What’s Wrong with the World

The men signed of the cross of Christ go gaily in the dark.


What’s Wrong with the World is dedicated to the defense of what remains of Christendom, the civilization made by the men of the Cross of Christ. Athwart two hostile Powers we stand: the Jihad and Liberalism...read more

Metanarrative and Enemy Combatants

James Poulos, who blogs at Postmodern Conservative and The American Scene, has, in his own words, taken part-time employment as a critic of "our general cultural retreat into the therapeutic meta-ethics of feeling, emotion, and sense - and away from the ethics of fact, act, and responsibility". Critiquing a NYT article on US-Saudi relations which stated that the American officials had consented to interviews in advance of a diplomatic junket in order to "send a pointed signal of deep frustration", Poulos wrote:

No, ladies and gentlemen. The officials were clearly intent on actually expressing deep frustration that more private American appeals to the Saudis had failed to produce a change in course. (snip) We must cease this constant retreat into meta-narrative. We must insist upon discussing the world where actual actions take place. We must resist the half-conscious urge to make feelings and feints, interpretations and intimations, more important than the behaviors that call them into 'being.' We must stop reading entrails and issuing oracles.

In other words, the US did not send a signal of frustration; they simply expressed it, period. The metanarrative of signals and signs adds nothing but a layer of opaque, baroque ritual, obfuscating what actually transpired.

Discussing the cloying and probably terminal optimism of American political discourse, which is itself a form of this metanarrativity, Poulos wrote:

I've blogged many, many times about how the language of 'giving a sense of' and 'sending a message' makes sensations and emotions more important than the acts and realities that cause them, and how alienating this actually is to our emotional psychologies themselves. It reinforces a permanent remove from your own actions, putting you into an essentially ironic relationship with your own life and self. (snip) Optimism, in fact, is an attitude, an emotional orientation, a psychological posture, a feeling -- a meta-feeling, even, a feeling about feelings, the feeling that we should feel as if failure is impossible.

Ultimately, this detached doubling of feeling leads those in thrall to it to feel that they ought not feel any limits to the realization of their desires - as in the case of the President's intransigence - and so they substitute for the pushback of reality a feeling about how they should approach the world.

Might it be that this metanarrativity has infected other arenas of the war on a military tactic of the weak? Consider the following quotation from a declaration filed by the DIA in the Padilla case:

Padilla has been detained without access to counsel for seven months -- since the [Department of Defense] took control of him on 9 June 2002. Providing him access to counsel now would create expectations by Padilla that his ultimate release may be obtained through an adversarial civil litigation process. This would break -- probably irreparably -- the sense of dependency and trust that the interrogators are attempting to create.

Numerous questions could be raised at this point, but the most pertinent may be whether this notion of creating a "sense of dependency and trust" is merely a therapeutic proceduralism that is used to elide ethical questions - questions concerning the methods employed to create that sense, and questions concerning the liceity of denying an American citizen access to the judicial branch. Poulos proceeds, after providing the above quotation, to tease out the Orwellian undertones of this therapeutic proceduralism, likening the language employed by the DIA to the language Orwell used to describe O'Brien's torture of Winston: breaking a "sense of trust" in an independent reality. The clinical language of procedure obfuscates the reality of torture. Of course, what has been done to Padilla is not exactly analogous to a scene from 1984; rather, in both cases, the evasion of the ethical is identical.

Our usage of 'sensehood' is not meant to reach the level of genius in the art of torture. It is used to provide moral justification for the psychological transformation of detainees into mental wards of the State by transforming the ethical questions surrounding that process into meta-ethical questions.

It is apparent to me that there are two - perhaps more - levels of questions raised by American detainee policy. The first level concerns the degree to which a therapeutic proceduralism has overshadowed moral considerations, creating the conditions is which torture can be justified by appeal to the "sense of dependency or control" that overshadows the discrete acts. Frankly, Poulos has a potent case here: I might even suggest that it is almost unimpeachable. The second level concerns the more mundane question of whether it is licit for the government to hold a citizen detainee incommunicado, and whether the distinction that might be drawn between citizens and noncitizens is pertinent. To be certain, there is a measure of overlap between the levels here; assuredly, Padilla's initial denial of counsel was an aspect of that procedure aimed at creating a sense of dependency. But then there arise the more mundane matters: can a state of emergency be invoked to deny citizens access to judicial redress? If so, what are the sufficient and necessary conditions for this denial? Is an executive permitted to make these determinations of himself, absent consultation with, and oversight by, the Congress? If not, can the Congress licitly define the conditions under which a citizen may be so held? Are the Congress and/or the executive permitted to discriminate between citizens and noncitizens in this regard?

Indubitably, lodging such powers in the executive branch can only be deleterious in a republican form of government; the conduct of the Bush administration, while in keeping with certain other wartime precedents, has given ample illustrations of this fact, particularly if a certain level of 'emergency' is supposed to be the "new normal". What, then, of potential Congressional definition of the emergency conditions under which citizens may be so detained? And what of the distinction between citizens and noncitizens, so critical to the integrity of any republic? The administration has elided this distinction by asserting a power to detain citizens and noncitizens alike under emergency orders, denying them all access to civil judicial redress. And various courts, activists, analysts, and interested parties have asserted that the elision must cut in the opposite direction. Both, or so it seems to me, are pregnant with ill portents for the Republic; the distinction here cannot be elided without presupposing an internationalization of legal procedure, a diminution of a sovereign nation's right to distinguish between those who are citizens and those who are not, on the one hand, and, on the other, a disregard for the very constitutional rights that give that distinction meaning.

If nothing else, it is my opinion that both the administration and many of its opponents have erred grievously in these matters. I'll leave off with one final complexifying factor: no set of procedures, legal or otherwise, can ever account for all potential and actual circumstantial realities; there are always exceptions. The question then concerns who decides upon the exceptions - who has the power to define them, to recognize them, to act upon them? Carl Schmidt's definition of the sovereign as "he who decides upon the exception" is apropos in this regard, whatever his intent may have been in formulating it.

So, let's discuss.

Comments (2)

The quote about Padilla is bizarre. I thought they were going to say, "It would make him think he can get out of here by a process of lawsuit, when in fact he can't." That, at least, would have made some sort of sense. But for them to say, "Hey, we're busy trying to push this guy around! You don't want to break up our relationship of psychological control with him, do you?" is creepy.

I'm not taking any position on whether they are actually torturing these guys or how we should define "torture" in saying this.

My own inclination is to say that people detained by our government even offshore should be categorized either as criminal defendants, in which case they have that set of protections, or as prisoners of war, in which case they have that set of protections. To try to create a third category that has no agreed-on protections seems unworthy of the good guys.

If I understand things correctly, combatants who do not meet the four criteria set out by the Geneva Convention (GC) are considered civilians and subject to the laws of the capturing country. The capturing country can pretty much define the laws how they want as long as the process has "regular courts" and is humane.

Defining them as POWs doesn't work because this is really an irregular conflict. How do we determine when we have defeated their side and what authorities do we send them back to when it is over? So while the GC gives us the ability to give them the more lenient POW designation, it really doesn't fit and leads most likely to infinite detention.

Putting them through the civil legal system is also a mess. There are reasonable national security concerns about intelligence methods and other items that we don't want leaked that would come out in our system. Also, the battlefield is not the place for legal nit-picking which is what would happen.

Probably the best option is a military tribunal system. The Bush administration was inept in trying to implement it and it's opposition wants nothing more than the likely chaos cause by sending it through the civil legal system. However, I would envision a military tribunal system working as follows:

1. Determine the status of the combatant, POW or civilian.
2. If civilian, the person then faces a military court which can sentence the person to being released, detention for a length of time, or the death penalty*.
3. If they are detained they would be treated humanely by defined, publicly made rules, but not according to POW rules (i.e. they should be denied some of the POW rights).
4. U.S. citizens caught fighting against the U.S. on the battlefield are sent through the civil system only to ascertain if they were actually fighting against U.S. forces. If they were, then their citizenship is stripped and they are sent through steps 1, 2, and 3.

I think such a system makes a lot on sense and still protects the enemy combatants from arbitrary decisions.

* In WWII, standard procedure for enemy combatants caught out of uniform was for a military trial and then execution. Such combatants increase civilian casualties.

Post a comment

Bold Italic Underline Quote

Note: In order to limit duplicate comments, please submit a comment only once. A comment may take a few minutes to appear beneath the article.

Although this site does not actively hold comments for moderation, some comments are automatically held by the blog system. For best results, limit the number of links (including links in your signature line to your own website) to under 3 per comment as all comments with a large number of links will be automatically held. If your comment is held for any reason, please be patient and an author or administrator will approve it. Do not resubmit the same comment as subsequent submissions of the same comment will be held as well.