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“In The Wrong Line Of Work”: Justice Scalia’s Unfortunate Entry Into The Torture Debate

When it comes to the issue of torture, it’s been a discouraging week. Not only was the Senate Intelligence Committee report a heartbreaking indictment of an American scandal, but the argument surrounding the revelations started breaking far too much along partisan and ideological lines.

Antonin Scalia isn’t helping. The Associated Press reported today that the far-right Supreme Court justice joined the debate, such as it is, “by saying it is difficult to rule out the use of extreme measures to extract information if millions of lives were threatened.”

Scalia tells a Swiss radio network that American and European liberals who say such tactics may never be used are being self-righteous.

The 78-year-old justice says he doesn’t “think it’s so clear at all,” especially if interrogators were trying to find a ticking nuclear bomb.

Scalia says nothing in the Constitution appears to prohibit harsh treatment of suspected terrorists.

The interview took place at the court on Wednesday, the day after the release of the Senate report detailing the CIA’s harsh interrogation of suspected terrorists. Radio Television Suisse aired the interview on Friday.

I think some caution is probably in order. The AP ran a five-paragraph article, and it seems entirely plausible, but there’s exactly one, six-word quote in that piece. Everything else is a paraphrase, and to offer a detailed response to Scalia’s take, we’d need to know exactly what the justice argued.

That said, if the AP report is accurate, Scalia’s perspective is deeply ridiculous.

For one thing, opposition to torture need not be the result of self-righteousness. Brutally abusing prisoners is about humanity, basic decency, and the existence of a moral compass. For another, the “ticking bomb” argument is childish and unserious.

As for the Constitution, it’s true that the document is silent on the issue of treating suspected terrorists, but it’s not silent on “cruel and unusual punishment.” And according to the CIA’s records, rectal feeding and hydration were forced on detainees without medical need – and the leap from that point to “cruel and unusual” seems quite small.

I’d still like to see a more detailed transcript of Scalia’s comments, but let’s just make this plain as part of the larger conversation: torture is wrong, it’s immoral, it undermines our security interests, and it’s illegal.

If Scalia is prepared to publicly argue otherwise, he’s in the wrong line of work.


By: Steve Benen, The Maddow Blog, December 12, 2014

December 14, 2014 Posted by | Antonin Scalia, CIA, Torture | , , , , | Leave a comment

“No Voice Of Reason”: ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ ‘I Can’t Breathe!’ A Moral Indictment Of Cop Culture

The grand jury has spoken, but that does not change what Eric Garner cried out in the cellphone video taken as police pinned him to a Staten Island sidewalk.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!” Garner said again and again that August day.

And even though the grand jury has now chosen not to bring criminal charges in Garner’s death, the video footage that follows those cries constitutes a moral indictment not so much of what the police did but of what the police did not do.

“At that point, forget the cop side,” a longtime veteran police officer not party to the incident says of the moment Garner cries out. “The human side comes in.”

Yet the cops do not seem even to hear Garner.

“I don’t see anyone in that video saying, ‘Look, we got to ease up,’” says the veteran officer. “Where’s the human side of you in that you’ve got a guy saying, ‘I can’t breathe?’”

The veteran officer goes on, “Somebody needs to say, ‘Stop it!’ That’s what’s missing here was a voice of reason. The only voice we’re hearing is of Eric Garner.”

The veteran officer believes Garner might have survived had anybody heeded his pleas.

“He could have had a chance,” says the officer, who is black. “But you got to believe he’s a human being first. A human being saying, ‘I can’t breathe.’”

What may have saved Police Officer Daniel Pantaleo from indictment is that a close examination of the video shows he had had released his chokehold on Garner just before the 43-year-old father of six began crying out that he could not breathe. Pantaleo by then was shifting around to press the prone man’s head into the pavement.

None of the cops in the video are beating Garner. And in two hours of questioning by the grand jurors on Nov. 22, Pantaleo apparently convinced them that he had not intended to injure Garner, only to place him under arrest. Pantaleo was held blameless even though the medical examiner had ruled the death a homicide resulting from “compression of the neck [chokehold], compression of chest, and prone positioning during physical restraint by police.”

But the absence of criminal charges does not make the indifference to Garner’s distress any more forgivable. There were still those cries, cries that rose again Wednesday afternoon from the same grimy patch of pavement where Garner died, voiced by two dozen members of the community who stood shocked and angered by the news that no cop would be charged.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”

They added a chant that rose in Ferguson, where another grand jury had declined to indict Police Officer Darren Wilson in the death of 18-year-old Michael Brown.

“Hands up! Don’t shoot!”

A 25-year-old man named Alexander Cooper strode up the sidewalk holding his 3-year-old daughter, Alexis, by the hand. He told her what he also would have said had they been walking in Ferguson, no matter what the differences between the two cases.

“I just told her that a black man was killed and there were no charges,” he said.

He added, “As I father, I want to live and watch my children grow.”

Cooper spoke of how pained he was that Garner will never get that chance with his own kids. Little Alexis pulled on his hand.

“I have my daddy right here!” she announced.

Cooper had little Alexis pose for a picture on the exact spot there Garner was pinned. Alexis did not know to act differently than she might for any other picture taken of her by her daddy. Her bright little smile in this place of senseless death constituted a challenge to all of us to make the future more in keeping with this sparkle of life at its most pure and innocent.

“I’m going to show it to her in the future,” Cooper said of the picture. “I’m going to show her she was here.”

We can only hope that she will marvel at how much the city and country have changed.

Earlier in the day, before the decision became known, Jonathan Mejia and Natassia McClean had come up to this spot pushing a stroller that bore an even younger challenge of the future, their 6-month-old son, Jerimiah. Mejia looked at a rain-sodden sign reading “BIG ERIC R.I.P.” and flowers left after Garner’s death that had wilted during the four long months of the grand jury’s investigation.

“I knew somebody else killed by the police,” 21-year-old Mejia said.

The couple had recently moved to Staten Island from the Bronx, where Mejia had been buddies with 18-year-old Ramarley Graham. Police had burst into Graham’s home in 2012 after seeing him in the street adjusting something in his waistband that might have been a gun. He was in the bathroom, perhaps trying to flush some pot down the toilet, when a cop burst in.

The cop shot and killed Graham, later saying the teen had reached for his waistband. No gun was found, and in this instance the cop was indicted. A judge then tossed the indictment out, saying the prosecutor had made an error in presenting the evidence. A second grand jury declined to indict the cop.

Mejia now stood where Garner died and spoke Graham’s name aloud.

“That was my friend,” he said.

This second tragedy reconfirmed in Mejia’s mind what the earlier killing had led him to conclude about the police and people of color.

“They don’t look at us like regular human beings,” he said.

The baby was dozing as Mejia and McClean pushed him on down the street, the parents not seeming to take any great comfort in the police having transformed New York into the safest big city in America in recent years.

In truth, the police routinely place themselves in great danger while continuing to bring crime in New York to record lows. And many of them live by words that Pantaleo at least professed in a statement released Wednesday through the Patrolmen’s Benevolent Association.

“I became a police officer to help people and to protect those who can’t protect themselves,” Pantaleo said.

He went on to say, “It is never my intention to harm anyone and I feel very bad about the death of Mr. Garner. My family and I include him and his family in our prayers and I hope that they will accept my personal condolences for their loss.”

Nice sentiments from a guy who seemed deaf to Garner’s pleas that he was unable to breathe.

“The time for remorse was when my husband was yelling to breathe!” Garner’s widow, Esaw Garner, told a press conference Wednesday.

Pantaleo comes from Eltingville, the overwhelmingly white section of Staten Island that was home to Police Officer Justin Volpe, who is presently in prison for sodomizing Abner Louima with a wooden stick in a stationhouse bathroom. Eltingville is not known for being progressive on matters of race, but Volpe’s family is said not to have been racist, and he had a black fiancée. Pantaleo is also not necessarily a manifest racist.

“I think it’s just cop culture,” a longtime Eltingville resident said Wednesday.

That unfairly characterizes the many decent cops, but there is indeed one element of cop culture that tends to dehumanize or at least objectify suspected lawbreakers of whatever race. The instant you are deemed a candidate for arrest, you become not so much a person as a “perp.”

“You’re dehumanizing the person,” the veteran black police officer says.

In the view of some cops, perps merit little concern or sympathy. This is particularly true when such cops are focused on effecting an arrest. The result can be the indifference that appears so chilling in the Garner video.

“You’re not even hearing [the perp] at this point; you’re dealing with this non-human,” the veteran police officer says.

The veteran officer notes that even in the most extreme mixed martial arts bouts, a fighter can “tap out,” signaling he has had enough.

“Eric Garner didn’t have a chance to tap out,” the veteran officer says.

The whole incident becomes all the more shocking when you consider that Garner was being arrested for selling “loosies,” individual and usually untaxed cigarettes. The police had arrested him repeatedly in the spring and into the summer in response to orders originally with Chief of Department Phil Banks, third in command of the NYPD. Banks’s office had reportedly been receiving complaints from local storeowners about people selling loosies in the street. One caller had mentioned “a man named Eric.”

“They feel like they’re driven to produce, and producing means arrests,” the veteran officer says of fellow cops in such instances.

For reasons entirely unrelated to Garner’s death, Banks retired in October. He happens to be black, and his departure was seen as a blow to the NYPD’s efforts to establish better relations with communities of color.

With the grand jury’s failure to indict Garner and the recent accidental shooting of an unarmed young man by a jittery rookie cop in a darkened housing protect stairwell in Brooklyn, those relations have become decidedly tense, despite the city’s proudly progressive new mayor, Bill de Blasio.

Garner’s family and their supporters are hoping the U.S. Justice Department will indict Pantaleo on civil-rights charges, as it did Police Officer Francis Livotti, who employed a chokehold on 29-year-old Anthony Baez some 20 years ago in the Bronx, with fatal results. The Livotti case led to the NYPD’s prohibition against the use of chokeholds, which it defines as bringing pressure to bear on the airways.

On Wednesday evening, some residents of Staten Island boarded the ferry to join protesters who were gathering in Times Square, not far from Rockefeller Center, where the big event of the night was scheduled to be the annual Christmas tree lighting.

As a precaution against a possible disturbance, the ferry was escorted by a police boat, its blue lights flashing. The boat was named in memory of Det. Dillon Stewart, a black police officer who was shot to death in the line of duty in Brooklyn in 2005, leaving two young daughters. The whole city mourned Stewart’s loss and honored him as a hero in the ongoing effort to make New York safe.

There was no trouble on the ferry as it reached Manhattan and a few of the passengers boarded the subway to the protest uptown. The cry that rose up into the night signaled a moral indictment no matter what the grand jury had said.

“I can’t breathe! I can’t breathe!”


By: Michael Daly, The Daily Beast, December 3, 2014

December 5, 2014 Posted by | Black Men, Criminal Justice System, Police Officers | , , , , , , , | 1 Comment

“Darren Wilson Saw ‘A Demon.’ What Do You See?”: Michael Brown Was A Very Human Being

“He looked up at me and had the most intense aggressive face.” That’s how police officer Darren Wilson described unarmed 18-year-old Michael Brown. “The only way I can describe it, it looks like a demon.”

Wilson’s testimony convinced the grand jurors and others that the officer was justified in shooting and killing Brown last summer in Ferguson, Mo. Yes, the citizens did a tough job admirably when confronted with mountains of material. But could they also have been affected by research that says black boys as young as 10 are seen as older and guiltier than their white peers?

In an August column “So, black teens who aren’t angels deserve whatever they get?” I wrote, “The shelf life for innocence is short when you are a black male — and there is no room for error.” You don’t get the second chance others might have after an incident of teenage rebellion, such as mouthing off to an authority figure or a more serious scrape. See any number of car-overturning, fire-burning melees after a big sports victory or loss for proof of a double standard.

The answer to the question I posed then has consequences for all Americans because Ferguson, Mo., is about more than one shooting in one town in Middle America. Whatever anyone thinks of the grand jury’s findings, “it” was not a “demon.” Michael Brown was a very human being.


By: Mary C. Curtis, She The People, The Washington Post, November 25, 2014

November 26, 2014 Posted by | Darren Wilson, Ferguson Missouri, Michael Brown | , , , , | Leave a comment

“Obama Calculates The Human Cost Of Deportations”: It’s Past Time To Stop The Stupidity And The Lack Of Humanity

The commemorations of the 25th anniversary of the Berlin Wall’s fall have thrust into the public spotlight the border guard who ordered the gates opened. The subject of both a new German-language book and film, one-time Stasi Lt. Col. Harald Jäger has recounted why he defied his orders. And his story couldn’t be more relevant to the debate consuming our own nation.

On the evening of Nov. 9, 1989, prompted by an erroneous announcement from an East German Politburo spokesman that his compatriots would be free to cross the border, thousands of East Berliners flocked to the checkpoint Jäger supervised. His superiors told him to keep the gates closed, though he could let a few people through, provided he marked the passports of those he determined were activists and blocked their reentry when they came back.

When one such young couple returned from the West, going home to their small children, Jäger saw that while the wife could reenter, her husband’s passport had been stamped, forbidding his return. Jäger faced a choice. “My responsibility was clear — enforce the law and split the couple,” he recalled to the Financial Times. “But at that moment it became so clear to me . . . the stupidity, the lack of humanity. I finally said to myself, ‘Kiss my arse. Now I will do what I think is right.’ ” He let the couple in. Then he commanded the guards to throw open the gates. The rest is history — and a lesson to a nation now embroiled in a different, but not that different, contest between the imperatives of custom and law, as some construe it, and those of keeping families together.

Of the thousands of words written lately on President Obama’s impending order to exempt some undocumented immigrants from the threat of deportation, most have dealt with the politics of the issue, not the humanity behind it. What the media have largely failed to emphasize is that Obama’s order will be shaped almost entirely by the imperative of keeping parents with their children. The administration is planning to allow the undocumented parents of children born here (and who are, thus, U.S. citizens) to stay and receive work permits. Unfortunately, this will not include parents of the “dreamers” who are already protected by executive order from deportation.

What the pundits have tended to overlook, as well, is the humanity behind Obama’s apparent willingness to act without congressional approval. Every year since Obama became president, the government has deported roughly 400,000 undocumented immigrants, with little regard to whether they’ve broken any law save crossing the border without papers or overstaying their visas — or whether their kids are wondering where their parents have gone. On Tuesday, the Pew Research Center reported that in 2012, some 13 percent of schoolchildren in both Texas and California had at least one undocumented parent. That’s a lot of parents, a lot of kids.

It’s not as if Obama hasn’t waited for Congress to address the immigration conundrum. Nearly 18 months ago, a bipartisan majority of 68 senators passed an Obama-backed bill that would have significantly augmented our border security forces and provided a long and tortuous pathway to legalization for an estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants. The Republican-controlled House refused to take up the bill, however, though it likely would have passed. Speaker John Boehner and other GOP leaders declined to risk the ire of the nativists in their ranks.

So long as Republicans — many of them from heavily gerrymandered districts with few Latino voters — continue to control the House, that chamber isn’t likely to enact any serious immigration reform. It is likely, however, that the House will stay in Republican hands until at least the first election following the next decennial redistricting — that is, until 2023. Should the wave of deportations without regard to family status continue until then, the number of broken families could easily rise into the millions.

Obama has no doubt calculated the political risks and advantages of acting alone; he could be sued for political malpractice if he didn’t. He believes, rightly, that the president has the authority to direct immigration officials to exempt particular groups from detention and deportation. But beyond the political and legal calculations are those that are simply human.

None of this is to equate the legitimacy of our laws and policies to those of the late, unlamented East Germany. But even democracies can, and not infrequently do, violate the most elemental human rights. Stripping children of their parents is such a violation. It’s time — past time — to stop the stupidity, the lack of humanity.


By: Harold Meyerson, Opinion Writer, The Washington Post, November 19, 2014

November 24, 2014 Posted by | Congress, Executive Orders, Immigration Reform | , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

“A Challenge To Conservative Principles”: Humankind Is Better Off Than It Has Ever Been, And It’s Thanks To Government

There has never been a better time to be a human being than in March 2014. People live longer, wealthier, happier lives than they ever have. Each of the Four Horsemen — disease, famine, war, and death — are being beaten back.

This isn’t just my opinion. The data is incontrovertible. Life expectancy is the highest it’s ever been, and getting higher. Global GDP has never reached our present heights. The number of humans in poverty has never been lower. Wars between nations are almost extinct, and wars in general are getting less deadly.

The notion of human progress isn’t a grand theory anymore; it’s a fact. So why do so many people insist on telling you it’s impossible?

Almost everywhere you turn, some pundit or “literary intellectual” is aching to tell you the “hard, eternal truths” about the way the world works. Progress is a false idol, they’ll say — and worse, an American one. The harsh reality is that nothing ever changes; the sad truth of the human condition is pain and misery.

These people position themselves as besieged truth tellers, braving the wrath of the masses to challenge our dominant, rose-tinted national narrative. In reality, they’re just saying what most people think. A reasonably large majority of Americans think the country’s “best years” are behind it. Post-Great Recession, doom-and-gloom is in.

But while pessimism may be the conventional wisdom nowadays, its intellectual avatars have never been more anemic. Take British philosopher John Gray. Gray has made debunking the notion of “progress” his life’s work, having written two whole books on the matter in addition to innumerable columns and magazine articles. His review of Steven Pinker’s The Better Angels of Our Nature, a book that carefully assembles immense amounts of statistical evidence showing that war and violence claim fewer lives than ever, does not dispute a single bit of Pinker’s data. Incredibly, Gray thinks pointing out that some Enlightenment thinkers disagreed with each other constitutes a devastating rebuttal to Pinker’s detailed empirical argument. The review’s shallowness is emblematic of the general tenor of Gray’s sad crusade.

It’s not just John Gray. Given the enormous amounts of data on the optimists’ side, pessimists have little more than handwaving left to them. The pessimists babble on about “permanent human nature” and “timeless verities.” The optimists cite U.N. life expectancy statistics and U.S. government crime data. Having no answer to books like Pinker’s, Charles Kenny’s Getting Better, or Angus Deaton’s The Great Escape, the pessimists resort to empty pieties.

The irony here is obvious. The pessimists accuse optimists of falling prey to a seductive ideological thinking; “the worship of Progress,” as Christian conservative Rod Dreher puts it. Yet the only people being seduced are the pessimists, clutching the pillars of their ideological house while its foundation shatters.

Today’s optimists notice clear evidence that humanity’s lot is getting better — a point that does not require assuming that it must get better as a consequence of some inevitable historical law. Opponents respond by asserting the world simply cannot be getting better, as their own pessimistic theory of history says it’s impossible. The critics of blind faith have put out their own eyes.

The reason that purportedly hard-boiled realists adhere to the absurd pessimistic ideology is plain. Their own political views depend crucially on the idea that nothing about the world can be improved. The clear evidence that human inventions — government, the market, medicine, international institutions, etc. — have improved the world point to devastating truths adherents to pessimistic ideologies are loath to admit.

The two ideologies I have in mind have been at odds of late: American conservatism and foreign policy “realism.” Yet popular versions of both rely on the notion of an unchanging, conflict-filled political landscape.

For many conservatives, the idea of “progress” constitutes liberalism’s fatal conceit. Russell Kirk put it most eloquently: “Man being imperfect, no perfect social order ever can be created.” Bill Kristol, living proof that movement conservatism has been immune from the happy trends improving the world, is more blunt. “Progressivism is a touchingly simple-minded faith,” he says. “The higher the number of the century, the better things should be. But progressivism happens not to be true.”

Kristol’s understanding of progressivism is wanting, to say the least. But the reason he needs to stamp his feet and deny the evidence of progress is that hard evidence of human improvement challenges his conservative first principles. Improvements in human welfare have come from government — most notably through public health programs, like the campaign against leaded gasoline, but also through institutions like the welfare state and mixed-market economies. It’s no surprise that the wealthiest, healthiest, and happiest countries are all welfare state democracies.

But more fundamentally, human progress runs against the conservative assumption that human nature does not permit fundamental victories over evils like war. Government will always fail, as Kirk suggests, because human nature will frustrate any attempt to eradicate suffering.

But as it turns out, human nature itself is shaped crucially by the institutions we find ourselves surrounded by — including government. The newest research on humanity’s basic psychology, lucidly explained in recent books by neuroscientist Jonathan Greene and primatologist Frans de Waal, find that human “nature” is malleable. We’re naturally inclined toward both conflict and cooperation, and thus have the potential for both great good and great evil. The crucial deciding factor is the circumstances we find ourselves in. The reality of human progress, then, suggests that the political and social arrangements we’ve created are bringing out our better angels. This is a truth the conservative view of human nature cannot abide.

Foreign policy realists are also concerned by human nature, but nowadays tend to rely more on arguments about “the international system.” For them, global harmony is impossible because nations can never trust each other. Without a world government, no one can really ensure that another country’s army won’t come calling on your doorstep. States are driven to conflict by the need to secure themselves from an always-there risk to their security.

The decline in violence constitutes an existential threat to this worldview. There is strong evidence that international institutions, trade interdependences, and the spread of democracy have all contributed to war’s decline. If that’s true, then it really does seem like the globe isn’t destined for conflict forever. Neither human nature nor the international system make war inevitable.

Now, there are real grounds to worry about the future of human progress. Most notably, climate change has the potential to wipe out much of what we’ve accomplished. The reality of human progress isn’t an argument against heading off ecological disaster.

But that crisis hasn’t happened yet. You can simultaneously celebrate the fact that humanity is better off than it has ever been and argue that we need to take drastic action if we want to make sure that progress doesn’t stop with our generation.

So there’s no reason not to sing progress’ praises. Today’s world is much more Lego Movie than True Detective: everything really is kind of awesome, and time is not a damn flat circle.


By: Zack Beauchamp, The Week, March, 13, 2014

March 15, 2014 Posted by | Conservatives, Government | , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

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