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Torture and Hypocrisy

September 16, 2009 Leave a comment Go to comments


This morning, as part of my continuing catch-up efforts following our trip last week, I finally read James McPherson’s article in the current NY Review of Books reviewing a few of the many books on Abraham Lincoln that have appeared recently in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. McPherson is himself an eminent scholar of Lincoln and the Civil War era, author of the mammoth, Puliter-Prize-winning Battle Cry of Freedom, which I read with pleasure many years ago. Having just a few minutes earlier read Glenn Greenwald’s latest blog post at Salon, about an editorial in today’s Washington Post, I was particularly struck by one passage about Lincoln in McPherson’s article.

Let me start over again, with a look at the WP editorial on which Greenwald commented.

The editorial addresses the possibility of international negotiations with Iran on uranium enrichment and argues that “if engagement with Iran is to have any hope of success, at least one other item should be on the agenda: the government’s recent repression of domestic opposition, and in particular its prosecution of Western citizens.” The editorial goes on to observe that the “obvious lack of due process for leading regime opponents contravenes international human rights standards that Iran claims to respect. The cases of torture and rape of prisoners courageously documented by opposition presidential candidate Mehdi Karroubi should be as worthy of discussion as the non-nuclear subjects that Iran wants to bring up.”

The WP editors, of course, are strong, vocal supporters of US use of torture enhanced interrogation. One might think this would give them pause, but it doesn’t. Or, as Greenwald writes,

is there anything other than extreme self-delusion, grounded in blinding self-regard (i.e., self-decreed exceptionalism), that can explain this? … we’re supposed to roll into these negotiations righteously complaining about Iran’s “obvious lack of due process.” For the last eight years and counting, we’ve been imprisoning tens of thousands of Muslims around the world with no charges of any kind. Keeping people who have never been charged with any crime shackled in orange jumpsuits and locked in cages for years on a Cuban island has become our national symbol. Just yesterday, the Obama administration demanded that a court rule it has the power to abduct people anywhere in the world, ship them to Afghanistan, and keep them indefinitely imprisoned there with no trial of any kind — which is exactly what we’ve been doing for years and still are (in a dank and nasty prison which happens to be right over Iran’s Eastern border). …

But The Washington Post thinks the U.S. should vigorously object to Iran’s “obvious lack of due process” as a central part of these negotiations. What would be the purpose of doing that? Creating a jovial mood for the negotiations at the outset by provoking a massive group laughing fit?

See Greenwald’s post for more. He goes on in this vein for a while. I’ll jump to his conclusion: “I think The Washington Post Editors have brains which tell them that the U.S. continues to be the world’s leader in human rights, due process, and accountability for abuses, and that it’s perfectly natural that we would go around demanding reform from other nations in these areas and do so with moral credibility. As bizarre as it is, that really seems to be the mental world they occupy. And they’re far from alone there.”

With that as context, I was reading McPherson’s article on Lincoln when I came upon this passage:

Lincoln had always opposed slavery, which he believed made a mockery of the nation’s founding charter that proclaimed the self-evident truth that “all men are created equal” and “endowed by their Creator” with the unalienable right of liberty. Americans liked to boast of their republic as a “beacon of freedom” to the oppressed peoples of other lands. Yet by the mid-nineteenth century the United States was the largest slaveholding country in the world. “The monstrous injustice of slavery,” Lincoln had said back in 1854, “deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites.”

Let’s try that last sentence with torture in place of slavery: The monstrous injustice of torture deprives our republican example of its just influence in the world—enables the enemies of free institutions, with plausibility, to taunt us as hypocrites. McPherson notes a few paragraphs later that our “ideals themselves have a powerful appeal. They have done more for our positive self-image and our positive image in other lands—when we have had one—than all of our economic and military might.”

What could Bush and Cheney have been thinking? And what is Obama thinking now?

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