Political violence

2008 08 09
Recently read: “The Dark Side”

Jane Mayer. The Dark Side: The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals

After the scandal of Abu Grieb, the Bush administration insisted that the torture and abuse of detainees had been the work of a few bad apples. But of course the abuse was only a manifestation of a much deeper rot, for which top officials bore primary responsibility. I’ve sometimes had the impression of similar excuse-making in the attitudes of even some of the fiercest critics of the Bush administration, in the claim that the Bush administration represents a radical and unprecedented break with the past. It strikes me as naive to depict the Bush administration as a few bad apples, in an otherwise upright tradition legal and ethical conduct. On the contrary, the Bush administration seems to me part of a larger moral and legal rot that is systemic, and has unfortunately deep roots in American political culture (alongside much more admirable tendencies and traditions).

Jane Meyer’s new book The Dark Side has helped me to reflect on, and to a certain extent, modify, these assumptions. Mayer is familiar with the Church Committee, and with past American abuses of power. She doesn’t base her argument for a significant break with the past on what the Bush administration has done so much as on the legal arguments that the administration has advanced, most often in secrecy, to defend and support its policies. Much of this is new, and its long-term consequences are likely to be wretched.

A great deal of the action in Mayer’s book is, for this reason, legal. The new legal doctrines advanced by David Addington, Cheney’s legal counsel for the period covered by the book, and John Yoo, among others, were fiercely resisted by other lawyers in the administration. Meyer meticulously details the legal arguments and maneuvers used by various parties to this debate against the background of events in the so-called War on Terror.

Mayer book is, as far as I can tell, balanced, careful, and accurate, while rarely engaging in the pointless he-said/she-said style of reporting that so many journalists use to avoid the implications of their reporting. When an official lies, she points it out, clearly and unequivocally. A book like this is difficult to ignore, if you care at all about moral and legal issues surrounding torture and the Bush administration’s policies. If even a quarter of the book is accurate, the United States would only need to be a country serious about following its own laws for hundreds of people, from the President on down, to be put on trial for torture and other serious crimes.

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2007 07 18
On the call for more of the same old rhetoric

Norm links approvingly to a piece in the Chronicle of Higher Education on rhetorical responses to terrorism, the upshot of which is that Western leaders fail to engage in enough moral denunciation of terrorism, eschewing this for practical and “logistics-heavy rhetoric about getting to the bottom of each case.” Norm remarks: “Merely to read his proposal brings home how rare a language of forthright public condemnation of terrorist politics now is.”

This strikes me as mostly silly. The most obvious feature of, say, British and U.S. political leader’s responses to terrorism over the last six years has been a cynical attempt to exacerbate and exploit hysteria about possible future attacks in order to push unrelated agendas. If people are now coming to favour a more measured and practical approach to terrorism, surely this ranks as the most obvious reason for it, as opposed to, say, political correctness, which the author puts at the top of his list of explanations. And, contra the author of the piece, we’ve seen plenty of morally loaded language, much of it from bad politicians pursuing rotten agendas who want to obscure that rottenness by fulminating vaguely about evil and whatnot. Neither Norm nor the author bothers to mention the contraction of civil liberties in the U.S., the dishonest selling of the Iraq War, or the massively expanded use of torture and extraordinary rendition by the United States — all policies defended explicitly and repeatedly by hysterical appeals to the threat and insincere and hypocritical moralizing about its nature. I’m guessing these things made a bigger difference to public attitudes than the fear of offending terrorists.
Add to this the fact that terrorists want to terrorize, and one way of thwarting them is to not get too ruffled (which is perfectly compatible with taking the threat seriously). And so on.

Just to be clear, if you want to denounce terrorists as morally reprehensible, by all means go ahead. But it’s pretty weird to offer an analysis of people’s responses to political rhetoric that ignores the political context in which the rhetoric is employed. The context here involves the repeated abuse of the rhetorical tropes in question, so I hardly think it’s irrelevant.

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2004 03 16

David Brooks is trying to be sympathetic to the cowardly Spanish. He doesn’t want to think them despicable:

I’m resisting that conclusion, because I don’t know what mix of issues swung the Spanish election during those final days. But I do know that reversing course in the wake of a terrorist attack is inexcusable. I don’t care what the policy is. You do not give terrorists the chance to think that their methods work. You do not give them the chance to celebrate victories. When you do that, you make the world a more dangerous place, for others and probably for yourself.

So, like, even though Brooks doesn’t know why Spain voted as it did, he still knows exactly what it means? Most of the evidence I’ve seen so far suggests that people were furious about being lied to in the aftermath of a tragedy by people who hoped to make a political gain from it. Shouldn’t Brooks consult an opinion poll before he draws this conclusion? No, here’s what Brooks feels entitled to conclude: “Al Qaeda has now induced one nation to abandon the Iraqi people.” Or perhaps AQ has now created the conditions for one stupid government to completely blow its credibility immediately before an election.

While we’re on the subject of not giving terrorists what they want, I’d like to point out that every time Hamas commits an atrocity against Israelis, the Israeli government breaks off talks with the P.A. Now I know that there are very thorny questions about complicity of both the active and the passive kind between the PA and other terrorists groups. Still, it’s absolutely obvious that the suicide bombings are aimed at breaking down the talks. They’re aimed at provoking collective punishment to further radicalize the Palestinians. That’s the point. And it always works. In other words, in this case the terrorists are repeatedly given the chance to think that their methods work. I’ve yet to see a conservative commentator point that out. Don’t give them what they want, my ass.

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2004 03 13
Terrorism and Political Violence

I didn’t blog about the Madrid bombings the day they happened because I couldn’t think of much to say beyond the fact that they were horrifying. Also, a personal crisis the same day took my mind off important matters and onto my own life.

I’ve been mulling over the tragedy since then, and especially the response to it. I think the response – shock, horror, condemnation, solidarity – has been entirely appropriate. And I don’t want what I’m going to say to be interpreted as implying otherwise. I also don’t want to imply that we should fail to give the victims of the bombing their due attention, or focus our attention elsewhere. What I want to suggest is that we broaden our attention to include other kinds of political violence, not that we look away from the terror in Madrid in some other direction.

That said, let me get to the point: What makes me uncomfortable about the coverage of the bombings is not the implication that terrorism is especially evil. It’s the implication that terrorism is somehow uniquely evil, that it demands our condemnation in ways that no other kind of political violence could.

If you’re a bad guy looking to be evil, the deliberate targeting of civilian victims for political ends not coordinated (or only loosely coordinated) with a state is a winning strategy. But there are other ways. You might also act on behalf of a state’s official machinery to target civilian victims for political ends. And all other things being equal, this will be no less evil, no less reprehensible.

Again, the point is not to distract attention away from victims of terrorism, or to minimize their suffering. The point is that we might consider broadening our response to evil, by including more things on our list of things which set someone or some state beyond the pale.

Let me offer you a comparison. The roots of the conflict in Chechnya are tangled and complex, and there is plenty of blame to go around. But Vladmir Putin bears ultimate responsibility for what the Russian military has done in Chechnya. Credible reports of mass graves, systematic rape, illegal detentions, murder, the energetic shelling of civilian areas, mass transfers of people, and so on, are now years old. Thousands of innocents have perished at the hands of the Russian military in circumstances they have been unable to account for.

When nothing is done about this, when it continues in spite of the reports, it is obvious that responsibility rests with people who rely on such techniques to achieve their political ends. Putin is a murderer, a war criminal. He has done something on par with the bombings in Madrid. He has used calculated violence against civilians in order to achieve political ends. And he has done so without scruple or restraint.

Chechnya’s plight is not exactly hidden – it does make the front pages from time to time. But for the most part the mass murders and other abuses have occurred without attracting much attention. And even when they do attract attention, they gather precious little condemnation. We treat Putin as though he is a legitimate statesman – as though he is not a very plaubile candidate for the Hague. His kind of violence is normal, safe – and if it isn’t sanctioned, it apparently doesn’t rise to the level required to get him shunned from civilized society.

And so, once again, it is not the universal condemnation of the Madrid bombings that is disturbing. It is the way these condemnations so often function in political discourse – whether we realize it or not – to throw the emphasis almost entirely on one kind of political violence, and firmly away from others, which seems to me as intrinsically wrong as terrorism. None of this is necessary or inevitable. We can mourn and condemn victims of terrorism without slipping into this habit. But unless I’m mistaken, we do, in ways that are more or less subtle.

Now for three qualifications, so I don’t get beaten up for writing this:

First, you might argue that Putin had better ends than either the ETA or AQ (whoever was responsible for the Madrid bombings). I don’t know enough about the ETA to judge that, but I do think that AQ’s dreams of world Islamic hegemony are basically worse than almost anything I can imagine. But two points are worth making here: The first is that we usually don’t think the ends justify the means when it comes to the deliberate slaughter of civilians to achieve political aims. And the second, of course, is that Putin’s ends are not entirely creditable.

Second, I’ve claimed that the reaction to the Madrid bombing reveals certain attitudes about terrorism which don’t match our attitudes about other kinds of political violence. But I certainly don’t want to argue that our reactions to violence always have to exactly fit a careful moral calculus, so that before people express shock and horror they have to go through some rigamarole about ensuring that their response is commensurate with any other tragedy. We pay more attention to some places than others for lots of contingent or accidental reasons, and the tendency is so human I’m not sure there’s anything objectionable about it, at least within limits. What I’m pointing to, though, is a disparity in response that is really quite extreme and that is therefore worth thinking about a bit.

Finally, even if we decide that terrorism is morally on par with some varieties of state violence (other things being equal), we certainly are justified in finding terrorism more alarming or frightening. And that’s because state violence doesn’t threaten most of the people whose blogs I’m reading, whereas terrrorism really is something that might get us. Even people who are threatened by state violence can sometimes bargain with states, make compromises, find ways to smooth over the unpredictability. But terrorism can strike anywhere: today in Madrid, tomorrow in mid-town Manhattan as my wife commutes to work.

And so there is one sense in which it is perfectly fair for people to find terrorism more awful. But it’s not a moral difference, and we ought to think about that.

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