Is there any reason to argue about torture anymore?


No, there isn’t. John Oliver explains why.

Comments

  1. Akira MacKenzie says

    nichrome @ q:

    I agree. The sunshine-lollipops-and-rainbows-everything optimism of American liberals never ceases to revolt me. This is a nation that was created on the mass graves of Indians and slaves that revels in inflicting pain and death on others as a form of “Justice.” We gleefully cheer on horrific wars against those we think transgress against us, only finding our consciences and opposing it when too many of OUR soldiers die. We expect our prisons to put “wrong-doers” through an earthly Hell full of rape and violence, and that’s if they’re in a state without the capital punishment. Even our popular sporting events are expected to be filled with bedlam and any attempt to mitigate those very real risks are howled down as a sign of moral weakness by there grunting, knuckle-dragging fans.

    “…that’s not what this country is all about.” Mr. Oliver, you are mistaken. Tourture and death BUILT this country, and it s barbaric citizens only want more. Claiming othwise isn’t going to make things better.

  2. Reginald Selkirk says

    If someone wants to insist that torture ‘works’, they must hoist upon their shoulders their fair share of the burden of blame for all the witch hunts and inquisitions which have proven that it doesn’t.

  3. karpad says

    Akira & Nichrome:

    So what’s it like living in a bleak wasteland where ideals and speaking for the better angels of human nature literally do not exist? Clearly from your rhetoric you think that you, personally, disapprove of that status quo and are above that, so your belief that humans literally cannot rise above that standard seems disingenuous.

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a nice bout of competitive cynicism in my life, but prescriptive statements like this are necessary for change.

  4. Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says

    karpad @ #6

    […] prescriptive statements like this are necessary for change.

    Necessary? Could you explain how? I fail to see that acknowledging the reality, concisely summarized by Akira, that America is certainly predicated on torture and murder and continues in its policies and actions to carry forward that legacy, somehow does damage to the argument that change is needed and that torture is wrong.

    Is make-believe and historical revision (if not the complete omission of historical reality) really necessary in order to create a narrative for change?

    ‘[…] that’s not what this country is about,’ when not a lie, is false.

  5. karpad says

    At no point does he say “the US has never tortured or committed genocide.” And it’ a gross misrepresentation of his position that he is making such a claim. Akira’s assertion amounts to that the USA has a track record of violence and asserting that it should be not do those things is infantile rejection of reality.

    The US “Is About” which is what he claims, a declaration of values which, historically, has never been lived up to (that’s a radical understatement, I admit) but saying therefore the US is not about those things leaves no motivation for change. If the US is about freedom, equality and democracy, we can cite those ideals in calls for change. If you say that it is about torture violence and dominance, reform is impossible, only radical destruction and replacement.

  6. says

    I fail to see that acknowledging the reality, concisely summarized by Akira, that America is certainly predicated on torture and murder and continues in its policies and actions to carry forward that legacy, somehow does damage to the argument that change is needed and that torture is wrong.

    This argument never ceases to amaze me. When will the US atone for its past transgressions against Native Americans? Slaves? At what point do we collectively rid ourselves of that guilt? What about people like me? My ancestors, who emigrated to this country in the early 20th century. Am I guilty by association because I appear to be caucasian? Do I have to pay for the sins of someone else’s forefathers?

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time? We fought a civil war when it finally came time to put into practice the ideals codified in the Declaration of Independence. We helped save a good portion of the world not once but twice. At the risk of triggering Godwin’s Law – if the US is as bad as you describe, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about Germany!

    Nations around the globe have counted on us to defend them against tyranny. Right now much of Eastern Europe is trying to increase their ties to the US and distance themselves from Putin. Don’t think they would do that if American were as bad as you suggest.

    Right now thousands of immigrants risk their life and property to emigrate illegally to the US. Would they do that if America were as bad as you say? Somehow I suspect that if…

    …Tourture and death BUILT this country, and it’s barbaric citizens only want more…

    …more of them would stay at home. But then again many of them risk torture and death if they stay at home…and of course there’s little of that in America…see where your argument gets convoluted?

  7. says

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time? We fought a civil war when it finally came time to put into practice the ideals codified in the Declaration of Independence.

    Which, in case you’ve missed it, means that half the country was opposed to those ideals. Many of them still are and the supposedly “free” people are still routinely being shot dead for infractions such as walking down the street.

    Right now much of Eastern Europe is trying to increase their ties to the US and distance themselves from Putin.

    If not being as bad as Russia is enough to excite you, then go ahead and be excited. Some of us have slightly higher standards than that.

  8. Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says

    At no point does he say “the US has never tortured or committed genocide.” And it’ a gross misrepresentation of his position that he is making such a claim.

    I don’t think anyone, myself included, put those words into Oliver’s mouth. I don’t know where you think you’ve read that in these comments, but I don’t see it. Also, no one is suggesting that he is making that claim. Rather, and I think you’re eliding this, Akira, specifically, is saying that the US, despite whatever high ideals were expounded in the founding documents, was indeed built, quite literally, on ‘torture and death’. Further, the legacy of that history when not directed within the country against those living there, as in (perhaps most visibly now) the treatment of Black Americans, is applied quite explicitly and with fervor against enemies perceived or actual.

    That there exists, nominally and ideally, a document which declares certain values and which has never been truly realised is not something on which I would predicate a need for change in order to more fully realise those values. Those values are not original nor unique to that document and motivation hardly needs to be taken from something so symbolic when motivation for change can be from a desire to simply end real, present suffering. The fact is that that document isn’t perfect, certainly it wasn’t when it was created during the genocide of Native Americans and the slavery of blacks.

    If you want to argue that America ever was about that document, you’re going to have to rewrite history. Barring that, I suggest you take your motivation from human decency and your lessons from the horrors of the past and those of the present.

  9. unclefrogy says

    look I am kind of tired of the way history is portrayed with regards to how the U.S and actually the whole of the “new world” was settled.
    If I am not mistaken the primary motivation was wealth and power or more simply greed. That was is what powered Columbus search for a faster way to get to the east. It was what founded James Town built the rail roads carved up the forests and prairies, dug huge holes in the ground we know all that was done. It was not ever freedom or justice or knowledge, though that was what was sold to the peasants of Europe to get them to come and do the work excluding those convicted for the crimes of poverty who were just transported.
    We have clearly never settled the argument or conflict that still is at the root of our civilization the difference between our professed beliefs and the practices we actually engage in.
    uncle frogy

  10. Mobius says

    As usual, John Oliver is brilliant. While infused with humor, his analysis is spot on.

  11. Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says

    Tom Weiss @ #9

    When will the US atone for its past transgressions against Native Americans? Slaves?

    Umm …are you entirely unaware of the current treatment of Native Americans and Black Americans? How can you even ask that question?

    At what point do we collectively rid ourselves of that guilt?

    As a nation that acknowledges its history, never. The guilt, it’s not personal. It’s not about you or, as you imply, whites.

    What about people like me? My ancestors, who emigrated to this country in the early 20th century. Am I guilty by association because I appear to be caucasian? Do I have to pay for the sins of someone else’s forefathers?

    Sins? These weren’t sins. Sins don’t exist. Genocide and slavery didn’t just disappear one day. The ramifications on the welfare and culture and language of people are still rippling through America to this day. And, again, this isn’t about you or about white people.

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time?

    It hasn’t been. And if it were, are there no other nations that never were or couldn’t claim to have been or be? The question you ask makes a number of presumptions, presumptions that are not borne out to be true or wholly true.

    We fought a civil war when it finally came time to put into practice the ideals codified in the Declaration of Independence.

    ‘We’? Odd choice of pronoun considering the distance you put between yourself and your ancestors from slavery earlier.

    We helped save a good portion of the world not once but twice. At the risk of triggering Godwin’s Law – if the US is as bad as you describe, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about Germany!

    We cannot rewind history and replay it in order to determine the relative contribution of America to ‘winning’ wars that involved virtually every nation on Earth and virtually the sum total of all of the manufacturing and resources and capable soldiers of all of those countries. America played a role. It is pure America-centrism to suggest that that role was essential. There are histories other than America’s.

    Nations around the globe have counted on us to defend them against tyranny.</blockquote.Now you're repeating yourself.

    Right now much of Eastern Europe is trying to increase their ties to the US and distance themselves from Putin. Don’t think they would do that if American were as bad as you suggest.

    This is far from accurate and the question you pose is leading, it requires anyone who answers to admit that America isn’t ‘as bad as you suggest’, which is fallacious.

    Right now thousands of immigrants risk their life and property to emigrate illegally to the US. Would they do that if America were as bad as you say? Somehow I suspect that if…

    This is also inaccurate and contains the same fallacy as above. Immigrants risk their lives entering nations like Germany, Korea and Canada too. What is your point?

    …see where your argument gets convoluted?

    No, because you were never responding to any argument anyone actually made anyhow.

    Also, your racism is showing.

  12. Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says

    Bloody blockquote tag failure.

    Allow me to try again:

    Tom Weiss @ #9

    When will the US atone for its past transgressions against Native Americans? Slaves?

    Umm …are you entirely unaware of the current treatment of Native Americans and Black Americans? How can you even ask that question?

    At what point do we collectively rid ourselves of that guilt?

    As a nation that acknowledges its history, never. The guilt, it’s not personal. It’s not about you or, as you imply, whites.

    What about people like me? My ancestors, who emigrated to this country in the early 20th century. Am I guilty by association because I appear to be caucasian? Do I have to pay for the sins of someone else’s forefathers?

    Sins? These weren’t sins. Sins don’t exist. Genocide and slavery didn’t just disappear one day. The ramifications on the welfare and culture and language of people are still rippling through America to this day. And, again, this isn’t about you or about white people.

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time?

    It hasn’t been. And if it were, are there no other nations that never were or couldn’t claim to have been or be? The question you ask makes a number of presumptions, presumptions that are not borne out to be true or wholly true.

    We fought a civil war when it finally came time to put into practice the ideals codified in the Declaration of Independence.

    ‘We’? Odd choice of pronoun considering the distance you put between yourself and your ancestors from slavery earlier.

    We helped save a good portion of the world not once but twice. At the risk of triggering Godwin’s Law – if the US is as bad as you describe, I’d be interested to hear what you have to say about Germany!

    We cannot rewind history and replay it in order to determine the relative contribution of America to ‘winning’ wars that involved virtually every nation on Earth and virtually the sum total of all of the manufacturing and resources and capable soldiers of all of those countries. America played a role. It is pure America-centrism to suggest that that role was essential. There are histories other than America’s.

    Nations around the globe have counted on us to defend them against tyranny.

    Now you’re repeating yourself.

    Right now much of Eastern Europe is trying to increase their ties to the US and distance themselves from Putin. Don’t think they would do that if American were as bad as you suggest.

    This is far from accurate and the question you pose is leading, it requires anyone who answers to admit that America isn’t ‘as bad as you suggest’, which is fallacious.

    Right now thousands of immigrants risk their life and property to emigrate illegally to the US. Would they do that if America were as bad as you say? Somehow I suspect that if…

    This is also inaccurate and contains the same fallacy as above. Immigrants risk their lives entering nations like Germany, Korea and Canada too. What is your point?

    …see where your argument gets convoluted?

    No, because you were never responding to any argument anyone actually made anyhow.

    Also, your racism is showing.

  13. brucegee1962 says

    My take on the above argument:

    Everyone is in agreement that American can, and should, do much better than it has done in the best. The disagreement lies in the best way to motivate those who perpetrate atrocities in our name, to do better. And those perpetrators include all of us — because we are a Democracy, every voter carries a share of the blame.

    How best to call Americans to their better selves? Should we shame people by pointing out the miserable injustices we do, or try to inspire by pointing out our never-truly-lived-up-to ideals? I don’t see why this should be an either/or question — and apparently, neither does John Oliver. You don’t have to be an American exceptionalist to point out that some of our founding documents have some quite good (though not necessarily original) ideas, and you don’t have to hate America to note that no-one (including those who wrote those documents) has done a good job of living up to them.

  14. Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says

    They don’t include me, brucegee1962. I’m not American. I want your country to do better because the things you do are scary and awful and as much as I don’t want them visited upon anyone else, because I don’t lack empathy, I also don’t want them visited upon me.

    The thing is, I’m a rather ineffectual conduit for the change I wish for and I can do more meaningful work with the problems that I can effect in my own home.

    It matters where motivations are drawn from. I’d prefer an American who is aware of and acknowledges the scary and awful things both in the past and in the present and who also has empathy to an American who is motivated by exceptionalism. Reality and empathy are important. The things that perpetuate that legacy of scary and awful things? I think it’s among other things, idealism, lack of historical awareness, lack of present awareness and lack of empathy.

  15. Alverant says

    I checked Amazon. That book was released in time for Christmas last year. Why are we only hearing about this now?!

  16. says

    Not wishing to derail the derailment — because, after all, what we should do about torture occurring now is somewhat more pressing than torture that happened outside living memory, related though it may be — but I would take “This is not what America is about” as a rhetorical switch for “This is not what we want America to be“, and proceed from there. Especially considering that this is coming from, you know, someone not-from-America. Not really in a position to criticise American history, not having been brought up on it like a true USian. All we know about it over here is Desperate Dan comics, Starsky & Hutch, and Clint Eastwood movies.

  17. robro says

    Is there any reason to argue about torture anymore?

    No, and nothing in this report raised further arguments about torture. We already knew it was immoral when Bush/Cheney started it. We had suspected, and then learned for a fact, that it was worthless despite the rampant ignorance of so many Americans. That said, Oliver’s key point is worth remembering: we should be pushing for legislation to ban this kind of behavior in the future. As it currently stands, the next president can start it again.

    The most outrageous piece is Scalia citing a TV show as evidence for torture’s efficacy. I wonder if we can introduce evidence from Perry Mason.

    NelC @ #19: A small point — Americans are educated in American myth, not history. Probably what you get wherever you happen to be.

  18. naturalcynic says

    I checked Amazon. That book was released in time for Christmas last year. Why are we only hearing about this now?! How soon we forget. It was briefly a major news item and just as quickly it disappeared from the national consciousness. [i.e. how and why the cops seem to have a thing with POC] What Oliver pointed out is that it was briefly meaningful enough that McCain and Feinstein tried to raise some legal understanding about the report’s ramifications for future presidents, but just as with a lot of other things, it dropped into the [mostly forgotten] memory hole that serves as the Senate leadership and what the major media are concerned with. It was *briefly* “important”.

  19. zenlike says

    Tom Weiss

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time?

    When was the USA a beacon of freedom? When they threw their own citizens in prison during WW2? When they considered a large part of their population second class citizens pretty much going on until today? When they illegally withhold trials to prisons of wars? When they torture prisoners of war? When they spy on their allies? When they kidnap citizens of their allies in their own countries? When they bomb other countries into the stone age? When they target funerals?

    Nations around the globe have counted on us to defend them against tyranny.

    You mean like defending them of the tyranny of their democratically elected governments by replacing them by tin-pot dictators, which happened even in our own lifetimes in much of South America?

    Right now much of Eastern Europe is trying to increase their ties to the US and distance themselves from Putin. Don’t think they would do that if American were as bad as you suggest.

    Just like other parts of Eastern Europe or their population are increasing their ties with Russia? Do you realise Russian nationalists say exactly the same as you are claiming here?

    Right now thousands of immigrants risk their life and property to emigrate illegally to the US.

    Also to Europe; are we a beacon of freedom?

    …more of them would stay at home. But then again many of them risk torture and death if they stay at home…and of course there’s little of that in America…see where your argument gets convoluted?

    A so just a little torture. Beacon of freedom. You might get slightly tortured.

  20. sigurd jorsalfar says

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time?

    At what point did you stop?

  21. llewelly says

    karpad:

    Don’t get me wrong, I’ve enjoyed a nice bout of competitive cynicism in my life, but prescriptive statements like this are necessary for change.

    Here is what was said:

    … that’s not what this country is about …

    With that remark, John Oliver perpetuates the idea that the structure of society does not require dramatic changes, because it was supposedly not about torture in the first place. That is false. No one who believes that falsehood is likely to be particularly helpful.

  22. llewelly says

    Tom Weiss:

    At what point can I be excited by the fact that America has been a beacon of freedom amidst a sea of tyranny for a very long time?

    It’s true, America has been a bright shining light high in a tower foriegners were allowed to enter primarily as cheap exploitable labor, sleeping on the cold stone of the lowest floors with the poorest Americans. But its was wonderful, because for a few decades, the middle class Americans, if they were white, were allowed to march a little way up the stairs. The gate to the stairs is now closed, but we love it with vast nostalgia anyway.

    But it’s good news, because the ships the great American Beacon of Freedom guided to rule most of the seas of tyranny extracted enormous amounts of wealth, enabling those on the lower floors of the tower to dream frequently that they too might someday be allowed to ascend to the Beacon of Freedom itself, provided they got the proper indoctrination during childhood, worked many 90 hour weeks, and committed no sin they were not paid to commit. Oh, and provided they went up the stairs before the gate was closed.

  23. says

    So what’s it like living in a bleak wasteland where ideals and speaking for the better angels of human nature literally do not exist?

    Our legislature convenes in a massive vainglorious edifice constructed by slaves.
    That’s where they make some of those pretty speeches you like.

  24. alkisvonidas says

    Seeing the words “Torture” and “HBO” side by side, my first thought was that this was about last Sunday’s Game of Thrones season 5 finale…

  25. says

    @14-15 Thomathy –

    are you entirely unaware of the current treatment of Native Americans and Black Americans? How can you even ask that question?

    I am entirely unaware of how the Obama Justice Department discriminates against Native Americans or Blacks. That is, of course, what you’re suggesting. That blacks and Native Americans are – backed by the coercive power of government – systematically discriminated against and disenfranchised based only on the color of their skin. If it is not something happening at the federal level, then perhaps you are suggesting that there are local factors in play and some local branches of the government are prejudiced against blacks and Native Americans. In a place like Ferguson I might agree that you had a point. In a place like Lawton, OK, where I was just a month ago, the Native Americans there are doing quite well. They have more freedoms than those enjoyed by anyone else in Oklahoma. They are allowed to own and operate gaming institutions on tribal land – institutions which make them quite a lot of money.

    As a nation that acknowledges its history, never. The guilt, it’s not personal. It’s not about you or, as you imply, whites.

    Can a nation both acknowledge its history and understand that it has taken corrective measures? The US, for example, allowed slavery for the first ~75 years of its existence. It then fought a civil war, killing ~500,000 of its own citizens, in order to eradicate slavery. How far back does this guilt need to go, btw? As we’ve grown and evolved as a species we’ve tended to get better (see Pinker, The Better Angels of our Nature). Do I need to atone for Columbus? For Mohammed? Caesar? Pharaoh? The human race has done crappy things to one another since the dawn of time. I just want to know how far back I need to go in my guilt…

    The ramifications on the welfare and culture and language of people are still rippling through America to this day. And, again, this isn’t about you or about white people.

    If I am to feel remorse for something someone else’s ancestors did – then yes it is about me. To the extent that the ramifications of the US’ treatment of Native Americans and slavery still exist today, they are social constructs and not anything to be fixed by lawmaking. Everyone – everyone! – in the United States is equal under the law. There will obviously always be differences in how the law is applied to people with considerable wealth, but for every Kennedy who isn’t in jail that should be, there is a Simpson or a Cosby.

    It is pure America-centrism to suggest that that role was essential. There are histories other than America’s.

    You’re right. There’s the history of Russia ~20 million dead. There is the history of China ~ up to 45 million dead. Germany ~ 7 million Jews dead. Japan ~ rape of Nanking among other unspeakable atrocities during and before WWII.

    The US alone stood up against all of these countries. The UK played a role as well, but without the US’ might some or all of these death tolls would be far, far larger. It is not America-centrism – it’s realism and historical fact that America’s role was essential.

    Also, your racism is showing.

    And here we go – the progressive equivalent to Godwin’s Law. I can’t be racist, I’m not a white male. Or am I? My last name means “white” in German…what a conundrum. How about we stop worrying about what race I am and focus on my arguments, which are kicking your ass right now.

    Here’s the real question: given that America has made some mistakes in the past, what country would you look to as a paragon of past virtue? Which country is, in your mind, without fault? Who does the US need to turn to for guidance?

  26. Gregory Greenwood says

    As noted by various commenters above, to say that America (and indeed the UK where I hail from – there is plenty of blame to go around here) is ‘not about torture’ ignores a huge chunk of the all too often shameful history of Western, and in particular White Western, civilisation.

    It would be better to say that America (and the UK if you count the Magna Carta as a similer aspirational document that was never really lived up to) has never lived up to the better aspects of its founding ideals. That it has been a nation built on bloodshed, pain and slavery, and that it is entirely undeserving of the nationalistic ‘greatest nation of Earth’ moniker. That is the truth of what America has been. It should not – no, it cannot – be the story of what America will be. It cannot be the sum total of our aspirations for what is, for better or worse (on current form, probably worse), still one of the most powerful and influential cultures on the planet.

    It is past time that all of us did better.

  27. Gregory Greenwood says

    One thing that Oliver gets absolutely right is the role of popular culture in normalising torture in the minds of the populace. 24 is the obvious offender, but it is far from alone. Once can barely watch any vaguely action oriented show without torture popping up on a semi-regular basis, often presented as a necessary – if distasteful – tool used by the protagonist(s) to prevent crime or violence of one type or another. It is the old chestnut of the torture as lesser evil rationale, and all too many people buy into it.

    You could base a drinking game on it – take a shot every time torture is used, attempts are made to justify it, or it is threatened in a show. Warning; this game carries a significant risk of alcohol poisoning…

  28. chigau (違う) says

    Everyone – everyone! – in the United States is equal under the law.

  29. davem says

    It would be better to say that America (and the UK if you count the Magna Carta as a similer aspirational document that was never really lived up to)

    Have you read Magna Carta? It’s not at all the document that most people think it is. Most of the text deals with the rights of Thames watermen and fishermen. There’s two paragraphs about the King not being able to imprison barons without trial. It may have been the first document to limit the powers of the monarch, but as a basis for democracy, it fails miserably.,

  30. Thomathy, Such A 'Mo says

    How about we stop worrying about what race I am and focus on my arguments, which are kicking your ass right now.

    I am not worried about your ethnicity. Your arguments are not figuratively kicking my ass.

    The US alone stood up against all of these countries.

    This is an absurd statement.

    Everyone – everyone! – in the United States is equal under the law.

    This is simply untrue.

  31. says

    Tourture and death BUILT this country, and it s barbaric citizens only want more. Claiming othwise isn’t going to make things better.

    Well, we could sit around in a corner crying ourselves to sleep, satisfied with our oh-so-contrarian edginess or…

    The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.

    We could recognize that America is worlds better today than it was yesterday, and we can still make it a better, safer, and more just place.