One Side Only

Policy Review – Hoover Institution, October 1, 2008

Jane Mayer begins her new bestseller with a subtitle that, even before the book’s opening page, warrants a moment’s reflection: On The Dark Side’s cover appear the words: “The Inside Story of How the War on Terror Turned into a War on American Ideals.”

Mayer’s subtitle pulls one up short in two distinct respects — first, in its assertion that the war against al Qaeda has become a war against American values and, second, in its assumption that the reader does not require persuasion on this first point but shares the judgment and is now only asking how this happened. Mayer turns out to be right on this second point, at least to a great many readers. Her book has topped the sales charts and has received rave reviews. Many people apparently now take it as a given that the war on terror has become not merely an error-prone and sometimes excessive effort to combat al Qaeda but a designedly malign attempt to subvert American constitutionalism. As Mayer suspects, these readers are through asking whether this has happened and are now only asking how.

Mayer’s book is a work of significant virtues and significant vices. It is essential reading for the richness of her narrative reporting — some but not all of which she has recycled from New Yorker articles over the past several years — on the uglier sides of the war on terror in practice. Yet her account has mistakes, from minute factual errors to big conceptual ones. And perhaps her biggest mistake is the one that resides in that subtitle and her related Manichean sense of the Bush administration as a hard-fought internal war between good and evil, between torturers and decent conservatives, between those who believe in the rule of law and those who do not, between practitioners of the old tried and true methods of fighting terrorists and those who eagerly chose to dwell in what Mayer’s arch-villain, Vice President Dick Cheney, once called “the dark side.” Mayer hates her foes too much; she defines the class too broadly; and she concludes far too blithely that September 11 required no voyage at all into the dark side. It is a judgment that will comfort her many readers, but it is very likely wrong, and her half-hearted efforts to demonstrate it — rather than merely assert it — will convince only those who already believe the Bush administration’s efforts to fight the enemy were actually a war against America itself.

Mayer’s book is at its strongest when she is digging out new information about the underside of counterterrorism, synthesizing that information with other people’s reporting, and weaving it all into gripping narrative. She brings a whole lot of information to the table, whether on details of extraordinary renditions, debates within the cia over how to handle those it snatched around the world, bureaucratic infighting throughout the administration over interrogation and detention policy, or the extreme anxiety officials felt about how best to conduct the fight against the enemy. She reports on new documents; she has clearly had significant access to key players. What’s more, the texture of her reporting gets down and dirty enough to make phrases like “coercive interrogation” all too real. No decent person can read her account of the cia’s interrogation program without something approaching nausea. And even those who believe — as I do — that some degree of ugliness is inevitable in a struggle like this will find their insides squirming with anxiety at her accounts of detainee deaths in American custody.

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