Tuesday, June 6, 2006

Overdoing the Outrage

Andrew Sullivan is beside himself:

The United States is a rogue nation that practices torture and detainee abuse and does not follow the most basic principles of the Geneva Conventions. It is inviolation of human rights agreements and the U.N. Convention against torture. It is legitimizing torture by every disgusting regime on the planet. This is a policy mandated by the president and his closest advisers. This is the signal being sent from the commander-in-chief to his troops: your enemy can be treated beyond the boundaries of what the U.S. has always abided by. When you next read of an atrocity of war-crime or victim of torture by the U.S., just keep in mind who made this possible.

What has precipitated this outpouring of outrage? The administration has come to the common sense conclusion that part 1c of article 3 of the Geneva Conventions was too vague and restrictive. Specifically, it forbids "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular, humiliating and degrading treatment."

The administration has wisely decided to omit this provision from the military field manual because it leaves "humiliating and degrading treatment" undefined. It in effect prohibits everything from yelling at a detainee to questioning his courage to calling him names.

The L.A. Times article which triggered Sullivan's spasm of indignation says this:

Another defense official said that Article 3 prohibitions against "outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment" could be interpreted as banning well-honed interrogation techniques.

Many intelligence soldiers consider questioning the manhood of male prisoners to be an effective and humane technique. Suggesting to a suspected insurgent that he is "not man enough" to have set an improvised explosive device sometimes elicits a full description of how they emplaced the bomb, soldiers say.

The Pentagon worries that if Article 3 were incorporated in the directive, detainees could use it to argue in U.S. courts that such techniques violate their personal dignity.

"Who is to say what is humiliating for Sheikh Abdullah or Sheikh Muhammad?" the second official asked. "If you punch the buttons of a Muslim male, are you at odds with the Geneva Convention?"

Military officials also worry that following Article 3 could force them to end the practice of segregating prisoners. The military says that there is nothing inhumane about putting detainees in solitary confinement, and that it allows inmates to be questioned without coordinating their stories with others.

Human rights groups have their doubts, saying that isolating people for months at a time leads to mental breakdowns.

"Sometimes these things sound benign, but there is a reason they have been prohibited," said Jumana Musa, an advocacy director for Amnesty International. "When you talk about putting people in isolation for eight months, 14 months, it leads to mental degradation."

[Professor]Jinks, of the University of Texas, contends that Article 3 does not prohibit some of the things the military says it wants to do. "If the practice is humane, there is nothing to worry about," he said.

But how does Professor Jinks define humane? If isolating prisoners is inhumane, what isn't? Serving them institutional food? Denying them access to al-Jazeera? Certainly it could be argued that imprisoning a detainee in the first place is degrading and inhumane and there are no doubt a legion of lawyers out there waiting for the opportunity to make that argument in court.

The administration did the right thing to reject this provision, and Andrew Sullivan's reaction is just silly hyperventilating.

The Long View

Great stuff from Michael Barone:

Two weeks ago, I pointed out that we live in something close to the best of times, with record worldwide economic growth and at a low point in armed conflict in the world. Yet Americans are in a sour mood, a mood that may be explained by the lack of a sense of history. The military struggle in Iraq (nearly 2,500 military deaths) is spoken of in as dire terms as Vietnam (58,219), Korea (54,246) or World War II (405,399). We bemoan the cruel injustice of $3 a gallon for gas in a country where three-quarters of people classified as poor have air conditioning and microwave ovens. We complain about a tide of immigration that is, per U.S. resident, running at one-third the rate of 99 years ago.

George W. Bush has a better sense of history. Speaking last week at the commencement at West Point -- above the Hudson River, where revolutionary Americans threw a chain across the water to block British ships -- Bush noted that he was speaking to the first class to enter the U.S. Military Academy after the Sept. 11 attacks. And he put the challenge these cadets willingly undertook in perspective by looking back at the challenges America faced at the start of the Cold War 60 years ago.

"In the early years of that struggle," Bush noted, "freedom's victory was not obvious or assured." In 1946, Harry Truman accompanied Winston Churchill as he delivered his Iron Curtain speech; in 1947, communists threatened Greece and Turkey; in 1948, Czechoslovakia fell, France and Italy seemed headed the same way, and Berlin was blockaded by the Soviets, who exploded a nuclear weapon the next year; in 1950, North Korea attacked South Korea. "All of this took place in just the first five years following World War II," Bush noted. "Fortunately, we had a president named Harry Truman, who recognized the threat, took bold action to confront it and laid the foundation for freedom's victory in the Cold War."

Bold action: the Truman Doctrine and the Marshall Plan in 1947, the Berlin airlift in 1948, the NATO Treaty in 1949, the Korean War in 1950. None of these was uncontroversial, and none was perfectly executed. And this was only the beginning. It took 40 years -- many of them filled with angry controversy -- to win the Cold War.

The struggles against Soviet communism and Islamofascist terrorists are of course not identical. But there are similarities.

"Like the Cold War, we are fighting the followers of a murderous ideology that despises freedom, crushes all dissent, has territorial ambitions and pursues totalitarian aims," Bush said. "And like the Cold War, they're seeking weapons of mass murder that would allow them to deliver catastrophic destruction to our country."

The New Republic's Peter Beinart argues that Bush, unlike Truman, has shown no respect for international institutions. But the Truman Doctrine and Marshall Plan were unilateral American initiatives, and Truman used the United Nations to respond in Korea only because the Soviets were then boycotting the Security Council. Otherwise, he would have gone to war, as Bill Clinton did in Kosovo, without U.N. approval. Bush did try to use the United Nations on Iraq, but was blocked by France and Russia, both stuffed with profits from the corrupt U.N. Oil for Food program.

But as Bush pointed out, we have worked with 90-plus nations and NATO in Afghanistan and with 70-plus nations on the Proliferation Security Initiative. We're working with allies to halt Iran's nuclear program.

"We can't have lasting peace unless we work actively and vigorously to bring about conditions of freedom and justice in the world," Harry Truman told the West Point class of 1952. Which is what we're trying to do today -- in Iraq and the broader Middle East, in Afghanistan, even Africa.

Reports of Bush's West Point speech noted that Truman had low job ratings -- lower than Bush's, in fact. But does that matter now? Bush, as Yale historian John Lewis Gaddis has written, has changed American foreign policy more than any president since Truman, and like Truman he has acted on the long view.

"The war began on my watch," Bush told the class of 2006, "but it's going to end on your watch." Truman might have made the same point, accurately as it turned out, to the class of 1952. We're lucky we had then, and have now, a president who takes bold action and braves vitriolic criticism to defend our civilization against those who would destroy it.

One big difference between Truman's era and the present one is that people back then, having been taught self-discipline and self-denial and the benefits of deferred gratification by the severities of the depression and subsequent wars, generally accepted the long view. Today, Bush has to convince three generations of self-indulgent instant gratification-seekers weaned on television stories in which difficulties are resolved in the span of an hour or at most a viewing season, to stay the course.

The long view is not a particularly congenial concept to many Americans, but it is to our enemies for whom the grievances leading to the present conflict have their roots in the crusades which began over 900 years ago. Their patience in this struggle is not in question, but ours sure is.

Criminals and Idiots

John Kerry met recently with a number of liberal bloggers some of whom reported on the discussion:

At the urging of Pamela Leavey of The Democratic Daily blog, Sen. John Kerry sat down and charmed more than a half-dozen liberal bloggers after his speech Thursday to the Pacific Council on International Policy in Century City. Kerry asked that the conversation be off the record, but some of the invited bloggers posted his remarks anyway. Hollywood Liberal writes that Kerry "agreed completely with someone's assessment that everything that Bush does is solely for the purpose of looting the country. He basically said that Bush and his cohorts are criminals" and that "at some other point he referred to Supreme Court Justices Alito, Scalia, and Roberts as 'Idiots.'"

This is classic. John Kerry - graceless, pompous and arrogant as ever - calling Bush a criminal and three of the brightest minds in our judicial system idiots. Tell us, Senator, what was your undergraduate GPA? A 76%, you say? Wow, that's impressive. I wonder what those cretins sitting on the Supreme Court earned. Certainly they didn't score that high. I mean a 76% is a C average. That's awesome.

What, Us Baffled?

The Washington Post has an interesting article about origin of life researcher Robert Hazin. Among other things, the writer of the article says:

There is a tendency to think of science as a series of established facts and consensual theories -- "a bunch of things we know, to be memorized," in the words of Robert Hazen, the science popularizer and researcher into the origin of life.

What Hazen will tell you is that science is actually a very human enterprise. It's full of unknowns and uncertainties, of raging controversies, of passions and prejudices. Of all the great unknowns, the origin of life is particularly daunting. Direct evidence of the origin is essentially nonexistent: It happened too long ago, in too subtle a way. There's no fossil of the First Microbe. If there were, some skeptical scientist would surely raise a ruckus, saying: That's just a blob of mud.

The field has attracted people with strong personalities. They argue. They grumble. They snipe. Their debates are much more intense, and more grounded in the rules of science, than the much-hyped debate about evolution and intelligent design.

They are wrestling with basic questions: What is life, exactly? Does it always require liquid water and those long Tinkertoy carbon molecules? Does life require a cell? Did life begin with a hereditary molecule or with some kind of metabolic chemical reaction? Where did life begin on Earth? Was there a single moment that could be described as the "origin of life," or did life sort of creep into existence gradually?

All that is very much in play. In the words of George Cody, an origin-of-life researcher, "No one knows anything about the origin of life...."

Now you can see how all this might get a bit delicate given the current debate about intelligent design. Hazen knows that by exposing the backstage bickering on the origin of life, he may give ammunition to the critics of the scientific community: "Anything I say that shows any uncertainty or doubt, they will use as evidence that scientists are baffled."

No wonder. The article sure makes them sound baffled.

He believes that the universe is hard-wired for the emergence of life. "Emergence" is his buzzword, much more than "evolution." What he sees is inevitable progress from the simplest elements to more complex chemistry, then to life, then to consciousness, and finally to creatures who can comprehend the cosmos. "And if that isn't meaning and purpose, I don't know what is."

This all raises a number of questions. For one, how did the universe get "hard-wired for life"? And if it is, what is it about the universe that makes Hazen think that it is? If the universe shows evidence of being the sort of place that is finely-tuned for the emergence of life, if the laws and field strengths, etc. of physics are such that conscious life is inevitable, then what is the difference between what Hazen believes and what the intelligent design people are saying? Does Hazen believe that cosmic fine-tuning is just a coincidence? If so, then why would he think the universe has "meaning and purpose"? If he thinks that the universe is deliberately "front-loaded" to give rise to conscious life then he's deluding himself if he thinks he's somehow staking out a position contrary to intelligent design.

One of the peculiarities of the intelligent design controversy is that many of the scientists and philosophers who try to distance themselves from ID adopt views the logic of which leads them right back to it.

Thanks to Telic Thoughts for the tip.