What You Should Think About Torture

October 15, 2007

“Under torture you say not only what the inquisitor wants, but also what you imagine might please him, because a bond (this, truly, diabolical) is established between you and him.

–Umberto Eco

For its time, the Constitution of the United States was profoundly innovative. Contemporary regimes had acknowledged the importance of giving the public a voice in government. Yet in that time some electoral processes were regarded as ploys to maintain support for despots. Even the British system was more of a compromise to balance autocracy with democracy than it was the authentic process of self-government enjoyed by Britons today. In fact, the practice of royal involvement in selecting senior government ministers was only decisively curtailed years after the American Revolutionary War.

Real freedom requires that ordinary citizens be given strong protection against powerful authorities. After all, how free would free speech be if voices of dissent could simply be branded traitors and subjected to horrific punishments? American civil liberties are a complex web of interdependent legal guarantees. Eliminate the right to question witnesses offering testimony against you, and the right to a jury trial becomes much less meaningful. Permit enforcers to use brutal methods while conducting interrogations of indeterminate length, and it matters less if cruel treatment is excluded from official criminal penalties.

The Bill of Rights offers protection from just those sorts of abuses. Some of its architects had no qualms about exploiting slave labor, and several decades passed between emancipation and federal action to prosecute perpetrators of racially motivated lynching. Yet their desire to limit the role of hate and vengeance in criminal justice had a hand in establishing the newborn United States as a beacon of real liberty.

This century has seen far too many appeals to hate and vengeance. Perhaps some of the problems confronting our nation today cannot be solved without resorting to brute force. Even in these instances, crafting the most effective national response does not require indulging rage. I believe the best of our elite special forces would uniformly concur that violence dealt by a furious motions and inflamed anger is inferior to that dealt by steady hands under the guidance of a calculating mind. This cool rationality is even more vital far from the physical fight, where counterterrorism policy takes shape.

Thus it is all the harder to understand why a few key figures in the federal government are so intent on taking hatred and vengeance as far as an enfeebled system of checks and balances will permit. Though this may have yielded short term political dividends, serious long term problems reverse a popularity surge even as they also weaken our nation’s position in the world. An ethical high ground is abandoned whenever respect for principles of due process, especially in the area of treating captives humanely, is abandoned.

Even if the Constitution’s strictures are not applied to American government’s treatment of foreign nationals, failure to respect the underlying universal principles undermines any attempt to wield moral authority. To make matters worse, the sitting administration has rewritten the rules to circumvent international standards related to either civilian or military detainees. By sidestepping a clearcut either/or method of classifying prisoners (not to mention casting an extremely wide net in the initial Afghani roundup,) the President established a legal basis for captive abuse without limit.

Alan Dershowitz, deservedly regarded as a great legal scholar, has argued that even the most brutal sort of torture should be legally sanctioned in a ticking bomb situation. It is clear that he was speaking literally, but it seems as if the White House decided to heed his words in the context of “ticking bomb” as a metaphor for a wide variety of suspected terrorist threats. Using statements like those of Dershowitz for political cover, the administration ignored the relevance of immediacy and credibility in evaluating what suspected dangers might justify the use of “enhanced interrogation techniques” on prisoners languishing in our legal black holes.

As an aside, it is interesting the role the television series 24 has played in this debate. The President himself has made reference to the lead character, Jack Bauer, in discussing approaches to stopping terrorism. However, that character’s annual involvement in fictional ticking bomb situations highlights an important point. A hero placed in such dire straits should be able to transcend the law for the good of the nation.

I disagree with Dershowitz’s position that torture should take place within a legal framework. Keeping it out of a legal framework does nothing to prevent a national savior from demanding the right to explain his extralegal action to a jury. It is hard to imagine any collection of twelve Americans who would sentence a man to imprisonment for brutalizing an actual terrorist as a necessary measure to successfully avert some mass casualty event that was otherwise inevitable and mere hours from actually occurring. On the other hand, it is not so hard to imagine a military or covert interrogation expert, actively encouraged to practice brutality by directives from superiors, torturing human beings for no good purpose whatsoever.

Though basic human decency goes to the core of this issue, there is more to it than that. Effective torture can be a quick way to get answers from an otherwise unresponsive captive. These quick answers may not be truthful answers, particularly when those subjected to torture may not actually know relevant facts. Tens of thousands of Europeans (and thanks to our Puritan heritage, more than a few early Americans) were publicly executed after confessing under torture to the crime of wielding unholy supernatural powers. Of course none of these people actually could fly on broomsticks or cause pestilence through ritual magic or perpetrate any other such fairy tale villainy. It was the real ability of torture to produce misleading information, and not any real manifestation of black magic in Renaissance Europe, that prompted so much horrific carnage.

In efforts to neutralize terrorist threats, a high price must be paid for acting on misleading information. Arthur Miller’s play The Crucible explores this theme in great detail. Based closely on historical accounts of the Salem witch trials, it dramatizes how torture and threat of torture caused innocent people to incriminate other innocent people. Wider and wider the Satanic conspiracy seemed to spread. Initial false accusations snowballed as almost everyone subjected to torture sought relief by telling cruel authorities whatever it seemed they wanted to hear.

In the absence of an actual ticking bomb, there is time enough to conduct far more effective interrogations than torture permits. The right mix of psychology and pharmacology, supplemented with patience as needed, can get at the signal of valuable intelligence without producing the noise of false confessions compelled by extreme duress. After all, assuming a suspected terrorist is in fact a terrorist, which offers greater value to society — the security provided by reliable extraction of organizational and operational knowledge, or the sadistic satisfaction of having vented wrath on a helpless prisoner? Should that initial assumption be in error, all the more reason exists to abstain from decidedly brutal methods.

It would be nice if there were no fringe of radical firebrand clerics in the Middle East sermonizing about the evils of America as the Great Satan. Piling wet blankets onto that incendiary rhetoric would diminish the extremes of zeal from which terrorist fanatics emerge. Why then is it the policy of our government to do just the opposite — taking one opportunity after another to validate the venom of our enemies’ spiritual leaders? I do not know if it is because advocating torture was thought to pay some domestic political dividend or if it is because framers of today’s national policies are simply too ignorant to recognize that torture has no redeeming value outside the rarest and most immediate of security emergencies.

At least for today, I also do not know precisely what the primary source for this letter happens to be. However, it seems credible to me. It is an elegant plea from intelligence and law enforcement agents to be relieved of the burden to employ torture in place of more reliable and more humane techniques. It may be true that terrorists have no respect for the lives of their victims. Does that ever justify sinking to so low a level ourselves? If there is any distinction to be made between civilization and barbarity, surely this is it. We would do well to all take a stand against torture together, as one nation united under the noble principles so many great Americans have given their lives to defend.


What You Should Think About Religion in Politics

October 10, 2007

. . . but it is very important for people not to be haughty in their religion, and there’s all kinds of admonitions in the Bible — haughtiness, rightfulness is a sin in itself.”

–George W. Bush

One of the most disturbing trends in modern American politics has been the legislation of morality. Governor Rick Perry (R-Texas) displayed a profound lack of good sense when, faced with a concerned citizen’s question, he expressed a belief that political leaders have a duty to “legislate morality.” I believe this approach slightly misses the point of legislation and completely misses the point of the American Revolutionary War, not to mention other great American civic achievements like the Bill of Rights.

It is understandable why some people might have difficulty seeing this area as problematic. For many, a morality derived from religion is the wellspring of all that is thought to be good. For far too many of those, this includes the capacity to judge others as evil. It is unreasonable to expect all Americans, or even that minority motivated enough to participate in elections, to have a coherent philosophy informed by post-conventional moral thinking. On the other hand, for a leader of millions to lack such a useful faculty of judgment . . . is our political process really that bereft of selectivity?

Of course it is, but that is beside the point. My concern is that this nation, with its cultural foundation established by colonists intent on practicing religious beliefs at odds with life in an increasingly urbane England, should never go down the path of inflicting punishments on citizens unwilling to abide by religious strictures. Without really thinking about it, one might well believe this is an argument for legalizing murder and rape.

Of course, it is not, and that is very much the point. Legislation to ban murder and rape can be justified without any appeal to religious thought. Society as a whole is safer and more prosperous to the degree that innocent people can be protected from physical assault. Independent of any appeals to tradition or scripture or theology, there are enough strong arguments to constitute a compelling case for the criminalization of violent attacks.

When it comes to American public policy, only universal good makes sense as a touchstone for validating new laws. Of course this good need not extend across the literal universe, but it must apply to people of any faith. This includes people with no faith whatsoever. Respect for the Constitutional assurance of free religious practice provides a technical basis for upholding this standard. Respect for those victimized by predictable outcomes of legislative morality rooted in any specific faith or religious doctrine provides strong rational basis for upholding this standard.

It is not unreasonable to characterize the United States as “Christian” on a cultural level. Most of our institutions respect Christian holidays, and in most communities talk of religion implies that the subject is Christianity. However, it is both unreasonable and untrue to characterize the United States as a Christian nation in any legal sense. With painstaking care, the founders of this nation set out to establish a secular government in which a plurality of religions, in spite of disagreements in areas like virtue or sin, could co-exist in peace and harmony.

Every time a public figure drags religious convictions into a political discussion, it is (at least) a very small betrayal of our domestic tranquility. In those instances when it is not insincere pandering, it also manages to be a betrayal of reasonable civic discourse. One of our most popular Presidents, John F. Kennedy, went to great lengths during his national campaign to establish that, while he was earnest in his faith, he would never allow a religious concern to drive him to act against the best interests of this nation or its people.

Today, particularly with one of the two entrenched parties, it seems as if candidates are tripping over each other to demonstrate how quickly they would let their faith take precedence over their commitment to secular governance. While a sizable chunk of our own nation applauds some public figures’ refusal to accept the role of biological evolution in shaping the human form, the rest of the civilized world (perhaps along with the rest of our own population) looks on in stark dismay. Even if there were to be a President Huckabee, I doubt grant money would dry up for continued studies into archeology and natural history on subjects more than 10,000 years old. However, I wouldn’t expect policies from that White House to promote great strides in American biotechnology or science education either.

At this point perhaps some readers are thinking, “well, as a good Christian, I have nothing to worry about if public figures indulge in legislating their personal morality.” However, this is a much trickier matter than it seems at first glance. Just what is a Christian? By this I do not mean to indulge the sectarian invective Mit Romney has been receiving lately. Rather I want to call attention to the wandering standards of America’s most vocal Christians.

A religious movement that could be thought of as an ancestor to modern evangelical churches was at the heart of alcohol Prohibition. Though the faithful read scripture holding that the first miracle of Jesus involved transforming water to wine, the misery associated with alcohol abuse left many Americans convinced that the stuff should be banned. As enormous congregations formed around charismatic leaders, all manner of potential social movements could have emerged. What did emerge was a monstrous beast of political activism that led directly to one of the biggest and most painful failures in the history of American domestic policy.

The funny thing is, I believe most evangelical Christians no longer feel that there is anything wrong with alcohol commerce, or even with taking a glass of wine at dinner. The Bible didn’t change. In fact, personalities involved in megachurch leadership didn’t even change much. What really changed was that firebrand preachers no longer could maintain credibility while calling for tougher alcohol laws. Hindsight ended a movement that would never have picked up steam if informed by foresight.

Yet to possess that foresight, one must recognize that religious morality, even that held by a majority, is still a personal thing. If you believe God doesn’t want you to eat citrus on Tuesday, then by all means don’t eat citrus on Tuesday. At the same time, consider the consequences of a nationwide Tuesday orange and grapefruit ban. Does it do any good to people of faith who would voluntarily abide by the restriction anyway? Does it do real harm to people who believe differently and might enjoy a juicy vitamin-rich snack between meals?

In short, if any sort of taboo has a place in the lawbooks, it is because the allegedly sinful act is also a genuinely hurtful act. Organized religions tend to be pretty consistent about promoting humility. It requires a great failure of humility to believe that badges and guns have any place in compelling strangers to abide by your own church’s notions of right and wrong. The essence of maintaining order in a society of many faiths involves drawing this distinction and insuring that the personal nature of faith does not bleed into public policy.

To many, speaking of religion on the campaign trail may seem like a sign of personal virtue. In the context of a tolerant society blessed by cultural pluralism, it is quite the opposite. Exploiting the sympathies of religious voters may not be the dirtiest possible tactic, but it is an alternative to making a case for election into our secular government based on secular argumentation. It deliberately leads others astray from the political culture expressly insulated from religious doctrine by the Founding Fathers themselves. Simply put, making faith a matter of political consequence could only be pleasing to a deity that was intent on undermining crucial principles on which the United States of America was originally established. Does anyone believe God is truly against us in that way?


What You Should Think About the 2nd Amendment

October 7, 2007

“When governments fear the people, there is liberty. When the people fear the government, there is tyranny. The strongest reason for the people to retain the right to keep and bear arms is, as a last resort, to protect themselves against tyranny in government.”

falsely attributed to Thomas Jeffersion

The epigram is correct. More than a couple of times I have heard or seen that quotation cited as an example of the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson. As it turns out, the whole thing was likely a fabrication by someone who did not believe being honest in political discussion was as important as appearing to have the support of a great American thinker. Serious Jeffersonian scholars hold that the man never wrote any such thing.

He did, however, write, “no freeman shall be debarred the use of arms (within his own lands.)” Though that too has been distorted by dishonest advocates, its occurrence in a 1776 draft of the Constitution for Virginia is just as it appears in this paragraph, complete with parenthetical. Broader surveys confirm the notion that Jefferson was not so much concerned with supporting bunkers full of anti-government militia gunmen as he was concerned with supporting the ability of American landowners to defend their personal turf.

It is true Jefferson worried about aristocratic oppression, and he clearly stood in support of some right to bear arms. That only makes it all the more odd that opponents of gun control policy would elect to distort his words so much, lacing their literature with falsehoods. Sticking with the facts would still show him supporting related principles. Then again, those who support strong restrictions or even outright bans on civilian firearms also tend to take things too far.

Esteemed legal scholars have made mockeries of their own reputations by interpreting the 2nd Amendment as if it existed only to address issues related to militia activities. It would be absurd to suggest that matters of personal self-defense and even defense of property never entered into the framers’ discussions. While it is fair to characterize the actual text of the 2nd Amendment as ambiguous, to summarily invalidate all arguments related to armed personal defense is an unreasonable stance that seems oblivious to context.

Somewhat like the abortion debate, gun policy suffers from the hijack of extremists. Those who absolutely insist there is a public interest in preserving civilian access to .50cal vehicular sniper rifles constitute one faction pitted against another that is committed to prohibiting any civilian participation in America’s gun culture. I would imagine an overwhelming majority of Americans occupy some middle ground. Yet policy emergent from that middle ground gets hammered by extremists launching attacks from opposing directions. Good ideas are cut down in the crossfire.

More relaxed supporters of extreme gun control may fall short being true advocates as they acquiesce to the depth with which gun culture has become a part of American society. Yet those truly concerned about saving lives ought to recognize that disarming America’s civilians is not likely to be the best method of accomplishing their goal. More than a few other societies support or even encourage firearm possession and use by ordinary citizens in a way that does not translate gun culture into an persistent increase in firearm killings.

In part this can be blamed on the extremists. Though a cutthroat economic paradigm, draconian enforcement of vice laws, and assorted other self-inflicted social problems are part of it; a shortage of responsible regulation is also part of the problem. In some states, selling a small bag of cocaine to partygoers intent on a lively weekend is cause enough for lifetime imprisonment. Selling a gun to a likely murderer usually draws a much lesser penalty, while selling a gun to an unstable undocumented individual who can briefly wear a safe sane facade may not result in much of a penalty at all.

It is true that respectable storefront gun shops risk being run out of business for failure to follow procedures and keep proper paperwork. That is all the more reason those business owners and their loyal patrons should oppose the continued legality of car trunk gun dealers and vast firearm expositions where regulatory oversight often cannot be brought to bear effectively. Can whatever value these institutions add to American culture really offset the lives they indirectly remove from our society?

Efforts for comprehensive firearm bans fall flat for all manner of reasons. Municipal examples like Washington, D.C. or Chicago, IL are not entirely misleading. It is true that people intent on gun violence in those areas can take a short drive to a place where ordinary gun commerce is unaffected by local laws. Yet in both those places, people intent on gun violence are usually but a stroll away from a black market dealer. It seems to me that an outright prohibition on guns would do more to unite gun seekers with criminal organizations than it would to keep guns out of the hands of violent criminals.

So what should you think about the 2nd Amendment? Lots of people have strong feelings one way or the other. Yet a thoughtful approach does not lead us to either extreme. This is clearly one area of governance where compromise could work wonders. Eliminating American gun violence is not a realistic goal, but curtailing it through more sensible regulation surely is. The trick is to balance this compromise so that it accomplishes real good by keeping firearms out of the hands of citizens known to be insane or predisposed toward violence without going so far as to drive responsible gun owners into the black market.

Accomplishing this on a political level would involve getting gun owners’ advocacy groups down off the mountain of bogus slippery slope argumentation. Replacing a mishmash of state policies with a more coherent federal approach could be helpful. Sure, it would mean that law-abiding gun owners would have to let The Great Satan of federal government keep records on their identities and arsenals. “If you’re not doing anything wrong, you have nothing to fear,” does not apply to torture, unwarranted incarceration of indefinite length, etc. The potential for abuse is too great. On the other hand, just what plausible scenario involves government abuse of a database recording who owns which guns?

Of course, safety measures should stop short of being silly. Mandatory trigger locks serve much more as window dressing than a reasonable alternative to traditional methods of safe gun storage. Prohibitively expensive ammunition taxes would discourage practice shooting — a vital part of making the transition from inexperienced new gun owner to trained safe gun owner. Besides which, given what Canadian tobacco taxes do for organized crime, imagine what a 500% bullet tax would prompt.

One set of extremists ought to abandon false narratives about a totalitarian state being the inevitable outcome of federalizing gun policy and closing enforcement loopholes in gun commerce. Another set of extremists ought to abandon false narratives about unrealistic or ineffective safety measures. Without those blights on the political landscape, it should become easy to focus on measures that respect the American tradition of responsible gun ownership while also respecting the American desire to minimize abuse of the deadly power that comes from holding a loaded gun in your hands.