Noted pseudo-intellectual Susan Sontag was back at it in the New York Times Magazine last weekendwith a freewheeling, incoherent, anti-American diatribe titled “Regarding the Torture of Others.” Though it really doesn’t merit a serious response–since it is, as columnist Ralph Peters has already labeled it, “the most disgraceful essay of this new century”–I think it’s worth noting, if only in passing, the kind of thought processes that pass muster on the left.
Sontag begins by quoting from the 1984 Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment–to which the United States is a signatory–which defines torture as “any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession.” By this definition, the treatment of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib does indeed qualify as torture. So, as Sontag points out, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s recent assertion that “what has been charged thus far is abuse, which I believe technically is different from torture” is false.
If she’d stopped here, Sontag would have scored her rhetorical point. But of course she’s after bigger game than an offhand remark by Rumsfeld. The photographs of the abuse, she writes, force you to ask yourself, “How can someone grin at the sufferings and humiliation of another human being? Set guard dogs at the genitals and legs of cowering naked prisoners? Force shackled, hooded prisoners to masturbate or simulate oral sex with one another? And you feel naive for asking, since the answer is, self-evidently, People do these things to other people. Rape and pain inflicted on the genitals are among the most common forms of torture. Not just in Nazi concentration camps and in Abu Ghraib when it was run by Saddam Hussein. Americans, too, have done and do them when they are told, or made to feel, that those over whom they have absolute power deserve to be humiliated, tormented.”
If a more preposterous logical error has seen print in a major English-language newspaper in recent years, it’s difficult to recall. Having noted that some soldiers’ abusive treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib fits one particular definition of torture, Sontag morally equates that instance with every other instance of torture–including the mutilations and mass executions of Iraqis under Saddam Hussein and the genocide of Jews under Adolf Hitler. The technical term for this mistake is the Fallacy of the Undistributed Middle, e.g., All human beings are mammals/ All dogs are mammals/ Therefore, all human beings are dogs.
The real question, Sontag insists, is whether what happened at Abu Ghraib was “systematic,” “authorized,” and “condoned.” Her conclusion, unsurprisingly, is yes–the abuses were systematic, authorized, and condoned. Her evidence? She cites the fact that Taliban and al Qaeda prisoners captured in Afghanistan and eventually detained at Guantánamo Bay were designated by the Bush administration as “unlawful combatants” rather than “prisoners of war.” Thus, according to Rumsfeld, they “do not have any rights under the Geneva Convention.”
The dilemma of how to treat enemy fighters who don’t represent an established government is a difficult one. Under the circumstances of traditional warfare, when combat between recognized governments ends with a treaty, individual combatants lay down their arms and cease hostile actions. But in the case of international terrorism, there is no government with which to enter into a treaty. How, then, is the United States to determine when and if captured enemy fighters are ready to cease hostilities?
This dilemma is further complicated in Iraq, where American forces are confronted with an indecipherable coalition of Baath-regime holdovers, civilian sympathizers, and foreign terrorists. Who is a prisoner of war? Who is an unlawful combatant?
All of this, of course, is utterly beside the point with regard to what happened at Abu Ghraib. In his speculation over who does and does not qualify for prisoner-of-war status under the guidelines of the Geneva Conventions, Rumsfeld does not say–as Sontag so desperately wants him to say–that detainees don’t have human rights. Surely the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib, documented so explicitly in the awful photographic record, constitutes a violation of their human rights. No one, not prisoners of war, not even unlawful combatants, should be subjected to the kinds of abuse which took place at the prison. The entire Bush administration, from the president on down, has spoken with one voice on this subject.
Nevertheless, Sontag concludes, the photographs of abuse at Abu Ghraib “are representative of the fundamental corruptions of any foreign occupation together with the Bush administration’s distinctive policies.”
It’s what she wanted to conclude, it’s what she was determined to conclude, so logic be damned.