Friday, September 29, 2006

On the land of the free: This Is Your Soundtrack

Okay, so as you probably gathered from my last post, I'm not terribly chuffed with recent developments in our government. I think they, in a word, suck. I feel betrayed by the legislature, particularly by those twelve Dems who voted to allow torture and suspend habeas corpus, and by the three Republicans who pretended to stand up for what was right only to roll over and whine when Bush said, "No! Bad dog!"

And that's why this Friday Not-Even-Random Ten is dedicated to the free citizens of the US. The bill in question will probably be signed into law by Bush today, meaning that the "free" part may well go right out the window, and who knows what'll happen to the idea of citizenship. I figure this may be the last day I can blog as an opinionated Democrat rather than a treasonous dissenter-combatant person, so I should get to it.

The Ten:

1. Dave Matthews Band, "Cry Freedom"
2. Barenaked Ladies, "Told You So"
3. Tears for Fears, "Woman in Chains"
4. Coldplay, "Everything's Not Lost"
5. Dixie Chicks, "I Hope"
6. U2, "Stuck in a Moment You Can't Get Out Of"
7. Beat Foundation, "My Freedom"
8. Astrud Gilberto, "Here's That Rainy Day"
9. The Crystal Method, "Keep Hope Alive"
10. W.H. Auden, "After the Funeral (Stop All the Clocks)" (read by John Hannah)

And a bonus 11:

11. Nada Surf, "Always Love"

Your thoughts, your Ten, your whatever go below - and just as a warning: I don't censor comments, and I welcome debate, but today of all days, I am not one to be fucked with.

On Godwin's Law (R.I.P. September 28, 2006)

Okay, so the world changed last night. I was upset then, and I'm upset now, and last night I suspected I might be getting myself all exercised about nothing, but the more I think about it and read on it and talk to people about it, the less confident I get that I'm making a big deal out of nothing. It scared me then, and it doesn't scare me any less now. I want to not be scared. I dont want to feel this way in a free country. But I do, and not for my lack of trying, but I can't seem to not feel this way in a free country.

Last night, the military detention bill passed the Senate 65-34. It hits the president's desk today, where chances that he'll veto are minimal to none because, after all, he wrote most of it himself. Sixty-five of our elected officials, including 12 Democrats, have declared their support for unlimited presidential power, including:

- torture
- indefinite detention
- revocation (not limitation, but revocation) of habeas corpus
- admission of hearsay evidence and coerced testimony
- limitation on a defendant's access to the evidence against him
- the ability to designate anyone, even American citizens, as "unlawful enemy combatants" by fiat and thus repeal all civil liberties

Congress passed a bill that not only weakens our moral standing in the world but actually causes us to debate how much torture we're willing to stomach, and in so doing lowers us to the level of those terrorists we're fighting for being objectively evil and the dictator currently on trial for his atrocities. It spits on the Geneva Conventions and puts our troops at risk. It makes our national sense of morality a joke.

And, in the name of protecting us, our government has declared their right to detain us, to declare us enemies of the country, to hold us indefinitely without charges and to torture us. Not that it's any more acceptable when it's Iraqi detainees being locked up without representation and tortured for testimony, but your elected officials just sacrificed your civil liberties and your sense of safety in your own country on the president's altar of national security.

These are the Democratic senators valiantly standing up for the president's right to detain and torture anyone, anywhere, at will:

Tom Carper (Del.)
Tim Johnson (S.D.)
Mary Landrieu (La.)
Frank Lautenberg (N.J.)
Bob Menendez (N.J.)
Bill Nelson (Fla.)
Ben Nelson (Neb.)
Mark Pryor (Ark.)
Jay Rockefeller (W.Va.)
Ken Salazar (Co.)
Debbie Stabenow (Mich.)

Former Democrat Joe Lieberman (Conn.) also voted, of course, to allow President Bush to pull you off the street and detain you indefinitely. Lincoln Chafee (R-R.I.) and Jim Jeffords (I-Vt.) voted against. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.) called the bill "patently unconstitutional on its face" and said that it "sends us back 900 years" and then voted for it anyway.

They say that everything changed after 9/11, and until today, I didn't really understand how true that was. September 29, 2000, this was a country where political dissent was protected by the First Amendment. September 29, 2006, it's a place where political dissenters can be labeled as enemy combatants and V for Vendetta'd from their homes. Then, it was a place where torture and rape were unthinkable and waterboarding was unheard of; now, it's a place where we debate what kinds of torture we're still going to allow. Then, we had habeas corpus; now, we say that it just "clogs the courts". Then, we had a Supreme Court that might declare this kind of law unconstitutional. Now, we wish we did.

This is one of many, many times when I'm grateful for such a politically and ideologically diverse readership, because I want somebody to tell me how this is okay. Tell me how it's okay that our rights and our morals have been written away in an instant and a vote. Tell me that I'm just being paranoid and that our government will never actually use these new powers that they've fought so hard to acquire. Tell me that our country will be just the same as it was before, that we'll be safe and can feel safe and won't ever have to worry. Tell me and make me believe it.

This is the world we live in now. No checks and balances. No judicial review. No sunset provisions. No humanity. Just pure, unadulterated, unitary executive power bestowed upon the president by the people we trusted to represent our interests. King George does it again. And we peasants will just have to learn to deal.

Thursday, September 28, 2006

On making the world safe for democracy

Okay, so "I don't see where the NIE said that we are less safe from terrorism," a commenter writes.

"Consider an optometrist," Practically Harmless replies:
Declassified Key Judgments of the National Intelligence Estimate "Trends in Global Terrorism: Implications for the United States" dated April 2006


Although we cannot measure the extent of the spread with precision, a large body of all-source reporting indicates that activists identifying themselves as jihadists, although a small percentage of Muslims, are increasing in both number and geographic dispersion.

If this trend continues, threats to US interests at home and abroad will become more diverse, leading to increasing attacks worldwide.


We assess that the operational threat from self-radicalized cells will grow in importance to US counterterrorism efforts, particularly abroad but also in the Homeland.


We assess that the Iraq jihad is shaping a new generation of terrorist leaders and operatives; perceived jihadist success there would inspire more fighters to continue the struggle elsewhere.


Al-Qa'ida, now merged with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's network, is exploiting the situation in Iraq to attract new recruits and donors and to maintain its leadership role.


Should al-Zarqawi continue to evade capture and scale back attacks against Muslims, we assess he could broaden his popular appeal and present a global threat.

The increased role of Iraqis in managing the operations of al-Qa'ida in Iraq might lead veteran foreign jihadists to focus their efforts on external operations.

Other affiliated Sunni extremist organizations, such as Jemaah Islamiya, Ansar al-Sunnah, and several North African groups, unless countered, are likely to expand their reach and become more capable of multiple and/or mass-casualty attacks outside their traditional areas of operation.


We judge that most jihadist groups - both well-known and newly formed - will use improvised explosive devices and suicide attacks focused primarily on soft targets to implement their asymmetric warfare strategy, and that they will attempt to conduct sustained terrorist attacks in urban environments. Fighters with experience in Iraq are a potential source of leadership for jihadists pursuing these tactics.


While Iran, and to a lesser extent Syria, remain the most active state sponsors of terrorism, many other states will be unable to prevent territory or resources from being exploited by terrorists.

Anti-US and anti-globalization sentiment is on the rise and fueling other radical ideologies. This could prompt some leftist, nationalist, or separatist groups to adopt terrorist methods to attack US interests. The radicalization process is occurring more quickly, more widely, and more anonymously in the Internet age, raising the likelihood of surprise attacks by unknown groups whose members and supporters may be difficult to pinpoint.

There's a bedtime story for you. You stay that course.

On multiplication by zero

Calvin: Help me (hic) get (hic) rid of (hic) these darn (hic) hic (hic) hiccups!
Hobbes: How?
Calvin: (hic) Scare me.
Hobbes: Our oceans are filled with garbage, we've created a hole in the ozone layer that's frying the planet, nuclear waste is piling up without any safe way to get rid of it...
Calvin: (hic) I mean surprise me (hic).
Hobbes: That doesn't?! Boy, you're cynical...

Okay, so I don't like getting my knickers in a twist over nothing. They tend to be rather nice knickers, and twisting them up negates the entire purpose of handwashing them, so if I'm going to get them in a twist, it's got to be for a reason. So that's why I wasn't willing to start throwing a hissy fit without actually reading the text of the proposed military commission bill, the one that had Republican Congresscritters standing up on their hind legs in opposition to the president before they sat back down and agreed to a quote-compromise-unquote.

Said proposed bill, which passed the house yesterday 253-168, is here (pdf), 96 pages of legislation-ese and legal-ese. I'd love for some of our more legally knowledgeable readers to take a look at it from the standpoint of a J.D. (and y'all know who you are), but I took my own minimal knowledge of domestic law and foreign policy, gave it a good once-over, and...

... and, well, my knickers remained untwisted.

A first reading of the text actually reveals, to my eyes, at least, a pretty solid understanding of what a lot of Americans have been looking for all along: a working definition of torture according to the Geneva Conventions, so that we can know and our troops and intelligence professionals can know when they're really being violated. Relevant text on torture consists of largely unobjectionable, if occasionally weak-ish ("serious" pain? How severe is "severe"?) definitions.

If you have the time, do read the whole thing for specifics (it starts on page 86, line 6), but from what I can tell, it's all there: Physical or mental pain or suffering. Cruel or inhuman treatment. Mutilation or maiming. Intentionally causing serious bodily injury. Rape. Sexual assault or abuse. There's even an additional prohibition on cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, just in case you couldn't find a way to fit menstrual-blood-smearing or simulated-oral-sex-forcing into one of the above categories. A lot of effort (and I'm thinking some deeply icky and disturbing brainstorming sessions) has apparently gone into creating a comprehensive list of things that one person can do to another but shouldn't.

Now, don't get me wrong; there are still parts of this bill to which I strenuously object. For instance, the section on protection of classified information (page 38, line 10) dictates that evidence against the defendant can be withheld from him if said evidence is classified. Now, as much as I respect and appreciate the need for national security, and the need to keep classified information out of the hands of terrorists who could use it against us, people still have the right to a fair trial, and a defendant can't be prepared to adequately defend himself if he doens't know what he's defending against. Since defense counsel is required to be eligible for access to classified information anyway, and since other articles in the bill allow for classified information to be provided to defense counsel so that counsel can determine what information is pertinent and summarize if for the defendant in a way that keeps classified information classified, I don't know why this couldn't be done with evidence as well.

I similarly object to section 5 (page 82, line 1), which dictates that the Geneva Conventions can't be invoked in habeas corpus actions against the United States, because frankly, I still feel that indefinite detention without charges is a blatant and serious violation of basic human rights. Nor do I dig section 6, part 2 (page 83, line 21) where the president gets the right to interpret the Geneva Conventions; as clearly and thoroughly as the bill outlines specific violations of said Conventions, throwing around words like "grave breaches" and giving the president discretion over violations that aren't "grave breaches" serves to vague it up again quite nicely.

But one paragraph - one single paragraph in the entire 96 pages - bothers me more than any other part of the entire bill. One paragraph is not only disappointing to me, but also unsurprising, and angering, because the presence of the one paragraph makes me feel like my own government is trying to pull one over on me, and I hate that. Page 7, line 13:
(g) GENEVA CONVENTIONS NOT ESTABLISHING SOURCE OF RIGHTS.-- No alien unlawful enemy combatant subject to trial by military commission under this chapter may invoke the Geneva Conventions as a source of rights.


Bush's contempt for the American people and everyone in the entire world has never been so clearly expressed on paper. The bill spends 96 pages discussing specific requirements of the Geneva Conventions, addressing punishment for violators thereof, trying to create wiggle room for presidential interpration, when one single paragraph negates the entire thing. How? By laying down the law and then claiming that he doesn't have to follow it. By saying, "Yeah, sure, we'll abide by the Geneva Conventions. It's just that, well, these guys over here? They aren't subject to the Conventions. But seriously, I promise not to torture anybody I don't want to."

The status of "alien unlawful enemy combatant" is a completely arbitrary one created by the administration to act as a broad, meandering catchall for any detainee the government doesn't want to take the time to treat properly. The Geneva Conventions don't use that term at all; under Common Article Three, everyone has some kind of protected status, whether they're a civilian or a combatant or medical personnel or clergy or a detainee. There is no purpose to an international treaty outlining fair and reasonable treatment during wartime if it's accompanied by a footnote listing the people that you actually are allowed to torture. The Geneva Conventions don't have that footnote, so George W. Bush decided to write one himself. And a nice broad one it is, too - if a "competent tribunal established under the authority of the president" so determines, you could be an unlawful enemy combatant too!

Not that I would respect him for doing it or object to the bill any less enthusiastically than I do now, but Bush could at least have been honest about it. "I don't think I have to honor duly ratified international treaties," he could say. "I think that, as president of the United States, I have the right to authorize torture, in direct violation of a convention that we have pledged to honor. I have great big titanium-plated balls, and I will veto any bill that would make torture illegal, because I can, so suck on it." But he didn't. He agreed to "compromise," pretended to care about international convention, pretended that lawful and humane treatment of detainees - and the will of the people - was important to him. And now that he's "compromised" so benevolently on his self-declared right to torture people in the name of freedom, he's written himself an out, a little back door assuring him the right to do just that. And our elected representatives let him get away with it.

HATE. It's multiplication by zero. You can write the longest and most complex math problem in the world, pull in calculus and trigonometry and take up twelve feet of blackboard and figure things to a hundred and fifty significant digits, but if the entire thing ends in "times zero," guess what? Your answer is ZERO. And ZERO is exactly what we have here. ZERO rights for detainees. ZERO compromise. And ZERO respect for the American people by the administration in power.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

On why no torture

Okay, so the Practically Harmless world has been thrown into quivery excitement by the appearance of an old friend in Friday's torture post. Jimmy, a friend whom I haven't seen in probably seven years, pops himself up to report that he's actually in the shit as we speak and to deliver a uniquely qualified opinion from someone who is, well, currently, well, y'know.

Anyway, I promised Jimmy a thoughtful response to his thoughtful comment, and although Doug has since dropped another comment (along with an enthusiastic barrage of f-bombs) that sums a lot of it up, I thought I'd put in my two, far less passionately profane, cents.

Here's the thing about torture: It's bad. It's hurting people on purpose, and it's a widely-accepted tenet of civilized society that hurting people on purpose is a bad thing. Torture is actually a sign of narcissism; it's one person invading and defiling the sanctity of another person's actual body, assuming a position of superiority over a victim and denying that victim's humanity. It reduces the person being tortured to the value of an inanimate object that can be kicked about at will, and it has lasting negative effects on the person doing the torturing as well. To pass legislation saying that we're hunky-dory with torture as a national standard for treatment of human beings cheapens us as a country that takes such pride in our liberty and brings us down to the level of the very people we've deposed and invaded for being objectively evil. And why do we call them objectively evil? Because of their tendency to torture people.

So that's why no torture.

Now, Jimmy made a good argument, bringing up the point of LTC Shane West, who was relieved of his command after firing off a pistol and making a detainee wet himself and give up information that ultimately saved the lives of 25 of his soldiers. I'm glad that those men were saved, and were Jimmy in similar danger, I like to think that someone would do whatever it takes to keep him safe. But if you choose borderline or full-on unethical tactics, you still should be called on them. It is unfortunate that sometimes doing the right thing involves doing bad things, but that doesn't make the bad things any less bad. The man who steals to feed his family has done a good thing in putting food on the table, but he's still accomplished it by doing a bad thing.

I do think that circumstances should be considered when people are called to account; the man who stole a loaf of bread for his family doesn't deserve the same punishment as the man who stole the 25" TV, and the man who kills his mugger on the street can usually argue for self-defense. But we can't legalize stealing simply because people have to eat, or legalize killing because people get mugged; stealing and killing are still wrong. Far be it from me to drag Kant's universal imperative into the whole thing, but the idea that we can't legalize torture because people shouldn't torture isn't too much of a stretch. And even if Jimmy saved a hundred lives by beating a detainee into his component atoms, Jimmy should still be held accountable for his actions. Does that make sense? It shouldn't.

Moreover, very little of the torture currently under debate by Congress is the actual suitcase-nuke-on-its-way-to-Los-Angeles, four-seconds-left-on-the-digital-display Jack Bauer stuff. We're also talking about interrogation and standard treatment of detainees who may or may not be useful assets to the US. The argument is usually that "these people are terrorists" and "they wouldn't hesitate to cut our heads off if they got the chance," but the fact is, a considerable percentage of these people are taxi drivers or fruit sellers who were picked up by mistake. Or cases of mistaken identity. Or low-level functionaries who, it turns out, were actually schizophrenic and able to provide questionable intelligence from three distinct different personalities. Torture is a hard enough idea to take when you can imagine a homogenously evil and deranged person on the receiving end; imagine a man who was picked up for being in the wrong place at the wrong time, and it becomes well-nigh nauseating.

My weak stomach notwithstanding, torture also puts our own troops at risk. In the first Gulf War, much bloodshed was saved simply because many Iraqi troops were more wiling to surrender than fight to the death. They did this because the US had, at the time, a reputation for treating prisoners with some degree of dignity, because we were likely to treat them better as detainees than Saddam had as troops. We've since lost that advantage. And the recently released National Intelligence Estimate shows that US actions in Iraq have actually made us less safe from terrorism in part because we're pissing people off and spawning a new generation of violent radicals.

And that's why no torture. Because torture doesn't work. Because torture results in questionable intelligence. Because torturing people puts our own people in danger. And most of all (in my mind, at least), because torturing is bad for everyone: the person being tortured, the person doing the torturing, and the society trying to pretend that torturing is okay. I support the government gathering intelligence to keep our country safe. I support our troops in the Middle East doing what it takes to keep us, and each other, safe. But torturing is bad.

And that's why no torture.

Friday, September 22, 2006

On George W. Bush: This Is Your Soundtrack. Again.

Okay, so I was hoping to mark the triumphant return of the Friday Not-Even-Random Ten with something funny (and sorry, Bleu, you've already gotten your Ten), but sometimes, life just doesn't seem that funny. Apparently, even standing up and saying conclusively that torture is wrong is beyond our bold and righteously moral legislators.

I'm so freaking sick of this! Of all the things Americans have ever had to debate, whether or not we want to be a country that tortures people should be basic and instinctive. Courtesy of Steve at No More Mister Nice Blog, we have a piece by a man that I respect immeasurably, Joe Galloway. Galloway was a reporter in country during Vietnam, co-wrote We Were Soldiers Once... and Young with General Hal Moore, and is a greatly respected voice in support of the military - but not necessarily the war - for quite some time.

Galloway writes:
The torture of prisoners is not only illegal under American and international law it is, put simply, immoral and unjust. It is also un-American.

It is amazing that we are still hung up in a debate over President Bush's insistence that we bend and break our laws and the Geneva Conventions so that our agents can do everything short of murder to make a man talk.


We once stood for something good in this world. We once took the high moral ground in our struggle with the evil that exists. We once upheld the Geneva Conventions not only because we expected our enemies to apply them in their treatment of American prisoners but because they were the law, and they were right.

Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda boys hiding in their caves in Waziristan are surely laughing over all of this. They have succeeded in dragging us down to their level of barbarity and inhumanity.

Read the entire thing for a description of waterboarding that I'm too squeamish to post here.

Our brave senators - including those Republicans who once boldly stood against the president in a brief fit of morals - have now agreed to a compromise that allows Bush to "interpret" the Geneva Conventions in his own clever way via executive order should the need arise (and whose judgment will dictate when the need has arisen? His, of course). He has expressed his intention to continue using the CIA for secret detention and torture when, again, he has determined the need exists, and they're immune from prosecution for every human rights abuse short of public drawing and quartering.

I know I've been paying attention, but I don't remember the precise moment when it became Congress's job to write Bush a blank check for human rights violations, particularly when the Supreme Court has explicitly ruled such violations unconstitutional. But our senators have grown flabby and unfit through years of lying prone as the Bush administration steamrolls over the Constitution in the name of national security; when you're that out of shape, standing up for just a few minutes is a Herculean effort. To them, to the president, to everyone who thinks secret detainment and electric shocks to the genitals is a reasonable tool used solely for the safety of our country: Fuck you, and this Friday Not-Even-Random Ten is for you.

1. The Fugees, "The Beast"
2. Four Star Mary, "Pain"
3. Guster, "Demons"
4. Addict, "Monster Side"
5. Public Enemy, "Bring the Noise"
6. A Tribe Called Quest, "Can I Kick It?"
7. Lauryn Hill, "When It Hurts So Bad"
8. The Police, "King of Pain"
9. Kahr, "Naked
10. Face to Face, "The Devil You Know (God Is a Man)"

On intromissing... things into other... things

Okay, so Bleu Copas is officially the world's best sport ever. We first met him back in August, when his involvement in community theatre led to his dismissal from the Army on account of being gay (because obviously, the Army has no need for Arab crypto-linguists. No. Noooo. Thanks and all, but we're all set).

Well, now poor Mr. Copas has had the good graces to put up with... The Daily Show interview.

Anyone not interested in seeing Jason Jones prancing around in nothing but his graying tighty-whities need not click until lunch is fairly well digested. But do watch it sooner than later, if only for the enlightening segment on the danger of rectal intromission.

Poor, poor Bleu Copas. He just can't buy a break. Who loves ya, Bleu? Practically Harmless does.

On religions of peace

Okay, so I'll admit that "Admit that we're a religion of peace or we will fuck your shit right up!" is probably not the best PR tool the Muslim faith could have pulled out this week. But I also have to admit that there were probably wiser ways for the Pope to, speaking as the God-appointed head of the Catholic Church on earth, invite Muslims to a dialogue on religious violence than by quoting a 14th-century emperor calling them "evil and inhuman." And a non-apology apology like "Y'all, I'm sorry y'all are so pissed off, but that wasn't even me. That was somebody else" is hardly the diplomatic statement that'll smooth it all out.

Out of about 1.4 billion Muslims throughout the world, about 20 percent are from Arab countries, and probably 10 to 15 percent live in particularly embattled areas of the Middle East. Of those 15 percent (on the high end) of embattled Muslims, several thousands are radical fundamentalists committing horrific crimes for a variety of reasons (and the rest are wishing they could feel safer going to the grocery store). Even assuming that 100 million Muslims are actively looking for someone to dismember in the name of Allah, that means that there are 1.3 billion of them sitting around shaking their heads and saying, "Dude, y'all need to cut that out. Y'all are making us look awful."

One-point-three billion Muslims who have never had the urge to blow anyone else up. But somehow, Islam is an "evil and inhuman" religion of violence. I know it's a cliche to point out all of the violence that has been perpetrated in the name of Christianity throughout history, but it's true: in every group of people with fervent beliefs, there will be people who go crazy and screw things up for everyone else. That doesn't mean that religion is bad; that just means that one subsection of violent fundamentalist adherents does not a "religion of violence" make.

I've been thinking about Jordan lately. It's been home to, participated in, or been screwed over by the Iraqi Revolution, the Six Days War, the Black-September-y conflict in the late 60s/early 70s with the fedeyeen, the Arab-Israeli War, and a bunch more conflicts I can't even remember. It's got no real natural resources, a population beginning to grow larger than the country can support, and accusations of corruption in the monarchy. It's majority Muslim.

It's also 47th in the entire world for literacy, one of the few safe tourist spots left in the Middle East, and a country where women can drive, work, head households, and wear or not wear a hijab as they choose and where the queen goes around in sleeveless tops without getting stoned to death. It tends toward pro-Western foreign relations and has been a significant mediator in conflicts between Israel and Palestine. And this is with 60 percent of the population made up of Palestinian Arabs; 92 percent of the population is Sunni Muslim.

When we compare Arab Muslims to Western Christians and declare the former evil and violent, we're making the wrong comparison. It's apples and toasters. The difference between Iraq and, say, Spain is that they're totally freaking different countries in just about every way. The difference between Iraq and Jordan is - what? The people? The government? Sunnis vs. Shias? Oil vs. no oil? One country is a growing leader in women's rights in the Middle East; the other is a growing leader in people getting blown up at the grocery store. What is it about that 15 percent that make them violent, casting such horrible aspersions on the religion as a whole?

Radical. Violent. Fundamentalism.

There's your puzzle. There's your "religion of violence." One of these things is not like the other, but the difference ain't Allah. And if we're going to make the Middle East (and the rest of the world) safe for peace-loving Muslims (and the rest of us), we're going to have to solve that puzzle, because "evil religion of violence" and "pave them into a parking lot" isn't making things any better.

Thursday, September 14, 2006

On an act that will be hard to follow

Okay, so the world is a little bit less ballsy today. Former Texas governor Ann Richards died yesterday at the age of 73.

Ann Richards has always been close to my heart because she's the reason I started paying attention to politics in the first place. When, in 1988, she gave the keynote address to the Democratic National Convention, I was really too young to understand what was going on, but I was amazed to see someone - a woman, particularly - talk like that in public. I just saw this maternal-looking woman with pearls on saying things about the administration that I literally did not know people were allowed to say. First-grade social studies wasn't terribly heavy on the free-speech issues, and politically active women had only been presented in the most abstract, distant sense; I thought Ann Richards was the ballsiest, bravest woman in the world.

Then, in 1990, she was elected governor of Texas, and again I was amazed, because I literally didn't know that women could hold public office. I mean, sure, I knew, this wasn't some failing of the educational system, but I knew in that same abstract, textbook sense, the same way I knew that a black man could be elected president but hadn't been. She was still that maternal type in pearls, but now she was in charge of one of the biggest states in the country. And that amazed and inspired me. And throughout her career as governor, and even after, she remained one of the few politicians who still spoke their minds independent of party politics or public opinion. And that amazed and inspired me.

Of all of the politicians and leaders I've encountered since I really became politically aware, Governor Richards has stuck with me like none other. She opened up government to me just as she did to the non-white, non-men she appointed when she was governor. Even with Hillary Rodham Clinton in the Senate and Condoleezza Rice in the White House and Ruth Bader Ginsberg on the Supreme Court, the image of a woman in power, to me, still has a perfectly-sprayed Texas perm and a string of pearls. And a pair of the biggest cojones a human being can carry around. The world is a little less no-shit-taking for her absence, but if we can keep her spirit with us, we'll be all the better for it.

Wednesday, September 13, 2006

On honest memories

Okay, so now that the day itself has passed, Americans have had their moments of silence and day of remembrance and are happily returning to their previous idle chatter and blissful ignorance. But as the comments thread on this hyah thread indicate, there's a lot of remembering left to do.

1. We should remember that Iraq didn't perpetrate the attacks on September 11. Saddam Hussein didn't do it. Iraqis didn't do it; all but one of the hijackers were Saudi, because al Qaeda knew that Saudis were more likely to be able to get visas. In fact, Saddam, a strict secularist, disliked al Qaeda in general and Osama bin Laden particularly because of their fundamentalist activity.

1a. Remembering that should trigger the memory of the day in 2002 when Bush dismissed bin Laden, the real perpetrator of the attacks, as "a person who's now been marginalized" about whom he was "truly ... not that concerned." And Bush's renewed enthusiasm for tracking him down may be hobbled somewhat by Pakistan's recent decision not to help.

2. We should remember that the government already had the power to surveil, wiretap, and otherwise monitor terrorist activities - even those inside the United States. It's called FISA, it allows them three days after the wiretap to even apply for a warrant, they can even use evidence collected by the wiretap to justify the warrant, and the court has turned down all of five warrants in the history of its existence. If these requirements are hamstringing the NSA, then the problem seems to be on the NSA's end of things.

2a. In light of that, we should also remember that back in June of 2002, the judiciary actually attempted to lower the evidentiary standard for a FISA warrant from "probable cause" to "reasonable suspicion," but the administration wouldn't have it, saying that the constitutionality of the change of evidentiary standard was questionable and the 72-hour window "ensure[s] that the government acts swiftly to respond to terrorist threats."

2b. Along with that, we should remember that existing law already provides for the government to track financial transactions within the United States, and that outside of the US, it's been going on without objection for quite some time now. Without objection and without secrecy, despite Bush's complaints, because SWIFT has their own Web site about it.

3. It would also do us well to remember that Saddam Hussein loved torturing people. He had secret prisons. He held people for months, years, even, without trial, without advocates and without anyone knowing where they were. If we're borrowing tactics and techniques from the guy we just deposed for being objectively evil, our strategy could use some tweaking. And if, as a country, our own standard for humanity stops at being just slightly less evil than said objectively evil guy, our morality could use some tweaking.

4. While we're remembering, we might want to consider the fact that the population of the United States is insanely diverse, with every permutation of ethnic background, religion, skin color, and lifestyle possible. In the days following the 9/11 attacks, that diverse population was united like never before, ignoring differences and standing together as Americans in support of our country's safety and goals. Unfortunately, that good thing has started to flag in the years since. Profiling, looking at American citizens as terrorists-in-the-making on the basis of skin color or clothing or ethnic background, isn't going to bring that unity back. If we're depending on the cooperation of all Americans to keep us safe while maintaining our freedom, our first step shouldn't be alienating a significant portion of them.

5. We'd probably also do well to remember how we felt in those first few month after the attacks - not the anger or vengeance, but the determination to "not let the terrorists win." Now, this determination did manifest in a variety of ways - "If we cancel our tailgate, the terrorists have won" - but the basic principle was the same: Terrorists function not by killing, but by terrorizing. If we allow our fear to change what we do, they'll have attained their goal.

The obvious answer, then, is to not give them what they want. Don't be so afraid of terrorists that you lose track of your humanity and the right way to treat people. Don't let fear make you suspicious and hateful toward people because their skin is darker than yours or because their religion doesn't make sense to you. Don't put your own civil liberties and the civil liberties of others on the chopping block under the illusion that that's the price of security, because it isn't.

People say that "everything changed after 9/11." I say that every change that took place did so because we let it. In some cases, we made it. We didn't ask to be attacked on 9/11 or deserve it or cause it to happen, but everything that has happened since then has been our choice. If you don't want to live in a world of orange terror alerts and suspicious dark people with McDonald's bags and fear of flying and xenophobia, then don't. We, as a society, allowed ourselves to become this way in response to something we couldn't control, and we, as a society, can demand that we return to that unity and determination that we once felt. That, in the end, is the real lesson of 9/11 that we should never, ever forget.

Tuesday, September 12, 2006

On reclaiming a day in history

Okay, so I was debating with myself whether or not to post anything at all for September 11. I didn't want to post if I didn't really have anything to contribute, I didn't want to just vomit something inane about patriotism and remembering and hugging your loved ones, and I didn't want to do one of those "where were you" posts, because I recognize that where I was at the time is significant to no one but me.

I do remember how I felt, though. I remember watching TV coverage from the moment I got home, just glued to it, watching the same footage over and over again and not really expecting them to break in with anything new (anything accurate, anyway) but watching anyway. And I remember thinking how scared they must have been, the people in the planes recognizing the inevitability of what was about to happen, the people in the towers wondering if they would get out alive, the people in the upper floors realizing that they probably wouldn't. I remember people jumping, that last desperate and defiant act of choosing one's own fate from two equally horrific options, and wondering what they felt on the way down, whether they were, God forbid, scared to the last or whether they found some measure of peace in that final act. And I remember seeing the families around lower Manhattan with snapshots and flyers printed off the computer, hoping against hope that their loved one stopped for a paper on the way in to work and just hadn't gotten the chance to check in.

I also remember thinking that what was going on, what was happening to those people, was far above and outside of anything I'd ever experienced. I'd never known fear or despair or grief like those people were experiencing. And so I remember being angry when I opened the papers in days following and saw accounts of candlelight vigils with dewy-eyed freshman girls gazing moistly at the sky and saying, "I was in New York three years ago. I was right there. That could have been me. This happened to all of us," and I wanted to shout, "No, it didn't happen to all of us. It happened to people who are suffering more than you can possibly imagine, because it isn't all about you."

I don't know when or why it happened, but we've somehow, in this country, managed to exchange sympathy for a kind of stolen and false empathy. It's not enough to see others in pain and feel for them; we have to feel what they're feeling, have to be able to compete with them for sincerity and depth of emotion. When we see someone who's hurting, our immediate reaction is to use that as a sounding board for our own pain. These people who are going through so much, who at the moment are needing and deserving of our support more than anything else, become instead supports for us, the locomotive for our ever-lengthening Grief Train. It's emotional voyeurism, grief porn, and it's not fair.

Now, far be it from me to try to dictate who is and is not worthy of sympathy. Emotions are an intensely personal thing, and only the individual can really know, through honest examination, where their grief and fear really come from and what they need to do to work through it. For me, I knew then and know now that my feelings were rooted in the moment and would pass with time, and that the deep-seated pain and the protracted healing belonged to someone else. And many did recognize that, whatever they were feeling, healing would be found by looking outside themselves, in the weeks following, donating money and blood and sympathy to those deeply touched by the attacks.

As the initial blushes of intense feeling have faded, the attacks of September 11 and the events thereafter have been reduced to a catchphrase, a new shorthand, an avatar for the chaotic jumble of fear and grief and anger and loss and confusion and love and frustration that defined that moment in history. They're a number now, 9/11, a justification for political action, an accusation of weakness, a demand for accountability, a cry for praise, a call for revenge, a handy self-satisfied condemnation. Everything that was so intensely personal has been cooked down to an all-purpose salve for all political ills.

This morning, when the wives and husbands and parents and brothers and sisters and children of those lost were reading the names at 8:46 Eastern, I was glad. I was glad that the nearly 3,000 who died that day were remembered as individuals with names and faces and stories after so much time spent as one featureless universal justification. And I was glad that those reading the names were family members and loved ones. Because this day isn't about politicians, presidents and mayors and senators and governors shedding tears to show how much they care. It's about those families, those who have known true loss, whose lives have been changed more profoundly and indelibly than a code-yellow terror alert or a long security line at the airport.

It is also about us, though. It's about what we can do for each other, how we can work through our own feelings by helping others through theirs. And it's about how we can take back September 11, unpack it from the convenient carrying case of 9/11 and scrubbing off the layers of ulterior motive and false justification and anger and hatred that have accumulated over time. We have the chance and the authority to take it back and use it as a reason to show compassion, patience, love, and understanding, even when - especially when - the urge to give in to self-pity and self-centrism becomes overwhelming. September 11 was an attack on American soil, yes, but it was an attack on people, people who died and people who were left behind, people who need support and people who have support to offer. And that's what we really must take care to never forget.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

On mistakes, misinterpretations, fictionalizations, and lies

Okay, so I know this is nothing that hasn't been reported before, but it still bugs my rhetorical nuts. ABC will be showing a miniseries the evenings of Septeber 10 and September 11 called The Path to 9/11. ABC is presenting it as "a dramatization of the events detailed in the 9/11 Commission Report and other sources," starting with the first World Trade Center bombing in 1993 and moving up through the 9/11 Commission itself "to understand what went right and wrong, and what can be learned from this crucial eight-year period." Scholastic has even provided a discussion guide (which they have recently pulled) for teachers to use The Path to 9/11 as a teaching tool.

The problem? The movie's a load of crap.

Roger Cressey, a top counterterrorism advisor for both Bush and Clinton, said, "It’s amazing, based on what I’ve seen so far is how much they’ve gotten wrong," both the "small stuff" and the "big stuff," deriding it as "something straight out of Disney and fantasyland. It’s factually wrong." About a scene in which then-president Clinton had an opportunity to take out Osama bin Laden and passed on it, Cressey said,
If you read the 9/11 Commission report, it makes it very clear. In most of those cases, George Tenet, the Director of the CIA, said because there was single source intelligence it was his recommendation to the President not to take the shot. There was never a case where we had a clear shot at Bin Laden and the decision to take it wasn’t made.

Clinton counterterrorism czar Richard Clarke - the man who, if you'll remember, tried to warn Bush about the dangers posed by Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda and was rebuffed - similarly decries the inaccuracies in the movie, particularly the scene mentioned above.

The Path to 9/11 is just groaning under the weight of its bias. Thoman Kean, Republican co-chair of the 9/11 Commission, served as an advisor to the film; Lee Hamilton, the Democratic co-chair, did not. Screenwriter and conservative activist Cyrus Nowrasteh has been roundly praised by Rush Limbaugh and described by him as "a personal friend." Advance copies of the film were sent out to conservative pundits and bloggers, but progressives requesting copies were told that they were just plumb out. Rush Limbaugh and Hugh Hewitt got to see advance copies; Bill Clinton and Madeleine Albright were denied.

Sure, ABC claims that this is a "docudrama." But then it turns around and presents it as a "dramatization" of the event outlined in the 9/11 Commission Report while in direct contradiction of that same report. (and producers told Fox that it was based "solely and completely on the 9/11 Commission Report"). Upon seeing part of the miniseries, Richard Ben-Veniste, a member of the 9/11 Commission, said, "As we were watching, we were trying to think how they could have misinterpreted the 9/11 commission’s finding the way that they had," going on to say, "I like Harvey Keitel."

Now, if some folks want to create a work of fiction that uses imagination and play-pretend to dramatize events, they're welcome to do so. That's what the film industry is all about (look at Pearl Harbor. Or, better yet, don't). But to present those fictionalized accounts as fact, to claim that they're based "solely and completely" on a report that directly contradicts them, to cast aspersions on the lives and careers of people whose only sin was working for a president who got his dick wet in the Oval Office, to lie outright and then provide materials to teach it to high school students, all to promote a political agenda, is wrong. Wrong in the sense of being wrong.

ThinkProgress advises us to tell ABC how we feel about these inaccuracies. I advise you to be polite and concise, but be honest. Because, as I learned from my parents when I was a toddler, honesty is very important. I guess other people didn't learn that.

Note: As always, someone has to come along and say it better than I have. Presdent Clinton's lawyer says it clearly and concisely in a letter to ABC chief Bob Iger.

On real liberation

Okay, so I was going to leave this alone, and darn (whoever) to heck for making me revisit it, but folks need to let other folks make their own choices. I touched on it a bit last week and was totally prepared to leave it at that, but every time I'm out, they pull me back in:
When women opt out [of the workforce], and make what they call in preemptive language a “personal choice,” they’re doing harm to two interests I have. One is they’re doing harm to themselves, and insofar that they are human beings, as a political philosopher, I’m interested in every one of them. Secondly, they’re doing harm to others. Opting out makes women dependent, it hurts other ambitious women, and it doesn’t use their full capacities. I want to have a social conversation about it.

That's Linda Hirshman in L.A. Citybeat, explaining why highly educated women who choose to stay home and raise their children are a personal affront to her. She goes on to say that childrearing can't possibly be the most important job in the world, or else men would be doing it; that women quit their jobs every time "their bosses look at them cross-eyed;" and that changing the way the world works is totally hard, so we shouldn't even try.

Feminism was the cause that introduced the idea of the woman looking out for herself. Since time immemorial, The Woman's Burden has been to put everyone else ahead of herself, the child above the mother, the husband above the wife, the employer above the employee, and that if she's just a good mother/wife/employee, someone else will take care of her. Feminism showed us that it's okay to be our own priorities and take care of ourselves. It showed us how we could become conscious of the world around us, and more than that, influence that world. We didn't have to wait for our husbands and daddies to make our decisions for us and tell us what was best; we could decide that, we could run for office, we could earn our own money and look after our own finances. Yes, we had other things to look after in our lives; wives still had husbands, mothers still had kids, and part of being an adult is balancing things and attending to your responsibilities. But for the first time in, like, ever, we were allowed to have a place of significance at the top of the priority list.

What pisses me off about Linda Hirshman is that she wants to write my priority list for me. Yes, I now have the right to place myself above or alongside my family and my job - but I have to put The Cause above myself. I don't actually get to be Number One, not yet, because feminism has to be Number One. If what I want doesn't mesh with her vision of the ideal society, it does harm to her and to ambitious women and The Cause.

I don't buy it. I refuse to believe that the ultimate goal of feminism has always been to make women the same as men (and put down the Strawfeminist - I'm going somewhere with this). Women, I'll gladly admit, aren't the same as men. I am far, far less hairy than any man I know, and I'm so glad about that. I'm shorter than most of the men I know, and I have more body fat, and I look better in a tank top. Now, the fact that I'm different from men doesn't make me unequal to them; my comparatively hairless person is just as good at writing copy as the man who had my job before me, and my body fat percentage doesn't make me any less able to do math or physics. And to me, that's the ultimate feminism: being what I am and being able to do what I do.

I know it's the Strawfeminist who says that women have to turn into men in order to be equal to them. The Strawfeminist says we all have to wear pants and can't wear makeup or show emotion if we want men to treat us with respect; the real feminists are wearing what they want and doing what they want and expecting men to treat them respectfully anyway. Because that's the point: not that women deserve rights because we're as good as men, or as strong as men, or as smart as men, or as capable as men, although all of those things are true, but that women deserve rights because we're humsn beings. We're human beings, and things like basic dignity and respect need to start from that understanding, not the understanding that men are worthy of dignity and respect and that we're just as worthy.

Hirshman says in her interview, "I’m 62. I’m probably not going to change the fundamental way in which the world has worked since people dropped from the trees in the African savanna. I think we’d better just see if we can find a place for women in that world." And I do admire her pragmatism and her desire to see women address the world as it exists in real life, not as it is in their feminist fantasies. But that's not going to change the world. People in wheelchairs do have to adapt to a world designed for and by people on foot, but if that was enough, the ADA never would have passed. Public buildings have elevators and ramps and wide doorways and Braille signs because disabled people got pissed off enough to say, "This isn't acceptable, we're human beings, and we deserve to interact with the world just as much as everyone else does."

Hirshman is 62. If she feels that she's seen enough and done enough and contributed enough, that's her right. But she's not going to talk me out of my feminist fantasy, which is a world in which women are automatically afforded all of the rights that men have. Men are allowed to make their own medical decisions. Men receive 100 percent of the money other men make for the same job. Men get to wear what they want (within reason). Men can be assertive without being called bitches and be rewarded for showing sensitivity. Men can leave the baby with the wife and work, if they want to, and if they want to stay home and raise the kids instead, they become some kind of stay-at-home secure-in-his-sexuality god. And they can do it all without wondering if they're screwing over other guys in the process.

I won't stop fighting for that. I won't stop fighting against anyone who tells me how to dress - man or woman. I won't stop fighting against anyone who tells me what to do with my body - man or woman. If I want to have a kid and go back to work, screw any man who wants to tell me I'm a bad wife and mother, and if I want to have a kid and stay home and raise it, screw any woman who wants to tell me I'm a bad feminist. Feminism, as I've said before, is about educating women, empowering them to make their own choices, and then sitting back proudly and watching them make them. Telling them what decision to make is not part of the deal; telling women what to do is what anti-feminists do.

Acting blindly to oppose the patriarchy is just as bad as acting blindly to appease them; in both cases, you're letting the dominant group dictate your actions. If you choose to wear pants and combat boots because the patriarchy tells you not to, you're giving up control over your life just as surely as the woman who wears skirts and pearls because that's how girls are supposed to dress. If you go to the office, but you really want to be home with your kids, you're no better off than the woman who's home with her kids but really wishes she were at the office.

Get a college degree and go to work. Or get a college degree and have babies and raise them to be good little feminists. Or do both. Wear a skirt, or wear pants, or wear a skirt over your pants (please don't wear leggings), wear makeup or no makeup or Marilyn Manson makeup. But don't do it because some man told you you're supposed to, and don't do it because Linda Hirshman told you you're supposed to. Decide what you want, examine your motives and your conscience, and then do it - not for the patriarchy, not for The Cause, but because you think it's what you should be doing. It may not be what everyone else thinks. Hell, it may not be what I think. But women will never really be liberated until we truly have the right to make our own decisions for ourselves. Just like any other human being.

On the Thursday grab bag

Okay, so I know I've been away from the blog for quite some time, but I promise that I've been really, really busy. Or asleep. Or, that one night, drunk. Or just doing something else. But here's what I missed while I was gone:

- Remember those super-secret "black site" CIA prisons in Eastern Europe, the disclosure of which was tantamount to treason, that the government never really acknowledged having? Well, it's okay; they're closed now. (Hat tip Glenn Greenwald.)

- Remember our allies in Pakistan who were going to be so instrumental in bringing Osama bin Laden to justice? Well, they've decided that if he's not going to mess with them, they're not going to mess with him. But it's okay; Allahpundit says it's totally part of Bush's top-secret plan for victory.

- Remember Valerie Plame? Well, it turns out she wasn't just working on WMD; she was working on Iraqi WMD - and she didn't find any. Now, if your justification for war in Iraq was completely based around the existence of those WMD she didn't find, that's the person you want to discredit. I mean, I'm just sayin'. (H/T Kevin Drum.)

- Remember TomKat's imaginary baby? Well, she's not imaginary; she totally exists, and Vanity Fair has pictures to prove it: pictures of Tom and Katie's utterly sweet-looking, absolutely and completely adorable Asian baby.