Torture, Kerry, and political courage

If making torture a major issue in the election would have cost John Kerry votes, was he really wrong to keep quiet about it?

I have a great deal of respect for Greg Djerijian’s smarts and moral good sense, so I don’t leap to the conclusion that he’s gotten one wrong. Still, this recent Belgravia Dispatch post on the torture issue seems to me to contradict itself.

First, Greg quotes Andrew Sullivan as pointing out that the political polarization around the torture issue (and, Sullivan might have added, the Iraq situation generally) made it harder to deal with that issue sensibly. [The Sullivan piece is a must-read for its graphic descriptions, quoted from official sources, of what is actually being done in our names (which turns out to be a little bit more severe than “fraternity hazing”).]

As Sullivan points out, the people most vocally attacking Bush on torture were, more or less, people who were in the habit of attacking Bush, and that made it easy for Rove & Co. to use their never-failing argument that any criticism of the President’s policies is motivated by partisanship as a way to avoid addressing the substance.

And of course the people who supported Bush simply stayed quiet, on this as on so many other issues.

And Sullivan and Djerijian are right to point out that John Kerry decided not to raise the issue in the campaign, at least after Kerry’s immediate demand that the President fire Rumsfeld after the Abu Ghraib photos appeared.

But are they right to criticize Kerry for not being louder and more persistent in his criticism? My instincts are the same as theirs: Torture is horrible; the President was responsible; his opponent should have made it an issue, thus giving the American people a chance to prove to one another, and to the world, that they still revere their flag enough not to want it sullied by things done in dungeons.

But if Sullivan and Djerijian are right to think that raising the torture issue would have been a losing move for Kerry in terms of votes, then is it really right to say that he should done it anyway?

Making it an issue in the campaign would have fanned the partisanship that Sullivan and Djerijian correctly say made the issue hard to address. The more Kerry talked about torture, the more it would have been perceived as a Democratic/Republican, anti-Bush/pro-Bush issue, and the more deeply the President’s defenders would have dug themselves in to the propostion that what we’re doing isn’t torture and that anyway the people we’re doing it to deserve to be tortured.

Worse, had Kerry run against torture, BushCo would now be in a position to claim that the electorate had validated the decision to do all of the disgusting stuff Sullivan quotes official reports as having been done.

In the end, the best way to end torture would have been to defeat the President who ordered it and elect in his place someone who was in fact opposed to it, even if not very noisily. Kerry didn’t have to make torture a central issue in the campaign to give the anti-torture crowd someone to vote for.

Djerijian, like Sullivan and like me, would have been happy to hear Kerry make torture an issue, because it would have meant that Kerry trusted the voters to make the right choice on that issue. But, as Sullivan acknowledges, the voters probably weren’t to be trusted in that way, especially since they would have been told relentlessly that Kerry’s denunciation of torture constituted an attack on the men and women in uniform.

So Djerijian’s argument reduces to saying that he wanted Kerry to denounce torture because he wanted Kerry to show that he had some moral center and some guts. Again, I felt the same way.

But do we really want, as President, someone so interested looking gutsy than in stopping the horror?

If Kerry had run on the torture issue, and then lost as narrowly as he did, the media would have been full of denunciations of the liberal purism and moralism that made him prefer taking what looked like a noble stance to getting into a position where he could make that noble stance into United States policy. And I couldn’t have said they were wrong.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

One thought on “Torture, Kerry, and political courage”

  1. Crazy, reckless, and anti-social, in an honest sort of way.

    Mark Kleiman, The Poor Man, Atrios, are all flabbergasted at a recent column whereby Gregory Djerejian argues, in essence, that it would have been horribly polarizing for John Kerry to condemn torture (quoting world-famous mental contortionist Andrew S…

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