Jonathan Schell on an administration of grammarians

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Our nation recognizes that this new paradigm — ushered in not by us, but by terrorists — requires new thinking in the law of war.” (President George W. Bush in a February 7, 2002 memo asserting “that he believed he had ‘the authority under the Constitution’ to deny protections of the Geneva Conventions to combatants picked up during the war in Afghanistan.” (Mike Allen and Susan Schmidt, Memo on Interrogation Tactics Is Disavowed, the Washington Post)

Some of the [released] documents showed that the administration originally had no intention of making its internal debate public anytime soon. Mr. Rumsfeld’s April 16, 2003, memo authorizing the limited use of more aggressive interrogation techniques at Guantanamo Bay was stamped ‘Declassify On: 2 April 2013.’” (Richard W. Stevenson, White House Says Prisoner Policy Set Humane Tone, the New York Times)

Who knew that what we had was an administration of — as Jonathan Schell puts it below — lexicographers, grammarians, and philologists, intent on parsing sentences, slicing meanings, arguing over the exact definitions of words, the exact point, for instance, where torture becomes torture, and whether in finding that point they hadn’t stopped just short of, or gone just beyond but quickly rescinded, or recommended but never used, or used but only once, or maybe twice, and real far away, and not as hard as

Yesterday, the President stated unequivocally: “Let me make very clear the position of my government and our country: We do not condone torture. I have never ordered torture. I will never order torture. The values of this country are such that torture is not a part of our soul and our being.” But as we’ve learned in recent weeks, “torture” is an all too malleable term, and what is never being ordered is all in the definition.

Thanks to yesterday’s limited hang-out document dump by the administration, we also learned (yet again) that torture methods which should make Americans cringe were at least part of the White House’s “soul” and “being” in high-level discussions over the last two years. While releasing documents, the White House finally moved to disavow part of its former “being,” one of its own legal memos on torture which, having suddenly been declared “overbroad and irrelevant,” is being “rewritten.”

Of course, the White House is now cleverly setting us searching for the smoking gun of administration torture policy, or in this case perhaps, the water-soaked rag directly ordered up from the White House. Actually, even without all the relevant documents in hand — nothing relating to the CIA’s hidden torture centers that now dot the globe was released yesterday, for instance — it’s amazing how far officials of the Bush administration actually went on paper in laying out a torture regime and the rest of the “new thinking” the President called for back in the winter of 2002. But you’re not likely to find a Presidential order to torture. There’s never the need for that. You set the parameters, send out the necessary anything-goes signals, and the rest should follow. It’s the smoking wink-and-nod theory of how such things are done.

If, for a moment, you skip the words and simply look at what happened — the actions at the bottom of the torture food chain — you’ll note a distinct pattern that stretches from Guantanamo to Abu Ghraib to Afghanistan, right across our Bermuda Triangle of offshore injustice, one that couldn’t have sprung up spontaneously thanks only to in-the-ranks sadism or local decisions. Duncan Campbell and Suzanne Goldenberg of the British Guardian just completed a harrowing in-depth exploration of the treatment of prisoners at our holding facility at Bagram Air Force Base and at the 19 other detention centers and fire bases we have in Afghanistan. Along with homicides, they found just about all the routine acts of torture — beatings, strippings, hoodings — we’re so familiar with from the Abu Ghraib photos, right down to those dogs our secretary of defense at one point officially put his stamp of approval on. Here’s a quick summary of what just one prisoner went through (“They said this is America . . . if a soldier orders you to take off your clothes, you must obey”):

“During the course of the next hour he will recount how American soldiers stripped him naked and photographed him, set dogs on him, asked him which animal he would prefer to have sex with, and told him his wife was a prostitute. He will tell also of hoods being placed over his head, of being forced to roll over every 15 minutes while he tried to sleep, and of being kept on his knees with his hands tied behind his back in a narrow tunnel-like space, unable to move.”

More than anything else, all the words and definitions and reiterations and sudden bits of new evidence and retractions, all the linguistic spinning adds up to a smokescreen. Some of this would simply be laughable, if the results weren’t so terrible. Take the most recent “evidence” of an al-Qaeda/Saddam tie put forward by the supporters of a desperate administration. A high-ranking al-Qaeda member, so the claim went, was also an officer in Saddam Hussein’s Fedayeen militia. “Ahmad Hikmat Shakir Azzawi, identified as an al-Qaeda ‘fixer’ in Malaysia” meet Iraqi Lt. Col. Hikmat Shakir Ahmad. Two men with — if you strain a bit — suspiciously similar names on the rosters of different teams. Aren’t they actually one and the same man, thus proving the connection between Saddam and al-Qaeda? It almost sounds plausible if you know nothing about Arab names. But check out Juan Cole’s dissection of the two names at his website. It shouldn’t be missed. He concludes: “This would be like having someone named Mark Walter Paul Johnson who is a chauffeur for Holiday Inn. And then you have a CIA agent named Walter Paul Mark. Obviously, it is the same guy, right? Natch.”

Unfortunately, most Americans aren’t going to read his website, or Jonathan Schell’s latest “Letter from Ground Zero” either (which the Nation magazine was kind enough to let me share this week). But you can. Don’t miss it (or his new collection of “Ground Zero” columns either, A Hole in the World, a little paperback worth its political weight in gold). Tom

The Lexicographers
By Jonathan Schell

Ever since the September 11 commission stated authoritatively what everyone knew already, namely that there is no evidence that Al Qaeda was in business with Saddam Hussein, a debate of a most peculiar character has unfolded.

Almost no facts-and none of importance-are under dispute. No one now claims that Iraq had anything to do with September 11, or any other attack on the United States, or even that Saddam’s regime had any joint undertaking whatsoever with Al Qaeda. Rather, the debate revolves around the definition of words. The highest officials of the executive branch of the government, as if re-baptizing it as an academic department of a university, have turned themselves into so many linguists. What is a “tie,” a “relationship,” a “link,” a “contact,” “cooperation”? On questions like these, the White House abounds in opinions.

The language of the report, as everyone knows, was that Al Qaeda and the Iraqi government had no “collaborative relationship.” Nor was there “any credible evidence” that the two organizations had “cooperated on any attacks against the United States.”

The New York Times, perhaps smarting from its recently confessed misreporting regarding Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction, editorially stated that “there was never any evidence of a link between Iraq and Al Qaeda, between Saddam Hussein and Sept. 11” and demanded “an apology” to the American people from President Bush.

The Lexicographer in Chief and his Vice Lexicographer saw their opening and pounced. Bush stated that while the administration had never “said that the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated” with Iraqi help, “we did say there were numerous contacts between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda.” So, “the reason I keep insisting that there was a relationship between Iraq and Saddam and Al Qaeda [is] because there was a relationship between Iraq and Al Qaeda.” Cheney said that the “evidence is overwhelming” of a “relationship.”

The co-chairmen of the commission, former Governor Tom Kean and former Representative Lee Hamilton, seemed to try to smooth over the controversy by pointing out that they had not denied the existence of “ties,” only of collaboration.

What was now missing, however, from the administration’s new self-defense were all the factual particulars that had given supposed substance to the charge of a relationship in the first place. No
longer did the President claim, as he once had, that Saddam was “dealing” with Al Qaeda, or that Iraq “sent bomb-making and document forgery experts to work with Al Qaeda,” or “provided Al Qaeda with chemical and biological weapons training.” The only relevant facts left on the record were the negative ones described by the commission: Al Qaeda’s early attempts to attack Saddam, whose secular Arabism it despised, by helping Iraqi Kurds and its rejected attempt later to secure assistance from Saddam.

Perhaps the most strained attempt to rescue some shred of justification for the administration’s position was William Safire’s claim in a recent Times column that the authors of the commission report had conflated a true denial that Iraq was involved in September 11 with a false denial that Iraq and Al Qaeda had had “decade-long dealings.” But Safire, a specialist in grammar and the meaning of words, must have thought that no one would check his assertion against the report itself, which specifically addresses the decade-long dealings and finds them to be the ones of enmity and refusal to cooperate just mentioned. (Nor in fact does the no-collaborative-relationship finding apply just to September 11; it refers to all Al Qaeda activities since it moved to Afghanistan, around 1996.)

By surrendering the factual ground while hanging tough philologically, the White House and its defenders tacitly bowed to the substance of its critics’ case. If the war in Iraq was indeed somehow a good idea, it was not because the word “relationship” can be stretched by certain high-powered word-torturers to cover relations of hostility and rejection.

Does the debate, then, at least bear on the important domestic question of the President’s credibility? It surely does, but in this matter there was not much news, for the administration’s response to the collapse of its case repeated the well-worn pattern of its response to the downfall of its claim before the war that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction: monotonous repetition of the falsehood in the face of manifest evidence to the contrary and then a redefinition of words (in that case, confounding actual weapons of mass destruction with mere “programs” for building them), and throughout a tireless insistence that they were right, detached alike from information and the meaning of words. They seem to believe that truth consists not of correspondence of word with fact but of an implacable consistency armored with impervious self-righteousness.

There is no evidence of cooperation between Iraq and Al Qaeda; the Bush administration has consistently misrepresented this fact. These judgments are not the possible conclusions of a debate that still lies before us; they are the starting point of a new discussion. Its subject is neither the justifications for the war in Iraq nor the President’s credibility — for both are obviously in tatters — but the response to all this by the country.

The spotlight now shifts from the liars to the lied-to. How do we — in the news media, in the country at large — like it? Are we asleep or awake? Can we remember what was said to us a few months or even a few weeks ago? Do we care? Can we recall the proper meanings of words? Do we notice that thousands of people have been sent to their deaths on false premises? Do we have the mental or moral energy to do anything about it? These are the real questions put before us by the reports of the September 11 commission.

Jonathan Schell is the Harold Willens Peace Fellow at the Nation Institute. He is the author, most recently, of A Hole in the World, a compilation of his “Letter From Ground Zero” columns, just published by Nation Books.

This article will appear in the July 12, 2004 issue of The Nation magazine.

Copyright C2004 Jonathan Schell