a citizen’s journal by Thomas Nephew

A dialogue with Jeff Jarvis: torture by Iran, torture by us

Posted by Thomas Nephew on January 2nd, 2005

Looking back on 2004, several stories stood out for me, among them the election and certainly the terrible tsunami at the end of the year. But the story that was uniquely depressing and disappointing for me was the news that Americans were torturing and humiliating their prisoners in Iraq, under the auspices of American government policy.

At the time I wrote that I’ve rarely been so ashamed of this country, and I still feel that way. As an American — the more so as an American who had supported the Iraq war — I felt personally kicked in the stomach by those abuses, and responsible for demanding their punishment at every level of government. This conviction has grown as more background information and more accounts of abuse have emerged from Iraq and elsewhere; I want my country back.

Recently Jeff Jarvis drew attention to the sadly credible news — forwarded by an Iranian government figure named Abtahi — that the Iranian regime is torturing bloggers who speak out against it. Jarvis wrote that “If what we read here is true, then it is incumbent of us to bring attention to this abuse who are doing nothing more than we are doing.” I agree.* But I commented:

What about the torturing we’re doing? Or its outsourcing? It doesn’t excuse what’s happening in Iran, but let’s get the beam out of our own eye before going after the mote (or the beam) in someone else’s. (Matthew 7:3)

Jarvis replied as if I was trying to suppress the news:

Oh, come now, Thomas: I cannot stand up and warn about torture of fellow citizens because you say I’m not holy enough… because I am American?…. Well, then, certainly our friends in Germany should not be criticizing us or anyone, should they? And the French and their colonialism and stingy contributions to work aid make them unqualified. And…. Don’t be ridculous! What an inane equivalency to make! People are being tortured and you turn it into your own spin! For shame, sir. I will stand up for my Iranian brothers and sisters no matter whether you think I should or not.

My reply:

Jeff, I’m not saying you can’t speak out about Iranian torture because you’re American, not at all. I’m saying it would behoove you and us to look at our own misdeeds as well — it makes our protests about misdeeds by others more effective and less hypocritical.

Maybe I used the wrong words to express that — but I honestly don’t see anywhere near the same kind of outrage in your writings about American torture that I do about torture by others. Yet American torture is something we as Americans can do something about far sooner than we can do anything about Iranian torture, and with far greater authority. That isn’t “my own spin,” that’s the simple truth. We are *responsible* for one, we are not for the other. Which ought to come first? How do we have standing to criticize in others what we do ourselves?

I said “it doesn’t excuse what’s happening in Iran”. I’m willing to sign petitions, write e-mails, etc. about Iranian torture victims. But it’s with a hollow feeling, given the ongoing stream of revelations about our own misdeeds in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo.

Equivalency? Well, yes, I guess torture by us is pretty much equivalent to torture by them. Lets stand up for our detained and tormented Iraqi, Afghan, and Arab brothers and sisters too, while we’re at it: 1) they may well be mostly innocent of terrorism, and 2) even if some of them aren’t, no one deserves to be tortured.

I’m frankly surprised and disappointed you consider any of this “inane,” and that you employ “for shame” against someone who doesn’t.
(link added)

Mr. Jarvis replied again, but continued to claim I was trying to “diminish” his news and make “rhetorical” points:

Thomas: You created the equivalency by bringing it up in this context. You can’t find me being outraged enough — by your standards — about torture of Iraqi prisoners in U.S. custody (sorry, but I figured there was plenty of outrage already and I didn’t see that I added much to the discussion; like any blogger, I don’t cover all issues with the same attention because I’m an individual, not a news organizatin and, to quote Jon Stewart, I’m not your monkey). By making that comparison, you are trying to diminish what I am saying about the torture of bloggers. Well, by that standard, have you been outraged enough about the torture of victims in Saddam’s custody? What does that say about your outrage vs. my outrage? I’d call that inane. It’s a rhetorical non sequitor. As Hubris says, above, it’s tu quoque. It’s also slightly exploitive: dangling one class of victims to try to win points against someone advocating for another class of victims. One has no impact on the other — other than an attempt at distraction. The point of this post is very simple: I am trying to draw attention to what appears to be new disclosures of torture of our fellow bloggers. As far as I can tell, this is news. Pay attention or don’t — your choice. But don’t diminish what is being said about these people just to make your rhetorical point.
(link added)

Continuing this dialogue here: At no point do I say anything resembling “don’t pay attention to the plight of these Iranian bloggers.” Thus I think the charge of a so-called “tu quoque” fallacy is itself fallacious, strictly speaking.

I’m not “trying to diminish what [Jeff is] saying about the torture of [Iranian] bloggers” or distract from that. I’m challenging him to expand his outrage and activism to victims of American and American-sponsored torture as well, and I’m suggesting that may be the first step towards being taken seriously around the world and especially in Iran with regard to the plight of the Iranian bloggers.

Say we get a little traction about the Iranian situation among Americans, without frankly acknowledging and fighting torture by and on behalf of our own government. An Iranian spokesman could simply say, these are people who can’t be bothered to care about their own government’s transgressions — why should any of us care what they think? They’re just hypocrites who would do it themselves to us if they got the chance. I count the aptness of this answer — however “tu quoque” it may be — as one of the huge costs of our own crimes and our own failures to address them.

As for Jarvis, I’ve actually understated at least his initial lack of outrage when it came to American wrongs. At the time of the Abu Ghraib revelations, Jarvis wrote:

And let me say something quite unpopular and throw just a little perspective into the Iraqi prison scandal. I’ll repeat: What happened there was wrong and strategically idiotic and does not reflect either American ideals or American aims for the region. However, let’s remember that this is a war; the people being interrogated were likely suspected in movements to bring more violence upon not only American soldiers but also the Iraqi people. The means were wrong but the end was right: Bringing peace to Iraq and protecting its people. And was the “torture” all that shocking? Hell, watch an episode of Oz and compare.
(emphasis added)

This wasn’t even “the ends justify the means” — it was the ends excusing the means, even if the means were reprehensible, stupid, and patently at odds with those ends. The torturers of Iran can just throw such attitudes right back in our face — and sadly, they’ll have a point: we all have ends, we all have means, and we all have people who think means don’t matter when it comes to their particular ends. As long as we put up with that, or agree with that, we have little standing to object to it elsewhere.

What matters is whether we keep torturers under control and torture beyond the pale — and it looks like both Iran and the U.S. are generally busy failing that test, both inside government and outside it. This isn’t just a matter of fixing government policies any more. It’s about us as individuals deciding what we want our democracy and society to stand for. As Matt Welch wrote in his Reason piece, “Who’s Tortured?“:

But we now know that many of the shocking images from Abu Ghraib that we’ve been allowed to see —the hoods, the dogs, the sexual humiliation, the photography, the beating —have occurred elsewhere in Iraq, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan; and in many instances they reflect nothing more than official United States policy. How we respond, whether conservative, libertarian, liberal or other, will tell us a lot about what we’ve become.

* You can comment about the charges of Iranian torture by e-mail to members and institutions of the Iranian government, e.g., Iranian President Khatami, Ambassador to the United Nations M. Javad Zarif, the Iranian mission to the UN at, and the Iranian Interests Section at the Embassy of Pakistan in Washington, D.C. at You can help investigate and oppose torture by the US by supporting organizations such as the ACLU , Human Rights Watch, or Amnesty International.

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