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Gulag Rhetoric and Dostoevsky

Is it appropriate to use words like “gulag” when describing excesses and abuses of the the U.S. military machine? The Crooked Timber folks debate this.

Anne Appelbaum writes:

Even more broadly, Gulag has come to mean the Soviet repressive system itself, the set of procedures that prisoners once called the meat-grinder: the arrests, the interrogations, the transport in unheated cattle cars, the forced labor, the destruction of families, the years spent in exile, the early and unnecessary deaths.

One commenter said the point of comparison should be with the Soviet system after 2 or 3 years, not after 50 years, for example. But still, the similarities between the two system is the wide discretionary powers the state has asserted while closing down habeus corpus/methods of appeal. The word “gulag” represents the logical extreme of what happens when a state’s actions allows no redress. Invoking the extremist rhetoric allows the politician to neutralize the charge without actually answering anything. A commenter quotes Dostoevsky’s Idiot:

I hope, prince, that you are too progressive to deny this?

I deny nothing, but you must confess that your article

Is a bit thick, you mean? Well, in a way that is in the public interest; you will admit that yourself, and after all one cannot overlook a blatant fact. So much the worse for the guilty parties, but the public welfare must come before everything. As to certain inaccuracies and figures of speech, so to speak, you will also admit that the motive, aim, and intention, are the chief thing. It is a question, above all, of making a wholesome example; the individual case can be examined afterwards; and as to the stylewell, the thing was meant to be humorous, so to speak, and, after all, everybody writes like that; you must admit it yourself! Ha, ha!

What I find alarming is how complacent Americans have become that our democratic institutions could never go wrong. And how indignant they become when a critic suggests otherwise. Just yesterday for example, the US Senate suspended due process rights for Gitmo detainees. Now it’s true that these prisoners are not entitled to Geneva convention protections, and the constitution doesn’t guarantee them anything. On the other hand, it’s a matter of basic fairness that people should at least have the right to question the grounds for their detention. Many innocent people have been imprisoned for over 3 years (including 2 poets).

Here’s someone keeping a list of documented cases of torture by U.S. military personnel so far. As I see it, the fatal mistake was not that the excesses occurred but that Bush administration did nothing to fire the politicians ultimately accountable for them. Bush could have easily fired Rumsfeld in summer 2004, and nobody would have blinked an eye. Instead he chose to value personal loyalty over accountability.

Tom Regan from the Christian Science Monitor reports on whether the US used white phosphorus in Fallujah. If it is shown that white phosphorus was used for other than its intended purpose (and frankly, I’m going to give the military the benefit of the doubt here), and that US refused to sign a chemical weapon treaty forbidding, it would be a startling example of how US actions run counter to its intents.

It’s Veteran’s Day, and I don’t want these links and musings to imply that I don’t honor a soldier’s commitment to duty. But I have to wonder what these soldier’s are fighting for and whether our actions are defeating our original intentions.

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