Barbaric Buckley

Just as we know night is descending when darkness devours the sunset’s last colors, so we know barbarity is ascending when so-called gentlemen defend torture. Shamelessly. In a vicious column published last week and picked up by the New York Sun (among others), William "Effete Snob" Buckley sneers at those who would allow mere morality to keep the Bush Administration from abusing prisoners.

Buckley has never screamed under the torturer’s ministrations. But that doesn’t stop him from mocking Sen. John McCain’s torment as a POW ("…McCain — miraculously still alive, given what he was made to suffer in Vietnam…"). I assume few of us are fans of the Senator: he has harmed the country irreparably with his anti-Constitutional votes in Congress. But only a barbarian — and an especially arrogant barbarian, given that Buckley never knew worse nor braved it better — would make light of such horrific suffering: McCain recalled that guards beat him “from pillar to post, kicking and laughing and scratching. After a few hours of that, ropes were put on me and I sat that night bound with ropes. For the next four days, I was beaten every two to three hours by different guards… Finally, I reached the lowest point of my 5 1/2 years in North Vietnam. I was at the point of suicide…."

Buckley next presents the tired and discredited scenario of a suspect who reveals no information until he’s tortured: "Habib Sulaiman, age 22, is picked up by security agents in London. … Sulaiman declines to answer any questions. One month later, he finds himself in Guantanamo. … Routine questioning, of the kind he has been subjected to ever since he was picked up, has accomplished nothing. …We could just keep him in his Guantanamo cell. Just keep him there, let the months go by… So after a while the commandant says, u2018Let’s try something a little more persuasive than solitary confinement.’ Like what? Like alternative interrogation practices."

Come on, Bill: no need to skulk behind the Administration’s euphemism. Say it plain: "Like torture. Like strapping that 22-year-old kid to a board and holding him under water until his lungs threaten to burst. Like ripping out his toenails. Like bludgeoning his shins until the bones shatter and the muscles are pulp. Like stripping him and turning dogs loose on him. Like making a piata of him by suspending him from the ceiling and beating him."

Not sated with such unspeakable cruelty, Buckley castigates Colin Powell for the "maudlin mistake" of questioning torture "under the rubric of morality." Rather, we should "balance competing claims: the claim to personal sovereignty and the claim to security for the community." But isn’t "balancing competing claims" precisely when we need morality? My hunger tells me to steal your sandwich, but my equally pressing need for self-respect suggests I head for the deli and buy my own. Which impulse will triumph? Morality compels me to go with the latter.

The staunchly Catholic Buckley concludes by elevating the state’s "right" to torture over Biblical morality: "[Congress] should not be asked to define what exactly they condone, in the way of alternative interrogation practices. But they should not be dumbfounded into inactivity by general appeals to the Ten Commandments."

Such chilling enthusiasm for torture was once confined to an underclass with whom no decent person associated: gangs from the inner cities, mobsters, dictators in banana republics. Their brutality shocks but does not surprise because none of these monsters is civilized. Often, they’re barely literate; they’re fond of gaudy uniforms and garish clothing; they like to prey on the weak and helpless; they don’t know the Spanish Inquisition from a Soviet gulag, nor do they care that they share a great many techniques with each. They may be living in the twenty-first century, but they’re a throwback to the Stone Age with its clubs and spears, its survival of the strongest, and its credo that might makes right.

Civilization long ago abandoned such barbarity. Christianity, chivalry, and, later, the gentleman’s code all prohibited harming others, especially the weak or helpless. This stricture protected even those rendered temporarily defenseless, whether by capture during war or imprisonment for a crime. People of taste, educated people, genteel, urbane, courteous people held the deliberate infliction of pain on the helpless beneath contempt. They rightly considered it the hallmark of savages.

But behavior formerly scorned as the province of brutes and thugs is now endorsed in our newspapers as blithely as the latest book or restaurant. Nor are its purveyors shunned. I doubt the dinner invitations to Buckley or to the editors who published his bilge will fall off. Journalism classes and the occasional roundtable will still invite them to speak. They will continue to preen before their peers and win awards.

Currently, the Administration proposes to torture only "terrorist suspects." Almost none of its victims are American citizens. But no government in history has ever contented itself with torturing foreigners: very soon, it starts on its own people. Political opponents, dissenters, intellectuals and writers are usually among the first to be seized.

Wanna bet Buckley and his editors recant at dizzying speed when they get a taste of what they’re advocating?