What You Should Think About Fear

July 1, 2008

“Fear is not the natural state of a civilized people.”

–Aung San Suu Kyi

Senator Joe Lieberman is a fascinating study in missing the point.  I first became aware of this when he embarked on a campaign to censor violence in video games.  Here was a grown man, well-educated, commanding a large capable staff, and placed in a position of moral obligation to be astute on a wide range of issues.  Yet he was convinced of a strong causal link between an entertainment medium and the worst sorts of human behavior.  In joining that misguided crusade, he fell in line with a shameful tradition of cultural conservatives ignoring substance in order to attack music or films or books or even plays.  The same buffoonery has been going on in public squares since the Agora of Athens was established.

Still, this particular Senator never fails to disappoint.  Forget about failing to deliver Florida in the 2000 election (after all, Vice President Gore’s organization bungled Tennessee even worse.)  Senator Lieberman’s misadventures go well beyond an ineffective run for his own Vice Presidency.  Whenever presented with a chance to display some insight into international relations, security issues, and counterterrorism policy; the man displays a natural gift for apparently sincere obliviousness.

Either that, or he is truly a coward.  If this is the case, then he is not merely cowering in fear for himself, but coweing in fear for the entire nation.  After all, less than eight years ago, this great nation was attacked by nineteen men with small knives.  Of course that means we must escalate warfare throughout the Middle East until both Iran and Iraq are merely parking lots for the great shopping malls of Dubai and Saudi Arabia, right?

This is the thing to keep clearly in mind as the security debate unfolds.  Armed only with a clever plan and a few inches of sharpened steel, nineteen men brought the United States of America to tears.  Perhaps because of one subject that is still taboo — the extraordinary weakness that enabled such a modest effort to produce such horrific results — we made a collective choice to fight first and think later.

Thus this choice was made without regard for little matters like target selection, means of engagement, post-invasion planning, etc.  Rather than fight back against those who had bloodied, terrorized, and (dare I say it) shamed us; this nation chose to fight for fighting’s sake.  We did not reform transportation safety to bring about real security upgrades.  We reformed it to satisfy the political desire to make people feel as if action were being taken.  We did not deploy armies to neutralize the actual threat to our safety.  We deployed them to satisfy a convoluted mix of political goals, with greater emphasis on acts that would predictably strengthen Al Qaeda than those that would be likely to weaken or eliminate the group.

For people acquainted with relevant facts, it seems hard to imagine such a stupid response to such an important issue.  In the coarsest levels of political dialogue, many conclude that this is because people like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and even Senator Lieberman are all evil men intent on bringing the nation to ruin.  I suppose there is some possibility that apocalyptic delusions of grandeur influence the sitting President’s worldview, and Dick Cheney is disturbingly comfortable in the role of a latter day Darth Vader.  However, I believe that it is nonsense to suggest either of them actually hates America or desires ruin befall our people.

They are simply terrorized.  The goal of the terrorist is to strike fear into the hearts of many people.  Even with the stunningly lethal outcomes of the 9/11 hijackings, American security was not significantly changed.  Rare is the month our driving habits fail to kill more people than died in those terrorist attacks.  A perfectly rational response would be to pursue the perpetrators and their accomplices, implement a sensible transportation safety plan, and go on about routine business.  An understandably irrational response would be to dwell on a mix of anger or sadness for a time, then go forward with the rational response.  Given national leadership that was adequate or better, recent history would have played out along understandable lines.

It did no such thing in large part because a particularly twisted and corrupt subset of politicians happily exploit the fact that fear is power.  Making the absurd leap from Saudi men with boxcutters to an Axis of Evil intent on nuking our homeland was only possible because a traumatized people are vulnerable to the absurd.  It was all made much worse still by political hate media — the sort that continues to draw enormous audiences no matter how profoundly wrong its content has been in the past.  Perhaps there are still some sensible voices on the American political right wing, but they are largely drowned out by other voices that cunningly exploit negative emotions — fear, anger, and hatred — to galvanize resistance against constructive political change.

When Senator John McCain’s campaign recently floated the “we put the nation first, the other candidate puts his left wing agenda ahead of the nation” campaign theme, it seems as if it could only have emerged from a circle of terrorized political advisors.  Like Senator Lieberman, it seems Senator McCain and most of his inner circle are still deathly afraid that the United States of America will prove no match for the next band of fanatics to arm themselves with innocuous tools and a cunning plan.  To hear them speak of strength and experience, to hear them criticize the opposition as weak or soft — the irony that such craven jellyfish would take that tone should be lost on no one.  Alas, it is lost on virtually everyone, including many of their critics.

It would have been a great thing for the world if cooler heads had prevailed in late 2001 and beyond.  Heck, it probably would have been great for the world if cooler heads had taken charge in 2004.  This fall, another opportunity presents itself to let cooler heads prevail.  John McCain may not be more quick-tempered or loud-mouthed than Barack Obama.  However, his continued embrace of bloodshed justified by only the most absurd and implausible of political narratives is a shameful misjudgement that threatens to pile misery atop misery, slaughter atop slaughter, all in one of the most oppressed parts of the modern world.

We should fear terrorists . . . we should fear them even more than we fear lightning strikes, but certainly much less than we fear smog.  All these risks are real, yet they are also all no reason whatsoever for a routine day to be uncomfortable.  The more our behavior reflects a terrorized mindset, the less keenly we will be able to focus efforts on neutralizing actual terrorism.  Even worse, the blundering and slaughtering will continue, perhaps even escalate, while decisions are made based on this terrorized mindset.

It is long past time to overcome this insipid fear, spawned by nineteen suicidal fanatics and nursed into a behemoth by years of carefully calculated political misinformation.  The best security credential anyone could bring to a bid for the Presidency in 2008 is a clear history of opposing misguided military aggression in a climate when such opposition was boldly unpopular.  If we truly want to be strong as a nation, then the time has come for us to show the world no fear.  Endorsing the views and candidacies of leaders still clearly and deeply terrorized by the events of September 11th, 2001 is showing plenty of fear — the very fear by which our true enemies define their own successes.


What You Should Think About Privacy

November 10, 2007

“The personal life of every individual is based on secrecy, and perhaps it is partly for that reason that civilized man is so nervously anxious that personal privacy should be respected.”

–Anton Chekhov

What goes on behind the scenes in government is almost always much uglier than the official facade crafted by political leaders. This is especially true in times of crisis or violent conflict. That is all the more reason to avoid letting our own leaders exploit and amplify the terror sowed by terrorists as officials here set about pursuing any agenda that would expand the powers of government. Seldom has the disparity between a party line and a leader’s actions been as dramatic as we have seen with the Presidency of George W. Bush. Seldom has such a vast gulf been inspired by reaction to an enemy with such limited capabilities as well.

By far the most dangerous thing about Al Qaeda and related organizations is that they command the loyalty of people who are willing to die for the cause yet not so debilitated by their insanity as to be unable to follow through on a complex coordinated plan. Yet in the end that is the worst of the threat. Terrorists do not have an air force or a navy nor even an army that could go toe to toe with a mere 1% of our own armed forces. Only an assortment of people willing to train hard then die in acts of spectacular destruction gives our enemies real power.

Yet substantially the American way of life has changed as a response to this threat. For the most part those ways are not well-publicized. Ideally our nation would have reacted by promoting awareness of realities on the ground in the Middle East, implementing truly useful precautions at airports and seaports, and taking action to undermine the hostility coming from the “death to America” crowd. Instead it seems that our government has promoted fictions about the Middle East, pursued the placebo effect more than real countermeasures at points of vulnerability, and taken action to partially validate the criticisms of anti-American clerical firebrands.

Though much less prominent than the war in Iraq, part of this administration’s blundering involves propping up the notion that America’s dedication to liberty is more window dressing than a core value. We accept much higher mortality rates due to car travel, toxic emissions, workplace safety, et al. than terrorism could plausibly cause without compromising our way of life. Yet this source of death is exploited as justification for the widespread erosion of America’s traditional “right to privacy.”

It is true that the Constitution does not speak directly to the matter of privacy. It is a legal right constructed from interpretations of that document, with particular focus on the 4th Amendment. That language forbids “unreasonable” government exercise of powers to search for and confiscate evidence. Important legal doctrines follow from this, including the idea that enforcers must act based on “probable cause” and that intrusive searches that are not a spontaneous response to exigent circumstances must be warranted by judicial approval.

In 1978 the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) established a secret process that would enable counterespionage investigators to obtain judicial approval for their searches without compromising legitimately covert aspects of their operations. In 2001 the Patriot Act modified this process so that it might also be used by counterterrorism investigators. Unfortunately, under Presidential guidance, organizations like the NSA cast an extremely wide net. Rather than focusing precious investigative and analytical human resources on the most promising leads, everyone from Quaker pacifists to harmless schoolteachers was swept up in the search.

President Bush has often referred to this scattershot approach as a “vital tool” in efforts to deal with terrorist threats. Yet the executive and legislative shenanigans involved in dealing with the legal ramifications of this pose serious problems. FISA courts cannot hope to keep up with thousands upon thousands of investigations spawned by causes that are so far from probable. Even if political pressure caused those judges to behave like a rubber stamps, the sheer volume of bogus cases is overwhelming. Thus the matter of unwarranted wiretapping made the news, and eventually the Congressional docket as well.

This all feeds back into what foreign critics of the United States have been saying about our hypocrisy. Amidst the echoes of a litany of accurate statements about the expansion of the American police state (among other abuses of power,) it becomes easier for potential radicals to be duped into believing the worst of our system and even our people. After all, the authoritarian bent of the Bush-Cheney team was no secret in 2004, yet most of our citizens casting votes that November actually endorsed the incumbents. If we seek to live in a world where hate for America is not widespread, we would do well to condemn, rather than endorse, acts of outright villainy.

The expansion of federal police powers poses other problems as well. Some people take comfort in the mental refuge, “well, they’re only using these powers against terrorists.” The presumption of innocence is not something to be dispensed with lightly. It is a crucial part of the foundation of any legal system in a free society. Technically, they’re only using these powers against suspected terrorists. That one word makes a world of difference. Just as all it took to become a Salem witch was an accusation of witchcraft, even if it was uttered under extreme duress, similar accusations contribute to the ever-expanding list of suspected terrorists.

Then there is the impact on actual investigatory efforts. Even the most diligent G-man can only chase down so many false leads before his zeal for the hunt gives way to frustration or even cynicism. Rather than keeping our counterterrorism personnel focused on pursuing credible threats to national security, the existing approach turns them into blunt instruments. The expectation of disappointment has become the norm, not just among FBI agents, but throughout the web of agencies and military units tasked with hunting down suspected terrorists.

Personally, I believe that it is important to maintain a high standard of personal privacy because that standard is an invaluable comfort (if also something of an illusion) to almost all adult Americans. Even if that comfort is regarded as an expendable luxury, it is also much more than that. It is a vital constraint that minimizes government victimization of innocent people while serving to focus the efforts of the state on suspects that might reasonably be involved with terrorist organizations.

A hammer is a vital tool for building houses, but it tends to work best when it is directed only at nails. Executive orders and legislative proposals emergent from the White House at present take their “vital tool” and use it to bash haphazardly at all manner of targets. In the end, this produces a much weaker structure than if the tool were used with some sort of reasonable control and precision. If the common goal shared by our entire population is to reduce the level of danger posed by terrorist activity, the last thing our policies should do is validate a portion of the radicals’ narrative while spreading counterterrorism resources so broadly as to violate both our proudest traditions and basic common sense.


What You Should Think About Pervez Musharraf

November 5, 2007

“The power of the lawyer is in the uncertainty of the law.”

–Jeremy Bentham

As long as I have walked the Earth, Pakistan has been a complicated place. It was conceived out of religious strife boiling to the surface as the British Empire released its grip over the subcontinent. India has had its share of internal troubles. Even so, governing that vast and diverse land seems easy when compared to Pakistan’s internal problems. Even in the most sophisticated cities, progressive Pakistani people supporting secular governance are at odds with influential religious leaders eager to promote a crude and intolerant distortion of Islam. Then there are some regions that are under Islamabad’s control in name only.

Filled with rugged terrain and a suitably rugged indigenous population, Waziristan is a part of Pakistan. On the border with Afghanistan, Waziristan served as a refuge for Taliban militants fleeing efforts by American and newly empowered Afghani officials to hunt them down. With more than a few Al Qaeda personnel in the mix, this hunt has a legitimate role to play in the fight against terrorism. Yet the matter of Pakistani sovereignty raises serious problems when it comes to pursuing the hunt across that border.

Al Qaeda has long had ties to various tribes indigenous to Waziristan. In addition to being a CIA-backed anti-Soviet guerilla leader and a CIA-hunted anti-American terrorist, Osama bin Laden is also responsible for building roads, schools, and medical facilities in places where related services were previously inadequate, if available at all. This component of his activities improved the quality of life for desperately impoverished people in several parts of the world. It is with that in mind that many Waziri men were happy to take substantial sums of Al Qaeda money in exchange for a pledge to fight alongside the Taliban in defense of Afghanistan against foreign invaders.

Insofar as he may have followed the region with enough interest to pick up on such details, the indebtedness of Waziri men to Al Qaeda financiers did not make George W. Bush happy. It also did not make Pervez Musharraf happy. In one of the many unlikely (and largely unpublicized) twists of the Global War on Terror, Musharraf’s government arranged for Al Qaeda to be repaid. This freed Waziri men from their duty to fight in Afghanistan as a function of honoring debts. Even so, it did not prevent substantial numbers of them from fighting alongside the Taliban and Al Qaeda as a matter of principle.

I believe most experts on global security issues would put Pakistan, or perhaps even Waziristan specifically, at the top of a list of likely locations where Osama bin Laden might presently reside. Locals tend to be hostile toward outsiders even if they come from other parts of Pakistan. The U.S. has agreed to allow Pakistan to conduct all counterterrorism operations in that region (and most likely supplied advanced unmanned aerial vehicle technology in support of that mission.) However, it is thought that a major and sustained Pakistani military presence could generate a Waziri insurgency.  Any overt Western military presence surely would.

With all this in mind, it makes sense that the government of Pakistan might be a lot more uptight about maintaining control than in a place like the United States, where the idea of violent rebellion against federal authorities is only appealing to a fringe of extremists and the occasional little doomsday cult. The practical challenges of dealing with an insurgency among indigenous people, allied with terrorists and residing in mountain country, makes a brute force crackdown by the Pakistani army undesirable. On the other hand, exercising such limited control over a probable Al Qaeda haven poses problems of its own.

It is against this backdrop we see some truly bizarre antics taking place in Islamabad lately. Those who would challenge President-General Musharraf through the democratic process are not at all like the “extremists” that justify global concerns. For the most part, these challengers want to shore up Paksitani civil liberties, place an elected official above military officers in the chain of command (as is the case in the U.S. and so many other democratic regimes,) and rally support for progressive secular values. Surely a female head of state in Pakistan is a move away from, rather than toward, Al Qaeda’s call for hardline theocratic governance of Muslim societies.

Then there is the focus on lawyers. In addition to efforts at preventing judicial oversight of the previous Pakistani national election, Musharraf has ordered a roundup of legal advocates associated with Benazir Bhutto’s political party. If an emergency decree to ban public protest is intended to prevent large progressive gatherings that would serve as ideal targets for terrorists, then why also try to prevent lawyers from going about their role in a particularly murky incarnation of the democratic process?

That sort of action makes it difficult to take seriously Musharraf’s assertion that his recent behavior is focused on containing terrorist threats rather than silencing legitimate democratic opposition to his Presidency. It is as if he has taken a page from the Rove-Bush-Cheney playbook — pursuing policies that will only strengthen actual terrorist movements even as he abuses his authority to crush civilized peaceful movements constituting a loyal opposition. I can only wonder if our President regrets not having the power to jail Nancy Pelosi et al. as an alternative to allowing the 2006 elections to go forward as they did.

So far the advice from “the leader of the free world” to the leader of a part of the world that just became a great deal less free has been simple. Though he has made a half-hearted appeal to restore Pakistani civil liberties, Bush’s more pointed counsel has been that President-General Musharraf should dispense with the “General” in his title. Yet I understand, and perhaps even feel some relief, that there has been no rush into more decisive action yet.  This complex situation does place the American President in a tricky situation.

Were the U.S. to scale back aid to Pakistan or undertake other sanctions, the Musharraf regime could become less hostile to Al Qaeda. Some reports hold that Pervez Musharraf and Osama bin Laden generate fairly close results in opinion polls of the Pakistani public. On the other hand, never going beyond softspoken condemnation of this enormous setback for Pakistani democracy calls into question the validity of America’s commitment to spreading democracy as a means to marginalize extremist movements in the Muslim world.

Foreign affairs would be a very simple matter if everything could really be boiled down to, “you’re either with us or you’re against us.” Shortly after the September 11th attacks, publicly as well as privately, that stark choice was conveyed to the government of Pakistan. In hindsight it should become clear to more people what was immediately evident to me on witnessing our President’s crude approach — foreign affairs are almost never handled best with a simple approach. We can dumb down our policies as much as our leaders desire, but the world will continue to turn with all the same complexities and nuances . . . and perhaps a few more for failure to engage realistically with those complications in the past.


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.