Right-wing self-delusion

A senior editor at National Review manages to block out from his brain the network of U.S. secret prisons

Published June 23, 2010 6:24PM (EDT)

(updated below - Update II - Update III [Thurs.])

National Review's Jay Nordlinger cites a truly repellent (and false) comment made this week by Israeli Defense Minister Ehud Barak to Defense Secretary Robert Gates: "A million and a half people are living in Gaza, but only one of them is really in need of humanitarian aid," Barak said.  Nordlinger points out that Barak was referring to Israeli soldier Gilad Shalit, held hostage for years by Hamas, which refuses to permit the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) access to him.  After observing that neither "the Cuban dictatorship or Chinese dictatorship permit the Red Cross to see prisoners," Nordlinger then claims -- with the needy victimization that typifies the Right -- that "there'd be mass demonstrations in [Shalit's] behalf all over Europe, and on American streets, too" if "Shalit were other than Israeli."  In other words, Nordlinger believes that the Western World would never tolerate the denial of ICRC access to detainees except when the detainee is Israeli.

I'm asking this literally:  is Nordlinger ignorant of the fact that the United States of America denied ICRC access to non-Israeli prisoners for years during the prior administration?

The US has admitted for the first time that it has not given the Red Cross access to all detainees in its custody.

The state department's top legal adviser, John Bellinger, made the admission but gave no details about where such prisoners were held. . . . He stated that the group International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) had access to "absolutely everybody" at the prison camp in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, which holds suspects detained during the US war on terror. When asked by journalists if the organisation had access to everybody held in similar circumstances elsewhere, he said: "No".

That happened because, among other reasons, the U.S. maintained a network of CIA secret prisons -- black sites -- where detainees were barred from any and all contact with the outside world for months and even years, including international monitoring groups such as the ICRC.  Maybe Nordlinger has heard of someone named Dana Priest, who won the Pulitzer Prize in 2006 for revealing, in The Washington Post, the existence of those secret American prisons:

It is illegal for the government to hold prisoners in such isolation in secret prisons in the United States, which is why the CIA placed them overseas, according to several former and current intelligence officials and other U.S. government officials. Legal experts and intelligence officials said that the CIA's internment practices also would be considered illegal under the laws of several host countries, where detainees have rights to have a lawyer or to mount a defense against allegations of wrongdoing.

As Priest wrote, these detainees -- never charged, let alone convicted, of any crime -- "exist in complete isolation from the outside world.  Kept in dark, sometimes underground cells, they have no recognized legal rights, and no one outside the CIA is allowed to talk with or even see them, or to otherwise verify their well-being."  Even once those black sites were revealed by Priest, the Bush administration explicitly rejected the ICRC's request for access to those detainees (the ICRC was also long denied access to prisons in Iraq run by the Iraqi Government during the U.S. occupation).  And the BBC reported in April of this year that the U.S. continues to maintain a secret prison at Bagram where prisoners are apparently abused and denied ICRC access.  Could someone point me to the "mass demonstrations" that took place in Europe and the U.S. over any of these American secret prisons?

This raises an important and under-appreciated point.  Many Americans defend the U.S.'s conduct not because they support it, but because they're completely unaware of what those actions actually are.  Many of the people who support what they call the "enhanced interrogation" program really believe they're defending three instances of waterboarding rather than scores of detainee deaths, because they literally don't know it happened.  And here you have Nordlinger -- a Senior Editor of National Review -- claiming that denial of access to the ICRC is the hallmark of brutal tyrannies (it is), and arguing that a country could only get away with it if they do it to an Israeli, making clear that he is completely ignorant of the fact that his own Government did this for years (without, needless to say, prompting a peep of protest from his magazine), and reportedly continues to do it.  That the U.S. did this systematically just doesn't exist in his brain; he really believes it's something only China, Cuba and Hamas do.  They really do live in their own universe and just block out whatever facts they dislike while inventing the ones that make them feel good.


UPDATE:   Just to convey a sense for how much National Review polemicists care about detainees being denied ICRC access (when it's the U.S. doing the denying):  the only mention found in NR's archives of Dana Priest's revelation that the U.S. was maintaining a network of secret prisons with no ICRC monitoring was this one by Byron York, in which he suggested that, based on the Plame precedent, the persons responsible for the disclosure -- but not the ones denying the ICRC access to detainees -- should be prosecuted (h/t TS).  So it's not really a surprise that Nordlinger managed to remain completely ignorant of what the U.S. did for all those years, since his "political magazine" barely even mentioned it.

All of this is redolent of what George H.W. Bush said in 1988 when running for President, desperate to prove his manly bona fides, which were being widely questioned:  "I will never apologize for the United States of America, I don't care what the facts are."  Bush said that in response to being asked his reaction to the fact that a U.S. Naval warship had just blown an Iranian passenger jet out of the sky, killing all 300 civilians people aboard (h/t stacy,esq.).  That's the ethos of the Right:  when the U.S. does it, it's either intrinsically different or (as in Nordlinger's case) it doesn't exist.


UPDATE II:  A reader reminds me that the only other time I wrote about Nordlinger was back in September, 2009 when, amazingly, he essentially did the same exact thing:  he revealed a total ignorance of major scandals involving the Bush DOJ -- not the details of those scandals, but their very existence -- because those events contradicted his desired perceptions and were therefore just never acknowledged by his brain.  Mark Adomanis has a very amusing and insightful post on how Nordlinger's "thought process," on display here, epitomizes the essence of movement conservatism in the U.S.

All of this raises a tangentially related point:  I spent the first three years or so of my political writing focused on how extremist and odious America's Bush-supporting Right is (I even wrote three books with that as a central theme).  I don't write much about them these days -- largely because I'm much more interested in writing about the faction in power than out of power, and because there are countless Democratic blogs and other venues devoted to reflexively spouting the "GOP-is-Evil" talking points on a daily basis -- but it is worth being reminded now and then, with episodes like this one, exactly why the faction that still dominates the American Right is as loathsome and irrational as ever, if not more so.


UPDATE III:  If someone told me I had to select one paragraph to describe the crux of political disputes, I very well might choose this one from George Orwell's Notes on Nationalism (h/t Hume's Ghost):

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts.  A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage -- torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians -- which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side . . .  The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

Note how perfectly that last part describes what Nordlinger did here and what those like him do continuously.  Of course, Orwell's description applies (as he pointed out in the first paragraph of his essay) not only to nationalism but tribal identities of all types.  Speaking of which, Israel, throughout the 1980s and 1990s, imprisoned scores of Lebanese detainees without any access to the outside world (including the ICRC) and without even acknowledging to anyone that they were doing so.  I'm fairly certain that the Western World did not erupt in massive demonstrations any more than it did in response to the U.S.'s doing so.

By Glenn Greenwald

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