Torture? Racism? Genocide? When It Means Everything, It Means Nothing

The phenomenon of conflation occurs

when the identities of two or more individuals, concepts, or places, sharing some characteristics of one another, become confused until there seems to be only a single identity -- the differences appear to become lost.

Michael Ledeen’s torture article at Pajamas Media -- presented amid the capture and execution killing of Osama bin Laden, through the use of information some of which was apparently obtained through “torture” -- shows the need for introspection. In addition to providing an example of conflation, as noted in many of the comments, it raises many questions. Among the answerable: Should we forbid all forms of “torture?” Should the Justice Department continue its investigation of “torture,” begun in 2009? “‘It’s unfortunate,’ Cheney said. ‘These men deserve to be decorated. They don’t deserve to be prosecuted.’” Should we continue to vent our self-righteous distaste for “torture” on those who obtained the bin Laden information (and, through its use, further important information) until they stop doing it? It was written here that

We have witnessed crimes against humanity. We want President Obama to show complete commitment to the rule of law so that the many lying, corrupt and criminal Americans from both the public and private sectors that have caused so much harm are punished. That includes Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld and many, many others in the Bush administration, including those that were supposed to regulate the financial sector.

I disagreed here. What is “torture”? Are the slow removal of sensitive body parts in the most painful manner possible, on the one hand, and sleep deprivation by playing awful music at high volume in close proximity, on the other, both “torture”? Or does that term properly apply only to the former? Since the same word is applied to both, are they equally bad? What about waterboarding? It’s quite unpleasant and no parlor game, even though it causes only transitory fear and discomfort. Perhaps, with the copious publicity about its transitory nature, it has become less effective than previously.

“Torture” seems to occur along a spectrum rather than as one discrete band of activity. Perhaps a prism is needed to separate the various activities into discrete bands. We do that with light. Every point along the spectrum of visible light is by definition visible and there is light at every such point. The conflation of these points involved in simply calling them all “light” is harmless, unless perhaps one is working in an old fashioned darkroom developing photos, where low intensity red light can be used to see without damaging the negative or print but high intensity blue light can’t.

By sad contrast, many quite broad spectrum words and their underlying concepts have fallen prey to conflation: racism, poverty, genocide, promiscuity, and torture, for example. We can learn here, as in many other left-oriented articles, just how widespread “racism” is: all opposition to President Obama’s policies and initiatives is “racist.” “Poverty” is no less widespread; the word is used as applicable to both the United States and Haiti and all places in between. In Haiti, 40.6 percent of the workforce of 4.81 million are unemployed and eighty percent of the population exist below the “poverty line” (2003 estimate -- it is likely worse now). Not having a color television and an automobile seems, in the United States, to be associated with poverty. Not so in many other countries. Genocide is a term often applied to Israel’s activities in trying to keep Palestinians from sending missiles and terrorists into Israel to kill Jews and anyone else in their way as well as to the activities at German death camps during World War II’s Holocaust. Promiscuity suggests flagrant sexual conduct, but that means many different things to many different people, particularly when it is done to mock religion. That’s true of many activities. Even threatening to burn a Koran is viewed by some as terribly bad because it sets off massacres among Islamists, but burning a Bible or soaking one in urine is hardly even newsworthy because Christians and Jews aren’t likely to go on killing sprees on account of it.

Torture -- now there’s a biggie, at which some but not all of our enemies have been experts or at least vigorous and experienced. Being taken captive by the Vietcong during the Vietnam conflict could be an horrific experience and many tortured survivors still have harsh mementos. Sometimes captives were tortured to get information, sometimes for vengeance and, most likely, sometimes just for the fun of it. I have heard that some Native American tribes fancied placing captured enemies spreadeagled and naked on anthills and spreading honey on their genitals -- not for information but vengeance. This sort of thing is patently uncivilized, as we commonly use that term, and it is simply inconceivable that the United States would ever to do anything even remotely similar. On the other hand, Germany was thought to represent a pinnacle of civilization until the horrors of the “final solution” were widely revealed.