Truth – Just one more opinion

The Torture Memo and The Flag in the Lapel

David Bromwich: The Huffington Post

Something sickish happened on Wednesday night.

Network news has had a long slide into the vulgar conveyance of rumor. But who, among all who witnessed on TV the drawn-out swindle of the O.J. trial and the Lewinsky scandal and the Clinton impeachment, who that marked the abject surrender of the networks to the propaganda campaign in the run-up to Iraq–who, for all these signs, could have predicted the frivolity of the questions that were asked in Wednesday’s Pennsylvania debate by Charles Gibson and George Stephanopoulos?

In a decent society, the relish with which these men in suits trashed an occasion for civic reflection would be taken as an insult to the country. The offenders would be drummed out of their jobs–asked to vacate their “anchor” posts and to seek more appropriate work as tabloid reporters or the hosts of reality encounters. But a lesson of our time is that respectable culture now embraces the bread and circuses. The two have become one.

Early in the debate, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama were asked what assurance they could offer Israelis against a nuclear-armed Iran. Both candidates made pandering replies–Senator Clinton as usual the grosser of the two by several shades of wheedling aggression. A fair answer would have been: “Your question implies that Iran is now in possession of nuclear weapons, or that it soon will be. And yet we have just been told by the National Intelligence Estimate that Iran poses no such threat. To be asking your question with such urgency, you must have a source of information that you consider superior to the National Intelligence Estimate. What is that source?”

But Clinton is anxious to hold the support she still enjoys from a body of Democrats who now threaten to switch to McCain; and Obama is concerned not to alienate the same people if he can avoid it; and so, a question was asked and answered whose apparent subject was a danger from Iran but whose actual subject was the backing of those who make the unconditional support of Israel as blind and morally specialized a test as evangelical Christians make of the outlawing of abortion.

The answers were feeble but the question was false: a lie in itself, disguised as a bold summons to plain speaking.

There were questions about the wearing of the American flags in lapels and the peril or relative safety of Hillary Clinton’s debarkation in Bosnia in 1996.

There was not one question about the release of the full text of the torture memo by Professor John Yoo, of the School of Law at the University of California at Berkeley. In his memo, Yoo wrote that a president can take whatever actions he thinks necessary in time of war, since war itself renders the despotic acts pursued by a president merely part of the legitimate defense of his country: so they require no check from the Congress or the courts. He was advising President Bush specifically how to navigate among statutes that might have laid torturers open to prosecution (the laws on assault for example). Yet what was in question was not Yoo’s right to walk the streets until convicted of a crime, but rather his entitlement to act as a teacher of law to young Americans–a post for which one qualification is a disposition to respect the rule of law and to honor the principle that sets no man above the law.

The story was given an added dimension a few days later when it transpired that Dick Cheney, Condoleezza Rice, Donald Rumsfeld, Colin Powell, John Ashcroft, and George Tenet had for a time supervised individual interrogations of suspects from a room in the White House, calling, move by move, each stroke of torment and privation. Condoleezza Rice, according to the report from ABC News a week before the debate, was a solid supporter of the torture policy and had told the CIA: “This is your baby. Go do it.” Ashcroft was the only one of the company to feel that somehow they should not be doing it, that they had gone too far, that “history will not judge this kindly.” The president soon after acknowledged that he knew what was happening and approved.

Still another piece of the same story emerged last week when Christopher Edley, Dean of U.C. Berkeley Law School, wrote a public letter in response to demands for the firing of Yoo. A lawyer, said Edley, is not responsible for the actions taken on his advice, even actions he himself defended and urged. “No argument about what he did or didn’t facilitate, or about his special obligations as an attorney, makes his conduct morally equivalent to that of his nominal clients, Secretary Rumsfeld, et al., or comparable to the conduct of interrogators distant in time, rank and place. Yes, it does matter that Yoo was an adviser, but President Bush and his national security appointees were the deciders.” On this reasoning, only the decider and the executor of wicked acts are responsible for those acts, though the former was following legal advice and the latter following orders; a lawyer, by being a lawyer, is always exonerated; no force should persuade a law school to strip of his status a legal scholar who defines torture out of existence in order to allow the cruel and savage treatment of prisoners.

It is hard to imagine a country with an informed journalistic establishment in which a debate held shortly after all these reports appeared would not contain pertinent questions about the developments which they describe. Yet no such questions were asked by the ABC interviewers: an omission all the more strange in view of the fact that ABC News itself broke the most shocking of the stories. Very likely, in the general election, even with John McCain present and the incitement of his complex and contradictory opinions on torture, the subject will not be explored. It matters too much to be one of the things we talk about.

Some pieces of more prosaic news, also, might have caught the attention of Stephanopoulos and Gibson. On the day of the debate, the New York Times ran a page 1 story concerning an Iraqi regiment’s desertion of its post in Sadr City, under the heading “Iraqi Unit Flees Sadr City Post, Despite American’s Plea.”

The Iraqi company who abandoned their positions that Tuesday night, Michael R. Gordon wrote, did not pause to convey their intent and they did not hesitate.

They ran, or, rather, drove away–that was all. The American soldiers on the scene cursed them for their cowardice. More than one of the major newspapers before now must have had a shot at covering other such desertions; but, for whatever reason, this was the moment when an epitomizing story of a common occurrence broke through. The story can only have shaken every supporter of the Iraq war who had the heart to read it. For it showed that many Iraqis–including those we have supposed our closest allies–consider this to be an American and not an Iraqi war. They would rather save themselves than fight to save the picture of democracy that we have offered them.

In the country we used to be, a moderator of these debates would have asked:
“Senator Clinton, Senator Obama, both of you have expressed reservations about the war (one of you with some consistency), but neither has suggested that a withdrawal from Iraq ought to begin at once and be completed soon. You both seem more wary about how precipitately we may leave than about how long we can afford to stay. Do these recent desertions by Iraqi soldiers alarm you? Suppose five or ten such incidents occur in the next two months: will you reconsider the wisdom of arranging an American departure from Iraq?”

The fact that Americans in high office advised, countenanced, and ordered acts of torture which are crimes under international law, will not go away. The world sees it and wonders and is baffled by the American silence. How can Americans read these stories and not follow up but go on to the next thing?

Again, the pretense that Iran embodies an imminent danger to the United States will not excuse the U.S. in the eyes of the world if the U.S. bombs Iran unprovoked, or assists Israel in bombing Iran. And again, an honest journalistic establishment could hardly ignore the Iraqi defections from a war we say is fought for Iraqi freedom.

Yet George Stephanopoulos and Charles Gibson were not thinking of such things.

They did not take it that they were hired to mind that shop. When they asked about the Reverend Jeremiah Wright and about Bosnia in 1996 and about the flag and the meaning of the words “cling” and “bitter,” they were doing what they believed was expected of them by their employers at ABC/Disney.

In war, it is said, the first casualty is truth. But oddly, in this war, the armed forces have done far more than the mainstream media to enlighten our understanding. Extraordinary acts of conscience, over the past several years, have come from General Taguba, General Batiste, Admiral Fallon. It is luminaries of the newsroom like those at ABC and Tim Russert at NBC, and others at the top of a once-admired profession, who have shown the most callous flippancy at a time when this country seems to be changing its character before our eyes.

This trance of banality is deplorable, but it is easy to understand. Whose interest can it serve, they must ask, to raise a fuss about the fact that American leaders appear to have committed criminal acts? It is the truth; but what is truth? We are reaching a point where the truth can be brushed aside as one more opinion.


April 19, 2008 - Posted by | Uncategorized


  1. […] BlogRevolt.Com wrote an interesting post today on Truth – Just one more opinionHere’s a quick excerpt … and Obama is concerned not to alienate the same people if he can avoid it; and so, a question was asked and answered whose apparent subject was a danger from Iran b…A fair answer would have been: “Your question implies that Iran is now in possession of nuclear weapons, or that it soon will be….Again, the pretense that Iran embodies an imminent danger to the United States will not excuse the U….And yet we have just been told by the National Intelligence Estimate that Iran poses no such threat…. […]

    Pingback by Iran » Truth - Just one more opinion | April 19, 2008 | Reply

  2. Hi! I was surfing and found your blog post… nice! I love your blog. 🙂 Cheers! Sandra. R.

    Comment by sandrar | September 10, 2009 | Reply

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