« Why are Conservatives Obsessed with Black "Racism"? | Main | Matt Y Misses the Costs of Illness »

January 10, 2005

Why the Liberal Focus on Torture?

In attacking Alberto Gonzales' nomination to be Attorney General, why is the focus almost exclusively about his role in promoting the illegal use of torture?

Not that I favor Gonzales' nomination; I was one of the earliest people to attack his appointment as White House counsel back in December 2000. But the almost exclusive obsession with torture in the present nomination fight, I think, betrays a misguided set of moral priorities by liberals.

Gonzales was one of the chief advisors sanctioning the Iraq War itself, despite most international authorities seeing it as a violation of international law. And the result of the war itself has been the death of as many as 100,000 Iraqis.

So why are liberals not more obsessed with Gonzales role in the up to 100,000 Iraqi deaths -- most of them innocents, many of them chidren -- than with the torture memos?

Partly, some liberals might argue that fighting over the torture memos is a way to attack Gonzales without directly debating the merits of the Iraq War itself. This might make sense pragmatically, if there was a chance of derailing the nomination, but since Gonzales is almost assurred of his nomination given GOP strength, limiting the focus to the narrower issue of torture reflects a liberal tendency to fixate on simple, limited moral problems.

I'd compare the issue to liberal focus on the death penalty. It effects a limited number of people in our prisons, while prioritization of the fight against the death penalty ignores the millions in our prisons whose lives are still destroyed by multi-decade confinement for minor non-violent crimes. And liberals can fight over the death penalty on various technical grounds -- is it cruel and unusual, too racially disparate in its impact, etc. -- without having to engage in whether the whole criminal justice system is out of control in its destruction of poor communities of color.

To be hard, while I don't support either torture or the death penalty, they just don't seem as serious issues stacked up against massive Iraqi civilian deaths or millions of teenage kids having their lives destroyed based on minor drug busts.

The problem for simple moral discussion of these later issues is that some civilian deaths and some teens losing their childhoods to jail is inevitable in any war or criminal justice system, so unless you are a complete pacificist or prison abolitionist, you don't have a "bright line" basis to condemn them, unlike with the condemnation of torture and the death penalty, which can be condemned in absolute terms despite the limited effect of actually ending those abuses.

This focus on "bright line" issues like torture and the death penalty by liberals seems to reflect a lack of comfort in liberal moral argumentation that involves "grey" zones. However, most people make moral judgements that have to balance a whole range of conflicting values, yet liberals seem to retreat to safer absolutist issues like torture whenever that avenue opens. Or at least that's how I read the response to Gonzales' nomination.

Here's the other odd part of the liberal obsession with torture. While the American people strongly oppose torture, the reality is that support or opposition to torture is actually tied to the underlying issue of the justice and worth of fighting the underlying Iraq war. ("57 percent of strong war supporters say abuse is acceptable, while two-thirds who strongly say the war wasn't worth fighting say abuse is never acceptable.") While highlighting the issue of torture will no doubt make some war supporters who oppose torture uncomfortable, it's clear that the justice of the war itself is the issue driving divides over policies like torture. If liberals don't continually concentrate on fighting over the core issue, like the justice of the war and its consequences such as mass civilian deaths, they won't win on subsidiary issues like torture.

Posted by Nathan at January 10, 2005 06:21 AM