Friday, June 03, 2005

To Compare or Not to Compare -- That Is the Question

Irene Khan of Amnesty International managed to cause a bit of a stir recently during the speech that she gave introducing AI's 2005 annual report. While summarizing the document's findings, she spent a moment discussing the United States' contribution to the universe of human rights abuses. As she did so, she made the following statement.
Guantanamo has become the gulag our times, entrenching the notion that people can be detained without any recourse to the law. [Emphasis added]
Predictably, the White House has retreated into denial mode. Scott McClellan responded by claiming that the report is "ridiculous and unsupported by the facts." Bush called the allegations "absurd." Why am I not surprised?

As this has been going on, another discussion has been brewing, centering on AI's use of the term "gulag." At Legal Fiction we have Publius arguing:
Ok - after giving it some thought, I must concede that the use of "gulag" is inappropriate…

The main difference is that the Soviets tortured and killed millions, while we torture and kill hundreds or perhaps thousands. Now, if you were a Kantian, that might not make a difference, morally speaking. But I'm not a Kantian, and I think that numbers matter. Killing millions is exponentially more heinous than killing hundreds - and that makes it different in kind.
In a similar vein, we have Eric Martin's $0.02.
…Amnesty International made a strategic blunder by evoking the Soviet-run network of prisons ranging throughout the "gulag" archipelago to describe the detention facility at Guantanamo. Yes, there are certain similarities in the sense that both are extra-judicial prison systems. There is at least the specter of indefinite detention without due process at Guantanamo (though the Supreme Court will eventually intercede to halt this in my opinion) and thus far Guantanamo, and other facilities, have been the sites of incidents of violence, torture and homicide delivered at the hands of US officials. But the difference in the magnitude of horrors at the Soviet helmed gulags (millions killed, millions more suffered heinous conditions and abuse that exceed most of the more damning reports from Guantanamo) makes the comparison so strained as to render it devoid of meaning - or so wanting in clarifications of nuance that it becomes an unwieldy analogy that requires extensive unpacking every time it is trotted out.
And, for flavor, here's Andrew Sullivan.
Some of the rhetoric in Amnesty International's report on U.S. detainment policies is indeed excessive. It is simply wrong on every level to equate the United States' policy of detention, abuse, torture and rendition of terror suspects with the Soviet Union's vast domestic prison system, designed to perpetuate an evil totalitarianism.
So, I think it's safe to say that AI isn't getting a pass on this language. But, I've got to admit, I'm starting to believe that this is all getting blown out of proportion. Was this comment really so great a sin?

As I see it, there are really two questions. First, was this a "strategic blunder"? Have they hurt their cause by using such inflammatory language? Second, is use of such inflammatory language inherently wrong?

Looking at our first question, I'm under the impression that the positive/negative outcome of the statement has been a wash. Using the term "gulag" certainly leaves AI open to accusations of hyperbole, which has allowed administration officials to once again shift focus away from their conduct and on to the conduct of the investigating agency. On the other hand, as Eric Martin says
…Amnesty did end up drawing the media's attention to a report on conditions at Guantanamo that would have otherwise gone unnoticed and ignored in favor of the ongoing Jackson trial, a runaway bride, and/or the child abduction/amber alert du jour.
Moreover, I doubt very much whether the "gulag" comment really played a decisive role in determining the administration's response. If they hadn't seized on this language (and assuming that the report would still have been news without it), they would have seized on some other aspect of the report in order to discredit it. This way, at least, the report is being mentioned during primetime news broadcasts. And this time, according to David Schraub, the administration hasn't been fully in control of the spin.
This is one of the few times that the Bush administration has really let a negative story about itself spin out of its control. I mean, you have Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld dragged into this, and I have to think their comments have given the story a renewed life it would not otherwise have. Furthermore, I don't think they are coming out the better in these exchanges--they sound bitter and in denial.
So, on the one hand AI opened itself up to the administration's preferred plan of attack, but it was merely a variation of the attack that would have been used anyway. On the other hand, people are actually talking about the report, no mean feat. Bonus points are added when Bush & Co. sound like they are "bitter and in denial." Could AI have achieved these positive goals without the negatives? Perhaps. But, I hardly think that the answer is clear. There may have been an opportunity cost for their use of this rhetoric, but I'm not willing to say that it was a net negative.

Then we get to the question of the appropriateness of the term. For me, this gets into the larger question of when, if ever, is it appropriate to make comparisons to some of the darker moments in human history. Are analogies built upon these events ever illuminating enough to warrant their use?

Obviously, the Soviet gulags and our system of extrajudicial detention differ greatly in many respects, especially with respect to magnitude. Over the years, millions were tortured and killed in the Soviet system, while most estimates place the toll for our system in the hundreds. Similarly, the extremes of the Soviet system undoubtedly make Guantánamo Bay look tame in comparison. Therefore, claiming that these two systems are indistinguishable from each other would be an excusably reckless and dishonest.

However, that isn't what Amnesty International did. They referred to Guantánamo as "the gulag of our times," which I understand as meaning "similar to," not "exactly like." And, you've got to admit, there are similarities. We have cast a wide net, ensnaring many who are guilty of nothing and who pose no threat. We hold these detainees incommunicado without due process. We engage in abusive interrogation techniques of dubious value, many of which directly violate both international and domestic law. In fact, the main distinction between our detention system and the Soviet gulags is one of degree. In most other respects, the comparison is a fair one.

Some might argue that the magnitude issue renders the comparison meaningless. Here, I couldn't disagree more. In fact, I would argue that it is important to make exactly these types of comparisons. Let's remember that the Soviet gulags didn't torture and kill a million people during their first week of operation. It took decades for them to accomplish this feat. Their crime was a product of both the system AND time. It therefore follows that any similarly constructed system could produce a similar result if it were allowed to persist over an equivalent period. Once you have all of the ingredients, all you have to do is wait.

And that's the point of making the comparison. It lets people know both the company we are keeping and the possible results of maintaining that affiliation. The hope is that people, once they realize the potential outcome, will demand that we change course long before the magnitude of our sins equal those of the Soviet Union, or of Nazi Germany, or of whomever we are being compared to. If someone had shamed these governments by comparing their actions to those of another ancestral perpetrator of evil, perhaps their atrocities would have been averted. Who knows?

There are, of course, lots of inappropriate comparisons being made these days. I'm not going to stand here and defend all of them. Each one has to be examined in context. What matters isn't the comparison itself, but the aspect being compared and whether or not that aspect is truly probative. Adolf Hitler and Martin Luther King Jr. were both powerful public speakers, however a comparison between the two would be greatly misleading. Their differences overwhelm their similarities, making the comparison useless.

But, there are definitely times when such comparisons have value. It can give you an idea about where you're headed and give you an opportunity to decide whether that's really where you want to go. It can serve as a wake-up call allowing you to avert disaster. Even if there is some blowback from your rhetoric, it can be worth it.

On balance, that's where I see Amnesty International's comment falling. It identifies accurate similarities between detention systems while foreshadowing the possible outcome of persisting along this path. It has both practical and rhetorical value. As such, I don't have a problem with it. I wouldn't overdo it, but an occasional reminder of our historical bedfellows goes a long way in informing the debate. When done in moderation, we should welcome it.
Weblog Commenting and Trackback by HaloScan.com