Wednesday, June 22, 2005
That Sounds Like America To You?
Some in the past have complained of the exaggerated celebration that some liberals (including myself possibly) might partake in every time someone just to the right-of-center unequivocally condemns torture and similar detainee abuse. To the extent that I am guilty as charged, understand that I do this to reinforce my belief in the foundations of our democracy, the fabric of our society - that certain issues should not be defended out of knee-jerk partisanship, and that underneath all the squabbling Americans have a sense of decency that will overcome some of human nature's frailties and failings that tend to emerge and assert themselves in times of stress and fear. At least that's my hope.
I thought torture was just such an issue, one that would be met with a swift and comprehensive rejection from all political factions. But, like publius, the avalanche of apologias from many, and the ghoulish revelry of some, on the Right have shaken my confidence and left me wondering. Pieces like those excerpted below serve to gird my wayward faith. So forgive my cheerleader-ism for a moment, and indulge my written sigh of relief which comes as I realize that there are sensible people on the other side of the aisle that understand the importance of our liberal traditions (and do your best to ignore the flaming these guys get from their regular readers in the comments section the moment they stake out what should not be such a controversial position, similar to the treatment the QandO authors received here and here which I discussed here).
First (via Greg) is John Cole with a sensible and balanced appraisal of L'Affaire Durbin:
Senator Dick Durbin made a comment in a long and thoughtful (for Durbin) speech that politically was profoundly stupid (the full speech can be found here, courtesy of Joe's Dartblog), but it is the height of absurdity and partisan foolishness to call for his censure and to allow ourselves to be distracted from the larger issue. Yes, he is a Democrat. Yes, he probably shouldn't have included a reference to Nazis. But that doesn't give us license to distort his remarks and launch an immature witch-hunt.[...]Now is that so hard? So radical? Is that bashing America, or praising America - think about it? Rather than get swept up in the "Chorus" of voices seeking to assuage the underlying cognitive dissonance of a given revelation, or treating any and all self-criticism that seeks to improve on our nation's ideals as "unpatriotic," take an unvarnished look at the situation and do better. Instead of allowing a foible of the messenger or an oversight by the vehicle carrying the message to obscure the salient issues, cut through the less than perfect form to the heart of the more crucial substance. John Cole quotes Andrew Olmstead on the matter:
...he most assuredly did not call American troops Nazis. Here is the relevant portion of Durbin's speech:When you read some of the graphic descriptions of what has occurred here -- I almost hesitate to put them in the record, and yet they have to be added to this debate. Let me read to you what one FBI agent saw. And I quote from his report, with the FBI e-mail (displayed here courtesy of the ACLU) italicized:Read the FBI email again, without Durbin's remarks[...]
On a couple of occasions, I entered interview rooms to find a detainee chained hand and foot in a fetal position to the floor, with no chair, food or water. Most times they urinated or defecated on themselves, and had been left there for 18-24 hours or more. On one occasion, the air conditioning had been turned down so far and the temperature was so cold in the room, that the barefooted detainee was shaking with cold....On another occasion, the [air conditioner] had been turned off, making the temperature in the unventilated room well over 100 degrees. The detainee was almost unconscious on the floor, with a pile of hair next to him. He had apparently been literally pulling his hair out throughout the night. On another occasion, not only was the temperature unbearably hot, but extremely loud rap music was being played in the room, and had been since the day before, with the detainee chained hand and foot in the fetal position on the tile floor.
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime -- Pol Pot or others -- that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners.
Are Durbin's remarks really that offensive? Do you honestly hear descriptions like that and think to yourself - "Gee, American troops do that all the time."
Of course you don't, and I don't either. I think of some third world dictator, some tin-pot despot who brutalizes not only his enemy but his own people. Someone like, for example, Saddam Hussein. Or Pol Pot. And that was Durbin's point - not that we are Nazis, but that we are better than Nazis by an order of magnitude, and that such acts of abuse, while rare, are beneath us.
What should offend you is not what Durbin said, but the possibility that what Durbin said regarding the abuse may be accurate - even if it happened only once. And spare me the false bravado and the tough-guy attitudes about how this doesn't sound so tough, and they deserve what they get. I am all in favor of stern measures and tough interrogation practices, but there are lines that should not be crossed.
If your attitude is that because some evil people killed 3,000 people on 9/11, we have the moral high ground and are thus free to do as we please, including chaining people in a fetal position and forcing them to wallow in their own urine and feces, you might as well stop reading now because we aren't going to agree on anything. We have the right to detain these people, we have the right to interrogate these people, and we, in the future, have a right to try them for their crimes and punish them appropriately.
But we also have an obligation to ourselves and to the rest of the world to treat these detainees humanely, lawfully, and in accordance to the history of decency that I proudly associate with the United States. To do otherwise is to stain our dignity and our honor, as well as our reputation and good standing in the world.
While I think the Senator's point would have been stronger had he quit before describing the use of rap music, I can't deny the Senator's argument. If the FBI report is accurate, that's some pretty damnning [sic]stuff. People left to marinate in their own urine and feces is pretty mild from the standpoint of torture, but I think it certainly rises to the level of maltreatment (to borrow from a commenter at QandO) and is certainly not the kind of thing we think of American soldiers as doing. I've discussed my own concerns about torture in greater depth before. I don't have any heartburn with stress positions or female interrogators invading detainees' physical space. But leaving a prisoner in his own waste, or forcing him to endure low-grade physical torment for hours via high or low temperatures is questionable at best in my book, and I would prefer those options remain off the table. Even if they don't necessarily rise to the level of torture, they just don't strike me as things we ought to be doing.Agreed. Next is Cole's fellow Red State blogger Josh Trevino (nee Tacitus):
Which means that tend to I agree with Senator Durbin. Reading that report, it's not the kind of thing you would instinctively believe Americans would do. The allusion to the Nazis and other totalitarian regimes is arguably unwise, but I'm not sure it's inaccurate. No, what we do at Guantanamo doesn't rise anywhere near the horrors of the Nazis or the Communists, but that description sounds a lot closer to what we think of when we think of totalitarian states than when we think of America. At least, what I think we'd like people to think of when they think of America.
See? You get to keep all your ideological goodies, and you still get to take gratuitous swipes at Democrats, liberals and the like. It just sounds better when you're also saying that torture is un-American and that the treatment described in the FBI memos is more reminiscent of brutal despotism than the American tradition - at least that which we would like to foster and preserve as the American tradition. That while clumsily delivered, Durbin's main point remains correct. I would think that would be hard to miss.
So, we've now established that Senator Durbin has a poor grasp of historical parallel. Oh, bravo for us indeed. (Next: Robert Byrd was in the Klan!) Make no mistake, it needed to be done: but it is done, and it is, as it always was, a sideshow. The continuing hysteria over it is just that; John Cole is quite right to point out that the time has come to act like adults. And what does that entail? In this case, a bit of reflection, not on Durbin's blundering rhetoric, but on his substance.
The substance is, distressingly enough, there. Specifically, the Senator cites some appalling abuse as witnessed by an FBI agent. While it is fashionable in certain crowds to shrug at these things on the grounds that the victims are all terrorists anyway, the affected apathy leaves some assumptions unexamined. Those assumptions are: first, that the abuse as reported was as bad as it got; second, that the victims are all terrorists. Both assumptions are false. We know that dozens of prisoners have died in American custody, with a shameful proportion being probable homicides. We also know that many prisoners have been released from Camp X-Ray, apparently not terrorists after all.
Now, two caveats here: no one, to my knowledge, has died at Camp X-Ray; and the specific techniques witnessed by Durbin's FBI source were, I am fairly sure, accepted US military interrogation tactics as long as twenty years ago. These are mitigating facts if you fixate on rhetoric in a vacuum, studiously ignore the constellation of American prisons other than Guantanamo, and pretend that rap music, shackles and uncomfortable air temperature is the extent of the problem. Knowing that on the next news cycle Durbin will be yesterday's news and our wartime prisons will remain a current affair, what would an adult do?