Thursday, June 02, 2005

The Fog Of Gulags

I think Praktike is right, that Amnesty International made a strategic blunder by evoking the Soviet-run network of prisons ranging throughout the "gulag" archipelago to describe the detention facility at Guantanamo. Yes, there are certain similarities in the sense that both are extra-judicial prison systems. There is at least the specter of indefinite detention without due process at Guantanamo (though the Supreme Court will eventually intercede to halt this in my opinion) and thus far Guantanamo, and other facilities, have been the sites of incidents of violence, torture and homicide delivered at the hands of US officials. But the difference in the magnitude of horrors at the Soviet helmed gulags (millions killed, millions more suffered heinous conditions and abuse that exceed most of the more damning reports from Guantanamo) makes the comparison so strained as to render it devoid of meaning - or so wanting in clarifications of nuance that it becomes an unwieldy analogy that requires extensive unpacking every time it is trotted out.

Then again, Amnesty did end up drawing the media's attention to a report on conditions at Guantanamo that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and ignored in favor of the ongoing Jackson trial, a runaway bride, and/or the child abduction/amber alert du jour. I'm not sure whether such sensationalist human rights campaigning is a net positive, but it has sparked a conversation for better or for worse. My fear is that the overreach provides an out for the Bush administration and its supporters. As Praktike points out, the Amnesty flap allows the Bush team and its allies to jump up and down crying foul while distracting everyone's attention from the real story: that there is an unsettling pattern of widespread prisoner abuse, torture, sexual assault, rape, sodomy and murder occurring in US detention facilities spanning the globe from Guantanamo to Bagram (note: that is a more complete list of incidents that often gets redacted to the more neutral sounding "abuse" or the slightly more negatively connotative "torture" while in reality, the particulars are more damning than the chosen euphemisms). Point in fact: Bush actually called the entire Amnesty report absurd based on the "gulag" comment, despite the fact that some of the allegations in the report have been confirmed by military reports and investigations.

This post-modernist tap dance is an all too familiar one for the Bush administration - look here at this shiny distraction rather than those uncomfortable facts and that nasty story. The basic schemata: 1) If an administration insider and/or lifelong Republican makes statements that run counter to the Bush administration's outlook, personally attack the messengers and paint them as ideological foes to discredit the story as the product of bias while ignoring the particulars and facts of the allegations (see: Paul O'Neill, John DiIulio, Richard Clarke, Joe Wilson, etc.); 2) If possible, seize on some erroneous or dubious reporting of a story to discredit the veracity of the underlying events despite the fact that the truthfulness of said story stands independent of the shoddy reporting (see: Koran desecration, incidents of which have been acknowledged and reported in military inquiries/Newsweek's improper sourcing, Bush's spotty National Guard service documented by the papers released by the White House/forged "Dan Rather" memos); and finally, 3) Latch on to some statement, advertisement, image, or gesture by some group loosely aligned with some of your political opponents to tar the entire opposition with the same brush, and if possible discredit an entire line of critique or particular story (see: Ward Churchill, ad submitted for a reader contest equating Bush with Hitler, etc.). The Amnesty gaffe, to the extent it is one, falls into category three.

This tripartite represents a vein of coal mined to fuel the furnaces of cognitive dissonance - the granite quarried to construct the impermeable citadel of
groupthink. Undoubtedly, the pull of groupthink and the siren's song of cognitive dissonance are powerful seducers that everyone, including and especially myself, fall victim to from time to time. That is why it is that much more impressive to see some on the Right break ranks with their fellow ideological brethren to forcefully, and unequivocally, condemn the torture, murder, rape, etc., that has been committed by US intelligence and military personnel in US run detention facilities worldwide - despite the President's attempt to run interference. The fact that such condemnations would represent a break from the norm is depressing to no end, but such is the profoundly disappointing state of discourse in American politics.

Despite the occasionally gratuitous jab at the Left, Greg Djerejian sums up the importance - and more importantly lack thereof - of Amnesty's gulag comment in
this commendable post. In a separate post, though, he draws attention to two very worthwhile endeavors. First, Phil Carter, along with two co-authors, has compiled an interactive, searchable database covering the full parameters of this ongoing scandal - complete with copies of documents and commentary on the legal justifications for torture, military inquiries into the abuse, charts outlining chain of command, and much much more. I would recommend that you bookmark this site as a one-stop resource on this subject. I did.

Next, is this
breath of fresh air from a group of right leaning libertarians that Greg links to in order to cure the feelings of "loneliness" he's been battling with as a result of his being on the Right politically and, oddly enough, opposed to the torture, rape, sodomy and murder of detainees. Something of a novelty these days. But alas, even the authors of that site have felt the sting of sharp criticism from their ideological fellow travelers which caused one of the site's authors, McQ, to pen an articulate response to the "outraged at the outrage" crowd.

According to McQ, the criticisms fall into these major categories:

1.The terrorists are worse
2.The GC doesn't apply
3.It's not enough deaths to be a problem
4.War is hell
5.People are dying in other parts of the world
6.The anti-war crowd thinks it's bad
He does a fine job of dismantling all six of these relatively weak defenses/rationalizations, but I wanted to focus on his responses to number 1:

"The terrorists are worse". By condoning torture and abuse by our soldiers, it becomes a matter of degree and not principle. Principle is thrown right out of the window with the acceptance that our torture isn't as bad or as widespread as theirs. Because their's is "worse", ours, apparently, is then acceptable. It's the same sort of rationalization which occurs in other arguments in which people are driven by anger to abandon principle for vengeance. We're upset by what the terrorists do. It's a natural human phenomenon to want vengeance for acts of terrorism. We want to punish and get even with those who perpetrate such atrocities. But then, when we indulge ourselves in such behavior, we abandon the moral high ground for the same fetid pit in which our enemies exist. We become no better than them.
It's not that I disagree with the general message in this paragraph, because I don't, my critique lies with the fact that it is written on the basis of a faulty premise. Unfortunately, the author accepts the terms of the debate of the critics, but in so doing is conceding far too much ground. The fallacy is that not all detainees are "terrorists" - not by a long shot. Thus, by debating whether or not to condone or excuse the torture of these detainees because the "terrorists" are worse ignores the fact that what the apologists are really saying is that torturing people that share a common language, culture and/or appearance with certain terrorists is acceptable because those culturally/geographically/linguistically related terrorists do worse.

This error in logic is regrettably ubiquitous and serves as the accepted starting point for many such debates. But the heart of the matter is that our legal system is built on the presumption of innocence for a reason - many people abducted in any context are actually innocent so you don't treat arrest as proof of guilt. This principle should not be disregarded so lightly. Under the Bush administration's execution of the War on Terror, this presumption has been hollowed out.

Some facts. Many of the detainees at Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and the myriad other facilities are not, in fact, "terrorists." A very large number of them are innocent bystanders swept up in massive raids, innocent civilians turned in by bounty hunters seeking monetary rewards and/or the victims of score-settling neighbors who fingered them for revenge purposes. Also, keep in mind, many of the detainees at Guantanamo are Afghani which increases the likelihood that they are either mistaken identities or Taliban, though its very unlikely they are Al Qaeda. As a general rule, Afghanis themselves almost never join groups like Al Qaeda or other Salafist jihadi organizations. Instead, most recruits come from Europe, North Africa, and core Arab countries. But Taliban are not terrorists, and deserve to be treated more like POWs than "illegal combatants."

In some cases such as Abu Ghraib, according to US Army and Red Cross reports, the vast majority of detainees (70-90%) were innocent of ALL violations. In the area of extraordinary renditions, we know of the case of
Maher Arar the Canadian citizen seized by American agents in NYC and shipped off to Syria to be tortured over the course of a year because the brother of a co-worker was on a suspect list. Was it acceptable to subject Arar to torture because terrorists do worse?

When you establish a priori that many of the detainees, suspects and victims are innocent civilians, it becomes harder to justify systematic torture, abuse, rape and murder on the basis of comparative morality between terrorists and us (should you wish to sully our principles and standards by measuring them on their scale in the first place).

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