Longtime readers might have noticed that I did not blog about the Captain Underpants Bomber from Christmas Day 2009. Why not? Well,
two three reasons:
Peter Beinart, Marc Lynch and Fareed Zakaria have already said 90% of what I wanted to say. My only additional observation is one I'm reluctant to bring to the attention of terrorists, but the professor in me can't resist.
It's striking how Al Qaeda and its emanations have demonstrated zero creativity in their past decade of attempts to strike the United States. It's all about airplanes, airplanes, airplanes -- even though their ability to use the planes themselves as large bombs has been effectively neutralized.
Any Hollywood hack could devise far more inventive acts of terrorism -- which is why I think we need to treat those hacks the same way we treat nuclear scientists. Don't ever let Michael Bay shoot on location in Yemen (I confess to being on the fence about Megan Fox and/or Shia Labeouf).
Beyond that, everyone just relax a bit.
[Drat!!--ed. C'mon, pay up. I was sure you couldn't connect Captain Underpants to Megan Fox!!--ed. And that's why I get the big blog bucks, my imaginary friend.]
Laura Secor writes in the New Yorker about the bass-ackward effects of the Iranian government's decision to televise the show trials. I think she misses a key point, however:
Since the disputed Presidential elections of June 12th, about a hundred reformist politicians, journalists, student activists, and other dissidents have been accused of colluding with Western powers to overthrow the Islamic Republic. This month, a number of the accused have made videotaped confessions. But the spectacle has found a subversive afterlife on the Internet. One image that has gone viral is a split frame showing two photographs of former Vice-President Mohammad Ali Abtahi. Before his arrest, on June 16th, he is a rotund, smiling cleric; in court on August 1st, he is drawn and sweat-soaked, his face a mask of apprehension. The juxtaposition belies the courtroom video, making the point that the only genuine thing about Abtahi’s confession is that it was coerced through torture.
Show trials have been staged before, most notably in Moscow in the nineteen-thirties. Typically, such rituals purge élites and scare the populace. They are the prelude to submission. Iran’s show trials, so far, have failed to accrue this fearsome power. In part, this is because the accused are connected to a mass movement: Iranians whose democratic aspirations have evolved organically within the culture of the Islamic Republic. It is one thing to persuade citizens that a narrow band of apparatchiks are enemies of the state. It is quite another to claim that a political agenda with broad support—for popular sovereignty, human rights, due process, freedom of speech—has been covertly planted by foreigners.
I don't doubt that the broad-based nature of support for change is one reason the show trials have rung hollow. Still, isn't this a case where the medium is the message?
Stalin's show trials were not broadcast on television -- they were reported in state-run newspapers or aired, edited, over state-run radio. This gives the state much greater editorial powers than a live television transmission. Furthermore, as Secor's first paragraph suggests, it's the non-verbal cues that come from television that completely undermine the intended effect of the spectacle.
It is possible that, in the future, more sophisticated CGI effects will allow governments the capacity to digitally edit these images, a la The Running Man, to maximize the desired effect (i.e., making Abtahi look as healthy as he did pre-incarceration). For now, however, such efforts would only look like bad plastic surgery. No, I don't think televised show trials really work at all.
Beyond Iran, have show trials ever worked in the television era? This is a real question, readers. About the only modern example I can think of where a televised trial of a political leader has broken the back of a movement was Turkey's capture and trial of Kurdish Worker's Party (PKK) leader Abdullah (“Apo”) Öcalan. Öcalan's complete about-face and rejection of violence during his trial had an effect on the PKK.
I'm not sure the parallel holds up, since most Turks held genuine antipathy for Öcalan and the Kurds. So, the question remains open -- can show trials ever cement an authoritarian government's legitimacy?
What did you think?
For those of you not in the know, the Monkey Cage is one of the best blogs around that tries to discuss seemingly abstruse social science research and technuqies and apply them to real world problems.
In this post, Joshua Tucker asks a lulu of a question about social science research into torture:
My original thought was that good social science research that shows that torture does not extract useful intelligence information would be the final nail in the coffin in any public argument in support of torture. But what happens if one of us gets access to the relevant data, does the empirical analysis, and then discovers the opposite: that torture does lead to useful intelligence information. What do you do then? Sit on the results? Would any political science journal publish such a paper? How would that look in a tenure review? (“Right, she’s the one who said torture was valuable…”).
Which leads to another question: should social scientists by engaging in research where we only want to share the results if they come out in one particular direction? I personally believe US national security is harmed by the use of torture in any form by our government, so I would welcome good empirical findings that provide added weight to arguments against the use of torture. But despite that goal, should I actually engage in research if I’m not willing to accept (or publish) findings to the contrary?
I, too, would welcome good empirical findings showing that torture does not work, but my answer to Josh's questions are "no." You have to publish your findings regardless of what you discover. That's the only way this business can work.
From a practical perspective, it makes little sense. Uncomfortable findings, if they hold up, will get discovered by someone. Sitting on them merely magnifies their impact. One of the few currencies social scientists can use is their research integrity. A short-term compromise of this integrity simply magnifies the impact of the discovery.
From an ethical perspective, social science results do not upend ethical arguments for or against a particular issue. In other words, even if torture works in extracting information, there are strong normative reasons to oppose its use. Covering up results, however, does compromise the ethical position of the person making the anti-torture argument. [UPDATE: Charli Carpenter makes this point more effectively and passionately than I.]
For a non-torture case that echoes this debate, do check out Michael Jonas' 2007 Boston Globe story of Robert Putnam's research into the effects of diversity on civic engagement.
Here are Tufts University Political Science Professor Dan Drezner and Stanford Philosophy Professor Joshua Cohen demonstrating how good-hearted, profoundly reasonable, oh-so-intellectually sophisticated Americans diligently struggle with -- torture themselves over -- what they have convinced themselves is the vexing question of whether our leaders should be considered "war criminals" by virtue of . . . . having committed unambiguous war crimes.... This is now the conventional wisdom, the settled consensus, of our political and media elites with regard to America's torture program. It's perfectly appropriate that Drezner cites and heaps praise on the self-consciously open-minded meditation on the torture question from The Atlantic's Ross Douthat because -- as I wrote in response to Douthat -- our political elites have now, virtually in unison, convinced themselves that ambiguity and understanding with regard to American war crimes are the hallmarks of both intellectual and moral superiority.... This is the justifying argument the political class has latched onto -- one that was spawned, revealingly enough, by Bush DOJ official Jack Goldsmith: sure, some of this might have been excessive and arguably wrong, but it was all done for the right reasons, by people who are good at heart. So common is this self-justifying American rationalization that it has now even infected the mentality of long-time Bush critics, such as The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page, which today argued that prosecutions for Bush officials are inappropriate, even though they clearly broke multiple laws, because "they did so as part of a post- 9/11 response to terrorism." As this excellent reply from Diane at Cab Drollery puts it: "civility and understanding is far more important to them than simple justice."Yes, because we all know that the exact administration of justice is best when it lacks understanding. This is certainly true of Greenwald, who appears not to have actually listened to what Cohen and I actually said to each other. I was pretty explicit about the following:
Daniel W. Drezner is professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.