If people claim to object to X as a general matter, but their objections to X are raised only when someone from the opposite political party can be blamed, and if they likewise ignore much more substantial instances of X, then I suspect that their objections to X are rooted more in political partisanship than in a sincere moral position.
Thus, for example, when many commentators were complaining about the Patriot Act provision allowing the FBI to subpoena a suspect's library records, my test for whether they were really
that worried about privacy was whether they raised similar objections to the fact that all of us (not just terrorism suspects) have to file much more intrusive
tax forms with the government every single year, providing numerous
details that are overwhelmingly more private
than anything that could conceivably be in a library record.
A similar test of sincerity could be raised about the torture issue. Consider a recent and persuasive New Yorker article
by the always-worth-reading Atul Gawande:
“It’s an awful thing, solitary,” John McCain wrote of his five and a half years as a prisoner of war in Vietnam—more than two years of it spent in isolation in a fifteen-by-fifteen-foot cell, unable to communicate with other P.O.W.s except by tap code, secreted notes, or by speaking into an enamel cup pressed against the wall. “It crushes your spirit and weakens your resistance more effectively than any other form of mistreatment.” And this comes from a man who was beaten regularly; denied adequate medical treatment for two broken arms, a broken leg, and chronic dysentery; and tortured to the point of having an arm broken again. A U.S. military study of almost a hundred and fifty naval aviators returned from imprisonment in Vietnam, many of whom were treated even worse than McCain, reported that they found social isolation to be as torturous and agonizing as any physical abuse they suffered.
* * *
Most hostages survived their ordeal, Fletcher said, although relationships, marriages, and careers were often lost. Some found, as John McCain did, that the experience even strengthened them. Yet none saw solitary confinement as anything less than torture. This presents us with an awkward question: If prolonged isolation is—as research and experience have confirmed for decades—so objectively horrifying, so intrinsically cruel, how did we end up with a prison system that may subject more of our own citizens to it than any other country in history has?
* * *
Whether in Walpole or Beirut or Hanoi, all human beings experience isolation as torture.
* * *
The number of prisoners in these facilities has since risen to extraordinary levels. America now holds at least twenty-five thousand inmates in isolation in supermax prisons. An additional fifty to eighty thousand are kept in restrictive segregation units, many of them in isolation, too, although the government does not release these figures.
Douglas Berman of "Sentencing Law and Policy" points out
that "while a few hundred accused terrorists and murderers have lots and lots of constitutional lawyers and activists running to court on their behalf, many thousands of lesser criminals confined to the hellhole of supermax prisons languish with very few persons even thinking about their plight, let alone fighting in court on their behalf."
The answer is not
to be less concerned about the handful of people tortured by the CIA. The answer is to show a proportionate amount of concern about what is effectively torture elsewhere, even if there's no partisan gain to be had. That is, someone who is sincerely concerned about torture should spend MUCH
more effort writing and agitating about things done in America's prisons every day. Solitary confinement is one thing to oppose; here's