Sunday, December 18, 2005

Shock Means Nothing Anymore

One can hardly put to words the feeling that the United States Administration headed by President George W. Bush just does not care for antiquated things such as the Bill of Rights. Since September 12th, 2001, America has operated under rules completely held in secret. With the latest revelation that an executive order was repeatedly invoked authorizing the National Security Agegncy to conduct eavesdropping activities on citizens without any oversight, it must be determined that there is no out-of-bounds any more.

The executive branch has the right (they say) to investigate, review, and decide the merits of wiretapping United States citizens without the subject's knowledge, or any other branch of government interfering with the investigation. No oversight. No FISA to be burdened with. And with any luck, no newspaper will move ahead with the story that this situation actually exists.

Why does this shock anyone? Will the next revelation surprise the public? Veiled corporate councils that conceive energy policies, hidden interrogation centers, word-bending on torture, an entire war brought about courtesy of intelligence hand-picked to deceive? To put this melodramatically, it would take the President himself knocking over a liquor store caught on the six o'clock news to shock the public at this stage.

There is no War on Terror. Just as there was no "war" on poverty, or illiteracy, or drugs, or crime. The term is not applicable to a tactic used by the fanatics familiar with the tool. War is reserved to a declaration by Congress against a foreign state. There is no declaration of war on Iraq, just an open-ended call to the President to do what he deems fit. What the U.S. faces is a very small group of radicals that wishes to avenge the perceived wrongs (without taking issue as to the rightness or wrongness of these perceptions) done to them by attacking American interests at home and abroad. They do not call any one place home, and will be with us for as long as the long arm of American foreign policy interferes with other countries' affairs.

The rationale the President used in his latest radio address is that he can do this because the United States is at war. How long then can he continue to conduct this warrantless search of citizens? Whenever the war on terror is over. Notice an open-endedness to that approach?

President Bush suggested that he has done all of the greater good of protecting the American people. Something to review for the moment then - what does the oath that President's take before being sworn in as the nation's leader state?
"I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution of the United States."

And what of the Fourth Amendment in said Constitution?
Amendment IV
The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

This government has been a grand experiment. Can a republic be built upon democratic ideals and survive humans? Each administration should have enough respect to leave the system as good or better than when they found it. A farmer will tell you that you must care for the land and treat it right if not for good crops this year, but a good harvest next year and for the next decade. Instead, the last century has shown a creep towards concentration of power. Whether it was a Roosevelt (both), a Reagan, a Johnson, or a Clinton, the American public has grown compliant to the shift. That march towards power is hurting the experiment's results each and every year.

Placing the brakes on that push towards absolutism is reserving the rights of the citizens to the citizens, and not solely to the executive/legislative/judiciary branches of government. Maybe this is why so many are up in arms about the notion that a President can do what she or he sees fit when it comes to our rights in the name of security.

There has to be outrage and shock at this, even if it seems hard to muster.

Wednesday, December 14, 2005

When Can You Torture?

What type of hypothetical situation warrants torture? What type of situation must one encounter before the asphyxiation begins, and the organ failure ensues?

Is there a bomb? Is it a very large bomb? Is it ready to go off, and is said bomb placed in New York City or Los Angeles?

Is there a detainee who knows everything about the plan, but just isn't talking? Is time running short and there are hundreds of thousands of lives at stake? Will the knowledge that this person holds result in a mushroom cloud unless she or he talks?

All of these postulates are put forward as an excuse to allow torture. In a way it relies on a utilitarian approach to assessing the situation: Will the threat and application of pain to one person bring about safety and security for a large number of people? With one bad thing, many can be happy - that is the premise.

Charles Krauthammer
has made the following case:

...there is the terrorist with information. Here the issue of torture gets complicated and the easy pieties don't so easily apply. Let's take the textbook case. Ethics 101: A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He's not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

It is a wonderful scenario. There can be no doubt that one must choose to torture, and not waste a moment applying the car battery to the detainee's chest. Torture first, then ask polite questions later.

This hypothetical is ludicrous.

The premise presumes that the person being held is indeed the bomber. What if they are not? What if the bomber's name is Jason Smith, and the authorities picked up Jayson Smith? An hour torturing the wrong actor in the scenario and the authorities are still no closer to locating the device, and in addition they have inflicted harm and pain on the person who during his torment may just name some random place in an effort to stop the torture being given.

So getting the right suspect in the first place is critical to the hypothesis. Has the U.S. ever gotten this point wrong in the past? Yes, we have botched it in the past. There is no reason to believe that from here to infinity, the U.S. will only get the right people to torture in the future.

Of course the hypothetical must disallow such conjectures. It's purpose is to commit the person answering the question to say, "yes, I'd torture the person if it would save millions of people." An alternative such as evacuating the city as quickly as possible isn't a solution, and it cannot be offered on purpose. It would be a reasonable alternative as opposed to depending on torture to produce some evidence that will lead to the defusion of the bomb.

Krauthammer conveniently leaves out that torture produces little if any intelligence that can be used. Most humans who have suffered through torture (a certain Senator in the United States Senate comes to mind) will devulge the information that they think the interrogators want to hear. And in the case of the above hypothetical, wouldn't we naturally presume that the actual terrorist detainee would plant any number of false places in the heads of those doing the torture to prevent them from finding the pending nuclear explosion? Uptown -- the Lower East Side -- Wall Street -- the Brooklyn Bridge.

There are so many holes to poke in the argument, it is a wonder that it was brought up in a serious manner. By the logic of the argument that saving many at the expense of one is admirable, we should be able to apply the fallacy to other instances. Move away from a nuclear bomb, and make it C4 explosive. It is in a bag and is placed somewhere on the subway in NYC. It will do a lot of damage and quite possibly kill two dozen people unfortunate to be near it when it detonates. Can torture be applied to the bomb planter? What about an armed bank heist that might result in the death of one or two innocent civilians?

If it is the quantity of life lost, and not the actual act of torturing a suspect that is the concern, then there must be a limit that one can agree on. It is just difficult to establish if that limit is one life, 20 lives, possibly one thousand. A million lives seems to be the accepted amount, but 500,000 lives should be high up the list as well.

It would be more telling (and actually boost the case for those that advocate torture) if there was some definitive case for the ticking time bomb scenario. None have occurred that are noted in any of these arguments. We only learn of the hypothetical. There may be a reason for this: torture has never worked out so neatly as to stop something from happening, much less garner information that is at all usable. Of the plots that have been thwarted, torture had nothing to do with it. Richard Reid just wan't bright enough to detonate his shoes (thanfully). The millenium bomber just was too gosh darn nervous to keep his story straight at the border. Without evidence that getting physical with a suspect grants the interrogator a treasure trove of information, one really goes out on a spindly limb with torture.

It is quite probable that any interrogation technique will not yield any information that can be used. However, it is a certainty that the one technique that we would not wish to be used on any Americans is that of torture. What's not good for us should be just as unacceptable for others.

Mr. Krauthammer argues that the hypothetical is reason enough to establish his conclusion that there must always be room for an exception to torture a person. Fine. Don't complain then when an American pilot or soldier is shown being tortured on camera. You have to have a certain type of stomach to bear witness to such things when you advocate for torture, don't you?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

What The Power Of Democracy Can Do

A tip of the hat yet again to Professor Juan Cole for spotting the intelligence.

Harold Pinter
takes a stab at what is the matter with the United States policy with respect to the rest of the world's governments.

It makes for a good read, though his comments about Iraq and American foreign policy do not begin until about a third of the way through the speech.

A point that was of particular insight starts when he presents this thesis:

"Everyone knows what happened in the Soviet Union and throughout Eastern Europe during the post-war period: the systematic brutality, the widespread atrocities, the ruthless suppression of independent thought. All this has been fully documented and verified.

But my contention here is that the US crimes in the same period have only been superficially recorded, let alone documented, let alone acknowledged, let alone recognised as crimes at all. I believe this must be addressed and that the truth has considerable bearing on where the world stands now. Although constrained, to a certain extent, by the existence of the Soviet Union, the United States' actions throughout the world made it clear that it had concluded it had carte blanche to do what it liked."

Remember the old quote of who writes the history books? Follow from there, and recall that the United States "won" the Cold War. One might think that it will be some time before Americans understand what really happened throughout the past six decades at the behest of our leaders.

Friday, December 02, 2005

Why President Bush Lost The Battle

Every so often, the writer Gary North will add some insight into the debate that might otherwise go unnoticed. His viewpoint is that of a Libertarian and most of his arguments are made quite persuasively. Recently he published an article entitled, "Tactics, Not Strategy, in the Antiwar Movement". This entry is no different.

The general premise is that when Presidents of the past century waged war, there was complicity by those in power to accept the terms of the conflict. Whether it was for political (Wilsonian principles of just involvement) or financial (Lockheed Martin, GE, etc.), the power centers would see some tangible benefit for following. The public would be last to know, but dutifully told that this was the best course of action possible.

North sees the internet and particularly the world wide web as the great equalizer that puts a tremendous strain on the old power structures of the 20th century. His shorthand phrase for the transition from the industrial to the technical is "the transition from atoms to electrons." The state can't deploy the National Guard to stop people from thinking and writing about their beliefs. The control has shifted.

In the article linked above, Gary North asks three questions of the antiwar movement, and then tries his best to answer them:

The tactical question today is this: What can critics do to persuade the voters that (1) this war is a colossal mistake, (2) our troops' continued presence in the Middle East is an equally colossal mistake, and (3) we must get out and stay out?

Here are my answers.

First, critics can act just as termites act. They can keep chewing on the structure. This undermines its legitimacy, and legitimacy means everything. Without it, voluntary cooperation ceases. Public support is withdrawn, voter by voter. This is now happening to the Bush Administration.

Second, critics with an anti-empire vision of the Middle East can capitalize on the failed war in Iraq as an example of the cost of empire in that region. They can use Iraq as an ideological domino. "You want more Iraqs? Just stay the Establishment's course." Putting this in one slogan: "Bring the troops home by Christmas." This will reinforce that other slogan: "Get the troops out by Ramadan."

Third, non-interventionists must produce comprehensive historical works that show that Iraq is merely a representative example of the American Empire in general. They must make it clear that it really is an empire, and that empires are not only doomed throughout history, they are doomed for a reason: they rest on coercion.

Step three will be very expensive. Were it not for the falling costs of communication, this program would not be plausible. It will not be easy. There is no non-interventionist equivalent of Ideals and Self-Interest in American Foreign Relations. That book must be written. It must show that George Washington's recommendation in his Farewell Address is the only viable solution, both ideally and pragmatically, to Dwight Eisenhower's warning in his Farewell Address.

I believe that book was already written in North's third point, and it was completed by Ivan Eland in "The Empire Has No Clothes: U.S. Foreign Policy Exposed". Indeed, Eland's case is that the United States of America began its empire with its capture of Cuba and the Phillipines just before the turn of the 20th century and the country has not abated since.

President Bush is only the latest to not understand this history. Invasion and conquest even for what on paper sounds like a lofty ideal only brings about wreckage for both actors. It seems that the comparison between Vietnam and Iraq circa 2003 were quite apt. No one understood though how fast the turn against the war would occur given the power of ideas and their rapid transmission via the web.

The soldiers and marines did the job that they were given quite well - invade a foreign country and defeat the defenses of that nation. They don't have a choice in the matter. The leaders of the U.S. over the past five years are the ones who failed their nation, and it will be pinned to their biographies the footnote, "they lost the war."