Rice Channels Nixon

April 30, 2009

Condi Rice speaking to students at Stanford:

“[T]he United States was told, we were told, nothing that violates our obligations under the Convention Against Torture. And so by definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture.”

Got that? If the president authorizes it, it’s not illegal. Because the president authorized it. Simple. Good enough for me.

Do these people even hear themselves?

One of the interesting things from the recent Obama press conference was the president’s apparent desire to reframe the torture debate away from the does-it-work question. Obama seemed to tacitly concede that torture often does work, and that in some cases it may even work better than other information-gathering techniques. Instead, he focused on the argument that torture is unethical, it’s beneath us, and it’s un-American.

This is all good and fine, however there IS a strong argument that torture is not only ineffective but counter-productive. Even in the odd circumstance when it proves to be a useful tactic, it is, overall, a losing strategy. Whatever accurate information we have gained using torture that we would not have gained using other (legal) techniques is certainly outweighed by the loss of support from our allies, the animosity generated towards the US around the world, and the recruiting boon of our adversaries caused by these practices. And that’s assuming that torture is useful even on a tactical level. The tortured will provide whatever information, be it true or false, they think will end the torture. Therefore information gleaned from torture tends to confirm our suspicions and support our preconceived narratives. If we think Iraq was involved in 9/11, we’ll torture captives to get information on that connection, and they’ll give us that information, whether it’s true or make-believe, because they know it will get us to stop.

Also, as much as the president is right to argue that torture is beneath us, independent of its efficacy, I suspect that efficacy may very well be the foremost consideration among the public (yes, I have THAT low of an opinion of the American public). I suspect that there is a significant proportion of the public that would condone torture – without whitewashing it or using euphemisms or bullshit legal cover – if they thought it would prevent terrorist attacks.

I think that a considerable portion of the public are swayed by the ticking-time-bomb argument (mind you, I have no statistical evidence to back this up, only the frequency that this argument is made on FOX or right-wing talk radio). It goes something like this: imagine that The Terrorists have a nuclear bomb hidden in Midtown Manhattan. We don’t know where. If we don’t find it, it will kill a gazillion people. We have one of the terrorists at Gitmo and he knows where the bomb is. He won’t tell us unless we torture the shit out of him. Under these circumstances, wouldn’t you torture him? Don’t you have an obligation to do so?

This argument, by the way, or at least some version of it, has been popular among torturers and indeed all authoritarians throughout history. The problem with it is that it can be used to strike down every law and justify any practice. Consider:

Same scenario – bomb in NYC – except this time instead of having a terrorist in custody we have the guy from the Saw movies on the phone, and he knows where the bomb is. He’ll tell us – and we have good reason to believe he will – provided we bring him 12 nuns from the local convent to butcher and eat for lunch with a nice chianti and some fava beans. Under these circumstances, wouldn’t you give him those nuns? Don’t you have an obligation to give him those nuns? Millions will die, for crissakes!!

Or consider this one:

You went back in time and saw baby Hitler. Shouldn’t you kill him? But wait – it’s illegal to kill babies! Under these circumstances, can you really and truly justify a law against killing babies? And since we’ve now opened the door to killing babies, we really need to reconsider the laws on this. Obviously an across-the-board ban on baby-killing is out of the question.

You can see where this is going. You can always come up with some insane situation in which a usually immoral action suddenly appears moral when it is entered into some sort of utilitarian tradeoff. Sure, killing babies is bad, but here’s this other thing that’s worse than dead babies that will happen if we don’t kill them. Under those circumstances, let’s kill some babies! It’s wrong to push the big guy out in front of the trolley. But wait! – the trolley is barreling toward 12 little kids, and if I throw the big guy out in front of it, that will save them! Yes, we all saw the Star Trek episode where Kirk and Spock go back in time to keep Bones from saving Joan Collins. The problem with these things is that while they make for good brain teasers in college ethics classes, they almost never, ever happen in real life. There is not a SINGLE case in known history of the ticking-time-bomb scenario. There ARE, however, quite a few cases of people THINKING they were in the ticking-time-bomb scenario when they WEREN’T (and as a result, torturing the shit out of people that had no useful information).


From the Boston Globe:

“On NBC’s ‘Today’ show this morning, Biden suggested that flying commercial airliners isn’t a good idea.

‘I would tell members of my family — and I have — I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,’ he said, saying that the problem is that ‘when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft.’

‘If you’re out in the middle of a field and someone sneezes, that’s one thing. If you’re in a closed aircraft or a closed container, a closed car, a closed classroom, it’s a different thing,’ he added.

His spokeswoman, Elizabeth Alexander, issued this clarification: ‘On the Today Show this morning the Vice President was asked what he would tell a family member who was considering air travel to Mexico this week. The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the Vice President has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week. As the President said just last night, every American should take the same steps you would take to prevent any other flu: keep your hands washed; cover your mouth when you cough; stay home from work if you’re sick; and keep your children home from school if they’re sick.’

Wow – I like how they walk this back. Biden was talking about flying TO MEXICO. Yeah, right.

I’m flying in 3 days. Thanks a lot, Joe Biden, for scaring the bejeezus out of me and ruining my flight. WTF??!!!!

Still, I think this whole swine flu business is greatly overhyped, but I’m also a total hypochondriac…

UPDATE: I just got the beginning of Biden’s comments: “It’s not just going to Mexico…” Yeah, sounds more and more like he was talking about flights to Mexico. Either Biden knows something the rest of us don’t (I wouldn’t count on it ) or he’s just being an idiot (probably the case). Still scares the living Christ out of me.

From today’s NY Times:

“Meat consumption has more than doubled in the United States in the last 50 years.

Now a new study of more than 500,000 Americans has provided the best evidence yet that our affinity for red meat has exacted a hefty price on our health and limited our longevity.

The study found that, other things being equal, the men and women who consumed the most red and processed meat were likely to die sooner, especially from one of our two leading killers, heart disease and cancer, than people who consumed much smaller amounts of these foods.

Results of the decade-long study were published in the March 23 issue of The Archives of Internal Medicine.

The increase in mortality risk tied to the higher levels of meat consumption was described as “modest,” ranging from about 20 percent to nearly 40 percent. But the number of excess deaths that could be attributed to high meat consumption is quite large given the size of the American population.

Extrapolated to all Americans in the age group studied, the new findings suggest that over the course of a decade, the deaths of one million men and perhaps half a million women could be prevented just by eating less red and processed meats…

Anyone who worries about global well-being has yet another reason to consume less red meat. Dr. Popkin, an epidemiologist at the University of North Carolina, said that a reduced dependence on livestock for food could help to save the planet from the ravaging effects of environmental pollution, global warming and the depletion of potable water.

‘In the United States,’ Dr. Popkin wrote, ‘livestock production accounts for 55 percent of the erosion process, 37 percent of pesticides applied, 50 percent of antibiotics consumed, and a third of total discharge of nitrogen and phosphorus to surface water.'”

We live in an era of: (a) increasing health problems from obesity, diabetes, etc.; (b) concerns about global warming and environmental degradation; and (c) growing concern over the spread of deadly diseases such as swine flu and avian flu. Mass consumption of meat is directly related to all three of these problems. This study and others have strongly suggested that the consumption of red meat (such as beef and pork) directly contribute to health problems such as cancer and heart disease, this country’s two biggest killers. At a minimum, it has been convincingly demonstrated that meat consumption is not essential to a healthy diet.

Consumption of meat is also expensive, wasteful, and contributes to environmental problems. Many Americans seem to believe that cows and pigs are raised on large family farms, where they roam around pastures or in large pens before slaughter. This is certainly how the situation is presented to school-age children. The problem is that this is not only inaccurate, it’s an outright lie. The farm with grazing cattle and red barn and windmill is a very rare species in the United States. Cows and pigs are raised for meat in large commercial factories where they are kept in horrifyingly small confinement, standing 24/7 in their own feces. These factories are breeding grounds for disease, and are profoundly unethical. Furthermore, cattle are pumped full of antibiotics and hormones, further contributing to the spread of disease (for example, by promoting the spread of drug-resistant strains of germs).

Also, much more energy is used in the production of meat than is derived from its consumption. The animals need to be fed grain which requires far more land to grow (and uses far more pesticides and pollutes much more water and land) than would need to be consumed to provide the same calories and nutritional value as the meat itself. More importantly, meat needs to be refrigerated and shipped to market, which consumes energy and contributes to global warming (as does the raising of millions upon millions of cattle).

And it’s not sustainable. Often this is presented as some sort of choice – sure, red meat may not be so good for you, but you can choose to take that risk or pay those consequences if you like. The truth is that eventually we’re going to have to change, like it or not.

Full disclosure: I haven’t eaten red meat in many years. But I quit for ethical reasons (I think it’s wrong tot kill and eat these animals, never mind in the horrifying way this is done on factory farms) rather than issues of sustainability (not that that isn’t an ethical issue itself). I certainly benefits me in no way, nor does it strengthen any of my core ethical arguments, to find out that there may be serious health consequences to eating these animals.

That having been said, I have to admit that I have felt much healthier since I quit, and I certainly don’t miss it.

Matt Yglesias raised another interesting point about the torture “debate.” If it is true, as most conservatives seem to think, that (A) stress positions, days without sleep, slapping around, waterboarding are not “torture;” and (B) these not-torture-but-“enhanced-interrogation” techniques work, in the sense that they get wrongdoers to reveal useful information, why are we not using them EVERYWHERE?

We have some low-level mob flunky? Enhance-interrogate him to get dirt on the big bosses. We have a serial killer and want to know where the bodies are buried? EIT him (Enhanced Interrogation Technique). A bank robber stashed the cash? A drug possessor won’t reveal his dealer? The burglar won’t give up his co-conspirators? Bernie Madoff won’t spill the beans? EIT.

If it’s not torture, not illegal, yet very useful, what exactly would be argument against doing this? Every police station in this country should have a torture, er, I mean, EIT chamber.

Another quick question: if these techniques are not “torture,” WHY are they so (supposedly) successful? If waterboarding isn’t so painful or damaging or horrible so as to warrant the term “torture,” why on earth would it get anyone to give up information?

A real torture regime exposes the victim to unending, intense suffering, with the promise that the suffering will stop once the secret information is revealed. The more intense the suffering, the more the victim believes it will not end without (and WILL end with) revealing secrets, then the greater the chance those secrets will be revealed. If what goes on at Gitmo doesn’t rise to the same level of unending suffering, exactly why and how would it work? For it to work, wouldn’t it HAVE to be, by definition, torture? I mean, why else would anyone believe these guys would give up information after waterboarding (183 times in a month)?

Lying Liars

April 24, 2009

The motherfuckers:

“For more than a decade the Global Climate Coalition, a group representing industries with profits tied to fossil fuels, led an aggressive lobbying and public relations campaign against the idea that emissions of heat-trapping gases could lead to global warming.

‘The role of greenhouse gases in climate change is not well understood,’ the coalition said in a scientific ‘backgrounder’ provided to lawmakers and journalists through the early 1990s, adding that ‘scientists differ’ on the issue.

But a document filed in a federal lawsuit demonstrates that even as the coalition worked to sway opinion, its own scientific and technical experts were advising that the science backing the role of greenhouse gases in global warming could not be refuted.

‘The scientific basis for the Greenhouse Effect and the potential impact of human emissions of greenhouse gases such as CO2 on climate is well established and cannot be denied,’ the experts wrote in an internal report compiled for the coalition in 1995.”

As of April 24, 2009, you have to either be completely stupid or entirely brainwashed or both to believe that global warming is not real or that it is not caused by human activity. This is not a debatable point.

Among the more incredible arguments to come about lately is the one made by President Obama himself: that investigation of the Bush administration’s torture regime and possible war-crimes charges would be “retribution,” while we need only “reflection” (read: do nothing). That we should, “Mandela-like,” simply move on. That it is somehow unacceptable to bring investigations and charges against leading officials whose ‘policies,’ even if they entail criminal wrong-doing, are ‘different’ from our own ‘preferences.

As many others have pointed out, I’d love to see this defense used by ordinary criminals.

“Your honor, you may disagree with my decision to drive a car under the influence of alcohol and drugs. It may have been a poor choice, but I acted out of the best intentions. I did not intend to kill that family of 6 crossing the street, only to carry myself home safely. When carefully reflecting here in this warm, safe courtroom in April 2009 , hindsight is indeed 20/20. But remember, your honor, that my decision to drive while intoxicated was made under very different circumstances. It was in the heat of the moment, after a party, late at night. Many others at the time made similar choices that, upon later, more sober reflection, they would not have made. I had no way of knowing those 6 people would be crossing the street and that they would be killed. Nobody could have predicted it. Prosecuting me now will consume time and resources that are precious, your honor. This court is busy, we are in the middle of a recession. And, above all, this is a time for reflection, not retribution. The most important thing is my pledge never to drink and drive again. To take ‘retribution’ on me now only sends the signal that others, in the future, could be held equally responsible for poor judgment in the heat of the moment, even when their hearts are in the right place. This is not just. ”

Funny how the standards are completely different.

I fully agree with Matt Yglesias:

“The United States isn’t run along Social Darwinist lines, but we’re closer than any other major developed country. To an extent that I find frankly astounding—and certainly unseen in other wealthy nations—people from modest backgrounds are expected to suffer the economic consequences of poor decision-making or bad luck, all in the name of personal responsibility. But when someone really important screws up, either in terms of provoking a financial crisis or overseeing a policy disaster or breaking the law or whatever, well then it turns out that we have better things to do than ‘look backwards’ at who deserves what.”

These first four pictures are not torture, you see. They are “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Oh, by the way, the Gestapo didn’t call what they did “torture” either. They called it “Verschaerfte Vernehmung.” That, by the way, means “enhanced interrogation techniques.” Note in the first picture that the genitalia are blotted out. That’s because the male genitalia are what’s offensive in the picture. That’s what’s in the picture that shocks the human conscience, what we shouldn’t have to see.



Now here’s a picture that IS torture. This is from the Spanish Inquisition. Note how profoundly different it is from the previous photograph:

We’ve come a long way, baby.

I need to go over a few facts in order to put the whole argument into perspective that our use of torture was some sort of one-off, terrible-but-necessary, strictly-curtailed-in-its-scope practice that had to be used in an unusual and dangerous wartime setting.

The war in question is the “War On Terror.” In this war, there is no defined enemy (as terrorism is not limited to al Qaeda and the Taliban, nor were those we tortured limited to al Qaeda and the Taliban), no possibility of surrender or even a clearly defined end to the conflict (would that be the end of terrorism? the end of evil? the end of bad people?), no clearly defined battlefield (we held and tortured US citizens such as Jose Padilla who were captured in the United States, people kidnapped off the street in Europe, terrorists from everywhere from Pakistan to Afghanistan to Yemen to Saudi Arabia to Egypt, citizens of the UK, Australia, Canada, France, etc., etc.). So as long as terrorism exists, and as long as there are people out there willing to attack the United States (conditions that always pertained and always will), the government can claim that we’re at war.

Yes, there was a horrific attack on September 11, 2001. As horrific as the attack was, though, it did not represent an “existential threat” to the United States. The continued existence and overall security of the United States was not in question. Al Qaeda does not even approach having the power to defeat our military, weaken our ability to project power anywhere in the world, seize any of our territory, or threaten our political stability. As we’ve been reminded over and over again, these are a bunch of nuts living in caves. The 9/11 attacks were carried out with box cutters.

The threat certainly does not approach that represented by the Nazis, or Imperial Japan, or the Soviet Union during the Cold War, or the British in 1812 or during the Revolution. We did not, however, find it necessary to use torture against any of those adversaries. In fact, we held some of those same adversaries responsible for THEIR use of torture, and in some cases tried and executed them for using the very same techniques that we have used now ourselves. And we dismissed their arguments that they had to resort to such techniques because of “existential threats” or because they were “at war.”

And we used these practices not because of any ticking-time-bomb scenario, but under any and all circumstances. We used torture to try to find a (non-existent) link between 9/11 and Saddam Hussein. We used torture against people who had no useful information whatsoever, and indeed weren’t even terrorists. We used torture against American citizens and citizens of allied countries.

And we lied about it. We said we don’t torture. Over and over again. In spite of signing treaties against torture that explicitly defined the term to include the very practices we used.

And make no mistake – the people who claim this was not torture would never sanction the use of these practices against ordinary criminals in our jails. Are we to believe, really, that these are perfectly legal and constitutional practices, and that we simply CHOOSE not to use them against ordinary prisoners, but if the president decided it was in the interest of national security, we very well COULD use such practices against anyone and everyone, and that that wouldn’t be torture?

Is that the country we live in? Is that the country we want to live in? No more do we have the right, then, to recoil in horror at the practices of other states, because we have not simply done the same. No, we ENDORSE it. We SANCTIFY it. This is not the same as American slavery, a practice from the long, long ago that we now universally renounce. This is something we justify, something we continue to put our stamp of approval on. When the Germans did this, we branded it “un-American.” We must now admit that these very same practices: shackling prisoners naked to the ceiling, binding them into painful positions for days on end, exposing them to freezing temperatures, keeping them without sleep for days or weeks, starving them, leaving them for days in their own urine and feces, beating them, using water torture and simulated drowning, and in a large number of cases beating them TO DEATH – these are now, by definition, “American” practices. Uniquely so, because we are now the only country in all of Western civilization that embraces these practices. We are the only country in Western civilization in which there is a public, “serious” debate over whether or not we “need” to use these practices, whether or not these practices constitute “torture,” whether or not they “work.” No other country conducts such debates. And never before in our history did WE conduct such debates. We THOUGHT it was beneath us.

These are the facts – unending, truly open-ended, war. A nebulous, poorly defined enemy (“terror” itself) that can include anyone from battlefield combatants to US citizens here on American territory. Not Abu-Ghraib-style lawlessness but careful, organized, SYSTEMATIC programs of torture and endless suffering carried out over the course of many years, LONG after 9/11. And then, a public debate over whether or not this “works,” whether or not it is “effective.”

Never in my wildest dreams did I think that this could come to pass in America without near-universal outrage. Never did I think that real outrage over this would be branded shrill and partisan.

I don’t recognize this country – we’re not the same people who fought World War II and defeated Nazism. We’re not the same ones who believed that even the perpetrators of the fucking Holocaust were entitled to a fair trial and due process.

Fascism 101

April 23, 2009

For those of you confused about what makes Obama a fascist, Adam Serwer of American Prospect explains:


There’s been a lot of talk about “fascism” lately, what with “fascist” becoming the GOP’s word of choice to describe the president. In the midst of heated political rhetoric, sometimes things can get a bit confusing. So I’ve written a brief, helpful guide for understanding what is and isn’t fascism.

The following things are fascism:

Universal health care coverage
A 39% top tax rate
Boosting funding for voluntary national service programs

The following things are not fascism:

Idenfinite detention without trial
“Disappearing” suspected criminals
Warrantless surveillance of American citizens”

Any questions?

I’ve been dying to say something about this. So it turns out that the United States has been torturing the shit out of people (not a big surprise, but the memos detailing and trying to provide legal cover for the practices are shocking). The CIA used a program called SERE to train US soldiers and spies to withstand torture. The program was begun in the 1950s and mimicked practices used by our Communist adversaries. We never used such torture techniques on others, and nobody in the US was trained to do so. But the Bush administration took these techniques – i.e., adopted practices used by the Nazis, Soviets, etc. – and used them against our prisoners. There’s no public evidence that use of these techniques yielding useful intelligence. But that’s besides the point. The techniques were never really used to get the kind of information the administration and its supporters always talked about – the famous ticking-time-bomb scenario in which a terrorist attack is imminent and a prisoner has information that can stop it. The techniques were used on a daily basis over long periods of time on many, many prisoners. Many died. Many were driven insane. All suffered horrifically. And they were all unquestionably illegal.

Yet here’s what Peggy Noonan had to say about all this:

“It’s hard for me to look at a great nation issuing these documents and sending them out to the world and thinking, ‘Oh, much good will come of that.’ Sometimes in life you want to keep walking… Some of life has to be mysterious.”

So she makes no attempt to justify what’s been done. Her argument is that we’d be better off not knowing anything about it.

There was a time, eight years ago, when I did not believe that Nazis could come to power in the United States. That Americans would simply not tolerate anti-constitutional behavior such as torture, imprisonment without legal due process, spying on citizens, wars fought under false pretenses. Honest to God, I DID NOT BELIEVE IT.

Now I believe that under the right circumstances, it could happen here.

Make no mistake – the release of these memos and all of their disclosures are not nearly enough to convince everybody of the significance of what happened.

I’ve been very neglectful of this blog lately. I’ve been in Frankfurt for a week for family reasons and was extremely busy while I was there. I actually started to write a blog entry at one point during the week but never finished it. So my apologies! Anyway, I’m back now and ready to post!

So here’s Frankfurt:

And here’s the euro symbol out in front of the European Central Bank in Willy-Brandt Platz (it’s amazing how many people were photographing each other in front of this – imagine Americans photographing each other in front of a big dollar sign in front of the Fed in DC):

And, finally, here’s Heidelberg, which I very briefly made it down to:

A couple of bullshit off-the-cuff observations about Frankfurt this time around:

— Why can’t we build a public transportation system like that?
— No speed limits on the highway can’t be a good idea.
— I’m pretty certain that pop culture and clothing styles between the US and Europe have converged over the past 25 years.
— I don’t want to live anywhere ever again that’s not on the ocean.
— Why doesn’t Boston have any good Turkish restaurants?
— Frankfurt has become a very diverse city.

On a final note, is it just coincidence that major revelations about US torture come out when I’m abroad, or is there a reason for it? In 2004 when the Abu Ghraib photos came out, I was in Prague. I awoke and came downstairs in the hotel to find the now-famous hooded-electrode guy with outstretched arms on the cover of every newspaper. That was a really fun day to be American. This time the Obama administration released the torture memos that detailed, among other things, how we put people in cages with insects a la Orwell’s 1984.