Thursday, March 10, 2005

Occasional political rants

The Reviewer Reviewed.
A Belated Response to Kaplan's _NYT Book Review_ Review of 'The Interrogators' and 'Torture' (1/23/05)

Robert D. Kaplan was, once, a kind of travel writer. The personal narrative of the civilized traveler who describes his encounter with the degradation, filth, and dangers of backward countries and peoples is an ancient, if not honorable, thread of European and American journalistic prose. The benefit to the reader is similar to that of vicariously reading about a colorful seedy traveling carnival instead of personally puking while riding the Tilt-a-Whirl. Usually, however, the travel writer neither becomes inflated with his insights (the natives are dangerous, and smell bad, and do not share our values), nor possessed with a sense of mission to alert the world about the threat the natives pose to our way of life.

Alas, Kaplan is a little different. In brief, but fairly, Kaplan has become obsessed with the idea that the world is full of dangerous people, who do not cherish our institutions or our values, who will kill us and destroy our freedom unless we are willing, in the service of virtue, to kill them first, without much scruple in observing some of the niceties which our civilization has, unfortunately in Mr. Kaplan’s eyes, traditionally observed. Now it might be well at this point to remember that this outlook, properly generalized, already has a track record--statesmen whose worldview consciously or unconsciously incorporated such a vision and have justified their actions with arguments similar to Kaplan's, brought us most of the wars of the previous century, including, of course, Vietnam, not to mention various Gulags, third-world torture-chambers, genocides and ethnic cleansings.

In the animus behind his opinions, as well as the quality of his reasoning, he is kinda like someone you avoid at a party who has been scandalized to see a fat woman using food stamps and feels that it makes him an expert on welfare reform. The last thing I read by Kaplan, before this piece in the New York Times Book Review , was _Warrior Politics_, a pompous and silly book, a sequence of crotchety and pontifical dicta on the nature of man, society, and government; a tribute to that special warrior spirit we find in the thinking and writing of our present-day conservative apologists for public viciousness, who coyly wrap their preferences for things ugly, deceitful, tyrannical, and cruel in a cloak of see-thru grandeur, Wizard-of-Oz Caesarism, and imaginary manliness, with occasional obligatory striptease references to Machiavelli. No personal narrative there--instead I remember being slightly astonished by Kaplan's strange homages to such disparate figures as von Clausewitz, Livy, Polybius, Thucydides, Churchill, Machiavelli, Sun-Tzu, Kant, Hobbes, and Malthus, worthies last sighted by most of us in Philosophy 101, Survey of the Great Political Thinkers; all enlisted into the service of shock and awe, a phrase not yet invented but now apt as a summary of how that slight book would have us deal with those who oppose us.

So now Kaplan, like Dershowitz and a few others testing these waters, thinks it may be prudent to add torture to our shock'n'awe tool kit, qualifying its use, of course, with a proviso that we should be judicious about it--a slightly discordant image there, when you think about that, like drawing and quartering but gently and only when absolutely necessary. Using the slender reed of two books so briefly mentioned and so ill-described that to call his piece a review is either a great kindness or a great dishonesty, to support his own musings on torture, we get this final sense of "uh, wait, this guy is really saying torture is OK". At least that's my reading. The review dances delicately past some obvious moral issues, as Mr. Kaplan inducts himself into the War on Terror Club trying to fuse his previous Kissingeresque realpolitik with more current and less reality-based Neocon thinking, and ends, as we see below, with the image of the well-run dungeon. Where the action is, I suppose. Where, if we torture enough political prisoners, and torture them long enough--and, I hasten to add, judiciously enough--we might someday extract the secret location where Little Nell is tied to the railroad tracks.

Hence, with the help of imaginary ticking bomb scenarios, one may justify the non-imaginary thumbscrew, er, excuse me, waterboard.

And, perhaps as a sop to those who might otherwise find his views extreme and offensive, Kaplan says, hey kids, if we'd just improve the training of our interrogation teams and teach them better Arabic and interviewing skills, maybe we wouldn't even have to resort to such, um, measures. "An interrogator armed with fluent Arabic and every scrap of intelligence the system can muster, who has mastered the emerging science of eye movements and body signals, who can act threatening as well as empathetic toward a prisoner, should not require the ultimate tool." Nice--but not reassuring--how we get the phrase "ultimate tool" where I at least was expecting a plainer word.

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