Friday, December 25, 2009

War on Christmas Over -- RNC Surrenders

Good news, everybody -- the War on Christmas 2009 seems to be over. You might think that after retail boycotts and even attempted legislation (Sorry, Rep. Brown, your bill might be considered after the recess, ha ha) that the advocates of mentioning Christmas in every other sentence had carried the day. After all, we're a Christian nation whose Constitution is based on the Ten Commandments, and it was likely Jesus himself who came up with the bicameral legislature (although the three-fifths compromise was clearly the work of the devil, or at least ACORN).

But no -- I recently received this in my inbox from the Republican National Committee -- entitled Holiday Greetings from the RNC, it doesn't even mention Christmas -- the very day it was sent.

A little bone to that agnostic Republican out there

Clearly this means that the Republicans have finally given in to that perfidious godless secular minority who are hell-bent on dooming our citizens to a lifetime of casual, meaningless sex, rampant drug use and evolution -- or else they never really bought into the seething rhetoric of the Torquemada wing of the Republican Party, but just used them to spur on the masses who respond to knee-jerk sentimentality that lacks any basis in the tenets of liberal democracy.

Either way it doesn't look good for the party that routinely appeals to family values and religiosity as some sort of evidence of its ability to lead -- they're either acknowledging that they've lost or that they're dragging their base along in a cynical ploy for their loyalty.

So anyway, I'll be anxiously awaiting the AFA boycott and the calling-out by Bill O'Reilly.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Happiness Is Being Snowed in with Two Gallons of Apple Cider and a Bottle of Jack Daniels

A little nor'easter blew up from the gulf coast today, and smacked into some cold air coming in from the north and we ended up with tons of snow that started falling around 5:30. By 11:30 I wandered outside and took some pictures. The streetlights, swirling snow, softened contours and the snowfall's luminous reflectivity made the familiar landscape fun to look at again.

There were tons of accidents on the road. Sirens blared on Semmes for most of the time I was outside. So stay off the damn road if you don't need to be driving around. Walk to the convenience store for your six-pack. On your walk back you can contemplate those mottled gray cylinders revolving on the rack of greasy rollers under the heatlamp. By the time you get home you will be aching to start on that novel you always swore you would write.

The wind was a howling
And the snow was outrageous
Okay maybe the wind wasn't so bad
But what do I know -- I'm excavating
A pyramid in Alaska.

Lightness on lightness
Covers the trees and chassis --
Rust melts under snow.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Plastic Chemicals "Feminise Boys," Britify Spelling

Some victims obsess over matching their lipstick with their shirt A study has just shown that certain types of plastic can cause feminine behavior in boys who are exposed to them in the womb. This leads to a number of disturbing questions – for instance, are our E. Coli infested meats and vegetables now so dangerous that mothers have taken to eating plastic instead?

The alarm only increases when you see the type of plastic these women have been eating: Phthalates. Why, just one look at that word and you can’t help but wonder why anyone thought something that starts with four consecutive consonants could possibly be safe for human consumption. I mean, look at that damn thing – it’s a veritable Burmese tiger trap of a word, bristling with danger between its beginning and the safety of the vowels beyond. Pronouncing it could only be the act of a madman, so no wonder that prolonged exposure could leave young boys unwilling to play with trucks and guns, causing them to sit instead in contemplation of the cruelty of the universe.

The study (which, frankly, doesn’t seem that impressive) was published in the International Journal of Andrology, which I imagine looks something like this illustration below:

Even educated fleas do itMaybe other studies will confirm that exposure in the womb causes boys to roughhouse less. The pharmaceutical industry might embrace these results as a more dangerous alternative to Ritalin with far more unforseeable long-term side-effects. Already several major players are believed to be doing research on creating problems that this behavior-altering form of industrial waste could be a cure for. When the brilliant minds who brought us restless leg syndrome catch the scent of a winning idea, you never know where they’ll end up.

Friday, October 16, 2009

As Ye Have Done unto the Least of These, My Children...

It's going to take a long time before our part of the civilized world is as equal and prosperous as it has always promised to be. But at least -- and finally -- the person in charge knows what's important.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Secret of Jesus' Name Revealed -- the H Stands for Humanity

Jesus died for somebody's sins but not mine...
The Baffling Argument of the Week award goes to Justice Antonin Scalia, who last Wednesday argued, in a separation of church and state case involving a cross on Federal land, that the Christian embodiment of Jesus' death and resurrection isn't a religious symbol but actually a commonly-recognized symbol for "dead person under here:"

Justice Antonin Scalia disagreed. "It's erected as a war memorial. I assume it is erected in honor of all the war dead." Eliasberg objected. "I have been in Jewish cemeteries. There is never a cross on a tombstone of a Jew," he said.

Scalia shot back angrily, "I don't think you can leap from that to the conclusion that the only war dead that the cross honors are the Christian war dead. I think that's an outrageous conclusion."
Well sure -- Jesus did allegedly die for all mankind (humankind, even, if we're going to get all PC and declare the inerrant word of The LORD some sort of living document) even though not everybody (i.e. communists, terrorists, The Dixie Chicks) are exactly delighted with the gesture. Who else would throw such pearls before swine?

Okay, maybe Brahma would, since many Hindus consider their religion to be universal as well (hey, you -- put the hamburger down -- your new secret religion demands it).

So, Justice Scalia -- try one of these on for size. Brahma might not have died for your sins, but hey -- He considers you one of his own. Which is a lot more than most of sane society is willing to do.

Saturday, September 05, 2009

Muslim Monster Deity to Terrify Nation's Children on First Day of School

Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair
Families across America are up in arms today over news that President Obama, Marxist Demon-Lord and Bearer of the All-Seeing Eye, will commence the Indoctrination of the Innocents at an unprecedentedly early date, addressing the nation’s last great hope on the very first day of school.

Wailing mothers beat their breasts in public, sobbing together over the cruel fate that was to befall their sons and daughters, exhorted by a foreign-born absolute monarch to help him rip America from its very foundations by studying hard and setting goals.

Stylus Newington from Hialeah FL summed up his plight as he stood by the side of Interstate 95 in his pajamas, talking frantically on his cell phone while several children, the seed of his loins, bearers of his lineage and his pride and joy, peered anxiously out the windows of his Ford Explorer. “At this point I don’t know what I can do to keep ‘em from brainwashing my children by talking to ‘em on the teevee. I’m currently wavering between jumping off a cliff with them Okinawa-style or just selling ‘em into prostitution and hoping for the best.”

Protestations from the White House that the president was merely going to urge America’s children to strive to do great things and use his own life story as an example seemed to fall on unsympathetic ears. Wynona Mulligan, in the midst of refueling her Hummer H-3 before heading for the hills, gestured to the three children and two Wiemerauners asleep in the back. “If Obama’s rhetoric infects my children and little Placenta, Pikachu and Palin2012 become socialists, I – I won’t know what to do,” she confessed in a breathy sob.

Several counties have already announced they will be seceding from the Union for the duration of President Obama’s speech in order to avoid being sent to internment camps for refusing to broadcast the terrifying epistle. “It seems like an extreme step to take,” said Harper Burnside, superintendent of Pomade County, Illinois, “especially since we have to vote to rejoin the union after the speech is over, and with this bunch you never know. But it’s a chance we’ll have to take if we want to keep the next generation from being enslaved with universal healthcare and such.”

Throughout the nation the usual good spirits of the long holiday weekend have been ruined by the anticipation of the demise of freedom as we know it. A suburban couple who refused to be identified stood in front of their house and displayed to us a cooler that had, on past Labor Day weekends, brimmed over with ground beef, t-bone steaks, bratwursts and giant turkey legs. Today, instead, fish heads and gristle swam in a solution of ice, squid ink and blood – a dinner of penance and gnashing of teeth. They held each other, cold in their simple burlap shifts, and cried.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

"The Dream Shall Never Die."

Late last night Senator Ted Kennedy died of cancer. While his career in the Senate was illustrious and his personal failings and hardships are well-known, his dream of the last decades of his life remains unfulfilled: that every American should have the benefits of the greatest healthcare system in the world without regard to their income or their station in life.

Right now we stand on the cusp of fulfilling that dream – a dream that would make America a more equitable nation where opportunity is not constantly overshadowed by the specter of crushing debt – or worse, life cut short – due to a person’s station in life or his bank balance when confronted with the awful choice of having expensive medical care or going without.

One of Kennedy’s great friends is Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who co-wrote the above tribute to his friend and colleague. And yet Senator Hatch stands on the opposite side of Kennedy in the struggle for health care equality, still determined to thwart the ideal that all Americans should have access to the benefits of modern medicine that every member of Congress enjoys.

So here’s what I’m asking: Go to Senator Hatch’s YouTube page where he posted this song. Leave a polite and respectful comment urging Senator Hatch to fulfill Ted Kennedy’s legacy by voting for healthcare reform that would make the best of our national healthcare available to all. Please don’t argue with the folks who will disagree with you – this is Senator Hatch’s page and his personal tribute to his departed friend, and it wouldn’t be right to tarnish that. But one of the most ardent opponents of healthcare reform needs to hear our voices.

There’s no guarantee that it will change his vote. But if Senator Hatch hears our voices it will make it harder for him to vote against it, knowing he’ll be choking down the will of the people and forsaking a chance to make this land’s opportunity available to all of its citizens equally. And what a tribute it would be to see his friend’s dream realized.

Monday, August 10, 2009

Obama, Harper, Calderón Announce Socialist Monarchy, Ban Texas

The best part is that football is now an official language.
The three leaders of North America got together in Guadalajara today and, in a surprising move, suspended their nations’ constitutions and announced the formation of a socialist monarchy to be called Weedfarmgodblessamericacokedoutviolenceistan. The three co-kings then crowned themselves in a brief ceremony before appearing before the press in a hall decorated with their likenesses. Stephen Harper was portrayed as a crusading knight with some sort of implement – a rudimentary prosthesis? A primitive plumber’s helper? – across his knees to symbolize, one supposes, the primitive, Dark-Ages technology and state-of-nature brutality of your typical socialist regime, to which we can all look forward.

President Obama chose for his likeness a barely-clad Roman gladiator, wearing nothing but a few leather straps and a shortsword, and with a seemingly transparent left leg through which his femur, patella and tibia are clearly visible. It was not explained whether this was some sort of Muslim, neo-pagan or Masonic imagery, and the cowed press was too busy suppressing the truth about the president’s birth certificate to be bothered to ask.

And Mexican President Felipe Calderón, in perhaps the most audacious self-portrayal of the three, had himself represented as a shimmering luminescence that seemed to fill the hall with its Platonic idealization of the narcoterrorist corrupt socialist failed state.

As Harper explained during the Q&A session, “We just sat down and looked at each other and said, ‘You know, the time is right – let’s strike while the iron is hot.’ And so we just threw away the script and decided to unite in the name of long lines, labyrinthine bureaucracy, and driving the sick and the old to the depths of despair.”

“Now we each have different ways of achieving this,” boomed the resonant tenor of President Obama. “But the important thing is that we all learn from each other, so that we can build an enslaved populace with careful appreciation of the needs of each individual. Thus the Canadians can be lulled into a state of indifference with BC bud, curling and free doctor’s visits. The Mexicans can have a fiesta of maquilladoros, crappy beer and illiteracy. And we Americans can slowly numb ourselves with the rich blessings of pork rinds, pro wrestling and the Michael Jackson death investigation.”

At this point Mexican President Felipe Calderón said something, but as a citizen of GodBlessAmericastan, I haven’t bothered to learn a word of his native tongue, which I am pretty sure is not called Mexican. Let’s just say it sounded like he ordered every damn thing off the menu at El Rio Grande and move on.

And in another surprise move, the three monarchs announced that Texas was going to be expelled from North America. “Socialism, as we know,” explained King Barack I, “comes from the Greek term for surrender to the weak. For too long the rugged individualism of the great state of Texas – embodied by such larger-than-life heroes as Ronald Reagan, John Wayne and Antonio López de Santa Anna – has stood in the way of the success of the poor and lazy. We just couldn’t compete. But we would like Texas to know that we wish it nothing but the best, and know Texas will have nothing but success in its future endeavors. And we hear the Middle East is nice this time of year.”

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

It Was 48 Years Ago Today

Expert witnesses, every one.
Happy Birthday, President Barack Obama. In honor of the day your first birth certificate was forged in some rudimentary hut in the wilds of the Rift Valley, I hereby present this family portait of the formidable forces of Truth and Justice arrayed against you.

Go easy on them, okay?

Saturday, August 01, 2009

Appeased Opponents of Healthcare Bill Still Hate It

Have peace in our time and call me in the morning.
He was only five-foot-three
Girls could not resist his stare --
Henry Waxman was never called an asshole...

Well the healthcare bill finally passed a vote in Henry Waxman's Energy and Commerce Committe. And you know who was still complaining about it? If you guessed that liberal Democrats were whining about there not being a chain of national organic cafeterias or a clause requiring a five-month wait to set a broken leg, guess again. According to The Huffington Post, it was the Republicans. Apparently the bill doesn't suck enough:

Republicans expressed disappointment that the Blue Dogs were unable to water the bill down more or cut the public option entirely. "You allowed them to pick the color of the lipstick that's going on this pig," Rep. Mike Rogers (R-Mich.) grumbled to Waxman shortly before the amendments were added to the bill.
Maybe this type of gratitude will finally convince the remaining Democratic holdouts that there's a difference between reaching across the aisle and surrendering to the losers.

Wednesday, July 01, 2009

Strategy Comes to Afghanistan

If ever a place could use some hope...
The US Marines have launched a major offensive in the southern Afghan province of Helmand, officials announced this morning. About 4,000 Marines and 650 Afghan soldiers and police will spend the first 36 hours of the operation inserting into position with the use of 50 aircraft. The purpose of the mission, named Operation Khanjar, or Thrust of the Sword, is to secure areas under control or threat of control by the Taleban in the lower Helmand River valley.

General Stanley McChrystal, who took over as allied commander in Afghanistan in June, described the essential thrust of counterinsurgency operations during his confirmation hearing:

"Although I expect stiff fighting ahead, the measure of success will not be enemy killed. It will be shielding the Afghan population from violence.”
At long last our focus is turning towards Afghanistan, and better yet, towards the right approach there. For too long the strategy seems to have been to keep a lid on things and insist that our NATO allies carry more of the burden. In spite of success in Afghanistan being so obviously achievable – all we had to do was offer the people a better and safer life than they had under the Taleban – the war there has slogged on for eight years. Let’s hope this latest effort is the most sincere and effective in bringing security, stability and democracy to the Afghan people.

In view of that, there are two important things we should be concerned about.

Are we coordinating this offensive with Pakistan? Part of it will be along the Pakistani border. If instead of crushing the Taleban in Helmand, we just push them back beyond the Pakistan frontier then we haven’t fixed the problem, only moved its consequences somewhere else.

Do we have enough troops and support to do the job right? Too often a military operation in Afghanistan has dominated the headlines only for the real objective to fade away, either from lack of support or lack of commitment to the operation. Ultimately it’s the Afghan people who suffer and who lose respect for allied troops, ensuring that operations in that area are more difficult next time.

If President Obama and General McChrystal’s strategy is supported by the resources and determined focus of the United States, it will bring the Afghan people the better life whose promise has hung over them like a tantalizing fruit for almost a decade. Let’s hope it’s not too late.

Tuesday, June 30, 2009

Red Alert -- Flying Stingrays!

It came out of the sky, landed just a little shy of Moline.
Now we're just plain doomed. Stingrays can fly.

Okay, I sort of knew this before, mostly because a woman was killed by a flying spotted eagle ray about a year ago. But hearing about it is one thing -- actually seeing a stingray flapping for its life is entirely another. This one, apparently, was being chased by a pod of orcas.

This flying stingray was trying to avoid the attentions of the aptly-named killer whale, which was ready to take a bite out of the fish when the stingray made its leap for safety.

This all happened in Auckland, New Zealand, and to the delight -- and I'm sure a bit of horror at seeing animals eat each other -- of a school full of children, who rushed out of class to watch.

Surprisingly, nobody seems too concerned about the potential rain of terrorist poison darts from the sky. If only we fools had listened to Dick Cheney.

Monday, June 29, 2009

Location of St. Paul's Grave Less Certain than Evolution

Now shut up and eat Jesus.
Some bone fragments inside the purported tomb of St. Paul (aka Saul of Tarsus) have been carbon dated to the general time period of his death. This, according to Pope Benedict XVI,

“…seems to confirm the unanimous and undisputed tradition that these are the mortal remains of the Apostle St. Paul.”

Well, no – they don’t confirm anything. Rather, they’re consistent with the assumption that the remains are those of Saul of Tarsus. They could also be the remains of his neighbor, his papyrus deliveryman or some farmer who happened to die around the same time. It rules out that these were the bones of William Shakespeare, Helen of Troy or any of the billions of people born in the last few hundred years. Of course, since the sarcophagus stands in the Basilica of St. Paul, originally built by Emperor Constantine over the saint's purported grave some 250 years after Paul’s execution, this doesn’t really tell us anything more than we already knew. And the pope would know that if he knew how science worked.

Unfortunately, the head of one of the world’s largest denominations thinks that science should be secondary to faith. Not that this is surprising – it’s the error committed by most faith-based thought, from religions to political philosophies to fads like The Secret and numerology. But science starts with facts and only declares an overarching concept valid if the facts are preponderantly in its favor, and only then on a probationary basis pending any contradictory evidence. Religion and other forms of sloppy thinking start with the overarching concepts, then pick and choose the facts they want to support their idea. One of these ways of thinking has found out more in the last 400 years than the other has done in the last 10,000 – you decide which should trump the other.

So if the pope wants to learn something about religion, he should start by trying to understand science. And if that leads him to understand how religion can be so consistently wrong about so many things for such a long time, then so much the better.

Sunday, June 28, 2009

Unattended Conference a Huge Success

How long can you tread water?
Climate change activists must be thrilled to finally be getting their point across. The House of Representatives just narrowly passed an emissions cap-and-trade bill; automakers finally seem to be taking hybrid cars seriously; and climate scientists have stopped flying to climate-change conferences.

The BBC is reporting that Dr. Larch Maxey of the University of Swansea, Wales, has turned down an invitation to fly to Washington DC for an international conference, citing the carbon cost:

He said the plane journey across the Atlantic would use several years' worth of his carbon share and now others invited to attend have followed suit.
Instead they taking part in the event via video link.

It's wonderful that Dr. Maxey is actually living by his principles. And while it's unfortunate that he's showing up everybody who would love to attend the next such global-warming blowout in Aruba or Pango Pango or Goa, it does tend to lend credibility to your concern if you opt for the video link over the free trip.

So cheers, in this month of scandals, to someone who isn't a hypocrite. Now here's a real moral dilemma: would it be worth the carbon costs to have him fly over here to teach that ability to Mark Sanford and John Ensign?

Monday, June 22, 2009

The Triumph of Everyday Communication

The Italian embassy is now taking wounded.
As the Iranian government has rushed to close off avenues of communication to the outside world, internet-savvy Iranians have countered the isolation by appropriating channels used for the most mundane information. Twitter, so often a font of regret to politicians too willing to share their every thought, has come into its own as a way of telling the world about the atrocities the Iranian government is perpetrating up its citizens.

So much so that Noam Cohen wrote yesterday in praise of the usefulness of Twitter and Blogger and other such online tools -- not because they are specialized, but because they are general. When the election in Kenya in 2007 resulted in riots and death, the Kenyan blogging community got the news out to the world.

It turned out, he said, that “Kenya has the second-most bloggers in Africa and that mostly they are not writing about politics; many are writing about rugby.” There was, he said, “a fascinating latent capacity — people who knew how to use the tools, knew how to write well, to tell a story with words and pictures.”

Now the same thing is happening in Iran. And the people covering it are the Iranian bloggers and twitterers who had to find their own ways of getting in touch with the world. And the ones who shared recipes and LOLcats and stories of someone almost getting abducted at the nearby mall, who were cutting their teeth on the mundane, were suddenly prepared for the extraordinary.

Does this mean that The Last Starfighter is in some way prophetic? No, that's too awful to think about. Let's just take pride in the human spirit, urge our fellow beings on, and not worry about bad science fiction. Tomorrow we can go back to making fun of Pete Hoekstra's abominable twitters -- today we celebrate the desire of everyone to be free.

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Free Energy Too Expensive

One tokamak over the line?
For decades every geek has dreamed of a world powered by fusion – the conjoining of atoms under intense heat and pressure that, due to the relationship between energy and mass, produces a huge amount of power – the nuclear physics equivalent of a marriage between Donald Trump and Richard Simmons. A constant supply of energy would be available practically for free for the benefit of everyone: since there would be no emissions, there would be no greenhouse gases; since it fed on cheap hydrogen in a self-sustaining way, it would pay for itself; and since it took energy out of the global power equation, it would reduce intenational tensions.

Now, though, after almost 80 years of research, that impression might be trapped in a blind alley. Expenses and technical hurdles threaten to hold up progress on workable fusion reactors, if they don’t send them the way of the flying car, the self-regulating finance market or the cheap, light suspension bridge. A meeting of the governing council of Iter, the world’s largest fusion reactor, could scale back the planned machine. In the face of a combination of cost overruns and huge technical challenges, fusion itself might suddenly be decades further from realization.

While the money – $16 billion – isn’t peanuts, it shouldn’t be impossible to find. Fusion could make its inventors filthy rich and save governments many times their initial investment. That it’s a huge source of clean energy means it would pay for itself in lack of environmental degradation alone.

Technical problems, though, might stymie the project forever. As a research director opposed to Iter’s direction summarizes:

"The most difficult problem is the problem of materials. Some time ago I declared that fusion is like trying to put the Sun in a box - but we don't know how to make the box.

"The walls of the box, which need to be leak tight, are bombarded by these neutrons which can make stainless steel boil. Some people say it is just a question of inventing a stainless steel which is porous to let these particles through; personally I would have started by inventing this material."
Of course if scientists and engineers insisted on solving the most difficult problems before tackling the easier ones, we’d still be poking twigs into anthills to get our dinner. Progress in science is a steady expansion, not a series of giant technological leaps – the physicists who’ve been working on fusion for decades can tell you that.

If it’s funding they need, then $16 billion can be scrounged from somewhere. Hell, that only comes to five years of Merrill-Lynch bonuses. And if the engineering problems prove insurmountable, then fine – but at least we should prove they’re insurmountable before we give up.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Democracy Still Worth Fighting For

Garibaldi never said this was going to be easy.
As someone who watched with a sick dread the 2000 election results and the sorry spectacles of the states-rights, anti-litigious Republican party taking a lawsuit from state court to the Supreme Court to stop the Florida recount, I feel a real admiration for – and am definitely shamed by – the protesters after the very likely stolen election in Iran. A sufficient number of protesters in the streets of Tallahassee demanding the full recount take place might not have tipped the balance in 2000 at any point. But I feel bad for not at least trying. And I’ve since tried to make up for it, so there’s that.

But here are people with a legitimate grievance. Their government has defrauded them, stolen power and made up a story about it, and is physically cracking down on anyone who says so. And yet the Iranian citizens, openly flouting all restrictions on freedom of expression, fill the streets to demand justice. They endure horrible beatings and some may be dead – yet the demand for justice, equal representation and the rule of law still impel people forward regardless of the risk.

Or maybe in response to it. It’s often when freedom of expression is threatened by force that freedom of expression shouts the loudest. One of the greatest advances of Humanism – the idea that all humans are inherently equal and start with the same basic rights – is the idea that revolution by persuasion can be at least as effective as revolution by violence. Peaceful revolution is inherently humanist because it seeks change without violating its own principles. It has won revolutions in the Soviet Union and almost all of its client states and former members, India and South Africa – which is an especially clear example because it wasn’t the ANC’s violent tactics but rather the organized peaceful protests that so captured the world’s imagination. Violent acts are easily condemnable and rob any group of its legitimate focus in its grievances. ETA, the Basque resistance group that operates around the French-Spanish coastal border, increasingly loses support for its legitimate claims about guarding the autonomy of one of Europe’s most unique cultures by its acts of violence. When the government oppressing you has the choice of calling you a freedom fighter or a criminal, which do you think it’s going to choose? So why give it the opportunity to justify such a claim?

Humanism – including treating people fairly and all that sissy-ass hippie soft-on-terrorism, soft-on-crime, assuring-people’s-basic-rights stuff that Dick Cheney so insists is making us less safe – happens to be the basis for our Constitution. And although the Constitution as originally written was based on the social contract – that government should serve the governed – it took enough states insisting on a Bill of Rights that carved the government’s limits in stone to get it ratified. All those hippie ideas like search warrants and freedom of the press that led to the abominations of Miranda rights and FOIA began with the impetus of the next tier down from the ruling class protecting its own interests. That they become universal rights is the logical culmination of humanism: the glaring contradictions become increasingly evident in a society that espouses equality but doesn’t practice it or even fully comprehend why it should.

Which is why President Obama’s election is such a triumph for humanism and equal treatment. With his emphasis on ending the extrajudicial treatment of the Guantanamo and black site inmates, on government transparency, opposition to Bush-era secret treaties, civil unions, a better-regulated economy and other issues, his general direction is towards a government for the benefit of the governed and an economy for the benefit of the consumer. That conservatives tend to call this class warfare neglects to mention that the war is being conducted by people who have been robbed of something that was theirs: the faith that a well-regulated economy was not in fact dominated by cheats, number-shufflers and MBAs who favored getting around the law over operating within it.

Additionally the overt clumsiness of the Iranian government’s reaction testifies to its unpreparedness for this vast electoral uprising – not to mention its intellectual laziness and consequent need to be given the heave-ho. The majority of the people have clearly understood that the moral authority that Ayatollah Khomeini carried into the Iranian revolution in 1979 never went so far as to authorize Sharia to be extended as far as it did. Iranian history since then has been a tug-of-war between religious fundamentalist potentates and a populace that still remembers any sliver of liberal freedom it read about or even personally enjoyed.

And now it has come to this: An Iranian populace that would rather shout from the rooftops than quietly admit it has been robbed. The greatness of the liberal humanist idea of government for the governed planted this seed. Last week President Obama reached out to the Muslim nations in a speech from Cairo. He gave Iranian voters a Great Satan with a smile on his face and an extended hand – and removed the saber-rattling, us-or-them exceptionalist adversarialist brinkmanship that has bullied the world into a passive-aggressive resistance.

This removed a major tool of the Ahmadenijad electoral impetus – that the United States was threatening war and needed to be stood up to by a unanimous opposition. Sound familiar? Yeah it’s amazing how much an imminent threat – either real or manufactured – can motivate a populace into thinking out of fear and not reason. Especially if they’re not taught reason in the first place, but let’s not worry about that for now.

President Obama’s speech in Cairo made two innate promises to the Iranian people: that we would engage honestly with the Iranian people and that we would try to advance equality and the rule of law everywhere. Given that, the Obama government should press for complete transparency in Iran’s election process. Iran does not currently allow independent election monitors, which is evident of a systematic mistrust of the electorate. President Obama, as a Constitutional scholar, should know that it’s never in the people’s best interest to blindly trust their government. The people are better off the more the government’s actions are available to public examination.
This has been the main course of the Obama candidacy and the Obama presidency – that America succeeds best when it represents its own values. It should always be reminded of – and never dissuaded from – doing this. As such, we as a nation should demand from Iran the openness and accountability that its civilians are being prevented from demanding of their civil service. We should push for it to acknowledge the legitimate results of the contest even its oppressive election councils approved of. Ayatollah Khatamei should concede that he left the door open to reform and should now admit it needs to take place. And if we’re going to negotiate with a government it might as well be the honestly elected one.

Thursday, June 11, 2009

POTUS Is Just Another Four-Letter Word

I'm up on the presidential podium my mama loves me...
Just cold chillin' with your homies, a sixpack of Sierra Nevada and the solution to the Palestinian problem sketched out on the back of a napkin? That's the time to choose 1600 -- a complicated and nuanced fragrance by Obama.

You may think that a personal fragrance is the sum total of its creator's experience. You may be right, you may be wrong. All we know is that we have made mistakes. And we've learned from them. And the subtleties of the resultant fragrance are demanding yet fair, complex yet understandable. This isn't an apology -- this is a fragrance that is determined to restart the conversation.


Monday, June 08, 2009

Another Failed Bismarck with Delusions of Wisdom

You probably think this song is about you
Henry Kissinger has, in The Washington Post, a classic case of neoconservative amnesia: he imagines, incomprehensibly, that there is a demand for his advice, while stealthily dropping hints that the Obama administration wants to let North Korea keep its nuclear weapons. Best of all though, Kissinger hews to a few clangy old ideas that happen to be drug out by every neocon as foreign policy panaceas: increase missile defense and fight terror.

One thing’s for certain: Kissinger deserves credit for sticking his horrible wares out there in the free market. Somewhere in Egypt there’s a guy trying to sell sketchy-looking pigs who realizes his might not be the toughest sales job in the world. But to insist, after a thorough repudiation of neoconservative brinksmanship, that “the issue for diplomacy has become whether the goal should be to manage North Korea's nuclear arsenal or to eliminate it” and then make sly innuendos that President Obama will adopt “acquiescence” to North Korea’s nuclear ambitions – when that country tested its first nuclear bomb in 2006 – seems like a huge display of historical revisionism if not simply mad cow disease.

In spite of the facts, Kissinger frets. “The negotiating process is on the verge of legitimizing North Korea's nuclear program by enabling Pyongyang to establish a fait accompli while diplomacy runs its stately course,” worries the great statesman. He seems unaware that North Korean nuclearization has been a fait accompli for about three years now. But he has suddenly discovered that the status quo is unsustainable:

Furthermore, some public statements imply the United States will try to deal with specific North Korean threats rather than eliminate the capability to carry them out. They leave open with what determination Washington will pursue the elimination of the existing stockpile of North Korean nuclear weapons and fissionable materials. It is not possible to undertake both courses simultaneously.

So the United States must pursue either an elimination of North Korea’s nuclear weapons or – um – deal with its various actions after they’ve happened? The neocons have finally discovered the ominous mushroom cloud of their speeches and dreams – in the rogue nation their sabre-rattling has long nurtured.

And how would our master diplomat, advisor to Dubya about Iraq, architect of the lasting peace in Vietnam and offerer of unsolicited advice handle such a threat? With missile defense and – um – a global response to terrorism:

The enhanced role of non-state actors with respect to terrorism would have to be addressed. The concepts of deterrence against state actors are familiar, though not in a world of multiple nuclear powers. They have little or no relevance to non-state actors operating by stealth.
So our reaction to North Korea must somehow involve an emphasis on non-state terrorism? It sounds curiously disconnected from reality that the most isolated regime in the world might somehow develop ties with fanatical Muslims in southwest Asia. But stranger things have happened. In an odd bit of symmetry, eight years ago the previous administration was focused on North Korea and missile defense at the exact same moment that it should have been focused on terrorism.

Maybe Mr. Kissinger is just trying to rectify that past miscalculation. Or maybe he’s continuing Dick Cheney’s legacy of advocating extralegal wars fought in the shadows. Either way, it’s a good reminder when the man most associated with the secret bombing of Cambodia so much as suggests sinister clandestine operations why we are overwhelmingly mistrustful of unchecked government authority. And in that sense it’s fitting, really, that Henry Kissinger will always stand as a powerful argument against his own advice.

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Dick Cheney and the Christmas Pony

We know that Saddam Hussein was teaching al-Qaida members interior decorating.
Dick Cheney made a slight bit of news yesterday, and not by delivering his campfire-horror-story-style defense of his sanguinary, fact-free and failure-ridden approach to national security. No, it’s because he delivered a tepid endorsement of gay marriage while managing to frame it in terms of finding it utterly horrible. Said the master of tact:

“I think that freedom means freedom for everyone,” Cheney replied. “As many of you know, one of my daughters is gay, and it is something we have lived with for a long time in our family.”
It’s sweet that he manages to talk about Mary Cheney’s sexual orientation as though it’s leprosy and has afflicted the whole family with its terrible shadow. The Vice President is nothing if not resilient, though, and has borne up well under the strain. If a man can survive five draft deferments, he can survive the shame and humiliation of his daughter choosing an un-American lifestyle. Fortunately he has another daughter who is active in the fields of opposite marriage and ensuring that her daddy stays out of any war crimes trials.

It might be nice if Cheney’s strengths – his sullen and ruthless infighting, his ability to justify anything as long as it meant personal gain to himself or a loved one, and his tyrannical micromanaging of any task until it’s seen through to completion – would benefit humanity, if only for once. Besides, it would be ickily ironic if most states legalized gay marriage not for the right reason – that everybody deserves the same rights – but for the wrong reason – that children of privilege nagged their daddies until they got what they wanted.

Not that he seems inclined to apply such energy. Cheney shows all the enthusiasm of a hippie whose daughter wants a gun for Christmas – if he plays along for a while, she’ll probably forget the whole thing. So put whatever you want in that letter to Santa, Mary Cheney. Daddy’ll get around to it when the Lord stops afflicting him with your homosexuality.

Thursday, May 21, 2009

How To Succeed in Bosnia without Really Lying

I love the smell of sniper fire in the morning.
My new favorite prognosticator of cooked-up Obama administration controversies,, is now seething over a report that Vice President Biden, in speaking to the parliament of Bosnia-Herzegovina, recalled being fired upon during a 1993 visit to the capital, which was then under siege.

According to a reporter at the speech, Biden "recalled his trip to the country in 1993, and how, flying in at the time, his plane was fired upon, and bombed-out homes with snipers inside could be seen." And the eyes reflexively roll. Ah, Joe -- always out with something ridiculous.

What's funny though is that the statement doesn't sound like one of Joe Biden's typical gaffes. Biden just doesn't deliver the Hillaryesque landing-under-sniper-fire embellishments that start with a basis in reality and add on something unbelievable. No, his semantic seizures usually tend to be dumbass mistakes like telling a guy in a wheelchair to stand up, or reveal his inner unvarnished hick, such as when he said that you can't go into a 7-11 in Delaware without hearing an Indian accent. But making stuff up out of whole cloth? That's not really him.

And in fact the White House prepared statement doesn't mention Biden being shot at. Now maybe he mentioned having his plane shot at in a departure from his prepared statement. Maybe he made a joking reference to Hillary's famous remarks. Maybe the reporter simply misheard him -- or maybe the account is accurate. Since no video is currently available, the Times account can't be verified, nor can Biden's actual speech be viewed or understood in context. But the FoxNation folks haven't let that stop them -- expect this to be a right-wing meme, whether true or not, for a while.

Oh, and there's one more thing. Biden, in a moment of bracing diplomatic bluntness, told Bosnia-Herzegovina's assembled lawmakers that their best bet was to knit themselves into the European community, but that they were still on the wrong path to doing that. This forwardness is the privilege of Biden's being engaged in the region for almost two decades; and his pragmatic advice has the credibility of the diplomacy that culminated in the Dayton accords. But don't expect Republicans to notice that -- they're too busy trying to make tea party hors-d'oeuvres out of the crumbs of a successful foreign policy.

Monday, May 18, 2009

Chatter and Verse: Donald Rumsfeld's Bible-Themed Propaganda as an Art Form. A Bad, Tendentious, Horrible Art Form.

In the latest bit of surprised-but-not-quite-shocked news, photographic evidence has emerged that while he was defense secretary, Donald Rumsfeld used to decorate his briefings to President Bush with tasteful warrior photos captioned with Bible verses.

GQ, of all sources, released the information that Secretary Rumsfeld “appreciated” the cover designs. One might assume that Rumsfeld condescendingly figured Dubya would more readily agree to a plan, no matter how harebrained, as long as a Biblical verse was affixed to it. Having to explain why the Iraq situation was getting worse after six years probably went down a lot easier when the president saw a picture of American soldiers kneeling in prayer with an accompanying reassuring verse from Isaiah – these challenges are meant to test us, and let us not lose our resolve, came the message. The subsequent and detailed bad news was probably drowned with syrup, butter and small talk.

And yet the overwhelming reaction on viewing the images is that they’re just craptacular. Let’s be honest – if you’re going to put together a spirited, patriotic, Jesus-referencing, crying-eagle-on-a-rock type of cover, you could do much better than this slop. Henceforth are some suggestions.

Ol’ Ecclesiastes was the liberal elite of his generation – always talking pretty and making the impetuous and belligerent look stupid. He hated America waaaay before it was cool, so he’d be into this. Is there a time for war crimes tribunals?
Samuel was pretty much the Bismarck of his time – on the cusp of forming a nation. Unfortunately the nation was being built on the remains of the people who lived there before, so Israel’s various neighbors had to go. Since we don’t have that excuse in Iraq, maybe we should invoke a pointless biblical parallel instead and hope for the best.

“Let’s be honest here. I don’t know what Daddy did or why he did it, but I promise I’ll do more of it. Except anything that Reagan wouldn’t have done. And then some. But you’re not gonna believe that shit. Just hold on to your britches.”

Which makes me appreciate all the more what some of the newer briefings might look like:

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Pete Hoekstra’s Vapid Attack

Well it’s happening again. The Republicans, beset on many fronts by the successes of the Obama administration and torn from within by arguments over whether their party should try to live in the present or just close the curtains and pretend every day was Januay 19, 1989, have opted to attack when the situation calls for retreat and have thrown a bucket of mud on Nancy Pelosi – specifically, Representative Pete Hoekstra (R – MI) released a document on May 8 that he said proves the speaker of the House is lying about when she knew the administration was practicing torture: “The bottom line is she and her key staff, they all knew about it,” Hoekstra said.

The only problem, however, is that a reasonable person looking at the document sees no terribly compelling proof. The alleged record is an image of a spreadsheet, with names and dates and often just the vaguest summary of what took place at a meeting. The relevant briefing in question is described, in its entirety, as “Briefing on EITs* including use of EITs on Abu Zubaydah, background on authorities, and a particular desciption of the EITs that had been employed.” Yet it has no author, no date of publication, no sources, and offers no proof of anything. There are no signatures or initials of attendees and not even a mention of how long the meetings lasted. It looks like the world’s most-hastily-assembled CYA memo.

Even the Director of Central Intelligence, Leon Panetta, refuses to vouch for its authenticity. In a cover letter that was often mentioned in articles but surprisingly hard to track down, Panetta declares that “this information, however, is drawn from the past files of the CIA and represents MFRs** completed at the time and notes that summarized the best recollections of those individuals. In the end, you and the Committee will have to determine whether this information is an accurate reflection of what actually happened.” Basically this is the CIA’s best guess at the past.

And it’s apparently not much of a guess, either. Already Pelosi has cast doubt on the sweeping conclusion that Hoekstra derived from the meeting summary’s single sentence. She has insisted that while torture techniques were discussed, they weren’t mentioned as actually having been used, only approved for use, and that waterboarding wasn’t mentioned at the briefing she attended. In addition, Senators Jay Rockefeller and Bob Graham have both come forward disputing the content of the report with respect to briefings where they are mentioned. Graham says that waterboarding wasn’t mentioned in his briefing, and Rockefeller didn’t attend his briefing at all.

If the accuracy and credibility of this report weren’t questionable enough, there remains the fact that regardless of what was disclosed to Pelosi, there was very little she could do about it – she wasn’t allowed to take notes or consult a lawyer about the briefing. To argue that this redress-bereft acceptance of knowledge represents complicity requires a Madoffian level of intellectual accounting.

The final insult, of course, lies in the fact that Representative Hoekstra implied with his accusation of Pelosi: that to be told a fact, after the fact, implies a shared responsibility that would cause the speaker to back down from pushing any torture investigations. As though her role is so similar to the John Yoos and Jay Bybees and Alberto Gonzaleses of this episode to give her some pause. As though she wouldn’t know the difference between the criminals and the witnesses.

The hearings should be very clarifying, Mr. Hoekstra.

*EIT stands for Enhanced Interrogation Technique – or, as I like to call it, Elsewhere It’s Torture.
**Memorandum for the Record.

Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Def Takes a Holiday

This alt-text left blank in honor of Jim Newell.  Oh, crap. This evening I had the pleasure of sharing an after-dinner beverage with Wonkette’s two associate editors, Jim Newell and Sara K. Smith. They both blogged that they were trapped in a hellhole in the deep south among the cattails, humans incapable of motion under their own power, and Lincoln among the Cupolas. I thought the scene looked familiar and after a few arrangements we met in front of the Berkley Hotel, where our exhausted heroes were disgorged after a grueling three-hour tour at one of Richmond’s better-known dining establishments. They had arrived discussing Tycho Brahe, and whether the story was true that he had died of a burst bladder. Not an auspicious beginning.

And then they would be off the next morning at a ridiculous hour, as though half a day in Richmond gave any sense of its history. You can walk across Richmond in half a day – to talk abou it could take a year straight without any interruptions, corrections or going back over known territory.
Geeky librarian will cut you.  Over.
We talked for a while about scandalous stuff. I’m too incapacitated to remember any of the details, but there was lots of it. You would be shocked.

And then suddenly the waiter began muttering “get the fuck out of here” as he walked past us. It seemed like we should go. Outside we chatted with a nice couple from Vladivostok about the standard of living in DC. I slipped into my car wondering if I had made a good impression. If I don’t hear from the CDC tomorrow I’ll call it a yes.

Friday, April 24, 2009

Like a Rock: If You Thought GM's Stock Sucked, Just Look at Their Pension Fund

Shovel one home today!
You might think our recent economic trouble – whether you call it a recession, a depression, or enforced cannibalism – has hit bottom and is about to start turning around. Recently President Obama saw a glimmer of hope in the economy – mortgage refinancing is up, for instance. And even though it’s a small and subjective measurement, things have been looking up. Alas in the economy, as in many hospitals, a patient in critical condition can perk up right before he rolls over and dies.

Unfortunately the bailouts and potential bankruptcies of General Motors and Chrysler have revealed a long-standing and disturbing truth – their pension funds are short about
$49 billion, and our choices, as the responsible corporate socialists that we have become, are both few and painful. We can either spend money bailing out the pension and health plans that the auto companies have underfunded for decades, or we can let retirees work as Wal-Mart greeters and sell their kidneys for spare change.

Reasonable peole might look at the books of major corporations with pension plans and wonder how we arrived at this ugly impasse. After all, the greatest minds of several generations were allegedly focused for decades on making the United States the world’s economic powerhouse, churning out goods
faster and cheaper than anywhere else in the world. Turns out that most companies just made big promises and hoped they could keep them years down the road.

When the brilliant people in charge of your corporation’s pension fund
didn’t meet their projected growth rate – or, heaven forbid, lost money – they would compensate with what’s popularly known as the gambler’s fallacy. They would put more money on riskier bets in the hopes that they’d strike it big and everything would work out:

On the investment side, pension plans cover over their funding shortfalls first by assuming future returns on equities that, while possible, are not guaranteed. The assumption makes funds look healthier than they are, and drives their investments deeper into the stock market.
Is it comforting to find out that people with years of training and allegedly great financial acuity were acting like drunk vacationing neophytes at a Las Vegas craps table? Then you’ll be thrilled to know that the people who guaranteed that money did the
same damn thing.

Maybe the people protesting President Obama’s acquisition of corporate power are rightly afraid that the federal government is a bad manager and not really responsive to the interests of the people. If that’s so, then they’re a few decades late in looking out for the little guy. Right now we’re all the owners of
a hundred billion dollars of IOUs for the retirement and health care plans of our friends, families and neighbors. We’re going to have to pony up somehow, and it’s going to be painful and expensive. But at least the worst alternative – which the free marketers keep advocating in spite of the facts – is one we can eliminate quickly. The people who lost all our pension funds in the first place have absolutely no business managing them anymore.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Torture in the Cathedral: How Petty Politics Subverted Our Best National Character

NOTE: This is an analysis of the just-released report of the Senate Armed Services Committee's report on detainee abuse. I have limited my coverage to a section of the Executive Summary, although there's much much more to go through. As limited as it is, the story of how an unprepared bureaucracy was used to justify torture is worth telling. The Committee's report can be found linked in two parts at the bottom of this page. All citations are from part I of that document unless otherwise noted. Any spelling or grammatical errors are likely mine in transcribing it from its original pdf format.

Late in the evening of April 21, 2009, the Senate Armed Services Committee released its report on detainee abuse. This report focused on the chain of events that led from Donald Rumsfeld’s authorization of torture (i.e. harsh or otherwise euphemized interrogation tactics) to the spread of such tactics throughout the theaters in the Bush War on Terror, including Abu Ghraib prison.

The report’s executive summary and conclusion sections by themselves are a cold foray into the banality of evil. From its evidence a careful reader can glean traces of the internecine bureaucratic battles between Donald Rumsfeld and his allies and the established forces that – in this case at least – tried to preserve the rule of law against the buildup of an autocratic feifdom. From nearly the beginning of the War on Terror, Secretary Rumsfeld sought for the military unprecedented and clearly illegal leeway to use torture on detainees. The Senate Armed Service’s Committee’s report documents, in rather bland and acronym-heavy language, how the administration carried out this task, propping up a flimsy legal framework when it could and simply ignoring other legal hazards when it had to.

The story begins three months after the September 11, 2001 attacks, with a relatively small arm of the Department of Defense called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency, which is charged with “training American personnel to resist techniques considered illegal under the Geneva Conventions.” Its most famous activity is the SERE school, which stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape. Soldiers going through SERE school are subjected to the kinds of rough treatment they might expect to endure if they had been captured in 1950s Korea – brutal uses of force intended to break them down and elicit false confessions to be used for propaganda purposes.

For some reason, JPRA was the group that Rumsfeld turned to when the US captured several high-value detainees, among them Khalid Sheikh Mohammad and abu Zubaydah. According to a
McClatchy article, the adminstration’s goals were twofold – to find out what other al-Qaida plots were in the pipeline and to uncover the fabled Iraq-al-Qaida connections that could be used to justify the overthrow of Saddam Hussein. The continual lack of good information – especially of the latter type – spurred the use of harsher techniques.

A month after Rumsfeld solicited JPRA’s assistance with developing torture techniques, President Bush signed a memorandum stating that the US was not going to abide by the Geneva Conventions in the case of al-Qaida and Taleban operatives (p. xiii). Rumsfeld was set to shove his interrogation tactics through that open door and set up whatever justification was necessary to make it look acceptable.

In the process of appropriating JPRA and the SERE school techniques away from their original mission to one of interrogation, a number of red flags went up throughout the military establishment. First of all (p. xvii) “SERE techniques were ‘developed to better prepare US military personnel to resist interrogations and not as a means of obtaining reliable information.’” Furthermore, the Committee concluded that JPRA had never conducted any investigation into which, if any, techniques garnered reliable information.

Not that that seemed to matter. In the months that followed, JPRA, in conjunction with other elements of the military and the CIA, drafted plans to use SERE school techniques, including waterboarding, on the high-value detainees. Meanwhile, at the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, Jay Bybee was assiduously redefining torture to accommodate whatever new techniques would be tried out on America’s captives (p. xv).

With the groundwork now set for the application of torture, the first place the Defense Department would try them would be at Guantanamo Bay, where a makeshift prison camp for enemy combatants had been set up. On October 11, 2002, Major General Michael Dunlavey, in charge of the Gitmo detainees, formally requested use of the SERE school techniques. His backing legal analysis came from Lt. Col. Diane Beaver, who fully expected a more comprehensive rationale to be executed by a higher authority. General Dunlavey’s request worked its way up to the General Richard Myers, head of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, who solicited opinions from throughout the military (p. xvii).

The reaction was swift and certain: Objections to Lt. Col. Beaver’s analysis, as well as to the techniques themselves, came from the Air Force, the Navy, the Marine Corps, DOD’s Criminal Investigative Task Force and the Chief of the Army’s Internal and Operational Law Division. General Myers’ chief legal counsel, then-Captain (now Rear Admiral) Jane Dalton, initiated a thorough legal review of the proposed procedures in light of the avalanche of troubled responses from the military establishment. According to her testimony, she made DOD Chief Legal Counsel Jim Haynes aware of her actions (p. xviii).

Shortly afterwards, however, General Myers put a stop to Dalton’s review, apparently at Haynes’ request. The Committee’s evidence points to Secretary Rumsfeld growing impatient with the review and pressing for a recommendation before the investigation was stopped. However, only Captain Dalton seems to remember Myers and Haynes calling a halt to her analysis. The general and the lawyer expressed no recollection of the events, although they didn’t object to Dalton’s testimony.

Haynes then issued a one-page memo allowing the SERE school techniques on the Gitmo detainees. When asked by the Senate Committee what his legal basis was for his conclusions, he cited only Lt. Col. Beaver’s legal analysis, which legal authorities throughout the military had called “woefully inadequate” and which she herself had expected would be supplemented by more thorough studies.

Thus did Donald Rumsfeld and the advocates of torture roll over decades of civilized advance in the conduct of war, in the process severely tarnishing America’s image abroad, not to mention turning back the clock on the history of humanistic principles. You might imagine such a momentous decision made only after thorough deliberations by the most erudite minds of the nation in a time of great peril. And while the peril existed, it’s shameful to see that threat held up not as a pretext for fighting a great and principled battle, but as an excuse to trash the values we hold dear.

Determination and fortitude will be necessary to uncover and undo the damage that Rumsfeld and other petty bureaucrats have wrought over the previous eight years. And after that, ideally, prosecutions and convictions will convince anyone longing to follow in their footsteps that this country won’t stand for it.

Friday, April 17, 2009

You Can't Even Torture Some of the People Some of the Time

Are you sure this is how David Blaine got started? Hey everybody, there’s good news on the torture front. First of all, we definitely do not torture. This is the official opinion of the Bush administration on August 1, 2002, in a memo released just yesterday by the Obama White House.

The August 2002 memo’s author, Jay Bybee (who is a
federal appellate judge now, if that makes you feel any better) was head of the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel at the time. The OLC originally functioned to advise the president on the legality of proposed actions; however during the Bush years it turned into an apologist and justifier for the most sordid form of American exceptionalism: that because our nation advocated human rights and liberty, anything we did in their name was justified. Essentially, since we’re the world’s supernanny, it’s okay if we beat the children.

Bybee served for two years as the mind behind this ethos of exceptionalism – and while his 2002 memo is not brilliant work (an NYU law and ethics professor called it “
abysmal”), it gave the executive branch enough wiggle room to say it was justified in using several dicey techniques against al-Qaida travel agent abu Zubaydah, including sleep deprivation, slamming his head against walls, forcing him to stand for days on end until he risked embolisms and renal failure, and other practices classified as torture under the Geneva Conventions.

Advocates of torture have long argued that today’s circumstances call for extraordinary measues in dealing with detainees. Today’s religious fanatics apparently put SS troops, kamikaze pilots, Ghurkas and berserkers to shame. The only way to deal with al-Qaida and its associated threats (including
innocent cabbies and people whose relatives we killed) is with some sort of muscular pose hastily ripped from a 24 episode’s rough draft. Unfortunately the memo’s prose doesn’t come from the sort of bloody-knuckled streetfighter you would imagine favored torture – rather, it exhibits the logical contortions of an oleaginous schoolboy trying to kiss up to the headmaster while hiding from ideas he does not fully understand. For instance, here is Bybee’s take on pain and suffering:

“Pain and suffering” as used in Section 2340 is best understood as a single concept, not distinct concepts of “pain” as distinguished from “suffering.” See Section 2340 Memorandum at 6n.3. The waterboard, which inflicts no pain or actual harm whatsoever, does not, in our view inflict “severe pain or suffering.” Even if one were to parse the statute more finely to attempt to treat “suffering” as a distinct concept, the waterboard could not be said to inflict severe suffering. The waterboard is simply a controlled acute episode, lacking the connotation of a protracted period of time generally given to suffering.

All clear now? Bybee shows an immense faith in the idea that future legal scholars will be embroiled in a debate over whether torture had to constitute both pain and suffering or merely one item. While Bybee might be capable of regurgitating dogma about the Transubstantiation if spoon-fed it slowly enough, it is clear that his mind is not capable of arriving at the truth when armed only with facts.

And maybe the Bush administration sought to keep this work of legal ingenuity secret for so long because they knew what an embarrassment it would be if publicized. Either way, the fact that the Obama administration released it with almost no redactions whatsoever shows two things: that the memo held no critical national security secrets, and that the Bush administration’s arguments that revealing such memos would somehow compromise the deterrent effect of torture was an empty one.

Bybee exhibits a corrupt peanut plant inspector’s disregard for oversight when he cites the CIA’s own research into the safety of sleep deprivation: “Your review of the literature uncovered no empirical data on the use of these procedures, with the exception of sleep deprivation for which no long term health consequences resulted.” In fact, the CIA published a manual in 1963 outlining the debilitating effects of such treatment. Accounts by people who suffered sleep deprivation have been around for decades before that. John Schlapobersky was tortured using sleep deprivation in South Africa in the 1960s, and described its effects vividly:

“I was kept without sleep for a week in all. I can remember the details of the experience, although it took place 35 years ago. After two nights without sleep, the hallucinations start, and after three nights, people are having dreams while fairly awake, which is a form of psychosis.

“By the week’s end, people lose their orientation in place and time—the people you’re speaking to become people from your past; a window might become a view of the sea seen in your younger days. To deprive someone of sleep is to tamper with their equilibrium and their sanity.”

Bybee, acting as Dubya’s legal enabler, justified sleep deprivation for up to eleven days – well into the realm of causing deep psychosis. And while later accounts bear out that most of the information extracted from abu Zubaydah was useless, the relentless torture did at least succeed in revealing one deep, dark national security threat – that we, as a people, are almost as barbaric as the ethos we profess to fight. Ideally, bringing these torture memos to light will inspire us not to abandon our defense of our civilization – but to renew it from behind the bastion of our humanist values and not just our basest fears.

Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Ghost in the Graveyard: Is the War on Terror Really Dead?

I can't see his reflection in my flag pin! Jake Tapper, Teddy Davis and Kirit Radia at think the War on Terror – the phrase at least – might be over. Or not. While there is no apparent continuation of its use since the previous administration, it doesn’t seem to be officially banned either. The sole shred of evidence of its demise is a context-free memo asking an unnamed recipient not to use it. Tapper and his colleagues have either a mako-like acuity for tiny concentrations of blood in the water or else they’re stumbling around in the dark looking for their car keys.

Although in fairness the term deserves to be cut loose to languish in some historical backwater – for it was a McMansion of a phrase: an ugly brick fortress rising up over a garage and swallowing a moderately-terraced entryway, dotted throughout with a hodgepodge of bay windows, turrets, the occasional exposed rafter, a kitchen bar and butcherblock table opening onto a tiki-themed Florida room. It was a meaningless pastiche designed more to frighten and impress the neighbors than to address any single goal. Most egregiously, cloaking the strategic blunder of invading Iraq, its horrible planning, the White House’s inability to adjust to evolving battlefield conditions and the institutionalization of abhorrent practices were given cover of the entirely rational attack upon the Taleban and al-Qaida in Afghanistan after September 11, 2001.

The War on Terror is not the naming of enemies, like the Franco-Prussian War or the French and Indian War. It does not name a purpose the way The War of Spanish Succession or the War for Independence does – these tell you at least what the war is about. The War on Terror almost reeks of a semantic cover for something much nastier and controversial coming up. Having bought the loyalty of the frightened, The War on Terror told us the government was about to make us watch it beat up a kid and take his candy, otherwise we were out of the club. And we knew as we watched, sick to our stomach, that it was only going to get worse.

As a name, The War on Terror buys into the jingoistic hoopla that comes out of the mouths of fourth-graders building a fort in the backyard. Tapper reminds us of an incident during a Democratic debate in which there was a show of hands asked of candidates who believed there was a Global War on Terror. Was is really only two years ago that legitimate reporters were asking this question? Now it seems that we’re concerned with strategic alignments of tribes in Pakistan’s Baluchistan and how much infrastructure to invest in schools and roads in Afghanistan. The difference? We’re not constricting our thinking in the moral straitjacket of some Tom and Jerry plot, where opponents trade blows with hammer and chainsaw until one is eventually beaten into submission. Free to handle tactical problems as tactical problems, the coalition in Afghanistan can attempt to win the battlefield – which in a guerilla insurgency is always the population – in practical steps rather than bullying our way into the hearts of the Afghan people. The War against The Taliban and al-Qaida is now something to win, rather than amorphous cover for a snakeball of cockeyed global domination projects.

If this is a return to sanity, then, let us make the most of it – you never know how long these things last. Any old alcoholic can wake up shivering on a curb, in his bare feet, covered in his own filth and swear never to end up that way again. It’s the serious ones who find a way to stay on the wagon. We as a nation need to re-establish the checks and balances among the three branches of government. Never again should the executive be allowed to claim sole power and determine that it should oversee itself. This is just as bad an idea in government as it is in the derivatives market.

Finally we should prosecute the people who led us down this road of madness in the first place: those who authorized torture and warrantless wiretapping, who manufactured evidence to lead us to war, who covered their own ineptness with official secrecy, who wilfully flouted the laws of civilized behavior, and who used the Constitution as though it were the Lead Pipe of Freedom, a self-rationalizing cudgel whose bearer could do no wrong. Many of the architects of Bush’s administration admired the Nixon White House’s approach to the world – and if they’re not thoroughly repudiated, they’ll stand as a shining example to the next generation of oversimplifying, paranoid Napoleons waiting to take their turn wrapped in the flag.

Sunday, March 29, 2009

When Awful Things Happen to Terrible People

I do not recall joining the TalebanSpring, that heartening season when life returns to the world, brings on a wonderful sense of renewal and restoration of a long-lost balance: migratory birds start arriving home, bugs and flowers peep out of the ground and begin celebrating the warm, moist days – and a Spanish prosecutor contemplates indicting Alberto Gonzales for war crimes.

Gonzales has garnered himself a coveted niche in the annals of American jurisprudence – he rose from a hapless Texas yes-man to then-governor George W. Bush to the yes-man for the Bush administration’s initiatives to keep Afghan prisoners out of the reach of any criminal authority in his stint as legal counsel to the president, and from there ascended to Attorney General, inspiring many Americans to do something they never thought possible: miss the wisdom and sober judgment of John Ashcroft.

Currently Spanish judge Baltazar Garzon is considering an indictment against Gonzales and others in the Bush Justice Department for authorizing torture – a term which elicited, in a White House noted for its disdain for such fancy ideas as ethical relativism, an almost reverential degree of nuance, ambiguity and downright confusion. On January 25, 2002, Gonzales issued a memo calling a long-standing treaty against abuse of detainees “
obsolete,” while in its defense the Bush administration adamantly declared, “We do not torture.” As though, possibly, the legal opinion that the Geneva Conventions were outmoded was really only a commentary on their oh-so-1950s typeface.

Then-Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, another cautious and deliberate figure when it came to matters of law, issued a memo the very next day that Afghan detainees would receive protection only "
to the extent appropriate and consistent with military necessity." While there is no evidence that Rumsfeld also issued thumbscrews and fireplace pokers to relevant combat units, this was probably an oversight on his part, as he was extremely busy underequipping and underplanning the subsequent invasion of Iraq because of the urgent fear that Saddam Hussein might commit more human rights abuses.

Subsequent investigation has shown a direct link between Gonzales’ authorization of policies that go beyond limitations of US law to cases of torture and abuse that riddled the military for years afterwards, from the waterboarding of high-value detainees to the torture of prisoners held without charge at Guantanamo Bay to the beating to death of a
cabbie in Bagram in US custody to the abuses at Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq.

You might think that after creating such a memorable legacy, your average sadist would rest on his laurels (i.e. the skulls of little children) and spend some time congratulating himself on the vast swath of unspeakable horror he’s managed to exsanguinate onto the Constitution. But that would be to misunderestimate Gonzales. It was he, after all, in his previous capacity as legal counsel to then-Governor Bush, who had formulated a memo summarizing the clemency petition of death row inmate
Terry Washington – a memo so cursorily penned that it barely mentioned the mitigating factors in Washington’s case – among them that the mentally-retarded 33-year-old had the developmental abilities of a seven-year-old and that he and his siblings had been frequently “beaten with whips, water hoses, extension cords, wire hangers, and fan belts.” Bush denied Washington’s petition on May 6, 1997 and he was executed that same day.

If anything could further exacerbate Gonzales’ fetishizing of human suffering and his Rumsfeldian inattention to obvious facts (besides a passion for
clown paintings and a large crawl space, that is), it was his ambition to play out his medieval sense of right and wrong on a larger stage – as Attorney General or even as a justice of the Supreme Court. Fortunately Gonzales’ own ineptness, partisanship and downright stupidity kept him from that particular appointment – instead, after a scandal involving the firing of US Attorneys and his subsequent Congressional testimony that displayed equal parts ignorance, corruption and condescension, Gonzales announced his resignation on August 27, 2007, and has since spent his time puzzling over his inability to land a job.

In spite of Gonzales’ horrific performance as Attorney General, equal to the legacies left by previous Republicans such as John Mitchell and Ed Meese, it’s Gonzales’ sycophantically eager authorization of torture and other war crimes that did to American justice what a bus driver with macular degeneration and the DTs might do to a schoolyard full of children and puppies. His conduct has rightfully earned the attention of Judge Garzon – if not, alas, that of serious legal authorities in this country. And while his ambitions to the highest court in the land were thwarted, there is still hope that some sort of international tribunal can find him the lifetime appointment that would cap off his brilliant career.