Monday, May 22, 2006

How Things Look

In several current debates, a disguised form of the argument “But it looks bad” has been surfacing. In the discussion of building a border fence, concerns have been raised about the “message” that it sends, or how sad it is that such a structure symbolizes our relationship with Mexico - thank you Senator Durbin. My worry is whether it will do any good. That seems to me more important than how it looks.

Over at even the more reasonable liberal blogs, the Gitmo detainees and the supposed secret prisons are cause celebre more for appearances than substantive evidence. They are held without trial, or as Pooh might say, The Wrong Sort Of Trial, or they are not allowed to speak to journalists at Gitmo, so naturally the assumption is we must be mistreating them. No, it’s worse than that. We must be torturing them. The secret prisons, if they exist at all, are “in countries which routinely use torture.” But that evades the question of whther they remain under American supervision, and whether they actually are being mistreated. The transfer may be simply a psychological ploy. The stories themselves may be simply a psychological ploy.

But the test as to whether this is torture is very simple. Offer the hypothetical reasonable man a choice. You can be detained by Americans in Romania for an indeterminate length of time or you can be thrown in a shredder. You can be sent to solitary confinement for trying to contact a visiting journalist or the women in your family can be raped in front of you. Gee, that’s an awful tough choice, right?

The lawyerly mind seems to consider not having a hearing or not being able to talk to a journalist to be among the worst of evils. I fully admit it looks bad. I willingly grant that various abuses could be disguised in these ways. US courts may rule that these were inappropriate interventions. It may even turn out detainees were mistreated, and that people should be punished for that. But it’s just not the same thing. How it looks is only a minor point. How it is is what’s important.

I saw a recent photo of George Bush. He looks stupid. The particular expression they caught makes him look fish-faced. This sort of thing apparently bothers some people no end. They feel badly represented to the world by such a figure. Well, get over it. It doesn’t matter.

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