Torture Forum Report

We’re going to take a break from the usual format and report briefly on the public forum “Torture and the War on Terror” held Wednesday night at VCU, co-sponsored by Amnesty International and the Richmond Peace Education Center.

The 289-seat lecture hall overflowed with students and adults from across the generations; organizers estimate that well over 300 people attended in all.

Attendees first witnessed a video clip featuring Abdullah Almalki, a Canadian citizen who was arrested in 2002 on a visit to Syria and tortured for nearly two years as a suspected terrorist. (Almaki in fact was completely innocent.) In the video clip, Almalki discussed some of the milder forms of torture he personally experienced.

The first live speaker was Tony Lagouranis, a former U.S. Army interrogator in Iraq. Lagouranis reported on some of the interrogation practices he both utilized and witnessed while in Iraq. Lagouranis strongly feels that we should oppose torture on purely moral grounds, though he added that the practice of torture is helping inflame anti-American insurgents. He also stated that while some interrogators were gung-ho about torture, many others were not and that in general a policy change to clearly forbid torture and return to the Geneva Convention would be welcomed at the field level. Lagouranis comes across as a highly intelligent, principled person who clearly still is processing the significance both of his own past role in conducting interrogations and his new role as a leading whistle-blower and critic of current interrogation practices. He has a book coming out from Penguin Press in 2007 which is sure to be a must read.

The next speaker was Jameel Jaffer, a staff atorney in the New York offices of the ACLU. Jaffer is responsible, among other things, for getting some 100,000 pages of torture-related government documents publicly released under the Freedom of Information Act. Drawing on examples of these documents presented via Powerpoint, Jaffer provided a brilliant and compelling overview of the torture issue.

The dominant portrayal of the torture issue in the media and by government leaders relies on two narratives, argued Jaffer. The first narrative is that of an interrogation of a known terrorist who is known to have knowledge of an imminent attack on Americans or others; in this circumstance, it is suggested, failing to use any means necessary to get the information to stop the attack would be irresponsible. The second narrative is that Abu Ghraib-style torture is the work of lower-level rogue officers, has nothing to do with higher-level policy, and is confined in nature.

Both narratives are patently false, argued Jaffer. The vast majority of persons held for interrogation in Gitmo, Iraq and Afghanistan have no real intelligence value at all (an assessment strongly shared by Lagouranis), let alone the kind of detailed knowledge of an imminent attack that it is often argued torture can help us unearth. Lagouranis noted that most of those detained in Iraq weren’t guilty of anything at all.
Moreover, thousands of documents and scores of testimonies and eyewitness accounts from Gitmo, Iraq, and Afghanistan suggest that abusive torture by U.S. interrogators is widespread, and that it is directly related to the Bush Adminstration’s insistence that the Geneva Convention ought not apply to non-U.S. citizens held in these settings.

These initial comments sparked a full hour of questioning from the audience, covering various legal, moral, and political aspects of the torture issue. A representative from Amnesty International and moderator Adria Scharf pitched in with ideas on how attendees could stay involved in the issue and help build a grassroots movement to eliminate the growing culture of torture in the U.S. military.

By any reasonable standard, this was a spectacularly successful and informative event on one of the weightiest issues of our time; I only wish the Richmond Times-Dispatch had been there to cover it.

Published in: on September 28, 2006 at 5:36 am  Leave a Comment  

Affordable Housing

Credit the RTD with trying to call public attention to housing affordability issues in the Richmond region. Sunday’s paper carries articles in the news and real estate sections about housing affordability, as well as two useful commentaries by Francis Stayley of the Virginia Local Initiatives Support Corporation and Connie Chamberlin of Housing Opportunities Made Equal, Inc.

Chamberlin’s article makes the key point well:  “Communities in which everyone is alike, and everyone earns the same amount of money, are essentially ghettos — whether rich or poor. They just don’t work very well. Healthy communities rely on many different kinds of people to function effectively — waitresses as well as businessmen, schoolteachers, and stockbrokers. If our vision of the future is of a viable, energetic community that has a place for everyone and that can compete for people and jobs, we need to make sure everyone has a decent, affordable place to live.”

RTD is also sponsoring a public forum on housing affordability issues in Richmond Monday night; publisher Thomas Silverstri explains why here. Kudos to the paper for this effort to practice civic journalism on a critical issue.

Published in: on September 24, 2006 at 4:01 pm  Leave a Comment  

Profiling a Local Activist

Who says the Richmond Times-Dispatch doesn’t give any love to local activists? Check out this profile of the director of the Richmond Peace Education Center from Saturday’s paper.

Published in: on September 23, 2006 at 1:03 pm  Leave a Comment  

A Torturous Debate

A few days ago, a very distinguished local academic asked me, “Can you believe where at the point where we’re having serious debates about whether torture is acceptable practice?”

Well, we are, but at least some public debate about the moral legitimacy of the Bush Administration’s endorsement of interrogation techniques generally regarded as torture is an advancement over public silence.

Today, the RTD carries two columns on the issue. In the first, Barton Hinkle very honorably makes the case against torture and chides conservatives for failing to understand what exactly is wrong about it.

 In the other column, Thomas Sowell forfeits the right to ever describe himself as a “libertarian” in a classic ends-justify-the-means argument for an “anything goes” policy towards torture. (Here’s an older version of his argument.)

There seem to me to be five fundamental arguments against the use of torture in interrogation.

The first would be a Kantian argument that torture is wrong in itself as a violation of universal human dignity. This is the argument most torture defenders reject, appealing instead to a utilitarian logic: if we can save lives through torturing one person, we should.

A second argument is simply that the U.S. has the obligation to uphold international law, whatever that law happens to be and whether or not it is in our short-term interests.

A third argument is that the use of torture, especially over an extended period of time, has a corrosive effect on our national character and sensibility, that it deadens our sense of morality and makes us a meaner, crueler people.

A fourth argument is that the use of torture damages our reputation in the world, which is far more important strategically in combatting terror than the trinkets of information that might be gained from a tortured captive.

A fifth argument is that the information “gained” from torture is itself of highly dubious value, and highly likely to be inaccurate or simply fictional, as torture victims say anything just to stop the pain. Following inaccurate leads is a waste of resources and can lead to mistaken policy decisions.

I’ll accept that reasonable people might disagree with the first, purely Kantian argument against torture. But most defenders of torture have little if any answer to the other four arguments about why the United States should not be in the business of torturing captives. Moreover, few if any of those defenders have taken seriously the perspective on this question of the people who actually have been tortured.

All of this sets the stage for what promises to be an outstanding public event on “Torture and the War on Terrorism” this Wednesday September 27 at 7:00 p.m., in the Commons Theater at VCU. Sponsored by the Richmond Peace Education Center and Amnesty International, the event will feature presentations by a former military interrogator as well as human rights advocates.

Published in: on September 22, 2006 at 3:44 pm  Leave a Comment  

International Day of Peace

You probably didn’t know it, but Thursday September 21 was declared by Governor Kaine as a Day of Peace in the Commonwealth of Virginia. Virginia thus joined the nearly 200 nations around the world which commemorated the International Day of Peace, initiated by the UN.

The Interfaith Council of Greater Richmond had an event to mark the day Thursday night; attached is a copy of the talk I gave during the event which may be of some interest. (It even includes a reference to the RTD.)

Published in: on September 22, 2006 at 3:35 am  Leave a Comment  

Is There an Argument in That Column? (Iraq, III)

Ross Mackenzie penned his first new column in some time for Thursday’s edition of the Times-Dispatch. After some preliminaries, the veteran editorialist launches into what is intended to be an attack on critics of the Iraq War.

But instead of mounting a reasoned argument which shows he has wrestled with the serious criticisms mounted at both the decision to invade and the subsequent conduct of the war, Mackenzie adopts an unusual rhetorical method: He lists no fewer than 26 different supposed anti-war claims, stripping them from their context, and stating them in his own words.

The point here, of course, is to make the antiwar arguments look ridiculous. This is attempted in two ways: first, specific anti-war claims are stated in their most extreme terms, i.e. “It’s all the fault of a demonic America.” Second, highly pertinent and credible claims–about torture, creating more terrorists, administrative competence–are mixed in with more far-fetched claims about 9/11 conspiracies, as well as seemingly random statements such as “We all voted for the war before we voted against it.”

(Anyone tempted by the 9/11 conspiracy theories, by the way, should have a look at Alexander Cockburn’s useful retort in The Nation this week, which appears in long form here.)

In short, Mackenzie wants to tells us that because some criticisms of Bush appear far-fetched, all of them must be invalid. Therefore, we should trust the leader unconditionally.

Such logic hardly even rises to the level of a slippery slope argument.

What we have here is a simple refusal to take seriously and make the effort to offer an informed response to criticism, largely driven by what is no doubt a sincere belief that it’s not the role of citizens and observers to judge presidents’ actions in conducting war. The logic of that belief, of course, is at odds with the notion of democracy itself; as long as “the jihadists hate us, want to destroy our freedoms and rights,” we should support whatever our leaders claim is necessary.

If there’s any comfort to be found, it’s that Mackenzie’s view is an increasingly lonely one even on the right. A much more honest and even insightful assessment of President Bush and his leadership can be found in this New York Times column by prominent conservative David Brooks.

By the way, if you haven’t noticed, the Richmond Times-Dispatch has (coincidentally or not) moved aggressively into the blogosphere in the last few weeks, including this blog from columnist Barton Hinkle.

Published in: on September 14, 2006 at 2:06 pm  Comments (1)  

Shared Obligations

Does the Richmond Times-Dispatch editorial page take itself seriously? There is a school of thought that the RTD sees itself providing entertainment for that portion of its readership that wants a nice helping of liberal-baiting red meat in the morning, presumably as an appetizer for an afternoon of listening to Rush and co.

Reality, I think, is a bit more complicated. A substantial portion of the paper’s staff editorials are devoted to innocuous, unobjectionable observations about local events, and at times the editorials display a centrist, “common sense” sensibility.

But about once every couple of days (I haven’t quantified the ratio yet), there appears an editorial comment notable not only for its right-wing ideological content but also for a tone of mean-spiritedness and/or sarcasm.

A good example is a brief Saturday editorial about taxes. The editorial observes that few Americans voluntarily make donations to government above and beyond their tax obligation, then sardonically calls on those who support higher taxes to start making more voluntary contributions.

As far as this reader can tell, the editorial serves no purpose other than to mock those (presumably “liberals”) who do support higher taxes. The implicit ideological point is this: some people support higher taxes, but won’t put their money where their mouth is.

Let’s break down the RTD’s proposition on its own terms.

No one supports higher taxes as an end in itself (as the editorial insinuates). Rather, some people support greater provision of public goods such as education, health care, transportation, public safety, and help for those who cannot help themselves. Taxes are a necessary price for securing the resources to provide such goods.

It follows that people can reasonably be willing to pay higher taxes ourselves, so long as others are making a fair contribution themselves. This is a rational position for two kinds of reasons. The first is a simple matter of fairness; it’s unreasonable to ask people who support greater provision of public goods to disadvantage themselves relative to those who do not. The logical outcome of that kind of reasoning would be a society that taxed some more than others based on their political preferences–and hence, a society in which the very notion of shared obligation soon dissipated.

Second, if what “liberals” and others want is more effective provision of public goods, not higher taxes for their own sake, than it’s highly unlikely that making a voluntary donation to the state coffers will secure that end. Paying an extra $50 to the state is not going to improve the schools, or any other good worth caring about. But paying an extra $50 along with a milliion of your fellow citizens is a totally different story. In the one case the individual has made a donation with notable personal cost and negligible public payoff. In the other case the the individual has made a contribution with notable personal cost and potentially quite important public payoff.

So much for the question of self-imposing “extra” taxes. But the RTD editorial, perhaps unintentionally, raises another kind of question: what should the wealthy or affluent “liberal” who supports greater provision of public goods, and can afford to give money away with minimal personal cost, do with their discretionary money?

I agree that such people should do something with some of those funds that helps put their beliefs and preferences into action.

But handing over that money to the federal government at large, and letting a Republican-controlled government decide how the money will be spent, is going to be one of the least efficient ways possible to advance the wealthy liberal’s goals. Some of that money will be spent on weapons contracts, some on servicing the national debt, some on White House dinners, some on Halliburton cost overruns, and some precious percentage on the public goods one actually cares about.

The rational thing for such a person to do is to give money directly to organizations and efforts that directly help schools or help poor people or help secure some other valued end. That, of course, is what many wealthy (and some not-so-wealthy) liberals and moderates already do–a point conveniently ignored by the RTD editorial in its eagerness to suggest that liberals are hypocrites.

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 1:53 pm  Comments (2)  

Letters to the Editor on Iraq, II

The RTD must be getting a barrage of mail about Iraq, because it today printed not one but three letters critical of the Iraq war. Reader tolerance for nonsensical arguments about the war seems to be declining.

Published in: on September 9, 2006 at 1:52 pm  Leave a Comment  

The View from 2050

Sunday’s RTD was relatively tame in the commentary and analysis department, including some unobjectionable staff editorials and not one but two articles by Jeff Schapiro informing us that George Allen’s “macaca” speech was a really big gaffe. (You don’t say?)

The most interesting cluster of articles was on page E5, focusing on transportation. The first two articles, by Democratic delegate Frank Hall and Republican majority leader Morgan Griffith, presented what will strike most readers as partisan bickering over the failure of the Virginia legislature to address the state’s transportation problems.

On the other hand, at the bottom of the page Neal Peirce informs us of what some cities are actually doing to tackle a central problem that is deeply intertwined with the transportation issue: namely, taking aggressive steps at the local level to limit carbon dioxide emissions and the threat of global warming. The most impressive action has taken place in Seattle, due to the leadership of the city’s publicly owned utility (Seattle City Light), in cooperation with other important players in the city; specific steps including limiting power plant emissions, use of alternative fuels, and energy-saving designs in buildings. Peirce reports that King County (Seattle) Executive Ron Sims endorses a “2050 mindset.” This mindset involves “assuming it’s already mid-century and looking backward to see whether today’s major decisions on big highway or public-transit systems–make sense on the basis of their carbon impact.”

That seems like an eminently reasonable and prudent stance. Here’s hoping some of that longer-term thinking makes it way over to here Virginia, and that the staffs of both Mr. Hall and Mr. Griffiths take time to clip, read, and discuss the Peirce article as well as those of their bosses.

Published in: on September 3, 2006 at 6:04 pm  Leave a Comment