Deliberate ambiguity

"You have the luxury of not knowing what I know. … You don't want the truth because deep down in places you don't talk about at parties, you want me on that wall, you need me on that wall."

The above is from the famous speech by Jack Nicholson's character in Aaron Sorkin's A Few Good Men. Nicholson's Col. Jessep was a "tough" guy in the sense of "tough" conveyed by the current euphemism for torture: "tough interrogation techniques," which is to say tough in the sense of "brutish, counterproductive and not too bright."

It's worth noting that "the wall" that Nicholson's Col. Jessep was defending was Guantanamo Bay, which means the truth that Jessep can't handle is this: Nobody needed him on that wall. Controlling that tiny slice of Cuba used to stand as the last line of defense between us and … well, between us and not controlling that tiny slice of Cuba. In any case, after decades of military service on "that wall," we were ultimately unable to defend Guantanamo from lawlessness and tyranny because we put it there ourselves.

All of which is to say that The Los Angeles Times was asking the right question yesterday in the editorial, "Do we use torture?" The answer to that question is not something that any American has the luxury of not knowing.

The Times notes that the Bush administration has produced "ambiguity about a subject that cries out for clarity." I think that ambiguity is deliberate. I figure on one end of the spectrum there are X-percent of us who are completely opposed to torture, and on the other end a similar percentage of us who have no qualms about it at all. The rest of that spectrum is a big chunk of people who don't approve of it, but don't want the responsibility of disapproving of it either. They prefer to have, as Col. Jessep put it, "the luxury of not knowing."

President Bush's deliberate ambiguity about torture is partly a matter of legal CYA. The Geneva Conventions are the law of the land — binding, American law — so he can't flout them openly. But this deliberate ambiguity is also a bargain struck with that middle swath of the spectrum. "We don't torture," Bush says, winking broadly and crossing his fingers, and that seems to be good enough for them. Maybe they don't fully believe it, but they want to believe it — or at least they want to live in a world in which they could fully believe it — so they go back to luxuriously not thinking about it.

The somewhat hopeful thing is this: I believe these folks in the middle can be persuaded to come over to our side — that if they can be made to acknowledge what it is they're trying not to know then they will come to oppose the perverse use of torture. I do not think they can be persuaded in the other direction. They may now be acting like the citizens of Sunnydale, desperately denying that the monsters are real, but they would never choose, instead, to become monsters themselves. Take away the deliberate ambiguity and Mitt Romney's despicable "double Guantanamo" nonsense won't produce much applause. (At least, I hope not.)

  • Bugmaster

    Sorry, opo, I’m a programmer, not a writer. I can write my posts in C, if you’d like, but beyound that, you’re going to have to make a better effort of listening.

  • damnedyankee

    (waits for the inevitable C joke…)

  • damnedyankee

    (waits for the inevitable C joke…)

  • pecunium

    Bugmaster: Allow me, as one who studied comm-theory, and makes my living by asking questions; and getting answers.
    None of us had an obligation to, “make a better effort of listening.”
    There’s an aphorism in comm-theory, “The meaning of the message is the message that’s received.”
    It’s incumbent on the speaker to make sure the audience understands what was meant.
    Why? Becuase the only controls on that sort of thing are those of the speaker.
    I can be crystal clear, to other people who’ve been in the Army, by saying, “Make sure you PMCS your POV, and don’t allow anything more than a Class 3 leak.”
    You aren’t likely to understand me, though I was clear as a bell.
    If, on the flip side, I said, “Before you take a long road trip, checking the belts and hoses of your engine is important, and anything more than a slight beading/drip of fluids ought to be repaired,” you will understand me.
    Both are the same.
    If I use the first, I’ll have to come back and say, “what I meant was.”
    If one gets onto more abstract things, then precision becomes even more important, and again, it’s the person who is making the argument who has the burden. It’s not my job, as the person to whom you are speaking, to expend energy to figure out what you mean to tell me. If you want me to know what you mean, say it plainly and clearly.
    Otherwise you’re going to spend more energy correcting the misunerstandings you’ve caused.
    Just sayin’.

  • pecunium

    Bugmaster: Allow me, as one who studied comm-theory, and makes my living by asking questions; and getting answers.
    None of us had an obligation to, “make a better effort of listening.”
    There’s an aphorism in comm-theory, “The meaning of the message is the message that’s received.”
    It’s incumbent on the speaker to make sure the audience understands what was meant.
    Why? Becuase the only controls on that sort of thing are those of the speaker.
    I can be crystal clear, to other people who’ve been in the Army, by saying, “Make sure you PMCS your POV, and don’t allow anything more than a Class 3 leak.”
    You aren’t likely to understand me, though I was clear as a bell.
    If, on the flip side, I said, “Before you take a long road trip, checking the belts and hoses of your engine is important, and anything more than a slight beading/drip of fluids ought to be repaired,” you will understand me.
    Both are the same.
    If I use the first, I’ll have to come back and say, “what I meant was.”
    If one gets onto more abstract things, then precision becomes even more important, and again, it’s the person who is making the argument who has the burden. It’s not my job, as the person to whom you are speaking, to expend energy to figure out what you mean to tell me. If you want me to know what you mean, say it plainly and clearly.
    Otherwise you’re going to spend more energy correcting the misunerstandings you’ve caused.
    Just sayin’.

  • 85% Duane

    Sorry, opo, I’m a programmer, not a writer. I can write my posts in C, if you’d like, but beyound that, you’re going to have to make a better effort of listening.
    Nevermind. I’m losing the will to be mean. Must.. fight..

  • 85% Duane

    Sorry, opo, I’m a programmer, not a writer. I can write my posts in C, if you’d like, but beyound that, you’re going to have to make a better effort of listening.
    Nevermind. I’m losing the will to be mean. Must.. fight..

  • Jesurgislac

    Bugmaster: I can write my posts in C, if you’d like
    //responding in C++
    #include
    using namespace std;
    int main ()
    {
    count << "O say can you C++";
    return 0;
    }

  • Jesurgislac

    Bugmaster: I can write my posts in C, if you’d like
    //responding in C++
    #include
    using namespace std;
    int main ()
    {
    count << "O say can you C++";
    return 0;
    }

  • Jesurgislac

    debug:
    #include snark

  • Jesurgislac

    debug:
    #include snark

  • the opoponax

    it’s not a matter of listening, bugmaster. most regular commenters here don’t have nearly the problems you have with saying something and then it turns out “actually, what i really meant was…” especially when confronted about the ridiculousness of an assertion.
    just learn to cop to being wrong sometimes, or to apologize for saying something you shouldn’t have. it’s simple, really, and has nothing to do with your quality as a writer. your posts are very clear to read, in general. the problem is substance, not style.

  • the opoponax

    it’s not a matter of listening, bugmaster. most regular commenters here don’t have nearly the problems you have with saying something and then it turns out “actually, what i really meant was…” especially when confronted about the ridiculousness of an assertion.
    just learn to cop to being wrong sometimes, or to apologize for saying something you shouldn’t have. it’s simple, really, and has nothing to do with your quality as a writer. your posts are very clear to read, in general. the problem is substance, not style.

  • Bugmaster

    Well, I am making a stronger effort to clarify myself, nowadays. For example, I added a note to my post above: NOTE: this is an analogy, I’m not saying that anyone literally believes that $people1 are toxic or radioactive.I added it specifically for opoponax, because, as I was finishing up the main paragraph, I immediately foresaw her next post: “OMG Bugmaster thinks brown people are radioactive !”. At times, though, I still feel like I shouldn’t have to go to such great lengths.

  • Bugmaster

    Well, I am making a stronger effort to clarify myself, nowadays. For example, I added a note to my post above: NOTE: this is an analogy, I’m not saying that anyone literally believes that $people1 are toxic or radioactive.I added it specifically for opoponax, because, as I was finishing up the main paragraph, I immediately foresaw her next post: “OMG Bugmaster thinks brown people are radioactive !”. At times, though, I still feel like I shouldn’t have to go to such great lengths.

  • bulbul

    Jeff,
    I believed that Sein Fein was serious about negotiating when they started dis-arming the IRA, and cracking down on splinter cells. Hamas/Fatah/the PLO/KAOS/THRUSH needs to do the same — crack down hard on Islamic Jihad and other splinter groups.
    Great analogy, I’ve always thought that the Irish troubles were the best model for this mess. Unfortunately, what is now going on in Gaza and West Bank is that instead of trying to support the legitimate government in cracking down on the rogues, Israel is basically cheering everyone on to fight among themselves. That’ll work out,
    aunursa,
    a) that quote you provided is from the Preamble and it’s a quote by Hasan al-Banna. In other words, it’s fancy rhetoric, not a declaration of principles by Hamas. These are right below.
    b)The international demand is not that Hamas must recognize Israel
    No. The international demand on all Palestinian factions has always been to recognize th existence of Israel period. Before Oslo, Fatah and all other groups eventually united in PLO refused to even admit that there was any political there in what they called the occupied lands. Oslo changed all that, but not even the suddenly good Fatah recognizes the right of Israel to exist.
    The demand is that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist
    See, that’s exactly what I’m talking about. Moving the goalposts.
    In accordance with Islamic law
    Oh please, like you know shit about Islamic law. Next you’ll quote the principle of taqqiya, which supposedly allows Muslims to lie and cheat whenever dealing unbelievers.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    As is often the case, commentary at Making Light is instructive:
    “1. When writing doesn’t work, the writer is assumed to be the guilty party.”
    & etc.

  • Nicole J. LeBoeuf-Little

    As is often the case, commentary at Making Light is instructive:
    “1. When writing doesn’t work, the writer is assumed to be the guilty party.”
    & etc.

  • Bugmaster

    Ok, I admit it. I was wrong to suggest that all brown people are radioactive. Studies have shown that, while there’s a distribution of various levels of radioactivity among all humans, their ethnic group does not have a significant effect on this distribution.
    I do, however, stand by my statement that the current differences between our country and Iraq make the approach of building infrastructure in order to ensure peace impractical. While infrastructure is crucial, and must be built, it will not work as a primary solution to civil war (or “sectarian conflict”, if you prefer) in this case. If your only plan is, “let’s build things, see what happens”, what will happen is that your buildings will be blown up.
    I’d also argue that civil wars — especially civil wars in a population where the threshold for acceptable violence is lowered — are not analogous to more conventional conflicts, when a standing army from country A defeats country B and occupies their city. In this case, only the armies of countries A and B engage in any significant combat, and they’re doing what they were trained to do. In case of “sectarian violence”, everyone is fighting everyone, in the most violent way they can manage. An army is often concerned with capturing critical positions and maintaining important installations (such as, say, power plants or oil rigs); in a civil war, the fighters are more concerned with eradicating their enemies, no matter what the cost.
    Note, again, that this is a matter of history, culture, and circumstances, not race. If you are raised on an idea that putting your enemies to death is a very good thing, then it’s easier to pick up a gun and start executing your enemies. But I am not a psychologist, so I admit I could be totally off-base on this point.

  • Bugmaster

    Ok, I admit it. I was wrong to suggest that all brown people are radioactive. Studies have shown that, while there’s a distribution of various levels of radioactivity among all humans, their ethnic group does not have a significant effect on this distribution.
    I do, however, stand by my statement that the current differences between our country and Iraq make the approach of building infrastructure in order to ensure peace impractical. While infrastructure is crucial, and must be built, it will not work as a primary solution to civil war (or “sectarian conflict”, if you prefer) in this case. If your only plan is, “let’s build things, see what happens”, what will happen is that your buildings will be blown up.
    I’d also argue that civil wars — especially civil wars in a population where the threshold for acceptable violence is lowered — are not analogous to more conventional conflicts, when a standing army from country A defeats country B and occupies their city. In this case, only the armies of countries A and B engage in any significant combat, and they’re doing what they were trained to do. In case of “sectarian violence”, everyone is fighting everyone, in the most violent way they can manage. An army is often concerned with capturing critical positions and maintaining important installations (such as, say, power plants or oil rigs); in a civil war, the fighters are more concerned with eradicating their enemies, no matter what the cost.
    Note, again, that this is a matter of history, culture, and circumstances, not race. If you are raised on an idea that putting your enemies to death is a very good thing, then it’s easier to pick up a gun and start executing your enemies. But I am not a psychologist, so I admit I could be totally off-base on this point.

  • Geds

    If you are raised on an idea that putting your enemies to death is a very good thing, then it’s easier to pick up a gun and start executing your enemies. But I am not a psychologist, so I admit I could be totally off-base on this point.
    There probably is something to that.
    I’ve noticed, to run a parallel thought, that sexually repressed groups or societies tend to have incredibly screwed up views of sex, sexuality and overly bizarre fantasies about what is or is not appropriate. To flesh that thought out, I think the issue of whether or not you’re going to use violence to solve problems also strongly depends on whether the anti-violence ideals are internal convictions or external impositions.
    (It might seem odd to draw that parallel, but sex and death are often intertwined concepts…)
    At the very least, though, I second the idea that it’s about history, culture, and circumstance, not race.

  • Geds

    If you are raised on an idea that putting your enemies to death is a very good thing, then it’s easier to pick up a gun and start executing your enemies. But I am not a psychologist, so I admit I could be totally off-base on this point.
    There probably is something to that.
    I’ve noticed, to run a parallel thought, that sexually repressed groups or societies tend to have incredibly screwed up views of sex, sexuality and overly bizarre fantasies about what is or is not appropriate. To flesh that thought out, I think the issue of whether or not you’re going to use violence to solve problems also strongly depends on whether the anti-violence ideals are internal convictions or external impositions.
    (It might seem odd to draw that parallel, but sex and death are often intertwined concepts…)
    At the very least, though, I second the idea that it’s about history, culture, and circumstance, not race.

  • Jeff

    Unfortunately, what is now going on in Gaza and West Bank is that instead of trying to support the legitimate government in cracking down on the rogues, Israel is basically cheering everyone on to fight among themselves. That’ll work out (Emphasis mine)
    Yes, but what is the “legitimate government”? Fatah, which is corrupt? Or Hamas, which is firing rockets and aiding suicide bombers? Is there any chance that the elections came as a wake-up call to Fatah to get its house in order? (Based on reports that higher-level officials told the soldiers to fight to the last man, then booked out of Gaza, it would seem not.)
    Consider South Africa. What worked was for the White government to negotiate with the Nelson Mandela side of the ANC, while both sides held the Winnie Mandela side at arm’s length. Subtituting Hamas for Winnie and Fatah for Nelson, does this work in ANY way as an analogy?

  • Jeff

    Unfortunately, what is now going on in Gaza and West Bank is that instead of trying to support the legitimate government in cracking down on the rogues, Israel is basically cheering everyone on to fight among themselves. That’ll work out (Emphasis mine)
    Yes, but what is the “legitimate government”? Fatah, which is corrupt? Or Hamas, which is firing rockets and aiding suicide bombers? Is there any chance that the elections came as a wake-up call to Fatah to get its house in order? (Based on reports that higher-level officials told the soldiers to fight to the last man, then booked out of Gaza, it would seem not.)
    Consider South Africa. What worked was for the White government to negotiate with the Nelson Mandela side of the ANC, while both sides held the Winnie Mandela side at arm’s length. Subtituting Hamas for Winnie and Fatah for Nelson, does this work in ANY way as an analogy?

  • aunursa

    bulbul,
    a) Dismissing it as fancy rhetoric doesn’t change the fact that Hamas acknowledged in its founding document the existence of Israel. I am not aware of any statement by a Hamas leader suggesting that (a) Israel does not exist or that (b) a raison d’être of Hamsas is anything other than Israel’s destruction and replacement by an Islamic theocracy. Can you can provide such a statement?
    b) I need but one example to refute your claim. The 2003 Roadmap to Peace — endorsed by the UN, the USA, Russia, and the EU — states “PHASE I: Ending Terror and Violence, Normalizing Palestinian Life, and Building Palestinian Institutions. Palestinian leadership issues unequivocal statement reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate end to all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere
    (c) (Moving the goalposts) See (b) above.
    (d) (Islamic law) Please don’t take my word for it. Robert Spencer, director of JihadWatch.org, has written seven books, ten monographs, and well over two hundred articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism. He has studied Islam for the past 27 years. He does know something about Islamic law.
    Robert Spencer on Nov 1, 2006: “[A]ccording to traditional Islamic law, which there is every indication that [Palestinian PM] Ahmed Yousef takes very seriously, a hudna can only be concluded “if Muslims are weak” (‘Umdat al-Salik, o9.16), so that they have time to gather strength to fight again more effectively. In other words, there is just no chance that the “lasting peace” of which Yousef speaks will be concluded during the period of any such hudna as he proposes.”
    Don’t take his word for it either. Magdi Allam, an Egyptian born Italian journalist who writes frequently about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world, agrees: “What does a hudna mean? From an Islamic point of view, the hudna only means a temporary cessation of war activities. It is based on the Hudaibiyah example, when the Prophet Muhammed preferred not to enter Mecca. He waited for one year to prepare new forces to invade Mecca and occupy it. This hudna does not mean recognition of the other side and its right to exist. It only means winning some time to prepare for achieving what they really want.”

  • aunursa

    bulbul,
    a) Dismissing it as fancy rhetoric doesn’t change the fact that Hamas acknowledged in its founding document the existence of Israel. I am not aware of any statement by a Hamas leader suggesting that (a) Israel does not exist or that (b) a raison d’être of Hamsas is anything other than Israel’s destruction and replacement by an Islamic theocracy. Can you can provide such a statement?
    b) I need but one example to refute your claim. The 2003 Roadmap to Peace — endorsed by the UN, the USA, Russia, and the EU — states “PHASE I: Ending Terror and Violence, Normalizing Palestinian Life, and Building Palestinian Institutions. Palestinian leadership issues unequivocal statement reiterating Israel’s right to exist in peace and security and calling for an immediate end to all acts of violence against Israelis anywhere
    (c) (Moving the goalposts) See (b) above.
    (d) (Islamic law) Please don’t take my word for it. Robert Spencer, director of JihadWatch.org, has written seven books, ten monographs, and well over two hundred articles about jihad and Islamic terrorism. He has studied Islam for the past 27 years. He does know something about Islamic law.
    Robert Spencer on Nov 1, 2006: “[A]ccording to traditional Islamic law, which there is every indication that [Palestinian PM] Ahmed Yousef takes very seriously, a hudna can only be concluded “if Muslims are weak” (‘Umdat al-Salik, o9.16), so that they have time to gather strength to fight again more effectively. In other words, there is just no chance that the “lasting peace” of which Yousef speaks will be concluded during the period of any such hudna as he proposes.”
    Don’t take his word for it either. Magdi Allam, an Egyptian born Italian journalist who writes frequently about the relationship between the West and the Islamic world, agrees: “What does a hudna mean? From an Islamic point of view, the hudna only means a temporary cessation of war activities. It is based on the Hudaibiyah example, when the Prophet Muhammed preferred not to enter Mecca. He waited for one year to prepare new forces to invade Mecca and occupy it. This hudna does not mean recognition of the other side and its right to exist. It only means winning some time to prepare for achieving what they really want.”

  • aunursa

    bulbul,
    Other documents that refute your claim that “[t]he international demand on all Palestinian factions has always been to recognize th existence of Israel period” rather than “Israel’s right to exist” include:
    UNSC resolution 242: “Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”
    Letters of recognition — dated September 9, 1993 — considered the preamble to the Oslo Accords: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security. The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.”
    Recent statements by American and British leaders only reaffirm this prerequisite the international community requires of the Palestinian leadership:
    Statement by US President (May 23, 2006): The United States and the international community have made clear that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, must abandon terror, and must accept all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist and who use terror to attack its population.
    Statements by US Secretary of State and British Prime Minister (February 21, 2007): [Condoleeza] Rice reiterated the Quartet’s firm insistence that the PA government acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. “How can it be,” said Rice, “that you have talks about peace when one party will not recognize the other party’s right to exist?”
    While affirming his belief in a “two-state solution,” [Tony] Blair questioned how it could become reality without accepting the other nation’s right to exist. “It is hard to see how you can have this unless people accept the right of each state to exist,” Blair said.

  • aunursa

    bulbul,
    Other documents that refute your claim that “[t]he international demand on all Palestinian factions has always been to recognize th existence of Israel period” rather than “Israel’s right to exist” include:
    UNSC resolution 242: “Termination of all claims or states of belligerency and respect for and acknowledgement of the sovereignty, territorial integrity and political independence of every State in the area and their right to live in peace within secure and recognized boundaries free from threats or acts of force”
    Letters of recognition — dated September 9, 1993 — considered the preamble to the Oslo Accords: “The PLO recognizes the right of the State of Israel to exist in peace and security. The PLO accepts United Nations Security Council Resolutions 242 and 338.”
    Recent statements by American and British leaders only reaffirm this prerequisite the international community requires of the Palestinian leadership:
    Statement by US President (May 23, 2006): The United States and the international community have made clear that Hamas must recognize Israel’s right to exist, must abandon terror, and must accept all previous agreements between the Palestinian Authority and Israel. No country can be expected to make peace with those who deny its right to exist and who use terror to attack its population.
    Statements by US Secretary of State and British Prime Minister (February 21, 2007): [Condoleeza] Rice reiterated the Quartet’s firm insistence that the PA government acknowledge Israel’s right to exist. “How can it be,” said Rice, “that you have talks about peace when one party will not recognize the other party’s right to exist?”
    While affirming his belief in a “two-state solution,” [Tony] Blair questioned how it could become reality without accepting the other nation’s right to exist. “It is hard to see how you can have this unless people accept the right of each state to exist,” Blair said.

  • aunursa

    Correction to my penultimate post above: Ahmed Yousef was a senior advisor to (then) Palestinian PM Ismail Haniya.

  • aunursa

    Correction to my penultimate post above: Ahmed Yousef was a senior advisor to (then) Palestinian PM Ismail Haniya.

  • Jeff

    From Anonymous Liberal via Obsidian Wings:
    [Aug. 1, 2002]: Yoo said for the first time in an interview that he verbally warned lawyers for the president, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that it would be dangerous as a matter of policy to permit military interrogators to use the harshest techniques, because the armed services, vastly larger than the CIA, could overuse the tools or exceed the limits.
    The “few bad apples” referred to by Rumsfield were Cheney, Yoo, Bush and himself, it seems. What a shock!

  • Jeff

    From Anonymous Liberal via Obsidian Wings:
    [Aug. 1, 2002]: Yoo said for the first time in an interview that he verbally warned lawyers for the president, Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld that it would be dangerous as a matter of policy to permit military interrogators to use the harshest techniques, because the armed services, vastly larger than the CIA, could overuse the tools or exceed the limits.
    The “few bad apples” referred to by Rumsfield were Cheney, Yoo, Bush and himself, it seems. What a shock!

  • Tracy Lightcap

    Thought you might find this interesting, Fred. It’s a big paper I finished a little while ago. No need to read the whole thing; just scroll down to Table 1. That’s the comparison of techniques Solzhenitsyn listed as used by the NKVD in ’37-38 with the techniques we used from ’02-05(?). I was pretty careful about what I included; see appendix 1. There’s a 69% agreement rate between the lists. See:
    http://www.lagrange.edu/resources/pdf/tlightcap/LightcapSPSA.pdf
    Hope this isn’t too discouraging. You are fighting the good fight here.

  • Tracy Lightcap

    Thought you might find this interesting, Fred. It’s a big paper I finished a little while ago. No need to read the whole thing; just scroll down to Table 1. That’s the comparison of techniques Solzhenitsyn listed as used by the NKVD in ’37-38 with the techniques we used from ’02-05(?). I was pretty careful about what I included; see appendix 1. There’s a 69% agreement rate between the lists. See:
    http://www.lagrange.edu/resources/pdf/tlightcap/LightcapSPSA.pdf
    Hope this isn’t too discouraging. You are fighting the good fight here.


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