Tuesday, January 25, 2005

"These things that with myself I too much discuss, too much explain."

Andrew Sullivan reviewed two books in the NYTimes Book Review last Sunday, both concerning Abu Ghraib, neither of them by Seymour Hersh. In the course of a lengthy review he made an obligatory ad hominem swipe at Hersh, and even at Mark Danner, whose book he was reviewing, but he also argues that the "buck" in the chain of command only barely reaches up to Bush's desk only because Bush excluded al Qaeda from the protections of the Geneva Convention (proving Mr. Sullivan is not an expert in international law), but then in a back door manner included al Qaeda again because, basically, the U.S. "doesn't do torture."

Someone, of course, should tell him about the School of the Americas.

Lawyers learn early in their careers to never say "never," and to always expect a new document or witness to turn up and transform their finely crafted defense into so much smoking ash. Per First Draft this morning, and a report on NPR, the ACLU has now done just that to Mr. Sullivan's argument.

Mr. Sullivan persuades himself, far too early in the day, it turns out, that Mr. Danner's exhaustive review of documents surrounding Abu Ghraib and Gitmo is enough to allow us all to reach conclusions about who did what, and why. Unfortunately for this argument, neither Mr. Dunn nor Mr. Sullivan has seen all the documents. The ACLU representative interviewed on NPR said the ACLU is convinced there are many more documents still to be released. Which can only mean any conclusions about how far up the chain of command responsibility for the torture in Abu Ghraib and Gitmo goes, are premature. As are any conclusions that the reach is limited, that the abuses and torture are, ultimately, the fault of someone below those held responsible for the actions of people under their command, because those in command are responsible for allowing such people to be under their command in the first place, or for setting the "tone" of what is permitted on their "watch."

To be fair, Mr. Sullivan seems to understand this:
And the damage done was intensified by President Bush's refusal to discipline those who helped make this happen. A president who truly recognized the moral and strategic calamity of this failure would have fired everyone responsible.... The man who paved the way for the torture of prisoners is to be entrusted with safeguarding the civil rights of Americans. It is astonishing he has been nominated, and even more astonishing that he will almost certainly be confirmed.

But in a democracy, the responsibility is also wider. Did those of us who fought so passionately for a ruthless war against terrorists give an unwitting green light to these abuses? Were we naïve in believing that characterizing complex conflicts from Afghanistan to Iraq as a single simple war against ''evil'' might not filter down and lead to decisions that could dehumanize the enemy and lead to abuse? Did our conviction of our own rightness in this struggle make it hard for us to acknowledge when that good cause had become endangered? I fear the answer to each of these questions is yes.

American political polarization also contributed. Most of those who made the most fuss about these incidents - like Mark Danner or Seymour Hersh - were dedicated opponents of the war in the first place, and were eager to use this scandal to promote their agendas. Advocates of the war, especially those allied with the administration, kept relatively quiet, or attempted to belittle what had gone on, or made facile arguments that such things always occur in wartime. But it seems to me that those of us who are most committed to the Iraq intervention should be the most vociferous in highlighting these excrescences. Getting rid of this cancer within the system is essential to winning this war.
I don't quote this to disagree with him. I quote it to point out the danger of moral blindness, the disaster that inevitably follows on treating your "enemy" as someone or even something, that must be stopped. "Getting rid of this cancer" is a more pervasive problem than Mr. Sullivan's epiphany recognizes. The cancer is violence itself. We cannot privilege violence in one case, and condemn it in others. It will not stay so nicely caged, so surely under our control, so definitely in our grasp. Murphy's Law always applies, and it even more so when violence is invoked in the name of "us." Is it really possible to fight a "war" against "evil"? Are we really that ignorant, that arrogant, that naive, to believe such a thing is possible, or that we are the ones "chosen" to prosecute it? "Getting rid of this cancer...[in order to win]...the war" is unintentionally ironic: war is the cancer. The question is: how do we remove it?

How do we love our enemy? Well, who is "our" enemy? And why?

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