Subjunctive arguments

The political media we try to analyze need not be limited to the op-ed pages of the major dailies. Last weekend I watched the Gitmo: The New Rules of War, a 2005 documentary by Swedish filmmakers Erik Gandini and Tariq Saleh. Now, I wouldn’t want to say that a documentary can be exhaustively or perhaps even adequately analyzed by logic alone. Nevertheless, there are clearly inferences made or suggested that can and should be judged by logic.

The narrator states in the opening minutes of the film “We have come here because we want to know what is really going on in Guantanamo.” They discover (apparently to their surprise) that hidden cameras are not going to be possible and that they are not going to gain access to Camp Delta.

Their second route for information–a Swedish citizen named Mehdi Ghezali, held for two years–frustrated their intentions by refusing to say virtually anything to the press or to the filmmakers (though he has since written a book in Swedish).

At this point, the film makes the entirely reasonable criticism that the prisoners in Guantanamo are neither afforded the protections of the Geneva Convention as prisoners of war nor afforded the civil rights protection of civilian prisoner. This, they point out, results from the American interest in interrogating these detainees for extended periods of time–something that would not be possible if they were accorded either of these status (4th declension? or statuses?”).

But such a position would not make for an interesting documentary. Instead, the filmmakers attempt to link the treatment of prisoners at Guantanamo with the treatment of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. They suggest that the pictures of prisoner abuse at Abu Ghraib can be used to infer how prisoners are treated inside Camp Delta. Their case rests on the following claims:

  1. The change of the commandant at Camp Delta to General Miller, replacing Brig. General Rick Baccus–reputedly because he opposed the list of unconventional interrogation techniques. Baccus’ unwillingness to comment on these events, the filmmakers seem to suggest, is a result of some sort of pressure from the military.
  2. The memo that requests permission in October 2002 to use techniques such as forcing prisoners to stand naked, lengthen interrogation sessions (to 20 hours), take advantage of prisoner phobias. (They ignore the subsequent history of this issue–the techniques were at first approved by Secretary Rumsfeld and then approval was retracted for many after criticism of the policy by military lawyers.)
  3. The fact that the Major General Miller was later sent to Iraq in August 2002 to advise concerning interrogation techniques. (Though supposedly he presented the interrogation techniques from Guantano as an example of policy and indicated the difference in situations between Iraq (as an occupied territory) and Guantanamo).
  4. “Some say these methods originated in Guantanamo, but we just haven’t seen the pictures.” (The scene immediately following this quote, contains accusations that rap music, Fleetwood mac, and sex are used to crack prisoners at Guantanamo.)

Even granting the truth of all of these claims, this argument can at best only weakly suggest anything about how detainees were treated in Guantanamo. (I am certainly not denying that human rights abuse were or are committed in Camp Delta (there are documented and prosecuted cases) only that the evidence used by these filmmakers to suggest that it is likely that it is ocurring is not adequate. In each case, the filmmakers fail to appeal to any direct evidence of the treatment in Guantanamo, and they ignore the more detailed investigations of three major comissions (e.g. Schlesinger Commission).

The argument,such as it is, commits several fallacies I think–ignoring evidence, appeal to questionable authorities, and oversimplified cause. The abuses photographed at Abu Ghraib seem to have arisen in part because of peculiarities of the local situation (lack of adequate resources for example). Although there are undoubtedly similarities in interrogation techniques, the inference that the filmmakers want us to make seems inadequately justified by the argument presented.

Sometimes filmmakers claim that they are merely documenting the facts and leave it up to the viewer to make the inferences. This seems to me (in the abstract at least) either disingenuous or naive. Although the filmmakers prefer to couch their assertions in the subjunctive rather than the indicative mood, this doesn’t really allow them to escape–they must still show that the conclusions are rendered more likely than not by their evidence. Many viewers will probably find the film “biased” which may or may not be a failing in a documentary film. The problems, however, run deeper than this. The filmmakers fail to make the argument needed to persuade the viewer of the plausiblity of their subjunctive speculation.

5 thoughts on “Subjunctive arguments”

  1. i’ve noticed this sentiment cropping up a lot in some documentary films recently. it’s almost uniform that they use the “we were denied access, so we must be on the right track” meme to “prove” their point, of course, all this while leaving the inference to the viewer, but implying it heavily, as you’ve identified. good stuff. thanks for bringing it up.

  2. Some say this film is ridiculously weak, but we haven’t seen the pictures, so we can only speculate. . . . Such weak arguments can only undermine the rhetorical case you want to make about the status of prisoners at Guantanamo insofar as you give your opponent a real live straw man. He doesn’t even need to make up a Bush-man to knock your argument down.

  3. you know, NOW did a really great piece on Guantanamo featuring the 3 British national who were taken there wrongly for 3 years. really a moving, effective piece, far moreso than this one sounds.

  4. I missed the NOW unfortunately. There’s also Michael Winterbottom’s film coming out on DVD this month “The Road to Guantanamo”–hopefully it’s better.

    It’s a sort of argument to intention of the sort we were discussing a while back:

    If you are not telling me X, it must be because you have a reason to conceal X.
    A plausible reason to conceal X is Y.
    Therefore, it is likely that you are motivated by Y.

    Without some supporting evidence this seems like a very weak argument.

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