Wednesday, May 12, 2004

Reductio ad Absurdum

Andrew Sullivan suggests that the mainstream media publish pictures of an American hostage's severed head in order to balance, among other things, the slide show presentations depicting the abuse of prisoners at Abu Ghraib.

Let's start an internet campaign to insist that the major media - including the New Yorker, the networks, the major newsweeklies, and every major paper - run a picture of Zarqawi holding up Nick Berg's severed head. It's time to release the Pearl video and stills too. Enough with the double standards. The media were absolutely right to show the abuse photos. But they are only part of the story. It's about time the media gave us all of it, however harrowing it is.

And yeah, why not. If Michael Getler, the ombudsman of the Washington Post can assert that "the reality of war in all its aspects needs to be reported and photographed. That is the patriotic, and necessary, thing to do in a democracy" there is no logical reason why the video showing the Al Qaeda decapitating a screaming Nick Berg shouldn't be given the same treatment. That is, unless the Getler's premise was false in the first place.

The reductio ad absurdum "is a type of logical argument where we assume a claim for the sake of argument, arrive at an absurd result, and then conclude the original assumption must have been wrong, since it gave us this absurd result." The fallacy in Getler's premise was the claim that the Abu Ghraib photographs were simply a factual documentation of an abuse which the public had the right to know about. The existence of the abuses had been known from January, from CENTCOM itself.

January 16, 2004

Release Number: 04-01-43



BAGHDAD, Iraq – An investigation has been initiated into reported incidents of detainee abuse at a Coalition Forces detention facility. The release of specific information concerning the incidents could hinder the investigation, which is in its early stages. The investigation will be conducted in a thorough and professional manner. The Coalition is committed to treating all persons under its control with dignity, respect and humanity. Lt. Gen. Ricardo S. Sanchez, the Commanding General, has reiterated this requirement to all members of CJTF-7.

What was new about the May coverage was that the press had pictures of the Abu Ghraib abuses and was in a position to project, not a new set of facts, but a new set of powerful emotions upon the public. Getler's claim is really an assertion of the right to invoke outrage, disgust and hatred at a specific act and its perpetrators, and those who may have been indirectly responsible for it. By taking this logic to its limit, Sullivan claims the same right: to unleash a symmetrical set of set emotions at another group -- and demonstrates the absurdity. For it must either be correct to publish both the Abu Ghraib and Berg photos or admit partisanship. Surely, if it is acceptable to run the risk of tainting the entire US military with the brush of Abu Ghraib then there can be no harm in coloring all Muslims with the hues of Al Qaeda. But this is madness.

The Belmont Club predicted that "the sad balance of probability is that Abu Ghraib will be displaced from the front pages by the next terrorist outrage, the next Bali, the next Madrid, the next 9/11 until we find ourselves wondering why it upset us at all" -- and the process has already begun. People who only yesterday were beating their breasts at infamy of the 800th MP brigade will be calling for a MOAB to dropped on Fallujah tomorrow. And to the inherent madness of war we will add another lunacy: strategy by manic-depression. 'Are we feeling generous today toward the enemy? Or do we want to get some aggression off our chests? Hmm?'

This is what comes of asserting the right to unleash emotions disconnected from rational perspective as "patriotic". This is what comes of not sticking to facts and they are these. The enemy has attacked America on its own soil and therefore must be defeated utterly. Members of the US military have committed a court-martial offense and therefore they must be punished severely. Any withdrawal from Iraq will not bring safety from enemy action inasmuch as they attacked Manhattan and Washington DC nearly two years before OIF. Any withdrawal from Iraq without first setting up a stable and responsible government there would result in a bloodbath beside which the massacre of the Shi'ites and the gassing of the Kurds by Saddam would be a pale moonlit shadow. Therefore we must persist until victory.

And the final fact is this. The only exit from war's inhumanity is through the doorway of victory. For while it may be mitigated, controlled and reduced to a certain extent fundamentally "war is cruelty, and you cannot refine it", though victory can end it. While it continues, as many in the Left who long for a 21st century Vietnam hope, it will unleash unpredictable forces which no one can control. Those who delighted in discovering the photographs at Abu Ghraib little imagined Nick Berg's video. And while we can safely grant Andrew Sullivan's plea and publish both, for reasons the media imagine are laudable, it is what comes next that I am afraid of.