The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Friday, May 15, 2009

Cleaning Out the Fridge

Shutting the Door and Ignoring Prisoner Abuses Doesn’t Make Them Go Away or Protect Anybody

It was a refrigerator just like those in so many other countless office break rooms. However, the one in the AT&T Building in downtown San Jose California had suffered from neglect for a very long time and was consequently full of moldy, rotten food. One white-collar samaritan decided enough was enough. She removed the food to a conference room table and began scrubbing the fridge’s interior with a combination of cleaning chemicals she found under the sink.

Unfortunately, the odiferous blend of disinfectant and decay she sent wafting throughout the floor caused twenty-eight of her co-workers to suffer from nausea and vomiting. In the end, seven employees required hospitalization and a hazmat team disposed of the refrigerator.

The nameless aspiring factotum suffered no ill effects, despite her position at the heart of the stench, because severe allergies prevented her from smelling anything. While she doubtless raised some wrath among her co-workers, any anger toward her was ultimately misplaced.

The individual who finally opened the door and attempted to clean up the mess bears no culpability. This belongs to the dozens who knowingly left food in the fridge and then attempted to ignore the problem. Eventually, somebody was going to have to open the fridge, lest it contents bubble and ferment until they exploded in everyone’s face, causing even greater harm. It may seem harsh to dump all this on the hazmat team but that is the job of such groups.

President Obama stirred up the wrath of the ACLU and other progressives on Wednesday when he reversed course on his decision to release photos showing U.S. troops abusing prisoners. Obama said last month that he would not oppose a ruling by the Second Circuit Court of Appeals to release dozens of photos from military investigations of alleged misconduct by May 28, under the Freedom of Information Act.

Obama apparently changed his mind when General Ray Odierno, General David Petraeus, and General David McKiernan, all current or former senior commanders in Iraq and Afghanistan, begged him to do so. The generals feared release of the provocative photos could stoke anti-American sentiments by Muslims, thereby endangering U.S. soldiers serving in these parts of the world.

Outrage from the left attributes Obama’s turnaround to a variety of motivations. Many accuse him of buckling under pressure from former Vice-President Dick Cheney. Others believe he is taking a cowardly approach by shifting responsibility to the courts. Those with a more nuanced view question whether Obama merely wishes to avoid distribution of the photographs just before the President travels to Egypt for a major address to the Islamic community.

Taking Obama at his word, he is simply listening to his commanders in the fields and attempting to be responsive to them – something he vowed to do during the campaign. It is refreshing to see conservatives who expressed skepticism of his pledges at the time giving him credit for following them now.

Moreover, Obama is not refusing to release the photographs outright. Instead, he is asking permission for the government to appeal their case in court. It is possible he could still refuse to release the photos should the courts rule against him, although this seems unlikely given his approach to the matter so far.

In fact, if Obama has any hidden agenda with this seeming reversal it may be to demonstrate that his release of the photos is not inspired by callousness toward U.S. troops but rather regard for the Rule of Law. The main reason the Justice Department chose not to appeal previously was the emphatic nature of the Second Circuit’s decision against the former Bush Administration.

Secretary of Defense Robert Gates maintains the government has never argued for blocking the photos based on national security and troop safety. However, the court’s September 2008 ruling appears to address and reject this concern.

“It is plainly insufficient to claim that releasing documents could reasonably be expected to endanger some unspecified member of a group so vast as to encompass all United States troops, coalition forces, and civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan.”

In any case, we should hope that Obama ultimately will release the photos. Their suppression, while perhaps well intentioned, is ill advised.

“I want to emphasize that these photos that were requested in this case are not particularly sensational, especially when compared to the painful images that we remember from Abu Ghraib,” Obama said after announcing his decision. Still, he added, “Any abuse of detainees is unacceptable. It is against our values. It endangers our security. It will not be tolerated.”

The above is exactly backwards in justifying censorship of the photos. Refusing to release them, especially based on the argument that Muslim anger could endanger U.S. soldiers, fosters the perception that these images are more shocking and obscene than anything previously released and will only exacerbate Muslim unrest.

While some backlash will undoubtedly follow the photos release, we must remember it should be less intense because the photos will be less shocking. After all, it is no longer secret that such mistreatments occurred. It may well be that a knee-jerk rush to “protect the troops” is the very thing placing them in the greatest danger.

Answering his critics in today’s Washington Post, Charles Krauthammer makes a forceful argument that “ticking time bomb” scenarios genuinely exist in real life. He quotes John McCain as saying that in such scenarios you “do what you have to do” and damn the consequences.

Krauthammer is seeking a moral justification for torture and we will not attempt to argue that issue with him today. However, he is clearly mistaken if he limits all ticking time bombs to explosives planted by terrorists. There are political time bombs and this issue is a big one for the U.S. in regaining credibility with the rest of the world.

Much as we may wish to blame Obama for opening the door and letting out the stink, it is those who first authorized such practices and then dealt with possible repercussions by slamming shut the door and ignoring them that bear culpability. Better to open the door now and deal with any resulting nausea than let the offense continue to fester and rot.

It may seem harsh to dump all this on our soldiers stationed in the Arab/Islamic world but that is the job of this group. U.S. military personnel are in harm’s way in Afghanistan as they attempt putting down a resurgent Taliban as well as tracking down al-Qaida operatives. They also face these dangers because those previously in charge chose to slam the door and ignore problems.

If we condemn current leaders attempting to stand up and take responsibility of negligence because their actions could embarrass, discomfit, or even hurt us, then we are missing the point about what standing up and taking responsibility is really supposed to mean. Obama and the rest of us need to hold our noses and take responsibility for cleaning out our national fridge.

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