I don’t even want to read various weblogs this morning about the Newsweek “Qu’ran in the toilet” story.
I know what most of them are going to say, and I’m bored in advance with what I know. Various anti-war blogs are going to assume the story really is true, and various pro-war blogs are going to scream for the heads of Newsweek’s editors to be mounted on a pike and assume the story is utterly false.
Probably I’m just as predictable and boring. Because the story for me is not whether the report is true or false, but the fact that it is impossible to say confidently whether or not it is true or false. Not because it is never possible to make such determinations, but because the specific policies and mistakes of the Bush Administration in the conduct of the “war on terror” simultaneously have made it impossible to determine while also making it conceivable that it is true.
Pointing a finger at the Bush Administration is probably too narrow and partisan. The problem goes deeper, to a belief that rights accorded to criminal suspects, prisoners of war, possible terrorists, exist entirely for the benefit of those suspects. This is a deep theme in post-Miranda American popular culture, popping up both in light entertainments and fairly serious work.
Even some defenders of civil liberties respond too one-sidedly that those rights exist for the benefit of the innocent. That’s true, but they also exist for the benefit of the state itself. It works both ways. When the credibility of the state is challenged, a demonstrated scrupulous respect for rights and a public process of justice allow the state to maintain its integrity while also clarifying individual official responsibility for error and misconduct. Even civic, non-governmental institutions are far more trusted when they’re relatively transparent, or permit outside oversight. When they misstep, they’re much better off if they’ve been showing all the cards in their hand from the outset.
It’s entirely possible that the Newsweek report is false, that it came from a source who was repeating mere rumor, or was even being actively malicious in passing on the story. When the Pentagon replies that the story is demonstrably false, well, no, it’s not. And it’s their own damn fault that it’s not.
If the Gitmo prisoners had always been held openly within the sight of the world, allowed access to counsel, allowed open visits with the Red Cross, then the story might be demonstrably false. Credibility and trust are hard to build, easy to lose. This, at the end of the day, is why it mattered that the United States often held itself to a higher standard of international behavior, even when that made certain kinds of actions more difficult, less expedient. Sure, a rumor like this might have sprung up in any case. But if Gitmo had been in the light of day all the time, if Abu Ghraib had never happened, if there had been no torture memo, then it would have been much easier to stand up and say, “This is false” and have most people around the world in their heart of hearts believe that it was false. There are rumors that people disseminate because they have a sort of symbolic coherence to them (say, for example, the recurrent rumors in many parts of the world that mysterious individuals steal the bodily organs of locals for shipment to the developed world), which I do not think are necessarily believed as literal statements. Then there are rumors which are taken as a different kind of concretized truth, and incorporated into local knowledge as such. For that to happen widely, globally, the rumor has to be empirically possible at several levels –and who of us can say, with confidence, that this is not an empirically possible story of interrogative policy, of a system actually employed at Gitmo? If we hadn’t sought to protect what happens there with obsessive secrecy, if the executive branch had not tried to justify torture and the disavowal of all human rights of prisoners, I would say that it was unlikely, or possibly just one bad apple among the jailers. In this case, who can say? And if we cannot say, we are helpless as a fire burns in hearts around the world.
Transparency protects everyone, even the institution which opens itself to scrutiny. There are very few goals so urgent that they are worth foregoing that protection.