on the making of tiny distinctions

A couple of days ago, a reader of the Corner wrote to Ramesh Ponnuru to make the following point: “Regarding the differences in SERE and actual interrogation, [some people mistakenly] insist that key difference is that interrogation is an involuntary exercise while SERE is voluntary. On the contrary, all the suspect has to do is cooperate with his interrogators and the ordeal will be over. . . . [T]he target can opt out at any point he wants by providing the information” and is therefore virtually indistinguishable from the SERE participant. The only difference that the writer can think of is that “the target of interrogation does not want to be there and there is coercion involved.”

Oh, that. Yes, I suppose one must acknowledge that teeny little factor — that the SERE participant chooses to participate in the program while “the target” has been captured and imprisoned. But do we really want to go so far? After all, once we acknowledge so insignificant a detail the gates could well be open to noting others, no doubt even less meaningful, but still. . . . There’s the fact that the writer is simply assuming that the target, in every case, has precisely the information his interrogators want from him. And the fact that even if the target has that information and gives it he has no idea whether his interrogators will be satisfied, or what further interrogation methods will be used, or when or if he will ever be released; whereas the SERE participant can not only leave the program but even leave military service, pretty much at his own discretion. That kind of thing. Not anything major, you understand, but you know what they say, sometimes it’s the little foxes that spoil the grapes.

Here’s how Ponnuru responds: “I agree with most of this, but I still think that the trainee's greater confidence he will survive the exercise makes a big difference.” A big difference, you say? And yet you agree with “most of this.” Interesting. In a later post Ponnuru mentions that readers have made some of the points I have noted but he doesn't appear to be moved by them: “As I said before, my own view is that the trainee's greater confidence that he will survive the experience is the important distinction.” So the SERE participant is thinking “My fellow soldiers probably won't kill me”? And the target is thinking . . . ? I’m losing the thread here.

During the election campaign, what most bothered me was the continual ratcheting up of rhetorical aggression, by both sides (but especially as it was directed against the late and I must say not-at-all-lamented Sarah Palin). That bothered me — but when I read stuff like this I feel like I’m in a freakin’ madhouse. Or that I’m Winston Smith. Maybe after six more months of reading The Corner you’ll find me down at my local weeping my pints because I can't find words to express how much I love Big Brother.