Friday, June 03, 2005

Is Gitmo a Gulag?

An excellent article in the New Republic comparing the Guantanamo Bay detention center to the Soviet gulags, to determine whether Amnesty International is correct to label Gitmo the "gulag of our time." Not surprisingly, a direct comparison makes it clear how ridiculous it was for Amnesty to use that word. That doesn't mean that the Gitmo center is okay, merely that the gulags were really, really horrible, and set a very high bar for desecration of human rights.

It's a shame Amnesty used such an incendiary term, because it distracts everyone from the substance of the report, gives Administration apologists something else to focus on besides the substance, and truthfully, makes the report somewhat suspect. I think there are legitimate concerns about Gitmo -- particularly the dubious legality of holding people indefinitely without actually accusing them of a crime (which is what the Administration did until the Supreme Court told them to stop it) -- but it does no good to say it's as bad as the gulag when it obviously is not.

Amnesty is indulging in what I'll call, in reference to the New Republic article, the "equivalency fallacy", which is something that drives me crazy. The thinking behind it goes like this:

"Y" is a really bad thing. It is important for me to make others realize how bad "Y" is. "YYY" (usually the holocaust, genocide, gulags) is an unequivocally terrible thing that everyone immediately understands is wrong. Therefore, I will call "Y" this really terrible thing, to make sure everyone understands how bad it is.

Unfortunately, all that usually achieves is that a legitimate concern is made suspect. It also, in my view, undermines language, as suddenly all sorts of things are seen to reach level of holocausts or gulags. So, not only is the equivalency fallacy unhelpful (as Donald Rumsfeld would say), but it serves to trivialize words that should be not be trivialized.

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