On Torture and Propaganda

Matt Taibbi has a nice, if likely fruitless post explicating why it is that people who condemn torture are not pro-terrorist. Anyway, I think this issue has lost some cultural salience without an Administration or Congress capable of effectively using this specific illogic as a political bludgeon, but I take issue with this:

My group, the anti-torture group, believes that what should make us superior to terrorists is respect for law and due process and civilization, and that when we give in and use these tactics, we forfeit that superiority and actually confer a kind of victory to the al Qaedas of the world, people who should never be allowed any kind of victory in any arena. We furthermore think that the war on terror doesn’t get won with force alone, that it’s a conflict that ultimately has to be won politically, by winning a propaganda battle against these assholes, and we can’t win that battle so easily if people in the Middle East see us openly embrace these tactics.

I understand the point Taibbi is trying to make here — and I bet he doesn’t mean this — but reducing these conflicts to a simple matter of propaganda is a dangerous misreading of the situation. The fact is, extremisim won’t be wiped out with the right PR campaign. What will ultimately suffocate large scale extremism is the development of equitable and humane governments and civil societies that allow for constructive airing of political disagreements. Obviously, propoganda plays an important role insofar as messages suffer from lack of credibility, but we can’t afford to ignore the very real socioeconomic and political factors that breed extremism. The “winning a propaganda battle” approach is essentially a tacit nod to the Bush era dictum “they hate us for our freedoms” — a postulate Osama bin Laden has explicitly denied.

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