That's just what they want you to do!

Michael Leeden at The Corner, one of the National Review Online blogs:

You can be quite sure that the terror masters saw the election as a great victory, and Rumsfeld’s ritual sacrifice as a moment of glory.  It will encourage them to redouble their efforts, both in Iraq/Afghanistan, and elsewhere.  They believe they have Bush’s number, that they have broken him, and all they must do now is keep the blood flowing to accelerate our retreat.

This rhetoric from the terrorist perspective really annoys me. Why should we care about the terrorists’ opinion of us? Why do we let them get under our skin in this way?

The US mid-term elections were apparently free and fair. Division of power. Checks and balances on the executive. A 219 year-old constitution working exactly as it should. Democracy, working.

The terrorists might think that that they are winning. But by demonstrating a robust democratic system, we know that actually, it is we (or rather, our American friends) who have the upper hand. Doing something that is right, despite what opinion others may have of us, is the true sign of integrity and strength.

The obverse is also true. Doing something that is wrong, merely to save face, is a sign of weakness. This is why George W Bush is essentially a poor leader, lacking integrity, as we saw this week with volte-face regarding Donald Rumsfeld. An infringement of our civil liberties, or human rights, in the name of the War on Terror may well worry a few of those who are planning to do us harm. As we torture and detain, the terrorists may indeed think “Ooh dear, they have struck a blow against us.” But once again, those terrorists would be wrong. Just because these fanatics do not percieve the value of civil liberties, that does not mean such concepts have no place in our own thinking.

Political opposition in America

“Those stupid Americans.” This must be one of the most common and lazy stereotypes peddled by the patrons of pubs and bars the length and breadth of these British Isles. We chuckle at their fat parochial ways, and delight in the statistics saying that, what, only 0.001% of Americans have passports or something? Of course, President Bush is the most visible representative of his fellow citizens, and his brush finds and tars them all. Is it his plain-spoken, folksy charm, that does it… or the utter lack of discernible leadership and logic in his governing?

Its always worth remembering that the ideological fight against Bush has been led by Americans. Neither the 2000 or ’04 elections were hardly landslides, and the electoral maps broken down by county or congressional district paint a very different political picture from the ‘Red State vs Blue State’ analysis we are usually subjected to.

Justin at Chicken Yoghurt has been linking to Keith Olbermann’s special reports. These stinging ‘special comments’ call George Bush to account on a weekly basis, in a manner which seems to elude the Democrats at present. His seething indignity, as yet another liberty trampled upon, is compelling. By repeatedly using the word ‘Sir,’ as he directly challenges the President, he manages to show a respect for the office while displaying utter contempt for the man who holds it:

Your words are lies, Sir!

I don’t know the viewing figures for Olbermann’s Countdown, but MSNBC is a major network, so I imagine it has some degree of influence over public opinion.

Notes on Torture

Late last month, the US Congress approved a bill which would give the President power to ‘reinterpret’ the Geneva Convention with regards to the treatment of detained foreign terror suspects, and authorise interrogation techniques that the convention declares illegal. In the past few days, I have been pondering the implications of this, and the wider moral debate about whether we can, in some circumstances, justify torture.

I wrote last year that I thought that the “‘ticking bomb scenario’ is an unhelpful hypothetical construct.” Clive Davis resurrects this argument with a pertinent, real life scenario from Mark Bowden, at a Carnegie Council symposium:

There was an article in The New York Times about a crime in Germany where a kidnapper had taken a 12-year old boy, and had buried him alive. He went to collect the ransom, and was caught. He was in custody, and refused to tell the police where he had buried the child. The police chief in this case threatened the kidnapper with torture, and he promptly told him where he buried the boy.

A powerful story indeed. However, what Clive doesn’t quote is the insight from the director of B’Tselem, who Bowden mentions later in the symposium. She said she would torture… but expect to be prosecuted for it:

But it has to be that I broke the law. It can’t be that there’s some prior license to abuse people.

I think we should call this the McClane Mitigation. No, that is not a mis-spelling of ‘McCain’, as in Senator John McCain (R-AZ), the presidential hopeful who was tortured in Vietnam. I do mean John McClane, the maverick cop from the Die Hard movies. The Bruce Willis character is the epitome of that brand of fictional policeman, who perpetually have to circumvent normal procedure, in order to stop some catastrophe or other. They of course gets an earful from their superiors, and we assume (though never see) some kind of post-credit inquiry, in which the transgressions are investigated and accounted for. Laws that most certainly have been broken, but the urgency of the situation, and actual lives saved, are taken in mitigation during sentencing. The jury convicts, but the judge is lenient, and some form of justice is served.

But even this is a slippery slope. The ‘ticking bomb’ could first be defined as a long-term threat to national security. “We might prevent another 9/11” becomes a catch-all excuse for routine torture. What a wonderful legacy for the victims.

There are several other moral objections to the tack taken by President Bush and his supporters. The first is the explicit xenophobia which runs through the legislation. It only applys to non-US citizens… which does beg the question of what would happen if an American were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Ticking bombs don’t have nationalities.

When we make laws (and indeed, provide services), we expect them to be carried out uniformly throughout the land. This is not possible in the case of torture. The final problem with the scenario as outlined by Bowden, concerns the unreliability of the agent of torture. In his example (above), it was fortuitious that the policeman in question had the nerve to threaten torture at all (it was also lucky that it appears he did not actually have to carry through with his threats, but that is beside the point here). Torture, we are told, dehumanises everyone involved. What if a person, who finds themselves obliged to torture, discovers that they do not have the stomach for it? I forsee a situation where they are sued by the families of victims, on the basis that they did not do whatever was necessary to prevent the tradgey.

We are reassured that torture would be permissible in limited, unusual circumstances. But it is probable that in these same circumstances, those tasked with inflicting pain will have done nothing like it before! There would have to be guidelines, and we would have to endure a sickening public debate over what exactly was allowed (the euphemism-heavy debate in the US is already pretty horrible). Do they try the classic ‘electrodes to testicles’? At what amperage? Or should they opt for the more retro ‘removal of toenails’? What if the pliers are not available? With the state of UK public services as they are, it would be worse still, with the Right Hon. Dr John Reid MP having to declare Britains torture facilities “unfit for purpose”.

Three days on; Five years on

I happened to catch an interesting CCN-IBN special news report this evening, discussing the aftermath of the bombings in Malegon three days ago, where a Muslim cemetary was attacked during Friday prayers. We were shown footage of a Hindu man returing to buy groceries from a stall opposite the blast site. Unafraid to visit the vicinity of the attack, and unwilling to disrupt his routine, he made a point of taking his eleven-year-old son along with him. There were also scenes of Hindus queuing to give blood, to help the Muslim victims of the blast.

Whatever the religion of the interviewees, the message was unianimous: “They are trying to divide us, and we won’t let them.”

On the fifth anniversary of the atrocities on the World Trade Centre, we will ask ourselves again: “What was the aim of the hijackers when they did this? What was Osama Bin Laden’s purpose?” The attacks on the world trade centre ignited a global conflict that has polarised world opinion, and ostracised an entire race of people. Sure, we didn’t start the conflict… but I cannot help thinking that we rose to the bait. When, on 14th September 2001, George W Bush named the ‘War on Terror’, it was seen as the beginning of the Fight Back. But it was also endorsement of the enemy’s terms of reference. That was the real defeat, and it happened after only three days.

Church and State

Substitute teacher Clydeen Tomanio said she remains committed to the party she’s called home for 43 years. “There are some people, and I’m one of them, that believe George Bush was placed where he is by the Lord,” Tomanio said. “I don’t care how he governs, I will support him. I’m a Republican through and through.” (CNN.com)

Andrew Sullivan says that “For the first time, one of the major parties is, at its core, a religious organization.”

The separation of Church and State is, of course, a key tenet of American democracy, enshrined in the First Ammendment. However, I heard an interesting, if counter-intuitive theory recently, which hold that this is precisely why religion has so much political influence in the USA. (Hat-tip: Barney).

Here in the UK, The State has an official religion. Our coins tell us that The Queen is ‘F.D.’ Fidor Defensor, defender of the Faith. By this, we mean the cheap, Store’s-Own-Brand of christianity, as purveyed by the Church of England. It is one of those institutions that consitutes The Establishment, that elusive and ill-defined body that runs our lives. Bishops over here are free to make political statements… but when they do, it seems slightly unseemly. Just like the Royals, they really should be above that sort of thing. Can’t be seen to be taking advantage of your position, old chap.

There are no such constraints in the US system. Religious groups are free to support whoever they wish with money and endorsements. There is no need to be fair in this distribution. The paradoxical result is that religion and religious dogma has a greater influence over policy in the US, than here in Blighty. If Ms Tomanio voiced her support for Tony Blair in such a manner, she would be considered part of the lunatic fringe and laughed out of the country. Its not that the British are all aetheists – far from it. It is just that in our system, God is part of the Establishment. She doesn’t make endorsements.

To those paranoiacs that fear an Islamic Revolution in the UK, may I suggest the following: We institutionalise an Islamic Church – or Mosque – of the United Kingdom. The Prime Minister, via the Queen, can appoint its head, and we will give him or her a knighthood. This should ensure that the moderates prevail, and any whisper of even the idea of Sharia Law will be deafened out… by the sound of our collective tut-tutting, and the flapping of lace curtains.

1 penny, showing the inscription F.D.

Good Luck Discovery (Let's hope your e-mail works)

I’m delighted to hear that mission STS-121 Discovery is launching tomorrow, after delays due to weather, and concerns over fuel-tank foam. Zero hour is 1938 BST (that’s 1438 local time in Florida).

I closely followed the STS-114 mission in July and August last year, using the Nasa TV and Radio features. I can highly recommend listening to the stream from mission control. Listening to the crackle of the communications from space is hypnotic.

So, some highlights to look out for in the coming days:

  • “Clear for Zaragoza” – Mission control gives this call to the shuttle pilots only a few seconds after lift-off. It means that, should the mission be aborted, the shuttle can glide to Spain and land at Zaragoza Air Base. I think this is amazing.
  • The re-entry manoevres – When returning to earth, the shuttle flips itself forward 180 degrees onto its back before firing its thrusters and falling out of the sky. This is also amazing.
  • Comedy E-mail Moments – NASA have spent billions of dollars putting men on the moon, and returning the Space Shuttle to flight. However, I think their e-mail system may still need some investment. Despite the advanced technology that allowed a rendezvous with the International Space Station hundreds of miles above the Earth’s surface, the astronauts aboard STS-114 Discovery could not always rendezvous with their e-mail messages. This is amazing too, but for different reasons.

    Problems first arose on the first day of Discovery’s mission. Commander Eileen Collins radioed mission control at Houston, to ask for the Day 2 Mission plan to be re-transmitted to the orbiter. Apparently, none of the computers aboard the shuttle could open the attached document! Just like thousands of ordinary office workers on terra-firma, the NASA controllers dutifully cut-and-paste their entire briefing into the body of the e-mail message, ensuring the Astronauts were able to follow instructions for the planned space-walks.

    E-mail problems did not end there, however. Six days into the mission Pilot Jim Kelly was forced to radio to the ground once more. Apparently, the crew had begun to receive crucial e-mails “in Greek”. Finally, e-mail communication systems went down for a few hours, because someone had forwarded on a particularly large attachment.

    I did not hear whether the astronauts recieved any space spam, or whether any crew members accidentally hit ‘reply-all’ and sent an embarrassing message to two-hundred people. Maybe this time. I do recall that the astronauts would often refer to their “Outlook”, although it was unclear whether they were talking about the stunning views… or the popular Microsoft E-mail programme.

It looks like you're trying to launch a space shuttle. Do you want any help with that?

Combating asymetrical warfare

The US government suggests that the suicides at Guantanamo Bay were some kind of “asymetrical warfare”. Not Little England comments on the preposterous White House spin:

Well, there you have it. I mean, how do you win a war against a enemy who kill themselves before you get the chance? Frankly I reckon the US might as well throw in the towel right now…

And this succinctness from Pigdogfucker:

“Damn those evil terrorists, doing themselves in just to spite us,” say the Americans.

Although the language used is poor, the US Government have a point… in that the men in Camp Delta were trying to make a point themselves. However, the Bush Administration deftly sows another illogical idea: That by committing suicide in prison, they are comparable to suicide bombers. The US Government spokesman declared today that the bodies of the three men were being treated with respect, in accordance with religious practice. At the same time, they have been smeared as terrorists, despite having been charged with no crime. Any gesture towards religious customs is vaccuous.

Taking the American analysis of the situation at face value, we must conclude that the “warfare” waged by these prisoners was successful. It is clear a strategy must be developed to protect decent people from similar “attacks”. How about: guards on suicide watch; and of course, less suicidal conditions at Camp Delta? A time-table for trial or release of the remaining detainees would be a start.

Camp delta

Pod-Fisking

Andrew Sullivan, has taken the art of ‘fisking’ a medium futher by recording a pod-fisk – that is, a podcast that criticises a public broadcast by someone else, clause by clause. In this case, the subject is President George W Bush, defending the malicious proposed constitutional ban on gay marriage.

I am not usually a fan of lengthy fisks. It is ironic that it was apparently Sullivan who coined the term, since he crafts some fantastic self-contained essays, which I prefer.

The genre works well in audio form, however, especially when the subject matter is all style and no substance. Sullivan does an excellent job, arguing that the entire point of the federal system is to allow diversity of law and lifestyle, and that an issue as divisive as gay marriage should be solved at the state level. His assessment of why the President is supporting the ammendment – as a short-term political smoke-screen – is damning.

I have always thought that the existence of homosexual relationships would be life- and love-affirming for everyone else. They demonstrate that love is not the same thing as the base desire to procreate. It is a higher thing.

Sullivan also takes Bush to task over the suggestion that ‘activist judges’ are somehow overriding the will of the people. The British Judiciary have been accused of the same thing recently, as their interpretation of the Human Rights Act has led to some politcally damaging court rulings. In both cases, the argument is that since existing laws have led to counter-intuitive court rulings, then clearly it is the law that is wrong, and not the political attitudes that consider those rulings undesirable. In these cases, no-one dares to suggest that the values enshrined in documents such as the US Bill of Rights, may better capture the values of the people to whom they apply. If those same people have a differing view of a particular case, then perhaps it is they who are the hypocrites. It is not the fault of their existing laws, or the judges who apply them. In this situation, we seem short on conservative pleas to “respect the rule of law”. But as The Daily Dish continues to point out, that has never been on King George’s agenda.

A Big Stick and a Small Carrot: A Few Bad Apples

Garry the CuriousHamster takes the Pentagon to task over the massacre at Haditha. A succint post with something for everyone:

In truth, the real difference between US democracy … and dictatorship in these cases is that democratic governments can on occasion be forced, kicking and screaming all the while, to investigate human rights abuses perpetrated by their representatives when confronted with damning evidence collated by the free press.

The idea that the US government can be trusted to effectively investigate abuses by their own military personal voluntarily is, it should be clear by now if it wasn’t already, utterly fallacious.

and

How many bad apples do there need to be before for it to becomes clear that the managers of the orchard are the root of problem?

(The extra ‘root’ at the end there made me smile).

CuriousHamster is spot on. Legitimate opposition to the Iraq war stemmed from an opposition to the hypocrisy of the people waging it. This massacre makes a mockery of the sacrifice made by American and British troops, especially that of Lance Corporal Miguel Terrazas, whose death apparently sparked the violence. President George Bush is apparently “troubled” by the reports. He should be absolutely livid.

Meanwhile, Andrew Sullivan at Time’s Daily dish is slowly cataloguing the Bush Administration’s retreat from basic freedoms, arguing that it is profoundly unconservative.

Was Iraq better under Saddam? Of course not. But at least back then, we didn’t have the so-called Leader of the Free World erasing the lines between right and wrong.

The Road To Guantanamo

Last night’s The Road To Guantanamo was interesting viewing.

The cinematography made me uncomfortable. In places, scenes were shot in TV format, distinguishing them from the more filmic reconstructions. However, the BBC style commentary, and the angles chosen for some of the action, did not ring quite true. I could not put my finger on what was incorrect, but it was clear by end that the most of the supposed archive footage also a staged reconstruction.

Werner Herzog once said he no qualms about re-staging certain documentary scenes for his audiences. But in Herzog’s films, we accept this dishonesty, beacuse the entire presentation is a sort of hyper-reality. This is not so with The Road to Guantanamo. In choosing to present some scenes in news-reel format, and others as drama, director Michael Winterbottom is making a clear distinction between fact and interpretation. In doing so, he forfeits his artistic licence to meddle with the former. When he does so, he blurs the distinction he himself has highlighted. Furthermore, the audience are hardly invited to share in the conceit. The conclusion is that the film-makers are trying to fudge the issue, and mislead the audience. The result is a loss of trust.

This is a real shame, as the impact of the film depends entirely upon the viewer believing the story of the three ex-detainees, Asif Iqbal, Ruhal Ahmed and Shafiq Rasul. Watching the way the characters, stranded in Afghanistan, stumble upon a Northern Alliance roadblock and herded at gun-point towards the the US forces is plausible. Being mistaken for Al-Q’aeda is also understandable: As Brits in the wrong place at the wrong time, they drew attention from all quarters. What is difficult to reconcile is how on earth they came to be in Afghanistan in the first place. If people of Pakistani heritage do just go on jolly road-trips into a simmering war-zone, those decisions should be explained in much more detail. Life-changing whims must be accounted for.

But one senses Winterbottom and his team are in a hurry to move on, and moralise at the monstrosity of Camp Delta, Guantanamo Bay. Here, the detainees are the underdogs, and you cannot help but root for them as they struggle to maintain some dignity in the face of overwhelming power. Here the film has sting, and asks genuine questions of the US methods. In one memorable scene, Rasul, played by Rizwan Ahmed, is accused of attending an Al Q’aeda rally with Osama Bin Laden in 2000. The truth could not be more banal: “That’s bullshit,” says Rasul. “In 2000, I was working in Currys.”

The film is a warning against an extra-judicial, unaccountable system of detention. This message was reinforced recently by a bizarre twist of events. Actor Rizwan Ahmed was returning from a promotional trip to Berlin, when he was detained arbitrarily by customs officials. He was not told his rights, and was illegally searched. Just like the film in which he stars, Ahmed’s story reminds us that the rule of law must prevail, if we are to maintain our civility in these difficult times.