Torture seems to many to be a patently indefensible activity, up there with rape, incest, terrorism and piracy. Yet, as with each of these affronts to civilized behavior, there always proponents, and always practitioners.
For the reasons why a given person partakes or excuses harsh, harmful and sometimes lethal mistreatment of others vary widely on state of mind, economic station, culture, time, place and context.. and established customs and institutions.
Which brings us to what was once among the most widespread of customs, yet is now almost universally despised - slavery.
While we remember best the words of President Lincoln - well, he did become President after all - it is perhaps the words of Steven Douglas that set the stage best for an exploration of this nature.. to a past time when what to us seems a manifest error in moral judgment wasn't so clear.
Because the truth of the matter is, it wasn't so very an issue then. Oh, no. Not in the least.
Not five generations ago in this very country, even in a free state like Illinois, the very one that gave this country its first African-American president, the very idea that blacks and whites were equal was anathema - to slavers, states' rights advocates, populists and more than a few abolitionists, as well.
The first debate with Steven Douglas, held in Ottawa, Illinois on August 21, 1858 is useful for this exercise.
A review of this debate - and the others, and the many other conversation of the day - provides is an important reminder of why people embrace horrible compromises (especially those made by others for their benefit and in their name), and let go of them but slowly.
Lincoln's opponent in the debates of 1858 illustrates the muddiness of the political waters best.
To read Steven Douglas is to read the words of an especially eloquent and charismatic Karl Rove. The man had it going on as an orator, as a framer and reframer of values, of making persons who had otherwise no stake whatsoever in the outcome of a political issue and turning it into a must-have-else-our-way-of-life-is-over matter for them.
Douglas is the first speech at the link above. His is the speech that illustrates most clearly the visceral and practical political context of conservatives (the Democrats at this stage of American politics).
I summarize key points and observations of his speech here.
Once the competing parties ran on national patriotic platforms - by implication, the rise of a party opposed to slavery is not just alien but hostile to American 'mainstream values' and interests, unto the existence of the Republic itself. Douglas will go on to make this claim as you will see.
Letting the states decide questions of slavery is just and patriotic - Douglas celebrates this as having a long, successful track record, invoking the names of the Framers as backup. (Hey,are Lincoln and his abolition friends making out like they know what's better for America than the Founding Fathers?)
up until formation of the Republican party, no abolitionist party existed - and Douglas clearly thinks this was a very good situation, playing on fears of Democrats and remaining Whigs that one party has been destroyed by this schism and another might fall as a result of playing up an issue that has wisely been skirted around as much as possible because of the volatile passions associated with it.
Abolitionism, the pacifism and cheese eating surrender monkeydom of the 1850s - to be adverse to the spread and existence of slavery was was painted as deceitful, devious, undermining of national unity, radical, subversive, etc.
Traitor is the New Black, literally. Douglas delighted in calling the Republican Party the Black Republican Party. He rarely referred to it as anything but in the first debate once he recognized how the crowd responded to it.
Douglas sought to get mileague mocking the strong points of Lincoln's positions, to excess His reading of the founding principles of the Republican party, intended to be a slam, was cheered by Lincoln supporters. Likewise he found it great sport to claim that Lincoln wanted repeal of the Fugitive Slave Act, outlawing of slaves in the District of Columbia, ditto a ban on interstate slave trade and that he was for a moratorium on expansion of territory of USA until slave issue resolved - high calumny in the manifest destiny era.
Circling back to pedigree of states' right to decide slave issue, Douglas effectively called the "house divided" argument a bunch of crap
Racist appeals happily made, and well received Douglas plays openly on prejudice against blacks. Many in the North were troubled at the prospect of franchise and citizenship for 'free Negroes'. Enslavement was, simply put, was a very effective way to keep blacks at arm's length - socially and politically, and for many whites in the north, at a geographic distance as well. The prospect of 'free Negro settlement' in Illinois subsequent to some hypothetical emancipation in Missouri was very unsettling.
Expressly racist views for the purpose and principles of the Constitution and the country's destiny. - The dog whistle these days is 'America was founded as a Christian country'.
The very idea that the Declaration of Independence really meant that 'all men are created equal' was laughed at openly.
Douglas does lots of abolitionist name-dropping and place name-dropping as well. Everyone had their Nancy Pelosi and San Francisco liberals. Back in the day, it was Maine's choise to extend voting rights to free blacks..and New York's to do likewise, albeit with a property qualification ($250 USD, not small change back in the day).
Mocks people who embrace notion of being equal to lesser race, asserts his own refusal to do so as evidence he is a person of superior dignity. Lincoln is out of necessity forced to speak likewise, albeit much more gently and affirmatively. His words on these matters are often taken out of context - comparison in near-real time to the harshness of a political culture were boasting of your racist chops often won votes, even in a free state.
Douglas invokes theology that God never intended equality of white and black.
Douglas softens a bit, established... moderate bona fides. Moderate in 1858 Illinois being respecting that rights under God included the blessing of liberty... but whites, being superior, got to decide which of these rights that blacks got to enjoy.
Repeated - the most important question to Northern and Southern voters alike with regards to the slave issue is, were slavery ended, what would be done with the free Negro? Douglas declares it openly and proudly - never franchise, never citizenship, and never equal.
Douglas establishes the stakes The ambition of the United States, embellishes a bit by calling the USA the most powerful nation on earth, then adding "Republic of America shall be the North Star that shall guide the friends of freedom throughout the civilized world." Very familiar language. Appeals to power and glory so long as we stay the course.
Accuses Lincoln and his ilk of deliberately exploiting volatile issue for purpose of starting a civil war. Blame the opposition for doing what your own policies threaten.
While, ultimately, it was not Union troops that fired on Fort Sumter, at the time of the debates open civil strife in Kansas over slavery had taken place. John Brown was indeed a colorful character... and the color for many was that of blood. As a result, the charge that abolitionists preached peace and practiced terrorism has sufficient legs in conservative circles that it was difficult for any to take the eventual election of Abraham Lincoln to the presidency as anything but a dreadful development - the threads of common trust had worn through that completely.
Knowing the context through his opponent exploitation of fear and prejudice, vested interest and popular culture, we can understand just what a difficult row to hoe that Lincoln and the new Republican Party had before them.
"...as I must think, covert real zeal for the spread of slavery, I cannot but hate. I hate it because of the monstrous injustice of slavery itself. I hate it because it deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world-enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites-causes the real friends of freedom to doubt our sincerity, and especially because it forces so many really good men amongst ourselves into an open war with the very fundamental principles of civil liberty-criticizing the Declaration of Independence, and insisting that there is no right principle of action but self-interest."
Swap out 'slavery' for 'torture', and read it again.
And apply the derision of the people of 1858 for blacks, free and slave, with their views on Muslims, be they of a radical sect that advocates terrorism or otherwise.
Do so, and you will see that there is more, much more, to this than just that there is torture. For torture, out of context, is bad for a much larger set of persons than when it is seen as being applied to a group of persons that the radio has been calling inferior and deserving of abuse, without surcease, for a very many years.
Because I think that the real issue is not that there is torture, or even torture of Muslims, but rather sending a signal that the good people of 1858 Illinois would appreciate - sending the signal to a much larger group of persons that they are not welcome here.
And that, I think, is why so many hesitate to denounce torture.
And why so many others, for the express purposes used so far, have no problem with torture at all... and have every problem with those of their fellow American who do.