The politics of terrorism-2: The origins of the neoconservatives

Yesterday, I discussed how the BBC documentary The rise of the politics of fear traced the origins of al Qaida to the influence of an Islamic scholar Syed Qutb.

Meanwhile, in the US, there was a cult brewing around a University of Chicago professor of political philosophy by the name of Leo Strauss (1899-1973). That ideology has now come to be called neoconservatism. Strauss and his neoconservative disciples (which include Paul Wolfowitz, Donald Rumsfeld, Dick Cheney, Irving Kristol, John Bolton, Richard Perle, William Kristol, Michael Ledeen, and others) were people who felt, like Qutb, that US society was decadent and losing its moral strength.

The Straussians felt that it was necessary for America to develop a positive image of itself, to see itself as the ultimate force for good in the world and its role as spreading its influence over the entire world, by force if necessary. They were fundamentally elitist, seeing people as the “masses” to be led, sometimes in spite of themselves. They believed that people needed “grand myths” in order to be persuaded to take serious actions like war, and they did not hesitate to manufacture them when necessary. For America, the “grand myth” they propagandized was the idea that Americans were a good and chosen people, under siege from dark forces from within and without, with a mission to convert the world to its own way of life.
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The politics of terrorism-1: The origins of al Qaida

Documentaries, as a rule, do not have actors and fictionalized events. But they are never just a collection of facts. Like feature films, they have a narrative structure imposed on them that tries to select and order the facts into a compelling story. This always opens them to a charge of bias. But good documentaries are more like a well-reasoned argument that does not bury contradictory facts but weighs them in the balance as well.

Last Monday I went to see documentary film The rise of the politics of fear by Britain’s Adam Curtis, which was produced as a three-part series shown by the BBC in 2004. In this and the next post I will describe the message of the documentary, and in the third part I will analyze its strengths and weaknesses.
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The case against torture-3

One practical problem with using torture to extract information is that the people who ardently advocate it, including “the vice-president for torture” don’t seem to realize that the kinds of scenarios they propose work only in fiction. It seems like they use TV programs like 24 hours as the basis for their claims for the validity of torture as a mechanism for extracting valuable information in a timely manner.

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The case against torture-2

Part of the reason that torture and other brutalities have not been greeted with the outrage that they deserve has been the response of some intellectuals who have helped make the case that torture is not so bad. In fact, they argue that it might even be a good thing in selected cases.

Take Charles Krauthammer. He writes: “A terrorist is by profession, indeed by definition, an unlawful combatant: He lives outside the laws of war because he does not wear a uniform, he hides among civilians, and he deliberately targets innocents. He is entitled to no protections whatsoever.”

He goes on ” Breaking the laws of war and abusing civilians are what, to understate the matter vastly, terrorists do for a living. They are entitled, therefore, to nothing. Anyone who blows up a car bomb in a market deserves to spend the rest of his life roasting on a spit over an open fire.”

Interestingly, he seems to want to have it both ways. After writing with unnecessarily graphic imagery (“roasting on a spit over an open fire”?) that seems to betoken an almost wistful longing, he then tries to redeem his sense of his own humanity. “But we don’t do that because we do not descend to the level of our enemy. We don’t do that because, unlike him, we are civilized. Even though terrorists are entitled to no humane treatment, we give it to them because it is in our nature as a moral and humane people.”

Actually, to say that another living thing is “entitled to no humane treatment” has already, in my opinion, put him outside the realm of civilized human beings.

But then he gets to the point which all advocates of torture eventually get to, which is the “ticking time bomb” hypothetical scenario.

A terrorist has planted a nuclear bomb in New York City. It will go off in one hour. A million people will die. You capture the terrorist. He knows where it is. He’s not talking.

Question: If you have the slightest belief that hanging this man by his thumbs will get you the information to save a million people, are you permitted to do it?

Now, on most issues regarding torture, I confess tentativeness and uncertainty. But on this issue, there can be no uncertainty: Not only is it permissible to hang this miscreant by his thumbs. It is a moral duty.

Krauthammer then goes to the position already occupied by Harvard law professor Alan Dershowitz, that torture is going to be necessary and will happen anyway, so we might as well regulate it by legislation requiring warrants, making rules, etc. so that we have controlled torture. What he and Dershowitz want, essentially, is to make complicit in their torture activities a whole phalanx of doctors, lawyers, judges, politicians, soldiers, and assorted bureaucrats, because this is what will happen when you try to set up a “regulated” torture program and lay out all the rules under which it will operate.

Or take the case of Eugene Volokh. In March 2005, the Iranian government publicly executed a serial killer in a slow and brutal manner by first flogging him 100 times and then hanging him from a crane, all before a large crowd, and even allowed a relative of one of the victims to stab him during the execution and the mother of another victim to put the noose around his neck. By almost any measure, it was a savage display.

But Eugene Volokh approved of it, writing:

I particularly like the involvement of the victims’ relatives in the killing of the monster; I think that if he’d killed one of my relatives, I would have wanted to play a role in killing him. Also, though for many instances I would prefer less painful forms of execution, I am especially pleased that the killing – and, yes, I am happy to call it a killing, a perfectly proper term for a perfectly proper act – was a slow throttling, and was preceded by a flogging. The one thing that troubles me (besides the fact that the murderer could only be killed once) is that the accomplice was sentenced to only 15 years in prison, but perhaps there’s a good explanation.

I am being perfectly serious, by the way. I like civilization, but some forms of savagery deserve to be met not just with cold, bloodless justice but with the deliberate infliction of pain, with cruel vengeance rather than with supposed humaneness or squeamishness. I think it slights the burning injustice of the murders, and the pain of the families, to react in any other way.

Who is this Eugene Volokh who, like Krauthammer, writes with such relish about seeing people die in excruciating agony? He is a professor of constitutional law at UCLA and one of the principal authors of a popular law blog called The Volokh Conspiracy. The fact that someone who has presumably thought deeply about the law and constitutional issues can pen such words is a sign that the so-called war on terror has undermined all the values that we should hold dear.

Volokh received a lot of criticism for his posting and started to backtrack, but on practical rather than moral grounds. Initially, he said that such types of punishments would violate the US constitution. But his solution to that problem was to recommend changes in the constitution removing that barrier.

UPDATE: I should mention that such a punishment would probably violate the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause. I’m not an expert on the history of the clause, but my point is that the punishment is proper because it’s cruel (i.e., because it involves the deliberate infliction of pain as part of the punishment), so it may well be unconstitutional. I would therefore endorse amending the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Clause to expressly exclude punishment for some sorts of mass murders.

Naturally, I don’t expect this to happen any time soon; my point is about what should be the rule, not about what is the rule, or even what is the constitutionally permissible rule. I think the Bill of Rights is generally a great idea, but I don’t think it’s holy writ handed down from on high. Certain amendments to it may well be proper, though again I freely acknowledge that they’d be highly unlikely.

In any event, there’s nothing unconstitutional about letting victims’ relatives participate in the execution; it’s only the use of cruel means that would require an amendment.

He then backtracked some more, but again because of practical questions, because even if the amendment to the constitution he advocated were adopted, the actual implementation difficulties would be huge:

What I found most persuasive about Mark’s argument was his points about institutions: about how hard it would be for a jury system to operate when this punishment was available, and how its availability would affect gubernatorial elections, legislative elections, and who knows what else. Even if enough people vote to authorize these punishments constitutionally and legislatively (which I’ve conceded all along is highly unlikely), there would be such broad, deep, and fervent opposition to them – much broader, deeper, and more fervent than the opposition to the death penalty – that attempts to impose the punishments would logjam the criminal justice system and the political system.

And this would be true even when the punishments are sought only for the most heinous of murderers. It’s not just that you couldn’t find 12 people to convict; it’s that the process of trying to find these people, and then execute the judgment they render, will impose huge costs on the legal system (for a few examples, see Mark’s post). Whatever one’s abstract judgments about the proper severity of punishments, this is a punishment that will not fit with our legal and political culture.

So Krauthammer, Dershowitz, and Volokh all approve of such cruelty in principle but are only concerned, if at all, about the practical problems of implementation. If such influential opinion shapers have these views, is it any surprise that there is so little outrage at the things that are currently being done by the US?

Apart from the actual torturing of prisoners at military prisons like Abu Ghraib in Iraq, Bagram base in Afghanistan, and Guantanamo in Cuba, the website Jesus’ General listed the way that the US military is taking hostages in Iraq and Afghanistan. They are kidnapping and holding the wives and children of people hostage, either to force fugitives to give themselves up, or if they are already in custody, to make them talk. We have sunk to the level of those people who kidnapped journalist Jill Carroll and the Christian Peacemaker Team in Iraq and are holding them hostage, using them as bargaining chips.

People like Krauthammer always finely tune their arguments for self-serving purposes. For example, he says that for the ordinary soldier caught on the field of battle “There is no question that he is entitled to humane treatment. Indeed, we have no right to disturb a hair on his head.” Clearly he carefully situating himself so that his approval of torture is not used for the torturing of captured US soldiers, with blame falling on him. But this kind of careful legal tap-dancing is worthless because it assumes that everyone will agree to operate according to rules set by one side.

But the point is that once you allow the torturing of anyone under any circumstances, all bets are off. People who capture US soldiers will be unimpressed by Krauthammer’s delicate distinctions. They will argue that just because the US soldiers have nice uniforms and know how to march in formation does not mean that they should receive better treatment than the irregulars who fight guerilla wars. Allowing torture is like a kick in boxing. Once you allow that, you are in a different kind of fight and the Marquis of Queensbury rules don’t apply anymore. Now anything goes.

This kind of escalation is similar what happened with the Muslim cartoons that caused offense. (See here for my earlier posts on this topic.) When an Iranian paper said that they were, in response, seeking Jewish holocaust cartoons to test the depth of the commitment of western newspapers to the freedom of the press argument that they used for publishing the cartoons, some people said that this was going over the line of acceptability, that they should have stopped with cartoons involving Jesus or something. But with such issues, the unresolved point always is “Who gets to draw the line?”

While there is a (admittedly small) chance that we can all agree that torture should be unconditionally outlawed, once we allow exceptions there is almost no chance that we will all agree on what those exceptions should be. This is because the act of torture is so extreme, and the varieties of ways in which it can be practiced so numerous, that the people at the receiving end will not accept restrictions on how they can respond.

It is absurd to think that people are going to agree to have international monitors to see if torturers are following some set of rules.

To be continued…

POST SCRIPT: Gordon Parks

Gordon Parks (photojournalist, cinematographer, movie director, novelist, poet, music and ballet composer) died earlier this week at the age of 93. In an earlier posting I had quoted him on his 88th birthday in 2000 saying:

I think most people can do a whole awful lot more if they just try. They just don’t have the confidence that they can write a novel or they can write poetry or they can take pictures or paint or whatever, and so they don’t do it, and they leave the planet dissatisfied with themselves.

I used to tell the first year students in my physics classes this quote to encourage them to think big and to explore the many facets of their own interests and personalities and not to be intimidated from trying something just because they felt they were not good enough.

After all, Parks tried and did many things even though he was a black man growing up at a time when many doors were not open to him because of his skin color. As he said in his autobiography “Nothing came easy. . .I was just born with a need to explore every tool shop of my mind, and with long searching and hard work. I became devoted to my restlessness.”

The case against torture

It seems bizarre that we have reached a stage where we actually have to make a case against the use of torture. One would have thought that it would be self-evident that torturing people is wrong and should not be condoned. But sadly, that is not the situation anymore. We are now in a place where the formerly unthinkable is now not only thought but also done and actively encouraged.

Clearly, Vice-President Cheney has emerged as someone who has no scruples in this regard.
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Grace in sports

Although I did not watch any of the 2006 winter Olympics events on TV, I casually followed them in the press, and the front page headline in the Sunday Plain Dealer caught my attention. It said Grace eludes U.S. Olympians: Too many athletes at Torino Games live up to ‘ugly American’ image and listed the many ways in which some US athletes did not behave well at the games.

I must admit that I am increasingly turned off by the way people behave at sporting events. It irritates me when people do not behave with grace and courtesy and politeness. To see athletes boasting and gloating and taunting their opponents when they do something well, to get angry and belligerent when someone else gets the better of them, and to loudly and rudely protest when the referee or umpire makes a wrong call, are all things that I find really distasteful, so much so that I rarely watch major sporting events anymore. And it is not just players who behave like this, sometimes spectators are even worse.
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Opinion polls and statistics

In the previous post and in many aspects of life these days, we get quoted the results of opinion polls. Many of our public policies are strongly influenced by these polls, with politicians paying close attention to them before speaking out.

But while people are inundated with opinion polls, there is still considerable misunderstanding about how they work. Especially during elections, when there are polls practically every day, one often hears people expressing skepticism about polls, saying that they feel the polls are not representative because they, personally, and all the people they know, have never been asked their opinion. Surely, they reason, if so many polls are done, every person should get a shot at answering these surveys? That fact that no pollster has contacted them or their friends and families seem to make the poll results suspect in their eyes, as if the pollsters are using some highly selective group of people to ask and leaving out ‘ordinary’ people.
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The beliefs of Americans

In response to an earlier post about the surprisingly high percentage of Americans who believe in the rapture and other things, there was some skepticism about how reliable the numbers and how they broke down depending on age, etc.

I have not been able to find further documentation to support the figure of 44% who are either certain or think it very likely that the rapture will occur in their lifetimes. But there are other interesting breakdowns.

For example, in this Harris poll from July 6, 2005, 47% do not believe that apes and humans have common ancestry, which is a key tenet of evolution, while 46% believe it. A similar number 45% do not believe plants and animals evolved from other species. So we can pretty much conclude that slightly less than half the population reject pretty much all of evolution.

Curiously, only 22% believe that humans evolved from earlier species, while 64% believe that humans were created directly by God. I am not sure how this squares with the above answers. Maybe people are interpreting the phrases “common ancestry” and “directly created” in ways that are different from me.
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Martin Luther King and non-violence

The main criticism leveled against the non-violence movement led by King (by critics such as those in the Black Power movement) was that it reinforced the stereotype of African-Americans as passive and meek. They argued that changing this perception required African-Americans to separate from whites and forge a more militant identity. King disagreed strongly with this analysis. In an interview, King said that “there is great deal of difference between nonresistance to evil and nonviolent resistance.” He pointed out that anyone who had been involved in the civil rights struggles would know that nonviolent resistance, far from being passive, was a strong, determined, and effective response to injustice.
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Harry Belafonte

I went to the Harry Belafonte talk last night at Strosacker and he lived up to his reputation as a plain speaker who does not shy away from telling it like it is. He again called Bush a terrorist and added “traitor” as well. He also confirmed that the reason he did not speak at Coretta Scott King’s funeral was that he had been disinvited when Bush said that he was attending, and confirmed the story that I wrote about on Monday about the splits in the King family about how to move forward.
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