Slaughter in Iraq-2

(See part 1)

Let us take one by one the “criticisms” that are being made against the Johns Hopkins study about the levels of deaths in Iraq. I put the word in ironic quotes because these are more accurately labeled as attacks, since the word criticism implies a certain level of considered and thoughtful response, which has been totally lacking so far. (The actual paper can be read here (.pdf).)
[Read more…]

Slaughter in Iraq

I don’t think anyone other than the standard issue Bush cultist will deny that the Iraq invasion has been a disaster on many levels. It has alienated the world, it has enraged Muslim sensibilities, and it has strained the American military to the breaking point. And the worst part is that the administration has nothing to offer other than to “stay the course.” It seems clear to me that even Bush and Cheney must have realized that they have no options left, failure stares them in the face, that there is nothing they can do to succeed in Iraq (whatever “success” might mean) and it seems like their only goal is to bluff and try and wait it out until they leave office so that someone else will have to make an ignominious retreat out of that country. This is, in essence, what their “stay the course” policy implies. They can then try and blame their “cut and run” successor for “losing” Iraq. The fact that this policy will result in numerous more pointless deaths mean nothing to such cynical people.

As one after the other of the rationales offered for invading a country that never attacked or even threatened the US (“they had weapons of mass destruction”, “they were making weapons of mass destruction”, “they were thinking of making weapons of mass destruction”, “some guy in the Iraqi government drew a figure of a nuclear bomb” and other changing rationalizations for the war) fell apart, the apologists always had one final after-the-fact rationalization for the war. And that was that the people of Iraq were better off now than they were under Saddam Hussein.

Hence the report that over six hundred thousand people had died violent deaths as a result of the invasion came like a thunderbolt. Even the most extreme estimates of the rate of Iraqi deaths under twenty years of Saddam Hussein’s rule came nowhere close to the current rate of dying. And when you consider the uncounted number of injured people, the figures of casualties become staggering.

Like most people, I was stunned by news reports that a new study out of Johns Hopkins University to appear in the British medical journal Lancet had put the death toll as a result of the war in Iraq at 655,000. This number represents those deaths since March 2003 that exceed the number that would have died if the mortality rates before March 2003 had been extrapolated to the present. Of these, about 600,000 had died violent deaths. Since this is a statistical extrapolation based on samples, they provide 95% confidence limits of 400,000 and 900,000. What this means that there is only a 5% chance that the correct number of deaths lies outside this range. Even the lower limit of 400,000 is a staggeringly high number. (Note: The population of Iraq in mid-2004 was 26,000,000 and in Baghdad was 6.5 million.)

I knew that the situation in Iraq was bad. I knew that many people were dying as a result of the lawlessness and the death squads and the suicide bombers and actions taken by the US and coalition forces. Anarchy seems to be reigning in that country. But this number was so huge that my initial reaction had a little incredulity mixed in with the surprise. After all, this was much larger than the figure of about 48,000 currently published by the group Iraq Body Count which seemed to be the source used by President Bush in December 2005 when he estimated the deaths as then being around 30,000.

Although I too was surprised by the number of deaths, I was nevertheless even more amazed at the number of people, including Bush and his supporters, who summarily dismissed the study seemingly simply on the grounds that the number was too large! In other words, because the result is disagreeable, it cannot be believed. They made no attempt whatsoever to criticize the study on its own merits.

Bush said in his press conference on October 11, 2006 that this was “not a credible report” and that the “methodology is pretty well discredited” and “600,000 or whatever they guessed at is not credible.” These are quite amazing statements. This is the same person who eagerly swallowed and repeated lies about Iraq’s purported nuclear program even though they came from dubious persons such as Ahmed Chalabi who had a vested interest in getting the US to invade Iraq. But suddenly he has acquired the skill and expertise to judge credibility, so much so that he can confidently discount the methods and analysis of a team of veteran public health experts from a prestigious American university who have published their findings in a respected medical journal.

But that was not the only incredible thing that he said at the news conference. He also said “I am, you know, amazed that this is a society which so wants to be free that they’re willing to — you know, that there’s a level of violence that they tolerate.”

This statement implies that the people in Iraq made some kind of free choice to accept a trade off of massive deaths in return for getting rid of Hussein and that they are satisfied with the results. What would it take for him to decide that they were not “tolerating” it? Mass collective suicide? He is deliberately misinterpreting the natural stoicism of people anywhere to try and survive and make do in the face of utter adversity over which they have little control, as “tolerance” for an abominable state of affairs. A state of affairs deliberately caused by his decision to wage an elective war.

Of course, Bush and his pro-war cheerleaders have to try to discredit the Lancet study because the high numbers of deaths involved immediately places this into the category of the first rank of human disasters and war crimes and he knows it. Bush himself is the one who said about Darfur: “About 200,000 people have died from conflict, famine and disease. And more than 2 million were forced into camps inside and outside their country, unable to plant crops, or rebuild their villages. I’ve called this massive violence an act of genocide, because no other word captures the extent of this tragedy.” (Thanks to Jonathan Schwarz for the link.)

If 200,000 deaths in Darfur is genocide, then what does that make Iraq?

I have not written about the Johns Hopkins study earlier because I had not seen it and did not want to go purely by media reports. But it is now public and I will discuss the methods and results in the next few postings.

POST SCRIPT: Who would have thought?

In a 60 Minutes interview, David Kuo, former #2 in the Bush administrations Office of Faith-Based Initiatives, blows the whistle on the fact that the White House actually despised the religious extremists they publicly courted.

In the program Kuo says people in the White House political affairs office rolled their eyes at the evangelicals, called them “nuts’ and “goofy” and referred to Pat Robertson as “insane,” Jerry Falwell as “ridiculous,” and that James Dobson “had to be controlled.”

I had thought that this White House had completely lost touch with reality. But at least in this narrow area, they seemed to have called it correctly.

Looking for deep ancestors

Richard Dawkins in his book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) tells a fascinating story. He models his book on a journey that, rather than moving through space to a particular destination, is moving in the temporal dimension, going steadily back in time. He calls it a “pilgrimage to the dawn of evolution.” He starts with present day humans and follows them back into history. One reason he gives for going back in time instead of starting at the beginning and going forwards as is more commonly done is to avoid a common trap of perception. When you tell the story forwards, it is hard to avoid giving the impression that life evolved purposefully, that human beings were somehow destined to be. This is counter to evolutionary theory that says that evolution is not directed towards any goal. It tells us how the present emerged from the past. It does not tell us how the future will emerge from the present.

Dawkins points out that the another advantage of telling the story backwards is that you can choose any of the current species and go back in time and tell pretty much the same story.

As I have mentioned earlier, we quickly (in just 2,000 years) reach the time when the most recent common ancestor lived and soon after that (about 5,000 years ago) reach a point when all our ancestors were identical.

But this convergence of ancestry is not just for humans, it is for all species. If we go far enough back in time, even my dog Baxter and I share the same ancestor, which I find a very appealing notion.

Anyway, here is a concise summary of the landmarks on this pilgrimage back in time, along with some other landamrks.

About 10,000 years ago, the agricultural revolution began and about 12,000 years ago saw the beginnings of language. About 160,000 years ago saw the beginning of what we would consider modern humans, and beyond that we start reaching the precursors to modern humans, a famous milestone being the fossil Lucy, dated to 3.2 Mya (million years ago).

As we go further back in time in this pilgrimage, other species start ‘joining us’ in our journey. What this means is that we reach times at which an earlier species existed which then split into two branches and diverged evolutionarily to what we see now. So if we go back further in time, we should cease to view the pilgrims on the journey as a combined group of humans and other species but instead see the travelers as that earlier common ancestor species. He calls these common ancestors ‘concestors’. (Concestor 0 in Dawkins’ scheme is the most recent common ancestor of all humans (or MRCA) that I have discussed earlier and who lived just a few thousand years ago.)

Going back in time, at 6 Mya we meet concestor 1 when we join up with the ancestors of chimpanzees. As we go even back further, we (and when I say ‘we’, I remind you that we should not think of ‘us’ as humans at this point but as the common ancestor species of humans and chimpanzees) join up at about 40 Mya successively with gorillas, orang utans, gibbons, and finally monkeys. Remember that the ‘pilgrims’ look different as we pass each concestor point.

Concestor 8 occurs at about 63 Mya when we join up with mammals like lemurs and lorises. (Just prior to this, around 65 Mya, was when all the dinosaurs went extinct.) As you can imagine, concestor 8 would not look much like present-day humans at all.

About 75 Mya, we join up with rats, rabbits and other rodents (concestor 10), at 85 Mya with cats and dogs (concestor 11), at 105 Mya with elephants and manatees (concestor 13), at 310 Mya with snakes and chickens (concestor 16).

At 340 Mya, we make a big transition when join up with the ancestors of amphibians, such as frogs and salamanders (concestor 17). This point marks the first time that animals moved out of the water.

Around 440 Mya we join up with various kinds of fish (concestor 20), and around 630 Mya with flatworms (concestor 27).

After various other species ancestors’ join ours, the next big rendezvous occurs at about 1,100 Mya when we join up with the ancestors of fungi, such bread molds and truffles (concestor 34).

Some time earlier than that (passing the connection with amoeba at concestor 35) but before 1,300 Mya (it is hard to pin the date) is when the next major transition occurs when we join up with green plants and algae. This common ancestor is concestor 36.

At about 2,000 Mya we arrive at concestor 38 where every species is now represented by a eukaryotic (nucleated) cell.

At about 3,500 Mya we meet up with our earliest ancestors, the eubacteria (concestor 39), the original form of life.

Dawkins’ reverse story can be seen visually, told in a beer commercial in 50 seconds flat to the pounding beat of Sammy Davis Jr. singing The Rhythm of Life. (A minor quibble: There is one way in which this fun visual representation is not accurate. It shows three humans going back in evolution until we join up with ancestors of the present-day amphibians (concestor 17) in identical parallel paths. This is ruled out by the reductio ad absurdum argument written about earlier, where it was established that all present day humans must have had a single common ancestor in any earlier species.)

I must say that this book was an exhilarating journey. To see the whole of the evolution of life going backwards and merging together was a nice new way of seeing the process. Those of you who are interested in the grand sweep of evolution written for a non-specialist will find Dawkins’ book a great resource.

POST SCRIPT: The Boxer

A live performance of Simon and Garfunkel singing one of my all-time favorite songs The Boxer

My ancestor Pharaoh Narmes again

I began this series of posts saying that I had discovered that there was an 80% chance that I was descended from Narmes, the first pharaoh of a united Egypt. As subsequent posts have indicated, I arrived at this, not by any detailed investigative work in tracking my lineage, but by depending upon the analysis of Douglas L. T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang and published in the journal Nature.

After reading that paper, I became curious about who lived around the time of the identical ancestors and looked around to see if there was a named individual. I knew that writing was discovered around 5,000 years ago, so the time of the IA (identical ancestors) coincided roughly with the time that written records were starting to be kept. So there was a chance that there was a reliable contemporaneous written record of some person from the time of the IA. The chances were also great that the person whose life was recorded was likely to have been a big shot, a king or some such, whom people considered important enough to write about, on tombs and so forth.

I started investigating about who was the earliest named person we knew for sure existed. This ruled out characters from religious books like the Bible because those were written much more recently (around 900 BCE and later) and depended too much on legends and oral traditions that made them unreliable as history.

Marc Abramiuk of the Anthropology department at Case Western Reserve University suggested Narmes as a likely candidate for the honor of being the earliest known and named human being, and since he fitted into the IA period, I claimed that there is an 80% chance that he is my direct ancestor. (If any of you know of other named people who are candidates for the earliest known and recorded human being, please let me know. This is one genealogy search we can all contribute to, since every person we find from that time is likely to be the ancestor of all of us.)

Of course, there is no distinction to the claim that Narmes is my ancestor, since if that is the case, then he is also the ancestor of every other person currently alive. But that’s fine by me. I don’t want or need exclusive rights to him since having a famous ancestor confers no credit to me. Thinking that we are special simply because we belong to some particular group or are related to some particular individual is a symptom of tribal thinking.

Since I started on this study, I have become curious about the people who lived long ago and a bit surprised at how soon the track goes cold. The origins of written language pretty much sets the upper bound for reliable knowledge. If you think about it, given the vast ages of the Earth and the human beings that inhabit it, it is humbling to think of how little direct information have about our origins in terms of actual historical figures and recorded history, and how amazing it is that we have been able to figure out so much about the deep past using the tools of research and analysis.

This is the power of science, that we can use it to painstakingly reconstruct so much of our distant past by building carefully on what we know from the fields of archaeology, anthropology, biology, chemistry, physics, and mathematics. That interconnected web of knowledge serves as a filter that allows a lot of the guesswork and speculation and myths about our past to drain away, and leaves behind precious nuggets of hard knowledge.

In the next post in this evolution series, I will look at what we find when we go even further back in time.

Sexual selection

In a previous post, I discussed the fact that although all of us have the identical set of ancestors who lived just 5,000 years ago, this does not mean that we have the same genes. The fact that we are different is due to the fact that if most of the mating occurs within a group, then this can result in certain features becoming emphasized. In extreme case, this initial isolated mating pattern can result in a new species being formed that cannot mate with other groups that it could have done in the past.

I had always thought that the two organisms belonged to different species if they were biologically different enough that they either could not produce offspring or, as in the case of mules produced by horses and donkeys, the offspring were infertile and thus not able to reproduce.

But I learned from Richard Dawkins’ book The Ancestor’s Tale (2004) that two things can be considered different species even if they are perfectly capable of producing fertile offspring. All that is required for them to be considered to be different species is that they are not found to mate in the wild for whatever reason.

Normally, this happens when there is some kind of barrier that separates two groups of the same species so that they cannot mate. “No longer able to interbreed, the two populations drift apart, or are pushed apart by natural selection in different evolutionary directions” (p. 339) and thus over time evolve into different species. But the separation can also occur due to sexual selection.

He gives a fascinating example of this on page 339. He describes experiments done with two species of cichlid fish. The two species live together in Lake Victoria in Africa and are very similar, except that one has a reddish color and the other bluish. Under normal conditions, females choose males of the same color. In other words, there was no hybridization between the two colors in the wild, thus meeting the requirements for being considered different species. But when experimenters lit the fish in artificial monochromatic light so that they all looked dirty brown, the females no longer discriminated among the males and mated equally with both kinds of males and the offspring of these hybrids were fully fertile.

He also describes ring speciation using the example of the herring gull and lesser black-backed gull (p. 302). In Britain, these two kinds of birds don’t hybridize even though they meet and even breed alongside one another in mixed colonies. Thus they are considered different species.

But he goes on to say:

If you follow the population of herring gulls westward to North America, then on around the world across Siberia and back to Europe again, you notice a curious fact. The ‘herring gulls’, as you move around the pole, gradually become less and less like herring gulls and more and more like lesser black-backed gulls, until it turns out that our Western European lesser black-backed gulls actually are the other end of a ring-shaped continuum which started with herring gulls. At every stage around the ring, the birds are sufficiently similar to their immediate neighbors in the ring to interbreed with them. Until, that is, the ends of the continuum are reached, and the ring bites itself in the tail. The herring gull and the lesser black-backed gull in Europe never interbreed, although they are linked by a continuous series of interbreeding colleagues all the way around the other side of the world.

Dawkins gives a similar example of this kind of ring speciation with salamanders in the Central Valley of California.

Why is this interesting? Because it addresses a point that sometimes comes up with skeptics of evolution. They try and argue that there is a contradiction if we had evolved from an ancestor species that was so different from us that we could not interbreed with that species. Surely, the argument goes, doesn’t speciation imply that if species A evolves into species B, then must there be a time when the child is of species B while the parent is of species A. And isn’t that a ridiculous notion?

The herring gulls and salamanders are the counterexamples in space (which we can directly see now) of the counterargument in time (which we can only infer). What it says is that as descendants are produced, they form a continuum in time. Each generation, while differing slightly, can interbreed with its previous generation, but over a long enough period of time, the two end points of the time continuum need not be able to interbreed.

Thus it is possible for an organism to be intermediate between two species.

Coming back to the question of why we look so different if we all shared common ancestors so recently, it is likely that the kind of selectivity practiced by the cichlid fish has resulted in certain features being shared by groups that interbreed within a restricted domain bounded by distance and geography and culture, although the process has not become so extreme that we have formed into distinct species.

I apologize for boring those readers who had had a much more extensive biology education than I have because all these things which I have been writing about recently on evolution must be well known to them. But I find all this perfectly fascinating and novel.

POST SCRIPT: Amy Goodman in Cleveland

Award-winning journalist Amy Goodman, host of the daily, grassroots, global, radio/TV news hour Democracy Now!, is on a national speaking tour to mark DN!’s 10th anniversary and launch her second book with journalist David Goodman, Static: Government Liars, Media Cheerleaders, and the People Who Fight Back.

WHEN: Saturday, October 14th, 7:00-8:30 PM
WHERE: Student Center,
John Carroll University,
20700 N. Park Blvd (University Heights), Cleveland, OH
DESCRIPTION: Amy Goodman speaks at a free event at the Student Center. Book signing to follow. Members of Iraq Veterans Against the War will give a brief presentation before the talk, as part of their collaboration with the Uprise Tour.
TICKETS: Free
MORE INFO: See here for directions.

Why we look different despite having identical ancestors

In the previous post in this series, I reported on a paper by Douglas L. T. Rohde, Steve Olson, and Joseph T. Chang and published in the journal Nature that said that if we go back about 5,000 years, the ancestors of everyone on Earth today are exactly the same. This date is called the IA point, where IA stands for ‘identical ancestors’.

One question that will immediately arise in people’s minds is that if all our identical ancestors lived so recently, how is it that we look so different? If you take four people from China, Sri Lanka, Sweden, and Malawi, they are usually fairly easily distinguishable based on physical appearance alone, using features such as skin color, hair, facial features, etc. How could this happen if they all had identical ancestors as recently as 5,000 years ago?

The answer lies in the fact that while it is true that we all share the same ancestors, it does not mean that we all received that same genetic information from that common ancestral pool.

It is true that each of us gets exactly half our genes from our fathers and half from our mothers. But when we pass on our genes to our children, while each child gets exactly half from each parent, that does not imply that they get exactly one quarter from each grandparent. What is true is that on average each child gets one quarter of the genes from each grandparent.

The reason for this is because when a sperm or egg is formed, the genetic information (say in the egg formed in the mother) that goes into it undergoes a process of recombination in which the genes the mother obtained from her parents get mixed up before the transfer into the egg. It is thus theoretically possible, though unlikely, that a child will have zero genetic information from one of her four grandparents.

Furthermore, as we go down to the next generation, the average genetic information received by a child is now just one-eighth from any given great-grandparent. After many generations, even the average contribution of someone to each descendant approaches zero and it is not hard to imagine that some ancestors will have descendants who inherited none of their genetic information. In fact, as Rohde, Olson, and Chang say, “because DNA is inherited in relatively large segments from ancestors, an individual will receive little or no actual genetic inheritance from the vast majority of the ancestors living at the IA point.”

Furthermore, “In generations sufficiently far removed from the present, some ancestors appear much more often than do others on any current individual’s family tree, and can therefore be expected to contribute proportionately more to his or her genetic inheritance. For example, a present-day Norwegian generally owes the majority of his or her ancestry to people living in northern Europe at the IA point, and a very small portion to people living throughout the rest of the world.”

So even though we all have the same set of ancestors, the amount of genetic information received from any one ancestor will vary wildly from person to person.

As long as populations remained largely isolated, they could thus evolve different physical characteristics, although even a tiny amount of migration between populations is enough to create the early common dates of the MRCA (most recent common ancestor) and IA.

There are some factors that could shift those dates back further.

If a group of humans were completely isolated, then no mixing could occur between that group and others, and the MRCA would have to have lived before the start of the isolation. A more recent MRCA would not arise until the groups were once again well integrated. In the case of Tasmania, which may have been completely isolated from mainland Australia between the flooding of the Bass Strait, 9,000–12,000 years ago, and the European colonization of the island, starting in 1803, the IA date for all living humans must fall before the start of isolation. However, the MRCA date would be unaffected, because today there are no remaining native Tasmanians without some European or mainland Australian ancestry.

No large group is known to have maintained complete reproductive isolation for extended periods.

It seems to me that these results arguing for the fact that our most recent common ancestor lived about 2,000 years ago and that we all have the same common ancestors who lived just 5,000 years ago are pretty robust.

This has profound implications for origins myths and tribalism. Some people like to have a sense of racial pride by thinking that they represent ‘pure’ races. This research argues that this view is rubbish. None of us are ‘pure’. We are all cousins, and fairly close ones at that.

The Supreme Court in the cross hairs

Some people now look to the US Supreme Court to overturn the torture-approving legislation passed last week by the Congress. Some members felt that it was unconstitutional but voted for it anyway, perhaps fearing that they would be charged with being ‘soft on terrorism.’

Depending on any single agency to defend fundamental rights on our behalf is a dangerous strategy because those agencies are susceptible to pressure.

Even though the present Supreme Court is already very sympathetic to the idea of giving the administration all the power it wants even when it is skating very close to the constitutional edge, the present administration is taking no chances that the courts will derail its efforts to do what it wants. We already see the administration’s efforts to intimidate the court so that it will go along with the administration’s wishes or, in the event that it does reject this legislation as unconstitutional, laying the groundwork to ignore the decision of the court.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales already fired the opening salvo last week, by implying that if the courts overrule this legislation, they are imposing their personal views and should expect harsh criticism.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales, who is defending President Bush’s anti-terrorism tactics in multiple court battles, said Friday that federal judges should not substitute their personal views for the president’s judgments in wartime.

He said the Constitution makes the president commander in chief and the Supreme Court has long recognized the president’s pre-eminent role in foreign affairs. “The Constitution, by contrast, provides the courts with relatively few tools to superintend military and foreign policy decisions, especially during wartime,” the attorney general told a conference on the judiciary at Georgetown University Law Center.

“Judges must resist the temptation to supplement those tools based on their own personal views about the wisdom of the policies under review,” Gonzales said.

And he said the independence of federal judges, who are appointed for life, “has never meant, and should never mean, that judges or their decisions should be immune” from public criticism.

“Respectfully, when courts issue decisions that overturn long-standing traditions or policies without proper support in text or precedent, they cannot — and should not — be shielded from criticism,” Gonzales said. “A proper sense of judicial humility requires judges to keep in mind the institutional limitations of the judiciary and the duties expressly assigned by the Constitution to the more politically accountable branches.”

Although this warning to the justices was quite blunt, Newt Gingrich, former speaker and supposed seeker for the Republican nomination for the presidency in 2008, was even blunter. He argued that the government has the right to simply ignore the verdict of the court.

Supreme Court decisions that are “so clearly at variance with the national will” should be overridden by the other branches of government, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich says.

“What I reject, out of hand, is the idea that by five to four, judges can rewrite the Constitution, but it takes two-thirds of the House, two-thirds of the Senate and three-fourths of the states to equal five judges,” Gingrich said during a Georgetown University Law Center conference on the judiciary.

It takes approval by two-thirds of Congress and three-fourths of the 50 states to adopt an amendment to the Constitution, the government’s bedrock document.

Gingrich, a Republican who represented a district in Georgia, noted that overwhelming majorities in Congress had reaffirmed the Pledge of Allegiance, and most of the public believes in its right to recite it.

As such, he said, “It would be a violation of the social compact of this country for the Supreme Court to decide otherwise and would lead, I hope, the two other branches to correct the court.”

This notion that someone can somehow divine the “will of the people” is always the one that is used by demagogues to ride roughshod over the institutional checks and balances that have been painstaking built up over the years. The constitution does not recognize the vague “social compacts” that Gingrich refers to. In fact, constitutions are deliberately designed to prevent the temporary passions that can engulf a people at certain times from creating lasting damage. In times of great stress, it may well be the “will of the people” to round up suspects and shoot them without trial, just like they used to summarily lynch black people. The whole point of the rule of law and constitutional protections is to restrain those who would act in the heat of the moment.

People like Gingrich and other enablers of authoritarian regimes like the one currently controlling the White House are always eager to dismantle these constitutional protections because they hinder their ambitions to achieve greater power and control over their people.

I am constantly amazed at how this government is doing the same thing that the Sri Lankan president did following his election in 1977. It is almost as if there is some kind of secret listserv that all authoritarian leaders can sign on to so that they know what they need to do to circumvent constitutional protections and grab more power. That Sri Lankan president too constantly asserted that the “will of the people” supported whatever he wanted to do and proceeded to systematically rewrite the constitution to give him more power. He too set about intimidating the Supreme Court by issuing harsh criticisms of their decisions and organizing demonstrations in front of the judge’s homes.

John Dean, who was White House counsel to President Nixon and thus witnessed the authoritarian mindset close up, says in an interview in the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine that this administration, especially Dick Cheney, has been determined to expand presidential powers. He says he “can’t find in history any other Presidency that has made it a matter of policy to expand Presidential powers.” He adds, “To me the fact that a Vice President can go to Capitol Hill and lobby for torture is just unbelievable. Just unbelievable! I can’t even get there mentally.”

The interview ends with him saying “I fear for the [democratic] system. And I fear for our liberties.”

In order to understand the dynamics of what is going on currently we have to develop a new framework with which to analyze events.

First of all we have to realize that the real enemy of an authoritarian government is not some external threat but the very people it is supposed to be governing. Their real goal is to cow, intimidate, and otherwise subdue their own population so that they will not resist the actions of the government.

In the current case, we are repeatedly told that the enemy the country is facing is terrorism and these kinds of torture legislation are the weapons it needs to fight it. But the actions of this regime are easier to understand if we realize that we, the people, are the real enemy of the administration, and the fear of terrorism is the weapon used to control us.

In order to resist the steady evisceration of basic liberties and the constitution, we cannot depend on our elected representatives or the judiciary to take the lead and fight for those rights. They are too craven to lead. They will only follow. The only way to safeguard civil liberties and constitutional freedoms is by everyone loudly and vocally valuing them, protecting them, and using them. The words of Judge Learned Hand are always worth remembering and repeating:

Liberty lies in the hearts of men and women; when it dies there, no constitution, no law, no court can even do much to help it. While it lies there it needs no constitution, no law, no court to save it.

If Judge Learned hand were alive today, I wonder what his verdict would be.

It is quite amazing to me that the Bill of Rights, that shining jewel in the US constitution that is a landmark in the conceptualizing of the fundamental protections that any civilized society should afford its people, is now seen as some sort of quaint anachronism, something that can be dispensed with at the whim of an authoritarian government that claims that it, and it alone, knows what the “will of the people” is.

POST SCRIPT: Exposing the posturers

The Daily Show highlights the hypocrisy and posturing of Senators John “Straight Talk Express” McCain, Lindsey Graham, Arlen Specter, and John Warner on the detainee bill.

Constitutionality of torture

Republican senators Arlen Specter and John McCain and Lindsey Graham are media favorites who get a lot of positive attention for seeming to stand up for the right thing even though they almost invariably capitulate to the White House. (McCain in particular has this totally undeserved reputation as a ‘maverick’ and ‘straight talker’ and ‘moderate’ when in fact all he does is talk and does not back it up with action that would make such a reputation truly deserved. To me he seems like any other Bush-kowtowing hardliner.)

He and Specter and Graham have repeatedly choreographed elaborate kabuki dances with the White House which begin by staking a position in seeming opposition to some extreme White House proposal such as torture, and then after ‘negotiations’ with the White House, celebrate a ‘compromise’ which essentially capitulates to the Bush administration, giving it almost exactly what it wanted in the first place. So we now repeatedly witness the spectacle of the White House essentially negotiating with itself through these agents, and then all these complicit parties patting themselves on the back for working out a ‘compromise’, with the media celebrating the ‘democratic process at work’ and hailing the ‘bipartisan’ spirit.

Some of the legislators who voted in favor of the torture bill did so even though they thought it was bad legislation, presumably because they thought that the Supreme Court would rule it unconstitutional and thus no lasting harm would be done.

Sen. Arlen Specter (R-PA), who voted for the bill even after his amendment to preserve certain rights for detainees was defeated, called the proposal “patently unconstitutional on its face,”

Apart from the fact that this is craven behavior and buck passing, there are also serious concerns as to whether this works even as a strategy. Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale and author of Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism, writing in the September 28, 2006 issue of the Los Angeles Times says that this is an extremely dangerous strategy for the following reason:

But the bill also reinforces the presidential claims, made in the Padilla case, that the commander in chief has the right to designate a U.S. citizen on American soil as an enemy combatant and subject him to military justice. Congress is poised to authorized this presidential overreaching. Under existing constitutional doctrine, this show of explicit congressional support would be a key factor that the Supreme Court would consider in assessing the limits of presidential authority. (my emphasis)

This is no time to play politics with our fundamental freedoms. Even without this massive congressional expansion of the class of enemy combatants, it is by no means clear that the present Supreme Court will protect the Bill of Rights. The Korematsu case — upholding the military detention of tens of thousands of Japanese Americans during World War II — has never been explicitly overruled. It will be tough for the high court to condemn this notorious decision, especially if passions are inflamed by another terrorist incident. But congressional support of presidential power will make it much easier to extend the Korematsu decision to future mass seizures.

Though it may not feel that way, we are living at a moment of relative calm. It would be tragic if the Republican leadership rammed through an election-year measure that would haunt all of us on the morning after the next terrorist attack.

But it is clear that the White House is not content to merely hope that the Supreme Court upholds this law and has already started on a dangerous strategy to intimidate the Court to go along with this legislation, which I will write about in the next post.

This is a grave moment in this country’s history. Jesus’ General is a satirical website in which the author adopts the persona of a war-loving (but cowardly), gay-hating (but closeted), Bush-worshiping, devout, intolerant, bigoted Christian in order to write his amusing and whimsical posts. But the passage of this legislation was too much for him to parody and so he gave rein to his serious side (or his ‘inner Frenchman’ as he refers to it) to reveal his real feelings:

The memorial to the United States I posted yesterday caused a few people to wonder if I’d given up. They were wrong. I was merely doing what I do every day here, expressing the way I felt about the day’s events.

Although I expected we’d lose the fight in the Senate, the final result nonetheless brought tears to my eyes. I had witnessed the death of the nation I loved, or more specifically, the murder of a set of ideals, upon which a nation was structured. I felt a need to memorialize that loss.

I target patriotism almost daily with my satire, but it’s not a love for country I mock, rather it is the simple-minded nationalism of the right; a patriotism that values symbols over substance; a patriotism that drives legislators who angrily acted to ban flag burning to pass a law gutting our Bill of Rights.

The basic values I love most, the ideals that made me proud to be an American, due process, habeas corpus, the proscriptions against cruel and unusual punishment and the use of coercion to compel confession were destroyed in the name of that kind of patriotism yesterday. Our America, liberal America, died with those ideals.

That’s why I mourned.

But today is a new day, a day in which I hope we will all resolve to fight harder than ever to bring our America back.

You should read the whole thing and bookmark the General’s site if you have not already done so because he illustrates well how to reveal deeper and serious truths using a light and humorous touch.

POST SCRIPT: Bill of Rights? What Bill of Rights?

Even in these cynical days, I find it hard to believe stories like this.

Attorney David Lane said that on June 16, Steve Howards was walking his 7-year-old son to a piano practice, when he saw Cheney surrounded by a group of people in an outdoor mall area, shaking hands and posing for pictures with several people.

According to the lawsuit filed at U.S. District Court in Denver, Howards and his son walked to about two-to-three feet from where Cheney was standing, and said to the vice president, “I think your policies in Iraq are reprehensible,” or words to that effect, then walked on.

Ten minutes later, according to Howards’ lawsuit, he and his son were walking back through the same area, when they were approached by Secret Service agent Virgil D. “Gus” Reichle Jr., who asked Howards if he had “assaulted” the vice president. Howards denied doing so, but was nonetheless placed in handcuffs and taken to the Eagle County Jail.

The lawsuit states that the Secret Service agent instructed that Howards should be issued a summons for harassment, but that on July 6 the Eagle County District Attorney’s Office dismissed all charges against Howards.

If the facts of this story are true, Howards had better watch his step. All the president has to do is declare that he and his son are enemy combatants and they can be shipped off to Guantanamo and never be heard from again. While Guantanamo may have piano wire, I doubt that they will use it to provide piano lessons for his son.

No one is now safe from arbitrary imprisonment and torture

In yesterday’s post I spoke about the qualitative change that has occurred in this country as a result of the passage of the legislation last week that took away almost all the rights on which a truly free society is built.

Some people may be consoling themselves that these drastic actions will be only taken against “other” people, non-US citizens, and that they themselves are safe. But Bruce Ackerman, a professor of law and political science at Yale and author of Before the Next Attack: Preserving Civil Liberties in an Age of Terrorism, writing in the September 28, 2006 issue of the Los Angeles Times warns us not to be so complacent:

Buried in the complex Senate compromise on detainee treatment is a real shocker, reaching far beyond the legal struggles about foreign terrorist suspects in the Guantanamo Bay fortress. The compromise legislation, which is racing toward the White House, authorizes the president to seize American citizens as enemy combatants, even if they have never left the United States. And once thrown into military prison, they cannot expect a trial by their peers or any other of the normal protections of the Bill of Rights.

This dangerous compromise not only authorizes the president to seize and hold terrorists who have fought against our troops “during an armed conflict,” it also allows him to seize anybody who has “purposefully and materially supported hostilities against the United States.” This grants the president enormous power over citizens and legal residents. They can be designated as enemy combatants if they have contributed money to a Middle Eastern charity, and they can be held indefinitely in a military prison.

Not to worry, say the bill’s defenders. The president can’t detain somebody who has given money innocently, just those who contributed to terrorists on purpose.

But other provisions of the bill call even this limitation into question. What is worse, if the federal courts support the president’s initial detention decision, ordinary Americans would be required to defend themselves before a military tribunal without the constitutional guarantees provided in criminal trials.

Legal residents who aren’t citizens are treated even more harshly. The bill entirely cuts off their access to federal habeas corpus, leaving them at the mercy of the president’s suspicions.

We are not dealing with hypothetical abuses. The president has already subjected a citizen to military confinement. Consider the case of Jose Padilla. A few months after 9/11, he was seized by the Bush administration as an “enemy combatant” upon his arrival at Chicago’s O’Hare International Airport. He was wearing civilian clothes and had no weapons. Despite his American citizenship, he was held for more than three years in a military brig, without any chance to challenge his detention before a military or civilian tribunal. After a federal appellate court upheld the president’s extraordinary action, the Supreme Court refused to hear the case, handing the administration’s lawyers a terrible precedent.

The new bill, if passed, would further entrench presidential power. At the very least, it would encourage the Supreme Court to draw an invidious distinction between citizens and legal residents. There are tens of millions of legal immigrants living among us, and the bill encourages the justices to uphold mass detentions without the semblance of judicial review.

This act provides a dramatic gauge of how far has this nation’s concepts of justice have sunk since the times when the constitution was first drafted (leaving aside for the moment the problem that those noble early concepts of justice did not extend to black people). For example, Thomas Jefferson said in his first inaugural address: “Freedom of the person under the protection of the habeas corpus I deem [one of the] essential principles of our government.”

Jefferson had little sympathy for those who would suspend these basic rights at the first sign of any trouble saying in a letter to James Madison that he felt that habeas corpus should be preserved even if there is an insurrection or rebellion within the country, which is a far, far, greater threat than anything faced today in the so-called war on terror. He pointed out the history of such suspensions which indicated that it was usually done for the consolidation of power by an authoritarian government rather than for genuine concerns about security, saying:

Why suspend the habeas corpus in insurrections and rebellions? The parties who may be arrested may be charged instantly with a well defined crime; of course, the judge will remand them. If the public safety requires that the government should have a man imprisoned on less probable testimony in those than in other emergencies, let him be taken and tried, retaken and retried, while the necessity continues, only giving him redress against the government for damages. Examine the history of England. See how few of the cases of the suspension of the habeas corpus law have been worthy of that suspension. They have been either real treasons, wherein the parties might as well have been charged at once, or sham plots, where it was shameful they should ever have been suspected. Yet for the few cases wherein the suspension of the habeas corpus has done real good, that operation is now become habitual and the minds of the nation almost prepared to live under its constant suspension.

It is a sign of how debased the political discussion has become in this country that if Jefferson has spoken such words today, he would be reviled as a wimp and a mollycoddler of Islamojihadifascists (or whatever the current demonizing term being used to make people cower in fear), as ‘not supporting the president’ by ‘giving him the tools he needs to fight terrorists.’
POST SCRIPT: It could be worse, I suppose

Cartoonist Tom Tomorrow sums up the current state of affairs.

What happened to the ‘land of the free’?

Last Thursday saw the day when the US as a nation formally decided that it no longer accepted the basic human rights that have been the foundation of its civil society since the time it adopted the Bill of Rights. In particular, the nation went on record as declaring that habeas corpus was expendable and torture was acceptable. Of course, torture has been practiced in the past by individuals, even individuals acting on behalf of the government. But when those things were revealed most recently at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, we could at least try and argue that these were the abhorrent actions of a few ‘rogue elements’ and ‘bad apples’ and did not represent the ideals of the people as a whole.

But when the House of Representatives and the Senate last week passed the Military Commissions Act of 2006 allowing these things, and when the president signs these practices into law, then we can no longer use such excuses. These people were all elected to their offices and can claim that they represent the people of their regions. Hence by passing this act America, as a nation, has now formally gone on record as saying that the Bill of Rights, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and the Geneva Conventions are all expendable, subservient to whatever measures, however extreme, the president deems necessary to fight his ‘war on terror.’ The American people, through their elected representatives, are in effect giving the president the powers eagerly sought by dictators.

In this Washington Post news report from September 28, 2006 we can read a description of the legislation.

Included in the bill, passed by Republican majorities in the Senate yesterday and the House on Wednesday, are unique rules that bar terrorism suspects from challenging their detention or treatment through traditional habeas corpus petitions. They allow prosecutors, under certain conditions, to use evidence collected through hearsay or coercion to seek criminal convictions.

The bill rejects the right to a speedy trial and limits the traditional right to self-representation by requiring that defendants accept military defense attorneys. Panels of military officers need not reach unanimous agreement to win convictions, except in death penalty cases, and appeals must go through a second military panel before reaching a federal civilian court.

By writing into law for the first time the definition of an “unlawful enemy combatant,” the bill empowers the executive branch to detain indefinitely anyone it determines to have “purposefully and materially” supported anti-U.S. hostilities. Only foreign nationals among those detainees can be tried by the military commissions, as they are known, and sentenced to decades in jail or put to death.

At the same time, the bill immunizes U.S. officials from prosecution for cruel, inhumane or degrading treatment of detainees who the military and the CIA captured before the end of last year. It gives the president a dominant but not exclusive role in setting the rules for future interrogations of terrorism suspects.
. . .
Tom Malinowski, the Washington office director for Human Rights Watch, said Bush’s motivation is partly to protect his reputation by gaining congressional endorsement of controversial actions already taken. “He’s been accused of authorizing criminal torture in a way that has hurt America and could come back to haunt our troops. One of his purposes is to have Congress stand with him in the dock,” Malinowski said.
. . .
University of Texas constitutional law professor Sanford V. Levinson described the bill in an Internet posting as the mark of a “banana republic.” Yale Law School Dean Harold Koh said that “the image of Congress rushing to strip jurisdiction from the courts in response to a politically created emergency is really quite shocking, and it’s not clear that most of the members understand what they’ve done.”

The New York Times wrote a primer on the legislation in its editorial on September 28, 2006:

These are some of the bill’s biggest flaws:
Enemy Combatants: A dangerously broad definition of “illegal enemy combatant” in the bill could subject legal residents of the United States, as well as foreign citizens living in their own countries, to summary arrest and indefinite detention with no hope of appeal. The president could give the power to apply this label to anyone he wanted.

The Geneva Conventions: The bill would repudiate a half-century of international precedent by allowing Mr. Bush to decide on his own what abusive interrogation methods he considered permissible. And his decision could stay secret — there’s no requirement that this list be published.

Habeas Corpus: Detainees in U.S. military prisons would lose the basic right to challenge their imprisonment. These cases do not clog the courts, nor coddle terrorists. They simply give wrongly imprisoned people a chance to prove their innocence.

Judicial Review: The courts would have no power to review any aspect of this new system, except verdicts by military tribunals. The bill would limit appeals and bar legal actions based on the Geneva Conventions, directly or indirectly. All Mr. Bush would have to do to lock anyone up forever is to declare him an illegal combatant and not have a trial.

Coerced Evidence: Coerced evidence would be permissible if a judge considered it reliable — already a contradiction in terms — and relevant. Coercion is defined in a way that exempts anything done before the passage of the 2005 Detainee Treatment Act, and anything else Mr. Bush chooses.

Secret Evidence: American standards of justice prohibit evidence and testimony that is kept secret from the defendant, whether the accused is a corporate executive or a mass murderer. But the bill as redrafted by Mr. Cheney seems to weaken protections against such evidence.

Offenses: The definition of torture is unacceptably narrow, a virtual reprise of the deeply cynical memos the administration produced after 9/11. Rape and sexual assault are defined in a retrograde way that covers only forced or coerced activity, and not other forms of nonconsensual sex. The bill would effectively eliminate the idea of rape as torture.

There is not enough time to fix these bills, especially since the few Republicans who call themselves moderates have been whipped into line, and the Democratic leadership in the Senate seems to have misplaced its spine. If there was ever a moment for a filibuster, this was it.

The craven Democrats not only did not filibuster this bill in the Senate, some of them even voted in favor of it. In the House, ‘liberals’ such as Sherrod Brown (now running for the Ohio Senate seat) and Ted Strickland (now running for Ohio governor) also voted in favor of it, thus reinforcing my long-held view that traditional political labels have ceased to have meaning in terms of policy positions that are favored by the pro-war/pro-business party.

(Incidentally, Strickland is also an ordained minister in my old church (Methodist) which suggests that for some ‘liberal’ clergy, torture is just fine with their idea of what Jesus stood for. The minister in the Methodist Church I grew up in, Rev. Arnold Cooper, passed away last month. He was a wonderful, humane man who had a great influence on me. He would have been revolted at the thought of a fellow clergyman in his church even thinking of condoning torture.)

[UPDATE: I stand corrected by Tom Maley in the comments. He is right that Strickland did not vote for or against the bill, but was absent. I have been trying to see if Strickland has made any statement either way about the bill but have not been able to find any mention of it, not even on his blog. So while his silence on such a major issue is disturbing, Strickland deserves my apologies for not verifying the facts of his vote. I should not have been depending on second-hand information.]

What this action has done is to make us all accomplices in these terrible things, while providing amnesty for those administration officials who actually carry them out. History is not going to judge us kindly.

POST SCRIPT: The Iraq war, lie by lie

The lies of this administration regarding the Iraq war are so numerous that one can be excused for feeling overwhelmed trying to keep track of them. Mother Jones has provided a great indexed timeline here. It is a terrific resource for anyone who cares about unearthing the truth that is being buried under high drifts of official duplicity and uncritical media reporting.