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"It is better to be drunk with loss and to beat the ground, than to let the deeper things gradually escape."

- I. Compton-Burnett, letter to Francis King (1969)

"Cynical realism – it is the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation."

- Aldous Huxley, "Time Must Have a Stop"

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Friday, 25 November 2005

Topic: Chasing the Zeitgeist


The item in these pages - It Really is Always About Sex - was, in its final conclusions, about just that, but much leading up to that was about this mid-week news - In Legal Shift, U.S. Charges Detainee in Terrorism Case - "The Bush administration brought terrorism charges on Tuesday against Jose Padilla in a criminal court after holding him for three and a half years in a military brig as an enemy combatant once accused in a 'dirty bomb' plot."

The New York Times here didn't put it so bluntly, but comes down to the fact that Padilla was detained at Chicago's O'Hare airport in early 2002, and held as a "material witness" in New York, then our government, facing a legal deadline to defend this decision to hold him as a material witness indefinitely, labeled this guy an "enemy combatant" and shipped him off to a military brig - claiming congress gave the president full authority to do what was necessary to disarm Saddam and deal as he saw fit with any threats associated with terrorism – and thus they determined this fellow had no legal rights at all, as in no right to counsel or to be charged with a crime - even if he was an American citizen (he is a Brooklyn-born, or Chicago-born, former gang member who converted to Islam). They first said he was plotting to set off a "dirty bomb" – then there was some legal maneuvering and in June 2004, as the courts considered the case - can you hold an American citizen and take away all his rights on the president's word? - the government released a surprise document saying, well, no, the dirty bomb thing may have been a mistake - he was really plotting to blow up a particular apartment building, so throw away the key based on that. Now they're actually going for a criminal trial, with all the features that all of us think we as citizens have a right to, charging him with being part of "a broad conspiracy to provide material support for terrorism and to murder, kidnap and maim people overseas." This change of tactics was puzzling, but seemed a way to keep the issue of whether the president has this power - to suspend any citizen's legal rights as will - off the docket. Charge him with a lesser crime, so this issue goes away.

But that the guy was held for three and a half years without charges does matter to some of us bleeding-heart liberals (and to some conservatives), those of us who think this isn't how the country ought to be run, even if "everything changed after September 11" and all that. We kind of liked the constitution. It seemed like a fine document, laying out some "inalienable rights" that, even if rights asserted in the middle of the eighteenth century, were pretty good even now.

Over at MSNBC, Eric Alterman put it this way -
You know, if the Bush administration says it can pick up an American citizen off the street, hold him incommunicado, refuse him the right to a trial and refuse to explain what the nature of his crime is, I think this pretty much makes the United States Constitution inoperative. Sure, not many of us are likely to face the problems that Mr. Padilla faces, and for all I know he is a bad guy. But our Constitutional protections are supposed to apply to bad guys as much as good guys. What’s more these dishonest incompetent ideological extremists are almost always hiding something significant whenever they claim to be operating in our national security interests, and you’d have to be an idiot (or a White House reporter or a Fox News anchor) even to be able to pretend to believe them this time. I’m sure when this is over we will find out they are just covering up their own incompetence and dishonesty. But the lack of outcry over this naked police state tactic is one more example of how increasingly hollow are our claims to be an example to anyone of anything, save hypocrisy.
A bit overheated, but not wrong-headed.

But are these guys just covering up their own incompetence and dishonesty?

Seems so. Thanksgiving Day, the New York Times, citing "unnamed current and former government officials," ran a front page story saying there was indeed something else going on - the administration backed down from the more serious charges against Jose Padilla because the "Dirty Bomb" case relied on testimony of two al Qaeda suspects who are secretly being held by us at those "black sites" - and they gave their testimony while being tortured. An internal CIA report concluded that one of the men had talked while being subjected to what the Times call "excessive use" of waterboarding.

Oops. The item indicates the government decided they just could not have a trial that would raise the issue of whether we really could (or should) be kidnapping folks and torturing them. Now whether waterboarding is torture or not is in dispute. The subject is convinced he or she is drowning and will die, and always says anything at all, very quickly, to make it stop. But they don't die, usually, and no bones are broken and no major organs fail, so is it really torture? You can look up all the discussion of that. There are some internal government memos.

No opinion is offered here, but when you have to wonder what sort of country we've become when the discussion is whether we're doing something that seems like torture or something really very close but not quite the same thing - and no matter how you decide that, whether it is or is not a good thing, if it saves innocent lives. Were, say, one of our pilots captured and this technique used to find out what village would be bombed next so the other guys could get the women and children out and save innocent lives, would the definition change?

There's the question, too, of whether you use torture, or this almost-torture-but-not-quite-the same-thing, when the subject may be innocent and know nothing, but you're not sure. Should we do this in a sort of "exploratory" way, and be willing to say "sorry" if we're dealing with someone who turns out to be a nobody who knows nothing?

And do such techniques work? If the subject will say anything to make the pain stop or to stay alive, how do you evaluate what you hear?

And last year, Phil Carter here hit on another problem - obtaining information through torture makes criminal prosecution more difficult, if not impossible.
Any information gained through torture will almost certainly be excluded from court in any criminal prosecution of the tortured defendant. And, to make matters worse for federal prosecutors, the use of torture to obtain statements may make those statements (and any evidence gathered as a result of those statements) inadmissible in the trials of other defendants as well. Thus, the net effect of torture is to undermine the entire federal law enforcement effort to put terrorists behind bars. With each alleged terrorist we torture, we most likely preclude the possibility of a criminal trial for him, and for any of the confederates he may incriminate.
The courts have long recognized these techniques do not provide information that passes any test for veracity.

As pointed out here, recently CIA intelligence officers leaked information about CIA interrogation techniques and the "questionable confessions" that have been obtained through them. "They can tell you to the minute how long it will usually take before someone will give up information under different techniques. They also know that the information is as likely to be a lie as the truth."

So the prosecution of Padilla was jeopardized "by the means of collecting information against him," and these folks also don't want anyone to know any more details about how we are treating prisoners. We are not looking good around the world. So we get a lesser count.

How bad are we looking around the world? Try this:

Replant the American Dream
David Ignatius, The Washington Post, Friday, November 25, 2005 - Page A37

Okay, Ignatius started traveling all over as a foreign correspondent twenty-five years ago, and spins a tail of celebrating Thanksgiving here and there around the world, most times with a sentimental toast to America - and "more than once I had my foreign guests in tears." They loved the American dream as much as he did.

Now? -
I don't think Americans realize how much we have tarnished those ideals in the eyes of the rest of the world these past few years. The public opinion polls tell us that America isn't just disliked or feared overseas - it is reviled. We are seen as hypocrites who boast of our democratic values but who behave lawlessly and with contempt for others. I hate this America-bashing, but when I try to defend the United States and its values in my travels abroad, I find foreigners increasingly are dismissive. How do you deny the reality of Abu Ghraib, they ask, when the vice president of the United States is actively lobbying against rules that would ban torture?

Of all the reversals the United States has suffered in recent years, this may be the worst. We are slowly shredding the fabric that defines what it means to be an American.
Well, the counterargument is that what they think doesn't matter - everything changed on September 11, 2001, and we have to protect ourselves. And they never liked us much anyway. (But why did so many want to come here, and why do they still want to come here?)

In any event, this is what he's seen in recent years -
We inherited incredible riches of goodwill - a world that admired our values and wanted a seat at our table - and we have been squandering them. The Bush administration didn't begin this wasting of American ideals, but it has been making the problem worse. Certainly George W. Bush has been spending our international political capital at an astounding clip.

When I began traveling as a foreign correspondent ... I thought I understood what the face of evil looked like. There were governments that used torture against their enemies; they might call it "enhanced interrogation" or some other euphemism, but it was torture, and you just hoped, as an American, that you were never unlucky enough to be their prisoner. There were governments that "disappeared" people - snatched them off the street and put them without charges in secret prisons where nobody could find them. There were countries that threatened journalists with physical harm.
Yeah, and now we do all that. But the counterargument is that we have to do all that. See what "changed everything" above. The counterargument is that nostalgia is not reality.

Ignatius says this really should change, but the government is not going to do it. Who will? You and me -
I would love to see the Bush administration take the lead, but its officials seem not to understand the problem. Even if they turned course, much of the world wouldn't believe them. Sadly, when President Bush eloquently evokes our values, the world seems to tune out. So this task falls instead to the American public. It's a job that involves traveling, sharing, living our values, encouraging our children to learn foreign languages and work and study abroad. In short, it means giving something back to the world.

We must stop behaving as if we are in a permanent state of war, in which any practice is justified by the exigencies of the moment. That's my biggest problem with Vice President Cheney's anything-goes jeremiads against terrorism. They suggest we will always be at war, and so it doesn't matter what the world thinks of our behavior.

That's a dangerously mistaken view. We are in a long war but not an endless one, and we need to begin rebuilding the bridges to normal life.
Ah, had I funds I would gladly return to Paris, and get my meager French working again, and visit Prague, where my grandparents lived, and see if any of the Pittsburgh-tainted Czech comes back.

But anyone traveling and sharing and listening and knowing the language would now, of course, be seen as "the exception to the rule." It may be too late. The damage may be too deep.

We now have this reputation, and that will take more than a few "exceptions" to overcome.

We elected those who are proud that the public around the world hates us and their governments are thus reluctant to support us. They see that as a sign of strenghth - we have resolve and the balls to do what's hard to do when no one else will.

We've got three more years of such leadership. No one outside these borders will be impressed with a random curious and eccentric long-term visitor from America upstairs or down the street. They'll wait and see who we next elect as the man who represents just who we are. And that's a long way off.

Posted by Alan at 00:21 PST | Post Comment | Permalink
Updated: Friday, 25 November 2005 09:22 PST home

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