Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Poke-em-with-a-Stick Wednesday: "It's a Soft Wall"

So, there's been a lot in the news lately about the newly released 'torture memos'. Of it all, or rather of what I've heard out of it (which is by no means all that's been said or written), the one line that's stuck with me the most was Brit Hume's comment that banging someone's head against a wall isn't torture because "it's a soft wall".

There are times when, if we heard ourselves, we'd be caught up short realizing that we'd lost our grip, our sense of perspective, on whatever topic we were talking about at the time. Everybody has hot button issues, everybody has things they feel so passionately about that they're not really open to rational argument on these points. We may not always be able to recognize them in ourselves, but I wd submit that trying to describe attempting to torture information out of a terrorist in terms that make it sound like a Monty Python sketch ("Nobody Expects the Spanish Inquisition!"), complete with comfy chair/soft wall, is a pretty clear view that you're in one of those moments.

In the meantime, "It's a soft wall" will serve as pretty good shorthand for apologists veering off into the hitherlands of what they desperately wish were true.

--John R.


Aelfwine said...

John, if you read the memos, you'll see that the wall in question was in fact a false wall, specially constructed to have a lot of give in it, but also to make a lot of noise when impacted. It was deliberately designed to minimize the actual force of hitting the wall, so as to reduce physical pain, but to use the element of noise for a shock effect. This is detailed in the memos and is the basis of Brit Hume's comment: it was _in fact_ a "soft wall".

I would suggest that your second paragraph cuts both ways.

John D. Rateliff said...

Why yes, I do include myself among those with hot-button issues. Hence the use of third person plural ("we") throughout that paragraph

And I am aware of the fact that the torturers claim they made the person being tortured wear protective gear before slamming him, repeatedly, into a specially made wall. Hence my reference to Monty Python.

Were I to do an update to the post, it wd include the news from yesterday about how of the hundred or so people who died while in our secret prisons, roughly a third of them were murdered and another dozen or so died as a result of being tortured. That's about half of the total. I don't think it includes the suicides, or the many repeated attempted suicides.


To this I wd also add the account I happened to hear on the radio yesterday by the man sent to Iraq to train troops how to resist torture who, once there, discovered he was instead supposed to teach interrogators how to torture false confessions out of people and, his first day on the job, walked in on a standard interrogation session that he immediately had to stop because of the ongoing prisoner abuse involved.

I think the torturers, and their defenders, are basically caught in a catch-22: stress how humane and patient the prisoners' months and months of interrogations supposedly were and make those ordering them seem irresponsible in the "ticking time-bomb" scenario they repeated so often (anthrax! poison gas! atomic bombs in Saddam's hands!). On the other hand, stress how they personally authorized "harsh interrogation techniques" and they admit to war crimes.

In any case, I think "it's a soft wall" holds as a good phrase to sum up the mentality of those who are trying to deny, especially to themselves, what they're doing and what they've become.