This is not a hard question!

I reject the entire premise of today's Times story:

Last week’s release of long-secret Justice Department interrogation
memorandums has given rise to starkly opposing narratives about what,
if anything, was gained by the C.I.A.’s use of waterboarding, wall-slamming and other physical pressure to shock and intimidate Qaeda operatives.

Senior Bush administration officials, led by Vice President Dick Cheney
and cheered by many Congressional Republicans, are fighting a
rear-guard action in defense of their record. Only by using the
harshest methods, they insist, did the intelligence agency get the
information it needed to round up Qaeda killers and save thousands of
American lives…

By contrast, Mr. Obama and most of his top aides have argued that the
use of those methods betrayed American values — and anyway, produced
unreliable information. Those are a convenient pair of opinions, of
course: the moral balancing would be far trickier if the C.I.A. methods
were demonstrated to have been crucial in disrupting major plots.

Damn it, we could always keep the country safer from external threats if we chose to live in a militarized state that nullified individual liberties.  The point is that is inimical to the values of democracy.  Could we have way less crime if police did not have to respect the Bill of Rights, especially the 4th amendment?  Of course!  But that's not the country we want to live in.  You don't see a lot of people moving to China so that they can be safer from crime by sacrificing essential liberties.  Thus, even if the torture did make us safer, that is simply not a justification in a democracy.  A hugely ignored point in almost all these "analyses" as well, is the fact that just because torture produced certain actual intelligence is no proof at all that morally appropriate interrogation methods would not have produced the same good intelligence without bringing all the false information that is part and parcel with torture.  It is a well-known fact that torture victims tell their torturers whatever they think will make the torture stop, whether true or not. 

Now, as for why we don't torture in a democracy, Andrew Sullivan had a brilliant post on this recently.  Please read the whole thing.  Nonetheless, my favorite part (actually, most of the post):

The assertion of total power through unchecked violence – outside
the Constitution, beyond the reach of the law (apart from legal memos
from hired hacks instructed to retroactively redefine torture into
'legality') – will be seen in retrospect as the key defining theory of
Bush conservatism. It ended with torture. Why? Because reality may
differ from ideology; and when it does, it is vital to create reality to support ideology. And so torture creates reality by coercing "facts" from broken bodies and minds.

This
is how torture is always a fantastic temptation for those in power,
even if they first use it out of what they think is necessity or good
intentions: it provides a way for them to coerce reality into
the shape they desire. This is also why it is so uniquely dangerous.
Because it creates a closed circle of untruth, which is then used to
justify more torture, which generates more "truth." This is the Imaginationland some of us have been so concerned about.

The Western anathema on torture began as a way to ensure the survival of truth.

And that is the root of the West's entire legal and constitutional
system. Remove a secure way to discover the truth – or create a system
that can manufacture it or render it indistinguishable from lies – and
the entire system unravels. That's why in the West suspects are
innocent before being found guilty; and that's why in the West even
those captured in wartime have long been accorded protection from
forced confessions. Because it creates a world where truth is always
the last priority and power is always the first.

This is not a policy difference. It is a foundational element of Western civilization.

As long as Republicans continue to defend torture they shame themselves and place themselves on the wrong side of history.

 

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Lessons learned while cleaning out my mom’s attic

During my kids' pre-Easter spring break, I spent the better part of a couple of days placing the contents of my mom's attic in a 15 cubic yard dumpster (11 x 8 x 6).  I came to a number of conclusions sweating up their in the attic going through boxes of mildewy, insect-ridden junk.  To wit:

1) Do not put books in the attic.  Either leave them on shelves or give them away to someone who will appreciate them.  It is not pretty what happens to books after decades in an attic.

2) Don't save bunches of copies of things when a single copy will do.  I could have done without throwing away an entire box of pamphlets promoting my dad's failed real estate venture (good plan, bad economic timing).  A couple make a nice souvenir, a thousand make a pain in the ass (actually, the back).

3) Do not save children's clothes in the attic for some indefinite future.  Short-term this works fine, as we have done it with out own kids clothes, but long-term, bad idea.  Even if they are put away properly and preserved (unlike the clothes that had clearly been home to a family of mice), they will likely be hopelessly out of style.  

4) Save things with a genuine personal relevance.  The aerospace memos that my dad wrote in the 1960's about how to program a satellite to orbit earth– very cool.  Aerospace memos by people not my dad– heavy.

5) If you think you might want to see it again some day and it exists in libraries, don't put it in the attic.  I'm sure the old editions of Sky & Telescope magazines and Aerospace journals that my dad kept can still be found archived in places other than my mom's attic, with the added advantage of not being literally rotting away.  

6) Save letters.  Most all the coolest finds were letters (even cooler than the $2000 in cash, but that wasn't in the attic anyway).  Especially as more and more of our correspondence disappears forever into the on-line aether, letters take on added importance.  Finding the box of love letters my mom wrote to my dad was pretty amazing.

7) Not all letters are created equal.  Letters tell you all about the writer, little about the recipient.  The letters from my mom to my dad gave me a wonderful portrait of the 22-year old Hilde Kopf.  The letters from my dad's girlfriends before my mom told me a lot about a sweet 18-year girl from Lynchburg named Gayle.  Not much better than reading anybody's random letters from the 1950's, though.  Into the dumpster.  Likewise, cards– into the dumpster.  What Hallmark had to say about a baby being born in 1961 was just not that interesting.  

8) Don't save the college notebooks.  You'll never use them again and they really aren't that interesting.  Basically, the transcription of what some long-gone professor said.  Papers– maybe.  I ended up tossing all my own notebooks into the dumpster, but a number of those papers said pretty interesting things about who I was from the ages of 18-22.

9) Which leads me to my final conclusion on the matter.  I emptied out the attic before going through all my own old personal belongings in my bedroom.  Definitely the right order.  I simply asked myself, "would the boys think it was pretty cool finding this 40 years from now or be cursing me for making them carry it out of an attic?"  That proved to be a good decision rule and helped me get rid of a lot of stuff.

10) And lastly, get your parents to clean out their attic while they are still alive!

Giving the torturers a pass

Andrew Sullivan nicely explains that not only is it morally wrong for President Obama to give Bush administration torturers a pass, it is actually legally wrong:

Now fast-forward to February 2007 when the International Committee
of the Red Cross notifies the president of the United States that it
believes that his administration has engaged in what was unequivocally
torture of prisoners. At that point, the president is required, by law and by treaty,
to open an investigation and prosecution of the guilty parties. The
president failed to do that, another breach of the law. Moreover, any
president privy to that information is required to initiate an
investigation and prosecution – or violate the law and the Geneva
Conventions.

And so Obama's refusal to investigate war crimes is
itself against the law. And so torture's cancerous route through the
legal and constitutional system continues, contaminating the future as
well as the past, rendering the US incapable of upholding Geneva
against other nations, because it has violated Geneva itself, and
giving to every tyrant on the planet a justification for the torture of
prisoners.

In this scenario, America becomes a city on a hill,
where the rule of law is optional and torture acceptable if parsed into
legal memos that do not pass the most basic professional sniff-test.

Glenn Greenwald adds:

Needless to say, I vehemently disagree with anyone — including Obama
— who believes that prosecutions are unwarranted.  These memos
describe grotesque war crimes — legalized by classic banality-of-evil
criminals and ordered by pure criminals — that must be prosecuted if
the rule of law is to have any meaning.  But the decision of whether to
prosecute is not Obama's to make; ultimately, it is Holder's and/or a
Special Prosecutor's.  More importantly, Obama can only do so much by
himself.  The Obama administration should, on its own, initiate
criminal proceedings, but the citizenry also has responsibilities
here.  These acts were carried out by our Government, and if we are
really as repulsed by them as we claim, then the burden is on us to
demand that something be done. 

Obama failing to see to the prosecution of Bush officials for these heinous acts is clearly not as wrong as the actions of the Bush officials, but it nonetheless diminishes the rule of law, which is never a good thing.

Impeach Jay Bybee

So, I was just about to write a post linking to the Slate article making the argument in the title.  The fact that Bybee, the author of morally and legally odious torture memos is serving as a federal appeals court judge is a national disgrace.  Now, I see that the NY Times in on the case on the editorial page.  Maybe something will actually happen (I doubt it, but I'd love it).  From the Times:

To read the four newly released memos on prisoner interrogation written by George W. Bush’s Justice Department is to take a journey into depravity.

Their language is the precise bureaucratese favored by dungeon
masters throughout history. They detail how to fashion a collar for
slamming a prisoner against a wall, exactly how many days he can be
kept without sleep (11), and what, specifically, he should be told
before being locked in a box with an insect — all to stop just short of
having a jury decide that these acts violate the laws against torture
and abusive treatment of prisoners.

In one of the more nauseating
passages, Jay Bybee, then an assistant attorney general and now a
federal judge, wrote admiringly about a contraption for waterboarding
that would lurch a prisoner upright if he stopped breathing while water
was poured over his face. He praised the Central Intelligence Agency
for having doctors ready to perform an emergency tracheotomy if
necessary.

These memos are not an honest attempt to set the legal
limits on interrogations, which was the authors’ statutory obligation.
They were written to provide legal immunity for acts that are clearly
illegal, immoral and a violation of this country’s most basic values…

After all, as far as Mr. Bush’s lawyers were concerned, it was not
really torture unless it involved breaking bones, burning flesh or
pulling teeth. That, Mr. Bybee kept noting, was what the Libyan secret
police did to one prisoner. The standard for American behavior should
be a lot higher than that of the Libyan secret police…

At least Mr. Obama is not following Mr. Bush’s example of showy
trials for the small fry — like Lynndie England of Abu Ghraib
notoriety. But he has an obligation to pursue what is clear evidence of
a government policy sanctioning the torture and abuse of prisoners — in
violation of international law and the Constitution.

That
investigation should start with the lawyers who wrote these sickening
memos, including John Yoo, who now teaches law in California; Steven
Bradbury, who was job-hunting when we last heard; and Mr. Bybee, who
holds the lifetime seat on the federal appeals court that Mr. Bush
rewarded him with.

These memos make it clear that Mr. Bybee is
unfit for a job that requires legal judgment and a respect for the
Constitution. Congress should impeach him.

The whole editorial is great and makes a much stronger case against Bybee and his fellow war criminals than any legal case for torture Bybee ever made.  

 

Ending Piracy: the Yglesias Plan

I have to say, this proposal for dealing with Somali piracy from Matt Yglesias makes a lot of sense to me:

A different idea would be to go “Anbar Awakening” on the whole
situation. Suppose there were a group of armed Somali possessing
maritime skills and a spirit of derring-do. The international community
could find leaders of these Somalis and provide funds to assist them in
their brave effort to battle the pirates who’ve been plaguing their
community. It’s true that to some this would look like paying
protection money to extortionists. But if you call the protection money
“aid” and call the pirates you’re paying off “former pirates” and call
the process by which the pirates you’re paying try to kill their rivals
“anti-piracy operations” then I think it looks perfectly legitimate to
recruit some former pirates to conduct anti-piracy operations that are
financed by international aid.

This is a less morally tidy approach, but it’d almost certainly be
cheaper. You could call ‘em the Somalia Coast Guard, reach an agreement
with them about fishing rights and so forth, and they’d be national
heroes.

My guess is that pretty much every plan I've heard for solving piracy, it's got significant flaws, but I've yet to hear anything more likely to succeed.

 

 

 

Columbine

I've just been reading The Hour I First Believed by Wally Lamb, which draws out the cycle of destruction in one family that starts with Columbine.  I'm looking forward to reading Dave Cullen's new book on Columbine– he's got some interesting articles and excerpts up on Slate.  These four lessons of Columbine are quite intriguing.  This one struck me:

This leads us to the second, and perhaps most important, lesson
learned from Columbine: what the FBI calls "leakage." Gunfire in the
classroom is the final stage of a long-simmering attack. The Secret
Service found that 81 percent of shooters had explicitly revealed their
intentions. Most told two people. Some told more. Kids are bad at
secrets. The grander the plot, the more likely to sprout leaks.

The
dramatic change post-Columbine is now we believe the leaks. Many
potentially deadly plots have been foiled since Columbine because of
leakage. In 2001, a pair of Colorado middle-schoolers procured a
Columbine-like arsenal: TEC-9, shotgun, rifles, and propane bombs. They
recruited gunmen to cover more exits. One of them told at least seven
people that he planned to "redo Columbine." He bragged to four girls
that they would be the first to die. The girls went straight to the
police. Since Columbine, kids take threats seriously.

We have
taken the principle of leakage to excess. The belief that any unkind
word may signal mortal danger caused school districts to impose
zero-tolerance policies. All threats, physical and verbal, are taken
seriously and treated severely.

The taking seriously part is
fine. We do need to investigate every "joke," just in case. But we also
need to respond reasonably. We should not execute a search warrant
every time a little kid points his finger and goes, "Bang." And while
the teenager who says he's going to blow up his school should have his house searched, if the search turns up empty—no explosives, no ingredients, no Anarchist Cookbook,
no diagrams, and no manifesto—the worst thing administrators can do is
expel him. If we want our kids safe, we need to resist the urge to make
an example of someone who spoke stupidly but had no plan. Punishing him
harshly sets exactly the wrong example to the crucial audience: friends
of the next "joker." That's because kids remain the best early warning
system. We're counting on kids to turn in a friend, even when they're
sure he's innocent, just to be safe. They need to know that if they
report a "joke" and it turns out to be a joke, there are no
consequences except brief embarrassment. If they're wrong and it's not
a joke, they'll save lives. We need to convince them to let adults make
that determination. We can only do that by giving the jokester a pass
if it's just a joke.

Great point.  As I've written before: zero tolerance = zero intelligence.  When elementary school kids get in trouble for using any pretend weapon at recess (okay, I get the gun, but light sabers?!  Give me a break), things have gone too far.

 

 

Torture memos

The Obama administration released the Bush torture memos and they are exactly as morally repugnant as you might expect.  The moral failing and moral grotesqueness of the Bush administration is disgusting and pathetic.  As always, nobody covers this stuff better than Salon's Glenn Greenwald:

The ACLU has all four memos here.  This 46-page May 10, 2005 memo
(.pdf) from OLC Chief Steven Bradbury authorizes (under Constitutional
and international law) all of these tactics for any "high-value
detainees": nudity, "dietary manipulation" involving "minimum caloric
intake at commerical weight-loss programs," "corrective techniques"
(facial and abdominal slapping), water dousing, "walling," stress
positions and "wall standing" (to "induce muscle fatigue and the
attendent discomfort"), cramped confinement, and sleep deprivation.  It
also authorized "no more than two sessions" of waterboarding in "any
24-hour period."…

They explicitly recognized that the techniques they were authorizing
were ones that we condemned other countries for using — including as
"torture" — but nonetheless approved them, explicitly saying that the standards we impose on others do not bind us in any way:

I love this little bit of analysis from David Corn:

The memo did note that "the use of the waterboard constitutes a threat
of imminent death." But the OLC asserted that for this threat to be
equated with "severe mental pain or suffering" it must be
"prolonged"–meaning "lasting months or years." In other words, a
physical act producing that was like suffocation that could be
perceived as a "threat of imminent death" would not constitute
"torture."

The legal reasoning behind all this is so patently and facially absurd that it seems there should be a strong case for prosecuting the government lawyers who wrote these memos.  And on that note, Andrew Sullivan:

That's why the internal OPR report on the legal professionalism of
the torture lawyers is so crucial and why it is being fought over so
fiercely. If Yoo and Bybee's memos were so below legal standards that
they can be objectively shown to be a means to get away with torture
rather than good faith effort to apply the law to proposed torture
techniques, then they too acted in bad faith. And they too are war
criminals.

I do not believe that the focus should be on CIA
staffers. I never have. These war crimes should be traced directly to
those responsible: the men who made the decision to deploy torture as a
routine part of American government, and to turn America into an
international symbol that democracies, as well as autocracies and
dictatorships, can allow torture to be integrated into their identity
and legal system. This Bush and Cheney did. It affected America, but
one suspects that the period in which America told the world that
torture was fine, and even moral, will have consequences far and wide
for a long time to come.

Kevin Drum posted a visual excerpt (which I don't feel like copying) which concludes that this stuff is not really torture because, we're only doing what's necessary to get information from terrorists.   I'm not sure you can get more logically facile.  I'm sure Saddam Hussein thought he had good reasons for torturing his political enemies and I'm sure that's what they think in Iran's prisons, too.

Let's go back to Andrew Sullivan for the final word on this:

I do not believe that any American president has ever orchestrated,
constructed or so closely monitored the torture of other human beings
the way George W. Bush did. It is clear that it is pre-meditated; and
it is clear that the parsing of torture techniques that you read in the
report is a simply disgusting and repellent piece of dishonesty and bad
faith… Human beings were contorted into classic
stress positions used by the Gestapo; they had towels tied around their
necks in order to smash their bodies against walls; they were denied of
all sleep for up to eleven days and nights at a time; they were stuck
in tiny suffocating boxes; they were waterboarded just as the victims
of the Khmer Rouge were waterboarded. And through all this, Bush and
Cheney had lawyers prepared to write elaborate memos saying that all of
this was legal, constitutional, moral and not severe pain and
suffering.

Bybee is not representing justice in this memo. He
is representing the president. And the president is seeking to commit
war crimes. And he succeeded. This much we now know beyond any
reasonable doubt. It is a very dark day for this country, but less dark
than every day since Cheney decided to turn the US into a torturing
country until now.

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