Saturday, May 01, 2004

Moral Clarity, part two

The scandalous revelations of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib are a challenge to any dedicated ideologue for the cause. Most right-bloggers didn't try to defend the indefensible. But some just couldn't help dissembling. How does right-blogger Tim Blair deal with the issue? With transparant evasions from the standard right wing blogger playbook.

In the first attempt, he feels safe to deal with the issue only in the context of an attack on columnist Margo Kingston, who he declares is "starved of vital oxygen." I honestly didn't get this at first, but here's her first sentence:

I'm still trying to breathe after seeing on Lateline the photos of American soldiers smiling as they pose with tortured Iraqi prisoners, if torture is the word for the horror.

Get it? My God. Who reads this hack? And this guy has a column in The Bulletin? I'm doubly glad I gave up reading it years ago.

Anyway, for those keeping score, we're currently at spin technique number two. Number one is deny and stonewall. Or simply ignore. No longer possible with this story. Number two is to slander, discredit and abuse those carrying the story. Standardly, to impugn their motives. This shades into technique three, which is to do anything to distract, to deflect, to dissemble, and to divert attention from the issues. Right bloggers are using techniques two and three together when they accuse liberal pundits of faking outrage and claim they didn't care about Saddam's atrocities before the war.

Perhaps sensing a certain inadequacy in the first approach, Tim Blair restates himself.

While everybody is freaking out over recent photographs from Iraq, it’s worth recalling this editorial by Phil Lucas, executive editor of Florida's Panama City News Herald. It's about some photographs we saw earlier in April.

He's referring to the photos of Iraqi insurgents mutiliating and stringing up the bodies of American security contractors in Fallujah.

Ok, let's try to put this one to bed. I'm a self-proclaimed lefty. I was shocked and appalled when I saw the photos of the charred and mutilated bodies in Fallujah. I was shocked and appalled when our Prime Minister quoted from a book on human rights abuses in Iraq that Saddam's regime is one that would "burn a person's limbs off" in order to get them to talk. And I was shocked and appalled when I saw the latest pictures of brutal and degrading treatment that US soldiers had been dealing out in the very same place Saddam burned people's limbs off.

You see, I practice a discipline known as moral consistency. When I see something that is shocking and appalling, I am shocked and appalled. When commenting on the case, most right-bloggers have thankfully understood this point about consistency. But it seems one couldn't quite subscribe to this philosophy. In his view, if it involves ashocking and appalling act by our own side, we should, in fact, do everything we can to dissemble, distract, set up false moral equivalencies, or just play down the issue.

In fact there's a distinction between the Fallujah photos and the prisoner abuse photos. The actions of the mob at Fallujah were appalling. But shocking as they were, the photos from Abu Ghraib are far, far worse. The mob at Fallujah mutilated those security contactors after they were dead. But these US guards tortured those people while they were alive. They stacked living, breathing people in human pyramids like corpses. They forced them into bizarre parodies of sexual copulation. They set dogs on them. They made them stand for hours on end, under threat of electrocution. There are reports they they raped them. They dehumanised them using every technique in the torturer's manual, to the point where the soldiers could grin and laugh as they heaped horrific abuse on the naked, huddled, hooded prisoners in their charge.

They are worse for these reasons, and they are worse because it is our side that has done this. When Prime Minister Howard talked of a regime which used brutal torture as a method for ensuring compliance, I never thought this could ever refer to the Bush regime. This threatens to destroy all the remaining moral authority that the Coalition has so far managed to hold on to.

Of course it's good that the story is out, and that at least some of the perpetrators will see justice. It's a tribute to the strength of American democracy that it has. Yes, the public shock and outrage shows that we haven't quite sunk to the level of moral degeneracy of Saddam's regime. But that's not saying very much. Surely, despite these soldiers being brought to justice, it is nonetheless appalling that this occured in the first place. And not just as an excess, not just as isolated incident, but as a sustained policy encouraged by the administrators and interrogators at the prison. This was a war crime with malice aforethought.

There's another point to be made here. The right wing bloggers love to point out that the moral superiority of American democracy is proved by the fact that this incident was eventually reported, that it did become public, and that charges will be laid. But they won't talk about how they themselves helped to undermine democracy and create a degraded moral discourse where a policy of torture at Abu Ghraib could be conceivable.

I'm referring to comments like these.

Terrorists should be treated as terrorists. They SHOULD be mistreated. They SHOULD be maltreated. They SHOULD be abused. They SHOULD be tortured. And they SHOULD be executed. They are beyond the pale of humanity. They are undeserving of the privileges of civilization. They have excluded themselves from the human race and they should be exempted from treatment as humans. And they possess information whose extraction is necessary to save lives.

Steven Plaut, "Why Terrorists should be Tortured."

Now, Mr. Steven Plaut is only writing a few days after the September 11 attacks, so we might chalk this up to being distraught. And he could never be described as a major pundit, although he is educated enough to know better. But our great pundits haven't been far behind. Jonah Goldberg makes The Case for Torture

Guilty people (by which I mean murderers, rapists, practitioners of mopery) have rights only because we aren't sure they're guilty. If we were sure, they would have no rights.


Take this torture thing. Now, I am not "pro-torture." I agree with numerous readers when they say torture is morally corrupting. Even when we torture those who deserve it - pedophile rapists or the "comedy" troupe "The Capital Steps" come to mind - torture demeans the torturer, and the whole society that condones it.
But let's keep in mind that there are all sorts of things which are similarly demeaning. Cops have to do things everyday, including kill people, which they find personally degrading. Nobody wants to wake up a homeless veteran and tell him that he can't sleep on a grate. But sometimes cops have to do that. Occasionally, prison guards are forced to treat grown men with families like animals. But we still need prison guards. And soldiers are sometimes ordered to do horrific things which cause them trauma for years, even decades but sometimes those horrific things are necessary (and sometimes they're not). Torture isn't all that different.

For Jonah, torture is a matter of them's the breaks. Sometimes a cop has got to move a homeless man off a grate. Sometimes a prison guard has a treat a grown man like an animal. And sometimes a soldier's got to torture prisoners in the most brutal way imaginable, and, you know, we can't, strictly speaking, approve of it, it is nonetheless "recognized by the hidden law [..] as a sometimes necessary tool for protecting society."

What has our law expert to say for himself now?

As I said, I've been running around all day and I have family in town. But to all of the readers "reminding" me of my past positions on torture, hidden law etc.: I don't think I've contradicted myself at all. But I don't have time to get into all of that right now.
Jonah Goldberg, The Corner

C'mon, Jonah! Have the courage of your convictions! Weren't their actions a "necessary tool for protecting society?" Maybe you should fax their defence lawyers your previous column! You're such an expert in the "hidden law", after all!

Goldberg wasn't just a lone voice. Alan Derschowitz called for a national debate to consider watering down legal protections to allow for the torturing of terrorists. Ann Coulter agreed: "We oughta be discussing whether they should be tortured."

Now, it's true neither Derschowitz nor Coulter went quite as far as Plaut or Goldberg. They asked to open a debate on the issue without ever quite calling for torture openly. But Ms. Coulter has been running with this debate for some time, scoring points off the opposition who oppose the torture and abuse of prisoners.

Liberals flex their spindly little muscles and announce that everything that used to make them cry - guns, racial profiling, torturing suspects - simply doesn't work. [..]

Torture indisputably works when you know you've got the right guy. We know who Mohammed is; we know he has information we want. There may be good and sufficient moral reasons for not torturing people for information, but efficacy is not among them.

Ann Coulter, Column, 13/3/2003. Liberals trade crusading anger for hardheaded realism

Despite her sneering tone, she's hit the nail on the head. Coulter is curiously silent, in this column, on what good and sufficient moral considerations might apply, but allow me to supply them: We shouldn't behave like those soldiers did in Abu Ghraib because we do not want to become like them, grinning and laughing in the face of horrific degradation. Any discussion, in the context of these photos, must start with this basic moral position.

So responsibility must be borne by those who banged the drum for torture. But equally, such actions thrive in a climate of intimidation and silence. These guards undertook their actions with impunity. The very fact that they took photos of their barbarities and circulated them proves that. How many times have right wing pundits tried to cow critics into silence by saying that any criticism of the Coalition's conduct in Iraq only emboldens our enemies? It's President Bush's favorite line. Now events have put the lie to that sentiment: these abuses are horrible. Undoubtably they will encourage retaliation. Nonetheless, is there anyone willing to say that these photos ought not to have been published?

Unbelievably, some right wing pundits are still trying this tack. Here's Bill O'Reilly, of the O'Reilly factor, interviewing Jonathon Klein, former editor of CBS news, on the the showing of the photos by 60 Minutes 2:

O'Reilly: If someone gets killed because you run a photo, alright, and you know, you've been warned that that person might get killed, I don't know how you can run it, even if someone else - do you want that on your conscience?
Klein: No, of course not, I mean that -
O'Reilly: So, so, say some jihadist signs up and says you know, "I signed up because they were torturing these guys, and then he blows up twenty-five people, and that note is found, do you live with that?
Klein: That's why, at the Pentagon's request, CBS news held off running the story for two weeks in deference to the situation that's going on over there. But when they knew that those photos were about to be released anyway, with the Pentagon's approval, they went ahead and ran the story with their participation-
O'Reilly: I couldn't live with that. I just couldn't live with knowing that I contributed to someone's death because I ran... And, you know, you'd get the same number without the photos, wouldn't you?
Klein: It's-
O'Reilly: Wouldn't you get the same ratings?
Klein: It's not about ratings-
O'Reilly: What's it about?
Klein: It's about making people understand the story-
O'Reilly: Understand? I can tell you what they did.
Klein: You could tell us, but I still don't understand it from your intro the way I understand it from having seen..
O'Reilly: Alright.
Klein: ... the pictures.

The O'Reilly Factor, Fox News, Friday April 30th 2004.

You know how I couldn't live with myself? If I was someone who censored this story just because a right-wing hack was whining about how it just plays into the hands of our enemies. When do journalists complain about the release of information that's compelling and in the public interest? When they are the fake journalists on the Fox News Channel.

Let's give Ann Coulter the next-to-last word on suppression of dissent:

COULTER: Let me say, not only do I think George Bush should -- should expand the military tribunals to citizens in this country who have come to commit acts of war against us, but I think he ought to consider expanding it to liberal lawyers. Military tribunals for liberal lawyers.

Ann Coulter, CNN Crossfire, November 23, 2001.

These pundits called for torture. They called for silence, and suppression. In Abu Ghraib, they got exactly what they asked for. And now they are scrambling for cover. In the spirit of Ms Coulter's own avowed sentiments, when we try those who a responsible for these latest atrocities, maybe we should consider putting some conservative pundits on trial as well.