Wednesday, June 16, 2010

The "Trust Us" Presidency...same as it ever was

I am truly at my wit's end with our President. I fully admit that I was "hopeful" in voting for him a year and a half ago. I never considered myself "ga-ga" over the guy, but I was very excited at the prospect of having a presumably intelligent President who would surround himself with the best and brightest minds to tackle the toughest challenges that America has faced in many years.

In this post, I want to concentrate on a broad area on which he has, by any objective measure, completely failed to live up to his promises: civil liberties.

First, a quick thought on the term. It's really unfortunate that the term "civil liberties" has been turned upside down to mean something only a far-left nutjob would ever want to strongly and vocally defend (as the ACLU bashers love to do). But part of me is optimistic with the recent rise of libertarianism, which in full really means civil libertarianism. To see how weird this has become, just consider the word "liberty". Nobody would ever not defend that beautiful and profound word. You'll even see it on the signs of a vast majority of the Tea Partiers. Yet, when you put in front of it the word "civil", it all of a sudden turns Soviet Red to some people. It hasn't always been this way.

The cause of this rift in semantics seems pretty clear to me. There are some who only think Liberty applies to certain upstanding people. Those liberties of those upstanding people should be defended at all costs from all the evildoers of the world whether they be government or private entities. During the African-American civil rights era, these upstanding people were whites. Blacks didn't really deserve liberty, they argued. And it was really easy for people to divide the upstanding people from the non-upstanding people; just look at the color of their skin. We have obviously made leaps-and-bounds on racism issues since then but today we have a new division.

Today, these upstanding people are anyone who is not a terrorist. That sounds pretty reasonable. Terrorists are bad people, right? They don't deserve to have liberty because they are murderers who use fear to accomplish some sort of political goal. But who exactly is a terrorist? (What does terrorism even mean?) How would you recognize one so that you could make the conscious decision of limiting their liberty? I think when the word "terrorist" is mentioned, most of us conjure up images of something similar to the Libyans chasing Marty McFly in their VW bus with a bazooka pointed out the pop-top. But life, unfortunately, is not Hollywood. It turns out that as much as people like to think they know how to "spot a terrorist", it isn't as easy as just looking at someone's skin, is it?

But it doesn't necessarily matter who we think is a terrorist. More importantly, it matters who the military, intelligence, and law enforcement sectors of our government think is a terrorist. If they say someone is a terrorist, then they are a terrorist, right? Well, apparently more than a few people in this country believe that. And the crazy thing is that these apparently trusting people don't trust government any further than they can throw it on nearly every other issue! How strange. So what should a civilized society do?

Well, it turns out that we have a fail-safe for exactly these types of situations built into our form of government: the justice system. Fantastic! The fundamental tenet of the justice system is to sift through the evidence to determine whether or not people are who they are accused to be and to safeguard the civil liberties of all people under the control of the U.S. government (Yes, that means it can apply to non-citizens as well). But what happens when the traditional justice system isn't used in terrorist cases?...Welcome to the post-9/11 world and the era of the "War on Terror".

A favorite argument against using the justice system for suspected terrorists is that we are "at war" with terrorists. It is not appropriate to inject those with whom we are at war into the justice system because there's a non-zero chance that a real terrorist could be let free due to lack of evidence or some procedural error. They say that we are better off just playing it safe and detaining suspected terrorists (i.e., eliminating their liberty and keeping them far away from the justice system) indefinitely for the length of the war.

This type of argument has been made before in past wars. We surely do not want to put our prisoners-of-war into some courtroom (even though it's pretty obvious that they could be found guilty of some wrongdoing) because of the possibility of letting them go and re-engaging our troops on a battlefied. This has led to a very rigorous framework for how to handle prisoners-of-war that is the basis of the UN Geneva Conventions. But how does this situation apply to the "War on Terror", a war with a battlefield that encompasses every habitable place on Earth and with no conceivable way of formally ending the conflict with some sort of peace treaty or resolution? What we have today and what we have been dealing with for the last 9 years is a whole different animal.

The Bush administration essentially told us to Trust Them: "We know who the terrorists are and we will protect you from them." So they tortured and indefinitely detained suspected terrorists to keep us safe. But as it turns out, they picked up a lot of people who turned out to be completely innocent. The biggest reason for this was the enormous bounties being given to Afghan people who could produce "terrorists". Of course, someone would be able to produce a "terrorist" out of thin air if they were promised enough money to feed their starving family for a year. The bottom line is that we were scared after 9/11 and we flexed our muscle way too much. And in the process we extended the dragnet way too wide and picked up perfectly innocent people. But we never acknowledged it and instead tried our damnedest to extract whatever scraps of intelligence these people had (or could fabricate under the stress of torture) all in order to keep ourselves safe. (Quick note: I use "we" here because we should claim responsibility for the actions of those we elect)

So what, specifically, has President Obama done to continue this same set of horrifying policies? Here's a list that I have slowly been adding to over the last several weeks:

  1. Not defending and actually investigating lawyers who admirably chose to counsel suspected terrorists in Guantanamo Bay. Doesn't anyone recall the time when another admirable person defended a bunch of hugely unpopular defendants accused of barbarism?
  2. Attacking government whistle-blowers in the intelligence community for trying to expose these terrible policies and practices.
  3. Actively fighting against habeas corpus reviews of detainees at Bagram prison even though the Supreme Court ruled against the exact same circumstance for Guantanamo detainees.
  4. Ordering the explicit assassination of a U.S. citizen without any due process.
  5. Developing a "legal" framework to indefinitely detain suspected "dangerous" terrorists. This is incredibly damaging. This would institutionalize and make bipartisan the policy of indefinite detention.
  6. Perhaps the most dangerous aspect of Obama's strategy is using rhetoric to distance himself from the Bush doctrine of American exceptionalism but turning 180 degrees around when actually implementing policy and action. At least with Bush, we knew what we were getting because rhetoric was largely consistent with action.
  7. Continuing to detain people in Guantanamo in the face of enormous evidence of their innocence.
  8. Actively fighting against allowing Canadian citizen Maher Arar a day in court to address his claims of being tortured in Syria through the extraordinary rendition program.

My point with this list is to illustrate a wide-reaching and consistent stance by the Obama administration of effectively continuing the policies of the Bush era. While there are some glimmers of hope (like eliminating some torture techniques and writing pretty rhetoric in policy statements), this is still the same old stuff.

So what are the consequences of this type of behavior that completely ignores the justice system exactly at the time when it is most needed? I would consider two types: practical and moral (and they're inescapably linked) We have become a nation that is hated by so many people across the world because of the hypocritical combination of our beautiful rhetoric FOR liberty and freedom and our ugly actions AGAINST the same. It's the people who have been marginalized and alienated directly by our political decisions who become the new terrorists who then feel impelled to blow up scores of troops and innocent civilians in far away places. We have become less safe as a consequence of decisions that were made (albeit with good intentions sometimes) in the name of making us more safe. There will always be those with unyielding political views that we simply cannot get to come around no matter how principled and moral we behave; but it's those that are "on the fence" that we truly can negatively impact when we enact such horrifying and backward policies as our indefinite detention (and torture) system.

And on the moral question, I'm going to end with a quote from Kevin Drum specifically about torture but the same could be said about our indefinite detention policy as well:

I don't care about the Geneva Conventions or U.S. law.  I don't care about the difference between torture and "harsh treatment."  I don't care about the difference between uniformed combatants and terrorists.  I don't care whether it "works."  I oppose torture regardless of the current state of the law; I oppose even moderate abuse of helpless detainees; I oppose abuse of criminal suspects and religious heretics as much as I oppose it during wartime; and I oppose it even if it produces useful information.
The whole point of civilization is as much moral advancement as it is physical and technological advancement.  But that moral progress comes slowly and very, very tenuously.  In the United States alone, it took centuries to decide that slavery was evil, that children shouldn't be allowed to work 12-hour days on power looms, and that police shouldn't be allowed to beat confessions out of suspects.
On other things there's no consensus yet.  Like it or not, we still make war, and so does the rest of the world.  But at least until recently, there was a consensus that torture is wrong.  Full stop.  It was the practice of tyrants and barbarians.  But like all moral progress, the consensus on torture is tenuous, and the only way to hold on to it — the only way to expand it — is by insisting absolutely and without exception that we not allow ourselves to backslide.  Human nature being what it is — savage, vengeful, and tribal — the temptations are just too great.  Small exceptions will inevitably grow into big ones, big ones into routine ones, and the progress of centuries is undone in an eyeblink.
Somebody else could explain this better than me.  But the consensus against torture is one of our civilization's few unqualified moral advances, and it's a consensus won only after centuries of horror and brutality.  We just can't lose it.

Monday, June 7, 2010

The Humbling Experience of Being Wrong

From Felix Salmon today:
The forced retirement of Helen Thomas is further proof, if any were needed, that it’s still unacceptable, in public discourse, to be wrong in one’s opinions. I find that sad.
Thomas gave voice to an opinion which she then, almost immediately, retracted; no one, in thesubsequent debate, defended the substance of her remarks. She was wrong; everybody, including Thomas, agrees on that point, and no real harm was done to anyone but Thomas when the video of her remarks surfaced.
But if you turn out to be wrong, even temporarily, even only once, on a hot-button issue, that’s enough for effective excommunication from polite society. That, to me, is chilling: I’d much rather live in a world where people should be able to change their minds and should be allowed to be wrong on occasion. For surely we are all wrong, much more often than we like to think.
This morning, I had an interesting conversation with Christopher Hitchens, who’s in town plugging his memoir. He professed to be a man of few beliefs, political or otherwise: “my only commitment is to a group of skeptics who are not sure of anything,” he said. But when I asked him what he wasn’t sure about, he started talking about galaxy formation, of all things. He said that “my greatest delight is being proved right in my own lifetime”, and said that he couldn’t think of the last time that he was wrong about anything. In other words, he’s highly skeptical of others, but utterly incapable of interrogating his own opinions with the same kind of approach.
Hitchens, in other words, would make an atrociously bad trader. He has the cocky-and-arrogant bit down, to be sure — in order to beat the market you have to think that you’re smarter than the market. But you also have to be incredibly insecure, willing to change your mind and your opinions very quickly.
At the beginning of the conversation, Hitchens expressed a certain amount of intellectual pleasure in noting that the statement “Christopher Hitchens is dead” is false now, but will be true in the future. But that’s trivial. When it comes to the opinions he expresses in his columns and books, he’s much less willing to admit that any of them are anything but certainly and timelessly true.
I try hard to believe the opposite: that many if not most of my opinions are wrong (although of course I have no idea which they are), and that many of the most interesting and useful things I write come out of my being wrong rather than being right. This is not, as Wilkinson noted to Cowen, an easy intellectual stance to hold: he calls it “a weird violation of the actual computational constraints of the human mind”.
But I think it’s undoubtedly worth working on, and, as I say, I think it’s one which is more common in women than in men. And I think it’s a serious weakness of Hitchens’ that he places so much importance on his being right.