Jonah Goldberg

What does Hollywood think about torture?

The answer isn't as obvious as you think. Sure, as a political force, Hollywood is against torture, which ranks somewhere in the parade of horribles ahead of SUV ownership and perhaps even voting Republican. No doubt Barbra Streisand and Alec Baldwin have delivered many a dinner table stemwinder against the Bush administration's defense of "coercive measures" in extreme circumstances.

And to be fair, the Hollywood crowd isn't alone. Back here in Washington, the issue of torture has largely united liberals and divided conservatives. One of the main disagreements is what people mean by torture. If you mean hot pokers in unwelcome places, pretty much everyone is against it, save perhaps in the famous "ticking time bomb" scenario.

But the meatier part of the argument is in the more nuanced area of "coercive measures," "stress positions," and what one unnamed official once described to the Wall Street Journal as "a little bit of smacky-face." Some, such as Republican Sens. John McCain and Lindsey Graham, want even that stuff banned (but acknowledge that if it comes to a ticking time bomb situation, well, "you do what you have to do," as McCain put it).

Others go even further. Naturally, human rights groups are appalled by the suggestion that harsh treatment is ever justified. Similarly, blogger Andrew Sullivan dismisses the ticking time bomb as a "red herring" and argues that "you cannot raise or lower the moral status of mass murderers with respect to torture. The only salient moral status with respect to torture is that the mass murderers are human beings."

In other words, it doesn't matter what the person you are coercing did or why you are coercing them in the first place. Torturing an evil man to save innocent lives is no less a sin than torturing a noble man in order to snuff out innocent lives, or just for the fun of it. The way Sullivan and those who agree with him see it, torture is torture is torture - and torture is always wrong, even when defined as intimidation and "smacky-face." "Not in my name" is their rallying cry, often with the sort of self-righteousness that suggests that those who disagree must admire cruelty.


Jonah Goldberg

Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online,and the author of the book The Tyranny of Clichés. You can reach him via Twitter @JonahNRO.
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