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Sunday, May 16, 2004

Stranger than Fiction 

Last fall I read Ellroy's American Tabloid. It's a gripping if horrifying read. Ellroy is capable of unbelievable spitefulness about the human condition. The book has an interesting vision of the Kennedy assassination, as developing out of parallel agendas by the mafia and Cuban exiles, agendas that interpenetrate almost adventitiously and start in a rather different place than they finish. Meanwhile, the violent and foul-mouthed protaganists find themselves drawn into or managing the projects of these groups, sometimes via the agency of the agencies (CIA or FBI), usually going beyond their assignments, playing off the agencies against one another, and being there at all the key moments.

This inadequate evocation of Ellroy I offer by way of introduction to how strange the Abu Ghraib story is getting. Hersh this week quotes a "senior C.I.A. official" as confirming that Rumsfeld and his subordinate Cambone created a top-secret commando force designed to be ready to grab and interrogate Al Qaeda suspects anywhere in the world, with sovereign permission or not. In late 2003 some part of this team moved into Iraq to work on putting down the insurgency--and it was these people, putatively, that started the whole Abu Ghraib mess.

Meanwhile--it turns out that two of the top relevant people at the Pentagon for the interrogation issues were also at Waco, together, when the Branch Davidian compound was destroyed.

Some people are invoking the X-files. But it's Ellroy's immoral, violent, hellishly misanthropic world, a world in which improbable conspiracies and coincidences move history, that comes to mind for me. Feh.

Friday, May 07, 2004

Time to Get Past the Tyranny of Photography 

The Abu Ghraib photographs have provoked so much outrage, in part, because of how very obviously they tell a story. A soldier holding a naked man by a leash around his neck is pretty hard to explain away.

At least most of the victims of the Abu Ghraib abuse have survived and are able to talk about what happened.

Yet there have clearly been other, far worse crimes committed in the name of "liberating" Iraq and, earlier, Afghanistan, that have not generated such manifestly incriminating pictures. Looking at a makeshift graveyard in Fallujah, or the reburial of the dead once the fighting stopped, or even a helicopter gunning down individuals not holding weapons, one can always argue that the "rules of engagement" justified the deaths. And, at least for Americans, the pictures by themselves provide no evidence to challenge those rules of engagement, although for others their meaning is unambiguous.

What's different about Abu Ghraib is simply that it's the first report of U.S. atrocities that Americans are forced to believe (except for the completely irredeemable types like Taranto cited below). All the others could be explained away by those inclined to give the U.S. the benefit of the doubt.

The U.S. government now seems to concerned to avoid being hypocritical--delaying our usual hectoring report on everyone else's human rights problems, on the theory that “'It's important to demonstrate' that the United States is taking action in response to its own human rights abuses 'before we stand up and tell the world' they need to fix their problems." But a real response involves reaction not just to the Abu Ghraib, but other accusations as well. Fallujah would be a good place to start. As Paul Hunt, a UN special rapporteur on human rights, puts it:


Well, I've read reports that 750 people have died [in Fallujah] and 90 per cent of them are non-combatants - they appear to me, from the material that's come across my desk, at least worthy of investigation, credible, persistent. And they're of such gravity that they must be vigorously investigated.

I mean, it's absolutely right, and to the credit of the authorities in Iraq, that there have been, and there now are some additional inquiries into these allegations of torture. That's as it should be. Well, if they demand investigation, and they certainly do, then these allegations into Fallujah, for sure, demand investigation.


If the U.S. actually wants to begin the slow and painful work of gaining credibility, we need to push investigations of misdeeds even when the pictures don't tell the whole story--and even when there are no pictures at all.

More on Sleep Deprivation 

...for anyone still thinking that it's not torture, see Rivka's great post.

Monday, May 03, 2004

Stalinist Tactics in Iraq 

The Washington Post has a tremendously sad story today about our torture tactics in Iraq, which include sleep deprivation. It deals too with the problem of Iraqi's false denunciations of one another to the Americans in order to settle personal scores.

All this bears uncomfortable resemblance to Stalinism. Sleep deprivation is a horribly effective torture technique that Stalin's secret police used to get people to condemn their friends to the camps. And many people landed in the hands of torturers in the first place due to false denunciations stemming from personal motives.

Meanwhile, see the criminal rendering of this from Taranto as "bellyaching about trivia..." I'm sure that he's ready to explain that the NKVD was filled with pussycats, too.

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