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“You have no subtlety, Potter. You do not understand fine distinctions. It is one of the shortcomings that makes you such a lamentable potion-maker.”
- Prof. Severus Snape
In the wake of the Newsweek/Quran/toilet controversy, that line from the latest Harry Potter book kept swirling through my head. This is the second time in recent memory that “one of our pieces of supporting evidence turns out to be unreliable” is popularly interpretted as “we made a bunch of shit up.” The differences between those two perceptions aren’t even that subtle, but many folks miss them just the same.
The first of these stories was the Bush/AWOL/”Rathergate” controversy. CBS News did a story about George W. Bush getting special treatment with regards to his service in the National Guard. It turned out that some of the documents had not been proven to be authentic. And the final “conclusion” was that CBS and Dan Rather are big liberal liars and the president’s military service is beyond question. The truth of that matter is that there’s still plenty of gaps in Bush’s service record that seem most easily explained by his “desertion” or going AWOL or whatever the proper technical term is.
Imagine that for some reason, you jumped into a swimming pool with all your clothes on. You get out, and I run up with a wet t-shirt in my hand and say “A-ha! This t-shirt is proof that you just jumped in the pool with your clothes on!” and you say, truthfully, “but that’s not my shirt.” Then, Sean Hannity jumps out of the bushes and says “obviously this man did not just jump in a swimming pool with all his clothes on, you liberal homo! Your error proves that he’s never been in a swimming pool. In fact, he’s never been wet in his whole life.” He says this as you stand there, water dripping off your nose.
We could expect this type of behavior from Sean Hannity because he’s six kinds of brain damaged. But it’s stupid. The fact that I can’t prove that something happened doesn’t mean the opposite, it doesn’t mean that it didn’t happen. It means that we don’t know what happened.
As I understand it, that is the situation at present. A Newsweek source said that he had read a portion of a soon-to-be-released report about Guantanamo, in which it said that interrogators had flushed pages of the Quran down the toilet, and Newsweek printed that. Later, the source said that he was no longer sure in which document he had read those allegations. Apparently the Newsweek piece was then read publicly and the Quran desecration was denounced by a popular Pakistani figure, and word spread throughout the Muslim world. These culminated in angry protest, riots, and several deaths.
Of course, to American conservatives this is a wonderful example of the liberal media, recklessly tripping over itself to spread their anti-American agenda, with no concern for truth or even human lives. Some of them have taken up the chant of “Newsweek lied, people died”. Nice to see that American conservatives can actually start caring about the lives of the Afghan people. True, they didn’t seem to care about them during the civil war of the 80s, during the endless warlord battles in the early 90s, during the Taliban conquest of the late 90s, or the US invasion and occupation of the 2000s. But when they can score some rhetorical points, BAM, they’re all over that compassion thing.
The “Newsweek lied, people died” thing is also the height of irony, due to the tens of thousands of deaths caused by the White House’s years-long campaign of lies and manipulation regarding Iraq.
We could go back to my original point now and say “setting the Newsweek article completely aside, did US interrogators actually flush pages of the Quran down the toilet?” There is a fair amount of circumstantial evidence which suggests that it did. But probably a more important question is “does it matter?”
I suppose that in the interest of complete truth, we might want to find out. But we know that the US prisons housing alleged terrorists and “enemy combatants” are fucked up. We’ve seen the Abu Ghraib photos, read the reports from Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch, heard about the legal trickery to keep the prisoners locked up, innocent or not. Do we really need full knowledge of every horrid thing going on in there? I’ve seen enough to make my judgement.
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