Prosecuting Torture: How the Words of Poet WB Yeats Can Help

05/26/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

I finally realize the true reward of slogging through hundreds of poems for an MA in English Lit. Irish poet William Butler Yeats' masterful poem "The Second Coming," published in 1920 in post-war Europe, is being quoted often because it presciently captures what is happening today.

This line in particular:

"The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity."

Listen to the arguments against prosecuting those responsible for the Bush administration's illegal, immoral torture policy. The words "full of passionate intensity" of Cheney, Rove, Gingrich, Limbaugh, Hannity, Coulter, Malkin, Buchanan, Scarborough, O'Reilly and their ilk.

Listen to the more measured, equivocal arguments about prosecuting from this administration, our Congress, our media, which often seem to "lack all conviction." The words of cable pundits on shows where, as Arianna has put it, producers are so concerned about right and left, they forget about right and wrong.

It wasn't always this way. Before the split-screen right/left world of cable, people argued in a different way. I even remember as a child watching the McCarthy Senate hearings in black and white. Right and wrong was not meted out in equal parcels. The hearings allowed us to see the hypocrisy and paranoia of his Communist witchhunt, and McCarthyism was defeated.

And I remember the Watergate Hearings, when the country faced another crisis, and a president stepped down in disgrace after the facts were carefully and inexorably presented before us over months.

The best of us must now show "all conviction" to hold hearings to prosecute those who authorized torture. Yes, it will be messy. It will be long, diverting and off-message from the many other problems that need solving. And it will involve the kind of rancor our president does not favor.

But what is happening right now is not about Obama's proclivities, or his presidency. It is about who we are as a nation from here on out. This is a pivotal, crucial time, when "the best of us" must speak out. Otherwise "the rough beast," that Yeats writes about, "its time come at last" --the dark side, the side that condones torture, is indeed slouching toward Bethlelem.


I've written five points about torture, and I've memorized them. I'm able to back up my statements with reasonable facts, gleaned from interviews and articles. Use them to argue forcefully, with "all conviction" when others show their passionate intensity for the dark side.

Torture is immoral.

Torture does not work.

Torture is illegal.

Torture puts our people at risk.

Torture is not what the United States of America does.


The Second Coming

Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon can not hear the falconer.
Things fall apart; the center can not hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
are full of passionate intensity.

Surely some revelation is at hand;
Surely the Second Coming is at hand.
The Second Coming! Hardly are those words out
When a vast image out of Spiritus Mundi
Troubles my sight: Somewhere in sands of the desert
A shape with lion body and the head of a man,
A gaze blank and pitiless as the sun,
Is moving its slow thighs, while all about it
Reel shadows of the indignant desert birds.
The darkness drops again; but now I know
That twenty centuries of stormy sleep
Were vexed to nightmare by a rocking cradle,
And what rough beast, it's time come at last,
Slouches towards Bethlehem to be born?