Now the Sirens have a still more fatal weapon than their song, namely their silence…Someone might possibly have escaped from their singing; but from their silence, certainly never.
—Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes
Critics of the U.S. policy towards Terror War detainees have been searching in vain lately for the appropriate language with which to express their concerns. First there was Amnesty International’s infamous report that contained this reprehensible comparison: “The detention facility at Guantanamo Bay has become the gulag of our times, entrenching the practice of arbitrary and indefinite detention in violation of international law” (emphasis added).
Then there were Illinois Senator Dick Durbin’s comments on the Senate floor after reading a memo prepared by an FBI agent detailing what he saw at Guantanamo:
If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags or some mad regime—Pol Pot or others—that had no concern for human beings.
These two quotes have something in common: they both have a kernel of validity that is shrouded behind a ghastly comparison. The crux of the Amnesty International argument is the “arbitrary and indefinite detention,” but it is the glib, insulting comparison to the Soviet gulags—forced labor camps where millions languished and died—that commands the attention.
Senator Durbin intends to make a valid point as well. It can basically be boiled down to this: There are things going on a Guantanamo that most Americans would consider to be inconsistent with our sense of justice and the moral framework upon which our country was based. But, as with Amnesty, his message was overwhelmed by his unfortunate references to Nazis, gulags and the Cambodian genocide. (On a side note, what Amnesty said was far worse than what Durbin said because their’s was an actual comparison of the entire camp to a gulag while Durbin took a single instance of abuse and likened it to a single generic instance of abuse in a repressive system—a thin but critical distinction.)
In both cases, defenders of the Bush administration’s policy toward detainees were able to deflect attention away from the real issues by screaming bloody murder about the ill-conceived comparisons to Nazis and the Soviet gulag system. And there’s no reason they shouldn’t have been incensed by these lazy comparisons. You would think that the Democrats and those on the Left would learn their lesson and stop blundering into giving the Republicans the rhetorical high road. By doing so, they allow the other side to steal that sense of outrage that motivated the criticisms in the first place.
A new report, co-sponsored by the ACLU and Human Rights Watch, hits a little closer to the mark with its metaphor. While not specifically about Guantanamo, the report focuses on many of the same issues of prisoners being held indefinitely without trial. Rather than go straight for the totalitarian touchstone, however, the writers of the report chose a safer alternative, referring instead to “a Kafkaesque world of indefinite detention.” By evoking an atmosphere of absurdity commingled with the depravations of unaccountable power, but without crossing the line into overblown accusations of pure evil, they have done one better than Amnesty International and Dick Durbin.
I expect there will be howls of outrage at this latest comparison—mostly from people who have never read Kafka—but this will probably come from a segment of the population and leadership who will protest comparing the conditions of U.S. terror prisons to anything other than pampered luxury.
The comparison is not, by any means, a perfect one. In The Trial, for example, Joseph K. was arrested for no reason at all (this is not to say that all prisoners being held by the U.S. are automatically guilty, but to point out that, unlike in Kafka, there is an overlaying situation that might warrant the arrests), and he had no ACLU or Human Rights Watch to argue his case for him.
All of this does raise a basic question: why resort to metaphor and comparison at all? In “Politics and the English Language,” George Orwell warns against euphemism and bad metaphor in political writing, noting that they often attempt to conceal bad faith. “The great enemy of clear language,” he writes, “is insincerity.” Another enemy is intellectual laziness. The parallels drawn by Amnesty and Durbin too easily open them up to charges of the former.
In the present situation, sincerity and good faith are desperately needed. Why resort to a bogus rhetorical flourish when the unvarnished truth is compelling enough? Don’t tell us what it’s like, tell us what it is.
Resorting to comparisons and alleged historical parallels only invites a literal refutation of the specifics of the comparison. It draws the eye away from the actual argument and creates the impression that if the comparison is bad, so then is the argument in general. Guantanamo is not actually like a Soviet gulag, so there must be nothing wrong at all, right?
What is needed is more argument and less rhetoric. When the people making charges are calling for a more open, more straightforward approach to detention, it is particularly important for their arguments to be straightforward as well.
However much people like Karl Rove would like you to believe it, the issues brought up by U.S. detention policies are not Left/Right issues. They are basic questions about how we can behave as a nation and still consider ourselves to be civilized.
It is through unaccountability—through silence—that the current administration is able to subvert the normal standards of American justice; and the critics of the administration enable this silence with their boneheaded hyperbole and sanctimony, allowing the issues to be sidelined by bickering and name-calling.
No one is suggesting that all terror detainees simply be released. We need to have faith in our own system and the ideals that buttress it. There’s no saying what the U.S. detainees are guilty of, and that seems to be the way the Bush administration wants it. Part of the problem rests in our government’s unwillingness to find out in the only way that is acceptable to our standards of justice: end the silence—bring charges and have trials. Without this, Joseph K.’s rebuke becomes more tenable: “The guilt lies with the organization. It is the high officials who are guilty.”