What we didn’t know that we knew about Afghanistan
In his book Iraq: The Borrowed Kettle, philosopher Slajov Zizek laid out an ad-hoc taxonomy for various kinds of knowledge, via a reference to then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumseld. Zizek says:
In March 2003, Rumsfeld engaged in a little bit of amateur philosophizing about the relationship between the known and the unknown: “There are known knowns. These are things we know that we know. There are known unknowns. That is to say, there are things that we know we don’t know. But there are also unknown unknowns. There are things we don’t know we don’t know.” What he forgot to add was the crucial fourth term: the “unknown knowns,” the things we don’t know that we know–which is precisely, the Freudian unconscious, the “knowledge which doesn’t know itself,” as Lacan used to say.
Zizek suggests that we know very well on some level what is going on, and that this latent knowledge is tacitly approved of so long as it remains at the level of the unknown known. One of the key differences between Abu Ghraib and previous torture was that the Bush administration had already admitted to the possibility of torture via its arguments about its political effectiveness in preventing further terrorist attacks. Conservative thought-games about “ticking time bomb” scenarios implicitly allowed and normalized the torture of terror suspects and the concurrent suspension of human rights.
It is hard not to see the ghost of Abu Ghraib and the continuing presence of the Bush administration policies of the early War on Terror in last week’s WikiLeaks release of an “an extraordinary compendium of over 91,000 reports covering the war in Afghanistan from 2004 to 2010 [. . .] mainly describing lethal military actions involving the United States military, also include intelligence information, reports of meetings with political figures, and related details.”
Whilst this release has naturally caused a stir in the media, it is arguable that this will be largely politically consequenceless. By July 28th, the Washington Post could report that
“one day, the WikiLeaks uproar was sparking a once-in-a-generation debate about the disclosure of classified information, the audacious role of a stateless organization beyond the reach of sovereign nations, and the old media’s complicity in packaging the 91,000 pages of Afghanistan war documents.
The next day, the media establishment seemed to yawn: Old news.”
Despite the sensational nature of the documents, the politics of exposure that Wikileaks pursues is strangely politically toothless. NYU professor Jay Rosen tweeted that “we tend to think: big revelations mean big reactions. But if the story is too big and crashes too many illusions, the exact opposite occurs.” Yet perhaps it is that the story is simultaneously too big and it crashes too few illusions. After Abu Ghraib, what crimes can be shocking when committed by the United States military?
The nature of media coverage and its focus on spectacular footage may be similarly at work in the response. When the Abu Ghraib photos surfaced, Donald Rumsfeld rightly told the US Senate inquiry that “the photos give these incidents a vividness, indeed a horror, in the eyes of the world.” 91,000 pages of documents, however, is the journalistic equivalent of War and Peace, an impossible read-through to find the sexy or gory bits that make for good copy and better news ledes. Once the new media vs old media line was exhausted, there was little for the media to cover.
The release of the documents to The New York Times, The Guardian and Der Spiegel was thus a canny move, but one that factored in its own obsolescence. Last year, Wikileaks founder Julian Assange said that “you’d think the bigger and more important the document is, the more likely it will be reported on but that’s absolutely not true. It’s about supply and demand. Zero supply equals high demand, it has value. As soon as we release the material, the supply goes to infinity, so the perceived value goes to zero.”
Indeed this prophecy was correct: once the information was available on the web, interest in the story subsided. The same overwhelming amount of information that produced the story contributed to its rapid demise.
In that interview, Assange suggested that he sees the role of Wikileaks as both archival and politically charged, stating that “we want to get as much substantive information as possible into the historical record, keep it accessible and provide incentives for people to turn it into something that will achieve political reform,” said Assange. Yet achieving both of these aims at the same time may be near-on impossible. Sadly, creating a historical record appears to be much easier than mobilizing outrage into political reform.
There was a piece published recently in the Boston Globe recently that found that people remember what they already ideologically believe, not the facts. As the piece stated:
“In a series of studies in 2005 and 2006, researchers at the University of Michigan found that when misinformed people, particularly political partisans, were exposed to corrected facts in news stories, they rarely changed their minds. In fact, they often became even more strongly set in their beliefs. Facts, they found, were not curing misinformation. Like an underpowered antibiotic, facts could actually make misinformation even stronger.”
Facts, it is clear, are not enough to persuade the American public (or indeed its politicians or media) of a position. We discard inconvenient facts, pushing them into the realm of the known unknown. Arguably, as with the torture at Abu Ghraib, the WikiLeaks exposure falls into the category of information we already know but pretend not to. The murder of civilians, the inadvertent funding of terrorism through aid to Pakistani supporters of Afghan jihadi, these are not really surprises. The Obama administration’s response was thus absolutely correct in a certain sense: downplaying the documents, suggesting that the information is outdated, a product of the Bush era. It certainly is—but it is a legacy that the current administration is bent on extending.
The other line offered by the Obama administration was that the WikiLeaks info-dump would “harm national security”–an obvious contradiction to its first defense, mocked easily by the likes of Jon Stewart. Yet perhaps it’s more worthwhile reflecting on the recent incident with General McChrystal’s notorious interview with Rolling Stone. In the present climate, what a general does get fired for is insubordination—but not war crimes.
Human life, especially that of the populations of Afghanistan and Iraq (but given the death toll on the US army, even its own citizens), is considerably less important politically than someone not toeing the PR line. Everyone—from WikiLeaks to the old media to the Obama administration—considered the WikiLeaks logs a much more damaging PR disaster than they turned out to be, a remnant of an earlier time where killing civilians was scandalous.
In this new stage of the War on Terror, it is not simply the control of information which is important to sovereign states. Rather, unless information is also photogenic and politically sensitive, not to mention genuinely shocking in providing a truly unknown unknown, both old and new media themselves will remain entirely toothless in pursuing a politics of exposure.