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October Rants
by Ronald Bruce Meyer
A collection of opinionated thoughts not deserving of a separate page or a full essay



tattered flagOctober 30, 2001. Tortured Reasons
I had heard some troubling news recently about the FBI and other entities actually entertaining the notion that they might use torture to get essential information about terrorist plans and activities in this country. Of course, they wouldn't exactly call it torture: they'd probably euphemize the term by calling it something like "enhanced persuasive techniques." But torture is torture, and not only is it just plain wrong, it doesn't even work. This was brought to mind by a letter I read today in the Washington Post, written by Douglas A. Johnson, Executive Director of the Center for Victims of Torture.

Of course, every great empire has used torture. Why should the US be different? The justification for torture goes all the way back to the Babylonian lex talionis or "an eye for an eye," which Hebrew law adopted and refined. Torture was pretty much confined to slaves in ancient Greece; in ancient Rome it was frowned on by the Stoic-Epicurean jurists, such as Seneca and Ulpian. (The stories of Roman pagans torturing Christians are just that -- stories.) But the fall of ancient Rome gave rise to the real masters of "enhanced persuasion": Torture and mutilation were features of the Middle Age in Christian Europe, and especially of the Dark Age. And that doesn't even count the burning of millions of heretics alive, which was smiled on by Pope Leo I.

During the feudal age of Europe, serfs were routinely brutalized by their masters. Jews were especially victimized (often for their money and property). The Age of Chivalry could more properly be called the Age of Torture, so common was the practice: cutting off or crushing breasts, castration, chopping off feet, ears, hands, cutting or piercing tongues with hot irons, and gouging out eyes. There was also the wheel, the rack, boiling oil, "pressing" with large stones, "Spanish Boots," thumbscrews, whipping, starvation, and so on. It will be remembered that at the dawn of the so-called Age of Chivalry, Peter Abélard was castrated by thugs in the employ of a church canon. Castration, at least in Rome, was used as punishment up until the 16th century. My, we were ingenious with torture when everyone went to church!

You might argue that torture can be expeditious. If there's a ticking bomb and you have the guy who set it in your custody, why not used whatever means is necessary to get him to talk? Lives are at stake, after all, and they have to be weighed against the temporary discomfort of a criminal. Would torture be effective under those circumstances?

Yes, of course. But you must ask the next logical question, which is: do such clear-cut circumstances ever occur? Almost never. There are too many variables. What qualifies at a "ticking bomb"? Do you have the right guy in custody? Is the situation really an emergency? Are lives really at risk? How much "enhanced persuasion" is too much?

As Mr. Johnson pointed out, "Torture is an ineffective technique for gaining useful information but highly effective for gaining confessions from innocent people. Rather than doing the hard work of investigation, police in countries permitting torture rely on confessions for the sake of efficiency. It becomes less important to actually solve a crime and do justice than to create a statistic of effectiveness."

And here is the most important point of all: We also must acknowledge that if a technique is used, it will be abused. That's just the way people are when they have the power to make another person uncomfortable. Add that to your list of stupid anti-terrorism tricks.

tattered flagOctober 19, 2001 Leadership in Hiding
In the Los Angeles Times today were a couple of letters, and a commentary by John Balzar, which said pretty much what I have been saying and, since the closing of the House of Representatives, reiterating. At first I thought it was just Mr. Bush who failed to show leadership in the face of adversity by hiding out right after learning of the terror attack on the World Trade Center. But then the House closed down after someone contracted an eminently curable infection of anthrax. This is insane. We are playing the terrorists' game. We are giving in to fear.

Yeah, I agree we don't want anyone to die of anthrax. But there has to be a reason we elect these people to be our leaders; there has to be a reason they want to be elected; there has to be a price for enjoying the perquisites of power. It's a big, bad world and if we can't suffer a "bloody nose" now and then we might as well stay home and hide under the bed. It's not safe out there. I hate to be cliché about it, but ships in port are safe -- but that's not what ships are built for.

Representatives can hide or they can lead the country; except we didn't elect them to hide. That's like saying the man is more valuable than the function. In any other job, I would agree, since we all must work, but no one forced these people to run for office. Anyone will do as president or congressman or senator. If they want the job, they'd better be in love with democracy, not just their own sorry asses.

tattered flagOctober 17, 2001 Cockpit Cowboys
I responded via e-mail to an op-ed by Chicago Tribune columnist Bob Greene. I generally agree with the idea of hardening and locking cockpit doors to keep terrorists away from the controls of the aircraft -- which he said was suggested years ago. It sure beats issuing guns to pilots, as if they can be Sky King and Wyatt Earp at the same time. Besides, aircraft fuselages don't take too well to bullets.

But, I asked Greene, "how can we assure that the metal is accompanied by mettle? Suppose the stakes are raised to a certain level of violence against the passengers and flight crew? What cockpit personnel can ignore the screams of passengers and flight attendants being tortured and killed by hijackers -- even if they have only pen knives and box cutters? Would that persuade them to open the door?"

Greene never acknowledged my note.

tattered flagOctober 13, 2001 Self-Censorship -- or Else
One brief comment on the "war" -- which I put in quotes because it doesn't quite fit the traditional definition, nor has Congress formally declared one. I find it incredibly stupid that people like Ari ("watch what you say") Fleischer and Condoleezza ("coded message") Rice are counseling self-censorship, which may be followed by an "or else." As the Los Angeles Times pointed out, on October 2, "If this nation is indeed at war, this time we're not fighting to defend oil supplies or human rights abroad. This time, we're fighting to defend our democracy and the principles embodied in our Constitution. Foremost among those is the extraordinary freedom that Americans have to say what they think. That liberty set this nation apart 200 years ago and has allowed it to endure. Without it, as Idaho's William Borah told his Senate colleagues in 1917, `it makes no difference under what form of government you live, you are a subject, not a citizen.'"

TV news executives rolled over for the National Security advisor -- in spite of a lack of evidence that there were any such coded messages in the terrorist tapes; in spite of the fact that the "messages" in question will be seen everywhere else in the world! I'm not entirely blaming the TV networks: the administration has them by the soft tissue, as it were -- as long as they desire the golden goodies the FCC can grant them (cross-ownership), which can make them buckets of money while further shifting the diversity of news outlets to a stultifying sameness. (Even PBS and NPR are not immune.)

But then Secretary of State Colin Powell went even further, asking the popular Qatar-based independent TV outlet, al-Jazeerah, to suppress messages from Osama bin Laden and his henchmen -- in spite of the fact that al-Jazeerah models itself after the balanced approach of Western TV news by also broadcasting messages from George Bush and Tony Blair. (I use the word "balanced" here as a figure of speech -- TV news is always pro-business when not conspicuously anti-worker -- so much for "liberal bias" in the media!)

I have to ask: if the US government is managing the news, silencing dissent (by encouraging self-censorship), and covering up lies and mistakes under the blanket of national security -- in what way can US citizens make informed judgments on the conduct of our new and very expensive (in lives and materiel) foreign policy? And I have to say that I predicted this: I predicted that the Bill of Rights would soon become negotiable, put in the lockbox after the Social Security surplus was removed. And Congress passed the administration's anti-terrorism bill without debate, without even reading it!

The USA is not a nation based on one ethnicity or one religion (thank God!), but a nation based on a shared idea: a Constitution of the people granting rights to the government, rather than a government granting rights to the people. If this is a war, that's what I hope we're fighting for. But do we have to kill the Constitution to save it?

Just asking.

tattered flagOctober 11, 2001 Comparative Religion
I finally looked up an article from last Sunday's New York Times magazine section that an old friend had recommended to me. It was entitled, "This Is a Religious War." I agreed with writer Andrew Sullivan. It's not that the West wants to see Islam die -- we just won't stand idly by while it's killing us. Something must be done.

But the biggest "ditto" I said today was after reading a letter to the Los Angeles Times. The writer agreed with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi in his September 26 statement, "We must be aware of the superiority of our civilization, a system that has guaranteed well-being, respect for human rights and -- in contrast with Islamic countries -- respect for religious and political rights, a system that has as its values understandings of diversity and tolerance." The West, he added, "will continue to conquer peoples, like it conquered Communism," even if that means confronting "another civilization, the Islamic one, stuck where it was 1,400 years ago."

As it was reported in the news, though I failed to find the full text (and therefore the context) of his remarks, the controversial Italian PM had some politically incorrect things to say about the religion of Islam. As reported by Associated Press, Berlusconi made the remarks (broadcast on Italian television) after talks in Berlin with German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and Russian President Vladimir Putin on the crisis sparked by the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks on the United States.

Now, I'm sure Berlusconi was not talking about conquering in the military sense (this is Italy talking, after all!), but the letter writer (James M. Buchanan of Blacksburg, who was awarded the Nobel Prize in economics in 1986), echoing my own thought, pointed out the "obvious fact that Western civilization is superior to the Islamic. Choose any measure: rule of law, political democracy, personal liberties, treatment of women, open markets, economic growth, technological progress, human rights, living standards, great art, music, literature." Note to leftists: take stock of your own hypocrisy: It is always a good measure of your espousal of an egalitarian argument to ask yourself two questions: (1) under which system would you choose to live? (2) would you be as free to dissent under that system as you are under this one?

Not only did Berlusconi's remarks get Islamic noses out of joint, it really pissed off the allies of the West. Trouble is, the West is building a coalition and keeping down criticism of Islam itself -- even though there is much to criticize. Now, I would be the first to admit that Christianity had its Taliban-like phase (in the Dark Age), but that's been pretty much outgrown due to the influence of freethinkers, industrialization, democratization, and (probably the most important factor) divorce of church from state. As Guardian columnist Polly Toynbee writes, "The only good religion is a moribund religion: only when the faithful are weak are they tolerant and peaceful. The horrible history of Christianity shows that whenever religion grabs temporal power it turns lethal. Those who believe theirs is the only way, truth and light will kill to create their heavens on earth if they get the chance. Tolerance only thrives when religion is banished to the private sphere."

The newly PC Westerners to the contrary, Islam isn't all sweetness and light. There are some genuinely disturbing and dangerous ideas in the Qu'ran (Koran). Can making "incitement to religious hatred" the basis for yet another hate crime be far behind? Why does religion get a jurisdiction beyond legitimate questioning?

tattered flagOctober 10, 2001 Taking Civil Liberties
I read a funny article today from The Onion, a satirical newspaper, entitled "Freedoms Curtailed in Defense of Liberty." The editors and writers of that newspaper are masters of irony. The article included this "quote" from White House press secretary Ari Fleischer: "Now more than ever, if we want to protect democracy for future generations, it is vital that nobody speak out about the issues of the day." And, in another "quote" from Senator John McCain, "Now is not the time for such divisive, destructive things as dialogue and debate." An in "quoting" Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, The Onion writes, "It is ... urgent that all Americans be quiet, stop asking questions, accept the orders of authorities, and let us get on with the important work of defending liberty...."

The only thing that gives me pause is that there may come to be more truth than satire in those quotes. It is now un-PC to criticize Mr. Bush, or racial profiling, or our war on terrorism. I'm sure the (very stupid) flag-burning amendment will pass as fast as a jet flying into a building -- and with similar consequences for freedom (I can't think of another form of protest that is as close to being specifically endorsed by the First Amendment). Communication will be monitored and have no effect on terrorism (remember, it was eight years between attacks on the World Trade Center. Civil rights will be curtailed and have no effect on terrorism. The USA/PATRIOT Act will pass without debate and without even being read by our elected representatives -- all in this panic over terrorism.

It was a nice country while it lasted.

October 8, 2001 Political Obituary
In the morning I was greeted on the radio by the sad news from overnight: the political cartoonist for the Washington Post, whose career spanned over 70 years, Herbert Block -- Herblock -- died last night at age 91. He had been retired only a few months. I had always enjoyed the perceptive wit of his cartoons, especially when I lived in Washington, DC, and was a regular reader of the Post. I will miss him.

tattered flagOctober 7, 2001 And the point is...?
The US and Britain began bombing Taliban strongholds in Afghanistan (as of 10:45am, Chicago time) in "Operation Enduring Freedom" today. I watched Mr. Bush address the nation from the White House Treaty Room. An hour later I heard a much more assured address from British PM Tony Blair. I guess that's the difference between being handed your job and earning it. I listened to the TV for most of the rest of the day with just one question in mind: I know we have to retaliate -- I'm all for it, since, unlike the war protesters (apparently), I take this terror attack on 9/11 personally -- but what do we expect to hit?

Ronald Bruce Meyer is a freelance writer.

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