That Torture Report and the Jacksonians

The recent release of a report detailing the “enhanced interrogation” techniques doesn’t seem to have made much of an impact on public opinion, according to the Washington Post.

A new poll from the Pew Research Center is the first to gauge reactions to last week’s big CIA report on “enhanced interrogation techniques” — what agency critics call torture.

And the reaction is pretty muted.

The poll shows people says 51-29 percent than the CIA’s methods were justified and 56-28 percent that the information gleaned helped prevent terror attacks.

The word “torture,” it should be noted, isn’t mentioned in the poll, but it has been associated with much of the coverage of the issue. And the numbers align nicely with polls on the use of torture, which shows that relatively few Americans are concerned about it — especially when you bring the prospect of combating terrorism into the mix.

That lack of real concern about what the CIA was doing is also reflected in the amount of interest in the story. While newspapers and broadcast news across the country devoted a huge amount of coverage to the Senate intelligence committee report last week, just 23 percent of Americans say they are following the story “very closely,” while 50 percent are following it “not too closely” or “not at all.” That ranks it behind the Ferguson/Eric Garner protests and stories about the U.S. economy.

And it’s not just that people who aren’t concerned about torture aren’t tuning in. Those who have followed the story the most, in fact, approve of the program 59-34 percent.

Even Democrats are pretty split on the justification for the program. While 37 percent say it was justified, 46 percent say it wasn’t. Liberal Democrats disapprove 65-25 percent, but moderate and conservative Democrats approve 48-32 percent.

Given the images that were conjured by the report — “rectal feeding,” etc. — that’s not much of a reaction. Indeed, this is not the kind of public outcry that demands big changes to how the CIA conducts business.

I can’t say that I am very surprised by the results of this poll. I would expect a certain tolerance  for the harsh treatment of people perceived to be enemies by the American people, especially among that segment of the American population which could be described as the Jacksonians.

Who are the Jacksonians? Some years ago,Walter Russel Mead wrote an essay describing four factions of American public public opinion of foreign policy and war. According to Mead, these factions are the principled, pacifistic Jeffersonians with an emphasis on human rights, the moralistic Wilsonians who favor international organizations such as the United Nations,the pragmatic Hamiltonians who want a foreign policy based on “realism”and balances of power, and the populist Jacksonians, who might prefer to ignore foreign policy altogether unless America’s vital interests or honor is at stake. Mead spent the bulk of his essay describing the Jacksonians.

English: Andrew Jackson - 7 th President of th...

English: Andrew Jackson – 7 th President of the United States (1829–1837) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

I cannot summarize Mr. Mead’s essay in a way that would do it justice. You ought to read the whole thing. There are a few excerpts I would like to share that might be relevant in understanding why torture might be acceptable to a large segment of the American people.

Jacksonians are concerned with honor.

To understand how Crabgrass Jacksonianism is shaping and will continue to shape American foreign policy, we must begin with another unfashionable concept: Honor. Although few Americans today use this anachronistic word, honor remains a core value for tens of millions of middle-class Americans, women as well as men. The unacknowledged code of honor that shapes so much of American behavior and aspiration today is a recognizable descendent of the frontier codes of honor of early Jacksonian America. The appeal of this code is one of the reasons that Jacksonian values have spread to so many people outside the original ethnic and social nexus in which Jacksonian America was formed.

Jacksonian honor must be acknowledged by the outside world. One is entitled to, and demands, the appropriate respect: recognition of rights and just claims, acknowledgment of one’s personal dignity. Many Americans will still fight, sometimes with weapons, when they feel they have not been treated with the proper respect. But even among the less violent, Americans stand on their dignity and rights.

They see themselves as part of a larger community with a line drawn between those who are inside and those who are outside the community.

Jacksonian society draws an important distinction between those who belong to the folk community and those who do not. Within that community, among those bound by the code and capable of discharging their responsibilities under it, Jacksonians are united in a social compact. Outside that compact is chaos and darkness. The criminal who commits what, in the Jacksonian code, constitute unforgivable sins (cold-blooded murder, rape, the murder or sexual abuse of a child, murder or attempted murder of a peace officer) can justly be killed by the victims’ families, colleagues or by society at large—with or without the formalities of law. In many parts of the United States, juries will not convict police on almost any charge, nor will they condemn revenge killers in particularly outrageous cases. The right of the citizen to defend family and property with deadly force is a sacred one as well, a legacy from colonial and frontier times.

The absolute and even brutal distinction drawn between the members of the community and outsiders has had massive implications in American life. Throughout most of American history the Jacksonian community was one from which many Americans were automatically and absolutely excluded: Indians, Mexicans, Asians, African Americans, obvious sexual deviants and recent immigrants of non-Protestant heritage have all felt the sting. Historically, the law has been helpless to protect such people against economic oppression, social discrimination and mob violence, including widespread lynchings. Legislators would not enact laws, and if they did, sheriffs would not arrest, prosecutors would not try, juries would not convict.

The lines have been broadened in recent years to include minorities formerly excluded, especially if they share Jacksonian values. Mead points out that Jacksonian values are prevalent in the African-American community and this has helped to make the Civil Rights movement acceptable to Jacksonians.

The underlying cultural unity between African Americans and Anglo-Jacksonian America shaped the course and ensured the success of the modern civil rights movement. Martin Luther King and his followers exhibited exemplary personal courage, their rhetoric was deeply rooted in Protestant Christianity, and the rights they asked for were precisely those that Jacksonian America values most for itself. Further, they scrupulously avoided the violent tactics that would have triggered an unstoppable Jacksonian response.

Although cultures change slowly and many individuals lag behind, the bulk of American Jacksonian opinion has increasingly moved to recognize the right of code-honoring members of minority groups to receive the rights and protections due to members of the folk community. This new and, one hopes, growing feeling of respect and tolerance emphatically does not extend to those, minorities or not, who are not seen as code-honoring Americans. Those who violate or reject the code—criminals, irresponsible parents, drug addicts—have not benefited from the softening of the Jacksonian color line.

Jacksonians are the true realists in foreign policy.

Given the moral gap between the folk community and the rest of the world—and given that other countries are believed to have patriotic and communal feelings of their own, feelings that similarly harden once the boundary of the folk community is reached—Jacksonians believe that international life is and will remain both anarchic and violent. The United States must be vigilant and strongly armed. Our diplomacy must be cunning, forceful and no more scrupulous than anybody else’s. At times, we must fight pre-emptive wars. There is absolutely nothing wrong with subverting foreign governments or assassinating foreign leaders whose bad intentions are clear. Thus, Jacksonians are more likely to tax political leaders with a failure to employ vigorous measures than to worry about the niceties of international law.

Indeed, of all the major currents in American society, Jacksonians have the least regard for international law and international institutions. They prefer the rule of custom to the written law, and that is as true in the international sphere as it is in personal relations at home. Jacksonians believe that there is an honor code in international life—as there was in clan warfare in the borderlands of England—and those who live by the code will be treated under it. But those who violate the code—who commit terrorist acts in peacetime, for example—forfeit its protection and deserve no consideration.

And they have clear ideas about how wars are to be fought.

Jacksonian America has clear ideas about how wars should be fought, how enemies should be treated, and what should happen when the wars are over. It recognizes two kinds of enemies and two kinds of fighting: honorable enemies fight a clean fight and are entitled to be opposed in the same way; dishonorable enemies fight dirty wars and in that case all rules are off.

An honorable enemy is one who declares war before beginning combat; fights according to recognized rules of war, honoring such traditions as the flag of truce; treats civilians in occupied territory with due consideration; and—a crucial point—refrains from the mistreatment of prisoners of war. Those who surrender should be treated with generosity. Adversaries who honor the code will benefit from its protections, while those who want a dirty fight will get one.

There is a lot more, but I think this is enough to explain the matter. From the Jacksonian point of view the victims of the CIA’s methods are outsiders who have violated any code of honor. They follow a strange religion which seems to encourage acts of violence against the innocent. They are not one of us. They forfeited any claims to human rights when they decided to fly planes into the sides of buildings or behead Christians in Iraq. The Jacksonian is not interested in exporting democracy to the Middle East. They do not care if the people who want to destroy America are denied their civil rights or are treated poorly. They do not want decades long wars in the Middle East. The Jacksonians believe that enemies must be defeated and then, they can go back home and live their lives.

I am not sure where I stand in Mead’s arrangement. I am certainly not a Wilsonian or a Jeffersonian. Perhaps I am mostly a Jacksonian with a tinge of Hamiltonianism. I really don’t have much of a problem with what the CIA has been doing. It is deplorable, to be sure, and it would be better if such things were not necessary, but, like the Jacksonians, I am not inclined worry too much about the welfare of people who are trying to kill me.

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2 Responses to “That Torture Report and the Jacksonians”

  1. neovictorian23 Says:

    I’m about 99% Jacksonian. America(ns) showed remarkable restraint after 9/11; They won’t show as much when the next one comes.

  2. Prosecute Them? | David's Commonplace Book Says:

    […] Random stuff that interests me « That Torture Report and the Jacksonians […]

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