Sunday, December 23, 2007

The Supreme Court of Public Opinion

The flap over the destruction of a set of recordings of a CIA interrogation of two al-Qaida members drones on.

There's an interesting twist to this tale that's come up recently - the idea that it was in the best interests of the United States that the tapes were destroyed, because the reaction from the Arab Street to whatever was on them would be worse than the uproar over rendition and Abu Ghraib. I've heard this a few times by now, and it's starting to get old, mainly because it seems like an attempt to make something that doesn't make any sense appear logical through repetition.

The idea that now that the recordings can never come to light will shield the reputation of the United States from further harm is spurious because that horse is already FAR away from the barn. People already know that the recordings were made. And people understand that the tapes were destroyed. Given what we saw from the goings-on at Abu Ghraib, I suspect that people feel that the new tapes must really show some bad stuff, otherwise, there would have been no need to dispose of them. I suspect that the reputation of the United States has become autocatalytic at this point - people who think the worst of the United States ascribe nightmare scenarios to American actions, and in preaching those scenarios into an anti-American echo chamber, bolster their negative view of the United States.

If there's one thing that we should have learned by now, it's that lack of hard evidence doesn't tend to mean much to the Court of Public Opinion. After all, O. J. Simpson was acquitted of murder - and you can see how many minds that's changed. With the recordings gone, people can read into them whatever they want to. If people decide that what's on the tapes are orders of magnitude worse than anything that's come out so far, now there's no way to refute that. The idea that something that if you can't prove it, it didn't happen, is an example of the sort of legalistic thinking that doesn't really fly in the real world. (Technically, it doesn't work in a court of law, either, buts that's the way that people tend to think of things.) Not that people always believe the proof that you might put in front of them - let a member of the September 11th Truth Movement vent at you for a while, and they'll happily lay out for you mounds of evidence that they feel people have ignored. But in the absence of evidence to really bolster a position, the other side can have a field day, presenting conjectures as facts and challenging you to refute them.

From the point of view of the reputation of the United States, the damage, if any, is already done. It seems unlikely that one more video would have really made a difference.

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