November 6, 2005

· Politics

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When they originally made the comparison, Amnesty were not engaged in a scholarly debate about Soviet history; they were making a strategic effort to draw public attention to a real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.

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I am Associate Professor of Sociology at Duke University. I’m affiliated with the Kenan Institute for Ethics, the Markets and Management Studies program, and the Duke Network Analysis Center.



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