Orwell Revisited

An excellent article in Yahoo News by Walter Shapiro raises a number of important questions about why there was virtually no discussion about the ongoing drone attacks in the recent Presidential debates. In a word, it is because “they” don’t want us to know what is going on “over there,” and both Presidential candidates support the attacks in the name of protecting America. So it’s not an issue that separates the candidates. But Shapiro asks a couple of troubling questions:

The Washington Post reported this week that the Obama administration is developing a “disposition matrix” for its next-generation terrorist assassination program. (The adjective Orwellian is over-used, but it is undeniably apt for a kill list being euphemistically reworked as a “disposition matrix”).

During the Vietnam War, George Aiken, a Republican senator from Vermont, suggested that America should declare victory and come home. Eleven years after the Sept. 11 attacks and 18 months after the death of Osama bin Laden, it is time to debate how long America is justified in using drone attacks against the remnants of al-Qaida and other groups of loosely affiliated terrorists.

Is this war without end, amen? Does the bureaucratic momentum of the drone program mean that it will continue for decades? Is there another kind of disposition matrix that will tell us when the costs of the drone program (from terrorist recruiting to collateral damage) outweigh its benefits?

It is a very weak moral system that weighs costs against benefits. But it is done in business routinely — which simply tells us how the business model has permeated this culture. Such a calculation results in strange ethical conclusions, such as the continued production of the Pinto automobile after it has gone up in flames killing or maiming a number of drivers in rear-end collisions. And it “justifies” drone killing in the name of the “national interest.” Weighing alternatives may be realpolitik but it is bad morality: it ignores the victims — like the 16 year-old American son of a terrorist suspect who was in the country looking for his father and happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time thereby becoming part of the “residual effect” of a drone killing in Pakistan not long ago.

It has been said, and rightly so, that the President has to make tough decisions and we are not privy to the information available to him through his various secret agencies. All too true. But we like to think that America takes the moral high ground whenever possible and every citizen with a brain and a conscience should join in asking with Walter Shapiro “when will this end?” Let’s face it, it’s terrorism in the name of defending ourselves against terrorism. It is wrong and it is not clear that it is even in the national interest when there are other ways to deal effectively with terrorism. Further, it strikes fear in the hearts of our allies as well as our enemies, and it promotes the image of America as the Big Bully on the block who is out to knock over anyone in his way.

What Did “W” Know?

As a closet conspiracy theorist myself, I can see how the following story would confirm the paranoia that leads to such “hair-brained” theories as the one that insists that George W. Bush knew the attacks on the World Trade Center were about to take place and simply chose to be elsewhere when it happened.

Now, 11 years later, new details of the attack on the World Trade Center continue to emerge from the government’s vault of classified documents and the journalists who’ve gained access. This year, the reporter with the jaw-dropping scoop is Kurt Eichenwald, a former Timesman and present contributing editor at Vanity Fair.  After reading more than one tweet with the simple instructions “Read this,” we clicked on the link to Eichenwald’s powerful op-ed, due to be published in The New York Times on September 11. In it, Eichenwald goes into teeth-grinding detail about how the Bush administration had even more advance notice about Osama Bin Laden’s attack than we previously realized.

In fact it seemed at the time that the CIA almost certainly had a pretty good idea that something big was “coming down.” And the terrible events that occurred on September 11th might have been prevented if those in charge had been willing to err on the side of caution. But that is not the way we do things in this country — witness the widespread unwillingness to take steps to thwart global warming. We embrace “crisis management” — we wait until something dreadful happens and then we try to figure out what went wrong.

Pert of this, at least, is our cultural hubris, our conviction that America can do no wrong. Another part is our blind addiction to technology and its presumed ability to solve all problems. Another part of it is the business mentality that refuses to consider the long run: it’s all about the short run self-interest (read: profits). And part of it is a sort of brash foolishness that borders on stupidity — like the person who continues to drive and text at the same time thinking that nothing can happen to him. But whatever we call it we should learn a lesson from all this: don’t wait until after the event happens before taking steps to avoid disaster. And don’t dismiss the warnings of reliable people when the consequences might be calamitous.

At the very least, “W” and his administration were wrong not to listen to informed people who gave warnings ahead of the event. At worst he knew pretty well what was going to happen and allowed it to happen in order to lead this country into war with Iraq — something that both he and the neoconservative advisers wanted (as the story above mentions). But that smacks of conspiracy theory and we know that stems from paranoia. I have been told, however, that just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they’re not out to get you!

Culpable or Coverup?

A recent article in the New York Times about the investigations into the culpability of those Americans accused of torture and other atrocities committed during the Iraq and Afghanistan wars is worth comment. The article begins as follows:

Attorney General Eric H. Holder Jr. announced Thursday that no one would be prosecuted for the deaths of a prisoner in Afghanistan in 2002 and another in Iraq in 2003, eliminating the last possibility that any criminal charges will be brought as a result of the brutal interrogations carried out by the C.I.A.

As the article goes on to point out this determination was based on Holder’s conviction that no verdict could be reached beyond a “reasonable doubt.” This conclusion will satisfy no one but the guilty themselves and those who would make excuses for them. At the very least to the rest of the world it will appear to be a cover-up (whether it is or not). It is common knowledge that atrocities were committed and that at least two horrible deaths resulted from the tactics used by the CIA in extracting information about possible al-Qaeda personnel and movements. I would have liked to see our dirty linen aired in an international court. That way a decision not to prosecute could not be questioned.

The typical rationale for permitting torture is the supposed “fact” that information gleaned by these methods led directly to the death of people like Osama bin Laden. The assumption is (and it is important to note that this is an assumption) we could not have gotten that information in any other way. The reasoning is as follows: the end justifies the means if and only if the means are the only or the best possible available to achieve the end. There is some question whether torture was the only or the best means to the end of capturing or killing bin Laden.

To take another example, we attempted to justify the dropping of two atom bombs on Japan by this reasoning: if we had not dropped those bombs thousands of American lives would have been lost in the invasion of mainland Japan. The viability of this reasoning assumes, of course, that American lives are more intrinsically valuable than the countless Japanese lives killed by the bombs, a questionable assumption at best. It also assumes that this was the only means to forcing Japan to surrender without an invasion of the mainland — another questionable assumption.

In any event, the attempt to justify torture on the grounds that the end justifies those means is spurious precisely because it rests on what logicians call a “counter-factual.” We have no way of knowing if the U.S. could have found Bin Laden, say, by means other than torture resulting at least twice in human death. It is quite possible that torture was not necessary — if a sufficient reward was offered, for example. Besides, torture is such an unmitigated evil that any attempt to morally justify torture is doomed to failure. The best one can do is rationalize the act on the grounds of expediency.

In any event, the U.S. government has officially washed its hands of the incidents and though the military continues to deploy drone strikes against al-Qaeda, we like to regard ourselves as possessing the moral high ground in the war on terror. This is questionable, since our tactics are themselves terroristic — sending drones into crowded neighborhoods where the innocent along with the guilty fall victim to the strikes. But presumably there is no more waterboarding or torture of any kind — if we can believe what we are told. There are those, however, who will pursue the matter further since there are grounds for doubt as to whether this investigation was politically motivated or indeed undertaken with a high moral purpose. Elisa Massimino, president of Human Rights First is not so sure. As the article concludes:

Ms. Massimino noted that in some other countries, the torture and death of prisoners have been the subject of public inquiries decades after the events. “I don’t think this is over,” she said. “I take the long view.”

National Interest

In an episode of “Inspector Lewis” Dame Grace Orde has written an autobiography of her years with MI5 that promises to reveal all (some?) of the dirty little secrets of that organization. During a presentation prior to a book signing, she tells her audience that it is sometimes necessary to set aside ethics when it is a matter of national interest. That, of course, is right out of Machiavelli’s Prince. Or, if you prefer, it is out of John Stuart Mill’s Utilitarianism where he insists that the right thing to do is that action that produces “the greatest good for the greatest number.” In a word, the end justifies the means. In the real world of dirty tricks this is a given and I have less trouble with it as an abstract principle than I do as a concrete action or set of actions. where it is used to “justify” such things as waterboarding. The really hard question is: who decides what is in the “national interest,” or what will produce the “greatest good”?

A  case in point is the invasion of Iraq which was undertaken in “the national interest” by the United States with a “coalition” consisting of a few other countries for show. Even at the time there was considerable doubt about the wisdom of such a war which was initially undertaken to uncover “weapons of mass destruction” that weren’t there. When their non-existence was revealed, the rationale shifted to the capture of Saddam Hussein. When that was accomplished, the rationale morphed into bringing peace and security to a troubled country — whose troubles largely began with the invasion and the killing or displacement of millions of Iraqi citizens.

In any case, George W. Bush insisted later that he only undertook the invasion under duress, that he was “reluctant” to start a war in that region. There was considerable doubt about that claim at the time it was made, but there is even more now that Colin Powell has revealed in an upcoming book that the issue was never discussed in the Security Council. Powell’s claims, of course, directly conflict with those of the Shrub. But, given the weight of evidence on Powell’s side, and the fact that he has much less reason to say an untruth, I side with him on this. As a recent blurb surrounding the publication of Powell’s book puts it, But Powell supports the increasingly well-documented conclusion that there was actually no decision-making point — or decision-making process — during the events between the 9/11 terrorist attacks and the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, which had nothing to do with those attacks.

With the possible collusion of Condoleezza Rice, Dick Cheney, and perhaps his wife, the Shrub pretty much did this on his own in the name of “National Security,” or “Iraqi Freedom,” or whatever else came to his troubled mind. One man, pretty much on his own, decided to order the invasion of a sovereign nation on the spurious grounds of “National Security.” The man ought to be tried as a war criminal.

The point is that the principle advanced by Dame Grace Orde, or anyone else, may have the appearance of respectability when found in the pages of books by philosophers like John Stuart Mill or even the pages of Machiavelli’s Prince. But when push comes to shove, it translates into unmitigated evil — murder and mayhem, and even widespread disaster brought on by the fact that humans in power are motivated by greed and the love of that power and they seldom think about the consequences of their actions.

Al Franken and the N.D.A.A.

The Senate recently voted to pass the National Defense Authorization Act which places domestic terror investigations in the hands of the military. The act would allow the trial-free indefinite detention of anyone the government regards as a terrorist. For a nation whose Founders didn’t want anything to do with a standing army in the first place and who fully understood how power could be abused, this act defies the imagination — even if it didn’t violate the basic presumption of innocence our system of jurisprudence is founded upon. In the name of fighting terrorism, this is the latest in a series of steps that seems to suggest that some of those in our government have learned that fear is an excellent way to control the electorate, a lesson taught us by Russia and Germany in the 30s and 40s of the last century.

Senator Al Franken of Minnesota gave a powerful speech on the Senate floor opposing this bill, referring to it as a step toward a “police state,” noting  “. . . if we pass the defense authorization with Section 1031, Congress will, . . . for the first time in 60 years, authorize the indefinite detention of U.S. citizens without charge or trial. This would be the first time that Congress has deviated from President Nixon’s Non-Detention Act. And what we are talking about here is that Americans could be subjected to life imprisonment. Think about that for a minute. Life imprisonment. Without ever being charged, tried, or convicted of a crime. Without ever having an opportunity to prove your innocence to a judge or a jury of your peers. And without the government ever having to prove your guilt beyond a reasonable doubt.”

In conclusion, he noted: “. . . these provisions should not be passed. They are not well-considered counterterrorism policy, and they would authorize poorly understood but deeply troubling policies. . . .. That’s why I cosponsored Senator Udall’s amendment that would have sent these matters back to the Administration and the relevant committees of Congress for the full consideration, discussion, and debate they deserve. Our national security and our freedom require nothing less.”

Most eloquent, and also most persuasive. But not so: it failed to persuade hardly anyone as 93% of the Senators voted in favor of the bill — including Franken himself! Of those opposing the bill, we find the names of two Republicans, Mike Lee of Utah and Rand Paul of Kentucky. One must wonder what is going on behind closed doors as this seems the height of hypocrisy on Franken’s part and not a simple party-politics-as-usual gambit in the Senate. We shall wait and see how it turns out. At the risk of rushing to judgment, Franken’s  vote in favor of the bill suggests a change of heart that defies explanation — except the obvious one that he is playing the political game and currying favor with the powers who can help him be reelected. When I asked for clarification, both by email and on the phone with one of Franken’s fundraisers, I got no response.

The Harvard economist Paul Schumpeter long ago pointed out that our Congress is made up of professional politicians whose only real skill is electioneering and whose  main focus once in office is to be reelected. Few of them have any aptitude for governance, which has become so complicated very few can keep up. But they learn quickly which side of their bread is buttered and where the dollars come from that will help them stay in office. It is hard to argue with Schumpeter’s thesis, especially in light of what appears to be a typical political turnabout on Franken’s part. Stay tuned….