16 January 2009

Assuming the conculsion

Yesterday I posted this exchange between Senator John Cornyn (R-TX) and Attorney General nominee Eric Holder without comment. Thinking about it since, it occurred to me that, apart from its tremendous satisfaction for those of us in favor of the rule of law, this mini-argument sums up a lot about how we think about violence in general, and not just the kinds that are, technically, illegal. As a starting point, here's the Cornyn-Holder exchange in summary:
Cornyn: If torture were the only way to prevent a terrorist attack that could kill bajillions of innocents, would it be OK to torture?
Holder: Uh - that never actually happens.
Cornyn: But what if it did?
Cornyn's logic should be familiar to any of us who believe that violence is unacceptable, because it parallels (or, indeed, directly copies) an argument every pacifist has faced from skeptics at some point. It typically goes something like this:
But what if some guy broke into your house and put a gun to the head of your [pick one: child, wife, grandmother - or really any helpless (usually female) loved one], and there was no way to stop it except to shoot him? Wouldn't you kill to save her?
Apart from how much this question tends to lean on certain ideas about gender roles (I once had a skeptic directly question my masculinity in the course of a conversation about this scenario), its weakness is that it assumes its own conclusion. That is, it asks whether you'd use violence if there were no other option but to use violence. But those of us who refuse violence do so because we're convinced that there is never such a condition.


Photo by julianrod.
The best elaboration on this position is John Howard Yoder's pamphlet What would you do?, which points out that the grandmother-under-threat scenario assumes you have perfect knowledge of the attacker's motives and intentions, that negotiation is impossible, and that Grandma has no moral interest in the situation besides her own survival. (Both my grandmothers are pacifists, too.) In other words, it's nothing like real life.

It is, however, a lot like television. It almost seems facile to say this, but most of the plot of your average cop show, thriller, or other "action" drama is an exercise in creating assumed conclusions of violence. Excuses, that is, for violent, exciting, entertaining stuff. There's nothing wrong with that as entertainment - how much of, e.g., science fiction is about coming up with a plausible explanation/excuse for why our heroes are, e.g., on another planet? There is something wrong with using the logic of a television show in real life, as a matter of national policy. Fortunately, the era of television-show logic for torture seems likely to end on 20 January, 2009. Here's hoping it puts the U.S., and the world, a little closer toward ending the use of television-show logic for all violence.

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