Counterfactuals

What with the Trumpet going on about how if the people who were attacked in Paris had been carrying guns there would have been fewer deaths it would appear it is time for another logic lesson. I realize I have touched on this in a past blog post, but apparently the Republicans aren’t listening — or at least the loudest one.

Here’s the thing: you cannot, logically, verify or falsify a counter-to-fact conditional statement. It simply cannot be done. You can speculate about what would have happened IF something else had not happened — say what would have happened if Hitler had not invaded Poland — but you cannot verify any speculation you might choose to make.

Consider the following simple case. “If it had rained yesterday I would have taken my umbrella to the store with me.” Now we can verify that you actually went to the store and we can even verify whether or not it rained — let’s agree that it did not. But since it didn’t rain there is simply no way we can verify the truth of your statement. It is counter-to-fact. We might speculate that since you are a cautious sort and have a brand new umbrella that you have been dying to show off you might well have taken it to the store with you had it rained. But since it didn’t rain (presumably) we will never know. Never.

Similarly, when the Trumpet says that IF the people at the concert in Paris who were attacked by terrorists had been carrying guns THEN there would have been fewer deaths, we can say with certainty that he doesn’t know what the hell he is talking about — which is not all that unusual. Again, we can speculate and we can appeal to the emotions of an audience of conservatives in Texas, or wherever, who are gun-totin’ folks who tend to think as does the Trumpet. But it’s just that, an appeal to emotion that cannot be proved one way or the other. The fact is that there was a terrorist attack in Paris and many were left dead as a result. It is terrible, but it might have been even worse had the people who died been carrying guns.

One can speculate about either possibility. But one cannot prove it either way. Thus the Trumpet’s claim cannot be said to be true. Or false.

Homeland Security

In my recent travels to eastern Kansas (which is quite beautiful, by the way) my wife and I stopped for a snack along the way at a Subway in Missouri Valley, Iowa (which is not so beautiful, by the way). As I sat there eating my healthy sandwich I watched a paunchy, middle-aged man and his thin, mousey wife enter. They had arrived in a large SUV (which has to be an expression of his insecurity, I figure) and he sauntered in wearing a black tee-shirt with the slogan: “The Second Amendment: The Original Homeland Security.”

Now I confess I have a thing about tee shirts with in-your-face slogans written on them — though I do love the funny tees — and this one gave me pause. After all, the second amendment is about forming a militia and Homeland Security was formed, ostensibly, to fight terrorism after the Twin Towers were destroyed. So I am wondering: how can a militia be effective in fighting terrorism? How will a number of eighteenth century muskets — no matter how many — fight off huge planes piloted by zealots determined to fly them into tall buildings? What on earth is this man thinking? But, I jest. It occurs to me that this is imply one of the millions of slogans put out there by gun aficionados to affirm their “right” to bear arms. I assume this man has a SUV full of automatic weapons and the next time he sees a plane headed for a tall building he plans to open fire — with his mousey wife urging him on. Or something. It’s not clear what people like this are thinking — if, indeed,  you can call that thinking.

In any event, it is time the defenders of the  second amendment to the Constitution buy a copy of that document and sit down and read it. As I have noted before, it’s not about the right to bear arms. It’s about the necessity to form a militia in lieu of a standing army. But I will stop kicking a dead horse since those who read these blogs are getting tired of hearing me go on about what that document actually says. And it is not even a little bit likely that men like my middle-aged, paunchy freedom fighter will ever actually read the document or, even if he did, that he would understand what the Second Amendment actually says. So I suppose I should take solace in the fact that my country is now protected by well-armed, paunchy, middle-aged men who drive gas-guzzlers filled, I imagine, with automatic weapons and I need no longer fear terrorism. Boy, what a relief!

Free From Fear

Stories abound about long-time prisoners who are finally set free and who then commit an illegal act in order to be arrested and sent back to jail. The freedom they have finally achieved scares them and they prefer the security of three meals a day, a place to sleep, and a routine they are familiar with. When the Wall fell separating East and West Berlin there were also reports of people from East Germany who went into a panic because they were suddenly free to make of their lives what they wished. Freedom can be a fearsome thing because it involves both risk and responsibilities and it requires courage and self-confidence to “go it alone.” Freedom varies inversely with fear: the exercise of that freedom demands that we conquer our fear.

We certainly enjoy a great many freedoms in this country. But there are so many people on all sides who are only too happy to tell us how to live — our parents, friends, society at large and, of course, those who would sell us the things we don’t need, including politicians! But in the midst of all these many factors operating on us we still pretty much can come and go as we wish; we can visit the grocery store and marvel at the bounty from which to choose the items we take home to eat — if we have the money with which to make our purchases. That is always the hooker, of course, and there is an increasing number of people in this country who do not have the money to buy what they need to eat and who have no place to live. But the majority of us live relatively comfortable lives, free to come and go as we like and make of our lives what we wish.

When the Twin Towers fell on 9/11, however,  much of this changed. We suddenly felt vulnerable and fear began to enter the hearts of  those who really had no reason to be fearful. And there were those among us in positions of power who nurtured that sense of fear because they came quickly to realize that it was a way to get what they wanted. There followed the  monster known as “Homeland Security” that took away many of our civil liberties without our even knowing it. Our communications were open to prying eyes, guilt was presumed, and our right to privacy was rapidly becoming an empty phrase, dismissed in the name of greater national security. Security cameras started going up everywhere, especially in crowded cities, and access to public transportation is now carefully watched and monitored. Recently there has been serious talk about domestic drone flights in the name of surveillance in order to assure our government that another terrorist attack will not occur — even though the likelihood of anyone in this country being killed in such an attack is on a par with winning the lottery.

All indications are that the vast majority of American citizens are perfectly content to have it this way. We seem to be entering a phase in which we are willing to trade what freedoms we do have for greater security because of an exaggerated sense of fear of terrorists who may or may not ever attack us again. We begin to resemble the prisoner who seeks the safety and comfort of the jail cell rather than face the world on his own. We have crossed the threshold into an era in which we trade what is left of our freedom for the feeling of security — even though our safety is almost certainly not at risk. Fear trumps freedom.

Dialogue About Drones

A. You know, I’m sick and tired of how bleeding heart liberals complain about the drone program. After all, we are at war with al-Qaeda — a war they declared when they flew planes into the Twin Towers. Basically, they asked for it and if we can save American lives by killing off the leaders of al-Qaeda so much the better.

B. I don’t know. We really aren’t at war with al-Qaeda, which isn’t a country after all; it’s a religious group. But religious fanatics certainly did fly planes into the Twin Towers and killed something like 3000 innocent people. In retaliation we have killed an estimated 4500 according to recent reports.  But as Jimmy Carter said, “Instead of making the world safer, America’s violation of international human rights abets our enemies and alienates our friends.” We need to think about this. I’m not sure it’s right to send the drones into crowded population centers.

A. What’s “right” got to do with it? It’s a question of getting them before they get us.

B. I read somewhere the odds of anyone in this country actually getting killed by another terrorist strike is about the same as the odds of winning the lottery. I’m not sure we have grounds for attacking people, especially since there are so many unknowns.

A. What do you mean “unknowns”?

B. Well, are we sure that only al-Qaeda leaders are getting killed? (Could there really be 4500 of them?) Isn’t it possible that the information that leads to the strikes is faulty? People do make mistakes, after all. And remember these are the same people giving us information now who failed to see the attacks coming in Benghazi, not to mention the Twin Towers.

A. Well, I have confidence in people the President and the military rely on. They wouldn’t order a drone strike against someone unless they were sure it was a viable target.

B. Perhaps, but then there are the innocent people who have been killed.

A. Well, sure. But that’s because the terrorists hide among the civilians: someone is bound to get killed by mistake.

B. And you’re OK with that? The U.N. thinks this country might be guilty of war crimes and have started an investigation. Here, read this from the Manchester Guardian where it quotes Ben Emmerson a U.N. special rapporteur who says that “The global war paradigm has done immense damage to a previously shared international consensus on the legal framework underlying both international human rights law and international humanitarian law. It has also given a spurious justification to a range of serious human rights and humanitarian law violations.
“The [global] war paradigm was always based on the flimsiest of reasoning, and was not supported even by close allies of the US.  …” If I read that right, this means that people looking at this country are beginning to regard the U.S. as the bully on the block.

A. Oh gimme a break! Nobody pays any attention to the U.N. any more. It’s just a group of motor mouths who sit around and beat their gums but never get anything done. Anyway, I would rather be the bully on the block than the kid everyone picks on. I am willing to accept the so-called “mistakes” if it means that the ones who are planning to attack this country can no longer pose a threat.

B. The question is do they really pose a threat? Or are we becoming paranoid and living in fear of something that is unlikely to happen? Couldn’t we just beef up security and use the CIA and other such groups to just collect information about possible attacks — and then prepare to defend against those actual attacks, and not just some imaginary ones?

A. The attacks on the Twin Towers weren’t imaginary.

B. True, but that was one attack and we are killing innocent people on the supposition that there will be future attacks, which may just be a fiction in the minds of military brass who love to play with their new toys and aren’t known for their restraint and humanitarian concerns. I’m not saying we shouldn’t be on our guard. But we are killing people because we are told they might attack us. Anyway, an attack on this country would be very complicated, given our distance from the Middle East and the cost of mounting it.

A. That’s pure speculation. It’s better to be safe than sorry. Anyway, I hope you and Jimmy Carter are happy in your make-believe world where everything is peaches and cream. I prefer it here in the real world where you try to be prepared for the bad things that happen.

B. It’s not clear whose world is “make-believe”: mine where people try to do the right thing or yours where you spend your life hiding under a desk worrying about an attack that almost certainly will never come.

A. Ahhh nuts! I’ve had enough of this. I’m going out to buy another Power Ball ticket.

Just Plain Wrong!

A recent NBC News story is a grim reminder of a chapter in this nation’s history that we prefer not to read. It tells about a recent death at the Guantanamo detention center where more than 200 prisoners remain 10 years after their capture as suspected (but not proven) terrorists. The story begins:

A Guantanamo detainee who died Saturday was a former hunger striker who had recently been placed in a disciplinary cell after splashing a guard with a “cocktail”– typically containing urine, a U.S. military official tells NBC News.

In itself the news is grim, especially since it was reported only because guards at the facility were concerned that word would leak out and their eyes would be even blacker. But not only their eyes but this nation’s eyes are blackened by the very existence of this facility where men are kept in stark conditions and denied the fundamental right of every human being to trail by jury.

We recall that President Obama promised that he would close the facility. It was a promise made, I dare say, without knowledge of the implications of such a step. Once elected he quickly came to realize that the closing of the facility and moving the prisoners to a secure facility in the United States and trying them in a civil court would prove difficult at best — especially with a Congress that was only interested in resisting every step the new President attempted to take.

But the fact remains that the prison remains open and men are still held in captivity (excuse me, “detained”) even though they have not been tried and found guilty. A brief look at Obama’s attempts to close the facility is instructive (as quoted from Wikipedia):

On January 22, 2009, President Barack Obama signed an order to suspend the proceedings of the Guantanamo military commission for 120 days and that the detention facility would be shut down within the year. On January 29, 2009, a military judge at Guantanamo rejected the White House request in the case of Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, creating an unexpected challenge for the administration as it reviews how America puts Guantanamo detainees on trial On May 20, 2009, the United States Senate passed an amendment to the Supplemental Appropriations Act of 2009 (H.R. 2346) by a 90-6 vote to block funds needed for the transfer or release of prisoners held at the Guantanamo Bay detention camp. President Obama issued a Presidential memorandum dated December 15, 2009, ordering the preparation of the Thomson Correctional Center, Thomson, Illinois so as to enable the transfer of Guantanamo prisoners there. The Final Report of the Guantanamo Review Task Force dated January 22, 2010 published the results for the 240 detainees subject to the Review: 36 were the subject of active cases or investigations; 30 detainees from Yemen were designated for ‘conditional detention’ due to the security environment in Yemen; 126 detainees were approved for transfer; 48 detainees were determined ‘too dangerous to transfer but not feasible for prosecution’.

[Footnotes in the original article]

Needless to say, the detainees were never transferred to a facility in this country as the Congress simply will not allow it. The United Nations has sought to have the facility closed to no avail. And other nations have been harsh in their judgment of our treatment of these men, calling it a form of “torture” and a violation of human rights — pointing out that we are in violation of the Geneva Conventions regarding the treatment of prisoners of war. Whether we agree with these criticisms or not, we must agree that this entire venture is something we cannot be proud of and would rather it had never happened — though “In a February 2012 poll 70% of Americans (53% liberal Democrats and 67% moderate or conservative Democrats) replied they approve the continued operation of Guantanamo.” If the poll is to be believed, it is even more embarrassing than the fact that the facility remains open.

The High Court

In its recent decision not to allow Arizona’s stiff immigration laws (with one exception) Justice Scalia wrote a “scathing” dissent that chastises the President and the Federal government for repeated failure to deport illegal aliens — despite the fact that more “illegals” have been deported under this Administration than any previous Administration. But what truly boggles the mind in Scalia’s dissent is the fact that he seems to want to fight the Civil War all over again. Note these comments:

Arizona’s entire immigration law should be upheld, Scalia wrote, because it is “entitled” to make its own immigration policy. At one point, he cites the fact that before the Civil War, Southern states could exclude free blacks from their borders to support the idea that states should be able to set their own immigration policies.

Scalia dismisses with a wave of his hand the government’s position that immigration is a federal matter since we need to be on friendly relations with our neighbors to the North and South and individual states could stir up a hornet’s nest. But that is the heart of the government’s position and it is the reason the Court decided to throw its weight behind the government — for the most part. But Scalia insists that the states themselves should determine what the immigration laws are to be — a view that echoes the thinking of the most devout of the Southerners in the mid-nineteenth century (if not today).

Scalia’s entire dissenting opinion sounds like paranoia: fear of illegals and the “evil” (his word) they do by taking jobs from the citizens of Arizona. But the notion that an appeal should be made to the rights of the states prior to the Civil War pushes his reasoning beyond the bounds of intelligibility and makes one wonder about the soundness of his mind. This Court as a group leaves so much to be desired, but one always hopes that the members will exhibit some glimmer of good sense every now and again.

One might argue that in overthrowing the laws of Arizona the Court has in fact shown good sense. The problem is they have allowed the “papers please” law that allows Arizona police to detain suspected “illegals” with “reasonable cause.” What this means, of course, is that it gives the police almost unlimited power under the law and it will almost assuredly promote racial profiling — though the police have been cautioned not to fall into that trap. Come on! Get serious: give the average policeman the right to stop and search anyone who strikes him or her as “suspicious” — and detain them for an undisclosed amount of time — and you are inviting abuse of power.

The real fear here is fear itself (with apologies to F.D.R.). The country seems to be in a paranoid state fueled by constant rhetoric about the “war on terror” and the blatant jingoism that surrounds public celebrations such as “fly overs” and flag waiving at sporting events; this atmosphere now allows the country to exhibit its full force with impunity: the end justifies the means. If we ever could, we can no longer claim the moral high ground, as Martin Luther King would have it. We can now kill suspected terrorists abroad with drones; after ten years we still have nearly 200 untried prisoners detained at Guantanamo (including children, apparently); and we can now legally detain for an unspecified time suspected “illegals” at home. I hesitate to use the word but we seem to be inching closer and closer to Fascism, though most people don’t seem to much care.