Disclaimer from Sekhnet about this piece:
“I hated it. ‘I hated it’ was an understatement. I urge you to take this down, people will not realize it’s fiction. They will think this is something that really happened, you acting like a complete asshole. It’s horrifying, and very realistic, it’s plausible to people who never met you. It seems to have been written from life. They will think this is an actual story from your life, and it’s a sick story. And the connection between the narrator’s torture debate with his colleague is not made to what the asshole narrator does to his guest. It’s just plain stupid.”
Rest assured, this is a harmless work of complete fiction:
The Torture Debate
A classmate of mine from law school I hadn’t heard from in decades, a striving type who’d gone to work for “the man”, and “done very well”, called to check in with me, the great idealist. Our career trajectories could not have gone much differently. He was very wealthy, loved the new tax cuts, I was still idealistic, and paying off my student loans on the drip, drip, drip plan. I got a couple of laughs out of him before he turned serious, began talking politics.
It wasn’t long before we found ourselves coming from our respective corners, the then-contentious subject of torture reared its ugly head, specifically the issue of Americans and foreign partners collaborating in the torture of terrorism suspects. His points were predictable: the human right of one particular individual, or hundreds, not to be handled inhumanely did not equal the human rights of a little blonde girl not to get blown up by a fanatic on her way to school.
We eventually “agreed to disagree,” with appropriately fake phone smiles, about things like whether a stress position, forced enemas, a freezing cold cell or prolonged sleep deprivation were actually torture or merely forms of tough, but perfectly legal, ‘coercion’ to get vital information to save the lives of those innocents whose deaths from a terrorist’s bomb were imminent. After we reached this lawyerly agreement I thanked him for calling and told him I had to get going. He said he’d be in town the following week and asked if I’d be free to meet him at some point. He cheerfully accepted my invitation to come by for a drink.
He liked the drink I served him very much, the last of a bottle of 12 year-old MacCallan’s. We drank a toast with that lovely single malt, followed by a round of Johnny Walker Black, also good. We chased the whisky with small glasses of cold seltzer and, being both suddenly thirsty, found ourselves musing over the peculiarly unambiguous American use of the word “drink.”
“I haven’t had a drink in ten years,” I said, setting up the old gag.
“Boy, you must be thirsty!” he said, smiling like he’d spiked the winning shot at the Canker, Boyle and Whitehead annual volleyball tournament.
“If you are, in fact, thirsty,” I said, “I can get you a delicious drink I just re-discovered. I think you’ll find it quite refreshing.” I brought him a tall, frosty glass of fresh squeezed pink grapefruit juice, very sweet, spiked with a splash of ice cold seltzer. I had one too. The delicious combination of the sweet liquid fruit and the cold bubbles really hit the spot. He liked it very much, too. I offered him a refill and he smiled, thanked me and drank that also.
When I came back from the bathroom I asked if he’d like one more. Best to avoid dehydration while drinking whisky, I reminded him. With a slightly sheepish smile he said he wouldn’t mind one more, if I had enough. I assured him I did and brought him another tall, frosty drink. We had another shot of whisky, too.
When he got up to go to the bathroom I stood, put a firm hand on his shoulder and restrained him.
“No,” I said.
Unable to dislodge my hand he quickly became indignant. He started using his words. Being stronger than him, and determined, I was not obliged to pay the slightest attention to his arguments. I would remain, for purposes of this particular dispute, the proponent of argumentum ad baculum, which the internet informs us is the fallacy committed when one appeals to force or the threat of force to bring about the acceptance of a conclusion
We were locked this way for over an hour, maybe two hours. Every time he tried to get up, I’d press down with force. The futility of this exercise of trying to stand, once it became clear that I was determined to argue like a “Might Makes Right” asshole, finally overwhelmed him.
After the ignored legal and moral arguments came the cursing and the attempts at intimidation. When the cursing was done, the appeals to my common decency, the ethical standards of our shared profession, to our long ago friendship, began. The consciences of my dead parents, who he’d met at graduation, were eventually dragged into his shameless appeal. The appeal got so personal I had to stop looking at him. Eventually, he was quiet.
It took a moment before I realized my work was done. His chair was in the middle of a dark lake. His ride home would be embarrassing, his tailored leisure pants would need a dry cleaning and his expensive shoes appeared to have been ruined.
Then the tears began, which was horrible to see, really. Hosing down the tile floor afterwards, I knew that my old classmate now had every right not to call me next time he comes to New York. Worse, I’ll never get to find out who won that long-running debate between us about the exact nature of torture.
“What difference did it make to Azrael?” I asked him, when he told me how upset Azrael had been when an insect drowned in hot water while he was running a bath.
“I asked him that after he came out of the bathroom,” he said. “He’d been running hot water to rinse the tub when a bug he realized was alive a moment too late to save it died a horrible, plunging, drowning death in the pipes. What he said to explain it to me was so simple it still strikes me. He said ‘picture your own moment of death — would you like it instant and painless or prolonged and painful?’ I always think of that when I kill a bug, to this day. That bug desperately swimming for his life away from the sucking drain could have instantly been put out of his mortal terror and unavoidable death by a merciful finger.
“Azrael had been too slow to react when he saw the bug, at first he didn’t realize it was even alive. Then he saw it struggling to swim in the hot water away from the drain. Then he’d watched the bug get swept over Niagra Falls to die an agonizing death by drowning in the churning, unbearably hot water. It impressed me how awful he felt about not sparing that bug such a miserable death.”
“Instant and painless or prolonged and painful,” I said. “I like that. A no-brainer for a marketing/branding scheme exploiting that no-brainer: ‘Quick/no pain or slow/maximum pain, your choice.’ It’s appealingly philosophical, too.”
“Of course, life is not so black and white,” he said.
“Exactly, which is why such idiotically phrased choices are so irresistible, anyone who’d choose the wrong choice is so obviously wrong. I like the phrase, and I think we can monetize it, I think it’s a good choice phrase,” I said. “Plenty of imagery and punch, the rubes will love it.”
“The phrase is fine, monetize away, I’m just sayin’,” he said.
“You know, it’s not like Azrael was exactly into Ahimsa or any ascetic religious practice that would have made him so sensitive to a bug’s soul. He ate meat, he’d curse, he was always rough breaking up a fight,” I said. “He certainly didn’t shrink from hurting anybody.”
“He didn’t, but when you say Azrael ate meat, that’s funny, yeah, he ate meat. He lived on meat, ate almost nothing besides meat. He was a shoichet’s assistant, at a place down the street from the butcher’s, from shortly after his bar mitzvah, if I recall correctly, until he started working at the delicatessen,” my brother reminded me.
“He was one tough son of a bitch,” I said.
“Yiss,” he said.
“And he always kept a dog.” We both remembered Azrael’s dogs.
“Yiss,” my brother said.
You have a way with words.
Away with words! Speak little, do much.
Nicely said, Ned!
I’ll pretend you didn’t say that, Fred.
Now, why you want to be like that, Ed? I was trying to tender you a kind word.
Yet you rendered me a mind turd, dittn’t you, Ted?
I just said you have your way with words.
You sayin’ I don’t respect ’em, just have my way with ’em, is that what you’re saying, Zed?
I’m not saying that. I’m not saying anything.
You sure have a funny way of not saying anything, Red.
You said it.
Want to see some beautiful and delicious tomatoes and peppers grown on a little backyard farm on the banks of the tranquil Grand Central Parkway? I thought so.
(turn down volume a bit for best results)
It’s understandable, friends. There is a human longing to be connected to…. hang on a second, I’ve got to send a quick email, excuse me.
What’s the deal with looking at the smart phone every couple of minutes, every few seconds, what’s the …
It is addictive, this feeling of being connected, of having the world at your fingertips. A moment of total control in an out of control world when you stop to make your phone do something cool, smart, informative, interactive.
In elementary school, for me decades ago, when any of this was the domain of the smartest science fiction writers, a teacher described a psychological experiment that has a lesson in it for all of us today…. wait, got a message coming in, hang on.
They hooked an electrode up to the pleasure center of a rat’s brain. Many rats were hooked up this way. They had a button to push to give them a jolt of pleasure, the equivalent of an orgasm. It took the rats a very short time to make the connection between pressing this button and the immediate jolt of pleasure.
The scientists were not all that shocked to find that every rat died with his or her paw on this button. There was no reason for them not to keep pressing it and it was irresistible, after all.
I had something more to say, but my phone is now fully charged and I’m thinking of downloading the electrode to the pleasure center app. I’m sure someone is developing it… hold on, there’s a notification.
Shoot, just an email, I’d better answer that.