Entries for November 2006

November 30, 2006

The Bible as history-4: How science unearths the past

(See part 1, part 2, and part 3.)

The two main tools that are available for trying to piece together the real history of Biblical times are those of literary analysis and archeology. In the former, the analysts carefully examine texts for literary clues as to the dates and places where events are reported to have occurred. In the latter, fieldwork in the area tries to find concrete evidence of the rise and fall and migration of societies. And when the two methods are combined, it becomes possible to reconstruct events and see what Biblical stories hold up and what don't.

And what it seems to show is that the stories of the Bible that occurred earlier than around 800 BC have little or no support and are often contradicted outright. A key myth that was overturned was about Abraham having lived around 1800 BCE, and the wanderings of a people associated with him. This story has been completely undermined by a combination of literary and archeological analysis and there is no reason to believe it to be true.

For an example of the kind of analysis that is done, take simple facts like camels being used for transport. The Bible frequently mentions camel caravans during the various migrations of people, including those of Abraham. As Daniel Lazare says in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament, nowadays we tend to take for granted that camels were always domesticated animals, routinely available to be used for transport purposes. But in actuality, studies of ancient animal bones show that as far as that region was concerned, camels were not used for such domestic purposes until well after 1000 BCE.

If you try to shift the dates of Abraham's travels to overcome problems like that with the camels, you run into other problems.

Subsequent research into urban development and nomadic growth patterns indicated that no such mass migration had taken place and that several cities mentioned in the Genesis account did not exist during the time frame Albright had suggested. Efforts to salvage the theory by moving up Abraham's departure to around 1500 B.C. foundered when it was pointed out that, this time around, Genesis failed to mention cities that did dominate the landscape during this period. No matter what time frame was advanced, the biblical text did not accord with what archaeologists were learning about the land of Canaan in the second millennium.

Another problem arises with the exodus from Egypt. The evidence points to the fact that such an event did not happen.

The most obvious concerned the complete silence in contemporary Egyptian records concerning the mass escape of what the Bible says were no fewer than 603,550 Hebrew slaves.
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Not only was there a dearth of physical evidence concerning the escape itself, as archaeologists pointed out, but the slate was blank concerning the nearly five centuries that the Israelites had supposedly lived in Egypt prior to the Exodus as well as the forty years that they supposedly spent wandering in the Sinai. Not so much as a skeleton, campsite, or cooking pot had turned up, [Tel Aviv University archeologist Israel] Finkelstein and [journalist Neil Asher] Silberman noted, even though "modern archeological techniques are quite capable of tracing even the very meager remains of hunter-gatherers and pastoral nomads all over the world." Indeed, although archaeologists have found remains in the Sinai from the third millennium B.C. and the late first, they have found none from the thirteenth century.

Another myth that was overthrown by archeological studies was that the land of Canaan was captured by Israelites returning from Egypt after several epic battles. In actuality, Lazare writes:

Resurrecting a theory first proposed in the 1920s, an Israeli named Yohanan Aharoni infuriated the Israeli archaeological establishment by arguing that evidence in support of an Israelite war of conquest in the thirteenth century B.C. was weak and unconvincing. Basing his argument on a redating of pottery shards found at a dig in the biblical city of Hazor, Aharoni proposed instead that the first Hebrew settlers had filtered into Palestine in a nonviolent fashion, peacefully settling among the Canaanites rather than putting them to the sword.
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Rather than revealing that Canaan was entered from the outside, analysis of ancient settlement patterns indicated that a distinctive Israelite culture arose locally around 1200 B.C. as nomadic shepherds and goatherds ceased their wanderings and began settling down in the nearby uplands. Instead of an alien culture, the Israelites were indigenous. Indeed, they were highly similar to other cultures that were emerging in the region around the same time--except for one thing: whereas archaeologists found pig bones in other sites, they found none among the Israelites. A prohibition on eating pork may have been one of the earliest ways in which the Israelites distinguished themselves from their neighbors.

Another story that is strongly believed to be true but is very likely to be a myth is the story of David and Solomon being powerful kings who ruled over a large region of territory and lived in some splendor.

If the Old Testament is to be believed, David and Solomon, rulers of the southern kingdom of Judah from about 1005 to about 931 B.C., made themselves masters of the northern kingdom of Israel as well. They represent, in the official account, a rare moment of national unity and power; under their reign, the combined kingdom was a force throughout the Fertile Crescent.
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According to the Bible, Solomon was both a master builder and an insatiable accumulator. He drank out of golden goblets, outfitted his soldiers with golden shields, maintained a fleet of sailing ships to seek out exotic treasures, kept a harem of 1,000 wives and concubines, and spent thirteen years building a palace and a richly decorated temple to house the Ark of the Covenant. Yet not one goblet, not one brick, has ever been found to indicate that such a reign existed.

The battle of Jericho that has been immortalized in song as where Joshua caused the walls to come tumbling down also lacks any supporting evidence. "Although archaeologists claimed in the 1930s to have uncovered evidence that the walls of Jericho had fallen much as the Book of Joshua said they had, a British archaeologist named Kathleen Kenyon was subsequently able to demonstrate, based on Mycenaean pottery shards found amid the ruins, that the destruction had occurred no later than 1300 B.C., seventy years or more before the conquest could have happened. Whatever caused the walls of Jericho to come tumbling down, it was not Joshua's army."

Needless to say, these recent archeological discoveries have not gone down well with those who want to believe the myths. Lazare says "the facts turned up by the new studies predictably angered the establishment that wanted to preserve the old ideas and cling to the Biblical view of history as much as possible."

This kind of scientific research poses the same problem for religious believers as evolution by natural selection does. At some point you have to choose whether you want to follow the path of science and go wherever the evidence leads you, or whether you want to go counter to the evidence and believe myths and folklore.

Next: Why the Bible was created

POST SCRIPT: Interesting talk TODAY

The Cleveland Museum of Natural History FRONTIERS of ASTRONOMY Lecture Series is having what promises to be a very interesting talk TODAY, Thursday, Nov 30, at 8:00 pm

University of Chicago and Fermilab physicist Edward Rocky Kolb will be talking about "The Quantum and the Cosmos."

Long before plants, stars or galaxies emerged, the Universe consisted of an exploding quantum soup of "elementary" particles. Encoded in this formless, shapeless soup were the seeds of cosmic structure, which over billions of years grew into the beautiful and complex Universe we observe today. Edward Kolb explores the connection between the "inner space" of the quantum and the "outer space" of the cosmos. The inner space/outer space connection may hold the key to the nature of the dark matter holding our galaxy together and the mysterious dark energy pulling our universe apart.

Admission is free. For more information, please go to the CMNH website and click of the "Calendar of Events."

November 29, 2006

The Bible as history-3: Enter modern archeology

An article in The Chronicle of Higher Education (January 21, 2000, p. A19) describes the surprising results of recent archeological research into the period covered by the Bible. As the tools of archeology developed and became more refined within the past two decades, and archeologists themselves felt no need to have their findings conform to a particular religious narrative, their results went in surprising directions.

So how much of what we believe to be historically true based on the Bible now stands up under the scrutiny of modern archaeological evidence? Very little, it turns out. The Bible is not only a poor source of science and cosmology, it is not even a good source of history.

In the Chronicle article, Tel Avis University archeologist Ze'ev Herzog is quoted as saying: "This is what archaeologists have learned from their excavations in the Land of Israel: the Israelites were never in Egypt, did not wander in the desert, did not conquer the land in a military campaign and did not pass it on to the 12 tribes of Israel. Perhaps even harder to swallow is the fact that the united monarchy of David and Solomon, which is described by the Bible as a regional power, was at most a small tribal kingdom."

The article says that among academics there is broad consensus on most features, although scholars differ about details. Reporting on two recent conferences, it says: "None of the scholars speaking at either conference believe that the Bible's historical sections can be accepted as literal, accurate descriptions of historical events. They also agree that the extra-biblical evidence for events described in the Bible dwindles the farther back in time one goes. King Ahab of Israel [who reigned around 850 BCE] is well-documented in other inscriptions from elsewhere in the Middle East; the united monarchy of David and Solomon is not. Evidence exists of the rise of the new Israelite nation in the Palestinian highlands during the late Bronze Age [1600-1200 BCE] - the age of the Judges - but it can be interpreted in different ways. There is no external evidence at all for the patriarchs and, in fact, the biblical description contains contradictions and anachronisms that, scholars generally agree, seem to place the patriarchs in the age of the Judges rather than several generations earlier, as the Bible has it."

Daniel Lazare confirms this modern view in his March 2002 Harper's article False Testament. He says that the new version of history unearthed by archeologists is quite different from what most people believe.

Not only is there no evidence that any such figure as Abraham ever lived but archaeologists believe that there is no way such a figure could have lived given what we now know about ancient Israelite origins.
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A growing volume of evidence concerning Egyptian border defenses, desert sites where the fleeing Israelites supposedly camped, etc., indicates that the flight from Egypt did not occur in the thirteenth century before Christ; it never occurred at all.
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Rather than a band of invaders who fought their way into the Holy Land, the Israelites are now thought to have been an indigenous culture that developed west of the Jordan River around 1200 B.C. Abraham, Isaac, and the other patriarchs appear to have been spliced together out of various pieces of local lore.
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Moses was no more historically real than Abraham before him.
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[A]rchaeologists believe that David was not a mighty potentate whose power was felt from the Nile to the Euphrates but rather a freebooter who carved out what was at most a small duchy in the southern highlands around Jerusalem and Hebron. Indeed, the chief disagreement among scholars nowadays is between those who hold that David was a petty hilltop chieftain whose writ extended no more than a few miles in any direction and a small but vociferous band of "biblical minimalists" who maintain that he never existed at all.
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The Davidic Empire, which archaeologists once thought as incontrovertible as the Roman, is now seen as an invention of Jerusalem-based priests in the seventh and eighth centuries B.C. who were eager to burnish their national history. The religion we call Judaism does not reach well back into the second millennium B.C. but appears to be, at most, a product of the mid-first.

This is not to say that individual elements of the story are not older. But Jewish monotheism, the sole and exclusive worship of an ancient Semitic god known as Yahweh, did not fully coalesce until the period between the Assyrian conquest of the northern Jewish kingdom of Israel in 722 B.C. and the Babylonian conquest of the southern kingdom of Judah in 586.

I must admit that all this came as a surprise to me, although this knowledge seems to be widespread in the archeological community. And given my past religious training, my interest was piqued by the question of why all this was not more well known and taught as part of routine Bible study.

In hindsight, it is easy to see that I should never have taken the Biblical stories seriously. Religious texts, whatever the religion, are unlikely to be reliable sources of history. Their authors are not disinterested writers. They are usually religious people, perhaps priests and leaders or scribes working under their direction, and are essentially trying to provide a rationale for people to believe in that religion and to provide authority for religious leaders to enforce discipline on their members. It is in their interest to embellish the historical accounts in order to legitimize the status quo, to give people a sense of inevitability about their status, and to provide legitimacy to the priestly class. To do this, they have to create a grand narrative to describe god's special interest in them, the rules that they must follow, and his dislike for people of other religions.

If we want to know what really happened in the deep past, we must not believe the accounts given in religious texts unless they are confirmed by investigations using the painstaking, evidence-based methods of science.

Next: How scientific analysis of the past works.

POST SCRIPT: We should have known

Observers of soon-to-be-former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld when he was relishing the idea that he was a brilliant thinker will never forget his famous quote:

Reports that say something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns -- the ones we don't know we don't know.

But as BBC's Radio 4 points out, while this may sound initially like gibberish, actually Rumsfeld simply did not go far enough.

November 28, 2006

The Bible as history-2: Why people think much of it is true

Until very recently, I had (like most people) the vague idea that the basic Biblical story of a people being in captivity in Egypt, then somehow escaping and settling in the land that is now known as Israel and Palestine was true. Of course, one had to allow for the fact that the stories may have been embellished over time, with all kinds for spectacular miracles and tales of heroism added in to make it more compelling drama. The stories of Moses parting the Red Sea, the Sun being made to stand still, and similar miracles all violate well-established scientific laws and cannot be taken seriously except by those who are determined to believe them because they want to.

But the credibility of the basic historical outline was enhanced by the fact that as we got to periods later that about 600 BCE and approached the time of Jesus, there were other non-Biblical contemporary records that corroborated some of the historical events written about in the Bible. These corroborations of some later events enabled people to believe that the earlier events must also be true. In addition, early archeologists in the Middle East began with the presumption that the Bible stories were entirely true and interpreted all their findings to corroborate them, thus adding to the credibility of the Biblical history.

The earliest challenges to the Bible's historical accuracy came in the late nineteenth century from what is called the "higher criticism," which applied the techniques of linguistic and textual analysis to written documents. The study of the language used in the Bible, and the allusions and references that were used therein, enabled scholars to deduce important information about the chronology of events and when the books were written.

Such careful scrutiny of Biblical texts led scholars to conclude that the first five books of the Bible were not written by Moses (as popularly supposed), but were created after the period of Babylonian exile and captivity (586-538 BCE) by Jewish scribes who tried to put a collection of older writings into some order.

It is important to remember that the precursor to the modern Hebrew language only became codified around 800 BCE and thus the first books of the Bible only were written about a century later. But if you take the calendars deduced from the genealogies of the Bible at face value, the early events involving Abraham must have happened about 1800 BCE. Thus, when they were being actually written, the books in the Old Testament were describing events that supposedly happened well over a thousand years earlier. Thus most of the Biblical 'history' of that earlier time had to be based on myths, legends, and oral histories, all of which are notoriously unreliable and susceptible to distortions introduced either unwittingly or deliberately by their creators in order to serve political and nationalist and religious goals. At best, these books must be viewed as representing nothing more than a codification of folklore, oral traditions, and propagandizing.

Of course, this does not prove that the events described in those books never happened but it does suggest that those stories should be treated on a par with Norse and Greek and Indian mythology in terms of their credibility.

The only reliable evidence of events of times earlier than the first millennium BCE are those that have been unearthed by scientific methods, such as archaeological studies. Oral and written histories can mislead, but the trail left by the ruins of past societies, the rubble of their homes, and the remnants of their pots and tools and bones and other debris, provide a much more unbiased record of how people lived and migrated. People write with a conscious purpose and future audience in mind, but they live for the present. In our daily activities, we do not deliberately set out to create evidence to guide future archeologists. If I am writing my autobiography, I do it with an eye to what future readers will think of me, but when I take out the trash, I am not wondering what the detritus of my life will say about my society and me a thousand years hence.

For a long while, the archeological records seemed to support the basic ideas of Biblical history. Daniel Lazare, in the article False Testament in the March 2002 issue of Harper's magazine, sums up the situation that existed until about two decades ago. He says that "it seemed clear that the Israelites had started out as a nomadic band somewhere in the vicinity of ancient Mesopotamia; that they had migrated first to Palestine and then to Egypt; and that, following some sort of conflict with the authorities, they had fled into the desert under the leadership of a mysterious figure who was either a lapsed Jew or, as Freud maintained, a high-born priest of the royal sun god Aton whose cult had been overthrown in a palace coup. Although much was unknown, archaeologists were confident that they had succeeded in nailing down at least these few basic facts."

This pretty much is the kind of hazy idea that most people have of that time and it seemed to be supported by evidence. The support that earlier archeologists who went to the Middle East in the 19th century provided for the basic Bible stories was not an accident, though. These early archeological studies were done by people who were themselves deeply religious and they were confident that their studies would uncover facts that would be fully consistent with the Bible. They took the basic Bible narratives as more-or-less factual and sought to find, or at least interpret, evidence that confirmed those accounts. Hence, as Lazare says, "The first archaeologists were thus guilty of one of the most elementary of scientific blunders: rather than allowing the facts to speak for themselves, they had tried to fit them into a preconceived theoretical framework." Because of this "Evidence that buttressed the biblical account was eagerly sought out, while evidence that contradicted it was ignored."

As a result of this earlier work, the strong perception was created over time that there has been a consistent pattern of evidence being unearthed that buttressed the basic stories of the Bible so that we can regard at least that part of the document that occurs after Noah's flood and begins with Abraham as historically true. This is the image that is widespread today. But that view has changed dramatically with the rise of a new generation of archeologists who did not feel constrained, as their predecessors had done, to interpret their discoveries to be consistent with the Bible.

Next: What modern archeology reveals.

POST SCRIPT: This amazing universe

This video clip of the Galaxy Song from Monty Python's Meaning of Life never loses its appeal, because of its scientific accuracy, the cleverness of its lyrics, and the reminder it provides that, thanks to science, we are able to comprehend so much about this vast and amazing universe that we have been fortunate enough to be born into. The last words of the song are:

So remember, when you're feeling very small and insecure,
How amazingly unlikely is your birth,
And pray that there's intelligent life somewhere up in space,
'Cause there's bugger all down here on Earth.

November 27, 2006

The Bible as history-1: The basic early story

There are two views of history. Academic history is that which is painstakingly recreated by historians, trying to reconstruct as accurately as possible events from long ago using source materials as close to the original time as possible along with other kinds of evidence. But then there is the view of history as consisting of that which we remember long after our courses in history have ended. W. C. Sellar, R. J. Yeatman, and Frank Muir humorously recounted the latter kind of English history in their book 1066 and All That, while Dave Barry did it brilliantly for US history in Dave Barry Slept Here, one of the funniest books I have ever read.

The fact is that to the chagrin of historians, most people's ideas about past events are quite vague and consist of bits of stories they remember from various sources stitched together to provide some sort of quasi-coherent narrative that may differ wildly from the actual sequence of events.

In researching and writing that many-part series about our common ancestors (which you can find by typing in the keyword 'ancestor' in the search box) something that surprised me was how few contemporary records exist of what happened earlier than (say) the first millennium BCE. I realized during the course of that research how little I knew for certain about the past and that most of what I knew I had acquired in the course of religious instruction using the Old Testament of the Bible. I began to wonder just how much of the Bible was actually true as history and decided to do a little digging.

Even during the most religious phases of my life, I had never taken the Bible literally as a source of cosmology and other origins. The Genesis stories of how the universe came to be, Adam and Eve, Noah's ark and the like were to be understood as fiction. Of course, like other 'modern' religious people, I took these fictional accounts to be metaphors signifying deeper truths about the role of god in the world.

I also did not take the Bible as a source of science. The stories about seas being parted, the Sun made to stand still, and people rising from the dead were bizarre and unbelievable and inconsistent. The miracles were too contradictory of the laws of science to merit serious consideration.

But what about the Bible as history? Once we got past the early creation stories of Genesis, I pretty much accepted that the Bible was recording actual events, although clearly the authors of the texts had spiced up the narrative with miracles and whatnot to make it more compelling and readable.

Before I report on what I found as to the accuracy of the Biblical accounts, here is a brief overview of what most of us probably remember about history as told in the Bible. I will give here just the bare bones history, leaving out all the rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide that fill its pages. People who have not read the Bible themselves and have learned the Biblical stories only from religious teachers and priests may be surprised at all the interesting bits those people left out.

The Old Testament stories can be split up into two parts, before Noah's Ark and the flood, and after. Almost everyone (other than Biblical literalists who believe that everything in the Bible is strictly true) accept that the Genesis accounts up to and including the flood and Noah's Ark are mythological. The real claim to history begins with the story of Abraham when, after some serious begatting following the flood, the world had a fairly large population. Out of this population there came this person called Abraham (who possibly originated somewhere in Mesopotamia) who was taken by god to the area known as Canaan (which consisted of land that would be currently called Israel and the occupied territories and Gaza and parts of Lebanon and Syria) and was told by god that his descendants would occupy that land.

After spending some time in Egypt (because of a famine back in Canaan) he returned to Canaan and had sons Isaac and Ishmael. Isaac married Rebecca and had twins Jacob (who later came to be called Israel) and Esau. Jacob had 12 sons one of whom was Joseph who was sold into slavery in Egypt by his jealous brothers but prospered there, effectively becoming the pharaoh's close advisor and a powerful figure. Eventually his whole family joined him in Egypt and lived there and also prospered.

As the Biblical history continues, Joseph eventually died as did the pharaoh who had been his protector, and a new pharaoh ascended the throne who did not look kindly at the Israelites in their midst and started treating them badly. Then Moses came along and took the Israelites back to Canaan, with the Bible describing the route they took. After Moses got the ten commandments from god on Mount Sinai, the Israelites were punished by god for complaining and general bad behavior and spent forty years in the wilderness.

Joshua, Moses's aide, took over as leader from Moses upon the latter's death and led the conquest of the land of Canaan. Later on David and Solomon were kings who ruled over major areas of the lands known as Israel (the northern kingdom) and Judah (the southern kingdom). This was followed by a whole lot more wars and bloodshed, not to mention rampant sex, incest, adultery, treachery, intrigue, murder, and genocide.

After that the story gets more complicated and confusing with lots of stuff going on, various kings and prophets coming and going (along with the rampant sex, incest, etc.) until finally the people of Israel go into exile and captivity in Babylon (then ruled by Nebuchadnezzar) in 586 BCE. In 538 BCE, Cyrus, king of Persia, the new dominant power in the region, overcame the Babylonians and allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Old Testament version of history stops around 450 BCE and there is then a gap until the New Testament.

That is pretty much early history as told by the Bible.

Next: Why people think the early Biblical history is largely true.

POST SCRIPT: Suspicions confirmed

On November 14, I wrote inThe October Surprise That Failed? that I suspected that the bombing of the madrassa in Pakistan that killed 82 people was done by the US because they thought that Ayman al-Zawahiri was there. The government of Pakistan has now confirmed that this is the case, despite its earlier insistence that they had carried out the attack. The Sunday Times Christina Lamb reports:

"We thought it would be less damaging if we said we did it rather than the US," said a key aide to President Pervez Musharraf. "But there was a lot of collateral damage and we’ve requested the Americans not to do it again."

The Americans are believed to have attacked after a tip-off that Ayman al-Zawahiri, the deputy leader of Al-Qaeda, was present.

The lying by the US and Pakistan governments about their actions in these wars has become so commonplace, and so uncaring about the deaths of civilians, that it is amazing that anyone gives them any credence.

November 24, 2006

No more daft women!

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from April 4, 2006, slightly edited.)

Evan Hunter, who was the screenwriter on Alfred Hitchcock's 1963 film The Birds recalled an incident that occurred when he was discussing the screenplay with the director.

I don't know if you recall the movie. There's a scene where after this massive bird attack on the house Mitch, the male character, is asleep in a chair and Melanie hears something. She takes a flashlight and she goes up to investigate, and this leads to the big scene in the attic where all the birds attack her. I was telling [Hitchcock] about this scene and he was listening very intently, and then he said, "Let me see if I understand this correctly. There has been a massive attack on the house and they have boarded it up and Mitch is asleep and she hears a sound and she goes to investigate?'' I said, "Well, yes,'' and he said, "Is she daft? Why doesn't she wake him up?''

I remembered this story when I was watching the film The Interpreter with Nicole Kidman and Sean Penn. The Kidman character accidentally overhears something at the UN that puts her life at risk. After she complains to government agent Penn that no one seems to be bothered about protecting her from harm, Penn puts her on round-the-clock surveillance. So then what does Kidman do? She sneaks around, giving the slip to the very people assigned to protect her and refuses to tell Penn where she went and to whom she spoke and about what, causing herself and other people to be put at risk and even dying because of her actions. Hitchcock would have said, "Is she daft?"

This is one of my pet peeves about films, where the female character insists on doing something incredibly stupid that puts her and other people at peril. Surely in this day and age we have gone beyond the stale plot device of otherwise smart women behaving stupidly in order to create drama? Surely writers have more imagination than that? Do directors really think that viewers won't notice how absurd that is?

According to Hunter, Hitchcock was always exploring the motivations of characters, trying to make their actions plausible. Hunter says:

[Hitchcock] would ask surprising questions. I would be in the middle of telling the story so far and he would say, "Has she called her father yet?" I'd say, "What?'' "The girl, has she called her father?'' And I'd say, "No.'' "Well, she's been away from San Francisco overnight. Does he know where she is? Has she called to tell him she's staying in this town?'' I said, "No.'' And he said, "Don't you think she should call him?'' I said, "Yes." "You know it's not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.'' Questions like that.

(Incidentally, the above link has three screenwriters Arthur Laurents, who wrote Rope (1948), Joseph Stefano, who wrote Psycho (1960), and Evan Hunter reminiscing about working with Hitchcock. It is a fascinating glimpse behind the scenes of how a great director envisages and sets about creating films. The last quote actually reads in the original: "Yes, you know it's not a difficult thing to have a person pick up the phone.'' I changed it because my version makes more sense, and the original is a verbatim transcript of a panel discussion, in which such kinds of punctuation errors can easily occur.)

More generally, I hate it when characters in films and books behave in ways that are unbelievable. The problem is not with an implausible premise, which is often necessary to create a central core for the story. I can even accept the violation of a few laws of physics. For example, I can accept the premise of Superman that a baby with super powers (but susceptible to kryptonite) arrives on Earth from another planet and is adopted by a family and needs to keep his identity secret. I can accept of Batman that a millionaire like Bruce Wayne adopts a secret identity in order to fight crime.

What I cannot stand is when they and the other people act implausibly, when the stories built on this premise have logical holes that you can drive a Batmobile through. The latter, for example, is a flashy vehicle, to say the least, easily picked out in traffic. And yet, nobody in Gotham thinks of following it back to the Batcave, to see who this mysterious hero is. Is the entire population of that city daft?

And how exactly does the Bat-Signal that the Police Commissioner lights up the sky with supposed to work? You don't need a physics degree to realize that shining a light, however bright, into the sky is not going to create a sharp image there. And what if it's daytime? And if there are no clouds? (It's been a long time since I read these comics. Maybe the later editions fixed these problems. But even as a child these things annoyed me.)

And don't get me started on Spiderman going in and out of his apartment window in a building in the middle of a big city in broad daylight without anyone noticing.

As a fan of films, it really bugs me when filmmakers don't take the trouble to write plots that make sense, and have characters who don't behave the way that you would expect normal people to behave. How hard can it be to ensure this, especially when you have the budget to hire writers to create believable characters and a plausible storyline?

If any directors are reading this, I am willing to offer my services to identify and fix plot holes.

So please, no more daft women! No more ditzy damsels in distress! No more Perils of Pauline!

POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America

I saw this film (see the post script to an earlier posting), just before it ended its very short run in Cleveland. It looks at what history would have been like if the south had won the civil war. Imagine, if you will, an America very much like what we have now except that owning black slaves is as commonplace as owning a dishwasher.

What was troubling is that although this is an imagined alternate history presented in a faux documentary format, much of it is plausible based on what we have now. What was most disturbing for me was seeing in the film some racist images and acts that I thought were the over-the-top imaginings of the screenwriter about that might have happened in this alternate history, and then finding out at the end that theyactually happened in the real history.

Although the film is a clever satire in the style of This is Spinal Tap, I could not really laugh because the topic itself is so appalling. It is easy to laugh at the self-absorption and preening and pretensions of a rock band. It is hard to laugh at people in shackles.

But the film was well worth seeing, disturbing though it was.

November 23, 2006

Thanksgiving and Christmas musings

(Because I am taking a break from blogging for the holiday, this is a repost from Thanksgiving of last year, slightly changed and updated. Happy Thanksgiving everyone!)

For an immigrant like me, the Thanksgiving holiday took a long time to warm up to. It seems to be like baseball or cricket or peanut butter, belonging to the class of things that one has to get adjusted to at an early age in order to really enjoy. For people who were born and grew up here, Thanksgiving is one of those holidays whose special significance one gets to appreciate as part of learning the history of this country. As someone who came to the US as an adult and did not have to learn US history in school or did not have the experience of visiting my grandparents' homes for this occasion, this holiday initially left me unmoved.

But over time, I have warmed to the holiday and it now seems to me to be the best holiday of all, for reasons that have little to do with its historical roots.

I mainly like the fact that it has (still) avoided being commercialized and merchandized to death. There are no gifts and cards associated with it. It is a secular holiday so no one need feel excluded, with the 'thanks' that are offered being just for the good fortune of being with family and friends, and not overtly religious. There are no ritualized ceremonies, religious or otherwise, that one has to attend. There are no decorations or dressing up.

It is just a time to get together with family and friends and around that universal gesture of friendship, sharing food. And even the menu of turkey, stuffing, potatoes, yams, cranberry sauce, and pies, is such that it is not too expensive, so most people can afford to have the standard meal for a large number of people without going into debt. And although there is much talk of anticipated gluttony, in practice this also seems like just a ritualized and familiar joke, and most people seem to eat well but not in excess. There is also no tradition of drinking too much and rowdiness. Thanksgiving seems to symbolize a kind of quiet socializing that is a throwback to a simpler, less crass and commercial time.

Thanksgiving remains mostly an opportunity to spend a day with those whom one is close to, sharing food, playing games, and basking in the warmth of good fellowship. How can one not like such a holiday?

The only catch with Thanksgiving is that it is immediately followed by the horror show known as the "Christmas shopping season." Each year I am revolted at the attention that the media pays to the retail industry in the days immediately following Thanksgiving. They wallow in stories of sales, of early-bird shoppers on Friday lining up in the cold at 4:00am to get bargains, fighting with other shoppers to grab sale items, people getting trampled in the crush, the long lines at cash registers, the year's "hot" gift items, and the breathless reports of how much was spent and what it predicts for the future of the economy. The media eggs on this process by giving enormous amounts of coverage to people going shopping, a non-news event if there ever was one, adding cute names like "Black Friday" and more recently "Cyber Monday."

Frankly, I find this obsessive focus on consumption disgusting. In fact, I would gladly skip directly from Thanksgiving to the new year because the intervening period seems to me to be just one long orgy of consumerism in which spending money is the goal. The whole point of the Christmas holiday seems to have become one in which people are made to feel guilty if they are not spending vast amounts of time and money in finding gifts for others. There is an air of forced jollity that is jarring, quite in contrast to the genuine warmth of Thanksgiving. And it just seems to stress people out.

Since I grew up in a country where people were encouraged to be frugal, often out of necessity, I still find it disquieting to be urged to spend as if it were somehow my duty to go broke in order to shore up the retail industry and help "grow the economy." I still don't understand that concept. An economy that is based on people buying what they do not need or can even afford seems to me to be inherently unsustainable, if not downright morally offensive.

The only things about Christmas that I still like are the carols. The a cappella arrangements of traditional Christmas carols produce some of the most beautiful music, and to hear good choirs singing the delicate harmonies is something that even someone as musically challenged as I am can appreciate. Although I am no longer religious, the one thing that can tempt me back into church is a Christmas carol service.

Let me be clear that I am referring to Christmas carols and not to the abomination that one often hears on the radio during this season, which are the popular Christmas "songs." The latter consist of some of the most irritating music ever invented. I am referring to things like "Here Comes Santa Claus," "Rudolph the Red Nosed Reindeer," "Holly Jolly Christmas," and others of that ilk. These awful songs are played over and over again at this time of year until I am ready to take a hammer to the radio. If I never hear those songs again, I will be happy.

I have an audiocassette that has about twenty carols that I sometimes play around Christmas time. But what prevents me from fully enjoying it is that the producers, in an appalling act of bad judgment, have sandwiched the beautiful a cappella choral arrangements with "White Christmas" at the beginning and "Silver Bells" at the end, making it even worse by adding schmaltzy piano accompaniment to those two songs. My enjoyment of the carols is tempered by the knowledge that these annoying songs are going to eventually come on, ruining the warmth generated by the carols. My hatred of such music is such that I am tempted to head over to the Friedman Media Center in the Kelvin Smith Library and use their terrific equipment to digitize the tape, and transfer the songs to a CD, just so that I can leave out those two imposters. (If you have never used this facility, I strongly recommend a visit. There is almost nothing that you cannot do there in terms of audio-visual effects. It's free to all Case people, and the staff there are very helpful.)

I sincerely hope that Thanksgiving does not also become corrupted by merchandizing the way that Christmas has. But in our the present buy-buy-buy culture you can be sure that retailers are eyeing that holiday too and it will require great vigilance to prevent it from sliding down that particular slope.

POST SCRIPT: Nielsen ratings as a referendum on torture

I mentioned before how absurd it was that people took their cues about the validity of torture from the fictional TV show 24. Now see this clip where some talk show host named Laura Ingraham uses the logic that 24 is very popular and that makes it as good as a referendum to demonstrate that people approve of the government using "tough tactics" against prisoners. Who are these people like Ingraham? Where did they come from that this kind of logic makes sense to them?

November 22, 2006

Bush and Vietnam

President Bush finally went to Vietnam this week, after spending his youth trying to avoid going there when that war was going on. Needless to say that this was the source for much humor. Some said that he tried to avoid going this time too but that his father could not get him out of the trip. Others said that he was glad to go since the drubbing his party took at the elections made it awkward for him to have to deal with the new realities in Congress. As Ted Koppel said, Bush joined the Air National Guard to get out of going to Vietnam, but now he is going to Vietnam to get out of being in Washington.

But the curious thing that has been remarked upon is that when Bush was asked what was the lesson of the Vietnam war, he said it was the importance of perseverance. Bush said that what he learned was that "We'll succeed unless we quit."

Of course this invites ridicule since it seemed to imply that if the US has stayed on in Vietnam they would have won that war, a rosy view of that war's history that is only clung to by those who refuse to concede that the US could ever be defeated militarily. The statement also seemed like a diplomatic blunder, to say the least, to tell the people of your host country that you feel that should have devastated their country even more than you did and perhaps should still be bombing them thirty years later.

The lesson that almost everyone else has learned from Vietnam is that one should never get involved in a guerilla war against forces fighting for national liberation.

But perhaps Bush was applying his words to the Vietnamese forces. If so, he was being very perceptive. The North Vietnamese regular army and the South Vietnamese National Liberation Front had long realized that all they had to do was persevere and stay fighting. As long as they did not quit, they would succeed because the US would have to leave. And that is exactly what happened.

That is the dynamic of any struggle in which an invading army ends up battling the local population, and it applies to Iraq. All that the Iraqi insurgent forces have to do is to keep fighting. If they do so, they will win even if they never win any single battle, since an invading force cannot maintain its occupation indefinitely in the face of sustained hostility. The famous Tet offensive in 1968 was a military defeat for the Vietnamese but a huge political victory since it dramatically illustrated to the American public that despite having been repeatedly told by their own government that the tide was turning, there was light at the end of the tunnel, and similar clichés about victory in the war being just over the horizon, the Vietnam conflict was still raging, with no end in sight.

One sure sign that things are going badly is when pundits keep looking hopefully over the horizon for good news that never comes. They usually put a time of about six months in the future for when either things will either get better or some decisive decision will have to be taken. It seems like they have decided that six months is just about what the public is willing to tolerate staying with the status quo. The catch is that when the six months is up and no progress has been made, a new six month horizon has to be created. The situation is not unlike parents on a long car journey who repeatedly tell their restless children that they will arrive at their destination in fifteen minutes, in order to keep them quiet.

This ploy has been used so frequently in Iraq by so many people that the six month horizon has even acquired its own name, the Friedman Unit (FU) (coined by Atrios), after that fount of banalities, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman, was noticed by Fairness and Accuracy in Reporting (FAIR) has having repeatedly invoked it starting back in November 2003. So we are now six FUs further into the war and still waiting.

But coming back to Bush's statement about the lessons of Vietnam, why would Bush be advising the Iraqi insurgents to learn from the Vietnamese people on the value of perseverance in order to defeat the US?

A person whose views I greatly respect once suggested that Mikhail Gorbachev may have deliberately set about undermining the Soviet Union and orchestrating its collapse because early in his life he had felt that that kind of social and economic structure was not sustainable and something new had to be put in its place. But that would not happen until the existing order had been dismantled. So Gorbachev quietly went along with official policies until he attained power in that country. Then he deliberately set about instituting policies from the inside that he knew would lead to the eventual collapse of the system.

Inspired by this idea, I thought that maybe Bush and Cheney, for whatever reasons known only to themselves, deliberately set about destroying the US as a world power militarily and economically and in terms of its ability to influence world opinion. They saw that the best way to do that would be to commit its forces to getting bogged down in an unwinnable and unpopular war that would break the US militarily, destroy its economy by spending huge amounts on both the war and counterterrorism efforts (over $500 billion so far and still rising rapidly), and so alienate world opinion that the US became almost totally isolated on the world's stage, thus putting an end to any ideas of creating a powerful empire.

I am being facetious, I think, but I am not sure because this administration has effectively put an end to irony and satire by exceeding anyone's imaginings of irrationality. But if that actually had been their plan, Bush and Cheney have succeeded beyond their wildest dreams.

POST SCRIPT 1: Spreading the word

Australian John Safran, ticked off by Mormon missionaries waking him up early on a Saturday morning to proselytize, decided to get his revenge by traveling all the way across the globe to Salt Lake City and going door-to-door to proselytize for atheism and Darwin.

POST SCRIPT 2: What should be done?

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow has the solution to the Iraq problem.

November 21, 2006

Torture is not fun and games-2

Those who wish to excuse the actions of this administration or minimize the seriousness of torture sometimes take the tack of trivializing it, making it seem as if opponents of torture are making a big issue out of mere playfulness. Take Rush Limbaugh's response to a caller on his radio show when the events of Abu Ghraib were revealed.

CALLER: It was like a college fraternity prank that stacked up naked men --

LIMBAUGH: Exactly. Exactly my point! This is no different than what happens at the Skull and Bones initiation and we're going to ruin people's lives over it and we're going to hamper our military effort, and then we are going to really hammer them because they had a good time. You know, these people are being fired at every day. I'm talking about people having a good time, these people, you ever heard of emotional release? You ever heard of need to blow some steam off?

(Of course, one cannot expect classy behaqvior from the likes of Limbaugh, a truly disgusting person who even mocked and caricatured actor Michael J. Fox for making an ad supporting stem-cell research and Missouri senate candidate Claire McCaskill who supports that research. In the ad, Fox courageously revealed the painful to watch, but unfortunately standard, symptoms of his Parkinson's disease, but Limbaugh ridiculed him and accused him of faking it. McCaskill won a close race and there is much speculation that Limbaugh's boorish behavior actually tipped the scales in her favor, since decent people resent ill people being mocked. And when that person is as much-liked as Michael J. Fox, the repugnance against Limbaugh was accentuated.)

But one has a right to expect higher standards of behavior from high government officials. And yet, another revealing episode of how torture gets trivialized was when Vice President Dick Cheney was interviewed by a radio show host and implied that he approved of the form of torture known as "waterboarding." This word can mean various things, but none of them are good.

According to wikipedia:

Waterboarding is a type of torture used in coercive interrogations or for punishment. In modern practice it simulates drowning and produces a severe gag reflex, making the subject believe his or her death is imminent while ideally not causing permanent physical damage.
. . .
The subject is strapped to a board and either tipped back or lowered into a body of water until he or she believed that drowning was imminent. The subject then is removed from the water and revived. If deemed necessary, the routine is repeated.

The technique characterized in 2005 by former CIA director Porter J. Goss as a "professional interrogation technique", involves tying the victim to a board with the head lower than the feet so that he or she is unable to move. A piece of cloth is held tightly over the face, and water is poured onto the cloth. Breathing is extremely difficult and the victim will be in fear of imminent death by asphyxiation. Journalists Brian Ross and Richard Esposito described the CIA's waterboarding technique as follows:

The prisoner is bound to an inclined board, feet raised and head slightly below the feet. Cellophane is wrapped over the prisoner's face and water is poured over him. Unavoidably, the gag reflex kicks in and a terrifying fear of drowning leads to almost instant pleas to bring the treatment to a halt.

According to the sources, CIA officers who subjected themselves to the water boarding technique lasted an average of 14 seconds before caving in.

Described this way, it sounds terrible. But the sympathetic radio talk show host who interviewed Cheney put the question to him in this softball way. He said that his

listeners had asked him to ''let the vice president know that if it takes dunking a terrorist in water, we're all for it, if it saves American lives.''

''Again, this debate seems a little silly given the threat we face, would you agree?'' Hennen said.

''I do agree,'' Cheney replied, according to a transcript of the interview released Wednesday.
. . .
''Would you agree that a dunk in water is a no-brainer if it can save lives?'' asked Hennen.

'It's a no-brainer for me, but for a while there, I was criticized as being the vice president 'for torture.' We don't torture. That's not what we're involved in,'' Cheney replied. "We live up to our obligations in international treaties that we're party to and so forth. But the fact is, you can have a fairly robust interrogation program without torture, and we need to be able to do that.'' (my emphasis)

Notice how waterboarding is trivialized by calling it 'dunking', making it seem as if it is equivalent to the childhood game of bobbing for apples, or tossing a friend into a swimming pool, or sports teams dousing their winning coach with a cooler of ice water. The Daily Show had a segment on waterboarding which, while humorous, showed both its dangers and the fact that torture rarely yields any accurate or useful information but merely provides an outlet for the sadistic impulses of the torturers.

The Miami Herald naturally reported that the radio interview exchange implied that Cheney had approved of waterboarding.

Vice President Dick Cheney has confirmed that U.S. interrogators subjected captured senior al-Qaida suspects to a controversial interrogation technique called "water-boarding," which creates a sensation of drowning.

Cheney indicated that the Bush administration doesn't regard water-boarding as torture and allows the CIA to use it. "It's a no-brainer for me," Cheney said at one point in an interview.

Cheney's comments, in a White House interview on Tuesday with a conservative radio talk show host, appeared to reflect the Bush administration's view that the president has the constitutional power to do whatever he deems necessary to fight terrorism.

The U.S. Army, senior Republican lawmakers, human rights experts and many experts on the laws of war, however, consider water-boarding cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment that's banned by U.S. law and by international treaties that prohibit torture.

When Cheney was naturally denounced for approving torture, his spokesperson tried, as usual, to issue a non-denial denial, saying that what Cheney understood by "dunking" was not waterboarding. But she also refused to say what he had understood by the term.

Lee Ann McBride, a spokeswoman for Cheney, denied that Cheney confirmed that U.S. interrogators used water-boarding or endorsed the technique.

"What the vice president was referring to was an interrogation program without torture," she said. "The vice president never goes into what may or may not be techniques or methods of questioning."

This strains credulity. Waterboarding has been the torture technique that has received the widest publicity. To imply that the Cheney and the talk show host and the caller all understood 'dunking' to mean anything other than that is preposterous. The very fact that Cheney did not ask for a clarification of what 'dunking' meant means that he understood what they were talking about.

That the US government has authorized and condoned torture is now undeniable, with more and more reports coming out confirming this. The German media has reported that "German agents saw US interrogators beat a 70-year-old terror suspect with a rifle butt, requiring the man to receive 20 stitches, and that they viewed documents that were smeared with blood," all of this occurring in secret US prisons in Europe just two weeks after September 11, 2001.

Only the most willfully blind can deny that torture is being carried out in a systematic manner that has been approved at the highest levels of the US government. What the Cheney interview illustrates is that there is a wink-wink attitude towards it, with the administration coyly refusing to give details about what it does and trivializing whatever is known.

It is disgraceful that we have descended to this. What we have is a paranoid administration that puts even the Nixon White House to shame. They seem willing to do anything and say anything that will serve their purpose. They do not seem to care what the laws or the US constitution or international treaties or conventions or just plain basic human decency say about anything.

I have a simple rule about torture or indeed of any action taken by law enforcement authorities: I do not approve of any action that I would oppose if it were done to me or to a loved one. A question that I would ask Cheney (or any other person who condones these methods) is whether he or she would approve of these methods that he finds 'no-brainers' being applied to his own spouse or children or siblings or friends or parents.

The passage of the Military Commissions Act by the US government is a good example of the kind of danger that James Madison warned us about:

I believe there are more instances of the abridgement of freedom of the people by gradual and silent encroachments by those in power than by violent and sudden usurpations.

The Military Commissions Act should be repealed. But given that the Democratic Party is also fundamentally pro-war, I am not hopeful that the new Congress will do so.

POST SCRIPT: Science-religion debate

The cover story of the November 13, 2006 issue of Time magazine is a debate on the topic "God vs. Science," featuring Richard Dawkins and Francis Collins. Both are prominent biologists. The former is an atheist while the latter is a practicing Christian. You can read it here.

November 20, 2006

Torture is not fun and games

You occasionally find people trying to downplay torture by arguing that what goes on in such situation is little different from the kind of hi-jinks that fraternities sometimes indulge in as part of their initiation ceremonies. For all I know, this could well be a slander on most fraternities. But even if it were not, and fraternities did act this way, this would be an argument against such fraternity initiation ceremonies and not an argument for torture. I do not believe that an argument can ever be made for the deliberate humiliation of one human being by another.

In Sri Lankan universities, hazing of incoming first year students has long been a serious problem, sometimes going so far as to cause deaths, either by "accidents" such as alcohol poisoning due to new students being forced to drink excessively, or suicides when they could not take the degradation anymore.

As a student and later as a faculty member, I personally hated the practice of hazing and would speak out against it, with the result that a pro-hazing leader once threatened to assault me. Those in favor of it said that it formed bonds of camaraderie. I found this to be a specious argument since it is unlikely that a good friendship can be built on an initial humiliating experience for one person at the hands of another. I have always suspected that hazing was a means for emotionally insecure people to find an outlet for their sadistic impulses, and that the people who enjoyed being hazed and subsequently became friends with those who hazed them had to have at least a streak of power-worshiping masochism.

But what people who argue that "torture is just fraternity-style hi-jinks" miss is that it is not the act itself that is often the problem. It is the context in which it carried out. There is a big difference between the experience of a fraternity pledge who has chosen to join a group with which he or she has some affinity and knows that they want him or her and that hazing is part of the initiation rites, and that of a prisoner in a strange country among people who he fears hate him and would like to see him dead.

In a previous post, I described the torture of Mohammed al-Qahtani. There are some (and these will likely be men) who will think that what happened was not so bad and that it may even be fun. But they will be thinking this from the safety of knowing that nothing more will happen beyond what was described. The point of torture is that you don't know what will happen next or for how long it will continue or whether you will end up dead. This uncertainty is what makes torture so psychologically damaging.

Soon-to-be-former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld approved of the harsh interrogation methods used at Guantanamo and even thought that some of the limits were too lenient. For example, he said that he did not see why there had to be a four-hour limit on forcing a prisoner to stand when he said that he himself would stand for eight hours a day, But there is a big difference. He chooses when to stand and for how long. He can sit any time he wants to. For someone forced to stand at the whim of others, even an hour can be an excruciating experience because you do not know when it will end or what else will happen.

As a result of the torture practices, it is possible that Rumsfeld will face charges of committing war crimes in a suit to be filed in Germany, along with other luminaries such as current Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez and former CIA director George Tenet.

[T]he other defendants in the case are Undersecretary of Defense for Intelligence Stephen Cambone; former assistant attorney general Jay Bybee; former deputy assisant attorney general John Yoo; General Counsel for the Department of Defense William James Haynes II; and David S. Addington, Vice President Dick Cheney's chief of staff. Senior military officers named in the filing are General Ricardo Sanchez, the former top Army official in Iraq; Gen. Geoffrey Miller, the former commander of Guantanamo; senior Iraq commander, Major General Walter Wojdakowski; and Col. Thomas Pappas, the one-time head of military intelligence at Abu Ghraib.

The Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR) says:

"The former secretary actually authorized a series of interrogation techniques," said Michael Ratner, President of CCR, "They included the use of dogs, stripping, hooding, stressed positions, chaining to the floor, sexual humiliation and those types of activities."

Those techniques, he says, amount to torture and violate the Geneva Conventions. Ratner will be traveling to Berlin next week and plans to file the suit on Tuesday.

A November 15, 2006 New York Times report by David Johnston reveals that the controversial secret overseas prisons and the "interrogation" methods used were directly approved of by Bush himself, so the culpability goes right to the top.

When I was a faculty member in the university in Sri Lanka, I once came across a group of senior students hazing a first year student at the beginning of the academic year. They had forced him to put on a pair of shoes on his hands and run around on all fours like a dog. Since I was opposed to hazing on principle (and it was against university policy anyway), I stopped it and took the student to my office to get him away from the others. Although what he had experienced would be considered very mild by anyone reading the above description, the student was shaking with fear and crying. I think the fact that he was at the mercy of other people who seemingly had the power to humiliate him and make do anything they wished to him was what was terrifying, more than any single thing that they made him do.

Torture is barbaric. There is no other word for it. It should not be tolerated under any guise.

POST SCRIPT: It’s here

Jon Stewart notes the kickoff to the "War on Christmas" and bemoans the direction that this war has taken.

November 17, 2006

The other foreign casualties in Iraq

The focus of attention to casualties in Iraq has been mainly on US soldiers, with sporadic attention given to Iraqi deaths. The few times when the latter got in the news was when the Lancet came out last month saying that there was a 95% probability that the number of increased deaths due to the war lay between 400,000 and 900,000. Despite the fact that the study followed well-established methods, its numbers were dismissed as being too high, people preferring to think that the actual figure was around the much lower 50,000,

The Iraqi minister of health dropped a bombshell last week when he said that he estimated the number of Iraqi casualties as around 150,000, three times the figure that the US government had quoted earlier, although he admitted it was very rough estimate.

But there are other casualty figures that have received less attention. One is the number of deaths of soldiers from other countries in the so-called 'coalition of the willing.' There have been about 250 of those, divided almost exactly equally between British troops and the rest.

But a surprise, for me at least, was the recently revealed high number of US civilian deaths, which turns out to be about 850 so far. These people are mostly involved with US companies involved in projects in Iraq and their deaths are a symptom of the awful security situation plaguing that country.

The London Independent journalist Patrick Cockburn gives a vivid description of the state of affairs and disputes those painting a rosy picture of the situation.

For the past three-and-a-half years in Iraq, one needed to close both eyes very hard or live in Baghdad's Green Zone not to see that the occupation was detested by most Iraqis. At places where US Humvees had been blown up or US soldiers killed or wounded there were usually Iraqis dancing for joy.

Supposedly, the centrepiece of American and British policy is to stay "until the job is done" and hand over to Iraqi army and police who will cope with powerful militias like the Mehdi Army. But in police stations in many parts of southern Iraq, photographs pinned to the wall include one of British armoured vehicles erupting in flames, beside a portrait of Muqtada al-Sadr, the leader of the Mehdi Army.

In the first year of the occupation it could be argued that Bush and Blair were simply incompetent: they did not understand Iraq, were misinformed by Iraqi exiles, or were simply ignorant and arrogant. But they must know that for two-and-a-half years they have controlled only islands of territory in Iraq. "The Americans haven't even been able to take over Haifa Street [a Sunni insurgent stronghold] though it's only 400 yards from the Green Zone," a senior Iraqi security official exclaimed to me last week.
. . .
The US media was under extreme pressure to report the non-existent good news that the White House accused them of ignoring.

I used to think how absurd it was for me to risk my life by visiting the Green Zone, the entrances to which were among the most bombed targets in Iraq, to see diplomats who claimed that the butchery in Iraq was much exaggerated. But when I asked them if they would like to come and have lunch in my hotel outside the zone, they always threw up their hands in horror and said their security men would never allow it.

The fantasy picture of Iraq purveyed by Mr Bush and Mr Blair is now being exposed. The Potemkin village they constructed to divert attention from what was really happening in Iraq is finally going up in flames.

But it is too late for the Iraqis, Americans and British who died because they were unwitting actors in this fiction, carefully concocted by the White House and Downing Street to show progress where there is frustration, and victory where there is only defeat.

Now that US funding for Iraqi reconstruction is running out, American companies like Bechtel and Kroll that had lucrative contracts are pulling out since they no longer will be making enough money to justify the risk of their employees being killed.

Since there is no more US money in the pipeline for Iraqi reconstruction, the Iraqi people are being left with no security and little hope for improvement in their infrastructure.

November 16, 2006

Fighting to save Christmas

It's the middle of November. Yes, that means it's time to take up arms to do battle in the "War on Christmas"! As we approach the joyous season of peace and goodwill, we can look forward to the moment, arriving any day now, when people like Bill O'Reilly and John Gibson of Fox News and their devoted followers come together in a spirit of unity to once again declare war on those who do not celebrate the holidays in their officially-approved Christian manner. This is a sure-fire ratings booster for the holiday season, not that I would think for a minute that these two Jesus-loving men would exploit this issue for their own gain.

A Jerry Falwell affiliated group Liberty Counsel has already started its annual "Friend or Foe" campaign where you can "pledge to be the "Friend" to those entities which do not censor Christmas and a "Foe" to those that do," simply by buying buttons and bumper stickers that say "I helped save Christmas." This is the perfect Christmas gift for all those ardent advocates for the war in Iraq who feel that they have done more than their part for the war effort by talking tough, flying flags, and having magnetic ribbons stuck on their cars that say "I support the troops."

What defending Christmas also means is that during the season, these warriors for Christ are going to keep a sharp lookout for those people who betray their anti-Christmas bias. To avoid falling under suspicion, be sure to say "Merry Christmas" when you meet someone you don't know or trust. To openly say "Happy Holidays" or "Season's Greetings," either verbally or in greeting cards, is to open oneself to the suspicion of being an agent of the Antichrist.

Furthermore, you must only shop in stores that have explicitly Christian messages plastered over them and have overtly religious decorations involving mangers and crosses and baby Jesus statues. All other shops must be boycotted, unless they happen to run a really good sale on exactly the item you were dying to buy, in which case you are permitted to go in and buy just that item and no more. Stores can have pagan decorations like Santa Claus and reindeer and snow and mistletoe and holly if they like, but to escape censure there must be a clear core of Christian symbolism that is obvious to even the most obtuse because, let's face it, most of the people who are out earnestly looking for anti-Christian activity are pretty stupid and have little else going on in their lives. Not that there's anything wrong with that.

If any store employee should greet you with the Christmas-hating code-words "Happy Holidays," you must immediately report the incident to the war's generals like O'Reilly and Gibson so that they can devote entire programs to this issue. You should also demand to the offending employees' supervisors that they be fired, or at the very least be sent to re-education camps where they can learn the true meaning of Christmas, which is that it is the time of year when people who have both deep faith and lots of disposable income are strongly urged to engage in a orgy of conspicuous consumption and trample over other people in stores to obtain hard-to-get but highly desired toys for their already pampered children.

People are already sounding the alarm about the dangers to Christianity posed by the rise of Islamojihadifascism in the US. One Wal-Mart store this year has decided to preemptively deflect any accusations that it might be a front organization for al Qaeda, suspicions which were fueled last year by it having what it called a 'holiday shop', which everyone knows is code for saying they welcome Christmas haters. "They're decking the halls inside this Wal-Mart in Germantown, Maryland. . .where a Christmas shop replaces last year's holiday shop. Christmas carols will soon resonate throughout the store and a countdown to Christmas sign is front and center."

But despite all this vigilance, the US is still not safe for Christians. Attempts at subverting its Christian heritage are everywhere. An example of the creeping Islamification that is going on is the election of Keith Ellison to Congress from the state of Minnesota. He is the first Muslim (converting to that religion at the age of 19) to be elected to that body and Important Questions are already being raised such as what book he will be using to be sworn in. Could it be (oh, the horror!) the Koran?

Unfortunately, because of the existence of Article VI, Section 3 of that pesky god-hating document known as the US constitution that bars any religious test for the holding of public office, no one is required to swear on the Bible but can simply affirm their intent to uphold the constitution. If people do want to bring their religion in using a book as a prop, they are free to do so and I am pretty certain that Jews and Christians in Congress do not swear on exactly the same book. Some of the secular humanist heathen hiding in our midst might use this to argue that the addition of yet another religious book for swearing should hardly be a problem.

This kind of subversive thinking must be suppressed. True soldiers of Christ view the prospect of Ellison swearing on the Koran as a source of major concern, the thin edge of the wedge. To allow such things is to risk have the US turn away from Jesus and becoming a godless heathen nation, or even worse, have everyone converting to Islam. It is only a short step from that to banning alcohol and insisting on having women fully covered from head to toe and kept separate from men who are not family members. This would take all the meaning out of traditional religious Christmas ceremonies like office parties, and eliminate such time-honored rituals like throwing up and passing out on the floor.

As I have written before, fortunately there are still some vigilant guardians of religious traditions, like the judge in North Carolina who ruled that a prospective juror could not swear on the Koran. Perhaps that decision could be used as a precedent to prevent Ellison carrying out his diabolical plan.

So in the next few weeks we should all listen carefully and get our instructions from upstanding Christians like O'Reilly and Gibson and Pat Robertson and Jerry Falwell and James Dobson, all of whom will prescribe exactly what are the allowable forms that "peace on earth and goodwill to all people" should take so that we can celebrate the holiday the old-fashioned way, by making life miserable for those who don't act the way we think they should.

Let's all join the war against those who reveal their hatred of Christmas by trying to make it more inclusive. Because that's what Jesus would do.

November 15, 2006

The Return of the Taliban

On October 3, 2006, the excellent PBS series Frontline broadcast a program with the above name. It examined the complexities of the politics of Pakistan's northwest frontier provinces, which shares a 500-miles open border with Afghanistan, and explains why it has been a place where the Taliban could regroup and gain strength once again, threatening to cause the defeat of the US in Afghanistan.

(You can view the program here. This must-see one-hour program is split into seven parts. Be warned that part 1 contains some graphic and disturbing images of the victims of the brutal summary justice that the Taliban are notorious for.)

The program describes the complex web of shifting alliances and intrigue that characterize the region and why it is going to be so hard to defeat the Taliban in Afghanistan, even granting the assumption that going in militarily was a good idea. These rugged and difficult-to-reach regions of Pakistan are really quasi-independent entities over which the central Pakistani government has little or no influence, let alone control. The people living there also have long-standing ethnic and even familial ties with the Taliban and are unlikely to surrender them to either the US or the Pakistan government.

This gives the Taliban a safe haven from which to organize, train fresh cadres, and launch attacks against the NATO forces in Afghanistan. And yet if the US goes after them into Pakistan (as they have done on occasion with air strikes at the very least) they are violating Pakistani sovereignty and thus creating major political problems for their ally, Pakistani President Musharraf, who has had to repeatedly assure his own restive public that US forces will not be allowed to operate within Pakistan.

Furthermore, the program points out that the Pakistan intelligence agency ISI (their equivalent of the CIA) also has long standing ties with the Taliban, having supported and groomed them in their fight against the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, and are possibly undermining Musharraf's attempts at reigning in the Taliban.

All this has led to a no-win situation for both the US and Musharraf. The latter has tried to deflect local opposition by trying to forge treaties with the tribal leaders in those regions, but this has raised the hackles of the US who feel that this will result in giving the Taliban an even freer hand to operate.

The BBC says that the number of casualties in Afghanistan has increased four-fold this year, another sign of the worsening situation there.

Monday, November 13, 2006 was the fifth anniversary of the routing of the Taliban that sent them fleeing from Kabul. The London Times has an article describing what has happened during that time, reporting on how "triumph and hope have given way to despair and disappointment."

Meanwhile, the Times's Christina Lamb describes the deteriorating security situation in that country where that which was once unthinkable, that the Taliban would return to power, is now seen as a real possibility. Once again, it is the war in Iraq that has been the cause.

If there is one factor most responsible for the Taliban resurgence it is the war in Iraq, which distracted the attention of London and Washington at a critical time. While US marines were toppling statues of Saddam Hussein and then finding themselves fighting a bloody insurgency, the Taliban regrouped and retrained in Pakistan.

The seemingly easy victory by the US and its allies in Afghanistan, like that of the initial Soviet Union military deployment in 1979, was deceptive. The Soviet Union then lost 15,000 troops in the subsequent decade and the British suffered similar losses in the 19th century. Lamb quotes the prescient warning of Sir Olaf Caroe, the last British governor of North West Frontier Province: “Unlike other wars, Afghan wars become serious only when they are over.”

The saddest moment for me while watching the Frontline program was the story of Hayat Ullah Khan. He was a young Pakistani reporter hired as a stringer by Frontline and given a video camera to use. He stumbled on a scoop when visiting his village in December 4, 2005 after an explosion in which a high-level al Qaeda operative Abu Hamza Rabia (rumored to be #3 in that organization) was killed.

The Pakistan government claimed that the explosion that killed Rabia was due to a bomb going off while he was working with explosives. But Khan captured photographs of bomb fragments that clearly confirmed that it had been fired by the US, presumably by a Predator drone. This photographic proof that the US was attacking inside Pakistani territory appeared all over the world and embarrassed the Pakistani government because of the violations of its sovereignty, leading to protests against the government.

Khan confessed to his mother that he feared reprisals for his reporting and sure enough, five days later, while riding in a taxi with his brother, he was abducted by people suspected of being government operatives. He was missing for six months before his body was found in a ditch, He had been shot five times and was handcuffed with government-issue handcuffs.

During Khan's absence, the Frontline reporter Martin Smith questioned Pakistani president Musharraf about his whereabouts, saying that they had reports that the government was holding him. While Musharraf denied having any knowledge of the case or even the. name of Hayat Ullah Khan, it quickly became clear that he did know of the case. There seems little doubt that Khan was murdered by agents of the Pakistani government.

In its fight against terrorism, the US has thrown in its lot with lying, murderous dictators like Musharraf. It is not something to be proud of.

Although I have never visited Afghanistan (and don't recall ever having met a single Afghan in my whole life), I feel a deep sense of sympathy for the Afghan people, ever since I saw the riveting 2003 documentary Breaking the Silence: Truth and Lies in the War on Terror by veteran Australian journalist John Pilger. Pilger has covered war zones for many decades going back to Vietnam and Cambodia and describes Afghanistan as a country "more devastated than anything I have seen since Pol Pot's Cambodia."

Perhaps more than any other nation, the Afghan people have been long-suffering victims, caught between foreign powers interfering in their affairs, brutal tribal warlords, and cruel and repressive religious extremists like the Taliban. I wonder if they will ever know peace.

November 14, 2006

The October Surprise That Failed?

Waiting for the 'October Surprise' has become a standard ritual of the American election season, and this year was no exception. As usual, nervous Democrats anxiously wondered what sort of manufactured event and tricks the Bush administration, weighed down by its abysmal approval ratings, would unleash in the week or two prior to November 7 that might sway voters and reverse the deteriorating fortunes of the Republican party. Would they announce the capture of Osama bin Laden? Would they launch an attack on Iran? Would they announce a dramatic change in strategy in Iraq?

When none of these things happened and the only news of significance to emerge in the waning days of the election campaign was the break up of Britney Spears' marriage, and the Republicans ended up getting a drubbing at the polls, people began to wonder if alleged political genius Karl Rove's well of tricks had simply run dry.

However there is reason to think that there actually was an attempt at creating an October surprise, but that it went horribly wrong, and that was the missile strike that killed 80 people by destroying a madrassa in the Bajaur region of northwest Pakistan on October 30. There is strong evidence to suggest that the strike was an attempt by the US at killing the number 2 man of al Qaeda, Ayman al Zawahiri.

The Pakistan military immediately claimed responsibility, saying that they were the ones who had ordered and executed that strike because the madrassa "was no longer being used for imparting religious lessons and was instead in use as a military training camp", presumably to train people to go across the border into Afghanistan and fight the US and NATO forces there.

The claim that the school housed militants was immediately disputed by residents of the area, who said that the dead were students from the surrounding area, many of them young children. The Pakistan government has sealed off the area and prohibited journalists from entering, thus preventing independent verification of the competing claims. However, news reports said that "A group of lawyers from Peshawar who visited the site last week said they saw no evidence of training or weapons. What they did see was disturbing enough: a tense, angry crowd that surrounded their vehicles, shouting for holy war against the Pakistani and U.S. governments, less than a week after local leaders had been ready to sign a peace pact with the government."

What raises suspicions about the Pakistan military's version of this incident is the timing of the strike. In September 2006, the Pakistan government, incurring deep US displeasure, had entered into a peace deal with the pro-Taliban militant leaders of North Waziristan (one of Pakistan's northwest frontier provinces that borders Afghanistan) and was in the process of negotiating other deals with tribal leaders of other border regions. This rugged mountainous region is hard to monitor, is friendly to the Taliban, and the Pakistan government has historically had little control over it, with its own troops being periodically attacked and hundreds of people dying in the periodic skirmishes.

A news report said "Intriguingly, the attack was launch [sic] on the very day when the pro-Taliban tribal militants led by Maulana Faqir Mohammad and the deceased Maulana Liaquat were scheduled to sign a peace agreement with the Pakistan government." Maulana Liaquat ran the madrassa (seminary) that was destroyed and was a leader of the banned pro-Taliban organization called Tanzim Nifaz Shariat-i-Mohammadi (TNSM). He was killed in the attack. "The TNSM Bajaur leader Maulana Faqir Mohammad, wanted for allegedly sheltering al-Qaeda and Taliban linked foreign militants, survived the attack as he wasn't at the seminary at the time of the attack. He had attended a meeting at the seminary in the afternoon and left."

This raises the puzzling question of why the Pakistani government would arrange to make a peace deal and then turn around and bomb the very people with whom it had made the deal, on the very day that the deal was to be signed. It did not make sense and the people of the region quickly dismissed the idea that Pakistani forces had been responsible for the attack. They said that the madrassa was destroyed by missiles fired from US Predator drones. They cited witness who said they heard the drones circling overhead and said that Pakistan President Musharraf was trying to hide the fact that the US had attacked targets within Pakistan. As a result, there has been a violent reaction against the Pakistani government, with demonstrations and rallies and a suicide bomber who killed 42 Pakistani government troops on November 8.

But why would the US embarrass their ally so publicly? One possible argument is that they wanted to scuttle any peace deals between the Pakistani government and pro-Taliban tribal leaders. But killing 80 seminary students seems an extreme step to take to achieve that goal, even if you suspect that some of them might be militants in training.

The more likely reason is that the US had received intelligence that Ayman al Zawahiri may have been at the seminary, either hiding there or talking to the students.

This would not be the first time that the US had tried and failed to kill him in that region, where Zawahiri is supposed to have relatives. On January 14, 2006, the US had launched similar Predator drone missiles at the village of Damadola in the same region. That attack ended up killing 18 people including women and children, but no Zawahiri. Two weeks later, Zawahiri released a video taunting the US for their failed attempts at finding him.

It was outrage over the January deaths in Damadola that forced Musharraf to publicly declare that the US would not be allowed to launch any more attacks within Pakistani territory, which may have been why the Pakistan authorities were forced to claim responsibility for the recent madrassa attack.

It seems quite plausible that the October 30, 2006 missile attack was an attempt at an October surprise, a gamble that hoped to net the death of Osama bin Laden's second-in-command and the main strategist of al Qaeda. This would have allowed Bush to claim that he was achieving success in the war on terror, and put terrorism front and center in the minds of voters just days before the election.

If so, it failed in that goal. What is has done instead, apart from leading to more deaths of innocent people, is undermine and weaken the main ally that the US has in that region, Pakistani President Musharraf, an October surprise just for him that he neither wanted or needed.

November 13, 2006

The fallacy of torture's effectiveness-3

(See part 1 and part 2.)

In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb argues the apart from its immorality, the chief argument against torture is that the price it enacts is too high and ultimately defeats the people who use it.

The price of torture is unacceptably high because it disgraces and then undermines the country that countenances it. For the French in Algeria, for the Americans in Vietnam, and now for the Americans in Iraq, the costs have been astronomical and have outweighed any gains gathered by torture.

Although mass torture can get you useful information, the costs are so high as to make it useless. You end up not only alienating the population abroad (as has already happened to the US with the news of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo), you also eventually lose support at home as more and more people become disgusted with what their own government has done in their name. McCoy quotes British journalist Sir Alistair Horne as saying "You might say that the Battle of Algiers was won through the use of torture, but that the war, the Algerian war, was lost."

McCoy then discusses a crucial question: If torture produces limited gains at such high political cost, why does any rational American leader condone interrogation practices "tantamount to torture"? He answers that the basic cause is insecurity in the leadership and the need to feel that they are doing something especially as events slide out of their control. "[T]he powerful often turn to torture in times of crisis, not because it works but because it salves their fears and insecurities with the psychic balm of empowerment."

But this raises another problem. Once you have brutally tortured someone, you cannot just let them go, to freely speak about their treatment. You cannot bring them to an open trial where they can tell the judge and the public how they were treated. Allowing the victims of torture to speak about their conditions rebounds badly on you. The film Road to Guantanamo is one example of the negative consequences, because it is based on the story of three young Britons after they were eventually released from Gunatanamo.

The BBC radio program The World also had a report on October 24, 2006 in which their reporter went to a remote village in Pakistan. A young man there had returned home psychologically broken after being tortured in Guantanamo. His story was widely known in the entire region and had angered many other young men who had then joined up with various guerilla forces, trained, and then slipped into Afghanistan to fight the US there.

Then we have the story of Canadian Maher Arer who, while changing planes in the US on his way home from a business trip, was detained by US authorities and then sent to Syria to be tortured before being eventually released because they had nothing against him. He is now telling his story.

In a multipart report on MSNBC, reporter Bill Dedman confirms the essence of McCoy's case that once you torture someone, you cannot let go and you cannot bring them to trial either.

Mohammed al-Qahtani, detainee No. 063, was forced to wear a bra. He had a thong placed on his head. He was massaged by a female interrogator who straddled him like a lap dancer. He was told that his mother and sisters were whores. He was told that other detainees knew he was gay. He was forced to dance with a male interrogator. He was strip-searched in front of women. He was led on a leash and forced to perform dog tricks. He was doused with water. He was prevented from praying. He was forced to watch as an interrogator squatted over his Koran.

That much is known. These details were among the findings of the U.S. Army's investigation of al-Qahtani's aggressive interrogation at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.
. . .
Although they believed the abusive techniques were probably illegal, the Pentagon cops said their objection was practical. They argued that abusive interrogations were not likely to produce truthful information, either for preventing more al-Qaida attacks or prosecuting terrorists.
. . .
Will Mohammed al-Qahtani, the suspected 20th hijacker, ever face trial?

The cops who directed the investigation, Col. Mallow and Fallon, said they were told several times by prosecutors in the Pentagon's Office of Military Commissions, as the military trials are known, not to keep bringing forward a case against al-Qahtani, that there would be no case.

"The techniques made some detainees unprosecutable," Fallon said. "It would provide the defense counsel a tremendous advantage at trial to sway the presiding officer and members, as well as it would have disclosed those techniques to the public."

More recently, the Washington Post reports on the case of Majid Khan. The US government is trying to prevent any access to him because of what he might say about how he has been treated.

The Bush administration has told a federal judge that terrorism suspects held in secret CIA prisons should not be allowed to reveal details of the "alternative interrogation methods" that their captors used to get them to talk.

The government says in new court filings that those interrogation methods are now among the nation's most sensitive national security secrets and that their release - even to the detainees' own attorneys - "could reasonably be expected to cause extremely grave damage." Terrorists could use the information to train in counter-interrogation techniques and foil government efforts to elicit information about their methods and plots, according to government documents submitted to U.S. District Judge Reggie B. Walton on Oct. 26.
. . .
Joseph Margulies, a Northwestern University law professor who has represented several detainees at Guantanamo, said the prisoners "can't even say what our government did to these guys to elicit the statements that are the basis for them being held. Kafka-esque doesn't do it justice. This is 'Alice in Wonderland.' "

Kathleen Blomquist, a Justice Department spokeswoman, said yesterday that details of the CIA program must be protected from disclosure. She said the lawyer's proposal for talking with Khan "is inadequate to protect unique and potentially highly classified information that is vital to our country's ability to fight terrorism."

Government lawyers also argue in court papers that detainees such as Khan previously held in CIA sites have no automatic right to speak to lawyers because the new Military Commissions Act, signed by President Bush last month, stripped them of access to U.S. courts. That law established separate military trials for terrorism suspects.

To avoid this kind of post-torture situation, governments end up keeping torture victims locked up and out of sight forever. But then after awhile, as the numbers get larger, even that option gets unwieldy and expensive in terms of money and manpower. So the temptation is to "pump and dump," i.e. pump people for information, then kill them and dump the bodies. It is estimated that the CIA's Phoenix program in Vietnam resulted (by the CIA's own count) in over 20,000 such murders. So once you get started on the torture road, the final destination is state-approved murder, and that is the road we are currently on.

This is where torture inevitably leads you. It should never be condoned.

POST SCRIPT: Russ Feingold

Politics is a dirty business and it is hard to remain 'pure' and still get elected to high office. Although I have repeatedly said that the Democratic and Republican parties are just two factions of a single pro-war/pro-business party, I recognize the need to find and support the least worst elements of each.

Sadly, the person I would have been most likely to support enthusiastically for President has said he has no intention of running for that office. Senator Russ Feingold of Wisconsin made the announcement on Saturday.

Feingold has distinguished himself by staking out positions on principle. Here are some of his accomplishments:

1. He was the only senator to vote against the notorious "USA Patriot" Act, that began the rapid slide towards dismantling civil liberties.
2. He introduced a motion to censure President Bush for authorizing warrantless wiretaps.
3. He supports the rights of gays and lesbians to marry.

Glenn Greenwald points out how the beltway pundits and politicians (who wouldn't recognize a principle if it was handed to them on a plate surrounded by watercress) simply could not understand Feingold and tried desperately to interpret his actions as either Machiavellian scheming or the actions of a political naif.

When people ask why the political culture does not produce better candidates, we tend to rightly blame the strong influence of money. But a good share of the blame must be placed at the feet of the oh-so-smug-and-knowing insider cynicism of the political chattering classes.

With Feingold's departure from the race, we are headed closer to a nightmare scenario in 2008 where the two factions of the pro-war/pro-business party will send their most cynical and opportunistic and unprincipled representatives to vie for the presidency: Hillary Rodham Clinton and John McCain. The pundits will love them because they play the games according to the debased rules they understand, where the only things that matter are strategy and tactics, and principles are irrelevant.

November 10, 2006

The fallacy of torture's effectiveness-2

(See part 1 here.)

In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb and points out that there is little evidence that useful information is gleaned from torturing this or that individual.

This scenario still rests on the critical, utterly unexamined assumption that torture can get useful intelligence quickly from this or any hardened terrorist.

Advocates of the ticking bomb often cite the brutal torture of Abdul Hakim Murad in Manila in 1995, which they say stopped a plot to blow up a dozen trans-Pacific aircraft and kill 4,000 innocent passengers. Except, of course, for the simple fact that Murad’s torture did nothing of the sort. As The Washington Post has reported, Manila police got all their important information from Murad in the first few minutes when they seized his laptop with the entire bomb plot. All the supposed details gained from the sixty-seven days of incessant beatings, spiced by techniques like cigarettes to the genitals, were, as one Filipino officer testified in a New York court, fabrications fed to Murad by Philippine police.

McCoy says that "After fifty years of fighting enemies, communist and terrorist, with torture, we now have sufficient evidence to conclude that torture of the few yields little useful information. As the ancient Roman jurist Ulpian noted 1,800 years ago, when tortured the strong will resist and the weak will say anything to end the pain."

He cites, as an example of the damage caused by the weak saying anything that they think the captors want to hear, the case of Ibn al-Shaykh al-Libi, a senior Al Qaeda leader, who under torture

told his captors that Iraq trained Al Qaeda in chemical and biological weapons. This raises the possibility that he, like Murad, had been tortured into giving fabricated intelligence. Colin Powell relied on this false information in his now-disavowed speech to the United Nations before the Iraq War."

As Yale legal historian John Langbein puts it, “History’s most important lesson is that it has not been possible to make coercion compatible with truth.”

Proponents of torture present a false choice between tortured intelligence and no intelligence at all. There is, in fact, a well-established American alternative to torture that we might call empathetic interrogation. U.S. Marines first used this technique during World War II to extract accurate intelligence from fanatical Japanese captives on Saipan and Tinian within forty-eight hours of landing, and the FBI has practiced it with great success in the decades since. After the East Africa bombings of U.S. embassies, the bureau employed this method to gain some of our best intelligence on Al Qaeda and win U.S. court convictions of all of the accused.

One of the bureau agents who worked on that case, Dan Coleman, has since been appalled by the CIA’s coercive methods after 9/11. “Have any of these guys ever tried to talk to anyone who’s been deprived of his clothes?” Coleman asked. “He’s going to be ashamed and humiliated and cold. He’ll tell you anything you want to hear to get his clothes back. There’s no value in it.” By contrast, FBI reliance on due process and empathy proved effective in terror cases by building rapport with detainees.

Bush’s example of Zubaydah actually supports Coleman’s point. FBI agents say they were getting more out of him before the CIA came in with gloves off.

McCoy argues that allowing for torture even in very limited cases almost guarantees that the practice will expand and grow.

Once we agree to torture the one terrorist with his hypothetical ticking bomb, then we admit a possibility, even an imperative, for torturing hundreds who might have ticking bombs or thousands who just might have some knowledge about those bombs. “You can’t know whether a person knows where the bomb is,” explains Georgetown University Law Professor David Cole, “or even if they’re telling the truth. Because of this, you end up going down a slippery slope and sanctioning torture in general.”

It is not that torture never works but the history of torture suggests that in order to get a few bits of useful information, you have to throw a wide net for torture victims. McCoy points out a few cases in Vietnam and Algeria where mass torturing has worked. "Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence."

But indiscriminate and widespread torturing of people many of whom are bound to be innocent is presumably not where any civilized society wants to go, though given current trends, it would not surprise me if people were willing to countenance even that. All it would seem to require to gain approval from the US public and policymakers is for the scriptwriters of 24 Hours to have in the next season a storyline where Jack Bauer goes on a mass torturing rampage and despite leaving a long trail of broken human beings, succeeds in foiling some diabolical plot.

November 09, 2006

The fallacy of torture's effectiveness

I have written before that the passage and signing of the Military Commissions Act of 2006 (MCA) means that the US, as a nation, has decided that it has accepted the idea that the government can arrest and detain and torture people indefinitely without giving them access to family, lawyers, or courts. Thus, in one stroke, the US has abruptly removed individual freedoms and protections that took years of hard struggle to attain.

It always amazes me that those who support these moves invoke fiction as a basis for their reasoning, often mentioning the TV show 24 hours. Although I have not watched that program, from the way it is invoked it appears that it regularly involves the hero Jack Bauer having to confront a 'ticking time bomb' scenario where he, in order to avert a major disaster, has to get crucial information from an individual who won't talk. Bauer then tortures the person, the person reveals the information, and thus the day is saved. (Those who watch the show please correct me if my inferred impression is wrong.)

On a recent Real Time with Bill Maher program, Maher pointed out that with the passage of the MCA, the US government has now become identical with those reviled South American juntas where people just 'disappeared' and were never heard from again. Wall Street Journal editor Stephen Moore immediately sprang to the administration's defense saying that he sees nothing wrong with shooting someone in the leg to get information, invoking Bauer again for support. He argues that what he calls 'Jack Bauer justice' is what the American people want. The fact that this may be true (as evidenced by the passage of the MCA) is not a cause for rejoicing.

Hillary Clinton had earlier opposed the MCA saying it "undermines the Geneva Conventions by allowing the president to issue executive orders to redefine what are permissible interrogation techniques. Have we fallen so low as to debate how much torture we are willing to stomach?" But now, clearly feeling that she needs to be as barbarous as the current administration in order to have a chance of occupying the White House in the future, she is quoted as telling the New York Daily News "that the president should have "some lawful authority" to use torture or other "severe" interrogation methods in a so-called ticking-bomb scenario." She has, in fact, fallen to that low level that she despised just a short while ago.

This ticking time bomb scenario is a favorite of those who seem to take actual pleasure in inflicting pain on others, such as Charles Krauthammer. The reason that such people invoke such fictitious scenarios is that they have little else going for them. Careful analysis of actual situations shows that torture is not only immoral, but it also does not work, and requires for its success on the simultaneous existence of multiple factors, each of which is unlikely by itself.

In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb.

He writes that this myth originated with the academic speculations of philosopher Michael Walzer and went largely unnoticed until resurrected recently by another torture advocate Alan Dershowitz.

McCoy points out that:

In the real world, the probability that a terrorist might be captured after concealing a ticking nuclear bomb in Times Square and that his captors would somehow recognize his significance is phenomenally slender. The scenario assumes a highly improbable array of variables that runs something like this:
- First, FBI or CIA agents apprehend a terrorist at the precise moment between timer’s first tick and bomb’s burst.
- Second, the interrogators somehow have sufficiently detailed foreknowledge of the plot to know they must interrogate this very person and do it right now.
- Third, these same officers, for some unexplained reason, are missing just a few critical details that only this captive can divulge.
- Fourth, the biggest leap of all, these officers with just one shot to get the information that only this captive can divulge are best advised to try torture, as if beating him is the way to assure his wholehearted cooperation.

But this combination of factors is highly unlikely to occur. It is only after an event has occurred that people look back and see clearly the chain of events that led up to it and are able to unerringly "connect the dots", to use a currently popular cliche. He points out that Zacarias Moussaoui was in captivity for weeks before 9/11 being desultorily questioned without any useful information being obtained, because the "FBI did not have precise foreknowledge of Al Qaida's plot or his precise role."

“After the event,” Roberta Wohlstetter wrote in her classic study of that other great U.S. intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor, “a signal is always crystal clear; we can now see what disaster it was signaling since the disaster has occurred. But before the event, it is obscure and pregnant with conflicting meanings.”

But suppose that this highly unlikely sequence of events does happen. In such cases does torture yield useful information? This will be examined in the next posting in this series.

POST SCRIPT: Meanwhile, in other elections. . .

In a less-watched election, those Ohio candidates favoring the teaching of evolution and opposed to introducing intelligent design ideas into the science curriculum won seats in the State Board of Education elections. This continues the losing slide, both legal and electoral, for intelligent design creationism (IDC) advocates that began with the reversal in Dover, PA.

The losses for the IDC side follow similar defeats in the Kansas primaries. The Ohio pro-evolution candidates were supported by the group HOPE which stands for "Help Ohio Public Education, a group of scientists angered by the board's flirtation with intelligent design, which courts have barred from science class."

In the race that drew national attention, Tom Sawyer, a former Akron mayor and 16-year congressman, was beating incumbent Deborah Owens Fink nearly 2-1 for a board seat that covers Summit, Ashtabula, Portage and Trumbull counties.
. . .
Three other HOPE-backed candidates appeared headed for victory Tuesday: former state legislator John Bender of Avon and retired school teacher Deborah Cain of Canton were clinging to narrow leads, and incumbent Sam Schloemer of Cincinnati was winning handily.

But the group's biggest target was Owens Fink, a University of Akron marketing professor. She was one of the most articulate proponents of a model lesson for 10th-grade biology teachers that called for a "critical analysis" of Charles Darwin's widely held theory that life on Earth descended from common ancestors.

Fink apparently got less than 30% of the vote, which has to be considered a pretty devastating loss for an incumbent.

November 08, 2006

Michael Ledeen - The ultimate revisionist

Of all the people that are mentioned in the Vanity Fair article that are seeking to escape responsibility for their role in urging the Iraq war, none sinks lower than that Michael Ledeen.

Jonah Goldberg alerted us to the fact that Ledeen was an "entertaining speaker" but he did not tell us the half of it. In the Vanity Fair interview Ledeen turns out to be real yukmeister when he argues that the influence of the neoconservatives paled in comparison to a much more powerful bloc: "Ask yourself who the most powerful people in the White House are. They are women who are in love with the president: Laura [Bush], Condi, Harriet Miers, and Karen Hughes." So according to Ledeen, it is women, those lovesick, lovelorn women surrounding George Bush and assiduously competing for his affections, who are to blame for the Iraq mess! Bush was too enraptured by the sirens around him to listen to those who were giving him good advice. Who would have suspected that the whole Iraq war was a soap opera, the result of romantic intrigues within the White House?

But Ledeen's ability to generate laughs does not end there. Ledeen has also received widespread ridicule because he has been the most shameless in trying to rewrite history, and his feeble and transparent attempts have been quickly exposed. Following the emergence of the Vanity Fair article, he claims that he never supported the invasion of Iraq and so feels no reason to apologize.

I do not feel "remorseful," since I had and have no involvement with our Iraq policy. I opposed the military invasion of Iraq before it took place and I advocated - as I still do - support for political revolution in Iran as the logical and necessary first step in the war against the terror masters. . . So it is totally misleading for Vanity Fair to suggest that I have had second thoughts about our Iraq policy.

He also asserted this opposition to the Iraq war in his Fresh Air interview with Terry Gross. When I heard him say it on the radio, I was surprised since it seemed so inconsistent with the strong support that the neoconservatives had for the invasion, but Terry Gross did not challenge him. Since I had not personally been keeping track of what Ledeen had been saying all these years, I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and think that perhaps he had been a more sophisticated thinker than his fellow neoconservatives. But it turns out he is simply and brazenly lying.

People like Ledeen seem to keep forgetting that things like Google and Lexis-Nexis now exist and keep records of whatever you have published. Gone are the days when you could deny what you said in the past, confident that few people will bother to go to libraries and dig up archives of old publications to check on you. Now that information is available at everyone's fingertips and there are legions of bloggers out there tirelessly doing the detective work to expose these shameless efforts at rewriting history. And Ledeen's come-uppance was not slow in arriving.

Thanks to Mona at Inactivist we have proof that Ledeen is lying. In August 2002, this is what he wrote in response to former National Security Advisor (to George H. W. Bush) Brent Scowcroft's misgivings about invading Iraq:

It's always reassuring to hear Brent Scowcroft attack one's cherished convictions; it makes one cherish them all the more.
. . .
So it's good news when Scowcroft comes out against the desperately-needed and long overdue war against Saddam Hussein and the rest of the terror masters.
. . .
He fears that if we attack Iraq "I think we could have an explosion in the Middle East. It could turn the whole region into a caldron and destroy the War on Terror."

One can only hope that we turn the region into a cauldron, and faster, please. If ever there were a region that richly deserved being cauldronized, it is the Middle East today. If we wage the war effectively, we will bring down the terror regimes in Iraq, Iran, and Syria, and either bring down the Saudi monarchy or force it to abandon its global assembly line to indoctrinate young terrorists.

That's our mission in the war against terror.

So not only was Ledeen for the war in August 2002, he so lacks basic human feeling for the lives of the people of that region that he wanted to turn it in to a "cauldon." But there's more. In an August 12, 2002 interview with other panelists on the topic "To Invade Iraq or Not; That is the Question?", he responds to questions this way:

Question #1: Gentlemen, should we go to war against Iraq?

Ledeen: We have been at war with Iraq for years, since we performed victory interruptus at the end of the Gulf War phase. Iraq has attempted to assassinate a former American president, broken the agreement to permit international inspectors, aided anti-American terrorists both internationally and within the United States, and called for anti-American jihad with monotonous regularity. The only question is whether or not we're prepared to finally wage the war in such a way as to win it.

Question #2: Okay, well if we are all so certain about the dire need to invade Iraq, then when do we do so?

Ledeen: Yesterday.

Once Mona had pointed out these examples of Ledeen's lie, others quickly began to investigate and found even more. Jonathan Schwarz makes up a damning compendium of Ledeen's self-incriminating words. On August 19, 2002, Ledeen said "I think in the case of Iraq, the strongest argument for a preemptive strike is to say what I believe which is that we have in effect been at war with Iraq for quite a long time. They have attacked us repeatedly. They tried to assassinate one former American president. They've supported terrorists that have carried out terrorist activities within the United States. . .So this would not be a preemptive strike. This would be a response. . .I think that if President Bush is to be faulted for anything in this so far, it's that he's taken much too long to get on with it, much too long."

And then on February 18, 2003 he says, urging war on Iran as well as Iraq, "As in the war against Iraq, we have already waited far too long to get on with it. Faster, please!"

Suddenly finding himself in the crosshairs for his transparent attempts at rewriting history, Ledeen resorts to that old debating ploy, the non sequitur, by pointing to some other writing of his where he did not urge an invasion, without addressing the substance of the case that has been made against him. It is like someone accused of assaulting his wife trying to absolve himself by saying "But I bought her flowers just last week!" People like Ledeen have no shame.

Glenn Greenwald, as usual, puts his finger on the key point:

People are entitled to express a wide range of opinions and to be forgiven for being wrong sometimes. We are all wrong sometimes. But the type of dishonesty and willingness to say anything, no matter how false, that is evident in Ledeen's efforts to save himself has become so pervasive and acceptable at the highest levels of our government and pundit class, and it has completely destroyed the quality and value of political debate in our country. Nobody is entitled to do that, and it's difficult to think of a more important priority than re-establishing the most minimal standards of honesty in our political discourse. That begins by making liars like Ledeen have some accountability and consequences for their lies.

The one big question that arises from all this is the following: How could it be that the US, the most powerful nation in the world, with all the information and expertise and resources at its disposal, be persuaded by people like this to make one of the most disastrous blunders in the history of modern warfare?

You can be sure that this question will be pondered by historians for generations to come, providing the raw material for many doctoral dissertations.

November 07, 2006

Trying to avoid blame for the Iraq fiasco-2

(See part 1 here.)

Of course, one thing that all the people interviewed in the Vanity Fair article share is that they never acknowledge any personal responsibility for causing the mess in Iraq. They never apologize. Instead they are anxious to say that they are not to be blamed for this mess. So scapegoats must be found.

Rumsfeld is turning out to be everyone's favorite target and the knives are definitely out for him, fueled by the ringing endorsement that Bush gave him and Cheney last week, a move that stunned those who perhaps thought the Iraq policy might be salvaged with someone new as Secretary of Defense.

Kenneth "Cakewalk" Adelman is one of those disillusioned by his former hero. He had expected great things from Rumsfeld but now says: "I'm very, very fond of him, but I'm crushed by his performance. Did he change, or were we wrong in the past? Or is it that he was never really challenged before? I don't know. He certainly fooled me."

The Army Times, Air Force Times, Navy Times and Marine Corps Times released a joint editorial on Saturday, November 4, 2006 under the headline "Time for Rumsfeld to go" in which it argues that the current military leadership has lost faith in him. The editorial ends:

Rumsfeld has lost credibility with the uniformed leadership, with the troops, with
Congress and with the public at large. His strategy has failed, and his ability to lead is compromised. And although the blame for our failures in Iraq rests with the secretary, it will be the troops who bear its brunt.

This is not about the midterm elections. Regardless of which party wins Nov. 7, the time has come, Mr. President, to face the hard bruising truth:

Donald Rumsfeld must go.

Rumsfeld, with his strutting, his overbearing language and demeanor, and his browbeating of anyone who might deign to challenge him, epitomized the know-it-all arrogance of this administration and is fully deserving of criticism, But this editorial is quite an extraordinary and disturbing development for a democracy. Although these newspapers are not part of the military, they seem confident that they are expressing the sentiments of the current military leadership. When the current military people quasi-publicly criticize the defense secretary, this undermines the principle of civilian control of the military. It does not rise to the level of a coup but is disturbing nonetheless. More than anything, this illustrates how dangerously out of balance the whole government has been brought to by the Iraq war.

Other former war supporters interviewed in the Vanity Fair article are also gloomy about the possible outcome of the war. Eliot Cohen, director of the strategic-studies program at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and member of the Defense Policy Board, says: "I wouldn't be surprised if what we end up drifting toward is some sort of withdrawal on some sort of timetable and leaving the place in a pretty ghastly mess."

Frank Gaffney, an assistant secretary of defense under Ronald Reagan and founder of the Center for Security Policy, delivers perhaps the unkindest cut of all: "[Bush] doesn't in fact seem to be a man of principle who's steadfastly pursuing what he thinks is the right course. He talks about it, but the policy doesn't track with the rhetoric, and that's what creates the incoherence that causes us problems around the world and at home."

Bush's appeal to many voters has been that he is a man of principle who knows what he believes and acts on those beliefs. To be accused by his erstwhile friends of being weak and confused must hurt.

Richard Perle wants everyone to understand that none of the current mess is the fault of the neoconservatives. He says: "Huge mistakes were made, and I want to be very clear on this: They were not made by neoconservatives, who had almost no voice in what happened, and certainly almost no voice in what happened after the downfall of the regime in Baghdad. I'm getting damn tired of being described as an architect of the war." (my emphasis)

Meanwhile infamous Iranian exile Ahmed Chalabi, now living in London, has emerged from the shadows and blames Paul Wolfowitz, the Pentagon, the Americans, anybody. This is the same Chalabi who regaled gullible and now disgraced New York Times reporter Judith Miller with stories about Saddam Hussein's weapons programs provided by Iraqi "defectors" who turned out to be frauds. She then published those stories on the front pages of that paper, and the Administration then completed that incestuous cycle by using those same stories to argue that there was independent proof that Iraq had WMDs.

An article in Editor and Publisher excerpts an article by reporter Dexter Filkins that just appeared in the New York Times, giving us Chalabi's own revisionist history:

Now, in an interview in his London home, Chalabi, betraying what Filkins calls "a touch of bitterness," declares, "The real culprit in all this is Wolfowitz," the former assistant secretary of defense, whom he still considers a friend. "They chickened out. The Pentagon guys chickened out. . .The Americans screwed it up. . .America betrays its friends. It sets them up and betrays them. I'd rather be America's enemy."

Chalabi has nothing to say about his leaks to Judith Miller of The New York Times, but Filkins does recall her famous email from 2003 when she boasted that Chalabi had "provided most of the front-page exclusives on WMD to our paper." 

David Kay, the weapons inspector, weighs in on Wolfowitz: "He was a true believer. He thought he had the evidence. That came from the defectors. They came from Chalabi."
. . .
Chalabi counters views that he was the catalyst [for the war], saying that it was Bush officials who "came to us and asked, 'Can you help us find something on Saddam?'"

Chalabi, after doing all that he did to provide the US with arguments to go to war, now "claims that he warned the Bush people that various Iraqi informants were unreliable, only to hear the Americans say, referring to the source, "This guy is the mother lode." Chalabi, of all people asks, "Can you believe that on such a basis the United States would go to war?"

These people are a real piece of work. After feeding each other stories that they all wanted to believe, and foisting them on a gullible American public through an equally gullible media, they now express amazement that anyone would have taken the case for war seriously.

We have to leave it to editorial cartoonist Tom Toles to sum up the idiocy of this position:


November 06, 2006

Trying to avoid blame for the Iraq fiasco

I had thought that I had said all that I had wanted to about the warmongering pundits attempts at rewriting the history of the Iraq war, but some dramatic developments over the weekend compel me to revisit the question. The recognition that the situation in Iraq is very bad, if not hopeless, is more widespread among war advocates than even I had thought. Consequently, the attempts to avoid blame for the debacle have become even more desperate

It is clear that the Iraq war debate has long past the point at which the options could be described as to whether the US should "stay the course" or "cut and run." Now the options are better described as a choice between those advocating "stay and lose" (which is the position of Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, and a rapidly shrinking coterie of their true-believer allies) and the "run and blame" crowd, which has seen an explosive growth in its ranks, consisting largely of conversions from the once-enthusiastic war supporters.

Nowhere is the extent of the disaffection with the war and the Cheney administration revealed more than in an extraordinary preview of a Vanity Fair article released over the weekend. (The full article will be in the January 2007 issue.) The article, titled Neo Culpa, consists of interviews by David Rose of the leading lights of the neoconservative movement. Rose says that as he prepares for the interviews: "I expect to encounter disappointment. What I find instead is despair, and fury at the incompetence of the Bush administration the neoconservatives once saw as their brightest hope."

All of the people interviewed by Rose are now distancing themselves from any responsibility for the war. The Vanity Fair articles lists an astonishing number of influential former war cheerleaders who have turned against the Bush administration. In the process, they are scrambling to find excuses, seeking to blame others for their grand dream going sour. Once again, though, their chief complaint is not that the war was wrong in principle but that they had no idea that the current administration would be so incompetent in executing the war or that the Iraqis would be so stupid as to not realize what was in their own best interests. In fact, according to them, everyone and everything is to blame except the one thing that is obvious: that the idea of the invasion itself was wrong and that they were wrong to promote it.

Take Richard Perle, once chair of the Pentagon's Defense Policy Board Advisory Committee and popularly known as "The Prince of Darkness". He blames all the problems on the "depravity" of the Iraqi people and the "devastating dysfunction within the administration of President George W. Bush." He says that "The decisions did not get made that should have been. They didn't get made in a timely fashion, and the differences were argued out endlessly. . . At the end of the day, you have to hold the president responsible. . .I don't think he realized the extent of the opposition within his own administration, and the disloyalty."

Perle now says that "total defeat - an American withdrawal that leaves Iraq as an anarchic "failed state" - is not yet inevitable but is becoming more likely." He still believes in some of his earlier delusions, though. "I don't say that because I no longer believe that Saddam had the capability to produce weapons of mass destruction, or that he was not in contact with terrorists. I believe those two premises were both correct."

But he has suddenly realized that there were options other than going in with guns blazing. "Could we have managed that threat by means other than a direct military intervention? Well, maybe we could have." Thanks, Prince. I am sure that the hundreds of thousands of dead people and their loved ones, casualties of the war you helped instigate, feel so much better now that you have seen the light.

Of course, Perle was one of the very people who poo-poohed any overtures by the Iraqi government to avoid war and was gung-ho about the invasion. The London Guardian newspaper reported in November 2003 that these overtures were actually channeled through Richard Perle but went nowhere because of stringent conditions imposed by Perle himself. This has become a standard pre-war tactic, to impose conditions that you know will be refused, and then justify invasion because of that rejection.

Former Bush speechwriter David Frum also says something extraordinary. "I always believed as a speechwriter that if you could persuade the president to commit himself to certain words, he would feel himself committed to the ideas that underlay those words. And the big shock to me has been that although the president said the words, he just did not absorb the ideas. And that is the root of, maybe, everything."

Pause for a moment to understand how low Frum's opinion of Bush is. What he is saying is that by him putting words in Bush's mouth, Bush might come to act on them. In other words, he thought of Bush as an idiot who could be made to say things that other people want him to say, and having said them, believe in them because he had said them. Frum is saying now that Bush is even more of an idiot than he had thought, because although he did say the words Frum put in his mouth, he did not really understand or know what he was saying, and therefore did not wholeheartedly act on them.

And then there's the famous Kenneth "Cakewalk" Adelman. He too now says that he was wrong to have placed his faith in Bush and his fellow bunglers.

Kenneth Adelman, a lifelong neocon activist and Pentagon insider who served on the Defense Policy Board until 2005, wrote a famous op-ed article in The Washington Post in February 2002, arguing: "I believe demolishing Hussein's military power and liberating Iraq would be a cakewalk." Now he berates the entire administration, saying: "I just presumed that what I considered to be the most competent national-security team since Truman was indeed going to be competent. They turned out to be among the most incompetent teams in the post-war era. Not only did each of them, individually, have enormous flaws, but together they were deadly, dysfunctional. . .There's no seriousness here, these are not serious people. . .The problem is a performance job. . .Rumsfeld has said that the war could never be lost in Iraq, it could only be lost in Washington. I don't think that's true at all. We're losing in Iraq."

Next: More neo culpas

November 03, 2006

Why the pro-war pundits must be countered

I have spent this week trying to explain why we should not take seriously even those pro-war pundits who now think invading Iraq was a bad idea. The reason is that they have never acknowledged the fundamental wrongness of that policy and instead have tried to portray it as errors in implementation. This kind of thinking merely lays the groundwork for future wars by persuading people that it can be done correctly.

There have been many conflicting reasons given for invading Iraq. These reasons have been endlessly recycled so that as one argument is shown to be false, the next one is produced, with defenders of the war saying "But the real reason for the war is. . ." By filling in the blanks with changing rationales, they can go through the entire cycle and come back to the beginning and act as if it is a fresh argument.

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow is, as usual, ahead of the curve in identifying and skewering this tactic.

Currently, the favored point in that cycle is the argument that the invasion of Iraq was to bring democracy to that country. This 'motherhood and apple pie' argument is always the next-to-last refuge of the scoundrel since no one opposes democracy. The fact that this was not the argument made at the time shows that the proponents of the war want us to forget the actual reasons given for invading that country.

Why is that? Because then those same arguments can then be recycled to make the case for going to war against Iran or Syria or North Korea. The same warmongers and think tanks who urged war on Iraq are now re-positioning themselves saying that while that war may have not turned out well due to tactical failures (such as not having enough troops, or disbanding the Iraqi army, or failing to hand over power quickly enough, planning ahead for the post-war occupation, or whatever), the US has learned from that unfortunate experience and will do the next invasion correctly, with glorious success.

One does not know where to begin in dismantling such a hubristic attitude. Comedian Bill Maher on the New Rules segment of his program Real Time with Bill Maher says it best as to why we should never listen to these people anymore.

And finally, New Rule, in two parts: A) You can't call yourself a think tank if all your ideas are stupid. And B), if you're someone from one of the think tanks that dreamed up the Iraq War, and who predicted that we'd be greeted as liberators, and that we wouldn't need a lot of troops, and that Iraqi oil would pay for the war, that the WMD's would be found, that the looting wasn't problematic, and the mission was accomplished, that the insurgency was in its last throes, that things would get better after the people voted, after the government was formed, after we got Saddam, after we got his kids, after we got Zarqawi, and that the whole bloody mess wouldn't turn into a civil have to stop making predictions!
. . .
You know, it's a shame what happened to think tanks. They used to produce valuable, apolitical analysis. But partisanship crept into many of them. And the Bush Administration doesn't just come up with something as stupid as "If we leave now, they'll follow us home." No, they have someone from a think tank say it first. It's a way to lend respectability.
. . .
The think tanks that incubated the Iraq war have lofty names like the Heritage Foundation and the Project for a New American Century. Whatever. They've been wrong so often, I'm surprised they're not my broker. Richard Perle thought we could win Iraq with 40,000 troops. Paul Wolfowitz predicted, in 2003, that within a year, the grateful people of Baghdad would name some grand square in their fine city after President Bush. And he was right when he said they'd be waving American flags. They were on fire.

William Kristol pooh-poohed the fears that Sunnis and Shiites would be at each others' throats, as "the stuff of pop psychology." Right.
. . .
And now, Mr. Kristol proposes immediate military action against Iran, predicting the Iranians will thank us for it. Hey, you know what, Nostrodamus? Why don't you sit this one out? We'll get by using the Magic Eight Ball for a while.

(You can see the video of this Maher segment here.)

But they will not sit this one out, nor the next one, nor the next one. They will remain fixtures in our media, endlessly recycling their ideas, pushing for more wars, hoping that the public will not notice the hollowness of their arguments or their lack of any empirical support or the fact that they have been wrong so often in the past.

Our only option is to treat them with the contempt they deserve.

POST SCRIPT: Stephen Colbert again

See Colbert have fun with the ridiculous flap over Kerry's botched joke.

November 02, 2006

The warmongers' insatiable desire for violence

The dirty little (but open) secret is that people like Jonah Goldberg never really cared for all the finer points of the case for or against war, all the geopolitical calculations. They wanted blood and revenge for the attacks of 9/11 and the people of Iraq and Afghanistan were merely the most convenient targets for their bloodlust. In a macabre way we are fortunate, despite the barbarism of his views, to have people like Goldberg because he moves around in the circles of influential opinion makers, and he often reveals what they say in limited circles and might prefer not to have repeated to a broader public. He is like a child who blurts out to visitors the unflattering things his parents said about them just before their arrival, causing red-faced embarrassment all around.

Here is what Goldberg said right after the invasion of Afghanistan.

In the weeks prior to the war to liberate Afghanistan, a good friend of mine would ask me almost every day, "Why aren't we killing people yet?" And I never had a good answer for him. Because one of the most important and vital things the United States could do after 9/11 was to kill people. Call it a "forceful response," "decisive action" - whatever. Those are all nice euphemisms for killing people. And the world is a better place because America saw the necessity of putting steel beneath the velvet of those euphemisms.

So the war was to simply kill people, any people, in order to satiate the desire for revenge of him and his friends. But his statement, as horrific as he sounds, is not the worst thing he has said about what the circles he moves in really feels. For them, the Afghan war, especially in its initial stages, was too easy and did not produce enough blood to satisfy them. So they moved on to Iraq, where in urging the invasion of Iraq, Goldberg gave this novel justification, invoking another influential neoconservative warmonger Michael Ledeen:


So how does all this, or the humble attempt at a history lesson of my last column, justify tearing down the Baghdad regime? Well, I've long been an admirer of, if not a full-fledged subscriber to, what I call the "Ledeen Doctrine." I'm not sure my friend Michael Ledeen will thank me for ascribing authorship to him and he may have only been semi-serious when he crafted it, but here is the bedrock tenet of the Ledeen Doctrine in more or less his own words: "Every ten years or so, the United States needs to pick up some small crappy little country and throw it against the wall, just to show the world we mean business." That's at least how I remember Michael phrasing it at a speech at the American Enterprise Institute about a decade ago (Ledeen is one of the most entertaining public speakers I've ever heard, by the way).

So we should attack Iraq because we need to periodically kick some small country in the teeth, just because we can, and to show the world "we mean business". If that results in more than a half million Iraqis dead, well, that's the price of hard-headed realism.

But Goldberg thinks that Michael Ledeen's barbaric ideas must be taken seriously. After all, we are assured that Ledeen is an entertaining speaker. Michael Ledeen, by the way, is described as a "scholar" at the American Enterprise Institute (a warmongering "think tank") and has been one of the leading advocates of the US initiating regime changes in one Middle East country after the next. In an interview on Fresh Air Ledeen makes the extraordinary claim to interviewer Terry Gross that Iran has been attacking the US for 27 years! Justin Raimondo analyzes Ledeen's contribution to the warmongering efforts among the pundit class.

This is what passes for serious thinking among these people. But while Goldberg now says the war in Iraq was wrong, he quickly adds that "I must confess that one of the things that made me reluctant to conclude that the Iraq war was a mistake was my general distaste for the shabbiness of the arguments on the antiwar side."

What does it say about a person who hesitates to say he is wrong about such a major issue because of his "distaste" for his opponents? Furthermore, to be lectured to on the "shabbiness" of the antiwar arguments by someone like Goldberg who has advanced the most cruel and bloody and shallow arguments that he has for the invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, is like being lectured on the proper treatment of prisoners by Dick Cheney.

But Goldberg and Ledeen, as I said, are not alone in this kind of barbaric thinking. Max Boot, then editorial page editor of the Wall Street Journal was disappointed in the early days of the Afghanistan war because, like Goldberg, it did not produce enough blood to satisfy him. He criticized the fact that it was primarily an air war and did not produce enough casualties on the American side! Writing on November 14, 2001 when the Taliban government had just abandoned Kabul because of American air strikes, he said:

It may seem churlish in this hour of victory to raise doubts about how the triumphs of the past few days have been achieved, but the manner in which we have fought the war in Afghanistan may yet come back to haunt us.

This is not a war being won with American blood and guts. It is being won with the blood and guts of the Northern Alliance, helped by copious quantities of American ordnance and a handful of American advisers. After Sept. 11, President Bush promised that this would not be another bloodless, push-button war, but that is precisely what it has been.

Boot seems genuinely disappointed by Bush not carrying through on his promise that the war would not be bloodless. He bemoans the lack of US casualties and worries that "the longer term danger is that the war in Afghanistan will do nothing to dispel the widespread impression that Americans are fat, indolent, and unwilling to fight the barbarians on their own terms." He is concerned that "Our bombing campaign reveals great technical and logistical prowess, but it does not show that we have the determination to stick a bayonet in the guts of our enemy." He thinks that to dispel this image of Americans being 'soft', US soldiers must be willing to kill and be killed in close-up combat in order to convince the world that the US can take serious casualties.

I am always amazed at the ease with which some people can long for the deaths of other people. Apart from the Goldberg-like fascination with bloody imagery, I always wonder what such people mean when they say "we" in such contexts. To me it reinforces the idea that these chickenhawk pundits like Boot and Ledeen and Goldberg really do imagine themselves as warriors, and they like to imagine themselves fighting alongside the soldiers, and vicariously enjoying sticking bayonets into people and watching blood and gore spill out. All this macho posturing (like the use of the gratuitously violent imagery "stick a bayonet in the guts") while staying safely out of danger must stem from some serious insecurities in their psyche.

But Boot foresaw a possible bright side. Perhaps the Taliban would not give up so easily and that could produce more blood and US casualties. He goes on:

It is still not too late to dispel the illusion of American weakness; in fact, we may have no choice in the weeks ahead. The Taliban, still shielding Osama bin Laden, remain holed up in southern Afghanistan, a land where the Northern Alliance is unlikely to venture.
. . .
Of course the Taliban in the south may complete their collapse within a matter of days. But if they do not, U.S. forces may still have to go cave-to-cave, as U.S. Marines once went cave-to-cave on Tarawa, Saipan and Okinawa, incinerating the enemy in their redoubts.

He ends on a remarkably disingenuous note, saying "It is not a pleasant thing to contemplate more battles, greater bloodshed" when it is clear that this is exactly what he desires.

Now that the situation in Afghanistan is unraveling, the Taliban is resurgent, and the US and coalition forces actually have been forced to go cave-to-cave and are incurring serious casualties (350 US troop deaths and 150 from the other NATO nations so far), not to mention the huge numbers of Afghans who have also died, Boot may have got his wish.

William Kristol is another person in March 2003 who thought that Americans should stop being such wimps and should be ready to have lots of people die to show their toughness, as long as it is not him and his friends who actually risk death, of course.

"I think the American people are going to have great tolerance for the war taking longer, and they are going to have great tolerance for more casualties," said William Kristol, editor of the conservative Weekly Standard. "The American people don't have tolerance for defeat or equivocation."

Kristol said he did not welcome a tougher fight, but, he said, "in a certain way, the willingness to stick it out would be as impressive as" a quick victory, because such toughness would dispute the "core [Osama] bin Laden claim that America is a weak horse," that after suffering 19 casualties in Somalia, "they fled."

Similarly, that "entertaining speaker" Michael Ledeen also displayed insouciance about casualties as long as he is not the one at any risk. He makes the extraordinary claim that Americans as a whole actually love war, projecting on other people his own bloodlust.

I think the level of casualties is secondary. I mean, it may sound like an odd thing to say, but all the great scholars who have studied American character have come to the conclusion that we are a warlike people and that we love war. . . . What we hate is not casualties but losing. And if the war goes well and if the American public has the conviction that we're being well-led and that our people are fighting well and that we're winning, I don't think casualties are going to be the issue.

The arguments for invading Iraq are being increasingly revealed to be beneath contempt and even coming from people like Henry Kissinger, whom I had hoped had disappeared from the public scene. It turns out that this Vietnam-era war criminal has been a regular confidante of Bush and Cheney, peddling once again his patented violent solutions. Scott Horton, writes in the Antiwar blog:

Along the lines of Justin Raimondo's article about Jonah Goldberg and the Ledeen Doctrine, one of the most sickening yet, as far as I can tell, unremarked upon bits of hearsay in Bob Woodward's new book, State of Denial, is about the bloodlust of Henry Kissinger, apparently as relayed to Woodward by former Bush speechwriter Mike Gerson. From page 408:

"Why did you support the Iraq war?" Gerson asked him.

"Because Afghanistan wasn't enough," Kissinger answered. In the conflict with radical Islam, he said, they want to humiliate us. "And we need to humiliate them."

(Bob Woodward has made a career out of being the "court stenographer", carefully reflecting the views of the people in power and being very deferential to them in order to gain access. The fact that his latest book reveals all the dissension in the administration says that there is realization within the administration that the Iraq war has simply fallen apart.)

So all these "serious" people say that we should invade a country and kill people in the Middle East just because we can, to prove to the world that we are tough, and to humiliate them. And when these actions produce violent reactions, these very same people turn around with hurt and puzzled looks and ask "Why do they hate us?"


POST SCRIPT: Great moments in presidential oratory

For a little bit of humor, see here.

November 01, 2006

Rewriting the history about the Iraq war – the pundits keep trying

The pro-war agitators other attempt at rewriting history is to say that the people who opposed the war were partisan simpletons who were against anything that Bush did, while supporting the wars that Democrats started. This is blatantly false as editorial director Justin Raimondo has repeatedly pointed out.

Raimondo delivers a blistering dissection of the phony apologias of these once cock-a-hoop warmongers, such as that they were right to support the war but that they were let down by the incompetence in executing it. They now call for more troops, firing Donald Rumsfeld, or other tactical changes, without conceding that the invasion of Iraq was a massive strategic blunder and that the current debacle followed inexorably from it.

In the veritable tsunami of recantations and recriminations pouring out of former supporters of the war, from Francis Fukuyama to various Republican members of Congress, there is one constant theme: Don't blame us! Who knew that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction? No one could have known about the rise of the insurgency. Nobody told us!

The only proper answer to this is: Poppycock!
. . .
America's looming defeat in Iraq was easily predictable: after all, the British, the Turks, the Ottomans, and, further back, the Romans, the Persians, the Mongols, and the Macedonians under Alexander the Great had all been driven out of Mesopotamia, some quicker than others. Why did anyone think the Americans would be the exception?
. . .
If only we knew then what we know now" – that's the mantra we're hearing from the excuse-makers, Democrats as well as Republicans and repentant neocons, now that the truth about this rotten war is out there in the open, plain enough for even the willfully blind to see. Well, I'm not buying it. There were plenty of indications that the "intelligence" cooked up by the neocons was faked, but nobody in Washington wanted to hear it.

Raimondo takes to task warmonger Andrew Sullivan who, like Jonah Goldberg and Francis Fukuyama, has now come to the same realization that his prior support for Iraq war was a mistake, not because it was the wrong thing to do in principle, but because he misjudged the competence of the Bush administration in implementing it.

Sullivan's appeal to the "incompetence" angle shows that there is no shame, no real remorse, for having led us all down the garden path: according to his lights, he was right, in principle – it was only in the execution that the administration got it all wrong. Instead of regretting that we ever sent our troops into the Iraqi maelstrom, Andrew opines that we sent too few.

The fact is that many who opposed the war made a much more fundamental claim, that a "preventive war" was illegal and immoral, that Iraq had neither attacked nor threatened to attack the US, and thus there was no grounds for attacking it.

The fact also remains that many of the reasons for invading Iraq were base and shameful and the current attempts at rewriting history should be exposed. Take for example, another example from war enthusiast Jonah Goldberg. He wrote recently: "The failure to find weapons of mass destruction is a side issue. The WMD fiasco was a global intelligence failure, but calling Saddam Hussein's bluff after 9/11 was the right thing to do."

Really? WMDs were a side issue? Who would have guessed? Where was he during all of 2002 and 2003 when that was constantly given as the rationale for the war, in press conference after press conference, and then echoed in talk show after talk show? What about all the images of mushroom clouds billowing all over the world? And what exactly was Saddam Hussein's 'bluff' that Goldberg is referring to? He doesn't say. Does he think war is like a card game? Does he think the 600,000 Iraqi lives lost in this war are just so many poker chips?

Goldberg then goes on to further castigate the antiwar activists for their supposed naivete:

Those who say that it's not the central front in the war on terror are in a worse state of denial than they think Bush is in. Of course it's the central front in the war on terror. That it has become so is a valid criticism of Bush, but it's also strong reason for seeing our Iraqi intervention through. If we pull out precipitously, jihadism will open a franchise in Iraq and gain steam around the world, and the U.S. will be weakened. (my emphasis)

His statement that "If we pull out precipitously, jihadism will open a franchise in Iraq and gain steam around the world, and the U.S. will be weakened" is another one of those sweeping generalizations which are pure fancy with no empirical basis. When the British withdrew from India, did the Indians start marauding the streets of London? When the US withdrew from Vietnam and Lebanon, did the people of those countries roam around the world, wreaking havoc? When the people of Afghanistan drove out the Soviet Union, did they follow them to Moscow? As is usually the case, when an occupying force has been driven out, the people of those countries go back about their own business.

Goldberg gives merely a casual acknowledgment to the fact that thanks to this unnecessary war, the Iraqi people are dying in their hundreds of thousands, and are now the victims of their country becoming a magnet for violent extremists and a battlefield for warring factions that he himself acknowledges was never the case before. He seems to think its quite ok for the US to have made Iraq a "central front in the war on terror." Who cares what tragedy it has created for the Iraqi people? For these 'hardheaded political realists' with their grand geopolitical calculations, it does not matter if hundreds of thousands of people are killed and the remainder live in constant terror because of the violence and instability that has been unleashed by their actions.

As long as the deaths happen elsewhere to people they don't know, they can sleep well at night, blissfully dreaming of future wars that they can advocate.