Monday, December 31, 2007

Liars: Expert and Inexpert

Lately I've been struck by the attempts of Barack Obama's opponents to frighten voters by falsely suggesting Obama is Muslim, and by emerging details of how the CIA went about destroying its torture tapes.* Perhaps unsurprisingly, Obama's opponents' efforts, while disgusting, are calculated to be effective, while the CIA's cover-up, also substantively reprehensible, was woefully inept.

For a pitch to be maximally effective, it has to be stated indirectly -- in other words, hidden. Think about those Cialis ads. They don't directly trumpet, "Cialis will give you a four-hour hard-on!" Instead, they insidiously *warn* customers that in the rare event of a priapism -- an erection that sticks around for over four hours -- you should call your doctor. ("Call my doctor?" a friend of mine commented. "I'm calling everybody!") The customer concludes for himself: if this stuff is capable of causing that kind of tumescence, surely it'll give me at least the boost I need. And is persuaded thereby. The Hollywood variation, by the way, is here.

So it would be crude -- and ineffective -- for Obama's opponents to come right out and claim, "Be afraid -- this guy is a closet Muslim!" Instead, they know to obscure the real message inside an ostensible one. That's why former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey couched his "Obama is a Muslim" message in the guise of praise: "I like the fact that his name is Barack Hussein Obama, and that his father was a Muslim and that his paternal grandmother is a Muslim. There's a billion people on the planet that are Muslims, and I think that experience is a big deal." Nice! Were any fence sitters persuaded by this? "Hmmm, I hadn't thought about the benefits of Obama's remote Muslim connections." Or is it more likely that people who weren't aware of of any of this concluded, "What? This guy's middle name is *Hussein*? Holy fifth columnist, Batman!" With a master's flourish, Kerrey followed up with an apology, which kept his original words and their insidious meaning in the news cycle. Which is exactly what Kerrey knew would happen, and exactly what he intended.

When Clinton aides forwarded hoax emails similarly preying on the Muslim theme, they said they were doing so just to show how dirty politics was getting. Ah, chutzpah. And when the Clinton campaign fired the offending aides, the firings were designed both to disassociate Senator Clinton from the sleaze and to keep the "Obama is a Muslim" meme in the news cycle.

Top honors for effective use of this type of rhetorical head fake go to Daniel Pipes, who expressed his confidence this way: "'If I were a Muslim I would let you know,' Barack Obama has said, and I believe him... He is not now a Muslim."

Is a suspicious voter reassured by Pipes' confidence? Or does the voter say, "Wait a minute, not *now* a Muslim? You mean he *used to* be one?" Which is exactly what Pipe wanted.

Maybe all the discussion about Obama being Muslim is an honest accident. But to believe that, you'd have to believe that all the people engaging in it, including former and sitting Senators, who know a thing or two about public relations, know less about it than I do. And I'm no expert.

Well, at least when it comes to effective deceit, we should be able to count on the CIA, right? After all, deceit is the name of the intelligence game. If you're in the business of deniably toppling third world dictators and the like, surely you could invent an effective cover for destroying a few internal tapes. Heck, "cover for action" is one of the most fundamental elements of tradecraft, taught to every spy who's ever graduated from the Farm.

Uh, no. Read this New York Times account of how the CIA came to and carried out the decision to destroy the Abu Zubaydah torture tapes (and note how hard the NYT tries not to use the word "torture," preferring terms like "coercive interrogation"). The Agency's efforts were so inept that even though Alberto R. Gonzales, the White House counsel; David S. Addington, legal adviser for Vice President Dick Cheney; and John B. Bellinger III, the top lawyer at the National Security Council all met with Agency officials to discuss the tapes, no one at the Agency seems able to use the White House's involvement (and possible direction) for political cover. When it comes to cover-ups, it seems, intelligence personnel are no match for politicians.

I can't help wondering, at a purely tactical level, why the Agency didn't just implement some new general regulation regarding, say, the "orderly disposal" (better an oblique nominal construction than a direct verb like "destroy") of "records no longer current," something like that. Get the White House to sign off on the bland new directive. Allow a decent interval to elapse. Dispose of some innocuous records, then the incriminating tapes, then some additional items. Then, when the whole thing comes to light, put on your most innocent and perplexed face and say, "Destroy the tapes? Let me check... oh, they were just subject to orderly disposal pursuant to regulation number whatever, along with hundreds of other items. It was just routine. And anyway, the White House signed off on the whole thing." Conceal the murder in a massacre... how hard is that? Apparently, too hard for the CIA.

Well, at least the Agency isn't totally oblivious to public relations issues... according to the article, the CIA no longer calls its interrogators "interrogators," preferring to call them "debriefers," instead.

Happy new year.

*Sorry, make that "enhanced interrogation," for as President Bush has assured us, "This government does not torture people." Although, given that Vice President Cheney has similarly assured us that the office of the Vice President is not part of the executive branch, I can't help but wonder what the president means when he says "this government," and even what he means by "people." It's enough to make you miss what the meaning of is is.

P.S. Forgive me for not responding as often as before to comments here. I also post these pieces on my discussion board, and have been spending more time there. It's a fun forum with a lot of interesting people talking about writing, the Rain books, politics, single malt whisky, and anything else that strikes people's fancy, and we do a monthly chat on writing, too, so if you have a chance, stop by and say hello. It would be good to see you.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Vince Flynn, Left-Winger?

The Friday Washington Times has an interesting interview with Vince Flynn, whose new novel featuring CIA operator Mitch Rapp just hit #1 on the NYT list.

I've met Vince and like him, and enjoy Mitch Rapp, too, but I have to admit that while reading the interview, I was struck by some of the fallacies in Vince's arguments, including an underlying set of assumptions that used to be associated with left-wing thinking, but that have now been adopted by the right.

[Torture is] far more effective than liberals would have you believe... What do you think we should have done? Given them [terrorists] a lawyer, three square meals a day and let planes get hijacked?

Leaving aside for the moment the question of effectiveness, note the either/or thinking by which Vince reaches his conclusion. Either we torture, or planes get hijacked. Is this true? Do we really have no anti-terror tools at our disposal but torture? If it is true, how did we get to the point where our options are so dire -- and so limited?

The binary assumption is common in modern rightist arguments. Either you're with us or you're with the terrorists. Either we stay the course in Iraq or we cut and run. Either we bomb Iran or accept their mideast hegemony. In a certain worldview, there are never more than two possibilities.

When I worked for the government, I was taught to make policy proposals in threes: two crazy, one merely unpalatable. For example, we can either nuke Iran, convert to Islam, or tighten up sanctions. The idea is to rhetorically limit the possibilities so the policy maker believes he has no choice. It's like a magician forcing a card.

The question, then, is why do intelligent people present their arguments in such a deliberately distorted fashion? My only answer is that, like the person recommending policy choices above, they do so because they want to reach a certain conclusion, in this case that torture is desirable. The emotional urge is understandable -- we took a hard hit on 9/11 and it's natural that we want to lash out in response. But if we want our policies to be effective, don't they need to be driven more by logic and rational thinking than emotional urges? And when did the right become the slave of naked emotion?

I think it [torture] should be done in the rarest of situations. Anybody who says torture doesn't work hasn't studied the history of torture.

I can't be sure, never having been tortured and never having tortured anyone, but I don't know anyone reasonable who argues that torture doesn't ever work. The problem here is again a kind of limited focus, because whether something sometimes works is only a small part of analyzing whether the thing in question is desirable overall. Maybe a drug works sometimes, but that's no argument for failing to consider its side effects -- or those occasions where the drug catastrophically fails.

I'll stipulate that in certain instances, you could get useful intel via torture. We still have to balance that possible benefit against all the real costs: an avalanche of false information obscuring the real intel; the creation of new, highly motivated terrorist cadres; tremendous damage to US soft power; psychic damage to our own people; the brutalization of our culture.

You could argue that the benefits of torture outweigh those costs. What you can't do is argue in favor of torture as though those costs don't exist.

The tendency to argue because of possible benefits while ignoring real costs has become a right wing emblem. When the subject is Iraq, the right's arguments are limited to the benefits of having overthrown a brutal dictator. Omitted from the analysis is a discussion of what we have paid to achieve that end: over 4000 dead servicemen and women and far more maimed, blinded, and traumatized; over half a trillion dollars so far, and possibly more than double that in years to come; massive military and economic opportunity costs; etc.

Here is a simple equation: value = benefit minus cost. It used to be liberals who argued for the value of an enterprise only by reference to its benefits, and conservatives who insisted also on an accounting of cost. No longer.

Torture, or aggressive interrogation, is only as good as the interrogators. Take Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, for instance. He got waterboarded and he sang like a canary... he ended up naming operatives and giving up a treasure trove of financial secrets as well as plans for future attacks.

Another thing I learned in the government was that an assessment of the soundness of intelligence has to include an understanding of the motivations of the asset providing it. When the same government sources advocating torture assure me it works, it brings out my inner skeptic (again, odd that cynicism used to be a right wing characteristic, naivete a hallmark of the left). I've also learned, from George Orwell and personal experience, to be skeptical when assurances take the form of cliches like "sang like a canary." Cliches are typically substitutes for thought.

But maybe KSM did provide useful intel after being tortured. We still have to measure the value of what was obtained in that individual instance against the costs of torture overall. True, Vince argues that torture "should be done in the rarest of situations." But as Abu Ghraib has demonstrated, torture, once accepted "in the rarest of situations," has a tendency to metastasize, and anyone who argues that torture should be, say, safe legal and rare, has to include metastasis as one of the potential costs to consider.

[KSM being waterboarded] was not Uday and Qusai Hussein at work. This was done with clinical precision, not brute force. There are multiple interrogators, lie detectors, doctors and a group of analysts in the next room...

This one throws me. Is the argument that medieval, Inquisition torture is bad, but modern, scientific torture is good? I can't imagine Vince would want to articulate such a principle, but that seems to be what he's saying.

I know Amnesty International would disagree with me, but every American needs to ask themselves, "If you could turn back the clock one week [before the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks] would you want Zacarias Moussaoui to have been interrogated by waterboarding?"

I've heard this kind of argument before. It's a subspecies of the "we only have two choices" approach -- again, waterboard or face another 9/11. But the subspecies has an interesting twist: note that it is by definition a fantasy. You actually have to go back in time, where you can have knowledge of the future, to make it work. Unless the people who promote this argument propose building a time machine, I don't understand its relevance. We can't travel backward in time. We don't have knowledge delivered from the future. It's the here and now in which the benefits and costs of torture need to be discussed.

[Americans] are not opposed to torturing men like Sheikh Mohammed, but they don't want to run around and talk about it in public.

This is a strangely emotional argument -- strange because, again, emotional appeals used to be a hallmark of the left, critical thinking the pride of the right. Of course anyone who lived through 9/11 would like KSM, OBL, and many others to suffer and die horribly. That's natural -- as natural as feeling the same way about rapists and murderers. But we've made a decision as a society to grant due process to rapists and murderers, which means not torturing them however much we'd like to. If you want to argue for torturing rapists and murderers, you have to argue that the benefits of the torture outweigh the costs of abandoning Constitutional due process. Similarly, if you want to argue that we should torture War on Terror prisoners, you have to argue the benefits will outweigh the costs. Either way, the existence of a righteous urge to do violence is not an argument for the rightness of violence. "If it feels good, do it" is a formerly left-wing mantra, now heartily embraced by the right.

Look at Hollywood. They all detest President Bush because their friends will think they are smarter by hating him. They wear it as a badge of honor . They try to prove to people they are smart and compassionate and enlightened, so people will like them.

Coming from a novelist capable of imagining the kinds of twists and turns that bedevil Mitch Rapp, the "there are no reasons someone could detest President Bush except for some internal psychological drama or the impoverishment of a certain social milieu" argument seems doubly odd, and I'm struck again by the self-imposed limitations of the current view from the right.

Americans would love to watch a great movie where Mitch Rapp is meting out punishment to these crazy zealots...

Agreed! And I would probably be first in line. But the kind of emotional gratification that drives great movie making shouldn't be confused with the fundamentals of effective policy making. Story is built on emotion and drama. Policy is built on logic and facts.

Mitch Rapp has taken on a cult following, but Hollywood doesn't get it for the same reasons they don't understand talk radio, Wal-Mart or NASCAR.

I don't know... if Hollywood could greenlight "Saw IV" (I love the roman numeral; it makes it seem so important), I think they could stoop to talk radio level just fine.

[I'm backing] Rudy [Giuliani]. He's a bit of a moderate and can unite the country and get the country focused on the war against terrorists.

Hmmm... Giuliani is endorsed by Pat Robertson, who claimed American homosexuals brought 9/11 down upon us; his chief foreign policy adviser believes we're already in World War IV and "prays" the US will bomb Iran; he has promised to appoint judges like Chief Justice Roberts, Justice Alito, Justice Scalia and Justice Thomas; and he has argued that we are in a "real war" with Iran and should not rule out a preemptive nuclear strike on Tehran.

If Giuliani is a moderate, who's an extremist?

[Giuliani] symbolizes the gravity of the situation, and I don't think the guy will back off for a moment having witnessed September 11.

When did the right become so dazzled by symbols that a candidate's symbolic value became a reason to offer him your vote?

I don't think Guiliani will waiver. If he gets ahold of Osama bin Laden, he will throw everything he can at the guy.

Everything? Is that a good thing?

Unwavering symbols throwing everything we have at the enemy... it's an emotional image, I'll admit. But where's the rational beef? When did the right's thinking become so... touchy-feely?

Obviously, I don't agree with Vince, but I give him credit for not resorting to euphemisms like enhanced or aggressive or alternative interrogation. I just hope that he, and other torture proponents, will better distinguish between the cost-free, satisfying torture we see in novels and movies, and torture in the real world, where it carries real costs. That's the kind of hard-headed distinction we used to be able to count on from the right. I eagerly await its return.

Tuesday, November 06, 2007

The Future of the Book Biz

Sorry for the radio silence -- the new manuscript is due in January and for the moment it's hard to keep up with HOTM. If you're curious, I do have a three-part series on the future of the book biz at M.J. Rose's Buzz, Balls & Hype. Enjoy and see you soon.

-- Barry

Thursday, October 11, 2007

More on Torture

The subject of torture is much in the news again: the New York Times reports on a series of secret Justice Department opinions; The Economist runs a weekly article on the balance of security and civil liberties; Bret Stephens of the Wall Street Journal responds to The Economist; and former President Carter unequivocally claims the US tortures prisoners (no "detainees are subjected to enhanced/alternative/aggressive/harsh interrogation techniques" passive voice doublespeak for Carter).

Let's see if we can get to the heart of the matter.

Bret Stephens devoted a fair amount of his column's space to trying to define torture, discussing needles under fingernails, blows to the head, stress positions, hooding, subjection to noise, sleep deprivation, and deprivation of food and water, plus combinations thereof.

(BTW, most of the commentary on blows to the head during interrogation describes the blows as "slaps." My sense is that the word slap is chosen deliberately because slaps seem relatively insignificant (see also Vice President Cheney describing waterboarding as "a dunking"). I respectfully submit that anyone who argues a slap is no big deal either is being disingenuous, or has never been slapped by someone who knows what he's doing.)

I've argued before that opinions about what constitutes torture will never be entirely objective. Maybe the way to avoid, or at least ameliorate the subjectivity inherent in the topic is to avoid trying to define the practice altogether. I think focusing too much on a definition won't, in the end, be any more productive than attempts to define terrorism. I also think the focus on a definition is misleading. A better focus would emerge if we try to answer the following question:

How do we reasonably expect American prisoners of war to be treated by the enemy? Whatever the answer, that's the way we ought to be treating enemy POWs.

Why? Two reasons. First is the classic one: we want to encourage the enemy to reciprocate. Second, the more fundamental one: how we treat enemies is a critical part of how we view ourselves.

The reciprocity argument is marginal when the enemy is al Qaeda. Still, it's worth noting that there must be reasons beyond reciprocity that we don't want to torture prisoners. Otherwise, presumably we would be comfortable beheading captured jihadists and videotaping the beheadings, too, simply because that's what the other side does. Which is another way of saying that no matter what the other side does, there is a code of behavior we will abide by purely because of who we are. And I can't think of any better way to arrive at that code than by reference to the treatment we reasonably expect to be extended to American POWs. Anything else would be hypocritical at best.

If you agree with me, you'll have a hard time countenancing blows to the head, stress positions, hypothermia, and all the rest -- unless you think it's okay for American POWs to be treated this way, too.

But torture saves lives, proponents say. And that's what counts.

Well, it's not the only thing that counts, is it? If saving lives is the only value at stake, what meaning is there is phrases like "live free or die," "give me liberty or give me death," and "death before dishonor"?

Regardless, I'm not convinced of the benefits of torture -- and even if I were, I'd also want to inquire into its costs. By way of analogy: in our criminal justice system, we incarcerate people only upon proof beyond a reasonable doubt. That's an exceptionally high standard, and without question permits countless criminals to go free -- many of them, doubtless, to commit other crimes, including murder. If we relaxed the standard, we would put more murderers behind bars, and in doing so we would certainly save lives. But we don't -- apparently because we recognize that the standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt has inherent value, even at the cost of lives.

If you wanted to relax the burden of proof in criminal law, you'd have to argue that whatever benefits we derive from the standard as a society are outweighed by the crimes committed by criminals who the standard keeps out of prison. Similarly, if you think Americans should treat prisoners other than the way we expect American POWs to be treated, you'd have to argue that the benefits of such a course would exceed the cost of our hypocrisy. Whether or not what they call for amounts to "torture," I don't think proponents have adequately made this case.

Monday, October 01, 2007

Getting Closer to War with Iran

I've written before about the chances for war between the US and Iran. Seymour Hersh lays out the latest in the October 8 New Yorker.

Consider a few items. First, the January 2002 Authorization for the Use of Military Force, which provides in part:

Whereas, the President has authority under the Constitution to take action to deter and prevent acts of international terrorism against the United States...

Next, the Kyl-Lieberman amendment, passed on September 27, which designates Iran's Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist organization.

Third, General Petraeus and Ambassador Crocker have both testified that Iran is arming Iraqis against the United States (President Bush has made similar points, of course, but his credibility on such matters isn't high, which is why the White House has gone to such lengths to build up and rely upon the credibility of General Petraeus).

Add it all up, and you can see what's coming. The White House, claiming inherent authority under the Constitution, plus statutory authority pursuant to the Jan 2002 AUMF and Kyl-Lieberman, launches limited air strikes inside Iran against what it claims are terrorist targets. Iran hits back. America's blood gets up, and the White House now has the political capital to widen its campaign against Iran. Congressional Democrats, already caving in to Republican pressure on such nonsense as a bill suggesting that every single member of the US armed forces is possessed of unassailable honor and integrity and on Kyl-Lieberman itself, do nothing -- or perhaps pass a few new enabling resolutions. The situation worsens in Iraq, and the White House expands its rhetorical campaign against Iran, arguing that success in Iran has become the key to success in Iraq (and perhaps in Afghanistan, as well). The worse things become overall, the more important it becomes to escalate (sound familiar, albeit strange? It's the history of the political-military dynamic in Iraq). The war with Iran, ostensibly initiated to protect our troops in Iraq, is now about the destruction of Iran's nuclear program. Because Iran really has such a program, the ostensible purpose of the war with Iraq -- WMDs -- is, in a byzantine way, fulfilled.

How can you tell the war is going to happen? First, ask who wants it to happen. Then ask who could stop it.

Who wants it to happen? President Bush and Vice President Cheney, as described here.

Who could stop it? Congressional Democrats? Based on their supine record since taking both Congress and the Senate, I think not.

Congressional Republicans? Maybe, because they have the most to lose, electorally speaking. But do they? The Republicans are already going to be hammered in '08... so why not play double or nothing, shake up the state of play and see what happens? When you look at it this way, you realize that Congressional Republicans might look at gambling on another war as worth a roll of the dice.

Who's left? Possibly the US military itself, strangely enough. But by starting small and claiming strikes inside Iran are only in support of US forces in Iraq, the White House could bypass and ultimately co-opt military objections, too.

It's hard to imagine a war with Iran will go well, given the Bush administration's demonstrated incompetence in waging the two currently on its plate. If things go badly, I wonder what sort of societal backlash we'll see domestically. Supporters of the White House, the war in Iraq, and a new war in Iran will need to find a reason for our failures. What will they seize on?

Get ready.

Monday, September 24, 2007

Andrew's Microphone

Although I was fascinated by the YouTube videos of police at the University of Florida tasering student Andrew Meyer, I wasn't going to blog about it because it was so obvious to me that the police had behaved correctly. But over the weekend, I spoke with a friend who surprised me with a different (and, in my opinion, mistaken) view. So maybe it's worth pointing out a few things about what happened to Meyer.

There are two discreet issues here: first, did Meyer have a right to do what he was doing at the microphone? Second, even if he had such a right -- that is, even if the police were wrong in asking him to leave -- did the police behave wrongly when they tased him?

To argue that Meyer had a right to behave as he did at the microphone requires an adherence to a notion of free speech that would destroy free speech in fact. Watch the video. His tone aggressively sanctimonious, Meyer makes an incoherent speech, and finally, in response to repeated requests that he ask a question, fires a few off without pausing to let Kerry answer. After Meyer had been at it for over a minute and a half, someone cuts the power to the mic. Meyer's response is revealing: "Thanks for cutting my mic."

Not "the" mic... "my" mic. If you hadn't already figured out from his tone and behavior that Meyer is an immature, narcissistic grandstander who doesn't give a damn about anyone's rights but his own, his diction just then provides an important clue.

(You can catch another important clue here, where Andrew's narcissism has blossomed so fully that he believes the police are going to lead him away to murder him. This behavior strikes me as being about on a par with that of delusionals who believe they're Napoleon or Jesus Christ).

Watching the video, it was plain to me that Meyer wasn't interested in an exchange of ideas, or in eliciting information, or in any way engaging anyone else in the room. It was a performance. It wasn't about Kerry and it certainly wasn't about the people in the audience, several of whom you can see getting up to leave the moment Meyer starts acting up. It was all about Andrew. Andrew wasn't speaking; he was performing.

Now a performance, even one as self-indulgent as Andrew's, can be protected speech. But at what cost? Within what parameters? How long should Andrew have been permitted to go exercise his right? He'd been given over a minute and half already. What if he'd wanted to go on for two? Five minutes? Ten? Is the determination of what he's going to say, and how long he'll take to say it, entirely up to him? Or should the moderators have some say, as well?

Unless you think how long a speaker should be permitted to prattle on is entirely up to the speaker, you have to acknowledge that at some point the moderators or other authority figures have the right to shut the speaker down. If there are no rules -- and no one to enforce them -- it's hard to see how free speech could get exercised amidst all the discordant shouting.

But even if you believe Meyer's right to perform was absolute and that no one had the right to shut him down, or if you just believe they shut him down too early or otherwise inappropriately, we're still left with that second question: did the police behave wrongly when they tased him?

Here's a quick -- and wildly inaccurate -- sound bite: "The police tased Meyer just for asking questions!"

No. The police tased Meyer for resisting arrest. Watch the sequence: there were about a dozen steps of escalating confrontation between Meyer's "questions" and the police tasing him:

1. Meyer is urged to ask a question. He ignores the request.
2. The mic is cut and the police take Meyers by the elbows, telling him, "come on outside."
3. Meyer dodges away, saying, "I'm not going anywhere! Get off me! What the fuck are you doing!"
4. The police start pushing Meyer toward the exits.
5. Meyer breaks away, continuing to shout.
6. The police grab him again, and they fall to the ground.
7. The police direct Meyer to turn over on his stomach.
8. Meyer refuses.
9. The police get him over on his stomach and try to cuff him.
10. Meyer resists.
11. The police tell Meyer repeatedly to put his hands behind his back.
12. Meyer refuses, saying instead that if they let him up, he will walk out on his own.
13. The police repeatedly warn Meyer that if he doesn't put his hands behind his back, they will tase him.
14. Meyer repeatedly refuses and continues to resist.
15. Meyer is tased.

At every one of these steps, the police gave Meyer a choice. Every time he had a choice, Meyer chose to escalate rather than comply.

(BTW, important safety tip: when the police give instructions, it's not a negotiation. Once you choose escalation, you can't negotiate down to a lower level of confrontation, as Meyer tried to do at #12.)

So here's the correct sound bite: "The police tased Meyer for violently resisting arrest."

Or, if you want a sound bite that ties the police response directly to Meyer's microphone behavior, you could say, "The police told Meyer to leave just for asking questions!" But that doesn't quite get people rushing to the barricades, does it.

When the police give someone clear verbal instructions and the person refuses, what should the cops to do at that point? Apologize and walk away? Or should they escalate: a request becomes a command, the command is accompanied by taking the person by the elbow, the elbow becomes the torso, etc. A lot of people don't like the taser. What do they suggest as an alternative -- a billy club?

Well, there were at least six cops... maybe they should have just forced Meyer's arms behind his back rather than tasing him. Leave aside for the moment that they were trying but apparently couldn't. Instead ask, what would people say when, say, Meyer's shoulder was dislocated in the struggle, or he was otherwise injured by the force he made the cops use? Police brutality, is my guess.

Bottom line: take out all the hot button free speech arguments, and imagine instead that Meyer had been trying to use a lavatory when the cops told him, without explanation, that he would have to find a different one. Imagine too that the cops had no right to order him out of this particular restroom. Is Meyer right at that point if he fights the cops? And what should the cops do if he does?

If you think the police are abridging your rights, you can send a complaint to the university ombudsman. Or write an op-ed in the school newspaper. Or organize a protest march. Or sue the police department. Any or all of the above would be fine -- but no, you don't get to fight with the police. And if someone does fight them, I hope the cops would respond as sensibly and professionally as the ones who had to deal with Meyer did.

Friday, September 14, 2007

Enduring Success

In reading the transcript of President Bush's Thursday evening address to the nation, I was struck by the absence of one word, and the presence of another.

The missing word, of course, was "victory." There were ten variations of "success," but no mention of victory.

I wasn't surprised by victory's absence, because if there really were any prospect for victory in Iraq, I think it's safe to say the war's architects would have linguistically seized it. But not even a fervent propagandist can deny that the original objectives for victory in the war, both ostensible and ulterior, are no longer achievable. There never were any weapons of mass destruction, or, if they were, they now reside in Syria or elsewhere. The notion of "a free, democratic and independent Iraq that stands... as a beacon of freedom and justice" is a sad joke. Rather than the shock and awe we had hoped to instill in Iran and Syria by virtue of our victorious military machine on their borders, our troops are stuck in a quagmire, and indeed exposed to Syrian and Iranian "meddling" within Iraq.

The current ostensible objective of the war, according to the president's speech, is "the success of a free Iraq." The president claimed several benefits that would flow from free Iraq's success: "A free Iraq will deny al Qaeda a safe haven. A free Iraq will counter the destructive ambitions of Iran. A free Iraq will marginalize extremists, unleash the talent of its people and be an anchor of stability in the region. A free Iraq will set an example for people across the Middle East. A free Iraq will be our partner in the fight against terror, and that will make us safer here at home."

Note that these are all positive developments that could possibly occur, to some degree, at some unspecified point in the future.

Now note the negative events the president claims will occur if "we were to be driven out of Iraq:"

"extremists of all strains would be emboldened. Al Qaeda could gain new recruits and new sanctuaries. Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region. Extremists could control a key part of the global energy supply. Iraq could face a humanitarian nightmare. Democracy movements would be violently reversed. We would leave our children to face a far more dangerous world. And as we saw on September the 11th, 2001, those dangers can reach our cities and kill our people. "

What's interesting is what follows logically: according to the president, all these negative outcomes can be prevented -- if we just stay in Iraq. Because no matter how badly the war is going, no matter our casualties, no matter the financial cost and the strain on the military and the opportunity costs, too, as long as we're never driven out, the negative events will never happen, and the positive ones always just might.

And here's where that second interesting word comes into play: "enduring."

Here's how the president used it:

"This vision for a reduced American presence also has the support of Iraqi leaders from all communities. At the same time, they understand that their success will require U.S. political, economic and security engagement that extends beyond my presidency. These Iraqi leaders have asked for an enduring relationship with America. And we are ready to begin building that relationship in a way that protects our interests in the region and requires many fewer American troops. "

Not "long-lasting," not "long-term," not "ongoing" or "permanent" or "committed" or any other possible substitute you can think of. "Enduring." And then it occurred to me: this is the final definition of "success" the war's architects are peddling. Endurance. As long as we endure in Iraq, we cannot be defeated there. And while as a great power you can't claim the absence of defeat will ever equal victory, you might convince yourself that it is a form of success.

It seems to me that those who continue to support our current course in Iraq picture us as a boxer. We entered the ring confident of a quick knockout (one that would intimidate other possible opponents), and found ourselves instead taking a terrible pasting. We couldn't knock the other guy out quickly, and have grudgingly come to accept that we won't be able to knock him out ever. But we're not going to throw in the towel, either. We'll just keep slugging it out, and merely enduring in this unexpectedly ferocious fight becomes our new objective.

The analogy breaks down because the costs of the war -- blood, treasure, and opportunity costs -- are by comparison so galactic. Still, I think it works to describe a certain mentality that keeps the war going. As long as we don't leave, we haven't been beaten. And over time, merely not being beaten -- "enduring" -- becomes its own form, if not of victory, then at least of success.

Of course, if things ever do stabilize in Iraq, we'll bleed there less. We might even be able to sustain the stabilization with fewer troops. But "success," although it doesn't preclude such an outcome, doesn't require, it either. Success merely requires that we never leave.

And so, ultimately, the very fact that we're still in Iraq means that we've succeeded there. The war's strategists and supporters wouldn't phrase it this way, of course, but I suspect it's how they feel.

P.S. If you're a regular reader of my blog, I hope you'll consider becoming one of my MySpace friends, too. And if you have a chance, stop by my discussion forum, where the talk on politics, single malt whisky, writing, and self-defense goes on and on...

Monday, September 10, 2007

Bottoms Up

All the way back in April 2006, I wrote:

"As a society, we're probably not ready to accept that a three state solution is now the best outcome we can hope to retrieve in Iraq. But the good news, if you want to call it that, is that three states is where Iraq is heading whether we like it or not. We can always get behind it later. But the effort would be easier, more plausible, and probably less bloody if we did so now."

I've seen nothing since to persuade me that Iraq is heading anywhere other than into three separate states. The only thing that's changed is that the Bush administration now seems to have accepted the inevitable three-state outcome. Rather than calling it a "soft partition," though, as Democrat Joe Biden prefers, the favored Republican moniker is "bottom-up approach." Google the phrase and you'll see: BUA is the new Surge.

BUA refers to the strategy of bypassing Baghdad and cutting deals with warlords -- sorry, make that "tribal leaders." Today, the Bush administration describes BUA as a way to put Iraq back together, but the rhetoric is as much a figleaf as the BUA moniker itself. Logically, arming, supplying, and otherwise cementing the power and patronage of warlords will calcify Iraq's de facto division, not reverse it.

Which is a good thing, by the way. As I've argued before, Iraq is breaking up anyway. It's hard to see how fighting the inevitable will lessen the pain.

A few predictions:

As ethnic cleansing continues in Baghdad's mixed neighborhoods, we'll see a lower incidence of sectarian killings. The Bush administration will credit the Surge and the BUA with the ease in sectarian violence, rather than acknowledging that the ease is largely the result of a successful campaign of ethnic cleansing. Indeed, General Patraeus and Ambassador Crocker's testimony to Congress this week is part of a campaign intended to conflate correlation (by certain measures, sectarian violence is down; there's also a Surge and a BUA) with causality (violence is down *because* of the Surge and the BUA).

Speaking of the general and the ambassador, after hearing their report, you might be tempted to ask: What was the big deal? "We're making progress, it's a tough fight, we need to reassess in March '08." Did anyone expect Patraeus and Crocker to say anything else?

Of course not. But remember, beyond obfuscation, the purpose of this report wasn't substantive; it was to create another milestone to eat up time. How many times in the last six months did President Bush avoid a question about Iraq by responding, "Let's just see what General Patraeus has to say in September..."

Well, now we know (as though we didn't know then). General Patraeus would like to get back to us in... six months. Any guesses about what his report will consist of then?

(It all reminds me of that child's prank, the sheet of paper that says on the front, "How do you keep an idiot occupied? Turn over." With an identical message on the back.)

The question to ask at this point is: how and to what extent can a continued US presence ease Iraq's division into three. I hope that despite the posturing, the ego protection, and the obfuscation, at least some of our policymakers and military leadership are asking it. A lot of lives hang in the balance.

Sunday, June 03, 2007

A New Contest

Hi everyone, sorry I've been out of touch for a while... the tour is just all consuming. 174 bookstores and I'm not even two weeks in! There's so much good stuff in the news, it kills me not to write about it... but I barely have time to read it, let alone to blog. Another two weeks or so to go, and then I'll get to indulge my addiction to politics, language, and miscellaneous again...

Requiem just received a terrific review on a terrific website -- Cinematic Happenings Under Development. In conjunction with the review, the reviewer, Cameron Hughes, is running a contest, with a personally inscribed copy of Requiem as the prize. Check it out here on CHUD, and good luck!

Off to Denver tomorrow -- hope to see you on the road.


Wednesday, May 30, 2007

John Rain a New York Times Bestseller!

Hi everyone, just had to let you know that John Rain is officially a New York Times bestseller! Requiem for an Assassin debuted at #19; not bad for a first-timer to the illustrious list. Thanks for helping me make it happen! It'll be interesting to see whether the book moves up next week... speaking of which, if you haven't picked up a copy yet, now would be a propitious moment to do so...

The tour is going well, but isn't leaving me much time for email or blogging. The place to find me these days is on my new discussion board. It's only been up for a month or so, but is already full of interesting people from around the world talking politics, whisky, and of course John Rain. If you have a chance, stop by and say hello. And thanks again for all your support!


Monday, May 21, 2007

Get Ready for Requiem!

Hi everyone, well, tomorrow's the big day: Requiem for an Assassin will officially be available in bookstores. My first appearance is at Kepler's in Menlo Park, California, and I'll be on the road for a month after that. If you're around one of the cities on the tour calendar, come on by! It would be good to meet you in person.

And if you'd like a peek at the, uh, naughty bits of the new book, Lustbites has just posted an excerpt and an amusing interview. Enjoy.

With the tour about to start, I'm probably going to miss a few weeks of blogging. But you can find me on my website discussion board. It's a fun forum with a lot of interesting people talking about these blog posts, the Rain books, politics, single malt whisky, and anything else that strikes people's fancy, so if you have a chance, why don't you stop by and say hello? It would be good to see you there.

Thanks for all your support and I hope you enjoy the new book!


Wednesday, May 02, 2007

Thoughts on Guns, Part 2

The response to my previous blog post, Thoughts on Guns, was the largest I've ever received. It was also so interesting and thought-provoking that it led to this follow-up.

The responses I received tend to confirm my suspicion that a lot of the acrimony of the debate over guns derives from the fact that the two sides are driven by different, and possibly antagonistic, values: gun ownership proponents (GOPs) are driven primarily by the imperative of individual rights; gun control proponents (GCPs) are driven primarily by the imperative of collective security. Of course, each side claims that its means will lead to the other side's end: GOPs argue that with more individuals carrying, criminals will be deterred, lessening crime overall; GCPs argue that gun control will lessen violence, thereby reducing the need for individuals to carry. The fact that each side can draw on its own statistics, case studies, and anecdotes to back up its claim only strengthens my suspicion that the debate derives more from some emotional bedrock than it does from logical topsoil. Because the two sides in effect speak different languages, they don't understand each other. Because they don't understand each other, they project and demonize: GOPs are fanatics, maniacs, and lovers of violence; GCPs are grass eaters, sheep, and surrender monkeys. And of course each side suspects the other of a maximalist agenda: GCPs seek the abolition of all guns; GOPs want any kind of weaponry to be available to anybody, anytime, anywhere.

Here's a question that might help you figure out where you're biases are. Would you rather live in a society where no one carried outside of law enforcement, or in a society where anyone could carry anything anywhere? Leave aside for a moment the Second Amendment and the practicalities; we'll get to all that. This is just a thought experiment to reveal bias.

While you're thinking, here's a parenthetical to chew on: This thought experiment was what the example of Japan was intended to illustrate in my previous post. I got a lot of mail about that example, most of it arguing for a single cause of Japan's remarkably low crime rates: Draconian gun control; the fact that Japanese think of themselves as subjects rather than citizens (whatever that means); the fact that Japan is a "police state" (if that's so, I don't know what to call North Korea and Syria... but never mind); the fact that Japanese society is inherently less violent than America's. Most of the people advancing these single cause arguments have never lived in Japan; some, I suspect, have never met a Japanese. And coincidentally, each of these single attributed causes had the effect of bolstering whatever argument the person wanted to make...

As my friend The Slugg, who has honored HOTM with the occasional insightful guest column, was taught in military intelligence: first, tell me what you know. Then, tell me what you don't know. And only then, tell me what you think. Good advice for all of us, especially with a debate as contentious as this one. And regardless of what conclusion you consciously or unconsciously hope to reach, ask yourself this: is a phenomenon as complex as crime and violence likely to be attributable to a single cause?

Okay, back to the thought experiment. My bias: I'd rather live in that gun-free world. Personal carry is a huge responsibility and a significant pain-in-the ass. If I could modify the cost/benefit equation enough to feel comfortable avoiding the responsibility and the pain-in-the-assedness, I'd be delighted. I would still use situational awareness as my first, and most cost-effective, line of defense, and I'd still want to carry a knife in case the first and other lines of defense failed me. But if I knew no one else -- that is, no psychotic or criminal -- could be carrying, I wouldn't want to carry, either.

Does that make sense? I doubt everyone will agree with it. Some people would still want to carry to protect against threats other than those that included firearms. Some people would think it's crazy to want to carry even a knife. Some people, not understanding the difference, will confuse the awareness I mentioned with paranoia.

Some of the email I received expressed anger and disgust that I would give up my right and ability to defend myself if the threat were lower. To which I respond, aren't you doing the same thing? Is your house perimeter secured with claymores, razor wire and tank traps? If so, why not? Is it perhaps because you are implicitly balancing the threat with your countermeasures?

As I put myself through this thought experiment, I realized that the exercise was a lot like what I do when trying to calculate the proper level of life insurance to carry. What are the chances that I might die? How much will my family need to live on if I do? How much is it worth paying every year to provide for these possibilities and ensure my peace of mind? I went through a similar process with regard to homeowner's insurance, and came up with policies that made sense for me and my family. Doubtless, different people will decide on different policies, depending on their circumstances and their fears. But this is exactly the kind of calculus that goes on in the mind of anyone who's trying to decide whether to carry a gun: how much do I need it (what is the threat, how likely am I to encounter it)? How much will it cost (the weapon itself, training with it, securing it, carrying it, being responsible for it)? You don't have to be a maniac to ask these questions. You only have to be prudent. And, as with insurance policies, different people will come to different conclusions about their own needs.

I hope that if you're a GCP, my insurance analogy helps you understand the thinking processes of GOPs. Again, you might disagree with their conclusions, but once you know where they're coming from, they might seem a little less threatening. And if you're a GOP, I hope the analogy will help you understand the outlook of GCPs. Based on their environment and other factors involved in a cost/benefit calculus, they might rationally conclude that they're better off not carrying or even owning a gun.

And remember, my thought experiment is intended only to illuminate biases and to get people comfortable with the notion that there's an implicit balancing act in such matters. Remember, actually creating a gun-free zone in a country as big and open as America seems like a hell of a challenge to me. If you're a GCP longing for a gun-free world, ask yourself why our efforts at gun prohibition are likely to be more successful than were our efforts at alcohol prohibition, or our current efforts at drug prohibition, or our efforts to keep out illegal aliens. For all the reasons I argued in my previous post, I don't think guns should be easy to get. But if you make them too hard to get, is it possible you'll be keeping them out of the hands of people who could capably use them to defend themselves and others, as an armed citizen might have done at Virginia Tech, which was, after all, a theoretically gun-free zone?

Now let's talk for a moment about the Second Amendment, much cited in the responses to my previous post. The Second Amendment reads:

"A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed."

I have to say, I don't understand why so many GOPs cite the Constitution as the basis of their right to carry handguns. The second amendment is unique in the Bill of Rights in including an explanatory clause: "A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state...". You have to ask, why did the founders include that clause here? What does it mean? If the clause were absent -- if the Second Amendment read instead in total, "The right of the people to keep and bear arms shall not be infringed," the GOP argument for concealed carry for self protection would be stronger. But the Second Amendment doesn't read that way in total. And it doesn't say, "A citizen's right to protect herself and her family being essential, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed." It frames -- in fact, it limits -- the right in question by reference to a militia and the security of a free state. If you don't think the militia reference acts as a limitation on the right, ask yourself: would the scope of the right provided for in the Second Amendment be broader in the absence of the militia reference? Or narrower? (Just don't argue that it would be the same, unless you want to argue also that the clause means nothing, and that the men who drafted it were stupid, weren't experienced lawyers, and didn't appreciate the power of words in a legal document).

I'm also curious about how adherents to an "original intent" approach to jurisprudence approach the Second Amendment. Is the right to bear arms limited to muskets? Or if the intent in question has more to do with the well-regulated militia and free state limitation, shouldn't all citizens be able to purchase, at a minimum, their own RPGs and claymores? What about armored personnel carriers and howitzers? All of which would be more effective against a would-be tyrant than a concealed pistol...

Also: background checks, waiting periods, etc. can't reasonably be said to be a constitutional issue. You might not like them because you think they'll be subject to abuse, but it's hard to argue that background checks etc. in themselves infringe the right in question. No right set forth in the Bill or Rights -- or elsewhere, to my knowledge -- is absolute. The First Amendment guarantees free speech, for example, but commercial speech is subject to less protection than political. And regardless of your right to speak freely, governments can legitimately regulate where and when you speak, by, for example, insisting on a parade permit. You get the idea: the exercise of every individual right must and should be balanced against its impact on society as a whole. I don't see why the right to bear arms should be an exception to this essential rule.

Where would the right balance be? Reasonable people will differ, but novelist Jonathan Kellerman had some interesting thoughts in an excellent Wall Street Journal Op-Ed, where he argued that too much individual freedom makes it too difficult to involuntarily commit a psychopath like the Virginia Tech shooter. In other words, in a mental health context, one possible cost of our adherence to individual rights is greater collective danger. And NYC mayor Michael Bloomberg's initiative to provide for greater information sharing among disparate law enforcement agencies also strikes me as a sensible way to protect society without unduly infringing anyone's individual rights.

Ah, but if it's too easy to commit someone, or we share too much information, there will be abuses, you say? Possibly, and these are potential costs that must be factored in. But we're still doing a balancing act, as we should be.

Actually, I think anyone who pauses to think about it will acknowledge that the Second Amendment doesn't, and shouldn't, create an absolute right. How many people really believe that children, criminals, or the mentally ill should have access to firearms? How many believe that firearms should be permitted anywhere (planes, government facilities)? Once you accept these limitations on the right, you've acknowledged that the right isn't, and shouldn't be, absolute.

When we're being honest and applying common sense, we all know that giving up a little individual freedom can create greater freedom as a whole. You might wish you had the freedom to run red lights or drive on whatever side of the road suited your fancy, but if everyone did so, the roads would be unusable. By each individual giving up some small measure of freedom, freedom is increased in the aggregate.

(Yes, I know, the comparison between guns and driving is inapplicable, because driving is a privilege while guns are a right. Okay, let's assume that driving *is* a right. Would you then argue that the government couldn't tell you which side of the road to drive on?)

Now, I understand the reason otherwise reasonable people sometimes advance absolutist arguments. They're afraid (with some justification) that once they admit the right to bear arms, like all rights, is subject to a balancing act, with the individual on one side of the scale and society on the other, the balance will start to be drawn against them. It seems better -- tactically, at least -- to argue that the balancing itself is a Constitutional infringement.

The absolutist tendency extends beyond the Second Amendment. A lot of the email I received in response to my previous post included the following arguments: "Anyone who wants a gun can get one illegally, so there's no point in making guns illegal." "Anyone who wants to kill is going to kill" (the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" chestnut). "Locks only stop honest people."

These kinds of assertions are as self-serving as they are simplistic. There are degrees of motivation in all things, including crime and violence. Some people are so motivated to get a gun that they'll find a way no matter what. Some people are so motivated to kill that they'll find a way under any circumstances. Some people want to break into your house so badly that they wouldn't be stopped even if you secured the place like Fort Knox. But it doesn't logically follow that *all* people are that motivated.

This is why I get so disgusted with the "Guns don't kill people" nonsense. Yes, it's technically true, but so what? I got one email that said, "I've never seen a gun get up and go kill someone by itself." Well, I haven't, either. But nor have I seen a suitcase nuke deliver itself to its target. If you argue that the tool is irrelevant to the act, you'd be comfortable with the same level of restriction on the availability of baseball bats, pistols, RPGs, and suitcase nukes.

In fact, common sense and everyday experience demonstrate that for pretty much every behavior, there is a range of motivation. At one end of the extreme is the person who will engage in the behavior no matter what. At the other end is the person who won't engage no matter what. And in between are all the people who are more likely to engage in the behavior if it's easy enough, and less likely to engage if it's hard enough. There are countless examples of this obvious truth. To use just one: fast food. Sure, a few people are so motivated to eat a Big Mac that they'd drive for hours to find one. For everyone else on the highway, MacDonald's pioneered the drive-through, and the "easy-on, easy-off" location. By making it a little easier for the majority of people interested in a Big Mac to get one, MacDonald's dramatically increased sales. The "easier to do = more of it" rule is is true for all human behavior. I see no logical or empirical reason to believe violence is a unique exception.

In other words, it might be true that the Virginia Tech killer would have gotten his guns no matter what. It might be true that he would have gone on his rampage no matter what. It doesn't follow that this is true for all people who want to acquire guns for murder. All laws are violated some of the time. That in itself is no argument for scrapping laws entirely. Houses will always be broken into. This is not an argument for leaving the doors unlocked.

In other words, the purpose of gun regulation isn't to "stop" attacks, so "we can never stop attacks like this" is a bogus argument. The purpose of such regulation, like that of all regulation, is to make such attacks more difficult, and therefore less common and less destructive. No law in history has ever outright "stopped" anything.

The sensible -- and, for me, compelling -- argument about Virginia Tech is that while not all people will have the motivation to evade gun regulations and other laws to do what the Virginia Tech killer did, some always will. When that happens, the police will almost never be able to respond in time to prevent a slaughter. Only armed citizens on the spot can do that.

At this point, if we're all being reasonable, we can acknowledge that we're engaging in a classic balancing act. How likely are such rampages and other violent crimes? How effective are armed citizens in preventing or mitigating them? What would be the effects on violence if guns were freely available? What would be the effects on violence if they were tightly restricted (remember, tightly restricted doesn't translate into "unavailable to criminals..." see also, Controlled Substances Like Cocaine and Heroin).

Strange, in a sense, that both sides are driven by fear: GOPs, that gun control will prevent them from defending themselves against armed criminals; GCPs, that lack of gun control will force them into defending themselves against armed criminals.

The most interesting thing about this debate, and other contentious ones like it, is that people seem unable or unwilling to acknowledge that there is, and should be, a balancing act at work. Part of the reluctance, as I argue above, is tactical, in that each side is afraid to concede anything to the other. Part of it is just laziness, because balancing acts require more mental energy than slogans. But I think there's a third factor too -- an emotional one. Maybe the reluctance to balance in part derives from how good it feels to believe your position is absolutely right, and the other is absolutely wrong. How superior I must therefore be to the other sign, not just intellectually, but morally, too! I'm telling you, if a conclusion feels that good, we ought to pause to reexamine it. There's probably more going on than we want to admit.

Thursday, April 19, 2007

Thoughts on Guns

If the shootings at Virginia Tech catalyzed a more rationale, respectful debate about access to firearms, perhaps some good might emerge from all the horror and loss. Sadly, from what I've seen, the debate remains as sterile as ever, and even more vociferous. Let's see if we can do better here.

I think the reason gun ownership proponents and gun control proponents vilify each other so much is that each side is blind to the emotional bedrock on which the other side's position is built. If we can identify that bedrock, maybe some mutual respect will emerge. Out of that respect might even grow... sensible compromise?

Gun control proponents (let's call them GCPs) are most comfortable in environments where there are no guns. Whether such environments can in fact be created is a separate issue; GCPs sense that a society without guns would be safer for everyone. In other words, the core value for GCPs is a safer society, and GCPs are willing to give up their individual right and ability to protect themselves and their family if doing so buys greater safety for society as a whole.

Gun ownership proponents (let's call them GOPs, no Grand Old Party pun intended) are most comfortable in environments where they feel they can protect themselves. In other words, the core value to which GCPs adhere is the individual's right and ability to protect herself and her loved ones. I don't know for certain, but my sense is that even if you could convince a GOP that free access to guns would lead to more gun violence overall, the GOP would say the overall increase in violence is an acceptable price to pay for preserving the individual's right and ability to protect himself and his loved ones.

I can understand both worldviews. I've lived in Japan, where guns are extremely rare and there are typically fewer than 100 annual handgun deaths, most of them accidents (there are rare exceptions, of course). I enjoyed living in a country so safe that even in Tokyo -- a city of 13 million -- women walk home from the train station alone late at night. But at home in America, with a dramatically higher crime rate and something like 200 million handguns in circulation, I own firearms. I guess I subscribe to both values -- I want to live in as safe as a society as possible, and I want to be able to defend myself and my loved ones, too.

Maybe there's a way to reconcile these potentially competing values: societal safety, and personal defense?

Start with this: I have no patience with the "guns don't kill people, people kill people" argument. I understand why GOPs trot it out -- both sides are afraid that if they give an inch, the other side will take a mile. But let's be honest for a moment: guns are superb tools for killing people. The Virginia Tech killer couldn't have done nearly the damage he did with any other handheld weapon -- knife, sword, spear, baseball bat, bow and arrow. If someone is inclined to kill, a gun will make him better able to do it.

The more interesting question is, does the gun itself encourage killing -- that is, does some degree of the motivation itself derive from the tool? I think the answer is yes. Look at the way cell phones affect public behavior. Otherwise discreet, polite people forget they're in public and start shouting into this little device -- behavior in which they never would have engaged in the device's absence. Take away the phone, and the shouting stops, too. The question is, are guns and killing as to cell phones and public shouting?

If you think that all killing is equally likely regardless of the tool at hand, you'll answer no. But if you understand the way a finger roll and distance make killing easier, and the way the much more strenuous and intimate requirements of a knife or bludgeon make it hard, you'll accept that yes, a gun is a tool that converts a higher percentage of homicidal urges into homicidal acts.

Thought experiment: in which society would there be lower rates of murder and other violence -- one in which no one but law enforcement carried, or one in which anyone who was so inclined carried? My guess is, the law enforcement-only society would be safer, and this is indeed the core GCP argument. But we're not done yet.

Another thought experiment: if you're a GOP, are you more uncomfortable not carrying in Japan, or in America? What about airplanes, where there's very little chance anyone other than a Federal Air Marshall or a pilot is carrying? What about government facilities where you can be confident no one else is carrying? Conversely, would your ordinary concealed carry be enough in, say, Baghdad?

My point is, there is (or should be) an implicit calculus between the perception of danger and the urge to carry. Neither value -- societal safety, personal defense -- sensibly exists independent of the other.

If it were possible to make America as gun-free as, say, Japan, I'd be for it. I'd be willing to give up some of my own right and ability to protect myself and loved ones if there were a sufficiently low need for that right and ability. But an America as gun-free as Japan is an unrealistic goal; guns are too widely in circulation here, the country is too diverse, and guns and crime are too much a part of the culture.

So maybe there's some basis for compromise in there. If GOPs can understand the value of certain gun-free zones, maybe they can understand the GCP wish to live in such a zone full time. If GCPs can understand how difficult it is to create an actual gun-free zone (the only ones I could come up are airplanes and government facilities), maybe they can understand why GOPs want to carry.

I think what we should be attempting is a balance that would maximize to the extent possible the imperatives of a safe society and of personal protection -- probably by being realistic about the relationship between the two in America. If there's a compelling reason to create a gun-free zone, and it can actually be done (airplanes, for example), I'm for it. If there's no compelling reason, or a gun-free zone isn't possible (even if you think the Virginia Tech campus passed the "compelling need" test, you'd be hard put to argue that it passed the "possible to do" one), I'm in favor of an individual's right to carry.

I don't think guns should be available without restriction. I think it's perfectly natural, and desirable, that people have to take a driving test before being licensed -- and licensed is the operative word -- to drive a car. I don't think it's unreasonable to require people who want to own guns to take a stringent course and pass a test on gun use and safety. I don't think a background check and cooling down period (in California, it's ten days between purchase and pickup) are an undue burden to a GOP's rights and abilities. I think background checks should be extended to private sales (mostly that means gun shows), which account for something like 40% of gun purchases.

In exchange for the temporary hassles of proving competence in gun use and safety, a clean record, and a cool head, GOPs could maintain the core of their self defense rights and abilities. In exchange for living in an armed society, GCPs would gain greater assurance that GOPs are neither criminal nor incompetent.

From what I've read so far, neither existing, nor my proposed, restrictions on gun ownership would have prevented the Virginia Tech killer from acquiring his guns (it does seem that the killer had some documented history of mental illness, though, something that ought to be a disqualification for firearms ownership, if such a thing is logistically possible). But if responsible students had been carrying, I doubt he could have done the damage he did. In fact, it's possible he wouldn't have attacked as he did to begin with. After all, if you accept that the presence of a gun makes murder more likely, I think you have to logically reach the same conclusion with regard to places, like the Virginia Tech campus, that are advertised as gun-free. If you had a gun and wanted to kill as many people as you could, would you choose, say, a school where students can carry only at the risk of expulsion? Or, say, at a bar popular with off-duty cops? If you're a GCP, before you answer "A killer like the Virginia Tech one would just find another way to kill," ask yourself why that wouldn't also be true if you denied him his gun. I don't think you can argue the one without also arguing the other.

Think of it as a layered defense for society. Appropriate restrictions would lessen the chances that deranged, pathetic individuals like the Virginia Tech specimen could acquire a gun. More citizens carrying would lessen the damage he could do if the first layer of defense failed. That's the kind of balance I think we should be going for -- and that we'll probably never achieve in the midst of so much political distrust, shouting, and vilification.

Wednesday, March 28, 2007

The Difference Between a Detainee and a Hostage

I've argued before that Iranian president Ahmadinejad believes an American or Israeli strike on Iran would be in his interest because his domestic support is flagging and a strike would rally the country around him.

Now Iran has seized 15 British sailors and Marines. The UK claims its people were two miles inside Iraqi waters when they were taken; Iran claims they were 500 yards inside Iranian waters at the time. Even if you believe Iran (I don't), you have to ask: why are they holding these people? It's been nearly a week. What is Iran getting out of it?

England is ratcheting up its rhetoric and today froze all bilateral business with Iran. So far, I haven't seen references from the British government to hostages, and the omission of the word is of course deliberate. The government is trying to avoid inflaming public opinion. I don't know what language the British press is using, but the Wall Street Journal referred to "Tehran's Hostages" in an editorial on Monday.

If Iran holds these British captives much longer, or explicitly attempts to exchange their freedom for British concessions, the world will (correctly) begin to refer to them as "hostages." British public opinion will be inflamed. Public opinion in America, which had its own unpleasant, and emotionally unfinished, experience with hostages in Iran, will follow suit.

I've argued that the Bush administration has its own political motives for wanting to attack Iran. Now the mullahs are offering an opportunity. Either the mullahs are exceedingly stupid, or they know full well that motive + opportunity = action.

That question again: If both the mullahs and the Bush administration believe they'll gain politically from an American attack on Iran, how likely is it that the attack will happen?

Tuesday, March 27, 2007

Clues in the News

So much going on in the world, it's hard to keep up.

Adm. William J. Fallon, the new chief of the U.S. military's Central Command, claims there's no civil war in Iraq. A Pentagon report sort of agrees, because the term "civil war" "does not adequately capture the complexity of the conflict." For me, the report makes it sound like what's going on in Iraq is worse than a civil war, but I'm not sure the Pentagon meant it that way.

As for the firing of those eight US Attorneys, as always, the cover-up is worse than the crime. In fact, in this case, there was no crime: as the White House has repeatedly pointed out, "US Attorneys serve at the pleasure of the president." (By the way, am I the only one wishing I had people who served at my pleasure? Not just working for me, but actually serving at my pleasure? I thought only sheiks and sultans and satraps had people serving at their pleasure, and never thought to aspire to such stations... but now I wonder if I set my sights too low...).

So yes, certainly the White House has the power to fire any US Attorney it wants, or even all of them, as President Clinton did, and presumably for any reason. But then... why all the obvious lies coming out of the White House and the Justice Department about why, how, when, and by whom these people were fired? Why not just proudly proclaim: "Karl Rove directed Alberto Gonzales to weed out US Attorneys who he deemed were pro-Democrat or anti-Republican. It was a political move, and within the White House's rights." There would have been a brouhaha, and then the story would have faded away because there would be no lies and other inconsistencies for the media to glom onto and use to keep the story front center.

Instead, as with so many cover-ups, the White House wanted it both ways. It knew it could fire the US Attorneys, but also knew it shouldn't. It had the power, but didn't want to pay a political price for exercising that power. If these guys just had the courage of their convictions, they could have achieved their desired result and paid a much lower price for it. As it is, they're exposed, not for the first time, as liars and hypocrites, and at a minimum will have to throw Gonzales over the side to keep the White House afloat. It'll be interesting to see whether the ballast clearing stops there, or goes further.

Back to Iraq: here's a useful barometer for how long we'll be there: Republican presidential candidate John McCain and Democratic candidate Barack Obama have both felt compelled to retract their statements that US lives are being "wasted" in Iraq, insisting they meant to say "sacrificed," instead.

Of course, the candidates' first choice of words is likely the more accurate reflection of their true thinking, but more importantly, the retraction demonstrates their political thinking. Both candidates have concluded that America isn't ready to admit to itself that the war is unwinnable. If the war is winnable and we ultimately win it, we can tell ourselves our soldiers' lives weren't wasted. If the war is unwinnable, substituting words like "sacrificed" for "wasted" becomes a significantly more difficult exercise. I've said it before, and McCain's and Obama's retracted diction is simply further evidence: we're going to be in Iraq for a long time to come.

Here's a terrific op-ed by Zbigniew Brzezinski from yesterday's Washington Post: "Terrorized by 'War on Terror': How a Three-Word Mantra Has Undermined America."

Friday, March 16, 2007

Homosexual Acts Are Immoral?

First it was the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Peter Pace, opining earlier this week that homosexual acts are immoral.

Now Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback says he agrees: "I believe that homosexual acts between individuals are immoral and that we should not condone immoral acts." (The irrepressible former lawyer in me seized on that "between individuals" qualifier, wondering whether Brownback was intentionally creating a safe harbor for group sex. But I digress...)

What's going on?

First, note the language. Both Pace and Brownback were almost lawyerly in their focus on homosexual acts, rather than homosexuality itself. In fact, Brownback explicitly claimed that homosexuality isn't immoral, while homosexual acts are: "I do not believe being a homosexual is immoral, but I do believe homosexual acts are."

Generally, I like a legal and moral focus on behavior rather than conditions, thoughts, feelings, or or other internal matters. Who cares what people are, or what they think or feel, when it comes to the organizing principles of a society? For all sorts of reasons, we should focus on what people do. So let's examine Pace's and Brownback's position as they stated it.

General Pace compared homosexual acts to adultery. Both are external behaviors, not internal states, so fair enough. But adultery necessarily has all sorts of negative consequences. Consensual sex doesn't. So I don't understand the stated basis for Pace's position. He does offer a clue, though: "My upbringing is such that I believe that there are certain things, certain types of conduct that are immoral." Let's come back to that in a moment.

The apparent basis for Senator Brownback's position is a bit more straightforward: "I'm a Catholic and the church has clear teachings on this."

This is interesting. Neither man claims to predicate his beliefs on reason: Pace cites his "upbringing," and Brownback his religion. It occurs to me that there is a huge cultural gulf at work here, a fundamental difference in worldviews. The way the cultural difference expresses itself with regard to views on sexuality is only a manifestation, a symptom of something much larger.

Perhaps this is the heart of the matter: there's a kind of person who accepts uncritically what's taught by parents, by religious leaders, or by other authority figures. And there's a kind of person who isn't satisfied with a "that's what I was taught" basis for morality, or anything else -- the teachings must also stand up to reasoned inquiry or they will be modified or rejected. Actually, the distinction is more subtle than that. Both groups do employ reason (Pace offered up the gay sex = adultery argument, which is at least an attempt at reason, however obviously flawed). But the first group uses reason to try to buttress a belief in which it's already invested, while the second group uses reason to examine the belief itself.

Put it another way: there are people who believe their subjective tastes are a sound basis for law and morality. And there are people who can use reason to distinguish between their subjective tastes and objective morality. One group believes certain views are ordained by God, and that those views must therefore be correct. The other group believes a wrong view couldn't come from God, no matter what's claimed in a religious text or by a religious leader or anywhere else.

Brownback also said, "We should not expect someone as qualified, accomplished and articulate as General Pace to lack personal views on important moral issues. In fact, we should expect that anyone entrusted with such great responsibility will have strong moral views."

I wonder why Brownback suddenly shifted his precise focus from external behavior to internal states? No one (no one reasonable, anyway) cares particularly about General Pace's private opinions. The question is, was it appropriate for Pace to air that opinion, particularly while in uniform, particularly while many gay Americans are fighting and dying in Iraq and Afghanistan? Does Senator Brownback have any thoughts on that?

Sidenote: Senator Clinton's initial reaction to General Pace's comments was to courageously note, "Well, I'm going to leave that to others to conclude." My God, at least Senator Brownback wasn't so afraid or scripted or whatever that he professed not to have an opinion. Later, Clinton changed her stance: "I disagree with what he said and do not share his view, plain and simple."

Related news: today's Wall Street Journal reports that "Poland's schools chief said teachers who promote 'homosexual culture' to students will be fired, insisting he's not on an antigay crusade."

I'm always curious about these terms... "homosexual culture" and "gay agenda." What are these things? What would it mean to promote them?

I had some gay teachers in high school. I'm not sure if they were promoting anything beyond what they taught in the classroom. I didn't receive any brochures about the awesomeness of the gay lifestyle or anything like that, but one guy did wear pink shirts... was he trying to tell me something? Regardless, I seem to have turned out heterosexual.

Judging from my own experience, I believe most of one's sexuality is inborn, and that environment matters at most at the margins. So I can't help wondering if people who are afraid of some "gay agenda" or gay teachers or hidden messages in SpongeBob Squarepants cartoons or whatever sense that they themselves are perched precariously on some sexual fence, and that it would take only a slight environmental nudge to topple them over to the other side. Why else would they be so exercised about the susceptibility of others, if they didn't feel it in themselves?

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

A Generals' Revolt?

Interesting article from the Sunday Times: US Generals Will Quit if Bush Orders Iran Attack.

Money quote:

The threat of a wave of resignations coincided with a warning by Vice-President Dick Cheney that all options, including military action, remained on the table. He was responding to a comment by Tony Blair that it would not “be right to take military action against Iran”.

Earlier this month, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Peter Pace publicly distanced himself from administration claims that Iran's leadership was responsible for supplying our enemies in Iraq with especially deadly bombs called EFPs -- Explosively Formed Penetrators. Now there's talk of resignations. It seems clear that various people in the know, all the way up General Pace, suspect the administration is planning to attack Iran and are maneuvering to ensure they're not part of the propaganda leading up to it.

I see two possibilities: first, the administration really is trying to lay the political groundwork for an attack on Iran, and the leaks and other public counters are intended as impediments. Second, the administration isn't planning to attack Iran, but is trying to strike fear into the mullahs to gain diplomatic concessions, both nuclear and with regard to stabilizing Iraq.

My guess is, the administration is planning for both. The thinking is: "We'll play chicken with Iran. If the mullahs swerve out of the way, we win. If they don't, we collide, and that's fine, too. We win either way."

Here's another interesting quote from the article:

"Army chiefs fear an attack on Iran would backfire on American troops in Iraq..."

It's long been my sense that the country we most wanted to shock and awe by going to war with Iraq was Iran. Ironic, then, that our troops there have become hostages to a potential Iranian response. Neocons, take note: it seems that one of the opportunity costs of war in Iraq is our ability to wage another war in Iran.

Friday, February 23, 2007

Repercussions from Iraq

Did you know the name of the current US-assisted Baghdad security sweep is Operation Imposing Law? Don't our Pentagon people vet the acronyms formed by these operations? That, or some irony-loving staffer managed to sneak this one by his irony-blind superiors...

Lots of fascinating news this week. Time magazine analyzes the deepening, and spreading, sectarian hatred in Iraq. Mother Jones argues that our presence in Iraq has increased worldwide terrorism. The London Times finds that anti-American feeling is soaring among Muslims.

(BTW, I smiled at this line in the Time article, regarding the Shiite ceremony called Ashura: "The faithful march in the streets, beating their chests and crying in sorrow. The extremely devout flagellate themselves with swords and whips." In other contexts, flagellating oneself with swords and whips would be called "insanity." When the behavior is apparently religiously motivated, it is known as "devotion." Journalists in training, take note.)

Deepening sectarian hatred, an increase in worldwide terrorism, and soaring anti-Americanism. I see three ways to deal with these findings:

1. They are inaccurate.
2. Regardless of their accuracy or inaccuracy, they are irrelevant.
3. They are accurate and relevant.

As I've argued in many previous posts, I believe the findings are both accurate and relevant. If we think of the war in Iraq as part of a larger counterinsurgency campaign, we have to accept that we are losing hearts and minds. If you lose the hearts and minds of the subject population, you lose the counterinsurgency campaign.

It seems to me that we've started a fire in Iraq. Now we're trying to put it out. But what if we can't? Like all fires, it will spread. Our best hope, then, will be to direct it away from ourselves. How?

Attacking a Shiite nation (Iran, that is) right after we've attacked a Sunni one probably wouldn't do the trick. On the contrary, in fighting against the Arab Sunni Taliban, Arab Sunni Iraqi insurgents, and Persian Shiite Iran, we might just accomplish the difficult trick of uniting Islam's feuding sects and nationalities against us.

Perhaps there are ways that Sunnis and Shiites could be left to fight each other, instead? For the cold-bloodedly realpolitically inclined among us, perhaps such fighting could even be... encouraged? If the fire turns on itself, is there a better chance it could burn itself out without consuming the west, too?

You have to be careful with metaphors like these, I know. What's going on in Islam isn't exactly a fire. But are our leaders intelligently, open-mindedly, grappling with these questions?

The always estimable Christopher Hitchens, in a recent Slate article, said almost as an aside, "We cannot flirt, either morally or politically, with divide and rule."

But he never explained why, or what the alternative might be.

Saturday, February 17, 2007

The Real Issue on Hillary and Iraq

I'm intrigued by calls from various Democratic quarters for Hillary Clinton to apologize for her 2002 vote authorizing military action in Iraq.

Clinton has said that knowing what she knows now, she wouldn't have voted the way she did. Saturday Night Live hilariously interpreted her remarks to mean, "Knowing what we know now, that you could vote against the war and still be elected president, I would never have pretended to support it."

As a matter of logic, Clinton's position has merit. Some mistakes you never should have made (unjustifiable); others, you made reasonably, based on what you knew at the time (justifiable). And even though she refuses to utter the "M" word (taking her cue in this regard from President Bush), Clinton is simply arguing that her mistake was justified based on the faulty intel she received from the White House.

But I think there's something more important going on here than whether someone made a mistake in voting to authorize the war, whether the mistake was justified at the time, and whether the mistake warrants an apology. The real issue here is judgment.

It's easy to forget that before the war, the Bush administration was hardly alone in believing Saddam Hussein had or soon would have WMD. So Senator Clinton is entitled to her position that she authorized the war based on what turned out to be faulty intelligence. But she's avoiding the harder, and more relevant question, of whether war made sense even if the intelligence had been accurate.

Kim Jung Il has long had a universally acknowledged active WMD program (which has subsequently led to an actual North Korean nuke) and is a demonstrated missile and nuclear know-how proliferator. The al-Saud fund hate-inculcating madrasses worldwide and supplied three quarters of the 9/11 hijackers. Iranian sponsorship of global terrorism is well documented. We know the Pakistani government was complicit in AQ Khan's nuclear proliferation efforts, with North Korea, Iran, and Libya as Khan's customers. Yet of all these demonstrated WMD and terrorist threats, we made war only on Saddam Hussein.

I wish Senator Clinton and others (including myself) had thought to ask: if we can live with Kim Jung Il and the al-Saud and the Iranian mullahs and Masharraf's complicity with AQ Khan, why can't we live with Saddam? And if we *can* live with him but are going to attack him anyway, what is the real motive for the attack? There might have been good, persuasive answers to these questions, but Senator Clinton didn't ask, and President Bush didn't volunteer them.

My own take: The Bush administration honestly believed Iraq had WMDs or dangerous WMD programs. But they never adequately considered alternatives short of war because the exigencies that inhibit us from going to war with North Korea, Pakistan, Saudi Arabia, and (so far) Iran were all absent in Iraq. Bush didn't intentionally invent Saddam's WMD, as many on the left have accused him of doing, but nor did he deal with the WMD possibility honestly. Instead, he thought, "Hussein's WMD are a threat. Yes, we could manage the threat another way, as we have with threats posed by Iran, North Korea, Pakistan, and Saudi Arabia... but if we deal with the threat by invasion, we can simultaneously intimidate Iran and Syria, and possibly the al-Saud; we can rebuild Iraq's sanctions-crippled oil industry and lower the price of a barrel in the process; and we can even unleash a wave of democracy in the middle east."

I can understand the appeal of such a plan before the fact, but its implementation has been a catastrophe. Perhaps the catastrophe could have been mitigated, or even avoided altogether, if the Senate and House (and the media) had probed Bush's real objectives -- which, as the counterexamples above demonstrate, could not logically have been solely about WMD, no matter how honestly Bush or anyone else believed those WMDs to exist.

The real question, then, isn't whether Senator Clinton's mistake in voting to authorize the war was justified by what turned out to be faulty intelligence. The real question is, why didn't she ask why war was necessary even if the intelligence was accurate? Why if we could deal with so many other dangerous regimes short of war, we had to go to war in Iraq?

Hard questions like the ones above would have shown real depth of consideration and judgment -- the kind showed by, say, Barrack Obama, who spoke out against war, though as a State senator he could have kept his mouth shut and had it both ways later.

I'm afraid Saturday Night Live got it about right about Senator Clinton.

Monday, February 12, 2007

Iran: What, Where, Why

I'm curious about the timing of the publicity the Bush administration is currently giving Iran's involvement in Iraq.

For the past few days, CNN, the New York Times, and the Wall Street Journal have all led with stories about Iranian-supplied "EFPs" -- Explosive Formed Projectiles, aka Explosively Formed Penetrators. EFPs are bombs that can punch through the toughest armor, and which apparently have killed 170 American and allied troops in Iraq.

Is Iran supplying our enemies in Iraq with EFPs, and otherwise "meddling" there? I don't doubt it. Iran has many motives to try to worsen our predicament in Iraq, not least their fear that, if we ever got Iraq right, we might turn our attention to Iran next. And Iran's geographical proximity and cultural ties to Iraq's Shiites certainly give Iran the opportunity. Motive plus opportunity... if I had to guess, I'd guess that hell yes, Iran is doing everything the Bush administration has accused it of, and probably a lot more.

The question, then, isn't whether Iran is working against us in Iraq. The question is, why is the administration pushing this story now? After all, according to the Defense Department's own briefers, Iranian supply to Iraqi Shiites dates back to at least 2004. Why wasn't the administration publicizing Iran's role three years ago? Six months ago? Why now?

The only plausible explanations I can come up with are:

1. The new accusations are intended to divert attention from the administration's failures in Iraq by blaming Iran.

2. The administration hopes that by "calling" Iran on its behavior, it can frighten Iran into desisting (although still, why not try this six months, a year ago, three years ago...).

3. The new accusations are part of the administration's case for an attack on Iran. Paul Krugman suggests this in today's New York Times.

If anyone can think of something else, I'd like to hear it.

Maybe the most important thing to note with regard to the timing of the administration's Iran accusations is this: the White House has enormous power to create news. We heard little about Iran in Iraq until the White House decided to make it a front page story. The White House said little about North Korea, keeping that country largely off the front page, right up until the day Kim Jung Il went nuclear. Most of all, of course, there was the PR push the White House engaged in during the run-up to the war in Iraq, including nonexistent weapons of mass destruction.

When you read a story -- or especially stories -- in the media, ask yourself not just about what the story says, but also where it's coming from. And why.