No Mistake

This is a follow up to the last post, in which I argue that it is the duty of a patriot to speak up about the wrongdoing of his own country. This is called “taking responsibility.” Non-patriots (like Michelle Malkin) confuse responsibility with disloyalty and scream that we liberals hate America because we point to Abu Ghraib before we point to atrocities committed by other nations.

To this, rightie blogger Neptunus Lex writes,

Both Maha from the Mahablog and Larisa Alexandrovna from At-Largely make the transparently intentional “mistake” of conflating the actions of the Abu Ghraib criminals – thugs who were ostensibly agents of the state but acting against the state’s interests, in contrast with the state’s orders and who were subsequently punished by the full weight of the state’s power – with the state sponsored actions of thuggish Iranian police in the service of a thuggish regime: A positionally gratifying but soul destroying form of moral equivalence.

On Lex’s planet, no one in government or the military who hasn’t already been punished for what happened at Abu Ghraib had anything to do with it. Funny; that’s not what it looks like on my planet. The military’s chief investigator of the incident, Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba, says he was blocked from investigating who ordered the torture at Abu Ghraib. So, we don’t yet know beyond a doubt how far up knowledge and orders went. What we do know is not reassuring.

Today Barton Gellman and Jo Becker write for the Washington Post:

The vice president’s office played a central role in shattering limits on coercion of prisoners in U.S. custody, commissioning and defending legal opinions that the Bush administration has since portrayed as the initiatives, months later, of lower-ranking officials.

Cheney and his allies, according to more than two dozen current and former officials, pioneered a novel distinction between forbidden “torture” and permitted use of “cruel, inhuman or degrading” methods of questioning. They did not originate every idea to rewrite or reinterpret the law, but fresh accounts from participants show that they translated muscular theories, from Yoo and others, into the operational language of government.

A backlash beginning in 2004, after reports of abuse leaked out of Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison and Guantanamo Bay, brought what appeared to be sharp reversals in courts and Congress — for both Cheney’s claims of executive supremacy and his unyielding defense of what he called “robust interrogation.”

But a more careful look at the results suggests that Cheney won far more than he lost. Many of the harsh measures he championed, and some of the broadest principles undergirding them, have survived intact but out of public view.

Let’s review a few matters that have been in public record for quite a while. We can begin with this handy-dandy timeline from the Washington Post. In short —

In January 2002, John Yoo (as deputy chief of the Justice Department’s Office of Special Counsel) circulated a draft memo saying the Geneva Conventions and laws of war do not apply to the U.S. military action in Afghanistan. By some coincidence, the first “detainees” arrived at Gitmo a couple of days later.

A couple of weeks after the John Yoo memo began to circulate, David Addington (then Vice President Cheney’s general counsel) drafted a legal memo in response to Secretary of State Powell’s opinion that Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners are protected by the Geneva Convention. Addington’s memo — prepared for White House Counsel Alberto Gonzales to sign — advised President Bush that “the war on terrorism is a new kind of war, a new paradigm [that] renders obsolete Geneva’s strict limitation on questioning of enemy prisoners and renders some of its provisions quaint.”

On February 7, 2002, President Bush signed an order based on the Addington-Gonzales memo. A couple of years later the White House propaganda mill tried to claim this order rejected torture. But this claim drags parsing and nuance into the Twilight Zone. Michael Froomkin explained,

This Bush order applies to the Afghanistan Taliban, and to alleged al-Qaida members in Iraq and worldwide; it says they don’t have rights, but doesn’t say that they should be tortured; rather it says they should be treated “humanely” and that they should be given Geneva-like privileges when not too inconvenient to do so.

The order accepts the Royalist theory of Presidential power, but says it declines to apply it: “I accept the legal conclusion of the attorney general and the Department of Justice that I have the authority under the Constitution to suspend Geneva as between the United States and Afghanistan, but I decline to exercise that authority at this time.”

The other catch, of course, is the definition of “humanely.” Take the now-infamous August 1, 2002 torture memorandum to Gonzales, for example. As explained by John Dean [emphasis added] —

At the time, [Jay] Bybee was Assistant Attorney General for the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) – an office once called the conscience of the Justice Department. …

… The Bybee memo was a formal legal opinion of the Office of Legal Counsel interpreting the Convention Against Torture and the accompanying criminal provisions enacted by Congress in 1996 to prohibit torture.

The co-author of the memo was Bybee’s deputy, John Yoo, now a law professor at Berkeley’s Boalt Hall Law School. But who wrote what is unclear. In the end, Bybee was the senior official who signed off on the legal opinion, so the responsibility for its content is his.

Bybee’s interpretations guided the Bush Administration for twenty-two months. And a powerful case has been made that Bybee’s extraordinary reading of the law led to Americans engaging in torture at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere.

The memo defines torture so narrowly that only activities resulting in “death, organ failure or the permanent impairment of a significant body function” qualify. It also claims, absurdly, that Americans can defend themselves if criminally prosecuted for torture by relying on the criminal law defenses of necessity and/or self-defense, based on the horror of the 9/11 terrorist attacks.

Finally, the memo asserts that the criminal law prohibiting torture “may be unconstitutional if applied to interrogations undertaken of enemy combatants pursuant to the President’s Commander-in-Chief powers.”

In short, the memo advises that when acting as commander-in-chief, the president can go beyond the law.

The Abu Ghraib photos became public in 2004. Maj. Gen. Antonio Taguba headed the military investigation of Abu Ghraib. Let’s go to an editorial that appeared last week in the Philadelphia Inquirer to find out what happened next.

The abuses were systemic and pervasive, he concluded. He suspected, but was not in position to prove, that responsibility for these violations of human rights, military honor, American ideals and international law went far up the U.S. chain of command. [Remember, Taguba says he was blocked from investigating who ordered the torture at Abu Ghraib.]

His dire account was confirmed and buttressed by subsequent military and civilian investigations (e.g., the Fay and Schlesinger reports).

Taguba’s report rattled around the Pentagon without much response in early 2004, until the news media broke the Abu Ghraib story in April of that year.

In an interview in this week’s New Yorker magazine, Taguba says that then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s claims of ignorance about the real scope of the Abu Ghraib crimes struck him as phony then – and still do.

Here is the voice of American military idealism and honor talking:

”From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity and selfless service. And yet when we get to the senior-officer level, we forget those values. I know that my peers in the Army will be mad at me for speaking out, but the fact is that we violated the laws of land warfare in Abu Ghraib. We violated the tenets of the Geneva Convention. We violated our own principles, and we violated the core of our military values. The stress of combat is not an excuse, and I believe, even today, that those civilian and military leaders responsible should be held accountable.”

In January of 2006, Taguba was instructed by the Army to retire by January of 2007. No explanation was given.

Here’s the Seymour Hersh interview
of Taguba, btw.

Last year PBS ran a Frontline program called “The Torture Question.” This chronology takes us from the formation of the Bush Administration’s “legal” framework for torture through Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld’s involvement in development of torture policies.

And then there’s the Dickster himself, Vice President Cheney. As Spencer Ackerman wrote, “At every stage in the post-9/11 debate, Cheney and his staff sought to enshrine torture as official U.S. policy, relying on a legalistic distinction between ‘torture’ and ‘cruelty.'”

How much did Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and military brass know about Abu Ghraib before it became public? How much was explicitly ordered, and how much was just winked at? Why was Gen. Taguba prevented from investigating who ordered what at Abu Ghraib? Why was he asked to resign? And what’s going on that we don’t yet know about?

Although the degree of complicity with the atrocities at Abu Ghraib is not clear, it’s obvious that Bush and Cheney set the tone that enabled those atrocities. And there have been atrocities. Our good blog buddy The Talking Dog has been conducting interviews with people who worked within such “facilities” as Gitmo and who testify that things were done that should not have been done. Regarding Abu Ghraib, see, for example, this interview with Dr. Steven Miles.

There’s is a great deal more evidence I could drag into this post to show why I am not satisfied the real perps have been brought to justice, but I want to finish writing this blog post some time today. So let’s go back to Neptunus Lex and his criticism of my post–

This is discreditable.

It should have been easy for the left, they could have either ignored Malkin entirely or even deprecatingly agreed: Awful, what the Iranian regime has done, indefensible. Even if it doesn’t add up to a casus belli. Which, although you didn’t mention Michelle, we all assume is what you’re going after. You war mongering pig.

Too easy, I guess. We cannot agree on even this, that evil is evil, end-period-dot.

No: Even here we must grapple with ourselves.

It’s come to this.

Awhile back David Brooks wrote:

Some liberals have trouble grasping evil, and always think that if we could take care of the handguns or the weapons of mass destruction, our problems would be ameliorated. But I know the problem lies in the souls of our enemies. [David Brooks, NY Times, February 11, 2004]

I responded to this with a treatise on evil, which you can read here. This seems to be a common refrain in right-wing screeding — that we liberals don’t know evil, and they do.

But I know a few things about evil that Brooks, and Lex Neptunus, apparently don’t. I know it is seductive, for example. Most of the really great evil ever done in the world has been done by people who thought what they were doing was good and justified and righteous. The 9/11 attacks are a classic example. Torture, including torture sanctioned by any part of the United States government, is another example.

This isn’t about “moral equivalence.” It’s about stopping whatever evil I can stop. The 9/11 attacks happened. I can’t stop them now. But evil being perpetrated by my own government is something I ought to be able to do something about, since this is a republic and I am a citizen.

Another thing I know about evil is that evil does not recognize itself as evil. It denies truth and makes excuses. It doesn’t take responsibility.

Not taking responsibility should remind us of Hannah Arendt’s writings on the “banality of evil.” She looked hard at Adolf Eichmann, a chief architect of the Holocaust, and concluded that he was not so much consciously and willfully malevolent as he was unthinking. He followed orders without taking responsibility for the consequences. From the Internet Encyclopedia of Philosophy:

Arendt concluded that Eichmann was constitutively incapable of exercising the kind of judgement that would have made his victims’ suffering real or apparent for him. It was not the presence of hatred that enabled Eichmann to perpetrate the genocide, but the absence of the imaginative capacities that would have made the human and moral dimensions of his activities tangible for him. Eichmann failed to exercise his capacity of thinking, of having an internal dialogue with himself, which would have permitted self-awareness of the evil nature of his deeds. This amounted to a failure to use self-reflection as a basis for judgement, the faculty that would have required Eichmann to exercise his imagination so as to contemplate the nature of his deeds from the experiential standpoint of his victims. This connection between the complicity with political evil and the failure of thinking and judgement inspired the last phase of Arendt’s work, which sought to explicate the nature of these faculties and their constitutive role for politically and morally responsible choices.

Please note that I am not saying Abu Ghraib is morally equivalent to the Holocaust. I really don’t give a bleep about moral equivalences. The evil that most concerns me, great or small, is evil I might be responsible for, and that I might be able to stop.

And, of course, if you’ve been following the “Wisdom of Doubt” series, you know I think the real evil that men (and women) do comes not from a lack of morality or religion, but from our capacity to bullshit ourselves about ourselves. People who cannot honestly examine themselves and reflect deeply on their own desires and motives are oh, so easily deceived and seduced by evil.

So now we see Neptunus Lex, who dismisses Abu Ghraib as the property of the “anti-war left” –” it is the defining moment wherein the moral high ground shifted, where they – up until that moment abiding darkly in the stilt puppet wilderness – walked gratefully into the light of public approbation.” And who assumes he and the politicians he supports had nothing to do with it — not his responsibility. Not something he has to think about. Out of sight, out of mind.

Yes, evil is evil, especially when it can’t recognize itself. I suggest to Mr. Neptunus that if he wants to see the face of evil, he should go look in a mirror.

18 thoughts on “No Mistake

  1. Last night I finally found time to read Hersh’s New Yorker piece on Gen. Taguba, and it made me so angry I thought my hair would catch fire. War criminals, all of them: Abazaid, Rummy, Cheney, Bush.

    There is no longer any reason, on any planet, to continue the lie that the handful of young recruits from the back woods were acting on their own at Abu Ghraib. The creeps like Malkin and this creature from Neptune, who should know better and probably do, are on a par with the civilian thugs of Iran who stand behind the religion cops, cheering them on.

    I can’t summarize any better than the last sentence of your post, maha.

  2. If the beginning and ending of your circular logic chain is that your political opponents are not merely misguided, misinformed or mistaken, but they are actually evil — that army generals, or secretaries of defense or vice presidents themselves decided that the best thing to do was to roll naked prisoners around on dog leashes while taking digital photos, and that the instrument of this national policy was to be a low IQ clerk typist national guardsman from West Virginia — then nothing I could say would reason you out of that position.

    After all, you were never reasoned into it.

    And as for Taguba, your reference says, “He suspected, but was not in position to prove, that responsibility for these violations of human rights, military honor, American ideals and international law went far up the U.S. chain of command.”

    Well, so long as the general suspected, I suppose that should be enough to tar the entire army chain of command and government servants with the actions of a few. Especially if, you know: They’re evil.

  3. Lex — thanks for stopping by and proving my point — that you’re too biased to see the evidence and admit the truth.

    If the beginning and ending of your circular logic chain is that your political opponents are not merely misguided, misinformed or mistaken, but they are actually evil

    You need to learn to think, but I suppose before that you will have to learn to read. One step at a time, I guess.

    You were the one who brought up evil and claimed I don’t know that evil is evil, so I expounded a bit on the nature of evil, a subject about which you are profoundly ignorant. If you had read my treatise on evil, you would know that I said no one is intrinsically evil. Not even you, actually. But people who don’t recognize evil as evil except when someone else does it (see mirror) are generally the ones who commit most of the evil in the world.

    Take care.

  4. Great post with many interesting and useful links. I too have repeatedly had that conversation with conservatives who are transfixed by “great evils” they see foreigners doing, but are unwilling or unable to conceive of the evil that is done here at home, done in our name, the blood is on our hands, over which they have some control and responsibility. The moral equivalence comes in when they finally warm to acknowledging our wrong-doing but attempt to justify it as tit-for-tat. Hence the righties’ bleating about the horrors in Iran – they need their justification for their position.

    One of the evils I’ve been thinking about lately is how our government managed to bullshit the whole nation into going along with them in attacking Iraq in the first place. I’ve also been thinking about how this self-serving aggression toward other countries is not new, but is an extension of how our country has often related to other countries in the past, despite our sometimes magnanimous character both geniuine and fictional. The difference is that most of these foreign meddlings have been covert, and largely hidden from public view. Most of them have been relatively small scale and easy to hide, whereas remodeling the Middle East/invading Iraq was such an ambitious project that it could not be hidden.

    I’d like to believe that beyond practical considerations, there was some shame over these acts of aggression that required them to be hidden from view, which is part of the reason why most of these meddlings are not common knowledge. Iraq however, brought out the most shameless, brazen lying and delusion in full public view.

    I guess I’m saying that people like Nixon who tried to build an imperial presidency at least recognized that what he was doing was wrong (although he no doubt thought it was for the country’s good) and he took pains to hide what he was doing to not get caught; the current crop of leaders have no such recognition of wrongness, in fact we have Bush who thinks he’s on a mission from God, his secduction by evil is so much more complete. The scale of the delusion and shamelessness is orders of magnitude apart. I don’t know history that well, but I think this is a first in our country.

  5. I thought at the time when Abu Ghraib abuses became public that it was stupid to believe that the grunts, who knew little or nothing about the Iraq culture, JUST MAGICALLY happened upon the use of psychological triggers [ sexual exposure, homosexual postures, and so forth] that would most humiliated Muslims.

  6. Abu Ghraib so parallels the psychology experiments done after World War 2, which attempted to find out how ordinary, decent people could participate in things like the Holocaust. The Milgram Experiment is the most famous of these, where researchers were stunned to discover that ordinary people, your next door neighbor for example, could easily be cajoled into torturing their peers. This requires leaders who want and direct this outcome, and ordinary folks who are willing to submit to these leaderss.

    And so at Abu Ghraib, we have torture on a large scale, committed by average grunts who are taught to follow orders, your next door neighbors. You’re damn right their won’t be any investigation of the people above them.

  7. Isn’t it oh so convenient that those grunts suddenly discovered a taste for torture after the new commander arrived from Gitmo, where the same things were being done. Methinks Mr. Lex needs some serious glasses to see what is right in front of his nose. Bush’s last die-hard 29% are so incapable of admitting their support of these policies was wrong that they are forced to defend the most anti-american of polcies ever put forth. They betray the nation, even as they accuse others of doing so, merely for pointing out where we’ve strayed.

  8. I suppose when lex heard Rush Limbaugh say, “maybe the people who ordered this were pretty smart” he was furious. “Smart?! Are you kidding? This is disastrous! We’re supposed to be the good guys! This just goes against who we are as a nation. It must be the work of a low IQ clerk typist national guardsman from West Virginia, not something that was “ordered” by anyone. If Rush is right and I’m wrong, I will lose a lot of confidence in my nation’s leaders.

    If lex is a Bush supporter and has indeed referred to this as “acting against the state’s interests” from the beginning, he deserves a lot of credit; it must have been lonely going in those early days.

  9. For the record, Lex did indeed call out the behavior at Abu Ghraib early on:

    His was not the standard civilian Bush supporter position, but certainly is consistent with others in the military at the time. And I stand by my earlier statement: he deserves credit for calling it what it was.

  10. Based on his showing here, he deserves credit for being a better damage controller than the likes of Limbaugh. Medal of freedom material these days.

  11. What is Lex talking about?

    In my reading, it was Malkin who drew a moral equivalency between the Iranian beating and Abu Ghraib, by suggesting that, if lefties were honest about their outrage at Abu Ghraib they should be equally outraged and vociferous about the Iranian incident. Because they are equivalent, presumably, and the response should be consistent.

    Malkin’s point was, since the left is not raging about Iran, they are hypocritical and their outrage at Abu Ghraib must therefore be inauthentic.

    The point is that the two are NOT equivalent, and that Malkin’s thesis is incorrect. One can have a different degree of moral outrage for the behavior of the United States than for the behavior of Iran. This is not to approve of Iran, but simply to hold our country to the standard it aspires to, which has made us a great nation.

    Abu Ghraib elicited the response it did because it was us doing it, which is important in many different ways. Among them, the fact that we, as a nation, are supposed to reject such behaviors, that we have a history of standing in opposition to them, and that, as maha mentions above, this is our republic and we have a chance of doing something about it.

    There is ample evidence that WE DON’T KNOW who is or isn’t responsible for Abu Ghraib, and until we have a complete investigation, given the rhetoric and record of this administration, it is ridiculous to assume we have punished them. (How did those hillbillies figure out these techniques that so closely match Gitmo?)

    I agree with Lex, and with Malkin, I guess, that the photos from Iran are awful. I encourage the Iranian people to get busy trying to change their government to stop such atrocities. Once we’ve stopped our own government’s atrocities, maybe we can help. Maybe if Malkin pitched in, instead of sniping at us, it would happen sooner.

  12. Lex did indeed call out the behavior at Abu Ghraib early on

    Translation: He’s less of a clueless dork than Rush Limbaugh. But he still isn’t seeing the big picture.

  13. God bless the scoundrels! Cheney single handedly dragged America into the gutter. Between him and Gonzales, our word as a nation is shit. The Geneva Coventions are a worthless document, and our honor in honoring treaties is gone. They essentially took a dump on what America should be.
    When I grew up, Americans looked at other countries who condoned torture and flagrant human rights violations, and took pride in the fact that we were Americans, and we didn’t engage in that kind behavior as a nation. Unfortunately, I can’t claim that honor of national morality any more, nor can I take pride in what America has become. I hope, I double hope..that Cheney gets his eternal reward soon. The sooner he slips into eternity, the better this universe will be.

  14. Oh, another thing…Anybody who’s been in the military or any organization that is structure with an echelon system knows that the shit that when on at Abu Ghraib didn’t happen without the blessings from above. I reject totally the idea that the abuse was conducted by renegades. No way!!! And Bush was no stranger to what was going on.

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    Bush is still indulging himself in lies. ” Oh no, we don’t torture, or commit human rights abuses”.. How can you even hope to reach somebody who is so far out in La La land with their delusions and denials that reality can’t even penetrate?

  17. He’s less of a clueless dork than Rush Limbaugh. But he still isn’t seeing the big picture.

    Well, exactly. I had assumed that, like most Bush supporters, he would have defended the abuses, or at least sought to excuse them, and I commented sarcastically based on that assumption. When I discovered I was wrong, I thought I should correct myself.

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