Belmont Club

The Grand Inquisitor

Did Nancy Pelosi know?

Though the report to Congress states that the briefing in question included a “description of the particular EITs that had been employed,” Pelosi maintains that she was not told that any techniques had actually been used. (Yesterday, her spokesman issued a statement stating only that past instances of waterboarding were not discussed.)

In a written statement, Pelosi said today: “My understanding of the briefing I received is consistent with the description that CIA General Counsel Scott Muller provided to Congresswoman Jane Harman in a letter dated February 28, 2003, which states: ‘As we informed both you and the leadership of the Intelligence Committees last September, a number of Executive Branch lawyers including lawyers from the Department of Justice participated in the determination that, in the appropriate circumstances, the use of these techniques is fully consistent with U.S. law.’ ”

She goes on to acknowledge that her recollection of the meeting is different than the one provided by intelligence officials: “As reported in the press, a cover letter from CIA Director [Leon] Panetta accompanying the briefings memo released this week concedes that the descriptions provided by the CIA may not be accurate.”


In Dostoevsky’s Brother’s Karamazov, we meet the character of the Grand Inquisitor in a parable told by Ivan. The Inquisitor is a cynical old politician who is an atheist committed to pretending that God exists. That way humanity will live happy and die consoled. Then one day, the unexpected happens. Christ returns. God really does exist and the Inquisitor has Jesus clapped in a dungeon, accusing him of the crime of bringing an unbearable freedom upon mankind. Wikipedia summarizes the Inquisitor’s argument:

He does not believe that the vast majority of humanity can handle the freedom which Jesus has given them. Thus, he implies that Jesus, in giving humans freedom to choose, has excluded the majority of humanity from redemption and doomed it to suffer. Despite declaring the Inquisitor to be an atheist, Ivan also implies that the Inquisitor and the Church follow “the wise spirit, the dread spirit of death and destruction,” i.e. the Devil, Satan, for he, through compulsion, provided the tools to end all human suffering and unite under the banner of the Church. The multitude then is guided through the Church by the few who are strong enough to take on the burden of freedom. The Inquisitor says that under him, all mankind will live and die happily in ignorance. Though he leads them only to “death and destruction,” they will be happy along the way. The Inquisitor will be a self-martyr, spending his life to keep choice from humanity. He states that “Anyone who can appease a man’s conscience can take his freedom away from him.”


Suppose Nancy Pelosi knew that in order to keep her fellow citizens safe, and incidentally to keep her job, she had to turn a blind eye to ‘enhanced interrogation’? Even urge it on. But she had to keep that fact from the public so that they could continue blithely on their ways? Would she be a heroine bearing the burden of power and freedom alone? Or have we substituted one possible opiate with another?

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