A tortured interpretation

July 4, 2008 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Terrorism | 1 Comment
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Michael Otterman: After having been waterboarded, Christopher Hitchens recognises that it is torture. But still he defends its use:

Still, Hitchens cannot escape the grip of American exceptionalism that has so permeated his work since 9/11. “Any call to indict the United States for torture is … a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down,” he huffs.

For Hitchens, in America’s pitched battle with “tormentors and murderers”, the ends justify the means. I disagree. Communist techniques hinged on the infliction of pain elicit bad intelligence and helps fan the flames of hatred against the US. In the case of the “water treatment”, poor means corrupt good ends.

One gets the feeling when reading this that Otterman either stopped reading the Vanity Fair article about two thirds of the way through, doesn’t understand some of the big words or is quite wilfully misinterpreting his views. True, Hitchens does offer one argument in mitigation of waterboarding and chides those who claim there is an equivalence between this and the depravities practiced by terrorists (Waterboard is pretty tame, for instance, when compared to beheading).

But then goes on he defer completely to the views of Malcolm Nance, an counter-terrorism expert, who states that the information gathered through waterboarding is unlikely to be accurate, puts captured American prisoners at risk of similar treatment (surely a national security risk?) and opens the door for far worse torture treatments to be used in the future.

Otterman misrepresents Hitchens by bizarrely claiming he is so in thrall to American exceptionalism that he can excuse waterboarding. In fact, he argues the opposite; that waterboarding not only damages America’s world standing, but compromises its ability to fight terrorism. To believe in American exceptionalism, you need to be opposed to torture:

One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

I don’t know whether Otterman was just being sloppy or disengenuous, but either way he is madly, badly wrong

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  1. […] 4, 2008 by Neil FAO Michael Otterman: This is how you criticise Hitchens’ little waterboarding experiment: Of course if Hitchens […]

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