As one of the few Pinkers who got through the Capitol cop dragnet outside of the House Judiciary Hearing today, I felt I should describe this scene.
The Judiciary committee met today to revisit the infamous "Torture Memos" written by John Yoo and David Addington. This is the one with the quote about how it's okay up until pain "equivalent to organ failure."
(I don't know how they quite figure that one. When you torture a subject, do you regularly check in: "so, do you feel like one of your organs is failing?")
Yoo is a U.C. Berkeley law professor who works for the Department of Justice - here's his swanky faculty page. (I can only hope that the Bears are protesting him on a regular basis.) David Addington is the Department of Defense's homeboy in the White House. Here he is. According to Wikipedia, he's an Aquarius.
Kurt Vonnegut's great masterpiece Slaughterhouse Five is about how the human mind shuts down when confronted by things too horrible to understand. The main character in the novel is Billy Pilgrim, an American who survives the firebombing of Dresden. Dresden was the most concentrated massacre in World War II, in which American incendiary bombs burned 30,000 people to death in two days, and most of the buildings in the city.
The text of Slaughterhouse Five isn't about war, or loss, or grief. Most of the book is about Pilgrim's incredibly complicated mental disassociation that results from Dresden: he imagines himself kidnapped by aliens and going on episodic time travel. It's one of the best books ever written about 20th-century industrial war - because it's not about 20th-century industrial war. We have not figured out how to write about 20th-century industrial war, because we have no idea yet how to explain things that are so horrible, and so vast, that they defy comprehension, let alone description. We intellectualize them. We speak of them in soft tones, or not at all. Or we get kidnapped by aliens, and go off into outer space.
It was hard not to feel this type of disassociation today in the hearing. From 10 a.m. onwards, the committee questioned Yoo and Addington about their role in designing standards for interrogation that completely violate the Geneva Convention. It was a smooth. It was a polished and quiet hearing. It was a formal procedure about whether our President had authorized the ripping out of fingernails.
It was a legal proceeding, conducted with no more weight than a particularly contentious local zoning hearing. Although the committeemembers did get occasionally argumentative, the witnesses refused to divulge any information that could be later used against them. Outside, Codepink lined up in the hallway in Abu Ghraib orange jumpsuits spelling out NO TORTURE, and the mainstream Dems walking by on their way to the Rayburn deli got annoyed.
But to be quite frank, the Pinkers were the only people there who responded to the matter as any human being would who has blood pumping through their veins. Torturing people is an atrocity, it is wrong, it is illegal. If they wrote that memo, and people were tortured - they should go to jail. End of story.
This was an episode of the Nuremberg trials. And all through it, staffers in the hearing were lounging around and checking their Blackberries. Or time travelling. I suppose. So it goes.