The problem of endings: Review of Oryx and Crake

Almost everyone has at least heard of Margaret Atwood’s excellent futuristic novel The Handmaid’s Tale. I enjoyed that book and now can also strongly recommend her 2003 offering Oryx and Crake, a thought-provoking look at the future.

It would be hard to summarize the plot without giving away too much information so instead I want to look at the novel’s structure and the problems with writing fiction in general, and futuristic or science fiction in particular.

In telling a story, one way is simply to tell it chronologically, starting at the beginning and following the characters to the end. That is somewhat old-fashioned. The structure of Oryx and Crake follows an alternative pattern that is fairly common in modern fiction. It starts with the story close to the end that has many puzzling, intriguing, and unexplained features, and then through a series of flashbacks that are interspersed with the forward chronology, the puzzling elements are slowly explained. Of course, the events in the flashbacks move much faster than the speed of events in real time so eventually, towards the end of the novel, the flashback story catches up with the real time story, and from then on the narrative moves only forward in time.

Another storytelling technique, which was used in another good novel A Plague of Doves by Louise Erdrich that I read recently, is to start with a short and graphic and puzzling event, and then proceed to have different narrators tell their seemingly independent stories in flashbacks until the stories merge at the end, and the original vignette is explained.

In the case of Oryx and Crake, the story starts with a single human character who calls himself Snowman living alone in a primitive state with the decay of Earth’s destroyed civilization all around him. He lives in a tree surrounded by dangerous and unfamiliar animals, with only a dirty bed sheet for clothing, and barely exists on a subsistence diet that he scavenges from the debris and trash around him, suggesting that the collapse of civilization is quite recent. But he is not entirely alone. There is a small colony of people nearby who seem almost but not quite human, childlike in their speech and behavior, able to eat and digest grass and other plant forms that we cannot, and who seem to revere him as some kind of prophet or guru. Who are these people? How did they come to be? And what happened to destroy everything? The unraveling of these mysteries (in this case in the form of Snowman recalling the past) forms the core of the novel, and it is gripping.

In the process of telling the story, Atwood raises some deep questions about the paradoxes of progress. She basically extrapolates the science and technology we now have and poses the question of how far are we willing to go with the powerful new knowledge we possess, especially when it comes to the ability to tamper with genetics and create new life forms. Some aspects of the novel, in which a few biological research companies make fortunes by marketing dubious anti-aging and sex and health products to consumers eager to cling on to youth, already exist.

She also ponders the question of how much inequality are we willing to tolerate. Are we heading towards a deeply bifurcated society, with the few elite living and working in communities that are completely segregated from the rest of society and yet controlling everything for everyone?

One of the biggest problem that a teller of tales faces is how to end the story. It is relatively easy to spin scenarios. It is more difficult to see beyond the immediate consequences and to have the characters develop. I have never written a novel because while I can think of interesting plots, I soon get defeated by how to progress beyond a certain point.

Nowhere is this problem of endings more acute than in comedy where one can imagine developing a funny sketch but then flounder about trying to bring it to a close, searching for an elusive punch line. Many film comedies suffer because of this. Monty Python solved this problem in their TV series of sketch comedies by deliberately breaking the spell and abruptly inserting a cartoon or otherwise jumping to the next sketch with no continuity. This non sequitur method did not work when it came to their first feature-length film Monty Python and the Holy Grail. That ending was unsatisfying, especially since up to that point the film was terrific. This may be because there was a unifying narrative to the film that made the viewers more emotionally invested in expecting an outcome, and they expected a better resolution. Their next film Monty Python’s Life of Brian had a much better ending.

Classical storytellers tended to use closed endings. Shakespeare’s plays, for example, end with either happy-ever-after final scenes in the comedies or practically everyone dying in the tragedies. Some modern fiction writers follow that same pattern. In the Harry Potter books for instance, there was a satisfying climactic scene where all the major issues are resolved and everything was explained. There was even an epilogue describing the lives of the main characters many years later, which actually was a bit of overkill that could have been dispensed with.

This kind of closed-ending can be satisfying to the reader, but it also shuts down speculation and can be artificial. Real life rarely has such closure. The authors of more sophisticated modern novels tend to avoid such pat endings. An alternative way is to end abruptly, to just bring down the curtain, leaving the reader to speculate on what happens next. This can be dissatisfying to the reader, like watching a comedian who goes to elaborate lengths to set up a joke and then tells you to supply the punch line yourself.

On balance, I am a low-brow reader who likes closed endings, where there is a clear denouement. Maybe that is why I still enjoy the who-dunnit mystery novel genre of the type made famous by the Sherlock Holmes stories or the Agatha Christie novels, where events leads up to climax and resolution where everything is explained, and the tension is broken. With many modern novels, even those that I liked, after some time I forget how they ended, because they did not end in a memorable way but simply stopped. The tension dissipates slowly.

Oryx and Crake also ends with the reader wondering what comes next. But don’t let that deter you. It is a terrific book.

On torture-21: The case of Abu Zubaydah again

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

What has emerged is that research by psychologists on “learned helplessness” has formed the basis of the current torture techniques practiced by the US. The goal is to destroy the victim’s mind until that person feels total dependence on the interrogator. It turns out that this is fairly easy to do. They succeeded with Jose Padilla and with Abu Zubaydah. But destroying a mind is one thing. Getting useful information is another.

I have written before about Abu Zubaydah. He was the person you may recall whom George W. Bush insisted was a valuable high-ranking al Qaeda operative from whom valuable information was gleaned using torture, although Bush of course did not use that word. This case was seized upon by the media and by those who used it to justify torture, claiming it ‘worked’. But Ron Suskind’s book The One Percent Doctrine says the reality is quite different, as can be seen from this excerpt in Barton Gellman’s review of it:

One example out of many comes in Ron Suskind’s gripping narrative of what the White House has celebrated as one of the war’s major victories: the capture of Abu Zubaydah in Pakistan in March 2002. Described as al-Qaeda’s chief of operations even after U.S. and Pakistani forces kicked down his door in Faisalabad, the Saudi-born jihadist was the first al-Qaeda detainee to be shipped to a secret prison abroad. Suskind shatters the official story line here.

Abu Zubaydah, his captors discovered, turned out to be mentally ill and nothing like the pivotal figure they supposed him to be. CIA and FBI analysts, poring over a diary he kept for more than a decade, found entries “in the voice of three people: Hani 1, Hani 2, and Hani 3″ — a boy, a young man and a middle-aged alter ego. All three recorded in numbing detail “what people ate, or wore, or trifling things they said.” Dan Coleman, then the FBI’s top al-Qaeda analyst, told a senior bureau official, “This guy is insane, certifiable, split personality.”

Abu Zubaydah also appeared to know nothing about terrorist operations; rather, he was al-Qaeda’s go-to guy for minor logistics — travel for wives and children and the like. That judgment was “echoed at the top of CIA and was, of course, briefed to the President and Vice President,” Suskind writes. And yet somehow, in a speech delivered two weeks later, President Bush portrayed Abu Zubaydah as “one of the top operatives plotting and planning death and destruction on the United States.” And over the months to come, under White House and Justice Department direction, the CIA would make him its first test subject for harsh interrogation techniques.

They strapped Abu Zubaydah to a water-board, which reproduces the agony of drowning. They threatened him with certain death. They withheld medication. They bombarded him with deafening noise and harsh lights, depriving him of sleep. Under that duress, he began to speak of plots of every variety — against shopping malls, banks, supermarkets, water systems, nuclear plants, apartment buildings, the Brooklyn Bridge, the Statue of Liberty. With each new tale, “thousands of uniformed men and women raced in a panic to each . . . target.” And so, Suskind writes, “the United States would torture a mentally disturbed man and then leap, screaming, at every word he uttered.”

After they had destroyed him mentally, the interrogators then proceeded to destroy the videotapes that had recorded the torture sessions, hardly the behavior of people who thought they were acting legally or morally or who at least thought that they were practicing an effective technique.

As Kevin Drum says:

So here’s what the tapes would have shown: not just that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative, but that we had brutally tortured an al-Qaeda operative who was (a) unimportant and low-ranking, (b) mentally unstable, (c) had no useful information, and (d) eventually spewed out an endless series of worthless, fantastical “confessions” under duress. This was all prompted by the president of the United States, implemented by the director of the CIA, and the end result was thousands of wasted man hours by intelligence and and [sic] law enforcement personnel.

Torture produced similar false information in the case of Khalid Shekh Mohammed:

In other words, not only was torture unnecessary, but it was actually counterproductive. KSM produced no new information under torture, only a litany of false confessions — maybe out of vanity, maybe in an effort to protect other al-Qaeda operatives. Who knows. What we do know is that torturing KSM did no good, sent hundreds of agents scurrying after phantoms, and has made his prosecution far more difficult than it needed to be.

This is what torture leads to.

POST SCRIPT: Rewriting Hamlet

On torture-20: The case of Jose Padilla

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

In the previous post, we saw how the US government, over a period of time, studied and refined the techniques of psychological torture practiced by other countries and then outsourced these practices to its client states during the Cold War. With the onset of the ‘war on terror’ following the events of 2001, it started using those techniques directly, leading to the abuses at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, Bagram, and the so-called ‘black sites’ around the world.

Jose Padilla, who was arrested in the US in 2002 at Chicago airport and charged with threatening to explode a so-called radioactive ‘dirty bomb’, was one of the earliest victims of the new policies. Then Attorney General John Ashcroft held a sensational press conference announcing his arrest and George W. Bush then designated him as an ‘illegal enemy combatant’ not entitled to a trial in the regular courts, even though he was an American citizen. The sensational ‘dirty bomb’ charge that was used to terrify people and garner publicity was later quietly dropped and replaced by much vaguer conspiracy charges. The ability of the government to declare a US citizen as an enemy combatant was challenged and went through several court iterations before the government in November 2005, presumably seeking to avoid a US Supreme Court decision against it, decided to charge him in the regular civilian courts in Miami, Florida. He was found guilty in 2007 and sentenced to over 17 years in prison.

This is how the mind of Jose Padilla was destroyed so that he was willing to say anything his torturers wanted him to say. According to Amy Goodman of Democracy Now, the Christian Science Monitor reported that Padilla was originally kept in extreme isolation for three months in something called the ‘brig’ at a naval base in South Carolina: “Padilla’s cell measured nine feet by seven feet. The windows were covered over… He had no pillow. No sheet. No clock. No calendar. No radio. No television. No telephone calls. No visitors. Even Padilla’s lawyer was prevented from seeing him for nearly two years.” Even when in shackles he was taken to see a dentist, he had to wear blacked out goggles to prevent any light from reaching him and headphones to shut out any sound.

Dr. Angela Hegarty, a forensic psychiatrist who examined Padilla, describes in chilling detail how they broke down Padilla and the net result, which was that he identified totally with his interrogators and the Bush government. He did not want to do anything that might result in him being sent back to the brig, and he felt that the best way to do that was to acquiesce in whatever the government wanted, even if it meant turning against his own lawyers. The US government threatened him with further torture if he revealed information about the torture he had already experienced. “According to the Yale Clinic’s suit, the government threatened Padilla that if he told anyone what happened to him while he was an enemy combatant, that he would be re-designated an enemy combatant and taken back into Defense Department custody. The suit alleges, as have his defense attorneys, that Padilla’s lawyers were not able to mount as complete a defense as they could have were Padilla not afraid to talk to them for fear of government retaliation.”

Alfred W. McCoy, who had studies the history of torture in some detail, says that when he saw the now-iconic photo from Abu Ghraib of the black-hooded prisoner standing with outstretched arms and fake electrodes connected, he immediately recognized two classic and key torture features that the CIA had developed: sensory deprivation (in the form of the hood) and stress positions (standing with arms outstretched). This makes implausible the story put out by the Bush-Cheney administration that blamed the lowly soldiers in charge of the prisoners for the torture, by describing them as a few “bad apples”. It is highly unlikely that they could have stumbled upon these highly researched torture techniques on their own.

With the end of the Cold War, the US tried to have it both ways: trying to reach the moral high ground by signing the 1994 Convention Against Torture, while quietly trying to reserve for itself the right to continue the psychological torture practices it had perfected. This was, as is the case with all major pro-war/pro-business actions, a bipartisan effort. As McCoy says:

When the Cold War came to a close, Washington resumed its advocacy of human rights, ratifying the UN Convention Against Torture in 1994 that banned the infliction of ‘severe’ psychological and physical pain. On the surface, the United States had apparently resolved the tension between its anti-torture principles and its torture practices.

Yet when President William Clinton sent this UN Convention to Congress for ratification in 1994, he included language drafted six years earlier by the Reagan administration—with four detailed diplomatic ‘reservations’ focused on just one word in the convention’s 26-printed pages. That word was “mental.”

Significantly, these intricately-constructed diplomatic reservations re-defined torture, as interpreted by the United States, to exclude sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain—the very techniques the CIA had refined at such great cost. Of equal import, this definition was reproduced verbatim in domestic legislation enacted to give legal force to the UN Convention–first in Section 2340 of the US Federal Code and then in the War Crimes Act of 1996.

Remember that obscure number–Section 2340—for, as we will see, it is the key to unlocking the meaning of the controversial Military Commissions Law enacted by the US Congress just last September.

In effect, Washington had split the UN Convention down the middle, banning physical torture but exempting psychological abuse. By failing to repudiate the CIA’s use of torture, while adopting a UN convention that condemned its practice, the United States left this contradiction buried like a political land mine ready to detonate with such phenomenal force, just 10 years later, in the Abu Ghraib scandal.

McCoy’s article sheds light on something that has puzzled me, which was the brazen attempt by Bush/Cheney to deny the obvious, that what they were doing was torture. They were aided in this effort by a compliant media that treated these statements respectfully and which still avoids using the word torture when talking about the treatment of detainees. It becomes clear that Bush/Cheney and all the apologists in their administration who approved and authorized these torture techniques are depending on the above convoluted reasoning to imply that they satisfied the letter of the law and treaties against torture.

POST SCRIPT: Oh, the horror

The Daily Show shows the awful conditions under which the Swedes live because of their socialist policies.

Part 1:

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The Stockholm Syndrome
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Part 2:

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On torture-19: The long history of US involvement in torture

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

There may be some who think that the revelations of torture that occurred in Guantanamo, Abu Ghraib in Iraq, the Bagram military base in Afghanistan, and the various “black sites” operated by the CIA in countries around the world are aberrations that occurred just recently as a result of the misguided “war on terror” and the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan. They are wrong. Noam Chomsky describes America’s long history of engaging in torture. (See also his longer article, not online, in the June 2009 issue of Z Magazine.)

Over the past 60 years, victims worldwide have endured the CIA’s “torture paradigm,” developed at a cost that reached $1 billion annually, according to historian Alfred McCoy in his book A Question of Torture. He shows how torture methods the CIA developed from the 1950s surfaced with little change in the infamous photos at Iraq’s Abu Ghraib prison. There is no hyperbole in the title of Jennifer Harbury’s penetrating study of the U.S. torture record: Truth, Torture, and the American Way. So it is highly misleading, to say the least, when investigators of the Bush gang’s descent into the global sewers lament that “in waging the war against terrorism, America had lost its way.”

None of this is to say that Bush-Cheney-Rumsfeld et al. did not introduce important innovations. In ordinary American practice, torture was largely farmed out to subsidiaries, not carried out by Americans directly in their own government-established torture chambers. As Allan Nairn, who has carried out some of the most revealing and courageous investigations of torture, points out: “What the Obama [ban on torture] ostensibly knocks off is that small percentage of torture now done by Americans while retaining the overwhelming bulk of the system’s torture, which is done by foreigners under U.S. patronage. Obama could stop backing foreign forces that torture, but he has chosen not to do so.”

Obama did not shut down the practice of torture, Nairn observes, but “merely repositioned it,” restoring it to the American norm, a matter of indifference to the victims. “[H]is is a return to the status quo ante,” writes Nairn, “the torture regime of Ford through Clinton, which, year by year, often produced more U.S.-backed strapped-down agony than was produced during the Bush/Cheney years.”

Most people think of torture methods as involving direct physical ill treatment like pulling out fingernails or burning or beatings. Those are the methods of amateurs. Alfred W. McCoy says that the US government, working with psychologists, studied, developed, and refined torture techniques that did not require crude physical abuse. “During the 1950s as well, two eminent neurologists at Cornell Medical Center working for the CIA found that the KGB’s most devastating torture technique involved, not crude physical beatings, but simply forcing the victim to stand for days at time—while the legs swelled, the skin erupted in suppurating lesions, the kidneys shut down, hallucinations began.”

Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side describes what was written in the 2007 confidential report of the International Committee of the Red Cross, which interviewed detainees:

They described not just standing, but being kept up on their tiptoes with their arms extended out and up over their heads, attached by shackles on their wrists and ankles, for what they described as eight hours at a stretch. During the entire period, they said they were kept stark naked and often cold.

This was even done to a one legged detainee who was forced to stand without his prosthesis. They chained his arms to the ceiling so he could keep his balance.

Another well-known psychologist, Canadian Donald O. Hebb, found that he could produce a state similar to psychosis in people in just 48 hours, without using drugs, hypnosis, or electroshock. All it required was sensory deprivation, just having people continually wear goggles, earmuffs, and gloves. And the people who experienced this were not prisoners who were treated harshly or otherwise made to suffer or were fearful of being harmed. They were college student volunteers at McGill University in Canada, and they sat all the while in comfortable cubicles. And yet, even though they knew they were not in any danger, they quickly broke down mentally.

The CIA codified all these discoveries into a manual and beginning with the 1960s, these torture discoveries were then propagated by the CIA to its allies in all the repressive anti-communist regimes in Asia and Latin America as part of the Cold War, before coming back again to the US in its so-called ‘war on terror’.

Next: The case of Jose Padilla

POST SCRIPT: The new challenge of being white in America

Larry Wilmore of The Daily Show interviews a group of white children about the difficulties they now face as a newly underprivileged group. If the attitudes of these children are close to being representative of children in general, I am much more hopeful about the future.

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White in America – The Children
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On torture-18: And now, executions without even a trial?

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

As I said in a previous post, practicing torture leads to the problem that you cannot then allow people to talk about the treatment they received.

It appears that the Obama administration is now circulating a new proposal to solve that pesky problem by executing people without even a trial, based purely on their guilty pleas, even though those might have been obtained under torture. According to Saturday’s New York Times:

The Obama administration is considering a change in the law for the military commissions at the prison at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, that would clear the way for detainees facing the death penalty to plead guilty without a full trial.

The provision could permit military prosecutors to avoid airing the details of brutal interrogation techniques.

The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges. Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons. In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.

Note the use of the euphemisms ‘brutal interrogation techniques’ and ‘intense interrogations’ which the media uses instead of the word ‘torture’ when it is talking about US actions. It only uses the word torture when those practices are done by other countries.

Imagine what would have been the reaction if Roxana Saberi or Euna Lee or Laura Ling were to be executed without an open trial. But the Times, ever sympathetic to the needs of the political establishment, simply refers to this appalling proposal as a possible way to ‘ease’ the ‘government’s difficult task’.

The article quotes David Glazier, an associate professor at Loyola Law School in Los Angeles who has written about the commission system, as saying: “This unfortunately strikes me as an effort to get rid of the problem in the easiest way possible, which is to have those people plead guilty and presumably be executed. But I think it’s going to lack international credibility.”

So this is where the torture policies have driven us. We throw people into prisons, keep them without charges or trial for years on end, we torture them, and then based on their confessions, we execute them without giving them a chance to give their version of the story.

The original drafters of the US constitution were trying to create a document that they hoped would be a model to other nations of how the rights of government and people would be balanced by providing checks and balances. Their document was flawed (particularly in the way it allowed slavery to continue) but I think it is fair to say that the drafters would be appalled at the level of impunity with which the current government acts in violating the basic human rights of people. We seem to have restored the unilateral and unchecked power of kings, the very thing they sought to oppose.

POST SCRIPT: The case of Lakhdar Boumidienne

Lakhdar Boumedienne is an Algerian and Bosnian citizen who was doing humanitarian work for the Red Crescent Society when he was abducted in Bonia by the US, shipped to Guantanamo, and tortured there for nearly eight years. When the US Supreme Court, in a landmark 5-4 decision, said that the Military Commissions Act of 2006 under which he was being held was unconstitutional because it denied the right of habeas corpus, he was finally given a trial and the district court judge ruled in November 2008 that there was no credible evidence to keep holding him and ordered his release.

He now lives in France with his family. (See Glenn Greenwald for the full story.) You can see an interview with him that Jake Tapper of ABC News conducted.

A much more detailed account of the interview can be read here. In it we are told that in addition to the harsh treatment he received, the letters from his family were never given to him. There is a particularly poignant passage:

Last month, in a tearful ceremony at an airport outside Paris, Boumediene was reunited with his family. His daughters, who were toddlers when he was detained, are 13 and 9 years old.

“I cried, just cried. Because I don’t know my daughters,” he said. “The younger, when I moved from Bosnia to Gitmo, she had 18 months, only 18 months. Now 9 years. Now she’s big. Between 18 months, baby and 9 years, she walking, she’s talking, she play, she’s joking. It’s a big difference.”

It is important to realize that Boumedienne was eventually released only because he was brought to trial and allowed to make his case. Obama’s new proposals of “preventive detention” seeks the authority to keep people like Boumedienne in prison and tortured indefinitely and even executed without trial.

On torture-17: Media double standards

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

I began the series of posts on torture with a partial hypothetical based on the true story of two American journalists Euna Lee and Laura Ling arrested by North Korea. I said that if those journalists were convicted on the basis of confessions obtained using torture, we would be up in arms, even though torture is exactly what the US has been doing to the detainees it has held.

Those two journalists have now been found guilty by a North Korean High Court after a five-day trial and sentenced to 12 years hard labor. The US government and media assumes that the two are innocent (Hillary Clinton describes the charges as “baseless”), except perhaps for accidentally crossing the border into North Korea, and that the sentence was unduly harsh, and that the North Koreans did this just to force the US into some kind of negotiations.

Earlier we had the media spotlight on another American journalist Roxana Saberi who was tried in Iran for espionage and convicted before being released later by an Iranian appeals court. Again, the US government and media saw this trial as purely political, and Saberi received a huge amount of publicity.

Many readers may be surprised to learn that these are not the only recent cases of journalists being arrested by governments. There are others who have been held without charge or trial for much longer periods under much worse conditions, whose plight has been largely ignored by the US media, although they have been publicized elsewhere. The reason is, of course, that these hapless journalists are being held by the US government and this means, of course, they are presumed to be guilty and dangerous and their indefinite detention is to be excused or even justified.

Glenn Greenwald describes some of the cases.

  • Al Jazeera cameraman Sami al-Haj was held in the back hole of Guantanamo for six years without trial, beginning in 2001, before being finally released. Even more disgraceful, even after the American interrogators realized that al-Haj was just a journalist, they then tried to coerce him to spy on Al Jazeera for them.
  • The AP photographer Bilal Hussein was detained by the US for two years without any charges brought against him, after his photographs contradicted US claims.
  • Ibrahim Jassam, a freelance photographer for Reuters, was detained by the US in September 2008.

That’s not all. The Committee to Protect Journalists says:

Hussein’s detention is not an isolated incident. Over the last three years, dozens of journalists—mostly Iraqis—have been detained by U.S. troops, according to CPJ research. While most have been released after short periods, in at least eight cases documented by CPJ Iraqi journalists have been held by U.S. forces for weeks or months without charge or conviction. In one highly publicized case, Abdul Ameer Younis Hussein, a freelance cameraman working for CBS, was detained after being wounded by U.S. military fire as he filmed clashes in Mosul in northern Iraq on April 5, 2005. U.S. military officials claimed footage in his camera led them to suspect Hussein had prior knowledge of attacks on coalition forces. In April 2006, a year after his arrest, Hussein was freed after an Iraqi criminal court, citing a lack of evidence, acquitted him of collaborating with insurgents. (my italics)

As Greenwald says:

In Iran, at least Saberi received the pretense of an actual trial and appeal (one that resulted in her rather rapid release, a mere three weeks after she was convicted), as compared to the journalists put in cages for years by the U.S. Government with no charges of any kind, or as compared to the individuals whom we continue to abduct, transport to Bagram, and insist on the right to imprison indefinitely with no charges of any kind. Who was treated better and more consistently with ostensible Western precepts of justice and press freedoms: Roxana Saberi or Sami al-Haj? Saberi or Bilal Hussein? Saberi or Ibrahim Jassam? Saberi or the Bagram detainees shipped to Afghanistan and held in a dank prison, away from the sight of the entire world, without even a pretense of judicial review, a power the Obama administration continues to insist it possesses?

The London Independent reports on the reason that Saberi was convicted of espionage.

A joyful Roxana Saberi yesterday thanked those who helped win her release as her lawyer revealed his client had been convicted of spying in part because she had a copy of a confidential Iranian report on the war in Iraq.

Ms Saberi, a freelance journalist who was freed on Monday after four months in prison in Tehran, had copied the report “out of curiosity” while she worked as a freelance translator for a powerful body connected to Iran’s ruling clerics, said the lawyer, Saleh Nikbakht.

In fact, when we compare the case of Saberi in Iran with the way the US treats the journalists it arrests, Iran comes out much better. Robert Dreyfuss notes that what Saberi did to get herself arrested was more serious than what was done by many of the journalists under US custody and yet she got a quick trial and was released after a quick appeal. As Dreyfuss says:

Here’s what I wonder: If an Iranian journalist came to the United States, deliberately let his reporter’s credentials expire, took a job working for an important US agency that handles confidential or classified material, and then secretly copied one of those documents out of “curiosity,” do you think he would have been released by an appeals court? Or do you think that he might have received, say, eight years in prison for espionage?

Saberi had confessed to being a US spy while serving 100 days in prison. After her release, she said she made a false confession out of fear. She describes her treatment:

In Evin, the jail in the Tehran suburbs where many political prisoners are held, Saberi endured “severe psychological and mental pressure, although I was not physically tortured.

“The first few days, I was interrogated for several hours, from morning until evening, blindfolded, facing a wall, by up to four men, and threatened … I was in solitary confinement for several days,” Saberi said.

I can well imagine that Saberi was frightened and that her confession was not freely given, even though the conditions she describes pale in comparison to the kinds of torture practices the US is guilty of.

The US government and those in the media who cheer on policies of “preventive detention” and condone and excuse torture have absolutely no standing to complain when other governments do similar things.

POST SCRIPT: A real ticking time bomb

Scott Roeder, the person who has been arrested and charged with killing Dr. George Tiller, told the Associated Press that similar violence has been planned against other abortion providers but refused to provide further details. The news report continues, “It wasn’t clear whether Roeder knew of any impending violence or whether he was simply seeking publicity for his cause. Law enforcement authorities including the Justice Department said they didn’t know whether the threat was credible.”

But there’s a way to find out, isn’t there? We could simply torture him because what we have here is a ‘ticking time bomb’ scenario so beloved by those who use it in hypothetical situations to justify torture.

John Cole who, like me, opposes torture in all circumstances, issues a challenge to evangelical Christians who are more supportive of torture than nonbelievers or mainstream Protestants.

Since there is no doubt that we have a history of anti-abortion domestic terrorism, and since we know that evangelicals already support torture for everyone, when do we get to start waterboarding this guy? Does he have any children whose testicles can be crushed? Will we keep him up for weeks on end in stress positions in extremely cold rooms to get him to break? Beat him? All the right made a very good show of how shocked and appalled they were when this man killed Dr. Tiller, so surely they will not object. So when do we get to start torturing this guy?

This same challenge can be posed to anyone who thinks that torture works and uses the ticking time bomb hypothetical to justify torture. Shouldn’t they be calling for Roeder to be tortured?

On torture-16: Obama’s appalling stances on civil liberties

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

The corrupting effect of condoning torture can be seen in the way that Obama is now advancing the appalling policy of “preventive detention”, allowing the government to hold prisoners without trial indefinitely. This means that the fundamental constitutional protection of habeas corpus has been abandoned by Obama as well, making a mockery of his claim to be teacher and scholar of constitutional law,.

What the Obama administration is doing is trying to create a range of ‘trials’, all designed to keep some people incarcerated forever, even if they cannot be proven guilty. Those whom they think they can prove to be guilty by normal rules of evidence they will try in the regular legal system. Those for whom the evidence may not be sufficient or not normally allowable (because, say, the information was obtained by torture or is hearsay or otherwise inadequate) will be tried in ‘tribunals’ where rules designed to protect the rights of defendants are relaxed and convictions easier to obtain. Those people for whom there is no real evidence or whose torture they do not want revealed to the world will be held indefinitely without trial.

That this is a gross perversion of what we think of as justice should be apparent to anyone. Gone is the quaint presumption that people are innocent until they are proven guilty. Replacing it is a medieval system where the ruler decides peremptorily whether you are guilty or not. Basically, what Obama is creating is a system where his administration first decides whether people are guilty, and then constructs a “legal” system that allows them to create a forum which will ensure that the detainees they have already decided is guilty will be found guilty. There is no other description for this than a ‘show trial’. It is nothing less than the worst kind of legal sham practiced by authoritarian governments. If such trials were conducted by (say) Iran or North Korea or Russia, they would be denounced by the American media as a mockery of justice. But when practiced by the US government, the media actually goes along with it, treating the whole charade as a sensible practice.

Will Bunch points to the really disturbing part of Obama’s recent speech where he outlined this policy of creating parallel trial systems and preventive detention. After first boasting about his familiarity with the principles of the US constitution acquired as both a student and teacher of it, Obama then proceeds to rip that venerable document to shreds:

Now, finally, there remains the question of detainees at Guantanamo who cannot be prosecuted yet who pose a clear danger to the American people. And I have to be honest here — this is the toughest single issue that we will face. We’re going to exhaust every avenue that we have to prosecute those at Guantanamo who pose a danger to our country. But even when this process is complete, there may be a number of people who cannot be prosecuted for past crimes, in some cases because evidence may be tainted, but who nonetheless pose a threat to the security of the United States.

Let me repeat: I am not going to release individuals who endanger the American people. Al Qaeda terrorists and their affiliates are at war with the United States, and those that we capture — like other prisoners of war — must be prevented from attacking us again. Having said that, we must recognize that these detention policies cannot be unbounded. They can’t be based simply on what I or the executive branch decide alone. That’s why my administration has begun to reshape the standards that apply to ensure that they are in line with the rule of law.

But I want to be very clear that our goal is to construct a legitimate legal framework for the remaining Guantanamo detainees that cannot be transferred. Our goal is not to avoid a legitimate legal framework. In our constitutional system, prolonged detention should not be the decision of any one man. If and when we determine that the United States must hold individuals to keep them from carrying out an act of war, we will do so within a system that involves judicial and congressional oversight. (my italics)

When Obama uses the royal “we” in the past paragraph, he is reserving to himself what should be the prerogative of the courts, the right to determine guilt or innocence. So it is clear: the Obama administration will first decide who is guilty and dangerous and then find a way to keep them in prison forever, a policy he describes using the Orwellian phrase “preventive detention”. As Michael Ratner of the Center for Constitutional Rights says:

[Obama] said some people are just too dangerous to let go and that we have to keep them…Though we’d do it differently then Bush. We will set up rules. Well no matter how you repackage Guantanamo, with all kinds of rules on top of it — that is what he is doing, he is re-wrapping a preventive detention scheme and giving it some more due process. In the end, it still comes down to holding people — much like Minority Report or pre-crime stuff — for being dangerous, and that is not something that I think is constitutional or this country should be engaged in.

Obama’s actions in creating this framework of show trials is all of a piece with his backtracking on his promises to quickly close Guantanamo, to quickly end the war in Iraq, and his reluctance to prosecute the war crimes of the Bush administration. While he drags his feet on his promise to close Guantanamo, yet another detainee, a 31-year old man, has committed suicide after being detained without charge or trial since February 2002.

William Blum sums up the problem with Obama:

The problem, I’m increasingly afraid, is that the man doesn’t really believe strongly in anything, certainly not in controversial areas. He learned a long time ago how to take positions that avoid controversy, how to express opinions without clearly and firmly taking sides, how to talk eloquently without actually saying anything, how to leave his listeners’ heads filled with stirring clichés, platitudes, and slogans. And it worked. Oh how it worked! What could happen now, as President of the United States, to induce him to change his style?

I could really feel sorry for Barack Obama — for his administration is plagued and handicapped by a major recession not of his making — if he had a vision that was thus being thwarted. But he has no vision — not any kind of systemic remaking of the economy, producing a more equitable and more honest society; nor a world at peace, beginning with ending America’s perennial wars; no vision of the fantastic things that could be done with the trillions of dollars that would be saved by putting an end to war without end; nor a vision of a world totally rid of torture; nor an America with national health insurance; nor an environment free of capitalist subversion; nor a campaign to control world population … he just looks for what will offend the fewest people. He’s a “whatever works” kind of guy.

I think Blum’s assessment of Obama is largely correct, though I would welcome being proved wrong. Being able to make stirring speeches is a valuable skill. It can make people rise to their better selves and to forget petty concerns. But it can never be a substitute for principled actions. If not backed up by concrete actions, the words will rapidly ring hollow and become a target of ridicule.

POST SCRIPT: Torture excuse chart

In this series of posts, I have painstakingly addressed all the excuses offered by torture apologists. I discovered that someone has organized many of them into a handy chart.

On torture-15: Media complicity in secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

One of the best ways to ensure good government is to have as much transparency as possible. When people are allowed to work behind closed doors with the promise of secrecy, abuses inevitably occur. The Bush/Cheney administration was highly secretive and unfortunately, when it comes to things like torture, the “extraordinary renditions” of prisoners (i.e., sending them to other countries that practice torture), and illegal wiretapping, the Obama administration seems to be also trying to keep as many things secret as possible. In fact, on some matters such as illegal wiretapping, Obama is making even more sweeping claims of presidential authority to keep secrets than Bush/Cheney did.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

[C]andidate Obama unambiguously vowed to his supporters that he would work to ensure “full accountability” for “past offenses” in surveillance lawbreaking. President Obama, however, has now become the prime impediment to precisely that accountability, repeatedly engaging in extraordinary legal maneuvers to ensure that “past offenses” — both in the surveillance and torture/rendition realm — remain secret and forever immunized from judicial review. Put another way, Obama has repeatedly done the exact opposite of what he vowed he would do: rather than “seek full accountability for past offenses,” he has been working feverishly to block such accountability, by embracing the same radical Bush/Cheney views and rhetoric regarding presidential secrecy powers that caused so much controversy and anger for the last several years.

This Raw Story report shows the extremes to which Obama is willing to go: “For the first time, the Obama Administration’s brief contends that government agencies cannot be sued for wiretapping American citizens even if there was intentional violation of US law. They maintain that the government can only be sued if the wiretaps involve “willful disclosure” — a higher legal bar.”

Dahlia Lithwick demolishes all the arguments for keeping secrets that are used to justify the Obama administration’s actions, while Greenwald gives a summary of the views of all the people who are excoriating the abuses of the state secrets privilege by the Obama administration.

To see what extreme extents this penchant for secrecy is being taken by Obama, read the extraordinary case of what happened to Clive Stafford Smith, the lawyer for Binyam Mohamed (whose case was discussed earlier). Smith wrote a memo to President Obama about Mohamed’s torture case. As required, he had to first send it to the Privilege Review Team, a secret tribunal of Pentagon officials that monitors all the communications of lawyers representing Guantanamo prisoners.

The PRT returned the memo to Smith with everything in it redacted and did not forward the concerns raised to Obama. (See the letter and redacted memo here). So Smith wrote directly to Obama and sent along the redacted memo, showing Obama how he was being denied access to information by the people below him, even though he was their superior officer. Unbelievably, Smith is now being charged with violating official secrecy merely for sending Obama the redacted memo, which is entirely blacked out. In other words, he is being charged for alerting the president that he was not getting the full story and for this act he faces a possible six months in prison if convicted. So much for Obama’s promise of increased transparency.

While some courts have have dealt a setback to the government’s attempts to keep secrets, the Obama administration seems likely to doggedly continue to fight to keep as much as possible under wraps.

In this they are aided and abetted by the media. You would think that the media, of all institutions, would vigorously fight any attempt by the government to keep secrets, to be in the forefront in championing openness. What is extraordinary is that some establishment journalists have become the strongest advocates for allowing the government to keep secrets, showing how much they have become co-opted by the government as an accomplice.

Richard Cohen wrote of the Lewis Libby prosecution: “it is often best to keep the lights off.” ABC News’s Peggy Noonan said this week of torture investigations: ‘some things in life need to be mysterious. Sometimes you need to just keep walking.” The Washington Post’s David Ignatius, condemning Obama for releasing the OLC memos [i.e. the infamous Jay Bybee and John Yoo memos authorizing the use of torture], warned: “the country is fighting a war, and it needs to take care that the sunlight of exposure doesn’t blind its shadow warriors.” And the favorite mantra of media stars and Beltway mavens everywhere — Look Forward, Not Backwards — is nothing but a plea that extreme government crimes remain concealed and unexamined.

This remains the single most notable and revealing fact of American political life: that (with some very important exceptions) those most devoted to maintaining and advocating government secrecy is our journalist class, of all people. It would be as if the leading proponents of cigarette smoking were physicians, or those most vocally touting the virtues of illiteracy were school teachers. Nothing proves the true function of these media stars as government spokespeople more than their eagerness to shield government actions from examination and demand that government criminality not be punished.

As another example of media collusion with establishment power, the Bush administration used the media, especially the extraordinarily gullible Brian Ross of ABC News to advance the false story that torture worked quickly and efficiently to reveal vital information. The Bush White House seemed to look on Ross as the ‘go to’ guy when they wanted to disseminate false information to the public.

The arguments that have been put forward to excuse and justify those who tortured and authorized torture are so pathetic that they hardly need refuting. The fact that they are given any credibility at all is because our media is so slavishly faithful to the establishment, so complicit in their crimes, that they eagerly seek to find justifications for even the most horrific actions, and allow these pseudo-arguments to be repeatedly advanced without rebuttal.

As Mark Danner writes in the New York Review of Books:

It is a testament as much to the peculiarities of the American press—to its “stenographic function” and its institutional unwillingness to report as fact anything disputed, however implausibly, by a high official—that the former vice-president’s insistence that these interrogations were undertaken “legally” and “in accordance with our constitutional practices and principles” continues to be reported without contradiction, and that President Bush’s oft-repeated assertion that “the United States does not torture” is still respectfully quoted and, in many quarters, taken seriously. That they are so reported is a political fact, and a powerful one. It makes it possible to contend that, however adamant the arguments of the lawyers “on either side,” the very fact of their disagreement makes the legality of these procedures a matter of partisan political allegiance, not of law.

The facts are clear: Torture is illegal and morally despicable under all circumstances. The US government authorized and committed acts of torture.

The consequences should also be clear: Those who authorized and committed torture should be investigated and prosecuted.

The fact that there is a ‘debate’ at all on this very clear issue is a sign of how debased our commitment to the rule of law has become, and the sorry role that the media has played in bringing it to that state.

POST SCRIPT: Mark Danner on how the press is obfuscating the torture issue

On torture-14: Torture and secrecy

(For previous posts on torture, see here.)

It is not that torture never works but the history of torture suggests that in order to get a few bits of useful information, you have to throw a wide net for torture victims. In the cover story of the October 2006 issue of The Progressive magazine, Alfred W. McCoy, professor of history at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and author of A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror dissects The Myth of the Ticking Time Bomb and points to a few cases in Vietnam and Algeria where mass torturing has worked. “Major success from limited, surgical torture is a fable, a fiction. But mass torture of thousands of suspects, some guilty, most innocent, can produce some useful intelligence.”

But indiscriminate and widespread torturing of people is presumably not where any civilized society wants to go, though given how easily Americans can be frightened by vague threats, it would not surprise me if people were willing to countenance even that.

Once torturers have brutally treated someone, they become reluctant to let the victims freely speak about their treatment since such revelations rebounds badly on them. You cannot bring them to an open trial where they can tell the judge and the public how they were treated. Torture inevitably leads to excessive secrecy or even the killing of victims so they can never speak about their treatment. So secrecy and torture practices go hand in hand and the promise of secrecy creates the temptation for perpetrating even greater abuses.

Glenn Greenwald points out how the Bush administration tried to make a deal with two Gunantanamo detainees (British resident Binyam Mohamed and Australian citizen David Hicks) that they would release them only if they kept secret about the treatment they had received. Mohamed refused the deal and his detention was continued. So the US government was essentially using torture and detention as weapons, not to gain information but to gag their prisoners to prevent them speaking about their torture and detention.

Binyam Mohammed’s story gets even worse. He was eventually sent back to England in February after the charge that he aided Jose Padilla fell apart. Mohammed had spent six years in US custody and claimed he was tortured at the hands of the US in Pakistan, Morocco, and Afghanistan, the countries being ones that he had been ‘renditioned” to. After his release, a British High Court initially ruled that there was sufficient evidence that he had been tortured and that he was entitled to seek documentary evidence that the British government had in its possession about his treatment. But it later reversed itself because the Obama administration had threatened to withhold security cooperation with the UK if the documents were released.

As Glenn Greenwald says:

Just think how despicable that threat is: if your court describes the torture to which one of your residents was subjected while in U.S. custody, we will withhold information from you that could enable you to break up terrorist plots aimed at your citizens.

The principal issue here is that the Obama administration is not merely failing to investigate (let alone prosecute) acts of high-level criminality by U.S. government officials. Far worse, ever since he was inaugurated, Obama has engaged in one extraordinary legal maneuver after the next to block American courts from ruling on the legality of those actions. He has now extended his Bush-protecting conduct to the international realm, as he re-iterates Bush’s threats that we will purposely leave British citizens more vulnerable to terrorist attacks if their courts rule that, under their laws, their citizens are entitled to know what was done to Binyam Mohamed.

Clive Stafford Smith, an attorney for Mr. Mohamed, said that he was disappointed with what Obama had done.

“What they are doing is twisting the arm of the British to keep evidence of torture committed by American officials secret,” said Mr. Smith, a U.S. citizen. “I had high hopes for the Obama administration. I voted for the guy, and one hopes the new administration would not continue to cover up evidence of criminal activity.”

The Metropolitan Police of London is investigating whether Mr. Mohamed was tortured when he was in American custody.

Mr. Smith said that by attempting to keep evidence of Mr. Mohamed’s “abuse” secret, the U.S. official who communicated the threats to the British Foreign Office was in breach of British law, specifically the International Criminal Court Act of 2001.

“The U.S. is committing a criminal offense in Britain by seeking to conceal this information. What the Obama administration did is not just ill-advised, it is illegal,” he said.

But despite these attempts at suppression of his torture, truly gruesome details are emerging about some of the methods used on Binyam Mohamed that make even waterboarding look tame by comparison, “very far down the list of things they did.” These include such things as the slicing of his genitals with a scalpel,

This is what allowing torture under any circumstances leads to. It is the slipperiest of slippery slopes. One step on it, and you rapidly end up in a cesspool, committing the most odious of acts.

POST SCRIPT: Gay marriage loophole

New Hampshire yesterday became the sixth and latest state to pass a law allowing gay marriage, continuing the inevitable march towards full equality. But from the Onion News Network we learn that gays are willing do anything to get married.

Conservatives Warn Quick Sex Change Only Barrier Between Gays, Marriage

Okie from Muskogee and Hardware Wars

In 1969 country and western singer Merle Haggard released a song called Okie from Muskogee which was a huge hit. Part of its appeal was the ambiguity of its lyrics. Released at the height of the Vietnam war protests with the country deeply divided, widespread campus unrest, and protests in the streets, some saw the song as a repudiation of the hippie, drug using, counterculture movement and an upholding of so-called traditional values, while others saw it as poking fun (in a sly, tongue-in-cheek way) of narrow minded, small town, flag-waving patriotism.

As an example of the song’s ambiguity, the term ‘white lightning’ can be taken at face value but is also a euphemism for illegal home-brewed moonshine liquor, popular in some rural areas. So is Haggard praising the simple values of small town life or taking a dig at how people there really get their kicks?

Even after all these years, I still cannot decide which characterization of the song is true, which is a sign that Haggard is a clever songwriter. Whatever its politics, it is still a great song. You can see it performed here and judge for yourself.

Part of my reason for showing the clip is its tenuous connection with what I originally planned this post about. When the first Star Wars film came out in 1977, it caused a sensation. That same year at another film I saw a short parody called Hardware Wars, that was constructed as a mock trailer of the original film, a deliberately cheesy, low-budget production that used ordinary household appliances in place of futuristic technology.

I am not sure if current viewers will find Hardware Wars as funny as the audience in the theater did when we first saw it and hooted with laughter, since some of the allusions are dated, and people may not remember the details of the original film either. For example, to fully appreciate the parody of the famous bar scene with its weird assortment of aliens, you have to recall that scene as well as know the first line of the chorus of Okie from Muskogee (“I am just an Okie from Muskogee/A place where even squares can have a ball.”), which was still hugely popular.

Anyway, here it is:

Part 1:

Part 2:

POST SCRIPT: Yet more parody

Kinky Friedman sings his own version of Haggard’s song.