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Entries for June 2009

June 30, 2009

More on the new atheist-accommodationist split

As I wrote last week, quite a scuffle has broken out between the so-called 'accommodationists' (who feel that we should not offend 'liberal' religious people by pointing out that science and religion are incompatible) and the so-called 'new atheists' (who feel that this accommodationist strategy has been pursued for a long time with no success and should be abandoned).

New atheists like Richard Dawkins, Jerry Coyne, P.Z. Myers, and others have argued that there is no justification for the belief that science and religion are compatible, and that professional science organizations like the National Academy of Science, the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and the National Center for Science Education should refrain from making statements to that effect and stick to simply advocating good science, avoiding all questions of religion altogether. The undoubted fact that there are many scientists who are religious and that there are many religious people who support science (and oppose fundamentalist versions of religion) only provides support for the uncontroversial idea that it is possible for people to simultaneously hold contradictory views in their minds, nothing more.

The 'new atheists' have been criticized by other nonbelievers like Chris Mooney and Barbara Forrest who believe that the real danger to science comes from the 'bad religion' of religious fundamentalists, and that scientists should seek common cause with religious moderates who advocate 'good religion', and not alienate them by implying that science and religion are fundamentally incompatible.

As I wrote last year, what this argument reveals is a misunderstanding of the basic nature of coalition politics. In a coalition, people come together to advance one set of issues they agree upon while staying true to their positions on other issues where they could well differ strongly. So it should be quite possible for the 'good religion' group to join forces with the new atheists to combat the bad social and political influence of the 'bad religion' group, while at the same time disagreeing with each other as to whether science and religion are compatible.

For the 'good religion' group to ask the new atheists to not debunk the idea of compatibility (for the sake of political expediency) makes as little sense as the new atheists asking the 'good religion' group to stop talking about their religious beliefs in order to avoid offending atheists. Each group should come into the coalition for the sake of an articulated common good (in this case combating the immediate and manifest evils of 'bad religion') while retaining the right to disagree on other issues. As veterans of coalition politics know, a united front always hides a divided rear. We just have to live with it.

The reason that this well-known aspect of coalition politics is not understood in this particular context is because for far too long, religion has been granted a privileged place in public discourse. There has been an exaggerated 'respect for religion' trope, which has been interpreted as requiring that one should not critique those religious beliefs that are strongly and sincerely held by 'good' people. This tradition has shielded mainstream religion from the kinds of deep critiques received by other irrational belief structures, like astrology or witchcraft. Because of such criticisms, neither of those latter beliefs is deemed to be intellectually respectable anymore.

H. L. Mencken deplored this practice of deference to religion way back in 1925, when he wrote in The Baltimore Evening Sun in the wake of the Scopes trial:

[E]ven a superstitious man has certain inalienable rights. He has a right to harbor and indulge his imbecilities as long as he pleases, provided only he does not try to inflict them upon other men by force. He has a right to argue for them as eloquently as he can, in season and out of season. He has a right to teach them to his children. But certainly he has no right to be protected against the free criticism of those who do not hold them. He has no right to demand that they be treated as sacred.

The meaning of religious freedom, I fear, is sometimes greatly misapprehended. It is taken to be a sort of immunity, not merely from governmental control but also from public opinion. A dunderhead gets himself a long-tailed coat, rises behind the sacred desk, and emits such bilge as would gag a Hottentot. Is it to pass unchallenged? If so, then what we have is not religious freedom at all, but the most intolerable and outrageous variety of religious despotism. Any fool, once he is admitted to holy orders, becomes infallible. Any half-wit, by the simple device of ascribing his delusions to revelation, takes on an authority that is denied to all the rest of us.

I do not know how many Americans entertain the ideas defended so ineptly by poor Bryan, but probably the number is very large. They are preached once a week in at least a hundred thousand rural churches, and they are heard too in the meaner quarters of the great cities. Nevertheless, though they are thus held to be sound by millions, these ideas remain mere rubbish. Not only are they not supported by the known facts; they are in direct contravention of the known facts. No man whose information is sound and whose mind functions normally can conceivably credit them. They are the products of ignorance and stupidity, either or both.

What should be a civilized man's attitude toward such superstitions? It seems to me that the only attitude possible to him is one of contempt. If he admits that they have any intellectual dignity whatever, he admits that he himself has none. If he pretends to a respect for those who believe in them, he pretends falsely, and sinks almost to their level. When he is challenged he must answer honestly, regardless of tender feelings.

Salman Rushdie wrote something similar more recently:

At Cambridge University I was taught a laudable method of argument: you never personalize, but you have absolutely no respect for people's opinions. You are never rude to the person, but you can be savagely rude about what the person thinks. That seems to me a crucial distinction: You cannot ring-fence their ideas. The moment you say that any idea system is sacred, whether it's a religious belief system or a secular ideology, the moment you declare a set of ideas to be immune from criticism, satire, derision, or contempt, freedom of thought becomes impossible.

Despite Mencken's protests, religion still retains, because of the strong pressure to not make criticisms of it, some of its standing as something that reasonable and rational people can believe in. But what Mencken hoped for is now beginning to emerge. The new atheists are making a concerted effort to end the false notion that 'respect for religion' means freedom from criticism. It is a good sign that skeptics are getting more numerous and outspoken. Their voices are breaking through the protective veil that religious beliefs have shrouded themselves in for so long.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Jackson

Just after I heard the news of Michael Jackson's death, I realized that although he was a pop phenomenon who had an enormous number of fans, I was not even faintly familiar with even a single song of his. Somehow his entire music oeuvre has passed me by, showing just how out of touch I am with some elements of popular culture, which is a little odd since I know a lot of the music of his contemporaries, and grew up with the Motown sound.

Jackson was undoubtedly a tragic figure, and yet retained a curiously childlike innocence that was somehow appealing. Ishmael Reed describes the awful treatment Jackson received from the media, which seemed to delight in tearing him down just as they once built him up.

June 29, 2009

Why people believe in god-1: The fog of theological language

As regular readers of this blog know, I am an atheist. I hope it is clear what I believe: I believe that the material world governed by natural laws is all that exists, and I reject all things supernatural, which includes the soul, ghosts and spirits, the afterlife, reincarnation, any form of spiritualism, and so on. In the process, I have argued strongly that there is absolutely no reason to believe that god exists and that to do so is irrational, driven either by childhood indoctrination, psychological need, or both.

I occasionally get some criticism that my arguments are based on a naïve view of god and that it is quite possible to have a sophisticated belief in god that is rational. The names of Thomas Aquinas and Saint Augustine and other religious luminaries are usually dropped into the discussion with the suggestion that unless I am totally familiar with their works, I am not in a position to argue against the existence of god.

I do not find this convincing because the statements of belief of such religious luminaries are often vague, allowing for shifting around. In his classic 1946 essay Politics and the English Language, George Orwell explains why so much of political writing is vague and cloudy: "[P]olitical speech and writing are largely the defense of the indefensible…Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and…to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind." Theology is also the attempt to justify the unjustifiable and this naturally leads to convoluted language whose meaning and implications are hard to pin down. You can replace the word 'political' with 'theological' in the Orwell passage and you would get a good description of the writings of religious apologists.

The only god that is logically plausible to believe in is a god who does absolutely nothing at all. If you are a deist and believe in a god who created the entire universe and its laws at the beginning of time (say as part of the Big Bang) and then did nothing else after that, then you are in a logically unassailable position, at least until a plausible theory of the origins of the universe comes along.

But I suspect that only a very few religious intellectuals would find such a deist god (let me call this Deigod) satisfying. Most religious believers want more from their god than that, resorting to this extreme version of god only when they are debating atheists, because such a deist god is the only model of god that is free from the obligation of providing evidence for its existence. Postulating any god that is more activist than that immediately raises the problem of why such actions leave no traces.

Some seek to find ways for god to act in a few situations without being detected by trying to exploit certain features of current science, such as the uncertainty principle or chaos theory. This allows them to insert god into these breaches in classical determinism, claiming (without explaining how) that this enables god to act in any way he likes while remaining undetectable. Let me call this god the God Of the Scientific Holes (or Gosh).

Others of a more fundamentalist bent want a deeply personal god, who has thoughts and feelings and emotions, who listens to their individual prayers, and will even answer them by actually suspending the laws of nature. These people have effectively abandoned science and rationality. They want a big brother, a father figure, a protector. Let me call this version of god Supergod.

The problem with arguing with believers in god is that they rarely specify at the outset the properties they ascribe to their god. Part of the difficulty that atheists have in discussing this topic with believers is this shifting target about what their god is like. When arguing with atheists they sometimes use Deigod, at other times they invoke Gosh, but almost inevitably end up trying to sneak in a belief in the usual run-of-the-mill, miracle-working Supergod.

For example, biologist Francis Collins in his book The Language of God and mathematician John Lennox both start out by arguing for the existence of Gosh, and then flatly state, without evidence or argument, that they believe in a god who caused Jesus to rise from the dead. Biologist Kenneth Miller in his book Finding Darwin's God also tries to use the uncertainty principle to create a loophole for god's actions that enable him to be a practicing Roman Catholic, in which church the doctrines are essentially those of a Supergod.

To their credit, both Collins and Miller write about their religious beliefs with the same clarity that characterizes their scientific writings, so it is fairly easy to determine what they believe. Unfortunately for them, this very clarity also exposes all the logical flaws in their reasoning.

Once theologians enter the conversation though, the waters get decidedly murky, as the next post will show.

POST SCRIPT: Need a god? Take you pick!

Norm Nason, the editor of that excellent website Machines Like Us, has done an exhaustive study and come up with an alphabetized list of the vast number of gods that have been invented over time.

As he says:

While today's dominant religions fixate on (and wage wars over) a few prominent deities, we would be wise to remember that billions of people from past centuries believed in—and devoted their lives—to entirely different gods. When civilizations lost their dominance, collapsed and were eventually overshadowed by others, so the gods they worshipped died out, and lost their relevance. If these deities are remembered in the present at all, they are thought only to be quaint relics of a distant, more primitive people.

This fact, perhaps more than any other, demonstrates that gods are human inventions, and live only so long as groups bound by common belief survive. Gods live solely in the minds of men and women, and are conjured up to serve very human personal and political needs.

June 26, 2009

On wealth-2

(Part 1 can be seen here.)

One of the odd things that I have found about America is how many people are willing to fight to protect the interests of the very wealthy, even though they themselves are nowhere close to attaining that level of income, and where the efforts by a few to acquires such wealth adversely affects them. Some are willing to defend the rampant greed that resulted in practices the led to the recent financial collapse. "Joe the Plumber", "Tito the Builder" and others like them were notable figures during the last election campign that belonged to this category. During the recent tea parties protesting Obama's tax policies, a demonstrator was asked whether he earned more than $250,000. When he said that he earned much, much less, he was asked why he was protesting since his taxes would be lowered. He said that he hoped to become wealthy some day and thus was looking out for his future interests, however unlikely that may be.

I find it curious that so many people seem to want to be actually wealthy and not merely comfortably middle class, that becoming so is the goal of their lives. Some time ago, a commenter suggested that my occasional rants against the way that the very rich oligarchy in this country exploits the poor were due to me being envious of them. The commenter seemed to think that it was a given that I too desired to be wealthy and that my political views would change dramatically if I ever became so.

But anyone who chooses to go into academia knows they are never going to be wealthy. Although the life can be good for those who enjoy the intellectual life, you will never rise above a comfortable middle class life as a teacher. Because it is quite hard to become an academic (one has to study for many, many years and the competition for jobs is fierce), it should be obvious that for this class of people becoming wealthy is not a high priority.

A student once asked me if I am paid what I think I am worth. It is an interesting question but one which I could not answer because I don't know how to measure what I am worth. What people usually mean by this question is whether I am paid more or less than other people doing comparable work in a comparable institution in a comparable location.

Apart from idle curiosity, I have never had much interest in the question of how much other people make but it is clear that many do care. The Parade magazine insert in my Sunday paper has as a recurring feature a listing of people in various occupations and their income, feeding what seems to be an insatiable curiosity about how much other people earn. Making such comparisons will always make some people unhappy since there will always be someone making more than you whom you think is undeserving. H. L Mencken said that, "The man's satisfaction with his salary depends on whether he makes more than his wife's sister's husband."

Some people want such comparisons in order to use them as a salary negotiation ploy. In Dan Ariely's book Predictably Irrational, he talks about how until 1992 compensation packages for top executives used to be kept confidential. But the ratio of the average CEO pay to that of the average worker rose from 36 in 1976 to 131 by 1993. Congress thought that this rise was made possible because of the secrecy about compensation and that by passing a law making this information public, top executives would be shamed into accepting more modest salaries.

The exact opposite happened. Chief executives started comparing their salaries, not with that of average workers, but with other CEOs and demanding to their own boards that they match their competitors. Salaries started leapfrogging until they reached the obscene levels that have been revealed during the recent financial scandals. Right now the ratio is 369.

While I have no idea what I am worth, I do know how to measure what I need, and what I need to have what I consider to be a great life is not much. I like to spend my time reading and writing, for which all I need is proximity and access to a good library, and both my university and community libraries more than meet that need. I need to have a modest home that I can maintain without too much trouble or expense. I need a reliable car, a computer, and internet access. I like to be able to buy books occasionally without worrying about whether I can afford them. I like to live debt-free and not worry about whether I will have a roof over my head or whether I can afford food, heat, and the other basic necessities of life. But that is about it.

What is troubling is that such is the inequitable way that wealth is distributed in the world that what I have described for me as a 'simple' life represents an almost unimaginable level of luxury for almost all the people on the planet, for whom having even a single water faucet in the neighborhood with drinkable water or enough electricity to light a single bulb or a sanitary toilet would result in a huge improvement in their living standards.

So even though I am not wealthy and will never be wealthy by the inflated standards of the US, I am extremely well off by any reasonable measure. To ask for more would just be greedy.

POST SCRIPT: Utica? They've heard of Utica?

It is a staple of comedy shows to interview the "person in the street" in America and reveal their appalling ignorance about world affairs ompared to people in other countries. Here Jason Jones compares the 'average' Iranian's knowledge of America with the 'average' American's knowledge of Iran.

One should, of course, never take these things seriously as a measure of general knowledge. Selective editing is a powerful weapon. It can make any person or group look good or ignorant. Done well, though, it can be funny.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Jason Jones: Behind the Veil - Ayatollah You So
www.thedailyshow.com
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorJason Jones in Iran

June 25, 2009

On wealth-1

In writing the series of posts on spreading the wealth and on financial frauds, I started musing on what wealth is and what it means to different people. For many people, becoming wealthy is seen as a desirable goal, an end in itself. Our media is soaked in wealth-porn, the endless regaling of how much wealthy people earn and the details of their lifestyles.

It seems to me that there are three pathways to becoming wealthy: inheriting wealth, acquiring wealth as a byproduct of trying to reach some other goal, and actively seeking it for its own sake because it is important to you.

There is not much one can say about the first category. One either has rich relatives who die leaving you their money, or one hasn't.

The second type of person is like that of some artists, like J. K. Rowling the creator of the phenomenally successful Harry Potter books, who achieve massive and unexpected success. My guess is that what drives such people is similar to what drives academics, they want to do something for its own sake and seek above all to produce a successful work of art that is recognized as such. Commercial success is very welcome but is not the primary goal. Evidence for this lies in the fact that such people usually do not stop creating new works even when they have no financial reason to continue working. It is the very rare author or actor or painter or musician who stops producing new work simply because they have made lots of money. For such people their primary goal is to produce something they are proud of and is valued by their knowledgeable peers.

There is a subset of this second category that consists of inventors. Such people like Thomas Edison, Henry Ford, Bill Gates, and Steve Jobs are similar to artists in that they are trying to create something new. But at the same time, they necessarily must have a business orientation since their idea is to produce something useful and valuable, not a work of art, and the main yardstick by which that is measured is by selling a lot of it. So making a lot of money is an important measure of whether they have produced something of value. This is different from an academic or artist or poet who can be considered a success while still not being rich.

The third type of person is one for whom making a lot of money is the primary goal in life and it does not matter to them how they achieve it. Such people are willing to spend their entire lives doing something they dislike as long as it enables them to become rich. They tend to view life as a competition and the winner is the person who dies with the most money. They may, in the course of making money, produce something of value and merit, but their primary goal is to be rich. So for them, it does not really matter if they became so by producing a better widget or creating a chain of stores or winning the lottery. Those are just the means to the end of becoming wealthy.

This is why I will never be wealthy. I do not have rich relatives and can expect no inheritance. I do not do the kind of work that is likely to make a lot of money as a side effect. But most crucially, I simply have no desire to be wealthy. While I will of course work to make a living and to "put food on my family" (in George W. Bush's memorable words), I simply cannot see myself doing something just for the sake of making a lot of money.

There are a very few occasions when I think it would be nice to have a lot of money. When I travel on long airline flights, I sometimes have to get to my coach seat by passing through the first and business class sections. When I see the comfortable and spacious seats they have compared to my cramped one, I think how nice it must be to be able to easily afford to pay the extra thousands of dollars for that luxury. But then I realize that in order to be able to be able to splurge for those few hours of comfort on a plane, I would have to work at a job I dislike on a daily basis all my life. That would not be a good trade-off.

In order to become rich for its own sake, you must be willing to spend a lot of time at it. If you want to become a successful investor in the stock market (say) you have to study the market and company reports and the business world and so on. The catch is that you would have to devote a lot of time towards this and that is something I have no wish to do.

What would be the point? My preferred lifestyle is one that is very simple. I don't much like to travel to exotic places or stay at fancy hotels or resorts, eat at expensive restaurants (or eat out at all for that matter), go to shows and concerts, etc. I like to live what others might consider a really boring life: reading, writing, thinking, and spending time with friends. My idea of a great weekend or holiday is when I have no place that I must go to and nothing that I must do. If I were to sacrifice my time and other interests to make a lot of money, I would have lost more than I gained.

POST SCRIPT: Signs of the times

Kodak announces that after 74 years it is is discontinuing production of Kodachrome film due to the public shift to digital photography.

Don't tell Paul Simon, he's going to be really upset.

June 24, 2009

The new atheists vs. the accommodationists

An interesting discussion has broken out between those scientists and philosophers of science (labeled 'accommodationists') who seek to form alliances with religious believers by finding common ground between science and religion, and those who think that such an exercise is a waste of time, that scientific and religious viewpoints are fundamentally incompatible, and that what the accomodationists are doing is trying to make religious beliefs intellectually respectable by covering it with a veneer of highly dubious interpretations of science.

While this debate has been going on for some time, the latest resurgence was triggered by Jerry Coyne, a professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolution at the University of Chicago and the author of a new book Why Evolution is True (which is on my reading list), who wrote a scathing review of two new books by scientists trying to reconcile science with religion: Saving Darwin: How to be a Christian and Believe in Evolution by Karl W. Giberson and Only A Theory: Evolution and the Battle for America's Soul by Kenneth R. Miller. The review, titled Seeing and Believing: The never-ending attempt to reconcile science and religion, and why it is doomed to fail, contains arguments and conclusions that will be familiar to regular readers of this blog, but it is all in one place and very well-written, well worth reading.

In the accommodationist camp are people like biologist Kenneth Miller, philosopher Michael Ruse, journalist Andrew Brown, and chemist Francis Collins. (You can read my detailed nine-part review of Collins's appalling book The Language of God here.)

There have always been religious scientists who manage to find reasons to hold on to their faith in the face of the challenge posed by science. Michael Shermer puts it well when he says that the people who believe weird things are not stupid: "Smart people believe weird things because they are skilled at defending beliefs they arrived at for non-smart reasons." (Why People Believe Weird Things (2002), p. 283). More problematic is the accommodationist view taken by prestigious scientific organizations like the National Academy of Science (NAS), which I will examine at a later date.

In the anti-accommodationist camp (sometimes referred to as the 'new atheists') are people like Richard Dawkins, biologist Jerry Coyne, biologist P. Z. Myers, and philosopher Daniel Dennett. Regular readers of this blog will not be surprised to learn that my sympathies lie entirely with this latter group. (Also see here and here.)

The accommodationists argue that it is a mistake to insist that science is antithetical to religion because if science is determined to be an intrinsically atheistic enterprise, then even so-called moderate religionists will turn away from science and not support efforts to oppose the teaching of religious ideas such as intelligent design in science classes. This kind of mistaken solicitousness for the sensitivities of religious people, the fear that they will take their ball and go home if others are mean to them, is not new. During the run up to the Scopes Monkey trial in 1925, there were many accommodationists of that era who did not want Clarence Darrow to defend Scopes because they felt that his scorn for religious beliefs would alienate potential religious allies. We now view Darrow's performance in that trial as one of the high points in opposing the imposition of religious indoctrination in public schools.

Andrew Brown, a columnist in The Guardian newspaper, sees an even greater danger:

Suppose we concede that the new atheists are right, and no true, honest scientist could be anything other than an atheist. If that is true, the teaching of science itself becomes unconstitutional. For it is every bit as illegal to promote atheism in American public schools as it is to promote religion. Again, there are recent judgements from the heart of the culture wars to make this entirely clear.

In particular, the footnote on page four of Judge Selna's ruling in the recent case of a science teacher censured for calling creationism "superstitious nonsense" in class makes this clear. He says The Supreme Court has found that:

the State may not establish a "religion of secularism" in the sense of affirmatively opposing or showing hostility to religion." School Dist. of Abington Tp., Pa. v. Schempp, 374 U.S. 203, 225 (1963). This is simply another way of saying that the state may not affirmatively show hostility to religion.

That is the point that Ruse has been making, and one which PZ finds either incomprehensible or repulsive. None the less, it was Ruse, not PZ, who testified in both the big trials against creationism. It is a legal and political argument, not a philosophical one; and legally it seems to me fireproof. If Ruse can make it, so can creationists.

But Brown and Ruse are wrong. The argument is not legally "fireproof" as I discuss at length in my book God vs. Darwin: The War between Evolution and Creationism in the Classroom, to appear later this year. It is not even a new argument. William Jennings Bryan was making it all the way back in 1922 in an essay published in The New York Times, where he said:

The Bible has in many places been excluded from the schools on the ground that religion should not be taught by those paid by public taxation. If this doctrine is sound, what right have the enemies of religion to teach irreligion in the public schools? If the Bible cannot be taught, why should Christian taxpayers permit the teaching of guesses that make the Bible a lie?

The First Amendment has long been interpreted as requiring neutrality between religion and nonreligion, even before the 1963 Schempp case. Justice Hugo Black, in his majority opinion in the landmark 1947 case Everson v. Board of Education (that expanded the Establishment Clause to cover the actions of state and local governments), said "[The First] Amendment requires the state to be a neutral in its relations with groups of religious believers and nonbelievers; it does not require the state to be their adversary. State power is no more to be used so as to handicap religions than it is to favor them."

The first case involving evolution to reach the US Supreme Court was the 1968 Epperson v. Arkansas where the court ruled unanimously that prohibiting the teaching of evolution in public schools is unconstitutional. But Justice Black, while agreeing with the ruling, said in his concurring opinion that he disagreed with the reasoning that it was an Establishment Clause violation, and resurrected the concerns that Bryan had in 1922 and that seem to worry Ruse and Brown now.

A second question that arises for me is whether this Court's decision forbidding a State to exclude the subject of evolution from its schools infringes the religious freedom of those who consider evolution an anti-religious doctrine. If the theory is considered anti-religious, as the Court indicates, how can the State be bound by the Federal Constitution to permit its teachers to advocate such an "anti-religious" doctrine to school children? The very cases cited by the Court as supporting its conclusion hold that the State must be neutral, not favoring one religious or anti-religious view over another. The Darwinian theory is said to challenge the Bible's story of creation; so, too, have some of those who believe in the Bible, along with many others, challenged the Darwinian theory. Since there is no indication that the literal Biblical doctrine of the origin of man is included in the curriculum of Arkansas schools, does not the removal of the subject of evolution leave the State in a neutral position toward these supposedly competing religious and anti-religious doctrines?

But while this concern did not sway the majority in the Epperson case, the issue raised by Black was well and truly settled in the 1971 case Lemon v. Kurtzman when the Court promulgated what is now called the "Lemon test" that says that for any law to pass Establishment Clause constitutional muster, it must satisfy a three-pronged test:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose (the purpose prong)
Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion (the effect prong);
Finally, the statute must not foster "an excessive government entanglement with religion" (the entanglement' prong).

In other words, to satisfy the Establishment Clause, the intent of the law must have a secular basis. In addition, simply because some law had the incidental effect of advancing or inhibiting religion did not automatically disqualify it. It also added a third criterion, requiring that the law must not result in the government getting too mixed up in the affairs of religion. Failure to meet any one prong would imply a violation of the Establishment Clause.

The guidelines set out in Lemon implies that even if a scientific theory like evolution undermines a religious belief, teaching just that theory and not the opposing religious belief does not violate the neutrality requirement of the Establishment Clause because teaching science has a clearly secular purpose, since the goal of teaching science is to advance scientific knowledge and not to undermine religion. If religion happens to be undermined because of teaching a particular scientific theory, that is an incidental, not primary, effect. By contrast, it would be unconstitutional to teach a theory whose only purpose or primary effect was to undermine or foster religion.

Since 1971, the 'Lemon test' has been the bedrock standard for measuring constitutionality under the Establishment Clause, with a few wrinkles added later. Teaching any theory that is well established scientifically would easily pass muster under its provisions, whatever its implications for religion.

The reason why creationists have not advanced this argument is not because they are not as smart as Ruse and Brown to have discovered this potent weapon. After all, the founder, godfather, and leading tactician of the intelligent design movement (Phillip Johnson) is a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley, and the whole intelligent design concept was invented to try and get around the Establishment Clause restrictions imposed by the Supreme Court and other courts. Their lawyers must have told them that the Ruse/Brown argument is a sure loser.

POST SCRIPT: Biblical marriage

Those who oppose gay marriage like to say that it is against the Bible but there seems to be some confusion about exactly what a Biblically appropriate marriage consists of. Mrs. Betty Bowers, America's Best Christian, makes it all clear.


June 23, 2009

Reflections on Hong Kong

Last month I had the privilege of visiting Hong Kong for the first time to do some consulting work. The universities there are shifting from the British model of a narrowly focused three-year degree to the American model of a four-year degree, with broader educational goals and more general education courses, and they had invited me because of my familiarity with implementing such changes.

Arriving there, it was clear that they were taking the swine flu very seriously. All of us on the plane were given flu kits consisting of a mask and a thermometer, and most employees at the airport and in restaurants wore masks, though only a few ordinary people did. A week before my arrival an entire hotel had been quarantined for a week when one of their guests had tested positive for swine flu, and so I was nervous even to sneeze at the airport in case I was whisked off to isolation.

One thing that impressed me was the public transport. It seemed like everyone used it. There was a constant stream of double-decker buses on the street and the seats in them were like those in long-distance trains, high-backed, cushioned, comfortable, and in groups of four arranged to face each other. People waiting for the buses would spontaneously queue up and enter in an orderly fashion. There were also plenty of taxis. Everyone I spoke to at the university (with one exception) said they used public transport to get to work, and did not own a car. In fact, over 90% of daily trips are done on public transport, the highest rate in the world. Hong Kong is perfect for this, of course. The population of over 7 million occupies just about 400 square miles, making it one of the densest populations in the world. Also, there is very little street parking, and residents told me that the cost of parking is very high, further discouraging private car use.

Given the density of the population, the streets were remarkably clean. The traffic was orderly though drivers tended to go fast which meant that one should only cross busy streets at the designated crossings. At some large and busy intersections they did have pedestrian overpasses and they encouraged use of these by having up escalators from the sidewalk.

The main areas of Hong Kong are full of high rises, though the road from the airport passes through surprisingly remote-looking areas, with steep hilly sides by the road reminding me of driving on the highway through rural Pennsylvania, though with different vegetation. In fact, I was surprised at how hilly and uninhabitable most of it was, which is why everyone is crammed into the rest of the areas.

Although my visit was short, it was very pleasant. The people were hospitable and friendly. My hotel (Ramada) was not luxurious but the room, though smaller and with lower ceilings than a corresponding American hotel, was well-equipped. I particularly appreciated the slippers that were provided for guests. A nice energy saving feature was that you had to insert your room key card into a unit to get the electricity turned on in your room, which meant that all the lights and appliances automatically turned off when you left.

The legendary efficiency was on display. The bedside light did not work and when I told the maid, she first tried to fix it herself and when she couldn't, she called someone on her cell phone and within an hour a technician came and replaced the unit. And this was on a Sunday morning.

I managed to visit the Hong Kong museum which was excellent. They traced the history of the region from 400 million years ago to the present, starting with the formation of the island from volcanic eruptions. The whole exhibit seemed to be done on the basis of strict science and there seemed to be no accommodation of absurd religious ideas such as that the Earth is just 6,000 years old or that humans were special creations. There were no caveats or suggestions that the geological and evolutionary history they were presenting were 'just theories', which was refreshing.

In going through the Hong Kong museum, I discovered something about myself based on how much time I spent in the various rooms. I really like ancient geological and biological history, showing developments over the long time scale evolution of the world. And I also like modern political history, events that occurred within the last 200 years. What I find boring is the part in between, after humans appeared. I tend to skip over all the stuff about early human life with the development of pots and tools and agriculture.

POST SCRIPT: Jokes are serious things

As most people know, David Letterman made a tasteless joke about Sarah Palin's daughter. There has since been a concerted attempt to blow this up into a huge issue. A demonstration called to protest his show was held in front of his studio. But what the protestors lacked in numbers (CNN said that only about fifteen people showed up, vastly outnumbered by the media), they made up by being even more tasteless.

Watch this video of the protestors (thanks to Wonkette).

Sam Seder was also at the protest and had some fun with them.

I wonder about such people. Do they realize how silly such over the top rhetoric sounds?

The inimitable Tbogg weighs in.

June 22, 2009

On torture-24: What happens next?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

For the last post in this long and admittedly depressing series, I want to tie up some loose ends.

What Dahlia Lithwik and Phillipe Sands point out, and which this series of posts has examined in great detail, is that the discussion on whether the US committed torture is over. There is no question about it and anyone who keeps saying that it didn't is ignorant, lying, or relying upon a convoluted reading of history and the definition of torture. At the very least, such people should be willing to agree on the issue being examined by the International Criminal Court, which "is the first permanent, treaty based, international criminal court established to help end impunity for the perpetrators of the most serious crimes of concern to the international community."

Lithwik and Sands point to a highly significant statement given on January 13, 2009, just before Obama took office, by someone intimately aware of what is going on in Guantanamo. Susan Crawford was the convening authority of the military commissions at Guantanamo Bay.

Crawford, a retired judge who served as general counsel for the Army during the Reagan administration and as Pentagon inspector general, is hardly the kind of hippie moonbat Cheney would like to poke fun at. And that's why everything changed this morning when the Washington Post published a front-page interview by Bob Woodward, in which Crawford stated without equivocation that the treatment of alleged 20th Sept. 11 hijacker Mohammed al-Qahtani at Guantanamo Bay was "torture."

Crawford also told Woodward that the charges against al-Qahtani were dropped because he was tortured. This has devastating consequences for the Bush administration's entire rationale for the new techniques of interrogation: that they would make the United States safer by producing intelligence and keeping dangerous individuals off the streets. We now know they do neither. The torture produced no useful information from al-Qahtani, and the cruelty heaped upon him will make it more difficult, if not impossible, to justify his long-term incarceration.

There is a third major consequence to the Crawford interview: Her principle objection to detainee abuse is not ephemeral or spiritual, but a damning indictment of the impact it will have on American troops and the prospects for America's authority abroad: "If we tolerate this and allow it, then how can we object when our servicemen and women, or others in foreign service, are captured and subjected to the same techniques? How can we complain? Where is our moral authority to complain? Well, we may have lost it."

Whether torture occurred and who was responsible will no longer be issues behind which senior members of the administration and their lawyers and policymakers can hide. The only real issue now is: What happens next?

The answer to that question takes you to a very different place when the act is torture, as Crawford says it is. Under the 1984 Torture Convention, its 146 state parties (including the United States) are under an obligation to "ensure that all acts of torture are offences under its criminal law." These states must take any person alleged to have committed torture (or been complicit or participated in an act of torture) who is present in their territories into custody. The convention allows no exceptions, as Sen. Pinochet discovered in 1998. The state party to the Torture Convention must then submit the case to its competent authorities for prosecution or extradition for prosecution in another country.

Torture is one of those cases where we seem to be even less enlightened now than we were in the past when it comes to judging our own actions with at least some impartiality.

In 1901 a US army major was sentenced to 10 years hard labor for waterboarding a Philippine insurgent. Similarly, water boarding was designated as illegal by U.S. generals in Vietnam 40 years ago and a US soldier who waterboarded a Vietnamese prisoner was court-martialed. But now, far from taking action against torturers, we dispute whether these acts are even torture. We excuse and even praise torturers and those who support and authorize torture by saying they acted 'in good faith' or 'in the interests of the nation'. (By coincidence, yesterday's Sunday Doonesbury cartoon dealt with this.)

We have sunk a long way in the last 100 years. We can only go up from here.

POST SCRIPT: Documentary on torture

Those who have stuck with me through this long series on torture may also want to watch the three-part documentary Torturing Democracy put out by the National Security Archive.

June 19, 2009

On torture-23: So now what?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

None of the architects of the Bush/Cheney torture administration has been called to account, at least so far, for their actions. Of the authors of the infamous memos from the Office of Legal Counsel authorizing torture, one is now a professor of law at the University of California, Berkeley (John Yoo) while the other is now an Appeals Court judge (Jay Bybee).

Of the others who were deeply involved in approving these policies (Bush, Cheney, Condoleeza Rice, Alberto Gonzalez, John Ashcroft, David Addington), none appear to be under any threat of even investigation in the US, let along prosecution for their actions. This means that other countries may feel obliged to take action since torture is a crime against humanity that is not protected by national boundaries. Spain has taken an interest in possible prosecutions against six people (John Yoo, Jay Bybee, David Addington, Alberto Gonzales, William Haynes, and Douglas Feith) and if, as I hope, they carry it through, then any of them could be arrested and extradited to Spain is they set foot in any of the 24 countries that are parties to European extradition conventions.

But in the US such concerns about law and justice are viewed as quaint and casually dismissed, with the so-called 'war on terror' being used as a 'get out of jail free' card to excuse each and every atrocity. The rot is deep with Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia minimizing the evil of torture by trivializing it saying, "I suppose it's the same thing about so-called torture. Is it really so easy to determine that smacking someone in the face to determine where he has hidden the bomb that is about to blow up Los Angeles is prohibited in the constitution?"

Even the children of suspects are being used as part of the torture techniques. The number of deaths of detainees while undergoing 'questioning' in US custody is another underreported scandal. Glenn Greenwald tells the stories of some of them.

Because of their deep involvement in torture, the US is now categorized by other countries as one that practices torture, although many are reluctant to say so publicly. A manual on torture awareness put out by the Canadian government and given to its diplomats was accidentally released to the press. It puts US as one of the countries on a torture watch list. Other countries on the list include Afghanistan, China, Iran, Israel, Mexico, Saudi Arabia and Syria.

Despite his campaign promises to bring back a respect for the rule of law, what is becoming clear is that Obama is weaseling out of his own obligation to uphold the law and has no intention of taking any action against those who instituted torture practices. So he too becomes complicit in the torture policies of the Bush/Cheney regime. Mark Danner says that there is bipartisan complicity in torture, with the Democrats quaking at fears that by opposing torture, they would be seen as coddling terrorists:

Republicans from Dick Cheney on down have been unflagging in their arguments that these "enhanced interrogation techniques . . . were absolutely crucial" to preventing "a major-casualty attack." This argument, still strongly supported by a great many Americans, is deeply pernicious, for it holds that it is impossible to protect the country without breaking the law. It says that the professed principles of the United States, if genuinely adhered to, doom the country to defeat. It reduces our ideals and laws to a national decoration, to be discarded at the first sign of danger.

This is why torture is at its heart a political scandal and why its resolution lies in destroying the thing done, not the people who did it. It is this idea of torture that must be destroyed: torture as a badge worn proudly to prove oneself willing to 'do anything" to protect the country.

The only way to gain the moral high ground is to abide by the rule of law and prosecute those who break it, especially in the case of vicious and unconscionable crimes like torture. Glenn Greenwald argues why we should not make excuses for torture and points out that in Britain, pressure is building on the government to investigate and take action on the allegations of torture.

That's because torture is illegal in Britain, as it is in the United States. But unlike the United States: Britain hasn't completely abandoned the idea that even political officials must be accountable when they commit crimes; their political discourse isn't dominated and infected by the subservient government-defending likes of David Ignatius, Ruth Marcus, David Broder and Stuart Taylor demanding that government officials be free to commit even serious war crimes with total impunity; and they don't have "opposition leaders" who are so afraid of their own shadows and/or so supportive of torture that they remain mute in the face of such allegations. To the contrary, demands for criminal investigations into these episodes of torture (including demands for war crimes investigations from conservatives) span the political spectrum in Britain.

Ray McGovern suggests that pressure may be slowly building here on Obama to have some accountability.

We can only hope. At the very least, we can start, as Phillipe Sands recommends, by releasing all the torture documents, including videos. Secrecy inevitably leads to abuses.

POST SCRIPT: The Ventures

Was there anyone in my generation who did not dream of wanting to play like The Ventures, with their pure, clean guitar sound and the driving, pulsating drums? Bob Bogle, one of the founders, died two days ago.

Here they are in their early days with Wipe Out:

And later they shed the clean-cut look but kept the same music with Tequila:

People probably are most familiar with the theme from the TV series Hawaii Five-O:

June 18, 2009

Book review: In Defense of Food by Michael Pollan

Some time ago, I wrote a series of posts on the politics of food where I examined some of the ideas in Michael Pollan's 2006 book The Omnivore's Dilemma. Pollan has come out with a new book in 2008 titled In Defense of Food that was triggered by the response to the first book. People kept asking him what he recommended they should eat, now that he had exposed the adverse impacts on our food and health of the industrial food complex dominated by agribusiness.

He said that by posing that very question, people revealed the extent that what he calls the 'Western' diet has divorced people from their roots when it comes to food. In most cultures, he argues, food decisions are largely determined by tradition in the form of their cuisines. Food is seen as serving many purposes, such as taste and aesthetics. Food is something to be savored, to give pleasure in addition to nourishment. It is in the west that people obsess about what they eat and look to 'experts' to guide them, and he suggests that this, paradoxically, is why people in the west are so unhealthy.

He begins his book with three pieces of advice, encapsulated in just seven words. "Eat food. Not too much. Mostly plants."

The advantages of the last two suggestions are fairly self-evident, though he does elaborate on them in the book. It is the first that requires some explaining. What does he mean by "Eat food"? What else do we do?

What he means is that a lot of what passes for food these days is really a kind of quasi-food product. Today's stores are filled with processed foods that are far removed from the basic foods and ingredients that traditional cultures would recognize as food, and this development has been bad for us. He says that this is a result of the success of what he calls the ideology of 'nutritionism' promoted by the 'nutritional-industrial complex'. Using the methodology of reductionism, nutrition scientists have tried to reduce our bodily needs to a set of nutrients and this has led to viewing foods as sources of specific nutrients.

Seen this way, each food item is seen as a delivery vehicle for one or more nutrients. This explains why in the US diets lurch from one fad to another as this or that nutrient is identified as good or bad for you. We now talk fluently in the language of carbohydrates, proteins, vitamins, antioxidants, transfats, cholesterol, HDL, LDL, and so on, instead of in terms like chicken or fish or specific vegetables or fruits.

Humans have co-evolved with food as complex, integrated systems, not collections of items. Our bodies know how to extract the required nutrition from real food, but it may not know how to deal with nutrients that have been removed from their natural environment. Any food item, however simple, is far more complex than the agglomeration of the few nutrients that we are currently able to identify in them.

To think that the interaction of a highly complex system like a food with another highly complex system like the human body can be reduced to the transfer of an identifiable set of nutrients, is to oversimplify on a dangerous scale. Our bodies have evolved to deal with corn but not with high-fructose corn syrup. An orange is far more than a source of vitamin C that can be dispensed with by taking a vitamin C supplement. Who knows how those things that we tend to ignore about corn and oranges (all the other identified and unidentified nutrients, along with the pulp, fiber, and the degree of dilution provided by the water) influence the way that the nutrients interact with our bodies, in ways that a pill or another food supplemented with vitamin C or high-fructose corn syrup might not?

He says that the inability of big industries after 150 years to produce infant formulas to reproduce the benefits that breast milk provides shows complex natural food is.

Pollan argues that the reductionist approach to food is marketed by the nutritional-industrial complex, aided by scientists, the media, and even health organizations, who can repeatedly use the alleged benefit of this or that single component to market new processed quasi-foods.

Pollan makes some practical suggestions for how to fight this tendency and eat more healthily:

  • don't eat anything your great-grandmother wouldn't recognize as food if she saw it in a store;
  • avoid foods that contain more than five ingredients, have ingredients that are unfamiliar, unpronounceable, or that include high-fructose corn syrup;
  • avoid food products that make health claims;
  • as far as possible avoid supermarkets for food and buy directly from the growers via farmer's markets and the like;
  • and if you have to use supermarkets, buy from the periphery of the store (where real food such as produce, meats, and dairy are to be found) and avoid the center where all the processed food is.

Most importantly, he says that you won't go far wrong if you simply cook your own food and not eat pre-cooked food.

Michael Pollan is a good writer and In Defense of Food is a terrific book for anyone who seeks to escape from the clutches of the industrial food machine and the nutritional-industrial complex.

POST SCRIPT: Michael Pollan on The Colbert Report

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
Michael Pollan
colbertnation.com
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorKeyboard Cat

It is a tribute to Colbert's skill that some conservatives think that he is truly conservative and only pretending to be ironic.

June 17, 2009

On torture-22: Psychologists complicity in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

We see that once you allow torture as authorized and official policy, you inevitably widen the circle of people who are involved. In particular, psychologists and doctors have been deeply involved in the process, the former to devise the torture techniques and to measure the effects, and the latter to monitor the extent of the physical harm done to the victims and try and prevent death. After all, the purpose of torture is to create psychological breakdown, to get the person to confess or reveal information. Physical abuse is just a means to achieving that end.

There has been considerable controversy within the psychology and medical communities about the extent to which they have been involved in researching and constructing the torture protocols that are currently being used. After all, what does it say about the medical profession if it allows its members to be part of such a repugnant process?

But the discussion about the highly questionable role that psychologists have played in torture has not really made it into mainstream news, so much so that it became #10 of Project Censored's list of the top 25 censored stories for 2009. One of the ignored stories it highlights appeared in 2007 in Vanity Fair magazine. Katherine Eban reports that in 2006:

a psychologist named Jean Maria Arrigo came to see me with a disturbing claim about the American Psychological Association, her profession's 148,000-member trade group. Arrigo had sat on a specially convened A.P.A. task force that, in July 2005, had ruled that psychologists could assist in military interrogations, despite angry objections from many in the profession. The task force also determined that, in cases where international human-rights law conflicts with U.S. law, psychologists could defer to the much looser U.S. standards—what Arrigo called the "Rumsfeld definition" of humane treatment.

Arrigo and several others with her, including a representative from Physicians for Human Rights, had come to believe that the task force had been rigged—stacked with military members (6 of the 10 had ties to the armed services), monitored by observers with undisclosed conflicts of interest, and programmed to reach preordained conclusions.

Jane Mayer, author of the book The Dark Side has written about the role that even well-known psychologists have played in torture. Scott Horton summarizes one key thesis of Mayer's book:

She traces the development of the torture techniques to the work of two contractors, Mitchell and Jessen, and disclosed the specific techniques they developed. She notes that the techniques rely heavily on a theory called "Learned Helplessness" developed by a Penn psychologist Martin Seligman, who assisted them in the process. All of this was done under the thin pretext of being a part of the SERE program. Seligman is a former president of the American Psychological Association. This helps explain why the APA alone among professional healthcare provider organizations failed to unequivocally condemn torture and mandate that its members not associate themselves with the Bush Administration techniques.

The names of military psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen come up repeatedly in discussing the involvement of psychologists in torture. They were two of the trainers in the original SERE program that was used to train US personnel to resist torture and were the ones who originally suggested in the wake of 9/11 that those same techniques be used on detainees to elicit information, although there had been no evidence that this produced anything useful. While you can make people talk, it has been seen with Abu Zubaydah and Khalid Sheikh Mohammed that what people say under torture is of little value.

Mitchell and Jessen have been defended by other military psychologists in the program like Bruce Lefevre, who argue that when it comes to advancing the interests of the US, normal ethical guidelines that call for looking after the welfare of the person in front of you can be abandoned.

Under questioning about his own role, Seligman has tried to distance himself from the charges that he actively aided in the development of torture techniques, although he allows that his work may have been used this way. He said that his research interest was in how to resist torture and that he cannot be held responsible for those who use it ways not originally intended.

The psychology community has not come out well in this shoddy episode. The American Psychological Association (APA) is the one major medical professional organization that has rejected calls to come out with a strong and unequivocal condemnation of torture and to require its members to refuse to participate with the activities in the detention centers.

Psychologist Bryant Welch, author of the book State of Confusion: Political Manipulation and the Assault on the American Mind and someone in a position to provide an insider's view of the organization, in an article titled Torture, Political Manipulation and the American Psychological Association tries to find the answers to some key questions: "How did the APA form such an obviously close connection to the military? And why did the APA governance—the Board of Directors and the Council of Representatives—go along with the military interests? How could an organization of such bright and ethical people be rendered so incompetent to protect the profession from the horrible black eye they have given us?" He concludes that over time, the organization had become too cozy with the military and developed an anti-democratic ethos that stifled debate and criticism.

Another psychologist Stephen Soldz reveals that another former APA president Joseph Matarazzo was involved with Mitchell and Jensen's CIA-consulting torture firm, and describes the efforts by the APA to now distance itself from the disgrace of being seen as accommodating of torture.

Jane Mayer sums up the sorry state of professional ethics:

I personally feel that the medical and psychological professionals who have used their skills to further a program designed to cause pain and suffering should be a high priority in terms of accountability. It has long been a ghastly aspect of torture, worldwide, that doctors and other medical professionals often assist. The licensing boards and professional societies are worthless, in my view, if they don't demand serious investigations of such unethical uses of science.

Mayer is absolutely right.

POST SCRIPT: Jose Padilla vs. John Yoo

Last Friday, Federal District Court Judge Jeffrey S. White (who incidentally was appointed to the bench by George W. Bush) refused to dismiss Jose Padilla's civil lawsuit against John Yoo, as requested by the latter. Padilla has alleged that Yoo's torture memos were instrumental in causing the abuse Padilla received and thus Yoo had violated his constitutional rights.

Obama's justice department defended Yoo's argument that the president's war powers meant that the judiciary had no oversight. In other words, the current justice department agrees with the despicable Bush doctrine that the president can do what pretty much what he likes with detainees.

In his ruling, the judge outlines the case that Yoo and the Obama justice department is trying to make:

First, Yoo contends that the courts should not review the designation of Padilla as an enemy combatant because Congress passed the Authorization for Use of Military Force Joint Resolution, authorizing the President to make such a designation, and thereby relegated the issue of designation specifically to the legislative and the executive branches of government. Second, Yoo contends that the Court should show the proper deference to executive discretion in times of war. Next, Yoo contends that the Court should abstain from reviewing the alleged constitutional violations presented in this matter because the claims necessarily would uncover government secrets, thereby threatening national security. Lastly, Yoo argues the courts should deny review of this matter because the allegations involve issues relating to foreign affairs and foreign relations, matters specifically designated to control by the coordinate branches of government.

The judge rejected these arguments and ruled that the case against Yoo can now continue. See Glenn Greenwald (as usual) for more details.

June 16, 2009

The problem of endings: Review of Oryx and Crake

Almost everyone has at least heard of Margaret Atwood's excellent futuristic novel The Handmaid's Tale. I enjoyed that book and now can also strongly recommend her 2003 offering Oryx and Crake, a thought-provoking look at the future.

It would be hard to summarize the plot without giving away too much information so instead I want to look at the novel's structure and the problems with writing fiction in general, and futuristic or science fiction in particular.

In telling a story, one way is simply to tell it chronologically, starting at the beginning and following the characters to the end. That is somewhat old-fashioned. The structure of Oryx and Crake follows an alternative pattern that is fairly common in modern fiction. It starts with the story close to the end that has many puzzling, intriguing, and unexplained features, and then through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the forward chronology, the puzzling elements are slowly explained. Of course, the events in the flashbacks move much faster than the speed of events in real time so eventually, towards the end of the novel, the flashback story catches up with the real time story, and from then on the narrative moves only forward in time.

Another storytelling technique, which was used in another good novel A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich that I read recently, is to start with a short and graphic and puzzling event, and then proceed to have different narrators tell their seemingly independent stories in flashbacks until the stories merge at the end, and the original vignette is explained.

In the case of Oryx and Crake, the story starts with a single human character who calls himself Snowman living alone in a primitive state with the decay of Earth's destroyed civilization all around him. He lives in a tree surrounded by dangerous and unfamiliar animals, with only a dirty bed sheet for clothing, and barely exists on a subsistence diet that he scavenges from the debris and trash around him, suggesting that the collapse of civilization is quite recent. But he is not entirely alone. There is a small colony of people nearby who seem almost but not quite human, childlike in their speech and behavior, able to eat and digest grass and other plant forms that we cannot, and who seem to revere him as some kind of prophet or guru. Who are these people? How did they come to be? And what happened to destroy everything? The unraveling of these mysteries (in this case in the form of Snowman recalling the past) forms the core of the novel, and it is gripping.

In the process of telling the story, Atwood raises some deep questions about the paradoxes of progress. She basically extrapolates the science and technology we now have and poses the question of how far are we willing to go with the powerful new knowledge we possess, especially when it comes to the ability to tamper with genetics and create new life forms. Some aspects of the novel, in which a few biological research companies make fortunes by marketing dubious anti-aging and sex and health products to consumers eager to cling on to youth, already exist.

She also ponders the question of how much inequality are we willing to tolerate. Are we heading towards a deeply bifurcated society, with the few elite living and working in communities that are completely segregated from the rest of society and yet controlling everything for everyone?

One of the biggest problem that a teller of tales faces is how to end the story. It is relatively easy to spin scenarios. It is more difficult to see beyond the immediate consequences and to have the characters develop. I have never written a novel because while I can think of interesting plots, I soon get defeated by how to progress beyond a certain point.

Nowhere is this problem of endings more acute than in comedy where one can imagine developing a funny sketch but then flounder about trying to bring it to a close, searching for an elusive punch line. Many film comedies suffer because of this. Monty Python solved this problem in their TV series of sketch comedies by deliberately breaking the spell and abruptly inserting a cartoon or otherwise jumping to the next sketch with no continuity. This non sequitur method did not work when it came to their first feature-length film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That ending was unsatisfying, especially since up to that point the film was terrific. This may be because there was a unifying narrative to the film that made the viewers more emotionally invested in expecting an outcome, and they expected a better resolution. Their next film Monty Python's Life of Brian had a much better ending.

Classical storytellers tended to use closed endings. Shakespeare's plays, for example, end with either happy-ever-after final scenes in the comedies or practically everyone dying in the tragedies. Some modern fiction writers follow that same pattern. In the Harry Potter books for instance, there was a satisfying climactic scene where all the major issues are resolved and everything was explained. There was even an epilogue describing the lives of the main characters many years later, which actually was a bit of overkill that could have been dispensed with.

This kind of closed-ending can be satisfying to the reader, but it also shuts down speculation and can be artificial. Real life rarely has such closure. The authors of more sophisticated modern novels tend to avoid such pat endings. An alternative way is to end abruptly, to just bring down the curtain, leaving the reader to speculate on what happens next. This can be dissatisfying to the reader, like watching a comedian who goes to elaborate lengths to set up a joke and then tells you to supply the punch line yourself.

On balance, I am a low-brow reader who likes closed endings, where there is a clear denouement. Maybe that is why I still enjoy the who-dunnit mystery novel genre of the type made famous by the Sherlock Holmes stories or the Agatha Christie novels, where events leads up to climax and resolution where everything is explained, and the tension is broken. With many modern novels, even those that I liked, after some time I forget how they ended, because they did not end in a memorable way but simply stopped. The tension dissipates slowly.

Oryx and Crake also ends with the reader wondering what comes next. But don't let that deter you. It is a terrific book.

June 15, 2009

On torture-21: The case of Abu Zubaydah again

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

What has emerged is that research by psychologists on "learned helplessness" has formed the basis of the current torture techniques practiced by the US. The goal is to destroy the victim's mind until that person feels total dependence on the interrogator. It turns out that this is fairly easy to do. They succeeded with Jose Padilla and with Abu Zubaydah. But destroying a mind is one thing. Getting useful information is another.

I have written before about Abu Zubaydah. He was the person you may recall whom George W. Bush insisted was a valuable high-ranking al Qaeda operative from whom valuable information was gleaned using torture, although Bush of course did not use that word. This case was seized upon by the media and by those who used it to justify torture, claiming it 'worked'. But Ron Suskind's book The One Percent Doctrine says the reality is quite different, as can be seen from this excerpt in Barton Gellman's review of it:

One example out of many comes in Ron Suskind's gripping narrative of what the White House has celebrated as one of the war's major victories: the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda's chief of operations even after U.S. and Pakistani forces kicked down his door in Faisalabad, the Saudi-born jihadist was the first al-Qaeda detainee to be shipped to a secret prison abroad. Suskind shatters the official story line here.

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries "in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3" -- a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail "what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said." Dan Coleman, then the FBI's top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, "This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality."

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda's go-to guy for minor logistics -- travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was "echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President," Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as "one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States." And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.

They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety -- against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, "thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target." And so, Suskind writes, "the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered."

After they had destroyed him mentally, the interrogators then proceeded to destroy the videotapes that had recorded the torture sessions, hardly the behavior of people who thought they were acting legally or morally or who at least thought that they were practicing an effective technique.

As Kevin Drum says:

So here's what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical "confessions" under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and [sic] law enforcement personnel.

Torture produced similar false information in the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed:

In other words, not only was torture unnecessary, but it was actually counterproductive. KSM produced no new information under torture, only a litany of false confessions — maybe out of vanity, maybe in an effort to protect other al-Qaeda operatives. Who knows. What we do know is that torturing KSM did no good, sent hundreds of agents scurrying after phantoms, and has made his prosecution far more difficult than it needed to be.

This is what torture leads to.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting Hamlet


June 12, 2009

On torture-20: The case of Jose Padilla

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

In the previous post, we saw how the US government, over a period of time, studied and refined the techniques of psychological torture practiced by other countries and then outsourced these practices to its client states during the Cold War. With the onset of the 'war on terror' following the events of 2001, it started using those techniques directly, leading to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and the so-called 'black sites' around the world.

Jose Padilla, who was arrested in the US in 2002 at Chicago airport and charged with threatening to explode a so-called radioactive 'dirty bomb', was one of the earliest victims of the new policies. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft held a sensational press conference announcing his arrest and George W. Bush then designated him as an 'illegal enemy combatant' not entitled to a trial in the regular courts, even though he was an American citizen. The sensational 'dirty bomb' charge that was used to terrify people and garner publicity was later quietly dropped and replaced by much vaguer conspiracy charges. The ability of the government to declare a US citizen as an enemy combatant was challenged and went through several court iterations before the government in November 2005, presumably seeking to avoid a US Supreme Court decision against it, decided to charge him in the regular civilian courts in Miami, Florida. He was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to over 17 years in prison.

This is how the mind of Jose Padilla was destroyed so that he was willing to say anything his torturers wanted him to say. According to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Padilla was originally kept in extreme isolation for three months in something called the 'brig' at a naval base in South Carolina: "Padilla's cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over… He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla's lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years." Even when in shackles he was taken to see a dentist, he had to wear blacked out goggles to prevent any light from reaching him and headphones to shut out any sound.

Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Padilla, describes in chilling detail how they broke down Padilla and the net result, which was that he identified totally with his interrogators and the Bush government. He did not want to do anything that might result in him being sent back to the brig, and he felt that the best way to do that was to acquiesce in whatever the government wanted, even if it meant turning against his own lawyers. The US government threatened him with further torture if he revealed information about the torture he had already experienced. "According to the Yale Clinic's suit, the government threatened Padilla that if he told anyone what happened to him while he was an enemy combatant, that he would be re-designated an enemy combatant and taken back into Defense Department custody. The suit alleges, as have his defense attorneys, that Padilla's lawyers were not able to mount as complete a defense as they could have were Padilla not afraid to talk to them for fear of government retaliation."

Alfred W. McCoy, who had studies the history of torture in some detail, says that when he saw the now-iconic photo from Abu Ghraib of the black-hooded prisoner standing with outstretched arms and fake electrodes connected, he immediately recognized two classic and key torture features that the CIA had developed: sensory deprivation (in the form of the hood) and stress positions (standing with arms outstretched). This makes implausible the story put out by the Bush-Cheney administration that blamed the lowly soldiers in charge of the prisoners for the torture, by describing them as a few "bad apples". It is highly unlikely that they could have stumbled upon these highly researched torture techniques on their own.

With the end of the Cold War, the US tried to have it both ways: trying to reach the moral high ground by signing the 1994 Convention Against Torture, while quietly trying to reserve for itself the right to continue the psychological torture practices it had perfected. This was, as is the case with all major pro-war/pro-business actions, a bipartisan effort. As McCoy says:

When the Cold War came to a close, Washington resumed its advocacy of human rights, ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture in 1994 that banned the infliction of 'severe' psychological and physical pain. On the surface, the United States had apparently resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.

Yet when President William Clinton sent this UN Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration—with four detailed diplomatic 'reservations' focused on just one word in the convention's 26-printed pages. That word was "mental."

Significantly, these intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost. Of equal import, this definition was reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN Convention--first in Section 2340 of the US Federal Code and then in the War Crimes Act of 1996.

Remember that obscure number--Section 2340—for, as we will see, it is the key to unlocking the meaning of the controversial Military Commissions Law enacted by the US Congress just last September.

In effect, Washington had split the UN Convention down the middle, banning physical torture but exempting psychological abuse. By failing to repudiate the CIA's use of torture, while adopting a UN convention that condemned its practice, the United States left this contradiction buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with such phenomenal force, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

McCoy's article sheds light on something that has puzzled me, which was the brazen attempt by Bush/Cheney to deny the obvious, that what they were doing was torture. They were aided in this effort by a compliant media that treated these statements respectfully and which still avoids using the word torture when talking about the treatment of detainees. It becomes clear that Bush/Cheney and all the apologists in their administration who approved and authorized these torture techniques are depending on the above convoluted reasoning to imply that they satisfied the letter of the law and treaties against torture.

POST SCRIPT: Oh, the horror

The Daily Show shows the awful conditions under which the Swedes live because of their socialist policies.

Part 1:

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The Stockholm Syndrome
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Part 2:

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The Stockholm Syndrome Pt. 2
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June 11, 2009

On torture-19: The long history of US involvement in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

There may be some who think that the revelations of torture that occurred in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, and the various "black sites" operated by the CIA in countries around the world are aberrations that occurred just recently as a result of the misguided "war on terror" and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are wrong. Noam Chomsky describes America's long history of engaging in torture. (See also his longer article, not online, in the June 2009 issue of Z Magazine.)

Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA's "torture paradigm," developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq's Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury's penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang's descent into the global sewers lament that "in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way."

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: "What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system's torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so."

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but "merely repositioned it," restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. "[H]is is a return to the status quo ante," writes Nairn, "the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years."

Most people think of torture methods as involving direct physical ill treatment like pulling out fingernails or burning or beatings. Those are the methods of amateurs. Alfred W. McCoy says that the US government, working with psychologists, studied, developed, and refined torture techniques that did not require crude physical abuse. "During the 1950s as well, two eminent neurologists at Cornell Medical Center working for the CIA found that the KGB's most devastating torture technique involved, not crude physical beatings, but simply forcing the victim to stand for days at time—while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, the kidneys shut down, hallucinations began."

Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side describes what was written in the 2007 confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviewed detainees:

They described not just standing, but being kept up on their tiptoes with their arms extended out and up over their heads, attached by shackles on their wrists and ankles, for what they described as eight hours at a stretch. During the entire period, they said they were kept stark naked and often cold.

This was even done to a one legged detainee who was forced to stand without his prosthesis. They chained his arms to the ceiling so he could keep his balance.

Another well-known psychologist, Canadian Donald O. Hebb, found that he could produce a state similar to psychosis in people in just 48 hours, without using drugs, hypnosis, or electroshock. All it required was sensory deprivation, just having people continually wear goggles, earmuffs, and gloves. And the people who experienced this were not prisoners who were treated harshly or otherwise made to suffer or were fearful of being harmed. They were college student volunteers at McGill University in Canada, and they sat all the while in comfortable cubicles. And yet, even though they knew they were not in any danger, they quickly broke down mentally.

The CIA codified all these discoveries into a manual and beginning with the 1960s, these torture discoveries were then propagated by the CIA to its allies in all the repressive anti-communist regimes in Asia and Latin America as part of the Cold War, before coming back again to the US in its so-called 'war on terror'.

Next: The case of Jose Padilla

POST SCRIPT: The new challenge of being white in America

Larry Wilmore of The Daily Show interviews a group of white children about the difficulties they now face as a newly underprivileged group. If the attitudes of these children are close to being representative of children in general, I am much more hopeful about the future.

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White in America - The Children
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June 10, 2009

On torture-18: And now, executions without even a trial?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

As I said in a previous post, practicing torture leads to the problem that you cannot then allow people to talk about the treatment they received.

It appears that the Obama administration is now circulating a new proposal to solve that pesky problem by executing people without even a trial, based purely on their guilty pleas, even though those might have been obtained under torture. According to Saturday's New York Times:

The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.

The provision could permit military prosecutors to avoid airing the details of brutal interrogation techniques.

The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges. Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons. In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.

Note the use of the euphemisms 'brutal interrogation techniques' and 'intense interrogations' which the media uses instead of the word 'torture' when it is talking about US actions. It only uses the word torture when those practices are done by other countries.

Imagine what would have been the reaction if Roxana Saberi or Euna Lee or Laura Ling were to be executed without an open trial. But the Times, ever sympathetic to the needs of the political establishment, simply refers to this appalling proposal as a possible way to 'ease' the 'government's difficult task'.

The article quotes David Glazier, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has written about the commission system, as saying: "This unfortunately strikes me as an effort to get rid of the problem in the easiest way possible, which is to have those people plead guilty and presumably be executed. But I think it's going to lack international credibility."

So this is where the torture policies have driven us. We throw people into prisons, keep them without charges or trial for years on end, we torture them, and then based on their confessions, we execute them without giving them a chance to give their version of the story.

The original drafters of the US constitution were trying to create a document that they hoped would be a model to other nations of how the rights of government and people would be balanced by providing checks and balances. Their document was flawed (particularly in the way it allowed slavery to continue) but I think it is fair to say that the drafters would be appalled at the level of impunity with which the current government acts in violating the basic human rights of people. We seem to have restored the unilateral and unchecked power of kings, the very thing they sought to oppose.

POST SCRIPT: The case of Lakhdar Boumidienne

Lakhdar Boumedienne is an Algerian and Bosnian citizen who was doing humanitarian work for the Red Crescent Society when he was abducted in Bonia by the US, shipped to Guantanamo, and tortured there for nearly eight years. When the US Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-4 decision, said that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 under which he was being held was unconstitutional because it denied the right of habeas corpus, he was finally given a trial and the district court judge ruled in November 2008 that there was no credible evidence to keep holding him and ordered his release.

He now lives in France with his family. (See Glenn Greenwald for the full story.) You can see an interview with him that Jake Tapper of ABC News conducted.

A much more detailed account of the interview can be read here. In it we are told that in addition to the harsh treatment he received, the letters from his family were never given to him. There is a particularly poignant passage:

Last month, in a tearful ceremony at an airport outside Paris, Boumediene was reunited with his family. His daughters, who were toddlers when he was detained, are 13 and 9 years old.

"I cried, just cried. Because I don't know my daughters," he said. "The younger, when I moved from Bosnia to Gitmo, she had 18 months, only 18 months. Now 9 years. Now she's big. Between 18 months, baby and 9 years, she walking, she's talking, she play, she's joking. It's a big difference."

It is important to realize that Boumedienne was eventually released only because he was brought to trial and allowed to make his case. Obama's new proposals of "preventive detention" seeks the authority to keep people like Boumedienne in prison and tortured indefinitely and even executed without trial.

June 09, 2009

On torture-17: Media double standards

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

I began the series of posts on torture with a partial hypothetical based on the true story of two American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling arrested by North Korea. I said that if those journalists were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained using torture, we would be up in arms, even though torture is exactly what the US has been doing to the detainees it has held.

Those two journalists have now been found guilty by a North Korean High Court after a five-day trial and sentenced to 12 years hard labor. The US government and media assumes that the two are innocent (Hillary Clinton describes the charges as "baseless"), except perhaps for accidentally crossing the border into North Korea, and that the sentence was unduly harsh, and that the North Koreans did this just to force the US into some kind of negotiations.

Earlier we had the media spotlight on another American journalist Roxana Saberi who was tried in Iran for espionage and convicted before being released later by an Iranian appeals court. Again, the US government and media saw this trial as purely political, and Saberi received a huge amount of publicity.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that these are not the only recent cases of journalists being arrested by governments. There are others who have been held without charge or trial for much longer periods under much worse conditions, whose plight has been largely ignored by the US media, although they have been publicized elsewhere. The reason is, of course, that these hapless journalists are being held by the US government and this means, of course, they are presumed to be guilty and dangerous and their indefinite detention is to be excused or even justified.

Glenn Greenwald describes some of the cases.

  • Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was held in the back hole of Guantanamo for six years without trial, beginning in 2001, before being finally released. Even more disgraceful, even after the American interrogators realized that al-Haj was just a journalist, they then tried to coerce him to spy on Al Jazeera for them.

  • The AP photographer Bilal Hussein was detained by the US for two years without any charges brought against him, after his photographs contradicted US claims.

  • Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, was detained by the US in September 2008.

That's not all. The Committee to Protect Journalists says:

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents. (my italics)

As Greenwald says:

In Iran, at least Saberi received the pretense of an actual trial and appeal (one that resulted in her rather rapid release, a mere three weeks after she was convicted), as compared to the journalists put in cages for years by the U.S. Government with no charges of any kind, or as compared to the individuals whom we continue to abduct, transport to Bagram, and insist on the right to imprison indefinitely with no charges of any kind. Who was treated better and more consistently with ostensible Western precepts of justice and press freedoms: Roxana Saberi or Sami al-Haj? Saberi or Bilal Hussein? Saberi or Ibrahim Jassam? Saberi or the Bagram detainees shipped to Afghanistan and held in a dank prison, away from the sight of the entire world, without even a pretense of judicial review, a power the Obama administration continues to insist it possesses?

The London Independent reports on the reason that Saberi was convicted of espionage.

A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.

Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report "out of curiosity" while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran's ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.

In fact, when we compare the case of Saberi in Iran with the way the US treats the journalists it arrests, Iran comes out much better. Robert Dreyfuss notes that what Saberi did to get herself arrested was more serious than what was done by many of the journalists under US custody and yet she got a quick trial and was released after a quick appeal. As Dreyfuss says:

Here's what I wonder: If an Iranian journalist came to the United States, deliberately let his reporter's credentials expire, took a job working for an important US agency that handles confidential or classified material, and then secretly copied one of those documents out of "curiosity," do you think he would have been released by an appeals court? Or do you think that he might have received, say, eight years in prison for espionage?

Saberi had confessed to being a US spy while serving 100 days in prison. After her release, she said she made a false confession out of fear. She describes her treatment:

In Evin, the jail in the Tehran suburbs where many political prisoners are held, Saberi endured "severe psychological and mental pressure, although I was not physically tortured.

"The first few days, I was interrogated for several hours, from morning until evening, blindfolded, facing a wall, by up to four men, and threatened ... I was in solitary confinement for several days," Saberi said.

I can well imagine that Saberi was frightened and that her confession was not freely given, even though the conditions she describes pale in comparison to the kinds of torture practices the US is guilty of.

The US government and those in the media who cheer on policies of "preventive detention" and condone and excuse torture have absolutely no standing to complain when other governments do similar things.

POST SCRIPT: A real ticking time bomb

Scott Roeder, the person who has been arrested and charged with killing Dr. George Tiller, told the Associated Press that similar violence has been planned against other abortion providers but refused to provide further details. The news report continues, "It wasn't clear whether Roeder knew of any impending violence or whether he was simply seeking publicity for his cause. Law enforcement authorities including the Justice Department said they didn't know whether the threat was credible."

But there's a way to find out, isn't there? We could simply torture him because what we have here is a 'ticking time bomb' scenario so beloved by those who use it in hypothetical situations to justify torture.

John Cole who, like me, opposes torture in all circumstances, issues a challenge to evangelical Christians who are more supportive of torture than nonbelievers or mainstream Protestants.

Since there is no doubt that we have a history of anti-abortion domestic terrorism, and since we know that evangelicals already support torture for everyone, when do we get to start waterboarding this guy? Does he have any children whose testicles can be crushed? Will we keep him up for weeks on end in stress positions in extremely cold rooms to get him to break? Beat him? All the right made a very good show of how shocked and appalled they were when this man killed Dr. Tiller, so surely they will not object. So when do we get to start torturing this guy?

This same challenge can be posed to anyone who thinks that torture works and uses the ticking time bomb hypothetical to justify torture. Shouldn't they be calling for Roeder to be tortured?

June 08, 2009

On torture-16: Obama's appalling stances on civil liberties

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

The corrupting effect of condoning torture can be seen in the way that Obama is now advancing the appalling policy of "preventive detention", allowing the government to hold prisoners without trial indefinitely. This means that the fundamental constitutional protection of habeas corpus has been abandoned by Obama as well, making a mockery of his claim to be teacher and scholar of constitutional law,.

What the Obama administration is doing is trying to create a range of 'trials', all designed to keep some people incarcerated forever, even if they cannot be proven guilty. Those whom they think they can prove to be guilty by normal rules of evidence they will try in the regular legal system. Those for whom the evidence may not be sufficient or not normally allowable (because, say, the information was obtained by torture or is hearsay or otherwise inadequate) will be tried in 'tribunals' where rules designed to protect the rights of defendants are relaxed and convictions easier to obtain. Those people for whom there is no real evidence or whose torture they do not want revealed to the world will be held indefinitely without trial.

That this is a gross perversion of what we think of as justice should be apparent to anyone. Gone is the quaint presumption that people are innocent until they are proven guilty. Replacing it is a medieval system where the ruler decides peremptorily whether you are guilty or not. Basically, what Obama is creating is a system where his administration first decides whether people are guilty, and then constructs a "legal" system that allows them to create a forum which will ensure that the detainees they have already decided is guilty will be found guilty. There is no other description for this than a 'show trial'. It is nothing less than the worst kind of legal sham practiced by authoritarian governments. If such trials were conducted by (say) Iran or North Korea or Russia, they would be denounced by the American media as a mockery of justice. But when practiced by the US government, the media actually goes along with it, treating the whole charade as a sensible practice.

Will Bunch points to the really disturbing part of Obama's recent speech where he outlined this policy of creating parallel trial systems and preventive detention. After first boasting about his familiarity with the principles of the US constitution acquired as both a student and teacher of it, Obama then proceeds to rip that venerable document to shreds:

Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here -- this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We're going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture -- like other prisoners of war -- must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can't be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. That's why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law.

But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. (my italics)

When Obama uses the royal "we" in the past paragraph, he is reserving to himself what should be the prerogative of the courts, the right to determine guilt or innocence. So it is clear: the Obama administration will first decide who is guilty and dangerous and then find a way to keep them in prison forever, a policy he describes using the Orwellian phrase "preventive detention". As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights says:

[Obama] said some people are just too dangerous to let go and that we have to keep them…Though we'd do it differently then Bush. We will set up rules. Well no matter how you repackage Guantanamo, with all kinds of rules on top of it -- that is what he is doing, he is re-wrapping a preventive detention scheme and giving it some more due process. In the end, it still comes down to holding people -- much like Minority Report or pre-crime stuff -- for being dangerous, and that is not something that I think is constitutional or this country should be engaged in.

Obama's actions in creating this framework of show trials is all of a piece with his backtracking on his promises to quickly close Guantanamo, to quickly end the war in Iraq, and his reluctance to prosecute the war crimes of the Bush administration. While he drags his feet on his promise to close Guantanamo, yet another detainee, a 31-year old man, has committed suicide after being detained without charge or trial since February 2002.

William Blum sums up the problem with Obama:

The problem, I'm increasingly afraid, is that the man doesn't really believe strongly in anything, certainly not in controversial areas. He learned a long time ago how to take positions that avoid controversy, how to express opinions without clearly and firmly taking sides, how to talk eloquently without actually saying anything, how to leave his listeners' heads filled with stirring clichés, platitudes, and slogans. And it worked. Oh how it worked! What could happen now, as President of the United States, to induce him to change his style?

I could really feel sorry for Barack Obama — for his administration is plagued and handicapped by a major recession not of his making — if he had a vision that was thus being thwarted. But he has no vision — not any kind of systemic remaking of the economy, producing a more equitable and more honest society; nor a world at peace, beginning with ending America's perennial wars; no vision of the fantastic things that could be done with the trillions of dollars that would be saved by putting an end to war without end; nor a vision of a world totally rid of torture; nor an America with national health insurance; nor an environment free of capitalist subversion; nor a campaign to control world population ... he just looks for what will offend the fewest people. He's a "whatever works" kind of guy.

I think Blum's assessment of Obama is largely correct, though I would welcome being proved wrong. Being able to make stirring speeches is a valuable skill. It can make people rise to their better selves and to forget petty concerns. But it can never be a substitute for principled actions. If not backed up by concrete actions, the words will rapidly ring hollow and become a target of ridicule.

POST SCRIPT: Torture excuse chart

In this series of posts, I have painstakingly addressed all the excuses offered by torture apologists. I discovered that someone has organized many of them into a handy chart.

June 05, 2009

On torture-15: Media complicity in secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

One of the best ways to ensure good government is to have as much transparency as possible. When people are allowed to work behind closed doors with the promise of secrecy, abuses inevitably occur. The Bush/Cheney administration was highly secretive and unfortunately, when it comes to things like torture, the "extraordinary renditions" of prisoners (i.e., sending them to other countries that practice torture), and illegal wiretapping, the Obama administration seems to be also trying to keep as many things secret as possible. In fact, on some matters such as illegal wiretapping, Obama is making even more sweeping claims of presidential authority to keep secrets than Bush/Cheney did.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[C]andidate Obama unambiguously vowed to his supporters that he would work to ensure "full accountability" for "past offenses" in surveillance lawbreaking. President Obama, however, has now become the prime impediment to precisely that accountability, repeatedly engaging in extraordinary legal maneuvers to ensure that "past offenses" -- both in the surveillance and torture/rendition realm -- remain secret and forever immunized from judicial review. Put another way, Obama has repeatedly done the exact opposite of what he vowed he would do: rather than "seek full accountability for past offenses," he has been working feverishly to block such accountability, by embracing the same radical Bush/Cheney views and rhetoric regarding presidential secrecy powers that caused so much controversy and anger for the last several years.

This Raw Story report shows the extremes to which Obama is willing to go: "For the first time, the Obama Administration's brief contends that government agencies cannot be sued for wiretapping American citizens even if there was intentional violation of US law. They maintain that the government can only be sued if the wiretaps involve "willful disclosure" -- a higher legal bar."

Dahlia Lithwick demolishes all the arguments for keeping secrets that are used to justify the Obama administration's actions, while Greenwald gives a summary of the views of all the people who are excoriating the abuses of the state secrets privilege by the Obama administration.

To see what extreme extents this penchant for secrecy is being taken by Obama, read the extraordinary case of what happened to Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for Binyam Mohamed (whose case was discussed earlier). Smith wrote a memo to President Obama about Mohamed's torture case. As required, he had to first send it to the Privilege Review Team, a secret tribunal of Pentagon officials that monitors all the communications of lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners.

The PRT returned the memo to Smith with everything in it redacted and did not forward the concerns raised to Obama. (See the letter and redacted memo here). So Smith wrote directly to Obama and sent along the redacted memo, showing Obama how he was being denied access to information by the people below him, even though he was their superior officer. Unbelievably, Smith is now being charged with violating official secrecy merely for sending Obama the redacted memo, which is entirely blacked out. In other words, he is being charged for alerting the president that he was not getting the full story and for this act he faces a possible six months in prison if convicted. So much for Obama's promise of increased transparency.

While some courts have have dealt a setback to the government's attempts to keep secrets, the Obama administration seems likely to doggedly continue to fight to keep as much as possible under wraps.

In this they are aided and abetted by the media. You would think that the media, of all institutions, would vigorously fight any attempt by the government to keep secrets, to be in the forefront in championing openness. What is extraordinary is that some establishment journalists have become the strongest advocates for allowing the government to keep secrets, showing how much they have become co-opted by the government as an accomplice.

Richard Cohen wrote of the Lewis Libby prosecution: "it is often best to keep the lights off." ABC News's Peggy Noonan said this week of torture investigations: 'some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking." The Washington Post's David Ignatius, condemning Obama for releasing the OLC memos [i.e. the infamous Jay Bybee and John Yoo memos authorizing the use of torture], warned: "the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn't blind its shadow warriors." And the favorite mantra of media stars and Beltway mavens everywhere -- Look Forward, Not Backwards -- is nothing but a plea that extreme government crimes remain concealed and unexamined.

This remains the single most notable and revealing fact of American political life: that (with some very important exceptions) those most devoted to maintaining and advocating government secrecy is our journalist class, of all people. It would be as if the leading proponents of cigarette smoking were physicians, or those most vocally touting the virtues of illiteracy were school teachers. Nothing proves the true function of these media stars as government spokespeople more than their eagerness to shield government actions from examination and demand that government criminality not be punished.

As another example of media collusion with establishment power, the Bush administration used the media, especially the extraordinarily gullible Brian Ross of ABC News to advance the false story that torture worked quickly and efficiently to reveal vital information. The Bush White House seemed to look on Ross as the 'go to' guy when they wanted to disseminate false information to the public.

The arguments that have been put forward to excuse and justify those who tortured and authorized torture are so pathetic that they hardly need refuting. The fact that they are given any credibility at all is because our media is so slavishly faithful to the establishment, so complicit in their crimes, that they eagerly seek to find justifications for even the most horrific actions, and allow these pseudo-arguments to be repeatedly advanced without rebuttal.

As Mark Danner writes in the New York Review of Books:

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its "stenographic function" and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president's insistence that these interrogations were undertaken "legally" and "in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles" continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush's oft-repeated assertion that "the United States does not torture" is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. That they are so reported is a political fact, and a powerful one. It makes it possible to contend that, however adamant the arguments of the lawyers "on either side," the very fact of their disagreement makes the legality of these procedures a matter of partisan political allegiance, not of law.

The facts are clear: Torture is illegal and morally despicable under all circumstances. The US government authorized and committed acts of torture.

The consequences should also be clear: Those who authorized and committed torture should be investigated and prosecuted.

The fact that there is a 'debate' at all on this very clear issue is a sign of how debased our commitment to the rule of law has become, and the sorry role that the media has played in bringing it to that state.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Danner on how the press is obfuscating the torture issue


June 04, 2009

On torture-14: Torture and secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

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. 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 to 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 is presumably not where any civilized society wants to go, though given how easily Americans can be frightened by vague threats, it would not surprise me if people were willing to countenance even that.

Once torturers have brutally treated someone, they become reluctant to let the victims freely speak about their treatment since such revelations rebounds badly on them. You cannot bring them to an open trial where they can tell the judge and the public how they were treated. Torture inevitably leads to excessive secrecy or even the killing of victims so they can never speak about their treatment. So secrecy and torture practices go hand in hand and the promise of secrecy creates the temptation for perpetrating even greater abuses.

Glenn Greenwald points out how the Bush administration tried to make a deal with two Gunantanamo detainees (British resident Binyam Mohamed and Australian citizen David Hicks) that they would release them only if they kept secret about the treatment they had received. Mohamed refused the deal and his detention was continued. So the US government was essentially using torture and detention as weapons, not to gain information but to gag their prisoners to prevent them speaking about their torture and detention.

Binyam Mohammed's story gets even worse. He was eventually sent back to England in February after the charge that he aided Jose Padilla fell apart. Mohammed had spent six years in US custody and claimed he was tortured at the hands of the US in Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan, the countries being ones that he had been 'renditioned" to. After his release, a British High Court initially ruled that there was sufficient evidence that he had been tortured and that he was entitled to seek documentary evidence that the British government had in its possession about his treatment. But it later reversed itself because the Obama administration had threatened to withhold security cooperation with the UK if the documents were released.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

Just think how despicable that threat is: if your court describes the torture to which one of your residents was subjected while in U.S. custody, we will withhold information from you that could enable you to break up terrorist plots aimed at your citizens.

The principal issue here is that the Obama administration is not merely failing to investigate (let alone prosecute) acts of high-level criminality by U.S. government officials. Far worse, ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has engaged in one extraordinary legal maneuver after the next to block American courts from ruling on the legality of those actions. He has now extended his Bush-protecting conduct to the international realm, as he re-iterates Bush's threats that we will purposely leave British citizens more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if their courts rule that, under their laws, their citizens are entitled to know what was done to Binyam Mohamed.

Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney for Mr. Mohamed, said that he was disappointed with what Obama had done.

"What they are doing is twisting the arm of the British to keep evidence of torture committed by American officials secret," said Mr. Smith, a U.S. citizen. "I had high hopes for the Obama administration. I voted for the guy, and one hopes the new administration would not continue to cover up evidence of criminal activity."

The Metropolitan Police of London is investigating whether Mr. Mohamed was tortured when he was in American custody.

Mr. Smith said that by attempting to keep evidence of Mr. Mohamed's "abuse" secret, the U.S. official who communicated the threats to the British Foreign Office was in breach of British law, specifically the International Criminal Court Act of 2001.

"The U.S. is committing a criminal offense in Britain by seeking to conceal this information. What the Obama administration did is not just ill-advised, it is illegal," he said.

But despite these attempts at suppression of his torture, truly gruesome details are emerging about some of the methods used on Binyam Mohamed that make even waterboarding look tame by comparison, "very far down the list of things they did." These include such things as the slicing of his genitals with a scalpel,

This is what allowing torture under any circumstances leads to. It is the slipperiest of slippery slopes. One step on it, and you rapidly end up in a cesspool, committing the most odious of acts.

POST SCRIPT: Gay marriage loophole

New Hampshire yesterday became the sixth and latest state to pass a law allowing gay marriage, continuing the inevitable march towards full equality. But from the Onion News Network we learn that gays are willing do anything to get married.


Conservatives Warn Quick Sex Change Only Barrier Between Gays, Marriage

June 03, 2009

Okie from Muskogee and Hardware Wars

In 1969 country and western singer Merle Haggard released a song called Okie from Muskogee which was a huge hit. Part of its appeal was the ambiguity of its lyrics. Released at the height of the Vietnam war protests with the country deeply divided, widespread campus unrest, and protests in the streets, some saw the song as a repudiation of the hippie, drug using, counterculture movement and an upholding of so-called traditional values, while others saw it as poking fun (in a sly, tongue-in-cheek way) of narrow minded, small town, flag-waving patriotism.

As an example of the song's ambiguity, the term 'white lightning' can be taken at face value but is also a euphemism for illegal home-brewed moonshine liquor, popular in some rural areas. So is Haggard praising the simple values of small town life or taking a dig at how people there really get their kicks?

Even after all these years, I still cannot decide which characterization of the song is true, which is a sign that Haggard is a clever songwriter. Whatever its politics, it is still a great song. You can see it performed here and judge for yourself.

Part of my reason for showing the clip is its tenuous connection with what I originally planned this post about. When the first Star Wars film came out in 1977, it caused a sensation. That same year at another film I saw a short parody called Hardware Wars, that was constructed as a mock trailer of the original film, a deliberately cheesy, low-budget production that used ordinary household appliances in place of futuristic technology.

I am not sure if current viewers will find Hardware Wars as funny as the audience in the theater did when we first saw it and hooted with laughter, since some of the allusions are dated, and people may not remember the details of the original film either. For example, to fully appreciate the parody of the famous bar scene with its weird assortment of aliens, you have to recall that scene as well as know the first line of the chorus of Okie from Muskogee ("I am just an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball."), which was still hugely popular.

Anyway, here it is:

Part 1:

Part 2:

POST SCRIPT: Yet more parody

Kinky Friedman sings his own version of Haggard's song.


June 02, 2009

On torture-13: Why torture decisions have to be made impersonally

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let me finally address the question raised by the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists, that if our own loved ones could only be saved by torture, wouldn't we approve of it?

I have said that I oppose torture on the principle that I cannot condone any practice that I would not accept if it were to be applied to my own loved ones. But what if the tables were turned and my own loved ones were under threat of harm and the security forces had captured someone who might have information that might save them? Wouldn't I want the security forces to do whatever it takes, even if it includes torture, if that might save their lives?

The answer is yes, I probably would want them to do whatever it takes to save my loved ones. I might even be willing to do it myself. There is no saying what we might do when we are placed in extreme situations far removed from our normal experience. But the fact that we might wish suspects to be tortured if it might save our own loved ones is not an argument for torture. It is instead a sign of our human weakness, an indication of how strong emotions can override our better nature. It is an argument for why people with a deep personal and emotional investment in a case should not be involved in any way with such investigations or interrogations, because their passions can cause them to commit atrocities that are beyond the pale of civilized behavior.

There is a reason why we do not allow vigilante justice. There is a reason why, if we report to the police that someone has killed or otherwise brutalized our loved ones, the police do not give us a gun and tell us to take care of it ourselves. There is a reason why in trials, any person who has any links to the case or has had a past involvement in a similar situation, is eliminated from the jury pool. It is because such people are too likely to be inflamed by our emotions to think rationally about evidence and proof and justice and law and principles.

The impersonal institutions of society, such as the police and the courts, are there to provide the dispassionate buffer that prevents us from committing atrocities arising out of our personal passions and grievances. The collective principles of morality and humanity and justice enshrined in those institutions are meant to save us from ourselves.

People are capable of advocating, let alone committing and condoning, all kinds of appalling acts when their own personal safety and well-being or that of their loved ones are at stake. A reliable staple of Hollywood films is where an enraged private individual takes the law into his or her own hands to avenge some personal wrong that the authorities cannot or do not want to deal with, and the audience invariably cheers the successful elimination of the evildoer at the end, however questionable the means used. Filmmakers are taking advantage of our natural empathetic feelings towards the victims of injustice. We are manipulated by the filmmakers into accepting torture and killing because they make sure that we, the audience, know for certain that the villain brutalized at the end is truly guilty, is really evil, and has no redeeming qualities. It would be interesting to see what would be the reaction if at the end of the film or in the pro-torture TV series 24, the righteous avenger finds that he or she has made a mistake and tortured an innocent person and we, the audience, find that we had been manipulated into cheering on a monstrous injustice.

This is what is being exploited by those who justify torture by asking us to imagine ourselves as the victims of a crime that might be prevented by torture. Notice that the people who are supporting torture repeatedly make the sweeping assumption that all the people in US custody at Guantanamo and elsewhere are horrible and dangerous people who are guilty of unspecified but presumably appalling crimes, the kind who would kill their own grandmothers for pleasure, even though this has not been established to be the case.

If we allow actions to be justified on the basis of the passions of the victims, then we are but a short step from barbarity. Take for example, Eugene Volokh, a professor of constitutional law. He cites a case where a criminal was publicly executed in Iran before a large crowd of spectators in a event that was made into a sordid spectacle, where he "was flogged 100 times before being hanged. A brother of one of his young victims stabbed him as he was being punished. The mother of another victim was asked to put the noose around his neck."

Volokh puts himself in the position of the victims' families and heartily approves of the barbaric way the execution was carried out, saying:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims' relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he'd killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing - and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act - was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there's a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

The disturbing tone of Volokh's comments (remember that he is a professor of constitutional law and is presumably well aware of why we have laws and constitutions) perfectly illustrates why we should keep victims of crimes out of the investigation and punishment of crimes.

Those with a strong personal and emotional stake in it are capable of the most appalling things, which is why the hypothetical of whether we might be willing to commit torture if we could save our own loved ones should not be used as a justification for the practice.

POST SCRIPT: Wretched excess

Stephen Colbert visits three restaurants where a single item on the menu costs $1,000.

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
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June 01, 2009

On torture-12: Would I use torture to save myself or lots of people?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

Let me continue the look at the final excuse on the list put out by torture apologists, that if our own loved ones could only be saved by torture, wouldn't we approve of it?

Those seeking to justify torture using such extreme hypothetical situations usually describe two scenarios, of which the question above is the second form, which I will get to after dealing with the first form.

The first form of the hypothetical asks if I would be willing to risk the deaths of many people, including my own, if they might be saved by using torture on others. The answer is yes. Although some might find this attitude hard to understand, a little thought will show why it is eminently defensible. Michael Kinsley explains why using these types of 'ticking time bomb' scenarios to create and justify torture policies is a bad idea because of the problem of uncertainty.

There is yet another law-school bromide: "Hard cases make bad law." It means that divining a general policy from statistical oddballs is a mistake. Better to have a policy that works generally and just live with a troublesome result in the oddball case. And we do this in many situations. For example, criminals go free every day because of trial rules and civil liberties designed to protect the innocent. We live with it.

Of course a million deaths is hard to shrug off as a price worth paying for the principle that we don't torture people. But college dorm what-ifs like this one share a flaw: They posit certainty (about what you know and what will happen if you do this or that). And uncertainty is not only much more common in real life: It is the generally unspoken assumption behind civil liberties, rules of criminal procedure, and much else that conservatives find sentimental and irritating.

Sure, if we could know the present and predict the future with certainty, we could torture only people who deserve it. Not just that: We could go door-to-door killing people before they kill others. We could lock up innocent people who would otherwise be involved in fatal traffic accidents.

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 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 cliché. 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."

McCoy quotes Roberta Wohlstetter who wrote in her study of that other great U.S. intelligence failure, Pearl Harbor that, after the event, "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." Scientists know this. They often grapple for years with puzzling data for which there seem to be no pattern and then when someone postulates a new theory, everything suddenly falls into place and it all makes sense and the pattern is clear.

People like Charles Krauthammer try to have it both ways. They want to project an image of themselves as urbane products of the Enlightenment with refined sensibilities, while at the same time justifying their most barbaric and revengeful impulses, condoning actions that make the Inquisition pale in comparison. Writing recently, he starts by trying to establish his adherence to Enlightenment principles, saying that "Torture is an impermissible evil." So far, so good. But then he immediately goes over to the dark side by adding:

Except under two circumstances. The first is the ticking time bomb. An innocent's life is at stake. The bad guy you have captured possesses information that could save this life. He refuses to divulge. In such a case, the choice is easy.

The second exception to the no-torture rule is the extraction of information from a high-value enemy in possession of high-value information likely to save lives. This case lacks the black-and-white clarity of the ticking time bomb scenario. We know less about the length of the fuse or the nature of the next attack. But we do know the danger is great. We know we must act but have no idea where or how -- and we can't know that until we have information. Catch-22.

Under those circumstances, you do what you have to do. And that includes waterboarding.

So for Krauthammer torture is impermissible except when it is permissible. Someone should quote him the immortal words of Inigo Montoya in The Princess Bride: "You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means."

The 'ticking time bomb' scenario as a justification for torture is seductive in its appeal. Sam Harris falls for it and even ethicist Peter Singer supports torture because, as a utilitarian, he supports the minimization of suffering, and using that calculus, if you can save many by torturing a few, then he says we should go for it: "Torturing a human being is almost always wrong, but it is not absolutely wrong. If torture were the only way in which we could discover the location of a nuclear bomb hidden in a New York City basement and timed to go off within the hour, then torture would be justifiable." (From his book Animal Liberation (1975), excerpted in Writings on an Ethical Life by Peter Singer (2000), p. 53.)

But as McCoy argues, the 'ticking time bomb' scenario is based on a whole set of flawed and implausible assumptions and as soon as you allow for exceptions to torture, you are guaranteed to have abuses. 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."

While there is a (admittedly small) chance that we can all agree that torture should be unconditionally outlawed, once we allow exceptions there is almost no chance that we will all agree on what those exceptions should be. This is because the act of torture is so extreme, and the varieties of ways in which it can be practiced so numerous, that the people at the receiving end will not accept restrictions on how they can respond. It is only a matter of time before we reach the stage where we place the decapitated heads of so-called "enemy combatants" on spikes in public spaces as a warning, as was the practice of kings and queens in England against their perceived enemies.

But apart from the high degree of implausibility of the ticking bomb scenario, we must realize that we can never live in a risk-free society. We have no choice in the fact that we are all going to die at some point. The question is whether there is a level of barbarity to which we will not sink in order to save our skins.

To be continued…

POST SCRIPT: Rooks using tools

A remarkable video showing rooks carefully selecting the most appropriate tool to obtain food.