Thursday, January 27, 2005

I suppose I'm a little late for the prize, but...

Jack Shafer doesn't get it.Only the naive expect the "top story" coverage to be overtaken by blogs, just as only the naive expected the blockbuster movie to be overtaken by "Porta-paks". There will always be room at the top level of exhaustive coverage for corporate media. The power and significance of blogs is their ability to generate coverage on topics that "Big Media" deems insignificant to its viewers (or to put it another way, topics that won't draw "Big Ratings"). Thus, the assertion receives top billing, but the retraction (see "Rathergate") gets a paragraph on page 12. The reason blogs are revolutionary is not just that new coverage is being generated by "citizen journalists", but that that journalism can reach an audience nearly as large as (and in many cases, larger than) the one "Big Media" reaches. Important news is being noticed by a mainstream audience even when it only appears in a soldier's personal diary in Mosul, or a one-line comment on ABC News' webpage regarding Trent Lott's comments on Strom Thurmond's failed 1948 run for President, or even an eyewitness account of an anti-terror demonstration from an Iraqi blogger that was ignored by the MSM because it doesn't fit the "quagmire" storyline. The story of blogs is not one of replacing the MSM, but extending the "long tail") so that media is less exclusive, and more democratic. And belittling that movement by directing his barbs at the particular representatives of blogging at a particular conference, (which could be compared to purporting "Tabouli Salad" as proof of the insignificance of amazon.com) only serves to demonstrate how deeply Shafer's ignorance lies.

Wednesday, January 12, 2005

On Hate Crime Laws

From my brother Paul comes an e-mail in support of this article on a particular instance of Hate Crime legislation, as enforced in Philadelphia, which elaborates on the particular set of circumstances that led to a group of Christian Evangelicals to be arrested in a counter-protest against a Gay Pride rally.

While I agree with the principle that those who act with the clear intent of disrupting a lawfully organized event through actions meant to incite conflict are not protected by the First Amendment (think yelling "Fire" in a crowded theater), I have major qualms about imposing federal "hate crime" legislation that includes such actions. In my view, the police, in maintaining the public safety by removing the protestors, did their duty, and in charging them with misdemeanors such as "failure to disperse under official order", the problem was solved to the satisfaction of the public good. I don't see how Uncle Sam needs to get involved in this. While I would like to see Fred Phelps and his ilk locked in prison, on strictly ethical and aesthetic grounds, I feel that we risk our constitutional freedoms when we allow federal law to impose itself on local matters of assembly and speech.

My overall viewpoint on federal law is that I prefer it to protect andextend freedoms, not to criminalize and ensure punishment. I suppose one could argue that by charging the counter-protestors with hate crimes, we are protecting the right of assembly of the gay and lesbian group, but I would reply that those rights were already protected by local law enforcement, and that this double-punishment is intended to have a chilling effect, not just on these protestors, but others who might act more civilly. Accordingly, it serves a form of de facto intimidation against the right of free assembly of those who hold unpopular, but constitutionally-protected viewpoints.

For example, if someone like our father (a very conservative Catholic) were to protest a Gay Pride rally, we could assume that he would do so quietly and civilly. But by extending federal law in this manner, he may be intimidated against expressing himself through free assembly, for fear of punishment under hate crime statutes. Thinking upon it, I acknowledge that this is similar to the argument fraud intimidates minority voters who, as legal voters, have nothing to fear), which I believe is a bogus one, I suppose that the constitutionality of this sort of law is highly dependent on the manner in which it is worded and enforced.

I prefer to err on the side of protecting dissenting opinions, but in this case, it is difficult to see which side is dissenting, as we have a gay organization that is supported by a minority of the public, and an evangelical christian organization that is supported by another minority of the public. Which leaves my original heuristic paramount: as long as the system isn't horribly broken, the federal government should stay out of it.

Monday, January 10, 2005

More on Torture

This article by Heather MacDonald describes in detail the consequences of placing specific limits upon interogators, then providing these limits for public consumption. Our conscience is clean, but our results are materially harmed. Key graf:

"The stress techniques that the military has used to date are not torture; the advocates can only be posturing in calling them such. On its website, Human Rights Watch lists the effects of real torture: “from pain and swelling to broken bones, irreparable neurological damage, and chronic painful musculoskeletal problems . . . [to] long-term depression, post-traumatic stress disorder, marked sleep disturbances and alterations in self-perceptions, not to mention feelings of powerlessness, of fear, guilt and shame.” Though none of the techniques that Pentagon interrogators have employed against al-Qaida comes anywhere close to risking such effects, Human Rights Watch nevertheless follows up its list with an accusation of torture against the Bush administration. "

Perhaps Human Rights Watch should be less concerned with the shame and guilt that might be felt by terrorists who release information on future plots and more concerned with preventing the torment and murder of innocent civilians. Of course, such a viewpoint would not advance an anti-Bush agenda, and thus, has no political value.

Friday, January 07, 2005

Torture and Rendition

Belmont Club has an interesting post on the debate on methods of interogating terror suspects. To quote the gentleman (Steven Den Beste) whose blog brought Belmont Club to my attention:

"Would I rule out torture, rape, mutilation, mass murder? I won't rule out anything.

Part of the reason why is that any case where I publicly rule out anything, no matter what it is, weakens me in negotiations."

Prisoner interrogation is nothing more than negotiation under capture. And negotiation is art of wielding the carrot and the stick. If we eliminate the sticks, our carrots are necessarily weakened. I agree with those who state that torture is dangerous to our people, who, once required to torture, may lose their humanity in the bargain. But if we eliminate torture from the menu, we are empowering our counterparts in the negotiation. If we define for our enemies the circumstances in which torture will be used, we have similarly empowered them to resist us all the way to the point at which torture will be used.

The genius of rendition, then, is that it leaves torture on the table without forcing our people to torture. So long as any country in the world is willing to do the thing that the prisoner most fears, our questioning process merely needs to determine what the prisoner fears most, then threaten to send the prisoner to that place. The stick remains in play, thereby strengthening our negotiating position. We should not specifically request torture from these countries, nor should we use them as the "torture arm" of our interrogation operation (though we can lie to the prisoners and tell them the kinds of torture they can "expect" if rendered). Countries which use torture can and should be used as a threat, if detainees remain intransigent, without requiring us to maintain the apparatus of torture ourselves.

Rendition has the added effect of allowing us to pretend to render a prisoner. As many are aware, we received extremely valuable information from Abu Zubaydah by pretending to render him to the Saudi government. Upon this "false rendering", Zubaydah attempted to make contact with a number of Al Qaeda allies in the Saudi royal family, giving us valuable information that allowed us to clean out many corrupt elements within the Saudi government. In short, rendition provides benefits disproportionate to the moral costs, compared to direct application of torture.

This is not to say that we do not need to have the debate on what methods of torture are acceptable for agents of the US government. However, a willingness to render prisoners is a means of holding this debate in public without removing from the table the "infinite calamity" threatened by rendition. This way, there are three levels of escalation: first, the carrots and sticks within the confines of our official rules of interrogation, second, the levels of compulsion permitted (though not openly acknowledged) under false rendition, and finally, the tortures of our erstwhile allies under true rendition. This final level should be used sparingly, perhaps with some form of judicial review, and only in instances where we are amenable to sending the prisoner to face certain death, as in most instances, rendition is tantamount to a death sentence.

But as Den Beste put it, "Torture, rape, mutilation and mass murder are all cruel. But everything in war is cruel. Unless you are in the situation where negotiations are pointless and you're trying to destroy the other side outright as a political entity, then as long as diplomacy continues it is the goal of war to be cruel, because what you're trying to do is to give your enemy an incentive to stop the war by giving in diplomatically." Similarly, unless the goal is to destroy the prisoner utterly, the goal of rendition is to be cruel in order to incent the prisoner to give in diplomatically.