Saturday, May 01, 2004

More moral clarity

A taxonomy of negative responses in CBS's mailbag on CBS's coverage of the prisoner abuse story, ordered by rationalisation.

Look over there! Why don't you report something positive?

I find it very wrong that our soldiers mistreated confined Iraqis. What I find even more destructive is that you do not find the time to report what has been accomplished with what the good soldiers have done. You have your own agenda and report as you feel fit.

John Threadgill

They had it coming! They did it too!

They had to pose for pornographic pictures? So what. We cannot imagine sitting at home on our couches the horrors our soldiers must face every day. Why not focus your attention on the unfair practices of our enemy?

Sally Ainsley

Sweep it under the carpet! You're only helping our enemies!

Are you guys nuts? Do you think showing this is going to help the Americans in captivity and our other allies? I fully understand the need for an open and free press, but you have to balance that with the lives of our own people.

Ari Kettunen

What's your agenda? We know what to do with reports from the liberal media! Just shut up!

What, other than ratings and increased revenue, did you expect to achieve with this program which verges on treason in a time of war?

Sondra Cutcliffe

You leave little doubt, both past and present, of your liberal agenda and desire to taint this military action.

Raymond E. O'Neill

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.

Moral Clarity, Part One.

The revelations of horrendous prisoner abuse by US soldiers at Abu Ghraib prison have drawn universal condemnation from all sides. President Bush describes himself as "disgusted." General Kimmit says that he was "appalled." So I'm glad to see, in the face of this chorus universal condemnation, that the readership of the dean of Australian right wing blogging, Tim Blair, retains some moral clarity about the issues involved.

And what did these boys do - they mocked some fascists. Is that really breaking world news?! I don't think it warrants a punishment any more severe than a "please don't do it again, boys" (if that).

Kip Watson: kip@zapwhizz.com.au

Oh my god. They made him stand on a box. A box. I mean, didn't they have a crate, or a barrel? A box. Oh, the torture. Seriously -- I think I know why Leftovers are so showily "horrified" at these alleged actions against Iraqi prisoners by Americans. 1) They resemble frat-party hijinks, raising guilty memories in some of the Leftovers of memories of freshman abuse in their less "enlightened" days, and 2) they seemed more designed to cause humiliation than pain, and humiliation is feared by Leftovers more than anything else, actual physical torture included.

Andrea Harris

Bit tiresome really all this mock outrage in the West.

Fred: fred@fred.com

These troops might be scumbags, But lets examine the facts. They humiliated some of Saddam's fedayeen by pretending to do to them , for a laugh, what these Sadam supporters did to many for real.

Papertiger: Domayeau@aol.com

General Janice Karpinski may be a disgrace to the uniform but she knows how to party. Your right though, those jihadis shouldn't have been humiliated like that. They should have just been shot.

Amos: a@b.com

"How would you feel if it was your sister who had been abused, raped, perhaps killed by one of these prisoners and you witnessed their subsequent humiliation and harrassment by their American captors? Would you feel a) gleeful, b) indifferent, c) both?"

Andrea Harris

That said, I don't want those prisoners 'humiliated'. I want them fucking dead. Try and grasp the seriousness of that, dumbass, and stop crying your PC tears for these terrorist scum.

Amos: a@b.com

Sources:

Compare and contrast

The world has gone to hell

To their credit, there are other commenters who took issue with these sentiments. But if you ever wondered if a substantial segment of the readership Tim Blair attacts might be a little, ah, extremist, live in doubt no more.

Ok, maybe you think it's too easy to pick on the dregs who inhabit the comments section of right wing weblogs. In the next post, let's consider some more substantive commentary. Or at least, commentary by people who tend to put their own names on things.

Friday, April 30, 2004

Some shocking photos

Being in Australia, I have had a rare privilege to be at least one step ahead of the American news cycle on the explosive story of prisoner abuse by US military guards at Abu Ghraib. Although they aired on CBS's "60 minutes 2" first, they hit Australia in time for the evening news. Moreover, while the Australian media quickly picked up the story, the American media, and the satellite news channels, seemed initially at a loss how to cover it. So I've seen the story evolve from a few bloggers citing rather colourless piece in the New York times, to today's shocked reaction, disgusted presidential response, and appalled reaction by Aaron Brown on CNN's "newsnight."

The impetus is the pictures themselves. I knew as soon as I saw them this was an explosive story. Descriptions of them in the New York times don't do them justice. Only the pictures convey the reality. As soon as I saw them, I was appalled. They are just obscene. They overwhelm spin and talking points. When Kevin Rudd, Labor's Foreign Affairs spokesman, appeared on Lateline to discuss them, he hadn't yet seen them, and his prepared talking points were drastically inadequate to sum up the reality they present. The normal political doublespeak fails; only unreserved condemnation is possible.

What is the significance of this abuse? I believe if I was an Iraqi and I saw those photos, I'd reach for my gun and try to kill every American I could find. Not to condone it, just saying what I think my reaction would be. Those are images of torture. Those are images of horrendous degradation. And beyond that, the torture and degradation, is the sheer pornographic pleasure these prisoner's captors take in the prisoner's humiliation. These are images out of "Salo", out of Marquis de Sade. And if I am shocked, then imagine what the Islamic world, who are just now seeing them on Al-Jazeera, must feel.

And there is worse; photos, and treatment, that we haven't seen. Stories of dogs being set on prisoners, of prisoners forced into positions of sexual copulation, of a rape of a teenager.

That's just the impact of the pictures; what of the story? Well, the US military is in damage control. But there's a problem here: this clearly goes up a long way. Far from being the actions a few prison guards getting out of control, the New York Times piece makes it clear that the US reservists were encouraged to "soften up" the detainees by the interrogators at the prison. They wrote home happily about the success they were having. It's only now that we are seeing the reality of what "softening up" really entailed. Clearly higher ups are involved. Brig. Gen. Janis Karpinski, the commander at the camp, has already been implicated. The CIA might be also be implicated, as well as "civilian contractors" who were responsible for some of the interrogations.

And of course, it has wider implications beyond the conditions at Abu Ghraib. The US military's credibility has been destroyed. I used to be one of the skeptics about the US army's alleged abuse of prisoners. I no longer willing to dismiss such reports as exaggeration.

In my next post, "moral clarity", I will consider the reaction to the story, and some of the spin from the right.

An introduction

I started a blog once.

It was going to be a sandbox for myself alone. It would be therapeutic: every time I read something in the paper, or saw something on the news, that I didn't like, instead of ranting about it to whoever I know who would listen, I'd blog it. Or if I did like something, instead of recommending it to anyone who'd listen, I'd blog that too. I'd write something every day, invite my friends to visit, slowly build an audience, maybe even make it onto the links list of one of the big blogs.

I lasted two weeks.

The initial impetus for my interest in blogging was the Iraq war. I'd read blogs before, but the Iraq war was a huge event for weblogs. They are, at their very best, a terrific way of compiling information. The big bloggers provide much more information, better presented, than any newspaper could. They dig up nuggets of information you'd otherwise never hear about. I quickly became a devoted reader of the blogs.

I was inspired to become a blogger myself though feeling need to respond to things I read. I think many bloggers get into it this way: you read something on the web you really want to respond to. Sure, you can often post a comment. But who reads comments? It feels like you're shooting in the dark. Try blogging it instead.

But there a colossal drawbacks to blogging. Many I knew about before I started writing. Blogs are insular and wonkish. Blogs are stuffed with vast amounts of trivia and ephemera along with interesting stuff. There are arcane exchanges and bunfights that only the participants seem to understand. Some blogs have beautifully incongruous trivia on the bloggers personal life intermixed with major matters of the news of the day. Blogs are shockingly badly written, for the simple reason that they are fired off at high speed. A headline, a link, and a "you must read this", is far easier to code than anything that might be readable. If I was to write a blog, I resolved, it would have focus. It would be well written and interesting. It would be something I could be proud of as an advertisement for my writing skills.

What I quickly realised is the sheer time it requires to keep up a blog. The difficulty in doing it well, the drudgery of doing it every day, the challenge of organising and keeping up with all the potential sources of information, is phenomenal. I gained newfound respect for those who do it. And a certain feeling of creeping bemusement. Certain people, I realise, must absolutely be obsessed to write so much. It's harmful to be that obsessed with blogs, I think. Even the most popular blog, for example, is only a very small drop in a very large sea.

For me, however, obsession didn't happen. Instead, life intervened. I realised I couldn't spend the time on blogging that I wanted to. And I decided that, really, I didn't have anything to say. I looked back on the posts I wrote then, and realised that while they're not mortifying, they also couldn't be said to be very good. I thought: I'm not a policy wonk; I'm just a guy. There's nothing I could say that other people aren't saying, and better too.

True, I could have given up the warblogging and just write a diary blog, but that's not what I'm into. I don't want to share the details of my personal life with a bunch of anonymous strangers; they're just too boring.

But here I am, back, after a year's break. Why? Because I think I know how to do this now. A bit of discipline and a bit of time management, and this will work. I want to be a writer. A blog is excellent practice for this. What will I write about? I still haven't quite decided, but certainly the things I'm interested in. Politics, culture, philosophy, psychology, the news. But mostly, I fear, politics.

Which brings me to my basic reason. Truth is, some things have been making me pretty angry for a while now. You may know about me, dear reader, that my politics are roughly left-wing. Liberal. Not conservative. Whatever label you like; none of them are especially apposite, but they give you rough idea. For a long time, though, I was a burnt out liberal. Dismayed by the state of the radical left, cowed by the seemingly unstoppable momentum of the right wing, it seemed that the easiest thing to do was to tune out to the whole discussion. Talking politics on the net is just no fun under those circumstances.

But of course there are lots of centrist liberals on the net. There is a middle ground. Why not carve it out? As for qualifications, what other qualifications do you need to talk politics except to read the news, and think about it? The news, today, as I write this piece, is pretty shocking. It frequently is these days. I mentioned I want to be a writer. And there are certain things that are going on that need to be written about. It think now it's a mistake to think you aren't important enough to be heard. Time to build an audience, and be heard.