Attacks on civilians, torture and lawless detentions

Some further observations about the reaction to the Pew poll concerning American Muslims.

Published May 25, 2007 10:19AM (EDT)

Two somewhat related items of note:

(1) First is a follow up on the posts earlier this week regarding the new Pew poll on Muslim Americans and the pervasive hand-wringing that ensued. The same question which seemed to cause the most consternation this week -- whether one supports violent attacks in defense of Islam -- was asked recently, in a slightly different form, as part of two separate polls conducted by The University of Maryland's Program on International Public Attitudes, which, in total, surveyed the populations of six countries: the U.S. and five predominantly Muslim countries.

The results:

Among four key predominantly Muslim countries -- Iran, Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia -- the percentage which believes that there is never any justification for violent attacks on civilians is between 77-84%. By extremely stark contrast, the percentage of Americans who believe that such attacks are never justified is only 46%.

To the extent the poll questions differed, it was in the sense that Americans were asked whether they supported something even harsher than those in Pakistan, Egypt and Indonesia were asked about [i.e., "attacks intentionally aimed at civilians" versus "attacks on civilians" (which could imply unintentional civilian deaths)]. Yet the percentage of Americans categorically opposing such attacks was still substantially lower.

[In light of the substantial support for torture among American Christians, it would be instructive to see comparative polling data regarding support for torture among Muslims.]

As indicated earlier this week, the meaning and inferences which one can draw from all of this are certainly debatable. But whatever else might be true, it renders rather bizarre the intense reaction -- not just in pro-war, neoconservative circles, but from our shocked-and-appalled media figures as well -- to the discovery that a very small percentage of American Muslims can envision circumstances in which suicide bombs in defense of their religion might be justified.

Leave aside the question of whose political causes are just and whose are unjust, because it is irrelevant to the discrete issue at hand. It is simply a fact that Americans generally -- at least as much as any other country in the world -- believe in the justifiability of violent attacks on civilians in pursuit of political goals. That is how people like John Podhoretz can come right out and say things like this in The New York Post and have virtually none of his mainstream political comrades bat an eye:

What if the tactical mistake we made in Iraq was that we didn't kill enough Sunnis in the early going to intimidate them and make them so afraid of us they would go along with anything? Wasn't the survival of Sunni men between the ages of 15 and 35 the reason there was an insurgency and the basic cause of the sectarian violence now?

And others can say things like this. And given the vast and still-growing disparity in the views on the Iraq War between our political and media elite and the views of Americans generally, one could credibly argue that support for such attacks exists to a far greater degree among our political elite. Yet this week's discussion of the Pew findings seemed to be premised on the notion that a prohibition on violent attacks against civilians is a universally accepted moral principle in America which no civilized or decent person would possibly reject.

(2) On Tuesday's edition of Hardball with Chris Matthews, one of the guests was a Republican strategist and former spokesperson for Arnold Schwarzenegger -- Karen Hanretty. As one would expect, she spouted the standard GOP talking points: the war in Iraq is great, Democrats are harming themselves by opposing it, Democrats are interested only in political gain, etc. Yet in the midst of all that, the following exchange occurred:

MATTHEWS: Would you vote for Rudy?

HANRETTY: I do not know. I honestly don't know.

MATTHEWS: Why? You think there might be a problem with Rudy personally?

HANRETTY: No, it's not his personal life.

MATTHEWS: What is it you don't like about him?

HANRETTY: I question that he might be -- and I say this as a staunch conservative -- a little too authoritarian.

MATTHEWS: I like you.

HANRETTY: -- even for a hardcore GOP girl like me.

MATTHEWS: A little authoritarian, a little bit of the old problem we had in the 20th century kind of problem.


MATTHEWS: Yes, totalitarian. . . .She just said she has a little problem with Rudy being a little far over there, in terms of being Mr. Big, or being like big brother even.

[Jerry] BROWN: Well, they all have a little problem if you look at each one of them. It's just the person which --

MATTHEWS: That's a big problem.

One does not frequently hear rhetoric of this sort tossed around in mainstream political dialogue, certainly not from Republican strategists and power-worshipping Chris Matthews about the leading Republican presidential candidate.

But what is happening to the Republican party -- the transformation of its base from Falwell/Robertson social conservatism obsessed with abortion and gay rights into a macro version of the Little Green Footballs comment section, obsessed instead with, literally excited by, detaining and torturing people, maximizing government domestic surveillance, starting still new wars in the Middle East and being far more brutal with the current ones ("doing what needs to be done") -- is too extreme to ignore.

It is certainly the case that there is an orthodoxy of militarism to which major political figures in both parties feel compelled to pay homage notwithstanding the fact that such orthodoxies are opposed by large numbers of Americans (Chris Floyd regularly documents this dynamic as well as anyone). And any questioning of those orthodoxies single-handedly removes one from the mainstream (see e.g., Ron Paul and Mike Gravel). But what are emerging as the defining principles of the Republican Party go far beyond a mere belief that the U.S. should maintain global military hegemony in the Middle East and around the world.

The GOP debate in South Carolina two weeks ago was something of a watershed moment in American politics. It really was like watching a debate between Michelle Malkin, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Reynolds and Michael Savage -- with the LGF commenters as the audience, cheering most boisterously for the most extreme warmongering, pro-torture and pro-lawless-detention sentiments. It is one thing to encounter that level of extremism in the right-wing blogosphere or on talk radio. But to see that embraced so openly and so eagerly by virtually all of the GOP presidential candidates is rather staggering, and self-evidently meaningful.

In that debate, John McCain stood out as a bizarre exception, as the soft principled moderate, all because he opposes torture (even though he negotiated and voted for The Military Commissions Act). And McCain's anti-torture position actually offends a substantial portion of what has become the GOP base. Are there other Western countries where leading presidential candidates have run expressly on a platform of torturing people and putting them into beyond-the-reach-of-the-law detention camps with no charges of any kind?

And that was only the second debate, held many months before the first vote is counted. As those candidates become more eager to distinguish themselves among the base, those positions will become still more extreme. That candidates shape their views to attract the most ideological components of their party is not new, of course. But what the GOP base has become most assuredly is new -- at least by degree if not level -- and the implications of that merit a lot more discussion than we have had thus far. That Matthews-Hanretty exchange is an interesting start.

By Glenn Greenwald

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