Rush Limbaugh and the Right’s Tortured Conscience

As readers in this space may have noticed, I have had a thing or two (or three) to say about the Bush/Cheney program of torture and the incredible lengths of sophistry to which spokesoids for the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism have gone on its behalf. My concerns have basically come down to this:
a) It’s a grave sin inviting the wrath of God (Veritatis Splendor 80), particularly when it is defended (as it has been) by Catholics who know better and who therefore face the grim warning of our Lord that “Every one to whom much is given, of him will much be required” (Lk 12:48);
b) it’s stupid because torture is counter-productive, both giving us lousy intel that sends us off on wild goose chases and mucking up the works by generating lots of “evidence” that is inadmissible in court, leading to acquittals of real Bad Guys on technicalities; and
c) it’s incredibly dangerous and foolish for Christians, of all people, to press into the hands of a rapidly de-Christianizing civilization of death tools that will come in very handy when Caesar realizes he no longer has to play by the rules that used to govern a Christian society.

A perusal of the comboxes following those articles makes clear that, at least as of the time they were posted, lots of conservative Catholics were still ready to defend this Faustian bargain rather than listen to the obvious teaching of Holy Church and treat prisoners humanely while gathering intel according to civilized standards, as we did when we fought weenies like Nazis and Commies. But in recent weeks, something has happened that is causing at least some leaders of the Thing that Used to Be the Conservative Movement to have something vaguely resembling second thoughts about their zeal for “enhanced interrogation.”

Take Rush Limbaugh, for instance. He’s none too happy about trying Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civil court. Why? Various reasons, but among them is that Limbaugh is freaking out because the chickens of his own torture advocacy may start coming home to roost.
Here’s what he said on his November 18 broadcast:
If the president of the United States can tell the world that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was tortured, and then did not get Mirandized, and was convicted, does that mean that the rest of us can then be waterboarded? If we’re going to convict anybody, despite being waterboarded, and they got their confession after that waterboarding, then is torture — as they define it — now permitted by officials? Even though these are military people that did it? This is why this doesn’t belong anywhere near a U.S. civilian court, ladies and gentlemen.
Note Limbaugh’s pretzel-like (one might even call it “tortured”) inability to call “waterboarding” by its right name of torture without the insertion of invisible sneer quotes. That’s because Limbaugh famously described Abu Ghraib as “having a good time,” “blowing off steam,” and “no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation.” Indeed, so committed is Limbaugh to the narrative of “Bush/Cheney never tortured; and besides, it works and the victims deserved it” that he has also espoused the preposterous logic that waterboarding somebody 183 times only proves that waterboarding is not torture. Why? Here he is in his own words:
[I]f somebody can be water-tortured six times a day, then it isn’t torture. Can we just establish that? If somebody can go through waterboarding for 183 times, six times a day — which is a little bit hard to believe anyway, but let’s acknowledge — let’s just say it’s true for the sake of it, because whatever the left-wing blogs print and publish, the drive-by media is going to say it is true anyway. Six times a day, it means you’re not afraid of it. It means you — it’s not torture. If you have — if you’ve found a way to withstand it, it can’t possibly be torture.
(One awaits his explanation that, “If gang rape were really rape, then the victim would not have allowed it to be done so many times.”)
In short, Limbaugh, ever since Abu Ghraib, has totally drunk the Bush/Cheney Kool-Aid of euphemism, denial, excuse-making, and celebration of the use of torture. He is, quite nakedly, an apologist for war crimes and folly, like a huge number of other media spokesoids for the Thing that Used to be Conservatism and, most shamefully, like many Catholics — in percentages even higher than among the average U.S. population.
And so, in his broadcast of November 18, Limbaugh’s commitment to upholding the Orwellian lies concerning our program of torture during the Bush years forces him to say KSM wasn’t tortured. He has to pretend that policies that resulted not only in waterboarding people 183 times, but in deaths from hypothermia, asphyxiation, and brutal beatings were only torture “as they [i.e., Limbaugh’s ideological enemies] define it.” He has to euphemize that this is all “enhanced interrogation” that Caesar may legitimately employ when faced with some threat to the civil order, and that opposition to it is merely evidence of the feminization of our namby-pamby culture. Like so many moderns, he routinely confuses brutality with manly courage and realism with the endless repetition of fantasy scenarios from suspense shows on TV.

Only he knows he’s lying to himself and the rest of us and is, in fact, scared by the possibility that he may have helped let the genie out of the bottle. How can we tell? By the fact that his fear is that if KSM is tried in civil court, it could mean trying him using evidence obtained by torture — and thereby setting a precedent for the rest of us.

Limbaugh is (rightfully) fearful that the Obama Administration is (whether willfully or stupidly) building a legal bridge that could allow Caesar to torture Americans and strip them of rights, should Caesar decide to declare Inconvenient Persons at Home to be “enemy combatants” as a quick way of dealing with Undesirables. That’s why this picture accompanies the Limbaugh Web site’s transcript of the monologue he gave on November 18. It is, at long last, dimly dawning on Limbaugh (and, please God, on others) that, in his folly, he has pressed into the hands of Caesar a tool that Caesar may very well make use of in the future — not merely to go after foreign bad guys from Central Casting with Arabic accents, but to go after any U.S. citizen whom Caesar decrees to be a danger to his power.

That fear is (and should be) all the more acute given the bizarre decision of the Obama Administration to make this a civil trial and not just accept KSM’s (untortured) confession to a military tribunal, find him guilty, lock him up, and throw away the key. Instead, the Obama Administration has weirdly demanded a civil “trial,” while simultaneously assuring us all that the outcome of the “trial” is fore-ordained and that KSM will be duly executed. As Limbaugh rightly points out, this strongly suggests that the Administration is sending the message that, if it likes, it can put you — Joe Blow American citizen — on trial without Miranda rights, use a confession tortured out of you, and then doom you to a fore-ordained death. One can be forgiven for thinking the takeaway from this is, “Why bother with trials?”

The lesson Limbaugh naturally draws from this is, “Obama is to blame for everything.” He’s paid to do that. And, to be sure, the stupidity (or willful contempt) of putting KSM on civil trial when a) he’s ready to offer an un-tortured confession to a military tribunal; b) we are dropping bombs on people just like him without any benefit of trial at all, due to the fact that they are enemy combatants and not criminals; and c) that civil trial poses a grave potential threat of assisting tyranny by setting some incredibly dangerous precedents — well, it does make the Amateur Administration look even more amateurish than usual. Not to mention much more sinister.
But — on the basic Catholic principle of the universality of original sin — let’s not forget, shall we, that the Thing that Used to Be Conservatism has toiled to make its own contribution to this mess for eight long years, ever since it enthusiastically embraced the legal thinking of John Yoo, who argued that you could crush a child’s testicles if George W. Bush said it was okay. It is the Bush/Cheney Administration whose policies of torture left us with gobs of worthless “evidence” that can’t be used in court against this and other very Bad Guys who really need to be locked up forever (unless, of course, the Administration manages to jerry-rig some way, per Limbaugh’s fears, of shoehorning info obtained under torture into evidence admissible in civil court).
So here’s the situation: Limbaugh has done nothing but cheerlead for torture, as have the bulk of spokesmen for the right. Most shameful and disgraceful of all, Catholics have led the charge for torture by percentages greater than the national average — thereby contributing mightily to our present mare’s nest. Sooner or later, it will be good if conservatives in general (and conservative Catholics in particular) woke up, smelled the repentance, and said, “I was a bloody fool to endlessly defend the Bush torture policies, and now look at the Pandora’s box I have been laboring to help open. Dear God, forgive me!”
Conservatism used to involve the notion of humble self-assessment and (perhaps some readers will recall this from Conservative rhetoric during the Clinton years) “personal responsibility.” The present-day Thing that Used to Be Conservatism? Not so much. That Thing primarily pursues the highly inadvisable tactic of attempting to bend reality for the sake of short-term political advantage. That’s because saying things like, “I have sinned through my own fault” puts a real crimp in the endless scrimmage for power.
And so, despite briefly touching on the incredibly dangerous state of affairs he has helped to create with his torture boosterism, Limbaugh does not, in the rest of his monologue, evince the slightest sense of remorse for his own part in this moral and legal farce. Rather, he demonstrates, after a fashion, what the old theologians used to call “worldly sorrow” for the grave sins that he has done so much to excuse and euphemize. He is worried, not because torture is wrong and a grave sin before God, but because it is possible, should the Administration get its way, that it could potentially lead somewhere down the road to people like Rush Limbaugh being strapped to that waterboard, should some future Caesar get aggressive about Domestic Undesirables with sharp ideological differences from the Will of the State. Such worldly sorrow is better than nothing, and way better than Limbaugh’s previous pig-headed defenses of evil. But it’s still got a long way to go before becoming the godly sorrow St. Paul speaks of (2 Cor 7:10). Limbaugh has the excuse of being ignorant of Catholic teaching on this point. Catholic torture defenders, not so much.


  • Mark P. Shea

    Mark P. Shea is the author of Mary, Mother of the Son and other works. He was a senior editor at Catholic Exchange and is a former columnist for Crisis Magazine.

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