Why defending habeus corpus is essential

On November 9, the British parliament rejected Prime Minister Tony Blair’s attempt to detain terrorism suspects without charge for up to 90 days, although they were willing to make the limit 28 days. It was Blair’s first defeat and shows how nervous the British MPs are about diluting the protections of habeus corpus.

For those of you not aware of the origins of habeus corpus, it was a law passed by the British parliament in 1679, under pressure from the public, to limit the indefinite detention of people by the King’s officials. Habeus corpus is a writ “ordering that a prisoner be brought to the court so it can be determined whether or not he is being imprisoned lawfully.” It was designed as a countermeasure to the tyranny of despots.

As Paul Craig Roberts (former associate editor of the Wall Street Journal and a former assistant secretary of the U.S. Treasury during the Reagan administration) points out: “Habeas corpus is essential to political opposition and the rise and maintenance of democracy. Without habeas corpus, a government can simply detain its opponents. Nothing is more conducive to one party rule than the suspension of habeas corpus.”

And yet, he points out, on November 10, the very next day after that British vote, the US Senate voted 49 to 42 to add an amendment to a defense bill that will overturn the US Supreme Court’s 2004 ruling that permits Guantanamo detainees to challenge their detentions. The defense bill itself comes up for a vote soon.

Says Roberts:

According to the Washington Post (Nov. 11), there are 750 detainees at Guantanamo. These people have been held for 3 or 4 years. If the Bush administration had any evidence against them, it would be a simple matter to file charges.

But the Bush administration does not have any evidence against them. Most of the detainees are innocent travelers and Arab businessmen who [were] captured by warlords and armed gangs and sold to the Americans who offered payments for “terrorists.”

The reason so many of them have been tortured is that the Bush administration has no evidence against them and is relying on pain and the hopelessness of indefinite detention to induce self-incrimination. The Bush administration is desperate to produce some “terrorists.”

Roberts then asks: “What has become of the American people that they permit the despicable practices of tyrants to be practiced in their name?”

Good question. In most countries that have habeus corpus protections, they can still be suspended in times of national emergency. But are we in a state of emergency now? Hardly, despite the present administration’s attempts to keep everyone in a state of permanent panic and fear using anything at hand such as color-coded alerts and bird flu alarms. But panic and fear needs to be created so that people will acquiesce in the gutting of their fundamental rights and liberties.

When you lose habeus corpus, you have become, in effect, a police state where people can be deprived of their liberty without recourse to the law. Most people do not pay much attention to it because they feel that, as law abiding citizens minding their own business, they have no fear of arbitrary arrest and detention. It is tempting to think that only the guilty need fear such treatment and that the rest of us are immune and that therefore we can ignore this loss.

But this gives too much credit to the accuracy and efficiency of the law enforcement authorities. Those bodies can make mistakes and names and data can get mixed up, resulting in completely innocent people being suddenly sucked into places completely alien to them, where the normal rules of society that we count on to protect us no longer apply. In addition, all that your personal enemies have to do is to whisper to the authorities that you are a threat and there is nothing to prevent you from being hauled away in the middle of the night and never being heard from again. It is a great way to get the state involved in settling private grievances and vendettas, as people living in police states have found out. Once the authorities have arrested someone without any basis, even if they discover their error, there is a temptation to keep holding them in isolation because once innocent people are released they can embarrass the authorities about the facts of their false arrest and detention.

Take, for example, this article in yesterday’s Washington Post by P. Sabin Willett, a lawyer who represents Guantanamo detainees on a pro-bono basis, as he pondered the US Senate vote to remove the habeus corpus protections:

I wished the senators could meet my client Adel.

Adel is innocent. I don’t mean he claims to be. I mean the military says so. It held a secret tribunal and ruled that he is not al Qaeda, not Taliban, not a terrorist. The whole thing was a mistake: The Pentagon paid $5,000 to a bounty hunter, and it got taken.

The military people reached this conclusion, and they wrote it down on a memo, and then they classified the memo and Adel went from the hearing room back to his prison cell. He is a prisoner today, eight months later. And these facts would still be a secret but for one thing: habeas corpus.

Only habeas corpus got Adel a chance to tell a federal judge what had happened. Only habeas corpus revealed that it wasn’t just Adel who was innocent — it was Abu Bakker and Ahmet and Ayoub and Zakerjain and Sadiq — all Guantanamo “terrorists” whom the military has found innocent…

Adel lives in a small fenced compound 8,000 miles from his home and family…He has no visitors save his lawyers. He has no news in his native language, Uighur. He cannot speak to his wife, his children, his parents. When I first met him on July 15, in a grim place they call Camp Echo, his leg was chained to the floor. I brought photographs of his children to another visit, but I had to take them away again. They were “contraband,” and he was forbidden to receive them from me…

Mistakes are made: There will always be Adels. That’s where courts come in. They are slow, but they are not beholden to the defense secretary, and in the end they get it right. They know the good guys from the bad guys. Take away the courts and everyone’s a bad guy.

The secretary of defense chained Adel, took him to Cuba, imprisoned him and sends teams of lawyers to fight any effort to get his case heard. Now the Senate has voted to lock down his only hope, the courts, and to throw away the key forever.

Adel’s case ilustrates why habeus corpus matters. As long as it is there, people cannot just ‘disappear.’ It is the one provision in the law on which all the other freedoms rest. The knowledge that we have the right to be speedily brought before a magistrate, to be seen in public, to be told of the charges against us, and to tell our side of the story to someone who is not our captor, provides us with at least some safeguard against arbitrary arrest and torture. And this is why governments always try to take habeus corpus away, so that they are free to do whatever they want to whomever they want.

The right of habeus corpus should be guarded zealously. We should be really concerned that no less a body than the US Senate is willing to give it away so freely.

POST SCRIPT: Stupid or Lying?

Once again, cartoonist Tom Tomorrow asks the important questions.

How war brutalizes all of us – 3: The horror of Fallujah

A video has emerged of the battle of Fallujah, initiated just after the US elections in 2004, showing the destruction that was wreaked there. This documentary, which lasts about 30 minutes, is in English and was produced by a major Italian broadcasting network called RAI. It interviews former US soldiers who had been involved in the battle, journalists, people in and from Fallujah, and a British parliamentarian who quit in disgust at the British government’s complicity in the Iraq war.
[Read more…]

How war brutalizes all of us – 2

In July 1983, during the week of mob rule in Sri Lanka triggered by the killing of 13 government soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas, a large number of Tamil prisoners in one of the government jails were brutally murdered by their fellow inmates in ways that are too gruesome and harrowing to describe here. Since the Tamil prisoners were suspected of being separatist rebels, they had been held in a separate section of the prison from the Sinhala prisoners who had murdered them, so the question naturally arose as to how these this atrocity could have been committed.

The ‘official’ story put out by the government was that the Sinhala prisoners had overcome their guards, taken their keys, released themselves, obtained various weapons, gained access to the Tamil prisoners, murdered them, and then returned to their own cells voluntarily.

This story was so preposterous that no thinking person would give it any credence. It was obvious that there had to be collusion between the prison authorities and the Sinhala prisoners to kill the Tamil prisoners as an act of revenge for the killing of the Sinhala soldiers by Tamil separatist guerillas.

What was appalling to me at the time was the readiness of so many people whom I knew well (friends, relatives, colleagues) to accept this official story at face value. Even if they doubted the story, they condoned the murders in other ways, saying that it was just as well that the prisoners had died since they were probably bad people and guilty of other crimes and that society was well rid of them. I remember being sickened by such sentiments, more so because they were being uttered by people whom I thought I knew well and who I thought would share my horror at what was, essentially, government-sanctioned murder.

This is how war brutalizes all of us and not just the soldiers who fight them. We end up as apologists for any and all actions taken by ‘our’ side, first the soldiers and then for their superiors all the way up the chain of command. We start looking at and judging things, not from basic principles of law and human rights and humane behavior, but by seeing who did the actions. If they were done by ‘our’ side, we find reasons to excuse them. If they were done by the ‘enemy’, we condemn them.

In the previous post, I discussed the case of prisoner abuse and torture and murder that is now going on as part of the so-called ‘war on terror.’ Some day people will look back at our time and wonder what kind of people we were to allow this kind behavior to be done in our name. They will ask what kind of people we were to let the government set up secret camps in foreign countries where people could be held without trial indefinitely, without contact with the outside world or lawyers or family, and where they could be tortured and killed and ‘disappear.’

These things have happened in the past and history has never looked kindly at those episodes. We wonder now how the people in those countries then could have permitted such acts on other human beings. Now we know how this can happen, because that process of gaining public acceptance for acts that would be considered barbaric if done by others is unfolding before our eyes. But we will see it if only we care to look.

The first thing governments do to get the public to acquiesce in such acts is to instill deep fear in people by making them think that they are being stalked and attacked by dark and shadowy forces that could be secretly living among them. After having frightened the public, they say that the government has to resort to all these police-state measures in order to protect the public from attacks by this enemy. It is argued that to insist on due process is to shackle the government in its efforts and that those people who try to uphold the principles of law are in effect aiding the terrorists. And this strategy seems to work, making a prophet out of Nazi reichmarshall Hermann Goering who said that any people in any country can always be made to support any war that the government wants to fight.

[T]he people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked, and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same in any country.” (Hermann Goering to Gustave Gilbert, author of “Nuremberg Diary”(Farrar, Straus and Company, 1947, pp. 278-279.)

Since most people do not like to think that ‘our’ side is capable of doing anything bad, we tend to try and find excuses and justifications for the actions of those on ‘our’ side. The government prejudges people by using language describing them as ‘terrorists’ and ‘evildoers,’ so that people overlook the fact that very often no evidence had been brought against such people and that for all we know, they may be just as innocent as you or I. For example, in the White House press briefing on November 9, Press Secretary Scott McLellan said “Under our system, there is a presumption of innocence.” This is an admirable sentiment but here he was referring to questions raised about the indictment and possible pardon of Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff Lewis Libby. But are we committed to applying the presumption of innocence to everyone? Or just to well connected and influential people?

We are at that stage now where we have to make choices. Do we wish to live in a nation of laws where people are presumed innocent until proven guilty, where we do not have to fear being dragged from our homes in the middle of the night and taken to locations where no one has access to us and possibly tortured? Do we want to preserve the constitutional and due process laws that have been won with such difficulty and that protect the lives and freedoms and ideals that are articulated so clearly in the opening paragraphs of the Declaration of Independence and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or are we going to docilely surrender them and live in a nation like Argentina during its ‘dirty war’ where secret prisons, military tribunals, torture, and the disappearance in the night of people are routine events?

That we have to even pose such questions is an indication of how brutalized and compromised we all have become by war.

POST SCRIPT 1: Anything goes, as long as it can be kept secret

A curious footnote to this story of secret prison camps in the above posting. The Republican leaders of the Senate and House are furious, not that such secret prisons were created, which would be what outrages sane people, but that the news of their existence was made public. Senator Frist further goes on to say that he is “not concerned about what goes on” behind the prison walls. Have these people no sense of decency left? Don’t they even pretend to uphold humane behavior. And he is a doctor, swearing to do no harm?

But just afterwards, Senator Trent Lott said that the camps were discussed by the Senate Republicans at a meeting with Vice President Cheney the day before the news story. See here for a CNN report.

POST SCRIPT 2: Please support Antiwar.com

One of the best sources for news is the website Antiwar.com. I find this site to be an invaluable source of news and commentary from a wide spectrum of sources and opinions. It is a refreshingly non-partisan site and has taken a consistent antiwar stance, irrespective of which US administration is in power, since its inception in 1995. In order to preserve their independence they do not take ads and hence are dependent on voluntary contributions. They are currently having a fund drive. If you value the site, I encourage you to support it.

How war brutalizes all of us

In April 1971, there was an attempt to violently overthrow the elected government of Sri Lanka. The attempt was planned in secret by disaffected group of young people called the JVP who organized a militia and launched a surprise attack. The government was initially taken off balance but recovered and managed to crush the uprising using considerable force and brutality. This resulted in the rebel movement going underground, and for the next two decades the JVP carried out further surprise isolated attacks that resulted in the deaths of large numbers of people, including many prominent politicians.

The government responded to this steady stream of violence by giving its security forces considerable freedom to deal with suspected rebels. A college friend of mine told me of his experience when he went to a remote area to visit a high school friend of his who had enrolled in the police force after he left high school. While chatting with his friend in the police station, a person was brought in who was suspected of being with the insurgency. To my friend’s horror, his former classmate casually broke off their friendly conversation and started assaulting the prisoner, both to try and get information from him and to deter him from any future action that he might be contemplating. The question of establishing guilt in a court of law did not come up. After the assault was over, my friend’s classmate came back and resumed the conversation, almost as if nothing had happened. My friend was shocked at the abrupt switches in behavior.

I mention this story to illustrate a point that I think many of us miss, that wars degrade all of us. At some level of our consciousness we know that in the process of creating an army, we are essentially training people to become cold-blooded killers who can and will unquestioningly shoot and bomb people who may be just like them, but just happen to be citizens of another country or fighting on the other side. The only way that you can get people to overcome their natural abhorrence at taking some one else’s life is to both dehumanize them and to get them to view the enemy as less than human. The first half of Stanley Kubrick’s film Full Metal Jacket, which deals entirely with the training that new Marine recruits get, shows how the military carries out this process of taking ordinary young people and making them into people who can be ordered to kill another human being. I am told that the recently released Jarhead tells a similar story.

But this process of dehumanization does not stop with just the soldiers or just with the battlefield. Once people are taught to tolerate this way of thinking, it inevitably spreads. It is almost impossible to contain the ruthless mentality that is desired for the battlefield to just that venue. The abuse of prisoners in Abu Ghraib (warning: disturbing images) and Guantanamo and Afghanistan are the inevitable consequence of creating this mindset.

There are reports that some soldiers abused prisoners as ‘sport.’ Other reports say that soldiers used photographs they took of dead and abused and mutilated Iraqis in exchange for free membership in porn sites.

The killing and torture of people in war zones in Iraq and Afghanistan are just the latest examples of something that happens with all occupying soldiers in all wars at all times.

Ordinary people are, of course, shocked by these revelations, as they should be. It is never pleasant to think that people just like us can be guilty of such unspeakable acts. My friend had that same reaction when he witnessed his classmate’s treatment of the prisoner. How could someone who had the same background as him, who just a few minutes before had been chatting about mutual friends, suddenly become transformed and treat another human being so badly, and be so seemingly oblivious to the fact that he had just violated all norms of justice or even just plain civilized behavior?

We try to deal with this disconnect by viewing such acts as aberrations, to blame it on a few ‘bad apples,’ and console ourselves that most people do not behave this way. And in a purely numerical sense, we are probably right. The actual number of people who actually carry out acts of such brutality as have been revealed so far may not be large. If it were, we would have the equivalent of mass murder.

But we must not forget that such acts can only occur because the ethos in which these people act tolerates, if not condones or even encourages, such behavior. When you train people to kill without thinking, put them in a hostile environment where they feel under threat, give them powerful weaponry, give them unquestioned power over those under their control, and breed in them a sense that they have immunity for their actions, then it is only a matter of time before some do the kinds of things we find abhorrent. I am not sure that any of us would act much differently if we had undergone the same training and been placed under the same circumstances, so we should not be quick to judge the soldiers who do these things as somehow innately evil people, different from us. What we have to do is prevent the circumstances that encourage the baser elements of our natures to surface and allow such acts to be even contemplated. (In response to yesterday’s posting, commenter Joshua links to several experiments that study what regular people can be induced to do to other people under particular conditions. Two of the more famous cases, the Milgram experiment and the Stanford prison experiment are particularly disturbing.)

This brutalizing effect of war does not end even when the war ends. The mentality bred by such training cannot be simply turned on and off like a switch. Upon their return, it infects soldiers’ personal relationships as well.

By most measurements, there is a higher incidence of domestic violence in the military than in the civilian world. The most recent figures, from surveys conducted by the Department of Defense, suggest that domestic violence occurs twice as frequently in the military as among civilians. But activists and social workers believe that the rate is much higher. “Those numbers are soft,” says Hansen. “Essentially, that figure comes from a reanalysis of a reanalysis of a comparative analysis from a study which goes back to the early ’90s.”
Hansen believes the true figure is closer to five times that of the general population. Those who dispute her estimate say that the statistics should be adjusted to account for the disproportionate percentage of soldiers whose demographic profile — mostly young men, often with relatively low educational attainment, from unstable, low-income families – pegs them as most likely to have a problem with domestic violence in the civilian population (or at least most likely to be reported for it). They argue that domestic violence is no more prevalent in the military than it is in a civilian population of comparable demographics.

Many soldiers will resist the temptation to personally indulge in such kinds of abuse but that effort often exhausts their own energies and they have little stomach left to actively oppose the few who take advantage of their power to abuse others. But we, collectively, also bear responsibility for creating the kinds of conditions that enable these things to occur.

It may be possible that if there are strong countervailing pressures from the top that enforce tight discipline and control and accountability, that some of the worst excesses can be avoided, But what the events at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and Afghanistan show is that the top echelons of the administration, rather than maintaining such strict policies, deliberately cultivated a sense of ambivalence as to whether the Geneva conventions even applied to the prisoners or whether torture was permissible. Seeming to condone torture under these conditions was like lighting a fuse. The only question that remained was when the explosion would occur not if. And the government’s desperate battle to keep further information of abuse from being released is an indication that their casual attitude towards the treatment of prisoners has resulted in much more widespread abuse than has been suspected, making it harder for them to sustain the self-excusing ‘few bad apples’ attitude.

Currently the President and Vice President are lobbying furiously to block the full adoption of anti-torture legislation contemplated by Congress, further sending the message that they are not unequivocally opposed to prisoner abuse. Larry Johnson, formerly of the CIA and the Department of State’s Office of Counter Terrorism argues why this is a really bad idea.

In the next posting, we will look at the brutalizing effects of war on the general public.

POST SCRIPT: Blair rebuffed on terror suspect detentions

British Prime Minister Tony Blair suffered a defeat in his attempt to pass legislation to hold terror suspects without charge for up to 90 days. Parliament gave him an upper limit of 28 days. Meanwhile, in the US, the administration can simply, without judicial oversight, designate anyone (even you or me) as an ‘enemy combatant’ and that person can be held indefinitely at an unknown location and with no access to anyone to ensure that they are treated humanely.

Taking advantage of people’s poverty

I read in the paper recently of an incident where the wealthy son of industrialist and his friends were about to enter a Los Angeles restaurant. Outside the restaurant was a homeless person and this person offered the homeless person $100 to pour a can of soda over himself. The homeless man did so and the crowd of rich people laughed uproariously at this, paid him, and went on their way.

This story infuriated me, as I am sure it will to most people who hear of it. It seemed that these people were humiliating the man, taking advantage of his poverty for their warped sense of what is amusing.
[Read more…]

Against tipping

I have been traveling a lot recently on work-related matters and this requires me to do things that I don’t routinely do, such as stay in hotels, take taxis, eat at restaurants, and take airplanes.

I generally dislike traveling because of the disruption that it causes in one’s life and the dreariness of packing and unpacking and sleeping in strange places where one does not have access to the familiarity and conveniences of home. But another reason that I dislike these kinds of trips is that they force me to confront the phenomenon of tipping.

I hate the whole practice of tipping. One reason is structural in that tipping enables employers to avoid paying workers less than the minimum wage, let alone a living wage. People who work forty hours per week at the minimum wage of $5.15 per hour make about $11,000 a year (Note that in terms of inflation adjusted dollars, this is the lowest rate since 1955.) But there are exemptions from even this low rate for those jobs where there is an expectation that the employee can earn at least $30 per month in tips. Some jobs pay about half the federal minimum wage rate and employers can justify this practice by arguing that tips more than make up the difference between this and what is necessary to support themselves and their families. But note that all you need is to be able to get $360 per year in tips to be not protected by even the currently miserable minimum wage laws.

I feel that people should not have to depend upon the kindness of strangers (which is what tipping is) to earn a living wage. Anyone who works full time should be able to make enough to live on, which in the US means roughly doubling the current minimum wage, although there is strong regional variation.

I hate tipping because it seems like it is meant to force people to be nice to me. In general, I find people to be nice and polite and helpful without the need for extrinsic motivators for such behavior, acting simply out of politeness and kindness. I think that almost all people are like that and do not need to be paid to extend the common courtesies of life to one another. People smile, greet each other, assist each other if necessary, all because we feel a sense of empathy and oneness with those around us, not because we expect some reward.

But when I tip someone, I feel as if I am implying that that person performed that act of kindness or service because of the expectation of payment. And to me this cheapens that human interaction, transforming it into a commercial transaction. Unfortunately, I don’t know what to personally do about it, other than support the enactment of a living wage for all employees without exemption.

On a personal level, I tip people because I know they are not paid well and depend on tips to make ends meet. But if at all possible, I try to bury the tip so that it is not obviously an exchange of money between the person being tipped and me. In restaurants, I add it to the bill and pay by credit card so that no money directly changes hands between the server and me.

But in some cases, you cannot avoid a cash exchange so I try to avoid situations where the tip is the only money that exchanges hands, but instead is part of the overall cash payment. For taxis, for example, I can add it to the fare so that I am not due any change and so can act like I am paying just the fare. If that is unavoidable and I have to give a cash tip to a person that is not part of a payment for other goods and services, I try as much as possible to do it when the recipient is not there, like leaving it on a restaurant table when leaving, or leaving it in a hotel room when checking out.

But there are some situations, such as with porters and hotel doorpersons and bellhops, where the starkly commercial nature of the tip cannot be disguised. I try as much as possible to avoid those situations (by doing things myself as much as possible) and if I cannot do so, tip as hastily and as unobtrusively as I can.

We do not live in an egalitarian society. Society is stratified by class and wealth. But tips seem to rub everyone’s noses in that reality in a particularly revolting way. The jobs that depend on tips seem to me to encourage servility and an almost feudal sensibility, throwing us back to a former age where the ‘noble lords and ladies’ dispense largesse to a fawning and grateful peasantry. Fortunately I do not spend time in places where wealthy people hang out and where there is an expectation that you will be waited on hand and foot and treated obsequiously. I live largely in a world where people carry their own bags, do their own chores and open their own doors, or do so for others simply out of politeness.

Perhaps I am overreacting to what is ‘normal’ practice, seeing a deep social problem where none exists. But then I wonder how I would feel if the university did not pay me a living wage but instead had tip jars in each classroom and I had to depend upon satisfied students to give tips after each class supplement my income. A colleague tells me that in the old days of the Greek philosopher-teachers, students would pay them for each class if they were satisfied, so this is not an unheard of practice. What would that do to the student-teacher relationship? I cannot imagine that it would be good. So why is it good for other relationships?

What I would really like is for everyone to be paid a living wage.


The Los Angeles Times reports that the IRS is challenging the tax-exempt status of an Episcopal Church because of an antiwar sermon preached on the eve of the 2004 presidential election. It is only one more step before criticizing Bush is equated with blasphemy.

I wonder if the tax-exempt status of churches and other organizations associated with Pat Robertson, Jerry Falwell, James Dobson and the like are being examined….

Meanwhile, The Daily Show shows how allowing gay marriage has ruined Massachusetts.

Loyalty Oaths

In the recently released film Good Night, and Good Luck there is one scene where a pair of worried news reporters are discussing the fact that they have been asked to sign a loyalty oath. This was something that was instituted during the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 1950s led by Senator Joe McCarthy. The reporters said that if they did not sign, they would lose their jobs. Even Edward R. Murrow and Fred Friendly, two people who challenged McCarthy, had signed the pledges.

That scene brought back bitter memories of the time that I had to sign a loyalty oath or lose my job. It was one of the things in my life that I most regret having had to do.

The year was 1983. Sri Lanka had had a long history of ethnic tension between the majority Sinhala community and the minority Tamil community to which I belonged. In July of that year, a small group of Tamil guerillas, determined to seek a separate state, attacked a military convoy and killed thirteen troops. In the days that followed, Sinhala mobs went on a rampage, killing Tamil people and setting fire to their homes. The government and the security forces stood by for days, either doing nothing or providing tacit support to the mobs, leading to speculation that the government itself had organized and initiated the mob rampages as part of a political strategy, to serve as a warning to the Tamil separatist movement that their actions would have negative consequences for other Tamils. It seemed as if the government was essentially trying to blackmail the guerillas into ceasing military action, using the Tamil population as hostages.

My wife and I and our three month old daughter, and my mother and sisters and their families, had to go into hiding for about some days in the homes of courageous Sinhala friends of ours, who knew full well that they risked having the mobs attack them too if they were discovered to be harboring Tamils. We returned to our homes after nearly a week of chaos, when the government finally gave the order for the police and army to take back control of the streets from the mobs. Fortunately, our homes had escaped the mobs’ attention, making us luckier than most.

I was furious that the government had not carried out its most basic duty, which was to protect the lives of its citizens. But that was not the end of it. To make matters worse, the government then declared that the way to counter the Tamil separatist movement was for everyone to sign an oath that they would not advocate the creation of a separate state.

This is typical of the way that governments everywhere tend to handle unrest and dissent. Instead of looking at the causes of the unrest, they declare that it is the very act of dissent that is causing the problem. This is much easier to do than to examine and rectify the root causes. This is why governments constantly seek to stifle speech and intimidate opponents and why advocates of civil liberties have to be constantly on guard against curbs on speech. This kind of government strategy rarely works but that does not stop them from trying. The Sri Lankan government’s action in 1983, far from stopping the separatist movement, seemed to only serve to increase its vigor with the result that the strength of the guerilla group increased over two decades until it effectively fought the government army to a draw. There is currently a tenuous ceasefire, with the separatists controlling a significant part of the territory that they consider to be their own homeland.

But back in 1983 I was furious that I was being asked to sign this pledge, essentially a loyalty oath to a unitary state. My opposition was not because I had any separatist sympathies. I had opposed a separate state then and still prefer to avoid it now if at all possible. But the very fact that I was being forced to swear what was effectively an oath of allegiance to government policies made me angry. If anything, being coerced into signing made me more sympathetic to the separatist movement, not less.

But I had no choice. All universities in Sri Lanka are run by the government. If I did not sign, I would be fired and would not be able to get other jobs. We were not independently wealthy people. We had only our jobs to support us, and a newborn baby to take care of. So I signed. I have never forgotten that feeling of anger and resentment when I signed that worthless document.

Some might argue (and do) that if you agree with the substance of an oath, then what is the harm in signing? In this view, only those who object to the ideas being sworn to have reason to protest. Hence they view such oaths are a way of flushing out dissenters or forcing them to shut up, and this type of thinking was common during the McCarthy era as well. But this is wrong. The principle that is being upheld by those who object to such oaths is that they change things in an important way. The presumption then becomes that if you don’t sign, you have something to hide.

The fifth amendment to the US constitution says that no one “shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself.” I think it is an excellent sentiment but I would like to generalize and expand it even more to everyday life with a “none of your business” or a “right to be left alone” attitude which says that no private citizen should be forced by anyone else to express an opinion on any issue.

My view is that private people have the right to believe whatever they like and have the right to not voice their views on any topic, without any inferences being drawn from their silence. To require such people to say oaths is something that has to be reserved for very special situations, like in court trial, where lying can have serious consequences for the rights of others. There also may be situations like joining a society or club, where one is required to make some kind of symbolic affirmation of the goals of the organization. But these are different from government inspired loyalty oaths.

I oppose all symbolic acts of loyalty when they are coerced, either explicitly or implicitly, like standing for the national anthem, saluting the flag, saying the pledge of allegiance, and so forth. These things should be done only by those who genuinely want to, and no aspersions should be cast on those who decide not to. Forced acts of loyalty are as worthless and demeaning to all concerned as forced acts of religious piety.

Is the curriculum at Hogwarts science?

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke makes the point that any sufficiently advanced technology will seem like magic to the naïve observer. This seems to be a good observation to apply to the magic that is practiced at Hogwarts. What seems to exist there is a world with highly advanced “technology”, operating under strict rules that the inhabitants know how to manipulate. The more mature wizards seem to easily produce consistent results with their spells while the novices mess around until they get it right. This is not very different from what we do in the Muggle world, except that we are manipulating computers and cars that are controlled by knobs and dials and switches and keyboards, while the wizards use wands and spells. It is not a mystery to other wizards how specific results are obtained and what is required to achieve those results is skill and practice.

What is intriguing is that while the wizards and witches know how to manipulate the wands and words and potions to achieve results that seem magical to us Muggles, they do not really understand the rules themselves. The classes at Hogwarts seem to be almost exclusively hands-on and practical, using trial and error methods, with no theory of magic. Hogwarts is more like a trade school, where they teach a craft. It is like a school of carpentry or pharmacy or boat making where you learn that “if you do this, then that will happen” without actually learning the underlying principles. The world of Hogwarts is closer to the medieval world, where there were highly skilled craftsmen who were able to build cathedrals and ships without understanding the underlying science.

An interesting question to speculate on is whether the magic the students learn at Hogwarts castle would count as science today. If we go back to Aristotle, when he tried to distinguish science from other forms of knowledge he classified knowledge into ‘ know how’ (the ability to achieve certain results) and ‘know why’ (the underlying reasons and principles for the achievement). It is the latter kind of knowledge that he counted as science. The ‘know how’ knowledge is what we would now call technology. For example, a boat maker can make excellent ships (the ‘know how’) without knowing anything about density or the role that the relative density of materials plays in sinking and floating (the ‘know why’).

Trying to make the world of Hogwarts consistent with modern science would have been difficult. Rowling manages to finesse this question by making life in Hogwarts similar to life in the middle ages, with no electricity, computers, television, and other modern gadgets. Students at Hogwarts don’t use cell phones and instant messaging. In one book, this kind of anachronism is explained by Hermione saying that electric devices don’t work inside Hogwarts. By artfully effectively placing the reader back in a time when it was easier to envisage magic (in the form of highly advanced technology) being taken for granted in the world, Rowling manages to avoid the kinds of awkward scientific questions that would ruin the effect.

Thus Rowling manages to avoid the science dilemma altogether by creating in Hogwarts what seems to be a purely ‘know how’ world. This enables her to let magic be the driving technology that moves the story forward.

Introducing modern knowledge and sensibilities into an earlier time period is a staple of fantasy and science fiction, and writers like Rowling, and Mark Twain with his A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court do it well.


A survey indicates that more Britons believe in ghosts than they do in god. I am not sure what to make of this, so am just passing it along.

The problem with parallel worlds

Fantasy writers like J. K. Rowling who want to interweave the magical with the ordinary face some serious challenges. As long as you stay purely within the world of magic at Hogwarts, you can create a self-contained world obeying its own rules. But there is clearly some added drama that accrues when you can contrast that world with the world we live in, because that helps readers to identify more with the characters. Having wizards live among Muggles opens up plenty of opportunities for both comedy and dramatic situations. It also enables us to imagine ourselves in the story, to think that there might be a parallel world that we get glimpses of but do not recognize because we do not know what to look for. Maybe our neighbors are witches and we don’t know it.

The situation faced by authors like Rowling in coming up with a realistic scenario that convincingly weaves the magic and ordinary worlds is not unlike the problem facing religious people who believe in a parallel world occupied by god, heaven, angels, etc. For this parallel religious world to have any tangible consequences for people in the normal world, the two worlds must overlap at least at a few points. But how can you make the intersections consistent? How can god, who presumably exists in the parallel universe, intervene in the natural world and yet remain undetected? In a previous posting, I discussed the difficult questions that need to be addressed in making these connections fit into a coherent worldview.

In Rowling’s world, one connecting point between the magical and normal worlds is the pub The Leaky Cauldron whose front door opens onto the normal world and whose back has a gate that opens onto Diagon Alley, a parallel magical world. Another connecting point is at Kings Cross railway station where the brick wall between platforms nine and ten is a secret doorway onto platform 9 ¾, where the students catch the train to Hogwarts. A third is the house at 12 Grimmauld Place, and so on.

But this plot device of having gateways connecting the two worlds, while amusing, creates problems if you try to analyze it too closely. (This is the curse of many, many years of scientific training, coupled with a determinedly rationalistic worldview. It makes me want to closely analyze everything, even fiction, for internal logical consistency.)

For example, although platform 9 ¾ is hidden from the Muggles in some kind of parallel world, the train to Hogwarts somehow seems to get back into the real world on its way to Hogwarts because it travels through the English countryside. I initially thought that this countryside might also be in the parallel world, except that in one book Ron and Harry catch up with the train in their flying car, and they started off in the normal world. In another book we are told that Hogwarts is also in the Muggle world but that it is charmed so that Muggles only see what looks like a ruined castle. We also see owls carrying mail between Hogwarts and the normal world. So clearly there must be many boundaries between the magic and Muggle worlds. What happens when people and owls cross these other boundaries?

When I read the books, such questions are for me just idle curiosity. I like to see how the author deals with these questions but the lack of logical consistency does not bother me or take anything away from my enjoyment of the books. Rowling is not sloppy. She respects her readers’ intelligence, and she gives the reader enough of a rationale for believing in her two-worlds model that we can be taken along for the ride. The logical inconsistencies she glosses over are, I think, inevitable consequences of trying to create this kind of parallel universe model. To her credit, she is skilful enough to provide enough plausibility so that the reader is not troubled (or even notices) unless he or she (like me) is actually looking for problems.

But the problems Rowling faces in constructing a two worlds model that is logically consistent is similar to that faced by people who want to believe in a spiritual world that exists in parallel with the physical world. Since Rowling is writing a work of fiction and nothing of importance rides on whether we accept the inconsistencies or not, we can just close our eyes to these minor flaws and enjoy the books.

But the same cannot be said for the similar problems that confront two-world models that underlies most religious beliefs that have a god, because we are now not dealing with fiction but presumably real life. And being able to construct a two-worlds model (with gateways between the spiritual and physical worlds) that is logically consistent is important because it may determine whether people believe or disbelieve in a god. It was my personal inability to do so that finally pushed me into atheism.


As usual, political cartoonist Tom Tomorrow gets to the heart of the Judith Miller-New York Times-WMD story.

The secular world of Harry Potter

After reading the latest book in the Harry Potter series (#6 in the series called Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince) I got involved in discussions with serious aficionados of the series as to what might happen in the upcoming book, which will be the last in the series. I made my predictions but they were scorned by these experts since they knew I had not read the earlier books 1, 3, 4, and 5. (I had read #2 a few years ago.) The Potter mavens said that since the author had planned the books out carefully as one long, coherent story, what I was doing was like trying to predict the end of a whodunit after skipping two-thirds of the plot.

I had to concede the justice of the criticism and so the last few weeks I have been reading the entire series and am now in the middle of my last unread book, #5 Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix. I am now well on the way to Harry Potter geekdom, though I will never reach the uber-geek status of some. It has not been a sacrifice on my part since the books are well written and I have been kept up many a late night because I could not put the books down. Clearly J. K. Rowling knows how to spin a good story.

What has struck me in reading the books in rapid succession over a short period of time is how secular and rational the world described by the books are. This may come as a surprise given that they are about witches, wizards, hexes, curses, and all kinds of magic that violate pretty much all the known laws of physics.

But while the world of Hogwarts is one in which magical phenomena are everyday events, it does not seem to be at all religious or irrational. So far not a single character has revealed any religious inclinations and there have been no prayers or any form of organized worship of any kind. Sunday seems to be just another off day. I cannot remember even seeing the word “god” used, even as an involuntary exclamation or a swear word.

Christmas does occur in every book but it seems to be true to its pagan origins and is celebrated as a secular holiday, with decorations, Christmas trees, feasting, and the exchange of presents, but with no indication that there is any religious significance to it. The closest that anything came to Christianity was a mention of the carol O Come All Ye Faithful which has references to Jesus and god, although if one is not a Christian you would not know this since the words of the carol are not given in the book. Clearly the world of wizards and witches and goblins and other assorted characters has no need of god.

Even the magic that is done seems quite rational. While the laws of physics as we know them seem to be routinely violated, the fundamental methodological principle of causality (that phenomena have causes that can be investigated systematically) remains intact. Spells are highly structured and prescribed and you have to do it in a particular way to achieve the desired result. Potions have to follow specific recipes to be effective. Deviations from the rigid rules of operation result in aberrant results, the source of much of the humor and drama of the books. It seems as if everything, even magic, follows laws that govern their behavior, and everything seems quite rational. One gets the sense that so-called “intelligent design creationism” (or IDC), with its emphasis on unknown and unnamed agents acting in innately unknowable ways, would not get a warm welcome in the rationalist atmosphere at Hogwarts. IDC ideas would have a tough time getting into their curriculum.

Many fundamentalist Christian groups object to the Harry Potter books because they are drenched in sorcery and witchcraft, which the Bible supposedly condemns. (Scroll down this site for some negative reviews.) They say that the books lure young children towards sorcery, which they identify with devil worship.

I think these critics are making a profound mistake. Nowhere do the characters, either good or bad, do anything that can be remotely described as worshiping anything. Good and evil are represented by people such as Dumbledore and Voldemort, not by deities.

The religious fundamentalists, if they want to object to the books, should be focusing on the fact that, as far as I can tell, the whole wizarding community consists of a bunch of thoroughgoing atheists.

POST SCRIPT: SCOOP – The name of the ‘intelligent designer’ revealed!

In an earlier post, I mentioned how the so called ‘intelligent design creationist’ (IDC) people were extremely careful not to identify their intelligent designer, using various circumlocutions to avoid doing so. I thought it was pretty obvious that the intelligent designer was god and said so. But I now realize I was wrong. Reading the Harry Potter books, the truth suddenly came upon me in a flash when I realized that nearly all the wizards and witches also carefully avoided giving a name to someone and kept referring to him as “He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named.”

The intelligent designer has to be Lord Voldemort. Remember, you read it here first.