What is David Carlin talking about?

What is David Carlin talking about? May 4, 2009

I encountered one of the most confused attempts at justifying the Bush administration’s torture debacle courtesy of David Carlin at Inside Catholic.  Not only does Carlin utterly fail to argue successfully for any of his points, his historical analogies are bizarre and his bald attack on the “American Left” will win him points only among those who, like Carlin, refuse to engage in critical, intellectual discourse with those who disagree politically.

Let’s start with some of the superfluous elements of Carlin’s article that have little to do with what he wants to establish.  As a former middle school Latin teacher, I thought this was a rather comical line:

One of the unfortunate byproducts of the fact that, for many years now, nobody has studied Latin in school is this: Hardly anybody remembers Cicero and the conspiracy of Catiline. If we could remember this, it would be helpful in thinking about what those on the American Right call “enhanced interrogation” and those on the Left call “torture.”

First, one need not have ever taken a single Latin course to have done some basic historical reading on the Roman Republic and Cicero’s political career therein. Nor does learning Latin necessitate any reference to Cicero and Catiline (unless, I suppose, you are following Wheelock’s Latin page-by-page). Carlin even sketches the account of Cicero and Catiline before the Roman Senate without having to use a single Latin term! So what knowing Latin has to do with a dabble in Rome history is unclear.  Second, Carlin sounds his not-so-subtle rallying cry of the American Right by insinuating that the American Left, presumably out of its ignorance of Latin, just doesn’t get what’s important about the Bush administrations use of torture enhanced interrogation.  So Carlin’s rhetoric (he probably could have benefited from actually reading Cicero’s orations) serves to accomplish little more than to arouse the passion of those already predisposed toward hostility against the “American Left.”  This takes absolutely no intellectual work to accomplish, let alone any knowledge of Latin.

Now let’s move to the actual argument that Carlin attempts to make.  He observes:

The trouble with these executions, even though they may have saved the republic (at least for the time being: less than 20 years later, Caesar, a far more brilliant leader than Catiline, would extinguish the republic forever), was that they were, strictly speaking, illegal.

Cicero was faced with a choice: Do I break the law, or do I let Catiline and his friends make a coup d’etat? When he saved the republic by breaking the law, he had every reason to believe that he would never face prosecution for his deed. The traditional Roman attitude had been to look the other way when some savior of the city cut legal corners.

Cicero, knowing full-well that he was breaking the law, followed through on the execution, thus saving the Republic. He was the “savior of the city,” according to Carlin, and the Roman attitude toward Cicero’s illegal actions, described by Carlin as innocuously “cutting legal corners,” was to simply “look the other way.” What we are to glean from Carlin’s shoddy account is that idea that the Roman people permitted those illegal measures taken by their officials for the good of the Republic. You can probably see where Carlin is going with this.

Regarding our present political climate in the U.S., Carlin asks: What Would Cicero Do? (I’m having the bracelets and t-shirts patented, by the way):

What would Cicero say? He would say, “Go ahead and torture.” He would say, “Necessity knows no law.”

In other words, Americans in the 21st Century who have the benefit of 2000+ years of legal and moral development after the time of Cicero–not to mention the privilege of having the moral standards of Christianity available to them–should pay attention to what Cicero would recommend with respect to the United State’s prisoners in the War on Terror. If Cicero would do it, then shouldn’t we?

The immediate question that any intelligent reader of Carlin’s piece would ask is: Why should I care what Cicero did in the First Century BC when determining how to view government-sponsored torture in the 21st Century? Perhaps detecting that his case is a bit week, Carlin throws in a very vague and unsubstantiated reason:

Keep in mind, however, that Cicero was a man of high ethical standards. He was one of the most notable moralists of the ancient world: see, for example, his work De Oficiis (On Duties). It is one thing for a good man to feel that he has a license to break the rules; it is something else for a bad man to feel he has that license.

Ah, so since Cicero was a “good man” of “high ethical standards” we don’t employ typical standards of justice. I mean, just read De Oficiis [sic] (how ironic that, after having lamented the absence of Latin in contemporary education, Carlin misspells the only Latin word in his entire piece). And what about reading De Officiis? Do the ethical standards outlined in one’s writings necessarily correspond to the ethical standards by which one lived one’s life?  Of course they don’t by necessity, yet Carlin’s argument needs us to think they do since he offers absolutely no other reason to think that Cicero’s life was one of high ethical living.  Carlin infers (without good reason) that Cicero embodied the ethical standards he codified in De Officiis.

But, for the sake of argument, let’s say that Carlin has convinced us that Cicero’s hypothetical opinion on torture in our day is worth entertaining and that Cicero’s life was one of high ethical standards (I know, we’re granting a number of astonishing concessions to Carlin).  The ensuing point Carlin is trying to make is that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld went the Ciceronian way and, like the Romans of the First Century BC, we Americans should consider just “looking the other way.”  So if the Romans could overlook Cicero’s illegal actions, so too should we Americans overlook any illegal actions of the Bush administration, be they hypothetical or actual, as long as they are being done to save the city.  Just take a moment and think of what sort of license such an attitude of the American public would grant a government: The government may break its own laws and those of the international community as long as the government intends to save its own nation.  Can you think of the abominations, historical or hypothetical, that may be justified from such a proposition?

But there are deeper flaws to Carlin’s piece that suggest that he has not really thought through this matter.  Consider that last line I quoted:

It is one thing for a good man to feel that he has a license to break the rules; it is something else for a bad man to feel he has that license.

Now read it in light of this assertion from Carlin:

Were Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld good men doing illegal things (assuming, for the sake of argument, that they did illegal things), or were they bad men doing these things? Today’s American Left would have us believe that they were bad men. This, to my mind, is an utterly preposterous accusation. Clearly they were well-intentioned American patriots, even if their judgments may not have been error-free.

Let’s put aside the obviously blithe and unsubstantiated assertion that it is “preposterous” to think of Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld as “bad men” since “clearly” they were “well-intentioned patriots.” Carlin wants us to take this as a brute fact that needs no real support, but let’s indulge him just for the sake of argument. This “fact” serves an important premise to Carlin’s argument. We can break down the argument as follows:

1. If a good man breaks the rules (i.e., does something illegal), then we should look away.
2. If a bad man breaks the rules (i.e., does something illegal), then we should not look away [implied premise].
3. Cicero was a good man.
4. Therefore, we should look away when Cicero breaks the rules.
5. Bush and Co. were good men.
6. Therefore, we should look away when Bush and Co. break the rules.

What this amounts to is the relativizing of law, conditioning its authority and its attendant penalties on the disposition of the agent.  Imagine you, an average American citizen, are being prosecuted for a crime you really did commit, and you tell the judge and jury to “look the other way” since, after all, you ordinarily hold to very high ethical standards.  Joking aside, this really is what Carlin is arguing.  We, the American people, should “look the other way” when our government breaks laws and justifies such actions on the pretense that it was “saving the city.”  Ultimately, Carlin is suggesting that the law, justice, and the morality that ought to ground both can be brushed aside when the State is at risk, especially when the State’s leader is a good man. But if he’s a bad man…we’ll get back this in a moment.

Carlin’s analogy is terrible. If I may be so brash as to adopt Carlin’s opening line, I must admit that one of the unfortunate byproducts of the fact that, for many years now, no one has studied logic in school is this: Logical fallacies in argumentation abound (especially on blogs)!  Carlin commits one of the classic logical fallacies: the false analogy.  The case of Cicero ordering the execution of men and the case of Bush and Co. ordering the torture of men are not analogous.  The case of Cicero entails an actual crime committed by Catiline and retributive justice, with the execution as the penalty.  Furthermore, the crime committed by Cicero was not the execution itself. Executing without trial was Cicero’s crime (indeed, execution was a legal punishment in the Roman Republic and Catiline may well have been executed still).   The case of Bush and Co. entails no retributive justice for those who are tortured and, by implication, no legal penalty.  Rather, the case of Bush and Co. is the infliction of suffering in order to extract information about possible crimes and threats.  There are no conditions under which torture would be legal in this context, whereas there were conditions under which execution was legal in the Roman context.  Cicero misapplied a normally just and legal punishment under Roman law.  Bush and Co. conducted an illegal practice under international law.  There was no misapplication of justice in the latter.  The only common feature of both cases is the breaking of the law by government officials.  But this feature is insufficient to draw an analogy for argument (would government-sponsored genocide be analogous to a president cheating on his taxes?).

But perhaps Carlin will object here and say: But both Cicero and Bush were trying to save the city!!!  Again, we refer Carlin back to the question of whether the preservation of the state can legitimately relativize morality (Bush is still a good man, says Carlin!) and bypass established law.  Carlin, departing from any semblance of Catholic reasoning and moral rectitude, believes it can.  In fact, he has a thought for those who think otherwise:

There was a time when Americans were politically wise enough, like traditional Romans, to look the other way when the nation’s leaders cut legal corners for the good of the republic — for instance, when President Lincoln illegally suspended habeas corpus in the early days of the Civil War. But this wisdom has now deserted many of us, in particular those on the American Left.

That’s right. Wisdom enables us to see that government-sponsored torture is merely just “cutting legal corners,” sort of like when you go a little bit over the speed limit or when a governor violates state ethics rules. So it is morally acceptable (Bush is a good man!) and legally permissible for the government officials to sponsor intrinsically evil actions (they’re just cutting legal corners!) as a means for serving the good of the State. And, really, if you can’t see this, then I guess you need to study some Latin.

Something else that struck me about Carlin’s analogy is the demonizing of the “American Left.” In recounting the story of Cicero, Carlin points out:

It was a sign that traditional Rome was coming to an end when, a few years after the execution of the Catilinians, a political enemy of Cicero indicted Cicero for the illegal executions. This political enemy was a reprobate by the name of Publius Clodius — who, among his other claims to ill-fame, was at one time the adulterous boyfriend of Caesar’s wife. To avoid standing trial, Cicero was forced to go into voluntary exile, leaving Italy for a few years, although eventually he came home when political tides shifted.

So if Bush and Co. are like Cicero, then who is like Clodius? Why, the American Left, of course! Those adulterous reprobates! Carlin is explicit with this identification:

Imitating Publius Clodius, they want to prosecute those who authorized the enhanced interrogation/torture that took place at Gitmo. If the indictment of Cicero by Clodius was an ominous sign that the Roman republic was on its last legs, I fear that the widespread leftist desire to put Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. on trial is an ominous sign that something dreadful is happening to the American political system.

Recall Carlin’s bizarre excuse for excusing Bush’s illegal actions:

It is one thing for a good man to feel that he has a license to break the rules; it is something else for a bad man to feel he has that license.

It is one thing if Cicero and Bush (the good men) break the rules: we should just look the other way. But if a bad man breaks the rules, what then? Teasing out the rest of Carlin’s confused analogy, Clodius, the adulterous reprobate, would be a bad man, right? And who, according to Carlin’s analogy, are like Clodius? The American Left. Why else would Carlin point out Clodius’ immoral disposition before comparing him to the American Left? So flip the scenario. What if a government official who belonged to the American Left were to break the rules? The implication of Carlin’s analogy is that we would not just look away. I doubt very much that Carlin intended this to be conveyed by his analogy, but unfortunately this is just what his analogy cashes out: It is okay for Bush to torture, but it would not be okay for an official of the American Left to torture. What Carlin is really up to throughout his piece is cheer leading for his contrived club, the American Right. If Carlin doesn’t intend to communicate any of this, then he should not have been so sloppy with his analogy, which is central to every point he wishes to establish.

Before I close up shop here, I should note that perhaps Carlin has made unwittingly a strong case for prosecuting Bush and Co. Recall that last line:

If the indictment of Cicero by Clodius was an ominous sign that the Roman republic was on its last legs, I fear that the widespread leftist desire to put Cheney, Rumsfeld, et al. on trial is an ominous sign that something dreadful is happening to the American political system.

Had Carlin studied his Latin and his Roman history, he would have noticed something interesting: The time between the Punic Wars and the rise of Julius Caesar were some of the most corrupt and impoverished times of the Roman Republic. These were the years of Cicero’s career. After the exile and death of Cicero, the weakening of the Roman Senate, and the rise of the Roman Emperors (especially Augustus), Rome enjoyed a time of prosperity, wealth, and renewal. Education was improved, infrastructure was established, and trade was made safer. That’s why they call it the Pax Romana. Christian missionaries benefited from these improvements, helping Christianity to spread despite periodic and intermittent persecutions. So, if we carry Carlin’s analogy all the way to its conclusion, then he is actually giving us hope for an American renewal should we prosecute Bush and Co.! Life in Rome in the ensuing decades after Cicero’s prosecution was anything but “dreadful.” Perhaps the same may be said for America? I doubt Carlin wants to go there. Again, sloppy analogy.

So what Carlin gives us is bad reasoning, partisan venom, and ignorance of history. But perhaps worst of all, his views on torture means he is feeding us from the Catholic cafeteria. What more needs to be said? A little more, but not by me. I want to reproduce some very smart comments left on Carlin’s post that I think cut to the hear of the matter:

Aaron writes:

Legality is one thing, morality another. We can be shrewd enough to recognize that a law fails in a given situation, and accordingly look the other way. But the debate over torture involves a line that may not be crossed by anyone, regardless of the utility, and if that line has been crossed we cannot look the other way. It’s one thing for a society to disregard its own laws when they are seen to be defective, quite another for that society to disregard the natural law, which undergirds arguments from human dignity (we’ll save the excursus on defective conclusions from the natural law).

Mary Ann writes:

I am a pretty conservative person, but your argument doesn’t work. First, the ethical standards that Cicero upheld were a far cry from Jewish or Christian morality.

Joe H. writes:

Look the other way? Are you serious? Our leaders did not merely “cut legal corners” – they sanctioned torture, offenses against the inherent dignity of human beings.

What you have advised here – to ‘look the other way’ – stands in direct contradiction to every serious statement the Church has ever made about the responsibility of citizens to hold government to account, particularly in the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, paragraph 567. It also stands in contradiction to what the Church has taught about the moral basis of governmental authority, in paragraphs 396-398.

I sincerely hope no one ‘looks the other way’ if or when the day comes that sincere, practicing, public Christians are declared troublesome enemies of the state.

Austin writes:

The American Left has a lot more wrong with it than its lack of knowldge of Latin and Cicero, and I am disappointed in the article. The past few articles by David Carlin have been simplistic and superficial, often clumsy attempts at barbing the Left, but really failing to do so in an elegant manner.

Kevin J. Jones writes:

This essay rejects the idea that the government must be law-abiding when it counts.

If you don’t want people to be prosecuted for torture, then make torture legal for future cases. A government can’t pick and choose what laws to follow. Arbitrary government is inimical to freedom. In the long term, it’s even more dangerous than terrorists.

Perhaps Cicero’s “extra-legal” action helped destroy the republic in order to “save” it.

How was Tully any different from the rebels? He was acting outside his authority, as were they. You don’t suppress a rebellion by becoming a rebel.

Torture was condemned by Vatican II and Pope John Paul II. Citing Cicero as a contradicting authority is a form of neo-paganism. Quit poisoning the faithful.

Browse Our Archives