Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the unwritten rule that politicians, reporters, and commentators in the US are expected to follow when it comes to discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A similar rule exists when it comes to discussion of the policies of the US government. Glenn Greenwald points out where this rule leads, where now ‘serious’ commentators dismiss the idea that people in the Bush-Cheney administration should be tried for war crimes because ‘they meant well’ and supposedly had ‘good reasons’ for committing awful acts, such as trying to ‘keep the country safe from terrorists’. He points out what happens if you carry that argument to its logical conclusion.

“[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they — Americans — are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal (my italics).

If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes — or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution — then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a “war crime” that merits punishment. Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense. But advocates of this view — “Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists” — can’t or won’t follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.

But the rest of the world’s war criminals — the non-Americans — have no such complexities. They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.

Jim Henley adds that “The United States government has always engaged in war crimes and human rights violations. What’s different this decade is that, under the leadership of a terrible president, our elites have become vociferous advocates of the goodness and rightness of war crimes and human rights violations.” (emphasis in original)

Matthew Yglesias says, “According to the perverse rules of our post-9/11 discourse, willingness to verbally endorse the idea of having other people torture strangers counts as a form of courageous “toughness” akin to, you know, actually doing something brave. And the rot has, I’m afraid, spread pretty far.”

There are occasions for comparing actions and trying to create some kind of moral calculus especially if one is looking at the unfolding of history and trying to point out how cycles of violence usually become more cruel. But if an act is a murder or an atrocity or a war crime, then it remains so irrespective of who commits it or whether other people also do it. Justifying or excusing or minimizing an evil by pointing the finger at another evil only leads to a continuing cycle of evil.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in August 2006, I covered some of this ground before in a four-part series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4) describing how this kind of tribal thinking leads to never-ending violence and death and destruction, made even worse by smug feelings of self-righteousness by the perpetrators.

Part 3 is particularly relevant to today’s and yesterday’s posts. In re-reading what I had written in it, it was depressing to see that if you replace the words Lebanon with Gaza and Hezbollah with Hamas, that essay would apply with equal force to the events of today. Will we ever learn?

POST SCRIPT: Prosecutions for torture and war crimes

Lawyer Phillipe Sands, who directs the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at the University of London and is author of the book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betryal of American Values, discusses with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air how war crimes are considered so evil that international treaties have declared that people who commit them should have no refuge. They are considered crimes against humanity, so that citizens of one country who committed those acts within their own country, can still be prosecuted by other countries.

So the fact that US authorities may choose to ignore the war crimes committed by its own citizens by not prosecuting them because they were done by ‘our’ people only increases the chances that prosecutors in other countries might open investigations. He says that many people in the Bush administration had better be very cautious about going abroad because they might be subject to arrest, the way Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was when he visited England.


  1. A Nonny Mouse says

    You write “will we never learn?” regarding the 2006 and 2009 fighting around Israel. Presumably you are talking about learning a lesson. The statement that nothing has changed begs the question, “Have others accepted there was a lesson to be learned?”

    It seems to me there are three possibilities here:
    1) The case has been made, and rejected (reasonably or not) that a lesson was to be learned.
    2) The case has not successfully been made and considered as to whether there was a lesson to be learned.
    3) The party implied by the pronoun “we” is not the same as the parties considered in items one and two, and there is a disjoint between the question asked, the question considered. Perhaps more simply, the question of to whom the case was, and should be, made to needs to be further considered.

    I’ve followed your posts for quite some time, and I find that I often disagree with you when it comes to such political statements, and see no reason to argue as I am not sufficiently informed to have a well-regarded opinion. But this time it appears you’ve asked a question that leads to further questioning of your thought process.

  2. Jared says

    Nonny Mouse,

    While I can’t make 100% sense of your comment, what I do understand disturbs me greatly.

    Are you suggesting that there is something deeply suspicious about rebuking murder, war crimes, and genocide? Or are you saying that there is something wrong with being willing to accuse your own people of these actions if you perceive them happening? Or are you actually suggesting that being capable of perceiving the crimes of your own people means there is something wrong with you?

    Do you ever hear people wonder why the German people ever let the Nazi party come to power? Why did people sit idly by? How could they let their own countrymen perpetrate such horrors? How could anyone do that? By asking these questions, we imply that in that position we would have done better. That we WANT to be able to do better.

    People in a group get upset when a member of that group draws comparisons between the group and a demonstratively evil group, such as the Nazis. But I think that is what you should always be doing. You must have some standards. It is the only way you can hope to stay accountable to yourselves and others.


  3. A Nonny Mouse says


    I’m sorry if my comment was so difficult to parse. I apologize also that I don’t take the time to answer each of your questions, but I don’t find them apropos to what I meant, nor can I even find where I so erred as to lead you toward them. A failing quite possible to be in my own understanding of what I meant, and not being able to take an external view. To clarify, my questions are:

    To whom was the argument made that the Israeli military policy was wrong? What evidence of the efficacy of that argument on said party was received? And why was that party thought to have power to control Israeli military policy?

    It strikes me as useless hyperbole to wring hands and complain that things haven’t changed without having made efforts to have effected change. I found Dr. Singham an excellent teacher when I was in his class. I found him an intriguing conversationalist in and out of it. I find his journal thought-provoking now. I’m sorry if it isn’t allowed that I might also find his arguments often unconvincing.

  4. Jared says

    I’m sorry that I misunderstood your meaning, and I hope that I did not offend.

    Lately, I have been sensitized to a particular strain of rhetoric that suggests that any criticism of “our” motives indicates something must be fundamentally wrong with the criticizing person. I have seen a lot of people work on this premise and it disturbs me.

    I understand now that what you were really saying is not related to this at all, and I don’t think that it is really your fault that I did not understand that in the first place.

    This is something that has elicited a very emotional response for me, so I apologize for jumping to conclusions. I am also embarrassed that I may have come across rather sanctimoniously.


    PS – I think that perhaps the first of your three possibilities is the most likely. The case is being made by intellectuals, peace activists, and human rights groups around the world, but most “power elite” parties (in this case the American media, American politicians, and Israeli politicians) generally do not accept that there is even a lesson to be learned.

  5. Anonymous says

    a heads up. i posted this morning and my comment was deleted.
    again, i wrote:
    rhetoric rhetoric rhetoric

  6. A Nonny Mouse says


    It seems we both have our faults, as after sleep I can see errors of missing words and edited sentences combined to lose all meaning in my initial post. I’d also like to state that I wasn’t saying it was Dr. Singham’s responsibility to bring this to the Israeli policy-makers. However, I do believe that the question he asked, “have we learned nothing?” is far from as simple as it would seem, as there are underlying items.

    In case you care, I do agree that Israeli policy is incorrect. I don’t agree that the bias of media and reporting is as one-sided as Dr. Singham states. I also don’t agree, as a consequence, that the decisions regarding these policies are as simple as might result if it was so one-sided. As I initially state, however, I don’t consider myself knowledgeable enough to offer solid opinions. The reason for that is, in simplified terms, I only know one language, and I’ve not been to the region. That leaves me only able to garner information from journals written in English, or translated into it. I have no conceptual understanding of whether journalists have sufficient information to present a purely factual and simultaneously sufficient reasoning to show what’s happening. I have further no capability to check sufficient sources to begin to find if the material I can easily obtain contains problematic bias. Since I’ve not been to the region, I can’t even pretend to assume that my necessarily limited witness is sufficient to the task. While I know people who have been there, they’ve all been of a particular viewpoint, so I can’t use their views to build a sufficient case.

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