Saturday, November 17, 2007

Torture and the Devolution of American Heroism

How far have Busheney pushed the American Psyche?

Well, for sure from Real-Politick to Neo-Conservatism in less than one decade. In my lifetime, I have witnessed a drift from
Jack Armstrong to Jack Ryan to Jack Bauer. . .

Jack Armstrong didn't torture. Did Jack Ryan torture? I don't remember. (Readers please comment.) But Jack Bauer sure does! Knee-capping, shocking and finger-breaking, etc., etc.
Rarely has fictional television seemed so entwined with our national political life. Not since Dan Quayle invoked the name Murphy Brown (Aug 1992) have national Republican candidates invoked make-believe candidates from tee-vee's make-believe world in order to score points on the campaign trail. Such is the non-factually-based world of the GOP mindset.

Weimar Republicans celebrate "24" as a vote for patriotism and all things authoritarian. In fact, when Republicans - candidates especially - meet and congregate to discuss national security, you could describe it as a Jack Bauer Hour of Power. Rosa Brooks (LA Times) recently characterized last May's GOP debate as "virtually a Jack Bauer Impersonation Contest". According to Brooks, it was a bunch of middle-aged white guys trying their very best to emulate and identify with
Kiefer Sutherland's character Jack Bauer - "torture enthusiast" - in Fox's hit show "24". For my one reader who does not own an operating TV, Jack Bauer is a special agent in the fictitious L.A.-based Counter Terrorist Unit (CTU).

In the debate Brooks recalls, it was Fox News moderator Brit Hume who brought "24" up. It was almost like chumming bait to starving sharks. Imagine, Hume told the candidates, that hundreds of Americans have been killed in three major suicide bombings. This is
. . .a fictional, but we think plausible, scenario involving terrorism and the response to it. . . a fourth attack has been averted when the attackers were captured … and taken to Guantanamo…. U.S. intelligence believes that another, larger attack is planned…. How aggressively would you interrogate…?
Rudy Giuliani didn't hesitate:
I would tell the [interrogators] to use every method…. It shouldn't be torture, but every method they can think of. . . I would - and I would - well, I'd say every method they could think of.
Governor Mitt Romney naturally had to up the ante:
You said the person's going to be in Guantanamo. I'm glad they're at Guantanamo…. Some people have said we ought to close Guantanamo. My view is we ought to double Guantanamo . . . . Enhanced interrogation techniques have to be used.
Rep. Duncan Hunter of California boasted that,
in terms of getting information that would save American lives, even if it involves very high-pressure techniques . . . . one sentence: Get the information.
And not to be outdone, from my native state, Colorado Rep. Tom Tancredo:
We're wondering about whether water-boarding would be a - a bad thing to do? I'm looking for Jack Bauer at that time, let me tell you.
According to Brooks, this remark was greeted by uproarious laughter and sustained applause from the audience.

The notable exceptions were John McCain and Ron Paul, both of whom - interestingly enough - served in the Vietnam campaign. Ex-POW McCain reminded the audience that
. . . it's not about the terrorists, it's about us. It's about what kind of country we are.
BTW, actor Kiefer Sutherland denies that "24" is advocating torture as a policy; it's just using torture as a dramatic device:
You torture someone and they'll basically tell you exactly what you want to hear, whether it's true or not, if you put someone in enough pain... Within the context of our show, which is a fantastical show to begin with, the torture is a dramatic device to show you how desperate a situation is.
One thing that bothers me about the show "24" is its jump-ass music in the background; the insistent jungle-beat communicates the pressure of time. The whole 24-episode series of "24" is supposed to be 24 hours in a single, frenetic day of anti-terrorist activity by the "CTU" and the tempo of music reminds even those of us separated from the TV room by a closed door, of the urgency for resolution.

This tempo suggests a question to me: does not all this pervasive sense of urgency suggest a frenzy of stop-gap measures and a reflection of a lack of earlier, systematic and long-term planning? Like the lack of systematic inspection of shipping containers and trucking?

Personally, I am not a loyal fan of many TV series. Week-by-week character development is essential for me to retain interest. I only lasted halfway through the first season of "24". For me, nothing really got past the threshold of Jack's compartmentalized inhumanity/humanity. Every week, 24's writers would pose to me the same question:

Can Jack Bauer retain a semblance of human dignity as a father, lover, citizen and still - within the same hour - reach in, up to his elbows, into blood, bones and flesh?

Long before the end of the first season, I quit "24" with the feeling I was just being played by the show's writers.

But many of my fellow Americans seem to find real world instruction in 24's weekly real-time episodes. I'm talking not only of casual voters, of course, but also even intense political types, like some of my fellow bloggers lurking out there. (You know I know who some of you are!) But what truly stuns me is that Jack Bauer's novitiates can also be found among the highest elites in our government.

Take for example, Mr. Justice Scalia:
Jack Bauer saved Los Angeles. … He saved hundreds of thousands of lives.

Are you going to convict Jack Bauer? Say that criminal law is against him? 'You have the right to a jury trial?' Is any jury going to convict Jack Bauer? I don't think so.

So the question is really whether we believe in these absolutes. And ought we believe in these absolutes.
Or take 2008's aspirant First Spouse, Bill Clinton, who seems to be saying that torture could be useful but should be unlawful:
If you're the Jack Bauer person, you'll do whatever you do and you should be prepared to take the consequences. . . If you have any kind of a formal exception, people just drive a truck through it, and they'll say, 'Well, I thought it was covered by the exception. . . . When Bauer goes out there on his own and is prepared to live with the consequences, it always seems to work better.
Does art imitate life or vice-versa? Whatever the purpose of the torture's content within 24's scenarios, the US military is alarmed about its message. The Pentagon has appealed to the producers of "24" to tone down the torture scenes. The show's message,
internalized by its young, impressionable troops, contradicts their formal professional training. Plus, the Jack Bauer ethic produces a national public relations problem abroad. This recalls Gen. David Petraeus' letter last May 10 to all U.S. troops serving under him in Iraq:
Some may argue that we would be more effective if we sanctioned torture or other expedient methods to obtain information…. They would be wrong. Beyond the basic fact that such actions are illegal, history shows that they also are frequently neither useful nor necessary…. What sets us apart from our enemies in this fight … is how we behave. In everything we do, we must … treat noncombatants and detainees with dignity and respect.
What we been sayin', of course!

It's good news that the Writers' Strike has aborted 24's season. Cancelling just one episode, I hear, vitiates the symmetry of 24 hours in 24 episodes, ruining its 'dramatic conceit'. Now, if we could just get the spineless Congress to go on strike and refuse to write any more checks to pay for this ruinous occupation and its melodramatic conceit. . . .

Only Obama Can Bring America Barack!

Friday Night & Saturday Morning Filching

E from StarSpangledHaggis placed this tremendous piece of writing by Andrew Sullivan on my radar screen. So, I am filching from her as well as from the Atlantic Magazine, Sullivan's publisher.

I apologize to my reader(s) for the length of what follows. Anyone contemplating investing a few minutes in this read should be assured that I have saved them considerable time already.

Sullivan's punditry is not perfect. (He was wrong on Busheney's invasion of Iraq.) But Sully's writing always arrests my attention. In this piece, he encapsulates in a very personal way what weighs down on my consciousness and unconsciousness, 24-7. He informs me why I have known from the beginning, why I have to vote for Barack Obama as long as he is running. I will not have a comment at the conclusion.

Andrew Sullivan, then:

The logic behind the candidacy of Barack Obama is not, in the end, about Barack Obama. It has little to do with his policy proposals, which are very close to his Democratic rivals’ and which, with a few exceptions, exist firmly within the conventions of our politics. It has little to do with Obama’s considerable skills as a conciliator, legislator, or even thinker. It has even less to do with his ideological pedigree or legal background or rhetorical skills. Yes, as the many profiles prove, he has considerable intelligence and not a little guile. But so do others, not least his formidably polished and practiced opponent Senator Hillary Clinton.

Obama, moreover, is no saint. He has flaws and tics: Often tired, sometimes crabby, intermittently solipsistic, he’s a surprisingly uneven campaigner.

A soaring rhetorical flourish one day is undercut by a lackluster debate performance the next. He is certainly not without self-regard. He has more experience in public life than his opponents want to acknowledge, but he has not spent much time in Washington and has never run a business. His lean physique, close-cropped hair, and stick-out ears can give the impression of a slightly pushy undergraduate. You can see why many of his friends and admirers have urged him to wait his turn. He could be president in five or nine years’ time—why the rush?

But he knows, and privately acknowledges, that the fundamental point of his candidacy is that it is happening now. In politics, timing matters. And the most persuasive case for Obama has less to do with him than with the moment he is meeting. The moment has been a long time coming, and it is the result of a confluence of events, from one traumatizing war in Southeast Asia to another in the most fractious country in the Middle East. The legacy is a cultural climate that stultifies our politics and corrupts our discourse.

Obama’s candidacy in this sense is a potentially transformational one. Unlike any of the other candidates, he could take America—finally—past the debilitating, self-perpetuating family quarrel of the Baby Boom generation that has long engulfed all of us. So much has happened in America in the past seven years, let alone the past 40, that we can be forgiven for focusing on the present and the immediate future. But it is only when you take several large steps back into the long past that the full logic of an Obama presidency stares directly—and uncomfortably—at you.

At its best, the Obama candidacy is about ending a war—not so much the war in Iraq, which now has a mo­mentum that will propel the occupation into the next decade—but the war within America that has prevailed since Vietnam and that shows dangerous signs of intensifying, a nonviolent civil war that has crippled America at the very time the world needs it most. It is a war about war—and about culture and about religion and about race. And in that war, Obama—and Obama alone—offers the possibility of a truce.

The traces of our long journey to this juncture can be found all around us. . . . Something deeper and more powerful than the actual decisions we face is driving the tone of the debate.


Given this quiet, evolving consensus on policy, how do we account for the bitter, brutal tone of American politics? The answer lies mainly with the biggest and most influential generation in America: the Baby Boomers. The divide is still—amazingly—between those who fought in Vietnam and those who didn’t, and between those who fought and dissented and those who fought but never dissented at all. By defining the contours of the Boomer generation, it lasted decades. And with time came a strange intensity.

The professionalization of the battle, and the emergence of an array of well-funded interest groups dedicated to continuing it. . . . Clinton clearly tried to bridge the Boomer split. But he was trapped on one side of it—and his personal foibles only reignited his generation’s agonies over sex and love and marriage. Even the failed impeachment didn’t bring the two sides to their senses, and the election of 2000 only made matters worse. . . .

The trauma of 9/11 has tended to obscure the memory of that unprecedentedly bitter election, and its nail- biting aftermath, which verged on a constitutional crisis. But its legacy is very much still with us, made far worse by President Bush’s approach to dealing with it. Despite losing the popular vote, Bush governed as if he had won Reagan’s 49 states. Instead of cementing a coalition of the center-right, Bush and Rove set out to ensure that the new evangelical base of the Republicans would turn out more reliably in 2004. Instead of seeing the post-’60s divide as a wound to be healed, they poured acid on it.

With 9/11, Bush had a reset moment—a chance to reunite the country in a way that would marginalize the extreme haters on both sides and forge a national consensus. He chose not to do so. . . . . As the Iraq War faltered, the polarization intensified. In 2004, the Vietnam argument returned with a new energy, with the Swift Boat attacks on John Kerry’s Vietnam War record and CBS’s misbegotten report on Bush’s record in the Texas Air National Guard. These were the stories that touched the collective nerve of the political classes—because they parsed once again along the fault lines of the Boomer divide that had come to define all of us.

The result was an even deeper schism. Kerry was arguably the worst candidate on earth to put to rest the post-1960s culture war—and his decision to embrace his Vietnam identity at the convention made things worse. Bush, for his part, was unable to do nuance. . . . It was and is a toxic cycle, in which the interests of the United States are supplanted by domestic agendas born of pride and ruthlessness on the one hand and bitterness and alienation on the other.

This is the critical context for the election of 2008. It is an election that holds the potential not merely to intensify this cycle of division but to bequeath it to a new generation, one marked by a new war that need not be—that should not be—seen as another Vietnam. A Giuliani-Clinton matchup, favored by the media elite, is a classic intragenerational struggle—with two deeply divisive and ruthless personalities ready to go to the brink. . . . And however hard she tries, there is nothing Hillary Clinton can do about it. She and Giuliani are conscripts in their generation’s war. To their respective sides, they are war heroes.

In normal times, such division is not fatal, and can even be healthy. It’s great copy for journalists. But we are not talking about routine rancor. And we are not talking about normal times. We are talking about a world in which Islamist terror, combined with increasingly available destructive technology, has already murdered thousands of Americans, and tens of thousands of Muslims, and could pose an existential danger to the West. The terrible failures of the Iraq occupation, the resurgence of al-Qaeda in Pakistan, the progress of Iran toward nuclear capability, and the collapse of America’s prestige and moral reputation, especially among those millions of Muslims too young to have known any American president but Bush, heighten the stakes dramatically.


Of the viable national candidates, only Obama . . . [has] the potential to bridge this widening partisan gulf. Polling reveals Obama to be the favored Democrat among Republicans. . . But Obama’s reach outside his own ranks remains striking. Why? It’s a good question: How has a black, urban liberal gained far stronger support among Republicans than the made-over moderate Clinton or the southern charmer Edwards? Perhaps because the Republicans and independents who are open to an Obama candidacy see his primary advantage in prosecuting the war on Islamist terrorism. It isn’t about his policies as such; it is about his person. They are prepared to set their own ideological preferences to one side in favor of what Obama offers America in a critical moment in our dealings with the rest of the world. The war today matters enormously. The war of the last generation? Not so much. If you are an American who yearns to finally get beyond the symbolic battles of the Boomer generation and face today’s actual problems, Obama may be your man.

What does he offer? First and foremost: his face. Think of it as the most effective potential re-branding of the United States since Reagan. Such a re-branding is not trivial—it’s central to an effective war strategy. The war on Islamist terror, after all, is two-pronged: a function of both hard power and soft power. We have seen the potential of hard power in removing the Taliban and Saddam Hussein. We have also seen its inherent weaknesses in Iraq, and its profound limitations in winning a long war against radical Islam. The next president has to create a sophisticated and supple blend of soft and hard power to isolate the enemy, to fight where necessary, but also to create an ideological template that works to the West’s advantage over the long haul. There is simply no other candidate with the potential of Obama to do this. Which is where his face comes in.

Consider this hypothetical. It’s November 2008. A young Pakistani Muslim is watching television and sees that this man—Barack Hussein Obama—is the new face of America. In one simple image, America’s soft power has been ratcheted up not a notch, but a logarithm. A brown-skinned man whose father was an African, who grew up in Indonesia and Hawaii, who attended a majority-Muslim school as a boy, is now the alleged enemy. If you wanted the crudest but most effective weapon against the demonization of America that fuels Islamist ideology, Obama’s face gets close. It proves them wrong about what America is in ways no words can.

The other obvious advantage that Obama has in facing the world and our enemies is his record on the Iraq War. He is the only major candidate to have clearly opposed it from the start. Whoever is in office in January 2009 will be tasked with redeploying forces in and out of Iraq, negotiating with neighboring states, engaging America’s estranged allies, tamping down regional violence. Obama’s interlocutors in Iraq and the Middle East would know that he never had suspicious motives toward Iraq, has no interest in occupying it indefinitely, and foresaw more clearly than most Americans the baleful consequences of long-term occupation.

This latter point is the most salient. The act of picking the next president will be in some ways a statement of America’s view of Iraq. Clinton is running as a centrist Democrat—voting for war, accepting the need for an occupation at least through her first term, while attempting to do triage as practically as possible. Obama is running as the clearer antiwar candidate. At the same time, Obama’s candidacy cannot fairly be cast as a McGovernite revival in tone or substance. He is not opposed to war as such. He is not opposed to the use of unilateral force, either—as demonstrated by his willingness to target al-Qaeda in Pakistan over the objections of the Pakistani government. He does not oppose the idea of democratization in the Muslim world as a general principle or the concept of nation building as such. He is not an isolationist, as his support for the campaign in Afghanistan proves.

Here, Sullivan quotes from the speech Obama gave in Chicago on 02-Oct-02, five months before the war, which I posted last February. Sullivan continues:

. . . . The man who opposed the war for the right reasons is for that reason the potential president with the most flexibility in dealing with it. Clinton is hemmed in by her past and her generation. If she pulls out too quickly, she will fall prey to the usual browbeating from the right—the same theme that has played relentlessly since 1968. If she stays in too long, the antiwar base of her own party, already suspicious of her, will pounce. The Boomer legacy imprisons her—and so it may continue to imprison us. The debate about the war in the next four years needs to be about the practical and difficult choices ahead of us—not about the symbolism or whether it’s a second Vietnam.
A generational divide also separates Clinton and Obama with respect to domestic politics. . . . . Obama. . . did not politically come of age during the Vietnam era, and he is simply less afraid of the right wing than Clinton is, because he has emerged on the national stage during a period of conservative decadence and decline. And so, for example, he felt much freer than Clinton to say he was prepared to meet and hold talks with hostile world leaders in his first year in office. He has proposed sweeping middle-class tax cuts and opposed drastic reforms of Social Security, without being tarred as a fiscally reckless liberal. (Of course, such accusations are hard to make after the fiscal performance of today’s “conservatives.”) Even his more conservative positions—like his openness to bombing Pakistan, or his support for merit pay for public-school teachers—do not appear to emerge from a desire or need to credentialize himself with the right. He is among the first Democrats in a generation not to be afraid or ashamed of what they actually believe, which also gives them more freedom to move pragmatically to the right, if necessary. He does not smell, as Clinton does, of political fear.

There are few areas where this Democratic fear is more intense than religion.


This struggle to embrace modernity without abandoning faith falls on one of the fault lines in the modern world. It is arguably the critical fault line, the tectonic rift that is advancing the bloody borders of Islam and the increasingly sectarian boundaries of American politics. As humankind abandons the secular totalitarianisms of the last century and grapples with breakneck technological and scientific discoveries, the appeal of absolutist faith is powerful in both developing and developed countries. It is the latest in a long line of rebukes to liberal modernity—but this rebuke has the deepest roots, the widest appeal, and the attraction that all total solutions to the human predicament proffer. . . .

You cannot confront the complex challenges of domestic or foreign policy today unless you understand this gulf and its seriousness. You cannot lead the United States without having a foot in both the religious and secular camps. This, surely, is where Bush has failed most profoundly. By aligning himself with the most extreme and basic of religious orientations, he has lost many moderate believers and alienated the secular and agnostic in the West. If you cannot bring the agnostics along in a campaign against religious terrorism, you have a problem.

Here again, Obama, by virtue of generation and accident, bridges this deepening divide. He was brought up in a nonreligious home and converted to Christianity as an adult. But—critically—he is not born-again. His faith—at once real and measured, hot and cool—lives at the center of the American religious experience. It is a modern, intellectual Christianity. . . .

And now, ultimately, and inevitably, race:

And this, of course, is the other element that makes Obama a potentially transformative candidate: race. Here, Obama again finds himself in the center of a complex fate, unwilling to pick sides in a divide that reaches back centuries and appears at times unbridgeable. His appeal to whites is palpable. I have felt it myself. Earlier this fall, I attended an Obama speech in Washington on tax policy that underwhelmed on delivery; his address was wooden, stilted, even tedious. It was only after I left the hotel that it occurred to me that I’d just been bored on tax policy by a national black leader. That I should have been struck by this was born in my own racial stereotypes, of course. But it won me over.


. . . . But there is no reason why African Americans cannot see the logic of Americanism that Obama also represents, a legacy that is ultimately theirs as well. To be black and white, to have belonged to a nonreligious home and a Christian church, to have attended a majority-Muslim school in Indonesia and a black church in urban Chicago, to be more than one thing and sometimes not fully anything—this is an increasingly common experience for Americans, including many racial minorities. Obama expresses such a conflicted but resilient identity before he even utters a word. And this complexity, with its internal tensions, contradictions, and moods, may increasingly be the main thing all Americans have in common.

None of this, of course, means that Obama will be the president some are dreaming of. His record in high office is sparse; his performances on the campaign trail have been patchy; his chief rival for the nomination, Senator Clinton, has bested him often with her relentless pursuit of the middle ground, her dogged attention to her own failings, and her much-improved speaking skills. At times, she has even managed to appear more inherently likable than the skinny, crabby, and sometimes morose newcomer from Chicago. Clinton’s most surprising asset has been the sense of security she instills. Her husband—and the good feelings that nostalgics retain for his presidency—have buttressed her case. In dangerous times, popular majorities often seek the conservative option, broadly understood.

Sullivan gets it:

The paradox is that Hillary makes far more sense if you believe that times are actually pretty good. If you believe that America’s current crisis is not a deep one, if you think that pragmatism alone will be enough to navigate a world on the verge of even more religious warfare, if you believe that today’s ideological polarization is not dangerous, and that what appears dark today is an illusion fostered by the lingering trauma of the Bush presidency, then the argument for Obama is not that strong. Clinton will do. And a Clinton-Giuliani race could be as invigorating as it is utterly predictable.

But if you sense, as I do, that greater danger lies ahead, and that our divisions and recent history have combined to make the American polity and constitutional order increasingly vulnerable, then the calculus of risk changes. Sometimes, when the world is changing rapidly, the greater risk is caution. Close-up in this election campaign, Obama is unlikely. From a distance, he is necessary. At a time when America’s estrangement from the world risks tipping into dangerous imbalance, when a country at war with lethal enemies is also increasingly at war with itself, when humankind’s spiritual yearnings veer between an excess of certainty and an inability to believe anything at all, and when sectarian and racial divides seem as intractable as ever, a man who is a bridge between these worlds may be indispensable.

We may in fact have finally found that bridge to the 21st century that Bill Clinton told us about. Its name is Obama.