28 February 2010

Their Criminals, and Ours

"China has no 'dissidents' . . . There is only the difference
criminals and those who are not criminals."
~ Ma Zhaoxu, Spokesman Chinese foreign Ministry

This is a remark, reported here at The Guardian, by a Chinese government official commenting on the imprisonment of Liu Xiaobo. It might seem comical to hear regime mouthpieces, with a straight face, parsing words in hopes of rationalizing their oppressive actions. But, as I have noted here repeatedly, it makes a difference. It makes a difference to individuals like Liu Xiaobo. It has consequences for the debasement of language and thereby of politics. And it does not, of course, happen only in those despicable far away authoritarian places like China. After all, just this week David Margolis, an official at the U.S. Justice Department, engaged in the very same practice. He announced that when John Yoo and Jay Bybee flouted - systematically and knowingly - domestic and international law in their quest to rationalize the torture of people being held in U.S. custody under suspicion of partaking in terrorist activity they simply exercised 'poor judgment' instead of professional misconduct. The distinction Margolis draws basically is between being morally obtuse and being legally culpable. The news reports are here and here. We don't have war criminals in the United States, we just have eager, if slightly flawed, public servants operating under circumstances of extreme stress.*

Just to be clear about the political consequences of all this - Margolis not only lets the Bush minions off the hook here, he gives cover to the 'let's ignore the past and hope for the future' strategy that Obama is pursuing on this matter. And, not to be overlooked, he allows countries like China to continue thumbing their noses at sanctimonious rhetoric from Americans.
* But of course, as subsequent news reports make clear, we have dramatically incomplete record for making that assessment because large numbers of official emails to and from Mr. Yoo during the relevant time period mysteriously are missing and unrecoverable.

P.S.: And if you want to see that this language game is being played not just in the halls of justice but in the mainstream media, see this post and this follow-up by Glen Greenwald at Salon.com . . . We don't have Terrorists in the U.S., we just have deranged 'tax protesters.' (Meaning, presumably, that we cannot torture the latter if they are captured?) Just ask the folks at Newsweek. Pretty remarkable!

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