Tuesday, June 21, 2005

Hitchens & Gitmo—A Contrarian Writes Back

I was a student in several of Christopher Hitchens' classes at the New School back in the late 90s and I learned many things about justice, Scotch whisky and (I hope) good writing from him. I also learned that it is always the honest writer's duty to value truth over deference. It is in this spirit that I take issue with part of a recent column Hitchens wrote for Slate.

In this column, Hitchens frames the controversy over terror war detainees as a tug-of-war between two realities. The first is America's role as a signatory to, and forceful advocate of, the Geneva conventions. "Any wavering on the part of Washington," Hitchens writes, "thus has consequences far beyond itself." The second reality is the fact that "al-Qaida and its surrogate organizations are not signatory to the conventions and naturally express contempt for them. They have no battle order or uniform and are represented by no authority with which terms can be negotiated."

Hitchens therefore declares that the Bush administration "deserves at least some sympathy in its confrontation with an enemy of a new type." On this count, he's absolutely correct and some of the more shrill anti-Bush factions go a long way toward discrediting their arguments by refusing to even contemplate this point. The challenge, then, is to reconcile these competing claims without doing damage either to national (and international) security or to the liberal ideals that make Western democracy worth defending. Hitchens leans a little to far, in my opinion, to the side of sympathy, and in so doing, exposes some troubling inconsistencies in his argument.

In Hitchens' view, the terrorists we are fighting "are more like pirates, hijackers, or torturers—three categories of people who have in the past been declared outside the protection of any law." This is fair enough, but it's all the more reason that we should not venture into the realm of torturers ourselves. Hitchens expressed disgust when the Abu Ghraib abuse pictures came to light in 2004, but his line against prisoner abuse seems to have softened somewhat since then.
An axiom of the law states that justice is more offended by one innocent person punished than by any number of guilty persons unapprehended. I say frankly that I am not certain of the applicability of this in the present case.
Anyone who is at all familiar with Hitchens' eloquent writings against the death penalty should be flabbergasted by this quote. How little faith does he have in liberal principles—in his own principles—if he's willing to cast them aside so blithely? If the war on terror is a battle between two diametrically opposed views of civilization, then it is a terrible admission of defeat to suggest that our side lacks the fortitude to win. I am reminded of George F. Kennan writing at the dawn of the Cold War with undisguised envy about the advantages of a Soviet totalitarian regime that could act without having to consider the will of the people.

Having opened the door to moral ambiguity, Hitchens goes on to defend his position with several half-baked arguments. He overstates his case by claiming that the bleeding hearts want to extract useful intelligence from a detainee "while also reserving the right to demand that he has a lawyer present at all times." This is a straw man argument in which he attempts to pass off an extreme viewpoint as the norm. The fact is that most people concerned about Guantanamo aren't suggesting constant access to attorneys so much as any access at all.

Hitchens also makes the following absurd claim: "Alberto Gonzales was excoriated even for asking, or being asked, about the applicability of Geneva rules." This is not why the Attorney General was excoriated. He was criticized not for asking the question, but for his role in expressly advocating the position that the Geneva conventions do not apply to "enemy combatants" thus opening the door to indefinite detentions and heavy-handed interrogation techniques. Nevertheless, it is very troubling to find Hitchens defending a man whose earlier sinister memos, as an adviser to then Governor Bush, helped grease the wheels of a Texas execution machine that Hitchens decried not so many years ago.

Hitchens then outlines the options available to the U.S. regarding Guantanamo and manages both to offer misleading choices and to misrepresent the choices he does present.
Apparently, Guantanamo won't do as a holding pen until we decide how to handle and classify these people. But meanwhile, neither will it do to "render" any suspects to their countries of origin. How many alternatives does this leave?
First of all, Guantanamo is far more than a "holding pen" for detainees; it is an interrogation center, and one that has spawned a number of credible stories of prisoner abuse. (To read an exhaustive study of abuse at both Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, read this article by Andrew Sullivan.) And why no qualms that it has taken over three years to "decide how to handle" the prisoners we picked up in Afghanistan and elsewhere?

Second, Hitchens glosses over the terrible practice of rendering, in which prisoners are sent to friendly tyrants with, shall we say, looser definitions of torture than may apply in the U.S., so that they can do the dirty work for us. (One favorite destination has been Uzbekistan, where the preferred method of torture is boiling victims alive). Prisoners are not necessarily, as Hitchens implies, sent to their countries of origin (where they might actually receive protection from some quarters); they are sent to where they can be broken.

Hitchens evidently intends his question to be rhetorical when he asks what the other alternatives are, but he goes on to answer his own question with a sensible—even obvious—solution that undermines much of his previous argument. "I ... express the wish," he writes, "that more detainees be brought, like the wretched American John Walker Lindh, before a court." That's exactly right! That's what serious-minded critics of the Bush administration's policy toward terror war prisoners want as well. To be brought before a court is to be charged with a crime and to have the opportunity to defend oneself. It would mean the end to indefinite detentions and the lack of representation—the very issues that make people so uneasy about Guantanamo in the first place.

Unfortunately, the current policy toward detainees is not designed to bring terrorists before a judge. It appears to be aimed, rather, at forestalling that end. This administration also dismisses, enables and excuses acts of abuse that run contrary to the Enlightenment ideals upon which all of Western civilization is based. Hitchens suggests that in this time of crisis, the rules can be bent. In fact, it is these very rules that underpin who we are as a society.

When we are trying to spread Western ideals into the oppressed corners of the earth is no time to shelve these ideals ourselves, no matter what challenges we face. The superiority of freedom over tyranny and the natural yearnings of humanity all but ensure our victory. Let's just make sure that it is not a Pyrrhic one. To do so requires that we strike a balance between defending against the enemy without and the enemy within. It is possible to support the fight against terrorism without supporting torture and unaccountability, both of which erode our moral foundation and furnish the enemy with made-to-order propaganda.

Hitchens is fond of saying that the definition of tragedy is when rights conflict. The fact that he sees no elements of tragedy here—that he seems too eager to paint over shades of gray with black and white—is altogether out of character for a brilliant thinker who counts Twain and Orwell among his touchstones.
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