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.