June 17, 2005
WAR: How To Make People Not Care About Torture
Let's say that you are an independent, or a mainstream Democrat, who has no particular stake in defending the Bush Administration. And let's say that you believe that the actual incidence of murder, torture or other serious physical abuse of prisoners in US custody and the custody of US allies in the war on terror is unacceptably high, higher than should occur just from the natural fact that some prisoners in any prison population will be mistreated by guards or interrogators. (Jon Henke lays out a credible argument that this is, in fact, the case, even if a few of the examples he cites seem rather strained). And let's say that you would actually like something to be done about this.
Shouldn't you be incensed right now at Dick Durbin, Joe Biden, Amnesty International, Newsweek, and Time Magazine? Let's recall briefly:
*Durbin compared US troops' treatment of prisoners in their custody to the Nazis, the Soviets, or Pol Pot, a comparison predictably trumpeted by Al Jazeera.
*Biden called for the closing of Camp X-Ray at Guantanamo Bay and the release of its occupants, although he did then render this assertion largely nonsensical by saying we should "keep those we have reason to keep." Biden further complained about the indefinite nature of the detention of terrorists at Gitmo, to the hosannas of Daily Kos.
*Amnesty International called Gitmo the "gulag of our times".
*Time Magazine ran a profile of the interrogation of an actual Al Qaeda hijacker wannabe - i.e., someone who wanted to kill me, and would very much like to have killed you too - complaining about a whole raft of "coercive" interrogation procedures, like that were justly mocked for their mildness, under the circumstances, by Lileks in this penetrating Screed.
*Newsweek, of course, started the whole movement to refocus attention away from mistreatment of prisoners to charges that American troops committed blasphemy by mishandling the Koran.
Several of these folks, Durbin in particular, also blamed everything on the U.S. not following the Geneva Conventions.
Let's take a deep breath here. Look: conservative Republicans are in power right now in Washington, controlling the Executive Branch and holding partisan majorities in both Houses of Congress. And will continue to control the White House and Senate, and probably the House, for 3 1/2 more years, at least. You will get nothing accomplished without persuading them that it is (1) morally imperative, (2) in our national interest, and/or (3) in their political interest to do something about the treatment of prisoners in US custody in the War on Terror.
Republicans know that the majority of the public voted for Bush, knowing all about Abu Ghraib, and knowing all about all the other charges against the Iraq War. Republicans know full well that comparing American soldiers to Nazis is a political gaffe of enormous proportions, the kind of gift from your political opponents that you can't turn down. (See Patrick Ruffini and Hugh Hewitt on why this whole conversation is poison for the Democrats). Conservative Republicans believe, and have very good reasons to think the majority of the American public believes, that the United States should decide for itself what is right and in its national interest, rather than being told what to do by a bunch of international agreements. And there are plenty of us who believe, as I do, that in a war of this nature, where the most dangerous weapons are the jihadis themselves, there's nothing wrong with holding people who are out to get us until we are certain that there is no more danger - however long that takes. And then there's this:
Son, we live in a world that has walls, and those walls have to be guarded by men with guns. Whose gonna do it? You? You, Lt. Weinburg? I have a greater responsibility than you could possibly fathom. You weep for Santiago, and you curse the marines. You have that luxury. You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. That Santiago's death, while tragic, probably saved lives. And that my existence, while grotesque and incomprehensible to you, saves lives. You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall. We use words like honor, code, loyalty. We use these words as the backbone of a life spent defending something. You use them as a punchline. I have neither the time nor the inclination to explain myself to a man who rises and sleeps under the blanket of the very freedom that I provide, then questions the manner in which I provide it. I would rather you just said thank you, and went on your way, Otherwise, I suggest you pick up a weapon, and stand a post. Either way, I don't give a damn what you think you are entitled to.
See, Colonel Jessep was the bad guy in that movie. He did something that was indisputably bad, and the audience rightly cheers when he goes to prison. We don't expect our military, no matter what their other virtues, to act like barbarians.
But don't you think there are a lot of people out there who listen to this particular speech and say, "he has a point"? (In your heart of hearts, don't you feel that way?) Don't you think American troops deserve the benefit of every doubt? Isn't it obviously the fact that the bulk of the American people don't much care to complain about a little rough treatment for actual, bona fide terrorists who would slit the throat of a young child if they could? Isn't it obviously the case that our troops are dealing with people who are not only trained to lie about mistreatment, but are lethally dangerous to their captors if treated like ordinary prisoners? And then we recall, as Bill Whittle discusses at length, that our adversaries in Afghanistan and Iraq and wherever else we capture them have committed war crimes not as isolated incidents but as a fish swims in the water; nearly everything they do, from fighting out of uniform, to faking surrenders, to targeting civilians, violates the most basic rules of warfare that have existed between combatants since many centuries before there was any such thing as "international law." Read Whittle and be reminded that it would be, not merely unwise, but a moral atrocity to reward this type of conduct by treating these guys exactly the same as we treat enemies who abide by those rules.*
In short, if you are selling "the Iraq War is evil" and "Americans are acting like Nazis" and "it's just like the gulag" and "boo hoo for actual sworn members of Al Qaeda who have to endure excessive heat and too much air conditioning (this, for guys who previously lived in caves) and have to listen to loud music" and "we ought to let these guys go free" and "we are acting illegally by not following some treaty" - well, you already know that the guys in power don't buy that, and they didn't get elected by buying it, and they don't believe the public buys it, and they're almost certainly right on that score.
So, you have two choices. One, you can just keep peddling inflammatory we-lefties-alone-have-the-moral-high-ground rhetoric and engaging in moral self-gratification, and keep pushing complaints about easily mocked hardhsips for vicious killers. This tactic is guaranteed to cause people in power to circle the wagons and tune you out and the public to lump you in with dope-addled peaceniks with no common sense, however much it may make you feel wonderful about yourself. Or - go back and read Henke again - you can keep a laser-like focus on the worst abuses, the actual deaths and genuine, indefensible instances of torture and mistreatment, and try to win over enough Republicans to force some changes.
There are plenty of us who are willing to be persuaded by arguments like Henke's that leave out the overwrought and frankly anti-American comparisons to Communists and Nazis but that also zero in on genuine abuses rather than sob stories about how these guys were treated a little mean. But when you call American soldiers Nazis and call Guantanamo the gulag - as it sits just miles from actual gulags - you cheapen the meaning of "Nazi" and "gulag". And when you call the interrogation methods that have been approved by the Pentagon "torture," you cheapen the meaning of torture. And you end up devaluing your own words to the point where they flow over the listener like so much rainwater.
Plus, you wind up driving away people who might be tempted to listen to you. I tried to lay out my own thoughts back in February, and still I had people jumping down my throat for not denouncing the Bush Administration and all its works, to the point where I wound up frankly wondering if it's worth the grief you get for writing about this subject. If you want to get things done, try not attacking people who try to meet you half way on these things.
Predictably, we see where the Democrats' hearts lead them. They want to relive 1987, when they pilloried Reagan over Iran-Contra as their path to win back the White House. Of course, that didn't work, but it felt good. As a number of commentators have pointed out, that debate would have gone much better for the Dems if they'd focused on what was genuinely bad - trading arms for hostages - but no, they wanted to settle scores with Reagan over his determination to battle Communism in Central America, a fight where Reagan had a lot more public support. Here we go again, with the Democrats trying to paint American efforts as evil and wrong in a big way, rather than flawed in a specific and correctible way, and framing an argument about whether we are being too hard on the evildoers. The more you hear "Nazi" and "gulag" and "Geneva" and complaints about sleep deprivation and rap music, the less will get done about guys getting raped or beaten to death in custody. That can't be what the Left wants - can it?
*This is neither here nor there in the rest of this argument, but this Atlantic Monthly article (subscription required) makes the case that, in most cases, a friendly interrogator will get better results than harsh, coercive methods. I have my doubts that this is an ironclad rule, that there are never exceptions, that the world is that simple, with no tradeoffs. But there is a rational point to be made here that we may have self-interested reasons to treat prisoners better as well.
I used to think that it was just Republicans who didn't understand the concept of overplaying your hand. People were disgusted with Clinton's behavior in the Lewinsky matter, then the Republicans went and impeached him over it, and they became objects of disgust themselves. It's becoming clear to me however, that this is a bipartisan phenomenon.
I'm sure that the casual use of words like "Nazis" and "gulag" warms the hearts of hard core lefties the same way that the Clinton impeachment warmed the hearts of the right's wingnuts. That's why they do it. But do they even think about how this stuff sounds to the rest of us? By "the rest of us", I don't mean conservative Republicans, I mean anyone who has a clue about what went on under the Nazis and the Soviets, and who doesn't have a deep psychological need to believe that Pres. Bush is the Antichrist.
I agree that this makes no sense if it's motivated by genuine concern for the treatment of prisoners, but even if it's entirely partisan (which I think it is), it would still be far more useful politically to focus on genuinely outrageous behavior. The only thing I can think of is that the Dems have written off the idea of winning over hearts and minds on Iraq, and are now focusing on keeping the hard-core lefties loyal and energized.
Do you think Bush will be impeached?
I would be very surprised if we reach 2008 without somebody introducing a bill of impeachment in the House. My money's on John Conyers.
This is not a Republican vs. Democrat thing. This is an American vs. anti-Americanism thing. Durbin should not be condemned by 55 Republican senators. He should be condemned by 99 senators. But sadly very few in that august body see with moral clarity.
That was great, Crank. I've only been reading a few months (plus digging in the archives), but I believe that was the best post you've written. Very nicely done.
You tell 'em, Crank!
By the way, Jim, I don't think this is remotely comparable to the impeachment of Clinton, except to the extent that impeachment may (may) have hurt the Republicans politically. There was a strong legal basis to believe that Clinton perjured himself and obstructed justice, both of which are impeachable offenses, regardless of the subject matter of the underlying litigation. Whether it was smart politics to persevere, knowing that acquittal was a certainty and that the electorate was disgusted by the whole thing, is a different matter.
Not the Jim of the earlier post. Clearly putting "jim" down as an identifier is a bad idea. A lesson I (and all Jims) should have learned long ago.
So what I am getting out of this is that you are willing to concede that there have been "actual deaths and genuine, indefensible instances of torture and mistreatment" but you don't want them called torture ("when you call the interrogation methods "torture"...you cheapen the meaning of torture."). What it appears to be in this long post is that you do not like the over-the-top rhetoric.
I would say if you don't like OTT rhetoric you not listen to any politician as they ALL engage in it. I assume you have not had complaints about Republicans engaging in such activities (there are million instances from Iraq, Schiavo, etc.) . I have at least never seen a post regarding it. Moral highgrounds are taken by everyone in DC. you just like it when your guys do the occupying on issues you agree with.
P.S. to Attilla. Clinton was acquitted of impeachment so the legal basis wasn't that strong.
1. The point there is, the interrogation methods actually approved by the Pentagon are not torture. Whereas some of the reported cases of prisoner abuse do rise to the level of torture. Efforts to conflate the two are what I'm objecting to. Turning off the air conditioning or being touched by a woman is not torture, and saying it is makes it harder to get people to listen to you when you focus on stuff that actually is.
2. Not to go off topic on Clinton, but I think it's safe to say that whatever you call the vote of the Senate not to remove Clinton from office, you can't call it any sort of judgment on the legal basis of the charges. It was a political decision by elected officials.
I'm the Jim from the first post. I don't mean to take this thread off on a tangent, but just to clarify my original comments: IANAL, but as I understand the law, it seems fairly clear to me that Clinton lied under oath. However, it's also my understanding that the law is somewhat vague on exactly what constitutes "high crimes and misdemeanors" for purposes of impeachment, so that in practice, it's is basically left to the discretion of the House to decide whether an impeachment trial is warranted, and then to the Senate to decide if the president (or other official) should be removed. The law might inform these decisions, but it's far from the only factor.
I think there were a great many people (including myself) who found Clinton's behaviour to be disgusting, and who would even grant that he broke the law, but who also felt that his conduct was not nearly so egregious as to merit impeachment. We felt that the Republicans' reaction was way over the top and was intended purely to throw red meat to the True Believers.
Getting back to the original topic, I think we'll find that there are lots of people out there who are outraged by actual incidences of torture and murder, and who want to see such behavior investigated and punished, but who are also outraged and disgusted by the casual use of words like "Nazi" and "Gulag" to describe things that clearly pale in comparison to what the Nazis and Soviets did.
This is not just the usual OTT nonsense. It's harmful to this country, and it helps our enemies in a time of war. I don't think this is the intent. (I object just as strongly to the casual use of words like "treason".) I do think that Durbin and his ilk, like the impeachment crowd, are so eager to throw red meat to their wingnut supporters that they just didn't bother to think through the consequences of their behaviour.
I understand that politicians of all stripes engage in hyperbole. I can live with it up to a point. But aside from being politicians, these people are also our leaders. Sometimes they have an obligation to do what's right for the country, regardless of political gain. Unfortunately, there are too many politicians on both sides of the aisle who forget that.
Excellent post, Crank. But I'd take it even further. I started a comment that got longer and longer, so I just turned it into a post of my own, here.
Did any of you people actually listen to Sen. Durbin, or read his words? Durbin did not say Americans are Nazis. That's your side's spin. Durbin's point, which needs to be made over and over, is that in America's war against Islamofascism, America's image among moderate, peaceful Muslims is as important as the smart bombs we use to kill terrorists. This war cannot be won without support of moderate, secular Arabs. Why don't you understand that? You people are fighting a 21st century global conflict with a World War II mindset. We're not going mano a mano with massed armies. There are no front lines, no evil dictators, no enemy flags to capture.
That's Durbin's point.
That was most defintely NOT Durbin's point.
His point, which he has been very emphatic in re-emphasizing on talk radio and in the newspapers here in Chicago, is that descriptions of this "torture" sound like Stalin, Nazis, and Pol Pot. Call me kooky, but that is a comparison to Stalin, Nazis, and Pol Pot. No?
Now if you believe that "America's image among moderate, peaceful Muslims" is tarnished by putting non-moderate, non-peaceful Muslims in highly air-conditioned rooms, you plainly have no idea what you are talking about.
Saddam himself has done much worse, and moderate peaceful Muslims know it. And they laugh at the ridiculous idea that anything we are doing to these scumbags is even in the same universe as Saddam's minions hurling babies against the wall, splattering blood and brains all over the parents.
Then there are the mass graves, filled with unarmed men, women, and children. And you are really prepared to claim that America's image is tarnished by playing loud music and cranking up the AC?
Simply put, many (most?) Muslims are used to much worse treatment by their own governments.
You are playing a game of semantics. The war in Iraq is the 800 pound gorilla here, and your objections to Durbin's comments have to be placed in context. Like a good defense lawyer, you focus on the relatively trivial offenses of the prosecution (in this case, the Democrats and liberals) while ignoring the larger picture. Torture has been rampant and ugly and it certainly increases the hostility against us. I also seem to recall reading that many of the prisoners who were abused were not guilty of anything. The war in Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror or September 11. This is an elective war, not a defensive one. There is much literature out there about Bush and co's desire to invade Iraq long before September 11. I get the feeling that Republicans are making hay out of Durbin's comments (and others) so that they can blame the so-called "Left" in the event another terrorist attack happens.
You are a lawyer but you poo-poo "some treaty" which is the law of the land. If Bush does not want to comply with international law, he should propose a way for the U.S. to extricate itself from those laws.
You have dragged Iran-contra into the mix. The focus during that investigation was Reagan et al's violation of the Boland amendment, no small offense. Larger questions were ignored, i.e., contra atrocities, gross human rights violations far outnumbering those from the Sandinistas, our total disruption of the political process in Nicaragua and the lies propagated from the Reagan administration through the Office of Public Diplomacy, which tried to get the public to believe that Nicaragua was a threat to U.S. security. The public did not buy it despite your suggestion that public opinion supported our wars in Central America. It almost never rose above 50 percent, except when that pathological liar and document shredder Oliver North took the stage and pleaded his case.
As for the comments from Rufus McDufus, you rightly note that Saddam was a total scumbag who should rot in the ground. You overlook how the Republican administration in the 1980's supported Saddam up until August 2, 1990, when he invaded Kuwait. We took Saddam off the terrorism list in the 1980's and continued to support him after he gassed Iran and his own people. Then, right after the Gulf War, we did not come to the aid of the Kurds whom Saddam slaughtered, even though Bush Sr. said he would help them. In Colin Powell's autobio, he admitted that we did not help the Kurds' uprising because the U.S. wanted Saddam to stay in power as a bulwark against Iran. In Bush 41's memoirs, we admits that one reason for the Gulf War was oil.
I gotta, say, I don't mind conservative politics per se, but I do mind partisanship and anti-intellectual arguments that start from the premise that We are wonderful and our military is wonderful and the so-called Left hates America. This seems to be the angle pushed by conservatives these days.
Steve - An impressive collection of left-wing talking points, that.
Torture has been rampant and ugly
Evidence? Henke's collection of citations suggests a higher than acceptable amount of prisoner abuse, in some cases including torture, but to make the leap to "rampant" torture is wholly unwarranted. Unless you believe just saying it makes it so.
The war in Iraq has nothing to do with the war on terror or September 11.
My, how often we come back to this same debate. Check the archives for my response.
You are a lawyer but you poo-poo "some treaty" which is the law of the land. If Bush does not want to comply with international law, he should propose a way for the U.S. to extricate itself from those laws.
The treaty permits unlawful combatants to be executed on the spot. It certainly does not require them to be treated identically to lawful combatants.
As for Saddam and the 1980s, times change, security threats change. We have a freer hand to pick our allies since the Soviet Union fell. And, do you really argue that Saddam's invasion of Kuwait shouldn't have changed our evaluation of his regime?
What talking points did I convey about Central America?
There is no justification for our support for Saddam in the 1980's except for the usual reason: access to resources. We did not care about the Iraqi people and do not care about them now. Our foreign policy is not executed by people like me and you; it is executed by businessmen who want to facilitate investment opportunies for U.S. businesses around the world. Human rights are not the priority. George Kennan said this in the 1950s and it explains our continued support for dictators and totaliarian regimes.
I add that it is not anti-american to criticize our government this way. They do not represent us and they do not care about us. America to me is the Constitution, the environment (in the aesthetic sense, i.e., mountains, meadows, rivers), the people, our culture (i.e, baseball, blues, movies) and our case law (I'm serious). America is not some accountant in the State department who decides to sacrifice a few thousand lives for the benefit of a few corporations, or to satisfy a war-monger's appetite.
You are missing the key point about Saddam in the 80s, which is that Washington saw him as a check on the Iranians.
The Iran-Iraq war ended in 1988. We supported Saddam until he invaded Kuwait in August 1990. By the way, we kinda supported Iran during the 1980's, too, sending them arms.
I think we are only a dozen or so posts away from the highest post total I have ever seen (a posting which included commentary on Iran-Contra I might add-pretty great for something that happened 20 years ago).
So what we have is that there is some torture going on that is not "approved" by the Pentagon (although the fact that they hired outside contractors to do it and simultaneously declared that Iraq was essentially a no-fault zone so none of these businesses could be prosecuted for such actions makes one take a pause). We should not call it all torture or seemingly any of it torture. Clearly gulag is not an appropriate word but I have yet to hear complaints of the oft-used righty term "Club GITMO" which would seem, well, at the least a little underwhelming.
The more posts I read (not just in this string) it seems that there is conflict over how things are referred to as perhaps a way of distracting from what things really are. Whether you want to call things torture or not clearly GITMO and Abu Garib are messes of our own making that have things going on that we should not be championing (holding people for indefinite periods of time who have committed no crimes for example) given the type of country we are. Whatever you want to call it there are problems that are real and often times egregious that are being carried out for reasons that real Americans see no sense in (Steve's point of the corporatist nature of this conflict is not only to the point it is really not even in doubt).
I would think the problem is less who calls things what (because each side is going to pick their words to spin it their way) and more what the hell do we as country do about it?