May 30, 2009

On the Wrong Side of History

In the nearly three years that I've been blogging, I have written several times on the topic of same sex marriage. In fact, one of my very first posts was called The Solution to the Gay Marriage Debate (Seriously), and my position has been consistent since, so I won't reiterate it here at length. I'll simply say that preventing consenting adults from marrying the person they love because others have religious issues with it, is flat out wrong.

Although the ruling by the California Supreme Court earlier this week upholding Proposition 8, which amended the state constitution to prohibit same sex marriage, was therefore profoundly disappointing, it was also not unexpected. Taking the easy way out, the Court held that Proposition 8 should stand, and while new marriages among homosexuals would not be legal, existing ones would still be recognized.

While I am not a lawyer, this ruling appears to me to be deeply flawed, since it creates a protected class of citizens in gays who have already married. The equivalent would be to permit citizens who purchased slaves before slavery was outlawed to keep them, but to prevent prospective slave owners from buying human chattel after an arbitrary date.

As discouraging as this ruling is, however, it is merely a setback. Proponents of equal marriage rights are preparing to fight on, and will place gay marriage measures on the California ballot as long as it takes to erase the enshrinement of bigotry, fear and discrimination that is Proposition 8. Opponents of same sex matrimony are on the wrong side of history, and one day the attitude of the woman in the photo on the right, above, will be as reviled as the hatred expressed by the people who fought the integration of public schools in Arkansas.

In the meantime, the Courage Campaign has an excellent new ad out on the topic that poignantly drives home how unjust discrimination against gays and lesbians really is.

May 25, 2009

Dishonoring Himself and Those Who Serve

Memorial Day is an opportunity to pause and reflect on the enormous personal sacrifices made by the men and women who serve our country in uniform. It is a chance, also, to appreciate what, specifically, they are sworn to do, lost as that often is in a swirl of flag-waving hero worship.

Because those who serve do not do so to become larger-than-life, or to have medals pinned to their chests, or to have strangers in airports thank them "for their service." Rather, the stated purpose of the American military can be boiled down to the few simple sentences that comprise the oath of allegiance sworn by all officers when they are commissioned:
I do solemnly swear that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter.
This oath is similar in both intent and concision to the one taken by the president at his inauguration:
I do solemnly swear that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States.
What is striking in both of these oaths is that the focus of each is to defend the Constitution, not to make sure that bad things never happen or to "keep us safe." And that is why, in his speech on Thursday, in which he advocated something called "prolonged detention" for individuals whom we cannot successfully prosecute, President Obama dishonors both his own office and the men and women of our military.

This radical policy, rooted firmly beyond the bounds of the president's constitutional powers, declares that the government can imprison - without trial - those we merely suspect of having a desire or motivation to commit a crime in the future. It is utterly, completely, indefensible, and on this day, when we remember those who have given their lives to defend their nation - to defend their country's constitution - it could not be more insulting.

Rachel Maddow has an excellent piece on the president's speech in the clip below.

May 20, 2009

Ventura's Torture Smackdown Tour

Jesse Ventura, former U.S. Navy SEAL, former professional wrestler, and former Governor of Minnesota, has never been afraid to have an opinion. Although his career as a politician was, by most accounts, mixed, he has recently been making a particularly distinguished tour of various talk shows, promoting his new book with the uncompromising assertiveness that is his trademark, on full display.

Originally questioned about American torture policy on the Larry King Show, Governor Ventura got rolling quickly, picked up steam on The View, and then bulldozed through the Fox News Channel, leaving a trail of shattered Bush Administration propaganda, and rhetorically demolishing his pro-torture adversaries. Uniquely positioned as a political independent and not only a veteran, but one who experienced waterboarding firsthand as part of his training at the SERE school, he has had little trouble confronting the ignorance, intellectual weakness and moral bankruptcy of the torture advocates he has debated. Even better, he has come prepared, and revealed the Elizabeth Hasselbecks, Brian Kilmeades and Sean Hannitys of the world to be both embarrassingly immature and incapable of more than the alternately bullying and pouting recitation of discredited, jingoistic talking points.

Whatever one might think of Mr. Ventura's outsized personality, in helping to illuminate the cowards and the shortsighted servants of expedience who support torture for what they are, he is fulfilling a valuable role. He might not be convincing the people with whom he is arguing directly, but he is making a strong case to the people on the sidelines, and has already generated one of the best quotes to date on the reliability of information gained through physical abuse:
I'll put it to you this way, you give me a water board, Dick Cheney and one hour, and I'll have him confess to the Sharon Tate murders.
More below - enjoy!

May 15, 2009

An Even Lower Low

This week brought significant new developments in the ongoing saga of American torture policy.

In the first, President Obama reversed himself on the release of additional images from the Abu Ghraib Prison scandal, in which United States military personnel tortured, humiliated, terrorized and even killed Iraqi prisoners in their custody. Mr. Obama had previously stated that he would not challenge the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU)'s Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for their release, but dug in his heals at the 11th hour, claiming that the pictures would "further inflame anti-American opinion and ... put our troops in greater danger."

The courts appear likely to force the White House to release the Abu Ghraib photos anyway, but if it is unclear what the president hopes to accomplish with this delay, there are a number of reasonable paths of conjecture. It's possible that he is positioning himself to release the photos later in conjunction with an investigation into Bush Administration torture policy. He might be concerned about bogging down ongoing relations with Pakistan, Iran and/or Afghanistan. It could be a simple matter of responding to ongoing criticism from the Republican opposition. It might even be an attempt to provide cover for members of the Democratic Party complicit in President Bush's policy. It could be some combination of any or all of these considerations, but one things is for certain: It would be pretty difficult to further inflame the Muslim world against the United States in any significant fashion. As the always-outstanding Glenn Greenwald writes [emphasis in original]:
We're currently occupying two Muslim countries. We're killing civilians regularly (as usual) - with airplanes and unmanned sky robots. We're imprisoning tens of thousands of Muslims with no trial, for years. Our government continues to insist that it has the power to abduct people - virtually all Muslim - ship them to Bagram, put them in cages, and keep them there indefinitely with no charges of any kind. We're denying our torture victims any ability to obtain justice for what was done to them by insisting that the way we tortured them is a "state secret" and that we need to "look to the future." We provide Israel with the arms and money used to do things like devastate Gaza. Independent of whether any or all of these policies are justifiable, the extent to which those actions "inflame anti-American sentiment" is impossible to overstate.

And now, the very same people who are doing all of that are claiming that they must suppress evidence of our government's abuse of detainees because to allow the evidence to be seen would "inflame anti-American sentiment." It's not hard to believe that releasing the photos would do so to some extent - people generally consider it a bad thing to torture and brutally abuse helpless detainees - but compared to everything else we're doing, the notion that releasing or concealing these photos would make an appreciable difference in terms of how we're perceived in the Muslim world is laughable on its face.
The second notable event was the testimony of former FBI interrogator Ali Soufan before a Senate panel examining torture by American personnel, which covered not only the ineffectiveness of abusive techniques in effective questioning, but directly contradicted - under oath - key assertions made by former Vice President Dick Cheney about the results obtained from these methods.

Mr. Soufan stated that torture techniques were "ineffective, slow and unreliable and, as a result, harmful to our efforts to defeat al-Qaeda," and went on to say that "many of the claims made" by the Bush Administration were questionable at best. Specifically, Mr. Soufan cited these examples:
  • The Bush White House claimed Abu Zubaydah was not cooperating before August 1, 2002, when waterboarding was approved. "The truth is that we got actionable intelligence from him in the first hour of interrogating him" before that date.
  • The Bush Administration credited waterboarding with drawing information from Zubaydah that led to the capture of alleged dirty bomb conspirator Jose Padilla, who received a federal sentence of more than seventeen years, despite the fact that prosecutors presented no information on the supposed dirty bomb plot whatsoever. Mr. Padilla was, in fact, arrested in May 2002, months before waterboarding was authorized.
  • Bush officials contended that waterboarding revealed the involvement of al-Qaeda mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in the attacks of September 11, 2001. That information was actually uncovered in April 2002 again, months before waterboarding was introduced.
Of course this compelling, firsthand testimony didn't dissuade GOP boosters like entertainment personality Joe Scarborough. On Thursday's Morning Joe program, Mr. Scarborough simply ignored the fact that Ali Soufan testified under oath, as well as the time line issues he raised, and promptly stated that the former FBI agent was "exaggerating" his involvement, and didn't really know what he was talking about. (The MSNBC host clearly aspires to the Stephen Colbert school of reportage. As the unequalled Colbert said on one of his first shows, "Anyone can read the news to you. I'm going to feel the news at you.")

Incrementally then, it seems as if the justifications for torture are crumbling, as are the defenses of major supporters like former Vice President Dick Cheney who has been on television - probably more in the last few weeks than at any time during his term in office - defending the indefensible. As the accounts of success and the effectiveness of torture itself are undermined, what explains Mr. Cheney's media outlet omnipresence?

In an article for the Washington Note, Colonel Lawrence Wilkerson, the State Deparment's Chief of Staff during the term of Secretary of State Colin Powell, provides a crucial insight enormous in its implications:
Likewise, what I have learned is that as the administration authorized harsh interrogation in April and May of 2002 - well before the Justice Department had rendered any legal opinion - its principal priority for intelligence was not aimed at pre-empting another terrorist attack on the U.S. but discovering a smoking gun linking Iraq and al-Qaeda.
When one stops to think about it, this explains an awful lot about why Dick Cheney is everywhere on the airwaves these days, claiming that torture kept America safe, and that the Bush Administration only had America's best interests at heart. However, if what Colonel Wilkerson says is true, then Mr. Cheney has a vested interest in making sure that the conversation about torture stays focused on its efficacy rather than the circumstances of its use.

Plainly, if the Bush Administration not only began torturing captives before the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) issued its opinion stating that such actions were permissible, but tortured prisoners to justify a political decision to invade Iraq - rather than to uncover "terrorist plots", then the jig is up. The torture of prisoners prior to the OLC opinion doesn't even have the flimsy legal cover that document provides. Worse for Mr. Cheney, the reason for that torture - the invasion and occupation of Iraq - isn't something that will pass muster as justifiable among any but the farthest right of the right wing.

For a while, I actually thought we had finally reached the bottom of the seemingly depthless pit of venality, arrogance, stupidity and ignorance that the Bush Administration seemed to mine regularly for its policy decisions. Based on past experience, I should have known better.

If the White House was, in fact, ordering the torture of prisoners, not even for the spineless justifications they have trotted out to date, but "merely" to help rationalize attacking a country that had nothing to do with 9/11, then - true to form - they have found yet one more way to achieve an even lower low for a presidency characterized by little else.

Over at The Heart of the Matter, Barry Eisler responds to one of his readers, who supports American torture policy. It is one of the best and most systematic demolitions of pro-torture arguments I've read yet. Please check out The Torture Mentality.

May 10, 2009

Libertarian Vacation Paradise

With all the Fox News blather about imprecisely defined "socialism" and "fascism" under President Obama, it's worth noting that there are, in fact, countries around the globe that conform to some of the ideals and goals espoused by America's right wing.

For the religious zeaolots, there is Saudi Arabia, whose laws call out the intent that "society will be based on the principle of adherence to God's command." At the other end of the spectrum is Somalia, a failed state where society is supported only through the libertarian self-interest of private citizens.

Why is it, then, that these countries are never held up as exemplars of these doctrines, and why don't American conservatives at least vacation in places that embody their goals? Comedy troop The Public Service Adminstration helps us understand in the video below...

May 5, 2009

What Kind of Country Do We Want To Be?

As the issue of American torture policy continues to ripple through the country, the moral bankruptcy and base ignorance of some of its leading supporters have been increasingly on display. Last Thursday, for example, in an informal interview with several students at Stanford University, Bush Administration Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not only appeared to implicate herself in a criminal conspiracy, but leaned heavily on the megalomaniacal precedent of Richard M. Nixon, stating in regard to torture policy, "By definition, if it was authorized by the president, it did not violate our obligations under the Convention Against Torture."

On Sunday, The Daily Beast published an extensive interview of the first two Bush Administration Attorneys General, John Ashcroft and Alberto Gonzales. As usual, the latter seemed to take great pains to demonstrate that he is more consiglieri than lawyer, and that he simply doesn't understand what "rule of law" means. Asked his opinion on the release of the Bush torture policy memos, Mr. Gonzales exhibited a fundamental failure to grasp that every citizen of the United States - including the president - is subject to the same set of legal strictures, missing the point of the disclosures by a wide margin:
And then secondly, to say that we have now discontinued these [torture] techniques. They may be necessary in the future. And by disclosing it, means you take them off the table and they can never be used again.
Of course the need to keep illegal tactics in our back pocket "just in case" is only one more in the long line of foolish and unsupportable justifications for why the U.S. needs the capability to not only torture people when it's deemed necessary, but to do so without transparency. On Friday, former Bush State Department official - and current President of the Council on Foreign Relations - Richard Haass, trotted out this one:
Government service already asks a lot of individuals. It entails sacrifice, pays little, and often violates privacy. Adding risk of prosecution to the mix will make recruiting the best and brightest that much more difficult. If we are not careful, we will get the government we deserve, but not the government we need.
This particular argument is so pathetic that it's tempting to simply let it fall flat under the weight of its own inadequacy, but just in case it somehow starts to catch on as the new meme for torture-as-altruism, it's worth asking a couple of questions. First and foremost, doesn't - or shouldn't - everyone worry about facing prosecution if they commit a crime, whether they serve in the private sector or the public? And second, how is it that people who can only operate in an environment where they won't be held accountable for crimes can be considered our brightest and our best?

But the real kicker in all of this is a story emanating from the United Arab Emirates (UAE). Bassam Nabulsi, an American businessman, is alleging abuse at the hands of a member of that country's royal family, and released a video tape to ABC News to bolster his claims. In the tape, Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan - the son of the UAE's former president - is clearly seen torturing an Afghani truck driver that he believed cheated him, forcing sand down the driver's throat, whipping him, hitting him with a plank, using a cattle prod on his genitals, and finally running over him repeatedly with a car. Mr. Nabulsi claims he has further footage of the sheikh tormenting at least 25 other individuals.

The tape has drawn well-founded outrage from around the world. Here at home, Congressman James McGovern, co-chair of the House Commission on Human Rights, had this to say:
The United Arab Emirates needs to fix this problem. This guy should be thrown in jail, he should be locked up. This guy is a sadist, he is mentally deranged, he is a sicko. The fact that he's getting protection just because he happens to be in a family that's well connected is unacceptable.
In whatever light we may view Sheikh Issa's actions, it's likely that, in his own mind, the torture of the Afghan driver is fully warranted. And there's the rub. Because for those who support President Bush's torture policies and their cover-up, there is - as demonstrated above - also ample justification for the illegal abuse of prisoners in American custody. Whether or not one agrees that Sheikh Issa should be free to torture business associates, the position of America's torture advocates is no more defensible than his, based as it is not on core principles or the rule of law, but on expedience, fear and rage.

The metamorphosis of the United States under Bush Administration policy from champion of human rights to just one more variety of torturer, has so deeply undermined our position that Representative McGovern's words - right as they are - no longer carry any moral authority on the world stage. One can argue that American torturers were trying to protect lives, not chasing a missing shipment of merchandise or acting out of sadism, but in doing so, the most important point is already conceded.

The fact is that the U.S. waterboarded one man 6 times a day for a month straight; hung people from chains by their wrists until their limbs swelled with pooled blood; threw them bodily into walls; and subjected them to extreme temperatures. Do we really want to argue about when torture is justified? Do we really want to be the country that has so thoroughly yielded the high ground that, rather than stand against torture, we only hold firm against certain kinds of torture, and only in certain circumstances?

If the UAE did not have a pending deal with the United States for the transfer of nuclear technology - and if we weren't still the most powerful nation on the planet - they and other countries would be mocking us openly. As it is, our failure to live up to our own laws - our political spinelessness - makes truth of our enemies' propaganda, delivers them recruits, and confirms to them the worst prejudices they hold against us. Until we prosecute those responsible for American torture policy, we remain nothing more than hypocrites hiding behind our wealth and military might.

Below is the ABC News report on Sheikh Issa bin Zayed al-Nahyan. Please be aware that it contains graphic images not suitable for younger viewers.