The game should never have been played. The game should not be played now. The game itself is the trick. Do not play the game.
In the HIV prevention and care service industry that I had a seminal role in creating in a faraway corner of the world, we quickly became familiar with a phenomenon known as the “worried well”. This is a patient or pre-patient type known to all medical professionals: the obsessive individual who reads about a disease and is seized with irrational fear of having it or someday acquiring it. While questions about casual contagion are often common among people who have never heard the facts about HIV (or any other disease, for that matter), the vast majority accepts the science and move on. Even if they feel slightly squeamish about things they know are not dangerous, they recognize that their reaction makes no sense, that it is their own problem and that they have to deal with it themselves.
The OCD caller or visitor, however, does not let go of his (rarely her) fear. He wants to know the exact percentage of possibility that a given sex act or contact with a bodily fluid will produce the 1 in a million transmission that he heard of somewhere. He endlessly repeats real or imagined scenarios in which some weird combination of fluke events might have given him the infection or might do so in the future. I’ve counseled clients who brought along a sheaf of exams that they had insisted on getting from doctors or labs, none of which convinced them that the virus (that they could not possibly have acquired in any case) was not in their blood.
The only way to handle these suffering neurotics was to refuse to discuss HIV risk with them further. We referred them to psychiatric care, and if they refused to take the hint, we showed them the door since we could do nothing more for them.
The ticking time-bomb debate functioned in exactly the same way for those deeply in the grip of their fears of the unknown, given the huge surprise and sudden sense of vulnerability that the Twin Towers attack generated among the American public. Maybe if we could just find the guys planning to carry out the next assault and torture the facts out of them in time, we would keep ourselves safe from something like this happening to our own families. The fact that they are more likely to be hit by lightning or be gored to death by an escaped musk ox means nothing.
The unlikeliness of the hypothetical situations proposed was irrelevant to the role of the time-bomb scene (since played out in innumerable TV suspense shows) to soothe the minds of the fearful and reinforce their sense that law enforcement would Keep Them Safe. Like the obsessive neurasthenic, viewing the Jack Bauers torture the facts out of a series of nasty Mohammeds or Igors confirmed to frightened middle America that keeping that torture option open was not just understandable but essential. Many police and spy agency shows (e.g., NCIS) now routinely threaten or imply that torture will be used to get the facts out of recalcitrant subjects, who promptly confess. Torture is thus routinized.
I was sad to see in the post 9/11 period how the time-bomb debate elbowed its way even into the pages of The Nation and other quasi-liberaloid or ‘centrist’ venues. Instead of a firm, uncompromising NO to all torture under all circumstances, The Nation’s readers lent themselves to the smokescreen thrown up by the Cheney brigade that led directly to the all-out torture regime that some of us are now regretting. How easy it was to see that this was where the phony ethics-class thumbsucking was going to lead. Nonetheless, people who should have known better indulged in it.
Let’s stop indulging in it now. Law & Order is a much better guide to how a system of laws, deeply flawed though it be, should work: everyone gets a fair shot at justice, suspects have lawyers, cops do not slug people (of course, sure, it’s fiction, not a reality show). That means sometimes criminals GET AWAY WITH IT! Imagine that—a commitment to justice that recognizes we cannot be peectly safe all the time and that prohibiting torture in fact gives us a better shot at lowering crimes rates than the neonazi free-for-all that the NYPD union prefers.
Update: Rebecca Gordon at TomDispatch sums it up nicely:
But none of this matters. Nor does it matter how frightened we are. The situation isn’t complicated. We are not allowed to torture people, because we have passed laws against it and signed treaties saying we won’t do it. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994, makes it very clear that being afraid of an attack is no excuse for torture. In Article 2, the Convention states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” People will always make excuses, but there is no legitimate excuse for torture.
What’s at stake here is the kind of country we want to be: Are we a courageous nation ruled by laws or a nation of cowards?