The Sunday New York Times ran a genre piece by Eric Fair (“Owning Up To Torture”) where he employed the familiar technique of slander through emoting. Without moral argument, he recounts his “I can’t take it anymore” moment (or moments, for he has trouble pinning his down) and then insults those who can, could, or did take more of it. He assumes what is yet to be proven and then indicts himself and others with harsh language, employing a version of the classic “question-begging epithet” (as in the survey question, “Do you approve of the blood-sucking behavior of the 1%?”).
In Fair’s case, the deplored behavior was “enhanced interrogation” in the form of putting prisoners in “stress positions,” making them “stand naked in a cold cell,” preventing them “from falling asleep for significant periods of time,” and such. Unpleasant, indeed, but one assumes it was not done for the amusement of sadists or as a way to vent anger at folks who had killed your buddies. Rather, it was meant to elicit life-saving information without doing the confessor genuine or lasting harm.
Mr. Fair and his colleague Ferdinand followed their guidelines, never moving on to waterboarding. But this didn’t keep him from employing the verbal nuclear option in assessing his work. By his account, they had “set aside their humanity,” committed “an outrage to the dignity of Iraqi prisoners,” “shocked [their] consciences and stained [their] souls,” feeling “less and less like decent men… less and less like Americans.”
For what it’s worth, I don’t think the NCOs who put us through a wringer of miseries in basic training and infantry school “stained their souls.” I didn’t sense that they’d “set aside their humanity” when they made us walk through cold rains, stand watch bleary-eyed from two to three in the morning, sleep tent-less, over and under ponchos spread out in the mud, and endure verbal abuse (“you pukes!”) when we didn’t hustle by their standards. They were trying to save lives by hardening us just as Fair and his buddies were trying to save lives by softening their wards. And for neither the prisoners nor us “grunts” was it voluntary. Those were the days of the draft, and my ribbon for participation in the military during wartime was also known as “Alive in ’65”; you got it if you were an able-bodied male while Vietnam raged.
Of course, there is plenty of room for debate over when, by whom, how, to what extent, and for what purpose enhanced interrogation should proceed. But Fair doesn’t honor these subtleties.
That being said, we should show prima facie respect for feelings of revulsion—the “yuck factor.” It can be a good warning, but it’s not infallible, and we can make more of it than we should.
A typology can be helpful. I think of those who said, “I can’t go there, but I’m not hacking on you if you do.” When I was a professor at Wheaton in the 70s, the administration was reluctant to allow a “Christian rock” band on campus. They relented on the condition we have a discussion of the moral implications of rock. As an aesthetics and ethics professor, I was tapped to lead it. After an hour or so of hearing that the words, not the music, were the issue, one student rose to say he didn’t condemn us for going to the concert, but that rock was the sound track of his misspent youth and that the dark associations were too strong for him to manage personally. He’d have to stay away.
I heard a similar testimony from a deacon who said he applauded the Southern Baptist Convention’s decision to hold their meeting in Las Vegas in 1989 in an attempt to bear witness in that setting. But he said he couldn’t attend since he’d become a gambling addict while in college, and he was afraid of the damage should he find himself in the vicinity of blackjack and keno tables. To the student and the deacon, I say, “God bless you, and thanks for heightening our sensitivities to the perils.” These men were confessing weakness, not condemning others for their strength.
Of course, some are not so amiable, or admirable. Consider the county clerk who proclaims, “For years, I’ve been issuing marriage licenses to blacks wanting to marry whites, and I can’t take it any more. It’s disgusting and unnatural. We used to have laws against miscegenation, but then we lost our minds in the liberal landslide that’s corrupted our nation.” No doubt, her “gag reflex” is real, but it’s also shameful.
In other instances, the disgust-epiphany can be praiseworthy. I think of the fellow who said he got a very different perspective on homosexuality when he saw a gay pride parade. He’d been steeped in charming takes on gayness through Will and Grace, Modern Family, and The Ellen Degeneres Show, but the spectacle of flaunted abasement on the streets made him rethink his position on gay adoption.
The moral is that you need to scrutinize and justify your cringings. Some are valid; some aren’t. And some may be warranted at the purely personal level, without legislating for the feelings of others.
These scruples escape Mr. Fair, as they do many who use his approach to ethics. Try these samples:
“I used to relish the sick practice of hunting deer until I followed the blood trail of a wounded doe and looked into her horrified eyes as she died a trembling death.”
“I was as stalwart as anyone on the rule of immigration law until I discovered that the Mexican family singing hymns next to me in church were undocumented. It was then that I decided to take on the mind of Christ toward my brother from the south and stop opposing amnesty.”
“I’d never seen such hospitality as I enjoyed from that Muslim family in Amman. On the spot, I repented of promoting a twisted religion that said you had to believe in Jesus to escape hell.”
“I was a heartless tool of the bank until, on my third foreclosure, I saw that little child on the porch, clinging to his father’s leg, crying, ‘Daddy, I wanna stay here with the first friends I’ve every had.’”
“I was as gung ho as the next man ‘til I found those family photos on the body of the North Korean I’d shot. I threw down my rifle in disgust at what I’d become.”
Watch Ciderhouse Rules and Vera Drake, and you learn that those opposed to abortion are ogres. Watch Dead Man Walking or The Green Mile and proudly declare you’ll never again stand in the ranks of vengeance enthusiasts. You see how it works.
Of course, there are thoughtful discussions to be had on the angles of hunting, immigration, soteriology, debt, grading, abortion, capital punishment, and war. But why bother when you can simply parade your sensitivities and defame those who don’t share them? You’ll certainly have a sympathetic audience who share your impatience with serious discourse, your worship of feelings, and your eagerness to denigrate dissenters by emotional theatrics.
Mark Coppenger is a Professor of Christian Apologetics at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is also managing editor of the online Kairos Journal. He has authored, edited, or contributed to numerous books, and his articles have appeared in venues such as Teaching Philosophy, Touchstone, American Spectator, Criswell Review, Reformation and Revival, USA Today, and Christian Scholar’s Review. He is a retired infantry officer.
Photo Credit: JTF Guard Force Troopers at Guantanamo Bay transport a detainee to the detainee hospital located adjacent to Camp Four, Dec. 27, 2007. (photo by U.S. Navy, via Wikimedia Commons)