Posts Tagged ‘September 11’

In Response To Those Disturbed By Celebrating on the Death of Bin Laden

Tuesday, May 3rd, 2011

I mourn the loss of thousands of precious lives, but I will not rejoice in the death of one, not even an enemy. Returning hate for hate multiplies hate, adding deeper darkness to a night already devoid of stars. Darkness cannot drive out darkness: only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate: only love can do that. – Martin Luther King, Jr.

I started seeing this quote popping up in my Facebook feed last night. In response, let me say 2 things:

(1) It’s fake. Martin Luther King, Jr., didn’t say that. It’s loosely based on this quote.

(2) Do you remember your first time watching The Wizard of Oz as a kid? That feeling of elation in the moments after the witch melted and the munchkins and everyone else began to sing, “Ding dong, the witch is dead!”?

Whether rational or not, the figure of Osama Bin Laden — and our inability to find him — has loomed over our consciousness since September 11. His survival despite America’s might directed against him, despite the abhorrence of his crimes, suggested impotence and an inability to control events and affect our own fate. The knowledge that not only did he survive, but he continued to plan to kill and terrorize — that at any moment, some decision of his which we had no way of affecting could wreck the lives of thousands, even our own — loomed over us. But on May 1, 2011, order was restored and the villain taken down. And that is a catharsis worthy of storybooks.

Voices urging restraint and caution at such moments of national catharsis are good and worthy. Because moments of catharsis can be distorted — they can turn to ugly emotions. Wisdom counsels that we “Rejoice not when thine enemy falleth, and let not thine heart be glad when he is overthrown.”  It is unseemly to celebrate murder — and all too easy to demonize one’s enemies to justify resorting to violence. But as another wise man said,  “A foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of little minds.”

And it was Martin Luther King who said, “the arc of history is long but it bends towards justice” — and even as this prophet of non-violence may not have condoned it — in Bin Laden’s violent end by American hands, there was justice.

An evil man who claimed theological justification and technological means to murder millions; who inspired, authorized and directed the killing of thousands; who wanted women confined to a second-class status; who directed the killings of the vast majority of Muslims as unclean unbelievers — an evil man who murdered 3,000 souls on one fateful September morning — this Sunday, he was removed from this world.

And the world is better for it.

And for that, we should all celebrate.

[Image by Dan Nguyen @ New York City licensed under Creative Commons.]

The Best Proven Defense Against Terrorism

Monday, December 28th, 2009

The attempted terrorist attack of Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab on Christmas Day reiterates the lesson America should have learned, but did not learn, on that day:

The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people, is the American people themselves – properly informed.

Bruce Schneir makes a similar limited point about the impotence of so many national security measures:

Only two things have made flying safer [since 9/11]: the reinforcement of cockpit doors, and the fact that passengers know now to resist hijackers.

It is shocking that this lesson still remains unlearned. And not only does it remain unlearned, but the opposite lesson has been taken. Rather than learning from the events of that day, many have taken their lessons from the television show 24 where an all-powerful, centralized government bureaucracy aiding a rogue agent is able to prevent or mitigate one disaster after another. If one Big Brother-type agency can protect us, then torture, wars in the Middle East, and unlimited executive powers could be the answer. But this requires one to believe that government bureaucracies are incredibly competent – and never fail, even once. As the national security maxim goes: We need to stop them every time to claim success. They only need to succeed once.

Yet, right wingers have lined up to promote this idea that everyone must expect a super-competent government, even as they dismiss government’s ability to effectively do anything else – as for example Henry Paine in the National Review complained of the “federal takeover of the U.S. health system” while blaming the Obama administration for the fact that Abdulmutallab was on this plane, calling the two stories together “A Tale of Failed Washington Priorities.” James Joy Carafano explained that in stopping this attack, we “just got lucky” – which is true – but he couples this with the suggestion that centralized government action would fix this if only Obama cared about stopping terrorism and didn’t want  “Department of Homeland Security push for a mass amnesty bill [rather] than fight terrorists…”

Victor Davis Hanson almost perfectly captures the missed lesson with this:

I think the year-long mantra of “Bush destroyed the Constitution” is now almost over, and we will begin again worrying about our collective safety rather than scoring partisan points by citing supposed excesses in our anti-terrorism efforts… [Yet] As we learned on 9/11, it is often the unsung heroes among us that come out of the shadows to aid us, and not necessarily large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety. Individuals acting on their own so often make the difference between salvation and mass murder.

Let me rephrase: We must worry about “collective safety” and stop trying to protect the Constitution because….”large bureaucracies entrusted with our safety” fail and instead “Individuals acting on their own…make the difference between salvation and mass murder.”

Either that, or perhaps we should realize that no matter what our centralized bureaucratic institutions may do to try to protect us, they will never achieve the competence imagined on 24. Rather, even as they should do what they can, we must realize the lesson learned from these thwarted attacks is that we cannot trust the federal government to protect us. We must protect ourselves. George W. Bush did not have the power to keep us safe after September 11. We did that. Barack Obama likewise does not have the power.

Motivated, vigilant, informed citizens are not a “thin line of defense.” There is no perfect defense to motivated people willing to kill themselves. We should do everything we can to create responsible national security measures to prevent any terrorist attacks – but we must remember that no defense is perfect, and that the best defense, the only proven defense, as events have proven time and again, is a motivated, vigilant, informed citizenry.

[Image by bfraz licensed under Creative Commons.]

Our “Small Freedoms”

Wednesday, September 30th, 2009

I’ve kept a printout of this blog post from Andrew Sullivan for a long while now, meaning to comment on it – his reflective September 11 piece from earlier this year. I kept it because of this one sentence by Sullivan that moves me – and then with the last clause irks me.

Sullivan sets up the sentence by framing September 11 around his experience on his blog:

I’m sitting in the same spot as I was on that fateful morning, writing the same (if much more evolved) blog.

He continues, as longtime readers remember his almost hysterical blog response in which he seemed to equate all leftists with Al Qaeda, not quite making an excuse but offering an explanation for his gradual shift:

The human psyche is built to recover from trauma, and so we should not be surprised or alarmed that the emotions of that day are less vivid to us now.

It seems to me that this is an effective counter to Glenn Beck’s 9/12 project which seeks to recover the spirit in the immediate days of the aftermath (which Beck oddly seems to remember having a distinctly libertarian edge.) More important, it is an essential truth. Sullivan goes on:

But it is worth, it seems to me, remembering its extraordinary power. It was one of the most despicable mass murders in human history, conducted by religious fanatics bent on destroying Western civilization.

And then came the quote that moves me:

It was terrifying because they achieved this with only 19 men, some box-cutters and the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country…

For me, this is the key fact about September 11 – that the “small freedoms” we take for granted are so powerful – that those who are willing to disregard them so completely can cause enormous damage. In a less dramatic way, Bernie Madoff revealed in a similar way how a man, willing to disregard the rules so dramatically, can cause enormous damage.

And in both cases, the response has been – and almost has to be – overwhelming and entirely out of proportion to the impact of the particular event. But what bugged me about this nearly perfect sentence was how it ended:

…the small freedoms that we once took for granted in this country and now have no longer.

At that point, Sullivan seemed to strike a false note – as civil libertarians too often do – when they confuse the theoretically grave but rare breaches of liberty that the Bush administration was castigated for (torture, preventive detention by an unaccountable executive, etcetera) with the every day liberties which were barely affected. To a large degree, that is why the measures George W. Bush took didn’t alarm most Americans. (The measures should have, and I stand with the civil libertarians on this. Even though the fact that Bush ordered, for example, torture didn’t inconvenience 99.99% of Americans, it was a breach of the rule of law and undermined our democratic system itself.) And those every day liberties that were affected aren’t disputed as much – having to take off one’s shoes before going on an airplane, the numerous measures to harden potential targets that inconvenience many.

It seems to me that we continue to enjoy many “small freedoms” – even as others are taken away (from random bag searches to go on the subway, to having armed soldiers patrolling sensitive locations, etc.) – and that these “small freedoms” together are an immense vulnerability of our society. But they are being chipped away at; and the grave breaches of the rule of law by the Bush administration have eroded the normal system of checks and balances, and Obama has not yet been able to, and seems to have barely tried, to restore this balance. I guess this is what bothers me: We Americans have not yet given up our “small freedoms;” and we still will and do fight for them, whether against the tyranny of big corporations, against the encroaching government (and this), against terrorists. September 11 changed many things, but it has not yet changed this fundamental aspect of America. Deciding how to react to these challenges to our freedoms is the basic task of our politics, and the inherent conflict that makes liberalism a living force.

What We Forgot All Too Quickly

Friday, September 11th, 2009

This morning, I re-read George W. Bush’s September 20, 2001 address to a Joint Session of Congress. You should too.

It is an impressive speech – both in its temperance and quality of rhetoric and how it so clearly set up the tragedies that were to come. Re-reading the words written so near the aftermath of this attack, it is remarkable how clearly they foreshadow what came next. It is as if the Bush administration never recovered from this attack – and never took time to reflect after those panicked moments when the towers fell. Bush used the now ubiquitous formulation, “We will never forget,” repeatedly in the speech – though all too quickly, we seemed to forget all of those things he said we never would:

America will never forget the sounds of our National Anthem playing at Buckingham Palace, on the streets of Paris, and at Berlin’s Brandenburg Gate.

We will not forget South Korean children gathering to pray outside our embassy in Seoul, or the prayers of sympathy offered at a mosque in Cairo.

We will not forget moments of silence and days of mourning in Australia and Africa and Latin America.

Nor will we forget the citizens of 80 other nations who died with our own: dozens of Pakistanis; more than 130 Israelis; more than 250 citizens of India; men and women from El Salvador, Iran, Mexico, and Japan; and hundreds of British citizens.

Yet too often since then, “We will never forget,” is used as a code word for the other elements of his speech that came to dominate the polarizing battles as America re-polarized: from his declaration that every nation must be either with us or with the terrorists to his declaration that terrorism was motivated by the hatred of our freedom to his understated plea for more centralized executive power. (I’ve always found it interesting that the loudest voices railing against any curbs on government power used to defeat terrorism seem to live in areas remote from danger. The cities – where terrorism is much more likely – are hotbeds of liberalism and civil libertarianism. I, for one, work in a landmark building and pass through Penn Station, Times Square, and Grand Central Station.) Ignored from the text are the pleas for understanding of those different from us, his appreciation for the support of the world, and his declaration that in our response, America proved itself resilient and strong.

But for me, the two most memorable lines are the following – at the beginning and then end of the speech:

Our grief has turned to anger, and anger to resolution. Whether we bring our enemies to justice, or bring justice to our enemies, justice will be done…

Fellow citizens, we’ll meet violence with patient justice – assured of the rightness of our cause, and confident of the victories to come.

This is the path not taken. In our response, we often failed to live up to these words, these noble goals. Our justice system was deemed too weak for terrorists. Patience was abandoned in favor of short-term actions.  And all too quickly, the Baby Boom generation re-polarized along partisan lines as Karl Rove sought to turn what he saw Bush’s greatest weakness into his strength. And, in neglecting to reflect on the events of that day, we learned the wrong lessons – focusing on a “by any means necessary” response indicative of panic that undermined our power rather than the true lesson about America’s core strength that was revealed in the efficacy of the local responses and in the only thwarted attack:

The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

We should never forget this – and remembering this day should reinforce our resolve to “meet violence with patient justice” and to stand for the civilization, freedom, the rule of law in the face of fear and terrorism rather than being cowed into preemptive surrender.

[Image by amarine88 licensed under Creative Commons.]

Experimenting With National Security Policy

Tuesday, June 23rd, 2009

On September 11, 2001, the Bush administration was taken by surprise. Their immediate reactions are forgivable, if disheartening – the 7 1/2 minutes reading a book after being told “America is under attack;” the quick spreading of false information at the top levels as officials thought that the State Department had been attacked and that taxi cabs were planning on blowing themselves up in front of major Washington buildings; the order by Cheney to take out a civilian airliner, usurping the role of the president. President Bush and Condi Rice clearly panicked – as Rice has essentially admitted since leaving office:

Unless you were there in a position of responsibility after September 11th, you cannot possibly imagine the dilemmas that you faced in trying to protect Americans. And I know a lot of people are second-guessing now, but let me tell you what the second-guessing that would really have hurt me – if the second-guessing had been about 3,000 more Americans dying because we didn’t do everything we could to protect them.

Karl Rove, seeing his dream of a realignment of the electorate threatened by the biggest terrorist attack in American history likewise panicked.

Cheney though was emboldened – his sense of purpose, his disdain for America’s delicate system of checks and balances, and his radicalism imbued Bush’s first term with a reactionary fervor. The War on Terror became synonymous with Cheney’s goal of creating an imperial presidency. At this point, in the aftermath of this devastating attack, Rove began to plan for ways to turn this glaring weakness into a strength; and Cheney attempted to change the American structure of government – believing that 9/11 would have been prevented if only the president had more power. Thus, Cheney began to systematically use this crisis to centralize more power in the White House – and to assert greater executive powers and to outright reject the powers of the legislative, judicial, and quasi-independent branches of government to check his or the president’s power. Laws were read in such a way as to maximally expand presidential power – with a statute declaring war on Al Qaeda secretly being understood to overturn decades of legislation, for example; vast areas of law were secretly held to be unconstitutional checks on the president’s power and were ignored. In so doing, Cheney began to fundamentally alter the American social bargain.

It wasn’t until far right-wingers from Office of Legal Counsel Director Jack Goldsmith, Attorney General John Ashcroft, FBI Director Robert Mueller, Deputy Attorney General James Comey, and quite a few other top CIA, FBI, and Justice employees were about to resign that Bush finally realized how radical his administration had become. By Bush’s second term, he began to walk most of his more radical policies back – though refusing to admit any fault and maintaining his authority to do all of it.

Now that Bush is no longer in office, liberals, libertarians, progressives, and other Bush administration opponents had two basic conceptions of how to move forward and how to look at the radicalism of Bush’s first term and his assertions of executive power that he maintained until he left office. The first conception was well expressed by Tom Malinowski of the Human Rights Watch at a Congressional hearing on June 11, 2009:

We should stop experimenting. We should not build yet another untested structure on a foundation of failure. We should finally, at long last, bring to justice the men who killed thousands of people on September 11, and others who have committed or planned or aided the murder of Americans. And we should do it in a system that works.

On the other side, some who opposed the radical actions of Bush-Cheney still saw within September 11 something similar to what Cheney did – a unique threat to our way of life. What these individuals are forced to do is balance the threat of catastrophic terrorism with the desire to preserve our way of life. Rather than starting with the assumption that a stronger president with fewer checks on his or her power is the only way to prevent terrorism, these individuals believe we must experiment with our laws and institutions, to tinker with them, to achieve this right balance – all within the public realm and with the consent of the people, rather than in secret.

In an interview with a British paper, Philip Bobbitt, for example, makes the case for why we need to experiment with our national security policy – focusing specifically on the idea of stockpiling laws:

I think when you go to weapons of mass destruction you’re talking about just a completely different level of horror and disruption…We must come, as societies, to some understanding of what we’re facing, and in these times of tranquillity organise ourselves and debate about what we will do if a catastrophe should come to pass. We should stockpile laws for such an eventuality, just as we stockpile vaccines. Then I think we have an excellent chance of getting through these attacks with systems of consent in place. But if we don’t do that, if we say oh, get real, this isn’t another second world war, surely you’re exaggerating the threat, this couldn’t possibly threaten our society now! It hasn’t yet! And if you don’t use the democratic process to put laws in place now, then in a way you become the ally of the terrorists because when a truly terrible series of mass atrocities really does occur and you don’t have anything to fall back on, that’s when you get martial law, that’s when you get the system that’s in democratic collapse, and you become the source of terror yourself. No, Bin Ladin isn’t going to invade and occupy Westminster and put Mullah Omar in the House of Lords, he’s not going to take over. If Britain becomes a state of terror it will be because we did it to ourselves and we did it because we did not prepare when we had the time and the peace to do so by law and by consensual systems.The United States can do the same thing. If we are busy throwing away laws, the one steady craft we have to get through this, Washington will turn us into a state of terror, we’ll do it. We’ll embrace it enthusiastically…

We need to focus on making our society more resilient in the event of an attack, on spreading information regarding terrorism so that citizens can make informed choices (as was successful in preventing the fourth attack on September 11). The laws regarding continuity of government – from my understanding – are incomplete Cold War relics. We need to take the threat of terrorism from the realm of fear and bring into the realm of rational thought. Obama, as president, is uniquely positioned to do this.

It seems to me that Malinowski’s approach – while understandable – is misguided. In a changing world,  our government must adapt, must experiment. And the threat from catastrophic terrorism – the threat inherent in a globalized world, with technology increasing the power of individuals exponentially – is real. It must change the calculus, the balancing test. We need to experiment with our national security policies – and get away from the Culture War politics that thanks to Rove and Cheney have come to dominate this arena. The Rule of Law and our way of life is better protected if we reflectively plan for an emergency now rather than overreacting in fear in the moment.

Framing the Torture Debate

Tuesday, April 21st, 2009

This isn’t a definitive timeline of the debate over torture in America. These are merely some highlights.

On September 11, 2001 we were attacked by militant islamists as they took advantage of the openness of our society and our technology and committed one of the most foul atrocities in history.

By September 12, 2001, everything had changed for those in power – and for many of us – “The sense of danger in the White House was urgent, palpable.” An associate of Condi Rice explained:

We really thought we were going to be attacked – possibly chemical, biological, even nuclear, the potential that they could blow up entire American cities…And then CIA came and said, ‘You know, this is the only way to question these people. Our experts say this is the only program that will work.’ And Justice said that the [Geneva Conventions] didn’t apply…and that the agency program did comply with the torture statute.

Others in the White House described a feeling of panic imbuing all their actions.

On September 16, 2001Dick Cheney appeared on Meet the Press:

I think the important thing here, Tim, is for people to understand that, you know, things have changed since last Tuesday…We…have to work, though, sort of the dark side, if you will. We’ve got to spend time in the shadows in the intelligence world. A lot of what needs to be done here will have to be done quietly, without any discussion, using sources and methods that are available to our intelligence agencies, if we’re going to be successful. That’s the world these folks operate in, and so it’s going to be vital for us to use any means at our disposal, basically, to achieve our objective.

On August 1, 2002, what becomes known as the Bybee torture memo, written apparently by his deputy John Yoo, re-defines torture as physical pain:

equivalent in intensity to the pain accompanying serious physical injury, such as organ failure, impairment of bodily function, or even death.

It is not known if all of the techniques justified using this legal shield have been made public – but a partial list includes:

  • Suffocation by water (waterboarding, or traditionally, the water torture);
  • Prolonged stress standing position, naked, held with the arms extended and chained above the head…
  • Beatings by use of a collar held around the detainees’ neck and used to forcefully bang the head and body against the wall…
  • Beating and kicking, including slapping, punching, kicking to the body and face…
  • Confinement in a box to severely restrict movement…
  • Prolonged nudity…this enforced nudity lasted for periods ranging from several weeks to several months…
  • Sleep deprivation…through use of forced stress positions (standing or sitting), cold water and use of repetitive loud noises or music…
  • Exposure to cold temperature…especially via cold cells and interrogation rooms, and…use of cold water poured over the body or…held around the body by means of a plastic sheet to create an immersion bath with just the head out of water.
  • Prolonged shackling of hands and/or feet…
  • Threats of ill-treatment, to the detainee and/or his family…
  • Forced shaving of the head and beard…
  • Deprivation/restricted provision of solid food from 3 days to 1 month after arrest…

Sometime in 2002John Ashcroft exclaims during a meeting of the cabinet-level officials going over the details of how detainees are being interrogated:

History will not judge this kindly.

Donald Rumsfeld writes on 2002 memo describing interrogation techniques:

I stand for 8-10 hours a day. Why is standing limited to four hours?

Rumsfeld presumably stood at a desk, using it for support and moved around – a very different experience than “forced standing,” a former Communist torture technique which can result in physical effects which Red Cross reports described in detainees:

After 18 to 24 hours of continuous standing, there is an accumulation of fluid in the tissues of the legs. This dependent edema is produced by the extravasation of fluid from the blood vessels. The ankles and feet of the prisoner swell to twice their normal circumference. The edema may rise up the legs as high as the middle of the thighs. The skin becomes tense and intensely painful. Large blisters develop, which break and exude watery serum….

Beginning in 2004, photographs from the Abu Ghraib scandal surface:

Christopher Hitchens – after publicaly calling waterboarding and the other interrogation methods used merely “extreme interrogation” and not “outright torture” – accepts a challenge to undergo it himself. He comes away a changed man:

Here is the most chilling way I can find of stating the matter. Until recently, “waterboarding” was something that Americans did to other Americans. It was inflicted, and endured, by those members of the Special Forces who underwent the advanced form of training known as sere (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, Escape). In these harsh exercises, brave men and women were introduced to the sorts of barbarism that they might expect to meet at the hands of a lawless foe who disregarded the Geneva Conventions. But it was something that Americans were being trained to resist, not to inflict…

[I]f waterboarding does not constitute torture, then there is no such thing as torture.

Deroy Murdok writes in the National Review:

Waterboarding is something of which every American should be proud.

 

Former CIA operative Barry Eisler:

[T]orture is also an excellent way to get the subject to confess to anything at all, which is why it was a wonderful tool for the Spanish Inquisition and for the secret police of assorted totalitarian regimes. But if the goal is to produce accurate, actionable intelligence, torture is madness… To paraphrase Oscar Wilde, torture is worse than immoral: it’s tactically stupid. It produces false confessions, which can be used to confirm mistaken suspicions and even outright policy fantasies; it instills an insatiable thirst for vengeance in most people who are subjected to it, and so creates new, dedicated enemies; it permanently brutalizes its practitioners; and it cuts us off from intelligence from the local populace because so many people will refuse to inform on someone if they fear he’ll be tortured.

On October 15, 2004, Justice John Stevens wrote:

For if this nation is to remain true to the ideals symbolized by its flag, it must not wield the tools of tyrants even to resist an assault by the forces of tyranny.

On June 14, 2005, Senator Dick Durbin gave a controversial speech in which he read from an FBI report of detainee interrogations:

If I read this to you and did not tell you that it was an FBI agent describing what Americans had done to prisoners in their control, you would most certainly believe this must have been done by Nazis, Soviets in their gulags, or some mad regime – Pol Pot or others – that had no concern for human beings. Sadly, that is not the case. This was the action of Americans in the treatment of their prisoners

Malcolm Nance, a former SERE interrogator explained that Senator Dick Durbin was right:

Now, at long last, six years of denials can now be swept aside, and we can say definitively: America engaged in torture and legalized it through paperwork.

Despite all the gyrations – the ducking, dodging and hiding from the facts – there is no way to say that these people were not authorizing torture. Worse yet, they seem to have not cared a wit that these techniques came from the actual manuals of communist, fascist and totalitarian torturers.

On September 28, 2005, Captain Ian Fishback wrote a letter to Senator John McCain:

…the most important question that this generation will answer [is] Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security? Terrorism inspires fear and suppresses ideals like freedom and individual rights. Overcoming the fear posed by terrorist threats is a tremendous test of our courage. Will we confront danger and adversity in order to preserve our ideals, or will our courage and commitment to individual rights wither at the prospect of sacrifice? My response is simple. If we abandon our ideals in the face of adversity and aggression, then those ideals were never really in our possession.I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is “America.

On November 4, 2005, Senator John McCain explained his opposition to torture:

I have said it before but it bears repeating: The enemy we fight has no respect for human life or human rights. They don’t deserve our sympathy. But this isn’t about who they are. This is about who we are. These are the values that distinguish us from our enemies, and we can never, never allow our enemies to take those values away.

On January 19, 2009Dick Cheney explained to the Weekly Standard

I think on the left wing of the Democratic party, there are some people who believe that we really tortured…

On January 14, 2009, Bob Woodward interviewed the top Bush administration official in charge of deciding whether to bring Guantanamo Bay detainees to trial in the Washington Post:

“We tortured [Mohammed al-]Qahtani,” said Susan J. Crawford, in her first interview since being named convening authority of military commissions by Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates in February 2007. “His treatment met the legal definition of torture. And that’s why I did not refer the case” for prosecution.

On January 22, 2009, a day after taking office, Barack Obama said:

I can say without exception or equivocation that the United States will not torture.

In April 2009, Mark Danner in the New York Review of Books:

[T]he political logic is insidious and, in the aftermath of a future attack, might well prove compelling…

The only way to defuse the political volatility of torture and to remove it from the center of the “politics of fear” is to replace its lingering mystique, owed mostly to secrecy, with authoritative and convincing information about how it was really used and what it really achieved.

On April 20, 2009, Dick Cheney told Sean Hannity:

I’ve now formally asked the CIA to take steps to declassify those memos so we can lay them out there and the American people have a chance to see what we obtained and what we learned and how good the intelligence was, as well as to see this debate over the legal opinions.

In spring 2008, Eric Holder explained:

We owe the American people a reckoning.

On March 18, 2008 Dawn Johnsen, who has been appointed to head Obama’s Office of Legal Counsel which was responsible for the legal opinions cited above wrote in in Slate:

We must avoid any temptation simply to move on. We must instead be honest with ourselves and the world as we condemn our nation’s past transgressions and reject Bush’s corruption of our American ideals. Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.

On April 19, 2009, Peggy Noonan on This Week With George Stephanopoulos:

Some things in life need to be mysterious … Sometimes you need to just keep walking.

(All emphases within quotations are my own.)

This is where we stand today – thanks to the courage of heroes within the Bush administration and the military who stood for American values in a time of crisis and against preemptive surrender of our way of life and thanks to the courage of journalists from Mark Danner to Andrew Sullivan to Glenn Greenwald to Dana Priest to Jane Mayer who exposed these secret actions.

(more…)

The American People, Properly Informed

Monday, December 1st, 2008

For those of you that don’t know, I take the Long Island Rail Road into Manhattan every morning to work. I always get in the first car at my station. When I take the subways, I go from Penn Station to Times Square to Grand Central Station, where I get off to go to the Chrysler Building where I work.

So, reading that a Qaeda group wanted to attack the LIRR during this holiday season hit close to home:

The FBI’s source reportedly told agents of an al Qaeda-connected group’s desire to place bombs or suicide bombers inside the first and last Long Island Rail Road commuter cars and detonate them as the train entered Pennsylvania Station in Manhattan, also used by the Washington-New York-Boston Amtrak system and the New York City subway.

It’s the particulars that are chilling. That and the scare headlines – which were quickly eclipsed by the massive terrorist attack in Mumbai. But it’s not as if I am going to let such a threat change my life, my routine. The article also included a number of caveats – including a suggestion that the FBI wasn’t sure this had moved past the planning stage.

But it seems to me that making this potential means of attack public is quite a positive service, and suggests that maybe the national security infrastructure of the United States finally has figured out the lesson it had failed to learn after September 11:

The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

By letting us know, the government is treating us as adults rather than children – and betting that a few million people paying extra attention is worth something.

A Warning to John McCain

Saturday, October 4th, 2008

John (may I call you John?):

I guess I was wrong about you planning a strategy of making Obama seem un-American after your last debate with him.1 Apparently you’ve decided to launch this attack now.

Sarah Palin said yesterday that Obama had disqualified himself from being commander-in-chief, and today that Obama was “palling around with terrorists” and was “not a man who sees America as you see America and as I see America.”

It’s hard to see how she can escalate the rhetoric from here. She can call him a traitor. She can call him a terrorist. She can call him a Muslim. She can say he hates America. These are the only ways to truly go further. Make no mistake – this is a scorched-earth strategy. This is a strategy that attempts to define America in a way that excludes many of it’s citizens. If this is not an explicitly racist strategy, it is as close as a mainstream candidate can get – a candidate I might add who does not seem to be personally racist himself.

If you win with this strategy, the polarization that will accompany your administration will make the polarization of the past fourteen years seem tame. Racial tensions will be exacerbated to a point they have not been since the late 1960s. As this strategy is not designed on a set of policy issues or an agenda, it likely will not benefit the down-ticket candidates much at all, resulting in a expanded Democratic Congress. The feelings in this Congress will likely be as raw as your feelings were after losing to Bush – as you lost to what was previously described to be one of the dirtiest campaigns in history. Remember – you almost became a Democrat in this period – and opposed almost everything Bush proposed (a fact which you’re building on now as you constantly invokes this period to call yourself a maverick). Your contempt for Bush was legendary. And your status as a martyr for the honorable campaign that refused to go negative gave you great credibility.2 Now – imagine that voters elect a Congress of the party who expected to win the White House, only to have it denied them because of a national campaign that was explicitly designed to make their standard-bearer out to be a terrorist-sympathizing, un-American, menacing black man. Democrats will not just believe you cheated to win – but that you encouraged and played on the worst aspects of America in order to do so. And they would be right.

If you – a Republican apparently sympathetic to most of Bush’s policies – was driven to oppose Bush, to lead the charge against him even, by bitterness over your defeat – just imagine how much more bitter, how much angrier, Democrats would be if you were to win with a similar strategy. Imagine the deadlock. Imagine reaching out to this Congress.

But the timing of this attack gives me hope. It is both too late and too early. Those who believe smear emails have heard that Obama is a secret Muslim and hates America and all that. And those who listen to right-wing radio have too. But for many Americans, even as they may have been vaguely aware of such charges, have not heard anyone they trust make them – and they know charges like these have been in the background about every Democratic presidential candidate since at least Bill Clinton in 1992.

But now Palin is bringing them up. And these people have a choice to either trust her or not.

To trust her, these people first need to distrust several things:

  1. The media (who must be trying to cover up for Obama);
  2. Obama (who must be hiding his true self);
  3. The millions of Americans who voted in the Democratic primaries (because at best, they were fooled by Obama into thinking he was a red-blooded American like them);
  4. Joe Biden, Al Gore, Bill Clinton, Hillary Clinton, and many of the other Democrats who vouched for Obama (because if Obama really was a friend of terrorists not qualified to be commander-in-chief who is un-American – and these people have personally met him and subsequently vouched for him, they must at least partially agree with him);
  5. Themselves (because many of them thought Obama was authentic and inspired a feeling of pride in America in them – that it could produce someone like Obama).

It is the last step which is hardest. Because unless they have been ardently opposed to Obama from the beginning, they must admit that you were wrong – that they were made fools of – in order to believe Palin is right and that Obama stands opposed to what they believe.

They must also distrust their perception – because most people, seeing Obama debate you, saw that he held his own if he did not win outright. Obama was a steady, strong presence. He was confident. He was effective. He seemed very much a potential commander-in-chief. But Palin is telling them that when they saw this, they were wrong.

If this attack had been launched earlier – before most Americans had gotten to know Obama, I think it would have had a greater chance of succeeding. If it had been launched later, and Obama would not have a month to dispel the attacks, it might have swayed more people who would feel uneasy about electing someone who had been charged with such awful things.3 Which is why the timing gives me hope. It leaves just enough time for some well-justified backlash. And it clearly is a sign that you are growing increasingly desperate – as Obama is building a lead.

The fact that these attacks have not been launched by you until now that Obama is gaining ground will make some people distrust them. But the key point is this:

As Abraham Lincoln said,

You can fool all of the people some of the time, and some of the people all of the time, but you can’t fool all of the people all of the time.

Palin and yourself – in trying to exclude people like Obama from your definition of “American” – are working against what all of us have been taught in schools – our textbook understanding, our Saturday morning cartoon understanding, our life-as-it-is-lived understanding of America. It goes against this idea of America as a combination of a melting pot, Horatio Alger, Grandma, apple pie, cowboys, Martin Luther King, Jr., FDR, Lincoln, JFK, TR, Reagan, a city shining on a hill, a place where we judge people by not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character, a tolerant nation, a unique nation, a nation blessed by God, the nation that created jazz, baseball, and the Constitution, that sent men to the moon, that defeated the Nazis and the Communists, that fought a war against slavery, where life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are protected, where freedom rings, where tolerance reigns, where what is right with America can cure what is wrong with America – this ideal America we aspire to and sometimes seem to almost reach.

Barack Obama represents a nation that united as one on 9/11. Barack Obama would never have existed in an intolerant America, in a non-diverse America, in an America that would not allow a poor child to succeed on his merits. The America that united, with pride and patriotism, with defiance and neighborly spirit on 9/11 is precisely the America that Barack Obama is part of.

John – you and Sarah Palin can attack this America only at your own risk. And you should be careful, lest you go down in history as a villain, instead of the American hero you once were.

Sincerely,

A former supporter of yours in 2000,

Joe Campbell

P.S. Why not be a good fellow and try to make up for your sins here and donate to a good cause?

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  1. On the site, I wasn’t specific about the timing – but in private conversations I was pretty sure when this would be launched. []
  2. Of course, you had gone negative – just not as bad as Bush. []
  3. Would you trust someone accused of being a pedophile to watch your children? No – because it might be true. This same type of fear can easily lead people away from the candidate attacked most – unless he or she has a chance to dispel this and for you to come to trust your own judgment and to see the attacks as politically motivated. []

The Lesson We Did Not Learn from 9/11

Thursday, September 11th, 2008

On September 11, 2001, our national security state failed to protect us – but ordinary citizens sacrificed their lives to protect the seats of this state on United 93 and emergency responders and ordinary individuals gave their lives to help evacuate buildings. On September 11, the only effective responses were local and often spontaneous.

Yet the Bush administration took a different set of lessons from that day. They looked at what went wrong instead of what went right. The lessons they chose to take from this day have shaped the past seven years.

  • A more aggressive foreign policy. The first lesson the Bush administration took from the attacks on September 11 was that we needed to demonstrate our strength and that if we were “over there” they would not come “over here.” They believed that September 11 taught us that our foreign policy was too defensive – and needed to become more aggressive. The immediate steps they took – military action, economic pressure, and diplomatic pressure to prevent any of our enemies from having a sanctuary – were overdue and necessary. But they believed we needed to be more aggressive – and pursued a preventive war with Iraq (which they deliberately mislabeled as a preemptive war) and sought to transform the Middle East through elections and democracy. According to Bob Woodward, their first instincts after the attacks on September 11 were to attack Iraq – despite the lack of evidence linking it to the attacks.
  • Removing constraints on law enforcement. The second lesson the Bush administration took from the attacks was that if law enforcement had more power and civil liberties constrained them less, then they could have prevented the attacks. Although it was clear that the laws regarding warrants, surveillance, and intelligence-gathering needed to be updated to keep up with the times, the measures passed in the immediate aftermath of September 11 were broader.

What the Bush administration learned on September 11 was that we needed to strengthen the national security state to prevent another attack. They believed that a more aggressive national security state could have prevented the attacks.

Yet, they failed to learn any lessons from the only attack that was foiled that morning. While the national security apparatus was in shambles and scrambling to figure out what was going on, they were rescued by a group of citizens with no authority or special information. They were informed of what was going on by friends and family who had learned their information from a free press; the cell phones they used were on an open system  – and those who called did not worry that they were being monitored by the state; the people gathered together – as citizens do in a time of crisis – and acted communally and determinedly. Yet in the aftermath of the attacks, the president seemed to deliberately play down the one element of our society that had prevented an attack – the sense of volunteerism, of community, of active engagement. He said we should shop.

Our national security state should attempt to prevent another September 11, but while doing so, it must be careful not to undermine the very aspects of our society that actually functioned on that morning. The most profound lesson that we did not learn on September 11 was this:

The federal government cannot be everywhere. The best defense of our way of life, of our institutions, of our government, of our people is the American people themselves – properly informed.

[The conclusions of this piece are inspired by Stephen Flynn.]

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If that’s what you believe, Mr. McCain, you’ll have to draft me.

Monday, June 23rd, 2008

[Photo courtesy of christhedunn.]

Senator McCain:

You have said that Islamic extremism is:

the greatest evil, probably, that this nation has ever faced…

You have said that you think:

the transcendent challenge of the 21st century is radical Islamic extremists…

You have explained that you:

think it’s clear that this [war in Iraq] is now part of a titanic struggle between radical Islamic extremism and Western standards and values…

You have said that the war in Iraq is the main front in the battle against:

the incredible evil of radical Islamic extremism…

In an interview, you explained that you would:

much rather lose a campaign than lose a war. Because [you] think there’s so much at stake.

You said, as you launched the general election campaign, that you have always:

put our country before any President – before any party – before any special interest – before [your] own interest.

Your website quotes an NPR reporter saying that you are:

of the school where if you’re going to do something you should do it right and you should commit sufficient resources…

You have traveled around the country in a bus called “the Straight Talk Express.”

I bring all this up because if you truly believe we are in this titanic struggle with the fate of our nation and our values at stake and you are willing to risk your candidacy to convince the American people of this, shouldn’t you be calling on all Americans to sacrifice to defeat this transcendent challenge to our way of life?

Why is it that the only things (those of us who aren’t in the military) are being asked to give up are some of our liberties at home and some of our national values as we turn to the “dark side” to defeat terrorism?

If the threat we face is so dire, we obviously need to marshal all of our resources to defeat it.  If we need to win in Iraq and Afghanistan, and if you know that the only thing worse than a war with Iran is an Iran with a nuclear weapons (and Iran seems determined to get nuclear weapons), and as Pakistan destabilizes and if we are truly fighting a generational war and with our military already stretched to a breaking point, and with our civilization itself apparently at stake, we cannot afford to go to war with the military we have – we need to use every societal resource to make sure we have the military we need.  We obviously will need a draft.

Mr. McCain – I believe that we face a very real threat from Muslim extremism.  I remember waking up on the morning of September 11.  I work in the Chrylser Building in Manhattan, and I am aware of the threat of terrorism as I travel the subways at rush hour.  I believe that military measures are necessary as part of an overall strategy to deal with the threat of Muslim extremism – especially in the area of the world where, according to experts, many of these extremists are gathered – from Chechyna, from Al Qaeda, from the Taliban – the border between Afghanistan and Pakistan.  I believe it is likely that Al Qaeda will strike America again.  I take this threat seriously.

But I don’t believe you are being straight with us.

Why haven’t you laid out some plan, aside from staying in Iraq indefinitely, to marginalize and defeat Muslims extremism?  Why isn’t this plan one of the centerpieces of your campaign?  If we can’t afford to lose this war, why do the measures you propose we take seem so half-hearted?

Everyone has their own experience.  I don’t know what you believe – but I do know that I love my country.  I was a big supporter of yours in your 2000 campaign – sending far too many emails around to my relatives, pasting a bumper sticker onto one of my school notebooks, and trying to convince my friends to support you.  I counted you as a personal hero when you stood up to the Bush administration as it authorized torture, when you stood up to Bush’s irresponsible tax cuts, when you condemned the Swift Boaters for the trash they were throwing in 2004, and when you fought for campaign finance reform.  But now you support those tax cuts and you have made it clear that you believe that the CIA should be allowed to torture.  Your line about Boumediene was shameful.  I don’t mean to be a jerk, but you’re not the candidate I once supported.

This campaign you are running now is far different from your campaign to remake Washington in 2000.  Instead you advocate the preemptive surrender of our values in war-making and the preemptive surrender of our liberties at home.  You speak of Iraq as a kind of American protectorate and confuse the extremely different enemies we face.

If you can convince me that the threat we face is dire enough, I will volunteer in whatever capacity I might be most useful.  If I believed we were facing an existential struggle for our civilization, I would join the military.  If I believed some leader had a realistic plan – based on more than naive hopes of democracy-building by invasion – I would do what I could to help.  As it is, I am doing what I think is necessary to win this war against Muslim extremism.

I believe the problems we are facing are more complex and more challenging than a repeat of the Second World War.  And I believe we need a president who can inspire us to rise to the approaching challenges, who can remain steadfast in defending American values, who will marshal our resources wisely in the fight against Muslim extremism, and who will call on Americans to serve their country to allow us to make it through these hard times and emerge stronger.  I believe we need a president who can lead our nation in this war against Muslim extremism.  That’s why I support Barack Obama.  He’s not perfect, but he understands the moment we are in and the challenges forthcoming better than you seem to.

So, Mr. McCain –

If you can’t convince me, and if you believe your own straight talk about the absolute necessity and urgency of this war, you’ll have to draft me.  And the rest of my generation.  But you’ll have to get enough votes first.

Good luck with that.

Sincerely,

Joe Campbell

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