“This I believe: I believe there is no God”

Those of you who regularly listen to NPR’s Morning Edition know that they are running a series called “This I Believe” where various people talk about the important beliefs in their lives. I have been listening on occasion and most contributors have expressed beliefs in motherhood-and-apple-pie kind of things. But Monday’s contribution by Penn Jillette (who describes himself as “the taller, louder half of the magic and comedy act Penn and Teller”) was striking in the way that he so closely echoed my own beliefs. You can read the transcript and listen to the audio here, but here are the passages that particularly resonated with me:

I believe that there is no God. I’m beyond Atheism. Atheism is not believing in God. Not believing in God is easy – you can’t prove a negative, so there’s no work to do.

So, anyone with a love for truth outside of herself has to start with no belief in God and then look for evidence of God. She needs to search for some objective evidence of a supernatural power.

Believing there’s no God means I can’t really be forgiven except by kindness and faulty memories. That’s good; it makes me want to be more thoughtful. I have to try to treat people right the first time around.

Believing there is no God means the suffering I’ve seen in my family, and indeed all the suffering in the world, isn’t caused by an omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent force that isn’t bothered to help or is just testing us, but rather something we all may be able to help others with in the future. No God means the possibility of less suffering in the future.

Believing there is no God gives me more room for belief in family, people, love, truth, beauty, sex, Jell-o and all the other things I can prove and that make this life the best life I will ever have.

I thought it was rather nicely put.

POST SCRIPT: Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I saw the latest Harry Potter film and it deserved all the praise that it is getting. It has been awhile since I saw a film so soon after reading the book on which it is based and I must say that I was impressed with the judicious selection of material from the book to go into the film. I also liked the way the screenwriter and director transferred Rowling’s vision onto the screen. Sometimes such transitions don’t work well but this was almost perfect. There was nothing at all jarring. The film was at once both faithful to the book and self-contained as a film, quite an achievement.

Intelligent design creationism losing ground?

Some time ago, I speculated that the intelligent design creationism (IDC) movement might have jumped the shark and was on a downward slide. Some recent developments might suggest that I was premature is seeing the demise of IDC. After all, just last week, the state of Kansas formally adopted language in their science standards that sought to undermine natural selection. But that particular act was foregone conclusion once the elections in Kansas had produced a pro-IDC majority.

Up to that point, IDC had managed to gain some ground purely because it was based on a stealth strategy. IDC strategists realized that the courts would not allow any overtly religious doctrine to be taught in science classes. And it is not clear that most people would have liked that idea either, whatever their religious persuasion. People tend to see the function of science classes as being to teach science and instinctively sense the potential danger in mixing science with religion.

As a result of this, the IDC people had to go to great lengths to deny any religious underpinnings for their theory. Yet, since IDC advocates needed the support of their religious base in order to make any headway in their attempts to garner political support at the local and state levels to have IDC ideas included in science curricula, they had to perform this delicate balancing act of publicly disavowing any religious intent while privately letting their supporters know their true motivation.

But that balancing act has collapsed. It is pretty clear to everyone by now that the intelligent designer is a pseudonym for god, and alarm bells are going off all over as people start to become aware of the consequences of this stealth attack on science education. Interestingly, some of the most vocal critics of IDC have been people like George Will and Charles Krauthammer, people from the same ideological camp as many of the IDC proponents.

Krauthammer says:

Let’s be clear. Intelligent design may be interesting as theology, but as science it is a fraud. It is a self-enclosed, tautological “theory” whose only holding is that when there are gaps in some area of scientific knowledge – in this case, evolution – they are to be filled by God.

In order to justify the farce that intelligent design is science, Kansas had to corrupt the very definition of science, dropping the phrase “natural explanations for what we observe in the world around us,” thus unmistakably implying – by fiat of definition, no less – that the supernatural is an integral part of science. This is an insult both to religion and science.

The school board thinks it is indicting evolution by branding it an “unguided process” with no “discernible direction or goal.” This is as ridiculous as indicting Newtonian mechanics for positing an “unguided process” by which Earth is pulled around the sun every year without discernible purpose. What is chemistry if not an “unguided process” of molecular interactions without “purpose”? Or are we to teach children that God is behind every hydrogen atom in electrolysis?

Strong words, especially from someone who earlier had downplayed the importance of the Kansas developments implying that, in the grand scheme of things, it did not really matter what the yokels in Kansas did. He seems to have belatedly realized that IDC is a profoundly retrograde development.

George Will on Nightline contrasts the openness of science to the approach of IDC:

It’s openness to discussion of testable hypotheses, falsifiable hypotheses, hypotheses for which you can conceive of contradicting evidence. And I do not believe that the adherents to the doctrine of Intelligent Design are open to that kind of evidence. I think what they say is that random, unguided evolution, without the purposefulness of God, is inconceivable. Now that is – may be true, but it’s not falsifiable, and therefore has no place in a science curriculum.

In another article, Will says:

Dover’s insurrection occurred as Kansas’s Board of Education, which is controlled by the kind of conservatives who make conservatism repulsive to temperate people, voted 6 to 4 to redefine science. The board, opening the way for teaching the supernatural, deleted from the definition of science these words: “a search for natural explanations of observable phenomena.”
“It does me no injury,” said Thomas Jefferson, “for my neighbor to say there are twenty gods, or no God. It neither picks my pocket nor breaks my leg.” But it is injurious, and unneighborly, when zealots try to compel public education to infuse theism into scientific education.

The IDC people needed people like Will and Krauthammer as allies and supporters if they were to make any headway on the national stage. They are influential opinion makers, appealing to that part of the political spectrum from which IDC draws much of its support. Losing them is not a good sign.

What is worse for IDC, people like Will and Krauthammer, whatever their private religious beliefs, generally view the public sphere as secular and write about politics from a secular perspective. Their disavowal of the IDC argument leaves the IDC camp being supported exclusively by people like Cal Thomas and Pat Robertson, people who openly want to see their particular version of Christianity dominate public life, who clearly see IDC as part of Christianity, and who are generally seen (Robertson in particular) as just plain nuts. Having such people on the IDC side does not really help their cause.

At some point, the official IDC stance that their designer is not god and that IDC has no religious intent is going to be so obviously at odds with the public perception of it that they will have to either confess to its true nature or be increasingly seen as treating the people as gullible fools.

Already there are signs that some of the tentative support the IDC camp has had in the past has started to peel away. Tomorrow we will look at some former supporters who are having second thoughts.

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: The constitutional issues

Many people wrongly assume that you cannot mention religion and god in the public schools. They speak of “god being driven out of the schools.” This is not correct. After all god and religion are necessary in order to understand much of US and world history and government and literature, to mention a few subjects. But the constitutional questions about what kinds of mention of god and religion are allowed and what are not are a little tricky and I want to briefly discuss them here. (The usual disclaimer: I am not even a lawyer, let alone an expert on constitutional law, so what follows is a lay person’s understanding of the issues.)

The relevant part of the US constitution is the first amendment that goes as follows:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

The US constitution is admirably terse in its wording but this means that the US Supreme Court has to interpret its meaning, and over the years there have been some landmark decisions that have formed the basis for subsequent rulings.

The key portion of the first amendment as it pertains to the religion in schools issue is the so called ‘establishment clause’ that the amendment starts with, that says ” Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

The key interpretation of this clause was provided in 1947 by Justice Hugo Black in the case of Everson v. Board of Education (330 U.S. 1, 15-16 (1947) where he wrote:

The “establishment of religion” clause of the First Amendment means at least this: Neither a state nor the Federal Government can set up a church. Neither can pass laws which aid one religion, aid all religions, or prefer one religion over another. Neither can force nor influence a person to go to or to remain away from church against his will or force him to profess a belief or disbelief in any religion. No person can be punished for entertaining or professing religious beliefs or disbeliefs, for church-attendance or non-attendance. No tax, large or small, can be levied to support any religious activities or institutions, whatever they may be called, or what ever form they may adopt to teach or practice religion. Neither a state nor the Federal Government can, openly or secretly, participate in the affairs of any religious organizations or groups and vice versa. In the words of Jefferson, the clause … was intended to erect a wall of separation between church and State.” (my italics)

But how do you judge whether this Jeffersonian ‘wall of separation’ has been breached? This was further clarified in 1971 in the case Lemon v. Kurtzman (403 U.S. 602, 612-613 (1971)), the result of which has been the adoption of the ‘Lemon’ test to see if any government action has violated these sections of the first amendment. For legislation to pass the constitutional requirements of the establishment clause, the “Lemon’ test says the legislation must meet three criteria:

First, the statute must have a secular legislative purpose;

Second, its principal or primary effect must be one that neither advances nor inhibits religion;

Finally, the statute must not foster “an excessive government entanglement with religion.”

So the judge in the Dover, PA case will have to rule whether allowing IDC ideas to be advocated by the school board passes all three items in the Lemon test.

The Lemon test explains why it is permissible to bring in god and religion into history and literature courses, because if taught correctly, it can meet those criteria. But in the IDC case, the only “secular legislative purpose” that I can see seems to be to show students a specific alternative to natural selection. I do not find that convincing since it is by now apparent to everyone that the alternative selected by them is based on a specific religious belief and that they see undermining natural selection as a necessary step towards adoption of their religious belief.

Furthermore, if the judge determines that IDC is a religious belief, then it would be hard to pass the third test.

In an previous posting, I discussed the legal history of the “religion in schools” issue, and especially the important role that the 1987 Louisiana case played in determining the current IDC strategy. In its 1987 decision against the teaching of creation science in Louisiana, the Supreme Court ruled 7-2 that it did so because the legislation “lacks a clear secular purpose” and went on to add that “The Act impermissibly endorses religion by advancing the religious belief that a supernatural being created humankind. The legislative history demonstrates that the term “creation science,” as contemplated by the state legislature, embraces this religious teaching.” The decision said that the creation science legislation failed all three Lemon tests. This is why the IDC people are trying to avoid at all costs being tarred with “creationist” label. It is the kiss of death.

It is hard to see how the judge in the Dover case can avoid coming to a similar conclusion with IDC, despite the strenuous efforts of IDC strategists to hide its creation science roots.

For these reasons, I expect the judge to rule against the (former) Dover school board. But as I said, I am not an expert on constitutional law, so don’t bet the farm on this prediction.

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial: IDC as comparative religion?

Now that there is a new school board elected in Dover, there is an interesting wrinkle to this story.

The new school board ran on a platform that did not call for the complete elimination of IDC from the schools. They said that it should be taught, except not in science classes. They said that it should be taught as part of an elective comparative religion class, so that students who want to learn about it could do so.

This seems like a reasonable policy. After all, although the winners of the election obtained a clean sweep of all the contested seats on the school board, they were careful to point out that it could not be really be considered an overwhelming mandate since the margins separating the winners and losers was very small. This was a refreshing piece of political honesty, unlike the case of President Bush claiming in 2004 that he had a mandate to make huge changes after winning just slightly more than 50% of the vote.
It is clear that the school board winners are mindful of the fact that there are a lot of IDC supporters in their community (possibly even among their own ranks) and it made sense to provide some accommodation to those people.

As far as I can tell, there are no constitutional problems with teaching comparative religion in schools and including IDC ideas in such a course. But by advocating what they may have seen as a gracious compromise, the new school board may have unwittingly created a major headache for IDC supporters. (Or maybe they did this wittingly, I don’t know.)

If I were an IDC advocate, here is the dilemma I face with this offer to teach IDC in a comparative religion class. If I allow IDC ideas to be taught in such a class, would it not be a tacit admission that IDC is, in fact, a religion? If so, wouldn’t it undermine the carefully constructed story that IDC is not a religious belief, and cause problems in Kansas and elsewhere? Remember that the goal of the IDC people is to include IDC ideas nationwide in science classes as a means of undermining the teaching of evolution and natural selection. Having it taught in a religion class would not only not advance this goal, it would set it back.

On the other hand, on what grounds can I (still playing the role of IDC advocate) challenge the inclusion of IDC in a comparative religion class? There don’t seem to be any constitutional concerns (to be discussed in a later posting), so I would not seem to have a legal case. I would have to argue that since IDC is not a religion, teaching it in comparative religion is going outside the curriculum of a religious studies course.

But that will be a hard sell. The curricula in social studies and the humanities do not have the paradigmatic structure of the sciences where there is a fairly clear consensus on what does and does not belong in science classes, especially in K-12 classes. The former curricula are much more flexible and so it will be hard to argue for the exclusion of IDC ideas from a comparative religion class. After all, the winks and nudges that IDC advocates gave their supporters to indicate that even though they did not say ‘god’ they really were meaning god, will now come back to haunt them, because by now everyone knows that the words ‘intelligent designer’ is code for god.

Take Pat Robertson (please!), who can always be counted upon to say the wrong and idiotic thing. He is upset with the citizens of Dover for the way they voted and since he has god’s unlisted number, he knows for a fact that god is ticked off as well. He said: “I’d like to say to the good citizens of Dover. If there is a disaster in your area, don’t turn to God, you just rejected Him from your city. And don’t wonder why He hasn’t helped you when problems begin, if they begin. I’m not saying they will, but if they do, just remember, you just voted God out of your city. And if that’s the case, don’t ask for His help because he might not be there.” (See here for the video. It always amazes me that Pat Robertson can say the most absurd things but as long as he maintains an even tone of voice and smiles as he speaks, the media don’t treat him as a certifiable wacko. Watching the video it is hard to escape the sense that Robertson is hoping for some disaster to strike Dover in order to make the people there see the error of their ways.)

So Pat Robertson is convinced and openly saying that the intelligent designer is god. Since Robertson is not the brightest bulb in the chandelier, it is a safe bet that if he has figured out that the intelligent designer is god, then so has pretty much anybody with a pulse. And, most importantly, this will not have escaped the notice of federal judges who have to rule on the constitutionality of including IDC in science classes.

The IDC strategy of trying to conceal the religious basis of their theory by using neutral language, while using nudges and winks to their religious supporters to signal their covert agenda, was always heading for this kind of collision. Covert strategies work only when they are not widely publicized. Now that IDC has become high profile, its religious foundations have become clear to everyone and trying to hide it becomes obviously and embarrassingly disingenuous. Paradoxically, becoming well known might turn out to be the undoing of IDC.

IDC’s grass-roots supporters in Dover, who may not be fully tuned to the grand IDC wedge strategy, might take offence if the IDC top brass try to argue that if IDC is not allowed in science classes, then it should not be allowed anywhere else in the curriculum. After all, all other disciplines (science included) would be delighted if other disciplines included their subject in their teaching plans. My feeling is that the grass roots supporters of IDC in Dover want it taught somewhere in their schools and if they can’t get it in the science classes, they would settle for it in other classes, even if it torpedoes the case that IDC is not religious. Most people care a lot more about local issues than grand strategies.

It will be interesting to see how the strategists at IDC headquarters deal with this problem.

POST SCRIPT: US admits use of white phosphorus weapons in Fallujah

In a previous post, I discussed the allegations of the use by US forces of the lethal chemical white phosphorus in the attack on Fallujah in November 2004. The BBC now confirms that story saying “The US has now admitted using white phosphorus as a weapon in Fallujah last year, after earlier denying it.”

It is interesting that the foreign press is giving much more play to this story than the US print media. Members of the British parliament are calling for an inquiry and even the Iraqi government has ordered an inquiry in response to the anger that has been generated by these reports. (I don’t watch TV news so don’t know if it received much coverage in that medium.) In the Plain Dealer it was a one paragraph story in the “Nation” news summary column on the back page of the front section, easily missed by the casual reader.

This lack of coverage in the US of things like this explains why people here keep being baffled by the depth of hostility that some Iraqis exhibit towards the US presence. When the next atrocity occurs against US troops or contractors or even some hapless journalist or civilian who happens to be the victim of a reprisal, people will wonder what caused such behavior and ask bewilderedly “Why do they hate us? Aren’t we trying to help them?”

Intelligent Design Creationism and the Dover trial

It is time to take stock of what is going on in the Intelligent Design Creationism (IDC) front in the wake of the events of the past week and to see what it might all mean. The federal trial about whether the Dover school board’s policy on IDC was constitutional ended on Friday, November 4. The judge has said that he will deliver his ruling before January. The lawsuit was triggered when the school board had ordered that at the beginning of ninth grade science classes, a statement would be made to students questioning Darwinian evolution and telling students to read a book called Of Pandas and People, many copies of which had been provided to the school. (I will discuss the legal issues involved in this case in a future posting.)
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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.
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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.
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