One of the troubles with the U.S.'s ideology of national security, Corey Robin points out in a review of three recent books, is that it means whatever leaders want it to mean:  "What, after all, is the national interest? . . . Peter Trubowitz’s exhaustive study of the way Americans defined the national interest throughout the 20th century concluded that ‘there is no single national interest.  Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defense should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.’  And this makes a good deal of sense: if an individual finds it difficult to determine her own interest, why should we expect a mass of individuals to do any better? . . . But if a people cannot decide on its collective interest, how can it know when that interest is threatened?"  --  Of the essence is that "national security blurs the line between the possible and the actual."  --  According to Robin, it emerges from Seymour Hersh's Chain of Command that what really motivated key figures in the Bush administration was "an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression."  --  In his review of a collection of essays on torture (to which Robin himself contributed; is this not a conflict of interest that precludes reviewing?), Robin writes:  "In what may be the most fantastic moment of an already fantastic discussion, several of the writers here -- even Henry Shue, an otherwise steadfast voice against torture -- imagine the public trial of the torturer as similar to that of the civil disobedient, who breaks the law in the name of a higher good, and throws himself on the mercy or judgment of the court."  --  He concludes:  "By now it should be clear why we use the word ‘theater’ to denote the settings of both stagecraft and statecraft.  Like the theater, national security is a house of illusions.  Like actors, leaders are prone to a diva-like obsession, gazing in the mirror, wondering what the next day’s -- or century’s -- reviews will bring." ...

By Corey Robin

London Review of Books
May 19, 2005
Pages 11-14 (subscribers only)

[Review of Arguing about War, by Michael Walzer (Yale, 208 pp, £16.99), Chain of Command, by Seymour Hersh (Penguin, 394 pp, £17.99), and Torture: A Collection, ed. Sanford Levinson (Oxford, 319 pp, £18.50).]

The 20th century, it’s said, taught us a simple lesson about politics: of all the motivations for political action, none is as lethal as ideology. The lust for money may be distasteful, the desire for power ignoble, but neither will drive its devotees to the criminal excess of an idea on the march. Whether the idea is the triumph of the working class or of a master race, ideology leads to the graveyard.

Although liberal-minded intellectuals have repeatedly mobilized some version of this argument against the isms of right and left, they have seldom mustered a comparable scepticism about that other idée fixe of the 20th century: national security. Some liberals will criticize this war, others that one, but no one has ever written a book entitled ‘The End of National Security.’ This despite the millions killed in the name of security, and even though Stalin and Hitler claimed to be protecting their populations from mortal threats.

There are fewer than six degrees of separation between the idea of national security and the lurid crimes of Abu Ghraib. First, each of the reasons the Bush administration gave for going to war against Iraq -- the threat of WMD, Saddam’s alleged links to al-Qaida, even the promotion of democracy in the Middle East -- referred in some way to protecting America. Second, everyone agrees that getting good intelligence from Iraqi informers is a critical element in defeating the insurgency. Third, U.S. military intelligence believes that sexual humiliation is an especially forceful instrument for extracting information from recalcitrant Muslim prisoners.

Many critics have protested against Abu Ghraib, but none has traced it back to the idea of national security. Perhaps they believe such an investigation is unnecessary. After all, many of them opposed the war on the grounds that U.S. security was not threatened by Iraq. And some of national security’s most accomplished practitioners, such as Brent Scowcroft and Zbigniew Brzezinski, as well as theoreticians like Steven Walt and John Mearsheimer, even claimed that a genuine consideration of U.S. interests militated against the war. The mere fact that some politicians misused or abused the principle of national security need not call that principle into question. But when an idea routinely accompanies, if not induces, atrocities -- Abu Ghraib was certainly not the first instance of the United States committing or sponsoring torture in the name of security -- second thoughts would seem to be in order. Unless, of course, defenders of the idea wish to join that company of ideologues they so roundly condemn, affirming their commitment to an ideal version of national security while disowning its ‘actually existing’ variant.

In its ideal version, national security requires a clear-eyed understanding of a nation’s interests and a sober assessment of the threats to them. Force, a counsellor might say to his prince, is a tool a leader may use in response to those threats, but he should use it prudently and without emotion. Just as he should not trouble himself with questions of human rights or international law -- though analysts might add these to a leader’s toolkit, they are quick to point out, as Joseph Nye does in The Paradox of American Power (2002), that international norms may have to give way to ‘vital survival interests,’ that ‘at times we will have to go it alone’ -- he should not be excited by his use of violence. National security demands a monkish self-denial, where officials forego the comforts of conscience and the pleasures of impulse in order to inflict when necessary the most brutal force and abstain from or abandon that force whenever it becomes counter-productive. It’s an ethos that bears all the marks of a creed, requiring a mortification of self no less demanding than that expected of the truest Christian.

The first article of this creed, the national interest, gives leaders great wiggle room in determining what constitutes a threat. What, after all, is the national interest? According to Nye, ‘the national interest is simply what citizens, after proper deliberation, say it is.’ Even if we assume that citizens are routinely given the opportunity to ponder the national interest, the fact is that they seldom, if ever, reach a conclusion about it. As Nye points out, Peter Trubowitz’s exhaustive study of the way Americans defined the national interest throughout the 20th century concluded that ‘there is no single national interest. Analysts who assume that America has a discernible national interest whose defense should determine its relations with other nations are unable to explain the failure to achieve domestic consensus on international objectives.’ And this makes a good deal of sense: if an individual finds it difficult to determine her own interest, why should we expect a mass of individuals to do any better?

But if a people cannot decide on its collective interest, how can it know when that interest is threatened? Faced with such confusion, leaders often fall back on what seems the most obvious definition of a threat: imminent, violent assault from an enemy, promising to end the independent life of the nation. Leaders focus on cataclysmic futures, if for no other reason than that these are a convenient measure of what is or is not a threat, what is or is not security. But that ultimate threat often turns out to be no less illusory than the errant definition inspiring the invocation of the threat in the first place.

Hovering about every discussion of war and peace are questions of life and death. Not the death of some or even many people, but as Michael Walzer proposes in Arguing about War, the ‘moral as well as physical extinction’ of an entire people. True, it is only rarely that a nation will find its ‘ongoingness’ -- its ability ‘to carry on, and also to improve on, a way of life handed down’ from its ancestors -- threatened. But at moments of what Walzer, following Winston Churchill, calls ‘supreme emergency,’ a leader may have to commit the most obscene crimes in order to avert catastrophe. The deliberate murder of innocents, the use of torture: the measures taken will be as many and almost as terrible as the evils a nation hopes to thwart.

For obvious reasons, Walzer insists that leaders should be wary of invoking the supreme emergency, that they must have real evidence before they start speaking Churchillese. But a casual reading of the history of national security suggests not only that in practice the rules of evidence will be ignored or flouted, but that the notion of catastrophe encourages, even insists on, the flouting.

‘In normal affairs,’ Richelieu declared at the dawn of the modern state system, ‘the administration of justice requires authentic proofs; but it is not the same in affairs of state . . . There, urgent conjecture must sometimes take the place of proof; the loss of the particular is not comparable with the salvation of the state.’ As we ascend the ladder of threats from petty crime to the destruction of the state, we require less and less proof that those threats are real. The consequences of underestimating serious threats are so great we may have no choice but to overestimate them. Three centuries later, the American jurist Learned Hand invoked a version of this rule, claiming that ‘the gravity of the “evil”’ should be ‘discounted by its improbability.’ The graver the evil, the higher the degree of improbability we demand in order not to worry about it. The graver the evil, the lower the degree of probability that authorises -- or permits -- us to take pre-emptive action against it.

Though neither statement was meant to justify great crimes of state, both suggest an inverse relationship between the magnitude of a danger and the requirements of facticity. Once a leader starts pondering the nation’s moral and physical extinction, he enters a world where the fantastic need not give way to the factual, where present benignity can seem like the merest prelude to future malignance. So intertwined at this point are fear and reason that early modern theorists, less shy than we are about such matters, happily admitted the first as a proxy for the second: a nation’s fear, they argued, could serve as a legitimate rationale for war, even a preventive one. ‘As long as reason is reason,’ Francis Bacon wrote, ‘a just fear will be a just cause of a preventive war,’ which is a fairly good description of the logic animating the Cold War: fight them there -- in Vietnam, Nicaragua, Angola -- lest we must stop them here, at the Rio Grande, the Canadian border, on Main Street.

As Seymour Hersh shows in his indispensable guide to the politics of American security after 9/11, these are by no means merely ancient or academic formulations. While liberal critics claim that the Bush administration lied about or deliberately exaggerated the threat posed by Iraq in order to justify going to war, the fact is that the administration and its allies were often disarmingly honest in their assessment of the threat, or at least honest about the way they assessed it. Trafficking in the future, they conjured the worst -- ‘we don’t want the smoking gun to be a mushroom cloud’ -- and left it to their audience to draw the most frightful conclusions.

In his 2003 State of the Union address, one of his most important statements in the run-up to the war, Bush declared: ‘Some have said we must not act until the threat is imminent. Since when have terrorists and tyrants announced their intentions, politely putting us on notice before they strike? If this threat is permitted to fully and suddenly emerge, all actions, all words, and all recriminations would come too late.’

Note that Bush does not affirm the imminence of the threat. In fact, he implicitly disavows it by ducking behind the past, darting to the hypothetical, and arriving at a nightmarish, though entirely conjectured, future. He does not speak of ‘is’ but of ‘if’ and ‘could be.’ These words are conditional (which is why Bush’s critics, insisting that he take his stand in the realm of either fact or fiction, never could get a fix on him). And the conditional is often the tense of fear, where evidence and intuition, reason, and speculation combine to make the worst-case scenario seem as real as the realest fact.

After the war had begun, the television journalist Diane Sawyer pressed Bush on the difference between the assumption, ‘stated as a hard fact, that there were weapons of mass destruction’ and the hypothetical possibility that Saddam ‘could move to acquire those weapons.’ Bush replied: ‘So what’s the difference?’ This was his most articulate statement of the entire war, an artful parsing of a distinction that has little meaning in the context of national security.

Probably no one near or around the administration better understood the way national security blurs the line between the possible and the actual than Richard Perle. ‘How far Saddam’s gone on the nuclear weapons side I don’t think we really know,’ Perle said on one occasion. ‘My guess is it’s further than we think. It’s always further than we think, because we limit ourselves, as we think about this, to what we’re able to prove and demonstrate . . . And, unless you believe that we have uncovered everything, you have to assume there is more than we’re able to report.’

Like Bush, Perle neither lies nor exaggerates. Instead, he imagines and projects, and in the process reverses the normal rules of forensic responsibility. When someone recommends a difficult course of action on behalf of a better future, he must defend himself against the sceptic, who insists that he prove his recommendation will produce the outcome he anticipates. But if someone recommends an equally difficult course of action to avert a hypothetical disaster, the burden of proof shifts to the sceptic. Suddenly she must defend her doubt against his belief, her course of action against his (although she probably thought that she wasn’t proposing a course of action, only a series of tough questions). And that, I suspect, is why the Bush administration’s prewar mantra, ‘the absence of evidence is not evidence of absence’ -- laughable in the context of an argument for, say, world peace -- could seem surprisingly cogent in an argument for war. ‘Better be despised for too anxious apprehensions,’ Burke noted, ‘than ruined by too confident security.’

As Walzer suggests, an entire people can face annihilation. But the victims of genocide tend to be stateless or powerless, and the world has difficulty seeing or acknowledging their destruction, even when the evidence is undeniable. The citizens and subjects of great powers, on the other hand, rarely face the prospect of ‘moral and physical extinction.’ (Walzer cites only two cases.) Yet their leaders seem to imagine that destruction with the greatest of ease.

We get a slight, though only slight, taste of this indulgence of the state and its concerns -- and a corresponding scepticism about non-state actors and their concerns -- in Walzer’s own essays. Throughout Arguing about War, Walzer wrestles with terrorists who claim that they are using violence as a last resort and antiwar activists who claim that governments should go to war only as a last resort. Walzer is equally dubious about both claims. But far from revealing a dogged consistency, his scepticism about the ‘last resort’ suggests a double standard. It sets the bar for using force much higher for non-state actors than it does for state actors -- not because terrorists target civilians while the state does not but because Walzer refuses to accept the terrorist’s ‘last resort’ while he is ready to lend credence to the government’s, or at least is ready to challenge critics of the government who insist that war truly be a last resort.

For Walzer, the last resort argument of antiwar activists is often a ruse designed to make a government’s going to war impossible -- and a muddy ruse at that. For ‘lastness,’ he says, ‘is a metaphysical condition, which is never actually reached in real life: it is always possible to do something else, or to do it again, before doing whatever it is that comes last.’ We can always ask for ‘another diplomatic note, another United Nations resolution, another meeting,’ we can always dither and delay. Though Walzer acknowledges the moral power of the last resort argument -- ‘political leaders must cross this threshold [going to war] only with great reluctance and trepidation’ -- he suspects that it is often ‘merely an excuse for postponing the use of force indefinitely.’ As a result, he says, ‘I have always resisted the argument that force is a last resort.’

But when non-state actors argue that they are resorting to terrorism as a last resort, Walzer suspects them of bad faith. For such individuals, ‘it is not so easy to reach the “last resort.” To get there, one must indeed try everything (which is a lot of things) and not just once.’ Even ‘under conditions of oppression and war,’ he insists, ‘it is by no means clear when’ the oppressed or their spokespersons have truly ‘run out of options.’ Walzer acknowledges that a similar argument might be applied to government officials, but the officials he has in mind are those who ‘kill hostages or bomb peasant villages’ -- not those who claim they must go to war. Thus, Walzer is willing to entertain the possibility that governments, with all their power, will find themselves racing against time, while insisting that terrorists, and the people they claim to represent, have all the time in the world.

What is it about being a great power that renders the imagining of its own demise so potent? Why, despite all the strictures about the prudent and rational use of force, are those powers so quick to resort to it? Perhaps it is because there is something deeply appealing about the idea of disaster, about manfully confronting and mastering catastrophe. For disaster and catastrophe can summon a nation, at least in theory, to plumb its deepest moral and political reserves, to have its mettle tested, on and off the battlefield. However much leaders and theorists may style themselves as realpolitik’s cool adepts, war remains the great romance of the age, the proving ground of self and nation. ‘Only the dead have seen the end of war.’ So said Plato, at least according to General MacArthur, the Imperial War Museum and Ridley Scott’s "Black Hawk Down." It’s not clear that Plato did say this, but regardless of the statement’s provenance, its constant iteration throughout the 20th century suggests a notion we still hold dear: war is life, peace is death.

Exactly why the strenuous life should be so attractive is anyone’s guess, but one reason may be that it counters what many since the French Revolution have believed to be the corrosions of modern culture: the softened mores and weakened will, the subordination of passion to rationality, of fervor to rules. As an antidote to the deadening effects of contemporary life -- reason, bureaucracy, routine, anomie, meaninglessness -- war is modernity’s great answer to itself. ‘War is inescapable,’ Yitzhak Shamir declared, not because it ensures security but because ‘without this, the life of the individual has no purpose.’ Though this sensibility seeps across the political spectrum, it is essentially an ideal of the Counter-Enlightenment, which found its greatest fulfilment during the years of Fascist triumph (‘war is to men,’ Mussolini said, ‘as maternity is to women’) -- and is now, it seems, prospering in our own time as well.

Nowhere is this romanticism more apparent today than in the struggle between neocons and the generals, spies and analysts who make up the American security establishment. Since 9/11, Hersh, along with Nicholas Lemann, has been the master chronicler of this conflict, and Chain of Command is the definitive catalogue of its key moments: the arguments over prewar intelligence, over how to prosecute the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, over whether or not to use torture.

Listening to neo-con complaints about U.S. intelligence, one can hear distant echoes of Carlyle’s assault on the ‘Mechanical Age’ (‘all is by rule and calculated contrivance’) and Chateaubriand’s despair that ‘certain eminent faculties of genius’ will ‘be lost, and imagination, poetry and the arts perish.’ Perle is not alone in his impatience with what Hersh calls the intelligence community’s ‘susceptibility to social science notions of proof.’ Before he became secretary of defense, Donald Rumsfeld criticized the refusal of intelligence analysts to use their imaginations, ‘to make estimates that extended beyond the hard evidence they had in hand.’ Once in office, he mocked their desire to have ‘all the dots connected for us with a ribbon wrapped around it,’ and his staffers derided the military’s quest for ‘actionable intelligence,’ for information solid enough to warrant assassinations and other pre-emptive acts of violence. Another neo-con, the New York Times columnist David Brooks, recently blasted the CIA’s ‘bloodless compilations of data by anonymous technicians’ and praised those analysts who make ‘novelistic judgments’ informed by ‘history, literature, philosophy and theology.’

Rumsfeld’s war on the rule-bound culture and risk aversion of the military reveals a deep antipathy to law and order -- not something usually associated with conservatives but familiar enough to any historian of 20th-century Europe. Issuing a secret directive that terrorists should be captured or killed, Rumsfeld goes out of his way to remind his generals that the goal is ‘not simply to arrest them in a law-enforcement exercise.’ Aides urge him to support operations by U.S. Special Forces, who can conduct lightning strikes without approval from generals. Otherwise, they warn, ‘the result will be decision by committee.’ One of Rumsfeld’s advisers complains that the military has been ‘Clintonized’, which could mean anything from becoming too legalistic to being too effeminate. (Hersh does an excellent job of documenting the ongoing struggle within the security establishment over the protocols of machismo.) Geoffrey Miller, the man who made ‘Gitmoize’ a household word, relieves a general at Guantanamo for being too ‘soft -- too worried about the prisoners’ well-being.’ Both the FBI and the CIA finally decide to pull out of Guantanamo and Abu Ghraib because they believe torture is ineffective and immoral -- and, Hersh reports, because they checked with their lawyers. One can only imagine the howls of derision this provoked in Rumsfeld’s office.

It soon becomes apparent when one reads Hersh that the neo-cons were drawn into Iraq for the sake of a grand idea: not the democratization of the Middle East, though that undoubtedly had some appeal, or even the conquest of the world, but rather an idea of themselves as a brave and undaunted army of transgression. The gaze of the neo-cons, like that of America’s autistic ruling classes, does not look outward nearly as much as it looks inward: on their restless need to prove themselves, to demonstrate that neither their imagination nor their actions will be constrained by anyone or anything -- not even by the rules and norms they believe are their country’s gift to the world.

If Torture is any indication of contemporary sensibilities, neo-cons in the White House are not the only ones in thrall to romantic notions of danger and catastrophe. Academics are too. Every scholarly discussion of torture, and the essays collected in Torture are no exception, begins with the ticking time bomb scenario. The story goes something like this: a bomb is set to go off in a densely populated area in the immediate future; the government doesn’t know exactly where or when, but it knows that many people will be killed; it has in captivity the person who planted the bomb, or someone who knows where it is planted; torture will yield the needed information; indeed, it is the only way to get the information in time to avert the catastrophe. What to do?

It’s an interesting question. But given that it is so often posed in the name of moral realism, we might consider a few facts before we rush to answer it. First, as far as we know, no one at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, or any of the other prisons in America’s international archipelago was tortured in order to defuse a ticking time bomb. Second, Hersh and others cite reports documenting that anywhere between 60 and 90 per cent of American-held prisoners in Iraq are in jail by mistake or pose no threat at all to society. Third, many U.S. intelligence officials have opted out of torture sessions precisely because they believe that torture does not produce accurate information. These are the facts, and yet they seldom, if ever, make an appearance in these academic exercises in moral realism.

The essays in Torture pose one other difficulty for those interested in reality: none of the writers who endorse the use of torture by the United States ever discusses concretely and extensively the sorts of torture actually used by the United States. The closest we get is an essay by Jean Bethke Elshtain, in which she asks: 'Is a shouted insult a form of torture? A slap in the face? Sleep deprivation? A beating to within an inch of one’s life? Electric prods on the male genitals, inside a woman’s vagina, or in a person’s anus? Pulling out fingernails? Cutting off an ear or a breast? All of us, surely, would place every violation on this list beginning with the beating and ending with severing a body part as forms of torture and thus forbidden. No argument there. But let’s turn to sleep deprivation and a slap in the face. Do these belong in the same torture category as bodily amputations and sexual assaults? There are even those who would add the shouted insult to the category of torture. But, surely, this makes mincemeat of the category.'

Distinguishing the awful from the acceptable, Elshtain never mentions the details of Abu Ghraib or the Taguba report, making her list of dos and don’ts as unreal as the ticking time bomb scenario. Even her list of taboos is stylised, omitting committed crimes for the sake of repudiating hypothetical ones. Elshtain rejects stuffing electric cattle prods up someone’s arse. What about a banana? She rejects cutting off ears and breasts. What about ‘breaking chemical lights and pouring the phosphoric liquid on detainees’? (Taguba). She condemns sexual assault. What about forcing men to masturbate or wear women’s underwear on their heads? She endorses ‘solitary confinement and sensory deprivation.’ What about the ‘bitch in the box,’ where prisoners are stuffed in a car boot and driven around Baghdad in 120º heat? She supports ‘psychological pressure,’ quoting from an article that ‘the threat of coercion usually weakens or destroys resistance more effectively than coercion itself.’ What about threatening prisoners with rape? When it comes to the Islamists, Elshtain cites the beheading of Daniel Pearl. When it comes to the Americans, she muses on Laurence Olivier’s dentistry in 'Marathon Man.' Small wonder there’s ‘no argument there’: there is no there there.

The unreality of Elshtain’s analysis is not incidental or peculiar to her. Even writers who endorse torture but are squeamish about it can’t escape such abstractions. The more squeamish they are, in fact, the more abstractions they indulge in. Sanford Levinson, for example, tentatively discusses Alan Dershowitz’s proposal that government officials should be forced to seek warrants from judges in order to torture terrorist suspects. Hoping to make the reality of torture -- and the pain of its victims -- visible and concrete, Levinson insists that ‘the person the state proposes to torture should be in the courtroom, so that the judge can take no refuge in abstraction.’ But then Levinson asks us to consider ‘the possibility that anyone against whom a torture warrant is issued receives a significant payment as “just compensation” for the denial of his or her right not to be tortured.’ Having just counselled against abstraction, Levinson resorts to money, the greatest abstraction of all, as payback for the greatest denial of rights imaginable.

And the cash keeps on flowing. After deliberating to whom he should dedicate his book -- to the ‘victims of torture,’ Levinson says, seemed like a ‘sentimental gesture, especially inasmuch as several of the essays, including my own, countenance the possibility that under some very restricted circumstances, it might be the “lesser evil” to engage in torture’ -- Levinson decides to send ‘this book . . . into the world without a dedicatee.’ But all those victims who had hoped to find themselves on the dedication page of Levinson’s book need not despair. For he is ‘pleased to say that every contributor concurred in a suggestion that all of the royalties attached to this book will go not to the authors but rather to the Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition.’

If the unreality of these discussions sounds familiar, it is because they are watered by the same streams of romanticism that course in and out of the White House. Notwithstanding Dershowitz’s warrants and Levinson’s addenda, the essays endorsing torture here are filled with hostility to what Elshtain variously calls ‘moralistic code fetishism’ and ‘rule-mania,’ and what we might simply call the rule of law. But where the White House seeks to be entirely free of rules and laws -- and here the academics depart from the politicians, rendering silly any accusation that the former are faithful propagandists for the latter -- the contemplators of torture seek to make the torturers true believers in the rules. For two reasons.

One reason, which Walzer presents at great length in a famous essay from 1973, reprinted in *Torture*, is that the absolute ban on torture makes possible -- or forces us to acknowledge -- the problem of ‘dirty hands.’ Like the supreme emergency, the ticking time bomb forces a leader to choose between two evils, to wrestle with the devil of torture and the devil of innocents dying. Where other moralists would affirm the ban on torture and allow innocents to die, or adopt a utilitarian calculus and order torture to proceed, Walzer believes the absolutist and the utilitarian wash their hands too quickly; their consciences come too clean. He wishes instead ‘to refuse “absolutism” without denying the reality of the moral dilemma,’ to admit the simultaneous necessity for -- and evil of -- torture. Why? To make space for a moral leader, as Walzer puts it in Arguing about War, ‘who knows that he can’t do what he has to do -- and finally does’ it. It is the familiar tragedy of two evils -- or two competing goods -- that is at stake here, a reminder that we must ‘get our hands dirty by doing what we ought to do,’ that ‘the dilemma of dirty hands is a central feature of political life.’ It is the dilemma Walzer wishes to draw attention to. Should torturers be free of all rules save utility, or constrained by rights-based absolutism, there would be no dilemma, no dirty hands, no moral agon. They must be denied their Kant and Bentham -- and leave us to contend with the brooding spirit of the Counter-Enlightenment, which insists that there could never be one moral code, one set of ‘eternal principles,' as Isaiah Berlin put it, ‘by following which alone men could become wise, happy, virtuous and free.’

But there is another reason that some writers insist on a ban on torture that they believe must also be violated. And that is to maintain the frisson of transgression, the thrill of Promethean criminality. As Elshtain writes in her critique of Dershowitz’s proposal for torture warrants, leaders ‘should not seek to legalize’ torture. ‘They should not aim to normalize it. And they should not write elaborate justifications of it . . . The tabooed and forbidden, the extreme nature of this mode of physical coercion must be preserved so that it never becomes routinized as just the way we do things around here.’ What Elshtain objects to in Dershowitz’s proposal is not the routinising of torture; it is the routinizing of torture, the possibility of reverting to the ‘same moralistic-legalism’ she hoped violations of the torture taboo would shatter. This argument too is redolent of the Counter-Enlightenment, which always suspected, again quoting Berlin, that ‘freedom involves breaking rules, perhaps even committing crimes.’

But if the ban on torture must be maintained, what is a nation to do with the torturers who have violated it, who have, after all, broken the law? Naturally it must put them on trial; ‘the interrogator,’ in Elshtain’s words, ‘must, if called on, be prepared to defend what he or she has done and, depending on context, pay the penalty.’ In what may be the most fantastic moment of an already fantastic discussion, several of the writers here -- even Henry Shue, an otherwise steadfast voice against torture -- imagine the public trial of the torturer as similar to that of the civil disobedient, who breaks the law in the name of a higher good, and throws himself on the mercy or judgment of the court. For only through a public legal proceeding, Levinson writes, will we ‘reinforce the paradoxical notion that one must condemn the act even if one comes to the conclusion that it is indeed justified in a particular situation’; a notion, he acknowledges, that is little different from the comment of Admiral Mayorga, one of Argentina’s dirtiest warriors: ‘The day we stop condemning torture (although we tortured), the day we become insensitive to mothers who lose their guerrilla sons (although they are guerrillas) is the day we stop being human beings.’

By now it should be clear why we use the word ‘theater’ to denote the settings of both stagecraft and statecraft. Like the theater, national security is a house of illusions. Like actors, leaders are prone to a diva-like obsession, gazing in the mirror, wondering what the next day’s -- or century’s -- reviews will bring. It might on the face of it seem difficult to imagine Liza Minnelli playing Henry Kissinger, but I’m not sure the part would be such a stretch. And what of the intellectuals who advise these leaders or the philosophers who analyze their dilemmas? Are they playwrights or critics, directors or audiences, or are they some uncharted figures of fun? I’m not entirely sure, but the words of their greatest spiritual predecessor might give us a clue. ‘I love my native city more than my own soul,’ cried Machiavelli, quintessential teacher of the hard ways of state. Change ‘native city’ to ‘child,’ replace ‘soul’ with ‘life,’ and we have the justification of every felonious stage mother through history, from the Old Testament’s rule-breaking Rebecca to Gypsy’s ball-busting Rose.

--Corey Robin, author of Fear: The History of a Political Idea, teaches political science at Brooklyn College and the Graduate Center of the City Univerity of New York.