The Time for Incredulity Has Passed on Torture Issue

I give up. I started this blog with a declaration of disgust over U.S. policy that pulled few punches, but in my list of complaints I allowed myself to say only that the U.S. “in , still condones torture when it wants to.”

We eventually learned that condoning wasn’t the half of it. The U.S. was not only condoning torture, but facilitating it, committing it, contracting out for it, diligently creating legal loopholes for it, applauding it, voting for it, and blessing it after-the-fact.

When Abu Ghraib hit the press, I started covering the torture policy here. I thought the revelations would be a rare piece of data peeking through the secrecy and coverup, and I was pleasantly surprised that the news media didn’t just pick it up and drop it again after a one-day news cycle.

, a friend warned me that The Picket Line was losing its focus and “was in danger of becoming yet another blog featuring an underqualified amateur pundit giving his unsolicited opinion on current events.” I justified my coverage of the torture issue with two reasons: 1) that the torture policy is a good example of just how bad the government has gotten and just how important it is that people end their complicity with it, and 2) that the torture policy is a stark example that I can use to make more vivid my discussions of ethics, principle, complicity, resistance and the like.

But I miscalculated about just how much would be revealed. Little did I know that the tip of the iceberg was going to be so huge. Now hardly a day goes by without some new and more sickening revelation. If I covered the issue today with as much detail as I have in the past, this blog would be nothing but news of Americans torturing people, day in and day out. I don’t have the heart or the endurance for that. There are other sites and other bloggers who are better equipped and qualified to pursue this. I’m going to stick closer to my core topic of tax resistance.

The evidence is clear and convincing that the United States has a policy, deliberate and explicit, to engage in torture. It also has no enthusiasm for preventing, discouraging, or punishing acts of torture that take place parallel to but outside of this explicit framework, except when evidence leaks so fragrantly, as in Abu Ghraib, as to be embarrassing.

Responsibility for this policy is enormously widespread, beyond the sadists actually torturing people. The military has enthusiastically generated whitewashed investigations; the Dubya Squad doesn’t think there’s a problem; the Republican Congressional majority is completely in the rah-rah camp; the Democrats can hardly be bothered to bring the subject up; the voting public was never much concerned; the press sluggishly gnaws on bones it lets other people dig up.

I’ve had enough of sorting through the evidence and documenting it. I know enough already. If you don’t, I doubt anything else I say will help.

Here’s some good-news-bad-news for the war tax resistance set. One of the stunts we like to pull during our April 15th Tax Day protests is to have a budget simulator — usually a set of labeled slots into which passers-by can put a number of pennies to show what their spending priorities would be. The slots are labeled “Defense,” and “Education,” and so forth.

Predictably, the priorities of those who attend or humor war tax resistance demonstrations are different from the priorities of those who actually decide how to spend our tax dollars. Most obviously, the defense budget dives down to a level more like that of other nations, and feel-good programs to educate kids, cure disease, and uplift the as-yet-unlifted get a big boost.

Now, the Program on International Policy Attitudes has done a more rigorous version of the same idea — polling a random nationwide sample of 1,182 Americans about their budget priorities:

As you may know, the White House proposes a budget to Congress. In this survey, you will make up a budget for 17 major areas of the budget. We’re not including some big entitlement programs like Medicare or Social Security, which by law cannot simply be adjusted year to year. For these 17 areas, a budget of about $912 billion has been proposed for . Please imagine that you have $1,000 of your tax money to divide among these 17 areas. For each area, you’ll see how much of your $1,000 is proposed to go to that area, and then you can indicate how many dollars you’d like to see go to that area. You’ll be able to monitor how much of the $1,000 you have left as you make decisions by scrolling down to the bottom of the page.

The results? Steep cuts to the Defense Department, to the war budget, and to the Justice Department. Big increases in spending on such things as UN “peacekeeping,” job training programs, energy independence, education, medical research, veterans’ benefits and deficit reduction.

Question #25 on the survey asked: “Imagine that the President and Congress decided to cut defense spending by 15% and directed this money to education, healthcare, housing, and cutting the deficit instead. Would you: Support this decision [65% said yes], Oppose this decision [31%]…”

So why did I say this was good-news-bad-news for the liberal war tax resistance set? The survey shows that a random sample of Americans, Republicans and Democrats and “Others,” red state and blue state, agree that the military budget should be cut dramatically and that money used in more sensible ways. Sounds like an unambiguous popular affirmation of the liberal war tax resisters’ core position.

But Kevin Drum, at Political Animal says that people’s preferences in a survey like this don’t mean much at election time:

People say this kind of stuff to pollsters all the time (and Democrats usually rejoice at the results), but when election day comes around they flatly don’t vote based on these priorities. If John Kerry had proposed cutting the defense budget by $150 billion he wouldn’t have lost the election by 3 percentage points, he would have lost by 10 or 20.

I don’t know quite why these polls always turn out this way, but I suspect they do a lot of harm to liberals, who continue to read them as vindication that Americans really do support liberal issues. There’s some truth to that, but the fact is that most liberal issues aren’t salient election causes and we haven’t succeeded in making them so. Anyone who disagrees should recommend cutting the defense budget by 25% and reallocating the money to education and job training. The very same people who responded to PIPA’s poll will then cheerfully vote you out of office in a huge landslide.