Monday, 15 December 2014

Torture 2 - Did it "work"?

An unedifying debate that emerged after the 9/11 attack is summarized as the “ticking time-bomb” scenario. This fantasy thought experiment was and continues to be very popular as an opportunity to turn the question of whether or not we should torture people into a philosophical game.

The game should never have been played. The game should not be played now. The game itself is the trick. Do not play the game.

In the HIV prevention and care service industry that I had a seminal role in creating in a faraway corner of the world, we quickly became familiar with a phenomenon known as the “worried well”. This is a patient or pre-patient type known to all medical professionals: the obsessive individual who reads about a disease and is seized with irrational fear of having it or someday acquiring it. While questions about casual contagion are often common among people who have never heard the facts about HIV (or any other disease, for that matter), the vast majority accepts the science and move on. Even if they feel slightly squeamish about things they know are not dangerous, they recognize that their reaction makes no sense, that it is their own problem and that they have to deal with it themselves.

The OCD caller or visitor, however, does not let go of his (rarely her) fear. He wants to know the exact percentage of possibility that a given sex act or contact with a bodily fluid will produce the 1 in a million transmission that he heard of somewhere. He endlessly repeats real or imagined scenarios in which some weird combination of fluke events might have given him the infection or might do so in the future. I’ve counseled clients who brought along a sheaf of exams that they had insisted on getting from doctors or labs, none of which convinced them that the virus (that they could not possibly have acquired in any case) was not in their blood.

The only way to handle these suffering neurotics was to refuse to discuss HIV risk with them further. We referred them to psychiatric care, and if they refused to take the hint, we showed them the door since we could do nothing more for them.

The ticking time-bomb debate functioned in exactly the same way for those deeply in the grip of their fears of the unknown, given the huge surprise and sudden sense of vulnerability that the Twin Towers attack generated among the American public. Maybe if we could just find the guys planning to carry out the next assault and torture the facts out of them in time, we would keep ourselves safe from something like this happening to our own families. The fact that they are more likely to be hit by lightning or be gored to death by an escaped musk ox means nothing.

The unlikeliness of the hypothetical situations proposed was irrelevant to the role of the time-bomb scene (since played out in innumerable TV suspense shows) to soothe the minds of the fearful and reinforce their sense that law enforcement would Keep Them Safe. Like the obsessive neurasthenic, viewing the Jack Bauers torture the facts out of a series of nasty Mohammeds or Igors confirmed to frightened middle America that keeping that torture option open was not just understandable but essential. Many police and spy agency shows (e.g., NCIS) now routinely threaten or imply that torture will be used to get the facts out of recalcitrant subjects, who promptly confess. Torture is thus routinized.

I was sad to see in the post 9/11 period how the time-bomb debate elbowed its way even into the pages of The Nation and other quasi-liberaloid or ‘centrist’ venues. Instead of a firm, uncompromising NO to all torture under all circumstances, The Nation’s readers lent themselves to the smokescreen thrown up by the Cheney brigade that led directly to the all-out torture regime that some of us are now regretting. How easy it was to see that this was where the phony ethics-class thumbsucking was going to lead. Nonetheless, people who should have known better indulged in it.

Let’s stop indulging in it now. Law & Order is a much better guide to how a system of laws, deeply flawed though it be, should work: everyone gets a fair shot at justice, suspects have lawyers, cops do not slug people (of course, sure, it’s fiction, not a reality show). That means sometimes criminals GET AWAY WITH IT! Imagine that—a commitment to justice that recognizes we cannot be peectly safe all the time and that prohibiting torture in fact gives us a better shot at lowering crimes rates than the neonazi free-for-all that the NYPD union prefers.

Update: Rebecca Gordon at TomDispatch sums it up nicely:

But none of this matters. Nor does it matter how frightened we are. The situation isn’t complicated. We are not allowed to torture people, because we have passed laws against it and signed treaties saying we won’t do it. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994, makes it very clear that being afraid of an attack is no excuse for torture. In Article 2, the Convention states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” People will always make excuses, but there is no legitimate excuse for torture.

What’s at stake here is the kind of country we want to be: Are we a courageous nation ruled by laws or a nation of cowards?

Wednesday, 10 December 2014

Torture 1

I support the CIA and anyway they can get information out of people who want to kill you. They want you dead ... they want your mom ... daughters and sons dead just because you believe in Western values. I’m not going to apologize for it. The CIA's job is to keep us safe. You act like these were innocent bystanders. That’s what makes it comical.
-taken from a comment thread on Facebook yesterday

Extreme events bring out discomfiting truths. The Michael Brown/Eric Garner cases have depantsed many closet racists in our midsts—my Facebook thread was peppered with stories last week of people de-friending others in shock after seeing their racist comments.

Today, we have the fascists coming out of their cozy closet in response to the CIA torture report. It’s quite startling for people who think their neighbors and friends and relatives are basically decent folks to realize that many of them think torture is basically just fine, just as long as it is applied to those perceived as scary or threatening and the squalid details kept out of sight.

That’s exactly what fascism does, and a depressing percentage of the biped species enjoys the outcome immensely—until, of course, they happen to get caught up in the violent net themselves.

When that happens, howls of outrage pierce the sky. But they do not include condemnations of the techniques or the torture system; rather, the sudden fury of torture’s erstwhile defenders is directed at the appalling notion that THEY should be mistaken for a bad guy. The cycle is so predictable that it’s actually rather boring.

I saw the pattern repeated dozens of time during my time in Chile where torture and disappearance were so common during the early Pinochet years that something close to 10 percent of the entire adult population suffered some form of it at one time or another. But try telling that to a middle-class sympathizer of the military regime, including many lovely persons who would rush to your bedside if you were ill to bring you cazuela. Tut, tut, all lies peddled by Radio Moscow, they would say, OUR soldiers would never do that. Until one of their Christian Democrat friends gets beaten half to death in a police stationhouse, and suddenly all bets are off.

Denial is one of the more pathetic feature of the biped mentality. We have an uncanny capacity to block uncomfortable realities from our consciousness, and this trait is no fault of Americans in particular or more pronounced among a given ethnicity or nation. We’d do better to recognize that personal comfort and pleasure are far more compelling than moral coherence for a sizeable portion of the populace and plan accordingly.

Yes, there are fascists in our midst, always have been and always will be. When we give the state carte blanche to act with impunity and cover up the results, it always can count on willing backers who belong to the non-targeted population to cheer and rationalize. Surprise, dismay and disgust are understandable but in the end a waste of energy that should be directed to more productive ends.

Wednesday, 3 December 2014

The NYPD has a problem

I’m just back from a couple of hours of what I hope will be repeated marches through the streets in protest of the incomprehensible decision to let off the Staten Island killer cop, caught on videotape choking an unresisting detainee to death. There are several reasons why this should be making the department and the city’s powerbrokers, the ones happy with things just as they are, very nervous. [photo: sit-down protest blocks Columbus Circle, Manhattan]

One: as occurred in Ferguson, the NYPD and the prosecutorial system that protects it have been exposed as profoundly, institutionally racist. This is not news to the people on the receiving end of their abuses, i.e. black males. But it has been too easy for the average white citizen to disbelieve or minimize what is going on on our streets. Such voluntary ignorance is becoming increasingly untenable.

The racist practices within the department are possible because the perpetrators—perhaps a minority of the overall force—act with the full knowledge that their abuses will rarely be discovered and even more infrequently punished. But the impunity also requires deniability; that is now gravely weakened. After today, who will automatically believe cops when they deny they beat up someone, claim an arrestee became violent, or cook up charges against someone who files a complaint?

Two: not surprisingly, there were many young black men and women in the demonstrations tonight. However, a clear majority were white 20/30-somethings. This is not a demographic that you want to permanently alienate, as one Lyndon B. Johnson discovered to his dismay. And these kids are fired up. There are Occupy veterans among the mix, but the sheer numbers tell us that there is a deep malaise among a broad sector of our city’s youth, including many people we would not consider overtly ‘political’ in their habits or outlook. I’m not sure it means the seeds of a new social movement are sprouting. But it might.

Three: the average New Yorker who is not a hopeless, racist asshole is appalled at what happened in this case. I base that judgment both on anecdotal evidence from my daily life but also on the surprising reactions of the drivers whose commute I helped disrupt tonight. While people sat in total gridlock with no prospects of getting their cars moving for an hour or more, most did not scowl or complain but rather looked on with interest. A very considerable number expressed support for the march’s goals by honking, smiling or applauding, or even using the “Hands Up” gesture. I did not see a single angry confrontation of a suburbanite enraged about not getting home in time for dinner.

Four: I saw something else tonight that I have not seen since 1985 in the streets of downtown Santiago: citizens confronting the cops and shouting them into silence. When the bodies of three leftist professionals were discovered with their throats cut in a field near the Santiago airport that year, average office workers fed up with the Pinochet dictatorship poured into the streets spontaneously to express their fury. I witnessed a woman in heels become hysterical screaming in the face of a completely cowed cop, turning the tables on the normal state of affairs under Pinochet in which the cops bullied people as a matter of course.

Something similar happened tonight when a few cops got separated from their platoon and were briefly surrounded by marchers who called them racist murderers to their faces. The look on their faces was one of sudden defenselessness because they knew the angry citizens have a very solid point. Those three cops prudently did not try to billy club their way out of that confrontation because they would have had the shit kicked out of them. Eventually, they were rescued by a dozen back-up officers who were also careful not to knock anyone around.

In short, the cops were scared of the people. You don’t see that too often, and it means the NYPD has a problem.

Monday, 1 December 2014

Ferguson and the echo of American totalitarianism

It’s easy to understand why people in Ferguson or African-Americans in general would be upset, outraged, indignant and depressed all at once about the Michael Brown killing and the police/prosecutor cover-up that followed. But it’s counter-intuitive—or should be—that Officer Wilson’s defenders are just as passionate. Why this blind rush to justify what the guy did? Sympathy for the cops doesn’t fully explain it. What’s going on?

Whatever one makes of the piecemeal evidence available of the incident (since there now will be no trial to clarify it), it could hardly be controversial that teenagers should be guaranteed minimum safety while going about their business and not end up dead. What is it in our national psyche that drives a sector of the populace to rush to Fox News and cheer when any white cop guns down a black kid?

(By the way, anyone who doubts that this occurs should spend some time reading the comment section of any article or social media post on the Ferguson incident and the subsequent demonstrations over it.)

The buried history of American slavery provides an important piece of the answer, or would if we were allowed to make slavery an object of study. It is no accident that we are told so little as children and years linger so briefly during our student over the slavery phenomenon. After the peremptory and superficial required treatment, we never hear about slavery again unless we go digging or specialize in history. In some circles, it’s even considered bad taste or ‘too sensitive’ for fragile and unformed minds to handle.

I realized that many white southerners would rather glide quickly over talk of the bad old days when driving through the black residential areas of Hattiesburg, Missisippi, with a local woman a few years ago. She proudly pointed out the modest black churches where Martin Luther King had once spoken during the dangerous years of his political work in the Jim Crow South. I then asked, ‘Wasn’t Hattiesburg where one of the violent incidents of the Freedom Ride took place? Down at the bus terminal?’ She quickly replied, ‘We don’t talk about that.’ And she wasn’t joking.

There are a few former-slave narratives in existence, written by freedmen or women who managed to escape or were freed during the Civil War and acquired enough learning to record their hair-raising stories. Frederick Douglass’s and Harriet Tubman’s are well known, and now we are aware of Solomon Northup of 12 Years a Slave. But Steve McQueen could spend the rest of his filmmaking career on the accounts by Harriet Jacobs, William Wells Brown, Olaudah Equiano, Henry Bibb and others, some of which make Northup’s trials look fairly tame.

The slaves would go to some cabin at night for their dances; if one went without a pass, which often they did, they would be beaten severely. The slaves could hear the overseers, riding toward the cabin. Those, who had come without a pass, would take the boards up from the floor, get under the cabin floor, and stay there until the overseers had gone. -Mrs. Mittie Blakeley, Oxford, Missouri (Federal Writers Project, WPA, ‘Slave Narratives: A Folk History of Slavery in the United StatesInterviews with Former Slaves/Indiana Narratives’)

[We] Negroes were not allowed an education. It was dangerous for any person to be caught teaching a Negro, and several Negroes were put to death because they could read. -George Taylor Burns, Gregery’s Landing, Missouri

What emerges from these largely forgotten autobiographies are many illuminating details of the pervasive system of social control exercised over slaves and nonwhite freedmen in the antebellum period, a pervasive, homegrown, early Stasi for North America. For example, a simple trip from one plantation to another could turn complicated and physically dangerous if a slave was not able to convince any encountered (and armed) whites that he had permission to be on the road.

Open-carry laws and the entire obsession with gun rights make more sense when viewed in the light of this permanent state of white militarization, an acknowledgment that active control was required to maintain the slave state.

It’s also illuminating as to why supposedly ‘conservative’ Americans are just fine with the permanent snooper state created by the NSA phone-tappers: on some repressed, psychic level, white Americans deeply believe they need to know everything about the suspect portion of the population—they just think they themselves will never form part of it.

We’re familiar with some of the surviving elements of this system in the post-war era from key classics of literature such as To Kill a Mockingbird and from the eye-opening incidents of the Civil Rights period. The difference in the post-chattel slavery era is that when blacks were valuable property, it was costly to kill them. Once slave bodies ceased being possessable and exploitable for their labor-power, it was not. You read a lot about whippings and torture during the slave period, but it was only after the Emancipation that lynching flourished. Before 1865, killing a black, while sometimes deemed necessary or indulged in for sport, cost money. Afterward, it was free.

Sunday, 23 November 2014

Are we heading toward a new era of open racial conflict?

Life in New York is a good metaphor for American society despite our city’s anomalous characteristics. We take for granted that the world is comprised of a variety of diverse peoples who look different from each other, wear particular if not peculiar clothes, speak a variety of languages (160-some at last count within the five boroughs) and generally carry with them a couple of extra identities on top of officer worker, husband, mom, or whatever. We think we get along pretty well and start from a default position of broad tolerance for the annoyances that spring from all these multitudinous approaches to existence. We know that not everyone agrees on how things should be done and for the most part just get on with it, with or without complaint.

But underneath that superficial togetherness is a profound gap in real empathy, a deceptive and self-deceptive liberalism that masks some pretty strong intolerance. This state or affairs may sound unfavorable, but it is probably the best we can hope for—mutual respect whatever one’s personal feelings about chadors, loud subway voices, gentrifiers, sagging trousers, or smug white people. If we conform to minimum standards governing our social behavior, no one is asking us to like everybody else or think they’re swell. It’s the subtle but essential difference between acceptance and respect—I insist on the latter even if my sex life, child-rearing practices, ideas, or personal habits are repugnant to you. And vice versa.

If all social groups and ethnicities shared more or less equally in the bounties of our economic and political system, these rough edges might theoretically fall away over time such that ensuing generations would be more similar than unique and habits of life and mind would became less conflictive, even potentially. But since that is far from the current case, any sudden strains are likely to exacerbate these latent tensions. That’s what I see bubbling to the surface on all sides.

The most glaring example is the relentless litany of race-tinged police abuses that keeps dominating our news cycles. The latest is the completely astounding cop killing of an unarmed guy who committed the suspicious act of walking down the stairway in his apartment building with his girlfriend. How even a rookie cop with an itchy trigger finger could have thought it appropriate to fire into a dark stairwell without the slightest provocation is a mystery even Bill O’Reilly would be hard pressed to justify.

Meanwhile, the Ferguson grand jury is about to emit its decision on the Michael Brown killing, and in advance all the usual pious voices are heard insisting that violent reactions are a big no-no. Never mind where the violence has come from to date and double-never mind that without sustained outrage from local residents, nobody would be paying the slightest attention to one more black kid dead on the sidewalk. Without outrage and threats, the white media wouldn’t give two shits about Ferguson. Now that we have outrage and threats, the outrage and threats—not Darrin Wilson’s acts—are the big CNN story. Shame.

You see the same phenomenon on message threads following any of the black-kid-dies, like the North Carolina teen found hanging in a playground under suspicious circumstances. Instead of accepting that there is a long history of lynching and excessive police force against young black males, indignant commentators insist that anyone highlighting the story is ‘race-baiting’. Close on their heels come the neo-klansmen insisting that the real victims are police officers and/or beseiged white people.

Beneath this steady rewrite lies the unconscious guilt complex of middle America that is convinced the distressing history of slavery ended in 1863 by magnanimous Abe Lincoln signing the Emancipation Proclamation. Lynch mobs, the KKK, Jim Crow are all in the past, and African Americans should stop complaining and ‘take responsibility’ for their situations, just like everyone’s favorite granddad, Bill Cosby, always said (in between wine parties with young starlets). Never mind that incarceration rates are the highest in history (thanks, Bill Clinton, the ‘first black president’!), voting equality is being reversed all over the Confederacy, and six cops can choke Eric Garner to death in broad daylight.

As we build up evidence that late capitalism is incapable of providing the majority a decent living, distractions like race and ethnicity will be more and more important to the cozy and powerful who must deflect the attention away from their own privileges. Count on the captured corporate media to pump up white fears and rescript the ongoing assault on the powerless as something, anything else.

Tuesday, 18 November 2014

Who enables the murderers of Mexican youth?

Those people paying attention to things beyond the football stadia of America will have noticed that the police, drug gangs and the Mexican government recently conspired to kidnap, torture and slaughter 43 rural college students who dared to object to the way things are run in their country. Half the country is up in arms (metaphorically speaking, for now) over the horrific incident, one of many tens of thousands of cases of people disappearing or turning up dead in that country, with heads displayed in public thoroughfares, hanging from bridges, etc., etc.

Mexicans blame the profoundly corrupt political class for the sorry state of their nation and these crimes, as well they should. They also blame the police forces, known as the enforcement wings of a variety of narco gangs, and the military, which stands by placidly while the citizenry is chopped to pieces, not so metaphorically. Not much of all this reaches the pages of our newspapers or our iPhone screens, and until the slaughter reaches our own states—which, incidentally, I think will happen in due course—people will continue to think it’s something happening down there with which we have little to do.

But there is one key element of this story that is directly related to us, and I do not refer to our insatiable national appetite for the mind-altering substances whose sale constitutes the Mexican gangs’ most lucrative criminal activity. No, I refer to our banks’ essential role in laundering the profits.

The highly entertaining William Black, professor of economics at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, lays out in tragicomic detail the latest of many episodes of bankster impunity, in this case the ongoing scandal of Standard Chartered’s bosses’ resistance to any punishment for their vast criminal enterprise. Standard Chartered was fined $667 million by New York State and federal regulators in 2012 for tens of thousands of felonious transactions in defiance of a U.S. ban on fund transfers to Iran and is now howling with offended outrage at this terrible persecution.

As Black notes, the reasonableness of the ban itself is ‘not within my areas of expertise.’ However, he continues,
I guarantee that Standard Chartered’s officers did not aid Iran in evading U.S. sanctions because they conducted an investigation and determined that that Iran was not actually seeking to develop nuclear weapons.

The question is irrelevant to the bank’s behavior, says Black, because Standard Chartered’s officers’ conduct reveals to us that:
. . . they would enthusiastically aid any nation in violating sanctions in order to develop, deploy, and use weapons of mass destruction for genocidal purposes. If Iran isn’t that nation, then we will all have experienced immense luck that Standard Chartered’s officers’ crimes didn’t lead to massive losses of life.

But that doesn’t mean that bankster crimes haven’t led to ‘massive losses of life’ elsewhere, which brings us back to Mexico. It was no more than a year ago (January, 2014) that HSBC, the huge British-based bank, agreed to pay $1.2 billion to settle—without criminal penalties—its long-standing cash-recycling services to the cartels. This follows the 2010 Wachovia wrist-slap for laundering a staggering $300-plus billion for the same friendly guys. Argentine journalist Andres Oppenheimer wrote about Citibank’s narco dry-cleaning operations 20 years ago, in which that U.S. bank got off scot-free.

In short, banks are and have always been complicit in the rise of the drug gangs, and as long as there is profit to be made and regulators to be bought off or intimidated, they always will. Without sustained and consistent prosecution of money laundering with severe criminal penalties applied to the perpetrators, including loss of their ill-gotten gains and prison terms, U.S. and other banks will happily do the narcos’ bidding and enjoy their slice of the proceeds in fancy London and Manhattan bars with hot babes on their arms. Or as Black says, quoting J.K. Galbraith, Do not confuse good tailoring with integrity.

The reason this will continue to occur is that the worst bank clients, i.e., kleptocrats, assassins and con artists, will pay the juiciest fees to bankers. If no one is minding the store at the government level, supervising banking activities and punishing crime when it is discovered, the worst bankers will rise to service these worst customers. It is painfully clear to anyone with a working brain that banking crimes are now considered part of the fun and that no real penalties will be extracted from those engaging in them. Moral opprobrium and ostracism, which once might have been feared by white-collar crooks, are now sufficiently old-fashioned that few need fear them—a possible exception might be for those who provide funds for the Islamic State, though we will have to wait and see on that.

Our banks are, in Black’s terse and descriptive phrase, ‘recidivist criminal enterprise[s],’ [plural mine]. They plundered us all through mortgage fraud, Libor and foreign exchange market rigging, and other crimes too numerous to list. No one engaging in these felonies is ever punished, and the responsibility for that, I regret to inform the Democratic faithful, lies at the feet of outoing Attorney General Eric Holder and his boss, one B. Obama.
Their failure to rein in the rampant criminality at the apex of our financial system makes them directly complicit with the horrible deaths of the 43 Mexican students and that country’s agony. Does that sound harsh?

Sunday, 16 November 2014

NSA v/s the ACA--who got the computer mojo?

It’s a little eerie to watch Citizen Four, the documentary about the handling of Edward Snowden’s revelations about the vast Peeping Tom network at the heart of our government, just as the Obamacare Web site is open for Year 2 of its sorry business.

On the one hand, Snowden’s revelations that we’ve now been reading about for a full year, demonstrate the enormous sophistication and reach of the electronic apparatus now in the hands of the shadow state, its creepy capacity to track our movements through metadata, know our buying habits, map out our social networks, pry into our financial affairs, and of course—as soon as they want to explore further—read our mail. The amorphous, ever-expanding, interlinked blob of “security” enterprises has turned information systems into a finely-honed tool to ‘collect it all’ in their own words, to amass every detail about us, to be called up and analyzed at the right moment—as determined by them.

Ostensibly, it is all to prevent terrorism. Practically and independently of the good intentions of this or that cog in the bureaucratic wheel, it can and will be used to crush dissent.

Meanwhile, the informatics in use for the Affordable Care Act, intended to provide certain millions of previously uninsured Americans with health coverage so that might have the minimum access to a doctor, is a pile of junk. Despite the embarrassing 2013 debacle and a full year of re-preparation (added to the four years since passage of the Act itself), the problems with the clunky and user-unfriendly system still are not fixed.

As Lambert Strether writes in Naked Capitalism under ‘The Crapified Magic of the ObamaCare Marketplace’ the awfulness of the front-end (interface, readily obvious) software is matched only by the awfulness of the back-end (resolution, not apparent until it goes wrong) software. Therefore, not only is navigation almost impossible for tech-savvy, knowledgeable and alert ‘consumers’ (an offensive term in itself as no one should have to ‘consume’ their way to the right to health), but also the likelihood is enormous that users eventually will experience a screw-up in coverage due to the federal health insurance exchange itself (i.e., not the insurance company policies’ predictably vast shortcomings), through miscommunication, wrongfully applied payments, coverage dating errors or any of the million details involved in the infernally complex Kafka-world of health insurance.

Anecdotally, of course, some people are having good experiences with their ACA policies, and good for them. In a program of this size, that’s inevitable. But because of the founding, neoliberal principles of Obama/ RomneyCare’s origins, designed to strengthen the role of financier intermediaries in health provision to help them extract more rent, such happy outcomes will be the exception rather than the rule.

When the state wants to snoop on us, it knows exactly how to do it. But when it is supposedly trying to provide its neediest citizens with a very modest boost in their wellbeing via the signature program of the Obama Administration, it hasn’t got an effing clue.

Bug or feature?