If one consumes enough news and commentary, one begins to notice the same (crappy) arguments over and over in certain circles. This of course can happen anywhere–on the right, or on the left. The left, however, in my unscientific opinion, just doesn't have the discipline or organization or perhaps heart to carry it off very well. Few, I think, will repeat Richard Cohen's latest ideas. That's not a virtue, however. It kind of reminds in fact of the old paradox of moral weakness: vice plus moral weakness equals virtue. Not having the stamina to be evil, I end up doing the right thing.
Back to the point. There's an argument that's been rolling around the world of torture justifying commentary lately. It goes something like this:
MILLER: And I’m going to move beyond that and say the pertinent question to me is, is it necessary. Where do you stand on this?
KRAUTHAMMER: You know, I’m in the midst of writing a column for this week, which is exactly on that point. Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I personally don’t think it is cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers because its, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their training. That’s an absurd sentence. So, I personally don’t think it is but I was willing to concede it in the column without argument exactly as you say to get away from the semantic argument, which is a waste of time and to simply say call it whatever you want. We know what it is. We know what actually happened. Should it have been done and did it work? Those are the only important questions.
Never mind the fact that Krauthammer writes stuff he doesn't believe (without saying so). He reasserts the manifestly absurd argument that anything done in the SERE program (Survive Evade Resist Extract) cannot be torture, as that would mean we have been torturing our own people. The SERE program however trains people to resist the kinds of illegal torture used by our illustrious enemies. Part of the training involves a little taste. (Someone who went through this training tells me in his final paper for one of my spring courses (true story) that even that little taste can give you raging nightmares).
Not content with that line, Krauthammer, who fancies himself some kind of logician, pats himself on the back for having avoided the "semantic argument." The semantic argument, in this case I suppose, is whether you call something torture or not. That's important. Because if it is torture, then it broke the law, and if it broke the law, then there ought to be prosecutions. That's the problem with legal semantics. In the end someone goes to jail.
But that's just what's so absurd about this line of reasoning. Krauthammer makes a semantic claim–we cannot by definition torture our own people ("it's absurd!")–in order to claim that waterboarding isn't "torture." But that's just to confuse "use" and "mention." What's "use" and "mention"? Well, if I pretend torture my own guy to show him what to expect, I am "mentioning" torture. I don't really do it, I just kind of do it. This is kind of like acting. The actors don't really say the things they say ("I'm going to kill you"), they mention them. Using torture, on the other hand, is illegal.