Libertarian Litmus Test

by Kieran Healy on November 6, 2005

Over at Volokh, the puppy blood is flying again. This time, it’s Juan Non-Volokh who defends America’s network of secret, overseas torture centers against the vicious charge that they resemble Soviet gulags:

I would like to underline my ultimate position: Not every mass murder is comparable to the Holocaust. By the same token, not every secret detention is comparable to the Gulag. In my view, the overuse of such comparisons undermines our ability to recognize the varying magnitudes of various evils. Such hyperbole deadens the sensitivity to moral distinctions in public discourse. Again, I am not excusing the conduct of our government. Some of the allegations are quite serious and, if true, merit condemnation, but that does not make Gitmo and other U.S. facilities equivalent to the Soviet Gulag.

Nice to see a fine legal mind at work on such a hard problem. How difficult is it to enumerate the differences between what the U.S. is doing at the moment and what the Soviets did? Let’s see. Millions of people are not being spirited away to labor camps in Siberia. Whole segments of society are not being brutally annihilated. Dick Cheney doesn’t even speak Russian! QED, they are not gulags.

Let’s assume for the sake of argument that Juan is approaching this issue in good faith: that is, that he’s not just cynically looking for ways to distract himself and others from what his government is doing. He complains because Amnesty International wrote a report summarizing what they knew about the CIA’s activities and drew the comparison with the Gulag. Now there are new revelations about this international torture network. (At least one of the centers is “at a Soviet-era compound in Eastern Europe”—a nice touch.) Naturally, his first concern is to pre-emptively condemn any further gulag similes.

When they originally made the comparison, Amnesty were not engaged in a scholarly debate about Soviet history; they were making a strategic effort to draw public attention to a real scandal. (If even libertarian lawyers prefer to ignore the issue, they might have said to themselves, what do we have to do?) When a respected group like Amnesty does something like this, you have a choice. You can read the strong comparison as a bona fide effort to draw your attention to something very serious, and try to understand what’s happening. Alternatively, you can start listing the ways in which the comparison is not literally true. The substantive question fades away and we’re in the realm of debate about rhetoric. The history and record of the organization making the claim may help you empirically weigh the options. But the choice, I believe, is also an important moral judgment about what you think is worth learning enough about to at least have a point of view.

Juan’s choice is clear. On the substance, he claims that “I do not know enough about the practicalities—and have not thought enough about the moral questions—to have a firm view …” The most he can bring himself to say—even at this late, late hour—is that “Some of the allegations are quite serious and, if true, merit condemnation.” That’s all. On the other hand, he has thought enough to have a strong view (expressed more than once) about the rhetorical issue. For comparison, look at the reaction of another libertarian (a real one) to the same question, back in May:

President Bush calls Amnesty International’s report on our deliberate, systemic employment of torture, direct or outsourced, against prisoners either in our various bolt holes or the dungeons of cooperative tyrannies “absurd.” Vice-President Cheney avers that he is “offended” by the report. The Washington Post and two million warbloggers think the biggest scandal is that Amnesty used a Bad Word (“gulag”) and therefore, according to a secret codicil to the rules they make up as they go along, they don’t have to pay attention to anything else the report says.

Cry me a river and stock it with trout already. … In talking to detainees, Amnesty simply did what it has done everywhere else on the earth where it has investigated official mistreatment of prisoners, which is everywhere else on earth. … This method was good enough for the Bush Administration to cite Amnesty’s work five times in a single pre-invasion white paper on Iraqi human rights violations. …

In short, Juan might have noted in passing that Amnesty’s comparison was hyperbolic, grasped that when Amnesty say something like that we should take it seriously, and moved on to develop some views about the real issue. Instead we get some carefully-hedged comments on the question of state-sponsored torture (“I do not know whether the standard adopted by the Senate is the best approach, but I nonetheless view the vote as a positive development … long over due … I am expressing no opinion on the substance of the standards … as an institutional matter we should welcome the Senate’s willingness to fulfill its Constitutuonal obligation”), but plenty of forthright moral condemnation of overblown comparisons. It’s a question of perspective. Juan thinks that Amnesty’s “hyperbole deadens the sensitivity to moral distinctions in public discourse.” To the contrary, his priorities on this issue are themselves evidence of a withered moral sensibility.

Update: See Marty Lederman at Balkinization for a round-up of the real “issue at hand” this case.

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1

Paul Gowder 11.06.05 at 11:29 pm

I can barely read that blog any more. Between Volokh and “Non-Volokh” defending every piece of foreign brutality the Cheney-Rumsfeld-Rove Administration can dream up, Zywicki shilling for the bankruptcy “reform” scam even after he’s won, and any number of random people declaring that “armed citizens” should form vigilante bands in New Orleans, or that gay marriage will mystically cause child abuse — what on earth is in the water those people are drinking? I count two of the, seemingly, dozens of people there whose posts are worth reading.

2

Jon H 11.06.05 at 11:44 pm

The threat of Mssr Non-Volokh’s stance is that its natural consequence is to allow pro-torture people to create infinite levels of distinction between what we’re doing and what a ‘real gulag’ was, and thus, we’re still not nearly as bad, so why don’t you find something better to do with your time?

If we only step halfway to having a real gulag each time, we’ll never reach that point, will we?

In the meantime, squabbling over word choice distracts from the issue of actual Gulagesque evil being undertaken by the US government and our proxies.

I propose that this stance be mocked by adopting an “American Gulag Threat Level” metric, to be prominently placed at better blogs everywhere.

I figure it should be at “Orange” right about now.

3

Katherine 11.06.05 at 11:46 pm

It’s the “if true” that drives me craziest.

4

KV 11.06.05 at 11:52 pm

Kieran,

What does Volokh have to do with libertarianism? The only libertarian I know of on that blog is Randy Barnett.

5

Kieran Healy 11.06.05 at 11:57 pm

What does Volokh have to do with libertarianism?

Hey, good question.

Maybe as this thread develops, someone will accuse me of being the real libertarian.

6

Hodgepodge 11.07.05 at 12:00 am

I don’t really have a problem with people attempting to make a distinction between acceptable and unacceptable variations in similar behavior, but if it really is the case that someone believes that certain degrees or variations of torture are acceptable, it’d be nice to hear exactly what the distinctions between acceptable and unacceptable torture are and how we can apply them to concrete situations.

Also, for the purposes of intellectual honesty, such a statement would have to admit that if such practices are morally acceptable for our armed forces, they must also be for those of our enemies or other nations and organizations at large. After all, if we can torture detainees to x degree, it seems reasonable that China may also torture dissidents to x degree and Al Qaeda do the same. Certainly, one cannot appear credible if one holds that certain behaviors are legitimate for oneself, but not for others.

(Of course, Al Qaeda obviously uses American torture practices to justify their own brutality as a matter of course, just as some American conservites do likewise).

7

Jon H 11.07.05 at 12:04 am

I bet Juan doesn’t set a similar threshold on how many people have to be killed and maimed in an attack for it to be called terrorism.

8

The State 11.07.05 at 12:19 am

Libertarians think I can do no wrong.

Love’em!

9

Henry 11.07.05 at 12:21 am

I see non-V has responded as an addendum to the original post.

bq. Perhaps Healy is correct that I should have spent more time during the intervening weeks figuring out precisely when coercive interrogation techniques may or may not be justified before responding to a reader. Or perhaps, like Healy, I felt my time was better spent working and blogging on other “less weighty matters”:http://www.kieranhealy.org/blog/archives/2005/10/30/doormen/ of professional or personal interest.

Doesn’t even rise to the level of being a cheap shot, does it – an utterly bizarre non-sequitur.

10

Charles Dodgson 11.07.05 at 12:25 am

On “non-Volokh” — one of the awkward things about maintaining a pseudonymous internet identity is that the subtlest clues left lying around can risk exposure. So it is in this case. The logic, the prose style, the entire thrust of the argument bear a rhetorical style that is unique as a fingerprint. Only one mind could have given rise to this prose. “Juan non-Volokh” stands revealed as none other than…

The Medium Lobster.

11

Terri B 11.07.05 at 12:45 am

I just keep watching the story wondering when somebody is going to actually do something. All I hear is McCain saying he’s going to pass a bill. What happens to these people in the meantime? Do they just keep on torturing them? Is there anyway to stop it?

12

a 11.07.05 at 1:09 am

At least he did say “varying magnitude of various evils,” so he appears to recognize that the American gulags are evil. Perhaps that’s a start?

13

abb1 11.07.05 at 3:37 am

…but that does not make Gitmo and other U.S. facilities equivalent to the Soviet Gulag…

It sure does that – at the very minimum – and possibly worse. If not literally, then certainly as far as perception goes. And perception is reality. The PR hit is comparable with that of the 1950s when documents and inside info about the Soviet Gulag started coming out.

14

Brendan 11.07.05 at 3:45 am

The question is: are these people, who argue that comparisons of the US ‘ghost detainees’ (etc.) system to a Gulag are grotesque and misleading and all the rest……are these people prepared to admit that similar allegations about Saddam Hussein (specifically the ones about how he was ‘just like’ Hitler, and (presumably, therefore) Abu Ghraib was ‘just like’ Auschwitz and Treblinka) have proven to be equally grotesque and misleading? If not, their protestations are worthless.

15

goatchowder 11.07.05 at 4:19 am

To nitpick a bit, we may be fighting strawman with strawman here. The warmongers weren’t saying Saddam was “equivalent” to Hitler. They were saying he *could* be the next Hitler, if not first stopped. Bush Senior was saying that back in 1990, even. I thought it was crap at the time, and still think it’s crap, but it wasn’t an equivalence argument, it was a “slippery slope” argument.

Well, QED. I doubt anyone seriously claims that Guantanamo and “enemy combatants” and “ghost detainees” and the CIA’s new “former Soviet facility” are equivalent to the GULAG today– that is indeed a strawman. But if we don’t stop or at least regulate this insanity now, they will indeed evolve into being a full-fledged GULAG. That’s certainly where Dick Durbin was coming from, and probably where Amnesty is coming from too.

16

Sven 11.07.05 at 4:44 am

Those making the gulag claims are a bunch of Neville Chamberlains.

17

Jon 11.07.05 at 4:50 am

The warmongers weren’t saying Saddam was “equivalent” to Hitler. They were saying he could be the next Hitler, if not first stopped. Bush Senior was saying that back in 1990, even.

This is wrong, actually. Here’s something from a 1990 AP story:

“They have committed outrageous acts of barbarism,” Bush said of Saddam’s forces. “Brutality – I don’t believe that Adolf Hitler ever participated in anything of that nature.”

18

Tom - Daai Tou Laam 11.07.05 at 5:18 am

When the original Amnesty report came out, many of the radical right and glibertarian bloggers stated that it wasn’t a gulag, because gulag means islands, and the Amnesty report only showed evidence of two or three such prisons.

Now we see islands of prisoners cut off from even the Red Cross spread around the globe, so the radical right and glibertarians in their strategic retreat find new talking points in an attempt to rationalise the liberty destruction that they should theoretically be against.

19

Brendan 11.07.05 at 6:06 am

CF also Christopher Hitchens, who argued that Saddam was like Hitler, Stalin, and Jeffrey Dahmer (!). Like Hitler, Hitchens claimed ‘he brought disaster upon himself by deranged attacks on neighbouring nations.’ (!!!)

Note incidentally, the use of the present, not the conditional tense. Hitchens did not say Saddam might become like Hitler (or Stalin) he claimed that Saddam was already like Hitler/Stalin/Dahmer.

Moreover, one only needs to look through a very small portion of the extreme right blogosphere to see comparisons between our invasion of Iraq, and the Second World War (although, mysteriously, ‘we’ are continually compared to the victims of German imperialism, even though it was actually us that invaded Iraq, not the other way round).

20

bad Jim 11.07.05 at 6:20 am

What was the punchline to the old joke? “Otherwise we’re just arguing about the price.”

I wish I didn’t live in a country where any discussion of foreign relations automatically runs afoul of Godwin’s Law (not that Americans have a monopoly on that tendency).

21

abb1 11.07.05 at 6:42 am

I remember my grandmother used to compare her building maintenance guy with Hitler all the time. That bastard.

22

Steve 11.07.05 at 6:53 am

Jesus-
You invest this much vitriol and self-righteous indignation when you actually AGREE with the post?

“Nice to see a fine legal mind at work on such a hard problem. How difficult is it to enumerate the differences between what the U.S. is doing at the moment and what the Soviets did? Let’s see. Millions of people are not being spirited away to labor camps in Siberia. Whole segments of society are not being brutally annihilated. Dick Cheney doesn’t even speak Russian! QED, they are not gulags.”

And abb1: you are wrong no matter how I try to interpret your comment.

“but that does not make Gitmo and other U.S. facilities equivalent to the Soviet Gulag…

It sure does that – at the very minimum – and possibly worse. If not literally, then certainly as far as perception goes. And perception is reality. The PR hit is comparable with that of the 1950s when documents and inside info about the Soviet Gulag started coming out”

Objectively (literally), you are not correct; see Kieran’s original post explaining why (and as far as I can tell, even you admit it). But even on your own terms, you are wrong. If perception IS reality (as you claim), then isn’t Volokh entirely justified in attempting to change the perception (and thus reality) that the US facilities are identical to the Gulag? In fact, why don’t you-and the other useful idiots on this site-just change your post to say that the facilities are NOT like a gulag, and simply alter that reality of what they are?

So you are stuck with either saying that the facilities are objectively, literally like gulags (which they clearly are not), or saying that they are perceived as being like gulags-in which case you and Amnesty International are creating that objectively inaccurate perception. But then Volokh is entirely justified in attempting to change that perception by resisting the gulag comparison in the first place! Volokh is objectively right but ‘perceptively’ wrong, and also wrong to attempt to alter that objectively inaccurate perception!
Steve

23

abb1 11.07.05 at 7:02 am

The effect of revelations about US facilities and practices is similar to the effect of revelations about Stalin’s Gulag. Is there anything wrong with this proposition, Steve?

24

robert the red 11.07.05 at 7:03 am

Certainly, one cannot appear credible if one holds that certain behaviors are legitimate for oneself, but not for others.

The opposite of this statement is almost exactly what one of my few Bush supporting friends told me, just before the 2004 election. Obviously, not an intellectual analysis, but a gut instinct, and a very common one in the USA (and in every other tribe, for that matter). His type of reaction is the prerequisite for the non-Volokhian non-reasoning. Comforting such people in their instincts is the purpose of the endless round of tormented pro-torture “logic” — the conclusion is given, and they just need some words to get there.

Reminds me of the time in math grad school when the prof assigned a measure-theory problem to prove something that turned out not to be true (due to his error, not a deliberate head fake). About 2/3 of the class was able to “prove” it anyway. Not good, but at least not malicious.

25

Matt 11.07.05 at 7:24 am

On its face it does seem odd to think that libertarians would be so crazy for torture, including torturing people to death, as some at the VC are. “Don’t they want a minimal state?”, you might ask yourself. But, if you recall that the libertarian state is just the “dominant protection agency” it all makes more sense. No sense in taking part in a protection racker, er, hiring a protection agency, if you are not ready to have it burn down the competition’s shops or set up a system of secret prisons, or whatever.

26

Kieran Healy 11.07.05 at 7:46 am

vitriol and self-righteous indignation when you actually AGREE with the post?

My post isn’t vitriolic. I try to make an argument about why Juan can be right on the literal comparison to gulags while still missing the point altogether about what is important about this story. He complains about deadened moral sensitivity, and yet when it comes to deciding what’s important about this issue, he focuses on the rhetoric. Like I say, it’s a question of perspective.

27

ObtusePedant 11.07.05 at 7:55 am

Nice post. By the way, “ovredue” is one word, not two.

28

eudoxis 11.07.05 at 8:27 am

Kieran, your argument was lost a while ago. The UN did make the Gulag comparison and it didn’t work. Rather, the hyperbole turns people away from the real problem. The argument that stirs people to action has to be that what the US is doing is different, our own brand of cruelty, insidious, unique, etc.

29

Andrew Brown 11.07.05 at 8:29 am

-mmmmmph- ov redue? -mmmmmphph-

30

Drago 11.07.05 at 8:29 am

This post put me in mind of something I read during the manufactured controversy regarding Harold Pinter’s Nobel Prize. On his website he has published the now much maligned poem American Football, with a lengthy commentary of his own hand about the trouble he had getting it published. While the poem is pretty ordinary, this passage from the commentary is both correct and appropriate to this topic:

I then sent the editor of the Observer a short fax, in which I quoted myself when I was at the US Embassy in Ankara in March I985 with Arthur Miller. I had a chat with the ambassador about torture in Turkish prisons. He told me that I didn’t appreciate the realities of the situation vis-a-vis the Communist threat, the military reality, the diplomatic reality, the strategic reality, and so on.
I said the reality I was referring to was that of electric current on your genitals. Whereupon the ambassador said, ‘Sir, you are a guest in my house,’ and turned away. I left the house.
The point I was making to the editor of the Observer was that the ambassador found great offence in the word genitals. But the reality of the situation, the actual reality of electric current on your genitals, was a matter of no concern to him. It was the use of the word that was offensive, but not the act.

(Emphasis mine.)

31

Belle Waring 11.07.05 at 9:18 am

aw, shit, there goes the group hug. I felt like we were so close…of course, I haven’t bothered to discover whether group hugs are a good idea at all, or even thought about it once, ever, so perhaps it’s no loss.

32

Something Polish 11.07.05 at 9:36 am

I just wanna know when I can say “gulag.” I said it before, and apparently that was really, really bad. I was sorry about that, and I apologized appropriately. So can I say it yet? Lemme know.

Cheney still wants to allow the CIA to torture people. Has anyone asked his boss, Prince Bunnypants, what he thinks about that?

33

Cranky Observer 11.07.05 at 9:46 am

So-called “Juan Non-Volokh” is presumably a federal judge, Justice Dept employee, or high official of a leading law school who wants to say controversial things without being held accountable – else why the pseudonym? I think a letter from a Democratic Senator on the Judiciary Committee asking who that person is might be a good thing…

Cranky

34

Robin 11.07.05 at 11:16 am

Eudoxis,

In re ” Rather, the hyperbole turns people away from the real problem.”

Perhaps, but if people’s principal and, for some, only reaction to a revelation of a system of torture is that the metaphor use was inappropriate, then it seems that what we really need is to become people with a better sense of priorities.

35

Jon H 11.07.05 at 11:26 am

Obviously, it’s also wrong to call the circa-1918 Gulag the Gulag, because in 1918 it wasn’t remotely as bad as the Real Soviet Gulag of the 30′s, which wasn’t as bad as the Gulag of the 40′s, which wasn’t as bad as the Gulag of the 50′s (because the Gulag of the 50′s had all that cumulative badness associated with it.)

One should ask Mr. Non-Volokh if the Soviet Gulag could have been called a Gulag when it was young and only as small as ours is today.

36

Natalie Solent 11.07.05 at 11:29 am

Abb1 writes, “The effect of revelations about US facilities and practices is similar to the effect of revelations about Stalin’s Gulag. Is there anything wrong with this proposition, Steve?”
Yes. It is not true.

37

Barry 11.07.05 at 11:37 am

Well, if it’s ‘literal (non-)libertarian week’, Natalie, you’re wrong. It is quite similar. Of a much smaller magnitude, but similar.

38

Jon H 11.07.05 at 11:42 am

As I just emailed Mr. Juan, the Soviet Gulag was just the result of taking a core set of principles, and applying them over decades with great effort and efficiency.

With different core principles, the Gulag would have been relatively benign, no?

The problem for America is that the *principles* underlying our own Gulag would have similar end results if applied energetically for thirty years.

If Bush and Cheney’s warped morals were allowed to reign for 34 years, would be have a real Soviet-class Gulag? We probably would.

As it is, I’d be interested in hearing just how big the Soviet Gulag was when it was three / four years old.

Mr. Non-Volokh needs to explain why it would be injust to compare the American Gulag to the Soviet Gulag of, say, 1923.

39

tim 11.07.05 at 12:04 pm

You can read the strong comparison as a bona fide effort to draw your attention to something very serious, and try to understand what’s happening. Alternatively, you can start listing the ways in which the comparison is not literally true. The substantive question fades away and we’re in the realm of debate about rhetoric.

What?

That “bona fide effort to draw your attention” was already about rhetoric: drawing attention, not distinctions. It’s not the objection that makes it all about rhetoric.

The question of rhetoric, though, does have a substance of its own. There are those who like to debate in terms which are stripped of any meaning except “good” or “bad.” Since “gulag” is bad, and “CIA detention centers” are bad, the words are as good as synonyms for those folks. But people who argue that way – who insist that just such a lack of rhetorical and critical sophistication is a virtue – are the problem. Turning words into blunt instruments to beat the opposition, and abandoning any effort to consider an issue critically: the other side’s position is, like the words abused to describe it, simply, unsubtly, unsophisticatedly “bad,” and nothing else.

Surely, on a list with such educated commentators as this, there would be a real concern for the precise use of language – an effort to fight against just this kind of abuse of the language in which words are stripped of all denotation and left with one of two hyper-simplistic connotations.

Does it make the detention centers more wrong or less wrong depending on whether or not (on whatever rationalization) we call them “gulags”? I’d certainly hope there is no one here who believes so.

————–
“I hope, prince, that you are too progressive to deny this?”

“I deny nothing, but you must confess that your article–”

“Is a bit thick, you mean? Well, in a way that is in the public interest; you will admit that yourself, and after all one cannot overlook a blatant fact. So much the worse for the guilty parties, but the public welfare must come before everything. As to certain inaccuracies and figures of speech, so to speak, you will also admit that the motive, aim, and intention, are the chief thing. It is a question, above all, of making a wholesome example; the individual case can be examined afterwards; and as to the style–well, the thing was meant to be humorous, so to speak, and, after all, everybody writes like that; you must admit it yourself! Ha, ha!”

Fyodor Dostoevsky
=The Idiot=

[with apologies for the clunky, but public domain, translation.]

40

abb1 11.07.05 at 12:19 pm

Natalie, why is not similar? Many supporters of the USSR (Camus, for example) became severely disillusioned; others (like Sartre) suffered cognitive dissonance, communist parties lost membership, the opponents got powerful weapon for their anti-Soviet propaganda.

Why do you think it’s different with Gitmo, etc.? I think in many respects it’s probably even more striking, look at international polls. Of course the Iraq war itself played a huge role, but still…

41

Jon H 11.07.05 at 12:20 pm

“Surely, on a list with such educated commentators as this, there would be a real concern for the precise use of language – an effort to fight against just this kind of abuse of the language in which words are stripped of all denotation and left with one of two hyper-simplistic connotations.”

How about this, then. The Bush administration has embraced Gulag values, in place of American values.

42

Belle Waring 11.07.05 at 12:22 pm

jon h., I am 100% on your side, but the truth is that the Soviet gulag got very, very ugly, very fast. if there were anything even in order of magnitude of only 100 people being tortured and abused for no reason at all in the jails of the soviet union in 1923 then I will eat my hat, a hat which is approximately the size of Solovki island. US torture=evil, totally unacceptable, justifiably likened to the gulag when it involves hideous islands of extra-judidical punishment with no redress. Soviet gulag when it was only 3 or 4 years old=hideous, soul-sucking torment for tens and hundreds of thousands of people. although, typing this, it reminds me that the most hated tortures at solovki, as A.S. reported them were: sleep deprivation (zeks had to balance on logs with arms outstretched and were beaten if they fell) and exposure to extremes of heat and cold (zeks were chained outside in the summer or dead of winter, with feeble clothes, tormented by mosquitoes). So, let’s have some Gulag Archipelago reading all round, shall we?

43

Jon H 11.07.05 at 12:23 pm

“Why do you think it’s different with Gitmo, etc.? I think in many respects it’s probably even more striking, look at international polls.”

I suppose that’s where the tax cuts come in handy for retaining the support of self-proclaimed libertarians.

44

paul 11.07.05 at 12:29 pm

Golly. Now I realize that all the democrats had to do back in the 90s to cut off the Contract with America before it even started was to enumerate the ways in which bipartisanship was unlike date rape, and explain that anyone who used such hyperbole had forever made the rest of their arguments not worth listening to. It must be wonderful to have a divine right of control over the terms of discourse.

45

Jon H 11.07.05 at 12:32 pm

belle writes: “. Soviet gulag when it was only 3 or 4 years old=hideous, soul-sucking torment for tens and hundreds of thousands of people. “

The only numbers I have handy, from Britannica, say the Gulag had a total population of about 100,000 in the late 1920s, after which it grew rapidly under Stalin.

That suggested to me that, perhaps in the early years it might have been in the 10,000 – 20,000 range, which would not be far off of our total if you include Abu Ghraib which held 8,000 at one point (many under open sky and exposed to mortar fire).

46

James Wimberley 11.07.05 at 12:43 pm

Of course the Bulag is not the Gulag. Perhaps the Gestapo is a better analogy: fairly small, acting with wide popular support in Germany at any rate, using selective brutality mainly on lesser peoples and races, especially “terrorists” like Jean Moulin. Remember that the Nazis, like the Chekists, had an explicit legal doctrine justifying any measures in defense of the state.

Respondents please please note that this is not the tabu Holocaust comparison; the Gestapo ended up as part of Himmler’s satrapy, but was not the manager of the Final Solution.

47

tim 11.07.05 at 12:43 pm

It must be wonderful to have a divine right of control over the terms of discourse.

Not nearly as wonderful as being so self-assured that one feels one can engage meaningfully in a political debate with nothing more than synonyms for “good” and “bad”.

48

John 11.07.05 at 12:48 pm

What a strange post. Oh, well, sure the Gulag is wholly distinguishable from CIA secret detention facilities, but isn’t it more important that we take every opportunity to paint the Bush administration in an evil manner? Rather, we should not condemn blatant misuses of rhetoric. In fact, to be intellectually honest in such a desperate matter shows a “withered” sense of morality. Gimme a break.

49

eudoxis 11.07.05 at 12:51 pm

“Perhaps, but if people’s principal and, for some, only reaction to a revelation of a system of torture is that the metaphor use was inappropriate, then it seems that what we really need is to become people with a better sense of priorities.”

Let me clarify. The use of inappropriate comparisons is damaging to the attempt to draw people’s attention to a serious issue. How is the general public who vote republican going to take pictures in newsweek seriously if the context frame is wrong?

50

Jon H 11.07.05 at 12:59 pm

Actually, belle, come to think of it, I think focusing on the number of people involved is a red herring.

If the Soviet Gulag were based on principles of humane treatment and fair trials, nobody would much care how many millions of people passed through, right?

If the guiding principles are wrong, then the high body count is just a matter of time and effort. Given the principles of the Bush administration, it’ll just take them a lot longer to match the Soviet record.

51

abb1 11.07.05 at 1:01 pm

The Bush administration has embraced Gulag values, in place of American values.

True – there’s also difference in ideology to consider.

The Soviet system was supposed to be a manifestation of collectivism overriding individual rights; getting a few enemies of the people (spies, saboteurs, terrorists) shot on the spot or even tortured would’ve shocked no one – revolutionary justice at work. It’s the spectacle of mass indiscriminate repression that did them in.

American ideology is the ideology of individualism. In this paradigm nuking Hiroshima is fine, but hanging a taxi driver by the balls in a secret dungeon? Totally unacceptable. And I’m not joking.

52

eudoxis 11.07.05 at 1:17 pm

Actually, belle, come to think of it, I think focusing on the number of people involved is a red herring.

Even if directed at Belle who can hold her own to the 10,000ths, I have to say this is completely off the mark. If scale is not at issue why the comparison to the gulag at all? Why not compare Abu Ghraib to the Rodney King beating and watch the crowd jump to action?

53

Barry 11.07.05 at 1:22 pm

“Let me clarify. The use of inappropriate comparisons is damaging to the attempt to draw people’s attention to a serious issue. How is the general public who vote republican going to take pictures in newsweek seriously if the context frame is wrong?”

Posted by eudoxis ·

First, marketing advice from Republicans is not trustworthy. Second, the general public (who is pretty evenly split) will react strongly to pictures, because they cut through Republican rhetoric.

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eudoxis 11.07.05 at 2:01 pm

Pictures must reach a receptive viewer or they can have a desensitizing effect. For example, during the lynching years, pictures of lynchings were proudly printed and distributed to an approving audience. Pictures of tortured prisoners feed into the republican dehumanizing hatred and fear of middle easterners. Especially when pictures of beheadings are also available.

The counter-argument to US torture practices becomes trivialized with the use of hyperbole. This is counter productive. We must appeal to a sense of human decency or morality or rule of law or something else. Do you have any suggestions besides characterizing anything out of lockstep as Republican?

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Natalie Solent 11.07.05 at 2:06 pm

Barry writes, “It is quite similar. Of a much smaller magnitude, but similar.” Magnitude is kind of the point at issue here, though.
Later Barry says, “First, marketing advice from Republicans is not trustworthy.” I would have thought that in wondering how to persuade Republicans to agree with you, marketing advice from Republicans was crucial. Well, I can truthfully say that I have never voted Republican, but on the off chance that you might trust marketing advice from someone who let her Amnesty membership lapse after decades, here is mine. Effective arguments: inherent wickedness, tactically unsound, slippery slope, danger to own liberties. Ineffective and counterproductive arguments: Bush is Hitler, Bush is Stalin.

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Jon H 11.07.05 at 2:53 pm

eudoxis writes: “If scale is not at issue why the comparison to the gulag at all?”

Because the gulag was also a calculatedly designed geographically dispersed network of sites.

Rodney King, not so much.

By focusing on the number of people involved, you’re saying the Gulag wasn’t inherently bad, they just went overboard. If they’d kept it to fewer victims, it would have been fine.

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Jon H 11.07.05 at 2:57 pm

natalie solent writes:”Magnitude is kind of the point at issue here, though.”

It is? So what’s your threshold number of people who can be tortured/abused to death/held without trial/disappeared?

Silly me, I’d think that fpr America, the number ought to be zero, and that the problem with the gulag is that its number of victims was nonzero, not that they went a little wacky and overdid it.

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Martin Bento 11.07.05 at 2:57 pm

When differences in scale become differences in kind, which they sometimes do, the resulting “kind” differences should be discernable without reference to the scale. Otherwise, we should not assert that things are unlike just because they differ in scale. Were Pol Pot and Kim il-Sung less vicious dictators than Mao because they ruled smaller countries and therefore operated on a lesser scale? To determine whether the comparison is valid, we need to isolate the features of the Soviet Gulag that distinguish it from “prisons” are as known throughout the modern world (especially in the United States).

I would say the salient features are these:

1) They operated in secret, making democratic oversight impossible and potential for abuse vast.

2) There was only a thin veneer of due process of law concerning who went in.

3) Torture and other “cruel and unusual punishments” were deployed.

4) By the end of their lifespan, at least, the bulk of the prisoners were not there for anything they did or were believed to have done, but to serve the interest of the gulag keepers in terrorizing the population or selected subsets of it.

1, 2, and 3 clearly apply. Because of 1 and 2, it is impossible to evaluate 4. I don’t imagine the majority of the prisoners are there for arbitrary reasons, though we know that some at Abu Ghraib were innocent bystanders. However, this is mere speculation; we cannot stipulate as fact that the prisoners are legitimate targets in any sense, because we don’t actually know this.

So America scores 75% on the “kind” test, without a definitive negative on the rest. Sounds like a comparison worth making.

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Doctor Slack 11.07.05 at 3:25 pm

I don’t imagine the majority of the prisoners are there for arbitrary reasons, though we know that some at Abu Ghraib were innocent bystanders

Actually, given how useful the more publicized prisons at Abu Ghraib and Gitmo appear to have been in furnishing any significant information about “terrorists,” I think it’s completely reasonable to speculate that the majority of the prisoners in the “black” prison system are there for fairly arbitrary reasons. The conduct of the US government certainly hasn’t provided much cause for confidence or reason to extend the benefit of the doubt, unfortunately.

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Barry 11.07.05 at 3:28 pm

And, Natalie, we’re not trying to market to you, or to people like you – hard-core Republicans, or self-described ‘libertarian’ who still needs to be persuaded. We’re trying to market to people who are persuadable, who have voted both ways.

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tim 11.07.05 at 3:32 pm

Because the gulag was also a calculatedly designed geographically dispersed network of sites.

Like the internet?

62

Jon H 11.07.05 at 3:37 pm

I wrote: “Because the gulag was also a calculatedly designed geographically dispersed network of sites.”

Willfully obtuse tim responded:

“Like the internet?”

network of sites for punishment. The internet’s only like that when you’re around. [rimshot]

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Grand Moff Texan 11.07.05 at 4:02 pm

One of the biggest differences is that, under the Soviet gulag, there was at least due process.
.

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Daniel 11.07.05 at 4:25 pm

I’m reminded of the old joke about Vanderbilt and Harriman sitting around talking in their club. Harriman happens to mention that he caught his office-boy stealing two dollars from the petty cash, and is obviously going to have him fired. Vanderbilt replies “oh don’t be so hard on the boy, remember we started small ourselves”.

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Natalie Solent 11.07.05 at 4:31 pm

Jon h asks, “So what’s your threshold number of people who can be tortured/abused to death/held without trial/disappeared?”

In terms of threshold of acceptability, zero, the same as yours, I presume. Zero and the Gulag stuff is still stupid. Every year or so I have an argument with this structure, and someone always says, nyah, what’s your threshold and I say, nyah to you too, the existence of dusk does not make day indistinguishable from night.

Grand Moff Texan says, “under the Soviet gulag, there was at least due process.”

Listen to yourself.

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Martin 11.07.05 at 4:34 pm

It’s not a gulag, it’s a freedom arhipelago.

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nick s 11.07.05 at 4:36 pm

Listen to yourself.

Do one get the irony-ectomy after joining the Club For Wingers Who Call Themselves Libertarians, or is it a prerequisite for membership?

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luci phyrr 11.07.05 at 4:40 pm

Juan thinks that [...] “hyperbole deadens the sensitivity to moral distinctions in public discourse.

I would think that moral “distinctions” would look for differences of kind, more than of magnitude. Sure, hyperbole can obscure, and it can be politically ineffective, but isn’t arguing “I only stole a little” more guilty of eliding moral distinctions?

“It’s a question of perspective.”

Kinda like complaining about racial injustice and pointing to, oh, affirmative action. Or looking for deviations from free-market ideals and always finding welfare programs. Or writing a book about the threat “Political Correctness” poses to our society.

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Natalie Solent 11.07.05 at 5:00 pm

Nick s,

First one must pass through the hideous initiation rite: spend a night alone in the Crooked Timber comments section, listening to the howling and gibbering of damned souls.

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Grand Moff Texan 11.07.05 at 5:01 pm

Listen to yourself.

Sorry, too busy enjoying the silence that was your answer.
.

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Grand Moff Texan 11.07.05 at 5:02 pm

listening to the howling and gibbering of damned souls.

Actually, I don’t think the trolls here are all that bad.
.

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Jon H 11.07.05 at 5:27 pm

natalie solent writes: “the existence of dusk does not make day indistinguishable from night”

Yet the day eventually becomes night.

Question: How exactly would a person work to prevent the institution of a new Gulag, the rise of a new Nazi party, a new Holocaust, if they are unable to warn of the rise of a new Nazi party, unable to warn about the institution of a new Gulag, or the start of a new Holocaust?

How are you going to prevent such things from happening again if you’re too delicate to suggest they are, in fact, happening again?

So much for the tough-talking right.

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Daniel 11.07.05 at 5:55 pm

first they came for the communists, and I said “look, it’s ridiculous to compare this to the Nazi Party, it may be very bad but they’ve only come for the communists” …

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BigMacAttack 11.07.05 at 6:09 pm

The puppy blood link is the ruinous non-sequitur in this thread.

Gilbert Achcar and Alex Callinicos make kissy face and assure each other that they do support the Iraqi insurgency over on Znet. You know the Gilbert Achcar who is well enough read and influential enough that he merits multiple space over at informed comment. But Eugene’s condemnation of such deserves scorn and ridicule. (Deliciously or perhaps disgustingly ironic, a good deal of it, comes from CT commentators, who basically agree with Gilbert Achcar’s position regarding the Iraqi insurgency.) The number of such folks is equivalent to the number of puppy blood drinkers.

If I approached the whole Gulag question in the same manner, I would ridicule Amnesty International, by contrasting the millions killed in the Soviet Gulag with being wrapped in an Israeli flag. If I wanted to create an appearance of credibility, I might contrast the millions killed with the handful of documented deaths that occurred in US custody. I might highlight cases where the victim was actually a terrorist. Perhaps I could whip up a pie graph or bar chart with the millions killed in the Gulag versus the handful of deaths.

So I guess it really wasn’t a non-sequitur.

Rhetoric matters. Juan is right about that, even though you are righter.

Aside from the rhetoric it was a good post. I am just curious, are you really that certain Juan is depraved? I mean perhaps you could have approached the issue in this way? – I know Juan is right, but I think he is really missing the bigger point, and I wish he wouldn’t, because it is a very important issue, even if we limit the issue to very easily verifiable agreed upon bits, and Juan is influential. Do you think it is at all possible, that if you had made that approach, instead of the whole withered approach, you might have ended up with Juan agreeing with you?

Just curious.

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Jon H 11.07.05 at 6:28 pm

“I might contrast the millions killed with the handful of documented deaths that occurred in US custody.”

And argue, what, that the US should kill more and kill faster so we aren’t outdone by those stinkin reds?

Clue: the Soviet gulag was around for 34 years. Bush’s gulag has been running for four.

Are you saying we should let Bush and Cheney run their gulag for 30 more years and then see how they’ve done?

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Dan Simon 11.07.05 at 8:44 pm

Like the folks at Amnesty International, the Crooked Timberites seem to have completely lost their way, and no longer understand even the most basic foundational concepts of human rights.

The Gulag is not an appropriate analogy for the American detention centers abroad, and not just as a matter of degree. The Gulag existed to suppress domestic dissent against the government that ran it. As far as I know, not a single American citizen is being held at any of the centers being discussed here.

Why is this such an important distinction? Well, for one thing, if it did not exist, this discussion itself could not be taking place. The reason why the denial of basic democratic freedoms within a country is such a terrible injustice is that those freedoms are a crucial prerequisite for publicizing and mobilizing against other injustices. The Gulag was the shield that protected the perpetrators of the Soviet regime’s monstrosities from exposure and retribution. And that’s why keeping the Gulag in our collective consciousness, celebrating its demise, and refraining from diluting the emotional force of its memory with specious analogies is so important.

Of course, the fact that domestic repression is a unique and paramount danger doesn’t mean that the mistreatment of foreigners is morally unobjectionable. In particular, the intentional mistreatment of foreign innocents, if that’s what’s happening at the detention centers under discussion, would without question, be a terrible thing. (Indeed, in that case, there are historical analogies available–the Rape of Nanking, for example–that really would be egregious only as a matter of degree, not of kind.)

Now, we don’t know what measures the US government is taking to ensure that its foreign detainees aren’t innocent non-combatants. Nor do we know any of the other rules governing their detention and treatment. (Indeed, there are some compelling reasons for not making that information public.) I, for one, would be interested in reading thoughtful discussion of the right rules for the US government to follow in this regard–including intelligent arguments for the abolition of this sort of detention altogether. Unfortunately, the fatuous blather of the “Guantanamo=Gulag” crowd is making such discussion pretty much impossible here. That’s a shame.

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elendil 11.07.05 at 8:50 pm

I have created an index of torture incidents featured on my blog. I hope it’s useful for anyone wishing to research this topic.

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Bruce Baugh 11.07.05 at 9:16 pm

Why the fuck does it matter precisely what reason the government has for illegally detaining some large and growing number of people without due procedure or any reliable way of ascertaining guilt or innocence and subjecting them to torture and death? For me, at least, the fact of deliberate choice to operate outside all law and review, and to subject people to torture and death without even the slightest reason to suspect them of any crime at all that could stand up to a moment’s consideration is far more important than the particular justification for it. I would consider it gulag-like for any reason at all, given the way it seizes, abuses, and destroys its victims to satisfy an executive desire for pain, blood, and fear.

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snuh 11.07.05 at 9:17 pm

“As far as I know”

the fact that it is necessary to use this qualifier says it all, really.

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BigMacAttack 11.07.05 at 9:18 pm

Dan Simon,

In addition to being drunk, I am shocked and disappointed. I am long time admirer of your comments but not this one. Or at least not completely.

You have the cart before the horse. The Gulag was not so hideous because it denied freedom and democracy. If the Gulag had existed side by side with freedom and democracy, see US slavery, it still would have been hideous.

In large part the Soviet regime was monstrous because of the Gulag. Minus the Gulag and the millions of deaths, the Soviet regime would not have been nearly as monstrous. Don’t get me wrong controlling the production of tomatoes is criminally stupid and morally wrong, but if all the Soviet Union had done was control the production of tomatoes, communism wouldn’t have such a bad rap.

I am also not so sure the Soviet Gulag would have been less objectionable if it had been inflicted upon Canadians instead of Soviet citizens.

The compelling reason for making the information public is so that our current system never approaches 1% of the horror of the Soviet system.

As a side note I would like to point an enormous difference in kind between the Gulag and the current US terrorist prison system. The de facto goal of the Gulag was death. Death is merely an unfortunate side effect of the current US terrorist prison system.

Oh, Dan is right that the Gulag was targeted at those looking to champion freedom. The US system, despite Grand Moff and Abb1′s and Chomsky’s idiotic protests to the contrary, the US system is designed to target the foes of freedom. The aim is certainly questionable and an extremely important issue.

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Jon H 11.07.05 at 9:24 pm

“The Gulag existed to suppress domestic dissent against the government that ran it. “

“Domestic” is a questionable term when applied to the expansionist Soviet Union, don’t you think?

The relationship between, say, Chechnya and Moscow was rather different than the relationship between New York and Washington, and to some extent member states of the USSR were more like occupied territories.

It strikes me as incorrect to say that the Gulag would have been okay if the prisoners had been labeled as foreign insurgents.

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Dan Simon 11.07.05 at 10:41 pm

You have the cart before the horse.

I don’t believe I do. Yes, the Gulag, in addition to being imposed on Soviet citizens rather than foreigners, was an apparatus of inhumanity on a gargantuan scale that obviously dwarfs what the American government is currently doing in its overseas detention centers. But I’m under no illusions as to what the current–or any–American government–or any other government, for that matter–would do, to its own citizens or to foreigners, if equipped with a Soviet-style Gulag of its own with which to suppress domestic dissent. That we are arguing about the detention of a few suspected terrorists, rather than the atrocities that most of the world’s governments perpetrate routinely, is testament not to the moral rectitude of America’s leaders, but rather to the power of political freedom to address injustices.

The compelling reason for making the information public is so that our current system never approaches 1% of the horror of the Soviet system.

Indeed, that is a strong argument for full disclosure. Personally, I believe that that would be unwise, but I also fully understand the dangers of secrecy, and I would like to see strong procedures put in place for monitoring this sort of secret activity. (Something along the lines of Congressional oversight of intelligence work might be appropriate, for example.) Of course, if the detention system’s population ever grows to a more substantial number–let alone 1% of the size of the Gulag–then full disclosure will be absolutely necessary.

If the Gulag had existed side by side with freedom and democracy, see US slavery, it still would have been hideous.

Of course. But if you want to understand why slavery no longer exists in the US, freedom and democracy are critical factors.

It strikes me as incorrect to say that the Gulag would have been okay if the prisoners had been labeled as foreign insurgents.

Again, of course. By the same token, though, you’ll presumably agree that it’s incorrect to label a prison system holding a few dozens of suspected foreign insurgents a Gulag.

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Jon H 11.07.05 at 11:39 pm

“Again, of course. By the same token, though, you’ll presumably agree that it’s incorrect to label a prison system holding a few dozens of suspected foreign insurgents a Gulag.”

Abu Ghraib, which certainly had a CIA-led torture operation going on, had 8,000 inmates at one point, many of whom slept outdoors. Not exactly Siberia, but then, the people in Siberian gulags didn’t have to deal with incoming mortar rounds, so that seems to be a wash.

Abuse and torture have taken place at prison sites around Iraq, and Afghanistan, in addition to the newly revealed black sites and the torture that was outsourced to other countries.

It’s more than a few dozen people.

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Bruce Baugh 11.07.05 at 11:47 pm

I think that any place sanctioned by the national authority in which people are held without plausible evidence, whose cases are never properly examined to determine guilt or innocence, who face pain, misery, and death, who are yanked out of the world and not ever necessarily accounted for again, whose loved ones are deliberately lied to about the whereabouts of the vanished, whose captors claim unbounded authority and complete independence from question or review or supervision of any kind…

…pretty much is a gulag.

I don’t think size matters much for this.

And I particularly don’t think that visible size at any given moment matters, since we know for a fact that the authorities are continuing to lie about what they’re doing, where, to how many people, under what sort of policy, guidelines, and internal review. We may feel sure that the number of those subject to this unbounded confiment isn’t smaller than what’s been officially acknowledged. We may also feel sure that it is larger, without having much foundation for speculation about how much larger.

(Prison camps in former Soviet territory? What the hell? That came out of the blue, at least for me. I hate to think what else is also still out there….)

Any argument of the form “the problem is only this big, so it can’t be directly compared to that other problem” seems to me the most obviously unsupportable right now. We won’t really know the scope of things until this crew have left power and the secret files can be examined by someone else. Until that happens, we know that the leaders we’ve got now want this, that they don’t feel bound by anyone else’s demand or request that they stop, and that they are willing to lie about it. So the problem is going to be bigger than it seems, as long as they’re able to continue it.

It’s not the size, it’s the power.

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Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 12:28 am

Just to clarify:

It’s not just that the problem is getting bigger. It’s that it has been bigger all along, since the invasion of Afghanistan and maybe even before. There have been these folks we didn’t know about, locked away in however many facilities around the world, and there are right now folks we don’t know about yet in such places.Which is why the numbers we have now can’t be anything but a lower boundary.

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Dan Simon 11.08.05 at 2:02 am

I think that any place sanctioned by the national authority in which people are held without plausible evidence, whose cases are never properly examined to determine guilt or innocence, who face pain, misery, and death, who are yanked out of the world and not ever necessarily accounted for again, whose loved ones are deliberately lied to about the whereabouts of the vanished, whose captors claim unbounded authority and complete independence from question or review or supervision of any kind…

…pretty much is a gulag.

How about a place sanctioned by the national authority in which people are killed without plausible evidence, whose cases are never properly examined to determine guilt or innocence, who face pain, misery, and death, who are yanked out of the world and not ever necessarily accounted for again, whose loved ones are never informed of the fates of the vanished, whose killers claim unbounded authority and complete independence from question or review or supervision of any kind?

It’s called a battlefield. Are you demanding the abolition of those, as well?

Dramatic descriptions of the ugly things that governments are sometimes compelled to do, are great for helping one work oneself into an emotional lather. Unfortunately, they lend more heat than light to the difficult question of how to manage the many painful tradeoffs between national security and collective compassion.

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abb1 11.08.05 at 3:23 am

According to Wiki:

On May 25, 2005, Amnesty International released a report calling the facility the “gulag of our times”, which some, in an act of praiseworthy pedantry, contend is a gross misunderstanding of what gulags have historically been (that is, the government system in charge of the camp structure as a whole, rather than an individual camp itself). (See the Wikipedia article on gulag). Certainly, the final point of this assertion by Amnesty is not Camp Xray’s similarity to a gulag, but rather the appalling conditions and multiple breaches of human rights that continue there; to criticise their use of ‘gulag’, while a worthy defense of the correct usage of appropriated Russian terms in English, misses the point.

Yes, folks – pedantry, misses the point.

According to their ‘gulag’ article, Anne Applebaum wrote this:

…Even more broadly, “Gulag” has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the “meat-grinder”: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.

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nick s 11.08.05 at 3:32 am

It’s called a battlefield. Are you demanding the abolition of those, as well?

I think you just served up an apple pie with a distinct citrus taste.

Yes, the Soviet gulag was a means of stifling internal dissent under the auspices of the criminal justice system. What I find rather disturbing about the array of American tactics — extraordinary rendition, black prisons, ghost detainees, torture memos — is that they honour the US constitution in the breach rather than the observance.

Unfortunately, many in the public seem happy to sign onto this ‘I see no ships’ approach too. But for the moment, the tacit admission that they couldn’t get away with this on the books is marginally heartening.

89

Dan Simon 11.08.05 at 3:39 am

…And here’s what Anne Applebaum herself had to say about the Guantanamo-Gulag comparison, back when Amnesty International Secretary General Irene Khan and AI US director William Schulz made it:

I find this comparison infuriating because in the Soviet Union it would have been impossible for the Supreme Court to order the administration to change its policies in Guantanamo Bay, as it has done, or for the media to investigate Abu Ghraib, as they has done, or for Irene Khan to publish an independent report about anything at all.

Like Khan and Schulz, I am appalled by this administration’s detention practices and interrogation policies, by the lack of a legal mechanism to judge the guilt of alleged terrorists, and by the absence of any outside investigation into reports of prison abuse. But I loathe these things precisely because the United States is not the Soviet Union, because our detention centers are not intrinsic to our political system, and because they are therefore not “similar in character” to the gulag at all.

90

abb1 11.08.05 at 4:30 am

Well, I guess she’s gone pedantic and missed the point, then. The phrase ‘our detention centers’ is telling. They are certainly not my detention centers.

91

Brett Bellmore 11.08.05 at 6:50 am

“I would say the salient features are these:

1) They operated in secret, making democratic oversight impossible and potential for abuse vast.”

Technically, wouldn’t it have been the fact that the USSR wasn’t a democracy that made democratic oversight impossible?

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Barry 11.08.05 at 7:17 am

Dan, your quote of Anne Applebaum doesn’t make your case; rather, it proves that she’s a fool. At best.

“Technically, wouldn’t it have been the fact that the USSR wasn’t a democracy that made democratic oversight impossible?”
Posted by Brett Bellmore

That certainly made sure of it, but secrecy, extreme executive power, and a don’t know/don’t care/quietly support attitude on the part of 50% of the American people can make up for a lot.

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nick 11.08.05 at 7:56 am

Applebaum appears to have remarkably weedy standards:

I find this comparison infuriating because in the Soviet Union it would have been impossible for the Supreme Court to order the administration to change its policies in Guantanamo Bay, as it has done

The USA is, after all, the home of ‘John Marshall has made his decision, now let him enforce it.’

or for the media to investigate Abu Ghraib, as they have done,

Although the Pentagon is making a damned fine job of stalling FOIA requests in the courts. Piss-poor, Anne.

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soru 11.08.05 at 8:00 am

Question: How exactly would a person work to prevent the institution of a new Gulag, the rise of a new Nazi party, a new Holocaust, if they are unable to warn of the rise of a new Nazi party, unable to warn about the institution of a new Gulag, or the start of a new Holocaust?

That would seem to be rather difficult if the distinction between a possible future threat and the current situation is lost.

Maybe it’s a failure of perspective, but reading about the rise of Hitler, I tend to lay more blame on the stupidity of the opposition than the actual wickedness of the Nazis, which gets taken for granted. There is always going to be some vicious evil bastard out there, the real question is ‘will the non-evil people stop him, or not?’.

The basic necessity of maintaining some kind of prisoner of war camps, given that you are in a war, should be obvious. But if you just hold any camp of that kind, no matter what its standards, porocedures and oversight, to be a ‘gulag’, because it is not a civilian jail, then that’s one less word you will be able to use if and when something like the real thing shows up.

The new set of camps do come rather closer to being worthy of the word. Pity the impact of that sad fact is so blunted by overhyping earlier.

soru

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abb1 11.08.05 at 8:39 am

I wonder if ‘our’ gassings are nothing like Saddam’s because they aren’t intrinsic to our political system; the Supreme Court would probably disapprove, I take it. Although, of course, those weren’t George’s own people, just some people.

96

jet 11.08.05 at 8:48 am

In a further advancement of the dialogue over secret US torture facilities, Amnesty International calls Bush “Bushitler” and the Executive branch a “bunch of Nazis” to “draw public attention to a real scandal”.

Your complaining about the misplaced focus of Volk’s discourse? The only way Amnesty could have put Bush supporters more into a “attack the messenger” mode is if they’d said Bush liked to eat babies.

For comparison let us say the anti-war protesters who call Bush a Nazi aren’t mocking the true horror that was Hitler and the holocaust, or turning any purposeful dialogue into a round of juvenile name calling; they’re simply bringing attention to the issue. What can we call the French to “draw public attention to a real scandal”? I know, let’s equivocate the riot to “The Terror”. Maybe then those Frenchies will get something done.

What’s the word I’m looking for, when someone attacks someone for not focusing on the issue, and then defends an outrageous exaggeration? Oh right, “hypocrisy”, silly me.

97

ajay 11.08.05 at 8:50 am

How about a place sanctioned by the national authority in which people are killed without plausible evidence, whose cases are never properly examined to determine guilt or innocence, who face pain, misery, and death, who are yanked out of the world and not ever necessarily accounted for again, whose loved ones are never informed of the fates of the vanished, whose killers claim unbounded authority and complete independence from question or review or supervision of any kind?

It’s called a battlefield. Are you demanding the abolition of those, as well?

Well, shit, dan, I reckon that cunning bit of rhetoric just about blinded me with its effulgence. I’m overwhelmed.

First: if you think I could kill an innocent civilian, or a PW, or a wounded enemy on a battlefield and never face any risk of consequences, then you’re a fool. And if you think soldiers on a battlefield operate completely without question, review or supervision, then you must be stoned.

Second: yes, actually, I am demanding the abolition of battlefields. The sooner that I and all other soldiers are out of work, the better. War is an symptom of utter failure by governments, the last refuge of the incompetent.

(Yes, I include the Second World War in that. It was a result of dismal failure by the French, British and US governments. And – guess what? – Winston Churchill thought so too: ‘History of the Second World War’, vol.1, ch. 3-4.)

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Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 9:04 am

Dan: I support rules of war, actually, including punishment for some kinds of cruelty and barbarism. I think that the right response to barbarism like the use of gas weapons, civilian shields, and the like is the intelligent and strong use of means that don’t descend to the same level of inhumanity, followed by open and lawful justice.

Jet: The real question here is why the level of care in captivity that worked for Nazis and imperial Japanese soldiers is insufficient for Muslim terrorists – and, more importantly, for people we aren’t yet sure are Muslim terrorists. The awful tragedies like the deaths of that cab driver and the general who went looking for news of a missing relative wouldn’t have happened precisely because these things are conducted a lot more openly and quickly.

And honestly, these folks fighting in the Middle East are not any more butcherous than the slavemasters of Bataan, to pick a handy example. It wasn’t necessary to whisk those people out of the world and subject them and randomly grabbed rice farmers to torture unto death. There’s a burden of proof here that the advocates of torture and unlimited confinement this time just aren’t meeting. Show us the failures of standard prisoner of war treatment.

99

Uncle Kvetch 11.08.05 at 9:06 am

In a further advancement of the dialogue over secret US torture facilities, Amnesty International calls Bush “Bushitler” and the Executive branch a “bunch of Nazis” to “draw public attention to a real scandal”.

Jet, could you provide a source for this quote?

100

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 9:15 am

Jet: There’s an implicit standard in your objection to the gulag language that I think is bullshit. Let’s make it explicit.

Show us a criticism of the Bush administration’s handling of justice that Bush and his administration listen to and make significant changes in response to.

Saying “don’t talk to me that way, it makes me mad” only gets any way if there’s a way of talking to you about a potential crime or sin that doesn’t make you mad. And Bush and his crew don’t have that. They have precisely two responses to challenges to their basic policies and the foundations of those policies – dismissal, and anger. There is no history of these folks ever saying “Yes, that’s a reasonable criticism, you’re right, we need to make significant changes.” Instead we get assertions that they were right, or the announcement of changes that turn out not to deal with the problem at all…or attacks on the critics. And that’s it.

So if intemperate language is bad because it loses the audience – starting with those in power, the only ones who can make the changes – we have to see some examples of temperate language being good because it keeps the audience and gets the changes. And, um, there aren’t any. Or at least not many.

101

Roger 11.08.05 at 9:16 am

Strange to see this argument rehashed yet again.

Size is all important – at a conservative estimate 18 million people passed through the Gulag, the great majority of whom were sentenced to 5 or more years there and millions of whom died.

In contrast American detention centres have in all probability only a few thousand inmates (and the fact that we don’t know exactly how many thousands is a big issue), many – probably most (again it would be nice to know) – inmates have in fact been released after a relatively short spell of detention and the number of deaths attributable to US detention is almost certainly in the dozens rather than hundreds.

One needless death or even a hundred needless deaths is a terrible thing but it is not the same as a million or ten million.

When will people on both sides get it into their heads that this is not WW2 or Stalinist Russia or Vietnam but a completely new situation where every half-baked historical analogy that is allowed to influence policy or public opinion just drags us deeper into the quagmire.

102

jet 11.08.05 at 9:38 am

Bruce Baugh,
Nice argument, and I agree (although your comparison to captured Nazis and Imperial Soldiers is off as they were often simply executed on the field if, in a rare case, there was some information needed from them). But my point is that the perfectly well reasoned argument you just presented is great for changing someone’s mind. Calling Bush “Mr. Gulag” is going to piss off his supporters and close their ears to anything of substance.

And now reading your next post I see you deny the existence of inflammatory language and that those who would be inflamed are just weak-minded imbeciles. Perhaps you could run for office on that plank.

Perhaps the Israel Palestine conflict could use your advice. We could start by calling the Palestinian mass-murdering child killers and the Israelis Fascists Imperialists willing to crush minorities under bulldozers. Yeah, that would lead to some serious advancements (towards full blown war).

Uncle Kvetch,
That quote was simply the second lowest form of wit, mockery.

103

abb1 11.08.05 at 9:44 am

Actually, to be fair, the Israelis do much more mass-child-murdering. You need some other example.

104

jet 11.08.05 at 9:47 am

Abb1,
What is needed here is a big mug of STFU for you to drink down quickly then go sit in the corner.

105

Barry 11.08.05 at 10:04 am

jet, that’s big talk from somebody who’s proven himself 100% disarmed in an intellectual fight.

106

jet 11.08.05 at 10:09 am

Barry,
So you are stepping up to plate for Abb1? You’re going to back up his “who’s the bigger child killer” (not as an example, but as an argument) when the topic is inflammatory rhetoric? Yeah, criticism from you is pure compliment.

107

Adam Kotsko 11.08.05 at 10:21 am

I can’t believe that we keep having the same idiotic debates over and over. Even as more and more evidence builds up, we’re supposed to approach every problem as though the past five years didn’t happen at all.

108

Barry 11.08.05 at 10:29 am

Oooh, jet, you’re so manly. You must have had two cups of coffee this morning. Looks like you have a soft spot for the IDF.

109

Barry 11.08.05 at 10:31 am

Adam, that’s because the technique works so well for these guys. IMHO, one thing that we need to do is to stop according them the respect that they don’t deserve. We treat people like the fake libertarian Natalie Solent, and jet, like they haven’t been pushing BS on us for the past several years.

110

jet 11.08.05 at 10:51 am

Barry,
I guess the 60 million voters who went for a weak incompetent President like Bush were just overwhelmed with the quality of the opposition’s arguments? Yeah, keep at it with the knee-jerk (nazi, fascists, gulag) rhetoric. It’s just about to work.

…soft spot for the IDF.

Masterfully played man, you’re some sort of debating genius.

111

abb1 11.08.05 at 10:57 am

For comparison let us say the anti-war protesters who call Bush a Nazi aren’t mocking the true horror that was Hitler and the holocaust…

…In a documentary to be broadcast by RAI, the Italian state broadcaster, this morning, a former American soldier who fought at Fallujah says: “I heard the order to pay attention because they were going to use white phosphorus on Fallujah. In military jargon it’s known as Willy Pete.

“Phosphorus burns bodies, in fact it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone … I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Phosphorus explodes and forms a cloud. Anyone within a radius of 150 metres is done for.”

Photographs on the website of RaiTG24, the broadcaster’s 24-hours news channel, http://www.rainews24.it, show exactly what the former soldier means. Provided by the Studies Centre of Human Rights in Fallujah, dozens of high-quality, colour close-ups show bodies of Fallujah residents, some still in their beds, whose clothes remain largely intact but whose skin has been dissolved or caramelised or turned the consistency of leather by the shells.

112

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 11:06 am

Jet: Nice argument, and I agree (although your comparison to captured Nazis and Imperial Soldiers is off as they were often simply executed on the field if, in a rare case, there was some information needed from them). Er, there were something like 50-70,000 German POWs in camps in Texas, plus others elsewhere; I’m having a hard time getting a good overall number. The total for captured Japanese soldiers seems to be about 20,000. (I’m not counting the interned civilians as POWs. If you disagree what are your sources?

113

jet 11.08.05 at 11:27 am

Abb1,
Yeah, yeah, yeah. Always a sucker for an unnamed source as long as they are anti-Bush (the US soldier). If you bothered to do even a minimal of research you’d see that the only way white phosphorus could have cause those wounds is if it had been used as an incendary, which would have caused huge raging fires. When used for illumination and screen, the fumes are mildly annoying, but certainly don’t melt your skin. On the other hand, being a bomb blast or explosion can certainly melt your skin, set you on fire, and do all those things listed. But reason and logic are lost to you.

Bruce,
Besides the fact I have no idea how numbers of POWs pertains to the arguement, how does 2,000,000 Japanese casulties make 20,000 POW’s a large number. We took 1 prisoner for every 100 we killed? I bet we do a LOT better than that now.

114

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 11:40 am

Jet, I’m not the one asserting we have to throw out our existing tradition of military justice for prisoners of war and captured possible combatants. So I’m not going to do your homework for you. What about this situation is in fact so much worse than World War II, and what about these prisoners so much worse than Nazis or imperial Japanese, that it’s desirable to operate an undisclosed network of facilities in which torture and death are routine practices and no external review is to be entertained?

I don’t get it. And I’ve not yet seen an answer that really amounts to more than “I hate these guys a lot”.

115

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 11:42 am

(Stray thought: If the problem is that we haven’t got the resources committed to the field to do a proper job, then I would actually have some sympathy for that. But that would be easy to fix if the administration wanted to, so I can’t accept “we’re engaging in gulag-like practices because we can’t get the money for better POW handling”. They could.)

116

abb1 11.08.05 at 12:25 pm

Well, Jet, they made a documentary, show it on Italian TV. You can watch is online here. Names of the former US soldiers interviewed are on the screen. It’s not pretty.

117

nick s 11.08.05 at 12:42 pm

If you bothered to do even a minimal of research you’d see that the only way white phosphorus could have cause those wounds is if it had been used as an incendary, which would have caused huge raging fires.

The Pentagon has consistently lied and covered up its use of incendiaries since the invasion of Iraq began, including lying to the British government. Adam Ingram, the MoD flunky who denied it because the UK is a party to Protocol III of the CCW, had to apologise for misleading Harry Cohen MP.

Contemporaneous reporting of the invasion mentioned the use of Mk77 in ways prohibited by international treaties beyond Protocol III.

Y’know, if George Bush were to cut out jet’s liver with a sharpened trowel, jet would deny that it happened. Its ‘me or your lying eyes act’ is wearing very, very thin.

118

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 12:49 pm

119

Barry 11.08.05 at 12:50 pm

jet is fun to watch, but I don’t think that he’s passed a Turing test yet. It’s probably a bot.

120

The Pedant-General 11.08.05 at 1:07 pm

abb1,

And you can read what a complete crock of sh*t that entire Independent piece is here.

On the substantive topic, BOTH sides agree that torture is not acceptable. So the question comes down to the comparison, the rhetoric. The substantive issue – that torture and extra-judicial detention are bad things – is not in doubt.

On the rhetoric, to call Gitmo a gulag is just rubbish: for goodness sake – many prisoners are gaining weight because they are being fed properly. In what way is this similar to the Gulag?

The comparison is simply not necessary to raise the issue: it represents an “own-goal” as it makes AI appear to have lost all sense of proportion.

121

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 1:07 pm

Wouldn’t surprise me, Barry. I use some of these write-only targets as a chance to sharpen up my own exposition, as much as anything.

122

jet 11.08.05 at 1:20 pm

Bruce Baugh,
Holy shit, what part of “Nice argument and I agree.” do you not understand? This is like going to an anti-war protest and talking to the retards.

Disagreeing with your statement that WWII was a full on love fest for captured POWs does not equal disagreement with you over how Bush needs to change the torture policy. Granted that might take a 4th or 5th grade reading level to discern, but trust me, it is there.

123

jet 11.08.05 at 1:56 pm

I checked out the Falluja White Phosphorus photos and noticed maggots in quite a few of the shots. Long exposure to desert sun coupled with the fact that flesh doesn’t stay on bodies for long when left exposed, means there are lots of alternative explanations to the “obvious” one. There’s probably a reason that doing a google news search doesn’t bring back much that would be considered legitimate to an American.

Abb1, you should be very familiar with this. Suicide bombers often have flash burned flesh right next to unharmed clothing, and that’s whith the bomb strapped to them. This white phosphorus thing is far from proven.

But I know, you don’t even have to tell me, all American news is biased and we should only believe Aljazeera and Rainews.

124

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 2:19 pm

Jet: I don’t think I asserted anything like WW2 POW camps being love-fests. I said that they followed a standard of conduct a lot better than the one being now applied. And honestly, I did read your comments as defending the Bush administration’s policy on this one. I’m sorry for the misunderstanding. Do you mean to say that you find what they’re doing now unnecessarily cruel and undesirable?

125

abb1 11.08.05 at 2:21 pm

As usual ‘our’ side’s crimes require the absolute, undeniable proof beyong any doubt whatsoever. And when this proof does surface – it doesn’t mean anything because people who present it are peace activists, communists and people with an agenda.

If this is not typical for Stalinism, I don’t know what is.

126

jet 11.08.05 at 2:54 pm

Bruce Baugh,
Thank you for the apology, and I shouldn’t have responded so unkindly to you, so I also aplogize.

As for “Do you mean to say that you find what they’re doing now unnecessarily cruel and undesirable?” No, not in the least. Revenge is sweet and cathartic. In a perfect world, I’d have no problem with criminals suffering the exact same consequences as their victims. If you shoot your wife, rape a stranger, kill someone during a mugging, what mercy do you deserve?

But I’m still against torture because innocents get caught up in the machine and the gains will almost certainly never justify the torture of innocents.

127

nick s 11.08.05 at 3:07 pm

But I know, you don’t even have to tell me, all American news is biased and we should only believe Aljazeera and Rainews.

Yawn. Try another straw man, Dorothy.

The Pentagon has issued weasel denials for two and a half years over its use of incendiaries.

‘We don’t use napalm.’ Translation: we improved the formula, and call it something different these days.

‘We don’t use illegal weapons.’ Translation: we didn’t sign that treaty.

I have a problem trusting people who repeatedly lie. And that applies to ‘jet’ as well.

128

Natalie Solent 11.08.05 at 4:42 pm

abb1, (belatedly in response to “Why do you think it’s different with Gitmo, etc.? I think in many respects it’s probably even more striking, look at international polls.”) I doubt it. Communism was a whole belief system, shared and lost by hundreds of millions. I think most people in the West shrug at lack of due process for people they don’t believe are innocent anyway. They may be sorry they did later (cf my #56) but they do.

BTW, Not that it matters, but I was surprised to learn you are male. I always thought you were a female called Abby.

Barry,
You have said the code word correctly. The countersign is “Rove”. Let us proceed with the plan!

129

Barry 11.08.05 at 5:03 pm

Well, Natlie, if the plan was to destroy libertarianism from within, by infiltrating it with Republicans, you’ve certainly succeeded!

There’s an old joke that, by the 1950′s, the majority of the CPUSA was FBI informers, and that at one point, Hoover and cronies were discussing whether they should start altering party election results.

130

Bruce Baugh 11.08.05 at 6:27 pm

So to review…

We’ve learned that for most vocal libertarians, a war on fraudulent grounds, incompetently fought, used as an excuse for torture and the general trampling of civil liberties at home and abroad, plus fraud in every major policy initiative and incompetence in most or all agencies including the ones most necessary for the core functions of civil order and safety, is all preferable to a balanced budget and competent administration leading to improved conditions for the poorest if *gasp* there are tax hikes involved.

It’s not the size of the state, because Bush’s administration has expanded it greatly.

It’s not civil liberties, because Bush’s administration has been much worse. Giving full credit here to Bush I and Clinton Justice Department vileness with regard to Waco, more people are dying, more capriciously, and many more people are subject to investigation and harassment.

It’s not incompetence, since overall the Clinton administration did well on this and the Bush administration has rivalled or met the low-water mark for competence of any previous administration.

It’s not anything, as nearly as I can tell, except two to four things:

1. Taxes for the wealthy. It’s apparently very important to keep cutting taxes at the top, no matter (among other things) what this does to taxes for everyone else.

2. International cooperation. Any threat of impinging on US business’ right to do as it damn well pleases, like the state’s right to do likewise, must be resisted at all cost. Apparently no war or state of alienation could begin to approach the horror that would be, oh, the Kyoto accords or abiding by the Geneva conventions or paying our UN bill or anything like that.

3. Health care. Never mind all the evidence of other countries getting better care at less cost, and never mind the obvious and growing risks from epidemic and the light. It’s apparently very important that a large minority of American be left either to rot on their own devices or to bear in perpetuity the costs of expensive emergency fixes for what could have been prevented or treated earlier.

4. Gun control. After all, look how well it’s done since 2000 in keeping the government in line.

*sigh*

131

rollo 11.08.05 at 11:43 pm

“In a perfect world, I’d have no problem with criminals suffering the exact same consequences as their victims.” -Jet
Jet
The beauty of that is it elevates certain crimes to an unattainability, moral vertices we don’t have adequate words to describe.
Setting aside the obvious flaw, that there are no “exact same consequences” ever, for anything or anyone.
When a loaf of bread is all you have, the thief who took it has taken all you had. So do you take a loaf of bread from him, or all he has?
We see this inequity in the system of fines many courts invoke – 500$ is not the same to everyone who has to pay it.
You don’t care really though do you? You just want to hurt someone, and this is your legitimizing excuse to do it.
Back to the unattainability of certain crimes – there are actions whose damage can never be symmetrically accounted.
Causing the extinction of the human race for instance.
When you yourself are nominally human, and have done it through the exercise of intentional blindness and your unchecked greed.
And the revenge for that is?
We may need to get access to some kind of time-reversal, so we can go back and take our revenge on the perps while they were still alive – because afterward, well, you know…
Should time travel be unavailable we’ll need some kind of mass reincarnation to get the bastards, eh?
Bring ‘em back and make ‘em be the good guys this time around, so they’ll be the ones watching in horror as the tide creeps up and their children go mad with hopelessness and the futility of trying.
That may be beyond our technology’s evolutionary window, though.
We may just have to accept the inadequacy of revenge. Grindingly frustrating as it is.
People like Jet work from the Biblical morality of teeth for teeth and eyes for eyes, and the assumption of intent as the ultimate moral determinant. So that not meaning to destroy the world is less of a crime than doing it on purpose.
Cute idea, but it doesn’t change much; at that scale intent is meaningless, and without intent in its cause revenge becomes meaningless and infantile.
And we’re living at that scale now.

132

abb1 11.09.05 at 5:54 am

Natalie, I’ve been living in Europe for the last few years. I think the idea of America was (and still is to a degree) just as romantic as the idea of the Soviet Union. People with entrepreneurial streak often imagine America as a land of magic. I know a French security guard who writes movie scripts and he has no doubt whatsoever that he would’ve made it in Hollywood in no time – it’s the corrupt French movie industry responsible for him being a loser. Yeah, it’s a romantic idea, but this ‘gulag’ stuff really does disgust people.

133

Bruce Baugh 11.09.05 at 8:40 am

It’s also, of course, worth noting at least two pragmatic points:

1. Enemies who can expect humane treatment surrender much more often than those who expect torture. A policy of unrestrained treatment of prisoners costs us valuable opportunities for new information.

2. Soldiers of a power known to engage in unrestrained treatment of prisoners are themselves more likely to face abuse, as part of the familiar cycle of anger and revenge.

So policies of torture hurt the war effort and endanger our troops.

134

jet 11.10.05 at 9:55 am

rollo,

“Setting aside the obvious flaw, that there are no “exact same consequences” ever, for anything or anyone.” While you can’t actually inflict the same kind of terror, humiliation and despair as a kidnapped person feels right before his head is sawed off, you could get a close approximation.

I had added something in my post about how revenge is imperfect so all we have is justice, but took it out as too rambling. Apparently I should have left it in. My point was that if the tortured people turned out to actually be bad guys, then who gives a shit what happened to them?

But the policy needs to be changed either way, because even if, by some miracle, no innocents had been tortured yet, it is only a matter of time before one does get tortured which makes the whole endeavor unworthy. Just like the death penalty, just because there are no documented cases of killing an innocent, there have been enough close calls and false imprisonments to prove the system has strong flaws that will eventually kill innocent (this of course doesn’t count the innocnets killed while in prison).

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