Noun is noun is noun. Period.

A stupid argument from Andrew Sullivan. I don’t read him regularly, so I don’t know if I should add “unexpectedly” as the second word of this post, or not:

The Daily Dish | By Andrew Sullivan
No-one is saying that George W. Bush is the moral equivalent of Khaled Sheikh Mohammed. What we are saying is that torture is torture is torture. Hitchens’ distinction between torture
and “actual torture” is not one of kind but of degree, with degree being measured in levels of sadism. The point is that torture is always evil, whatever its motives, that it leads to false information, whoever implements it, that it is illegal, in America and by Americans, and no one in a constitutional republic has the right to violate the law indefinitely with impunity. There is nothing “diseased” or “lame” about this position.

Sullivan’s argument is so bad, I’m surprised he didn’t conclude it with “Period.”

Properly, what Sullivan wrote is not an argument at all, but a tautology: “Some thing is itself.” Well, obviously. Whether or not it is moral or just to divide torture into meaningfully distinct degrees is an important question, and one that Andrew doesn’t bother to address.

Thanks to Eddie of Hidden Unities for publicizing Sullivan’s mindless post via Google Reader shared items.

9 thoughts on “Noun is noun is noun. Period.”

  1. I agree its not so much an argument, but for a man who writes about torture three or four times a week, he is not required by his readers to articulate clearly every time an argument against torture.

    I apologize for sharing the item and not highlighting the issue I thought interesting, that Hitchens (who is a fine writer and sharp mind) underwent waterboarding to understand the reactions different people have to it and about it and wrote a rather clarifying essay about it.

    Legal advocates like Phillip Bobbitt and Alan Dershowitz for allowing torture under certain, laid-out circumstances decided by higher authority like take pains to note it cannot be allowed to become a normal option or choice. There is a reason for that, much like we do not just bomb countries without careful deliberation of the consequences and a generally clear idea of what we’re attempting to accomplish. Its a weapon in our arsenal, a horrible one by most estimates, but one that I have come to accept has to be kept at the ready.

    The rage that Sullivan and others feel stems from the fact that this was utilized in an incompetent fashion, using tactics (like the one mindlessly copied from a Chinese communist torture technique that was deliberately used by them to elicit false confessions from our GIs). That we beat people half to death, left them to die or did even worse things (outright murder) and gained very little from it, all while interrogating a mix of individuals whom even the military agrees is full of non-valuable suspects and/or innocents.

    The JAG lawyers and judges would not be flagging the sham trials down in Gitmo so thoroughly if this weapon of ours had been used even half-competently.

    As always, per our previous discussions about this, and further reading I have done, I agree torture has to be an option. That it be used so wantonly and wastefully is not what I or others had in mind.

  2. Eddie,

    I think we agree that Andrew Sullivan’s argument is bad. It is unconvincing, and wrong.

    It’s too bad that Andrew Sullivan uses his blog as a vehicle to express his rage. Daily Kos already has a good racket going in that. As I mentioned, I don’t follow Andrew, but if his posts are a result of his feelings rather than reasoning, it would explain other foolish claims by him [1], as well.

    One of the problems with the Daily Kos (and apparently, Andrew Sullivan) style of blogging is that it hurts their readership. Your line mindlessly copied from a Chinese communist torture technique is an example of this. I don’t know what you mean by “mindlessly” (in the manner of a Behaviorist? Without any modification whatsoever?), but I assume you mean it to insult people you don’t like. The rest of your sentence is an example of the genetic fallacy [2]. Should we also criticize Mike’s video [3], because it references those same techniques?

    So all I get your from your line is that

    A) you insult people you don’t like, and
    b) the origin of a technique is a reason to criticize the technique

    Neither is complimentary.


  3. Andrew is knocked by his readers for certain posts that betray a loss of emotional control. Some bloggers (especially those who blog many times a day) tend to do this, and yes, it does harm their arguments 90% of the time.

    Military lawyers have fought within the system the torture policies argued for by lawyers who had controversial (and politically expedient, given some of their prior writings on the subjects they ruled on, especially John Yoo) and arguably flawed views of the law. They have been largely successful in this counter-argument.

    Their success was not able to save dozens of innocent people who were killed in custody via abuse and torture before 2005-2006.

    I argue that if you are going to use a weapon of last resort (i.e. torture), it needs to be justified by events. Given the volumes of testimony and official documents that have been released about the torture of detainees and suspects, we know as of now there has yet to be a single situation where torture was arguably justified.

    The torture of KSM for example is unwarranted, given that he was cooperating with the FBI interrogators (who are now completely re-interrogating him using legal, sound methods because they cannot use evidence produced from torture according to federal law and the UCMJ). He was tortured because VP Cheney and his staff wanted faster intel about KSM’s knowledge. That is not an expedient or justified reason. This is all well-documented in books like “The One Percent Doctrine”. I suggest you skim a few of these and learn about how this weapon of last resort was abused by the fickle whims of politicians.

  4. Eddie,

    Dishonesty is infectious. This is true whether it comes from intellectual laziness (like Sullivan’s) or power seeking (like Obama’s [1]).

    I understand your basic argument to be that torture is a “weapon of last resort.” I do not know what this means. Certainly it does not have the same degree of terminality of a strategic nuclear weapon over a city, or even a bullet to the head.

    If your argument is “torture has some unobservable and unverifiable property that makes it distasteful to me personally, and thus is should be deprecated beneath other techniques of war in a way that discounts its effectiveness” then I have no response. Similarly, if you claim faith in the Great Spaghetti Monster, I have no response. Superstition is beyond reason, and the foundations of faith are beyond reason. Their postulates cannot be logically argued, because they rely on some revelation (personal or divine) that is inaccessible to the non-elect.


  5. Given the aversion to using torture that has been expressed by military leaders (Petreaus, Zinni, Mattis), mid-grade officers (Major Davis, the Air Force prosecutor at Gitmo who joined others in condemning the use of torture as an ineffective method of gathering evidence, countless JAG lawyers and judges) and junior officers (Captain Ian Fishback), civilian leaders (John McCain, Robert Gates, Colin Powell, George Schultz) and the federal government (which passed laws banning torture techniques, including most recently in 2006 and 1996), I don’t see where the great debate is aside from a small minority of lawyers and others who want to use it.


    Are there people who support torture with experience in interrogation and counter-terrorism? Sure. Do they represent a majority opinion? No. Have they successfully argued that it must be a tool available? Not even, as they operate in the shadows (incompetently, always getting caught by the media, private citizens or outraged colleagues) and refuse to argue for it publicly with any sincerity.

    I meet people halfway on this though.

    I understand that, considering the possibility of the admittedly unlikely ticking time bomb scenario so commonly used by proponents (yet which has not happened in decades that we know of), we can’t take torture off the table as an option.

    This is a reasonable position that respects the aversion our military, legal and law enforcement cultures have shown to torture while protecting the ability of the nation to respond to threats with all means at its disposal.

  6. Btw, you continue to say torture is effective, yet no evidence has been shown of that.

    Please provide such evidence or refrain from claiming its effective.

    I will do my best to refrain from claiming it CANNOT EVER BE effective, because there cannot be such absolutes and it is unwise to act as if there are, though I will respect the wisdom of our law enforcement, military and legal cultures which profusely say it is not and has not yet been effective.

  7. Eddie,

    You haven’t clarified what you met by a “tool of last resort.”

    always getting caught

    Can you demonstrate this?

    My guess is no.

    Btw, you continue to say torture is effective, yet no evidence has been shown of that.

    If you’re going to ignore what I say, there’s no point in continuing this conversation.

    As I wrote a year ago — to you [1] — I have the same knowledge as to the efficacy of torture as I have regarding the efficacy of using hash tables in SQL queries.

    You’re the one claiming special knowledge here, not me.


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