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Monday, January 24, 2005

New York Times-ly essays

Missing The Guardian very much, especially the book review section on Saturdays that makes such good company over several cups of coffee.... The Sunday New York Times Book Review is, of course, a worthy substitute, and yesterday's issue (dug out of the snow drifts - but I was amazed they made the effort to deliver!) proved why.

Two essays proved valuable. First case in point was the lead essay on "Atrocities in Plain Sight" by Andrew Sullivan which highlighted two publications that each focused on documentary evidence about (and surrounding) the Abu Ghraib scandal. The essay itself left much to be desired -- I was not smitten by Sullivan's bow in the direction of how great it is that despite all our faults, we in the US have a government that is so open and forthcoming with information about its errors; and more than any other review essay I've read in the NYT, this one seemed a bit "padded" with excerpts, although the points exemplified by the extended quotes surely needed to be made. What was most valuable about the essay, however, were the question raised by Sullivan's secondary analysis of these documentaries. Should we focus on the logic and narrative making at the top which seemed to foster the atrocities, or should we focus on the work of those at the bottom (or even middle) of the hierarchies that provided the context for the abuse? Legally, we seem to have come to terms with the issue by putting enlisted personnel on trial (mainly because the evidence is much clearer) and merely grumbling politically (and typically from the fringes) about the poor judgment of those at the top who (all too late, if at all) seem to have backtracked and corrected themselves. The legal approach is working smoothly, but the political track has stumbled, and all we can hope for is some future mainstream political backlash that might make the charges "stick" to those at the top who are successfully sidestepping responsibility.

A less featured but no less notable essay followed the Sullivan piece -- and this by Robert D. Kaplan, a no less respectable essayist who opinions seem to hold water as much on the right as in the middle. His review of two works on interrogation and torture is notable for its logic that, in the end, provides a defense for intelligence gathering through interrogation (and, yes, even practices that can be regarded as torture). When left to knowledgeable experts, he seems to say, this is an effective, necessary and important part of the conduct of war. Given over to amateurs (such as the reservists at the center of the Abu Ghraib scandal) the morality (if indeed it is in nay respect moral) as well as effectiveness of the effort is lost. Kaplan's admiration for Machiavellian realism sends chills throughout the reader's body, but his short essay (compared to Sullivan's) is even handed in highlighting the dangers as much as the necessity. Those who get caught up in Sullivan's longer piece should make sure not to overlook Kaplan's and the issues it addresses.
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