Sometimes I wish we could magically take the partisanship out of our political disagreements long enough for people to make objective determinations about who, if anyone, has the better of the argument. One of the dangers of the Conservative Movement is that it attracts team loyalty first, and then once its fans are on board they will defend virtually anything their side does on the moral plane, regardless of whether or not it violates their previous standards and code of ethics.

The most obvious recent example of this was the way the right felt compelled to defend the selection of Sarah Palin to be John McCain’s running mate. Palin’s shortcomings were so glaring and overwhelming that, in order to defend her, conservatives had to devalue all the things that they previous thought were absolute prerequisites for holding such a high office. This list here is long: familiarity with history and current events, a basic working knowledge of global geography, some minimal level of intellectual curiosity, the ability to face the media and answer tough questions, the ability to conduct oneself appropriately during a formal debate without resorting to beauty queen tactics, basic family stability and rectitude, competency in the office one already holds, some basic regard for facts over blatant fabrication.

These values were eroded during the Bush administration, but they still existed to one degree or another on the right when Palin was selected. They were all weakened dramatically during the sixty-some days of the McCain-Palin campaign, and they never even came close to recovering their previous standing among Republicans, whether on television and radio, in print, or just with people in their living rooms.

Karl Rove certainly played his own part in lowering the standards previously held by people on the right. The U.S. Attorneys Scandal was staggering in this regard. But he’s dragging his political movement down to depths that almost no one could have been pessimistic enough to predict:

In an interview on Fox News Sunday, host Chris Wallace pointed out that the Senate Intelligence Committee report on the CIA’s use of torture had revealed techniques including a “series of near drownings,” sleep deprivation, and unnecessary “rectal feedings.”

“Isn’t that torture by any definition?” Wallace asked.

“No,” Rove insisted. “Let’s get the rectal feedings out. In this report, there are nine references on 14 pages to rectal feedings. And four of those five, it is the result of a hunger strike by the detainee.”

Rove asserted that waterboarding, slapping detainees, and solitary confinement were also “carefully designed.”

“The tests were, do they involved severe pain or suffering or do they involve severe and prolonged mental pain or suffering?” he opined. “And in each instance, these procedures were designed so that they would not pass those barriers.”

“Take, for example, waterboarding,” Rove continued. “In waterboarding — unlike World War II, where the Japanese attempted to drown people by basically pouring water in their mouths — here the feet were elevated so there’s little or not chance of any fluid getting into the lungs. And very careful standards set in place so these would help break the the resistance of the detainee without placing their life in danger.”

It seems wrong to even lower myself to respond substantively to these remarks, but it should be obvious that the Imperial Japanese Army killed those it wanted to kill and tortured those it wanted to torture. They did not use waterboarding as a long and entertaining way to kill people they could have just bayoneted. What distinguishes the actions of the CIA under the Bush administration from the Japanese army under Emperor Hirohito is not how they conducted their waterboarding.

As for his defense of so-called rectal rehydration, Physicians for Human Rights have an opinion on its use to deal with hunger strikes.

“Contrary to the CIA’s assertions, there is no clinical indication to use rectal rehydration and feeding over oral or intravenous administration of fluids and nutrients,” said Dr. Vincent Iacopino, PHR’s senior medical advisor. “This is a form of sexual assault masquerading as medical treatment. In the absence of medical necessity, it is clear that the only purpose behind this humiliating and invasive procedure is to inflict physical and mental pain.”

The effect of Rove’s defense of these tactics can be seen easily simply by watching any CSPAN program that deals with this controversy and listening to the opinions of the conservative callers. Almost to a person, they are calling in to dismiss the seriousness of torture, to justify it, to attack the Democrats who produced the report, and to even call for more brutal treatment of our “enemies.”

These people may have troglodytic tendencies to begin with, but they wouldn’t be defending this behavior if it had been carried out under the leadership of the “other team.” They are following two basic instincts: the instinct to follow their leadership, and the instinct to defend their team from attacks originating primarily on the left.

And once the train leaves the station, it is gone forever. These people do not go back to holding their previous standards. Their standards are just lowered, and lowered for good. The vanguard of the GOP now holds that brutal, repellent abuses of human rights are not really a problem, and that, if anything, our government should be more harsh in the future.

This is how the banality of evil works. Once people are led to take up a side, they are highly susceptible to following the leadership regardless of where it takes them.

The conservatives have already led their flock away from science or any reasonable standards about their candidates’ fitness for office.

Now they are leading them as fast as they can away from any minimal sense of human decency.

[Cross-posted at Booman Tribune]

Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at