Sunday, May 02, 2004

Moral Clarity, Part 4

Let's recap. What was your reaction, upon seeing those awful, appalling photos of abuse at Abu Ghraib prison?

a) Oh my God! That's awful! Thank God the story is out, so we can punish those responsible!

b) Oh my God! That's awful! How dare the media publish those photos which will only encourage more terrorist acts against us!

If you picked b, you've just embraced the evolving right-wing discourse that's formed around this story in the last day or so. At first it looks like our old friend "any criticism of the conduct of the troops is objectively pro-terrorist." And it's true, for these bloggers old habits die hard. But the latest rhetoric turns out to include a subtle but, in its own sophistical way, infernally brilliant refinement to our familiar argument by intimidation.

Here's our friend the torture fetishist, Jonah Goldberg, writing on "The Corner."

Whoever leaked these pictures to the press was not doing anybody any favors. Since the case was already being handled, the release of these pictures did more harm than good. I don't blame 60 Minutes for running them -- though I don't applaud them either. But a person would/could be morally obligated to leak these pictures if the army was covering it up or refusing to investigate. It doesn't sound like that was the case. So releasing the photos isn't prodding the government to do the right thing, it's encouraging millions of Arabs to hate us. That's not whistle-blowing, that's sabotage.

That's not whistle-blowing, that's sabotage. So far, argument by intimidation. But see the move? Those photographs were absolutely appalling, sure. But the army had already investigated. There was no "cover-up. The matter was being dealt with. The charges could have been covered without actually publishing them. In fact, given the violence they could inflame, CBS had a positive moral duty not to.

In this evolving argument, the public has no right to know what war crimes US soldiers have committed in their name. Maybe they can be given some sketchy details in a buried story in the New York Times. But the pictures add nothing to the story beyond their sickening, ghoulish impact. Hence, we know that publishing the photos was nothing but an intervention by the liberal media.

You see, the journalists who insisted on publishing these photos just aren't team players. Sure, those acts of abuse were appalling. And sure, had they recorded the actions of Saddam's Fedayeen thugs, they should have been shown, just like other footage of Saddam's atrocities has. But it's not like the public has any right to see appalling war crimes by our own side. After all, we already know we are the good guys. Our moral superiority is proved by the fact that the soldiers will be prosecuted. These unfortunate aberrations shouldn't have been allowed to tar our good name. All this talk of "exposure" and "journalistic integrity" is just a smokescreen for treasonous disloyalty.

So goes the argument. But there's an ironic twist to Goldberg's argument. Because, beyond all others, Mr Goldberg has been busy cheering the torturers on. For Goldberg, torture is in according with the "hidden law", which, among other things, abandons that pesky thing called "moral consistency":

Along came the lawyers. With their hyper-rationalism and self-righteousness intact, the lawyers declared that if something is wrong, it's wrong for everyone - and therefore it must be illegal for everyone.

In fact, as we've already seen, Goldberg has been the head cheerleader for the cause of socially sanctioned torture. Goldberg argued that torture should be a hidden practice countenanced by hidden law. And now he turns around and tells us that, actually, he finds all this torture business appalling and unacceptable. But don't worry, people! There's no need for public oversight. Military justice is already on the case!

Somehow, I just can't just wrap my head around the concept that, even though these pictures disprove months of fervent US army denials of prisoner abuses, those denials were actually made for our own protection. And I guess I can't quite abandon my lingering, irrational superstition that democracy means that sadistic war criminals who do horrendous deeds in the state's name should have the full force of their barbariasms exposed in public for all to see.

Goldberg was fine with the concept of the US torturing prisoners, so long as he didn't have to see it. When he does see it, he claims that of course he's appalled. But all Jonah Goldberg really objects to is having his own colossal hypocrisy exposed.