The Mysteries of Torture

One doesn’t often look to Keith Olbermann for revelation of religion in the public sphere, but he inadvertently exposes the raw nerve at the heart of the “debate” over torture. Broadly generalizing, we might say that on one side, the anti-torture side, are humanists, empiricists, who base their opposition not in religious morality, as might be expected, but on the rule of law. (Certainly, many or most religious people oppose torture. But, so far, not very loudly.) On the other — yes, the pro-torture side — are a group of grim mystics who style themselves Conradians, capable of facing “the horror, the horror,” for the good of us all. Consider former Reagan speechwriter and political God-monger Peggy Noonan, shown by Olbermann in this clip (via Harper’s’ Scott Horton), defending the veil the torturers wish to maintain: “Some of life has to be mysterious,” she says.

Noonan, a conservative, is not alone in its celebration and application to the decidedly un-mysterious practice of waterboarding: Four years ago, Joseph Lelyveld, former executive editor of The New York Times wrote what amounted to a liberal defense — under the guise of a pained critique — of torture based on what seemed to be a secularized version of original sin. The Times illustrated the story with a series of lush, beautiful portraits of stylized torture by Andres Serrano, best known for his controversial 1989 artwork “Piss Christ.” Art is the transcendence of liberalism, aesthetics its version of religion’s mystery. Lelyveld, in 2005, Noonan, now, are preaching the same sermon in slightly different terms. Liberal, conservative, they are both high priests of the faith of empire, the doctrine of dark secrets which, they promise, allows us ordinary citizens to live in the light, safe from evils too deep for us to fathom.

Jeff Sharlet is a founding editor of Killing the Buddha, coauthor with Peter Manseau of Killing the Buddha: A Heretic's Bible (2004) and co-editor of Believer, Beware (2009). Sharlet is also the author of Sweet Heaven When I Die, (2011), C Street, (2010), and the New York Times bestseller The Family (2008).