Wednesday, July 02, 2008

Sweet land of liberty

A few things to keep in mind this weekend as America prepares to celebrate its 232nd birthday as a nation . . .

For the second straight month, more Americans died in Afghanistan -- the other war . . . the one we launched in October 2001 to drive the ruling Taliban from that country and replace it with a democratic government friendly to the United States -- than in Iraq, the nation we invaded in March 2003 to unearth and destroy their stockpile of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons and replace it with a democratic government friendly to the United States. As in Iraq, Americans and soldiers from the countries still with a troop presence in Afghanistan are being killed by insurgents using tactics outside the formal rules of warfare -- improvised explosive devices, vehicle bombs, suicide bombs and ad hoc attacks that offer no pattern or predictability. Almost seven years after the United States led an invasion with near world-wide support, the situation in Afghanistan is only marginally better than it was on September 10th, 2001, the day before the nineteen Taliban-protected al-Qaeda terrorists hijacked four commercial airliners and sent them into civilian targets in New York, Washington and the Pennsylvania countryside.

The Iraq disaster speaks for itself. Having accomplished absolutely nothing by invading a Third World nation that had been isolated and contained by the world's most powerful countries, supporters of the Iraq war cling to the "success" of "the Surge," which has managed to restore violence in Iraq to 2004 levels, which was then deemed "unacceptable" by the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, John McCain.

Not much to get excited about.

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The New York Times reports this morning that military trainers dispatched to Guantanamo Bay in December 2002 to begin the formal process of "enhanced interrogation" techniques -- in other words, torture -- on suspected terrorists taken from Afghanistan and, later, Iraq were literally taking a page from the methods used by Communist China during the Korean War to obtain confessions from American prisoners, confessions that were, as it turns out, almost always false. In 1957, an Air Force sociologist did a study on the experience of American soldiers in Chinese prison camps and concluded that the techniques used by their captors were "torture."

And yet . . . and yet . . . those were the same techniques adopted by the United States military and the Central Intelligence Agency to elicit "intelligence" from captives at Guantanamo and elsewhere. On just how many occasions has President Bush and his apparachiks said that the United States does not engage in torture? Too many to count?

So here is today's SAT question: If the President of the United States claims that our nation does not engage in torture, but its military and intelligence services use interrogation methods taken verbatim from a former enemy that the American military has described as torture, how has the United States not engaged in torture of the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, Abu Ghraib and the other "black box" facilities that are not made public but certainly exist?

That was a hard question to write. I can't imagine answering it.

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Before anyone gets too excited about the Supreme Court's opinion in Boumediene v. Bush, the 5-4 decision announced two weeks ago holding that the United States government cannot suspend the right of habeas corpus for prisoners being held at Guantanamo Bay, remember that the right to challenge an unlawful detention is perhaps the oldest human right in post-Enlightenment Western societies. So fundamental was the right to habeas corpus that it was guaranteed in the original Constitution . . . yep, right there in Article I, Section 9. No need to gloss over that one and then make it up in the Bill of Rights.

That four justices on the United States Supreme Court rejected this ancient right is absolutely stunning. Over the weekend, a relative I hadn't seen in a while insisted that I "must be happy about this one." I thought about it a minute, then responded like Daisy Bates did when a reporter said to her after the Little Rock Nine were admitted into Central High School in Little Rock Arkansas in 1958 after months of political gamesmanship between Governor Orval Faubus, President Eisenhower and the Supreme Court that she "must be thrilled with the outcome." Daisy responded that anytime it took 1200 American soldiers to escort nine black children into a high school and protect them she couldn't be happy. Relieved, yes. Happy, no.

And so it is now. Habeas corpus, access to legal abortion, freedom from state-sponsored religion, restrictions on an omnipotent executive branch, fair and equitable voting rights (despite a terrible decision this term on mandatory I.D.s to register to vote, environmental protections and the right of Congress to promote the general welfare through the Commerce Clause all hang by a delicate balance of one vote.

You're right, Daisy. Relieved, yes. Happy, no.

* * * * * * * * * *

Gilbert Arenas, better known as Agent Zero to his ever-dwindling fan base in Washington, D.C., has just signed a six-year, $111 million dollar contract. Rumors that he had received offers from other teams as high as $127 for the same number of years were apparently true. But Zero wants to stay a Washington Wizard, help his team by freeing up money to sign other good players and, one presumes, play in more than the 16 games he managed to get in last season. Good natured, unselfish guy that he is, Zero said this about his contract: "What can I do for my family with $127 million that I can't do with $111 million?"

Good question, Zero. But I have no fucking clue, as I've never had to negotiate a $16 million difference in any contract I've ever wanted versus one that I was offered. I can't even imagine what that would be like . . .

University president: "Professor Ivers, we're willing to offer you $127 million over the next six years. Can we get this deal done?"

Me: "I have a better idea. Let's settle for $111. Take the extra $16 million and go beef up our sociology department. And while you're at it, buy some chalk for the classrooms and subsidize every student's meal plan so that their average daily costs to eat on campus does not exceed $15.

University president: "Can we name a building after you?"

Me: "No, but you can buy me my own vacuum so I can clean my office more than once a year."

University president: "Done. What an unselfish man you are!"

Ha! Short, still somewhat thin and non-descript, yes. Unselfish? Not on your life.

Sacrifices like these can do nothing but inspire a nation in a time of war. Granted, most Americans don't know what wars our nation has committed to fight, much less anyone who is risking their lives for goals that remain undefined and missions that have been unsuccessful. Perhaps they'll read an article or two about what's going on the world and get angry enough to demand an end to this nonsense.

That is, if they make it past the coupons in Friday's newspapers encouraging us to spend more money on more stuff at the craziest, blowout prices ever.

Meanwhile, we'll always have selfless citizens like Gilbert Arenas to light the way for the rest of us.

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