Jul 11 2006

Details in politics

I wrote earlier how easy it is to believe in broad, sweeping statements. It is the details that are hard to accept. I said that a key difference between science and religion is that religious beliefs actually discourage people from asking detailed questions and investigating how the big picture manifests itself in concrete and specific situations, while in science it is precisely the issue of how well the details are explained that established the plausibility of the big picture.

The same holds true for politics. Politicians are fond of grand sweeping gestures and policies and equally fond of avoiding the details of implementation. Take for example the recent (but failed) attempt to enshrine in the constitution an amendment that would allow congress to pass laws preventing desecration of the flag. If you ask most people if they oppose flag desecration, they would likely say yes. But it is only when you get into the details of this policy that you see its ridiculousness. (Incidentally, I find this veneration for the flag in the US to smack of fetishism or even idolatry, but that is a topic for another day.)

What exactly constitutes desecration? Since the impetus for this amendment arises from people who are offended by flag burning protestors, one can infer that it is the very act of burning that constitutes desecration. The Washington Post reports that “The Citizens Flag Alliance, a group pushing for the Senate this week to pass a flag-burning amendment to the Constitution, just reported an alarming, 33 percent increase in the number of flag-desecration incidents this year.” As the reporter dryly notes, when one looks at the actual number of burnings, this constituted an increase from three to four, hardly an epidemic. In fact, the comic strip Doonesbury is running a series of strips (starting July 3) in which the Bush administration, frustrated by how few burnings there are to stir up outrage, covertly hires someone to burn a flag.

But the recommended method of disposing of old flags is burning, so it cannot be the act of burning that is objectionable, it must be the thought behind the act. So is the amendment aimed at creating a ‘thought crime’? If so, then if someone simply says that the flag should be burned and does not actually burn it, is that desecration? Or someone silently burns a flag while not saying or doing anything to indicate motive, is that a crime?

And what exactly constitutes a flag? The flag emblem is used for commercial purposes all the time and can be found on all manner of objects, including clothing. Can paper napkins with the flag design used at picnics be tossed in the trash or burned? Does such an act become desecration only if accompanied by some kind of protest statement?

But ‘defenders of the flag’ don’t like these questions being raised because it exposes the utter silliness of the issue. They would much rather stay with the big picture and intone with gravity about the deep significance of the flag.

The same thing about the importance of details is true for the much graver issues of war. If journalists covering the run up to the attack on Iraq had focused on investigating the details of the charges that were made by the Bush administration, instead of just reporting their global statements, the fraudulence of the case for war would have been exposed to a far wider audience.

The Bush administration simply kept making the charge that Iraq had weapons of mass destruction and was a threat to the US and implied that they had links with al Qaeda and thus were complicit with the attacks of 9/11. People seemed to have no trouble believing all these big picture claims, which is why there was support for the war, at least initially.

Major media journalists should have repeatedly asked for details of each of these assertions, and asked questions such as: What evidence does the administration have that Iraq has threatened the US? What evidence does it have that they actually have the capacity and the intent to do so? What evidence exists for the alleged al Qaeda links? If they had done so, the case for attacking Iraq would have quickly fallen apart. But they will only do so if we, the public, insist that we want to know the answers to such questions before we approve military actions.

Another example of how details can reveal important truths in a political context is provided in this article by Los Angeles Times reporter Carol Williams on June 18, 2006.

What little we learn often comes to light by accident, through casual slips-of-the-lips by military doctors, lawyers and jailers innocently oblivious of their superiors’ preference for spin. A battery of questions to the prison hospital commander — who for security reasons can’t be identified — elicited that prisoners are force-fed through a nasal-gastric tube if they refuse to eat for three days and that 1,000 pills a day are dispensed to treat detainee ailments, anxiety and depression.

Those details became relevant when two prisoners attempted suicide May 18 by consuming hoarded prescription medications. Likewise, we understood why a hunger strike early this month began with 89 prisoners but swiftly fell off to a few defiant handfuls with the onset of painful and undignified force-feeding
. . .
I’ve been to Guantanamo six times. It was during my first visit in January 2005 that I learned how expressions of polite interest in minute details can elicit some of the most startling revelations. As Naval Hospital commander Capt. John Edmundson showed off the 48-bed prison annex, for instance, I asked, apropos of nothing, if the facility had ever been at or near capacity.

“Only during the mass-hanging incident,” the Navy doctor replied, provoking audible gasps and horrified expressions among the public affairs minders and op-sec – operational security – watchdogs in the entourage, none of whom were particularly pleased with the disclosure that 23 prisoners had attempted simultaneously to hang themselves with torn bed sheets in late 2003.

Details matter. It is well known that when people try to lie, they are often exposed by little details that trip them up, which is why crime suspects are urged to talk. It is easy to lie on a grand scale. It is hard to make details internally consistent if the big picture is false.

POST SCRIPT: Trying to deceive the Supreme Court

On June 29, 2006, the US Supreme Court in the case Hamdan v. Rumsfeld, Secretary of Defense, et. al. struck down the Bush administration’s assertion that they could basically do what they like with the detainees at Guantanamo, and that the courts had no jurisdiction over them. The court argued that the Geneva conventions, among other things, applied to the prisoners and that they had basic rights of due process.

When the Supreme Court hears arguments about the constitutionality of a law, it frequently examines the legislative debates that took place during the enactment of the law in order to more accurately determine legislative intent. Some Republicans have tried to use this to try and deceive the court during the arguments on this case, which involved the Detainee Treatment Act (DTA), passed on December 20, 2005.

Senators Lindsey Graham (R-South Carolina) and John Kyl (R-Arizona) created a script of a bogus colloquy between them that did not actually occur while the act was debated, inserted the script into the congressional record after the legislation had passed, and then used that bogus debate as the basis for filing a friend of the court brief in the case to argue that the law meant the opposite of what it meant. The Justice Department also used that bogus debate as part of its brief.

As John Dean writes:

Hamdan’s lawyers, however, spotted the hoax. In their opposition to the motion to dismiss the case, they advised the Court that the supposedly conflicting legislative history was entirely invented after the fact, and that it consisted of “a single scripted colloquy that never actually took place, but was instead inserted into the record after the legislation had passed.” The brief noted, quite accurately, that this Graham-Kyl colloquy was “simply an effort to achieve after passage of the Act precisely what [they] failed to achieve in the legislative process.”

Ultimately, the Supreme Court did not decide the jurisdictional issue until it rendered its full ruling on June 29 of this year. There, Justice Stevens concluded correctly that the Congress had not stripped the Court of jurisdiction with the DTA.

Out of an apparent concern for interbranch comity, the High Court has chosen to ignore the bogus brief filed by Senators Graham and Kyl, rather than reprimanding the Senators. Nevertheless, when Graham and Kyl sought to file the very same brief, a month later, with the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columba (sic), Slate’s Emily Bazelon reports that court “issued an unusual order rejecting” their amicus brief alone, although they accepted five others.

No one familiar with this remarkable behavior by Graham and Kyl can doubt why the court did not want to hear from these senators.

This is the kind of chicanery that ensues when people try to defend the indefensible. How dishonest can these people get? Do they have no sense of ethics? Does no one hold them accountable?

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