Monday, December 19, 2005

"Dangerous Territory" - Paul Berman & Bob Herbert

As Paul Berman insightfully pointed out in a reflective piece on the Iraq war in mid-2004, Silence and Cruelty: Five Lessons from a Bad Year:
We have learned that F. Scott Fitzgerald's axiom--about intelligence as the ability to hold in mind two contradictory thoughts at the same time--has a corollary in the field of emotion. Sometimes you also have to hold in your heart two contradictory emotions. This is difficult. To understand Saddam Hussein and the history of modern Iraq, you have to feel anger--or else you have understood nothing.
But what if, in addition to feeling anger at Saddam (and at Sadr in his shroud, and at Mussab Al Zarqawi with his knife, and at Saddam's army, which was organizing suicide terrorists even before the invasion), you have also come to feel more than a little anger at George W. Bush? What if you gaze at events in Iraq and say to yourself: Things did not have to be this way. [....] Here is the challenge: to rage at Saddam and other enemies, and, at the same time, to rage in a somewhat different register at Bush, and to keep those two responses in proper proportion to one another. That can be a difficult thing to do, requiring emotional balance, maturity, and analytic clarity--a huge effort. [....] Bush has asked a great deal of America. He has asked us to draw on our emotional balance, maturity, and analytic clarity: the qualities that are needed to help us distinguish our feelings about the enemy from our feelings about the commander in chief. To distinguish between outright hatred and a certain kind of contempt.
I am often reminded of these wise and illuminating remarks, most recently by reading a column in today's New York Times by Bob Herbert, "Dangerous Territory":
There has been some encouraging news lately for those who cherish freedom, democracy and the rule of law.
No, I'm not talking about last week's election in Iraq. I mean the recent developments here at home, in the United States.
Sure, why should he talk about something so trivial as the first real parliamentary election in Iraq in a half-century, which also happened to be one of the most free and possibly consequential national elections in the history of the Arab Middle East--accomplished in the midst of massive social dislocation, ongoing civil war, a savage campaign of terrorism against Iraqi civilians, and credible threats to murder anyone who voted? I might slide over this remark as simply an example of bad taste, except I know that Herbert has consistently advocated that the US simply abandon Iraq, so that the Iraqis who voted last week can be slaughtered by the fascists and jihadis at the heart of the so-called "insurgency." Since Herbert is committed to this position, why complicate it by offering more than a dismissive passing mention of the Iraqi election--just enough to make it clear that no intelligent person should take that nonsense seriously? And now, back to Washington ....

To be perfectly honest, I have to admit that reading this kind of stuff--with its breezy, irresponsible, and ultimately cynical dismissal of Iraqis, their suffering, and their struggles--makes me sick. Is that unfair? I also have to admit that at times one of the few things that can counteract my own rage at the Bush administration and its works is to listen to some of its critics and opponents, at home and abroad, from Jacques Chirac and Brent Scowcroft to Ramsey Clark and the clearly deranged Harold Pinter and so many others--"realists," pseudo-humanitarians, pseudo-radicals, and pseudo-statesmen alike. (I've occasionally wondered whether people like the appalling Naomi Klein, for example, are really on Karl Rove's payroll. That's a joke, of course, but it would be good value for money. No, most of them are free-lancing ... and some of them, like George Galloway, appear to have been on Saddam Hussein's payroll, not Karl Rove's.)

However, Berman is quite right. It's crucial to maintain one's intellectual and emotional balance in these matters, now matter how hard that can sometimes be. For a start, what Herbert has to say in the rest of his column is correct and important:
President Bush, who bloodied John McCain in the brutal Republican primary in South Carolina in 2000, had to cry uncle last Thursday and accept Senator McCain's demand that the U.S. ban cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment of prisoners in American custody.
It was an embarrassing defeat for the Bush administration, which, in its high-handed approach to governing, has shown no qualms about trampling the fundamental tenets of a free, open and democratic society.
But worse was to come for the president. On Thursday night, The New York Times disclosed that Mr. Bush had secretly authorized the National Security Agency to eavesdrop on Americans and others inside the United States to search for terrorist activity ''without the court-approved warrants ordinarily required for domestic spying.''
Warrants? Why bother with warrants?
The Times article reminded me of the famous scene from ''The Treasure of the Sierra Madre'' in which the character played by Humphrey Bogart asks to see the badges of a group of Mexican bandits posing as government officials.
Incredulous, one of the bandits says: ''We don't need no badges. I don't have to show you any stinking badges.''
Mr. Bush apparently feels the same way about warrants. He said over the weekend that he had no intention of changing his eavesdropping policy.
Stubbornness is a well-known trait of this president. But increasing numbers of Americans are objecting to the administration's contemptuous attitude toward liberty and the law. On Friday, the Senate blocked reauthorization of the Patriot Act because of its dangerous intrusions on privacy and threats to civil liberties.
The domestic eavesdropping authorized by President Bush was an important and at times emotional part of the floor debate over the Patriot Act. ''You want to talk about abuses?'' said Senator Russell Feingold, a Wisconsin Democrat. ''I can't imagine a more shocking example of an abuse of power, to eavesdrop on American citizens without first getting a court order based on some evidence that they are possibly criminals, terrorists or spies.''
Mr. Feingold worried that we were playing into the hands of terrorists by giving up such quintessentially American values as ''freedom, justice and privacy.''
The Bush version of American values, as least with regard to the so-called war on terror, has been a throwback to the Middle Ages. Detainees were herded like animals into the prison at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, where many were abused and denied the right to challenge -- or even hear -- the charges against them. Whether they were innocent or guilty made no difference. How's that for an American value?
Others were swept up in that peculiar form of justice called extraordinary rendition. That's when someone is abducted by Americans and sent off to a regime skilled in the art of torture. I spent a little time in Ottawa with Maher Arar, a family man from Canada who was kidnapped at Kennedy Airport and taken to Syria.
He wasn't a terrorist and he hadn't done anything wrong, but that was no defense against the sweeping madness of the Bush antiterror policies.
''It was so scary,'' Mr. Arar told me. ''After a while I became like an animal.''
Another blow to America's self-proclaimed standing as a pillar of moral values was the revelation that the C.I.A. has been operating a super-secret network of prisons overseas, presumably for terror suspects. If someone who is innocent gets caught in that particular hell, too bad. The inmates have been deprived of all rights.
This is dangerous territory, indeed. Nightmarish territory. These secret prisons are the dungeons of the 21st century.
[Right. Incidentally, how often does Herbert become indignant about the fact that arbitrary imprisonment and routine torture are standard practices for regimes in Syria and a lot of other countries--all those regimes "skilled in the art of torture" that, of course, we would not want to 'destabilize'? Perhaps I missed that column. --JW]
The voices against the serial outrages of the Bush administration are growing steadily louder, and that's good news. It's widely understood now that the Bush crowd has gone much too far. When Americans cover their hearts and pledge allegiance, this is not the kind of behavior from their government they usually have in mind. This is not what the American flag is supposed to represent.
Herbert is right--not only about the outrages of the Bush administration and the dangers they pose, but also about the fact that some of its abuses are finally beginning to encounter some serious resistance (too little and too late, frankly, but it's a welcome start).

On the other hand, honesty compels me to add that when it comes to talking about torture, political repression, and other threats to "freedom, democracy, and the rule of law," then in my humble opinion people who favored leaving Iraq under the rule of a genocidal fascist regime with a proven history of ongoing torture, mutilation, rape, ethnic cleansing, and mass murder on a massive scale, and who now favor unconditional surrender to the fascists and jihadis engaged in murdering Iraqi civilians in order to bring back this kind of regime--in other words, people like Bob Herbert ... well, it doesn't seem to me that such people really have a lot of moral credibility on these issues. (Unlike, say, John McCain.) Am I being unfair? I don't think so.

Yours for freedom, democracy, and the rule of law,
Jeff Weintraub

[P.S. I appreciate these sympathetic comments by Norman Geras, a kindred spririt, in a post that deserves to be read for its own sake.]