June 02, 2007

The Truth Is Still Out There

I dashed off a post yesterday about the U.S. government's efforts to eradicate any and all traces of architectural drawings of the Baghdad embassy from the internet. From a few emails I've received and some comments I've seen here and there, it appears certain people have rather badly missed the point. It's true that I assumed most readers would bring a certain understanding to the issues involved in a way that I usually don't (especially in longer essays, where I try very carefully to argue a full case with much supporting evidence). Once again, I am astonished by the prevalence of certain misconceptions, and how even people who are nominally opposed to the many manifestations of authoritarian paternalism unthinkingly accept that manner of viewing the world, or at least certain aspects of it.

My major point was not that the United States government tried to censor this information in a notably stupid or ineffective way, nor was I assuming that whatever information might be contained in the drawings (which would appear to be extraordinarily minimal) might be dangerous to U.S. "interests" in some manner. My point was that the idea that these pictures should be censored at all was stupendously stupid.

Let's go over some basics. First, we have no idea how long the architectural firm had provided these pictures on the internet. Many of us only just found out about them, but it appears they may have been posted quite a while ago. The fact that neither we nor the U.S. government was apparently aware of them does not mean that others didn't know about them. It is not difficult to imagine that those with a particular interest in this subject (for good or bad reasons) would have located them, perhaps some months ago. Second, I had thought that everyone realized that, once information has been posted on the internet, it is impossible to erase it fully from the record. Someone, somewhere will have saved it, in addition to which there are various cache programs and the like. We all have had moments when we have desperately wished we could go back to the day before we posted something especially dumb, but we usually realize, with considerable chagrin, that we can't. So you take your lumps, and you go on. None of that for the U.S. government, though. Take it down, the government flunkies yell, not realizing how ridiculous they sound, how utterly ineffective their effort at censorship after the fact is, or that their protestations only bring more attention to the subject they want to bury.

Third, and this is the most critical point, the concern about these pictures on one particular site assumes that there is no other way that this information can be acquired. The government assumes that if Those In Charge forbid the dissemination of certain facts, then no one will know of them. I am certainly not saying that censorship is completely ineffective or that it does not have countless truly awful effects; one need only consult the historical record of widespread censorship during both World Wars (under Democratic administrations on both occasions) to see how deeply damaging such censorship is. An historical review also reveals how completely unnecessary it is, how many innocent people are grievously harmed, and how such censorship further conditions the general population to accept an authoritarian government. But the fact remains that during both World Wars, the enemies of the United States still managed to find out a great deal of information -- as we did about our enemies in turn, despite their own extensive efforts at censorship. That might suggest to you the real purpose of such censorship: it is not to prevent our enemies (real or imagined) from acquiring certain information, since they very often manage to do so anyway, but it is to keep the domestic population under control and in line. It is to prevent any sort of widespread challenge to or disbelief in the endless propaganda that governments always spew, but never more so than during a time of war. It is to ensure that the government's version of the "truth" -- that is, the government's neverending propaganda campaign -- maintains a monolithic grip over the majority of information that reaches the public.

Still, the information is out there. To find it will require much more dedicated work and effort, but it can be done. With regard to the embassy pictures, consider this, as just one of many such examples we can imagine: surely, many Iraqis know any number of individuals who are working on the embassy construction, or are doing such work themselves. Don't you think that those Iraqis who want details of the embassy plans (again, for good or bad reasons) have any number of ways of acquiring that information? Do you honestly believe they were just waiting to be directed to the drawings posted on the internet by an architectural firm? You have to be kidding. But my emailers reveal that some of you are not kidding. This underscores the theme that runs throughout the misconceptions and errors noted above. That theme is one of authoritarian paternalism: that we only have access to information when the government provides or allows it and, if the government forbids such access, such information will be forever unavailable to us.

To identify fully all the mistakes contained in such notions is far beyond the scope of this entry. But even a brief consideration of the matter should make clear that this is not how information in any field is gathered: the acquisition of knowledge is much more genuinely democratic than that. Furthermore, this ascribes an effectiveness and power to government that no government has ever had. Governments are inherently clumsy and ineffective, and the larger and more cumbersome their structures become, the truer that is. (Governments and their militaries are horrifyingly effective at destruction and murder, as we continue to see each day in Iraq; other kinds of efforts are almost uniformly unsuited to implementation by official bureaucracies.)

These are only some brief comments about these issues, primarily in response to a few emailers and commenters elsewhere. But this reminded me of an essay I wrote almost exactly two years ago, and which I had been intending to republish at some point. As you will see in the essay below, "Living in the Twilight Zone: The Terrible Price of Fantasy," I discuss an entry from Riverbend about the horrors at Abu Ghraib. With regard to the points made above, the following is the crux of that earlier post:
The point is so obvious that it shouldn't need to be stated, but since Bush has plunged all of us into The Twilight Zone, I find it necessary to do so: our administration may not have acknowledged the horrors at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere before the photographs surfaced, our media may have ignored all such stories on the grounds that they were not "credible," the hawks may have known nothing about the abuse and torture and they may still seek to minimize them as Fund, Hitchens, et al. do -- but the Iraqis knew. Victims always know what is done to them -- and the victims have families, and many relatives, and many friends. So many people knew -- but most Americans did not. And the Bush administration turned a blind eye to any such concerns.

As Riverbend says, "we heard stories since the very beginning of the occupation." Many Iraqis (probably most of them) knew of the abuse and torture, and they knew how widespread it was -- and they also knew that many completely innocent Iraqis were victimized in this manner. And now we are seeing all of this again with the Newsweek controversy.
The following essay was written the day after a related post, "The Censorship Campaign Gets a Boost," which concerned the (false) controversy about the Newsweek story about religious desecration at Guantanamo. So without further ado, here is the earlier piece. I've left the links as they were, although some of them no longer work, but I have deleted links to earlier essays of my own that I haven't republished yet. In all other respects, the essay is unchanged.



May 16, 2005

So now Newsweek has retracted its story about religious desecration at Guantanamo. In my post yesterday about the subtext of the rightwing/warhawk outrage that Newsweek would have dared to report this story in the first place, I maintained that censorship is the logical end point of these kinds of complaints about media coverage of Bush's endless and never-defined "War on Terror." I want to offer one brief point of clarification on that issue: of course, the warhawks will say that they don't want censorship, that censorship is the last thing in the world they desire, that censorship is "un-American," and any number of similar things. That's always how this kind of campaign is waged.

But what you need to ask yourself is this: if the warhawks' demands were followed consistently, what would the result be? It is indisputable that the result would be reporting very close to the model from World War I that I discussed: nothing but good news, all the time. Oh, of course they say they want reporting about bad news, too (in fact, John Fund made a statement to this effect on Drudge's radio show: "we need to know about all the bad things that are happening," or words to that effect) -- but the overall context in which such statements occur makes it clear that the only bad news that will be tolerated is that which those in power approve, and the bad news that those who support Bush's foreign policy are prepared to acknowledge. All other bad news is off limits -- because it might damage America, it might harm our troops or, in the Newsweek case, it might get people killed. The major storyline may not be questioned: that the United States is close to a pure exemplar of the good, that everything we do is wise, virtuous and noble, and that any mistakes we make are comparatively trivial.

The speed and the depth of Newsweek's climbdown on this story is deeply disheartening. And it shows that there is a danger that is perhaps even greater than the profound danger that outright censorship represents: self-censorship by the media, on every story of importance and across the board. In fact, it is this kind of self-censorship that we have been seeing during most of the Bush administration's time in office: a reluctance to question authority too much, and beyond a certain point. Outright censorship is a clearer danger: in such circumstances, everyone knows that "news" is officially dictated, and they realize they need to find the truth via other outlets. But self-censorship allows people to believe that they are getting the full story: after all, no one is making the media report these stories, so they must be true, right? But of course, that isn't right -- but the illusion is a deeply damaging one. If people think they're getting the truth from major news outlets, they have no incentive to look elsewhere -- and the full truth will forever escape them. In that sense, a self-emasculated press is more insidious a danger than a press in chains which everyone can see.

What is most striking to me about the Newsweek controversy, and what I find inexpressibly depressing, is the overpowering air of unreality about it. Another part of the subtext to the orchestrated Newsweek outrage is the notion that it is inconceivable that America could ever do anything that is less than admirable, that we are always on the side of good, and that our motives are always noble and heroic. Such fables might be comforting to children (although children are often the first to see through this kind of subterfuge), but they are singularly inadvisable for adults living in this world. Many Americans, and almost all the warhawks, seem to find it impossible to believe that any American might be guilty of racial prejudice, or that racial and/or religious animus might play any role in the behavior of our troops. Yet one need only consult an article like Bob Herbert's about Aidan Delgado ["From 'Gook' to 'Raghead,'" published May 2, 2005] to see how far from the truth such a belief is. And there are and have been many similar stories. I am certainly not saying that the kinds of ignorant and hateful attitudes that Delgado describes are true of most, or even many, of our troops. But I also do not think those kinds of attitudes are that unusual, as Delgado makes clear.

I have written at length about the attitude of the Bush administration that saying something will make it so. In fact, this opposition to facts, logic and evidence on principle was the primary reason I finally voted for Kerry. As a libertarian, supporting Kerry obviously would not be my choice under most circumstances -- but as I explained in this essay [which is only the first half of a two-part essay; the second part will be republished soon], I view Bush's determined refusal to acknowledge facts, a refusal which is all-encompassing and covers every area of policy, as a unique and especially great danger to the United States, and to the world. When this kind of refusal to acknowledge what is staring one in the face is coupled with an aggressively militaristic foreign policy, the possibilities for widespread disaster and destruction are unnerving to contemplate. I greatly fear that we may soon see just how dangerous Bush's delusions are, if and when we (or Israel) go ahead with plans to attack Iran's nuclear capability. Read this to see just how calamitous such a course might be, and then remember that no one in this administration ever seems to be concerned with the possible (and even probable) consequences of their actions. Keep in mind all the fantasies that accompanied the buildup to the Iraq invasion: the notion that Iraq's oil revenues would pay for the reconstruction, that a new government could be installed in short order and we could leave quickly, etc. And they believed these things (or said they did) even though many of their own experts were telling them that the exact opposite was the truth.

Returning to the Newsweek story: the unreality in which Bush and his supporters have submerged us has revealed itself in yet another way. The hawks who so vehemently criticize Newsweek are in effect saying: "Well, since we never talk about these sorts of things, and since we don't know about them, they can't possibly be true. They must be lies." They seem to honestly believe (if "honestly" can be used here, which I tend to doubt) that if they don't know about something, then it can't be worth knowing.

This is a very, very dangerous way to run a notably aggressive foreign policy, and this is a very dangerous way to run an occupation. (It is also a very dangerous way to run domestic policy, but that is a subject for another day.) I noted yesterday that one of the hawks' targets in the latest campaign against the traitorous and un-American mainstream media was to minimize the abuses at Abu Ghraib to the point of insignificance. The hawks still maintain that it was only "a few bad apples" that committed these outrages, and that these "minor" but regrettable errors do nothing to undercut the great nobility of "the liberation of Iraq." As I also noted yesterday, Christopher Hitchens is still peddling this line, despite the overwhelming evidence which undercuts such contentions.

This reminded me of an entry from Riverbend, from almost exactly one year ago. Unlike the warhawks and the warbloggers, Riverbend of course lives in Baghdad, so it might just be that she knows a bit more about the Iraqis' own view of Abu Ghraib than they do. It is worth recalling part of what she said:
People are seething with anger- the pictures of Abu Ghraib and the Brits in Basrah are everywhere. Every newspaper you pick up in Baghdad has pictures of some American or British atrocity or another. It's like a nightmare that has come to life.

Everyone knew this was happening in Abu Ghraib and other places... seeing the pictures simply made it all more real and tangible somehow. American and British politicians have the audacity to come on television with words like, "True the people in Abu Ghraib are criminals, but..." Everyone here in Iraq knows that there are thousands of innocent people detained. Some were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time, while others were detained 'under suspicion'. In the New Iraq, it's "guilty until proven innocent by some miracle of God".

People are so angry. There's no way to explain the reactions- even pro-occupation Iraqis find themselves silenced by this latest horror. I can't explain how people feel- or even how I personally feel. Somehow, pictures of dead Iraqis are easier to bear than this grotesque show of American military technique. People would rather be dead than sexually abused and degraded by the animals running Abu Ghraib prison.

There was a time when people here felt sorry for the troops. No matter what one's attitude was towards the occupation, there were moments of pity towards the troops, regardless of their nationality. We would see them suffering the Iraqi sun, obviously wishing they were somewhere else and somehow, that vulnerability made them seem less monstrous and more human. That time has passed. People look at troops now and see the pictures of Abu Ghraib... and we burn with shame and anger and frustration at not being able to do something. Now that the world knows that the torture has been going on since the very beginning, do people finally understand what happened in Falloojeh?


And through all this, Bush gives his repulsive speeches. He makes an appearance on Arabic tv channels looking sheepish and attempting to look sincere, babbling on about how this 'incident' wasn't representative of the American people or even the army, regardless of the fact that it's been going on for so long. He asks Iraqis to not let these pictures reflect on their attitude towards the American people... and yet when the bodies were dragged through the streets of Falloojeh, the American troops took it upon themselves to punish the whole city.

He's claiming it's a "stain on our country's honor"... I think not. The stain on your country's honor, Bush dear, was the one on the infamous blue dress that made headlines while Clinton was in the White House... this isn't a 'stain' this is a catastrophe. Your credibility was gone the moment you stepped into Iraq and couldn't find the WMD... your reputation never existed.

So are the atrocities being committed in Abu Ghraib really not characteristic of the American army? What about the atrocities committed by Americans in Guantanamo? And Afghanistan? I won't bother bringing up the sordid past, let's just focus on the present. It seems that torture and humiliation are common techniques used in countries blessed with the American presence. The most pathetic excuse I heard so far was that the American troops weren't taught the fundamentals of human rights mentioned in the Geneva Convention... Right- morals, values and compassion have to be taught.

All I can think about is the universal outrage when the former government showed pictures of American POWs on television, looking frightened and unsure about their fate. I remember the outcries from American citizens, claiming that Iraqis were animals for showing 'America's finest' fully clothed and unharmed. So what does this make Americans now?

We heard about it all... we heard stories since the very beginning of the occupation about prisoners being made to sit for several hours on their knees... being deprived of sleep for days at a time by being splashed with cold water or kicked or slapped... about the infamous 'red rooms' where prisoners are kept for prolonged periods of time... about the rape, the degradations, the emotional and physical torture... and there were moments when I actually wanted to believe that what we heard was exaggerated. I realize now that it was only a small fragment of the truth. There is nothing that is going to make this 'better'. Nothing.


I don't understand the 'shock' Americans claim to feel at the lurid pictures. You've seen the troops break down doors and terrify women and children... curse, scream, push, pull and throw people to the ground with a boot over their head. You've seen troops shoot civilians in cold blood. You've seen them bomb cities and towns. You've seen them burn cars and humans using tanks and helicopters. Is this latest debacle so very shocking or appalling?
We also should remember the title of Riverbend's post: "Just Go." Again, this entry is dated May 7, 2004.

The point is so obvious that it shouldn't need to be stated, but since Bush has plunged all of us into The Twilight Zone, I find it necessary to do so: our administration may not have acknowledged the horrors at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere before the photographs surfaced, our media may have ignored all such stories on the grounds that they were not "credible," the hawks may have known nothing about the abuse and torture and they may still seek to minimize them as Fund, Hitchens, et al. do -- but the Iraqis knew. Victims always know what is done to them -- and the victims have families, and many relatives, and many friends. So many people knew -- but most Americans did not. And the Bush administration turned a blind eye to any such concerns.

As Riverbend says, "we heard stories since the very beginning of the occupation." Many Iraqis (probably most of them) knew of the abuse and torture, and they knew how widespread it was -- and they also knew that many completely innocent Iraqis were victimized in this manner. And now we are seeing all of this again with the Newsweek controversy.

Neither the Bush administration nor the warhawks seem to understand that people talk, and that information has many ways of making itself known. Just because Newsweek or The New York Times or the warbloggers do not cover a story doesn't mean that it hasn't happened. And it certainly doesn't mean that it is unimportant. A great number of Iraqis -- and a great number of Afghanis -- know what has been done to them in the name of "liberation." As someone noted about the recent riots (I can't remember who just now [Ed.: not surprisingly, it was Digby]), the only notable aspect of this story is that the riots didn't happen sooner, not that they have happened at all.

Even though I am not willing to grant this dispensation to members of the Bush administration (since the evidence of their duplicity is so monumental), I am more than willing to believe that many of our servicepeople have laudable motives in terms of what they are trying to accomplish in Afghanistan and Iraq. But as I discussed in detail the other day, when we remain so determined in our refusal to understand those people whom we seek to "liberate," when we refuse to try to grasp their perspective, their attitudes, and their goals, we are doomed to failure even if our motives are the purest in the world. And failure is now spreading more and more rapidly through both Afghanistan and Iraq. (See Patrick Cockburn's latest dispatch from Iraq for further details about that unfolding disaster.)

Yet even as the evidence of our failure continues to mount -- and even as more and more people die every single day and the carnage continues without end -- the Bush administration and the warhawks continue to insist that we are "winning," that "freedom is on the march," and that we are spreading democracy.

People can certainly choose to live in a world built on their own delusions if they wish -- but they ought to recognize that facts will inevitably reassert themselves at some point. Fantasies cannot go on forever. Bush's foreign policy is built on many delusions, including "The Fatal Utopian Delusion." But this dream world cannot go on much longer. Facts and reality again reasserted themselves for a moment with the Newsweek story -- and the hawks have convinced themselves that a retraction will make the undeniable reality vanish, still another time.

And so it might, at least in their own minds. They will be able to return to the fables with which they comfort themselves. But in the meantime, in the real world, people continue to die, people continue to suffer horrible injury, our own troops continue to be brutalized by what they are asked to do, and more and more people throughout the world grow to resent and hate the United States.

Refusing to face and deal with facts carries a tragically high price. That price is exacted from all of those who are the victims of our actions abroad. Victims know what has happened to them, and they know why, and they know who did it.

And they talk. Word gets out. One story in Newsweek doesn't matter. The truth, indeed, is out there -- but Bush and his associates will continue to deny it, their enablers will continue to deny it, and our media will continue to deny it.

But the victims know. Every day, more and more people know. And at some point, the consequences of that knowledge will be brought home to all of us, in one form or another. We can only pray that the consequences are not too terrible. But the longer the fantasists ply their trade, the worse they will be.

Those who are unable or who refuse to distinguish between what they wish to be true and what actually is true place all of us in mortal danger, not only innocent Iraqis, Afghanis and others, but all of us here at home. One day, and probably one day not too far in the future, all of us will have to pay the price. We can only hope that it is not too high, or too horrifying.

UPDATE: Not that it will make any difference to the Bush administration itself or to the warhawks -- the vilification of Newsweek serves other goals, which are much more important to them -- but this story should be noted:
The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff says a report from Afghanistan suggests that rioting in Jalalabad on May 11 was not necessarily connected to press reports that the Quran might have been desecrated in the presence of Muslim prisoners held in U.S. custody at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

Air Force General Richard Myers told reporters at the Pentagon May 12 that he has been told that the Jalalabad, Afghanistan, rioting was related more to the ongoing political reconciliation process in Afghanistan than anything else.

According to initial reports, the situation in Jalalabad began on May 10 with peaceful student protests reacting to a report in Newsweek magazine that U.S. military interrogators questioning Muslim detainees at the Guantanamo detention center “had placed Qurans on toilets, and in at least one case flushed a holy book." By the following day the protests in the city had turned violent with reports of several individuals killed, dozens wounded, and widespread looting of government, diplomatic and nongovernmental assets.

However, Myers said an after-action report provided by U.S. Army Lieutenant General Karl Eikenberry, commander of the Combined Forces in Afghanistan, indicated that the political violence was not, in fact, connected to the magazine report.
Well, these are only comments from one of our own generals, and he's only talking about facts. Never mind. Sorry I even mentioned it.


Related Essays:

"They Don't Represent America"? Not Quite, Mr. President

The Real Scandal

The Denial Spreads -- and the Desire for Control

The Mythology of the 'Good Guy' American