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January 23, 2005


Joe I.

Dan, I haven't been spending much time on political blogs now that the election is over because the shrill voices on most are not worth my time. But I must say that I read some things about the latest torture fiasco and brought it up to my book club group here in Seattle and the response was, that it is old news and over. Puts your point to the reality test, at least for me.

Dan Gillmor

The reality test, in this case, strikes me as wishful thinking.


It makes for cognitive dissonance (and considerable revulsion) watching movies now: "Are those our evil henchmen?"

As Tony Long put it: "The next time you watch a war movie where a monocle-wearing Nazi says 'Ve haff vays of making you talk,' realize that his tactics are now endorsed by the U.S. government."


This is what happens to a nation with no sense of history. Sure, it would be nice if simple morality prevented quasi-torture (etc.) but even failing that, you'd think self-interest would kick in.

When you make an enemy (or when you grow your enemies), you have enemies ... sometimes for 50 years, 100 years, it just keeps going. You hand the torture problem to your children, along with everthing else.

tim fong

What is even more shocking is the tacit endorsement of torture by television programs such as 24. It is ultimately an expression of the idea that certain individual human lives have no dignity as human beings.

Another indicator of inhumanity was the fact that Condi Rice refused to answer the question about her own response to the torture photos. That leads me to believe that she thinks her personal human reaction isn't important in the context of serving the President. All she could do was keep repeating the phrase "The President's position is..." That reminds me very much of the logic of the old time Soviet bloc Communists. The Communists too viewed individual human beings as simply disposable means to the utopian ends of an all powerful system. Perhaps the good doctor spent so much time studying the CCCP that she has inadvertantly internalized their ethos.

You're right that our current leadership is sophisticated in its rhetoric about torture ...they simply redefine torture to be something other than what we all, as humans, know to be torture. Then they send out their minions like Limbaugh to apologize away and tell listeners that what happened at Abu Ghraib was comparable to a fraternity initiation. So then the Bush administration gets it both ways--it gets to condemn "torture," while simultaneously seeing it justified by deniable radio personalities like Limbaugh.

In one his essay, "Politics and Conscience," Vaclav Havel writes that

"When a French leftist student told me with a sincere glow in his eyes that the Gulag was a tax paid for the ideals of socialism...he cast me into a deep gloom...Can't that dear lad ever understand that even the most promising project of 'general well-being' convicts itself of inhumanity the moment it demands a single involuntary death--that is, one which is not a conscious sacrifie of life to its meaning?"

If one changes the word "gulag" to "Abu Ghraib" and "socialism" to "freedom and liberty," the French student sounds like a right wing talk radio caller.

It is extraoridinarily ironic and frightening that conservatives in the United States have seized the logic and rhetoric of French Communists.

Charlie Prael

Folks? Before you go too far down the Abu Ghraib = torture path, I would invite you to do a little comparison shopping. Print out, oh, 20 of the pictures from Abu Ghraib. Get some "how are they when they got out of prison" pics in that mix.

Then line them up, and next to each one, put a picture from one of the following:
- Soviet Gulags
- Nazi German camps like Auschwitz, Bergen-Belsen, or Birkenau
- Bosnia/Serb camps like Prijedor, Brcko, or Bihac
- The Japanese camps in the Phillipines and throughout SE Asia
- Andersonville Prison

Or you can look at what the Iraqi Secret Police used to leave when they were done.

The comparison should be edifying.



You may be right, but before jumping to conclusions you might consider all of the abuses (the vast majority) for which we have no photos, and the fact that the U.S. military is investigating some 30 deaths of prisoners under suspicious circumstances, according to reports. How many more remain unreported?

And what about all the major-league torture and murder carried out by U.S.-trained proxies all over Latin America and elsewhere for decades? What about all the cases in which prisoners are turned over to less squeamish allies like the Pakistanis for more thorough interrogation? Where's the Geneva Convention and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights now? How about the Ten Commandments? How about any moral code whatsoever?

This torture thing is not new, and the U.S. does not have clean hands, and the bottom line is that most Americans don't know and don't care. And at that point, we have met the enemy, he is us, and the game is over.


Frank Rich's excellent column should also be linked to Andrew Sullivan's review in yesterday's NYTBR to two books on Abu Ghraib. What Sullivan makes clear is the odd way in which there is public knowledge about the events but shockingly little public action or outcry. It will be important to find ways of addressing this disconnect, ways that don't remain satisfied with the trial of one lone soldier. My most fundamental worry is that too many people actually think that torture is okay when applied to those who are less than human and the Bush administration has successfully configured the word to terrorist to refer to the less than human.


Much more on this story can be found in an excellent diary on, which focuses on the abuse of women and children by U.S. personnel in Iraq:

tim fong

There are plenty of ways to cause enormous pain without leaving marks that are readily visible in pictures.

Charlie Prael

Guys, I'm not going to clutter up Dan's comment section with this argument - it'd be bad manners. My point was, and is, that before screaming too loudly about how terrible Abu Ghraib was (and I'm not disagreeing that it _was_ bad, and _is_ a moral stain), you should refresh your memories about what the real thing looks like. There's lots of historical examples.

Kip Manley

Forget Charlie's rather specious investigative technique. Look to his basic point: we aren't as bad as Hitler. We aren't as bad as Stalin. We aren't as bad as Saddam. Way to set the bar.

Charlie Prael

OK, compare what happened at Abu Ghraib with something similarly violent. Like this, or this.

BTW - you might note that _we_ prosecute the people who do that kind of thing.

James Slusher

How many rapes and murders does it take to be heinous? Those pictures showed smiling G.I.s posing with the iced down bodies of their victims. If we got pics of that, how much did we miss?

To quote Bill O'Reilly (shudder):You can't excuse bad behavior with worse behavior.

Charlie Prael

James-- How many rapes/murders are GI's getting away with in Iraq? Documentation, please?

The Abu Ghraib pictures showed stuff that was illegal. You might note that all of the players in that are being dealt with - convictions, punished, and more.

BTW - Where's the terrible swift sword of condemnation when it isn't the US? When it's the UN in the Congo, Kosovo, or Bosnia. When it's Russian, Jordanian, French, Morroccan, Ukrainian, Uruguayan, or Canadian, it's pretty damn quiet. Where's the outrage, eh?

Bob M

What scares me about the torture issue is that the US tends to be very good at what it sets it mind to.

Dan Gillmor

I've removed a posting that is too much of a personal attack on one of our commenters. Please, let's debate issues and be respectful of each other.


Charlie, I'm sure you're a nice guy, so consider where the line of argument you're on heads.

2006:Okay, so we're using the same techniques of torture that the Nazis used, but at least we prosecute the people who use them.
2007:Okay, so we've stopped the torture prosecutions, but at least we don't torture as many people as the Nazis tortured.
2008:Okay, so we've tortured as many people as the Nazis tortured, but at least we're not torturing our own people.
2010:Okay, so we're torturing our own people, but at least I've only used the cattle prod on her.
2012:Okay, stop. I'll tell you what you want to know. Just don', please don't. Please. Aaaahhhhh. No. Please, no.
2016:Haven't I suffered enough? I was only following orders, and then they turned on me. Please, your honor, for the sake of what's left of my family. Don't let them hang me.
I'm not saying this is where it'd go in your case, but there are other people, perfectly decent people at one time, for whom it has. I speak as a former loudmouthed radical who only quieted down once he learned empathy. I could've headed down a parallel path myself. Given enough horror--and there's no shortage of horror in this world--I might backslide yet, and I'm a pretty nice guy, with a sweet wife and a beautiful baby daughter. Give this some thought, brother.

Charlie Prael

Adam - What I objected to - what I still object to - is equating what happened in Abu Ghraib however horrific and criminal that was to the Gulag, to the Final Solution, to Bosnian rape camps. It isn't the same thing. It's a denaturing the word "torture" into some common, workaday thing. "Torture" _should_ be something that horrifies the soul. It should be something we view with repugnance, that we zealously stomp out.

But if you equate "here, let me feed you feet-first into a plastic shredder" with "go stand in the corner with your underpants on your head while I take pictures", then there's something really wrong. If you want to equate "I'm going to sic an unmuzzled dog in your face to scare the hell out of you for my jollies" with "we're going to leave you tied up in the corner to watch while me and my 22 buddies gang-rape your wife", then I think we're going to have disagree. Because they're not the same thing. They're not even in the same order of magnitude.

And, again, I would note that we're prosecuting and punishing the folks who perpetrated Abu Ghraib. I see no rush to judgement, no wild outpourings of breast-beating over the evils of Saddam's secret police, over what happened in Bosnia, or in Kosovo, or in the Congo. It's as if the overwhelming attitude is "Well, they're just wogs/ragheads/third world whatevers. We _expect_ them to behave like that." I'm not sure which is more repugnant - the behavior (torture) or the belief-acceptance that it's normal for those other cultures.


Hi, Charlie,

I wouldn't equate the widespread use of torture by American forces with your three examples--"to the Gulag, to the Final Solution, to Bosnian rape camps"--and, in fact, I didn't and Dan didn't.

In one sense, I also wouldn't equate any two of your three examples--they're all distinct, and, if I cared to, I could distinguish among them. But I don't care to, because in another sense, I'd say that once acts have gone beyond the pale, comparing them and trying to set up hierarchies of evil is a way of excusing some of them, usually the ones we have reason to want to excuse. Again, I have personal experience with the seductiveness of this argument.

Now, that said, and with some ambivalence about doing so, I'll point out some places where you've argued poorly.

First, you're cherrypicking your examples of American and Iraqi behavior.

The woodchipper story has, I believe, been discredited--it appears to have no more factual basis than the atrocity stories of Iraqi soldiers taking babies out of incubators and leaving them to die in Kuwait during the first Gulf War.

American soldiers have not simply been terrifying and humiliating prisoners. There's been documented physical torture of the traditional sort, and there have been documented cases of prisoners dying from it.

Your gang rape example is on a par with some American behavior. It hasn't been limited to taking nudie pictures of Iraqi prisoners. It's included making them get into sexual poses with each other, which implys the threat of rape. That's a difference in degree, perhaps, of your example, but not a difference in kind. There are a small number of allegations of actual physical rape as well, although they don't seem to have been committed or directly ordered by Americans.

(Part of the ugliness of the American prison system is that it includes gang rape, actively tolerated by the authorities. I think it's no coincidence that some of the low-level torturers in Iraq were American prison guards.)

You are correct to say that there have been prosecutions over Abu Ghraib, but wrong to say that they are directed at the perpetrators. We've seen low-level flunkies getting what they deserve, but we aren't seeing those investigations (and the subsequent prosecutions) go up the chain of command. It's like prosecuting the guards at Auchwitz, but turning a blind eye to the camp commander and the civil and military authorities who established the policies. Those are the real perpetrators.

As to there being "no rush to judgement, no wild outpourings of breast-beating over the evils of Saddam's secret police, over what happened in Bosnia, or in Kosovo, or in the Congo" among those who condemn American torture, that's wrong on two counts.

First, I supported the American intervention in the Balkans, and I support intervention in Sudan right now. I'm not "breast-beating" over what was done in, say, Sarajevo, because America didn't do it. We tolerated it for far too long, and that's a pity, but the primary responsibility rests with the perpetrators. Right now, we're tolerating horrors in Sudan, in no small part because we committed our forces to a needless war in Iraq, and that does make me angry and ashamed.

Second, as to your claim that those of us who oppose torture by Americans have a "belief-acceptance that it's normal for those other cultures", I find that offensive. I don't believe any such thing, nor would I couch how I do feel about it with terms like "wogs" or "ragheads". I suspect you're entirely sincere about that argument, but the people who invented it were not. They were cynical SOBs who tried to excuse their own racist polices by projecting their racism onto their opponents.

The United States has a long history of supporting evil in other countries, including Iraq--I do feel some guilt over what Saddam Hussein did with the arms America gave him in the eighties--and notably including much of Central and South America, many parts of Asia, and much of Africa, particularly South Africa. Heck, it took a hundred years after the Civil War for America to cripple the system of white supremacism in the South--that, too, was torture and murder by the millions.

What this stage of American torture reminds me of is lynching:

Encouraged by the powers-that-be. The forces of law and order passively and actively participating, both before and after the fact. Decent people stepping aside for the mob while muttering, "This isn't really right," under their breath. The excuses for the violence. The intoxication of power, the excellent thrill of justified cruelty on the part of the immediate perpetrators. At the end of it all, dead bodies and a terrorized people.

Oh, yes--and those rare brave men and women whose fundamental decency forces them to act in opposition to the mob, often at the risk of their own life, liberty, and pursuit of happiness. Those are the people I prefer to think of when I think of my fellow Americans. My conscience forces me to think of the others as well. Call that breast-beating if you will. I have another word for it.

Charlie Prael

Adam-- Whether you equate the two definitions, or Dan does (and I would argue that the statement that started this all _does_ make that equation), large segments of the media _do_ make that equation. SJ Mercury writers do. Chron writers do. NYT writers do. WashPost writers do. MANY writers do - and their editors support it.

I didn't cherrypick. I grabbed off the top of my head. If the plastic shredder has been disproved, I'd like to see reputable cites. If you like, substitute the "I'll stand on rubber tires, you stand on the wet floor, and I'll run 50K voltage through you from my generator". It's hard to disprove the photographic evidence on that. My point was to demonstrate that the two _are_ being equated, and that it's an abuse of the language, and an offense to the sense of decency to do so.

Yes, Americans are doing far more. They're being investigated, under due process of law, and prosecuted for it. They're being administratively punished for it, in other cases.

PS - your example of being made to get into sexual poses is another example I'd thought to bring up. Simulate it, and it's as bad as the real thing. Pshaw. Ask your female friends - is being made to look like you're being raped as bad as _being_ raped? That's the argument you've just made.

As to prosecutions: Well, let's see. Garner got 10 years. His cohorts have largely pled out. Every person on that cell block group, with the exception of the new nugget who blew the whistle, has gotten a sentance. BG Karpinski's been relieved, reduced in rank, and sent off into the wilderness (and if you don't think that's a punishment, on a career-ending level, think again). More heads are going to roll on this, as they work through the system. Not all of them will result in prison terms. Many careers will suddenly and painfully end. But not "go[ing] up the chain of command"? I'm sure Ms. Karpinski would beg to differ. And, note, Ms. Karpinski was a Brigadier General, confirmed by Congress. The "I was just following orders" defense doesn't work. She's one of those people who are issued a "the buck stops here" sign when they get the star.

I would reiterate that there has not been an equality of response over the Balkans, over Kosovo, over Rwanda and the Congo, that there has been over Abu Ghraib. Hell, count the column inches. In the last year, there's been more written about Abu Ghraib around the country, than was written in 4 years about the depravities of the Balkans, about the horrors in Kosovo, AND about what's been going on in Rwanda, and now the Congo. Combined.

As to the "projecting racism" a gentlemen of my acquaintance recently penned something that's on point.
"Probably the most damaging form of racism is the liberal, gentle, more-in-sorrow-than-anger form, which is what we have here. Black people are just not capable; they're better off with white people to look after them. My grandmother, a gentle soul, was one of them. She wouldn't have said "nigger" with a gun to her head, but that was before "black" came to be normally used. "You have to be nice to the Negroes," she said sometime in 1958 or so. "They can't _do_ like white people can."" - Ric Locke (full item avail. here

Sudan... Ummm, let me ask you something. What happened in the last 6 months that suddenly made dealing with Sudan a national/moral priority? This war's been going on for over a decade. For over a decade, it's been ignored. It's been "oh, how terrible, pass the unagi, would you?" Rape, terror, enslavement - nothing the Janjaweed did was anything that hadn't been seen before. But now, suddenly, it's Important that we do something about it. Why?

Oh, and American moral culpability for shipping arms to Iraq? This is all I have to say on the subject. I stand by what I said back then.

We're an imperfect people, Adam. We must muddle through.


Hi, Charlie,

Mostly, I'll stand on what I said above. There are only a few points I'd like to make in response to your latest post.

First, under any reasonable definition of the word torture, some American conduct toward prisoners falls under it.

The facts bear that out, and that the best argument against that is "those guys are worse" only shows that American moral sensibilties are becoming dulled by the acts committed in our names, by our government, with our tax dollars.

Second, in reference to rape, American conduct goes far beyond simply putting people into sexual poses and taking pictures of them. But again, why isn't that clearly wrong, in and of itself? Because someone else did something worse? That's it?

Third, losing your career is a punishment, but it's not a very severe punishment. There are good jobs, at significantly higher salaries, in the privatized war and prison industries waiting for the higher-ups whose careers get stalled.

Fourth, Sudan became a national topic because evangelical Christians made it so. They're paying a lot of attention Africa these days, especially where their proselytizing has been successful. In the case of Sudan, they're in the right.

Fifth, Americans pay more attention to torture in Iraq because it's Americans committing the torture. That's a no-brainer.

Sixth, the characterizaton of "liberal racism" you quote above is a calculated right-wing lie about liberals and thus beneath contempt. It doesn't deserve even the response I've given it, let alone the waste of reason and analysis in refuting it.

Seventh, the sort of racism that drags people out of their homes and beats them to death or burns them alive is pretty darns evil. Being condescended to is something everyone, of all races, experiences, and it's an annoyance at worst.

We are indeed an imperfect people. Muddling through--accepting evil in ourselves--is a violation of the American character.

Charlie Prael

Why Adam, how passive-aggressive of you. Regarding your points:
1. I didn't disagree. We're investigating, and prosecutions have been ongoing. Court martials, non-judicial punishment... As I said, we're doing something about our involvement.
2. You (and I) refered to a specific set of incidents. You tried to equate taking pictures with rape. Either stand behind your words or retract them. Don't amend the issue. You're trying to redefine "is" in mid-discussion.
3. Losing a career you spent 30 years building, in disgrace, is indeed a punishment. Esp. when you know it's just the opening salvo.
4. Then kudos to the evangelical Christians for getting someone to actually pay attention. Dings on the left for ignoring it for so long, neh?
5. Well, you've alread conceded that the other examples cited are worse. So it deserves more attention when Americans do it than when someone else does, eh? When Americans clean up their own messes, than when we have to clean up someone elses? Remember what I said about "they're third worlders/wogs/ragheads, we expect this of them"? You've just demonstrated one mode of that.
6. Right. Passive-aggressive. If you can't refute it, call it a lie and refuse to actually address the point. I like the way you did that right after you demonstrated it in action.
7. Yes, it is. Being condescending to someone who's suffering from your list of "pretty darn evil" - it's not quiet as evil, but "aiding and abetting" comes to mind.
Regarding your last - I gather you are of a strongly Jeffersonian bent?

PS - Still need the cite on the plastic shredder being debunked.


Broad brushes. Shallow thinking. Pontificating and posturing. Sigh.

1. What is allowed by law? Answer: a lot more than you'd think.
2. What, even though it is allowed by law, do you limit? Answer: A lot more than you'd think.
3. What do you punish? Answer: a lot, but it takes time.

People forget that Bush specifically restricted what could be done in what was, for American jurisprudence, a new, unique circumstance. And he restricted it to a lot less than what was done at Abu Graib.

Here are two different considerations:
1) Since the Geneva Convention does NOT apply to non-state-sponsored terrorists, what law does apply?
2) When an individual puts himself outside the moral umbrella and into the realm of nature where the law of the jungle applies, does one get the freedom to apply the law of the jungle in return? Before you answer, remember that because you have the freedom to respond in kind, doesn't make it sensible or appropriate to do so.

Too many are positing principles that are not germane and, thus, are cluttering up the conversation.


Sorry, Charlie, but when you start off with a psycholoslur like "passive-aggressive", I assume you aren't making a good faith discussion. I broke one of my own rules--that arguing the details of evil enables the rationalization of evil--and now I'm paying.

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