Thursday, May 19, 2005

JACOB WEISBERG at Slate has a must-read article on the Bush administration's trashing and scapegoating of Newsweek. Weisberg's gist is that, in accusing Newsweek of publishing lies and in pinning the blame on them for damaging America's reputation in the Muslim world, the White House is ignoring the Everest-sized damage already done to this country's reputation among Muslims and in the world in general by:

  • the lies Bush told and the misinformation he passed off as truth in order to start the war; and by
  • the torture, sexual and religious humiliation, and even murders committed in Afghanistan, especially at Bagram Air Force Base; and in Iraq, at Abu Ghraib among other prisons. Under the U.S. military's supervision and with the U.S. military's encouragement and support, at least six detainees have died in U.S. custody. And if you want to see one human face of the policies and actions that have decimated (not just damaged) America's reputation in the Muslim world, just take a look at these grinning faces of evil (evil as in policy, not just as in those who implemented the policy) celebrating the homicide of a prisoner who died under C.I.A. interrogation after being severely beaten and hung by his wrists, with his hands cuffed behind his back.

Weisberg makes the important point that Scott McClellan excoriated Newsweek for publishing "lies" about the Koran being flushed down a toilet; and stated that Newsweek should repair the harm it did to America's reputation by printing laudatory articles about the Bush administration's "deep respect" and careful treatment of the Koran -- while not mentioning, much less disputing, at least half a dozen other examples of torture and explicitly sexual and religious humiliation also contained in the SouthCom report.

Here are some things that Scott McClellan does not dispute happening at the Guantanamo detention center: A female interrogator removed some of her clothes and sat in the lap of a detainee who was a devout Muslim; a female interrogator smeared a detainee's face with what she told him was menstrual blood and said the water would be turned off in his cell, so he would be unable to wash; a female interrogator grabbed a prisoner by his genitals; an interrogator gagged with duct tape a prisoner who wouldn't stop chanting Quranic verses; commanders requested permission to use water torture on detainees to make them think they were suffocating; interrogators intimidated prisoners with vicious dogs. The scandalous mistreatment at Guantanamo, along with the denial of any legal rights to detainees, has done enormous damage to America's reputation for respecting human rights and abiding by the rule of law.

Even more to the point, in the context of judging moral culpability, is the intentionality of the atrocities committed by the U.S. military against detainees.

...[U]nlike Newsweek's error, these were in no way "honest" errors at any level. The abuses were the foreseeable consequence, if not the intentional result, of standards and policies promulgated by the Justice Department and the Pentagon, including a ruling that the Geneva Conventions did not apply to prisoners held there, and the authorization of specific interrogation techniques.

But although Scott McClellan emphasized numerous times that the Newsweek article was directly responsible for the deadly riots that killed over a dozen people around the world, neither he nor anyone else in the Bush administration acknowledged or accepted any culpability for the beheading of Nick Berg -- even though, Weisberg notes, Berg's killers publically stated that Berg was beheaded as retribution for the torture and mistreatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Wouldn't it be fair to say, though, that if the responsibility for Nick Berg's murder belonged solely to the jihadists who killed him; then the responsibility for the deaths caused by the violent protests in response to an article about a Koran being desecrated belonged solely to the violent protesters?

Not, obviously, in the Bush administration, where errors of policy are never acknowledged; where intentions are always good and where good intentions excuse or justify any result, no matter how terrible; and where no responsibility exists for the consequences of bad policy (and, indeed, the very concept that something bad done by our "enemies" could be a consequence of bad things we have done is rejected).

Weisberg makes it clear that the Bush administration's sins don't let Newsweek off the hook for its reporting mistakes; but, he says, when it comes to lying and relying on bad information from questionable sources, Scott McClellan has no moral standing to point the finger at Newsweek:

None of this is said to excuse a piece of bad journalism by some good journalists. (Disclosure: Slate is owned by the Washington Post Co., which also owns Newsweek.) But let's be clear: Newsweek hardly bears sole responsibility for rioting deaths in Afghanistan and Pakistan, which were fomented by anti-American agitators and reflect both a pathological religious fanaticism and anger over many other issues. What's more, Bush's flacks are in no position to prosecute this case. When it comes to torturing inmates to death, sexually humiliating prisoners, and otherwise doing our best to outrage the religious sensitivities of devout Muslims, Scott McClellan has nothing to say. But faced with an erroneous charge that an American guard might have insulted a copy of the Quran, he turns livid and demands satisfaction. There's something of a pot-and-kettle problem here.

But the problem with the Bush administration excoriating Newsweek's insensitivity to Islam isn't just hypocrisy. There's a larger issue of bad faith and an underlying lack of appreciation for the necessary role of a free and independent press. With increasing forcefulness, Bush has tried to undermine the legitimacy of the media, or at least that subculture within it that shows any tendency to challenge him. When the Bushies say there ought to be more of a check on the Fourth Estate, they aren't really asking for more care and accuracy on the part of journalists. They're expressing frustration that they still have to put up with criticism at all.

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