Towards A Good Samaritan World

Thursday, July 14, 2005


Andrew Sullivan, the most respectable of the Gitmo-torture-alarmist crowd, has just written an eloquent and very interesting post drawing on something called the Schmidt report. Sullivan is determined to blame Bush for the incidents and sometimes overdraws the case. Thus the top entry is entitled "Abu Ghraib -- Authorized," but within the paragraph this turns out to mean "some of these techniques were authorized," and later it turns out that "the report calls [the practices] 'the creative application of authorized interrogation techniques,' and the interrogators 'believed they were acting within existing guidance.'" To some extent, people do have to be held accountable for the "creative interpretations" of what they authorize by underlings. On the other hand, it's untenable to expect a president to understand all the implications of some technical note on military detention procedures that he signs. A president has to delegate, and those he delegates to delegate too, and that's the only way an entity with responsibilities as vast as those of the US government could operate. Sullivan concludes: "When president George Bush said that the vile practices recorded at Abu Ghraib did not represent America, he was right. They don't. They represent his administration and his policies. Of that there can no longer be any reasonable doubt." To drive a wedge between Bush and America may be useful in agitating against torture, or whatever, but it undermines accountability in our system, because it encourages a lack of realism about how power is wielded. For decades the left has hurled these kind of charges against whoever is in power at a given time. It can always be done if you're clever enough. And then the left turned around and became the de facto ally of Saddam Hussein in 2002-03. Moral purity in its shriller forms goes easily and spectacularly astray.

But what's really interesting is the stories Sullivan tells! A lot of writers have declared that this is a war of "civilization against barbarism". Well, that's a two-way street:

He said he had been sexually abused: "female interrogators removed their BDU tops and rubbed themselves against the detainee, fondled his genitals, and made lewd sexual comments, noises and gestures." The report concludes that the interrogators "used their status as females" to interrogate, but cannot corrobroate the specific charges.

Some guys would like that, of course. Some guys would pay for it. For a Muslim, it seems like a weird cross between torture and temptation. But who's the barbarian here? Protecting the honor of women has been a hallmark of civilization for much of its history, as perhaps it is today, with women far better protected against rape in the United States than in, say, sub-Saharan Africa. From the point of view of a Muslim, or even of Victorian England, it is the detainees who are on the side of civilization, here.

It's also interesting to note what our people did not seem to do to detainees. In particular, they seem to prefer psychological torments to inflicting sharp physical pain. There is no stabbing or cutting with sharp objects. Dogs are brought in and bare their teeth but are apparently not unleashed to bite prisoners. Whatever classifies as physical suffering is mild. Water is poured over prisoners. They are "kept awake for 18 - 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 consecutive days," which reminds me of college. The inventiveness of the psychological torments seems to be motivated by a need to create a strong incentive for prisoners to break down, without resorting to hard-core physical torture. Is that better? I don't know.


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