Priorities and Practicality


Detail of 'Relativity' by M.C. Escher, 1953.

Paula M. Fitzgibbons explains:

It’s possible my daughter’s condition is unavoidable—that she was born with a fear of death imprinted on her genes. There is plenty of precedent in my family, with an unbroken line of anxiety-ridden women stretching back to my great-great grandmother, who made a harrowing journey from Ireland to the United States. Researchers do believe there’s a genetic component to anxiety, but for a time, I believed my daughter was additionally cursed by epigenetics, or the idea that our experiences can write themselves into our children’s DNA. I’ve since abandoned the idea—the science of epigenetics is still sketchy, and I don’t have the time or mental energy to devote to an unproven concept when our problem is more immediate. My daughter’s anxiety is interrupting her daily life and nightly sleep.”

It seems almost petty to point out, but given the stakes I think it very important to acknowledge we witness, in this passage, the temptation of pseudoscience, and the practical gravity drawing one away from such shiny and dangerous notions. While the epigenetics of fear are, indeed, mind-boggling, the point is that virtually nothing about the concept is sound, yet. Or, as Lisa Simpson once said, “You don’t control the birds. You will, someday, but not now.” That mice verge on the Lamarckian when conditioned in a context of mortal fear and the torture to inspire it is a far cry from what’s going on with human beings; and while it’s true I haven’t followed this question so closely over the last few years, it’s also one of those subjects we would have heard something about if someone achieved any sort of definitive answer about anything. There are myriad reasons to be tempted by epigenetics in these aspects, but behavioral epigenetics does not at this time a sound science make.

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Fitzgibbons, Paula M. “Watching My Daughter Develop the Same Anxiety I Struggle With”. The Cut. 12 September 2017.

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The ticking time bomb


Andrew Sullivan pauses to consider a recent column in the Washington Post addressing the torture question:

Cohen is right that this should not be a partisan matter, as Cheney has so shrewdly made it, turning the Republicans into the party of torture, and prepping to blame Obama for the next terror attack, which is inevitable. But he is wrong that torture is complicated. It isn’t. It was never complicated before Bush and Cheney instituted it. It was once an exceptional, once-in-a-lifetime, ticking bomb extra-legal necessity. Now it is legitimate according to Charles Krauthammer, the chief intellectual architect of the torture regime, if it saves merely one life.

I don’t take issue with Sullivan, per se, but thought it important to remind that there is no ticking bomb scenario. Or, as James Oliphant, of the Chicago Tribune blogged in May, 2008, of a House Judiciary hearing:

After the hearing, Conyers noted that no witness was able to describe a “ticking time bomb” scenario which would make extreme interrogation necessary.

Radio silence was the response when today’s witnesses were asked to identify a single example of a true ‘ticking bomb’ scenario ever occurring, even though such scenarios are often invoked to justify torture,” Conyers said. “These scholars, who have studied this issue extensively and have intimate knowledge of the legal authority the administration sought, could not identify a single example. I hope that the administration officials who have agreed to testify will shed some light on this and many other questions raised in today’s hearing.”

(It is worth noting that in the browser tab and title, the article is called “Torture’s Ugly Dialogue”, but the headline assigned the story is “Torture’s Unanswerable Questions”. Not sure what the difference actually means, but it sticks out pretty obviously.)

Calling BS on BS


Glenn Greenwald has a few things to say about the euphemization of torture:

In today’s New York Times, William Glaberson describes a proposal being circulated by the Obama administration to enable Guantanamo detainees to be put to death upon a mere guilty plea, i.e., without the need for a full-blown trial. The article describes the purpose of the proposal this way:

    The proposal would ease what has come to be recognized as the government’s difficult task of prosecuting men who have confessed to terrorism but whose cases present challenges. Much of the evidence against the men accused in the Sept. 11 case, as well as against other detainees, is believed to have come from confessions they gave during intense interrogations at secret C.I.A. prisons. In any proceeding, the reliability of those statements would be challenged, making trials difficult and drawing new political pressure over detainee treatment.

The primary reason to avoid trials upon a guilty plea is to prevent public disclosure of the details of the torture we inflicted on these detainees. Despite that, the word “torture” never once appears in this NYT article. Instead, according to the NYT, detainees in CIA black sites were merely subjected to “intense interrogations.” That’s all? Who opposes “intense interrogations”?

Over the years, we’ve heard a cyclical crescendo rising from the constant murmur about the “liberal media”, implying and sometimes explicitly accusing a conspiracy among journalists to wreck the Republican Party and the right wing of American politics.

Yet over and over, in an effort to be “neutral”, major media outlets, including newspapers of record, have given over not to political correctness, but what is described as “Bureaucratically Suitable” language. BS language is much like its cousin, PC, except that it is tailored to institutional and legalistic desires.

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An open letter to Mr. Tim Rutten


Mr. Rutten:

Your June 18, 2008 opinion column, published by the Los Angeles Times, is untenable. Your attempt to reduce Bush administration collusion to license the torture of terrorism suspects to mere politics is a disservice to the people of the United States of America, and an insult to our neighbors around the world.

While indeed these are difficult times marked by sharp political disagreements, the pretense that bad-faith legal advice customized to warrant blatant disregard for the law, the United States Constitution, and the international agreements to which our nation has signed its commitment and prestige is mere political maneuvering does not simply verge on the outrageous, but rather punches through that border and demands a wholesale transcension of the very concept of rule of law.
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Online campaign thanks Helen Thomas for effort last month


Okay, this is too cool to pass up. And it’s important, too. I suppose we should start with the important, which is a fantastic, even spectacular—by Beltway standards—exchange between venerable Hearst columnist Helen Thomas and White House Press Secretary Dana Perino regarding the ongoing saga of waterboarding and the torture question.

After a period of near disinterest by the White House press corps in the wake of an April 9 report by ABC news that put decisions regarding “enhanced interrogation techniques” much closer to the White House than officials had previously acknowledged, Thomas raised the issue during Perino’s regular press briefing on April 23:

Q The President has said publicly several times, in two consecutive news conferences a few months ago, and you have said over and over again, we do not torture. Now he has admitted that he did sign off on torture, he did know about it. So how do you reconcile this credibility gap?

MS. PERINO: Helen, you’re taking liberties with the what the President said. The United States has not, is not torturing any detainees in the global war on terror. And General Hayden, amongst others, have spoken on Capitol Hill fully in this regard, and it is — I’ll leave it where it is. The President is accurate in saying what he said.

Q That’s not my question. My question is, why did he state publicly, we do not torture —

MS. PERINO: Because we do not.

Q — when he really did know that we do?

MS. PERINO: No, that’s what I mean, Helen. We’ve talked about the legal authorities —

Q Are you saying that we did not?

MS. PERINO: I am saying we did not, yes.

Q How can you when you have photographs and everything else? I mean, how can you say that when he admits that he knew about it?

MS. PERINO: Helen, I think that you’re — again, I think you’re conflating some issues and you’re misconstruing what the President said.

Q I’m asking for the credibility of this country, not just this administration.

MS. PERINO: And what I’m telling you is we have — torture has not occurred. And you can go back through all the public record. Just make sure — I would just respectfully ask you not to misconstrue what the President said.

Q You’re denying, in this room, that we torture and we have tortured?

MS. PERINO: Yes, I am denying that.

Thomas, disgusted by the answer and the press corps’ complicity, rebuked her fellows: “Where is everybody? For God’s sake.”

Micah Fitch)Okay, yeah. Important and cool. But it gets even better. As word of the exchange—and the accompaniment C-SPAN footage—made its way around the web, an outpouring of gratitude made its way to Thomas. Musician and graphic designer Micah Fitch organized an online campaign to send flowers to thank her for her efforts. According to Amy Argetsinger and Roxanne Roberts of the Washington Post, at least fifty bouquets had arrived at Thomas’ office so far, and more than five hundred people contributed $4,300 to the tribute. Thomas intends to share the flowers with friends and hospitals.

As long as we’re thinking about words like “stupid” and “law”


(Note: It has taken, quite literally, years for me to figure out a certain point about the Alabama story, and I now realize I completely blew the point. Oh, well, that’s one less to carry around with me, but still, I’m left in need of a new anecdotal comparison. It’s a safe bet that whatever that is won’t be as spectacular as accusing a bigot of corruption. I suppose I owe Judge Pryor an apology for the corruption accusation. To the other, there’s still no justification for putting a bigot on the bench. It is, after all, worrisome when civil liberties and human rights are left to the aesthetics of a man who cares so little about the role of consent in sexual intercourse.)

Apparently some stupid laws need to be made because, well, people do stupid things. During the fracas surrounding the ascension of William H. Pryor to the 11th Circuit bench, I came across an amicus brief he signed his name to in the landmark Lawrence v. Texas case before the supreme court. Pryor, who was Alabama’s Attorney General, signed onto an amicus brief arguing in favor of anti-sodomy laws. Part of that brief argued the usual line that allowing gay men to have sex without fear of the law “must logically extend to activities like prostitution, adultery, necrophilia, possession of child pornography, and even incest and pedophilia“. The problem, of course, is that among the laws left to Attorney General Pryor to enforce was section 30-1-3 of the Code of Alabama, which states that, “The issue of any incestuous marriage, before the same is annulled, shall not be deemed illegitimate“.

Rather than dwelling on a federal judge who filed a false brief with the United States Supreme Court, though …. Well, actually, that is a fine thing to dwell on, but I’m not sure it means much these days. But what happened is that, after I finished scouring Alabama’s laws to see what other strangeness might be on the books, I hopped over to view similar laws in the state of Washington. I was unsettled at first to see that our laws about incest were actually more permissive. The people you can sleep with are a degree closer than they are in Alabama, I think, and the statute of limitations was only a year. That may have changed, of course, but I never did go back and look it up after the bit with the horse.

Because it was, for a few minutes, jaw-dropping when, after a man died while having sex with a horse, we discovered that up here in the evergreen state we apparently had no law against it. In fact, the most prominent charge I can recall was against the man who filmed the act. And that charge was trespassing.

And so it was that I was chuckling with some friends about the situation when someone pointed out the obvious. When I pointed out that Alabama had tighter laws about incest and bestiality, it was in fact my brother who pointed out, “They need them.”

It seems a satisfying argument. I can sleep at night. Okay, it’s not like I was losing sleep over what happened in Enumclaw.

But we have come to the relevant point: Certain laws are made only when it becomes necessary to make them.

We find ourselves, however, in an age where nitwits increasingly pick nits. I mean, one would think that driving a car while blindfolded would be at least somewhat reckless. But in Alabama, apparently, they needed to make a special law about it. And in Ohio, something compelled a law against getting a fish drunk.

I mean, there must be something more to those stories. Say the words. Just try: “There is a law in Ohio that makes it illegal to get a fish drunk.”

What is the back-story? What is the gray area? What lawyer made the point that there was no explicit law against it? Did someone say, “Well, dude, you know. It’s not actually cruel“?

Which brings me to my point. NPR’s Nina Totenberg reports:

All of the Democrats and most of the Republicans who spoke agreed that waterboarding is illegal under both U.S. and international law. Feinstein said she was troubled by Mukasey’s refusal to agree with that.

“But I don’t believe that Judge Mukasey should be denied confirmation for failing to provide an absolute answer on this one subject,” Feinstein said.

And Feinstein relied, too, on assurances Mukasey had given to Schumer:

“He has personally made clear to me that if Congress passes a bill banning torture, he will enforce it,” Schumer said.

That prompted this response from Sen. Ben Cardin (D-MD):

Does that mean we have to outlaw the rack?” Cardin asked. “I’m even more troubled.

And Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-MA) asked why, in essence, the Senate should trust Mukasey’s assurance about enforcing a new law when laws on the books already prohibit waterboarding.

“We are supposed to find comfort in the representation by a nominee to the highest law-enforcement office in the country that he will, in fact, enforce the laws that we pass in the future? Can our standards really have sunk so low?” Kennedy asked.

It’s a fair question.

GOP front-runner?


Georgetown University’s Chris Cimaglio offers one of the better summaries of the challenges facing the GOP presidential candidates. A highlight:

Despite his record as a cross-dressing, pro-choice, pro-gay rights, pro-gun control mayor of New York City, Rudy Giuliani wants you to know that he’s really a staunch conservative. He misses no opportunity to assert that he cut taxes 23 times as mayor of New York and exploit his reputation for leadership on 9/11 by reminding voters that he’s for torturing terrorists, terror suspects, anybody who looks like a terrorist, and the guy who looked at him funny on the street. Giuliani has apparently detained truth indefinitely as well. He is so shameless in his desire for the presidency that he has thrown his moderate credentials out the window in favor of ultra-conservative bluster. While his dramatic ideological change might not bother some conservative voters, Rudy will have more trouble covering up the fact that he married a woman he thought was his third cousin and was then stunned to discover that she was, in fact, his second cousin. He then proceeded to cheat on his second wife and move his girlfriend and future third wife into his house before his second wife moved out. As a result, Rudy’s children don’t speak to him and his daughter supports Barack Obama. Party of family values, indeed.

Mind you, none of this makes him, fundamentally, a bad guy. Not knowing who he was marrying? Some would say that is every guy. And it is, except it means something different in that context. Exploiting a terrorist attack for political gain? Is exploitation not the American way? Certes, except Hizzoner is now asking to be president, and if the last fifteen years of GOP attack dogs accusing character issues of damn near every Democrat they could find have not explained the expectations to Rudy, what good could that do him?

And, like, the cross-dressing thing. That should not be much of an issue, except for the fact that, as with his history on abortion, gay rights, and gun control, Hizzoner is supposed to be a Republican. The GOP has spent so much bluster trying to push homosexuals back into the closet that, yeah, the cross-dressing thing could be problematic. And, besides, who really wants to think of Rudy Giuliani in lingerie? The only thing I can think of that would be more disturbing is, well, yeah. Marv Albert. In … er … lingerie.

Damn.

Sorry.