Julian Assange is an obnoxious twerp, but Britain was more fun when it used Universal Jurisdiction to go after Pinochet and Israeli war criminals.

Also, I don’t suppose we can expect the arrests of senior editors at The Guardian and New York Times? Of course not… because Trump’s DoJ now claims that Assange “engaged in a conspiracy” with Chelsea Manning to release classified information—which is almost certainly false, but also the only thing keeping this from slipping into First Amendment territory. Meanwhile, will these newspapers defend Assange?

The Midterms

For years we’ve been saying that the Republican Party’s fortunes are tethered to an aging white (male) constituency—and  it’s pretty clear that we can attribute the GOP’s increasingly unhinged racial animus as well as its voter suppression efforts in non-white communities to this if nothing else—but how long do we have to wait? Where’s the demographic shift we’ve been promised?

There were some important victories last night, but not nearly enough for my taste. The “blue wave” turned out to be more of a trickle. According to the New York Times, there was, at best, a “blue shift.”

“2018’s shift to the left was smaller than the one in 2006, the last time the Democrats flipped the House. And it was half the size of the most recent Republican wave in 2010 when districts shifted more than 19 points to the right.”

Perhaps I’m being overly pessimistic, but I worry that this may be the best Democrats are capable of pulling off. It certainly doesn’t bode well for 2020. Where is the repudiation of Trumpian cruelty? Do so many Americans really support stripping children from their families and housing them in concentration camps, thinly veiled support for neo-Nazis, violent contempt for journalism not to mention science? The list is endless. By and large I think those who were calling this a referendum on Trump were right—and he came off better than he should have. At a minimum it demostrates that the liberal fantasies of Russian trolls are wildly misguided: Trump won because (white) Americans respond well to his flagrant bigotry. This is America.

At least the county where I live (Silver Bow) is a reliably progressive haven in Montana—more so even than Missoula, home of the flagship campus of the University of Montana. Butte’s militant labor history lingers in interesting ways. It’s hard to imagine Democrats ever winning in Montana without support from the mining city.

Turning in His Grave

It’s astonishing to me that Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia was so eagerly appropriated by liberal Cold Warriors as an ostensibly anti-communist document. It’s pretty clear that Orwell himself, had he lived to read it, would have been appalled by Lionel Trilling’s introduction to the American edition, which makes this agenda rather explicit. I wonder to what extent this deliberate misunderstanding of Orwell’s work has contributed to his lasting fame. If anything, Homage to Catalonia is Orwell at his most radical, as the following lines attest:

There is a sense in which it would be true to say that one was experiencing a foretaste of Socialism, by which I mean that the prevailing mental atmosphere was that of Socialism. Many of the normal motives of civilized life — snobbishness, money-grubbing, fear of the boss, etc. — had simply ceased to exist. The ordinary class-division of society had disappeared to an extent that is almost unthinkable in the money-tainted air of England; there was no one there except the peasants and ourselves, and no one owned anyone else as his master. Of course such a state of affairs could not last. It was simply a temporary and local phase in an enormous game that is being played over the whole surface of the earth. But it lasted long enough to have its effect upon anyone who experienced it. However much one cursed at the time, one realized afterwards that one had been in contact with something strange and valuable. One had been in a community where hope was more normal than apathy or cynicism, where the word ‘comrade’ stood for comradeship and not, as in most countries, for humbug. One had breathed the air of equality. I am well aware that it is now the fashion to deny that Socialism has anything to do with equality. In every country in the world a huge tribe of party-hacks and sleek little professors are busy ‘proving’ that Socialism means no more than a planned state-capitalism with the grab-motive left intact. But fortunately there also exists a vision of Socialism quite different from this. The thing that attracts ordinary men to Socialism and makes them willing to risk their skins for it, the ‘mystique’ of Socialism, is the idea of equality; to the vast majority of people Socialism means a classless society, or it means nothing at all. And it was here that those few months in the militia were valuable to me. For the Spanish militias, while they lasted, were a sort of microcosm of a classless society. In that community where no one was on the make, where there was a shortage of everything but no privilege and no boot-licking, one got, perhaps, a crude forecast of what the opening stages of Socialism might be like. And, after all, instead of disillusioning me it deeply attracted me. The effect was to make my desire to see Socialism established much more actual than it had been before. Partly, perhaps, this was due to the good luck of being among Spaniards, who, with their innate decency and their ever-present Anarchist tinge, would make even the opening stages of Socialism tolerable if they had the chance.

George Orwell, Homage to Catalonia (New York: Penguin, 1938; 1989), 87-88.

John McCain and Liberal Anti-Politics

There’s something to be said about the American liberal insistence on subordinating politics to bland nationalist platitudes and fantasies of bipartisanship. In a recent editorial for the New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes of John McCain, “for all our disagreements, I deeply admired his guts, passion and determination to follow his moral code.” Granted, this is a particularly insipid example of what I have in mind, but something like it is so common that it seems to capture something essential about American political culture: the dangerous idea that all perspectives are equally valid and worthy of respect. Is following one’s moral code always cause for praise, even when that moral code is seriously misguided? What exactly does it mean when liberals say they admire someone who consistently advocated for American military aggression at every opportunity up until his death? Frankly, this kind of mindless praise simply reveals just how extra-political American militarism has become. The routine use of American military power is the neutral background condition upon which the rest of political life occurs, whether manifest in Obama’s “disposition matrix” or McCain’s rendition of “Bomb-bomb-bomb-Iran.” We can argue over the details—how many to kill and in what way—but behind the liberal desire for bipartisan harmony is an anti-politics that accepts American military aggression as a geopolitical constant.

Race and Capitalism in The Pawnbroker

The Liberal Studies Department at Montana Tech recently initiated a new research colloquium and I was invited to be a discussant for a talk by Professor Henry Gonshak on the figure of the Holocaust survivor, as depicted in Sidney Lumet’s 1964 film, The Pawnbroker. I don’t have any training in film studies, so I just prepared some remarks about the political and social context of the film, focusing in particular on Nazism and the Holocaust survivor as cultural signifiers. Henry speaks first and my response begins at 38:51.

Thresholds of Atrocity

Very pleased to learn that my submission to the American Political Science Association (APSA) annual conference has been approved. I last participated in 2010 and enjoyed the experience—but it was only a poster presentation, so this year it will be two firsts: first panel presentation at the premier national political science conference and my first conference as a newly minted doctor.

The paper in question will be a version of the first chapter of my dissertation, entitled “Thresholds of Atrocity: Violence and Vision in Levinas, Murdoch, and Weil.” The benevolent gatekeepers behind the Foundations of Political Theory division have graciously placed me on a panel entitled Trauma and Violence in Contemporary Political Life.

Here’s the abstract I sent:

Every political community sets normative limits to the legitimate use of force—but how much is too much? What distinguishes atrocity from conventional violence? Where should we draw the line between the acceptable and the unconscionable? Few scholars have given atrocity sustained conceptual attention. From the Latin atrox, meaning heinous, cruel, or severe, the very word atrocity implies excess by definition. While Arendt writes that “[v]iolence can be justifiable, but it will never be legitimate,” atrocity is neither justifiable nor legitimate. This paper adapts and engages with the aesthetically-oriented philosophies of Emmanuel Levinas, Iris Murdoch, and Simone Weil to advance a theory of atrocity grounded in an expansive notion of moral vision (one that potentially includes literal vision as well as sounds, smells, voices, texts, etc.). After surveying the metaphorical importance of vision and blindness in relation to the rationalization of extreme violence, this paper draws on the work of Simone Weil, Iris Murdoch, and Emmanuel Levinas to assess the possibility of deriving ethical norms from phenomenological experience. Levinas offers the famous face-to-face encounter, while Murdoch and Weil draw upon Buddhist thought to advocate for moral attention. Crucially, much of the world’s violence that would otherwise register as atrocious is not recognized as such because efforts are taken to obscure and actively control the representation of violence, thereby impeding phenomenological comprehensibility in its myriad forms and helping to legitimize the illegitimate.

Adolf Wolff: To Esther

My little daughter, my masterpiece,
Child in body, mind and spirit, beautiful,
Child so much a child.
When you have blossomed into womanhood,
May you be a Judith decapitating a Holofernes,
A Joan of Arc leading a people to victory,
A Louise Michel fighting on the barricades,
A Voltairine de Cleyre singing the songs of revolt,
An Emma Goldman preaching the gospel of rebellion.
I dedicate you,
Fruit of my blood, child of my soul,
I dedicate you to the cause of emancipation,
I dedicate you to the cause of truth and justice,
I dedicate you to the Social Revolution.
May your life and your death be the scourge of tyrants
And the inspiration of those who fight for human

This poem was taken from Adolf Wolff’s collection, Songs of Rebellion, Songs of Life, Songs of Love (1914). A self-described “poet, sculptor and revolutionist, but mostly revolutionist,” Adolf Wolff came to the United States as a child from Belgium. History, however, hasn’t been especially kind to either his art or his politics and he’s been reduced to near-total obscurity today.

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Coal  Miner on Strike, 1931; The Lynch Law, 1931; Negro, n.d. Hermitage Museum

There’s very little one can find about Wolff in the scholarly record at all. In fact, I only encountered his poem a few months ago while reading Paul Avrich’s biography of Voltairine de Cleyre. As Avrich and Francis Naumann write in a piece specifically about Wolff:

[T]he artistic accomplishments of Adolf Wolff have been almost totally forgotten. His name has fallen into obscurity, and goes unrecorded in even the most thorough histories and lexicons of American sculpture.

In any case, Wolff seems to have been very active in the radical politics that thrived in New York at the turn of the century. Nearly all the figures in that world were recent immigrants from Europe (Wolff included) disillusioned with the dire conditions of urban industrial capitalism and animated by left-wing politics in the heady days just before the Russian Revolution. To be an anarchist, Wolff said, was:

to be a human being without prejudice, without superstition, without fear, even in the face of death, and to love truth and justice, and to speak it out irrespective of consequences, to have law and order within, not without, to require no government except that of one’s conscience, and to be so strongly individual as to embrace with one’s own mind the well-being of the entire human collectivity.

This element of Wolff’s life is usually purged from any dicussion of his artwork—itself a rare occurence. When one of his sculptures appeared on the Antique Roadshow back in 2010, for example, an appraiser euphemistically described Wolff’s politics:

[H]e was also very involved in politics. A lot of artists were. … [H]e was, you know, embroiled with some very interesting characters and very interesting times.

Very interesting characters and times indeed! Though he knew them personally, Wolff would have been just young enough to regard the anarchist iconoclasts Emma Goldman and Voltairine de Cleyre probably more with reverence and awe than any kinship grounded in equality. After all, “Red Emma” was one of the most notorious radicals in the country for at least the two decades prior to her expulsion in the Red Scare of 1919. She was a larger-than-life figure and de Cleyre had already died at a relatively young age (in 1912) by the time Wolff’s poem was published.

Wolff taught art to children at the Modern School—an institution established by followers of the radical educator Francisco Ferrer (who was himself executed by the Spanish state in 1909)—and was arrested several times for his participation in left-wing demonstrations. His own daughter (for whom the poem was written) reportedly appealed to him at one such demonstration: “Please, papa, mamma wants you to smile and not be so angry.”

Wolff’s poem nicely captures his admiration of radical women. It attempts to draw a clear political lineage from the deuterocanonical Book of Judith—whose eponymous heroine assassinates a tyrannical general—and Joan of Arc to modern political radicals like Louise Michel—a prominent figure in the Paris Commune—as well as the two aforementioned American anarchists.

It’s obviously not a great poem, but I think it has a certain charm. It distills the hopes and dreams that attend the arrival of any newborn child and fuses them with high-minded political goals. Considering Wolff’s later transformation, during WWI, from radical to “hysterical patriot,” it also bears an ironic nostalgia for idealism abandoned. 


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The Morning Telegraph, January 31, 1915

On Homebirth

Planning a homebirth in the United States means constantly dealing with medical professionals who think you’re the scientific and moral equivalent of an anti-vaxxer.

I’ve come to the conclusion that while some doctors do take an active interest in the medical literature, others view themselves mainly as technicians. Unfortunately, most seem to fall into the latter category. Not that I blame them for it. With all they do, how can the average doctor be expected to keep up with current research as well? But the very structure of American medicine seems to encourage an over-reliance on the official positions of the various medical associations (even when they differ quite significantly from international medical opinion). “What do I think about homebirth? I don’t know, what does the ACOG say about it?”

Several weeks ago, we were told by one particularly condescending doctor:

I just want healthy babies and healthy mothers. There’s no reason for anyone to die in childbirth anymore and the hospital is really the safest place. You’re taking a big risk.

Uh, no we’re not. Read the literature.

The United States has a 32.2% C-section rate, much higher than medical necessity might dictate (and even higher among poor women of color). While the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) discourages homebirth, insisting that “hospitals and birthing centers are the safest setting for birth,” they nevertheless note that “planned home births are associated with fewer maternal interventions, including epidural analgesia, electronic fetal heart rate monitoring, episiotomy, operative vaginal delivery, and cesarean delivery.” (This still hasn’t stopped them from distributing anti-homebirth bumper stickers: Home Deliveries are for Pizza, not Babies.”)


Both babies and pizzas.

Given the mind-boggling numbers, the statistical possibility of one’s pregnancy ending in a C-section should in itself raise alarm. In addition to the standard risks associated with major abdominal surgery, women who undergo C-section are four times more likely to die from complications during or after childbirth. It is for this reason the World Health Organization (WHO) says the overall C-section rate should not rise above 10-15%.  When rates exceed this level, there is no indication that health outcomes improve. Yet C-section rates continue to climb… and women are dying.

Only about half the states bother to collect data on maternal death and there is no corresponding national effort. The World Health Organization estimates somewhere around 12-28 deaths in the United States per 100,000 mothers—or about 1200 annually. This is an astonishingly high figure for a technologically advanced country; higher than Iran, Turkey, or pre-revolutionary Libya.

Yet numerous studies show that an uncomplicated pregnancy is as safe or even safer at home than in a hospital, where one is much more likely to face medical intervention and its attendant problems.

recent study on planned homebirth indicates a very slightly higher rick of perinatal death compared to in-hospital births but a significantly lower chance of unwanted medical inventions:

Perinatal mortality was higher with planned out-of-hospital birth than with planned in-hospital birth, but the absolute risk of death was low in both settings.

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This study is just the latest installment in a solid body of evidence that out-of-hospital births attended by qualified midwives are a safe option for women with uncomplicated pregnancies. So the argument that hospitals are the “safest setting” is certainly not as obvious as ACOG would like to suggest and the emphasis on risk tends to obscure the fact that, for the vast majority of women, childbirth is a normal physiological process—one for which their body has been well-equipped by the forces of human evolution. The cult of risk strips women of bodily agency. It presents a pregnant woman first of all as an emergency or at least a potential emergency. As City University of New York sociologist Barbara Katz Rothman writes:

Virtually any house can be struck by lightning: Do you care to think of where you live as being ‘low-risk’ for lightning? This is just what contemporary medicine has done to pregnancy. It has distinguished between ‘low-risk’ and ‘high-risk’ pregnancies, with the emphasis always on risk, and then gone on to define an ever-increasing proportion of pregnancies as ‘high-risk.’

Perhaps more than anything else, the obsession with risk is one expression of our deep cultural desire for scientific and technological mastery, for the attainment of absolute certainty over matters of life and limb—even to the point of irrationality and skyrocketing C-section rates. But whether at home or in a hospital, there is no such thing as “risk-free” childbirth. It’s likely there never will be such a thing.

This is not an argument against either hospitals or modern medicine. Hospitals are ideal for medical emergencies and the psychological comfort that provides makes hospital birth a no-brainer for many women. But pregnancy is not an illness. It’s not an emergency. Our midwife knows what she is doing and it’s really getting to be a drag constantly dealing with practitioners clearly less interested in keeping up with the scientific literature than in chastising us for defying the hospital monopoly. 


Uterine Mysteries

Our daughter is due on March 11th.

It’s a peculiar way to discuss the arrival of a baby: to be “due.” Like a homework assignment. Or a debt. Still, babies are themselves usually reluctant to comply. A mere 4% of children are born on their predicted due date. Whether they come earlier or later, the rest are rebels even before extra-uterine life commences. 20% miss the mark altogether and opt to stay in the womb for at least another week before finally being evicted, which is probably a good thing considering the cognitive benefits demonstrated by children of longer pregnancies.


Whither shall I wander?

The uterus defies the pretense of schedules, predictions, forecasts, or prophesies. Scientists still don’t know exactly when or how a woman’s body comes to conclude it’s time to eject its infantile occupant. The mysteries of the uterus and its purported powers have troubled scholars for centuries. Few other organs have caused quite as much contention, grief, speculation, and superstition.

As early as 1900 BCE, we learn from Egyptian papyrus that if a woman is “ill in seeing,” her womb is likely starved or dislocated (Not to worry! A poultice of dried human feces and beer froth will clean the problem right up). Other examples describe a range of symptoms the Greeks, more than 1000 years later, would associate with hysteria, after their word for the uterus, ὑστέρα.

In the Timaeus, Plato writes that an “unproductive” womb “gets irritated and fretful” and travels about a woman’s body “generating all sorts of ailments, including potentially fatal problems, if it blocks up the air-channels and makes breathing impossible.” Aristotle concurred and in his Nichomachean Ethics cites the deleterious emotional impact of uterine defiance (especially menstruation) to justify excluding women from politics.

It was Hippocrates, the “Father of Western Medicine,” who first coined the term hysteria. He postulated the theory of the “wandering womb” and suggested the uterus could literally float around a woman’s body causing mischief. To coax it back into place, he recommended sniffing acrid and foul odors.

Aretaeus of Cappadocia, an advocate of Hippocratic principles, described the doctrine’s basic tenets:

In the middle of the flanks of women lies the womb, a female viscous, closely resembling an animal; for it moves itself hither and thither in the flanks, also upwards in a direct line to below the cartilage of the thorax, and also obliquely to the right or to the left, either to the liver or the spleen; and it likewise is subject to prolapsus downwards, and, in a word, it is altogether erratic. It delights, also, in fragrant smells, and advances towards them; and it had an aversion to fetid smells and flees from them; and, on the whole the womb is like an animal within an animal.

And the Roman physician Galen continued his work centuries later:

I have examined many hysterical women, some stuporous, others with anxiety attacks […]: the disease [hysteria] manifests itself with different symptoms, but always refers to the uterus.

The solution? Hellebore, mint, laudanum, belladonna extract, valerian root and other herbal remedies. Marriage also seemed to work wonders, as it frequently resulted in a guaranteed cure: pregnancy and childbirth.

Helen King explains this apparently “pharmacological interpretation” of  “the social processes of marriage and motherhood”:

Not only does intercourse moisten the womb, thus discouraging it from moving elsewhere in the body to seek moisture, but it also agitates the body and thus facilitates the passage of blood within it. Furthermore, childbirth breaks down the flesh throughout the body and, by making extra spaces within which excess blood can rest, reduces the pain caused by the movement of blood between parts of the body. […] Since all disorders of women ultimately result from their soft and spongy flesh and excess blood, all disorders of women may be cured by intercourse and/or childbirth, to which marriage and pregnancy are the necessary precursors.

The myth of female hysteria persisted into the 20th century, making bloody detours along the way through so many inquisitions and witch-burnings. The Aristotelian belief that “the woman is a failed man” found advocates among the Patristic theologians and later in the work of thinkers like Thomas Aquinas. The 17th century English physician William Harvey claimed women were “slaves to their own biology” and described the uterus as “insatiable, ferocious, animal-like.”

Even as late as the Victorian era, women embraced Hippocratic remedies. A sick woman was said to be “womby” or suffering from “wombiness.” To combat this epidemic, it was common practice to carry a bottle of smelling salts with which to tempt the “wandering womb” back to its proper anatomical locale.

Fortunately, modern uteri tend to be rather less troublesome that their unruly predecessors and, by this time next week, a cocktail of hormones will trigger a succession of biological impulses in my partner’s body that will ultimately result in the birth of our daughter. It is a meeting we have anticipated patiently for 40 weeks. Whatever the womb’s mysteries, real or imagined, it’s hard to believe anything might surpass the sheer wonder and anxiety of impending fatherhood. 


Torture and Moral Vision

* This article originally appeared at WarScapes on February 22, 2015.

Torture is a violation of the law, both domestic and international. It also happens to be a moral outrage. Leaving aside the legal definitions, the abstract notion of a moral outrage entails a degree of subjective judgment—but tends to be more easily identifiable to outsiders than to insiders. After all, few of us possess the moral clarity it takes to reflect upon our own transgressions with the same zeal we readily adopt against others.

In the age of modern nationalism, we extrapolate from individuals and apply the same idea to the various institutions and agencies tasked with representing the political community at large. It is a matter of little dispute, for example, that Iran practices torture against prisoners. Most Americans accept this as obvious and uncontroversial, whether or not they happen to have read the latest human rights reports. Yet when agents acting on behalf of the United States stand accused of such practices—as they have with the partial release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on CIA torture—euphemism becomes a national pastime.

Take former vice President Dick Cheney’s recent remarks on Meet the Press, an especially adamant defense of the CIA’s interrogation program. There he insisted that waterboarding, a practice refined by the Spanish inquisitors and later embraced by Nazi Germany during WWII, is not a form of torture. Cheney has been consistently eager to draw a clear distinction between CIA actions and torture: the former ostensibly justified, the latter a legal and moral outrage.

While prominent voices within the mass media rightly dismiss Cheney’s arguments as a weak defense offered by someone directly implicated, a recent poll suggests that half the country doesn’t believe his distinction anyway. 49 percent of respondents believe that CIA methods were torture. Despite this, a whopping 59 percent nonetheless believe it was justified. President Obama can deny it all he likes, but torture has seemingly become very much a part of “who we are.”

The passage of torture from unambiguous moral outrage to just another tool of American power is a remarkable story, but not a particularly surprising one if we consider the efforts undertaken to obscure it. The use of euphemism, legalese, the absence of victim’s voices in the media, and in some cases outright suppression of evidence, have all contributed to keeping the unpalatable details out of the spotlight. How are we to exercise moral judgment without an adequate view of the facts?

The philosopher and novelist Iris Murdoch believed that clear moral vision, the capacity for gaining “a refined and honest perception of what is really the case” requires immense determination. It requires a process of “unselfing,” her term for the stripping away of self-centered conceits and the influence of various ideological justifications (nationalism, sexism, religious dogma, etc.) that make it difficult for us to appreciate how others experience the world. By giving our full attention to the question at hand and exercising empathy, we are able to arrive at an appropriate moral judgment. Yet Murdoch’s emphasis on moral attention is completely meaningless when confronted with an ethical dilemma that cannot be seen in full. This is precisely the problem with torture.

Torture is conducted in secret, in dark rooms, by individuals whose identities are typically unknown to the general public. The victims are often anonymous. Whatever reassurances offered by our political leaders as to the humanity of the methods or to the tightly restricted conditions under which these methods are deployed, there has been very little discussion concerning the very real physical and psychological consequences of torture. Because of this, I suspect that what appears to be robust American support for torture is actually quite flimsy; it would likely collapse if confronted with a bit of transparency (and some Murdochian moral attention).

Is the public aware, for instance, that more than one hundred people have died in U.S. custody and that many of these deaths were later ruled homicides by military investigators? My students certainly were not, until I had them read about it. I teach a course on the history and politics of torture at Lehman College and many of my students—most of who arrived as determined proponents of “enhanced interrogation techniques”—are horrified to learn that people have been literally tortured to death in American custody. Few of us are able dismiss this terrible truth as contemptuously as is Dick Cheney, who apparently has “no problem” with the deaths of wrongfully imprisoned detainees “as long as we achieve our objective.”

The invisibility of torture is not only a byproduct of widespread ignorance of the grisly details, however. It is also a result of the sterile descriptions used. If political language is, as George Orwell famously wrote, designed “to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind,” the written language of torture is designed to render the horrific benign. “Enhanced interrogation techniques” is by now widely recognized as the Bush Administration’s major contribution to the art of euphemism, but the individual techniques themselves continue to go unchallenged.

In print, “forced standing” reads like a minor inconvenience; “sensory deprivation” like a game of hide-and-seek; “rough handling” like a fraternal wrestling match; “stress positions” like a particularly intense session of yoga. This language is intentional. Modern torturers have dispensed with crude methods, and have instead devised techniques that remain either palatable or invisible to the general public. The political scientist Darius Rejali calls such techniques “clean torture,” practices perceived as less physically violent because they leave no permanent scars but which nevertheless cause immense physical suffering and often irreversible psychological damage.

Euphemism is not always up to the task however. One of the more disturbing revelations described in the torture report is the CIA’s practice of “rectal rehydration,” a term that term barely conceals the brutality of the act: force-feeding through the anus. If we take American federal law as a guide, which forbids “[t]he penetration, no matter how slight, of the vagina or anus with any body part or object … without the consent of the victim,” the practice would be more honestly described as “rape.” Even if the American public is told that such a practice is “legal,” as various pundits and politicians have claimed in recent days, the moral outrage remains. When 59 percent of the country claims to support the CIA’s interrogation practices, I doubt they have “rectal rehydration” in mind.

Very occasionally, we are offered more than either euphemisms or silence. The Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal became the national outrage it did mainly because of the abundance of photographic evidence provided by the perpetrators. As the cliché has it, a picture is worth a thousand words; images of atrocities shock the conscience in ways the written word rarely achieves. One suspects that it is for this reason that President Obama has refused to declassify thousands of unreleased photographs depicting the abuse at Abu Ghraib prison, despite promising to do so as he entered office.

Major General Taguba, who led the investigation into the abuse at Abu Ghraib, has repeatedly claimed the unreleased photographs depict rape (the White House and Pentagon deny this) and yet he still urges that they not be declassified. As he argues, “the mere description of these pictures is horrendous enough, take my word for it.” While the techniques detailed in the Senate Intelligence report easily match and in some cases exceed the abuses committed by soldiers at Abu Ghraib, the CIA wisely destroyed all video evidence of waterboarding. All we are left with are the written descriptions.

Public opinion is important. It signals to our leaders the public’s willingness to either accept or oppose policy prescriptions. As Louis Brandeis once wrote, “Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants.” In this case, I doubt enough sunlight has been shed to foster adequate moral vision on the public’s behalf. When we’re told that a large majority of the American people now embrace torture as a necessary part of twenty-first century politics, we need to ask how that position developed. What is it the American people think the CIA has been up to all this time and how well does this picture match the reality? Declassifying the rest of the 6,000-page torture report won’t bridge this chasm on its own, but it would go a long way towards establishing basic conditions for moral vision. It might even allow for the kind of moral attention Iris Murdoch believed was necessary for understanding “what is really the case.”