Friday, September 30, 2005

torture update

The Bush administration's ongoing efforts to sanction and cover up torture and inhumane treatment of detainees by US troops continues, with a couple of new developments this week. As ever, Andrew Sullivan is all over this story.

Capt. Ian Fishback, after trying to get from his superiors a firm definition of what treatment of military detainees US policy allows for 17 months, recently went to the Senate and Human Rights Watch with his concerns. In a letter to Senator John McCain earlier this month, he wrote:

I am a graduate of West Point currently serving as a Captain in the U.S. Army Infantry. I have served two combat tours with the 82nd Airborne Division, one each in Afghanistan and Iraq. While I served in the Global War on Terror, the actions and statements of my leadership led me to believe that United States policy did not require application of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan or Iraq. On 7 May 2004, Secretary of Defense Rumsfeld's testimony that the United States followed the Geneva Conventions in Iraq and the "spirit" of the Geneva Conventions in Afghanistan prompted me to begin an approach for clarification. For 17 months, I tried to determine what specific standards governed the treatment of detainees by consulting my chain of command through battalion commander, multiple JAG lawyers, multiple Democrat and Republican Congressmen and their aides, the Ft. Bragg Inspector General's office, multiple government reports, the Secretary of the Army and multiple general officers, a professional interrogator at Guantanamo Bay, the deputy head of the department at West Point responsible for teaching Just War Theory and Law of Land Warfare, and numerous peers who I regard as honorable and intelligent men.

Instead of resolving my concerns, the approach for clarification process leaves me deeply troubled. Despite my efforts, I have been unable to get clear, consistent answers from my leadership about what constitutes lawful and humane treatment of detainees. I am certain that this confusion contributed to a wide range of abuses including death threats, beatings, broken bones, murder, exposure to elements, extreme forced physical exertion, hostage-taking, stripping, sleep deprivation and degrading treatment. I and troops under my command witnessed some of these abuses in both Afghanistan and Iraq.

The NYTimes quotes Fishback:
"We did not set the conditions for our soldiers to succeed," said Captain Fishback, who has served combat tours in Afghanistan and Iraq. "We failed to set clear standards, communicate those standards and enforce those standards. For us to get to that point now, however, we have to come to grips with whether it's acceptable to use coercion to obtain information from detainees."

By this summer, Captain Fishback had met with Human Rights Watch researchers several times. He gave the organization the names of other members of his unit who could support his allegations.
Now the Pentagon is paying attention. But they are not working to clarify US policy or punish those responsible for the failures that led to torture and deaths of detainees—rather, they are trying to silence Fishback.
An Army captain who reported new allegations of detainee abuse in Iraq said Tuesday that Army investigators seemed more concerned about tracking down young soldiers who reported misconduct than in following up the accusations and investigating whether higher-ranking officers knew of the abuses.

The officer, Capt. Ian Fishback, said investigators from the Criminal Investigation Command and the 18th Airborne Corps inspector general had pressed him to divulge the names of two sergeants from his former battalion who also gave accounts of abuse, which were made public in a report last Friday by the group Human Rights Watch.

Captain Fishback, speaking publicly on the matter for first time, said the investigators who have questioned him in the past 10 days seemed to be less interested in individuals he identified in his chain of command who allegedly committed the abuses.

"I'm convinced this is going in a direction that's not consistent with why we came forward," Captain Fishback said in a telephone interview from Fort Bragg, N.C., where he is going through Army Special Forces training. "We came forward because of the larger issue that prisoner abuse is systemic in the Army. I'm concerned this will take a new twist, and they'll try to scapegoat some of the younger soldiers. This is a leadership problem."

Sullivan makes the case for why this story should be in the headlines:
The bottom line, as the NYT reports today, is that the military and the Bush administration are determined to stop any real investigation about how torture and abuse came to be so widespread in the U.S. military. The scapegoating of retarded underlings like Lynndie England is an attempt to deflect real responsibility for the new pro-torture policies that go all the way to the White House. It's a disgusting cover-up and it rests on breaking the will and resolve of decent servicemen and women brave enough to expose wrong-doing.

. . .

We have administration memos allowing for de facto torture of "enemy combatants" if "military necessity" demands it; we have new, Bush-approved legal definitions of torture that nevertheless allow all the kinds of horrors we have seen at Abu Ghraib, Camp Cropper, Bagram, Guantanamo, Basra, Camp Mercury and dozens of other sites in the war arena. We have decorated captains testifying at great risk to themselves what has been happening - and we have a clear record of the administration's attempts to silence and intimidate them. I wonder what is required for this to become the national outrage it should be.

It would be nice if the American people cared that their government had implemented a policy that led to the torture and deaths of innocent detainees. But frankly, it's too much trouble getting into the details of who was guilty and who wasn't, or what level of force was used, in what circumstances, and whether it was used properly. These are complicated issues, and Iraq and Afghanistan are far away. "Those people are not Americans, they must have been doing something wrong to be in jail in the first place, and our troops have to defend themselves." This will be the standard reaction, if this story ever makes it into the national consciousness, which it probably won't.

Impugning the integrity of our soldiers goes against everything we are taught from kindergarten—it's not patriotic. If we don't care much what happens to prisoners within our own borders—and we don't—why would we care what happens to non-Americans in a place where we are at war, where our soldiers are being killed? Most Americans just don't care what happens to "those people," and that's why this story will probably never fully break.

Monday, September 19, 2005

criminal glorification

Realizing that there has been a distinct shortage of righteous indignation in the blogosphere regarding proposed British anti-terror legislation which may send anyone who "glorifies, exalts or celebrates" any terrorist act committed over the past 20 years to prison for up to five years, Daniel at Crooked Timber takes a whack at supplying the missing outrage:

For Christ’s sakes !! A Labour government (A LABOUR GOVERNMENT!) is trying to pass a law whereby you can sit down at a pub table, spend the evening talking and come away having COMMITTED A CRIMINAL BLOODY OFFENCE!! THIS IS A BLOODY SPEECH CRIME PEOPLE!! THEY ARE QUITE LITERALLY SAYING THAT THEY ARE GOING TO PUT PEOPLE IN JAIL FOR EXPRESSING THEIR POLITICAL VIEWS!!Do I have to start using the f and c words before anyone notices that there is something quite serious going on? I am as concerned as the proprietor of Shot by Both Sides for my long term career path, but this surely has to be more important. THE GOVERNMENT OF THE UNITED KINGDOM OF GREAT BRITAIN AND NORTHERN IRELAND IS PROPOSING TO PUT PEOPLE IN JAIL FOR POLITICAL SPEECH CRIMES!! If anyone is proposing a quick sing-song outside the gates of 10 Downing Street singing “Glory Glory O Bin Laden” I think I am probably up for it. What the by-our-lady hell is going on?!

One commenter points out that this law might have, had it been enacted sooner, made reading Yeats aloud a prosecutable offense.

Another commenter makes a perceptive point:
We live in a world where the likes of [a previous commenter who favored the proposed legislation] can demand that his own right to free speech be curtailed. It’s time to realise the darkest truth about totalitarianism: it chimes in with deep fears we all have about taking the responsibility for our own freedom. Some of us give in to these fears and start to demand a ‘leader’ to take away this irksome responsibility.

In short, we are not so different in some very basic ways from the oppressed societies we are spreading "enlightenment" to. Let's not give up our very real freedoms for the sake of speedy protection from a shadowy threat--we are stronger and smarter than that.

Friday, September 16, 2005

the kids are alright

The Brookings Institute has a new review out of research conducted on the effects of same-sex parenting on children:

Some observers worry that legalizing same-sex marriage would send the message that same-sex parenting and opposite-sex parenting are interchangeable, when in fact they may lead to different outcomes for children.

To evaluate that concern, William Meezan and Jonathan Rauch review the growing body of research on how same-sex parenting affects children. After considering the methodological problems inherent in studying small, hard-to-locate populations-—problems that have bedeviled this literature—the authors find that the children who have been studied are doing about as well as children normally do. What the research does not yet show is whether the children studied are typical of the general population of children raised by gay and lesbian couples.

So children of gay and lesbian parents are doing fine compared to other children, but they might have different ideas about certain things than children raised by straight parents--hmmm, like they might think it's ok to be gay, or more tolerant of people different from themselves? Wonder why that would be ...

A second important question is how same-sex marriage might affect children who are already being raised by same-sex couples. Meezan and Rauch observe that marriage confers on children three types of benefits that seem likely to carry over to children in same-sex families. First, marriage may increase children's material well-being through such benefits as family leave from work and spousal health insurance eligibility. It may also help ensure financial continuity, should a spouse die or be disabled. Second, same-sex marriage may benefit children by increasing the durability and stability of their parents' relationship. Finally, marriage may bring increased social acceptance of and support for same-sex families, although those benefits might not materialize in communities that meet same-sex marriage with rejection or hostility.

So not only are children raised by same-sex parents "doing about as well as children normally do," but they do even better when their parents are married. Since conservatives have been hammering home for decades the idea that children are better off with married parents, it shouldn't come as a surprise when the evidence bears that theory out. So why do so many conservatives oppose what is essentially a conservative principle--strengthening family bonds to improve the welfare of children? Does anyone have an answer?

Hat tip: William Saletan at Slate.

boots on the ground

From Kevin Drum:

Jim Henley points us to a report from the Center for the Study of Sexual Minorities in the Military that suggests the military isn't quite as anti-gay as it claims to be:

Scholars studying military personnel policy have found a controversial regulation halting the discharge of gay soldiers in units that are about to be mobilized.
....Gay soldiers and legal groups have reported for years that known gays are sent into combat, and then discharged when the conflicts end....But the Pentagon has consistently denied that, when mobilization requires bolstering troop strength, it sends gays to fight despite the existence of a gay ban.

Reasonably enough, Jim suggests that this undermines the entire case for keeping gays out of the military:
Recall that the respectable case against allowing out homosexuals to serve in the military is that it will undermine unit cohesion in the stress of battle. Keeping gays and straights apart in hostilities is what the policy is supposed to be for. If the problem isn’t enough to keep gays out of the wartime Army, it’s certainly not enough to keep them out of the peacetime Army.

Kevin goes on to show that discharges under Don't Ask Don't Tell have decreased by half since 2001.
Is that peak in 2001 just a coincidence? Or did something happen that year that might have caused the military to suddenly decide that a good soldier is a good soldier regardless? I'm sure it will come to me if I think about it a bit....

As the old half-baked rationales for opposing gay rights fall away—"it'll undermine unit cohesion", "the judiciary is imposing its will on the people", "society will disintegrate"—what reasons are left? Don't Ask Don’t Tell "seems inexplicable by anything but animus toward the class that it affects; it lacks a rational relationship to legitimate state interests."

Thursday, September 15, 2005

popularly approved

This from yesterday:

Amid a pep-rally atmosphere, Massachusetts legislators on Wednesday overwhelmingly rejected an attempt to halt same-sex marriages here -- showing how quickly gay nuptials have moved from being a court-ordered imposition to a powerful political cause.
By a vote of 157 to 39, members of the House and the Senate meeting together voted down a proposed constitutional amendment that would have eliminated the same-sex marriages legalized two years ago and replaced them with "civil unions" for gay couples.
. . .
Politicians here credit the weddings themselves with shifting the political momentum, saying their growing ordinariness has defused some of the opposition.
. . .
The proposal passed in March 2004 but still required another vote; it was the measure turned down on Wednesday.
In the meantime, the weddings began. Since the first one on May 17, 2004, more than 6,100 gay couples have wed, accounting for about 17 percent of all the state's weddings during that period.
Each one made the idea of same-sex marriage more acceptable, observers say.

A principal argument among opponents of gay marriage in Massachusetts was that it was judicially imposed and didn't reflect the will of the people. That argument lays by the wayside in Massachusetts and California.

Kevin Drum remarks:
This is the beginning of the end for gay marriage opponents. As gay marriage becomes more common — both in the United States and in other countries — and absolutely nothing happens except that more people than ever can show off wedding scrapbooks with pictures of beaming partners and guests having a blast, opposition will slowly but surely melt away. The homophobes are banking everything on the proposition that same-sex marriage will lead to moral degeneracy and the breakdown of society, and when that doesn't happen they'll have nothing left.

Our society survived interracial marriage, against all predictions to the contrary, and became stronger because of it. The same will be true of gay marriage.

Monday, September 12, 2005


I don't have much to say about Katrina that hasn't already been said better elsewhere. I do think it's important to remember that Katrina exposed existing problems in a dramatic way, and most of those problems were not simply issues of technical coordination. No matter how good our government gets at managing disaster relief, poor people will still bear the brunt of natural or manmade catastrophes. I liked Nicholas Kristof's take on this:

If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right - the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing.

Indeed, according to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in urban parts of the state of Kerala in India.

Under Mr. Bush, the national infant mortality rate has risen for the first time since 1958. The U.S. ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the C.I.A.'s World Factbook; if we could reach the level of Singapore, ranked No. 1, we would save 18,900 children's lives each year.

So in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations. Nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. On immunizations, the U.S. ranks 84th for measles and 89th for polio.

One of the most dispiriting elements of the catastrophe in New Orleans was the looting. I covered the 1995 earthquake that leveled much of Kobe, Japan, killing 5,500, and for days I searched there for any sign of criminal behavior. Finally I found a resident who had seen three men steal food. I asked him whether he was embarrassed that Japanese would engage in such thuggery.

"No, you misunderstand," he said firmly. "These looters weren't Japanese. They were foreigners."

The reasons for this are complex and partly cultural, but one reason is that Japan has tried hard to stitch all Japanese together into the nation's social fabric. In contrast, the U.S. - particularly under the Bush administration - has systematically cut people out of the social fabric by redistributing wealth from the most vulnerable Americans to the most affluent.

Kristof makes important points. What happened in New Orleans was tragic, but the reason so many died was because of ongoing inequalities that most people manage not to think about most of the time. But there's more to it than bad policies. It'd be nice if everything bad that happened could be chalked up to one president or one political party or one side of the political spectrum. Then you just vote the bastards out and things should get better. But it's not that simple. We had Clinton for a long time, and things didn't get measurably better for most people around the world. It's nice that the Japanese get along well with each other, as Kristof acknowledges, but that doesn't do Bangladeshis or Bolivians much good when disaster strikes in those places (as it seems to do quite frequently). Local problems often have global roots, and when they do, they should have global solutions. The tragedy on the bridge in Iraq managed to share the spotlight in the US press with Katrina for nearly an entire day, until we realized New Orleans hadn't dodged a bullet after all. I'm guessing that Iraqis have been less than riveted by our national tragedy; for the past two weeks, they've been dealing with one of their own. Superficially, Katrina and the bridge disaster look like unfortunate accidents, until you realize that virtually the only ones who died were the ones who already had nothing. That's no accident; it's a failure to acknowledge and address pervasive, ubiquitous inequality.