June 16, 2007

The Wages of Evil: Self-Induced Ignorance, and the Destruction of Responsibility and Morality

In a number of essays -- see "Lies in the Service of Evil" and the other articles linked there -- I have discussed how the commission of evil must cover itself with ignorance and endless lies. Fortunately for the human race, those monsters are comparatively rare who can identify fully the true nature of barbaric and inhumanely cruel behavior -- and still engage in such behavior with that knowledge clearly in mind.

But very tragically, a phenomenon that is not rare at all is the person who can eagerly convince himself that self-serving lies are true, and that if he forbids himself to know the truth, then the truth will thereby be obliterated, or at least made irrelevant. Thus, almost no one -- not Hillary Clinton, or Bill Clinton, or Alan Dershowitz, or anyone in the Bush administration -- will acknowledge what torture actually is:
Torture is the deliberate infliction of unbearable agony on a human being -- a human being who is intentionally kept alive precisely so that he will suffer still more and for a longer period of time -- for no justifiable reason. This is the embrace of sadism and cruelty for their own sake, and for no other end whatsoever.
Instead, Hillary Clinton will offer the contemptibly common lie, based on the completely fictitious "ticking bomb" scenario, that the "limited" use of torture may -- in some insanely hypothetical situation dribbled out of the fried brain of a hack writer -- be "necessary." As Rosa Brooks wrote last fall:
HAS HILLARY CLINTON been watching too many episodes of "24," or is she just determined to prove that she really is entirely without principles?

Whichever it is, Clinton hit a new low last week, telling the New York Daily News that the president should have "some lawful authority" to use torture or other "severe" interrogation methods in a so-called ticking-bomb scenario.

These comments appear to directly contradict her previous statements on the Military Commissions Act, which President Bush signed into law Tuesday. In late September, Clinton objected that the bill "undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the president to issue executive orders to redefine what are permissible interrogation techniques. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach?"

It sure looks that way.
It is a measure of the complete and apparently irredeemable moral bankruptcy of our contemporary political culture, and of both political parties, that in all the interminable discussions about Hillary Clinton's qualifications to be the Democratic nominee for president (particularly on all the so-called "liberal" and "progressive" blogs), her endorsement of torture is the one issue that is virtually never raised. But this is a foundational issue of immense and profound significance. In many respects, it is the foundational issue, for it goes to the very possibility of civilization itself.

As I put it in "Lies in the Service of Evil":
By this announcement, Hillary Clinton has permanently rendered herself unfit for any elective office, at any level. I would say the same about any politician offering similar views. My opinion would change only if Clinton entirely repudiates her statements, and only if her repudiation makes clear that she fully grasps the enormity of the horrifying error she had made. Indeed, keeping in mind the points made above and in my other essays, she has made herself unfit for civilization itself.
These points that I have made repeatedly and much more are demonstrated once again in Seymour Hersh's lengthy new article about Antonio Taguba and his investigation into the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib. As is always the case with Hersh's work, you should read the entire piece. I warn you, however, that you will likely find it difficult to follow all the details, as I occasionally did. This is unavoidable, even though Hersh employs his typically direct and straightforward manner of presentation.

But the awful tale he recounts is one that relies on the refusal to acknowledge what cannot be disputed, the denial of that which individuals must know to be true, and the construction of elaborate ruses and complex obfuscations, all of which are purposefully designed to allow those engaged in the commission of evil to deny any and all responsibility.

For example, early in the article, Hersh writes about Taguba's first meeting with Rumsfeld, in May 2004:
Taguba was met at the door of the conference room by an old friend, Lieutenant General Bantz J. Craddock, who was Rumsfeld’s senior military assistant. Craddock’s daughter had been a babysitter for Taguba’s two children when the officers served together years earlier at Fort Stewart, Georgia. But that afternoon, Taguba recalled, “Craddock just said, very coldly, 'Wait here.'" In a series of interviews early this year, the first he has given, Taguba told me that he understood when he began the inquiry that it could damage his career; early on, a senior general in Iraq had pointed out to him that the abused detainees were "only Iraqis." Even so, he was not prepared for the greeting he received when he was finally ushered in.

"Here . . . comes . . . that famous General Taguba—of the Taguba report!" Rumsfeld declared, in a mocking voice. The meeting was attended by Paul Wolfowitz, Rumsfeld’s deputy; Stephen Cambone, the Under-Secretary of Defense for Intelligence; General Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff (J.C.S.); and General Peter Schoomaker, the Army chief of staff, along with Craddock and other officials. Taguba, describing the moment nearly three years later, said, sadly, "I thought they wanted to know. I assumed they wanted to know. I was ignorant of the setting."

In the meeting, the officials professed ignorance about Abu Ghraib. "Could you tell us what happened?" Wolfowitz asked. Someone else asked, "Is it abuse or torture?" At that point, Taguba recalled, "I described a naked detainee lying on the wet floor, handcuffed, with an interrogator shoving things up his rectum, and said, 'That’s not abuse. That’s torture.' There was quiet."

Rumsfeld was particularly concerned about how the classified report had become public. "General," he asked, "who do you think leaked the report?" Taguba responded that perhaps a senior military leader who knew about the investigation had done so. "It was just my speculation," he recalled. "Rumsfeld didn’t say anything." (I did not meet Taguba until mid-2006 and obtained his report elsewhere.) Rumsfeld also complained about not being given the information he needed. "Here I am," Taguba recalled Rumsfeld saying, "just a Secretary of Defense, and we have not seen a copy of your report. I have not seen the photographs, and I have to testify to Congress tomorrow and talk about this." As Rumsfeld spoke, Taguba said, "He’s looking at me. It was a statement."

At best, Taguba said, "Rumsfeld was in denial." Taguba had submitted more than a dozen copies of his report through several channels at the Pentagon and to the Central Command headquarters, in Tampa, Florida, which ran the war in Iraq. By the time he walked into Rumsfeld’s conference room, he had spent weeks briefing senior military leaders on the report, but he received no indication that any of them, with the exception of General Schoomaker, had actually read it. (Schoomaker later sent Taguba a note praising his honesty and leadership.) When Taguba urged one lieutenant general to look at the photographs, he rebuffed him, saying, "I don’t want to get involved by looking, because what do you do with that information, once you know what they show?"
These themes are repeated in many variations throughout Hersh's article.

I expect you will want to read the numerous details offered by Hersh as you have time. But Hersh's concluding paragraphs should be noted, for it is here that some of the ultimate implications of the policies devised by the administration and implemented by the military are spelled out:
Whether the President was told about Abu Ghraib in January (when e-mails informed the Pentagon of the seriousness of the abuses and of the existence of photographs) or in March (when Taguba filed his report), Bush made no known effort to forcefully address the treatment of prisoners before the scandal became public, or to reëvaluate the training of military police and interrogators, or the practices of the task forces that he had authorized. Instead, Bush acquiesced in the prosecution of a few lower-level soldiers. The President’s failure to act decisively resonated through the military chain of command: aggressive prosecution of crimes against detainees was not conducive to a successful career.

In January of 2006, Taguba received a telephone call from General Richard Cody, the Army’s Vice-Chief of Staff. "This is your Vice," he told Taguba. "I need you to retire by January of 2007." No pleasantries were exchanged, although the two generals had known each other for years, and, Taguba said, "He offered no reason." (A spokesperson for Cody said, "Conversations regarding general officer management are considered private personnel discussions. General Cody has great respect for Major General Taguba as an officer, leader, and American patriot.")

"They always shoot the messenger," Taguba told me. "To be accused of being overzealous and disloyal—that cuts deep into me. I was being ostracized for doing what I was asked to do."

Taguba went on, "There was no doubt in my mind that this stuff" — the explicit images — "was gravitating upward. It was standard operating procedure to assume that this had to go higher. The President had to be aware of this." He said that Rumsfeld, his senior aides, and the high-ranking generals and admirals who stood with him as he misrepresented what he knew about Abu Ghraib had failed the nation.

"From the moment a soldier enlists, we inculcate loyalty, duty, honor, integrity, and selfless service," Taguba said. "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."
Here is the rest of the article.