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Informed Witness Vs. Ignoramus

By John Hickman

06/26/07 "
Tom Paine" --- - California 46th District Republican Dana Rohrabacher’s questioning of witnesses descended into a near-rant during an April 17, 2007 joint subcommittee hearing of the U.S. House Committee on Foreign Affairs. Although the subject of the hearing was extraordinary rendition Rohrabacher’s harangue illustrates the flawed thinking that has made the entire “war on terror” such a misguided enterprise. Apparently excited by the contrast between the Jack Baueresque posturing of witness Michael Scheuer, and the calm analytic presentation of witness Julianne Smith of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, the California congressman’s comments exposed not only a repulsive arrogance and a rather weak command of history and current affairs but also a tragically limited moral universe.

Rohrabacher’s arrogance is obvious from the insulting manner in which he questioned of Julianne Smith. In a clumsy attempt at making a special pleading argument he asked if she was married and had children. Only that it seems would permit one to understand what was at stake in counterterrorism. Comparing Scheuer to Smith he fulminated that, “our families mean something to us and, frankly, this gentleman is protecting our families.” The implication that Smith somehow could not understand or did not care about protecting the innocent was absurd and vile.

Rohrabacher’s defense of conducting extraordinary rendition was impressively misinformed. He asserted, by way of attacking the straw man of moral equivalency between American Revolutionaries and Islamist jihadists, that while it would have been possible to do so, no Patriot ever went to Britain to “bomb the Parliament.” Although it is true that there were no reported attempts to bomb Westminster during the American Revolution, at least one immigrant to our young republic did return to England to wage his own one-man terror campaign. James Aitken, a.k.a. John the Painter, attempted to burn the cities of Portsmouth and Bristol, both important to the Royal Navy, to support the American Revolution. Following his capture in 1777, Aitken was tried and convicted without benefit of legal counsel (shades of Guantanamo), executed by hanging and his body gibbeted.

Rohrabacher then used sarcasm to dismiss the victimization of innocents during extraordinary renditions as acceptable mistakes. “I guess Winston Churchill didn’t make any mistakes that resulted in some people’s deaths in World War II,” he said. One problem with sarcasm is that it is too often employed by the poorly informed. Churchill’s government did indeed make several egregious mistakes during the war. The decision to withdraw the British Expeditionary Force at Dunkirk, for example, not only opened the way for the German Wehrmacht to pour into northern France but also handed the German war machine a vast store of abandoned British munitions. The Dieppe raid and the defense of Singapore also stand out as examples of military incompetence. However Churchill’s government also made decisions with horrendous consequences that were hardly mistakes. The incendiary bombing of German cities by the Royal Air Force succeeded in killing hundreds of thousands of civilians who were its intended targets. And after the war his government showed unseemly enthusiasm in appeasing the Soviet Union by transferring custody to the Red Army of tens of thousands of luckless Eastern Europeans conscripted into the German Wehrmacht and later captured by the British. Those who weren’t executed as traitors found themselves in the Soviet Gulag.

The California congressman’s command of recent events is no better. At one point in the rant he stated that, “the prisoners in Guantanamo are not Afghanis, but they are foreign nationals who were arrested in Guantanamo.” The excited Rohrabacher probably intended to say “arrested in Afghanistan.” In fact, several hundred of the prisoners originally taken into custody in Afghanistan and transferred to Guantanamo in 2002 were Afghani nationals. Not finished with misinforming his listeners, Rohrabacher also claimed that, “Guantanamo has been inspected by Amnesty International and a plethora of human rights organizations and not found to be inhumane in its conditions.” Exactly the opposite conclusion is required if one reads the April 1, 2007 Amnesty International report Cruel and Inhuman: Conditions for Detainees at Guantanamo Bay.

An even more disturbing example of Rohrabacher’s ignorance was his claim that “there would be millions of Americans whose lives would be lost” if a “dirty bomb” exploded in a major city. Although a terrifying prospect the explosion of a dirty bomb would result in far fewer casualties than would the detonation of a nuclear bomb. As conceived, a dirty bomb uses conventional explosives to disperse radioactive materials rather than achieving nuclear fission. The ensuing panic and economic costs associated with long term declines in real property values would probably be its most important effects. Any member of Congress should know that. And Rohrabacher isn’t just any member of Congress. He sits on the House Committee on Foreign Relations.

This embarrassing display of rudeness and misinformation was accompanied by a expression of values that could only charitably described as parochial. “And what you are saying,” Rohrabacher addressed Scheuer, “is that your number one goal in life was to protect my children, protect the children perhaps of our friends in England, too, but first and foremost, to make sure that American kids and American people are safe.” This statement deserves reflection. What the Congressman has claimed is that public duty and moral regard depends on the nationality of innocents who are protected. In effect, the security of any randomly selected American deserves more concern than the life of any randomly selected Briton. Presumably then it would also deserve more concern than the life of any randomly selected Canadian, Mexican, German, Israeli, Lebanese or Syrian. If Rohrabacher is correct our value as human beings depends on the luck of citizenship. What makes that sort of valuation such a problem is that the next question to be answered is how much more valuable is the life of an American life compared with that of various sorts of foreigners? Is the life of an American perhaps worth 1.5 times as much that of a Briton? Merely to ask such questions is to recognize the fundamental moral problem. That moral regard should extend beyond one’s own offspring and beyond one’s own nationality is a conviction held by every civilized human being. That is why decent people all over the planet are troubled by the idea that government of the United States undertakes extraordinary renditions. Counterterrorism is not just about protecting Americans but is instead about protecting everyone who is threatened with the descent into savagery.

John Hickman is associate professor of government at Berry College. He has written for African Development Review, Political Science, Women & Politics, and many others.

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