THE PLANK MAY 18, 2009
Many years ago when I was in college, I spent a summer building latrines in Paraguay. It was a worthwhile experience, though I was rather disappointed with the program that sent me there. In part this was because, while it billed itself as a college-age program that accepted a few truly exceptional high-schoolers, in fact it was full of high-schoolers who were not, for the most part, demonstrably exceptional. As a result, we accomplished a good deal less than we might have otherwise. Also as a result, I had versions of the following exchange on innumerable occasions:
Teenage Lefty Who Is Living With A Poor Paraguayan Family For Two Months Before Returning To Comfortable Upper-Middle-Class Life In The States: "Wow, now I know exactly what it's like to be poor."
Me: "No, you have no idea what it's like to be poor, because you know that in a few weeks you'll be back in the suburbs watching a large television and borrowing your parents' BMW. Real poor people don't experience poverty as a temporary, elective state."
It was an annoying conversation, particularly by the 30th time I had it, but the people I had it with were, after all, teenage lefties. (I, in dramatic contrast, was an early-twentysomething lefty.) I am reminded of the experience thanks to a still-more-idiotic variation of this argument currently being offered on the pro-torture right by people who do not have the excuse of being teenagers. Charles Krauthammer makes the case in its crudest form:
Some people on the right have faulted me because in that column that
you cite I conceded that waterboarding is torture. Actually, I
personally don’t think it is, 'cause it’s an absurdity to have to say the
United States of America has tortured over 10,000 of its own soldiers
because it's, you know, it’s had them waterboarded as a part of their
training. That’s an absurd sentence.
Yes, it is an absurd sentence, though not for the reason Krauthammer suggests. The reason it is absurd is that being voluntarily waterboarded by your own side, under strictly controlled conditions, for the explicit purpose of training, with the certain knowledge that every imaginable precaution will be taken to ensure that you are not harmed and that you'll soon be back in your own comfortable bed is in no way equivalent to being waterboarded by enemies who have imprisoned you for weeks or months with no end in sight, likely subjected you to other forms of abuse, and given every sign that they have no care whatsoever for your well-being or even life. A failure of comprehension this elementary is disappointing in someone who has yet to earn a high-school diploma. In someone like Krauthammer, it is a sign either of supreme mendacity or of utter intellectual collapse.