Archive for April, 2009

Deep Stupid

April 30, 2009

Today’s winner is former Reagan and Bush official, David Rivkin.  Rivkin argues that waterboarding, etc., cannot be torture because the detainees never feared imminent death.  How does Rivkin know this?  Well:

I’ve read lots of memoirs of people languishing in gulags … One thing that emerges very clearly is actually how, despite their horribly grim circumstances, the prisoners actually welcomed interrogations. As a way to break the oppressive monotony of the cell or working conditions. So they always welcome even the most sadistic and unpleasant interrogators. And to the extent that you’re worried about being shot eventually, during interrogations you’re not worried about that. We’re all fairly rational beings, isn’t that a rational point?

I’ve read probably a dozen memoirs, from Solzhenitsyn to [inaudible]. While they’re trying to elicit information out of you, while this is going on, they’re not going to take you out and put a bullet to your head. They’re at least going to keep you alive for the interrogation. It gives you a sense that for a while nothing ‘s going to happen to you … the way human beings perceive their odds of remaining alive, the way the anxiety level rises post-interrogation about their ultimate fate is certainly a probative factor that goes into your analysis of what is your mental pain and suffering, associated with interrogations.

It probably doesn’t occur to Rivkin that, by his definition:

  1. We tortured every single prisoner we didn’t interrogate on a regular basis, because they feared imminent death for years on end, without relent.
  2. We tortured every single prisoner we did interrogate on a regular basis, even by conventional means, because of the post-interrogation fear of death we induced by not actually, you know, killing them during the interrogation, when they were least expecting it.
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It’s the cans! He hates these cans!

April 30, 2009

How long before Pat Robertson or the like announces that swine flu is God’s punishment for electing a Fascist-Socialist-Marxist-Abortionist Negro?

The aforementioned Rep. Michele Bachmann sort of took a run at it already.  She didn’t invoke God, she just said she found it an interesting coincidence that our last bout with swine flu, 1976, also happened during a Democratic administration — Jimmy Carter’s.

As Keith Olbermann pointed out, Gerald Ford was still president in 1976.  But still.  She’s just sayin’.

The President on Torture

April 29, 2009

Just watched the president’s press conference.  (An unusual luxury for me, but I was off work today.)

I’m already seeing a fair bit of grumbling from the left about his answers to the torture questions.  I have to say I don’t get it.  He didn’t knock the ball out of the park, but he did hit a two-out triple.

First, he said unequivocally that waterboarding is torture.  That’s a word he had been studiously avoiding since becoming president.  POTUS using that word has potentially huge consequences.

Second, he pointed out that when you cut corners are something like torture, you “corrode the character of the country.”  That needed saying in a high-profile way.

Third, he pointed out that torture is something you don’t do even if it produces information.  If that makes you somewhat more vulnerable, you suck it up and get on with your own business; you don’t cut and run from your values.  The country must have the courage of its convictions, even when it’s difficult.

Brilliant, if you ask me.

Political Denominationalism

April 29, 2009

I’ve been thinking about this Arlen Specter business.  For the most part, I think it’s much ado about not much.  Specter has never been much of a senator.  If anything, his party switch is a lose-lose: GOP loses a seat, Dems lose a chance to run a liberal for that seat.  A win for the Dems would have been Specter’s retirement.

The only thing about it that actually interests me is the continued contraction of the Republican Party.

More and more, it looks to me like the GOP is now following the pattern we’ve seen over and over in the history of American Christianity: outbreaks of tremendous fervor, followed by shattering into several smaller groups.  It’s the story of American denominationalism.  As everyone becomes convinced of the Ultimate Importance of the basic subject and pores over it more and more minutely, they discover fissures in it, different groups privilege different pieces of the puzzle, each group declares its privileged piece to be of the Most Ultimate Importance, and what was a fairly unitary, diverse movement splits into a bunch of bickering, purified movements.

It looks to me like the GOP has hit its splitting/purifying moment.  The interesting thing to watch for is: will it follow through fully on the evangelical pattern and actually split into multiple parties, or will it follow a more typical pattern for our 2 major political parties, and find a way to reunite and expand?

Ordinarily, I’d just assume the latter.  But given the GOP’s wholesale embrace of evangelicalism over the past 40 years, and the extraordinary degree to which Republican identity has been melded with evangelical identity, I’m not so sure which pattern they’ll follow this time.

A Total Lack of Judgment

April 29, 2009

MSNBC made a big deal last night about NBC anchor Brian Williams breaking his rule against expressing opinions in order to vent his outrage at the Air Force One flyover of lower Manhattan.

I don’t watch Brian Williams, so I don’t know if he really does make a point of consistently refusing to express opinions.  Let’s assume he does.

The man evinces a total lack of judgment.

From 2003-2008, the president of the United States both claimed and exercised the authority to secretly imprison American citizens without charge or trial, forbid them access to an attorney, forbid them contact with their families, keep them indefinitely, and torture them.  Brian Williams didn’t think this was worth breaking his rule and expressing some outrage.

An airplane flies over lower Manhattan one afternoon, spooking locals, and Brian Williams flies into a righteous rage.

If the media want to know why people no longer watch their newscasts or buy the newspapers, they need look no further than this.  As journalists, they absolutely, positively suck.  They have lost all perspective on what’s an important, national story and what’s a small, local, but sensational one.

Should someone have told New Yorkers Air Force One would be flying low over Manhattan?  Yes.  Is the fact that they didn’t and it alarmed some local residents a national news story?  No, it plainly isn’t.  It has exactly zero effect on anybody outside New York City.  The event didn’t impact our lives, it has no ramifications beyond the specific time and place that it happened, and knowing about it doesn’t prepare us for anything or better inform us in any meaningful or relevant way.  Ladies and gentlemen of the press: outside New York, this is not news.  Not even remotely.

But NBC’s flagship news man not only considers it a vital national news story, he thinks it’s so important he’s willing to sacrifice his apparently much vaunted objectivity to express outrage about it.

When the president of the United States explicitly both claimed and exercised the authority to secretly imprison American citizens without charge or trial, forbid them access to an attorney, forbid them contact with their families, keep them indefinitely, and torture them, Brian Williams and Charles Gibson and Katie Couric barely reported it at all.

One of the seminal moments in the history of American journalism was when Walter Cronkite took a moment at the end of a newscast to express his personal opinion on something.  That something was the Vietnam War.

Another was when Edward R. Murrow decided to take a point of view on something.  That something was Senator Joseph McCarthy’s abuses of power.

Maybe Brian Williams expressing outrage about a plane flying over lower Manhattan one afternoon will become a seminal moment in the history of American journalism.  But if it does, it will be as exemplar, laid alongside his yawning at a president’s years-long claim to be utterly above the law, of why American journalism died.

Williams should send Michele Bachmann a thank you note.  Without her, he would be today’s Deep Stupid.

Deep Stupid

April 29, 2009

Today in Deep Stupid, we bring you Rep. Michele Bachmann (R-MN).  Admittedly, there’s a certain “fish in a barrel” quality to naming Rep. Bachmann the Deep Stupid winner, but when the fish shoots itself, you might as well roll it in cornmeal and toss it in the fryer.

In a floor speech about how Obama’s economic policies are causing a second Great Depression, Bachmann praised the policies of Pres. Calvin Coolidge and contrasted them with FDR’s approach:

FDR applied just the opposite formula–the Hoot-Smawley Act, which was a tremendous burden on tariff restrictions, and then, of course, trade barriers and the regulatory burden and tax barriers. That’s what we saw happen under FDR. That took a recession and blew it into a full-scale depression.

Deep Stupid doesn’t concern itself with the fact that she called the Smoot-Hawley Act the “Hoot-Smawley Act,” giggle-inducing though it is.  No, the reason Rep. Bachmann’s statement qualifies as Deep Stupid is this:

  1. The Smoot-Hawley Act became law in June of 1930, two and a half years before FDR took office.
  2. The Smoot-Hawley Act that became law two and a half years before FDR took office was itself a[n ill-advised] reaction to the Great Depression, which began in 1929, four years before FDR took office.

That’s right, boys and girls, once more we have a prominent Republican positing the existence of a time machine.  This time positing it twice over: FDR caused “Hoot-Smawley,” and FDR caused the Great Depression.

Adding to the fun is the fact that the “Hoot-Smawley” tariff was a 100% Republican policy, written by Republican senators “Hoot” and “Smawley,” and signed into law by Republican Pres. Hoobert Herver.

Like I was saying…

April 28, 2009

Apropos of two of my recent posts, a new Gallup poll finds 51% of Americans want the torture of detainees investigated, and 55% of Americans approve of the torture they’ve heard about so far.

So, like I was saying:

  1. The people who did it and now are trying to evade responsibility for it really don’t have much to fear from the American people knowing what they did.
  2. Investigating, even prosecuting, these people would not re-establish the rule of law in this country.

Bravery and Cowardice

April 27, 2009

Josh Marshall does an excellent job of concisely stating something I’ve been thinking for a long time, but couldn’t quite get into words:

Being bold means taking responsibility for being bold. As I’ve argued before, I think the answer to the ticking time bomb rationale for torture is this: that in the extremely unlikely circumstance that government officials ever found themselves in that position of having a ticking time bomb ticking away, they might have to make the decision to break the law. Not fudge it or keep their actions hidden, but take the decision on their own responsibility that it was the best thing to do in the situation — despite it being wrong as a general matter — and then bring their decision to attention of the people and law enforcement authorities and throw themselves on the mercy of the public.

In any case, if your patriotism is such that in an extreme situation you’d risk your own liberty to defend the lives of Americans, that’s courage.

A soldier or CIA agent who finds himself in a stark, apparently doomsday scenario, and makes the decision to do what looks for all the world like the thing that needs to be done, even though he knows it is illegal, has done a truly brave thing.  He has put his own liberty and reputation at risk for his country.

If that soldier or agent then tries to hide what he did, he’s taken a bit of the shine off his bravery.

If he lies to cover it up, he tarnishes it.

If he breaks the law to cover it up, he spoils it entirely.

If he turns the law on its head by insisting that what he did was never illegal, he has done a cowardly thing.

If he turns the very principles of the Constitution on their head by insisting that the American people have no right even to know what he did or review its legality or make a decision on whether or not to hold him accountable for it given his circumstances, he is a coward.

Rather than sacrifice himself for his country, he has sacrificed his country for himself.

It Cuts Both Ways

April 26, 2009

One of the problems with torture as an intelligence technique is that a tortured person will tell you whatever you want to hear.  Torture advocates are, in that sense, curiously credulous; downright naive.

Credulity cuts both ways, though.  So when “Matthew Alexander” (not his real name) says:

As a senior interrogator in Iraq, I conducted more than three hundred interrogations and monitored more than one thousand. I heard numerous foreign fighters state that the reason they came to Iraq to fight was because of the torture and abuse at Abu Ghraib and Guantánamo Bay.

it would help if he’d show the appropriate skepticism.  Of course they say they became terrorists because of Gitmo or Abu Ghraib.  Let’s not be naive about the interests and incentives at play for them.

I’m not saying it’s not true that Gitmo and Abu Ghraib are top recruiting tools for our enemies; even torture advocates admit it’s true.  I’m just saying if you want to make an effective argument against torture, you can’t just say, “Hey, I’ve talked to a lot of terrorists and, gee, a lot of them say they were nice guys until they saw those Abu Ghraib photos.”

Alexander is a skilled, experienced interrogator.  Presumably, when he reports that’s what detainees told him, he means they said it in the context of a wide-ranging, skillful interrogation, and in his judgment as a professional interrogator, many of them weren’t lying — or weren’t entirely lying.

If torture opponents don’t want to be vulnerable to accusations of naivete and being “soft,” though, it would help if he’d make that a bit more explicit, rather than leaving it sounding like he took what they said as prima facie true.  As it is, he just makes himself easy to lampoon.

h/t Sullivan

On the Other Hand

April 25, 2009

What good would it do to prosecute people for torture?

People like me favor it because we think it’s essential for the restoration of the rule of law.

But let’s say people are investigated, indicted, and even convicted of torture.  So what?  They will still be heroes to conservatives, and martyrs, besides.  The next Republican president will pardon them on the very first day of his (or Sarah’s) administration.  And on the second day, s/he will put some of them right back into government offices.

Am I just being pessimistic?  No.  Movement conservatism has a long track record on this.  This is what they do with their felons and shady characters.  See: Liddy, Gordon; Colson, Charles; North, Oliver; Libby, Scooter; Abrams, Elliot; Poindexter, John; Negroponte, John.  All of them used their government offices to break the law, but all of them did it in pursuit of conservative goals, so all is forgiven.  Liddy, Colson, and North are all heroes; Libby is a martyr, but he’ll become a full-fledged hero if he chooses to be.  Abrams, Poindexter, and Negroponte were put right back into office.  Abrams and Negroponte twice each.  (The Bush family just can’t quit them.)

Just as conservatism can never fail, only be failed, there is no such thing as a crime committed in pursuit of conservatism, only crimes committed in violation of it.

Conservative = right.  Right = legal.  Therefore, conservative = legal.

It doesn’t matter what the statutes say and you don’t need no steenking court ruling.  You just need the raw power to do it.  Legislatures and judges are irrelevant because laws are irrelevant.  Aside from a quadrennial “accountability moment,” democratic processes, votes, and voters are irrelevant.  There is only what’s right and the power to do it.

What’s conservative is what’s right.  Just do it.

As long as 30% of the American public and one of our 2 major political parties think that way, we don’t have the rule of law, regardless of what Obama does in this or any other case; we only have accountability moments.  The rule of law doesn’t work that way: if it doesn’t apply at all times and to all persons, it doesn’t exist at all.

So maybe Obama is smart not to invest his energy and political capital in temporarily restoring an illusion. A Bush insider famously bragged that they didn’t acknowledge the facts, they made the facts.  Maybe the thing for Obama to do, then,  is make as many progressive facts as possible, by any means possible, for as long as he can hang onto power.   There is no law, there is only power.  Use it while you’ve got it.

That’s the “on the other hand” to my argument for holding these people accountable under the law.  God bless America.

(Oh, and let me go ahead and make this prediction: if the GOP regains control of the House during his administration, Obama will be impeached.  Not convicted, but he will be impeached.)