Sometime this past Monday, the head of the House home land security committee, Republican Peter King of New York, made the claim on Fox TV that waterboarding and other torture led to the information that identified Osama bin Laden’s location. (Readers may remember King for his support of Irish Republican terrorists or for his special hearings in which he effectively accused every Moslem living in the United States of suborning terrorism.) Former Vice President and current Prince of Darkness Dick Cheney also bragged on Fox that enhanced interrogation techniques contributed to finding ObL. John Yoo, who wrote the legal memos that used tortuous reasoning and claimed new rights for the executive branch to justify torture, said that finding ObL proved that the Bush Administration’s torture policies worked.
Of course it was a supposition based on air, which is a nice way of saying that King, Cheney and others lied. Whatever… In point of fact, no information leading to the location of ObL came from waterboarding or any other torture technique. Even the Donald (and I mean Rumsfeld, who trumps the other Donald) stated unequivocally that torture did not lead to the locating of ObL.
Moreover, there are four interlocking media phenomena at work that may keep alive the myth of torture finding ObL long after the news cycle ends:
- The vacuum of news: Although we have more news outlets, we have fewer professionals gathering news. As Pew research has demonstrated, most news starts with newspapers, and they’re getting smaller than ever. But space and time must be filled, and into the online and broadcast vacuum rushes news commentary (much as your humble OpEdge does). Into this vacuum rush lies like torture found ObL or the President was not born in this country, if for no other reason than that the repudiation of the lies can masquerade as news (while spreading the lie).
- The “Three Penny Opera mirror effect,” named so because a literature professor of mine once said that when this wonderful light opera first came out in Berlin in the late 20’s of the last century, all of the bourgeoisie loved it even though it was a socialist play that excoriated bourgeois values. My professor said that the play became a mirror which substantiated the views of whoever was viewing it. Applied to this situation, I mean to say that conservatives will believe the drool about water-boarding finding ObL, because they will believe anything the Kings and Cheneys of the world say; the more outrageous the statement to us, the more believable to the Mr. and Mrs. Rightwing Kool-aid Drinker. In the same way, the believer will see those telling the truth as liars because of the believers’ previously fixed belief in the lie they believe.
- The fragmentation of the news media. The Internet has led to the creation of more media outlets not tied to mainstream values. The way people look for information on the Internet—in a directed, focused manner that zeroes in on exactly what is desired has infected how they view news. It used to be that leafing through a newspaper or news magazine exposed someone to the full mainstream view of the issues of the day. But now people can create their own little media worlds in which the only inhabitants are media that advocate only what they already believe and the only thing they see, even in online mainstream media, is fodder for their views.
- The “Matt Drudge gambit,” which enables media to proffer the most outrageous and scurrilous views by reporting what a disreputable reporter, media outlet or even politician, such as Matt Drudge, Michelle Bachmann or Glenn Beck, has said even if it’s almost assuredly false. In this case, mainstream and conservative media can keep the controversy alive by quoting King, Cheney and their ilk. NPR played this game in its coverage of the so-called controversy yesterday evening. So did the New York Times this morning in a front-page article which starts with John Yoo’s assertion and then spends the rest of the story disputing it.
I’m going to go out on the limb a little to say that over the next two years one of the minor themes of the right wing will be to say that the finding of Osama bin Laden demonstrates the value of enhanced interrogation techniques. It won’t be the top myth they spout, but it will be one of the right’s playing cards, especially when preaching to the choir.
I want to close with the words my cousin Marshall Dayan, an attorney who defends convicted prisoners on death row from state assassination, emailed me about the capture (and not the killing) of Osama bin Laden: “The manner in which he was located and caught proves that the appropriate response to the 9/11 bombings was a criminal justice response, not a military response. He was located and identified by painstaking investigation used in the criminal justice model; he was not caught “on the battlefield.” We spent trillions of dollars fighting wars that did not advance the search for and apprehension of Al-Qaeda terrorists responsible for 9/11; they were all caught and killed using fairly straightforward criminal justice investigative techniques.