Does Keith Olbermann believe waterboarding is torture?Daniel Radosh
The story so far: Sean Hannity, declaring that waterboarding is not torture, announces that he'll allow himself to undergo the Verschärfte Vernehmung technique for charity. Keith Olbermann, with his unerring nose for ratings, puts up $1000 per second — double if Hannity "acknowledges he feared for his life and admits that waterboarding is torture."
Olbermann goes after Hannity on the legitimate grounds that Hannity is "trivializing torture." Which makes it all the more baffling that Olbermann's response is to further trivialize it. If you truly believe waterboarding is torture, and you are not evil, than you would not subject another human being to it, even Sean Hannity.
Watching the segment, it seems quite likely that Olbermann made this offer only to prove a point, knowing that Hannity wouldn't follow through. If Hannity did somehow accept, my guess -- my hope -- is that Olbermann would withdraw the challenge in order to keep the moral high ground (probably donating the money anyway).
But that's not how it looks to everyone on the outside. For example, here's the AP taking Olbermann at face value. Even if I'm correct and the AP is wrong, there are surely a lot of Olbermann supporters who actually would at least cheer on the waterboarding of Sean Hannity. Which makes it worth looking at what this would mean.
First of all, it probably wouldn't prove very much because while waterboarding of prisoners is certainly torture, waterboarding a volunteer definitionally is not. No doubt it's horribly unpleasant, and an honest volunteer should be able to extrapolate from his situation to understand the prisoner's point of view, but as David Schaengold succinctly pointed out the other day, "The central moral evil in interrogating someone by means of torture is that it overrides the victim’s moral agency. That is, the whole point of the exercise is to render the victim incapable of moral self-governance, so that your will, the will of the torturer, becomes entirely sovereign."
I can think of a few ways to enhance the possibility of a volunteer like Hannity to empathize with a genuine torture victim. Instead of having him report for waterboarding with TV cameras in tow, get him to sign a waiver (totally unenforceable, I understand, but for appearances sake) then wait a couple of months until he's not expecting it, throw a bag over his face, drag him away to a dark cell for a couple of days, and then waterboard him. 183 times. Indeed once you've done this, there's no need to offer more money for his admission that waterboarding is torture. Just tell him to say it. I guarantee he will.
The fact that many of us probably enjoy envisioning exactly that scenario, even if we wouldn't really go through with it (and the fact that some supposed opponents of torture at least believe they would go through with it), shows how hard it is for us to get our heads around torture, which is, fortunately, so distant from our experience of the world. So think about rape instead. It's actually a pretty good analogy. Suppose, just off the top of my head, Ann Coulter announced that forced sexual intercourse was not rape. Can you even imagine Olbermann offering $1000 a second for someone to rape Ann Coulter? To go through with it (though of course one can no more volunteer for rape than for torture) would pretty obviously be immoral.
Even so, there are probably some people who think it might be worth torturing Hannity just a little in order to win the debate over the unacceptability of torture. That's a difficult position to hold for someone who's trying to argue that the slightly more important result of potentially stopping a terrorist attack is not worth committing torture. And besides, it would almost certainly backfire.
Update: Now Olbermann is even more confused than ever or he's some kind of media double-agent. One of his new rules is: "Hannity need only admit to something factual to get the waterboarding to stop. He may choose among: 'Obama is not a socialist,' 'Waterboarding is torture,' or something else mutually agreeable between us."
So Olbermann wants to use waterboarding to get Hannity to say something he knows to be true but would not otherwise admit. In other words, Olbermann intends to prove that torture works.