Sense from Seattle

Common sense thoughts on life and current affairs by a Seattle area sexagenarian, drawing on personal experience, years of learning as a counselor to thousands of families and an innate passion for informed knowledge, to uniquely express sensible, thoughtful, honest and independent views.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Torturing Terrorists

Two related issues are in the forefront as Congress heads out of town for the campaign stretch leading up to the November elections - should we legalize torture and has the Iraq invasion and occupation created more terrorists and caused more terrorism.

To consider these issues we need to ask ourselves two fundamental questions.

1. What is torture? The word “torture” comes from the Latin for twisting or breaking, the same root as the word “tort” as in the Bush so-called “tort reform”. Just as Bush obtained legislation limiting the liability of doctors who wrongfully injure their patients, he now wants to limit the liability of American interrogators who use torture. The Bush justification for limiting the rights of injured patients was that some patients make frivolous claims, inflating malpractice insurance premiums and causing doctors to stop treating patients. The Bush justification for legalizing the use of torture is that some persons accused of being terrorists may have information that can prevent future terrorist attacks and that can only be obtained by torture. The possibility there could be one frivolous patient or one key source of terrorist information is enough for Bush to sanction tortious conduct against all the patients and all the suspects.

A Sense theme is that of the continuum - a line from one end to the other. The continuum for how to obtain information to prevent terrorist attacks runs from cash rewards at the nice end, to endangering vital organs and inflicting likelihood of imminent death at the other. The Geneva Conventions are international agreements that draw the line of unacceptability at an agreed middle point. Bush wants American law changed to push the Geneva line more toward the “mean” end.

2. Who are the terrorists? People who use terrorism as a tactic are terrorists. Terrorism is intimidation of civilians. The 9/11 hijackers intimidated Americans. The recent Israeli retaliation against Hamas in Lebanon intimidated civilians, as did the Hezbollah rocket launches into Israel. Bush said those who “harbor” terrorists will, in effect, be treated as terrorists. The people of Fallujah found that out. Insurgent terrorists hide among the population, as they are doing now in Iraq and as the resistance forces did under the Nazi occupations in Europe. Consider this timely terrorist continuum, from innocent to evil: bystanders, inadvertent shielders, sympathizers, mistaken identities, passive harborists, active harborists, occupation resisters, assassins of supporters of occupying forces, assassins of occupying forces, intimidators of all the foregoing groups in reverse order, with intimidators of innocent bystanders being the most evil. Where should the line of allowable torture be drawn on this continuum? Bush seems to think only bystanders are innocent, though they might become “collateral damage” if they are standing too close to anyone else.

The most credible voices in the current debate are those with experience in the subject and who are not running for election or subject to prosecution for use of illegal torture. International law scholars, military law experts and former military commanders overwhelmingly agree that the Geneva Conventions should be honored and there is no need for the US to embrace torture. As Colin Powell pointed out, using torture gives up the moral ground. As a practical matter, torture yields false information that masks whatever might be useful. Non-tortuous tactics have a proven record of success.

Bush implies that torture has already prevented attacks. This also implies he has been breaking the law, which should surprise no one, since Bush asserts he is commander-in-chief in a “war on terror” with extraordinary war powers to do whatever he wants to “defend America from terrorists”. The claim of prevention cannot be verified, Bush says, because presenting evidence would tip off other terrorists to the fact that we are using torture, and enable them to better resist it. The snake oil salesman cannot reveal the ingredients, lest the serpent be wizened.

As for the “ticking time bomb scenario”, the premise is that we have reliable information that such a bomb is ticking and that the person being interrogated actually knows how to stop it and torture is the only way to get the information from that person. In that scenario, relying on torture is a great gamble that can only pay off if the premises are all true and the torture actually timely yields a true answer. I expect such a terrorist would have anticipated torture and would be prepared to yield a wild goose chase answer. I also expect that such a substantial plot would be intricately designed so that once started, nobody would actually know how to stop it. We need to prevent this scenario from actually coming into being, by earlier intelligence and interrogation techniques of proven effectiveness, rather than by relying on counterproductive torture.

The second issue is more easily addressed. There should be no doubt that the Iraq invasion and occupation has created more terrorists and caused more terrorism, as verified by the just released National Intelligence Estimate. A short while back the question being debated was whether Iraq was part of the Bush so-called War on Terror. The answer is yes, because the American invasion and disastrous occupation of Iraq has provided a fertile ground for terrorists. But the more fundamental answer is that it should not have been.

Thursday, September 21, 2006

Coupless in America

The coup in Thailand got me thinking about the absence of coups in the USA. The ousted Thai Prime Minister is a rich man who engaged in shady business dealings, plays up to the peasants for their votes, is very unpopular in the big cities, is tough on Muslims who take up arms, suppresses dissenting opinions, consolidates his power in spite of the Constitution and claims electoral victories in flawed elections. In fact, he seems a lot like George W. Bush.

Thailand, though its people are quite laid back, has had 18 coups since becoming a constitutional monarchy in 1932. The US is a nation of feisty people, but we have never had a coup. Why is that?

I remember a card game from the 1960s called “Coup d’Etat”. The name was French and literally meant “blow to the State”. Coups are inside jobs, pulled off by an element of the power structure turning on its superiors. This is different than a revolution, which comes from the ground up and is accomplished by segments of the general public either actively participating or passively condoning it. Coups are also different from secession movements, when a geographic part of a nation tries to withdraw and form its own new nation.

America was founded by a revolution in the late 18th Century, when “power to the people” became in philosophical fashion. Revolutions soon fell out of fashion, until Communism brought them back in Russia in 1917. After WWII, many former colonies revolted against their imperial overseers, in different ways and with various results. Some diverse examples include India led by the non-violent example of Ghandi, Algeria using insurgent style tactics against the French, the Vietnamese defeating the French in outright war, and numerous sub-Saharan African nations unfortunately having their revolutions appropriated by the cold war powers. Closer to home, Castro’s small band easily took power in Cuba, while the people passively agreed.

The attempt of the American Southern States to secede was defeated militarily. The military occupation of the South following the defeat was a flawed one and both sides used the disputed Presidential election of 1876 as a way to negotiate its end. Northern Republicans were given the election and the South was freed from the occupation. Arguably, the impeachment trial of Andrew Johnson, which fell only one vote short of throwing him out of office, was a sort of constitutional coup attempt by the Congress, as was the only other such trial, that of Bill Clinton. But both those unsuccessful impeachments were for political, not constitutional purposes, Johnson was attacked to undermine the occupation of the South, and Clinton to foster an image of Republicans as morally pure and Democrats as lecherous.

Right or wrong, Americans blamed the Great Depression on Hoover and the Republicans. Nobody with any power had an answer, so a coup would never have been given a thought. Times eventually got bad enough for revolutionary feelings, but by then Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal had been chosen in the landslides of 1932 and 1936, and with the buildup for War, our government had weathered the storm.

In the last half of the 20th century, America experienced some significant and somewhat revolutionary changes, with minimal violence. Desegregation, civil rights, improvements for women and environmental protections are notable areas where gains were made. The push for all these worthwhile changes came from interested citizen groups.

In the 1970s, Nixon and Watergate sorely tested our Constitution, which proudly emerged in control. There was no question that Nixon had been fairly elected twice, but his Constitutional trespasses resulted in a bipartisan initiation of the impeachment process for the only legitimate time in our history. The Supreme Court properly became involved as referee between Congress and the President, and when they ruled Congress was right, Nixon resigned, averting the need for the impeachment to proceed. Nixon likely would have been convicted, and if he had refused to honor the conviction and relinquish power, a coup could have been necessary. I think Nixon would have complied with the impeachment conviction, but what about a “stay the course” man like George W. Bush? I definitely believe, if he were ever impeached and convicted, Bush would risk tearing our nation apart rather than surrender the office.

Our 2000 Presidential election was never properly decided. Our Presidential elections are not national; each State is in charge of its own balloting, subject to US Constitutional protections. What happened in Florida was a travesty. Jeb Bush purposely disenfranchised black voters with unfair roll purges. But what happened in the Supreme Court of the United States was the greatest travesty. Constitutional law experts were surprised that the Federal Courts got involved and the 5 most conservative Justices of the US Supreme Court stopped the Florida recount, effectively usurping the power of the Supreme Court of Florida to determine how a Florida election should be held. Three of the five in the ruling majority for stopping the recount had conflicts of interest that should have led them not to participate in hearing the case, but the entire Court should have let the recount continue and let Florida Court decide the matter, ultimately subject to possible Constitutional review from the US Supreme Court.

The decision of the five Justices handing the Presidency to George W. Bush is so flawed in its reasoning that the majority specifically said the ruling should not be considered a legal precedent for any purpose whatsoever. They simply said the Florida recount process varied so much from County to County that it should not be allowed to continue and the Florida Court should not be allowed any opportunity to work out a Constitutionally acceptable recount method because there was not sufficient time before the Florida electors were to be safely designated [this provides another strong argument for the elimination of the Electoral College]. The flawed interim status with Bush in the lead, the Court ruled, should become the final score. Justice Stevens wrote an excellent dissenting opinion explaining why the Court should not have interfered. Justice Ginsburg in her dissent pointed out that the recount did not need to be finalized by December 12 as the majority said, but only needed to be done by the January 6 final deadline.

If there ever was a time for an American coup, it might have when the US Supreme Court agreed to hear the case of Bush versus Gore and issued an order stopping the Florida recount. A coup could have been limited to defying that Court order to allow the recount to continue and allow the Florida Supreme Court to rule on the outcome of the election in Florida. But who would have led the coup? Not mild mannered Al Gore. Not our military leaders, whom we have wisely kept out of political power, at least until after they retire. The prime candidate for the coup would have been Bill Clinton, who could have used his Presidential office to order the Florida recount to proceed as the Florida Supreme Court intended.

In this “coup de Supreme Court” scenario, once the ballots had been correctly counted in the opinion of the Florida Supreme Court, the US Supreme Court could then have either declined to hear the matter further or issued its own opinion of the validity of the recount, for further consideration by the Florida Court. If the Florida Court supervised recount found Bush the winner, there would be no further crisis. But if they found for Gore, there would have been two Florida electoral slates presented to Congress, the one based on the US Supreme Court stopping the recount and handing the election to Bush, and the one based on the Florida Court supervised recount. Congress would then have had to choose. Even if Congress decided for Bush, which could have been quite likely, that would be their constitutional prerogative, so though I would disagree, I would respect it. I have no respect for the way the US Supreme Court stopped the recount and named Bush the President.

Tuesday, September 19, 2006

Primary Elections and Fall Campaigns

Today is primary election day in Washington State. Mail in ballots are used by 70% of the voters here. There were no hot primary contests on my ballot. After many years of an open primary ballot, where we could vote for candidates regardless of party, Washington has now been required by Court ruling to require primary voters to only vote for partisan candidates of one party.

There have been some interesting primaries around the country, starting with Tom DeLay being embarrassed by his poor showing in Texas. Joe Lieberman was defeated in Connecticut, the Republican party assisted moderate Lincoln Chafee to victory over an unelectable conservative in Rhode Island, and Hilary Clinton won 83% of the Democratic vote in her New York primary. DeLay is now finished with elected politics, Lieberman is running as an independent, Chafee will be running to remain a Republican moderate in the Senate and Hilary is positioning herself for a strong shot at the Presidential nomination.

Though all politics may be local, the strong disapproval ratings of the Bush Presidency in the areas of foreign affairs, the middle east, Iraq, Katrina and the economy and energy situation all work against Republican incumbents seeking re-election. But voters are not likely to vote out a local incumbent simply to help the other party gain power nationally. Incumbents know that, and to keep voters on their side they use the fact that their seniority can bring bacon home to the local people. Republicans, led by the Bush team, continue to use their only hopeful campaign card, arguing that Bush has done well in the so-called War on Terror, and that Republicans in general are more dependable in fighting terrorism.

Democrats make a mistake, as Senate Democratic leader Harry Reid did recently, when they argue that the War in Iraq is not part of the fight against terror. All Democrats should say about terror is that the Republicans have not done enough to protect America and that our homeland security is full of unplugged holes and that we cannot expect to continue to go unharmed at home with such security breaches and with Osama still at large after five years of Republicans in charge. Then Democrats should quickly turn to all the other issues, all losers for Republicans: American prestige at an all time low, the middle east in the most turmoil in recent memory, Iraq a quagmire of civil war, New Orleans still a mess well into a new hurricane season, the economy in a discouraged state and gas prices at record highs with no energy policy in sight other than endangering the environment to let oil companies aceess more gas to sell at exorbitant prices.

My Congressional district is one that is up for grabs. The one term Republican incumbent may be vulnerable. The female Democratic challenger has mailed ads criticizing the Iraq fiasco while documenting her own patriotism, and attacking the Republicans on doing nothing to tax windfall profits of oil companies which charge record pump prices. She will need to continue this approach and move it into diret challenges to the voting record of the incumbent in support of the failed policies of the Bush administration. He has an 85% record of agreement with Bush and she should hammer that he is 85% in favor of the failed Bush policies and should be voted out.

Even if Democrats fail to win the house, which is where their best chance lies, Congress is moving farther away from the Republican right on many issues, with Republican moderates now feeling quite free to stick to their positions in spite of pressure from the White House and Republican Congressional leaders. The most exciting race of all will take a giant stride in 50 days, after the November elections, when the race for the White House will heat up tremendously.

Saturday, September 09, 2006

Tom’s Top Ten Terrorism Topics

As we prepare to note the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, here is my top ten list of the topics associated with the attacks and how they have been playing out over the past five years.

10. Terrorism is a Tactic. As Bush quickly labeled the US response to the attacks as a “War on Terror”, more sensible minds pointed out that terrorism is a tactic and wars are not fought against tactics, but rather against nations/states or, in the case of a civil war, between opposing parties within the same nation/state. More people have come to this sense, but the Bush Administration continues to use “War on Terror” to propagandize the public and to assert Presidential war powers.

9. Islamic Ignorance. Following 9/11 Americans asked, “Why do they hate us?” It soon became apparent that “they” were followers of Islam, and that Americans were overwhelmingly ignorant of that religion. Muslims in America were harassed, prompting a parading of “moderate” Muslims before the public to show that not all Muslims hate us. Harassment may have diminished slightly, and the parading has almost completely stopped, but we remain as ignorant of Islam as ever. However, many Americans asked the question sincerely and at least try to be open to learning. Many of the world’s Muslims, however, appear to be locked in a closed minded ignorance, believing that all non-Muslims are threatening infidels, Jews are the worst threat and Americans are partners with the Jews.

8. Osama been Forgotten. Osama bin Laden, the admitted mastermind of the attacks, is still at large, with no serious effort to bring him to justice. The special task force to apprehend the villain has been phased into more general duties. We have continuously been told about yet another “number two” al Qaeda leader being killed or captured. But in spite of all the Bush cowboy talk, the number one desperado is still at large.

7. Afghanistan Still Suffers. The US and Soviet Union used Afghanistan as a surrogate battlefield during the cold war, completely disregarding the welfare of the Afghan people. The US supported anti-communist warlords and regimes such as the Taliban. When the Soviets gave up and pulled out, the US allowed the repressive forces it had supported take over, which is when Afghanistan became a host for terrorist training by bin Laden. With hindsight, our post 9/11 demand that the Taliban oust bin Laden seems unreasonable, since we have not been able to do that ourselves after we took over the country.

Our real purpose in invading Afghanistan was probably to put the American people in a war frame of mind, with what seemed a quick victory, in preparation for doing the same in Iraq, and as some say, to install a friendly government to obtain natural gas pipeline rights consistent with American strategic needs for access to that commodity. Afghanistan like Iraq seems to be in a state of civil turmoil, to the ongoing detriment of its people.

6. Department of Homeland Security Unimpressive. The Department of Homeland Security, an idea of Democrats, originally opposed by Bush, has not impressed Americans or made us feel more secure. Improving coordination by increasing the size of the body is always a tricky proposition. The DHS seems like an athlete who quickly bulked up on steroids and is stumbling over his new muscles. The latest head scratcher was having DHS agents escort that fugitive child fancier and false confessor back from Bangkok - what the hell did that mental case have to do with Homeland Security?

5. Iraq Debacle. Every relevant thing the Bush Administration said about Iraq was wrong. There were no WMD, we were not welcomed as liberators, Iraqis do want a religious orientation to their government, Iraq had no al Qaeda connection until the US occupation offered American troops as training targets and the few feeble contributors to the Bush supposed coalition have all had enough sense to dump it back on the US.

4. Bush Retains Power through Fear. Bush, with the help of an Ohio voter disenfranchisement program, retained power after the 2004 elections, by continuing to instill fear in the American people - not just fear of terrorists, but fear of other Americans - those who disagree that Bush should be retained and given any power he claims he needs to protect us, in spite of what the US Constitution says.

3. The Second Shoe Has Not Dropped. Bush constantly reminds us there has been no repeat of 9/11 and he claims it is all because he has prevented it. But there are so many documented holes in our national security that one has to ask why the second shoe has not fallen. As disgusting as the 9/11 attacks were, the magnitude of what they accomplished is astounding, not just bringing down the towers and killing all the people, but producing the sustained hysteria of Americans and empowering Bush to proceed with a middle east strategy that plays right into the hands of the terrorists. The ongoing effects of 9/11 are so profound that a second, more feeble attack might actually lessen the stress. It is possible al Qaeda has chosen to just leave the prospect of the second shoe hanging.

2. Damn the Constitution. Times of fear always jeopardize civil liberties, and the Bush Administration has used 9/11 as an excuse to throw the Constitution out the window. Bush has claimed a plethora of wartime powers, some going beyond what other Presidents have claimed, even during our War of the Rebellion and two World Wars.

And the number one topic associated with the 9/11 attacks, which is also one of the least covered topics in our mainstream media...

1. It Was about the Oil. OIL -Operation Iraqi Liberation. Ever since it was first learned there was oil under the middle eastern deserts, US foreign policy has included a requirement that the oil from those fields remain available to America on terms acceptable to us.

Osama is a Saudi as were most of the 9/11 perpetrators. Saudi Arabia has been the main breeding ground for radical Islamic terrorists because the Saudi government has gone easy on them, in fear of being overthrown by cracking down. The US has supported the Saudi government because the Saudis are friendly to US oil interests. Our pro-oil foreign policy has enabled the growth of Saudi bred terrorism.

We enabled Saddam’s control of Iraq because he was anti-communist and we could get oil from him and keep it from the communists. We enabled his gassing of the Kurds because we feared their opposition to Saddam’s government. As Saddam started acting more independently of the US and as Soviet communism ceased to be a player, US policy for Iraq became the removal of Saddam and installation of a new regime we could better dominate. The Bush Administration purposely misled the American people into believing Saddam was involved in the 9/11 attacks [a poll this week shows 43% of the American people still believe that lie, while the Senate Intelligence Committee report issued this week confirms there was absolutely no Saddam involvement], so that 9/11 and the distorted intelligence on WMD could be used to justify taking over Iraq.

As Baghdad fell, American forces moved first to control oil fields and secure oil records, ignoring the looting and pillaging and security risks to the population. As an early part of the US choreographed development of the new Iraq government, US access to Iraqi oil was guaranteed, as was pointed out here last November under the title, “What about the Oil?”.

Sunday, September 03, 2006

Labor Day History

Doing a Google search for “Labor Day history” [without the quotes] produced some interesting results. One might expect to get links to pages from the government and labor organizations, but after the top hit from the US Department of Labor, the rest of the top ten was a motley mix: a family oriented page, PBS, a woman oriented site, the Detroit News, a service that advises unions, a computer science professor’s site, an anarchist group, a commercial site linking to the government and a middle school near Chicago.

Here are the results in order and a few comments on the pages and what they reflect:

1. Even in an anti-labor administration like Bush II, the Department of Labor was the top link. Right after quoting Samuel Gompers, the grandfather of the American labor movement saying this holiday is different from all the other nationalistic ones and “is devoted to no ...nation”, the DOL page in the next breath says the holiday is dedicated to the achievements of American workers.

2. The second page link is the creation of an individual whose home page bills itself as a family site including bible study. The labor day page has a changing ad at the top of the page, which on a couple of my visits included a “Fart Button” which it urged me to press, saying it knew I wanted too. I did not press it, but on my first visit it nevertheless continued farting at me.

3. The PBS page gives a straightforward history, with some political background from the 1894 Presidential election.

4. Rumela’s brief history seems to be part of a general female oriented links site.

5. The Detroit News page confirms the historical importance of the labor movement in the auto industry in Michigan.

6. The Big Labor page is interesting, even though it is the only one which does not give a history of Labor Day. Instead it gives a labor history for the current week, referring to notable labor events of the past. The site home page indicates the site exists to provide “info and ammo for unionists”. It was produced by Union Communication Services, a training and PR firm working for unions.

7. A computer science professor at the University of Northern Iowa is apparently behind this page, which includes some interesting information, including the decision to put Labor Day in September, to distance it from the May Day celebration of socialists.

8. The difference between Labor Day and May Day is further explained by the next page, from the Anarchist International Information Service. I did not know Anarchists had such a developed organizational structure that they have an international informational service.

9. The ninth site is one of those annoying sites whose URL makes it sound more worthwhile than what it actually is, just a compilation of freely available links used as a framework for advertising. It merely provides the same DOL Labor Day history found at DOL.

10. The last site shows how effectively some schools have used the Web. The Lake Zurich Middle School put this page up and may be doing a better job than some colleges of educating students about the history of the labor movement in America.

These sites show the exact history of the creation of Labor Day may be somewhat confusing. Unfortunately they also seem to confirm that the holiday has failed to maintain significance as a day to honor workers, but instead has become merely an occasion for a last long weekend to end the summer. The fact that no labor organization made it into the top ten Google hits shows what a poor job the labor movement is doing to counter the anti-labor policies started in the Federal government by Ronald Reagan. Organizations like Union Communication Services have their work cut out for them.