Friday, April 24, 2009

Should we waterboard Sean Hannity

At first glance, the answer to that question appears obvious – an enthusiastic "hell, yes!" I think most of the people who read this blog would find it immensely satisfying to see conservative apologists for torture subjected to it. I'd love to see how many false confessions we can wring out of Rush Limbaugh with a little harmless fraternity hazing. However, taking Hannity up on his offer to be waterboarded would actually give the apologists a massive propaganda victory, create a false impression about the reality of waterboarding, and set back the anti-torture cause.

First some background. Charles Grodin appeared on the Wednesday edition of Hannity's Fox News show. After mocking Hannity's mascara but before questioning the fascistic tendencies of the show, Grodin had tried to put Hannity on the spot about torture.
Grodin: You're for torture.

Hannity: I am for enhanced interrogation.

G: You don't believe it's torture. Have you ever been waterboarded?

H: No, but Ollie North has.

G: Would you consent to be waterboarded? We can waterboard you?

H: Sure.

G: Are you busy on Sunday?

H: I'll do it for charity. I'll let you do it. I'll do it for the troops' families.

Many liberal bloggers think Grodin got the best out of that exchange. I disagree. Hannity kept his cool, didn't back down, and even managed to get some points from the Fox audience for his patriotic posturing "I'll do it for the troops' families" schtick.

Thursday, Keith Olbermann and Lawrence O'Donnell jumped on board in an attempt to call Hannity's bluff.
O'Donnell: The reason Sean Hannity thinks torture is a good idea. The reason Sean Hannity thinks it works is because it would work on him. ... [P]eople who live where Sean Hannity lives and those safe places and the safe Cheney home where no one in the Cheney family would ever submit themselves to military service, ever submit themselves to the risk of torture. They think torture works because it would work on them.


Olbermann: [addressing Hannity] You'll do it for charity? For the troops families? I'll take you up on that Sean. For every second you last, $1000. Live or on tape provided other networks cameras are there. $1000 a second Sean because this is no game. This is serious stuff. Put your money where your mouth is, and your nose. And I'll double it when you admit you feared for your life. When you admit the horrible truth. Waterboarding, a symbol of the last administration, is torture.

With that, Olbermann allowed himself to be suckered into Hannity's game, even though I'm sure Hannity never thought it out far enough to know that he has this game in play. Olbermann is basing his challenge on one of the more persistent myths of American culture: the myth that all bullies are physical cowards. While that's probably true for most bullies, it's complete folly to assume that every bully will conform to a two dimensional stereotype. Furthermore, there is more than one kind of physical cowardice. The classical playground bully isn't adverse to all pain; if he was, he would avoid all fights. The playground bully typically picks fights with kids he knows he can beat and humiliate. The playground bully is happy to accept some discomfort if he knows he will win in the end. Bullying is all about banishing your own sense of powerlessness by inflicting powerlessness on someone else. This means there is a lot of macho posturing involved in common bullying and most concepts of macho and masculinity include being able to "take it." In playground bullying, the bully is willing to shrug off a few blows as long as the game is fixed. This why Hannity is comfortable inviting waterboarding. He knows that it will be only for a few seconds only and that, if he can grit his teeth and tough it out, he will not only win his political point, he will enhance his masculine reputation, a goal that I'm sure is dear to his heart.

This brings us to the second reason why waterboarding Hannity would be a bad idea. The only possible conditions under which it could be done are not torture – they are reality teevee.* Waterboarding Hannity for charity would not be torture it would be a cheap stunt and nothing more. A torture victim is in the exact same position as a bullying victim.** Powerlessness and uncertainty are necessary for torture techniques to rise to the level of actual torture. A torture victim is not only physically powerlessness, he has no idea of the course or outcome of events. He does not know when the torture will happen, what kind of torture will be used each time, how long each session will continue, or whether the torturers will continue until he is crippled, brain damaged, or dead. Even if he gives the torturers everything they want, the victim cannot be sure that the torture will ever stop.

What Hannity and Olbermann are talking about is not torture. It is a situation in which Hannity gets to set the time and place. Hannity will know that it's only for a short time. Hannity knows that no one will allow permanent harm to come to him and that, if he becomes emotionally overwhelmed, the process will stop. And Hannity knows here will be a large payoff for going though with it. Anyone can endure discomfort and pain if we have some control over it and knows when it will end. In the smallest sense, we go through this every time we allow the doctor to stick a needle in us. No one would call getting a shot torture. But if we didn't know whether the doctor was going to keep sticking needles into us, if we had no idea when someone was going to grab us and carry us off to have more needles stuck into us, if we had no idea how deeply the next needles would be stuck or whether they would blind or cripple us – that would be torture. When G. Gordon Liddy held his hand over a flame to impress and intimidate others, that wasn't torture. But if I had thugs hustle him off in the debt of night so I could hold his hand over a flame, with no guarantee that I would stop before his hand was reduced to charred stumps of bone – that would be torture.

If Hannity takes Olbermann up on his offer, it will be because Hannity recognizes all of this. He will realize that he has inadvertently suckered Olbermann into a losing game. Hannity will go in to it knowing that all he has to do is grit his teeth for ninety seconds of terror. At the far end of the tunnel he gets to humiliate Olbermann and come off as a tough guy. His few moments of bravado will give great comfort to American conservatives and to torturers everywhere. Make no mistake, every torturing regime on the planet would watch this stunt with profound interest. If Hannity pulled it off, not only would American conservatives have evidence to argue that "harsh interrogation techniques" are not torture, totalitarian regimes everywhere would use his stunt make the same claim about their tortures. Torturers would be able to use the prestige of the United States as cover for their crimes even as that prestige was dramatically diminished. The anti-torture cause would be dealt a blow that would take a generation to repair.

Words have consequences and Grodin and Olbermann's challenges, made with the best of intentions, could have almost unimaginably horrible consequences. Torture is serious business. Treating it like a reality teevee challenge diminishes that seriousness. Lets hope Hannity really is as much of a physical coward as O'Donnell predicted. If he isn’t, a lot of innocent people will be in for a world of hurt.

* I admit that reality teevee is torture for many viewers, but it isn't torture for the participants; it's masochism.
** And yes, I am saying that bullying is the same as torture – exactly the same. The enabling attitude of too many grown-ups who shrug off bullying as "boys will be boys" or some such nonsense is exactly the same attitude that allows too many people to shrug off torture as no worse than fraternity hazing or acceptable as long as it doesn't cause too much permanent physical damage.

Update: Good morning C&Lers and Pharanguloid hordes. Thanks for dropping by to check out my tortured logic. Help yourself to the watered down coffee and stale cookies and be sure to pick up our brochure on your way out.

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