Friday, October 26, 2007

Mercy, or "Merely Good Manners?"

Have you noticed that this election season all the politicians are talking about torture? In the Republican debates Rudy Giuliani quibbles over the definition of waterboarding, and John McCain fervently denounces torture in all its forms (although he supports less torturous 'intensive interrogation').

All the Democrats are predictably appalled and aghast over the idea of torturing anybody, but who are they kidding? Am I the only one who's noticed the eerie resemblance between Hillary and Nurse Ratched??? She's the last person I'd want to see coming at me with hot pokers.

The Bush administration is adjusting its legal guidelines on torture, and the new Attorney General nominee was put on the rack himself, metaphorically speaking, on the second day of his Senate confirmation hearing. Senator Sheldon Whitehouse went medieval on Judge Michael Mukassey and demanded he crack and talk about whether waterboarding is constitutional.

According to CNN, Mukasey responded "I don't know what's involved in the techniques. If waterboarding is torture, torture is not constitutional."

Whitehouse continued, "'If it's torture.' That's a massive hedge, I mean it either is or it isn't. Do you have an opinion whether waterboarding -- which is the practice of putting someone in a reclining position, strapping them down, putting cloth over their faces and pouring water over the cloth to simulate the feeling of drowning -- is that constitutional?"

"If that amounts to torture, it is not constitutional," Mukasey said.

"I'm very disappointed in that answer," Whitehouse said.

The most sensible policy on torture that I've ever heard comes from that great movie Lawrence of Arabia. I refer to the scene wherein the old Arab chieftain King Feisal, played by Alec Guinness (photo above), is interviewed by the American newspaperman Jackson Bentley and they discuss Turkish barbarities and the treatment of prisoners of war:

(King Feisal) Our own prisoners are taken care of until the British can relieve us of them, according to the Code. I should like you to notice that.

(Bentley) Yes, sir. Is that the influence of Major Lawrence?

(Feisal) Why should you suppose so?

(Bentley) It's just that I heard in Cairo that Major Lawrence has a horror of bloodshed.

(Feisal) That is exactly so. With Major Lawrence, mercy is a passion. With me, it is merely good manners. You may judge which motive is the more reliable.

I take his point. If I were the one on the waterboard, I'd prefer an interrogator who felt constrained by mere good manners.

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