Archive for April 22nd, 2009

Safety uber alles.

April 22, 2009

So lately we’ve had various people — Dick Cheney, Marc Thiessen, and countless others in the conservative blogosphere — insisting that torture works.  (To be fair, in their terms, insisting that “enhanced interrogation techniques” work.)  That is, it benefits our efforts to gather information on terrorists — what their command structure is, where they are, what their plans are, etc.  This information, they say, has led directly to the prevention of attacks that would’ve killed large numbers of  Americans, and sometimes to the capture of those involved in planning those attacks.

To this point they’ve adduced zero evidence that that’s true; and given Mr. Cheney’s penchant for connecting unconnected dots and insisting that his creation is real, despite a total lack of supporting evidence and large amounts of evidence to the contrary (no, seriously, Saddam really was working with al-Qaeda), I can’t think of any reason he should be considered a credible source when he claims there is evidence that torture prevented attacks, if only we all had sufficient security clearance to see it.

Nonetheless, let’s stipulate that, like a stopped clock, he’s finally gotten one right.  Let’s say the Obama administration releases documents tomorrow that demonstrate a direct link from torture-gained intelligence to prevented attacks on Americans.

So what?

Lots of things would prevent attacks on Americans.  That doesn’t mean we should do them.

Irradiating the entire Middle East and requiring every US citizen to carry a Geiger counter at all times would prevent some attacks on Americans.  Repeatedly nuking the entire Middle East until every man, woman, and child was dead would prevent some attacks on Americans.  Tattooing a citizenship barcode on every man, woman, and child in North America and stationing armed guards with barcode scanners and full-body airport-style scanners at every corner, doorway, and transit point, with orders to scan every person who walks by and immediately chloroform any untattooed or suspicious person would prevent some attacks on Americans.

We don’t do any of that crap.  Why?  Because it costs too much.

It costs too much money and too much liberty and, in some cases (like nuclear multiple-genocide) too much moral principle.  And when I say it costs “too much,” I don’t, of course, mean it costs more than we could afford.  We have the means.  If we chose to devote a sufficient percentage of GDP to it, we could financially afford any of the above.  And we could, if we chose, give up enough personal liberty and moral principle to make it happen.

These things don’t cost more than we have; only more than we’re willing to pay.

Would they save American lives?  Absolutely.  The last technique would even prevent a huge amount of murder and all other forms of street crime.  If the criterion by which we’re judging is just saving American lives, let’s stop this penny-ante torture stuff and do something real.

So far as I know, not even the nuttiest nutbar on the rightiest blog is advocating we do those things, or anything like them.  But a frightening number of conservatives are advocating we torture people.

For the rest of us, that’s a price we’re not willing to pay.

There’s a useful illustration from the field of sociology of knowledge.  Johnny is misbehaving.  His mother snaps him to attention and says, “Johnny, we don’t do that.”  Our natural expectation is that Johnny’s response, if any, would be, “Why not?”  The more illuminating question, however, if Johnny thought to ask it, would be, “Who are ‘we’?”

That’s where we are right now on the torture issue.  Many on the right are asking, “Why not?”  Many on the left and a few on the right are asking, “Who are we?”  And the answer we’re coming up with is that we’re not the kind of people who torture.  The cost is too high.

Deep Stupid

April 22, 2009

The first in what will sadly be a long series of posts.

Today’s winner — and that’s saying something, because there was a lot of deep stupid today — is Marc Thiessen, attempting to defend the intelligence value of torture:

Specifically, interrogation with enhanced techniques “led to the discovery of a KSM plot, the ‘Second Wave,’ ‘to use East Asian operatives to crash a hijacked airliner into’ a building in Los Angeles.” KSM later acknowledged before a military commission at Guantanamo Bay that the target was the Library Tower, the tallest building on the West Coast. The memo explains that “information obtained from KSM also led to the capture of Riduan bin Isomuddin, better known as Hambali, and the discovery of the Guraba Cell, a 17-member Jemmah Islamiyah cell tasked with executing the ‘Second Wave.’ ” In other words, without enhanced interrogations, there could be a hole in the ground in Los Angeles to match the one in New York.

That paragraph is a mess, but the upshot seems to be: waterboarding Khalid Sheik Mohammed in 2003 prevented a terrorist attack on Los Angeles in 2002.

(Not strictly related to the deep stupid: I like the way he throws in that last line about a hole in the ground in L.A.  Reminds me of the good old days, when Condi was warning us of a mushroom cloud.)

People Move

April 22, 2009

While the story that Flint, Michigan, is considering bulldozing entire neighborhoods, blocking them off, and withdrawing city services from them is a sad and stark indicator of what’s happening in cities where the combination of the declining auto industry and the mortgage crisis are causing large population shifts, I’m not sure why Mary Kane thinks federal dollars would help avert it, or even why she thinks averting it is a good idea.

What interest does the federal government have in the city limits of Flint, Michigan?  What interest do we, as a society, have in keeping the residents of Flint, Michigan, living in Flint, Michigan, when their reason for being there is gone?

None, as far as I can tell.

We want people to move to other places as economic forces shift jobs from one location to another.  That’s how it’s supposed to work.  It’s long been one of the strengths of the American economy — we have a pretty mobile population.  Flint, Michigan, has been the beneficiary of that job-oriented mobility for the past . . . almost 100 years, I guess.  When Henry Ford created a booming auto industry in Detroit, people from all over the US — especially from the South, and especially African-Americans from the South — flocked to places like Detroit and Flint for the high-wage jobs.  As a result, Flint boomed and prospered.  The places those people left behind shrank.

As the American auto industry winds down, Flint and Detroit are going to shrink — both demographically and economically — while other cities will expand.  Neither the federal government nor the American taxpayer at-large has any vested interest in preventing that.

What we do have an interest in is: helping Flint shrink in a responsible, rational way, if help is needed; and helping the people displaced by macroeconomic shifts find suitable work elsewhere as quickly as possible, and helping tide them over while that happens.  It seems to me we’re already doing the latter (though perhaps more could be done), and Kane’s own reporting indicates Flint is doing a good job at managing its contraction.  (What would be worrisome would be reports that Flint was trying to keep all its neighborhoods intact even after the residents had left.)

I see no reason why we should be trying to prevent jobs — and the economic development that ensues — from leaving Flint and going elsewhere.  There are still lots of places in America that have never had the luck of a huge, high-wage industry landing in their lap and staying for a hundred years.  Maybe it’s their turn.