What do the Australian-born Taliban fighter David Hicks, the embattled American radio talk show host Don Imus and the British sailors and marines released last week by the Iranian government all have in common?
It is an easy question if you have been following these stories. These people have been in the news lately apologising for their actions. The twist is that they all issued their confessions under forms of pressure – physical, emotional or financial – that serve to undermine the credibility of those confessions. In each instance, the implication that pivotal statements were coerced leaves us wondering whether to believe the speakers now, then or ever.
Let us begin the comparison with David Hicks, the former kangaroo skinner captured with al-Qaeda fighters in Afghanistan. Mr Hicks offered his confession in the form of an agreement with American military prosecutors at the Guantánamo Bay prison. With his guilty plea, he retracted his previous allegations of abuse at the hands of the American military, agreed not to speak to the media for a year, not to sue the US government for mistreatment and not to profit from selling his life story. In a statement read by his lawyer in court, Mr Hicks thanked American service members for their professionalism and apologised to the US for his actions.
A number of analysts in the US and Australia have declined to take this confession at face value. Mr Hicks, who has been at Guantánamo for more than five years, was facing a life sentence for lending material support to terrorism. As a result of the deal, he will serve only nine more months in an Australian prison before being released. If you tend to doubt the word of the Bush administration, you may tend to credit Mr Hicks’s earlier claims of torture and mistreatment and regard the threat of a long sentence as a reason to doubt the sincerity of his confession. The military prosecutor’s insistence on a gag order only raises suspicions that when Mr Hicks says that he was lying, he’s lying.
If apologising to the Pentagon provokes scepticism, apologising to Shiacrats holding you at gunpoint prompts outright disbelief. Before the 15 British detainees were set free last week, the Iranian government released three letters written by Faye Turney, the only woman in the group, in which she said that the sailors were at fault, denounced the Bush and Blair governments for occupying Iraq and asserted that she and her colleagues were being well treated by their captors. Even those who have been critical of the sailors’ excessive co-operation in captivity assume that their confessions of guilt resulted from intimidation or threats by their Iranian captors. This is the sailors’ defence as well. “I never meant a word of it,” Ms Turney said of her letters after returning home.
Don Imus grovelling on the radio show of the racial demagogue Al Sharpton this week looked a bit like a 16th captive, only he was not smiling quite so much. Mr Imus wants Americans to accept his apology for comments last week in which he referred to members of a triumphant black women’s basketball team as “nappy-headed hos” and “jigaboos”. Mr Imus hopes that apologising profusely will liberate him from boycott threats and prevent the cancellation of his profitable and successful programme.
Here the coercion factor works against, rather than in favour of, the captive’s current wishes. Mr Imus’s motive is too transparent for us to believe he simply means what he is saying. But as with the other cases, the facile assumption that coercion equals deceit, may tell us more about our political views than where the truth actually lies. If you think racism is a pervasive and ineradicable fact of American life, you will almost certainly think Mr Imus embodies it. If not, you might dismiss his slurs as transgressions of taste rather than evidence of inveterate bigotry.
Likewise with Mr Hicks, those focused on American misdeeds assume that his earlier, uncoerced statements are more reflective of his beliefs. But his allegations from a few years ago about mistreatment at American hands, including claims of sexual abuse, seem far-fetched. And Mr Hicks had a motive to lie back then, too – to help fellow al-Qaeda members slander the Americans. According to one account, Mr Hicks ceased to be a Muslim at Guantánamo, which would explain why he now sympathises with his captors. The world would be a simpler place if we could believe that torture and coercion never work. But sometimes they may, which means we have to draw lines on moral grounds, not just practical ones.
As for the British seamen, they may indeed have confessed without meaning what they said in Iran, but they appear to be saying what their nearest audience wants to hear again now. The sailors need to defend themselves against the charge that they failed to maintain military discipline and embarrassed their country by co-operating with their captors and accepting gifts. Some had a financial motive as well, Ms Turney reportedly being paid £100,000 ($198,000) to co-operate in her exoneration by Britain’s largest newspaper. That may not count as coercion, but it is a harder gift to refuse than a bag of pistachio nuts.
The writer is editor of Slate.com