Monday, February 20, 2006

Presidents’ Day Reflections on Jack “BTK” Bauer

I just finished a marathon session of the Season 4 DVDs of Fox Network’s smash hit, 24, and I’ve come to an inescapable conclusion. I’m not exactly sure how to break this to all of you loyal Jack Bauer fans out there, so I’ll just be direct: Jack Bauer is a sadistic dick. Like Sayid Jarrah on Lost, he is a torturer and his elevation to cult hero should give us all lengthy pause.

As a society, we’ve, for example, banned women’s nipples from the airwaves, apparently because of the grave threat they represent to the moral integrity of our nation. And I’ve heard more than one conservative commentator solemnly intone about the potential harm suffered by our children from an exposure to (gasp!!) Janet Jackson’s breast. And yet…here we are in the fifth season of a wildly popular television drama where the characters routinely enter a bizarre conscience-free zone which allows, even demands, them to subject absolutely anyone, from family and co-workers to potentially innocent suspects, to state-sanctioned sick, cruel, and inhumane treatment.

Moreover, the writers of 24 wear this gratuitous torture as a sort of red badge of courage, so that characters willing and eager to torture (in essence abandon their own humanity) are portrayed as jut-jawed and decisive pragmatists who are assiduously working to protect our people and way of life. Meanwhile, characters who feel in the least squeamish about this enthusiastic surrender to cruelty and darkness are portrayed as weak, indecisive, unmanly and unfit to lead. It makes it difficult to believe that this show is nothing more than part of a coordinated pre-propaganda effort, an attempt to condition our minds to accept the unacceptable and to uncritically admire those of us who do (How ironic that today is Presidents’ Day). We are being encouraged to become a cruel, barbarous, and bloodthirsty people, to become comfortable with that which we know in our hearts is wrong.

However, as adults we must recognize and accept the extent of our weakness and malleability and shoulder the responsibility for shaping our own character by critically scrutinizing what we allow ourselves to be exposed to. If not, we risk allowing others to manipulate us into surrendering our moral compass, rendering us no different from the terrorists against whom we struggle.

I, for one, want to believe that Americans can be different. Call me an amoral libertine, but I’d rather have my children exposed to 1,000 unrestrained nipples than one minute of a merciless federal agent viciously torturing a wounded female prisoner. And that’s why I’ve decided to say goodbye forever to Jack Bauer, CTU, and the sadistic barbarism masquerading as prime-time entertainment.

Thursday, February 16, 2006

A Redemption Deferred – Abu Ghraib Redux

How do I feel about this story? My first reaction was extreme irritation at the embarrassingly flimsy excuses offered by this administration as to why they continue to fight the release of the full record of photographic and video evidence from Abu Ghraib. Excuses which (e.g., worries about the privacy of violated detainees or a fear of increasing violence against our troops) increasingly sound suspiciously like the exploitation of valid concerns to cover their collective ass (Gee honey, don’t you see that by telling you everything about my involvement with that child sex trafficking ring, we would just be damaging our marriage and traumatizing our kids?). This lack of trust has only succeeded in reinforcing the domestic perception of a dismissive contempt for “We the people”, as well as worsening the damage to our already shaky credibility abroad.

So what were they thinking? I suspect the presence of a widespread, and fundamentally faulty, strategic belief: I can win by not losing. This administration doesn’t want to lose, but seems unable or unwilling to grasp what it would take to win. They mistakenly believe that they can “win” good public opinion by “managing” public perceptions through hiding ugly truths and overstating good intentions. However, the fatal flaw is that “managing perceptions” in this way is merely an exercise in amoral manipulation which, when recognized, inevitably engenders widespread resentment and distrust. Even worse, those who consistently rely on this strategy consistently fail to recognize golden opportunities that can exist in the midst of horrifying scandals.

Where might we find such an opportunity in the horror of Abu Ghraib? Step 5 of the AA 12 Steps states, “We admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.” America needs to see all of the evidence of what happened in our name. We must always be willing to unflinchingly face the very worst in ourselves, reject excuses, and take full responsibility. We should be our own harshest critics, always willing to make amends to those we have offended by admitting the truth and correcting our mistakes. In so doing we would reinforce and strengthen our values here at home and demonstrate to the world an unparalleled commitment to becoming Reagan’s shining city on a hill. If that means standing naked before the world and receiving a harsh judgment for our crimes and our failures, then so be it. In the long run, we will be stronger for it.

That is how you send the message to future Charles Graners and Lyndie Englands (not to mention those unidentified higher-ups who either encouraged or allowed this to happen) that this behavior is unacceptable for an American and for a decent human being. That is how you begin to restore public trust and confidence. That is how you take the first step on the road to redemption.

Friday, February 10, 2006

Al Qaeda Friday - American Hiroshima (To be continued)

Please accept my apologies (all 3 of you who may be reading this blog). The American Hiroshima entry will be postponed until further notice. My original post was intended to describe the potential societal consequences of a scenario involving the successful detonation of 10-12 pre-positioned small nuclear devices within major American cities over a period of 1 to 2 weeks. However, my thoughts on this subject are not yet ready for prime time. To be honest, I don’t mind not thinking about it for a while.

Thursday, February 09, 2006

A Good Day

Some days force you to confront the reality of the relative spiritual poverty of our modern existence. Today is such a day.

Here in the Valley of the Sun, we’ve received no measurable precipitation for over 113 days! The days have been gritty, with foul-smelling air, and Shakespeare’s eye of heaven hammering down without mercy.

But today is different. In some strange way, the normal brown haze has combined with uncharacteristic cloudiness and changed the sun’s harsh glare into a diffuse yellowish softness. The air also feels soft and the temperature is perfect and balmy. I decided to go home for a favorite Japanese lunch (cheap inari w/ginger, kelp onigiri, and a big green daifuku, all washed down with a bottle of cold green tea) and I swear the air outside my house smelled faintly of licorice!

In short, it feels like that magical kind of day you remember in abundance when you were a kid. A day where the rules have been suspended, all bets are off, and absolutely anything is possible. The kind of day that reminds you that the childlike feeling of a pure simple joy at being alive is really just a forgotten state of mind which modern life, with all its myriad demands, can make almost impossible to sense.

Today I don’t want to put up with the tedium and drudgery of the office. I want to take off my shirt and go exploring, bare-chested, and play childhood games. The seductive possibility of reconnecting with a life of enchantment seems almost within my grasp, but now I'm late for my 2:00 o’clock meeting… How, I wonder, will I feel at 3:00?

Monday, February 06, 2006

Judiciary Testimony - Quick Thoughts...

At breakfast I watched about 20 minutes of Attorney General Gonzales’ testimony to the Senate Judiciary Committee. What I saw was very enlightening and helped me see this issue in a very different light. I found the essence (although certainly not always the delivery) of the Attorney General's responses to questions re the legality of the wiretapping program to be surprisingly persuasive (please bear with me!). Specifically, his argument that the Supreme Court held, in the Hamdi case, that the President had the right to detain American citizens, and that wiretapping is allowable because it is certainly less intrusive, was a HUGE light bulb moment for me. Now I finally understand what has been troubling me about the connection between this wiretapping program and the administration's continually increasing assertions of greater executive authority.

On the way to work I found my self thinking, by analogy, that if we were at war with a nation-state where combat operations were ongoing within our borders, all of the disturbing actions that the President has authorized or contemplated (e.g., the detention of American citizens suspected as enemy agents or the intrusive surveillance of Americans suspected of connections with the enemy) would not be so worrying. In fact, we would probably demand it! The question then becomes, are we really in a state of war?

Can a state of war actually (or legally) exist between nations and non-state actors like al Qaeda? If not, then the invocation of the President's war powers (Whether by Rove’s design or serendipitous congressional inattention) would be utterly inappropriate, and likely very dangerous. The extreme right will respond by screaming, “Of course we at war!” But if so, then why has this administration, for example, determined that the Geneva conventions don’t have to apply? Something is rotten in the state of Denmark. They want to have their cake (this is a regular war) and eat it too (create a new class of combatants who do not get Geneva protections), a view whose ultimate implications are now becoming frighteningly clear.

Shouldn’t al Qaeda’s actions more properly be dealt with as criminal acts, similar to how we would deal with organized crime? By allowing the President to prosecute this threat as a regular war, I fear we have unwittingly created an opportunity for the seizure and solidification of unprecedented executive authority. We have to ask ourselves, “Where will this end?” We have to ask ourselves, because our very democracy and our rightly-cherished liberties are at risk like never before.

Sunday, February 05, 2006

But deliver us from evil...

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing - La Rochefoucauld

Why write about an apparently obscure issue like evil? Because I think it can provide a valuable insight into how we are reacting (or not) to the corruption and contempt for law that increasingly comes to characterize this administration. (The depth of their contempt for our possible reaction to their various misdeeds is all too apparent in the half-hearted nature of their lies. I mean, if they're going to lie, can't they at least try to put some effort into it?) The President's cartoonish railing about fighting "evil-doers" is essentially part of a larger effort in the extremist conservative movement to undermine our ability to recognize the subtlety and power of real evil and thus, much less successfully resist it when it's found in, say, some of our nation's top elected conservative officials.

I think we all feel pride that the commitment to fight evil is an important part of our national character. But why does mounting evidence suggest that we, as a nation, are so poorly equipped for the struggle?

Let's start with a definition: Evil is that immorality which intentionally causes suffering, pain, harm, or destruction. OK, everyone's probably on board so far and feels like a good guy. So, can we now expect that should evil confront us, widespread resistance will be swift and inevitable? Hell, in spite of scandal after scandal from this administration, we can barely manage widespread indignation! Why? Because we have neither the ability to reliably identify evil nor accurately evaluate the magnitude of its threat.

First, let's look at our entertainment, arguably the earliest and most powerful introduction to evil that we give children. How is evil generally portrayed? Typically, such icons as Darth Vader, Satan, Nazis, or serial killers share one thing in common: they are easily identified. Evil is ugly and has horns. Evil wears a black hat, a leering sneer, or at least a toothbrush mustache. And in the movies, evil even has its own musical score. The is understandable for children, since leaving a theater fearful that random strangers could be demonic serial killers could be unnecessarily traumatic. However, for adults, retained vestiges of this stereotype may be problematic because in the real world, evil is often smart, charming, attractive and rarely sports horns (wasn't Lucifer the most beautiful of angels?). Today it camouflages itself with bought opinion and grand pronouncements of piety, honesty, and virtue. Evil can cloak itself in respectability and patriotism. Evil flatters our insecurities and seduces us through empty promises of power. Above all, evil does not self-identify, evil deceives. So much so that most of those responsible for much of the world's pain probably, by necessity, deceive themselves most of all.

Unlike the movies, most evil in the real world is banal, meaning it is perpetrated everyday by people just like you and me. But if we are the good guys, how can we be capable of this? Evil, it seems, is an ever-present seed in our hearts, always ready to be nourished. "Evil is that immorality....” We all have a value system and we know what is right and wrong within that system. That is why the extreme right wing finds it so critical to invest in and constantly refine the methods and techniques of mass deception, so that when it is time to deceive us (and we are far easier to dupe than we might suspect) for their own ends (especially when those ends conflict with our moral values), our critical faculties will already be sufficiently weakened, and our will to act drowned in the inertia of our everyday lives.

What can we do? Scrupulously analyze our elected officials and especially ourselves for the telltale signs of moral corruption: actions and feelings that directly contradict stated values, especially rationalizations that moral ends can justify immoral means:

Followers of a god of love and nonviolence taking pleasure in the murder of abortion doctors, the execution of the condemned, or the power of weaponry.

Those "good decent people" who find it so easy to dislike or make fun of "the other", racial minorities, "illegals", the obese, the mentally retarded.

Liberals or conservatives who find themselves defending the indefensible in the interests of partisan advantage.

Why should we care? In part out of indignation against those desperate to keep us sidelined, quiet and submissive "good Germans". But mostly because there is today being waged a fierce and mostly invisible battle, where life and liberty, and perhaps humanity itself, hangs in the balance.

Friday, February 03, 2006

Al Qaeda Friday - Why no new attacks?

Why have there been no new al Qaeda attacks on U.S. soil in over 4 years? Successful counter-terrorism efforts? Maybe, but if so, I suspect they’ve stopped only limited plans hatched by small rogue cells. When it comes to the al Qaeda leadership, I think we must seek other explanations.

First, “What is al Qaeda’s goal w/respect to the United States?” Their stated goal of ending the presence and influence of the west in muslim regions, thereby facilitating the establishment of a pan-islamic utopia seems, on the face of it, extraordinarily unrealistic. The west is…not…going…anywhere. Why? Because the region’s petroleum resources are the sine qua non of modern existence. As the sole remaining superpower, America has tasked herself (and our proxies) with ensuring a steady and uninterrupted supply of that resource, and the rules of power (which are not necessarily moral) dictate our continued presence for the foreseeable future. The only way al Qaeda even has a ghost of a chance of getting us out is by inventing a new and plentiful (and preferably) non-polluting fuel supply for the entire world. That, however, is not who they are.

Consequently, al Qaeda’s leadership must realize that their goal is simply unattainable by their current methods. Consider even a few of Al Qaeda’s challenges:

Cell member commitment - I suspect that for many of them, their hatred is focused on an abstract conception of America and is not really deeply personal. In contrast consider the Occupied Territories, where the Israeli army can with impunity mete out daily violence and humiliation on a relatively powerless populace. As a result, Israel can certainly count on a steady supply of terrorist recruits ready to blow themselves up out of sheer rage and impotence. (Lest we get too comfortable, thanks to this administration’s invasion and occupation of Iraq, not to mention incidents such as Abu Ghraib (all photos still not released!), or using the wives and family of suspected insurgents as bait, and Lord knows what else, we’ve supplied Al Qaeda with a breeding ground for terrorists with a deeply personal hatred for actual Americans. Fantastic. Thanks W.)
Stupor - There exists in our society a soma-like inertia, the mind-numbing momentum of our daily lives. This stupor began to reassert itself mere weeks after the shock of 9/11, especially if you were outside NY or DC. In the absence of follow up attacks (not including the Beltway sniper), we wrote it off as a lucky shot and got on with our lives.

So how might an al Qaeda mastermind respond to these challenges? Suicide bombings? Maybe, but even with the ease of smuggling terrorists and conventional explosives, it’s hard to imagine recruiting volunteers for martyrdom operations at the local WalMart. No, they've got to think big to inspire followers to sacrifice towards a glorious end. Unfortunately, that may mean that anything less than the total destruction of America as we know it would be seen as a waste of time and limited resources. Destruction at that scale is simply not possible without careful and considered long-term planning and positioning of resources. No new attacks? What if we've just been lulling ourselves into a false sense of security?

Next Friday…American Hiroshima.