Friday, April 24, 2009

What's the difference between Abu Ghraib and torture memos?

As I listened to this NPR radio interview with a former intelligence officer in Iraq yesterday, I was struck by the difference between the current reaction to the revelations about torture policy of the Bush White House and the reaction to the issue of torture that was raised after the photographic evidence of torture that leaked from the prison at Abu Ghraib.

Yes, there were newspaper articles and chest-thumping, but the level of outrage four years ago seemed considerably lower than it is now. Abu Ghraib was barely an election issue in 2004. OK - four years ago, we had grainy photos of tortured prisoners, not memos written in legalese. The Bush Administration at the time made the case that the people torturing prisoners at Abu Ghraib were just “bad apples,” but why did so many people believe him?

What are the differences in the situation? Which differences are most significant in affecting how the mass media and the political elite are responding to the issue?

When Abu Ghraib became a scandal, the war in Iraq was still being hotly fought by US troops. At the end of 2004, about 138,000 troops were on the ground. Now, there are roughly 140,000 troops, but President Obama has pledged to withdraw most of them by August 2010. So, with the conflict less “hot,” perhaps there is room for more scruples and reflection by the public?

Does the fact that the public now perceives that the Bush Administration engaged in foolish policies leading to the economic crisis mean that the public is more willing to doubt Bush & Co. about other matters?

Of course, the change in political leadership at the top makes a difference. For all his talk about “looking forward,” President Obama has no political incentive to cover-up the sins of his predecessor. Yes, this could cause the Republicans in Congress to be obstructionist, but it’s hard to see how they could be any more contrary than they are already.

And in the changed environment, there are countless of other political actors who have greater freedom of action to demand more accountability from the members of the Bush administration. The ability of these actors to affect policy four years ago was quite limited; now, their demands carry more weight.

But I wonder also about the overall political and social climate of the time. I visualize the individuals in a society, suspended like pebbles in some sort of conglomerate rock. While certain individuals may move out of the norm, the individuals in general are constrained by the mass surrounding them. How else to explain this recent outburst of a commentator on the Fox News network, of all places?

I don’t think that this somewhat Gramscian understanding of society contradicts the other explanation - that the difference in the reaction to the issue in torture is being led by the political elite. These explanations can coexist. I’m just hoping that the mass of public opinion in the United States will shift - perhaps glacially - to a position that grants greater value to human rights.
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By the way, Krugman steps out of his regular area of expertise to write an excellent column on the issue in today's New York Times. While I completely back a thorough investigation of the issue, I also think Elizabeth de la Vega raises some good points about the need to completely think through a strategy for future prosecution of those who formulated the policy.

Also, here's a good side-by-side comparison between the legal memos and what actually happened.

3 comments:

JDTapp said...

I think how the media is handling this is extremely important. It appears that we have current & former senior intelligence officials, congressional leadership, lawyers & judges, and members of both administrations all disagreeing about varying aspects of the torture issue, the memos, and what should be done.

For example, McClatchy newspapers ran a story this week quoting an unnamed "senior intelligence official" that some of the torture was done to determine an Iraq-Al Qaeda link. If true, it would be damning, but it seemed to be a single, uncorraborated source and that smells of poor journalism.

On the other hand, you have several former CIA and military people saying that attacks in LA would not have been prevented without the use of torture. And then you have other former officials saying "maybe we could have prevented those attacks without torture."

So, I'm skeptical who/what to believe right now. I don't think anyone is printing anything spin-free.

The truth is much more complicated than the media can try to ascertain. And I'm not sure some bipartisan commission or a criminal investigation would do much better.

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