspaper. But perhaps that’s just me?

  1. 1  Ricardo  February 16, 2010, 11:44 am 

    There was I thinking that the Enlightenment was part of my “cultural heritage”

  2. 2  Freshly Squeezed Cynic  February 16, 2010, 3:10 pm 

    And people said that Rod Liddle would drag down the reputation of the Independent; I think Bruce Anderson’s pathetic argument does more damage than any number of racist comments from monkeymfc.

  3. 3  Dave Weeden  February 16, 2010, 3:24 pm 

    Particularly good, Steven.

  4. 4  dsquared  February 16, 2010, 3:45 pm 

    One day, with the spread of technology and all, somebody will invent a torture that is just as effective as waterboarding, but which as well as persuading people to talk, will be usable to get them to shut up. I volunteer Bruce Anderson to be the Hitchens of this future genius.

  5. 5  John Fallhammer  February 16, 2010, 4:23 pm 

    Someone must have given the fucking arsehole a DVD box set of “24” for Christmas.

  6. 6  richard  February 16, 2010, 4:32 pm 

    And yet Anderson’s idiotic waffle is not without value.
    Today’s remote possibility becomes tomorrow’s imminent danger.

    Is this not the perfect all-purpose bullshit rationalisation?
    The attempt to locate Pakistan in the distant past is, of course, an old Orientalist standby, while if I were looking for someone to upbraid for inflicting irreparable damage on mankind’s cultural heritage I might consider the US armed forces that bulldozed the Esagila in order to build a helipad (that’s in central Babylon, which makes me wonder… was the desert outside the well-marked walls of the ancient city not suitable for landing choppers?).

    As for the rest – the casual equation of paintings and people, the rhetorical equivalence of aesthetics and torture – sorry, I just can’t be bothered to engage with it. I applaud you, Steven, for sticking your head in that pig to see just how unpleasant it is inside.

  7. 7  Jives  February 16, 2010, 5:28 pm 

    Excellent post Steven.

    One can almost imagine the repellant sinister Anderson dreaming up patents for the new miniature kiddies racks and reduced-scale electrodes to fit their genitals.And specially sized pliers for their ickle finger nails.

    This psycopath Anderson should be locked away in a very dark place.

    Cannot believe i saw these views in a British newspaper.

  8. 8  Larry Lamb  February 16, 2010, 6:31 pm 

    David Cameron’s biographer is arguing for the torture of children. I’m a little surprised political commentators don’t seem to be mentioning this, but then a politician did use the word “scum-sucker” on Twitter and I’m sure that’s more worthy of note.

    Readers of Private Eye will be familiar with Anderson, of course.

  9. 9  Other Alex  February 16, 2010, 7:08 pm 

    He’s a clever bugger that Bruce Anderson. Makes an immensely aesthetically displeasing statement like “it’s ok to torture children because someone might blow up a painting”, so then everyone runs round saying “oh how ghastly, he’d even torture children” and ignoring the fact that he thinks torture is ok in the first place.

  10. 10  Steven  February 16, 2010, 8:35 pm 

    Of course the fact that we find torture repulsive is not a matter of aesthetics, but of ethics?

    Still, Anderson has done a service in pointing out that anyone who is pro-torture ought, to be consistent about it, to be intensely relaxed about the prospect of torturing children if the right made-up scenario comes along. In a sane world, I suppose this might stand as a reductio of the whole idea.

  11. 11  richard  February 16, 2010, 8:54 pm 

    not a matter of aesthetics, but of ethics?
    Perhaps Anderson’s piece is a reductio of the ethics = aesthetics argument?

  12. 12  Alex Higgins  February 16, 2010, 9:35 pm 

    Reason magazine has already extended the ticking-bomb scenario to cover a case where you have a terrorist who you know for certain knows for certain there is a ticking time bomb which you cannot locate and he won’t divulge…

    …but, luckily, he turns out to be a pervert and he will talk if you agree to rape children in front of him!

    We must invest our security forces with this power at once so they have the tools they need to keep us safe.

  13. 13  Alex Higgins  February 16, 2010, 9:40 pm 

    Incidentally, I generally like Bruce Anderson for the shame and disgrace he continually brings on the Conservative Party by arguing emphatically and clearly for evil.

    A favourite column of mine, which was about not giving money to poor people I think, contained this line which I have tried to reproduce from memory: ‘In a dog eat dog world, we must have the moral courage to be the dog that eats the dog’.

    He used to write speeches for Thatcher and I wish he’d given her that line. Can’t find the original piece though. Maybe Google refuses to store Bruce Anderson in line with its Don’t Be Evil policy?

  14. 14  UnfitImproper  February 16, 2010, 11:39 pm 

    If I was a witch, I’d be worried – we can’t live like angels any more. An end to 300 years of courtroom niceties. There’s nothing frivolous about a cackling crone. To the ducking stool…

  15. 15  Steven  February 17, 2010, 12:12 am 

    Alex H @ 13 — it’s all about moral courage for these people, isn’t it, whether it be the moral courage to eat dogs or the moral courage to torture children? One might even suppose that the writer who so eagerly flags his own moral courage is trying to compensate for what some part of him knows deep down is the grubby cowardice of promoting violence with words.

  16. 16  Tawfiq Chahboune  February 17, 2010, 1:37 am 

    It is said that if everyone in China jumped off a chair at the same time, the Earth would be thrown off its orbit and we would all die.

    Ergo, the Chinese must not have chairs.

    Ah, but there is no evidence that the Earth could be thrown off its orbit by jumping Chinese, or that they would wish to do such a thing.

    Are you willing to take the risk? And anyway that’s just what those crafty Commies would like you to think.

    I’ll fire off an email to Bruce Anderson to inform him of this dastardly plot.

  17. 17  Alex Higgins  February 17, 2010, 1:51 am 

    I’ve got a new ticking time-bomb scenario…

    …you have a terrorist who you know for certain knows for certain there is a ticking time bomb in a major city but you don’t know the location and he won’t divulge it…

    But this enterprising jihadist declares that he will tell you where the bomb is on one condition.

    The CIA must torture Dick Cheney, Bruce Anderson and Alan Dershowitz in front of him for his personal pleasure…

    What should an ethicist do?

  18. 18  Alex Higgins  February 17, 2010, 1:54 am 

    @Steven – quite! Professions of “moral courage” are often swiftly followed by an act of startling, near-depraved cowardice.

  19. 19  YeOfLittleFaith  February 17, 2010, 3:03 am 

    I’ve just discovered this site.
    I think I love you.

  20. 20  Seeds  February 17, 2010, 1:54 pm 

    Alex @ 12:

    The “child-rape as a necessary evil” piece is called Ticking Bombast.

    Probably my favourite title ever, though many of Steven’s are in the running as well.

  21. 21  Sarah Ditum  February 17, 2010, 9:40 pm 

    I suspect that saying “aesthetics” when he means “ethics” is another way for Anderson to insinuate that there’s something *a bit queer* about opposing torture. Although like the rest of the argument, it explodes when he introduces it to the National Gallery line, which I’m going to try in all my disputes from now on. I figure it generates a sort of technical win by confusion: “Why haven’t you done the washing up?” “You wouldn’t want me to wash up THE NATIONAL GALLERY, would you?” (Exit me, winning.)

  22. 22  zebbidie  February 17, 2010, 10:53 pm 

    Mr Anderson is perfectly to torture if he is convinced there is a ticking nuclear bomb (why wouldn’t a suicide bomber just stand next to it and cross the wires?). All he needs to do then is to present himself to the criminal justice system for trial and punishment. After all’ if he is saving 100 thousand lives, his life spent in prison is a small price to pay.
    Wouldn’t anything else be moral cowardice on his part?

  23. 23  Steven  February 17, 2010, 11:05 pm 

    Thinking about it more than it warrants, I have discovered that Anderson’s argument could easily be recruited to make a case for the pre-emptive nuking of China. Indeed, if my calculations are correct, that would actually be 17% less crazy than what he did say.

  24. 24  BenSix  February 18, 2010, 1:20 pm 

    …we would still speak of Elizabethan civilisation. So let us be more generous to the Pakistani authorities.

    There are so many parallels to this…

    Despite Chelmsford and the noose, we would still speak of Elizabethan civilisation. So let us be more generous to the Ugandan witch-hunters…


  25. 25  ejh  February 21, 2010, 7:55 pm 

    I recall Anderson arguing that Jean Charles de Menezes was “the author of his own misfortune”. Plainly he intends never to be in that position himself, preferring to be the author of other people’s misfortune instead.

  26. 26  ukliberty  February 23, 2010, 3:59 pm 


    Mr Anderson is perfectly to torture if he is convinced there is a ticking nuclear bomb (why wouldn’t a suicide bomber just stand next to it and cross the wires?).

    Perhaps the ticking bomb scenario is a Movie Plot Threat (part of Security Theatre – see Bruce Schneier for more security shenanigans).

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