One day in high school, I casually infuriated one of the other boys. (We were all boys, and therefore the place was so full of adolescent macho boneheads that I didn't even notice I was one of them.) He had made a physically aggressive gesture toward me in the parking lot, and rather than simply ignoring him, as a mature person would have, I had responded with a calculated show of disregard, making it insultingly plain that I didn't take his threats, or him, seriously. The next day after school he found me in an empty hallway, and (from ten or fifteen feet away) threatened to beat me up if I ever did that again. Except that he pretended to think that he was talking to my brother.
"Tell your brother," his message went, "that if he ever [does thing that displeased me] again, I will [physical threats, etc.] "
"That wasn't my brother," I said, more or less conversationally. "That was me."
"Well, whatever," he said. "Just tell your brother [muttered repetition of threat, blah blah blah]."
And that was it. He stomped off, hunch-shouldered and glaring, and I went on my way without thinking much else of it. I couldn't foresee actually doing the particular thing that had provoked him again, but also saw no earthly reason to apologize for it, and it was obvious that I had no reason to be afraid of him. He was, like most people, physically stronger than I was (I weighed perhaps 160 pounds, and my typical upper-body routine involved writing with a pencil) but he couldn't even manage to deliver a threat without counting on me to play along. I understood, on some level that I couldn't articulate, that part of his sputtering rage was about his powerlessness to make me fear him. I didn't spare that kid another thought until sometime over the last decade, when too many public figures began reminding me of his bluster.
My high school experience was full of silly primate-dominance antics like these (in some ways, my classmates and I were like a large troop of baboons who occasionally did math), and I'm embarrassed now to admit my part in them. But growing up in a baboon troop, with all of its aggression and posturing and working out of hierarchy, teaches you to spot the pretense of toughness, the fake tough guy, quickly and instinctively. And it becomes at once obvious and unspoken that the kids who are pretending to be tough are nothing to worry about -- that in fact they are exposing their own weakness and fear. I didn't purport to be either tough or brave, because I was neither, but I knew without thinking about it that Tell-Your-Brother would fold at the slightest pushback. I knew it immediately, in the parking lot; his desire to intimidate, his bogus swagger, gave him away. I think anyone else I went to school with would have spotted the same thing. That's why I'm amazed that many Republicans, who must once have gone to high school themselves, do such a ridiculously weak job of acting tough. It seems the Republicans have built whole sections of their policies around bogus swagger, and most of what passes for "toughness" from today's GOP wouldn't have flown back in eleventh grade.
Look at Joe Arpaio, the Maricopa County Sheriff who's been in the media even more than usual since Arizona passed its recklessly unconstitutional anti-immigration bill. (There are two things Joe Arpaio knows how to do: violate people's rights and preen for the cameras.) Arpaio goes around calling himself "America's Toughest Sheriff," which is already a giveaway. If you need to go around telling everyone how tough you are, you're not. Arpaio's claim to toughness is how cruel he is to prisoners awaiting trial. He holds prisoners in a tent city in 110 degree heat, gives them slop for food, and makes prisoners wear pink underwear as a humiliation. What Arpaio tries to pass off as "tough" is his ability to dish out abuse to people who can't fight back. It doesn't take much courage or fortitude to do that. Arpaio's like one of my most pathetic classmates, constantly on patrol for someone weaker and more vulnerable to humiliate, and giving off the stink of cowardice the whole time. If Arpaio were genuinely tough, he would do the genuinely tough work of policing his county, such as investigating real crimes and serving felony warrants, but Arpaio can't police worth a damn. He doesn't have the guts to tackle the real messy problems of immigration reform, which require tough choices and telling voters unpopular truths. And he doesn't have the guts to stand for election on a record of real law enforcement. Joe Arpaio is a petty sadist and a drama queen. There are plenty of legitimately tough law enforcement officers in this country, grinding away at the hard and unglamorous work of policing, but Joe Arpaio isn't one of them.
Then again, nobody in the Arizona GOP seems tough these days. Not John McCain, who knows the new ethnic-harassment law is wrong but doesn't have the guts to stand up against it in an election year. Not the governor, who signed the damn law. The Arizona law itself is designed to single out some vulnerable individuals and beat up on them in order to avoid facing the hard problems of making immigration work. It's a gutless law by gutless legislators for gutless constituents . The entire purpose of SB 1070 is to run away from problems and take out voters' frustrations and fear on victims who can't fight back. In short, it's chickenshit.
But where Republicans really display their lack of toughness is when they talk tough about terrorism. Apparently, they are under the impression that toughness is about dishing it out rather than taking it, and that real toughness is measured by how badly you treat terrorist suspects in your custody. McCain raves about not reading American citizens their Miranda rights, and Lieberman talks about stripping accused terrorists of their citizenship (so that all you have to do is accuse them). This is a weak child's fantasy of what toughness is, a fantasy of being strong enough to punish the people who frighten you. It is not tough, or brave, or adult. It is an admission of weakness, and America's terrorist enemies know that. After all, the point of terrorism is to terrify the enemy; when Lieberman and McCain put their cowardice on national display, the terrorists have achieved a goal.
But much of the American right remain deeply unhappy with legal, effective, and productive interrogations that don't use torture. This isn't, at its foundation, because the torture advocates want to get more information. Normal methods actually work better, and always have. The torturers want to torture because they want to act tough, to cause pain to someone who's tied down and can't move: the coward's fantasy of strength. Torturing prisoners is an admission of the torturers' own weakness. It is an admission that the interrogators have no idea how to do their jobs or get the suspect talking. So they torture their victims to take out their own impotence and fear and rage. Torture has never been about getting information, but about making other people suffer for the torturers' fears. The torture methods the last Administration used were designed by totalitarian regimes to use upon the political dissidents who frightened the secret police. They were specifically designed not to elicit truth but to force false confessions to hold the truth (which totalitarians fear most of all) at bay. And when we used those methods we admitted to the world that we were frightened and small. We confessed our terror. We let the terrorists dictate who we would become.
The world since September 11th isn't fundamentally different from the world before September 11th. Courage is still courage, and cowardice is still cowardice. Strength and weakness did not change places on that day. And the real enemy of a democratic society is still the enemy of every democratic society: Fear itself. Same as it ever was.