Saturday, March 14, 2009

Detainees and Prisoners

Yesterday the Obama administration announced a new policy to govern the holding of terror suspects. Here's what Attorney General Eric Holder announced:

"As we work towards developing a new policy to govern detainees, it is essential that we operate in a manner that strengthens our national security, is consistent with our values, and is governed by law."

Followers of HOTM know I put a lot of stock in words. So two things struck me about Holder's statement.

First, what does it mean to "work towards developing" something? It seems that not only does the Obama administration lack a policy, not only is it not developing a policy, it is merely working toward developing a policy. Is this like being engaged to be engaged? Maybe. Maybe there will eventually be a marriage. But if you really plan to get hitched, why not just get engaged? If you really want a new policy, why not actually develop one? I mean, if a house painter told you he was working towards developing a way to paint your house, how confident would you be that the job would ever get done?

Second, why is the administration (and just about everyone else, including the liberal blogosphere, including even the excellent Scott Horton, who expresses his own doubts here) continuing to call people held at Guantanamo and other prisons "detainees"? For me, "detention" is something that happens to you at a place you first arrived at of your own volition. For example, if I mail a letter at the post office and government agents show up and hold me there for an hour, I think it's fair to say I've been detained. If the same agents hood me, drug me, manacle me, fly me to Guantanamo and hold me there for five years, I think it's fair to say I've been imprisoned.

So why the squeamishness about calling people in the second hypothetical (actually, it's not at all hypothetical) prisoners? Simple: the people in question have received neither a trial nor traditional notions of due process. It would be uncomfortable to acknowledge that America imprisons people without trial or other due process. Suggesting that we're merely detaining them is a way of sanitizing the whole business.

The use of language for political sanitization makes me uncomfortable. It's like calling torture "aggressive interrogation." If we really need to torture prisoners, for example, let's make a case for it. But if proponents instead feel the need to try to sell me on the notion by reassuring me that all that's going on is the "aggressive interrogation of "detainees," I sense these proponents lack the courage of their own supposed convictions. And if they themselves are insufficiently confident in the necessity of imprisoning people without due process to make a clear case for the policy, how can they expect anyone else to be persuaded?

As long as the government calls prisoners detainees, I'll wager any policy changes will be mostly cosmetic.

P.S. For an example of life imitating art -- in this case, the covert operations group at the heart of the plot of Fault Line -- last week Investigative reporter Seymour Hersh reported on an "executive assassination ring" that reported directly to the Vice President. Amazingly close match to the setup in Fault Line.


James Goetz said...

Do you think that it might help if the house and senate passed a law that said the President and anybody in his staff may not authorize assassinations without congressional accountability?: )

Ben said...

Good post, Barry.

I agree with you wholeheartedly. I think there is a culture in america of making half commitments and worrying about covering our own behinds before we do something major. And i think it's natural in some ways, when we are unsure that an endeavor will be successful or not, to want to brace for failure.

But i can't believe that Obama is going to maintain Bush's stance on withholding detainees indefinitely and without charge.

PBI said...


Glad to see you back blogging - I hope the tour is going well!

As you know, I share your concerns over the way we've been disappearing people into prison camps and our use of torture as sanctioned policy. I have been disappointed in the pace of the Obama Administration's efforts to address human rights violations begun under the previous administration. Likewise, I have been alarmed by the White House's stance on some of the lawsuits that have been brought against Bush Administration warrantless wiretapping activities, which largely echoes the position of the previous president.

Holder came out strong during his confirmation, stating that no one is above the law, and that waterboarding is torture. So far, however, I haven't seen enough substantive changes. I hope that will no longer be the case in the coming weeks and months.

Sensen No Sen

Hey! No spoilers on your own book please! : )

Anonymous said...

bamage said...

Barry, out of more or less idle curiosity, when were you @ CU? Did you train while you were there? Which club?

Your comment about the Nines still being open caught my eye.

Guess I'll have to pick up some of your books. Van Lustbader went way downhill after "The Ninja" IMO.

Barry said...

Hi Bamage, I was A&S '86, Law '89. I trained for a few years with the Shito-ryu karate club, and boxed at the Greater Ithaca Activities Center. Plus a little judo, but didn't get hard-core there until I lived in Tokyo. And you?

Thanks for checking out the books and I hope you enjoy them.


Jim White said...


I really enjoyed this post. Holder certainly has been choosing his language very carefully of late, so I'm happy to see someone else parsing carefully.

Thanks for dropping by Glenn's comment thread. I did pick up a copy of the book today and look forward to reading it.

Barry said...

Thanks for the kind words, Jim. As I mentioned, I don't read the comments on UT very often, but when I do yours are continual standouts.

Hope you enjoy the book and please stay in touch.


bamage said...

Barry - I'm Ag '82, so we missed each other. Spent my off-hours w/ the Shotokan Karate Club. Ithaca gets in your blood.

PBI said...


I didn't realize that you had trained with the Shito-Ryu karate club when you were at Cornell. That's where I got my start in martial arts as well. Was Ed Ferraro the instructor then?


I think the Nines has been closed and re-opened several times. I seem to remember it shut down sometime during my tenure as an undergrad (A&S '90), but that it was operating again when I was in Business School ('99)...

Sensen No Sen

Barry said...

Paul, small world! Yes, Ed was the instructor -- biggest knuckles I've ever seen from all the hand conditioning and really crisp karate.