Friday, January 17, 2003

it is the nature of violating civil rights itself that is wrong, without regard to whose rights are being violated, and for what reason

a memory i have from november 2002

acquiantance: so what are you doing here?
me: i'm handing out this flier so people can get information and possibly do something about stopping torture.
acquaintance: you're really not saying anything, you know. of course everyone's against torture. that's like saying killing puppies is bad.
me: so you're against torture?
acquaintance: of course.
me: so are you worried about the actions of our government in fighting terrorism, specifically guantanamo and the possibility of extraditing people to other nations in which they could be tortured?
acquaintance: well that's different.

this week, the lead story in The Economist: Is torture ever justified? the special report articles focus on the possibility of the U.S. using torture in the war against terrorism. they argue a very tentative case that you can't use torture because to employ torture is to destroy international credibility. they take note that there may be times when torture seems justifiable, and mention alan dershowitz's argument that courts issue "torture warrants."

i will refrain from simply screaming, HAVE YOU ALL GONE MAD PEOPLE and heading off to have a drink

i should say that i firmly believe that part of the reason why the question of whether torture is justified can even be posed is based absolutely fundamentally in a human inability to truly empathize. to truly put yourself in another person's shoes. to argue that torture is sometimes justifiable is to do so with the idea in your head that you, of course, would never do anything to have someone make this case against you. you, of course, as the beacon of truth and principles that you are, would never find yourself in such a situation. or you, of course, just go about your daily life, buying bread and going to work and paying taxes like a good citizen. and you, of course, are not a terrorist.

besides, you live in america. your government can't legally wiretap your phone, read your email, and watch you. your government would never do anything so violating as that, and it would certainly never elevate things to the next level by taking you into a senate hearing and questioning you about your political beliefs or destroying your career because of them. no, our government would NEVER do those things. (at this point, i hope you are aware that this is sarcasm. first of all, our government can legally wiretap your phone, read your email, and engage in any surveillance they see fit as passed in the USA PATRIOT Act. second, our government has elevated things to the next level in the past during mccarthyism, and not to mention, the dealings of tricky dick's men against any remotely threatening democratic opponents. see: the campaign of muskie in tn for more information. our government is no saint.)

there is a very serious linkage between the general disrespecting of civil rights and the usage of torture. the basis of both is degrading people by making them into "the other" and justifying whatever it is you "need" to do as a result of this demarcation. there is a great emphasis on "NEED." what we absolutely NEED to do in order to stay safe.

it amazes me that dershowitz, of all people, would suggest that courts issue "torture warrants," seemingly subscribing to the idea that we NEED to do it sometimes. this is a man who has spent his life fighting the death penalty in courts, often citing how racism plays a serious role in deciding the executorial punishment. does he seriously think that the issuing of "torture warrants" would be a process untouched by racism? or is it different, because this is racism that would most likely only affect middle easterners, arab-americans, perhaps just immigrants, not blacks?

at this point, when i am ranting aloud, i have thrown back at me: "so, WHAT, you support the rights of TERRORISTS? what about OUR RIGHT to LIVE?"

you know, when the federal building in oklahoma city was bombed, there was a trial. we arrested the suspects and had to prove in a court of law that these people were, in fact, the terrorists. in my opinion, this is the only principled way of being able to clearly and definitively label a someone a "terrorist." otherwise, how exactly do you know that the person is a terrorist? because they act sketchy? because they are uncooperative? because they happen to be from yemen? because they didn't renew their student visa on time? BECAUSE WHAT. i encourage people who argue that torture is justified admit what they are truly endorsing. they are endorsing using a form of violence against SUSPECTS in order to "get information." unless, of course, the torturing comes after a court trial.

how did you decide they were terrorists again?
what if they were white guys?
how come tim mcveigh wasn't in front of a military tribunal?
why is this different?

fundamental inability to put ourselves' in other peoples' shoes.

well i think the case there is pretty clear. but what if the guy is pretty obviously a terrorist? say you arrest a fellow with a bunch of dynamite on his back, about to walk into a 7-11 in Anyville, USA, with a lit match. now if he's white, the cops will assume he's just an isolated militia whackjob. if he's middle eastern, he's part of a cell. and if he's part of a cell, he might know the names of other people in that cell. he might even know about OTHER CELLS! there is a general threat, as usual, that the federal government has issued about terrorist attacks. should the authorities torture this guy to see what he knows?

now let's be clear. there are very few proponents of racking the man, pulling out his fingernails, or gauging out his eyes. but as quoted in The Economist, there are definitely people about who think that perhaps "stress-and-duress" techniques are okay. you know, tamer forms of torture. sleep deprivation, hooding, being held in awkward positions, denying painkillers for injuries. you know, maybe sometimes you beat them a bit. in fact, there are officials, as reported about in the Washington Post in late December, who say that the u.s. government is already doing these things.

the urge to do violence often comes as a result of fear. hate can often also be traced to fear.

do we really want to be That Guy? do we want to be a society that employs tactics outlawed time and time again by international treaties and by our own laws, because we are afraid? even if we are afraid for a very good reason? do we want to shame ourselves and sully our reputation by torturing people? and don't mistake it: read _unspeakable acts, ordinary people_ by john conroy to find out about modern lives of the alleged IRA men subjected to sleep deprivation and "position-holding" by british intelligence in 1971. just a little "stress-and-duress." nothing too damaging...nothing that wouldn't allow the authorities to have trouble sleeping at night...

our authorities involved are already having trouble sleeping at night. otherwise, they wouldn't be speaking to post reporters and essentially asking the american people if they are upset by what is going on.

think carefully. if you keep me standing up against a wall for six days and beat me if i try to sit down or if i fall down, don't let me sleep, hose me down with freezing water, have a hood over my head, don't feed me: yep, i'll probably talk. hell, i'll tell you my name is michael bolton if it's what you want to hear. anything---just to make you stop. there are cases in which torture victims have in fact disavowed their own name. no, no, i'm actually someone else. just to make the pain stop. clearly, this is a reliable system for garnering evidence. one in which a person will say absolutely anything. our society throws out confessions made under duress. how is this different again?

our country is better than this. we're smarter than this. we should know that unless we act differently, our time will be no different than that of all people who ever lived. that our united states will not be an eternal, lasting good unless we rectify mistakes of the past and stop making them---until we actually subscribe to our constitution. we have to actually believe and act in accordance with the idea that all men are created equal. it's really this simple: if you wouldn't want a loved one tortured, then you can't support torture. because it is the nature of violating civil rights itself that is wrong, without regard to whose rights are being violated, and for what reason.

Monday, January 13, 2003


The forth estate, right now, is pitiful. The mainstream media is not doing its job of 1) accurately reporting the news 2) giving serious, reasoned, critical analysis of policy. Every policy decision is swept under the proverbial carpet, the media quickly moving onto the next big thing without engaging with the ramifications of policies. As a result, the American public is often not given the information they truly need to be active citizens. Instead, we get programs like CNN's TalkBackLive simply regurgitating things that most people already know, or talking heads arguing only the obvious perspectives. The media should be pointing out things we don't know already, not simply reiterating things like "there are people who hate America." Americans need a media that challenges us and our system, that makes us form intelligent opinions and perhaps change for the better. It is vital to the functioning of our government, as pointed out by Thomas Jefferson.

At the risk of sounding too optimistic a la Tom Friedman in his book _The Lexus and the Olive Tree_, I argue that the internet can help change the nature of reporting today's news. This isn't exactly a green idea, but I further categorize my comment by saying that blogging, specifically, can accomplish this, due to the relative simplicity of participation. By sheer virtue of competition, news programs are going to have to keep up with the intellectual trend of the amateur political columnists that are bloggers. In a January 5, 2003, post, Jane Galt stated:
"Blogs just made the mainstream -- I just saw Michael Barone mention Andrew Sullivan, Josh
Marshall, and Instapundit on the McLaughlin Group."
One comment made on Galt's site after this post pointed out that blogs were referred to in an article in a December 2002 issue of The Economist. Such mass media citations of blogging and bloggers points to a new confluence arising, and I personally think that the mainstream news outfits will be all the better for it.

More interesting is the fact that bloggers and their sites become popular through word of mouth, and not usually through commercial advertising. Tip cups on sites that allow readers to personally donate some money to the blogger bring power back to the people themselves in a way that the major news networks would find impossible to duplicate. Ordinary people control what gets read and discussed. In terms of discussing ideas in our society, this is a huge leap forward.

and in a related story, we here at would like to use this time to congratulate our fellow blogger johnny bardine on the impressive accomplishment that is having one of his writings argued on the site of mr. matthew yglesias. for those readers who may not be cognisant of the trend that is political blogging, suffice to say that mr. bardine, even if only cited to be argued with, has now reached the olympic-tryout stage of blogging. congratulations again sir, and i will buy you a beer next weekend.

let's talk about what transpired while kara and i were innocently eating lunch at a local friendly's yesterday. this family, consisting of mom, dad and a little girl of about six or seven, sits down at a table adjacent to us and within ten minutes there is a virtual eruption of emotion and raised voices. turns out the father is on a hunger strike against the impending war in iraq, and the mother is not very pleased about this turn of events. she is leaning over to the little girl and telling her that they can't eat because the man is stupid. the strangest thing about this was that it seemed that he wasn't telling them not to eat, just not eating himself, so her anger seemed slightly out-of-place. we're talking middle class in appearance, pretty normal people. and kara and i are leaning over our food, overhearing this tumult, and suddenly i am leaning, my palm on my forehead, and i wonder aloud: "if we're just sitting in a friendly's, and this is just a middle class family, does this mean this war could be as divisive as vietnam was?" kara and i finish our sandwiches and sundaes in relative deference to the serious issues that have now been raised. she says, "does this mean bush is a homewrecker?" we debate whether we can/should say something to this table. kara is brave enough to do it, while i run away. as she talks to the man about how we're against the war too (wife sulking of course), i'm standing by the ice cream cake freezer where the little girl happens to be.

me: hi, how are you? what did you order for food?
little girl: i got a cheeseburger and french fries.
me: yah? are you looking forward to it? are you hungry?
little girl: yah but i already ate my ice cream so i'm not that hungry.
me: you ate your ice cream before your meal?! how's that work?
little girl (looks at me): well, dan [or dad, i couldn't hear properly] is stupid and so we can't eat here and i'm bringing my cheeseburger home.

and then we looked for different kinds of patterns on the top of the ice cream cakes, and i felt it all rise within me. it's one thing to just be able to look at this as how messed up this family is and consider that as a horror. at one point, though, the mother said to the father, "What are you even doing?? It's not like anything YOU do is going to stop the war." and it is here where my political mind gravitates to, considering all the dynamics of that statement.

it is in dismay that i find myself agreeing with her on that point. this administration decided a long time ago to go to war with iraq, independent of the opinions of the rest of the world or of its own people, and there is little we can do to stop it, if anything at all. the best we can do is vote the putzes out of office two years from now. but that's far away, and i don't believe that the majority of the american public wants this war. i don't feel these politicians are representing me. i can't believe that going after saddam hussein is really the best thing to do right now to protect the lives of americans. so i write the letter to my representatives, and i call and talk to a staffer, and i call the white house comment line and learn that democracy functions only from 9-5 on monday through friday. but this doesn't change anything, this doesn't make chuck schumer change his mind. it definitely doesn't keep the ships of soldiers in the harbor at norfolk.

so what are you going to do? are you going to go "protest"? are you going to go join the legions of people who spend their saturdays chanting and clapping and yelling and listening to speeches given by people who are often too radical in the message? these people, at least half of whom don't even fully understand what they're protesting? these people, who protest everything and nothing at the same time?

no, you're not. you're going to write for your blog, read about watergate, apply to more jobs and graduate schools, and invest in a large bottle of rolaids for the day when the war starts, so you can sit in front of your television, popping antiacid after antiacid. and you're going to wonder who the hell the people in this administration think they are, and be annoyed that time and time again, they are arrogant and get away with it, proving that they actually have as much power as their swelled heads think they do. and as the administration gets more and more ridiculous, pushing more and more legislation that trounces civil rights of both non-citizens and citizens, giving our country a more and more horrible reputation in the world, saying more and more terribly uninformed or brutally negligent things, i am forced to wonder if this country is actually swinging backwards in progress.