Archive for the ‘Torture’ Category

The last time I blogged about torture I included a link to a discussion of various technologies authorities are now using against the citizenry. As miserable and reprehensible as such practices are in the U.S., we might just be eclipsed by what’s going on in the United Kingdom. The first paragraph below gives a clear sense of the story told in the article, which is very well written. Please read the whole thing.

In recent years Britain has become the “Willy Wonka” of social control, churning out increasingly creepy, bizarre, and fantastic methods for policing the populace. But our weaponization of classical music — where Mozart, Beethoven, and other greats have been turned into tools of state repression — marks a new low.

While this weapon of social control and others discussed in the article fall short of torture, they undoubtedly represent a culture in retreat. We don’t like our kids (or our poor and homeless), and if we can drive them away and out of sight using, of all things, classical music, then the problem is happily disposed of for those who remain.

As the article suggests, something uniquely British is at work, though the lessons are easily learned by Americans, Australians, and New Zealanders (is it something about the English language or former English colonies?). Specifically, the dystopian prophecies of Orwell, Huxley, Wells, and Burgess are becoming in varying degrees reality. One wonders if authorities aren’t in fact mining those writers’ novels for ideas to implement.

As a lover of classical music, I’m appalled that it is now used as a deterrent. I admit having been less bothered when some few years ago Barry Manilow’s music was played outside stores to drive away loiterers or high-volume rock music was beamed at the Noriega compound, but now my ox is being gored. What ought to be taught in schools as one of the pinnacles of cultural and artistic expression will be associated by youth (later adults) subjected to this treatment with tyranny of the state. Of course, music used as a tool of propaganda is nothing new, nor is apparently its use as a weapon. See here and here for fuller discussion. No doubt we get the culture we deserve for tolerating whatever authorities do in the name of safety and control.

Only the most jaded cynic could fail to be dumbfounded at recent and extraordinarily vehement criticisms of Barack Obama. All U.S. presidents have been magnets for detractors, as something is always going wrong somewhere. However, it’s also pretty amazing that very little of the criticism seems to stick. Ronald Reagan earned the sobriquet The Teflon President for his ability to avoid any lasting judgment, but the effect has outlasted old Ronny. Clinton survived two terms of the worst partisanship, damning criticism, and an impeachment; George W. Bush survived two terms of crowning stupidity, a major terrorist attack, two preemptive wars, and nonstop calls for impeachment; and now Obama appears to be able to withstand even the most vengeful attacks, even gathering an international prize despite the most meager accomplishments thus far. It’s not that Obama’s approval rating hasn’t suffered; it has. Rather, no change of policy (those in effect, not those promised) or alteration of course results from every new revelation of corruption, ineffectualness, or abandonment of principles. Nothing seems to penetrate the cocoon of advisers surrounding the president, who must be counseling what is politically possible rather than telling the truth about what must be done. Yet the charges from the media and the blogosphere continue to mount, and every analysis ends up suggesting Obama must have a hidden endgame. How else can one account for the president’s actions? The avalanche of criticism demonstrates that one can say the worst things about another person or the president short of libel or slander. It’s a free country, after all. That one notable feature of Western democracy remains despite rollbacks of all sorts of other civil liberties.

So what are some people saying about Obama? (more…)

There you go again, I can imagine my interlocutors saying in a Reaganesque moment, again with the torture. Between torture and the closely related modern security state, I’ve blogged numerous times (sorry, no links — just do a search) to report my disgust and condemnation, not that any of it matters. Registering those sentiments is irrelevant. So why bring it up again? Because it just stinks, and much as I hate to have knowledge of it, the problem needs repeated airing.

The precipitating news this time is a Salon article by Glenn Greenwald about a recent Second Circuit Court of Appeals decision in Arar vs. Ashcroft (searchable here). The case is “just” another instance of extraordinary rendition and subsequent torture of an innocent person over the course of ten months, which actions are by now so routine that the terms extraordinary and torture have lost all their impact. Business as usual. Move along. Nothing to see. Greenwald nails it with this comment:

So continuous are the inhumane and brutal acts of government leaders that the citizens completely lose the capacity for moral outrage and horror.  The permanent claims of existential threats from an endless array of enemies means that secrecy is paramount, accountability is deemed a luxury, and National Security trumps every other consideration — even including basic liberties and the rule of law.  Worst of all, the President takes on the attributes of a protector-deity who can and must never be questioned lest we prevent him from keeping us safe.

The court decision (granting blanket immunity to government functionaries in cases of presumed national security) appalls me, not just because it fails so utterly in basic humanity but because the courts are (or once were) our best hope for checks on excesses of the Executive Branch. Congress certainly isn’t applying the brakes.

The state hasn’t merely set its sights on foreigners traveling to or through the U.S. Here is a glimpse of what’s to come as the civil authorities wage domestic battles against the citizenry: “Robocops Come to Pittsburgh.” The array of high-tech assaults now becoming available to police (which now resemble the armed forces) is just astounding. Although these devices are rationalized as means to quell unrest or disperse protesters, those folks out on the streets are usually Americans, and they’re typically reacting to something, sometimes with inchoate, unfocused violence. But they’re increasingly recharacterized by those charged to protect them as un-Americans, anti-Americans, terrorists, or evildoers. Sure, sometimes they’re mere vandals or criminals, but not often. Yet they and others on the scene unfortunate enough to be guilty by proximity (including journalists) are swept into whatever administrative action is decided upon by civil authorities, which typically entails catch-and-release dragnets completed within the 24-hour window where charges must be filed yet function to dispirit and nullify all forms of public protest.

This is what is meant by the dictum Absolute Power Corrupts Absolutely. The holders of power are insulated from accountability and derive erotic pleasure from deploying power. The connection between sexuality and death is pretty well recognized in the marketplace of ideas. Here is one of many such analyses tied to recent ideology. Will it go away in time with education, shame, moral uplift, protest, etc.? I doubt it. Like other Machiavellian behaviors and institutions, such as slavery, they keep cropping up again and again in disguised or subtly altered forms because their underlying appeal or utility never goes away fully. I guess the dream of world peace is the stuff of beauty pageant contestants, who mouth the words for us, telling us what we want to hear about both them and ourselves, so that we can sleep quietly at night. Meanwhile, the atrocities continue.

If in polite society we avoid discussions of sex, race, politics, death and dying, and other highly contentious or uncomfortable topics that might lead to hurt feelings following an excited exchange, cultural taboos raise the level of prohibition against certain topics and/or behaviors so heinous that they cause revulsion among normal people. Just don’t go there. Such taboos include incest, child pornography, and cannibalism. Sexual taboos are justified by biology, though they are usually established intuitively long before we uncover the science to understand why. Food taboos, on the other hand, are relatively arbitrary. For instance, cultures that prohibit consumption of certain types of meat, e.g., pork, beef, or horse, may have no underlying justification for the taboo, though breaking the taboo is still considered extremely ooky.

One taboo I wish we had but have to admit we don’t is torture. I’ve written about it repeatedly because it’s a sore subject that keeps cropping up in the news. For instance, Joseph Galloway puts the smackdown on the Obama Administration in this recent opinion column in the Ledger-Enquirer. This is the most relevant quote:

President Barack Obama doesn’t want or need this issue sucking all the oxygen out of the Congress and his ambitious agenda, and he just wishes it would go away. His position, if you can call it that, changes daily, if not hourly. He and his people look and sound like a hokey-pokey line on the issue.

The problem is they’re all thinking and acting like politicians, and there’s nothing in this issue for any of them except an opportunity to do the right thing. Whoever won an election by doing the right thing? Talking about doing the right thing is another matter.

Torture, however, isn’t a political problem, but a legal and moral problem.

It should come as no surprise, then, that other politicians, namely, those in Congress, are also acting like politicians by removing the funds necessary to close down the Guantanamo Bay prison camp as kinda sorta promised by the Obama Administration. Additional revelations have been spewing forth in the weeks since these reports (my apologies for the lack of timeliness) that further indicate that the American government and the Obama Administration really have no intention of stopping the torture barbarity or prosecuting its practitioners.

Naturally, everyone who takes a position on the subject of torture frames the activity in terms of a particular perspective, whether legal, moral, strategic, or some combination. I have done that myself, especially above where I frame torture as a taboo we ought to have. It irritates me that many of those framers start with the interdiction, “it’s not about that, it’s really about this.” Well, why can’t it be about all those things? Why must they be mutually exclusive? I’ll tell you why: so that torture can be rationalized on one ground or another, i.e., within the narrow frame of reference of the apologist.

Since it’s increasingly clear that we (the U.S.) are not going to stop and are not going to prosecute anyone, it begs the question why go to the bother of it? Why are we, among other heinous acts, murdering detainees to gather questionable intelligence on terrorism? The intuitive answer is that modern civilization has evolved into a quiet, undeclared, Hobbesian state of ongoing war of all against all. Alliances may form and shift over time, but we’re all warring for resources, for political leverage, and for various other causes such as the unimpeded spread of American notions of good, including free markets, democracy, and our trash culture.

How else, then, to explain the well over 1 million Iraqi deaths attributable to the U.S. invasion (disreputably linked to the 9/11 event)? How else, then, to explain the more than 700 U.S. military bases outside the U.S.? How else, then, to explain the wildly disproportionate size of the U.S. military budget compared to those of other countries? In truth, there are lots of reasons that are plausible and/or sensible, they’re just not very honest. As Merlin Mann has famously said, “You eventually learn that true priorities are like arms; if you think you have to have more than a couple, you’re either lying or crazy.” We have our priorities indeed: war-making and intimidation via torture.

Creeping fascism has been a problem for some years now. Without much recourse short of armed revolt, considering how ineffectual the election process is for instigating real change, many citizens (including me) stood idly by and watched their rights and civil liberties ebb away on a daily basis as the state consolidates its control over all aspects of daily life. The precedent for today’s emerging fully operational security state (or surveillance society, as I’ve seen it called) lies in the early days of the Cold War. Having just emerged triumphant from WWII yet seeing ongoing threats on all sides, many in government began assembling a paranoid and invasive apparatus for gathering intelligence and protectiang American interests. It’s almost inevitable that spending one’s life addressing external threats (and increasingly, internal ones) would warp one’s perceptions and judgment, and accordingly, it’s fair to suspect that many operatives both then and now suffer from what the French call a déformation professionnelle.

If you think this is mere hyperbole, I submit you haven’t been paying attention. A quick visit to the U.S. Customs and Border Patrol (CBP) website quickly gives readers the sense that the country is under siege. Its mission statement reads as follows:

CBP is one of the Department of Homeland Security’s largest and most complex components, with a priority mission of keeping terrorists and their weapons out of the U.S. It also has a responsibility for securing and facilitating trade and travel while enforcing hundreds of U.S. regulations, including immigration and drug laws.

My visit to the website was for a simple customs issue, but navigating the site and perusing its content was more than a bit spooky. The front-and-center pointer to terrorists and weapons, while a legitimate concern of the agency, may not be a primary concern of the citizenry except for the agency’s Orwellian interest in keeping everyone constantly on edge. Blissfully missing was a flashing banner with the current alert level status, which is discomfiting enough when it blares over PAs at airports and transportation hubs, as though travelers had any meaningful response. (Reminds me of the air raid sirens tested on the first Wednesday of each month during my youth — rather needless in retrospect, since no one was ever really coming for us.) Indeed, the website appears to be equally informational and public relations efforts, with public opinion toward its mandate being shaped heavily.

More significantly, consider that many functions of state security and surveillance are now being handled by InfraGard (isn’t the misspelling of guard rather cute?), a private organization with chapters throughout the U.S. that works in conjunction with the FBI. This is from its website:

InfraGard is an information sharing and analysis effort serving the interests and combining the knowledge base of a wide range of members. At its most basic level, InfraGard is a partnership between the FBI and the private sector. InfraGard is an association of businesses, academic institutions, state and local law enforcement agencies, and other participants dedicated to sharing information and intelligence to prevent hostile acts against the United States. InfraGard Chapters are geographically linked with FBI Field Office territories. Each InfraGard Chapter has an FBI Special Agent Coordinator assigned to it, and the FBI Coordinator works closely with Supervisory Special Agent Program Managers in the Cyber Division at FBI Headquarters in Washington, D.C.

This arrangement has been criticized by The Progressive as effectively deputizing private industry to spy on people and granting business leaders unwarranted access to “an FBI secure communication network complete with VPN encrypted website, webmail, listservs, message boards, and much more.” As with privatization of many former functions of the military, this is more than a little bothersome.

But it gets worse. A book by Nick Turse titled The Complex: How the Military Invades Our Everyday Lives describes how fully the Pentagon has infiltrated and coopted everything for its purposes, which bears comparison to the movie The Matrix as a comprehensive thought control experiment brought to life. A lengthy excerpt appears in an article in with preliminary commentary, from which I quote this portion:

At one point in his farewell speech, Eisenhower presaged this point, suggesting, “The total influence — economic, political, even spiritual — [of the conjunction of the military establishment and the large arms industry] is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government.” But only Hollywood has yet managed to capture the essence of today’s omnipresent, all-encompassing, cleverly hidden system of systems that invades all our lives; this new military-industrial-technological-entertainment-academic-scientific- media-intelligence-homeland security-surveillance-national security-corporate complex that has truly taken hold of America.

And yet more bad news was delivered over the weekend, at least if you subscribe to the famous Benjamin Franklin quote: “Those who would sacrifice essential liberties for a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.” Articles in The Washington Post and The New York Times (and elsewhere) describe how the Justice Department, rather than acting as a check on the excesses of the Executive Branch, has given support to Bush’s authoritarian interpretation of the Geneva Conventions, stating that interrogation techniques used would be judged on a sliding scale depending on the identity of the detainee and the information he or she is believed to possess. I’ve blogged before on the use of torture by our government, and despite its repugnance to most of the public, different branches of government — in defiance of international treaties — still insist upon it as a necessary tactic.

It’s difficult for me to imagine the motives behind authoritarian types for whom the modern security state would have been the wet dream of budding Cold Warriors. Are they benevolent tyrants, protecting the population for its own good, or mere profiteers, gathering riches, power, and influence to themselves? And is there some point at which the moment will crystallize into a realization by the general public that the U.S., with its gargantuan military budget and astonishing level of incarceration, has devolved into a fascist state run by a despotic oligarchy?