Tag Archives: terrorism

Am I Charlie? Should I Be?

Let me start by saying what should be obvious, something I hope will provoke no disagreement: Nothing that people say or write or draw should get them killed. Not by a government, a church, a political party, or offended individuals. No opinion or blasphemy or insult or truth or lie, no matter how it’s packaged or delivered, justifies violence.

In almost every case, the proper response to speech is speech, or perhaps a shocked or dignified silence. Truth is the best answer to lies, insight the proper response to fallacy. Sometimes an insult can be topped by a cleverer insult, and sometimes it’s wiser to walk away. If a comedian tells a cruel joke and the audience responds with stunned silence, justice has been served. No violence is necessary or called for or warranted. Say what you may, you don’t “have it coming”. As Hassen Chalghoumi, the Muslim imam of the Paris suburb Drancy said in response to the Charlie Hebdo killings:

We can argue over liberty, but when we’re in disagreement we respond to art with art, to wit with wit. We never respond to a drawing with blood. No! Never.

Even the classic exception — yelling “Fire!” in a crowded theater — just calls for someone to put a hand over your mouth and hustle you out the door, maybe to face a misdemeanor charge that underlines the seriousness of the situation. No beat-down is necessary. No lengthy imprisonment. No execution.

Nothing you say or write or draw should get you killed.

My next point isn’t quite as obvious, but also shouldn’t be controversial: Some legal speech should be socially unacceptable. After Mel Gibson went on a drunken rant about the “fucking Jews”, he wasn’t imprisoned or assassinated, but his popularity took a dive. When Duck Dynasty‘s Phil Robertson spewed a lot of demeaning nonsense about gays, blacks, and anyone who isn’t Christian, he was not arrested, but the show’s ratings dropped.

If I started sprinkling words like nigger and faggot through all my conversations, I would be breaking no laws, but people would avoid me. If I talked like that in a workplace, to my co-workers or our employer’s customers, I’d probably get fired. That’s an entirely appropriate response that has nothing to do with free speech.

Free speech has social consequences. If you want to be protected against the nonviolent social consequences of what you say, you’re talking about something else, not free speech.

Free speech also doesn’t require anyone to sponsor my speech or provide a convenient platform for me to say things they find offensive. (That actually isn’t hypothetical; I occasionally get invitations to speak in public, which I believe would dry up if I made a habit of saying racist or otherwise hateful things.) So when A&E briefly decided to separate itself from Robertson (and then reversed that decision), that wasn’t about free speech. Neither were the examples raised by David Brooks Thursday in his NYT column. If the University of Illinois doesn’t want to pay a Catholic priest to preach his doctrine in a for-credit class as an adjunct professor (and then reverses that decision), that might violate academic freedom (depending on what academic freedom means in the tradition of that school), but not freedom of speech. If universities do or don’t want to host Ayaan Hirsi Ali or Bill Maher, that’s a sponsored-speech issue, not a free-speech issue.

If people respond to what I say by calling it “hate speech” or by calling me a racist or sexist or some other name I don’t like, my rights have not been violated. (No matter what Sarah Palin thinks the First Amendment says.) Those words don’t have some magical power to “silence” people. Free speech doesn’t end when I’m done speaking; other people get to speak too — about me, if they want.

So I should be free to say or write or draw what I want without violence, but everybody else should be free to argue with me or insult me or shun me, if that seems appropriate to them. And if your response to me seems over-the-top to some third person, he or she should be free to criticize or insult or shun you too. That’s how freedom works.

So am I Charlie? After 9-11, Le Monde titled an editorial “Nous sommes tous Américains” — we are all Americans. For decades, the French had resented being in the shadow of American power, and had been reluctant allies at best. But in 9-11 Le Monde saw a violation of the civilized principles France and America share, and realized that what had happened to us could happen to them. So they put aside any petty urge to gloat over our misfortune and instead chose to identify with us: In the aftermath of 9-11, we were all Americans, even if we happened to be French.

In the same spirit, the Charlie Hebdo massacre in Paris has people all over the world saying “Je suis Charlie” — I am Charlie. (Wednesday, it led to a Le Monde op-ed by American ambassador Jane Hartley gratefully recalling “Nous sommes tous Américains”.) But are we really Charlie? Should we be?

There are a lot of ways in which we are all Charlie, or wish we had it in us to be Charlie. Charlie Hebdo is a satirical magazine that refused to back down when it was threatened or even attacked. (It’s still not backing down; the next issue will have a million-copy run.) All of us want to speak freely, and want to identify with people who stand up to intimidation and bullying, even if we don’t always stand up ourselves. Nobody wants to see the bullies win.

To that end, a lot of web sites have been re-posting the Charlie cartoons that offended Muslims (with translations at Vox), and are presumably the ones that 12 people died for. If anybody thinks that murder is an effective way to suppress cartoons, they should find out how wrong they are. Here’s one:

“Muhammad Overwhelmed by Fundamentalists” says the headline, and Vox has a red-faced Muhammad saying “It’s hard to be loved by idiots.” That sentiment would also fit well in Jesus’ mouth, IMHO, and would make the cartoon funny, if that’s what it really said. I could imagine such a cartoon in The Onion.

But something isn’t quite right about Vox‘s translation, because idiot is a perfectly fine French word, and Muhammad isn’t saying it. French has never been my subject, but after a little poking around online, I’m suspecting that cons is actually closer to cunts, which changes the impact considerably. (That’s also the translation favored by Saturn’s Repository.)

Then there’s the cartoon I won’t re-post, but The Hooded Utilitarian did: the one that turns the Boko Haram sex slaves into welfare queens. Is that supposed to be funny?

The American media has been portraying Charlie Hebdo almost as a French equivalent of irreverent American publications like The Onion or Mad, but it really isn’t. Something much darker has been going on. Charlie wasn’t just trying to be funny without worrying who it offended; it was trying to offend people for the sake of offending them, while maybe incidentally being funny. And although you can find examples here and there of attacks on Catholics or Jews, it put special effort into offending Muslims.

Which leads to the next question: If Charlie Hebdo was attacked for baiting Muslims, should those of us who find ourselves identifying with Charlie carry on its mission by doing our own Muslim baiting?

For me, that’s where Je suis Charlie starts to break down. Glenn Greenwald makes the obvious comparison:

[I]t is self-evident that if a writer who specialized in overtly anti-black or anti-Semitic screeds had been murdered for their ideas, there would be no widespread calls to republish their trash in “solidarity” with their free speech rights.

Greenwald (who is of Jewish heritage but was not raised in any organized religion) illustrates that point by posting an ugly series of anti-Semitic cartoons and asking: “Is it time for me to be celebrated for my brave and noble defense of free speech rights?”

Punching down. Humor works best as a weapon of the weak against the powerful. But when the powerful make fun of the weak — like when popular high school jocks trip the new kid into a mud puddle and laugh — it soon stops being humorous and turns ugly.

Sometimes telling the weak from the powerful is tricky. When Rush Limbaugh plays “Barack the Magic Negro” on his show, is he a free citizen lampooning a powerful politician, or a rich and influential white celebrity telling American blacks that even the best of them don’t deserve his respect? I can imagine someone taking the first view, but the mere existence of the second restrains me from laughing.

In France, Muslims are not just a minority religion, they are an underclass. Many come from former French colonies like Algeria, and work low-status jobs for considerably less than the average French wage. Whatever other messages Charlie Hebdo‘s anti-Muslim cartoons might send, they also express the social power that educated white Frenchmen have over their darker-skinned menials. And that makes those drawings considerably less funny.

The Hooded Utilitarian sums up:

White men punching down is not a recipe for good satire, and needs to be called out. People getting upset does not prove that the satire was good. And, this is the hardest part, the murder of the satirists in question does not prove that their satire was good.

Satire, even bad satire or bigoted satire, is not something anybody should be killed for — or arrested or beaten up or vandalized for. I’m not making a both-sides-are-wrong point, because the wrong on one side is completely out of scale with the other. But that doesn’t mean I want to celebrate anti-Muslim bigotry.

So in some ways I want to be Charlie and in other ways I don’t. I hope that if anyone ever tries to intimidate me out of speaking my mind, I will be as courageous as the staff of Charlie Hebdo. I hope their successors remain free to print what they want, and that the people who appreciate their work remain free to buy it. But I can’t endorse what they published. All speech should be legal and free from violence, but some should be socially unacceptable.

5 Things to Understand About the Torture Report

You don’t have to read the full 525-page executive summary of the “torture report” — officially the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence’s Committee Study of the Central Intelligence Agency’s Detention and Interrogation Program — to get the gist. The 19-page “Findings and Conclusions” section begins right after Senator Feinstein’s six-page introduction and is very readable.

When something this long and detailed comes out and says things a lot of people don’t want to hear, it’s easy to get drawn off into arguments that miss the point. So here are my “findings”, the main things that I think the average American needs to understand:

  1. We tortured people.
  2. A lot of people.
  3. We gained virtually nothing from it.
  4. It was illegal.
  5. No one has been held accountable for it.

1. We tortured people. Past public discussions of torture focused primarily on waterboarding, but this report makes it clear that “enhanced interrogation” also included beatings, sleep deprivation (“up to 180 hours, usually standing or in stress positions”), ice water baths (at least one detainee died of exposure), threats against detainee’s families (“threats to harm the children of a detainee, threats to sexually abuse the mother of a detainee, and a threat to “cut [a detainee’s] mother’s throat”), and “rectal feeding without documented medical necessity”.

In addition, inexperienced and poorly trained interrogators sometimes made up their own unauthorized torture techniques, and were not punished for doing so.

Compare this to the definition in Article 1 of the United Nations Convention Against Torture, which President Reagan signed in 1988 and the Senate ratified in 1994,* making it “the supreme Law of the Land” according to Article VI of the Constitution:

For the purposes of this Convention, the term “torture” means any act by which severe pain or suffering, whether physical or mental, is intentionally inflicted on a person for such purposes as obtaining from him or a third person information or a confession, punishing him for an act he or a third person has committed or is suspected of having committed, or intimidating or coercing him or a third person, or for any reason based on discrimination of any kind, when such pain or suffering is inflicted by or at the instigation of or with the consent or acquiescence of a public official or other person acting in an official capacity.

If you are having any doubt about whether the acts described in the report are torture, imagine a foreign government doing them to an American. John McCain doesn’t have to imagine this, he can remember it, so he has no trouble calling the CIA’s program torture.

2. A lot of people. The public arguments about waterboarding usually led to the claim that we had only done it to three very bad people. But the report says the CIA applied “enhanced interrogation” to 119 people, many of whom didn’t meet the program’s own standards for inclusion.

These included an “intellectually challenged” man whose CIA detention was used solely as leverage to get a family member to provide information … and two individuals whom the CIA assessed to be connected to al-Qa’ida based solely on information fabricated by a CIA detainee subject to the the CIA’s enhanced interrogation techniques.

And remember: that’s just the CIA. It doesn’t count all the prisoners abused by the Army at Abu Ghraib and elsewhere. For an account of that torture, I recommend Fear Up Harsh by former Army interrogator Tony Lagouranis, who wrote:

Once introduced into war, torture will inevitably spread, because ticking bombs are everywhere. Each and every prisoner, without exception, has the potential to be the one that provides the information that will save American lives. So if you accept the logic that we have to perform torture to prevent deaths, each and every prisoner is deserving of torture.

3. We gained virtually nothing from it. Torture’s effectiveness in getting information out of people has been hotly debated all along. Dick Cheney and others claimed it was invaluable, while the sources Jane Mayer and Phillippe Sands talked to said otherwise. After reviewing the CIA’s records, the Senate Intelligence Committee began its findings by calling BS on torture advocates’ effectiveness claims.

#1: The CIA’s use of its enhanced interrogation techniques was not an effective means of acquiring intelligence or gaining cooperation from detainees.

The shocking thing you learn as you get into the history of the program is that there was never any real reason to think it would be effective. The program was not designed by experienced interrogators, but by a consulting psychologist with no experience, based not on techniques that had gotten information out of prisoners in the past, but on a program we ran to teach our own soldiers how to resist torture. In other word, “enhanced interrogation” was designed to be torture, not to get information.

The repeated claims that torture “saved American lives” were based on several types of deception: giving torture credit for everything a tortured detainee told us, even if he told us before he was tortured; giving torture credit for thwarting “plots” that were never more than a few terrorist wannabees talking big to each other; and picking out rare nuggets of truth from a spew of lies and nonsense after we’d gotten the same information some other way.

People under torture will start saying things to make it stop. If there’s a story you want to hear, they will tell it to you; that’s why torture is so good at forcing false confessions out of people. But it doesn’t seem to be a good way to get them to tell you the truth.

In addition to gaining us nothing, the torture program cost the United States a great deal, not just in money, but in our moral standing around the world, and our international relations. The report describes how U. S. ambassadors to various countries were not cleared to know about the secret prisons the CIA had arranged to build in those countries. We can only imagine how the rulers laughed when their U.S. ambassadors pressed them to be more transparent about human rights.

4. It was illegal. The memos written by the Bush administration’s Office of Legal Counsel were already bizarre distortions of the applicable law, ignoring the clear statements of Article 2.2 of the Convention Against Torture:

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.

and the Eighth Amendment:

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

These OLC torture memos have been repudiated by President Obama.

But the Senate report now informs us that the CIA was not telling the Bush OLC what their program was really doing, and was lying about its effectiveness.

OLC memoranda signed on May 30, 2005, and July 20, 2007, relied on these representations, determining that the techniques were legal in part because they produced “specific, actionable intelligence” and “substantial quantities of otherwise unavailable intelligence” that saved lives. … The CIA’s representations to the OLC about the techniques were also inconsistent with how the techniques would later be applied.

So the CIA lied to the OLC about what it was doing and whether it was working, and the OLC lied to the President about whether the program (as the CIA had described it) was legal. This was a frequent pattern in the Bush administration, which also turned up in the “evidence” that Saddam had an active WMD program: Some low-level analyst would shade his conclusions to correspond to what his boss wanted to hear; his boss would shade them further for his boss; and so on up the ladder.

What we don’t know for sure is whether Bush, Cheney, or other top officials wanted it this way. Were their underlings out of control and deceiving them about it? Or was this a wink-and-nod arrangement that gave the higher-ups deniability?

5. No one has been held accountable for it. In the early months of his administration, President Obama pledged that he would not prosecute the torturers at the CIA, justifying his position like this:

It is our intention to assure those who carried out their duties relying in good faith upon legal advice from the Department of Justice, that they will not be subject to prosecution.

That sort of made sense: Maybe you realize what you’re doing is dicey under the law, but you’re not a lawyer and the lawyers say you’re OK. It shouldn’t be a crime to trust them.

But now the Senate report makes it clear that at least some people at the CIA were manipulating the Department of Justice’s Office of Legal Counsel, feeding it false information about the nature and success of their program, and then doing more than the OLC torture memos authorized. Nevertheless, Obama has shown no signs of changing his position.

Subsequent to his boss’ declaration, Obama’s chief of staff elaborated that the policy-makers who OK’d torture and the lawyers who invented bogus justifications for it would also not be prosecuted. He didn’t explain, but simply said, “That’s not the place that we go.” So the Obama administration ratified what law professor Jonathan Turley had dubbed “Mukasey’s Paradox” in honor of Bush attorney general Michael Mukasey:

Under Mukasey’s Paradox, lawyers cannot commit crimes when they act under the orders of a president — and a president cannot commit a crime when he acts under advice of lawyers.

In other words, if a president orders his OLC lawyers to find a way to justify him doing whatever, they all get off scot free.

But then there’s that pesky Convention Against Torture again, and that whole constitutional thing about treaties being the supreme law of the land. Countries that sign the CAT — like the United States — are obligated to investigate and prosecute cases of torture within their jurisdiction. Republicans love to call President Obama “lawless” and accuse him of failing to “faithfully execute the laws” as the Constitution mandates. I’ve argued in the past that those claims are bogus, but in this case — a case where nearly all Republicans agree with him — Obama really is failing to execute the laws.

University of Chicago law professor Eric Posner offers this argument against prosecution:

When the president takes actions that he sincerely believes advance national security, and officials throughout the government participate for the same reason, then an effort to punish the behavior—unavoidably, a massive effort that could result in trials of hundreds of people—poses a real risk to democratic governance.

Obama’s problem is that if he can prosecute Republican officeholders for authorizing torture, then the next Republican president can prosecute Obama and his subordinates for the many questionable legal actions of the Obama administration—say, the drone strike that killed Anwar al-Awlaki and three other American citizens.

In practice, this honor-among-thieves argument comes dangerously close to Nixon’s adage that “when the President does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Nobody is willing to follow it as far as it would go. A president might order genocide out of a sincere belief that the targeted race constitutes a risk to national security, and underlings might carry out those orders for the same reason. (I suspect most of the world’s genocides can be made to fit that pattern.) Should they get off?

I want to stand Posner’s argument on its head: What endangers democratic governance is the tacit agreement that neither party will prosecute its predecessors (except for Blagojevich-style personal corruption) no matter what laws they break. I’m a Democrat who voted for Obama twice, but I would welcome an investigation of the legality of the drone program. If it’s a war crime, then people should stand trial, up to and including President Obama himself.

Posner may be right that no jury would convict a CIA torturer, or someone like Bush or Cheney — or Obama for that matter. But that’s a jury’s decision to make, and not anyone else’s.

So what about ticking bombs? In the ticking-bomb scenario torture defenders love to cite, you are absolutely certain that

  • a hidden nuclear bomb is about to destroy some city like New York, killing millions
  • a guy you are holding knows where it is and how to disarm it
  • he’ll tell you if you torture him, but not otherwise

It’s worth noting that this was not the case for any of the 119 detainees the CIA tortured. So we’re weighing a made-for-TV movie scenario against 119 real people.

In any real situation, you wouldn’t know any of this. You’d have unconfirmed reports about a bomb, which might or might not work, set to go off sometime. You’d suspect this guy was part of the plot. You’d hope he had the information you need. And maybe torture would get it out of him, or maybe it would just solidify his resolve — which otherwise might have melted at the last minute as the enormity of the crime became real to him. So you’d be acting on a hunch, with the possibility that maybe you want torture this guy out of frustration with your own helplessness rather than because it would accomplish anything.

But suppose you’re convinced that torture will make the difference here and save New York. What should happen? I think you save New York, but then you turn yourself in and throw yourself on the mercy of a jury (hopefully a jury of New Yorkers). If you’re not willing to take that risk, then you’re no hero. You’re willing to make somebody else suffer to save lives, but not willing to risk suffering yourself.

There should never be a process that can give prior approval to torture, or hide it after the fact. Everybody who decides to torture in America’s name should have to face his fellow citizens.

Truth and reconciliation. One suggestion to preserve at least some of the integrity of our legal system is that President Obama could offer formal pardons to the Americans involved in torture, from President Bush on down to the guys who poured the water during waterboarding. ACLU Executive Director Anthony Romero explains:

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

Jonathan Bernstein agrees, hoping that generous pardons would take the partisanship out of torture, and allow Republicans to condemn it. But he adds:

A final step has to be a truth and reconciliation commission to detail what happened and how counterproductive it was. … The only way to get the truth, in other words, is to make it clear that a commission will treat the people involved generously, even if its investigation shows the horrors of what they did.

Truth and reconciliation commissions have been used in many countries — notably South Africa — to move on after a national moral catastrophe. I have my doubts it would work here (and so does Bernstein). But if the alternative is to do nothing …

* The Convention Against Torture was ratified with official reservations. But none of the reservations mention Article 1 or Article 2.2.

Terrorist Strategy 101: a review

What if ISIS acts like our worst nightmare because it needs us to attack?

It’s been ten years since I wrote “Terrorist Strategy 101: a quiz” explaining how Osama bin Laden’s apparent insanity actually made sense. In retrospect, I overestimated Al Qaeda’s ability to launch attacks in the U.S. — a popular mistake at the time — but the general framework holds up pretty well. Replace “Bin Laden” with “al-Baghdadi” and “al Qaeda” with “ISIS”, and the main points still apply today.

The core message of TS-101 is that if you are a violent extremist with a big dream, your toughest problem isn’t that there are violent extremists on the other side ready to oppose you. Your toughest problem is that almost all the people who (at least at some level) share your big dream have better things to do with their lives. They have jobs and kids and classes, bands that might hit it big, possible lovers to flirt with, and novels they’re sure would be best-sellers if only they could get them finished.

If you’re a would-be Supreme Leader, it’s a huge challenge: Around the world, people would rather get on with the business of living than give their all to the Great Struggle.

Somehow you have to screw that up.

So your big mission — which, ironically, you share with the extremists on the other side of the spectrum — is to flatten the bell curve. In order to bring your air-castles to Earth, you need to make the center untenable. All those folks who consider themselves moderates — if you let them, they’ll muddle along while you get old and the Great Historical Moment slips away. You need everyone to realize right now that compromise is impossible, the other side can’t be trusted, and we all have to kill or be killed.

Perversely, your best allies in this phase of the struggle are the people you hate most, who also hate you. Of course you’d never actually conspire with them, minions of Satan that they are. But you don’t need to, because the steps in your dance are obvious from either tail of the distribution: rachet up the rhetoric and escalate an attack-and-reprisal cycle until compromise really is impossible and everyone is radicalized. Only after the center is gone do the two extremes meet in the second round of the play-offs. It’s a very basic pattern of history, and it never changes: from Caesar/Pompey to Bin Laden/Cheney, extremists have to come in pairs, because they need each other.

What ISIS has.

OK, so now imagine you’re Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi, leader of ISIS. At the moment, you control a large swath of not very much. In Iraq, the Shiite government holds the southern oil fields around Basra, and the Kurds have the northern fields around Kirkuk. You’ve got the western desert. In Syria, flip it around: All the good stuff is in the west, and you’ve got the east. You made headlines by expanding your map-area really fast, but that’s because there wasn’t much there in the first place. (John McCain and Lesley Graham describe your territory as “the size of Indiana“, but a better analogy would be the parts of Nevada that don’t include Reno or Vegas.)

But you do have one important asset. You are the current holder of the Big Dream: a re-unified Caliphate, all the Muslims in the world (or at least the Sunnis) joined in the kind of empire that made Harun al-Rashid a storybook legend. Once, before the West cut the Dar-al-Islam into little pieces and put puppet kings and sticky-fingered generals in charge of each one, Baghdad was the jewel of the world, the center of the greatest empire on Earth.

It could be again.

Lots and lots of the world’s billion-or-so Muslims share that dream at a low level, the way suburban Methodists share the dream of Jesus’ return. It’ll happen someday and that’ll be great, but … you know … I’ve got to get ready for that thing at the office Monday afternoon, and then there’s little Jamal’s soccer game in the evening.

You need to screw that up — all the distracting stuff that gives Muslims from Morocco to Indonesia more to live for than the dream of the Caliphate — and you can’t do it alone. You need help if you’re going to radicalize enough idealistic young men and women to overthrow the current governments of Jordan, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Pakistan, and a dozen other places.

A restored Islamic Caliphate.

You need America.

In particular, you need a big, blundering, violent America that kills children and calls it “collateral damage” as if Muslims weren’t human at all. You need American troops kicking down doors of innocent families and looking under the chadors of virtuous women in case they might have weapons down there. You need the American president acting like he’s Emperor of the World, drawing other countries’ borders and deciding who can be involved in their governments.

You need an America that says it’s at war with all of Islam — not just you, all of it. Nobody believes you when you say that, but when Americans say it, they will.

You need an America that won’t let its own Muslims assimilate, that harasses them whenever they try to fly or build houses of worship or just walk around looking like Muslims.

You need an America that is scared of you. Nobody cares if you proclaim yourself Grand High Poobah of Everything. But if Americans are on global TV, telling the world that you’re the Baddest Baddy in the History of Badness … you can work with that. That looks great on your website. Deep down, lots of the people whose allegiance you are seeking wish they had what it takes to make U.S. senators quiver with fear or quake with anger. If you have that special something, they’re going to want to identify with you.

Maybe you need to wave a red handkerchief at the American bull to get him to charge. So don’t just execute the Americans you find. (Any thug can do that.) Cut off their heads and put the videos on YouTube. You and I both know that it makes no difference — dead is dead, after all, whether the instrument of death is a barbaric sword or a civilized missile from a high-tech aerial drone. But Americans go crazy when you do shit like that. Maybe crazy enough to come back and start killing people again, crazy enough to return their soldiers to places where ordinary people can get a shot at them. And then the cycle will become self-stoking, because the dead can’t have died in vain, can they? Once you get the feedback loop started, death justifies more death.

So far, it seems to be working.

And so you don’t have to be a mind-reader to know what al-Baghdadi is thinking right now: Thank you John McCain and Lindsey Graham. Thank you, Joe Biden. Thank you, Phil Robertson and Sean Hannity. Thanks to all the other crazy right-wing Christian preachers far too numerous to list. Thanks to everybody who is making it impossible for President Obama to follow his own advice not to “do stupid stuff“.

The stupid stuff ISIS needs from America is on its way, so al-Baghdadi is grateful to all of you. You’re doing a job he could never do for himself.

But he owes you nothing, because it’s a fair trade: He’s radicalizing your followers just like you’re radicalizing his. The bell curve is flattening. The center is becoming untenable.

It’s amazing what extremists can accomplish when they share a common goal.

Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party

Tea Partiers say you don’t understand them because you don’t understand American history. That’s probably true, but not in the way they want you to think.

Late in 2012, I came out of the Lincoln movie with two historical mysteries to solve:

  • How did the two parties switch places regarding the South, white supremacy, and civil rights? In Lincoln’s day, a radical Republican was an abolitionist, and when blacks did get the vote, they almost unanimously voted Republican. Today, the archetypal Republican is a Southern white, and blacks are almost all Democrats. How did American politics get from there to here?
  • One of the movie’s themes was how heavily the war’s continuing carnage weighed on Lincoln. (It particularly came through during Grant’s guided tour of the Richmond battlefield.) Could any cause, however lofty, justify this incredible slaughter? And yet, I realized, Lincoln was winning. What must the Confederate leaders have been thinking, as an even larger percentage of their citizens died, as their cities burned, and as the accumulated wealth of generations crumbled? Where was their urge to end this on any terms, rather than wait for complete destruction?

The first question took some work, but yielded readily to patient googling. I wrote up the answer in “A Short History of White Racism in the Two-Party System“. The second turned out to be much deeper than I expected, and set off a reading project that has eaten an enormous amount of my time over the last two years. (Chunks of that research have shown up in posts like “Slavery Lasted Until Pearl Harbor“, “Cliven Bundy and the Klan Komplex“, and my review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ article on reparations.) Along the way, I came to see how I (along with just about everyone I know) have misunderstood large chunks of American history, and how that misunderstanding clouds our perception of what is happening today.

Who really won the Civil War? The first hint at how deep the second mystery ran came from the biography Jefferson Davis: American by William J. Cooper. In 1865, not only was Davis not agonizing over how to end the destruction, he wanted to keep it going longer. He disapproved of Lee’s surrender at Appomattox, and when U. S. troops finally captured him, he was on his way to Texas, where an intact army might continue the war.

That sounded crazy until I read about Reconstruction. In my high school history class, Reconstruction was a mysterious blank period between Lincoln’s assassination and Edison’s light bulb. Congress impeached Andrew Johnson for some reason, the transcontinental railroad got built, corruption scandals engulfed the Grant administration, and Custer lost at Little Big Horn. But none of it seemed to have much to do with present-day events.

And oh, those blacks Lincoln emancipated? Except for Booker T. Washington and George Washington Carver, they vanished like the Lost Tribes of Israel. They wouldn’t re-enter history until the 1950s, when for some reason they still weren’t free.

Here’s what my teachers’ should have told me: “Reconstruction was the second phase of the Civil War. It lasted until 1877, when the Confederates won.” I think that would have gotten my attention.

It wasn’t just that Confederates wanted to continue the war. They did continue it, and they ultimately prevailed. They weren’t crazy, they were just stubborn.

The Lost Cause. At about the same time my American history class was leaving a blank spot after 1865, I saw Gone With the Wind, which started filling it in like this: Sadly, the childlike blacks weren’t ready for freedom and full citizenship. Without the discipline of their white masters, many became drunks and criminals, and they raped a lot of white women. Northern carpetbaggers used them (and no-account white scalawags) as puppets to control the South, and to punish the planter aristocrats, who prior to the war had risen to the top of Southern society through their innate superiority and virtue.

But eventually the good men of the South could take it no longer, so they formed the Ku Klux Klan to protect themselves and their communities. They were never able to restore the genteel antebellum society — that Eden was gone with the wind, a noble but ultimately lost cause — but they were eventually able to regain the South’s honor and independence. Along the way, they relieved their beloved black servants of the onerous burden of political equality, until such time as they might become mature enough to bear it responsibly.

A still from The Birth of a Nation

That telling of history is now named for its primary proponent, William Dunning. It is false in almost every detail. If history is written by the winners, Dunning’s history is the clearest evidence that the Confederates won. [see endnote 1]

Margaret Mitchell’s 1936 novel had actually toned it down a little. To feel the full impact of Dunning-school history, you need to read Thomas Dixon’s 1905 best-seller, The Clansman: a historical romance of the Ku Klux Klan. Or watch the 1915 silent movie made from it, The Birth of a Nation, which was the most popular film of all time until Gone With the Wind broke its records.

The iconic hooded Klansman on his horse, the Knight of the Invisible Empire, was the Luke Skywalker of his day.

The first modern war. The Civil War was easy to misunderstand at the time, because there had never been anything like it. It was a total mobilization of society, the kind Europe wouldn’t see until World War I. The Civil War was fought not just with cannons and bayonets, but with railroads and factories and an income tax.

If the Napoleonic Wars were your model, then it was obvious that the Confederacy lost in 1865: Its capital fell, its commander surrendered, its president was jailed, and its territories were occupied by the opposing army. If that’s not defeat, what is?

But now we have a better model than Napoleon: Iraq.

After the U.S. forces won on the battlefield in 1865 and shattered the organized Confederate military, the veterans of that shattered army formed a terrorist insurgency that carried on a campaign of fire and assassination throughout the South until President Hayes agreed to withdraw the occupying U. S. troops in 1877. Before and after 1877, the insurgents used lynchings and occasional pitched battles to terrorize those portions of the electorate still loyal to the United States. In this way they took charge of the machinery of state government, and then rewrote the state constitutions to reverse the postwar changes and restore the supremacy of the class that led the Confederate states into war in the first place. [2]

By the time it was all over, the planter aristocrats were back in control, and the three constitutional amendments that supposedly had codified the U.S.A’s victory over the C.S.A.– the 13th, 14th, and 15th — had been effectively nullified in every Confederate state. The Civil Rights Acts had been gutted by the Supreme Court, and were all but forgotten by the time similar proposals resurfaced in the 1960s. Blacks were once again forced into hard labor for subsistence wages, denied the right to vote, and denied the equal protection of the laws. Tens of thousands of them were still physically shackled and subject to being whipped, a story historian Douglas Blackmon told in his Pulitzer-winning Slavery By Another Name.

So Lincoln and Grant may have had their mission-accomplished moment, but ultimately the Confederates won. The real Civil War — the one that stretched from 1861 to 1877 — was the first war the United States lost.

The missed opportunity. Today, historians like Eric Foner and Douglas Egerton portray Reconstruction as a missed opportunity to avoid Jim Crow and start trying to heal the wounds of slavery a century sooner. Following W.E.B. DuBois’ iconoclastic-for-1935 Black Reconstruction, they see the freedmen as actors in their own history, rather than mere pawns or victims of whites. As a majority in Mississippi and South Carolina, and a substantial voting bloc across the South, blacks briefly used the democratic system to try to better their lot. If the federal government had protected the political process from white terrorism, black (and American) history could have taken an entirely different path.

In particular, 1865 was a moment when reparations and land reform were actually feasible. Late in the war, some of Lincoln’s generals — notably Sherman — had mitigated their slave-refugee problem by letting emancipated slaves farm small plots on the plantations that had been abandoned by their Confederate owners. Sick or injured animals unable to advance with the Army were left behind for the slaves to nurse back to health and use. (Hence “forty acres and a mule”.) Sherman’s example might have become a land-reform model for the entire Confederacy, dispossessing the slave-owning aristocrats in favor of the people whose unpaid labor had created their wealth.

Instead, President Johnson (himself a former slave-owner from Tennessee) was quick to pardon the aristocrats and restore their lands. [3] That created a dynamic that has been with us ever since: Early in Reconstruction, white and black working people sometimes made common cause against their common enemies in the aristocracy. But once it became clear that the upper classes were going to keep their ill-gotten holdings, freedmen and working-class whites were left to wrestle over the remaining slivers of the pie. Before long, whites who owned little land and had never owned slaves had become the shock troops of the planters’ bid to restore white supremacy.

Along the way, the planters created rhetoric you still hear today: The blacks were lazy and would rather wait for gifts from the government than work (in conditions very similar to slavery). In this way, the idle planters were able to paint the freedmen as parasites who wanted to live off the hard work of others.

The larger pattern. But the enduring Confederate influence on American politics goes far beyond a few rhetorical tropes. The essence of the Confederate worldview is that the democratic process cannot legitimately change the established social order, and so all forms of legal and illegal resistance are justified when it tries.

That worldview is alive and well. During last fall’s government shutdown and threatened debt-ceiling crisis, historian Garry Wills wrote about our present-day Tea Partiers: “The presiding spirit of this neo-secessionism is a resistance to majority rule.”

The Confederate sees a divinely ordained way things are supposed to be, and defends it at all costs. No process, no matter how orderly or democratic, can justify fundamental change.

When in the majority, Confederates protect the established order through democracy. If they are not in the majority, but have power, they protect it through the authority of law. If the law is against them, but they have social standing, they create shams of law, which are kept in place through the power of social disapproval. If disapproval is not enough, they keep the wrong people from claiming their legal rights by the threat of ostracism and economic retribution. If that is not intimidating enough, there are physical threats, then beatings and fires, and, if that fails, murder.

That was the victory plan of Reconstruction. Black equality under the law was guaranteed by the 14th Amendment. But in the Confederate mind, no democratic process could legitimate such a change in the social order. It simply could not be allowed to stand, and it did not stand.

In the 20th century, the Confederate pattern of resistance was repeated against the Civil Rights movement. And though we like to claim that Martin Luther King won, in many ways he did not. School desegregation, for example, was never viewed as legitimate, and was resisted at every level. And it has been overcome. By most measures, schools are as segregated as ever, and the opportunities in white schools still far exceed the opportunities in non-white schools.

Today, ObamaCare cannot be accepted. No matter that it was passed by Congress, signed by the President, found constitutional by the Supreme Court, and ratified by the people when they re-elected President Obama. It cannot be allowed to stand, and so the tactics for destroying it get ever more extreme. The point of violence has not yet been reached, but the resistance is still young.

Violence is a key component of the present-day strategy against abortion rights, as Judge Myron Thompson’s recent ruling makes clear. Legal, political, social, economic, and violent methods of resistance mesh seamlessly. The Alabama legislature cannot ban abortion clinics directly, so it creates reasonable-sounding regulations the clinics cannot satisfy, like the requirement that abortionists have admitting privileges at local hospitals. Why can’t they fulfill that requirement? Because hospitals impose the reasonable-sounding rule that their doctors live and practice nearby, while many Alabama abortionists live out of state. The clinics can’t replace them with local doctors, because protesters will harass the those doctors’ non-abortion patients and drive the doctors out of any business but abortion. A doctor who chooses that path will face threats to his/her home and family. And doctors who ignore such threats have been murdered.

Legislators, of course, express horror at the murder of doctors, just as the pillars of 1960s Mississippi society expressed horror at the Mississippi Burning murders, and the planter aristocrats shook their heads sadly at the brutality of the KKK and the White Leagues. But the strategy is all of a piece and always has been. Change cannot stand, no matter what documents it is based on or who votes for them. If violence is necessary, so be it.

Unbalanced. This is not a universal, both-sides-do-it phenomenon. Compare, for example, the responses to the elections of our last two presidents. Like many liberals, I will go to my grave believing that if every person who went to the polls in 2000 had succeeded in casting the vote s/he intended, George W. Bush would never have been president. I supported Gore in taking his case to the courts. And, like Gore, once the Supreme Court ruled in Bush’s favor — incorrectly, in my opinion — I dropped the issue.

For liberals, the Supreme Court was the end of the line. Any further effort to replace Bush would have been even less legitimate than his victory. Subsequently, Democrats rallied around President Bush after 9/11, and I don’t recall anyone suggesting that military officers refuse his orders on the grounds that he was not a legitimate president.

Barack Obama, by contrast, won a huge landslide in 2008, getting more votes than any president in history. And yet, his legitimacy has been questioned ever since. The Birther movement was created out of whole cloth, there never having been any reason to doubt the circumstances of Obama’s birth. Outrageous conspiracy theories of voter fraud — millions and millions of votes worth — have been entertained on no basis whatsoever. Immediately after Obama took office, the Oath Keeper movement prepared itself to refuse his orders.

A black president calling for change, who owes most of his margin to black voters — he himself is a violation of the established order. His legitimacy cannot be conceded.

Confederates need guns. The South is a place, but the Confederacy is a worldview. To this day, that worldview is strongest in the South, but it can be found all over the country (as are other products of Southern culture, like NASCAR and country music). A state as far north as Maine has a Tea Party governor.

Gun ownership is sometimes viewed as a part of Southern culture, but more than that, it plays a irreplaceable role in the Confederate worldview. Tea Partiers will tell you that the Second Amendment is our protection against “tyranny”. But in practice tyranny simply means a change in the established social order, even if that change happens — maybe especially if it happens — through the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. If the established social order cannot be defended by votes and laws, then it will be defended by intimidation and violence. How are We the People going to shoot abortion doctors and civil rights activists if we don’t have guns?

Occasionally this point becomes explicit, as when Nevada Senate candidate Sharron Angle said this:

You know, our Founding Fathers, they put that Second Amendment in there for a good reason and that was for the people to protect themselves against a tyrannical government. And in fact Thomas Jefferson said it’s good for a country to have a revolution every 20 years. I hope that’s not where we’re going, but, you know, if this Congress keeps going the way it is, people are really looking toward those Second Amendment remedies and saying my goodness what can we do to turn this country around? I’ll tell you the first thing we need to do is take Harry Reid out.

Angle wasn’t talking about anything more “tyrannical” than our elected representatives voting for things she didn’t like (like ObamaCare or stimulus spending). If her side can’t fix that through elections, well then, the people who do win those elections will just have to be intimidated or killed. Angle doesn’t want it to come to that, but if liberals won’t yield peacefully to the conservative minority, what other choice is there?

Gun-rights activist Larry Pratt doesn’t even seem regretful:

“The Second Amendment is not for hunting, it’s not even for self-defense,” Pratt explained in his Leadership Institute talk. Rather, it is “for restraining tyrannical tendencies in government. Especially those in the liberal, tyrannical end of the spectrum. There is some restraint, and even if the voters of Brooklyn don’t hold them back, it may be there are other ways that their impulses are somewhat restrained. That’s the whole idea of the Second Amendment.”

So the Second Amendment is there not to defend democracy, but to fix what the progressive “voters of Brooklyn” get wrong.

It’s not a Tea Party. The Boston Tea Party protest was aimed at a Parliament where the colonists had no representation, and at an appointed governor who did not have to answer to the people he ruled. Today’s Tea Party faces a completely different problem: how a shrinking conservative minority can keep change at bay in spite of the democratic processes defined in the Constitution. That’s why they need guns. That’s why they need to keep the wrong people from voting in their full numbers.

These right-wing extremists have misappropriated the Boston patriots and the Philadelphia founders because their true ancestors — Jefferson Davis and the Confederates — are in poor repute. [4]

But the veneer of Bostonian rebellion easily scrapes off; the tea bags and tricorn hats are just props. The symbol Tea Partiers actually revere is the Confederate battle flag. Let a group of right-wingers ramble for any length of time, and you will soon hear that slavery wasn’t really so bad, that Andrew Johnson was right, that Lincoln shouldn’t have fought the war, that states have the rights of nullification and secession, that the war wasn’t really about slavery anyway, and a lot of other Confederate mythology that (until recently) had left me asking, “Why are we talking about this?”

By contrast, the concerns of the Massachusetts Bay Colony and its revolutionary Sons of Liberty are never so close to the surface. So no. It’s not a Tea Party. It’s a Confederate Party.

Our modern Confederates are quick to tell the rest of us that we don’t understand them because we don’t know our American history. And they’re right. If you knew more American history, you would realize just how dangerous these people are.


[1] The other clear evidence stands in front of nearly every courthouse in the South: statues of Confederate heroes. You have to be blind not to recognize them as victory monuments. In the Jim Crow era, these stone sentries guarded the centers of civic power against Negroes foolish enough to try to register to vote or claim their other constitutional rights.

Calhoun way up high

In Away Down South: a history of Southern identity, James C. Cobb elaborates:

African Americans understood full well what monuments to the antebellum white regime were all about. When Charleston officials erected a statue of proslavery champion John C. Calhoun, “blacks took that statue personally,” Mamie Garvin Fields recalled. After all, “here was Calhoun looking you in the face and telling you, ‘Nigger, you may not be a slave but I’m back to see you stay in your places.’ ” In response, Fields explained, “we used to carry something with us, if we knew we would be passing that way, in order to deface that statue — scratch up the coat, break up the watch chain, try to knock off the nose. … [C]hildren and adults beat up John C. Calhoun so badly that the whites had to come back and put him way up high, so we couldn’t get to him.”

[2] The vocabulary of this struggle is illuminating. A carpetbagger was a no-account Northerner who arrived in the South with nothing more than the contents of a carpetbag. A scalawag was a lower-class Southern white who tried to rise above his betters in the post-war chaos. The class-based nature of these insults demonstrates who was authorizing this history: the planter aristocrats.

For a defense of the claim that the aristocrats intentionally led the South into war, see Douglas Egerton’s Year of Meteors: Stephen Douglas, Abraham Lincoln, and the Election that Brought on the Civil War.

[3] Though Congress had to find other “high crimes and misdemeanors” for their bill of impeachment, Johnson’s betrayal of the United States’ battlefield victory was the real basis of the attempt to remove him.

[4] Jefferson Davis and the Confederates also misappropriated the Founders. It started with John Calhoun’s Discourse on the Constitution and Government of the United States, published posthumously in 1851, which completely misrepresented the Founders and their Constitution. Calhoun’s view (that the Union was a consortium of states with no direct relationship to the people) would have made perfect sense if the Constitution had begun “We the States” rather than “We the People”.

Calhoun disagreed with Jefferson on one key point: All men are not created equal.

Modern conservatives who attribute their views to the Founders are usually unknowingly relying on Calhoun’s false image of the Founders, which was passed down through Davis and from there spread widely in Confederate folklore.

Edward Snowden Is Not the Issue

Focusing Snowden distracts us from the NSA. The NSA loves that.

Whether Edward Snowden is a hero or a traitor* makes for great talking-head debates. Why did he do it? Will he get away with it? What’s he going to do next?

Let me ask a better question: Why do you care? You’re not going to invite Snowden over for dinner or offer him a job, so why do you need to know whether he’s a good person or not? On the other hand, if you’re planning to keep living in the United States, or in any country under the influence of the United States, how the NSA might be spying on you is important. That’s where your attention should be.

I know, I know. Making Snowden the issue lets journalists interview Snowden’s attractive girlfriend (an ABC News article — with picture, naturally — describes her as “an acrobatic pole performer“), her father, and even some woman who lives next door to his mother. (He “seemed like a nice young man”.)

Pole dancer!

Great stuff for ratings, but completely beside the point — what the logicians call an ad hominem fallacy. It’s also standard operating procedure when anybody blows the whistle on wrong-doing in high places: First make the whistleblower the issue, and then assassinate his or her character.

Leaving pole dancers out of it for a few minutes, let’s review the important questions:

Are the programs Snowden described real? Yes. So far the government is not denying the authenticity of the documents Snowden has leaked. Much of it they have verified.

Are they as invasive as the Guardian article made them sound? Unclear. As the techies look at the leaked PRISM documents, many are concluding that one key slide was misinterpreted. It doesn’t really mean that the NSA has a pipe into the central servers at Google and Facebook, from which it can grab whatever it wants at will. There seems to be more process involved than that.

On the other hand, AP reports:

But interviews with more than a dozen current and former government and technology officials and outside experts show that, while Prism has attracted the recent attention, the program actually is a relatively small part of a much more expansive and intrusive eavesdropping effort.

CNET reports the NSA admitting in a congressional briefing that their analysts can listen to phone calls on their own authority, just as Snowden said he could. But other sources are saying that also is based on a misunderstanding. Julian Sanchez does a good job of sorting out what we know and don’t know.

Legally speaking, the analysts don’t have carte blanche. In other words, this isn’t “warrantless wiretapping” so much as “general warrant wiretapping.” They can’t just tap any old call or read any old e-mail they strikes them as “suspicious.” They’ve got to be flagging content for interception because they believe it’s covered by a particular §702 authorization, and observe whatever “targeting procedures” the FISA Court has established for the relevant authorization.

On the third hand, it’s not clear who is enforcing those rules or whether the analysts ever break them.

Are they legal? It depends on what the meaning of is is.  If you mean: “Can the government point to laws and procedures that they are following?”, then the answer seems to be yes. But if the question is whether those laws and procedures fulfill the Fourth Amendment‘s guarantee of “the right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures”, I would say no.

Are the safeguards protecting the privacy of innocent people working? We don’t yet have an egregious example of them not working. But if it makes you feel safe that a secret court has to approve these programs, you should read what retired Judge Nancy Gertner says:

As a former Article III judge, I can tell you that your faith in the FISA Court is dramatically misplaced.

The judges appointed to this court aren’t representative of the judiciary as a whole, and chosen precisely because they are sympathetic to government power.

it’s not boat rockers. … To suggest that there is meaningful review it seems to me is an illusion.

Congressional oversight also looks more impressive on paper than it seems to be in practice. WaPo reporter Bruce Gellman said on Face the Nation:

Aside from the members of the intelligence committees, there is something near zero members of Congress who have a member of their staff who is cleared to know anything about this.

He described a “locked room” where Congressmen can go to read unbelievably complicated documents for themselves, “and the number of members who do that is zero.”

What’s the effect on democracy if those safeguards fail? The country would effectively be ruled by the people who know everybody else’s secrets. How many congressmen could vote against them? What president could shut them down?

Do these programs really catch terrorists? I’m impressed that Al Franken says they do. But I’m not impressed that we have to take other people’s word for it. It’s like the torture debate: The government can say it works, but if we’re not cleared to look at the evidence, then why should we believe them?

And none of these claims assess how much domestic terrorist recruitment is aided by Americans’ sense that they are subjects of a government beyond their control or understanding.

Why do they have to be secret? Senator Tester denies that Snowden’s leaks harmed national security. And it’s hard to imagine a terrorist cell that wouldn’t already be thinking about people tapping its phones and reading its email.

Some details need to be secret — plans for the H-bomb, dates for the D-Day invasion, and so on. But the government’s interpretations of the laws should never be secret. The American people are owed a map of the rights they have lost, and at every wall that keeps them from knowing more, we are owed an explanation of why we can’t know more. We haven’t gotten that yet.

*Notice what a hero/traitor dichotomy assumes. If what the government is doing is evil, then Snowden could be both a hero and a traitor.

PRISM and Privacy

This week’s big story was the series of revelations about government spying on ordinary Americans. I don’t see the Weekly Sift as a breaking-news blog, but before we can get around to reflecting on how upset we should be and what we should do about it, let’s establish what happened.

Verizon metadata. It started Wednesday, with Glenn Greenwald’s scoop that Verizon turns its caller records over to the NSA every day. The report was based on a copy of an order from the secret FISA court that oversees the government’s secret snooping. The order, in turn, is based on an expansive interpretation of a provision of the Patriot Act.

Leaks during the Bush administration revealed that call records were being swept up into a massive government database, but

Until now, there has been no indication that the Obama administration implemented a similar program.

Three related New Yorker articles are worth reading: a Seymour Hersh article about what the NSA was doing in 2006, Jane Mayer explaining just how much about the content of a phone call can be deduced from metadata, and (laughing to keep your sanity) Andy Borowitz’s satirical “Letter to Verizon Customers” in which the company explains that

While the harvesting and surveillance of your domestic phone calls were not a part of your original Verizon service contract, the National Security Agency is providing this service entirely free of charge.

Probably there’s nothing special about Verizon; that’s just the court order we happen to have.

PRISM. Thursday, The Guardian and The Washington Post published a leaked slide presentation on the top-secret PRISM program, in which “search history, the content of emails, file transfers and live chats” are collected directly from the servers of major U.S. service providers like Google, Facebook, and Apple. As the then-anonymous leaker claimed, “They quite literally can watch your ideas form as you type.”

Edward Snowden. This weekend, I was explaining to my wife that I didn’t understand why the leaker was staying anonymous, since the NSA was going to figure it out anyway. He might as well orchestrate the announcement himself, rather than be introduced to the world while doing a perp walk.

It turns out he was having similar thoughts. Saturday Edward Snowden was revealed as the whistleblower. Currently hiding out in Hong Kong, Snowden gave this interview to Glenn Greenwald.

Defending surveillance. A variety of sources jumped to the defense of the newly-exposed programs. President Obama emphasized that the programs “do not involve listening to people’s phone calls, do not involve reading the e-mails of US citizens and US residents.” And there is oversight to prevent abuse:

Your duly elected representatives have consistently been informed. … This program, by the way, is fully overseen not just by Congress, but by the FISA court, a court specially put together to evaluate classified programs. … We have established a process and a procedure that the American people should feel comfortable about.

Obama’s bottom-line justification of the spying programs is: “They help us prevent terrorist attacks.”

Democrat Dianne Feinstein and Republican Saxby Chambliss — the ranking members of the Senate Intelligence Committee — released a joint statement:

The intelligence community has successfully used FISA authorities to identify terrorists and those with whom they communicate, and this intelligence has helped protect the nation. The threat from terrorism remains very real and these lawful intelligence activities must continue, with the careful oversight of the executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.

Opposition in Congress comes from an unusual right/left alliance: liberals like Ron Wyden and Mark Udall, as well as conservatives like Rand Paul.

Four levels of privacy loss. Now we’re getting into the how-should-I-think-about-this part. When I think about “loss of privacy”, I might be talking about four different things:

  1. The modern world collects a lot of information about me. We don’t usually think about it, but just about everything we do leaves a record somewhere. When I walk past a security camera, make a phone call, buy something with a credit card, or go through the E-Z-Pass toll gate, something gets recorded. Most of that security video is never watched by anybody, but it could be, and that by itself might intimidate me out of doing something perfectly legal and harmless, like dancing to the Muzak when I’m by myself in an elevator.
  2. My information could be gathered together into a database, even if no one is targeting me. It’s one thing to imagine a rogue security guard in my building getting obsessed with me (or with my daughter, if I had one) and scanning security tapes. It’s another thing entirely to worry about somebody with access to security cameras everywhere, as well as cell-phone tracking data, credit-card data, TSA body scans, and so on. Again, I’m not important enough for anybody to bother, but the mere possibility is worrisome.
  3. I might be investigated by the government. Think about J. Edgar Hoover tapping Martin Luther King’s phone. Just exercising your constitutional rights in a totally legal way — organizing the next Occupy Wall Street, say — could put you under the government’s microscope. Suddenly, every illegal or embarrassing thing you’ve ever done (no matter how trivial) might come to light and be used to tear you down.
  4. Someday the government might routinely keep track of everyone. So far this is science fiction, because you’d need to hire half the country to watch the other half. But as artificial intelligence improves and processing power grows, the idea of a system that processes all that gathered information and draws conclusions about everybody becomes less and less far-fetched

Now we’re in a position to think about the things we learned this week about government surveillance. It’s tempting to be mad at the government for our level-1 loss of privacy, but that’s just life in the modern world. You need to put that aside.

The Level-2 issues. This week’s revelations indisputably showed level-2 loss of privacy. Information that already existed in separate places is being pulled together into big government databases.

Anybody who watches prime-time TV cop shows shouldn’t be terribly surprised that information can be pulled together about specific people for some good reason. Castle and Beckett are constantly studying suspects’ financial records, looking for specific cars on traffic cams, getting businesses to turn over security-cam videotapes, and so on. The Boston Marathon bombing investigation was like CSI: Real World. We expected investigators to have video of everything and records of everything. If we were disappointed, it was that the FBI couldn’t assemble and process that information to zero in on the bombers faster.

The public is mostly OK with this — supports it, even — as long as the information is handled properly: The government has a good reason to assemble the information; investigators use it to accomplish that legitimate purpose; and after the purpose is fulfilled, they dispose of the information they don’t need. We assume that Castle and Beckett stop tracking a suspect’s financials after his alibi checks out, and that after the case closes, they do their best to forget what they’ve learned. It would creep us out to see them compiling private information just to satisfy their curiosity.

So the idea that the government might be collecting everybody’s phone and/or internet records and storing them forever — that’s a problem.

Level 3 issues. The government’s defense amounts to: Level 2 doesn’t matter as long as we have good procedures in place to protect Level 3. In other words, compiling the database shouldn’t bother you; the real violation of privacy doesn’t happen until somebody accesses the database.

I’m not persuaded, mostly because the safeguards are as invisible to me as the programs were until Wednesday. Courts that have to publish their opinions sometimes make outrageous rulings, and we can respond by pressuring Congress to change the law or starting a movement to amend the Constitution. But if a secret court makes an outrageous ruling, none of that happens, because we don’t hear about it.

Likewise, police sometimes exceed their authority, as they often did during the Occupy protests. When the excess takes the form of pepper spray or a baton to the head, it might show up on YouTube or result in a lawsuit. But when the excess is the misuse of a database, you might never know. Even if you suffer tangible effects, you probably won’t be sure what happened.

One of the things Snowden emphasized in his Greenwald interview was that policy safeguards aren’t much to stand on, particularly if the details of the policy are secret. If you’re a loyal Democrat, you might imagine that President Obama is honestly doing his best to keep the databases from being abused; if you’re  a Republican, you might have similarly trusted President Bush. Good for them if they really did prevent abuse, but the long-term threat is still there.

We have had untrustworthy presidents in the past and we will undoubtedly have another one someday. Or we’ll have an emergency that makes everybody temporarily forget all those namby-pamby notions of privacy. Policies can change in a blink, or people can just stop enforcing them. And if they’re secret policies, no one will know.

Snowden calls this “turnkey tyranny”.

What can be done? This is the hardest kind of thing to fix through the democratic process. First, because a lot of Americans, maybe a majority, would buy the idea that the threat of terrorism justifies ditching some abstract ideals about privacy. (My hunch is that this is an issue where you can get wildly different poll results by re-phrasing the question.)

Even if a majority is solidly against this, it might survive — just as 70% support levels haven’t produced a universal background check law. On the one hand you have the threat of abuses that can probably be kept secret; on the other the threat of a terrorist attack that will dominate the news for weeks. Politicians may decide not to take the chance.

Even if we can elect people we believe oppose such programs … well, we thought Obama did too.

So I’m about to say something significantly more radical than you’re used to reading on this blog: I don’t see this changing without direct action, and probably not without monkey-wrenching. Somehow — and I’m open to suggestions about how — ordinary people have to make this kind of surveillance not work, and frustrate and embarrass the people who try to implement it.

Should it come to that? Yeah, I think it should. I know the spies think they’re keeping us safe from terrorism, and God knows I don’t support terrorism. But long-term, I believe the surveillance state itself is a bigger threat than what it claims to be protecting us from.

To get yourself thinking in the right direction, I recommend a 2008 young-adult novel by Boing-Boing editor Cory Doctorow: Little Brother (as compared to Big Brother). Turns out you can download it for free. I found it a compelling read, and it does for cyber-privacy what Edward Abbey’s The Monkey Wrench Gang did for the environment a generation ago.

“This War Must End”

The issues on which President Obama has most disappointed liberals (and strayed farthest from his 2008 campaign rhetoric) have centered on the War on Terror. Yes, he got our combat troops out of Iraq (slowly) and is winding down the Afghan War (finally). He did renounce torture as an interrogation technique. But rather than reverse Bush administration’s expansion of presidential power and paint it as a one-time over-reaction to an emergency (like the Japanese internment camps of World War II), Obama has largely ratified Bush’s power-grab, and in some cases even grabbed more. As many of us feared at the time, it is hard for a president to cut back his own power, even if that’s what his principles say he should do.

Thursday, in a major speech at the National Defense University at Fort McNair, President Obama sounded a lot more like Candidate Obama in two ways: He took civil liberties issues more seriously than he has in some while, and he talked to us as if we were adults who can think about complex issues. In that second sense, it was his best speech since his campaign speech about race.

To put a few of my own words in Obama’s mouth: War is bad for democracy. A government at war needs to keep secrets, and it needs to favor security over freedom. The bigger the war, the worse for democracy.

Modeling the threat as a “Global War on Terror” amalgamates every little extremist group and home-grown terrorist into one giant enemy that justifies fighting one giant war. Maybe there was some justification for that framing immediately after 9-11, when Al Qaeda had a unified leadership that seemed to be able to direct multiple efforts all over the world. But:

Today, the core of al Qaeda in Afghanistan and Pakistan is on the path to defeat.  Their remaining operatives spend more time thinking about their own safety than plotting against us.  They did not direct the attacks in Benghazi or Boston.  They’ve not carried out a successful attack on our homeland since 9/11.

Instead, what we’ve seen is the emergence of various al Qaeda affiliates.  From Yemen to Iraq, from Somalia to North Africa, the threat today is more diffuse … Unrest in the Arab world has also allowed extremists to gain a foothold in countries like Libya and Syria.  But here, too, there are differences from 9/11.  In some cases, we continue to confront state-sponsored networks like Hezbollah that engage in acts of terror to achieve political goals.  Other of these groups are simply collections of local militias or extremists interested in seizing territory.  And while we are vigilant for signs that these groups may pose a transnational threat, most are focused on operating in the countries and regions where they are based.  And that means we’ll face more localized threats like what we saw in Benghazi, or the BP oil facility in Algeria

What we face now, in other words, are a lot of little threats, not one big threat like Bin Laden’s Al Qaeda of 2001.

the scale of this threat closely resembles the types of attacks we faced before 9/11. [my italics] … if dealt with smartly and proportionally, these threats need not rise to the level that we saw on the eve of 9/11. … Beyond Afghanistan, we must define our effort not as a boundless “global war on terror,” but rather as a series of persistent, targeted efforts to dismantle specific networks of violent extremists that threaten America.

And he recognizes that he can’t promise a perfect defense against those threats.

Neither I, nor any President, can promise the total defeat of terror.  We will never erase the evil that lies in the hearts of some human beings, nor stamp out every danger to our open society.  But what we can do — what we must do — is dismantle networks that pose a direct danger to us, and make it less likely for new groups to gain a foothold, all the while maintaining the freedoms and ideals that we defend.

I read this as a rebuke of President Bush’s sweeping statement three days after 9-11: “our responsibility to history is already clear: to answer these attacks and rid the world of evil.”

If that’s our goal, then we are never done and we have never gone far enough. But if we have a more manageable goal (say, to reduce the risk of terrorism to below the level of many other risks we live with), then democracy might have a chance to survive.

The rest of the speech is more specific and tactical.

Drones. Obama defends drone strikes as “effective” (“measured against the history of putting American troops in distant lands among hostile populations”) and “legal” (i.e., in accordance with the Authorization for the Use of Military Force passed by Congress after 9-11), but admits the discussion can’t end there.

America’s legitimate claim of self-defense cannot be the end of the discussion.  To say a military tactic is legal, or even effective, is not to say it is wise or moral in every instance. For the same human progress that gives us the technology to strike half a world away also demands the discipline to constrain that power — or risk abusing it.

Obama claims that “clear guidelines, oversight and accountability that is now codified in Presidential Policy Guidance that I signed yesterday” embodies that needed discipline.  (I haven’t studied those guidelines — which he partially outlines — but I doubt I’m going to buy their sufficiency, given how easily Obama or some future president could change them or just ignore them. He later mentions options for moving some oversight outside the executive branch, but doesn’t commit himself.)

He specifically defends the targeting of Anwar al-Awlaki, an American citizen:

when a U.S. citizen goes abroad to wage war against America and is actively plotting to kill U.S. citizens, and when neither the United States, nor our partners are in a position to capture him before he carries out a plot, his citizenship should no more serve as a shield than a sniper shooting down on an innocent crowd should be protected from a SWAT team.

“Force alone cannot make us safe.” Obama says we need to increase foreign aid, and that we should support transitions to democracy in places like Egypt, Tunisia, and Libya “because the peaceful realization of individual aspirations will serve as a rebuke to violent extremists.”

In this country, we should “work with the Muslim-American community” to “prevent violent extremism inspired by violent jihadists”. Speaking in my own words: The guy who is a committed member of a American Muslim community mosque is not going to blow himself up, any more than a Baptist deacon is going to blow up an abortion clinic. In any religion, the people to worry about are the alienated loners who want to go from loser to hero in one big step.

Civil liberties. Even after the Boston bombings, Obama says, “we do not deport someone or throw somebody in prison in the absence of evidence.” He also says we need “careful constraints on the tools the government uses to protect sensitive information, such as the state secrets doctrine.”

His defense of press freedom, calling for a shield law for journalists and saying “Journalists should not be at legal risk for doing their jobs” in some ways misses the point. The targets of the AP investigations are leakers, not journalists. But a journalist’s ability to investigate the government is compromised if sources suspect their communications are going to be intercepted.

Repeal the AUMF. The  AUMF was a very sweeping grant of power that Congress gave President Bush after 9-11. It didn’t have a time limit, but maybe its mission has been accomplished.

I look forward to engaging Congress and the American people in efforts to refine, and ultimately repeal, the AUMF’s mandate.  And I will not sign laws designed to expand this mandate further.  Our systematic effort to dismantle terrorist organizations must continue.  But this war, like all wars, must end.  That’s what history advises.  That’s what our democracy demands.

Close Guantanamo. Finally, he discusses closing Guantanamo, which was one of the first things he pledged to do after taking office. In asking Congress to cooperate with him this time, he invokes the judgment of history.

Imagine a future — 10 years from now or 20 years from now — when the United States of America is still holding people who have been charged with no crime on a piece of land that is not part of our country.  Look at the current situation, where we are force-feeding detainees who are being held on a hunger strike.  … Is this who we are?  Is that something our Founders foresaw?  Is that the America we want to leave our children?  Our sense of justice is stronger than that.

And that  may be the best reason to hope that President Obama is serious this time, and that he might really start to disassemble the wartime presidency that Bush built. As he gets closer to leaving office, the temptation to shore up presidential power should wane, and the judgment of history may start to weigh on his mind.

Benghazi Hearings: Congress as Reality TV

I’ve had a hard time figuring out how to write about Benghazi without becoming part of the problem. So much nonsense has been spouted that simply saying “Benghazi” in certain circles is code for “impeach President Obama“. And that puts the rest of us in the don’t-think-about-an-elephant zone, where even explaining why something is nonsense reinforces it.

This week it got worse. Wednesday, the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee held new hearings on Benghazi, showcasing what Chairman Darrell Issa referred to as “whistleblowers” who “revealed new information that undermines the Obama Administration’s assertion that there are no more questions left to answer about Benghazi.” (When has there ever been a subject with “no more questions left to answer”? If that’s the goal, hearings will continue forever.)

In anticipation of those hearings, apparently without knowing exactly what the witnesses would say, Mike Huckabee predicted on his Fox News show: “I believe that before it’s all over, this president will not fill out his full term.” (Senator Inhofe at least waited for the hearings to happen before he predicted impeachment.) Repeating a talking point I heard elsewhere on Fox and saw in comments all over the internet, Huckabee claimed Benghazi was “more serious” than Watergate “because four Americans did in fact die” — a statement that could only make sense if President Obama had been part of a plot to kill them. (As Bob Cesca has pointed out, American embassies and consulates were attacked 13 times during the Bush administration, with far a death total far beyond four. You probably don’t remember any of those incidents.)

If you listened to such predictions at length — and they were made 24/7 on Fox and the rest of the conservative media — you were primed to jump straight from “new Benghazi revelations” to “high crimes and misdemeanors”.

Then we get to Wednesday. Three State Department insiders did testify, and they did provide new information that made the Obama administration look bad. However, none of the new information is on the scale that the hype predicted, and much of it contradicted conspiracy theories popular on the Right. But their testimony did give an excuse for headlines about “new Benghazi revelations” that then fueled even more discussion of some of the same conspiracy theories that the testimony directly contradicted.

Let’s see if we can sort this out. Before listening to anybody’s commentary, I recommend looking at the Wikipedia article on the attack as a whole. Seeing the basic outline of what-happened-when will immunize you to a lot of the obvious nonsense being thrown around.

Like any event that turns out badly, Benghazi leaves three avenues for criticism: lack of preparation and precautions before the fact, debatable decisions made during the event, and inaccurate statements made after the event. (A comparison to the “other” 9-11 is useful: The government ignored warnings that attacks were imminent; in hindsight, you can imagine pulling first-responders out of the second tower as soon as the first one collapsed; and clean-up crews were given bad information about the toxicity of the debris.)

At Benghazi, you can argue that the State Department sent people into too dangerous a situation with too little protection. You can blame the administration for the deployment and Congress for not appropriating enough for security.

You can also wish that some kind of rescue force could have been sent to save the four American lives. That’s the gist of the most quoted testimony Wednesday: Gregory Hicks talked very emotionally about four special forces soldiers who wanted to get from Tripoli to Benghazi, but couldn’t. When you look at actual timelines, though, the transport plane they failed to get onto arrived at Benghazi after the four victims were already dead. Hicks also wished an F-16 could have flown over Benghazi as a show of force that might have discouraged the second attack. But the Pentagon has made it clear that the nearest planes, based in Italy, are not on 24-hour alert and actually could not have been scrambled (together with the needed in-air refueling tanker) in time.

And finally, you can criticize what the administration said about the attacks afterward. This is probably the most legitimate criticism, but it’s also the least consequential, because at that point the attack had already happened and the four Americans were already dead. You can accuse the administration of making misleading statements — like no administration ever did that before — but nothing in the aftermath is remotely criminal or actionable. (It’s even arguable that what we see in the changing talking points is an ordinary bureaucratic turf fight, unrelated to the November election.)

Only a charlatan can say that Benghazi is “worse than Watergate” and then focus on Susan Rice’s performance on the Sunday talk shows. Nobody died because of what Rice said on “Meet the Press”.

To me, a story that is every bit as important as as Benghazi itself is: What has happened to our national conversation that has caused us to discuss Benghazi in such an outrageous way? It’s tempting to say, “Oh, that’s just politics.” But it really isn’t, or at least it didn’t used to be. Try to imagine the Democrats in Congress treating 9-11 this way: “It’s far worse than Watergate; thousands of Americans are dead.”

There was certainly no lack of 9-11 conspiracy theories that Democrats could have winked and nodded at. Plenty of crazies put up web pages claiming that 9-11 was an inside job. One poll claimed that a third of the country believed the Bush administration had at least some role in letting the attacks happen.

Democrats in Congress could have pandered to that view. The model Republicans have used with Benghazi (and Solyndra and Fast & Furious, both of which have fizzled as scandals, despite being “worse than Watergate” for a time) would have worked just as well: Don’t endorse any specific theory with checkable details, but announce over-the-top general judgments that only the most extreme conspiracy theories could justify. Lump all the theories under one vague label (Benghazi!) and leave your rhetoric slippery, so that you can encourage all the nutcases without pinning yourself down. Turn every new detail into a promise that more revelations are coming.

The Democratic leadership never went down that road. 9-11 was a national tragedy, not a political football. There were hearings and investigations, and some people in both parties asked tough questions, but that’s where the comparison ends. Getting tagged as a Truther was the kiss-of-death in the Democratic establishment. (Ask Van Jones.)

But the Republican leadership has gone down that road with Benghazi. And the result is that lots of the Republican rank-and-file will tell you that Obama should be impeached for Benghazi!, even though they can’t quite say what Benghazi! means, beyond “four Americans are dead”. On the Reality-Based Community blog, Andrew Sabl spelled it out:

At this point in the career of a scandal, or attempted scandal, there are often disagreements over whether the charges are true. But I can’t remember the last time I’ve seen a scandal where I don’t even know what they are.

Sabl described what specific charges would look like and challenged his readers to come up with some. None did.

Steve Benen made a similar point:

Eight months after the attack itself, I know Republicans think there’s been a cover-up, but I haven’t the foggiest idea what it is they think has been covered up. For all the talk of a political “scandal,” no one seems capable of pointing to anything specific that’s scandalous. For all the conspiracy theories, there’s no underlying conspiracy to be found.

And so Wednesday, Chairman Issa advertised “whistleblowers”. But he never said what exactly they blew the whistle on.

Again, compare to Democrats during the Bush administration. Lots of liberals called for Bush’s impeachment, but they offered specific grounds: breaking the laws against torture, or fabricating evidence to invade Iraq. You could argue with their reasoning or their evidence, but you knew what it was. Democrats in Congress could have made hard-to-pin-down code words out of Abu Ghraib or Katrina, and linked them (deniably) to wild conspiracy theories, but they didn’t.

It’s tempting to stop there, with the implication that Democrats in Congress have more honesty or civic virtue than Republicans. But I think there’s a deeper level to examine. Democrats didn’t pander to the third of the country that was open to a 9-11 conspiracy theories because it was only a third of the country. You can’t win elections with 33% of the vote.

Republicans are clearly not thinking that way. As I listen to Republican politicians talk about Benghazi, they seem to be making no effort at all to speak to the majority of Americans or to offer evidence that might convince a swing voter. They are talking to their base, which is probably about a third of the country.

What’s going on? I think David Frum had it right: “Republicans originally thought that Fox worked for us and now we’re discovering we work for Fox.” The point of Benghazi! isn’t to deliver a majority of votes for the next Mitt Romney. The point is to get ratings for Fox and subscribers for Glenn Beck. The Conservative Entertainment Complex has taken control of the Republican Party and is managing the Party for its own purposes. A third of the country? It may not win many elections, but it’s a fabulous audience for an entertainer.

Secret Laws II: It’s just as bad when Obama does it

Perversely, I wish that the War on Terror would give us a poster child, some cute and innocent victim of government over-reach whose picture we could put on placards and wave as we march through the streets. But for nearly 12 years, under both Bush and Obama, the government has been either too smart or too lucky to provide us with one.

Bad posters. Jose Padilla was an American citizen arrested at O’Hare Airport. Before he was charged with any crime, he spent more than three years in solitary confinement, including sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation. Quite likely he had been driven insane by the time he faced trial. But he was a brown-skinned Chicago street thug who, even if he never actually did any acts of terror (and may never have done anything), was a big talker. And they did eventually manage to convict him on a vague conspiracy charge (after he was mentally unable to either defend himself or trust any lawyer), so he doesn’t generate a lot of public sympathy.

Maher Arar was a Canadian/Syrian dual citizen who didn’t officially enter the U.S. at all. We arrested him during a layover at JFK Airport, held him for two weeks, and then shipped him off to be tortured in Syria for nearly a year. Both Syria and Canada say he was innocent, and he was eventually released. Canada awarded him millions in damages, but the U.S. government so far has avoided avoided any legal repercussions by claiming that it can’t defend against Arar’s lawsuit without revealing state secrets. (The torture happened during the Bush years, but the Obama administration is continuing the state-secrets claim.) But Arar isn’t a good poster child either, because he looks foreign, isn’t an American citizen, and wants to forget his whole ordeal.

Anwar al-Awlaki was an American citizen who was targeted and killed by an American drone attack in 2011 in Yemen, a country where we are not officially at war. What label to put on his death — casualty, assassination, execution — is debatable. But it is not debatable that he was charged with nothing and never had a trial. He’s also a bad poster child, though, because he supported Al Qaeda and counseled people like the Fort Hood shooter. The government claims he planned terrorist attacks, but no evidence supporting that claim has ever been made public.

These cases show that something is deeply screwed up. But without a sympathetic face to put on a procedural abuse, it’s hard to get anybody excited. If the government could torture Jose Padilla or kill Anwar al-Awlaki without any legal process, it could do same to you or me. Since we refuse to identify with people like Padilla and Awlaki, though, we don’t feel personally threatened.

Martin Niemöller’s “First they came for …” is one of the most widely abused quotes in current American political discourse, but this is the setting where it makes sense: When you let the government violate the rights of people you don’t like or don’t care about, you lose the principle. Someday you may be unpopular too, and then how will you defend yourself?

Secret laws under Bush. One of the worst abuses of the Bush administration didn’t even produce bad poster children, because it was abstract: They used secret legal opinions to justify their other power grabs.

When it took office, the Obama administration seemed to be rejecting that course by releasing nine secret memos from the Office of Legal Counsel. The memos explained why it was legal for the President to violate treaties, wiretap without warrants, and do just about anything he thought national security required. Jack Balkin summed it up like this:

The President, because he is President, may do whatever he thinks is necessary, even in the domestic context, if he acts for military and national security reasons in his capacity as Commander in Chief.

To understand the power of these memos, you need understand the role of the OLC: It’s essentially the executive branch’s version of the Supreme Court. If you work for any department or agency of the federal government and you wonder whether something you’re doing is legal, you ask your office’s lawyers. If they kick the question upstairs, and then the upstairs lawyers kick it further upstairs, eventually it winds up at the Office of Legal Counsel in the Justice Department. Somebody at the OLC writes a memo, and that memo is then the official interpretation of the law for the whole federal government — at least until somebody sues and the judicial branch starts weighing in.

So if you as a government official believe that the policy you’re implementing is unconstitutional, that’s not for you to say. If the OLC has blessed it, they’re the experts.

That’s a fine system as long as the OLC does its job in good faith and is accountable for its mistakes. But the Bush OLC wrote opinions to justify whatever the administration wanted to do, regardless of the law or the Constitution; and it avoided accountability by keeping its most egregious memos secret, so that non-administration legal experts could not tell the public (or Congress) how absurd they were. I commented at the time:

You never need to classify the fact that 2+2=4. But if you want the government to operate under the assumption that 2+2=5, then you do have to classify it

There is a role for secrecy at the OLC, but only in so far as the facts of the situation are classified. So, for example, if the Pentagon wanted to know whether a proposed weapons system would violate a treaty, a memo answering that specific question might necessarily include classified facts about the system. But a purely abstract memo explaining how the OLC interprets the language of the treaty — there’s no excuse for classifying stuff like that.

In fact, this kind of secrecy violates the oldest, most basic principle of the rule of law: The law must be public. If, behind the scenes, you can interpret the law away or even reverse it completely, then we don’t have the rule of law.

Targeted killing. The hard questions of law happen when two constitutional principles conflict. For example: I have freedom of the press, but my right to publish can be limited by Congress’ power to establish copyrights. I have freedom of speech, but some speech is libel or treason or fraud or pornography. Questions about where the boundaries fall are why we need people on the Supreme Court rather than machines.

The Constitution gives lots of rights to American citizens accused of crimes. The Sixth Amendment says:

In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district wherein the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defence.

And the Fourteenth says that this is not a narrow right:

nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law

This clause has been interpreted as applying to the federal government as well as the states.

On the other hand, the Constitution also gives the government the power to make war. It doesn’t define war, but it’s hard to imagine any definition that wouldn’t include the power to kill people without trials. When an American citizen enters a battlefield wearing enemy colors — as many did during the Civil War — the government’s power to make war trumps the citizen’s right to a trial or any other kind of due process. That’s never been controversial.

But the War on Terror has fuzzed everything up. The enemy isn’t a country or government. Its soldiers don’t wear uniforms. The conflict often does not take the form of “battles” fought on “battlefields”. No one knows when the war might be over or what conditions could end it.

So the boundary between war-making powers and Sixth-Amendment rights is not so clear any more. If the government thinks you might be a terrorist in league with Al Qaeda, when can it kill you as if you were an enemy soldier on a battlefield, and when does it have to prove its case to a jury?

This ties in with a bunch of your other constitutional rights. Are you free to hang around with people the government thinks are terrorists or to communicate with them frequently? Can you work with them on projects that you believe are unrelated to terrorism? Can you put forward ideas that are not themselves treason, but are congenial to people who might be enemies?

And finally: What’s your protection against being killed by a rogue government official who just doesn’t like you? Can he invent a charge of terrorism against you, or exaggerate your real-but-harmless connections to terrorists?

As unsympathetic as he was in many ways, Anwar al-Awlaki exemplified all those issues. He wasn’t on a traditional battlefield when we blew up his car, and while he undoubtedly had some relationship to Al Qaeda, the government never had to back up its claims that he had an operational role in terrorism. Here’s what I wrote at the time of his death:

Al-Awlaki is dead because the President signed a piece of paper saying that he was a bad man. I suspect he probably was a bad man, so it’s hard to be all that broken up about his death. But in theory, the President (or some future president) could sign a piece of paper saying that I’m a bad man too. Wouldn’t it be nice to have some due process about that?

Secret laws under Obama. You know what the answer to that question is? It’s a secret. There’s an OLC memo describing when the president can order a hit on an American citizen, but it hasn’t been released to the public, or even to Congress. The House and Senate Intelligence Committees just got it, after asking for years. 

So that’s the state of transparency on this issue: The boundary between the government’s war-making power and the citizen’s right to trial is secret.

In a letter to CIA-Director nominee John Brennan, Senator Ron Wyden (D-Oregon) says:

I believe that every American has the right to know when the government believes it has the right to kill them. 

The Obama administration disagrees. Wyden has raised another question I hadn’t even considered: Does the government owe a citizen the right to surrender?

Think about it. The process that puts names onto the kill list is secret, so you might not know you’re on it until you se the drones circling. What if you want to turn yourself in? What if you think this is all a big mistake and you want to clear your name? If you’re not actually pointing a weapon at someone at the moment, aren’t you due that much process?

These are not questions about weapons systems or the identities of secret agents. They are abstract questions of law, that could and should be debated in public. If the administration has any reason for dodging that discussion — beyond simple embarrassment at the flimsiness of its justifications — it isn’t telling anybody.

White Right-Wing Christian Terrorist

Tuesday, when CBS News did a segment on the man who killed seven at a Sikh Temple in Wisconsin, one word was conspicuously absent: terrorist. All the pieces to make that judgment were in place: Wade Michael Page had a long history in white supremacist groups. (The album covers of his white-supremacist bands are pictured at the bottom of this article, where you can easily avoid looking at them.) His victims were non-Christian and non-white, and they gathered at a non-Christian temple.

His massacre was violence against civilians, apparently for the political purpose of terrorizing the racial or religious groups they belong to. That’s terrorism.

No white Christian terrorists. But the mainstream media doesn’t often call white Christians terrorists, and even if they express their motives in Christian or white-supremacist terms, you seldom run across the phrase “white Christian terrorist”. Almost by definition, terrorists are Muslims. And conversely, violent Muslims are terrorists.

When someone does tie a terrorist act to Christianity, you can count on seeing a lot of pushback — articles begging for nuance, emphasizing how out of the Christian mainstream the terrorist’s views are, refusing to take seriously a childhood connection to Christianity, and instead demanding specific evidence of a religious motive (which hasn’t shown up yet in Page’s case). Again, these principles don’t apply when the killer has brown skin and a Muslim name.

The white killer also gets portrayed with more sympathy. The CBS report includes pictures of Page as a cute boy, and shows his step-mother describing him as “kind and gentle and loving”.

I’ll bet Khalid Sheik Mohammed was a cute child once, but this is the picture of him I’ve seen over and over.

No right-wing terrorists. You also don’t hear the term “right-wing terrorist” very often. In 2009, a report by the Department of Homeland Security called attention to the problem of right-wing violence, and identified “disgruntled military veterans” as targets for recruitment by right-wing hate groups. It quoted a civil rights organization:

large numbers of potentially violent neo-Nazis, skinheads, and other white supremacists are now learning the art of warfare in the [U.S.] armed forces.

The potential recruits were “a small percentage” of veterans, but a small percentage of a large number can still be disturbingly large.

Page was precisely the kind of veteran the report was talking about. But it’s too late for the report’s author (Daryl Johnson) to get credit in DHS, because he’s long gone. The report raised a furor in the right-wing media, which interpreted it as a slander against both veterans and the rising Tea Party movement.

Michelle Malkin wrote in the Washington Times:

It’s no small coincidence that Ms. Napolitano’s agency disseminated the assessment just a week before the nationwide April 15 Tax Day Tea Party protests.

Her column ended: “We are all right-wing extremists now. Welcome to the club.” That message was echoed by Fox News and Republican leaders: Right-wing terrorism was something the Obama administration dreamed up to slander all conservatives.

DHS responded to the furor by dissolving Johnson’s team, and Johnson himself left DHS a year after the report was published.

What I think is going on. There is an underlying narrative in mainstream culture that People Like You are threatened by People Like Them. If a story fits neatly into that frame, then OK, go with it.

But if the obvious interpretation of an event is that People Like You are the threat, that’s a problem. Nobody wants to hear that. And so Juan Cole’s Top Ten differences between White Terrorists and Others includes:

6. White terrorists are random events, like tornadoes. Other terrorists are long-running conspiracies.

 Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf puts it like this:

Watching Oak Creek, that subset of Americans was put in a position to realize that a day prior they’d have identified with the terrorist more than his victims. And so they quickly looked away.

Instead, we want to hear that the Threatening One is really not like us after all. He’s not a member of a group; he’s a loner. He’s not acting on beliefs that we share; he’s crazy. And his action is not a one-sided eruption of our hate onto their innocence; he’s a tortured soul who once had the potential for goodness; the suffering he inflicts arises from his own suffering.

The same thing happens on smaller scales. A couple years ago, the director of my church’s religious education program was describing the articles she’d been reading about bullying. They all discussed how to help your child deal with being bullied. “None of them,” she told me, “addressed the possibility that your child might be the bully.”

But the bully is always someone’s child. And no one wants to hear that.