Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Tortured Logic II : Truth or justice? A possible way forward.

The Obama administration is losing control of the torture narrative, and there is a real possibility that the right may hijack this issue using classic Rovian playbook tactics. The half-measures and equivocation that have led up to this moment – the tepid, measure language of post-election Obama on the topic of prosecution combined with the preemptive pardoning of CIA agents who engaged in torture - has created a space for plausible deniability on the part of Bush administration, and generated an opportunity for legal limbo which will obscure the central thesis. Worse, recent discussions in the legitimate media have fed into neo-con talking point about “successful” water boardings, which in turn has revived that vile, Bush-era euphemism, “enhanced interrogation.”

The ghosts of the Bush years, chiefly Rove and Cheney, have kept the business of misinformation and Rumsfeldian word play going during their various soundings on Fox news and at various fund raisers. A week of attempting to distract the mainstream media with bogus, “tea-parties” (a motley assortment of heart-sickened Ron Paulists, anti-tax libertarian conspiracists, sore losers, and - distressingly – racists) utterly failed to derail legitimate talk of possible glimmers of hope on the economic horizon. The parties also failed to keep the release of the “torture memos” from making front page news. (It must be devastating to have lost complete control of the program.) But just as the possibility of having the past eight years of executive and judicial criminality brought out of the darkness was seeming like a reality, Obama opts to give the perpetrators of torture a pass. This is a transparently political move to gain favor with the Pentagon. Obama needs them on his side. He erred in selecting an outsider like Panetta to run things on that end. Now he wants to gain allegiances from those who may feel more kinship with the former vice president than the current young man in the White House. But always desiring to have and to eat his cake, Obama has made some gestures towards justice by suggesting, in a rather meager way, that those who actually gave legal direction and sanctioned torture may have to be prosecuted. According to recent reports, the top two names on the list are former Secretary of State Rice and Cheney.

(Now that they can no longer say they weren’t involved, Cheney and company must try to reframe the issue. No longer will they deny that it is torture, but they will say it was effective torture. This “evolution” of the Bush administration’s talking points on torture is distressingly similar to the pattern used to justify the invasion of Iraq: First it was to stop Saddam’s WMDs, then it was to fight terror, then it was a war for Iraqi freedom. )

Again, Obama is looking to please and be pleased. This is not a novel position for Obama. When he was the candidate for Illinois state senator he would race between the Methodist church and the local chamber of commerce, hoping not to mix up his speeches, the President had to keep many people happy, and if not happy, at least on his side, and if not on his side then, minimally, not totally against him. This is probably politics at its best and may make people like Chris Matthews salivate, but to a citizen concerned with justice, and interested in seeing bad men brought down, humiliated, and finally broken on the engines of our democratic ideals, these gestures smack of rudderless pragmatism.

But taking a step back (or down, as in, “talk me down!”) there might be a way for those who are interested in seeing Cheney, et al answer for their crimes to meet Obama and AG Holder half way. The compromise might be truth rather than justice. It might involve knowing what really happened in our name rather than having our fondest wishes realized (in my case, Cheney bunking with Rove in a Federal prison cell). As I mentioned in an earlier entry, truth and reconciliation, as practiced in South Africa, may be a way forward for us as a country. People interested in justice may have to accept that power, money, and influence often trump concerns for due process and a final accounting. After all, Henry Kissinger is still at large, despite the protestations of Chris Hitchens. But the truth does matter. And there are people who worked in the Satanic bursaries of Rice and Cheney. There are CIA agents dying to light candles and tell their stories of orders to torture and their subsequent haunted dreams of no small distress. Such a drawing together of the supporting cast would generate a catharsis which may heal places where mere prosecution (with all of its tendencies to mask truth behind ambiguity. Think how Bill Clinton parsed grammar to cast the language of sex into doubt.) cannot.

And beyond catharsis, might there be something else? Perhaps such a public airing would finally and forever discredit that amoral, cynical wing of the Republican party we have come to know as the neo-cons, and cast the hulking corpses of the Kirkpatricks and Scoop Jacksons into deserved oblivion, and their acolytes – Wolfowitz, Feith, Kristol, and Perle – into intellectual obscurity. What we’d be left with are Goldwater libertarians like McCain, plutocrats like Romney, dunderheaded populists like Giuliani and Palin, religious zealots like Dobson, and isolationists like Buchanan.

All of whom, I contend, would do less damage to the nation than the Cheney clique have done this past decade.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Tortured Logic: The ethical double-bind of “just following orders.”

In the wake of the release of the so-called “CIA torture memos” - the memorandum which provided agents in the field with guidelines for interrogation techniques - the Obama administration has decided not to hold CIA agents responsible for acts of torture. Indeed, newly appointed Director of National Intelligence, Dennis Blair, has asserted that his agency “will absolutely defend those who relied on these memos.”

Among other things, this sort of “blame the Generals, not the Privates” defense of illegal behavior smacks of a kind of moral relevancy that should shock anyone who believes that there are imperatives under the social contract. (That is to say, obviously, in a state of nature, there are no laws, therefore nothing is forbidden because there is no social structure to make moral-based choices.) A person placed in a situation where he must decide whether he needs to resort to torture will perform one of three intellectual operations:

  1. Torture because it is valid method to obtain information
  2. Not torture because it is ethically wrong to do so
  3. Torture or not torture based on what orders he is given

Putting aside the nothing that choice four would involve sadists who simply get off on inflicting pain, let’s assume that the above three options are available to a reasoning, sober human being. Only options one and two represent moral postures. An individual may make his choice based on what he feels is in harmony with his world view; the way the world should function. Option three represent a non-choice because it defers the choice to a paternalistic figure who will do the thinking for him. It is not a moral choice but rather an abrogation of our innate ability to function as a self-determining units. It is the position of the masochist, the underling, the henchman, the co-dependent, and the follower. I might also refer to this individuals as cowards, but I think that there may be bravery in certain kinds of faith in authority. I am not totally settled on this matter, so I will leave it for now.

It is possible that at times numbers 1 and 2 will coincide with the orders. That is not an issue of controversy. The question that we come back to again and again in history is what should humans do when they disagree with authority? If the General says “Do not, under any circumstance, use torture” and the agent does so anyway, the agent is listening to some form of higher authority. Jack Bauer on the TV show 24 wants to always be expediting because, well, the clock is ticking. So he will cut through the bureaucracy and get to the information he needs by any means necessary. We might find something admirable in that because we despise bureaucracy and love the forthright man of action. And besides, he’s not torturing good guys.

The conscientious interrogator who refuses to torture even after receiving his orders will face certain consequences. Perhaps he will be viewed as an unpatriotic coward, unwilling to do whatever is necessary in the defense of his nation. (Keeping in mind that there is almost universal agreement among intelligence experts that torture does not work. Famously, the Al-Qaida operative Khalid Sheikh Mohammed gave information after being tortured that resulted in “wild goose chases.”)

The orders themselves may originate from individuals who themselves would not be capable of performing the acts. They may in fact find themselves more in camp 2 or camp 3. But bureaucratic distance allows for the same sort of moral abrogation as when an insurance company denies chemotherapy treatment to a cancer patient. Facelessness is moral detachment. And in the heat of so-called “group think” or the “fog of war” there are ample opportunities for plausible deniability, scapegoating, and euphemism.

As with his refusal to halt the NSA wiretaps, Obama in this matter is showing an ugly form of moral pragmatism that will only serve to undermine his long term goals. Surely, how can we demand human rights from Cuba when we are going to allow agents who torture in our name to carry on with their lives, safe in the shadows? How can we lead with such an obvious abandonment of principle?

What is needed here is a compromise. A truth and reconciliation panel similar to the ones held in post-apartheid South Africa created a space where justice and public confession could meet in common cause. Even upright individuals will hide from accusers if there is the threat of punishment. They will deny their crimes and perhaps become belligerent, seeking hospitality from whatever fringe group will tacitly affirm their behavior. If a CIA agent truly believed that the best option in a torture/don’t torture scenario was to follow orders, he or she must feel a tremendous burden of guilt if they went against their conscious (assuming for the moment that the CIA does not knowing hire sadists). If there is the threat of length imprisonment, they may well be shepherded into the arms of far-right groups like the KKK. But what if the government told them they could come out from the shadows, tell their story, and demonstrate sincere regret without having to lose their lives? What if our government shouldered the blame? What if we went after the order-givers rather than the order-takers?

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Atheism and the Limits of Tolerance in a Free Society - Part 2

"Rendering unto Caesar": The Tax Code and Religion's Special Status

The tolerance shown to all religions in this country is laudable. It is suggest a “big tent” philosophy and generates commerce in the market of ideas. However, the freedoms inherent here are derivatives of the First Amendment. Religion is a speech act as well as an act of assembly. But so is the act of giving any speech on any topic to any assembled group. To be sure, religion plays a significant role in American life and culture, however it is not more special or more protected than, say, rights of the free press, or, for that matter, the right of atheists to hold assemblies in designated buildings. However, over time, religion has received “extra” rights not enjoyed by the other constituents of the First Amendment. Specifically, religious organizations do not have to pay taxes on the profits. Presumably this is because of the automatic assumption that any religion is essentially a non-profit concern. And perhaps there is an argument to be made that individual religious organizations do perform charitable work and should therefore be afforded non-profit status. But could we not also say that a free press performs a service for the community and should therefore be considered a kind of charity? (Especially nowadays, in light of decreased circulation.) What about a political blogger or the local garage band playing at the Kappa Kappa Gamma mixer? The latter two examples may seem to be absurd, but it does suggest ways in which religion has managed to carve a special place for itself beyond its codification within the constitution. We don’t think about the taxation exemption for religion, because the 501c3 status of churches has been with us for so long (1954).

Some American religious leaders have gone so far as to claim that 501c3 is actually unnecessary and that churches in the US are under no obligation to pay taxes in any case. They read the First Amendment’s “free exercise” clause (“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”) meaning that church organization cannot collect taxes from the institution. But this is a willful conflation of the concept of “religion” and the concept of “church.” “Church” is a business concern with real estate, a management structure, and clients. When the collection plate is passed around, the money that is donated is legal tender. Again, it is very probable that the vast majority of church could be construed as chartable. But if the money is going evangelization campaigns and luxuries for the minister it would be a trick of credulity to accept those expenditures as charitable.

This special consideration has emboldened religion, specifically Evangelical Christianity in the US, to seek increasingly larger portions of the franchise. In addition, the strange bedfellowing of the Born Again movement with Goldwater conservatives in the seventies created a powerful and highly successful block within the Republican party. It is a block that would seem foreign and bizarre to the likes of Dewey, Eisenhower, Nixon, and Rockerfeller and an anathema to old time religious zealots who eschewed politics as too worldly. (One should be reminded that Jimmy Carter is Born Again.) Leave it to the actor, Ronald Reagan to take into his vacuous psyche this political chimera and make it a plausible ruling philosophy. Thus we have witnessed thirty years church and state flirtation. While this has meant relatively little in terms of real political change (no prayer in school; abortion is still available, and despite occasional gains in many back waters, Creationism is not taught in public schools), it has created a culture of acceptable, mainstreamed fanaticism. We can see this in the Christian Right’s dubious embrace of Zionism. By purporting to support Israel unconditionally, the far-Right has actually appropriated holocaust guilt to make the claim that they are under attack; that Christianity must be protected against the forces of secularism in America. After all, wasn’t Nazism a secular movement? In casting themselves as the victims of intolerance, the Christian right has attempted to make themselves impervious to criticism. After all, if you are critical of the State of Israel and its treatment of Palestinians, then you are naturally an anti-Semite. And since WE (the Christian Right) believe in Israel’s cause, you are therefore anti-Christian as well. You are intolerant! Assuming underdog status when you are actually in the ascendency is a powerful way of having your rhetorical cake and eating it too.