Creative Destruction

April 23, 2006

Abu Ghraib and “What Are We becoming?!”

Filed under: Ethics,Free Speech,Human Rights,International Politics — Adam Gurri @ 3:20 pm

From Amp's recent link farm, I mosied over to this post.

This paragraph could have been downloaded from any given right wing blog over the last three years. Of course Abu Ghraib was bad (if we are allowing that it happened, and isn't just some kind of fiction), but Saddam Hussein/Iran/Hu Jintao/Soviet Russia was much, much worse, so quit yer bitching.

(…)China, Iraq, Iran, and North Korea are all dictatorships whose governments employ or employed various degrees of tyrannical means, including torture, in order to remain in power. They are not, however, considered role models for compliance with international human rights. No one points to China as a model for emulation in respect for human dignity.

(…)The United States, however, IS a model for human rights emulation. When states and governments look at the international system for a set of appropriate behaviors, they look first at the United States, then at the advanced European democracies and Japan. The United States is deeply identified with the international human rights regime that it took pains to construct in the post-war years and has maintained, with more or less success, since then. Thus, when the United States engages in torture, extra-legal detention, and murder of prisoners, it matters. A lot. In fact, it matters a lot more than what happens in Tehran or Pyongyang. If the United States can ignore human rights practice in dealing with those it declares its enemies, then any country can.

This is why the US deserves the criticism it receives on this point. We have the right to expect better from the United States, and, indeed, if we value human rights then we NEED to expect better from the United States. If the US doesn't take human rights law seriously, then no one will.

I find much to agree with in this post, except for what passes as an example of government-sanctioned human rights violations.

I understand criticism of the higher ups who allowed Abu Ghraib to happen in the first place.  But talking about it as though it were either sanctioned by our government, or even interrogational in nature, is I think unsupported by the evidence.

This wasn't about disciplined, overbearing officers beating information out of their prisoners.  This was a pack of uncontrolled young officers throwing a depraved party at their prisoners' expense.

What is more, they were exposed for what they did, and held accountable.  Not only are they no longer a part of our military, they are serving jailtime.

If anything, Abu Ghraib is a good example of what differentiates us from those regimes which we are often compared with.  Like them, we are human, and humans are capable of cruelty for their own selfish reasons.  Unlike them, when this cruelty is brought to the light of day, it is expected that the perpetrators will pay for what they have done, and their actions will be condemned.

As for things like Guantanamo Bay, or "extra-legal detention", there's a lot of conflicting evidence circulating around, and unlike Abu Ghraib, we don't have something as solid as a photograph to demonstrate one way or the other.  All we have are a pack of interest groups, be they political critics, or the military trying to cover for itself, either way, I haven't seen too much to inspire confidence in any particular diagnosis of the situation.

But there are plenty of critics making their arguments in prominent public places none the less, and that in it of itself puts pressure on our politicians and seperates us by yet another degree from the tyrannical regimes of the world. 

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5 Comments »

  1. From the same post:

    Both the American and Iranian governments torture people. But as an American, there’s very little I can do about Iranian policy. I can write blog posts condemning it, which will accomplish nothing except bolster my own sense of self-righteousness. As regards American policy, I can vote for candidates who are likely to halt or limit the torturing, and I can attempt to persuade my fellow citizens to do the same. Is it so crazy to focus on the latter more than the former?

    Hmm, feeling a bit of deja vu:

    Jussi Halla-Aho wrote(my loose translation from a part of the article):

    Those lefty intellectuals with a bit of spine like to criticize the United States because the U.S, as an open democracy, listens to criticism. It is not fun to criticize totalitarian China or totalitarian Russia, much less the numerous African dictatorships, because they do not react to criticism in any way. Nothing is as horrible to a lefty intellectual suffering from a feeling of inadequecy than not being listened to.

    So while Matt’s explanation as an American makes some sense, this sort of craven opportunism still has the logical effect of rewarding totalitarian states by non-criticism.

    I’m not saying “stop criticizing the U.S”, but one casual glance at the average Anti-War, Anti-“Occupation” (of Iraq and Palestine) rally, or an average university magazine, makes it clear that the opportunism of media and intellectuals has led to a situation where the lefty “base” truly believes that America is the #1 threat to world peace, and a proto-fascist state equally bad as China or Iran (or worse!).

    Intellectuals take for granted that everyone is already aware of the horrors of totalitarian governments like China and Iran. They are wrong, and their irresponsibility serves the interests of totalitarian governments. The term “useful idiot” is descriptive.

    But hey, anything to win the next election (or in the case of European politicians, cash on Anti-American populism [leftover from Cold War and biased press at least here], score some brownie points and temporary security from Islamists. And then they [lefties in Europe] say Blair is a sycophant! *sigh*)!

    Bottom line: I don’t agree that criticism of Iran, China, North Korea, Cuba etc. is nearly as useless as lefty intellectuals make it seem. If nothing else, it provides the public a nonbiased analysis on the situation of various governments, and a moral support for various pro-democracy factions in totalitarian countries. Lefties: feel free to criticize the U.S, but please do criticize totalitarian governments too.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 23, 2006 @ 4:09 pm | Reply

  2. Adam, would you please italicize the chapter I translated (for clarity)?

    [Done. –Amp]

    Comment by Tuomas — April 23, 2006 @ 4:11 pm | Reply

  3. It is not fun to criticize totalitarian China or totalitarian Russia, much less the numerous African dictatorships

    Yet people criticize them all the time. Righties, too. Perhaps that’s because while totalitarian regimes don’t respond to criticism directly, they do respond indirectly.

    I realize this isn’t as fun as setting up a false dichotomy between “criticize America” and “criticize North Korea,” but there you are.

    Comment by mythago — April 23, 2006 @ 4:22 pm | Reply


  4. Yet people criticize them all the time.

    Mythago, you do realize that was from an article I had translated (it was an [bit hyperbolic]article specifically about leftist intelligentsia in Europe)?

    I posted it because the mindset Halla-aho decribed striked me as quite similar as the one evident in the Lawyers, Guns and Money.


    Righties, too.

    Replace that with far-rightists only (without mentioning that this all is really the fault of US imperialism), and you get a fairer picture of the public discourse in Europe.


    Perhaps that’s because while totalitarian regimes don’t respond to criticism directly, they do respond indirectly.

    That’s the point I’m trying to make! Take it up to Matt at Lawyers, Guns and Money who feels he can not affect them, and thus must focus on America, not me.


    I realize this isn’t as fun as setting up a false dichotomy between “criticize America” and “criticize North Korea,” but there you are.

    I didn’t do that.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 23, 2006 @ 5:06 pm | Reply

  5. this part:

    Those lefty intellectuals with a bit of spine like to criticize the United States because the U.S, as an open democracy, listens to criticism. It is not fun to criticize totalitarian China or totalitarian Russia, much less the numerous African dictatorships, because they do not react to criticism in any way. Nothing is as horrible to a lefty intellectual suffering from a feeling of inadequecy than not being listened to.

    Was a translation, to clarify.

    Comment by Tuomas — April 23, 2006 @ 5:08 pm | Reply


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