Wednesday, September 06, 2006

A Hot Yet Boring Background

The newspaper business is the only job I can think of where men repeatedly complain about excessive length: “Seven inches is too long, Jennifer! Better cut this down to four!” But sometimes I have the opposite problem: a boring meeting only has about three column inches’ worth of actual news which I must stretch out for at least ten, so there won’t be too much white space on the page.

Fortunately, I can usually fill a few inches with background material. For example, when I write about the latest developments in the town’s attempt to convert the land next to Ye Olde Historick Mill Wheele into a park, I include a paragraph explaining how the town bought the properties over the last few years, and ran environmental studies, and found out the land was polluted and applied for clean-up grants and so forth. Each clause of that paragraph was, at one time, an entire news story in its own right, but now it’s just the background information I include in case any readers don’t know it.

So anyway, today the president has finally admitted what many knew already: the CIA has super-secret prisons hidden throughout the world. And some of the things which go on there aren’t strictly orthodox, perhaps, but they’re certainly nothing to worry about:

The CIA operates secret prisons abroad for holding key suspects in the war on terror, President Bush acknowledged Wednesday.

Though Bush said the United States never tortures suspects, "alternative" interrogation methods are used to glean information from them. These procedures "were tough, and they were safe and lawful and necessary," he said.

Bush doesn’t give any details about what these tough, lawful and non-torturous methods include, or if any of these methods are mentioned in the Pentagon’s new Army manual, which bans the use of torture.
The Pentagon also on Wednesday released a new policy directive on detention operations that says the handling of prisoners must -- at a minimum -- abide by the standards of the Geneva Conventions and lays out the responsibilities of senior civilian and military officials who oversee detention operations.

The new Army manual specifically forbids intimidating prisoners with military dogs, putting hoods over their heads and simulating the sensation of drowning with a procedure called "water boarding," one defense official said on condition of anonymity because the manual had not yet been released.

The military is expected to abide by the Geneva Conventions but the CIA still doesn’t have to, said the president. And the CIA can still pick up detainees if it wants to. This all might be news to you, but here’s something that isn’t:
Allegations that Americans have tortured prisoners captured in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere have dogged the Bush administration since April 2004, when graphic photographs of Army reservists mistreating prisoners at the notorious Abu Ghraib prison outside Baghdad became public. (Watch Bush explain why Iraq is central to the war on terror -- 1:51)

This is not meant to be shocking or surprising; it’s just a two-and-a-half-year-old back story to something more recent. I don’t expect my mill-wheel readers to be shocked when I write that the proposed parkland needs a clean-up, either. It's old news.

We’re all familiar with the metaphor of the frog in the lukewarm water: he doesn’t notice that the temperature’s getting hotter and he’s slowly cooking to death. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen that image used in regards to Americans’ loss of liberties. And now here’s a news paragraph which mentions very casually, as explanation rather than revelation, that Americans have the reputation of being torturers. But this isn’t meant to scald you; it’s just the background temperature of a news story about how yeah, the CIA keeps secret prisons throughout the world and the treatment within may not live up to the Geneva Conventions but so what? In a few months this will just be background information for some other news story.


Anonymous Alex said...

I actually do think that this crisis will pass, just as the Alien and Sedition Acts passed, just as the suspension of habeas corpus during the Civil War passed, etc. I actually do think that the government will relinquish many of the powers that it claimed during this period.

Notice that I said "many" rather than "all."

Some of those powers will stay with us, and will presumably be used to fight the War on Drugs, which will remain with us between crises.

And so the recovery will only be a partial one, and we'll find ourselves a little bit farther down a dangerous path. I don't want to find out what's at the end of that path, or how far we are from the end, since the only way to answer those questions is the hardest way possible.

What bothers me the most about this is that the American people were so easily scared by a comparatively weak enemy. It's one thing for the President to scare the American people into giving him extraordinary powers when there's open warfare on US soil, or when Japan, Germany, and Italy are menacing the globe with their combined military might. But Al Qaeda? We're sacrificing our freedom to fight some dudes in a cave with boxcutter knives?

That's what worries me the most. I think we can recover from this...well, partially recover. But that recovery is meaningless if it's super easy to get pushed right back into another crisis. What if some angry young Muslim stuffs his car with homemade explosives, parks it right next to an elementary school, and triggers the remote detonator when the kids are leaving at the end of the day? It could happen, and I fear that it would be enough to get the American people to freak out.

Recovery is only meaningful if we won't be going back down that road any time soon. But I fear that it wouldn't take much to send us back down that road.

5:58 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of recovery...

Not exactly a threadjack, but on Grylliade, Linguist is asking about hard drive recovery. A live Linux CD might be useful to her. Google turns up an article that illustrates how to do this with Knoppix. I'd post @ Grylliade, but anonymous posts aren't allowed there.

1:45 PM  
Blogger rhhardin said...

Iraq is central to the war on terror for the same reason that a few squares of a chessboard are the scene of the action, namely that the player on offense saw it to his advantage to battle it out there.

The squares are not the point, however. The whole game is.

Iraq had some urgencies and some advantages, is all, and we chose it.

The enemy responds to that, and that's what you're seeing.

2:21 PM  

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