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    Getting our story straight

    Q and O has a great post on the whole commotion over the Newsweek Koran-not-down-the-toilet incident. Dale Franks and Jon Henke get some help from a column by Anne Applebaum:

    Now, it is possible that no interrogator at Guantanamo Bay ever flushed pages of the Koran down the toilet, as the now-retracted Newsweek story reported — although several former Guantanamo detainees have alleged just that. It is also possible that Newsweek reporters relied too much on an uncertain source, or that the magazine confused the story with (confirmed) reports that prisoners themselves used Korans to block toilets as a form of protest.

    But surely the larger point is not the story itself but that it was so eminently plausible, in Pakistan, Afghanistan and everywhere else. And it was plausible precisely because interrogation techniques designed to be offensive to Muslims were used in Iraq and Guantanamo, as administration and military officials have also confirmed.

    I disagree with this somewhat, in the sense that I don’t see the believability of the story as the larger point. I think we’re looking at piss-poor judgment from both sides.

    PR matters. There are hundreds of millions of people whom we want to bring around to our vision of civic life: a free market of competing but coexisting ideas. We have an advantage in that people seek to be free of the tyranny over them. We have a disadvantage, however, in that many perceive America as a place that’s unmoored from tradition and basic considerations of civility.

    There are few more resonant ways we could convince large swaths of the world population that such fears are justified than to have descriptions get around of armed forces personnel gleefully polluting people before prayer time or otherwise treading on their religious taboos to get a rise out of them. Soldiers are the most disciplined group of people in any society; if they comport themselves that way, it’s not a stretch for people to imagine that liberalizing will turn daily life into a Britney Spears video.

    Note that I am not against ruthlessly breaking down the will of a known terrorist to get specific knowledge out of him in an emergency. Nor do I fail to sympathize with soldiers whose duty it is to run prisons that house suspected terrorists. You can hardly blame them for being rough and gruff and showing temper.

    I am also not suggesting that we try to be as nicey-nicey as possible to see whether we can win over those who have already committed to thuggery and terrorism. The problem is that they are not the only people watching. There are a lot of ordinary people who have not traveled to the West and can only judge our character through images and reports. That many of those issuing the reports will labor to make the US look evil does not mean that we should be making it easy for them.*

    But, for heaven’s sake, neither should Newsweek. Eric and Rosemary, among many others, have given it the drubbing it deserves. A few months ago, a reader wrote to me, angrily but very civilly, to take me to task for having approvingly linked to a jokey post making fun of liberals who bitch about every aspect of our holding facilities that doesn’t compare favorably with the Royalton. I stand by that post, but his point was good, too: we know there’s been real malfeasance. How systemic it is, how the perpetrators are being dealt with, how further incidents are being prevented–these are all legitimate questions for citizens and the press.

    Does a report of what may have been a few isolated incidents of low-level personnel getting out of hand really warrant reporting, given the (now non-hypothetical) damage it can do? Of course, in order to recognize what’s unduly inflammatory, reporters would have to have a sense of the tremendous moral and emotional heft that religious symbolism has for many people. They can’t even do that for their own countrymen.

    * And specifically regarding the sexual-harassment angle…the reasons conservative Muslim governments keep women off the judicial bench and (sometimes out of the workplace entirely) are that women are seen as emotional and their presence seen as sexually destabilizing. Smearing prisoners with supposed menstrual blood or using other sexually-charged methods of interrogation reinforces that belief. It seems to me that women simply going about their duties with the same soldierly self-command as their male comrades would be much more likely to throw fanatical Muslim men off-balance.

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