For most human purposes, rationality takes a back seat. All that is necessary for human action, most of the time, is a rationale, a slogan, an emotionally resonant excuse. It is hard to think of a collective misfortune more horrible than war. Yet every war is always somehow justified, even when it is inexcusable aggression, illegal under the spongey law of nations and conducted solely for the profit of a few who don’t care how many others must die so they can grow richer and more powerful. Justified. Read your history book, read virtually any history book. War, unfortunate, yes, hell, of course, but necessary, you see, because… that guy over there is Hitler. He’s fucking HITLER! Nuff said.
My sister and I had a good laugh when she pointed out a howlingly imbecilic line I’d written in an otherwise promising first draft about our family life. Describing our nightly fights around the dinner table as a battle field I went a step too far. My sister read the line with beautiful archness: “the brutal battlefield of our family dinner table was as nightmarish as any war scene you can imagine.” ANY war scene, she repeated, with deft intonation for maximum ironic emphasis. In the beat it took me to reply she reeled off a string of famous atrocities that left no doubt of the idiocy of my claim. Instead of a reply I burst out laughing. We had the best laugh we’ve had together in years. Then I caught my breath, pulled myself together and deleted the absurd line.
There I had a rare moment of good fortune, somebody gently pointing out my foolishness, and doing it with humor and superb understatement that made me see it for myself. The laugh made it undeniable, how laughable my claim had been. I submit that this moment was an outlier in general human affairs, a rare moment when rational good sense triumphs over a feeling of poetic license, shoddy but justifiable thinking, emotional overstatement.
Yes, of course, no child should ever be subjected to the mistreatment my sister and I regularly endured from our parents. Yes, of course, I have a right to be hurt and indignant, even angry, about the abuse we were made to suffer. But was it really as horrific as Turks on horseback driving helpless Armenians into a river to drown, worse than the Janjaweed, ISIS, the viciousness of the fanatical SS?
Eh, probably not, now that you put it that way.
But there’s the thing about irrationality, as a general rule it doesn’t stop anyone. We have an irrational chaos-monger insisting he will make our country great again, apparently by wiping out every vestige of decency that people have fought for centuries to achieve here. All he needs is a slogan and his base will roar, full-throated support, chant anything, no matter how idiotic. “Drain the Swamp!” which they chanted during his historic presidential campaign, a slogan he told an interviewer he had his doubts about, but then decided was great when he saw how the crowds took to it, was actually translated from the original Italian– it was a mantra of Benito Mussolini as he rose to power . Many people are saying Mussolini was a fascist, but there are many views, on many sides, on many sides. Just sayin’.
There is no point feeling superior to a stadium full of desperate people chanting “lock her up!” or “Fake NEWS!” or “Suck my ass!!!”. No reason to feel superior to a strutting, supremely confident-seeming cruel bully with seemingly very few actual thoughts in his head. As a species, we are no more rational than anyone in that Make America Great Again crowd. Which is not to say we don’t each have the ability to be more rational — all it takes is somebody stating the truth in a way we can hear it. After my sister and I had a good laugh, there was no way to deny how laughable my claim about the atrociousness of our family war was. Is being called a “fucking cobra” as bad as being locked in a church with everybody in your town and having it burned to the ground? I suppose not.
And so it goes down virtually every issue we constantly debate in our battling society where unfair competition for material possessions is shrugged off as merely the law of nature. One of the “debates” that drove me most insane during those madcap Cheney-Dubya days was the torture debate. A fucking “debate” that will not fucking die, I might add. We had an administration determined to use practices we’d long ago signed on, as part of the civilized world, to ban forever. All that was necessary to overcome all those treaties was a horrific event followed by convening a small team of partisan lawyers to craft an argument — how idiotic an argument didn’t matter, just a secret memo to justify it in the odd event anyone was ever held accountable for the illegal program.
In light of the secret torture memo a hard kick in the balls was now “enhanced interrogation” instead of “torture” because it was not as painful as the shutdown of a major organ system. Nobody in their right mind could argue that a little kick in the balls is as bad as, say, your lungs shutting down. Are you fucking crazy, you’re going to claim a kick in the balls, or sleep deprivation, or a freezing cell, or stress positions, or “walling” or water-boarding is as bad as your goddamn heart stopping? Fuck off, peace bitch, we reframed this “debate” and there’s nothing you can do about it.
The other day I had a tiny moment of blessed relief, when a friend who loves to argue somehow drew me back into the fucking torture debate for a moment. “You’re saying even if you have the person who planted the ticking time bomb that’s about to kill 5,000 children, you can’t use torture to make him talk.” I took a breath.
“In that one in a million scenario, where you have the actual guilty fuck strapped to a chair, and in a matter of minutes 5,000 kids will die if you don’t get him to talk– yeah, sure, put the fuck on a water-board, electrodes on his balls, the works. I’ll fucking torture him myself, if we somehow know for sure that this is the actual psycho who planted the bomb. The murderous fanatic probably won’t talk in any event, but it’s worth a shot, to save that stadium full of kids. But the likelihood of that imagined scenario ever happening is less than a lightning strike, winning the lottery, inheriting 300 million from dad, like David and Charles Koch did.”
In that liberating moment I felt free from the moronic “ticking time bomb scenario” hypothetical always used to justify torturing anyone who might possibly “hate our freedom”. But it was a momentary feeling of relief. My friend, although he backed off a bit, still seemed to believe that there are situations where, the absurdity of the highly unlikely (how about NEVER) “ticking time bomb” hypothetical notwithstanding, that you would be justified in torturing somebody. It reminded me of our long ago torturous debate on the subject via email when I eventually asked in exasperation: what next, are you going to start actually torturing me? To which he wrote something to the tune of: Oh, but I already am…
So here we have a man, highly intelligent, well-read, a skilled debater, a moral person with nuanced political views, many of them progressive, for whom a “hypothetical” with a likelihood of 0.001% is good enough to justify, in some cases, an otherwise morally unjustifiable position. Not to say I could picture him torturing anyone (not physically, anyway) but that idiotic hypothetical is all he needs to keep arguing the position of the most vicious, ruthless, cruel and lawless among us.
Imagine the average person, without my friend’s fine education, generally refined moral awareness, wide reading, long professional experience making and dissecting arguments, confronted with an irrefutable bit of logical sounding rhetoric like “we got to fight ’em over there so we don’t have to fight ’em here!” Jesus, that makes perfect sense. We just need to go over there, kill or capture all of ’em, detain the live ones forever, torture ’em — end of problem! Next!
You see, they hate our fucking freedom. They’re not like us. They don’t love their children, they use them as human shields. They’re terrorists who hate us because we’re better than them. You get that? They have a massive cultural inferiority complex that makes them insane. Somebody who would do what they do is not a human in the same sense that a middle class white American is a human. They’d kill us all, and certainly not hesitate to torture us, in much worse ways than the many techniques in the $10,000,000 manual our legal team deemed totally legally defensible. You see, we’re talking savage, primitive fucking fucks here. You do understand the difference, don’t you?
On the other hand, my dear fellow American, you can see the obvious flaws in that stinking pile of horse diarrhea. I know you can. You just have to look directly at it, get a real whiff, think of your friend from school, the kid from Pakistan, a self-effacing, warm, funny guy… well, you would exempt Fahrid from any torture program, if you could…
 According to Madeline Albright in her recent book Fascism: A Warning.