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The Most Meaningless Question
by joseph   November 6, 2006

politics In the hopes of facilitating some forward momentum in our national conversation once we move from the midterm election cycle, I would like to institute the following rule: that we take the most inane, useless and yet commonly asked question away from reporters and pundits and bury it where it can never insult our intelligences again.

There are many worthy contenders, but for my money the most scintillatingly pointless is the Hypothetical Bomb question. You know it well by now; you perhaps have even asked it of your friends during dinner or on a date, just to break the ice. It has a variety of permutations, but the core is this: "You have a terrorist conveniently tied up in your anteroom and you discover -- perhaps by carrier pigeon -- that he knows the whereabouts of a bomb about to explode which will kill millions of people, including doe-eyed orphan waifs and floppy-eared puppies. What do you do?" Republicans welcome this question, of course, since this is "their" issue, and their replies, filled with solemnity, moral obligation, and sadism make for nice sound bites.

Anti-torture people have a harder time with this one. I read an interview in which an author who was asked this question responded to "Would you torture?" with "I would pray for the strength not to." What the hell kind of an answer is that? There are some smart people in the Democratic Party, but if they can't get out of this idiotic bear trap of a question with greater success, I'm going to throw my lot in with LaRouche. For those who don't remember, this bears much similarity to the famous Willie Horton question. Horton was a convicted felon who raped a woman while out on a weekend furlough from prison; Democratic presidential candidate Michael Dukakis was asked how he would feel if his wife and family were raped and killed, to which he murkily responded with the equivalent of "Eh, what can you do?"

I truly cannot understand why this question trips up so many people; every journalist from Fox News to NPR is asking it, and you'd think all candidates would have developed a canned response with at least some semblance of coherence. The question is asinine on the face of it, and I suspect leftists are on even more difficult footing because they have not developed the right wing's penchant for answering a question with an attack upon the person asking the question. Clever ploy, that. I would like to try it in a job interview...

So how to answer? One could argue that the setup is ludicrous, that torture is widely regarded in the intelligence community as a good way of getting bad information, and a few shrewd writers and politicans have responded in this way. This is an excellent retort, but I believe there's a deeper answer that we never hear.

I would argue that one should follow up any such question with "Look, my personal impulse is to think that yes, I would, but I should not be allowed to because we live in a civilized nation." The fact is that any sane person is willing to move heaven and earth to prevent injury to ourselves and loved ones. We seek revenge if someone killed or injured one of our friends or loved ones. That's natural and is probably inscribed within us through the tribalism of evolutionary psychology. But societies have invented something called justice which seeks to bypass the natural tit-for-tat killing that spurs inter-tribal violence and that, by extension, allows for the triumph of law over barbarism. Culturally we often understand the vigilante's anger and action but agree that arbitration must rule the day, else we have all lost the recourse that protects us from others as well as others from us.

The sad fact is that sometimes the system does not work; murderers go free, innocent men are sent to jail (not to mention executed), but you don't see politicians lining up for a return to family-based retributive justice. Setting up a different set of laws (like allowing torture, suspending habeas corpus) for another group (non-citizens) is a return to the kind of jingoistic disparity that marked the heyday of 19th-century nationalism, something international treaties and bodies have sought to limit.

All of this, however, is likely too complex and therefore off-putting for a response to a journalist on a cable news program. Sean Hannity would be harrumphing about 9/11 at you long before this point. But the question doesn't stand up to scrutiny, and it is a cagey dodge around the real issue: whether or not it is appropriate to allow torture of other country's citizens and yet demand that other countries do not have that right of our citizens (what's good for the Hatfields are not good for the McCoys). The question is one of American exceptionalism; are we a great nation simply because of some divine mandate or metaphysical truth, or is it because we have recognized that liberty has consequences, and justice has constraints. I would love for this question to go away, but I admit it may just be because -- from left and right, Democrat and Republican -- I can no longer stand listening to the answers and what it tells me about those who run my country.

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