Why are torturers being given “balance” in the press?

After the publication of the torture report, the torturers and their enablers have been all over the airwaves defending themselves and the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques.” These “techniques” included horrific acts of rape, threatening family members with rape and death, suspension from ceilings and walls for days on end, forcing prisoners to soil themselves in diapers, and various forms of psychological torture including sleep and sensory deprivation. In many cases the people being tortured had done nothing wrong and had no information of value.

There is simply no defense for any of this. None. “It gave us actionable intelligence” isn’t a defense. It happens to be untrue. We know that torture doesn’t produce valuable information, and it didn’t produce valuable information in any of these cases, either. But it doesn’t matter if it worked or not. Cutting the hands off of thieves works wonders to reduce theft, but we don’t do that. A moral people does not do these things. “We’re not as bad they are” isn’t a defense, either. That’s not the standard by which a moral people judges itself–and besides, most of the rest of the industrialized world does hold itself to a higher standard, despite also being victimized by Islamist terror attacks.

This stuff is obvious. And yet the TV shows and newspaper stories are full of balance given to the pro-torture side. Why? Despite objections to the contrary, journalists do not always give balance to both sides of an argument if the other side is deemed irrelevant or depraved. Whenever the deficit bugbear rolls to the forefront, almost no balance is given to the Keynesian point of view despite their predictions being consistently correct: the idea that one needn’t actually cut the deficit during a recession is treated as so outre as to require no journalistic attention.

More pointedly, when journalists write about torture and depredations of current or former regimes, journalists don’t feel the need to get the torturers’ side of the story. No one is rushing to ask Assad’s torturers in Syria if their tactics are necessary to keep “terrorists” in check. No one is asking North Korean guards if their treatment of their people is OK because some other country is worse. No one rushes to counterbalance the accounts of Holocaust victims with the justifications of Nazi guards. It simply isn’t done, any more than we “balance” stories of child sexual abuse with a hot-take counterpoint from a member of NAMBLA. The reason we don’t provide “balance” in these cases is that to do so would be to normalize those behaviors as part of legitimate discourse.

So why in the world are the torturers who subjected innocent people to anal feedings and dungeon ceiling hangings given the courtesy of “balance” in the press? Where is the line that separates issues that require balance from those that do not?

In a decent moral universe, torturers don’t get the benefit of explaining themselves to the press any more than serial killers do, except potentially out of morbid curiosity.

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David Atkins

David Atkins is a writer, activist and research professional living in Santa Barbara. He is a contributor to the Washington Monthly's Political Animal and president of The Pollux Group, a qualitative research firm.