“Please lie to us and keep us in the dark!”

Glenn Greenwald has another great article on the strange desire of much of the mainstream US media and its public to be kept in the dark by their government, and their resulting hostility to the WikiLeaks release for telling them the truth.

It is pathetic to see how desperate the New York Times is to be viewed with approval by the US government that they treat the White House as if it were the editor-in-chief of the newspaper. It is no wonder that WikiLeaks did not give them the original documents this time around.

WikiLeaks takes on the oligarchy

In a fascinating interview, WikiLeaks editor Julian Assange tells Andy Greenberg of Forbes that early next year, WikiLeaks will release documents that will reveal the corrupt practices of a major US bank.

Early next year, Julian Assange says, a major American bank will suddenly find itself turned inside out. Tens of thousands of its internal documents will be exposed on Wikileaks.org with no polite requests for executives’ response or other forewarnings. The data dump will lay bare the finance firm’s secrets on the Web for every customer, every competitor, every regulator to examine and pass judgment on.

Sitting for a rare interview in a London garden flat on a rainy November day, he compares what he is ready to unleash to the damning e-mails that poured out of the Enron trial: a comprehensive vivisection of corporate bad behavior. “You could call it the ecosystem of corruption,” he says, refusing to characterize the coming release in more detail. “But it’s also all the regular decision making that turns a blind eye to and supports unethical practices: the oversight that’s not done, the priorities of executives, how they think they’re fulfilling their own self-interest.”

This is serious. It is one thing to challenge the US and other governments. They are merely the second tier of global leadership. Although it has targeted big business before, the oligarchy in the US, especially the financial sector, is the top tier and they will not like being in the crosshairs of WikiLeaks. You can be sure that they will tell their clients (Obama, the Democratic and Republican leaderships, and the corporate US media) to take whatever action is necessary to thwart WikiLeaks’s efforts.

The article also has a great deal of interesting information on plans for a huge growth in WikiLeaks-type services all over the world.

On free will-14: Misuse of the insanity defense

(For previous posts in this series, see here.)

Many people are suspicious of the insanity defense, suspecting that it is abused by unscrupulous criminals and their lawyers. The fact that psychiatrists and other experts can be found to argue both sides of the case adds weight to the suspicion that there is no objective basis to many of the claims of insanity.

This problem arose when the grounds for the insanity defense was loosened from the strict M’Naghten rule. In a 1954 court decision Durham vs. United States, a US Appeals Court extended the reach of the insanity defense beyond cognitive incapacity and said that “The rule we now hold is simply that the accused is not criminally responsible if his unlawful act was the product of mental disease or mental defect.” (Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate, p. 184) As a result of the Durham precedent, there was a proliferation of expert testimony on both sides to argue the question of whether the accused did in fact have a mental disease or defect and whether the act that was committed was the product of that defective mental state, and thus not truly ‘free’.

The Durham standard is grounded in the idea of free will and assumes that in general everyone has free will to choose between right and wrong but for some people their brain defects prevent them from being able to make such choices. If it can be shown that someone’s actions are due to compulsions beyond their control, then they should not be held responsible for their actions since their will was not free. For example, lawyers in defense cases may sometimes concede that their clients did commit the crime and were aware that it was wrong (thus failing to meet the M’Naghten threshold), but they should not be held responsible because the ultimate cause of their action lay in childhood abuse or addiction to drugs or alcohol or violence in the media or rock music or pornography or the pressures of society at large, resulting in them having a defective mental state. Since it was this defective mental state that caused them to act in this way, it is argued that they were not acting freely and thus should not be held responsible for their actions.

One consequence of the understanding that there is no such thing as free will and that the purpose of punishment is deterrence and not moral judgment is that mental ‘defects’ by themselves (whatever their cause) are not sufficient to absolve people of responsibility for their actions, because every criminal act is always due to that person’s brain being different from the norm, and thus defective in some way. As Pinker says (p. 184), “Unless one believes that ordinary acts are chosen by a ghost in the machine, all acts are products of cognitive and emotional systems in the brain. Criminal acts are relatively rare – if everyone in a defendant’s shoes acted as he did, the law against what he did would be repealed – so heinous acts will often be products of a brain system that is in some way different from the norm, and the behavior can be construed as “a product of mental disease or mental defect:’” Hence the mere fact of a brain defect being the cause of an act should not be a defense.

The problem with the Durham rule is that, as a result of belief in free will, it mixes up explanation with exculpation. If we give up on the idea of free will, the legal process actually gets simpler. As Anthony Cashmore says, “psychiatrists and other experts on human behavior should be eliminated from the initial judicial proceedings—the role of the jury would be to simply determine whether or not the defendant was guilty of committing the crime; the mental state of the defendant would play no part in this decision. However, if a defendant were found guilty, then a court-appointed panel of experts would play a role in advising on matters of punishment and treatment.” Pinker adds:

And this explains why the usual exemptions from responsibility should not be granted to all males or all abuse victims or all of humanity, even when we think we can explain what led them to act as they did. The explanations may help us understand the parts of the brain that made a behavior tempting, but they say nothing about the other parts of the brain (primarily in the prefrontal cortex) that could have inhibited the behavior by anticipating how the community would respond to it. We are that community, and our major lever of influence consists in appealing to that inhibitory brain system. Why should we discard our lever on the system for inhibition just because we are coming to understand the system for temptation? If you believe we shouldn’t, that is enough to hold people responsible for their actions – without appealing to a will, a soul, a self, or any other ghost in the machine. (p. 183)

When we punish people for crimes, it should be solely for the purpose of deterring them and others from committing those same crimes in the future. The idea of punishment as a deterrent to crime makes sense even in the absence of free will but to be effective as such, punishments must be applied consistently. As Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said (Pinker, p. 181), “If I were having a philosophical talk with a man I was going to have hanged (or electrocuted) I should say, ‘I don’t doubt that your act was inevitable for you but to make it more avoidable by others we propose to sacrifice you to the common good. You may regard yourself as a soldier dying for your country if you like. But the law must keep its promises.’ ” Note that while this example deals with capital punishment (which I oppose), the general sentiment of punishment as a deterrence applies to any form of it.

So giving up on the idea of free will, rather than making crimes less punishable as people fear, actually makes it harder to escape punishment because it applies it more uniformly and consistently. “The devil (or god) made me do it” would not be a defense unless the perpetrator’s brain was such that he or she did not know the difference between right and wrong.

So what would we do with people who commit crimes but who, under the M’Naghten rule, are deemed to have a cognitive capacity that is so impaired that they cannot judge the difference between right and wrong and so the sole purpose of punishment, that of deterrence, will not work? “Even for those who are completely undeterrable, because of frontal-lobe damage, genes for psychopathy, or any other putative cause, we do not have to allow lawyers to loose them on the rest of us. We already have a mechanism for those likely to harm themselves or others but who do not respond to the carrots and sticks of the criminal justice system: involuntary civil commitment, in which we trade off some guarantees of civil liberties against the security of being protected from likely predators.” (Pinker, p. 185)

In the next post in this series, I will look at the broader implications for the lack of free will. But for the moment, the following clip has an interesting discussion involving cognitive scientists and lawyers on the implications of neuroscience and the new understanding of the lack of free will for the law (via Machines Like Us).

The brutal torturing of an innocent man

I am surprised that some are treating the latest WikiLeaks documents as containing mere gossip. It is always a mistake to listen to what the mainstream US media analysts say because they seek to minimize US culpability in order to preserve their access. It is far too early to say what all the documents reveal and it will have to await the slow examination by people who seek the truth and not to protect governments. As these independent analysts start to pore over them, new revelations will emerge.

Scott Horton discusses one such cable that reveals how the US government put pressure on Germany to help cover up the barbaric treatment meted out to Khaled El-Masri, a German grocer who, because of mistaken identity, was abducted and tortured by the CIA.

Over the Christmas-New Year’s holiday in 2003, Khaled El-Masri traveled by bus to Skopje, Macedonia. There he was apprehended by border guards who noted the similarity of his name to that of Khalid al-Masri, an Al Qaeda agent linked to the Hamburg cell where the 9/11 attacks were plotted. Despite El-Masri’s protests that he was not al-Masri, he was beaten, stripped naked, shot full of drugs, given an enema and a diaper, and flown first to Baghdad and then to the notorious “salt pit,” the CIA’s secret interrogation facility in Afghanistan. At the salt pit, he was repeatedly beaten, drugged, and subjected to a strange food regime that he supposed was part of an experiment that his captors were performing on him. Throughout this time, El-Masri insisted that he had been falsely imprisoned, and the CIA slowly established that he was who he claimed to be. Over many further weeks of bickering over what to do, a number of CIA figures apparently argued that, though innocent, the best course was to continue to hold him incommunicado because he “knew too much.”

Thanks to Wikileaks, the names of the agents who tortured him are now known and they can face prosecution (not in the US of course, which excuses and protects its torturers) if they happen to go a country that has independent, human-rights respecting prosecutors, a species that seems to have gone extinct here.

Freezing the pay of federal workers

President Obama is proposing a two-year freeze on the salaries of all civilian federal employees. This is a purely symbolic gesture that will do little to address the deficit, although it will hurt the people at the receiving end of the freeze. He of course panders to the military by exempting them from the freeze. When this move is coupled with Obama’s inevitable capitulation on extending the tax breaks for the wealthy (which actually does impact the deficit considerably) it will just add to the overwhelming evidence that both parties exist to serve the oligarchy.

It looks like Obama has given up even pretending that he cares about anyone other than the rich.

Leslie Nielsen (1926-2010)

The first three decades of his career were as a serious actor until his appearance in the zany Airplane! (along with other serious actors such as Lloyd Bridges, Robert Stack and Peter Graves all playing against type) gave him a second career as a comic whose deadpan delivery made his slapstick so much funnier, putting him in a class with the great Peter Sellers.

Thanks, Leslie, for giving all of us so much innocent pleasure.

More on the latest WikiLeaks document dump

One of the things that I find amusing about the reaction of the US government to the latest WikiLeaks release is its outrage that its private communications have been expropriated. How dare people read what Washington and its ambassadors abroad say to each other! This is rich coming from a government whose massive eavesdropping on everybody’s private lives and communications without legal warrant is the least of its assaults on individual liberties and privacy. Those who justify these actions by saying that “If you have done nothing wrong, then you should have nothing to hide” should apply that rule to everyone.

Here are the some sources for the WIkiLeaks documents and analysis:

The Guardian
Der Spiegel

The always readable Justin Raimondo comments on the leaks.

An interesting sidelight is that WikiLeaks did not give the source documents to the New York Times this time. They had to get it from the Guardian. This is not surprising since the NYT is so subservient to the US government and went out of its way to smear Assange and disparage WikiLeaks. What a comedown from its heyday of the Pentagon Papers as the vehicle of choice for leakers. It now has to beg others to avoid getting scooped.