Saturday, November 29, 2008

The True Price of the "Dark Side"

In the course of researching my next novel, I just binged on three excellent documentaries: "Standard Operating Procedure," which examines the events at Abu Ghraib through photos, video, and interviews with many of the soldiers convicted of torturing prisoners there; Best Documentary Oscar-winning "Taxi to the Dark Side," which examines America's move to what Vice President Cheney called "the dark side" through the imprisonment, torture, and murder at Bagram Airbase of Dilawar, an Afghan taxi driver; and "Torturing Democracy," which examines the Bush administration's embrace of "alternative interrogation techniques" and the effect of that embrace on our democracy (available on the TD website either by DVD or as a free download).

Several things came to mind while I watched these documentaries.

First, what will be the continuing impact of these photos and videos--of Arab men being shackled, beaten, set upon by dogs, stripped, forced to masturbate, forced to mime homosexual acts--on jihadist recruitment? I'm not talking only about how many new suicide bombers these photos and videos will create; I'm talking also about the size and depth of the pool of sympathizers without whose support or at least acquiescence the bombers would be unable to function effectively. Whatever good might be accomplished by our overall efforts at counterterror, it's hard to imagine it'll outweigh the effect of what came out of Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and elsewhere.

Second, I was struck by how, in almost every photo and video of abuse, humiliation, and torture, the prisoners were hooded. It's well understood that covering a person's face is a highly effective way of denying his humanity (prisoners ascending the gallows or facing death by firing squad are hooded not as a mercy to the condemned, but as enablement to the executioner). Whatever "softening up" or security benefits the government believes might be accrued through hooding, the costs of the practice, in terms of increasing the likelihood of prisoner abuse, must be far greater.

Third, a thought experiment. If instead of American soldiers and Arab detainees, the photos and videos from Abu Ghraib were of American POWs and, say, Iranian guards, what would be the American reaction? Note the linguistic choices in the previous sentence, which would be automatic: Arabs are denied the dignity of being designated Prisoners of War. They're not even prisoners. They're merely "detainees" (I'm half-surprised we haven't started calling them "guests"). The Americans holding them are "soldiers"; were the shoe on the other foot, the enemy captors would doubtless receive the less exalted term, "guards." Would there be any debate about whether the practices revealed in the photos were "outrages upon human dignity," as prohibited by the Geneva Conventions and US law? Would we describe the practices as "abuse?" Or would they obviously, and rightly, be called "torture?" If Americans were taken against their will and spirited away by Iranian government forces, would we call the practice "rendering," or would we recognize it as "kidnapping?" Would we call the places to which Americans were secreted and where they were held without acknowledgment to their families or even to the Red Cross "detention centers?" Or would we call such a system a gulag?

Fourth, I marveled at the logical fallacy at the heart of our decision to "take the gloves off" and employ practices pioneered by the Spanish Inquisition (where waterboarding was known as the "tortura del agua," and sleep deprivation as the "tormentum insomnia"), and followed by the KGB, Communist Chinese, and North Koreans. All these illustrious forebears of ours employed the practices in question to elicit false *confessions,* yet we decided to employ them to elicit accurate *intelligence.* These are completely different goals, and I'm amazed that advocates of an embrace of such techniques could miss a point so fundamental. Call it your tax dollars at work.

It's common for rightists to justify America's embrace of the "dark side" by claiming that President Bush has kept the country safe. The claim strikes me as remarkably simplistic. If the temporal frame of reference begins on 9/11, and we ignore the unsolved anthrax attacks that came shortly after, and the geographical frame of reference is the territorial United States alone, then one might accurately claim America has been safe *up until now.* Whether the correlation between "the dark side" and our safety up until this point has a causal connection is far more debatable. Regardless, to me, "has kept us safe up until this point" has far too much the ring of Neville Chamberlain's "peace in our time." It also makes me think of a parent who seems to be an excellent provider because he's financing all those provisions on a dozen maxed-out credit cards. The temporary comfort he's afforded his family will inevitably be wiped out by the unpayable bill they're all soon to receive. Watching these documentaries, you can't help but feel that bill is out there, and that soon enough, it will be horrifically presented to us. Even if you believe "the dark side" offers benefits, and you're willing to ignore what the dark side has cost us in terms of our own ideals and our image in the world, that bill, when it comes, will represent the dark side's true price.

Thursday, November 06, 2008

America's Victory; California's Shame

I went out last night for a celebration dinner here in Tokyo and it was gratifying to hear so many Japanese at the tables around me talking about Obama (the name is easy to pronounce in Japanese -- there's a Japanese village called Obama in Fukui prefecture, and they were partying hard yesterday).

My greatest pride as an American has to do with our ideals: that we are all created equal, that America is the land of opportunity, that anyone can achieve anything in America if he or she is willing to work hard enough. Obviously the nation has frequently fallen short of that ideal. But yesterday we lived it, and damn, does it feel good.

But my pride in America was leavened by shame for my adopted state, California. There, by a margin of about two percent, citizens voted to amend the state constitution to prohibit gays from marrying. I wrote about this issue a few days ago and don't have much to add here. I'll just say that the discrimination Californians institutionalized today will prove brief -- no more than a single generation, because young people seem not to share their elders' antiquated views on homosexuality -- and that a decade or two from now, we'll look back at what happened in California today the same way we look back at the internment of Japanese-Americans after the attack on Pearl Harbor, with the important difference that post-Pearl Harbor hysteria is relatively easy to understand, while the sources of the anti-gay hysteria that in the early 21st century motivated a prosperous and otherwise normal state to send a whole class of its citizens to the back of the bus will forever remain a mystery.

Back to the national election. No one can say for sure what kind of president Obama will be, but his judgment, temperament, and ability to put together a formidable campaign augur well. So does his refusal to deflect nonstop slurs without responding in kind. I hope that in defeat, Republicans will reflect on what cost them this election: a wholesale abandonment of principle, and the uselessness of baseless character attacks in obscuring that abandonment in the minds of a majority of voters. If Republicans can return to the arena once again confident enough of their principles to avoid campaigns based on demagoguery, America will be much the stronger for it, and so will the GOP.

But first the party has to emerge from denial. Here are a few items that might help.

First, as manifestly unqualified as I thought Sarah Palin was for national office, it seems things were even worse than I suspected. Yes, some of the news coming out now is score-settling. But not all of it. A party that tolerates this kind of candidate on its ticket cannot be taken seriously. One way by which we'll know how well Republicans are emerging from denial is whether Sarah Palin can make a serious run at the 2012 nomination.

During the last six weeks of the campaign, I received a fair amount of email from McCain backers who claimed the polls were wrong and McCain would be elected. I hope the people who made these claims will now reflect on the possibility that if they were mistaken about the polls, they might be mistaken on other matters, as well. And for anyone tempted to attribute Obama's landslide win to the ACORN bogeyman, you'd first have to explain how pre-election polls and the actual votes cast could track so closely. Surely ACORN is not quite so all-powerful as to have found a way to match up polling and actual votes.

Listening to President Bush's remarks after the election, I was struck -- not for the first time -- by the president's argument that "the most important responsibility of the US government is protecting the American people... this commitment will remain steadfast under our next commander-in-chief." I hope Bush's retirement will mean the end of this kind of inaccurate, dangerous, and hypocritical rhetoric. Inaccurate, because the Constitution doesn't provide for the importance of Bush's claimed "most important responsibility." In fact, what the Constitution requires the president to swear an oath to protect is the Constitution: "I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will faithfully execute the Office of President of the United States, and will to the best of my Ability, preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States." Dangerous, because in implying that the government might have to choose between protecting the people and protecting the Constitution, this kind of rhetoric creates an unnecessary temptation and a a possible excuse. Hypocritical, because the party of rugged individualism and personal responsibility ought not to demean itself by suggesting people are so in need of its protection that the Constitution comes second.

As for the ridiculous, militaristic, and unconstitutional notion of "our commander-in-chief," President Obama would do the country a service by telling America that he is not "our" commander-in-chief. America doesn't need a caudillo, pseudo or real, and the commander-in-chief fetish could very usefully be retired along with our outgoing president.

I'll spend the next four years rooting for the return of a principled Republican party, and, while, wishing our new president very well indeed, doing what I can to help keep him honest. He's demonstrated great promise, and, on FISA, also a willingness to break his promises. He'll need not just our support, but also our honest criticism.

But for the moment... what a day. And what a country.

P.S. With the election done and another novel deadline approaching, I'm going to try hard to get my blogging addiction a little more under control. We'll see if my efforts are successful. If you miss me, stop by my discussion forum and say hello. It's also a good place to find out the latest on Fault Line, including excerpts and contests, and on the Rain Fall movie, premiering in Tokyo on April 27th. Hope to see you there.