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How To Talk About Torture With Those Who Don’t Care

A bloggy friend of the Dog’s called Lady Libertine recently asked a question that has been haunting the Dog ever since. It is a pretty simple question; how do we who take the issue of our apparent State Sponsored Torture program seriously get others to do the same? It is one of the tragedies of America in the 21st Century that we know from public statements about it that the United States has, at the very least, tortured three of our prisoners in the Orwellianly named War On Terror. From recent International Committee of the Red Cross report that was leaked it is almost certain we have tortured other prisoners as well.

This would be bad enough, but the real problem is we, as a people, are not recoiling from the revelations. The actions of a mature society, one which respects and cherishes its rule of law is clear. A society like that would take the legal actions that are not only required by the law, but required for a nation to see itself as a force for good in the world and prosecute those who ordered and carried out such horrible acts. We, my fellow citizens, are not in such a mature society. We have fallen, for many reasons, in to the bully swagger that values perceived toughness over true strength, the strength of character, which says “We could do these horrible things, there is no one to stop us, but we will not because we are better than that.”.

While the above is true, it does not actually matter much. What does matter is how we take ourselves from where we are today to where we long to be, where we must be, as a nation who would lead the world. To do this we must find the way to bring the torture conversation from tight knit group that obsesses about it daily, like the Dog, to those who have real and legitimate worry’s that push this conceptual issue out of the conversation.

There will be those who will take issue with the Dog describing something as horribly visceral as torture as conceptual. However this is the exactly the divide that we face; those of us who are working on this issue feel it on our very selves, but those that are not focused on it see it as a concept, and one that is not important to their daily lives, their future or their happiness.

The Dog thinks the best way to go at this problem is to tie it back to the things which are important to people. One of the things which most of our fellow citizens have is a latent desire to see the United States as something that is special and good in the world. This gives us an avenue to bring the consequences of what we have done to front of their minds. You need to be careful when employing this method, as a too quick comparison to regimes that are hated and feared and the United States will trigger denial. If you trigger someone’s denial, then you are back to square one. Always remember, our goal is to bring those who, for whatever reason, are not upset about torture over to our side in this issue. This is not being done to for the pleasure of convincing people (one of the Dog’s biggest vices, truth to be told) but for the purpose of getting the level of public support which is needed to move forward with our obligations under the rule of law.

The very best way to sneak up on this is the Socratic Method. You are going to provide exactly zero answers, this is the job of the person you are trying to convince, no, you will provide the questions which frame the answer, so they can arrive at it themselves. This is critical, since people will only change an opinion when they want to, and not a second before, all the brow beating in the world will not make them change.

In order to get to our comparison of what we have done to a country which we would rather not we be the same as, we need to start by setting up the premise the United States is on the side of the good guys. No one is going to want to have a conversation which starts out “Let’s talk about torture”. It just will not work, so you have to come at it from an angle. Talk about something which we can be proud of in this nation (yeah, for some on the Left it is hard to find things, but remember you are on a mission here, so work at it a little, eh?).

The Dog uses the premise we are a nation which looks to do good in the world. We support women’s rights, we support human rights, we provide aid to other countries, all of this makes us the good guys. Your next step is to try to get agreement with this premise, if you get disagreement this is okay, you can parlay it into the direction you want, but you are most likely to get agreement.

Now, ask who the other person thinks is really bad at this type of thing. You might have to prod them a little by asking if they think China or Russia or Syria is good or bad at this kind of thing. Be ready to listen, don’t jump to the win, you are building confidence with the person you are trying to convince, it is not going to happen instantly and you will blow it if you come swinging in like Rambo without a jockstrap. This takes time, so take the time to do it right. Once they answer, draw them out about what it is these countries do that is so bad.

Once you have established they are the bad guys, it is time to move on to torture. It may be the person you are working on brings up torture on their own, or you might have to ask if you think they torture. Again stay away from statements that these countries, let’s just call it China for the purposes of this example, actually tortures. It does not help if you tell them, they have to come to it themselves that China tortures prisoners. If they say they don’t know, that is okay, ask them what torture would be to them.

At this point they might jump to some of the definitions the criminal Bush Administration used, back them off by asking what they think. We are not getting into law in this, it does not matter for the purposes of convincing them that it is a bad thing to be part of torture, what matters is what they think. Once you have established their definition of torture, we are at a critical place. It is time for the “Witness” question.

In the movie Witness, there is a gun which a little Amish boy is fascinated by. He gets caught playing with it, and his Grandfather has a talk with him about it. The boy says he would only use a gun to shoot bad men. The Grandfather asks, “How would you know, by looking, who is the ban man and who is not?” This is the key place where we have a chance to convince people. Ask who should be tortured. It is a stomach churning question for those of us who care about this issue, but you have to get to this question if you are going to put a new idea in someone’s mind. If they are already at the place where no one should ever, under any circumstances be tortured, well, then you are done. Most of the people you are going to be talking to about this will not be in that place.

Let them answer. It will be some version of the little boy’s answer, only the bad men should be tortured. Now you get to ask the Witness question: How do we know who is the terrorist (bad man)? We have held thousands of accused terrorists, and released most of them eventually, should we be worried we will have tortured some who were not terrorists? Now SHUT YOUR MOUTH and wait. Let them think, let them process. Some will say it does not matter, some will agree we should be more careful, some will come around to our way of thinking.

At this point it is time to ask one more question, then back off. The question is, should we be like China (Syria, Russia) or should the United States be better than that? No matter what they say, you have to leave this topic. No one is going to come around in one sitting, it just does not happen like that. You have done what you set out to do, you have opened the conversation and started them thinking about this issue in uncomfortable ways. Over the next few weeks you may get questions from them, asking about details of why you are opposed to torture and why you think we have to do something about it. Answer them, but don’t for the love of the Flying Spaghetti Monster jump to trying to get them to be a hard core supporter of investigations and prosecution. Let them come to it themselves.

You can give them your feelings about it, how you would be destroyed if someone tortured your family, how you feel dishonored by the actions we know about, how you desperately want to be able to defend all the actions of your country, but torture prevents you from being able to do it in good faith. These are the things which will bring them closer to our way of looking at things.

Torture is horrible, but humans tend to look away from horror, you are going to have to take the time to slowly walk your friends and family up to this precipice and show them what you already know. This is hard; don’t kid yourself at all about this. The thing is, which is harder, living with the fact we tortured prisoners and nothing happened or talking to those you love and respect about this fact and what we have to do about it?

The Dog is going to keep working on how to talk about this issue to those who don’t want to hear about it, but hopefully this will give those who have an interest in both making sure that the rule of law is upheld and to see these horrible crimes are investigated and punished can a place to start.

The floor is yours.

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Bill Egnor

Bill Egnor

I am a life long Democrat from a political family. Work wise I am a Six Sigma Black Belt (process improvement project manager) and Freelance reporter for