Podcast • November 12, 2010

Kwame Anthony Appiah: How to Make a Moral Revolution

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories ...

Kwame Anthony Appiah in The Honor Code is inviting all of us to pick the “moral revolution” of our dreams and let him show us how to get big results fast. His exemplary case histories start with the end of dueling in England, which came swiftly on the news in 1829 of pistol shots between the Duke of Wellington (victor at Waterloo and by then Prime Minister of England) and the Earl of Winchelsea. In the same quarter century, England got out of the English slave trade and abolished slavery in the English colonies. And from the East, Appiah recounts the sudden, shamefaced end of female footbinding in China — the collapse of a thousand-year tradition within a generation after 1900. In each instance, a persistent, noxious openly immoral practice died of ridicule, as much as anything else. Appiah makes it a three-step process. First, “strategic ignorance” gets overwhelmed by a very public confrontation with an evil tinged with absurdity. Then the stakes of “honor” get redefined; no longer a prop of support, the idea of honor (as earned respect) becomes a battering ram of opposition. And finally group lobbying and popular politics seal a shift in values and practice.

Professor Appiah, the Ghanaian-English-American philosopher now at Princeton, the author of Cosmopolitanism, is talking about some of his dream crusades, and mine, maybe yours: how’s to kick the props of “honor” out from under mega-wealth and permanent war? How’s to end the routine torture of feedlot animals, the soulless warehousing of good parents and grandparents? Who is to take the “honor” out of “honor killings” today of Pakistani women and girls who’ve been raped or sexually compromised?

In our own recent American experience, torture is one window Appiah’s process, still in motion:

In both the officially, centrally sanctioned torture and the things that it led to, like Abu Ghraib… I think it’s terrible that we focused so much on the poeple at the bottom of the heap who were doing it, at the sharp end, so to speak; and didn’t focus enough on how we had created an atmosphere that made it possible… When Americans know that these things are being done in their name, or face up to the fact, unless they don’t care about our country they can’t feel anything but shame. And that’s because they understand that you’re not entitled to respect if you do things like that.

So that’s an example of the mechanism in operation. That’s why a government that wants to do these things has to do them in the dark… You refer to the values of philosophical Pragmatism. One of the values of Pragmatism which we completely lose when we behave like this is that we take our eye off what we’re actually doing. This is so counter-productive. Nothing that we’re trying to do in the world is advanced by being seen as the country that does this thing. We used to be seen as a country that wouldn’t do these things. It was understood that Syria would do these things, or that old Iraq would do these things. We understand that the Saudis, you know, stone people and beat people up. But we used to be able to claim that we were trying not to do these things; that if we found them done we would punish them; that we would go to the U.N. and the Human Rights Commmission and complain when other countries did them. We can’t do that anymore. We look ridiculous when we when we do…

So I think: an element of “soft power” is honor. And if you lose your honor (…you don’t lose all your honor; you only lose a certain dimension of it each time), then you have to regenerate it. You have to earn it back in order to be able to use that sort of soft power, which is the most powerful political resource we have in the world as Americans, I think. It’s the respect that we have sometimes earned and sometimes not earned that makes all kinds of people who disagree with us about all kinds of things nevertheless have a kind of sneaking admiration for the United States.

Kwame Anthony Appiah with Chris Lydon in Cambridge, Massachusetts, November 3, 2010

Podcast • September 18, 2008

Torture, Part 3: the Philip Gourevitch version

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us. Click to listen to ...

In our third go at this miserable business of sanctioned American torture, Philip Gourevitch turns it around, Pogo-style. We have met the victims, he says in effect, and they are us.

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philip Gourevitch (58 minutes, 27 mb mp3)

Philip Gourevitch (photo: Andrew Brucker)

Even if you want to put it into culture war terms, or a war of our principles versus theirs, or our civilization versus theirs – we’ve violated the principles that we claim our civilization stands for, in order to fight off this threat to our civilization. That’s what’s so incoherent about it. That’s where, when I look at these photographs from Abu Graib, when I look at the story, a lot of what I wrote this book for is to ask not ‘why did we go?’ and ‘how did we de-humanize them? and do these things to them?’ It’s ‘how did we do this to ourselves? Why are we doing this to ourselves?’ Maybe the best way to get us to stop doing it is not to ask why are we doing this to them – why are we doing this to ourselves?

Philip Gourevitch of Standard Operating Procedure, in conversation with Chris Lydon in James Der Derian’s global security seminar at Brown’s Watson Institute, September 17, 2008

Philip Gourevitch’s book, Standard Operating Procedure, is of course the hard-cover partner of the Errol Morris movie.

Gourevitch‘s eye and story-telling pen are as powerful as any thousand pictures from Abu Ghraib. This is his reading, for example, of the interrogation (with the help of dogs) of a prize prisoner called “AQ” (for Al Qaeda) before he turned out finally to be a used-car dealer in Baghdad, a man of no political or security interest:

Once again Smith moved in with the animal. In one picture you see it lunging, ears back, a black blur of muscle and jaw… Smith is in the picture, crouching over the dog, restraining him and urging him on at the same time.

It does not seem possible to amplify the drama of this moment, but the look on AQ’s face does just that. He has the horrified, drawn-back, and quivering expression of a thoroughly blasted soul. It is all there in his eyes, moist and mad with fear, fixed on a mouthful of fangs. What secrets does he have that we want so badly, but are so precious to him that he endures this day after day? The answer in AQ’s case was none. Once again at Abu Ghraib they had the wrong guy, or they had the guy wrong, and when they realized this after several months of dogs and bondage and hooding and noise and sleeplessness and heat and cold and who knows just what other robust counter-resistance techniques, they told him to scram, and closed his case. The pictures of AQ on that night before New Year’s are the last known photographs of our prisoners on the MI block at Abu Ghraib, which seems fitting, because these pictures don’t leave much to the viewer’s imagination, except the obvious question: if you fight terror with terror, how can you tell which is which?

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

As Abu Ghraib was the sequel to Guantanamo, our classroom conversation with Philip Gourevitch flows out of our session two days earlier with Philippe Sands — and Sands’ point that the criminal torture story began with President Bush’s dismissal of the Geneva Conventions in February, 2002 and “migrated” from there. One of the Morris-Gourevitch interviews with the investigator Tim Dugan gets it all into a nutshell, in the vernacular:

Tim Dugan was summoned to join a meeting with Colonel Pappas to discuss the interrogation of this fresh crop of Saddam cronies. Pappas explained that he’d just got off a conference call with General Sanchez and the secretary of defense. “He said, ‘We’re starting a special projects team, and we’re going to break the back of the resistance. Anybody who doesn’t want to volunteer for this has to leave the room. And if you volunteer, you can’t talk about this to anybody,'” Dugan said. “We all volunteered and he said all approach techniques were authorized. Someone asked, ‘Even dogs?’ And he says, ‘yep, even dogs.’ He’s like, ‘We got a chance to break this unlawful insurgency, and the people in an unlawful insurgency have no protection under the Geneva Conventions.'”

Dugan thought that was pretty definitive. “If the fuckin’ secretary of defense designates the motherfucker an unlawful insurgency, I mean, what the fuck am I supposed to say? It’s an unlawful insurgency, wouldn’t you think? He’s the second-highest motherfucker in the country during the war.”

Philip Gourevitch, Standard Operating Procedure.

Podcast • September 17, 2008

Philippe Sands’ Torture Team

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961). Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3) Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? ...

First, the Spencer Tracy “verdict” from “Judgement at Nuremberg” (1961).

Click to listen to Chris’s conversation with Philippe Sands (45 minutes, 21 mb mp3)

Who will pay for the illegal abuse of detainees at Guantanamo? If violations of the Geneva Conventions — and specifically of Common Article 3, against torture, cruelty and “outrages upon personal dignity” — are “‘war crimes,’ punishable as federal offenses,” as Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote in the Hamdan case two years ago, who will prosecute them?

Will Americans and the US government initiate an examination of the record — and of our national conscience? Or are we waiting for a prompt from abroad — waiting, in effect, for Donald Rumsfeld or Antonio Gonzalez to get their version of the Pinochet “tap on the shoulder,” as they’re strolling on a sidewalk in London, Berlin or Mexico City?

Philippe Sands of Torture Team: “…doing nothing is not an option.”

In his book Torture Team and in our conversation, Philippe Sands aims such questions at the top tier of his own legal profession. Who will hold to account the lawyers who gave President Bush the very bad advice that the Geneva rules, the US Army manual on interrogation, and the long tradition against torture (President Lincoln’s order in 1863 was that “military necessity does not admit of cruelty”) did not apply to the Al Qaeda suspects picked up after 9.11? And then: what about the lawyers who gave Donald Rumsfeld a green light to introduce abusive interrogation at Guantanamo in the autumn of 2002?

Torture Team can be read as a fiercely accusatory extension of Jane Mayer’s argument in The New Yorker and her book, The Dark Side, that “but for the lawyers this would not have happened.” Philippe Sands brings to bear an English barrister’s perspective and a generous investment of shoe leather in the US. He interviewed a large cast of principals and credits the marvelous openness of American society for his access to (among others) Rumsfeld’s chief counsel William “Jim” Haynes; the first commanding officer at Guantanamo, Major General Michael Dunlavey and his counsel, Lt. Col. Diane Beaver; the Navy’s General Counsel who blew the whistle on enhanced interrogation, Alberto Mora; the Pentagon’s aggressive Undersecretary for Policy Doug Feith, and the apparently witless chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. But then he turns scathingly to the judgment that ideology, and lawyers, drove the mission to create something new: a “legal black hole” in which designated persons would be stripped of their humanity and all their rights.

That is precisely what the system of rules that the United States had done so much to put into place after the Second World War was intended to avoid. It comes back to Spencer Tracy in Judgement at Nuremberg: the dignity of even a single human person is what our values are about. There are no legal black holes. The moment you go down that route you undermine the entirety of who it is we believe we are, and what it is we believe we’re doing… I think there was a conscious decision to remove international legal constraints (and U.S. legal constraints — after all, that’s why Guantanamo is outside the US) which would limit the ability of the administration to adopt new techniques of interrogation. The legal black hole was the removal of international constraints on interrogation as part of an ideological drive to increase executive power and remove the shackles of international law. It has failed miserably.

Philippe Sands in conversation with Chris Lydon, September 15, 2008.

The press and popular culture didn’t help us notice what was underway, Sands observes. Notably, the Fox TV hit, 24 (another Jane Mayer subject) was as insidiously wrong about the long-term issues as Judgement at Nuremberg was once eloquently right. Sands also makes you wonder about the elite legal establishment — most particularly Harvard Law School, training ground of principals like Alberto Gonzales and Jim Wright and home base of the inescapable advocate of “torture warrants,” Professor Alan Dershowitz. But the hard focus here is on the legal minds who used a devious process to create a lawless prison (seedbed, not least of Abu Ghraib) that became an even more monstrous symbol of American power out of control.

The choice we don’t have, Philippe Sands argues, is to do nothing about this stain on the American reputation, the American soul.

Podcast • May 9, 2008

Errol Morris’ "Feel-Bad" Masterpiece

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers ...
abu ghraib

Lynndie England with “Gus” at Abu Ghraib

Errol Morris’s Standard Operating Procedure is a shocking, depressing work of art that might tell you almost nothing you didn’t know in your bones: that the torture chambers at Abu Ghraib were a perfect kernel of the war on Iraq. See the movie anyway, for confirmation or as penance. It is a blood sample of a gross policy of humiliation, emasculation, sophisticated mental cruelty and pitiless domination in the Arab Middle East. Errol Morris makes no bones about it. He says: we are looking at icons of American foreign policy:

One of the most infamous photographs from Abu Ghraib is a photograph of Lynndie England: 20 years old at the time; 5 feet tall, I believe under 100 pounds, holding what in effect is a tie-down strap [on] a prisoner named ‘Gus’, who is naked on the ground. The photo is taken by Lynndie England’s then boyfriend Chuck Graner. Well, the photograph of course has fascinated me for many, many reasons. Here would be the central reason. I believe the picture is a graphic representation of American foreign policy, pure and simple.

errol morris

Errol Morris: “the word is denial”

Pictures become iconic for some reason. They answer a certain idea we have. It’s not just simply by happenstance. Oddly enough I know that that method of removing Gus from his cell had been approved by the medical authorities at Abu Ghraib. There was nothing “illegal” about what was happening. But in fact the photograph is absolutely appalling, because part of our foreign policy — and make no mistake about this — was this idea that American women should be used to humiliate Iraqi men, without a thought of course that this might be degrading to the American women as well. It’s not something that was devised by a handful of MPs on one tier at Abu Ghraib. It was part of our foreign policy.

And one of the things I find most appalling is that the photographs were used to blame a handful of MPs, really letting everybody else off the hook, as though nobody else was involved and this was just a few guys on this one tier. By the way Abu Ghraib was not one one tier or two tiers. It was a city. There were close to 10,000 people in there — a vast concentration camp in the middle of the Sunni Triangle. The pictures are misleading in that respect as well. They made you think you were dealing with something much, much smaller and more confined than the reality of what was there.

Filmmaker Errol Morris, talking about Standard Operating Procedure at the Watson Institute at Brown, May 7, 2008.

A lot of pretty forgettable questions buzz around Standard Operating Procedure. There are Errol’s own philosophical distractions: is it true that “seeing is believing”? Or must we commit ourselves to “believing” before we can “see” the truth of these pictures. Do photographs in fact encourage us not to look (or think) further? Then there are the critical nit-picks: can we credit the witnesses that Errol Morris paid to be interviewed? Do some visualizations and reenactments belong in the picture?

There’s a darker set of political questions, nested like those Russian dolls, around many levels of cowardice, scapegoating and denial of responsibility for Abu Ghraib. Only a few lost souls (and no civilians) went on trial for the wholesale dirty-work. The officer class and the political chiefs excused themselves. The voters in 2004 seemed to absolve George Bush in reelecting him. And by now moviegoers (in a stampede to get behind the armor of Marvel Comics’ Iron Man) have made it clear that they don’t much want to see S.O.P. or any other movie about the war in Iraq. See Errol Morris’ movie anyway, and take your kids. It’s sickening, but your kids should know what was done in our name — and what their kids, too, will pay for those world-famous pictures.

November 4, 2005

Torture, Still, Again

If you google the phrase “black sites” now, at 4:05 this afternoon, you get hits that are mostly websites about African Americans. Soon enough, however, a search of “black sites,” like “waterboarding” and “stress position,” ...

torture imageIf you google the phrase “black sites” now, at 4:05 this afternoon, you get hits that are mostly websites about African Americans. Soon enough, however, a search of “black sites,” like “waterboarding” and “stress position,” will reveal a list of pages that, alleged or proven, irrevocably connect the United States to the practice of torture. And we learned this morning in an article in the Washington Post that we’re doing it where the Soviets used to, at secret sites in Eastern Europe. Sure, they were torturing dissidents and we’re torturing terrorists — or people who are most likely terrorists — but is the rest of the world going to do us the favor of making that distinction with us?

Last month Senator McCain attached a rider to a defense spending bill that required US troops to hold to the Army Field Manual when handling prisoners. Nine Senators voted against it. Nine Senators? Nine US Senators are against holding ourselves to the rules we already wrote down and supposedly follow anyway? And now the President is asking for a loophole the size of Nebraska on the rider, namely, that it apply to members of the Armed Services but not the CIA. Who, if we are to believe the Washington Post, are the ones doing the torturing in the first place.

What happens in the “black sites” that the Post reported? If we’re talking about secret sites several countries around the world, this is more than a few bad apples, right? Are those other ninety Senators getting serious now, and are we going to get some answers higher up the chain of command? And why is the CIA talking about this in the first place?

Josh White

Reporter on the Pentagon beat, The Washington Post

John Cloonan

Risk expert with Clayton Consultants

25-year FBI veteran; former counterterrorism agent, responsible for creating the legal case against Osama Bin Laden

Darius Rejali

Professor of political science, Reed College

Torture and Modernity: Self, Society and State in Modern Iran (Westview 1994), the forthcoming Torture and Democracy (Princeton 2005), and Approaches to Violence (forthcoming Princeton 2006),

Extra Credit Reading

Gene from Cape Cod, one of our callers, says this book answers a lot of the questions raised in this hour: One Woman’s Army: The Commanding General of Abu Ghraib Tells Her Story.