08/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Pitchforks, Torches and Tivos (A Conniption Over Harsh Words About A Captive U.S. Soldier)

Let's start with the Fox News analyst's harsh words about Pfc. Bowe Bergdahl, the U.S. soldier that Taliban forces are holding captive.

Because however bizarre, however stupefyingly premature the Fox pundit's words are, they are something other than what they have become in the re-telling. The faulty re-telling shows how reflexive, oblivious and ineffectual we can be when we take up our pitchforks, our torches, and our Tivos and hurry off to smite this moment's worst person in the world.

So yes. The words. The actual words retired Lt. Col. Ralph Peters spoke on Fox about Pfc. Bergdahl. Let's start there:

If, when the facts are in, we find out that through some convoluted chain of events that (Bergdahl) really was captured by the Taliban, I'm with him. But if he walked away from his post and his buddies in wartime, I don't care how hard it sounds, as far as I'm concerned, the Taliban can save us a lot of legal hassles and legal bills.

In that quote, there are twin, diametrically opposed conditional statements. One of those conditional statements ends with "I'm with him." Those three words of conditional solidarity mostly washed away in the re-telling. Consider DailyKosTV"s video, which appears under the headline "Fox analyst: Taliban should murder U.S. soldier to save us 'a lot of legal hassles and legal bills'."

The Kos clip runs 38 seconds. The actual Fox segment that featured Peters ran about four minutes.

If you make yourself watch the whole segment, you may notice two things: 1) something Peters said that should provoke the strongest outrage from people who care about issues such as detainee abuse and the junk confessions extracted by torture; 2) the roots of Peters' readiness to condemn a soldier who, according to military officials cited in the New York Times, "walked off his outpost in eastern Afghanistan three weeks ago."

Let's deal first with that second point, the roots of Peters' readiness to condemn. He plainly believes that soldiers will not suffer Bergdahl's fate if they do their jobs as they've been trained to do them.

He's lying about how he was captured, saying he lagged behind a patrol. Julie, I'll tell you, any 11 Bravo infantryman will tell you, that's just not how it works. In a war zone, any soldier is aware of where all his buddies are. If it's a night patrol, you're sure aware of where the guy in front of you and behind you is. So we know this private is a liar. We're not sure if he's a deserter. But the media needs to hit the pause button and not portray this guy as a hero.

I don't know about you, but my instinct is to recoil from words like these. And I did recoil. But then I thought and thought some more.

While I can take issue, on general principle, with the name-calling inherent in a word like "liar," I have no military experience and therefore no standing whatsoever to pass judgment on the substance of what Peters said. Furthermore, I can't put myself in the boots of the troops who now may be asked to risk their lives to save Bergdahl. That, in essence, is what Peters wanted viewers to do. His last words in the segment were "Think about his buddies, think about his buddies."

Thinking about Bergdahl's buddies is uncomfortable. But we better hope that military leaders are doing just that. Bergdahl's buddies have lives, have families. Someone in the Pentagon had better be working through the awful arithmetic of how many soldiers we're willing to send home in body bags in an attempt to bring Bergdahl home alive. Someone had better be figuring out how many Afghan or Pakistani civilians we're willing to kill in the crossfire of a rescue attempt. And yes, someone -- someone more discreet and diplomatic than Peters, to be sure -- had better be asking whether the arithmetic of body bags and civilian casualties should add up differently if a soldier in need of rescue is, in fact, someone who voluntarily walked away from his post.

All of this is so far beyond any expertise I even pretend to possess. So I will stop and return to something else -- the first of the aforementioned two things one might notice in a careful viewing of the whole Fox News segment, that thing Peters said that should provoke the strongest outrage from people whose consciences abhor the junk confessions extracted by torture. Speaking about Bergdahl, who was made to appear in a Taliban propaganda video, Peters said this:

On that video, he's collaborating with the enemy. Under duress or not, that's really not relevant.

That last sentence bears repeating: "Under duress or not, that's really not relevant."

It was this claim -- this seeming blanket denial of the power of threat and torture to break people -- that troubled me all day Monday after I read Peters' quotes in the morning. I didn't have time to write about all this then. The waiting was terrible. For me, one of the perils of part-time blogging is that I sometimes delude myself into believing that I alone have noticed something that the world really, really, really needs to know.

So I was grateful and humbled (and ultimately grateful to be humbled) when I came across a clip of what Jonathan Turley said Monday night on MSNBC. Turley, a law professor at George Washington University, had noticed what I noticed and what I'm sure any number of other people around the country noticed, too. Here's how Turley put it:

What's really shocking is (Peters') statement that ... the one thing we know is this soldier's a liar because he made these statements. As you know, U.S. soldiers that have been captured have been forced to do confessions and videotapes, including people like John McCain, and we don't call them liars.

That, right there, is where Peters needs to be hit, where he deserves to be hit. Because it damages the country to let Peters' "under duress or not, that's really not relevant" go unchallenged. It's Rumsfeld logic. It's the logic that led to America's descent into government-sanctioned torture and, in turn, yielded the predictable false confessions and all the wasted time our agents spent trying to thwart imaginary terrorist plots.

All of this takes time to explain. I've written multiple posts about it. But it's hard to change minds. We want to believe that torture could save us in the fabled "ticking time bomb scenario." We want to believe in the steadfast soldier who sings "God Bless America" even as the bad guys rip out his fingernails, deprive him of sleep for days on end, and run water over his face until he's sure he is about to drown.

These are powerful, seductive myths. So we can't pass up a single chance to challenge them. We can't, for example, waste our time cheering along as CNN features Peters on a recurring segment called "the wingnut watch":

Note the language the CNN pundit used to tag Peters as a "wingnut."

  • "If you give every criminal the benefit of the doubt in our legal system, our fighting men and women deserve at least ten times that."
  • "There needs to be a presumption of goodwill. We all need to rally around our soldiers."
  • "This is not acceptable stuff. This is wingnut stuff. We need to rally behind our troops 100 percent until this war is done."

We take these platitudes and fashion them into weapons against someone like Peters because we don't stop to think of how the weapon will inevitably be turned against anti-war activists, against investigative reporters, against human rights organizations, against any random citizen who dares to question the wisdom of our next Iraq.

This whole Peters episode makes clear that we need to think bigger and we need to think better.

Huffington Post blogger David Quigg lives in Seattle. His own blog is here. His Twitter feed is here.