Washington Post Crashed-and-Burned-and-Smoking Watch (Robert Samuelson Edition)
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Henry Farrell Reads Clive Crook, and Pounds His Head Against the Wall...

Clive Crook assumes a sensible middle position between the crazies who think we ought to torture people to induce them to make false confessions and the crazies who think we ought to obey our laws.

Henry Farrell comments:

That’s Some High-Quality Wank There — Crooked Timber: Clive Crook positions himself as a reasonable moderate between the extremes of Republican torture-and-detention-porn crazies, and people who, you know, who take civil rights seriously.

The left’s complaints make far more sense than Mr Cheney’s. Mr Obama is adjusting the Bush administration’s policies here and there and seeks to put them on a sounder legal footing. This recalibration is significant and wise, but it is by no means the entirely new approach that he led everybody to expect.

Mr Obama is in the right, in my view, but he owes his supporters an apology for misleading them. He also owes George W. Bush an apology for saying that the last administration’s thinking was an affront to US values, whereas his own policies would be entirely consonant with them. In office he has found that the issue is more complicated. If he was surprised, he should not have been.

The signature intellectual defect of the non-compromisers on each side of this debate is an inability to recognise conflicting ends. The Democratic party’s civil libertarians seem to believe that several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects. There can be no trade-off between freedom and security, because the freedoms they prioritise trump everything. To many on the other side, no trampling on the liberty of ordinary citizens, no degree of cruelty to detainees, no outright illegality is too much to contemplate in the effort to stop terrorists. On this view, security trumps everything.

The “seem to believe” is a weasel-phrase, which would (to use his own dubious phrasing) “seem” to be nicely calculated so as to allow him to make very nasty insinuations and accusations without having to prove them, and the “several medium-sized US cities would be a reasonable price to pay for insisting on ordinary criminal trials for terrorist suspects” bit is a common-or-garden shameful and disgusting slur. If Crook has any substantial evidence that ‘several medium sized cities’ have been put at risk, or are likely to be put at risk, because of civil libertarians’ tiresome insistence on trials and such, I invite him to produce it. And no, hypothetical ticking bomb scenarios don’t do it, thank you very much.

The underlying claim of this shoddy exercise, such as it is, is three-fold. First, that the people who are insisting on civil liberties in the GWOT are wild-eyed and extremist zealots, fundamentally similar in kind to the members of the lock-em-up-and-torture-em-to-death crowd on the other side. Second, that a difficult balance has to be struck between civil liberties for terrorists on the one hand and the need to avoid the destruction of medium-sized American cities on the other. Third, that the only people capable of making these complex choices are sceptical moderates like Clive Crook who realise, as others don’t, that differing ends are incompatible, there are unavoidable trade-offs in life &c&c. In its fully fledged form, this might be described, after the example of Isaiah Berlin, as High Table Liberalism – that anguished and serious engagement with the difficulties of political choice in a world of irreconcilable and competing values which occurs somewhere between the end of the main course and the serving of the port and Stilton. But it reminds me even more of a radio comedy sketch I remember from my youth in Ireland, where a punter representing the Plain People of Ireland and a nun are discussing how best to deal with football hooligans. The punter says that they’re a pack of bastards, and the only solution is to chop off their goolies. The nun says no, we need to think too of the principles of charity and forgiveness, of Christian love etc – and the only solution is to chop off their goolies. Clive Crook is taking the part of the nun here.

Why oh why can't we have a better press corps?