Back in June I endorsed former Soviet dissident Pavel Litvonov's argument that there is no basis for comparing Guantanamo or other U.S. detention facilities with the Soviet gulag. Since then there have been some distrubing allegations about how the CIA may be treating some captured Al Qaeda figures. For instance, one reader called my attention to this story alleging that the CIA maintains a network of "secret prisons" at which some captives may be treated in an inhumane matter, if not actually tortured. This is serious stuff — stuff that merits Congressional investigation if not outright condemnation.
As I have noted before, I believe Congressional action in this area is long overdue. Thus, I hope that the Senate stands firm and, at the very least, forces the Administration to clarify what sort of conduct we will tolerate, and why. I do not know enough about the practicalities — and have not thought enough about the moral questions — to have a firm view about what should be tolerated under what circumstances (e.g. when, if ever, is [waterboarding] an acceptable interrogation technique), but I am quite sure that the nation is not well served by giving the Executive Branch a free hand.
Returning to the issue at hand, I would like to underline my ultimate position: Not every mass murder is comparable to the Holocaust. By the same token, not every secret detention is comparable to the Gulag. In my view, the overuse of such comparisons undermines our ability to recognize the varying magnitudes of various evils. Such hyperbole deadens the sensitivity to moral distinctions in public discourse. Again, I am not excusing the conduct of our government. Some of the allegations are quite serious and, if true, merit condemnation, but that does not make Gitmo and other U.S. facilities equivalent to the Soviet Gulag.
NOTE: I accidentally omitted a word when this was first posted. The correction is in brackets above.
UPDATE: Kieran Healy thinks Amnesty International's original report was simply "a strategic effort to draw public attention to a real scandal" and that my concern about Amnesty's hyperbole is evidence of a "withered moral sensibility." Apparently I should not comment on such matters or quote articles on the subject unless I am prepared to condemn all inhumane or unpleasant treatment of detainees in all circumstances or become an expert on the nuances such questions. (Uh oh. I suggested there may be nuances here — my moral sensibility must be even more withered than Healy thought!)
For the record, this particular post was occasioned by a VC reader who wanted to know whether subsequent news reports had caused me to reconsider the gulag comparison since my initial post quoting a Washington Post article by a Gulag survivor. Perhaps Healy is correct that I should have spent more time during the intervening weeks figuring out precisely when coercive interrogation techniques may or may not be justified before responding to a reader. Or perhaps, like Healy, I felt my time was better spent working and blogging on other less weighty matters of professional or personal interest.
FINAL UPDATE: Just a few quick points and clarifications in response to comments below and this post by Marty Lederman. First, I have not defended the adminsitration on this issue, nor have I defended the use of torture. If the worst reports are accurate -- and these secret sites are in fact "torture centers" -- our government's actions should be condemned. I don't believe I ever suggested otherwise.
In response to Mr. Lederman, I will certainly admit that it is "more than a tad unseemly" that we are using Soviet-era detention facilities, and I have already endorsed Congressional efforts to define and limit executive discretion in this area. But I also think it is disingenous to claim my initial post was prompted by a "stray remark" from Amnesty International. After the report was issued, and other equivalent statements were made, Amnesty solicited a noted Gulag survivor to defend the charge. In other words, not "pretty much everyone is happy to grant" that the Gitmo-Gulag comparison is overdone, as Mr. Healy says below. To the contrary, some want to defend it. And, one last time, I did not seek to "pre-emptively condemn any gulag similies." Rather, as I noted in the update, I was responding publicly to a question from a reader.
For those who want more on this subject, read the items linked in Lederman's post, and read Mark Bowden's provocative and fairly persuasive op-ed in today's WSJ (link requires subscription). I'm done.