You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can't Make Him Object to Torture | Bleader

You Can Lead a Horse to Water, But You Can't Make Him Object to Torture

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Last week, Steve Rhodes took Neil Steinberg to task here for not taking into account media coverage when Steinberg claimed that the Burge trial hasn't captivated the city:

It would be more accurate to say that the Burge trial has not exactly captivated the city's media. For one thing, how in the world do you measure the level of captivation by the citizenry - and in particular, in what quarters of the citizenry? For another thing, how can a city be captivated by something the media is basically ignoring?

(If you wish to be captivated, read John Conroy.)

I've been puzzling over this for a few days, but this post from The American Prospect's Adam Serwer clarified things for me, I think:

Other bloggers are weighing in on the potential implications of Gen. Stanley McChrystal's Rolling Stone profile on his command of U.S. forces in Afghanistan; I just want to highlight one brief portion of the profile. In anticipation of McChrystal's confirmation hearings, his staff was concerned that he would be asked about abuses of Iraqi detainees at Camp Nama in Iraq, at a prison camp run by special forces who were under his command at the time. They were also concerned about his involvement with the cover-up of Cpl. Pat Tillman's death by friendly fire. The administration initially tried to say Tillman had been killed by the Taliban.

Of course, Congress wasn't interested in either of those things....

(For more on those things, see page four of the RS profile.)

Washington went into a panic because McChrystal chose not to even thinly veil his contempt for much of the administration—rhetorical insubordination, not that it's not an issue—while the previous incidents were comparatively unremarked upon.

It's not the first time that the blurry relationship of people in high places to torture has bypassed the zeitgeist panic button: accusations of human experimentation, the government's continued ghoulish treatment of Maher Arar, and our recently former president's rather brusque defense of torture haven't created much of a wake.

Well, maybe on the Daily Show:

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All of which is a very roundabout way of saying that, whether or not you agree with Steve Rhodes, the lack of captivation about torture is hardly limited to Chicago and/or its media.

There are other reasons the Burge case may not be getting the attention that some of us think it deserves: it's an old case, and, save for Burge's willingness to testify, there haven't been any notable bombshells that have revised the general understanding of the scandal. And Burge is being tried on a relatively narrow aspect of the scandal—whether he perjured himself instead of on the actions which led to the alleged perjury.

Rhodes essentially argues that the media can and should make people care about torture. I don't entirely disagree, but I think it's more of a two-way street than that suggests. For better or worse, journalism reflects in part the bias of its audience—in part because writing or broadcasting for an audience is the basis of the job, and in part because journalists are also human, also part of the media audience, and mirror in some ways the interests and biases of media consumers, or "citizens," as they're also known.

And I suspect there's a deep discomfort about what we learn about ourselves when we write about, read about, and discuss torture, which is actually an important part of the column that raised Rhodes's ire. Just as reports from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo are inextricably linked to the threats—perceived and real—that inspired such abuses, the Burge trial is competing for headlines with periodic rashes of violence in Chicago.

And it's not just a matter of people who face a minimal risk of authoritarian abuse ignoring those for whom it's a more tangible possibility. It's a broadly human dilemma, perfectly captured by Don Terry and Katie Fretland of the Chicago News Cooperative:

Ms. Latiker, who runs a youth center from the living room of her house on the edge of Roseland, said she recently talked to a 21-year-old man about Mr. Burge’s trial. She tried to explain to him why the decades-long case still mattered, and why the sickly, 62-year-old former police commander should face justice.

But the man — no stranger to the back of a police car — said he did not understand why people like Ms. Latiker were making such a fuss about Mr. Burge, even if he did torture suspects more than 30 years ago and then lied about it under oath.

“Wasn’t he just trying to get the thugs off the street?” the man said. “With all this killing going on, what’s wrong with that?”

Ms. Latiker said she was shocked at the man’s attitude. “I said to him, ‘You’re a thug. Would you like the police to abuse you?’ ”

The man shrugged and fell silent, she said.

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