What is a 'fact' In an age beset by bitter disputes about reality, the word itself, and its close relative 'truth', become embattled. 'Let the facts speak for themselves,' historians, politicians and columnists like to say, but facts do not speak ' they must be interpreted and spoken for. And then, according to Heisenberg's Uncertainty Principle, what is observed is altered by the observer's presence. Facts shift, depending on who is interpreting them.
In war, as Aeschylus said 3,000 years ago, truth is the first casualty. Solid, reliable facts and objective truths, always hard to define, become more elusive in times of heightened conflict. The 'war on terror' is a new sort of conflict, but truth is certainly embattled and the facts themselves are under heavy fire from all sides, and are daily receiving near-fatal wounds.
For example, l'affaire Gitmo. In May an Amnesty International report brands the American internment camp at Guantanamo Bay 'the gulag of our time', provoking a furious response by the Bush administration, and, soon enough, Amnesty backs down. The conservative columnist, Charles Krauthammer, defends 'our remarkably humane and tolerant treatment of the Guantanamo prisoners'. Hours later, however, Sen. Joseph Biden (D.-Del.) calls for Gitmo to be shut down because it 'has become the greatest propaganda tool that exists for recruiting of terrorists around the world'.
Or again: Newsweek's May 1 story about desecrations of the Quran at Gitmo prompts demonstrations around the Muslim world, provoking a furious response from the Bush administration, and, soon enough, Newsweek backs down. Within days, however, the US military admits that the Quran was indeed desecrated several times by American soldiers ' and also, mysteriously, damaged and abused 15 times by detainees ' and it emerges that similar instances of Quran-bashing have been reported in the Western media at least seven times before.
Krauthammer writes: 'If there were mishandlings of the Koran, we should say so and express regret. ... Then we should get over it, stop whimpering and start defending ourselves.' However, Sen. John F. Kerry (D.-Mass.) blames the Bush administration for creating 'the atmosphere and the capacity' for the alleged abuse of detainees at Gitmo and at Abu Ghraib. Sen. Arlen Specter (R.-Penn.), chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, plans to hold hearings on the maltreatment of Guantanamo inmates. And William Schulz, director of Amnesty International USA, while conceding that the word 'gulag' is not an 'exact or literal analogy' ' a gulag was a forced-labour camp and Gitmo isn't ' insists that 'The United States is maintaining an archipelago of prisons around the world, many of them secret prisons into which people are being literally disappeared, held in indefinite incommunicado detention without access to lawyers or a judicial system or to their families. And in some cases, at least, we know that they are being mistreated, abused, tortured and even killed.'
Never mind the moral high ground ' even the low ground, where the plain facts of a case are established, is getting muddier, more slippery and harder to hold on to by the day. But then, as I've been arguing, there is nothing plain, nothing unbiased, about a fact.
Conservative American bias, which helps to establish what we might call 'conservative facts,' goes something like this: There's a war on, and these detainees are our sworn and mortal enemies. Why so much fuss about the treatment of men whose allies actually decapitate their prisoners' And why no outrage about the well-documented destruction of the Christian and Jewish holy books in many Muslim countries'
And liberal American bias, which helps to establish 'liberal facts,' might go something like this: The Bush administration's disregard for the human rights of its Gitmo and Abu Ghraib prisoners is an echo of its disregard for civil liberties back home. The two battles are the same battle, and it may be a more important battle to win than the invisible war against the fanatics.
Meanwhile, the view from outside America ' which helps to create what one might call 'non-American facts', facts interpreted through a mounting cynicism about the 'truth' ' is that the United States has been giving itself too many good reviews lately, excusing its soldiers from any blame in the matter of the March 4 shooting of the Italian secret service agent, Nicola Calipari, who was escorting the freed Italian hostage Giuliana Sgrena to safety, and excusing all but a few, relatively low-ranking 'rotten apples' for blame for the atrocities at Abu Ghraib, and finding that only two of five incidents of Quranic desecration at Gitmo were deliberate ' even though one of the 'accidents' took place when a guard urinated near an air vent behind which an inmate was sleeping, and how accidental does that sound'
I have some sympathy with all three 'biases'. Self-investigation followed by self-exoneration is never convincing. However, it's hard to work up genuine sympathy for a failure of niceties toward people who would never consider upholding such niceties in return ' to stick up for the human rights of people who despise the idea of human rights. And yet the growing evidence of ugly behaviour by American military personnel is distressing in the extreme, not because of the injury to the detainees, but because of the injury to ourselves, to our identity as free and moral people living 'under law', to our sense of what we stand for and who we are. That identity is, or should be, something that conservatives and liberals should both be determined to defend.
'Yo soy un hombre sincero/De donde crece las palmas...' I've been thinking of that 'truthful man from the place where the palm trees wave', the great Cuban poet Jose Marti, whose verses were adapted to make the beautiful song 'Guantanamera', which was associated with Guantanamo Bay long before Gitmo. There are lines of Marti's that are relevant here.
'Anyone who offends against the sacred freedom of our adversaries is reprehensible, and the more so if he or she does it in the name of freedom,' Marti wrote. 'There is no forgiveness for acts of hatred. Daggers thrust in the name of liberty are thrust into liberty's heart.'
Marti's words, his 'truths', allow us ' indeed encourage us ' to judge attacks by fanatics harshly. But even as we judge others, we should look in the mirror and say the words again.