The Moment of Truth — February 16, 2008

He Saw It On TV So He Thought It Would Work In Real Life

Welcome to the Moment of Truth: the wafer-thin mint that explodes the big fat lie.

This week on BBC radio our own crazy uncle, US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, had the following to say regarding torture:

“Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the Constitution? … It would be absurd to say you couldn’t do that. And once you acknowledge that, we’re into a different game. How close does the threat have to be? And how severe can the infliction of pain be?”

Scalia is unwittingly, or perhaps half-wittingly, referencing any number of storylines from every season of the Fox TV show “24.” “24” has done more to challenge our complacent notions of human dignity—notions we wealthy, overfed citizens of God’s own nation have been lulled by public television into accepting—than any other primetime broadcast TV adventure show in the history of ethics. And this isn’t the first time “24” has been invoked by those in government trying to reinterpret the Constitution so that it won’t conflict with legal standards of the townsfolk of Salem, Massachusetts in the event they need to try some witches in a hurry.

Just so we understand the hypothetical situation Scalia is positing here: you know there’s a bomb about to blow up Los Angeles, the city that just happens to be where “24” takes place. You know there’s a bomb. You know when it’s going to go off. You know how much damage it will do. And you know that the guy sitting in front of you knows all about the planned attack. The ONE piece of information you’re missing is WHERE the bomb is. Somehow, you know all these things about this bomb except for where it’s planted. Just so we know what we’re talking about.

The example has to be constructed in this twisted way, because if the missing information was WHEN the bomb was going to go off, there wouldn’t be the known imminence of danger—what screenwriters call “the ticking clock”—that seems to be what justifies the torture. Furthermore, if you know everything except whether the bomb is even really a bomb, or an alarm clock set to awaken Godzilla, or just a bucket of water balanced over a doorway, then you don’t know enough to justify torture—the guy you’re torturing could say it’s a nuclear bomb just to get you to stop torturing him. And if you know everything except whether the person in your custody knows anything, well—that’s apparently pretty typical, and why so many interrogation experts believe it’s not worth turning yourself into an inhuman monster by torturing someone just to get them to give you unreliable information.

But, see, in Scalia’s hypothetical, you have to know that the danger is immediate, that it’s massive, and that the one missing piece of information, the location of the offending device, is inside the brain of an Arab or Russian who is sitting right in front of you. That way, when our hero Jack Bauer or Judge Scalia starts cutting off his prisoner’s fingers, he looks like he had no choice and the Jewish liberal lawyer from Coddling International is standing in the way of saving millions of lives.

(That liberal Jewish lawyer gimmick was in an actual episode of “24” incidentally. I have enjoyed other episodes of the show. Still, I bet the secret anti-Semite lurking in Scalia’s simian heart did a tarantella of glee when Agent Bauer subverted the schoolmarmish objections of that terrorist-appeasing Jew.)

How often is it that you know when a bomb will go off and how much damage it will do, and you have the bomber in custody, but for some reason you don’t know where the bomb is? The answer, despite the frequency of the situation on Scalia’s favorite TV show, is probably “never.” Although it may be more accurate to say that the odds are a little better than your molecules lining up exactly with those of a wall so that you could pass right through it unharmed. And yet the contorted “24” scenario is invoked so often by the wartime atrocity enthusiasts in our government and on cable news shows, you would think it happened all the time. Sometimes I’ll look at the newspaper stories about what our leaders and op-ed writers say are the threats to our national security and think, “Wow, it’s like those headlines were ripped right from today’s TV dramas.”

I’d like to help these public servants out with an example that, while equally unlikely, is at least original.

There’s a rat in the White House. Don’t tell me you already know that because this is a hypothetical example; put everything you think you know about vermin in the White House aside for the moment. This is not a metaphorical rat, it’s a real rodent-type rat. The rat’s jaws are temporarily locked open. But they will close at exactly 3pm. The rat’s incisors are positioned directly over the President’s index finger, a fact the President doesn’t know because he’s having his afternoon siesta. So at 3pm, if no one does anything about it, the rat will bite the President.

But wait, it gets even more chilling: this rat carries a virus that will turn the President into a contagious idiot who will go on to invent new Constitutional powers for himself and threats to US citizens in order to launch a war that will destroy the nation’s prestige and currency. And he will become a flesh-eating zombie, too, along with anyone he bites. It’s going to be a disaster.

Unfortunately, there’s no one in the White House to wake the President, this is Presidents’ Day and they have the day off. And the President left the White House force field on so no one can get in.

It seems like an impossible situation. Yet, somehow, you know about it. And you have in custody Elian Gonzalez, an angry Cuban boy who’s just had his bar mitvah. Once in love with the USA, Elian has grown bitter because he was sent away from Disneyland by Janet Reno to toil in the tobacco fields of Oriente—but Elian is the only one who knows the telepathic command to make the rat self-destruct before it infects the President. And he won’t tell you what the command is. And it’s one minute to three!!!!! Would you not by any reasonable estimation be within your rights in burning Elian’s genitals with a cigarette until he told you what you needed to know to save the universe? Or the, whatever it was you were trying to save? Gotham City?

Or let’s put it this way, is the Constitution really going to care? It’s just a piece of parchment or paper or whatever it is—I think some kind of papyrus. The Constitution isn’t going to go all Simon Wiesenthal and hunt you down and prosecute you for torturing Elian Gonzalez to get the telepathic information to stop the rat infected with the zombie-idiot virus from biting the napping President at 3pm in the otherwise abandoned force-field-enveloped White House. It can’t. The Constitution has no guns, no agents, no know-how, no connections, no cash flow, no technology. Not only can it not hunt you down and punish you, it doesn’t even have a heart that can be broken. It’s as useless as an obsolete robot wandering in the desert waiting to die.

While I was writing this my friend, the Chicago playwright and actor David Isaacson, called me up to tell me about a documentary he’d seen called “Taxi to the Dark Side,” about the Bush government’s institution of torture as an official military strategy. Not that there wasn’t torture before Bush took office, it’s just that until Bush et al decided to use the threat of terrorist attacks as an excuse to assert the precedence of the powers of the Chief Executive over the rights of human beings, torture was done mainly by psychotic experts in secret chambers or taught to Latin American death squad personnel rather than officially delegated to US soldiers in a broad institutional situation.

It turns out when Bush asserts, as he recently did, that the people his military have tortured and held without charge or trial for years are known terrorists, he is lying. Most of them were not even captured by US military personnel but were, rather, delivered by bounty hunters paid per captive, working for such upstanding organizations as those headed by one or another of the warlords making up the Northern Alliance, some of whom were even Taliban when it suited them. Was the guilt of these prisoners investigated by those who kidnapped them before they were turned over to the US military for torture and indefinite imprisonment in exchange for cash?

Well, you didn’t have to actually be a witch to be accused and put on trial in Salem, either. There’s a reason ideas of popular government, checks and balances, separation of powers, human rights, equality under the law and due process all emerged at the same time. Each was an integral part of a project of moving beyond illegitimate, brutal, superstitious government in which kings ruled by Divine Right and a suspect’s guilt was determined by what he or she screamed out while the thumbscrews tightened.

Seems to me that old school superstitious brutality is exactly the kind of government a fundamentalist Islamo-fascist theocrat would love to revive. Accommodating of Bush to go ahead and do it for them. Is Bush an appeaser? Dare I ask if the terrorists have won? Yes! I dare!

These are dark times for the ideals of justice and equality, and it’s not just the terrorists who are to blame. The terrorists’ power is illegal, and repugnant to any legitimate, respectable authority. Bush’s power is also illegal and repugnant, although less limited because it is backed by the strongest army in the world, and because thanks to him there’s a significant lack of legitimate, respectable authority to appeal to.

Bush contends history will vindicate him. If it’s written by really good screenwriters in the form of a jingoistic TV revenge fantasy show, he’s probably right.

This has been the Moment of Truth. Good day!