Saturday, October 27, 2007

Assessing 'Truthiness'

This comment came in last night and set off a chain of thoughts, which I'll lay out in mishmash fashion below:

"The problem with Provance is that he's a fraud. He only became a "whistleblower" after MG Fay threatened him for not speaking out earlier!!!!! The entire basis for his story is a lie coupled with the fact that he's was an incompetent Soldier shuffled from job to job."
Not to put the commenter on the spot... but this comment was in response to the post in which I quoted from Samuel Provance's Congressional testimony. It's interesting insofar as it illustrates one thread of discourse around "whistleblower" status: that soldiers who go public with stories of prisoner abuse are frequently called out as frauds or liars or bad soldiers. Which, of course, happens to whistleblowers in most settings.

Provance may or may not be a bad soldier. I don't know what that entails, never having been in the military. But I doubt his stories are fraudulent; there are plenty of similar accounts in the government's own documentation. Go read the 13 DoD investigations and you'll see what I mean - Slate has summaries of a handful of them.

The subtler point here is the difficulty of judging TRUTH about interrogation and torture; specifically, the basis on which we assess the credibility of investigations and reports about torture and prisoner abuse. I bet there are plenty of people who think that Provance - as an outsider and critic of DoD policies - is "more" credible than the 13 DoD investigations the country has paid for. The arguments against DoD official credibility might go like this: the DoD can control what's been issued; the investigations didn't go high enough in the chain of command; institutional insiders conducted the investigations, etc., etc. In that frame, a lone wolf like Provance, or Saar, or Lagouranis - people who allegedly don't fit in with the military - could be perceived as more, not less, credible than the "good" soldiers who do fit in with military culture.

I do think it's possible to get to the 'facts' about human rights abuses based on repeated and well-correlated observations from agencies like the International Committee of the Red Cross (whose 2004 report was leaked to the public), or through the Fay-Jones Report, but teasing apart the conditions and motivations that contribute to prisoner abuse is an even more complicated project. For multiple DoD investigators, the problem is a failure to follow doctrine. For psychologists, torture is something that humans do to each other with remarkable ease. For lawyers, the door to torture opens when legal memos suspending basic Constitutional rights are issued from on high. For anthropologists, there's a good dose of racism, coupled with the emergence of what some of us might consider "culturally-informed" interrogation techniques that are humiliating and abusive enough to constitute torture. There are political and ideological threads here as well - for example, the comment I've quoted above indicates the existence of a parallel discourse around interrogation policies, from people within the military who react to public confessionals like those of Lagouranis and Saar, or whistleblowers like Provance, quite angrily.

All of these are "true," but none is entirely necessary nor sufficient to explain torture, abuse, interrogation, unfair imprisonment, or the whole ethical, legal, moral, political, and social mess that is represented by places like Guantanamo - or, for that matter, by organizations like Al-Qaeda that engage in their own horrific processes of dehumanization.

Just a few random observations on a Saturday. Time to walk the dogs.

1 comment:

Alex said...

why aren't you posting anymore ? this is one of the most interesting blogs i've come across in a while.