Catholicism Morality Politics The Opinionsphere

Robert P. George’s Perversions of Natural Law

[digg-reddit-me]I just hope I am right. If they are going to buy my arguments, I don’t want to mislead the whole church.

Robert P. George, perhaps prophetically, in the New York Times.

There’s a lot to excavate from this piece. And, in fact, if you are interested in Catholicism or politics, you should read the whole thing. I’ve heard of Robert P. George in passing, but in David D. Kirkpatrick’s telling, he has become the center of the Catholic-Evangelical-Republican coalition since the passing of Richard John Neuhaus.

Kirkpatrick brings out very clearly how George’s (and other Catholic conservatives’) theology happens to have evolved to perfectly suit the Republican Party – almost as if these people began with ideology and then picked and choose what to accept from Catholicism. But unlike most Catholic conservatives, George has an elaborate rationale for why this is so. It begins with Thomism and St. Thomas Aquinas’ theory of natural law. Aquinas applied Aristotlian logic to Christianity, creating a vibrant and comprehensive philosophy that explained everything with precision: from what was, to what should be, to what had been, and what would be. All that was left was to determine – as some mockingly pointed out – was how many angels could dance on the head of a pin. Since Aquinas’ time, humanity’s understanding of the world has undergone enormous changes: Gravity was discovered. Then the relativity of gravity. Genetics was discovered by an Augustinian abbot. The double helix by two Americans. Evolution postulated and then subsequently supported by discovered facts. The foundations of democracy and the rule of law had not been laid yet, let alone America’s two-party system. When Thomas Aquinas alive, it was still thought that the sun revolved around the earth!

Today, in many ways, science has evolved past common sense, and change and uncertainty are as constant as was constancy during the historical lull of Thomas Aquinas’ Europe. Which perhaps provides an emotional justification for the popularity of Aquinas today: He offers all the answers – almost literally in his magnum opus, the Summa Theologica. And in a world with so much uncertainty, such certainty can be a salve. It seems consistent with the retreats to the certain and firm grounds of ideology and dogmatism that have characterized so much of the world’s response to today’s change – from Orthodox Judaism to islamist fundamentalism, from Nazism to Communism, from evangelical fervor to hippie free love, from Randian libertarianism to right-wing Catholicism. I do not mean to tar all of these movements as terroristic or totalitarian, as some certain are. Rather, they are all radical rejections of the world as it is, and of the direction it is heading. All these movements have these elements in common: rigid answers to life’s question, a rejection of some “Establishment” that is pushing the world to be as it is, and a promotion of purity as the answer to rapid change.

George sees such purity in the application of reason through natural law.

Thus for George, God’s will is most evident, even to those who do not believe in Him, within natural processes, while it is obscured in more sophisticated human interactions. In this understanding, the social justice issues that the New Testament revolve around: helping the poor, healing the sick, loving one’s neighbor, turning the other cheek, &tc. are secondary. Reasonable people can disagree because the answers to these questions are complex and not obvious to reason. On the other hand, George believes that the answers to what we call Culture War issues are self-evident to any person capable of reason. Thus, George believes reasonable people can disagree on capital punishment, but not on abortion. Reasonable people can disagree on health care, but not on gay marriage. Reasonable people can disagree on the mechanisms by which the state collects taxes, but not on the mechanisms by which a married couple has sex. I always find this focus on sex to be puzzling. I don’t accept the slanderous views of some on the left that it is all about making war on women. Yet, if one can apply reason and ascertain there is only one way for two individuals to “get jiggy,” why can’t one use reason to figure out the one way to tax people? Both involve the interactions of human beings within a fallen-redeemed world; both involve emotional responses and complex social constructs.

Another small thing: I’m sure George would have some answer to this, but according to Kirkpatrick, one of the basic distinctions that animates George’s writing is the conflict between Hume and Aristotle:

Against Aristotle, Hume argued that the universe includes facts but not values. You cannot derive moral conclusions from studying the world, an “ought” from an “is.” There is no built-in objective reason for me to choose one goal over another – the goals of Mother Teresa over the goals of Adolf Hitler, in George’s hypothetical. Reason, then, is merely a tool of whatever desire strikes my fancy.

Yet, does it seem as if George has studied the world and derived his “oughts” from the “is” of the way things are? Aquinas certainly extrapolated universal moral principles about the essence of sex and the natural order from observing barnyard animals. For all the faults and biases of this approach, it seemed to be a genuine attempt to understand the world. From my limited perspective, it does not seem as if George similarly started with observation; rather, he seems to have begun with his conclusions based on the ideology of right wing Catholicism and worked his way backwards. Specifically, his views of sex seem derived – not from observation or lived experience – but from sterile intellectualization divorced from reality (which my study of history has shown is capable of the truest perversion of what God created.) One can see how such a limited view of sex does seem likely to appeal to a group of celibate men though. I know of myself that reading George’s view of sex, I felt a deep unease in my stomach – similar to when I saw the movie Quills about the Marqis de Sade, as George had intellectualized sex and perverted it from its natural form so much that it was deeply unsettling. Take this for example:

Their bodies become one (they are biologically united, and do not merely rub together) in coitus (and only in coitus), similarly to the way in which one’s heart, lungs and other organs form a unity by coordinating for the biological good of the whole.

In another’s hands, this idea could be beautiful – a beautiful rationale for why sex can be wonderful. But by limiting sexuality so, by postulating that sexuality ought only be channeled into only this particular type of ritualistic purity, by declaring unclean an enormous swath of human and animal experience, by maintaining that only this sterile intellectualization can justify desire, George is truly separating man from his own nature, and woman from hers. This is the most fundamental perversion of all, the most grievous sin against natural law.

(Andrew Sullivan also has some good comments on the piece here.)

[Image by Fenchurch! licensed under Creative Commons.]

Morality Reflections

No one asked Chris Brown why he beat Rihanna. Why then do we blame Tiger Woods?

[digg-reddit-me]Everyone seems to have forgotten why it was we all first became involved in his personal life: that car crash in the early morning hours after Thanksgiving. Public opinion has coalesced around the conclusion that Tiger Woods was the victim of domestic abuse – that his wife became enraged upon discovering he was unfaithful and attacked him; and that when he tried to flee, she attacked his car with a golf club leading to his crash – during which he also may have been disoriented by a blow to the head. He was saved apparently by a call to 911 by one of his neighbors. We do not know what transpired here with any certainty. All we have are some alarming facts which everyone from late night comics to pundits seem to agree suggest an enraged spouse.

And yet, the lesson we are being asked to take is not that domestic abuse is unacceptable under any circumstances, but as Maureen Dowd opines:

Tiger ignored the obvious rule: Never get involved with women who have 8-by-10 glossies.

Or, as the Christian Science Monitor’s editorial board wrote:

The moral of the Tiger Woods story is that adultery leaves a trail of destruction. It can be avoided.

Or perhaps this from Bill Shuler at Fox News:

The issue of private sin is not exclusive to Tiger Woods. It is an epidemic in America.

Or any of a hundred variations on these lessons by pundits and late night comics.

Yet who asked Chris Brown why he beat Rihanna? It doesn’t matter if she was cheating on him or what ever else she might have done to lead to him beating her. As a society, there was broad agreement that what he did to her was wrong and that it should be condemned. Chris Brown’s career has likely been trashed, and good riddance, while Rihanna’s has gone on.

Why is it different for Tiger?

Why did the story move from the details of the events of that early morning quickly to what he did to provoke his wife?

The implicit message seems clear: if a man hits a woman, no matter the provocation, it is wrong; if a woman hits a man, he probably deserved it. This is simply sexism, and part of the legacy of gender discrimination in which women were regarded as weak and inferior. While overall, men do more damage in violent attacks on their partners, domestic violence by women is a serious issue as well, despite the sexist attempts to write it off.

All this reminded me of a story ABC News did several years ago – in which, after they had done several segments simulating male-on-female domestic violence in a public setting, and found that many people intervened, it occurred to the producers to try the opposite.  ABC News staged female-on-male violence – and over several hours 163 people walked by, one of whom eventually intervened. Several made gestures supportive of the woman. Almost all the women assumed that the man had did something wrong, that he deserved what he got – which was not what they would assume if a man had been attacking a woman. As one woman recalled her reaction:

“Good for you. You Go, Girl!” is how Lynda recalls her reaction.

“I was thinking he probably did something really bad,” she said. “Maybe she caught him cheating or something like that…and [it] made her lose it and slap him in the face. I reacted like, ‘Yes. Woman power.'”

The story is on YouTube as well. Watch for the gleeful reaction of Lynda as she sees the woman hitting the man.

The academic experts on gender violence I have contacted pointed out that academic studies have demonstrated this same point, as this chart sent to me by a professor of sociology shows:

Tiger was taken the hospital with what were described by those at the scene as “serious injurious” including lacerations to his face. He was in and out of consciousness, woozy, seemingly from head trauma. But, the news coverage has focused almost exclusively on why he was beaten – on his adultery, on his wife demanding and getting more money from him.

I don’t blame feminists for this. I blame latent sexism, the vestiges of a patriarchy that protected women because it considered them weaker. But the question that arises is clear: Are women to be the only beneficiaries of a feminist revolution that seeks women’s empowerment by any means necessary, even by hypocritically accepting the benefit of patriarchal assumptions if they benefit women? Are men to be mere victims of this feminism? Or is feminism about transforming society for the better for men as well as women?

If feminism is about more than mere rooting for women, if feminism is about more than genitalia, then feminists should be condemning Tiger Woods’ wife as loudly as they condemned Chris Brown. Perhaps some are. I don’t mean to call everyone out. (desifeminists on the Feministing Community page sees what I mean.) But the loudest voices have been gossips and busybodies who gather around every scandal. Where are you Jessica Valenti? Where are you Feministing, which so loudly (and rightly) pointed out that it didn’t matter what Rihanna was supposed to have done?

Violence against women is abhorrent and should be condemned. It’s time to take on the patriarchal attitude that a man hit by a woman probably deserves it. It’s time to stand up for victims of domestic violence, even if they are men, even if they are Tiger Woods.

[Image by Keith Allison licensed under Creative Commons. Graph taken from “When a Man Hits a Woman: Moral Evaluations and Reporting Violence to the Police” by Richard B. Felson and Scott L. Feld in the journal Aggressive Behavior, Volume 35, page 484.]

Barack Obama Criticism Economics Financial Crisis History Morality Political Philosophy Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere

Must-Reads of the Week: Krugman v. Ferguson, Ted Kennedy again, Hank Paulson, Sedaris, and Phreaking

This week there are quite a few good pieces to take a look at over the long weekend – in between games of beer pong, or BBQs…

Krugman v. Ferguson. Matthew Lynn in the Times of London wrote a feature on the “war” over the response to the economic crisis going on between the American Princeton Professor, New York Times columnist, Nobel-prize winner, and noted liberal Paul Krugman and British Harvard Professor, Financial Times columnist, and noted conservative Niall Ferguson. I had been following it closely already, but this article had a number of more details and conveyed the story arc well. Meanwhile, Krugman released another attack on Ferguson – indirectly though – in which he laid out his vision (as a kind of short intellectual history of economics in the 20th and 21st centuries) of what happened in the most recent crisis, why so many economists got it wrong, and why we’re taking the right steps now:

As I see it, the economics profession went astray because economists, as a group, mistook beauty, clad in impressive-looking mathematics, for truth. Until the Great Depression, most economists clung to a vision of capitalism as a perfect or nearly perfect system. That vision wasn’t sustainable in the face of mass unemployment, but as memories of the Depression faded, economists fell back in love with the old, idealized vision of an economy in which rational individuals interact in perfect markets, this time gussied up with fancy equations. The renewed romance with the idealized market was, to be sure, partly a response to shifting political winds, partly a response to financial incentives. But while sabbaticals at the Hoover Institution and job opportunities on Wall Street are nothing to sneeze at, the central cause of the profession’s failure was the desire for an all-encompassing, intellectually elegant approach that also gave economists a chance to show off their mathematical prowess.

The article is missing Krugman’s usual zingers and partisan swipes – and is really quite good. It also reminds you that Ferguson is an historian – not an economist.

Ted Kennedy, leaky vessel. Sam Tanenhaus writes about Senator Ted Kennedy as a kind of magnificent character, capturing him and the movement he led better than most others:

But if the art of governance did not redeem Mr. Kennedy, it irradiated him, and the liberalism he personified. At a time when government itself had fallen into disrepute Mr. Kennedy applied himself diligently to its exacting discipline, and wrested whatever small victories he could from the machinery he had learned to operate so well. Whether or not his compass was finally true, he endured as the battered, leaky vessel through which the legislative arts recovered some of their lost glory.

Hank Paulson. Todd Purdhum of Vanity Fair finally writes his piece about his many conversations with Hank Paulson before and during the financial crisis – a piece notable for the fact that Paulson seemed exceptionally forthcoming as he knew the piece wouldn’t come out until well after he had left public office.

The Wisdom of David Sedaris. A nice story from last week’s New Yorker:

[S]he invited us to picture a four-burner stove.

“Gas or electric?” Hugh asked, and she said that it didn’t matter.

This was not a real stove but a symbolic one, used to prove a point at a management seminar she’d once attended. “One burner represents your family, one is your friends, the third is your health, and the fourth is your work.” The gist, she said, was that in order to be successful you have to cut off one of your burners. And in order to be really successful you have to cut off two.

Pat has her own business, a good one that’s allowing her to retire at fifty-five. She owns three houses, and two cars, but, even without the stuff, she seems like a genuinely happy person. And that alone constitutes success.

I asked which two burners she had cut off, and she said that the first to go had been family. After that, she switched off her health. “How about you?”

I thought for a moment, and said that I’d cut off my friends. “It’s nothing to be proud of, but after meeting Hugh I quit making an effort.”

“And what else?” she asked.

“Health, I guess.”

Hugh’s answer was work.


“Just work,” he said.

Phone Phreak. David Kushner in Rolling Stone features the story of a poor, fat, lonely, blind boy who finds a way to be happy as a phone phreaker (a kind of hacker on telephone lines.) The boy – Matthew Weigman – submerges himself in the culture, and due to his unique skillset is able to become an almost cartoon villain, without the manic desire to take over the world. Instead, he unleashes SWAT teams on girls who refuse to have phone sex with him, as he fakes calls from inside their house pretending he is holding them hostage; or ferrets out all the names and biographies of the team tracking him down, which he jovially explains to an FBI agent who comes to recruit him.

Barack Obama Economics Financial Crisis Health care Life Morality Politics Reflections The Opinionsphere The Web and Technology

Weekly Must-Reads: Disappearing, the Super-Rich, Harry Potter, the Public Option, Craziness, and Abortion

[digg-reddit-me]A low-key blogging day today. Further events complicated my normal week-night blog writing, as my brother was hospitalized yesterday. He’s doing fine. But to some extent, it impressed upon me the reality of some small portion of this health care debate. To get to my brother’s room, I had to walk through the hospital – through security measures in the pediatric section, and then further security measures in the Intensive Care Unit of the pediatric section – and then to his room where I saw him, looking wan, but apparently much better than in the morning, with maybe a half-dozen tubes giving him drugs and liquid and food and another half-dozen wires monitoring his oxygen levels and heart beat and who knows what else. The nurses had to do tests on him every hour. And as I visited in the evening, I didn’t see the doctors who are figuring out what’s wrong and directing the treatment. The whole set-up must be outrageously expensive. And with my brother lying there, getting better, every cent is worth it. As a society, we have made a choice to spend some large portion of our wealth on protecting our families, ourselves – on following our natural human instinct to care for those who are not well. We have made a choice to maximize life at the expense of wealth.

But we must acknowledge that our system has limits. If my father didn’t have a generous health insurance plan, he could never have afforded for my brother to be treated this way. The hospital would treat him anyway – and then they would go after my father for everything he had. About a third of all Americans would be in this position – on the verge of bankruptcy – if an emergency required serious medical attention. And while hospitals have an ethical obligation to treat anyone who needs treatment, studies have shown that those without sufficient insurance get significantly worse treatment. When people argue that health care is not a right, they must do so in the face of those who need treatment. And if you consider health care to be a right, then health insurance must be a necessary responsibility for each citizen.

We do need to reign in increasing health care costs; we also need to preserve our system’s willingness to spend. But what we need most of all is a reasoned debate about what type of system we have and what type of system we want – and it doesn’t seem that America is capable of that. To that, I don’t know the solution.

Without further ado, here are the must-reads of the week:

1. Disappearing. Evan Ratcliff explains in Wired the difficulty of disappearing in our modern world – and how even the smallest slip-up can bring the authorities to your door. It’s an interesting look at the desire to start over – and how technology today makes it both easier and harder.

2. The Super-Rich. David Leonhardt and Geraldine Fabrikant examine the implications of the current recession on the super-rich – including John McAfee of McAfee Anti-Virus fame, whose net worth went from $100 million to $4 million in the downturn. Not that anyone should feel bad for the guy. The piece looks at the historical implications of our recent massive inequality and what this downturn’s implications are for such inequality in the long-term. The prognosis: the super-rich will stay richer than they were in the 1950s and 1960s, but their relative wealth will decline a bit.

3. Harry Potter and theological libraries. Michael Paulson in the Boston Globe explains how Harry Potter is becoming a serious subject of theological debate:

[S]cholars of religion have begun developing a more nuanced take on the Potter phenomenon, with some arguing that the wildly popular series of books and films contains positive ethical messages and a narrative arc that is worthy of serious scholarly examination and even theological reflection. The scholars are primarily interested in what the books have to say about the two big issues that always preoccupy people of faith – morality and mortality – but some are also interested in what the series has to say about tolerance (Harry and friends are notably open to people and creatures who differ from them) and bullying, the nature and presence of evil in society, and the existence of the supernatural.

Scholarly interest in the Harry Potter books began long before the series was finished, and shows no signs of slowing. There have been several academic books, with titles such as “The Ivory Tower and Harry Potter: Perspectives on a Literary Phenomenon” and “Harry Potter’s World: Multidisciplinary Critical Perspectives.” The American Academy of Religion last fall offered a panel at its annual convention titled “The Potterian Way of Death: J. K. Rowling’s Conception of Mortality.” And there is a raft of articles in religion journals with titles including “Looking for God in Harry Potter” and “Engaging with the spirituality of Harry Potter,” as well as the more complex, “Harry Potter and the baptism of the imagination,” “Harry Potter and the problem of evil,” and the crowd-pleasing “Harry Potter and theological libraries.”

4. Fighting for the Public Option. Ezra Klein makes a persuasive argument against simply giving up on the public option, but he still comes down on the side of those willing to give it up:

For all that, it’s one thing to fight for an uncertain, but promising, policy experiment. It’s another thing to sacrifice health-care reform on its altar. In July, Families USA released a paper explaining “10 Reasons to Support Heath-Care Reform.” The public plan is one of the reasons. But only one of them. And it’s not even the most convincing.

5. Crazy is a Preexisting Condition. Rick Perlstein, author of Nixonland, has an editorial in the Washington Post examining the “crazy” that he sees as an essentially American part of the political process. Read the whole piece:

So the birthers, the anti-tax tea-partiers, the town hall hecklers — these are “either” the genuine grass roots or evil conspirators staging scenes for YouTube? The quiver on the lips of the man pushing the wheelchair, the crazed risk of carrying a pistol around a president — too heartfelt to be an act. The lockstep strangeness of the mad lies on the protesters’ signs — too uniform to be spontaneous. They are both. If you don’t understand that any moment of genuine political change always produces both, you can’t understand America, where the crazy tree blooms in every moment of liberal ascendancy, and where elites exploit the crazy for their own narrow interests.

6. Watching an Abortion. Sarah Kliff for Newsweek, who is pro-choice, watched her first abortion and reported on her feelings. Rather moving and honest. A welcome inclusion into our fraught debate.

[Image by me.]

History Humor Iraq Morality National Security Reflections The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Must-Reads This Weekend

Nuclear Porn. Ron Rosenbaum writes about how hard-core our nuclear fantasies have become in an essay for Slate:

I love airport best-sellers because I see them as our Nostradamuses, the literary canaries in the dark coal mines of our paranoia. They sniff out and serve up fictionalized but “realistic” prophecies of coming doom of one sort or another. Perhaps it’s that in their visions of total world immolation they diminish in the mind of said traveler the possibility of something so trivial as a 757 engine malfunction.

The Awakening. David Rose investigates the Sunni Awakening in an article for Vanity Fair. The big news: apparently the initial approach by the Sunni insurgents offering to work with America came in 2004 – but was rejected as a result of turf battles and ideology. 

Happiness. Joshua Wolf Shenk tells the story of the most significant longitudinal study in history (so far). He reveals that one of the participants in the study (all of whom were chosen while they were in college) was John F. Kennedy. The study itself is fascinating – and Shenk’s piece was reflective and probing:

“I’m usually callous with regard to death, from my father dying suddenly and unexpectedly.” He added, “I’m not a model of adult development.”

Vaillant’s confession reminded me of a poignant lesson from his work—that seeing a defense is easier than changing it. Only with patience and tenderness might a person surrender his barbed armor for a softer shield. Perhaps in this, I thought, lies the key to the good life—not rules to follow, nor problems to avoid, but an engaged humility, an earnest acceptance of life’s pains and promises…

Torture and Truth. Ali Soufan testified in Washington – but while he was constantly interrupted by an edgy Lindsey Graham, his written statement is a testament of a man who was there: 

The issue that I am here to discuss today – interrogation methods used to question terrorists – is not, and should not be, a partisan matter. We all share a commitment to using the best interrogation method possible that serves our national security interests and fits squarely within the framework of our nation’s principles. 

From my experience – and I speak as someone who has personally interrogated many terrorists and elicited important actionable intelligence– I strongly believe that it is a mistake to use what has become known as the “enhanced interrogation techniques,” a position shared by many professional operatives, including the CIA officers who were present at the initial phases of the Abu Zubaydah interrogation. 

These techniques, from an operational perspective, are ineffective, slow and unreliable, and as a result harmful to our efforts to defeat al Qaeda. (This is aside from the important additional considerations that they are un-American and harmful to our reputation and cause.) 

Barack Obama Criticism Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Cheney Is Preemptively Politicizing The Next Attack

[digg-reddit-me]Stephen Hayes of the Weekly Standard is reporting that the CIA’s Information and Privacy Coordinator has rejected Cheney’s request to declassify documents Cheney insists prove that torture worked. As the CIA explained in what is an apparently leaked excerpt from their letter to Cheney:

In researching the information in question, we have discovered that it is currently the subject of pending FOIA litigation (Bloche v. Department of Defense, Amnesty International v. Central Intelligence Agency). Therefore, the document is excluded from Mandatory Declassification Review.

Essentially, the CIA’s response is that the form of Cheney’s request is improper – though they are not excluding it’s release by other means.  Though the Obama administration could have reached out and helped out Cheney by intervening and (technically independent of Cheney’s request) releasing the documents, they chose not to at this time. This is what is actually going on behind the blaring headlines: White House Snubs Cheny!

In requesting these documents be released, Cheney was echoing Mark Danner, a journalist for the New York Review of Books who published the leaked Red Cross memos that documented the torture conducted by the Bush administration. Danner explained why we needed to declassify any relevant documents – even if they proved torture worked:

Mr. Cheney’s politics of torture looks, Janus-like, in two directions: back to the past, toward exculpation for what was done under the administration he served, and into the future, toward blame for what might come under the administration that followed.

Put forward at a time when Republicans have lost power and popularity—and by the man who is perhaps the least popular figure in American public life—these propositions seem audacious, outrageous, even reckless; yet the 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.

Danner argues:

This is the only way we can begin to come to a true consensus about torture. By all accounts, it is likely that the intelligence harvest that can be attributed directly to the “alternative set of procedures” is meager. But whatever information might have been gained, it must be assessed and then judged against the great costs, legal, moral, political, incurred in producing it. Torture’s harvest, whatever it may truly be, is very unlikely to have outweighed those costs.

As Dawn Johnsen, who Obama has appointed to head the office that under Bush authorized torture, wrote for Slate:

Our constitutional democracy cannot survive with a government shrouded in secrecy, nor can our nation’s honor be restored without full disclosure.

All of this demonstrates why Obama must release these memos – for only with full disclosure, with the Bush torture program subjected to the only disinfectant a democracy has – the sunlight of public opinion and inspection – only then can we come to a consensus on torture. This is the inevitable logical end of Obama’s stated positions. And there is reason to suspect this is still the plan. Those who have reviewed these documents (aside from Cheney) have said they do not prove what Cheney insists they do. As Stephen Bradbury, the compliant head of the Bush Office of Legal Counsel in 2005 who replaced the right-wing but independent Jack Goldsmith, concluded in a still classified memo (which seems to be referencing the memos in question):

[I]t is difficult to determine conclusively whether interrogations have provided information critical to interdicting specific imminent attacks…

So – if these memos don’t support the Cheney position – or offer only qualified support for it – why hasn’t Obama called Cheney’s bluff and just released them? Musn’t he be hiding something?

The one thing I have learned paying attention to Obama over these past few years is that it is often easiest to figure out what he means by listening to what he says. Obama has a way of setting a goal – then compromising, pushing deadlines off, hedging, keeping his mouth shut, and moving steadily forward – all while his opponents shriek and the media analyzes every small signal for portents of what is to come – until everyone misses the story and Obama’s goal is accomplished. This is the story of how Obama beat Hillary and McCain and of how the stimulus was passed.

On the issue of torture, Obama has been clear. He has ended the practice. He wishes to move on – but he does not wish to sweep the crimes of the Bush administration under the rug. He cannot appear eager to prosecute anyone – and he doesn’t seem to be. But he realizes that in a liberal democracy such as ours, there must be accountability. What is required is a balancing act – as he tackles the essentially political task of achieving a national consensus on the issue that will survive in the aftermath of the next crisis.

For Cheney, the political logic is also clear. He believes a crisis requires a strong executive empowered to do whatever is necessary. In defending this belief in the way he is, Cheney is setting Obama up to be politically kneecapped in the immediate aftermath of the next attack. Cheney is preemptively blaming Obama for the next significant terrorist attack – and preemptively politicizing the aftermath of that attack, preparing the ground for a resurgence of the Cheney model of the executive (which is in essence an elected tyrant). This is a truly dangerous game Cheney is playing.

Obama is struggling with how to counter this. He knows it is likely that America will be attacked in his first year in office. Both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were tested in this way in the beginning of their presidencies. Obama must demonstrate that he is not going too far too fast in pushing back the Cheney model – lest that push be blamed for the next attack as Cheney wants it to be. Yet the Bush-Cheney policies are being legally challenged on every front – and even to delay rolling them back, Obama must defend them. What Obama needs is a gradual, thoughtful, public process.

My suspicion is that Obama will let Cheney continue to promise more openness and accountability. Cheney has already promised to testify before Congress; he is pressuring for the release of classified documents; he is making his case in the public arena. Cheney’s insistence on fighting this out in public will give Obama cover to convene a truth commission – perhaps Cheney himself may even call for one. This strategy would effectively deal with the very real threat that Cheney’s preemptive politicization of the next attack poses to the country and to the presidency.

And it means the photos just held back must be released; it means we must get to the bottom of what Nancy Pelosi knew and when she knew it; it means we must figure out what the well-timed leaks about Jane Harman and Nancy Pelosi were meant to accomplish; it means we must know how effective torture was or was not; it means we must have a truth commission. 



[Image by the World Economic Forum licensed under Creative Commons.]

Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

Why Should I Care If a Terrorist Was Tortured?

[digg-reddit-me]Because torture has played an insignificant role in American life until recently – and it’s recent history is still somewhat shrouded in secrecy – the best arguments for and against torture are abstract. The two sides of the debate tend to be simplified as these two competing scenarios:

[Interior establishing shot] Jack Bauer approaches terrorist with an menacing grimace on his face.

BAUER: Tell me where the ticking time bomb that will destroy a major American city is!


BAUER: (plunges a pen into the terrorist’s knee) Tell me!

TERRORIST: 415 Main Street, hidden in the basement under a tarp!

And on the other hand, there’s Shep Smith on Fox News:

The arguments over whether or not we torture or whether or not it is effective are secondary. The simple question to ask when we want to determine what is and is not torture is, “What would we call the methods being used if they were being done by our enemies to our soldiers?” If we would call it torture then, it is torture when we do it as well. Questions of effectiveness are more complex – but in short, it seems that torture works very well – for some things. It’s effectiveness as a truth serum though does not seem high.

The heart of this debate though is not whether or not terrorism is effective – or whether or not we tortured – but:

Why should I care what was done to some evil fuck like Khalid Sheikh Mohammad who wants to kill me and killed thousands of Americans on September 11?

The main motivator of people’s opposition to government action is because they can see it might happen to them. 

Why did students oppose the draft? Because it might happen to them. Why are citizens outraged over raising taxes? Because it will happen to them. Why are people concerned about the Kelo decision? Because their homes might be taken from them. Normally, a state will try to counter these concerns by ensuring that there is a fair and transparent process in place to prevent arbitrary actions by the government – in other words, to ensure that the law protects individuals. But national security, under the Bush administration, was a lawless zone. The president maintained he had the power to declare anyone a terrorist, imprison them without trial forever, and torture them. He managed to do this without raising an outcry, without raising concerns that he might be coming after your family next because he did most of it in secret and because the people he went after were foreign, Muslim, Arab – in other words alien to most Americans. It was harder then for many Americans – who did not have any Muslims or Arabs in their family – to identify with the Others being tortured even if they were later found to be innoccent of any crime and released. This is certainly a failure of empathy – and a failure of Christian values – on the part of many Americans. 

But even so, we should care if our government is torturing people – even if it only is torturing people it suspects of being terrorists. Here’s four reasons why you should care:

  • Because it might be you next. 
    Yes –
    the detainees seem different – but they always seem different at first. Once the government expands its powers to torture and arbitrary arrest of a group of people suspected of one crime, it quickly expands from there. Anti-terrorism statutes – though not as far as we know torture – have already been used against anti-war groups and teenagers writing violent fantasies. 
  • Because it corrupts.
    What a government does shapes the type of government it is and the society. This is the basis for much of our politics – and the reason conservatives are so concerned about irresponsible government spending for example. We can see how torture corrupted our national security apparatus – how it infected it like a virus. Some of our top national security officials may be indicted as war criminals as a result of Ronald Reagan’s Convention Against Torture. False confessions are the inevitable result of torture – which is why our legal system, in the interests of justice, does not accept any evidence tainted by torture. This raises all sorts of issues relating to the perpetrators of September 11. We may never be able to bring them to justice given our laws. (This is one of the primary motivations behind Spain’s Judge Garzon’s attempt to go after torturers in America.) At the same time, information elicited by torture led our intelligence agencies to believe that Al Qaeda and Saddam Hussein were working together – and that Saddam was preparing to share his weapons of mass destruction with them. This information has all been proved to be false. So, our justice system and our national security apparatus are now in a bind as a result of these corruptions.
  • Because it is immoral and was done in your name.
    I am of the opinion that much of morality is really the passed-on wisdom of our foreparents – the not always obvious principles that allowed them to thrive over generations. In this way, the fact that torture is immoral has much to do with the way in which it corrupts. 
  • Because it matters whether government officials follow the law.
    Without the constraints of law, the power of the government is near absolute – and the government itself can easily become a far greater threat to the American way of life than the terrorists. A people will never remain free if it preemptively surrenders its liberties out of fear.

One thing that has historically separated America from our enemies is that we were the ones who did not torture. The British tortured American prisoners – but General Washington refused to allow the torture of the British prisoners; when American soldiers were accused of torturing Filipinos during the brutal insurgency campaign during Teddy Roosevelt’s term in office, Roosevelt himself made sure that the crimes were not covered up and the men accused were tried for their crimes. The Communists and the Nazis were known to torture – but America did not – and because of this, when the American army was marching through Germany in the final days of World War II, the German army fled to us so they could surrender to ours. When Ronald Reagan sought to demonstrate to the world our moral superiority over the Soviet Union, he pushed through the United Nations Ban on Torture. There is a wisdom in this history – a wisdom passed down through generations of Americans – that held that there is something about America that does not allow it to condone torture. That is why Captain Ian Fishback wrote that he was not willing to torture because he was not willing “to give up even the smallest piece of the idea that is America.” It is why Senator John McCain proclaimed on the floor of the Senate that while our enemies do not deserve mercy, “This is not about them. This is about us.” 

I would be glad if something awful and painful befell the terrorists who wish us harm. But we do not deserve to become a country that does that. As a country, we are not judged by our faith alone – but by how we act. We have now seen the corruption of our national security apparatus by a rather controlled and minimized authorization of torture.

So, why should anyone care that we tortured some evil fuck?

Because by doing so we are endangering our way of life – the foundational principles and institutions that create our fragile system of democracy and checks and balances and laws constraining even the president him or herself.

Law Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The War on Terrorism

Name, Rank and Serial Number

[digg-reddit-me]Our enemies do not subscribe to the rules of the Marquis of Queensbury. “Name, rank and serial number” does not apply to non-state actors but is, regrettably, the only question this administration wants us to ask.

Porter Goss, former director of the CIA, in the Washington Post.

Right-wingers from the National Review to Rush Limbaugh to Porter Goss has repeated this line ad infinitum – this constant suggestion or occasionally accusation that opponents of torture only want to ask members of al Qaeda for their “name, rank and serial number.” This is a distortion of the position many opponents of torture take – that the Geneva Conventions do apply even to terrorists. A commenter called salubrius provides a decent breakdown:

There are two standards for interrogation in the Geneva Convention. One standard applies to POWs or prisoners of war. These prisoners have a preferred status in that they may not be coerced to provide information other than their name, rank and serial number. The other standard applies to those who do not qualify as POWs. These are also referred to as unlawful enemy combatants. The Supreme Court in 1942 referred to this classification of lawful and unlawful combatants. 

Terrorists and suspected terrorists are still protected under the Geneva Conventions – though not to the extent of prisoners of war or civilians. Geneva provides certain mininimal protections for “those who, at a given moment and in any manner whatsoever, find themselves, in case of a conflict or occupation, in the hands of a Party to the conflict or Occupying Power of which they are not nationals.” Namely, Geneva provides that such persons “shall nevertheless be treated with humanity” and “shall not be deprived of the rights of fair and regular trial prescribed by the present Convention.” This is the position held by most if not all of those who insist that Geneva still applies to terrorists.

Proponents of torture try to mislead those not following the political conversation closely by disingenously claiming that their opponents consider asking anything more than “name, rank, and serial number” to be torture. In fact, the most successful interrogators of terrorists so far have also been opponents of torture – from Ali Soufan of the FBI to Matthew Alexander of military intelligence.

Barack Obama Morality National Security Politics The Bush Legacy The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

When Obama Should Torture Osama

[digg-reddit-me]I feel compelled to respond to Michael Scheuer’s op-ed in the Washington Post. A friend of mine who is in military intelligence brought the story to my attention with an approving comment.

Scheuer is a interesting thinker who have lived and breathed the world of Al Qaeda since before anyone else knew its name. His analysis is always interesting – but his opinions are usually marred by his constant imputation of base motives to anyone with whom he disagrees on policy grounds. This often makes him sound like a political hack rather than an intelligence analyst. In his most recent op-ed, he claims that Barack Obama is “a genuine American Jacobin” placing ideology above reality. (Scheuer doesn’t acknowledge that one of the worse abuses of the real-life Jacobins was their torturing of opponents.) Scheuer goes on:

[T]he president told Americans that his personal beliefs are more important than protecting their country, their homes and their families.

Scheuer believes that by ending American torture, the administration is “enthroning Obama’s personal morality as U.S. defense policy.” He argues that the bases for getting rid of torture are simply lies – that torture did not inflame Muslim anger and that it is effective. Scheuer fails to make either point convincingly.

His proof that torture did not inflame the Muslim world is that other things make them madder. (“[T]hey do not even make the Islamists’ hit parade of anti-U.S. recruiting tools”.) Certainly, American torture was not one of the core objections of Al Qaeda – but it did apparently inflame the insurgency in Iraq – as any student of history could have predicted, as torture has served a similar purpose in Algeria under French occupation and in Ireland under British occupation.

On torture’s effectiveness, Scheuer simply expresses outrage that Obama would implicity question the integrity of those who authorized torture. (“[T]he president used his personal popularity and the stature of his office to implicitly identify as liars those former senior U.S. officials who know…that the interrogation techniques have yielded intelligence essential to the nation’s defense.”) Scheuer point should be complicated by the fact that these officials now are seen to be liars because came forward to publicly castigate President Obama, at least in part on false premises – not because the president went out of his way to paint them as liars

Most inanely, Scheuer seems to think that it is merely Obama’s “personal morality” rather than a concern for Rule of Law and our national character that motivates him. This assumption of Scheuer’s part makes him look like a political hack – as Obama has always expressed his opposition to torture as a matter of law and national morality – rather than his own human queasiness. It’s hard to understand how Scheuer can get into the mind of an Al Qaeda operative and convincingly describe the motives of a terrorist but is unwilling or unable to convincingly describe the thought-processes of his opponents closer to home, such as the president.

But the most interesting point Scheuer makes is in his opening hypothetical situation- which he abruptly drops in favor of his piss-poor political analysis. 

The scenario Scheuer describes is this: we have captured Osama Bin Laden. He declares that he knows where and when a devastating nuclear attack will hit America, but he refuses to give any further information. Scheuer presumes torture is an efficient method of getting information, a kind of magical truth serum. This is the type of ticking-time-bomb scenario that theorists often discuss but has never yet happened in recorded history.

Under these circumstances, Scheuer explains, Obama must order Bin Laden be tortured.

Given this hypothetical example – and if torture was believed to be effective – even Obama would have to agree based on his public statements and liberal positions. This is what Scheuer does not understand. 

Liberals do not oppose torture merely because they think it makes us look bad in the eyes of the world or because it violates their individual ethical principles or because they do not believe America has ruthless enemies or because they instinctually take the side of America’s enemies – all of whcih either Scheuer or various other right-wingers have suggsted. Liberals oppose torture because they know history – and they know that even the great and good can be corrupted by power. That means, even America can be corrupted.

America was founded on a certain conception of the individual as having inalienable right that cannot be abrogated by the state. Because of this, America has always been able to differentiate itself from it’s enemies by the fact that it did not torture. While the British tortured Americans during the Revolution, our fledgling nation survived; as the American and Soviet armies marched across Germany our reputation for the humane treatment of prisoners led the highest value Germans to flee towards American lines to surrender to us. To highlight this fundamental difference with our enemies, Ronald Reagan championed the United Nations Convention on Torture. Liberals believe in the idea that is America – and refuse to preemptively surrender it out of fear. Liberals know that once a government is allowed to torture, it is a very slippery slope to tyranny. Which is why this torture debate has never been about the terrorists – it is about us.

Which is why I am sure that Obama would, and if not he should, order that Bin Laden be tortured in the hypothetical example above. But to preserve the Rule of Law and “the idea that is America,” he would not try to hide behind talk of “bad apples” and legalistic memos. He would have to take personal responsibility for this extraordinary and illegal use of authority – and once the crisis has passed he would have to appoint a special prosecutor to examine his actions and put them before the public in an open and transparent matter.

To preserve the Rule of Law, any one who ordered torture or who tortured would have to place himself or herself at the mercy of the public and law enforcement. 

Postscript: Antother thing that Scheuer fails to acknowledge is that George W. Bush’s torture regime was nothing like the hypothetical he offered. Torture did not work quickly – and indeed lasted for months in the publicly acknowledged cases. Interrogators had no ticking time bombs forcing their hand. And in fact, we also know that some false information gleaned from torture was used to justify the Iraq war. This is what torture has always been good for – not as a truth serum, but for extracting politically necessary confessions.

Barack Obama Morality National Security Politics The Opinionsphere The War on Terrorism

Framing the Torture Debate

[digg-reddit-me]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.