Iraq and Afghanistan: The Reckoning

As the third anniversary of the beginning of the military invasion of Iraq approaches on March 19, it is time to take stock of the consequences of that tragic and cruel war. Below are three items.

Before we get to that, it is sobering to recall the almost Pollyannaish hubris of the media in the early days of the invasion in April and May of 2003. On April 16, 2003, assured that things were going swimmingly in Iraq, columnist Cal Thomas took aim at those of us who opposed the war saying, using Biblical language: “All of the printed and voiced prophecies should be saved in an archive. When these false prophets again appear, they can be reminded of the error of their previous ways and at least be offered an opportunity to recant and repent. Otherwise, they will return to us in another situation where their expertise will be acknowledged, or taken for granted, but their credibility will be lacking.”
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Opium of the people

Most people, when they think of the Karl Marx’s attitudes towards religion, remember the quote where he refers to it as “the opium of the people.” This sounds quite dismissive. When I first heard it, I thought he meant that religion was a hallucination, similar to that caused by drugs.

But when you read the full passage that leads up to this quote, the impression shifts slightly, but in an important way. The passage is in his “Contribution to the Critique of Hegel’s Philosophy of Right” (February 1844) and and goes as follows:

Religious suffering is, at one and the same time, the expression of real suffering and a protest against real suffering. Religion is the sigh of the oppressed creature, the heart of a heartless world, and the soul of soulless conditions. It is the opium of the people.

This is a much more poetic and sympathetic view of religion than that given by just the last sentence. It speaks of religion as the solace of a suffering people, a mechanism for them to obtain relief from the forces that oppress them, to endure suffering, and something that enables them to extract some happiness from life.

(Note that when Marx wrote this, it was soon after the end of the first Opium War in China (1839-1842), where Britain put down a Chinese rebellion that was trying to end imports by British traders of opium into China, which was causing widespread addiction in that nation. He must have been aware of the fact that having the people drugged on opium enabled the relatively small British presence in China to control that vast country and its peoples. So it was a very timely metaphor.)

Of course, Marx was opposed to religion because although he saw that it met a short-term need, it hindered the ability of people to achieve a more enduring happiness. It was clear that he was not against religion just for the sake of it, but because he wanted to get rid of the terrible conditions that tempted people want to find refuge and solace in it, rather than seeking to change those very conditions. He went on:

The abolition of religion as the illusory happiness of the people is the demand for their real happiness. To call on them to give up their illusions about their condition is to call on them to give up a condition that requires illusions. The criticism of religion is, therefore, in embryo, the criticism of that vale of tears of which religion is the halo.

As Amanda Udis-Kessler writes in this commentary on Marx’s comment:

Opium, of course, provides only temporary relief for suffering, and does so by blunting the senses. In making suffering bearable, Marx argues, opium (and religion) actually can be said to be contributing to human suffering by removing the impetus to do whatever is necessary to overcome it – which, for Marx, is to relinquish religion and turn to revolutionary politics. Hamilton (1995: 82-3) points out the ultimate practical outcome of religion’s palliative function, from a Marxian perspective: “Religion offers compensation for the hardships of this life in some future life, but it makes such compensation conditional upon acceptance of the injustices of this life.”

In other words, religion serves the social function of keeping people from becoming restive about their condition and is thus conducive to maintaining social order in the face of even massive injustice.

Marx’s views on religion came to my mind when I was thinking about how the neoconservatives aligned themselves with religious Christian fundamentalists in order to achieve their political goals. The neoconservatives are grateful that religion is like opium, keeping people in a drugged, unperceptive state. It is this very feature that is attractive to those who benefit from that state of injustice.

Ronald Bailey, writing in Reason magazine argues that neoconservatives are cynically exploiting the palliative nature of religious beliefs. And to serve this end, they are even going so far as to align themselves with those religious people who are attacking Darwin. “These otherwise largely secular intellectuals may well have turned on Darwin because they have concluded that his theory of evolution undermines religious faith in society at large. . . Ironically, today many modern conservatives fervently agree with Karl Marx that religion is “the opium of the people”; they add a heartfelt, “Thank God!” “

There is reason to think that at least some of the neoconservatives are themselves not religious, but see in religion a useful tool that keeps people in line, like sheep. Their fear of what might happen if there is widespread existential angst leads them to a cynical support for the Christian fundamentalist view.

Bailey goes on:

[Neoconservative Irving] Kristol has been quite candid about his belief that religion is essential for inculcating and sustaining morality in culture. He wrote in a 1991 essay, “If there is one indisputable fact about the human condition it is that no community can survive if it is persuaded–or even if it suspects–that its members are leading meaningless lives in a meaningless universe.”
. . .
Kristol has acknowledged his intellectual debt to [Neoconservative ideologue Leo] Strauss in a recent autobiographical essay. “What made him so controversial within the academic community was his disbelief in the Enlightenment dogma that ‘the truth will make men free.’ ” Kristol adds that “Strauss was an intellectual aristocrat who thought that the truth could make some [emphasis Kristol's] minds free, but he was convinced that there was an inherent conflict between philosophic truth and political order, and that the popularization and vulgarization of these truths might import unease, turmoil and the release of popular passions hitherto held in check by tradition and religion with utterly unpredictable, but mostly negative, consequences.”

Kristol agrees with this view. “There are different kinds of truths for different kinds of people,” he says in an interview. “There are truths appropriate for children; truths that are appropriate for students; truths that are appropriate for educated adults; and truths that are appropriate for highly educated adults, and the notion that there should be one set of truths available to everyone is a modern democratic fallacy. It doesn’t work.”
. . .
A year ago, I asked Kristol after a lecture whether he believed in God or not. He got a twinkle in his eye and responded, “I don’t believe in God, I have faith in God.” Well, faith, as it says in Hebrews 11:1, “is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.”

But at the recent AEI lecture, journalist Ben Wattenberg asked him the same thing. Kristol responded that “that is a stupid question,” and crisply restated his belief that religion 
is essential for maintaining social discipline. A much younger (and perhaps less circumspect) Kristol asserted in a 1949 essay that in order to prevent the 
social disarray that would occur if ordinary people lost their religious faith, “it would indeed become the duty of the wise publicly to defend and support religion.”

William Pfaff, writing on “The Long Reach of Leo Strauss” in the International Herald Tribune, traces the influence of neoconservative thinking, outlining the broader ideological framework under which religious belief is promoted by the neoconservatives:

They have a political philosophy, and the arrogance and intolerance of their actions reflect their conviction that they possess a realism and truth others lack.

They include Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz; Abram Shulsky of the Pentagon’s Office of Special Plans, Richard Perle of the Pentagon advisory board, Elliott Abrams of the National Security Council, and the writers Robert Kagan and William Kristol.

The main intellectual influence on the neoconservatives has been the philosopher Leo Strauss, who left Germany in 1938 and taught for many years at the University of Chicago. Several of the neoconservatives studied under him. Wolfowitz and Shulsky took doctorates under him.

Something of a cult developed around Strauss during his later years at Chicago, and he and some admirers figure in the Saul Bellow novel, “Ravelstein.” The cult is appropriate because Strauss believed that the essential truths about human society and history should be held by an elite, and withheld from others who lack the fortitude to deal with truth. Society, Strauss thought, needs consoling lies.
. . .
He also argued that Platonic truth is too hard for people to bear, and that the classical appeal to “virtue” as the object of human endeavor is unattainable. Hence it has been necessary to tell lies to people about the nature of political reality. An elite recognizes the truth, however, and keeps it to itself. This gives it insight, and implicitly power that others do not possess. This obviously is an important element in Strauss’s appeal to America’s neoconservatives.

The ostensibly hidden truth is that expediency works; there is no certain God to punish wrongdoing; and virtue is unattainable by most people. Machiavelli was right. There is a natural hierarchy of humans, and rulers must restrict free inquiry and exploit the mediocrity and vice of ordinary people so as to keep society in order.

There is something repulsive to me in the idea that there are some ideas that have to be shielded from people because they are unable to handle it. It is a dangerous and paternalistic attitude and profoundly undemocratic. But it is clear that the neoconservatives believe it. For them, the truth is not an unqualified good. Rather it is something that only a select few, who alone are wise enough to really understand it and use it, should know and those people get to decide what the general public should know, even if it is false.

To argue that one should present different truths for different people is wrong. One has an obligation to not deceive people. Of course, one may present what one perceives to be the truth to different audiences in different ways. It is like teaching the basics of mathematics or science. How I teach it to elementary school students and to doctoral students will be quite different but the ideas I try to convey should be the same.

Since the listener always interprets new knowledge in the light of his or her own experiences, we will each construct our own version of the truth.

But that is quite different from deliberately constructing different “truths” to present to different people in order to get them to conform to your will. Such things are no longer truths. They are simply manipulative lies. They are the modern-day opium of the people.

The politics of terrorism-3: A more complex picture

We have seen that in the BBC documentary The rise of the politics of fear, the main narrative is the parallel rise of two movements: one Islamic militant fundamentalism, the other neoconservative.

On the Islamic side, the movement now known as al Qaida is traced to the vision of one scholar, Syed Qutb, whose followers amalgamated his political vision with that of Islamic fundamentalism, and which became the Muslim Brotherhood. For these groups, the main enemy is the global encroachment of decadent western values into the Muslim world, aided and abetted by corrupt governments.

In the US, we had the vision of one scholar Leo Strauss, whose followers formed a secular political movement with global ambitions that allied itself with Christian religious fundamentalists as a means of achieving its political goals, thus bringing to life the neoconservative movement.

This narrative of the parallel lives of two scholars who lived at the same time (Qutb from 1906-1966 and Strauss from 1899-1973) and whose disciples have brought about this major conflict makes for compelling drama, and the documentary was absorbing. But the price it may have paid is that of oversimplification. While the idea of these two opposing strands has a dramatic point-counterpoint appeal, there is some evidence that the clash we are seeing is not simply an ideological one that pits neoconservative purists against Islamic purists.

It is clear that there are more pragmatic reasons that come into play, for example, in the US attack on Iraq, although we are not able to precisely say which, if any, were the dominant reasons. In addition to the neoconservative ideological view advocated by the documentary that it is America’s destiny to bring democracy, by force if necessary, to the other countries of the world starting with Iraq, the following is a list of the many other reasons that have been speculated about: the control of Iraqi oil; the need to establish a strategic and long-term military base in the Middle East since Saudi Arabia was asking the US to leave its soil; Iraq as the first step in a successive series of invasions of other countries such as Iran and Syria so that eventually the US would control the entire region; to act in Israel’s interests and disarm an enemy of Israel; to project US power and show the world that the US had the power to invade any nation it wanted to, thus cowing any other nation’s ambitions to challenge the US in any way; to prevent Saddam Hussein from switching to the euro as a reserve currency for oil purchases, thus threatening US financial markets; an opportunity to test the new generation of weaponry in the US arsenal; to finish what was seen as unfinished business from the first Gulf war in 1991; to avenge the alleged attempt by Iraq on George H. W. Bush’s life; to enable George W. Bush to show his father that he was tougher than he was; because George W. Bush, despite his efforts to avoid actual military service himself, was enamored of the idea of being Commander in Chief and dearly wanted to be a ‘war president.’

The ‘weapons of mass destruction’ rationale is conspicuously missing from the above list. It was, I believe, always a fiction, promulgated as part of the politics of fear but never taken seriously even by those in the administration who advocated it. It is quite amazing that three years after the invasion of Iraq, we still don’t know the precise reasons for that fateful decision.

On the other side, al Qaida also had more practical stated reasons for what it did, that are not limited to a mere distaste for encroaching western decadent values. They were opposed to Israel’s treatment of the Palestinians and America’s complicity and support for those policies, they wanted US bases out of the middle east, they opposed the corrupt governments that were ruling many middle east countries and were being supported militarily and economically by the US, and they deplored the cruelty of US-led UN sanctions against Iraq. In other words, they were more opposed to what the US does than for what it is. It may also be that al Qaida is not quite as weak as the documentary portrays them to be.

But despite these shortcomings, the basic message of the documentary rings true: the threat to the US from terrorism has been vastly and deliberately overstated and is being used to ram through policies that would otherwise be rejected. As the documentary says:
“In an age when all the grand ideas have lost credibility, fear of a phantom enemy is all the politicians have left to maintain their power.”

A Guardian article titled The making of the terror myth says:

Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists “to be of absolute cosmic significance”, and that therefore “anything goes” when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: “States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism.”

Whatever the causes for inflating the threat of terror, it is clear that we are the losers when we live in fear, and we need to counteract it. The BBC documentary is well worth watching for the way that it connects many different pieces of knowledge into a coherent story, told in an entertaining way.

POST SCRIPT: CSA: Confederate States of America

I recently heard about the above film, which is a fake documentary (along the lines of the classic This is Spinal Tap). This one seems like an alternate reality version of Ken Burns’ PBS series The Civil War. The website for the film describes what we can expect:

CSA: THE CONFEDERATE STATES OF AMERICA, through the eyes of a faux documentary, takes a look at an America where the South won the Civil War. Supposedly produced by a British broadcasting company, the feature film is presented as a production being shown, controversially, for the first time on television in the States.

Beginning with the British and French forces joining the battle with the Confederacy, thus assuring the defeat of the North at Gettysburg and ensuing battles, the South takes the battle northward and form one country out of the two. Lincoln attempts escape to Canada but is captured in blackface. This moment is captured in the clip of a silent film that might have been.

Through the use of other fabricated movie segments, old government information films, television commercials, newsbreaks, along with actual stock footage from our own history, a provocative and humorous story is told of a country, which, in many ways, frighteningly follows a parallel with our own.

The film will be screened at Shaker Square Cinemas starting March 17. You can see the trailer here.

The politics of terrorism-2: The origins of the neoconservatives

Yesterday, I discussed how the BBC documentary The rise of the politics of fear traced the origins of al Qaida to the influence of an Islamic scholar Syed Qutb.

Meanwhile, in the US, there was a cult brewing around a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy by the name of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). That ideology has now come to be called neoconservatism. Strauss and his neoconservative disciples (which include Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Irving Kristol, John Bolton, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, and others) were people who felt, like Qutb, that US society was decadent and losing its moral strength.

The Straussians felt that it was necessary for America to develop a positive image of itself, to see itself as the ultimate force for good in the world and its role as spreading its influence over the entire world, by force if necessary. They were fundamentally elitist, seeing people as the “masses” to be led, sometimes in spite of themselves. They believed that people needed “grand myths” in order to be persuaded to take serious actions like war, and they did not hesitate to manufacture them when necessary. For America, the “grand myth” they propagandized was the idea that Americans were a good and chosen people, under siege from dark forces from within and without, with a mission to convert the world to its own way of life.

In order to mobilize the people in this way, the neoconservative movement needed a grand enemy. It is hard to mobilize people for war and conquest unless they feel threatened by a darkly evil force. As Nazi Reichsmarshall and Luftwaffe-Chief under Hitler Hermann Goering famously said: “The people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” (Nuremberg Diary by Gustave Gilbert, Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279.)

So grand enemies were created. At first, Communism and the Soviet Union served this purpose and was the enemy and from the 1950s onwards. The strength of the Soviet Union and the world Communist movement was consistently overestimated and its motives were consistently questioned, all leading to a feeling of paranoia at home. This paranoia enabled the US to create a huge military machine. But while the neoconservatives gained some influence in government, especially during the second Reagan administration, they did not actually seize the reins or power.

Ray McGovern, who served as a CIA analyst for 27 years from the administration of John F. Kennedy to that of George H. W. Bush and who, during the early 1980s, was one of the writers/editors of the President’s Daily Brief and briefed it one-on-one to the president’s most senior advisers, said that President George H. W. Bush kept the neoconservatives at arm’s length, because he knew how dangerous they were. In fact, the neoconservatives were known among political insiders as “the crazies.” McGovern writes:

During his term in office, George H. W. Bush, with the practical advice of his national security adviser Gen. Brent Scowcroft and Secretary of State James Baker, was able to keep “the crazies” at arms length, preventing them from getting the country into serious trouble. They were kept well below the level of “principal” — that is, below the level of secretary of state or defense.

The neoconservatives are so rabid in their expansionist ambitions that they even considered Henry Kissinger (one of the key architects of the vicious bombing of Vietnam and Cambodia, and who supported vicious dictators like General Suharto in Indonesia and General Pinochet in Chile as they murdered thousands) as too moderate and someone who had to be elbowed aside. “Crazies” seems like a good name for them.

The neoconservatives ambitions were finally fully realized in 2000 with the election of George W. Bush, where they now had a pliant president. Now they were in charge of the major policy decisions and set about fulfilling their dreams.

In order to consolidate their power and extend their influence over American politics, the neoconservatives made a tacit alliance with Christian fundamentalists, using the enticing idea of America being God’s favorite country, specially chosen to carry out its mission of being a civilizing force in the world. Conveniently, this tied in with the neoconservatives’ military and political goals of overthrowing other countries, especially those in the middle east.

This alliance also marked a shift in American religious fundamentalism, from a movement that had shunned involvement in electoral politics as being not worthy of people whose ultimate interest is life after death and whose goal is heaven, to one that became intensely involved with politics, seeking to have its moral perspectives become the law of the land.

This merging of fundamentalist Christian religion with a geopolitical neoconservative worldview is portrayed in the documentary as being in parallel with the Islamic fundamentalists seeking to embed their religious perspective into the political framework and impose their moral code as the laws of the Islamic countries.

Meanwhile, the Soviet Union ceased to exist as an equal superpower with the US. The documentary argues that the fundamental cause was internal, that the Soviet Union simply was a failed state, unable to deliver the goods to its people, but the actual collapse was partly triggered by its defeat in Afghanistan in 1989 at the hands of the US backed Islamic fundamentalists. The collapse of the Soviet Union, while hailed as a victory by both the US and the Islamic fundamentalists who battled them in Afghanistan, left the US neoconservatives without a grand evil enemy with which to frighten the US public and thus get them to agree to the their global strategy of spreading democracy by force all over the world.

But the rise of al Qaida provided that new enemy. The BBC documentary argues that while the attacks of September 11, 2001 were spectacular in the manner and level of destruction they caused, they were not a sign of wide support and deep strength. But by constantly harping on al Qaida as if it were some giant malevolent and dangerous foe, the current US administration, along with the Blair government in the UK, has managed to recreate a level of fear that exceeds perhaps even that which existed during the cold war, thus enabling them to mobilize public support to systematically attack countries like Iraq, and keep Iran and Syria in its target sights. In addition, it has enabled them to also undermine civil liberties at home, and create a climate where anything (indefinite and arbitrary detention, torture, murder, kidnapping) are considered acceptable.

The neoconservative movement sees as its goal the use of force to overthrow real and perceived enemies of the US. They see themselves as being the vanguard, the people who really understand the world and of America’s destiny to be its leader, and to use its military power to establish the new world order.

To be continued. . .

The politics of terrorism-1: The origins of al Qaida

Documentaries, as a rule, do not have actors and fictionalized events. But they are never just a collection of facts. Like feature films, they have a narrative structure imposed on them that tries to select and order the facts into a compelling story. This always opens them to a charge of bias. But good documentaries are more like a well-reasoned argument that does not bury contradictory facts but weighs them in the balance as well.

Last Monday I went to see documentary film The rise of the politics of fear by Britain’s Adam Curtis, which was produced as a three-part series shown by the BBC in 2004. In this and the next post I will describe the message of the documentary, and in the third part I will analyze its strengths and weaknesses.

The documentary itself was fascinating and informative. (See a review of it in the Guardian.) It brought together in a coherent narrative much information that was already available in scattered form. It “connected the dots,” to use a current cliché. Although it was three hours long, it was very entertainingly put together and I did not find the time dragging, so if you get the chance to see it, I would recommend doing so.

The main point of it was that al Qaida has been deliberately overrated as a threat. It said there was little or no evidence that it had any kind of organized structure or sleeper cells worldwide or even a militia. The idea that Osama bin Laden or Ayman al Zawahiri had cadres of militants at the ready to carry out their orders was wrong. It asserted that al Qaida was basically just an idea that had had gained some adherents around the world. As such, believers in its message might carry out attacks but these would be independent of any central command and control structure. bin Laden and his few followers were portrayed as isolated and weak, with only the power to urge others to take action, but not having any actual capabilities themselves. They did not even have the name al Qaida “until early 2001, when the American government decided to prosecute Bin Laden in his absence and had to use anti-Mafia laws that required the existence of a named criminal organisation.” So the US government coined the name al Qaida and bin Laden and his followers adopted that name later.

There is some plausibility to this charge that al Qaida is not a vast organized conspiratorial network. Despite a massive and covert surveillance operation that has violated all kinds of civil liberties that we have taken for granted, it is telling that there have been no convictions of anyone for being part of an al Qaida “sleeper” cell. The few highly publicized arrests that have occurred (like the people in Lackawanna) have had the charges quietly dropped or reduced to insignificance.

So why is al Qaida perceived as such a bogeyman in the US? To answer this question, the documentary narrative traces the history of two parallel ideological movements that grew out of the late 1940s. One was an Islamic puritan movement that allied itself with Islamic fundamentalism. The other was the neoconservative movement in the US that allied itself with Christian fundamentalism. Each needed and used the other in order to grow itself.

al Qaida had its roots in the visit to the US in the period 1948-1950 of Syed Qutb, an Egyptian scholar and theorist who came here to study. What he saw of US culture dismayed him. He saw it as decadent and weak and superficial, and on his return to Egypt he saw that secular Egypt was being infiltrated with these same values from the West and also becoming decadent.

In order to combat this, he joined the Muslim Brotherhood, to create a society based on Islamic values. He felt that Islam provided the framework for creating a humane and just and moral society. But the Egyptian government of Gamal Abdel Nasser was determinedly secular and eventually Qutb was arrested and tortured from 1954-1964 for his political activities. This harsh treatment, rather than taming him, radicalized him even more, convincing him that these kinds of evils were the inevitable consequences of having a secular state, and did not dissuade him from pursuing his goals upon his release. He was soon arrested again and in 1966 was hanged.

The Muslim Brotherhood hoped that the killing of President Sadat in 1981 (who took over as Nasser’s successor following his death in 1970) by army officers who were members of the Muslim Brotherhood would be the spark the revolutionized Egyptian society and incite the people to spontaneously rise and overthrow its secular structure and embrace an Islamic theocratic state. When that did not happen, they decided that the Egyptian people had become hopelessly corrupted and had effectively ceased to be Muslims. Thus ordinary people were also now fair game for attacks. Ayman al Zawahiri, the current close associate of bin Laden, was an Egyptian doctor who was a disciple of Qutb and was arrested briefly as part of the crackdown on those who had killed Sadat. The documentary has dramatic video footage of him defiantly speaking (in English) while under arrest.

While the ideas embraced by the Muslim Brotherhood had some success initially, they were brutally crushed by governments, in Egypt and Algeria especially, and the movement became fragmented and weak. Eventually, people like al Zawahiri and bin Laden ended up in Afghanistan where they became involved in the battle against the occupying army of the Soviet Union. bin Laden was portrayed in the documentary as someone who was welcomed because he had the money to fund groups, but was also portrayed as being used by al Zawahiri, who seems to be the brains and theorist.

The attacks of September 11, 2001 was an effort by them to give the Muslim world a dramatic example of striking at the heart of the West and it was hoped that this would galvanize Muslims around the world to spontaneously rise up and seize their countries from their governments, throw out all western influences, and convert the countries into theocracies. But here too their hopes were dashed, just as they had been for the aftermath of the killing of Sadat.

Tomorrow: The rise of the neoconservative movement in the US as a mirror image of the rise of the Muslim Brotherhood.

POST SCRIPT: The closing of Abu Ghraib

The Daily Show comments on the closing of the torture factory that is Abu Ghraib.

The case against torture-3

One practical problem with using torture to extract information is that the people who ardently advocate it, including “the vice-president for torture” don’t seem to realize that the kinds of scenarios they propose work only in fiction. It seems like they use TV programs like 24 hours as the basis for their claims for the validity of torture as a mechanism for extracting valuable information in a timely manner.

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The case against torture-2

Part of the reason that torture and other brutalities have not been greeted with the outrage that they deserve has been the response of some intellectuals who have helped make the case that torture is not so bad. In fact, they argue that it might even be a good thing in selected cases.

Take Charles Krauthammer. He writes: “A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever.”

He goes on ” Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire.”

Interestingly, he seems to want to have it both ways. After writing with unnecessarily graphic imagery (“roasting on a spit over an open fire”?) that seems to betoken an almost wistful longing, he then tries to redeem his sense of his own humanity. “But we don’t do that because we do not descend to the level of our enemy. We don’t do that because, unlike him, we are civilized. Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people.”

Actually, to say that another living thing is “entitled to no humane treatment” has already, in my opinion, put him outside the realm of civilized human beings.

But then he gets to the point which all advocates of torture eventually get to, which is the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical scenario.

A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Krauthammer then goes to the position already occupied by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, that torture is going to be necessary and will happen anyway, so we might as well regulate it by legislation requiring warrants, making rules, etc. so that we have controlled torture. What he and Dershowitz want, essentially, is to make complicit in their torture activities a whole phalanx of doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, soldiers, and assorted bureaucrats, because this is what will happen when you try to set up a “regulated” torture program and lay out all the rules under which it will operate.

Or take the case of Eugene Volokh. In March 2005, the Iranian government publicly executed a serial killer in a slow and brutal manner by first flogging him 100 times and then hanging him from a crane, all before a large crowd, and even allowed a relative of one of the victims to stab him during the execution and the mother of another victim to put the noose around his neck. By almost any measure, it was a savage display.

But Eugene Volokh approved of it, writing:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims’ relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he’d killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing – and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act – was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there’s a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

Who is this Eugene Volokh who, like Krauthammer, writes with such relish about seeing people die in excruciating agony? He is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and one of the principal authors of a popular law blog called The Volokh Conspiracy. The fact that someone who has presumably thought deeply about the law and constitutional issues can pen such words is a sign that the so-called war on terror has undermined all the values that we should hold dear.

Volokh received a lot of criticism for his posting and started to backtrack, but on practical rather than moral grounds. Initially, he said that such types of punishments would violate the US constitution. But his solution to that problem was to recommend changes in the constitution removing that barrier.

UPDATE: I should mention that such a punishment would probably violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. I’m not an expert on the history of the clause, but my point is that the punishment is proper because it’s cruel (i.e., because it involves the deliberate infliction of pain as part of the punishment), so it may well be unconstitutional. I would therefore endorse amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to expressly exclude punishment for some sorts of mass murders.

Naturally, I don’t expect this to happen any time soon; my point is about what should be the rule, not about what is the rule, or even what is the constitutionally permissible rule. I think the Bill of Rights is generally a great idea, but I don’t think it’s holy writ handed down from on high. Certain amendments to it may well be proper, though again I freely acknowledge that they’d be highly unlikely.

In any event, there’s nothing unconstitutional about letting victims’ relatives participate in the execution; it’s only the use of cruel means that would require an amendment.

He then backtracked some more, but again because of practical questions, because even if the amendment to the constitution he advocated were adopted, the actual implementation difficulties would be huge:

What I found most persuasive about Mark’s argument was his points about institutions: about how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, and who knows what else. Even if enough people vote to authorize these punishments constitutionally and legislatively (which I’ve conceded all along is highly unlikely), there would be such broad, deep, and fervent opposition to them – much broader, deeper, and more fervent than the opposition to the death penalty – that attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system.

And this would be true even when the punishments are sought only for the most heinous of murderers. It’s not just that you couldn’t find 12 people to convict; it’s that the process of trying to find these people, and then execute the judgment they render, will impose huge costs on the legal system (for a few examples, see Mark’s post). Whatever one’s abstract judgments about the proper severity of punishments, this is a punishment that will not fit with our legal and political culture.

So Krauthammer, Dershowitz, and Volokh all approve of such cruelty in principle but are only concerned, if at all, about the practical problems of implementation. If such influential opinion shapers have these views, is it any surprise that there is so little outrage at the things that are currently being done by the US?

Apart from the actual torturing of prisoners at military prisons like Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram base in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo in Cuba, the website Jesus’ General listed the way that the US military is taking hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are kidnapping and holding the wives and children of people hostage, either to force fugitives to give themselves up, or if they are already in custody, to make them talk. We have sunk to the level of those people who kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll and the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq and are holding them hostage, using them as bargaining chips.

People like Krauthammer always finely tune their arguments for self-serving purposes. For example, he says that for the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle “There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head.” Clearly he carefully situating himself so that his approval of torture is not used for the torturing of captured US soldiers, with blame falling on him. But this kind of careful legal tap-dancing is worthless because it assumes that everyone will agree to operate according to rules set by one side.

But the point is that once you allow the torturing of anyone under any circumstances, all bets are off. People who capture US soldiers will be unimpressed by Krauthammer’s delicate distinctions. They will argue that just because the US soldiers have nice uniforms and know how to march in formation does not mean that they should receive better treatment than the irregulars who fight guerilla wars. Allowing torture is like a kick in boxing. Once you allow that, you are in a different kind of fight and the Marquis of Queensbury rules don’t apply anymore. Now anything goes.

This kind of escalation is similar what happened with the Muslim cartoons that caused offense. (See here for my earlier posts on this topic.) When an Iranian paper said that they were, in response, seeking Jewish holocaust cartoons to test the depth of the commitment of western newspapers to the freedom of the press argument that they used for publishing the cartoons, some people said that this was going over the line of acceptability, that they should have stopped with cartoons involving Jesus or something. But with such issues, the unresolved point always is “Who gets to draw the line?”

While there is a (admittedly small) chance that we can all agree that torture should be unconditionally outlawed, once we allow exceptions there is almost no chance that we will all agree on what those exceptions should be. This is because the act of torture is so extreme, and the varieties of ways in which it can be practiced so numerous, that the people at the receiving end will not accept restrictions on how they can respond.

It is absurd to think that people are going to agree to have international monitors to see if torturers are following some set of rules.

To be continued…

POST SCRIPT: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer) died earlier this week at the age of 93. In an earlier posting I had quoted him on his 88th birthday in 2000 saying:

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I used to tell the first year students in my physics classes this quote to encourage them to think big and to explore the many facets of their own interests and personalities and not to be intimidated from trying something just because they felt they were not good enough.

After all, Parks tried and did many things even though he was a black man growing up at a time when many doors were not open to him because of his skin color. As he said in his autobiography “Nothing came easy. . .I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness.”

The case against torture

It seems bizarre that we have reached a stage where we actually have to make a case against the use of torture. One would have thought that it would be self-evident that torturing people is wrong and should not be condoned. But sadly, that is not the situation anymore. We are now in a place where the formerly unthinkable is now not only thought but also done and actively encouraged.

Clearly, Vice-President Cheney has emerged as someone who has no scruples in this regard.
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Grace in sports

Although I did not watch any of the 2006 winter Olympics events on TV, I casually followed them in the press, and the front page headline in the Sunday Plain Dealer caught my attention. It said Grace eludes U.S. Olympians: Too many athletes at Torino Games live up to ‘ugly American’ image and listed the many ways in which some US athletes did not behave well at the games.

I must admit that I am increasingly turned off by the way people behave at sporting events. It irritates me when people do not behave with grace and courtesy and politeness. To see athletes boasting and gloating and taunting their opponents when they do something well, to get angry and belligerent when someone else gets the better of them, and to loudly and rudely protest when the referee or umpire makes a wrong call, are all things that I find really distasteful, so much so that I rarely watch major sporting events anymore. And it is not just players who behave like this, sometimes spectators are even worse.

I am sure that much of my attitude is due to the influence of Trinity College in Kandy, Sri Lanka, the K-12 school I went to growing up. The Principal of the school strictly enforced the traditions of the school about behavior at school sporting events. Students had to wear school uniforms whenever we attended any function in which the school was involved, even if we were at the events purely as spectators, and even if they took place after school hours or on weekends.

We were only allowed to applaud spontaneously for any good play. There was to be no organized cheering of any kind. And we were strictly forbidden to boo or jeer or cheer any mistake by any player, whether on our side or the opponents. Only shouts of encouragement or groans or sounds of shock and surprise (again spontaneous) were allowed. We were prohibited from deliberately trying to distract opposing team players when they were doing something that required deep concentration. In fact, we were expected to clap (spontaneously of course) good plays by our opponents as well. It was kind of like the behavior that we now see in golf.

Violations of these policies would guarantee us getting an extended lecture from our Principal at school assembly the next day, while if an individual were identified for doing any of this, some sort of punishment was likely.

The idea behind this strict code of behavior was that this would instill in us the idea of ‘good sportsmanship,’ that the quality of the game and proper behavior was more important than the result. We were drilled repeatedly with Grantland Rice’s famous couplet:

For when the One Great Scorer comes, to mark against your name,
He writes – not that you won or lost – but how you played the Game.

I admit that my school was unusual in enforcing such policies and during my school years, I chafed at all these restrictions that were not enforced by other schools in Sri Lanka.

While my school was undoubtedly extreme, looking back, I must say that I now feel grateful for that training. Even now, even when I am rooting for a particular team, and am pleased when the opponents make a mistake that creates an advantage for my preferred team, I cannot bring myself to cheer (at least openly) that mistake, and I even feel a twinge of guilt for enjoying the lapse by the opposing player.

I think that this attitude makes one enjoy sporting events a lot more on the purely technical level, because one appreciates good performances irrespective of who does them, although one’s own team’s successes add an extra zest to the pleasure. But on the other hand, I also feel a great sense of irritation with players and spectators alike who act ungraciously on and off the field, which has pretty much ruined watching sports for me, since this kind of ungracious behavior has become commonplace.

Of course, sports have become so professionalized, and winning so important and so related to money, that many players do these things simply to get noticed and to get some kind of psychological edge over their opponents. I find that international cricket has also descended into the pit with players now trash talking to each other, something that was highly exceptional in the past.

But although I understand the motivation, I cannot condone them and find them downright distasteful, so much so that I find myself instinctively hoping that showboating athletes will fail, whatever team they might be on, just so that they might learn a lesson in humility. And I cheered football players like the Detroit Lions’ Barry Sanders or the Chicago Bears’ Walter Payton who, in their day, simply let their good playing speak for itself, without all that silly index finger raised “We’re number one!” childishness.
I have heard it said that Muhammad Ali was the originator for this kind of strutting and gloating and grandstanding and taunting and goading of opponents in the US. I really admired the physical grace and athleticism of Ali, and his conscientious objection to fighting in the Vietnam war. But his cruel treatment of opponents, especially Joe Frazier who by all accounts was an honorable person, was inexcusable.

But why do spectators also behave badly, booing and jeering and taunting? Are they just imitating the behavior of the players? Was it always like this in the US, or is it also a more recent post-Ali phenomenon?

Opinion polls and statistics

In the previous post and in many aspects of life these days, we get quoted the results of opinion polls. Many of our public policies are strongly influenced by these polls, with politicians paying close attention to them before speaking out.

But while people are inundated with opinion polls, there is still considerable misunderstanding about how they work. Especially during elections, when there are polls practically every day, one often hears people expressing skepticism about polls, saying that they feel the polls are not representative because they, personally, and all the people they know, have never been asked their opinion. Surely, they reason, if so many polls are done, every person should get a shot at answering these surveys? That fact that no pollster has contacted them or their friends and families seem to make the poll results suspect in their eyes, as if the pollsters are using some highly selective group of people to ask and leaving out ‘ordinary’ people.

This betrays a misunderstanding of statistics and the sampling size needed to get good results. The so-called “margin of error” quoted by statisticians is found by dividing 100 by the square root of the size of the sample. So if you have a sample of 100, then the margin of error is 10%. If you have a sample size of 625, then the margin of error drops sharply to 4%. If you have a sample size of 1111, the margin of error becomes 3%. To get to 2% requires a sample size of 2500.

Clearly you would like your margin of error to be as small as possible, which argues for large samples, but your sample sizes are limited by the cost and time involved in surveying people, so trade offs have to be made. Most pollsters use samples of about 1000, and quote margins of error of 3%.

One interesting point is that there are statistical theorems that say that the sample size needed to get a certain margin of error does not depend on the size of the whole population (for large enough populations, say over 100,000). So a sample size of 1000 is sufficient for Cuyahoga County, the state of Ohio, or the whole USA. This explains why any given individual is highly unlikely to be polled. Since the population of the US is close to 300 million, the probability of any one of the 1000 people I may personally know being contacted has only a 0.00033% chance.

We know that a poll tells us that 54% of Americans say that “I do not think human beings developed from earlier species.” The sample size was 1000, which means a margin of error of about 3%. Statistically, this means that there is a 95% chance that the “true” number of people who agree with that statement lies somewhere between 51% and 57%.

Certain assumptions and precautions go into interpreting these results. The first assumption is that the people polled are a truly random sample of the population. If you randomly contact people, that may not be true. You may, for example, end up with more women than men, or you may have contacted more old people or registered Republicans than are in the general population. If, from census and other data, you know the correct proportions of the various subpopulations in your survey, then this kind of skewing can be adjusted for by changing the weight of the contributions from each subgroup to match the actual population distribution.

With political polls, sometimes people complain that the sample sizes of Democrats and Republicans are not equal and that thus the poll is biased. But that difference is usually because the number of people who are officially registered as belonging to those parties are not equal.

But sometimes pollsters also quote the results for the subpopulations in their samples, and since the subsamples are smaller, the breakdown data has greater margin of error than the results for the full sample, though you are often not explicitly told this. For example, the above-mentioned survey says that 59% of people who had high school education or less agreed that “I do not think human beings developed from earlier species.” But the number of people in the sample who fit that description is 407, which means that there is a 5% uncertainty in the result for that subgroup, unlike the 3% for the full sample of 1000.

But a more serious source of uncertainty these days is that many people refuse to answer pollsters when they call and it is not possible to adjust for the views of those who refuse. So although the pollsters do have data on the numbers of persons who hang up on them or otherwise refuse to answer, they do not know if such people are more likely or less likely to think that humans developed from earlier species. So they cannot adjust for this factor. They have to simply assume that if those non-responders had answered, their responses would have been in line with those who actually did respond.

Then there may be people who do not answer honestly for whatever reason or are just playing the fool. They are also hard to adjust for. This is why I am somewhat more skeptical of surveys of teens on various topics. It seems to me that teenagers are just the right age to get enjoyment from deliberately answering questions in exotic ways.

These kinds of biases are hard, if not impossible, to compensate for, though in serious research the researchers try to put in extra questions that can help gauge whether people are answering honestly. But opinion polls, which have to be done quickly and cheaply, are not likely to go to all that trouble

Because of such reasons, polls like the Harris poll issue this disclaimer at the end:

In theory, with probability samples of this size, one could say with 95 percent certainty that the overall results have a sampling error of plus or minus 3 percentage points of what they would be if the entire U.S. adult population had been polled with complete accuracy. Sampling error for subsamples is higher and varies. Unfortunately, there are several other possible sources of error in all polls or surveys that are probably more serious than theoretical calculations of sampling error. They include refusals to be interviewed (nonresponse), question wording and question order, and weighting. It is impossible to quantify the errors that may result from these factors.

For all these reasons, one should take the quoted margins of error, which are based purely on sample size, with a considerable amount of salt.

There is one last point I want to make concerning a popular misconception propagated by news reporters during elections. If an opinion poll says that a sample of 1000 voters has candidate A with 51% support and candidate B with 49%, then since the margin of error (3%) is greater than the percentage of votes separating the candidates (2%), the reporters will often say that the race is a “statistical dead heat,” implying that the two candidates have equal chances of winning.

Actually, this is not true. What those numbers imply (using math that I won’t give here) is that there is about a 75% chance that candidate A truly does lead candidate B, while candidate B has only a 25% chance of being ahead. So when one candidate is three times as likely as the other to win, it is highly misleading to say that the race is a “dead heat.”
POST SCRIPT: Film: THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR

The Cleveland Institute of Art Cinematheque is hosting a special free screening of the documentary film THE RISE OF THE POLITICS OF FEAR on Monday, March 6, 2006 (i.e., today) at 7:00pm. This documentary by Britain’s Adam Curtis is a three-part series shown on the BBC as part of their series on THE POWER OF NIGHTMARES and was broadcast in 2004. The program is 180 minutes long.

Admission is free but an $8 donation ($5 members) is requested. For directions and free parking information, see here.

An article in the Guardian titled The Making of the Terror Myth reviews the documentary, and says in part:

Terrorism, by definition, depends on an element of bluff. Yet ever since terrorists in the modern sense of the term (the word terrorism was actually coined to describe the strategy of a government, the authoritarian French revolutionary regime of the 1790s) began to assassinate politicians and then members of the public during the 19th century, states have habitually overreacted. Adam Roberts, professor of international relations at Oxford, says that governments often believe struggles with terrorists “to be of absolute cosmic significance”, and that therefore “anything goes” when it comes to winning. The historian Linda Colley adds: “States and their rulers expect to monopolise violence, and that is why they react so virulently to terrorism.”

Here is information from the Cinematheque website.

Here’s the most incendiary political documentary since Michael Moore’s Fahrenheit 9/11! Adam Curtis’ three-part essay, made for the BBC, dissects the war on terror by arguing that fear has come to dominate politics, and that the notion of a secret, organized, international terror network (e.g., Al Qaeda) is a bogeyman created by powerful interests to maintain control. Curtis, whom Entertainment Weekly has called “the most exciting documentary filmmaker of our time,” employs extensive scholarship, interviews, and revealing film clips to trace the parallel rise of Islamic fundamentalism and American neoconservatism – mirror images of each other in Mr. Curtis’ view. “A superbly eye-opening and often absurdly funny deconstruction of the myths and realities of global terrorism.” –Variety.