Sunday, October 31, 2010

The Definition of Insanity

Earlier this month, the Washington Post published an op-ed by Jack Devine, former CIA deputy director of operations and chief of the CIA Afghan Task Force. When I read it, I thought it was perhaps the most insane op-ed I'd ever come across. But leave it to David Broder, "Dean of the Washington Press Corps," to try to one-up it just three weeks later.

Let's take Devine's piece first. Devine argues that our top priority in Afghanistan must be capturing or killing bin Laden. Devine asks, "We have entered into two problematic wars and have expended a great deal of blood and treasure since Sept. 11. What was it all about, if not capturing bin Laden?"

I think I know now why invading Iraq was "problematic." You see, bin Laden wasn't in Iraq. No wonder we can't find the guy.

But wait a minute... back in 2002, when the Bush administration was selling America on the benefits of invading Iraq, it was all about WMDs, and mushroom clouds as smoking guns. When it turned out there were no WMDs, the Bush administration realized the war was actually about building a stable democracy in the middle east. Now that the new, improved rationale has itself turned to ashes, Devine offers the silliest and most ahistorical yet: we invaded Iraq to capture bin Laden. The good news -- for Devine -- is that, if you accept his premise, capturing or killing bin Laden will mean we've won in Iraq.

If only that meant we'd be leaving Iraq, it might redeem Devine's bizarre claim. But it doesn't.

Devine's reasoning degenerates further as he plows on. He argues that if "elements within the Pakistani government [are] an impediment to [bin Laden's] capture, we should forget about nation-building in Afghanistan and, like Sherman marching across Georgia during the Civil War, march our army across eastern Afghanistan, pressing forward even into Pakistan's Northwest Frontier, and continue the march until we capture him."

Let's put this a little more plainly. Devine is proposing that if Pakistan thwarts us, we should destroy Afghanistan.

(I gave that restatement its own paragraph because Devine's proposal is so breathtaking it really needs to be set apart and observed for a moment, unadorned.)

If we were talking about individuals, I believe Devine's approach would be known as executing a hostage. At the national level, I don't know how to describe a threat to destroy Country A in order to punish Country B other than to call it state terrorism. Sherman's March, after all, otherwise known as a "scorched earth" campaign, otherwise known as "total war," was a campaign of infrastructure destruction intended to break the south's will to fight. It involved the annihilation of railroads, bridges, farms, and manufacturing infrastructure. Sherman's army provided for itself by taking whatever it needed from the southern farms it pillaged and destroyed. This was called "foraging."

This is what Devine urges we do to Afghanistan. To punish Pakistan. At least when Sherman did it, he was destroying the territory of the population whose will the North sought to break.

But wait, as the Ginsu commercial used to say -- there's still more! Devine doesn't want the US army to do a Sherman's March across Afghanistan only. He wants the army to "press forward" into Pakistan and "continue the march" until we capture bin Laden. I'd like to think that, if bin Laden doesn't turn up during the march (maybe he's in Iraq after all?), our armies would stop marching before they invaded India or China. But Devine doesn't say, and because he seems enamored of the notion of destroying one country to punish another, one is left to wonder.

One of my favorite aspects of Devine's piece is his linguistic dexterity. Not once does he use the word "invade" or any derivation thereof. Instead, we will simply "march" and "press forward" and "continue." Euphemisms, Orwellian doublespeak, and other such mealymouthedness are hallmarks of this species of op-ed because they serve to conceal the naked brutality of the author's proposal. It would be much more difficult for the Devines of the world to call for "destroying" or "invading" Pakistan, or "burning it to the ground." Orwell wrote masterfully about this style of obfuscation in his essay Politics and the English Language:

In our time, political speech and writing are largely the defence of the indefensible. Things like the continuance of British rule in India, the Russian purges and deportations, the dropping of the atom bombs on Japan, can indeed be defended, but only by arguments which are too brutal for most people to face, and which do not square with the professed aims of the political parties. Thus political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness. Defenceless villages are bombarded from the air, the inhabitants driven out into the countryside, the cattle machine-gunned, the huts set on fire with incendiary bullets: this is called pacification. Millions of peasants are robbed of their farms and sent trudging along the roads with no more than they can carry: this is called transfer of population or rectification of frontiers. People are imprisoned for years without trial, or shot in the back of the neck or sent to die of scurvy in Arctic lumber camps: this is called elimination of unreliable elements. Such phraseology is needed if one wants to name things without calling up mental pictures of them.

The Orwellianisms get thicker as Devine goes on, so thick that one senses the judgment they're most effectively suppressing is his own. "We should advise the Pakistani government of our intention in no uncertain terms" means we should threaten to invade and destroy the country. In response to this threat, Pakistani officials would "surely fuss," which doesn't sound like all that much (babies fuss, right? and they never hurt anyone) until you consider that Pakistan has nuclear weapons. Anyway, Devine soothes us, Pakistani officials also "fussed" in response to a recent uptick in Predator drone attacks. Which is extremely reassuring for anyone who believes Pakistan's reaction to covert drone strikes is a reliable predictor of how the country would respond to an overt invasion with the explicit aim of destroying it.

If any of this sounds worrisome to you, fear not; "it's a pretty good bet that we would have bin Laden's head on a platter before we got anywhere near the Pakistani border." It's good to know we would only be destroying Afghanistan and wouldn't have to "continue" any further, because for a moment, I had this nagging sense that our invasions of even non-nuclear-armed countries have sometimes gone not precisely in accordance with the predictions of invasion cheerleaders. And look, Devine isn't a complete madman. He acknowledges that "this is not traditionally how we deal with important allies, and it is not a formula for routine diplomatic discourse." Prudent of him to place a restraining hand on any hotheads out there who would argue for the efficacy of applying his model to other nuclear-armed allies, like Britain or France. He recognizes, after all, that these are "exceptional circumstances," but notes that, in exceptional circumstances, "hardball is called for," "hardball" being the traditionally favored nomenclature for threats to invade and destroy nuclear-armed, allied nations.

Finally, sensitive always that some nervous nelly might be reading his piece, he reassures readers that "I also suspect the fallout would be far less damaging and more ephemeral than many might suggest." Amusing use of the word "fallout" under the circumstances, though I'm reasonably confident Devine didn't intend the effect. The main thing to remember is that our threat to destroy Afghanistan and invade and destroy Pakistan, and the invasion and destruction itself, would be ephemeral, as such operations historically always are. Really, the worst that might happen from Pakistani fussing is that we could get our hair mussed.

Just in case you got overly giddy at the prospect of laying waste to two countries, Devine brings it all into focus again, reminding us that the whole thing is just about bin Laden, because "putting him to rest would provide a truly meaningful rationale for leaving" (I love that euphemism, "putting him to rest." It's almost kind). He even acknowledges that "the most recent publicly available intelligence reports show that there are few al-Qaeda terrorists remaining in the region; many have moved elsewhere, including to Yemen."

So Devine wants to lay waste to at least two countries, one of them an ally and nuclear-armed, not even in pursuit of al Qaeda, but merely in pursuit of a single man. Seems like a sensible, proportionate plan to me. Anyway, what could possibly go wrong?

And now, Broder.

There's less to say about Broder's piece, but only because he expresses his insanity more succinctly than does Devine. First, he lays out his premise: war and peace are the only forces influencing the economy that the president can control. Second, his evidence: World War II resolved the Great Depression. Finally, his slam dunk conclusion: Obama should take America to war with Iran (Congressional declarations of war are so pre 9/11) because war with Iran will improve America's economy.

There are several things I love about Broder's piece.

First, I love the euphemisms. Like Devine, Broder would never be so gauche and unsophisticated as to use a word like "invasion" to describe an invasion, and we should pause for a moment in recognition of the talent it takes to pen a whole op-ed about invading a country without once mentioning an actual invasion. Instead, Broder argues for "challenging Iran's ambition" and "orchestrating a showdown" and "confronting the threat" and "containing Iran's nuclear ambitions." None of that sounds so bad, does it? I admit I'd feel a little better if Broder could reassure me, as Devine does, that Iran wouldn't "fuss" overly much in response, and that it's a "good bet" the whole thing would never happen anyway, or, if it does, that the effects would be "ephemeral," but given that the chief effect of invading Iran would almost certainly be nothing more than an economic uptick, perhaps such reassurances would be redundant.

Another part I love is the traditional boilerplate disclaimer: "I am not suggesting, of course, that the president incite a war to get reelected." This is such a nimble dodge that I really think we should honor the mind behind it by calling such mealymouthedness "Broderian." You see, Broder doesn't suggest that the president "incite" a war only because Broder has already done such splendid work in inciting it himself.

Broder spends his whole article calculating the politics that will be in play in 2012, argues that "orchestrating a showdown with the mullahs... will help [Obama] politically," and concludes that an invasion of Iran will be good for the US economy. Then he assures us in his last paragraph, almost as a weird afterthought, that hey, it's not all about the economy and politics, that we should remember too that "Iran is the greatest threat to the world in the young century." Oh, and that if Obama invades Iran, he "will have made the world safer and may be regarded as one of the most successful presidents in history."

Is there a benefit an invasion of Iran wouldn't achieve? Broder seems to have covered everything he could think of: improve the economy, political gain to the president, good for national security, good for non-proliferation, historical icon status for the president. Incite? When food is as tasty, abundant, and nutritious as Broder promises, and he's done such fine work in stoking appetites, diners don't need to be incited. They'll be knocking down the restaurant doors.

Still, let no one suggest that Broder wants war to be "incited." That would be crass and unfair. After all, he explicitly says he is not calling for incitement, and in the complicated, sophisticated business of calling for war in an op-ed, it's understood that the one-line disclaimer trumps everything else in the op-ed itself. Or at least that's how it works on the TV shows the Broders of the world get invited on after the wars actually begin, at which point everyone (most of all, the op-ed writer himself) has forgotten everything else he wrote, and the writer gets to waive his disclaimer like a bank robber holding a bundle of loot in one hand and a get-out-jail-free card in the other.

But my favorite part of the whole thing is Broder's argument itself: war is good for the economy. You know what I'm going to say, right? It's so stunningly obvious, I know I don't need to. Still:

We've been at war in Afghanistan since 2001. In Iraq since 2003. Broder's own paper reports that we have covert forces operating in 75 countries. And in the midst of all this warfare, our economy plunged into what has become widely known as the Great Recession.

But in the mind of David Broder, none of this is relevant. Our trillion dollar deficit and 13 trillion dollar national debt don't even exist. Bloodshed and death don't even merit a casual mention. He skips past all of it, past the Cold War, Vietnam, and Korea, too, to locate a historically unique instance of a global recession meeting a global war, then uses it to argue that war is ipso facto good for the economy.

You could argue that all the wars we've been waging for the last decade didn't cause the recession. But even if all that war hasn't hurt the economy, it's a hell of a logical leap to suggest that one more war would cause economic improvement. And yet that's precisely what Broder argues.

No one wants to be called a warmonger, and certainly no one ever cops to the charge. But when someone demonstrates this much ability to ignore glaringly obvious evidence that utterly undercuts his rationale for war, when he blithely ticks off numerous imagined benefits of war and not once mentions blood -- not even the blood of his countrymen -- as part of his calculus, it's fair to ask if the person in question might be suffering from a morbid attachment to war itself.

What Broder is calling for is so insane, and so potentially destructive, that the personal disgrace he ought to feel for having suggested it is nearly beside the point. Still, I wish someone would take him gently by the arm and lead him into a quiet retirement before he embarrasses himself further, or, worse, gets someone to actually take him seriously. Given the lineup on the Post's op-ed page, however, and given that Broder's piece provides such a perfect companion to Devine's, I expect Broder will be around for as long as the lunatics are running the asylum.

Do you think my references to insanity are too much? I use them deliberately. Einstein said, "The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting different results." Have another look at Devine's and Broder's pieces, and tell me these men are other than by definition insane.

Friday, October 29, 2010

Fictional Politics

Though it's replete with action, sex, badass characters, and exotic locations, I'm gratified that my latest novel, Inside Out, has also garnered attention for its politics. Generally speaking, anything that gets people talking about your books is good, but the reaction to Inside Out is pleasing too because of what that reaction reveals about how some politics are perceived as political, while other politics are not.

If I had to encapsulate the politics of Inside Out, I'd say something like this: "Torture and endless war have made America less safe, not more, and America is run by a oligarchic web of media, government, military, and corporate interests who profit by keeping Americans afraid of an external enemy."

I don't deny that such a viewpoint is political. But now let's see if we can similarly encapsulate the politics of a more typical, ticking time bomb thriller:

"Alien, brown-skinned external enemy zealots seek to destroy us because they hate our freedoms, and through torture and a militaristic response, we can stop them and preserve our way of life."

For me, the second worldview is as political as the first (more so, in fact, for reasons I'll mention below). But my sense is that, for many people, only the first seems "political." If I'm correct, it suggests that the right has succeeded (at least in fiction) in establishing its own worldview as the norm, by comparison with which, other worldviews are suspiciously "political."

This success is striking for a number of reasons. Chief among them is that the "external threat is worst" view is contradicted by actual evidence. Multiple studies, including one commissioned by Donald Rumsfeld's Pentagon, have demonstrated that the majority of what causes terrorism isn't our freedoms, but rather our wars. To the extent a view is driven more by ideology than it is by facts, I would expect it to be recognized as more political, not less. In fiction, at least, this seems not to be the case.

In some ways, I'm surprised rightists reject the "our overreaction is the greater threat" worldview, and not just because it's the one supported by available evidence. I would expect doughty conservatives, paragons of the virtues of taking personal responsibility, to embrace a worldview that implicitly empowers us to solve our problems by changing our policies (and without running up huge deficits, too). When it comes to identifying threats to America, something must be overriding the right's nominal attachment to personal and fiscal responsibility. My guess is, that thing is the innate human abhorrence of acknowledging culpability. Psychologically, it's always more pleasurable to blame others for our problems than it is to acknowledge our own responsibility. George Carlin nailed this dynamic with his, "Have you ever noticed that everyone who drives too fast is a maniac, and everyone who drives too slowly is a moron, while you always drive at the correct speed?"

Anger, and the self righteousness that is both the cause and consequence of anger, tends to be easier on the psyche than personal responsibility. It's strange that conservatives reflexively counsel welfare recipients to take responsibility and get off the dole, and yet are unwilling to acknowledge what common sense and the data linked to above clearly demonstrate: anti-American animus is largely the result of American foreign policy.

Now granted, when it comes to politics in a novel, execution matters. But I don't think style and delivery explain too much of the discrepancy detailed above. More important, I think, is the advantage of conventionality to the construction of an "external enemies" plot. Noam Chomsky summed up the difference better than anyone with his withering commentary on "concision" on television. Watch the attached three-minute video and you'll see what I mean.

As is the case for television talk shows, conventional politics in a novel are easy to express with concision. "A blood-thirsty Islamic terrorist has planted a bomb under Los Angeles, but the hero is able to break him with torture and so save the day." What evidence does one have to offer in support of such a simplistic, conventional, and psychologically comforting view? Conversely, if you want to depict elites manipulating public fears for their own private gain, or the ways in which the war on terror perpetuates terror and thus ensures the war will be self-sustaining and unending, you have to provide an evidentiary framework, a framework that's both challenging for the novelist and also likely to be perceived as "political" in a way that the evil bomb-planter plot is not. What's easier is more commonly produced; what's more commonly produced is accepted as a norm. And thus, over time, readers habituate to how inherently political is the "Muslims are coming to get us" plot.

Not for the first time, I have to salute the right for its stellar communications skills. Persuading readers that your political fiction is apolitical? Reminds me of that line from The Usual Suspects -- that the greatest trick the devil ever pulled was convincing the world he didn't exist.

P.S. Recently I participated on a great Bouchercon panel, inspired by my Huff Post piece Torture Tales, on politics and the novel. Thanks to moderator David Corbett and to my fellow panelists Mark Billingham, Gayle Lynds, and S.J. Rozan, for exceptionally thought-provoking discussion, some of which is reflected in this post.

Wednesday, October 20, 2010

The Overton Window: More Poodle Than Panther

I'm pleased to announce that At the Tea Party: The Wing Nuts, Whack Jobs and Whitey-Whiteness of the New Republican Right... and Why We Should Take It Seriously is available today! Edited by GritTV's Laura Flanders, it includes essays from an amazing lineup of writers: Max Blumenthal, Alexander Cockburn, Lisa Duggan, Bill Fletcher, Glenn Greenwald, Arun Gupta, Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Chris Hedges, Jim Hightower, Richard Kim, Rick Perlstein, Katha Pollitt, Sarah Posner, Ruth Rosen, Ken Silverstein, Tim Wise, Kai Wright, JoAnn Wypijewski, Gary Younge, Alexander Zaitchik, and Deanna Zandt. Here's my contribution, a review of Glenn Beck's novel The Overton Window.

The Overton Window: More Poodle Than Panther

The most surprising aspect of Glenn Beck’s novel The Overton Window is the banality of its politics. Coming from an entertainer whose trademark is blackboard diagrams connecting Nazism, the Lincoln penny, Woodrow Wilson, and the impending destruction of America by organizations promoting social justice, and with a back cover promise “to be as controversial as it is eye-opening,” in the end the book posits nothing more than a boilerplate conspiracy run by an evil New York public relations magnate. Could Beck have taken on a less controversial player? Perhaps he initially considered risking everything by vilifying Wall Street bankers, or telemarketers, or child molesters, before gritting his teeth and pledging his life, his fortune, and his sacred honor to outing such a powerful and well-defended foe.

But on second thought, Beck’s choice of conspiracy villain makes a kind of sense. After all, has Beck ever gone after a player who could actually hit back? Whether it’s a politically powerless organization like ACORN or the Tides Group; a peripheral bureaucrat like Van Jones or a politician so prominent he’s already a lightning rod for criticism, like Obama; or concepts so broad or amorphous that railing against them is as dangerous as screaming into a pillow, like “progressives” or “the liberal media,” Beck’s villains are always carefully screened to guarantee the only repercussions he’ll endure for choosing them is a boost to his ratings. This is true for his television and radio shows, so it stands to reason it would be true in his first attempt at a novel, too.

In fact, a reasonable rule of thumb for testing the seriousness of anyone’s claim to the role of underdog in the fight against vast, powerful forces, is this: what actual damage has the claimant sustained? Ask this question of Glenn Greenwald, or Michael Hastings, or Carol Rosenberg, or Jeremy Scahill, or Marcy Wheeler, or of any other real journalist, and you’ll learn of doors closed and financial opportunities lost. Ask it of Glenn Beck, and you’ll learn of multi-million dollar television contracts and book advances. Ah, the sacrifices this man has made in exposing the powerful forces who secretly control America.

The safe silliness of Beck’s villain aside, progressive readers would be hard-pressed to disagree with the novel’s main premise: a misinformed and apathetic populace has allowed America to be captured by oligarchic elites, elites who masterfully manipulate public opinion to perpetrate the system by which they engorge themselves on the citizenry. Not such a different conception, in fact, from the one that undergirds my own recent novel, Inside Out. Beck and I both even include an author’s note and list of sources to help readers sift out the fact upon which we base our fiction. And we both clearly intend for our novels not just to entertain, but to elucidate.

Which makes it all the stranger to consider that the author of this earnest book is the same man The Daily Show hilariously demonstrated to be in the grip of Nazi Tourette’s, whose obsession with race led him to declare that Obama “has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture,” and who has composed virtual love letters to President Bush and Sarah Palin. If I hadn’t known Beck the television huckster before encountering Beck the novelist, I would have thought that, politically, at least, we might have much in common.

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Back in Black - Glenn Beck's Nazi Tourette's
Daily Show Full EpisodesPolitical HumorRally to Restore Sanity

But similar premises don’t necessarily lead to a confluence of conclusions. A sobering thought for anyone hopeful that, say, the Tea Party’s small government rhetoric provides possible common ground for some sort of progressive outreach. Progressives think government is too big and therefore want to reduce secrecy and prevent the president from imprisoning and assassinating American citizens without due process; Tea Partiers think government is too big and therefore want to prevent universal health care. Progressives think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to shrink the military; Tea Partiers think the national deficit and debt are out of control and therefore want to eliminate social security. The differences in such world views are far more significant than the similarities, and an attempt to minimize the differences and try to build on the similarities is apt to lead to extremely disappointing results.

The good news, I suppose, is that whatever readership The Overton Window finds, the book’s impact is apt to be benign. Most of its readers are probably already Beck’s fans, in which case the damage is done. Those who get through the book without prior knowledge of Beck will likely be distracted from deep thought by the one-dimensional characters, unending political speeches masquerading as dialogue, and absurdity of the conspiracy Beck proposes. The Overton Window is dull and disjointed more than it is dangerous or disquieting, and therefore, as both political primer and political thriller, ultimately, inert.

Saturday, October 02, 2010

This is Your Brain on War

Andrew Sullivan's defense of President Obama's claimed power to have American citizens assassinated nicely reveals much of the illogic behind, and many of the dangers inherent in, America's Forever War. Let's examine it point by point.

1. Assassination of American citizens, even if arguably extreme, has only been ordered applied, so far as we know, to four individuals.

When the government attempts to claim some controversial power, it tends to establish the alleged principle behind that power through the facts most convenient for its case. It's no coincidence, therefore, that the government has used Anwar al-Awlaki, whose name and face are a perfect fit for the popular image of Scary Foreign Terrorist, to make its case for a presidential assassination power. From a public relations perspective, it would have been more difficult to establish the power through the announcement of the impending assassination of someone named, say, Mike Miller, a white Christian. For the same reason, Jose Padilla was a good choice for the test case the Bush administration used to establish its power to arrest American citizens on American soil, hold them incommunicado in military facilities, and try them in military commissions. Similarly, the CIA was careful to introduce the news about its torture tapes with a low number -- just two or three -- and then, once the principle of the tapes had been established in the public mind, to mention the real (as far as we know) number, which was ninety-two.

Imagine you're a top West Wing spinmeister discussing how to recruit influence-makers into supporting the president's power to assassinate American citizens. Would you claim the power as broadly as possible, right up front? Or would you soft-pedal it, by initially attaching the power to one man with a dark beard and a scary-sounding name? The answer is obvious. Then, later, once the principle has been established, you can use it more expansively, knowing the influence-makers will have a hard time reversing themselves because, after all, they've already supported the principle, and knowing that the public will go along because now it's been properly inoculated against the shock of a full-blown admission.

But even leaving all that aside, the "but it was done to only a few people" argument is pretty weak. The acceptability of government conduct ought to turn on its legality, not on how many people were subjected to it. Presumably Sullivan wouldn't offer this defense of government conduct if the conduct in question had been torture, though of course this was a primary Bush administration defense of its torture regimen -- that only three people were waterboarded.

2. We know Anwar al-Awlaki is a member of al Qaeda because we can find information to this effect on Wikipedia and in independent news reports.

This argument turns on how much we ought to trust the government when it claims someone is so dangerous that the person merits extrajudicial killing (or, with regard to another power Obama claims for himself, so dangerous that he must be imprisoned forever without charge, trial, or conviction). Logically, I would expect that if the government has evidence compelling enough to justify assassinating (or imprisoning forever) an American citizen, the government would prove its case in court. And I'd be comforted if the government would take the trouble to do so, as I have an admittedly pre-9/11 attachment to the notion that, as the Fifth Amendment puts it, "No person... shall be deprived of life, liberty, or property without due process of law." In fact, given both the constitutional requirements and public relations imperatives in play, when the government refuses to make its case in court, I can't help but suspect just as a matter of logic that its case is in fact weaker than one might like a case for assassination to be.

It's especially relevant in this regard that Sullivan repeatedly bases his defense of the government's claimed power to assassinate Awlaki on Awlaki's alleged treason. Yet Article III, Section 3 of the Constitution provides, "No Person shall be convicted of Treason unless on the Testimony of two Witnesses to the same overt Act, or on Confession in open Court." So it's not just desirable that the government prove allegations like the ones against Awlaki in court; it's constitutionally required (and Sullivan himself seems uncomfortable with his call that Awlaki be executed on the basis of a Wikipedia entry and some news articles, because later in his post he suggests that the government does have some sort of duty to "reiterate" its case in court, if only as part of a more persuasive public relations effort. And note the use of that word, "reiterate" -- Sullivan seems to sense, correctly, that the news reports he cites as evidence are based, as such reports so often are, on government whispers).

So both logically and constitutionally, the government really shouldn't be assassinating American citizens just because Wikipedia and independent news reports claim they're doing bad things. But let's leave logic and the Constitution aside for the moment and instead examine the empirical case for trusting governmental claims that certain people are so bad they must be deprived of life, liberty, and property without due process of law.

Defense Secretary Rumsfeld once assured America that the 800 or so prisoners we had locked up in Guantanamo were "the worst of the worst." It turns out not only that most of them were innocent, but that the government knew they were innocent. And indeed, most of them have since been quietly released. Guantanamo is, of course, just one instance, and the history of successive governmental lying is so long and consistent I always find it baffling when someone reflexively treats government claims as a sufficiently trustworthy basis for imprisonment and execution.

We've all had the experience of knowing someone who we realize over time has a tendency to fib. When we make that discovery, immediately thereafter we begin to discount that person's unverified claims. This is just a common-sense, automatic, adult reaction to experience in the world. And yet, when it comes to the government, no matter how many times we're subjected to much worse than mere fibbing -- whether it's Guantanamo, or WMDs, or the scapegoating and persecution of Steven Hatfill as the anthrax killer, or the Pat Tillman coverup, to name only a few of the more recent instances of government lies -- some people will continue to trust governmental assertions as though the government has an unblemished record of truth-telling. I don't know how to explain this irrational credulity. My best guess is it has something to do with denial born of the pain of knowing someone you'd like to trust is in fact a habitual liar.

3. It's okay for the president to order the assassination of Americans we know through Wikipedia and independent news reports are terrorists, as long as the assassinations are done abroad and not on US soil.

This is just incoherent. Why would it be okay to assassinate a treasonous, imminent threat to thousands of American lives when he's abroad, but not okay when he's on American soil? If anything, you'd think the treasonous, traitorous, threatening, inciting, dangerous, spiritual-advisor-to-mass-murderers (to quote Sullivan's case against Awlaki) terrorist would be even more of a threat in closer proximity to his American targets. Why would we want to offer such a dangerous terrorist sanctuary on the very soil he seeks to soak with American blood?

I like that last line. There's something satisfying about getting emotional and trying to whip up others, too (plus I'm a sucker for alliteration). All that logic and devotion to the Constitution was starting to tire me out. But look, the point is, if the president can order the assassination abroad of citizens because he deems them dangerous, he ought to be able to have them assassinated at home, too. Suggesting otherwise feels almost like the kind of dodge I discuss in my response to Sullivan's first argument about the assassinations being limited in number. The message is, don't worry, you asleep in your beds have nothing to fear from this program, which only applies abroad. But because the principle behind the power applies at home, too, eventually the program can be expanded everywhere. That's the way I'd play it, anyway, if I were introducing the program and trying to get the public comfortable with it.

4. We are at war.

This is really Sullivan's central claim -- after all, the title of his piece is "Yes, We Are At War," and he notes about a dozen times in the text itself that We Are At War. He offers some lip service to the notion that the war is not of the traditional variety, but the nature of this "war" is in fact the heart of the matter.

The laws of war don't require, and we don't expect, our soldiers to capture enemy soldiers who are firing at them on the battlefield. But what happens when we expand the concept of "war" to encompass the entire world? To continue for an indefinite period? And to include anyone, because there are no longer meaningful categories such as "soldiers" and "civilians?" That is, when there's no way of determining where the war is being waged, or against whom, or for how long?

It's hard to say for sure, because as far as I know outside Nineteen Eighty-Four it's never been tried before. But I can see some worrying trends. First, many people will start ignoring the Constitution and its requirement that only Congress can declare war. Yes, there were two Authorizations for Use of Military Force -- the first, against those who the President determined "planned, authorized, committed, or aided" the 9/11 attacks; the second, against Iraq. The first might apply to Awlaki, but it's telling that Sullivan doesn't ever bother to cite it. For many people, and I suspect Sullivan is one of them, war is more a state of mind than a condition of hostilities. How else to explain his claim -- which would be scary if it weren't so obviously absurd -- that, "There is no 'due process' in wartime"? The original legal authorization, such as it was, is forgotten, and "We Are at War!" becomes the all-purpose excuse for all government excesses and the all-purpose dismissal all civil liberties concerns.

(For more on this, I recommend Chris Hedge's superb War is a Force That Gives Us Meaning).

Indeed, one of the things that strikes me about the resort to war (and to violence and punishment generally) is that war is more an end than it is a means. Sullivan doesn't argue for war as a tool; he repeatedly argues for war itself:

"We are... at war with a vile, theocratic, murderous organization that would destroy this country and any of its enemies if it got the chance...

"The idea that this is not a war [is] a ludicrous, irresponsible and reality-divorced claim that I have never shared...

"I believe it is the duty of the commander in chief to kill as many of these people actively engaged in trying to kill us as possible and as accurately as possible...

"The point of targeting key agents of al Qaeda for killing is precisely to fight a war as surgically and as morally as we can...

"Treating this whole situation as if it were a civil case in a US city is not taking the threat seriously...

"And so the inclusion of Awlaki as an enemy is not an "execution", or an "assassination", as some of my libertarian friends hyperbolize. It is a legitimate and just act of war against a dangerous traitor at war with us and enjoining others to commit war...

"We ignore these theocratic mass murderers at our peril...

"We have every right, indeed a duty, to kill them after they have killed us by the thousands and before they kill us again."

Rather than articulating an objective (crippling al Qaeda? Reducing the threat of terrorism to manageable levels, as we do for crime? Ending tyranny in our world? Sullivan doesn't say), and then explaining why a given set of tactics is well-suited for achieving that objective, Sullivan repeatedly argues for war itself, and everything that war entails. And why not? War has its own logic, and with a war as all encompassing as the one we're in, that logic takes on a powerful and seductive life of its own. Once you accept, and embrace, that "We are at War," the rest, as they say, is just commentary.