One of the most serious distortions of liberalism in modern American thought could be reduced to a simple, oft-repeated phrase: don’t be so judgmental. The argument is that it’s healthy for citizens in a modern society to collect information and suspend the process of forming judgments. A core aspect of this approach is doubtless correct: as Count Tolstoy observed in What Is Art, even sophisticated minds are prone to fail to grasp essential facts if those facts contradict some conclusions they have already drawn. But this doesn’t mean that judgment should be suspended indefinitely. To the contrary, judgment is sometimes a moral imperative. Without judgment, there is no justice.
Roger Berkowitz offers a subtle and stimulating discussion of judgment in “Why We Must Judge,” in the current issue of Democracy. He starts his analysis with an example that will be familiar to readers of this space:
In 2004, The New York Times reported that numerous captured Iraqi military officers had been beaten by American interrogators, and that Major General Abed Hamed Mowhoush had been killed by suffocation. The Times has also published the stories of the so-called “ice man” of Abu Ghraib, Manadel al-Jamadi, who was beaten and killed while in U.S. custody, his body wrapped in ice to hide evidence of the beatings; of Walid bin Attash, forced to stand on his one leg (he lost the other fighting in Afghanistan) with his hands shackled above his head for two weeks; and of Gul Rahman, who died of hypothermia after being left naked from the waist down in a cold cell in a secret CIA prison outside Kabul. And the paper has documented the fate of Abu Zubaydah, captured in Pakistan, questioned in black sites and waterboarded at least 83 times, before being brought to Guantanamo, as well as the story of Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, waterboarded 183 times. What was missing from these stories, published in the newspaper of record? A simple word: torture.
The omission is standard practice at the Times, just as it is at The Washington Post, NPR, and most U.S.-based media. Clark Hoyt, formerly ombudsman at the Times, defended the refusal to use the word torture and the decision to employ the language of “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a euphemism pioneered by the Bush Administration and embraced by the Obama Administration. For Hoyt, whether banging someone’s head against stone walls to elicit information is torture is in the eye of the beholder: “This president and this attorney general say waterboarding is torture, but the previous president and attorney general said it is not. On what basis should a newspaper render its own verdict, short of charges being filed or a legal judgment rendered?” Alicia C. Shepard, ombudsman at NPR, calls torture “loaded language.” To name simulated suffocation torture means to “unilaterally make such a judgment,” something Andrew Alexander, ombudsman at The Washington Post, argues journalists must avoid. In short, since the definition of torture is a matter of debate, we can’t publicly speak of torture. To judge an act to be torture is beyond our capacity and outside our jurisdiction.
In this case, suspension of judgment was not neutrality. It was substituting euphemisms for the direct words that the English language furnishes.
As Berkowitz notes, Barack Obama began his presidency with two contradictory calls. On the one hand, although he acknowledged that the U.S. government had practiced torture, he declined to hold those who did so accountable, saying we should “look forward and not back.” On the other, at his inauguration he called for a “new era of responsibility,” suggesting that “we are suffering a culture-wide crisis of judgment.” One and a half years into the Obama presidency, all the evidence suggests that Obama is promoting the failure of accountability in government rather than taking the steps he promised to address it. As Berkowitz puts it, “While Obama worries about a rush to judgment, our real problem is that we have abdicated our right and our duty to judge at all.”
Berkowitz’s article is an appealing exploration of the contradictions and dissonances of modern American liberalism. He talks about sentencing guidelines, the political wars over the judiciary, gives us some interesting insights into the approaches that Hannah Arendt took to the subject, and winds up with a fascinating analysis of Aeschylus’s Orestia. The complex of issues is eternal and universal, of course, but Berkowitz makes a convincing case that American society went off the tracks in the age of Bush, and Obama has done nothing to set the situation right.