Bill O'Reilly broke silence on Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side" yesterday, but just barely. In a segment that lasted scarcely two minutes, he perpetuated a substantial list of misperceptions about the whole situation.
1. He seemed to dismiss Mayer as just another moveon.org-type, George Bush-hating, left-wing radical liberal. But she has a distinguished resume, and her book is a thorough account of the best information on the topic.
2. He said that the Geneva Conventions don't apply to people who aren't soldiers in uniform. Massively wrong.
3. He stuck to the Bush line that that only three suspects were waterboarded and that the waterboarding produced intelligence that saved thousands of lives. So far as I have had time to read, Mayer doesn't add any additional waterboarding victims to the known list, but she does point out that considerable dispute exists about exactly how and how often the three known victims were waterboarded and about how useful the information they provided was.
4. Even assuming that O'Reilly is right about the number of people waterboarded, it isn't clear what difference that makes. If we were talking about a few rogue interrogators acting on their own, then maybe we could agree that three abuses of the law isn't so bad. But if we are talking about war crimes approved at the highest levels, under bogus legal justifications, as now appears to be the case, then the number doesn't really matter. What's the deal? The first three war crimes are free?
4. He said that it's pretty much up to listeners to decide whether they think coercive interrogation techniques such as forcing prisoners to go without clothes and sleep amounts to torture. But the whole point of having international conventions on torture is to prevent single countries, much less individuals, from writing their own rules. Nor are individuals, of course, free to rewrite American law.
5. He cited surveys showing that most Americans don't much care what happens to suspected terrorists (see Eric Coobs). But this is not a case where opinions of individual Americans matter much, unless those Americans rise in sufficient numbers to amend the U.S. Constitution or revoke international treaties. And even Coobs, I suspect, for all of his tough talk, might blanch at the reality of actually amending the Constitution to eliminate, say, habeas corpus.
Mayer's part of the discussion lasted about one sentence, taken from her response to a question posed by David Letterman about the possibility of trying Bush administration officials for war crimes. Her response was about as noncommital as it could be, noting only that the administration is worried about it.
But O'Reilly isn't worried. And he did his best on Thursday to make sure his fragile listeners don't worry either.