Tuesday, October 31, 2006

On coaching nine-year-old girls

They are different from nine-year-old boys. Here's a recent conversation I had with young Kimby, who is talented but who has not yet grasped the basic differences between the way an athlete moves on the field and the way someone who isn't an athlete moves (what in my youth we would have called the difference between "playing like a boy" and "playing like a girl"):

ME (trying to find a way to explain that Kimby should always be balanced on her toes, knees bent, muscles coiled, instead of standing straight up with her knees locked whenever she isn't actually trying to kick the ball): Look, Kimby, you've seen how dogs and cats move, right? You know how the dogs just sort of bounce around cheerfully without a thought in their heads [demonstrating with a prancing little poodle-ish straight-legged jaunt]? But cats -- [dropping into a ready stance] cats are always ready to pounce. Even when they're just walking through the room [I start prowling in circles around Kimby as if adjusting my position in a zone defence], they're always on the prowl. Well, you have to be like a cat, not a dog; you have to always be ready. That ball is like a mouse, and you never know when it's going to pop out from the other girls unexpectedly and suddenly you could be open for just a moment, and when that happens you have to be ready to pounce right then. Or else some other girl will get there first and you've lost your chance. So, you have to always be on the prowl, like a cat, almost like your tail is always twitching. Do you see what I mean?

KIMBY [seriously and somewhat disconsolately]: But I don't like cats.

"Vivid Visual Image of the Day" Dept

From a story in the tree-killing version of the Houston Chronicle for a few days ago, in re the investigation into a farm suspected of having something to do with the big spinach E. coli outbreak:

"We do not have a smoking cow at this point," said Dr. Kevin Reilly...

Um...would finding a smoking cow actually help?

Upon rereading this: I initially had an image of a cow that had been nuked or something; but it occurs to me that a slightly different, yet equally vivid, image may also present itself -- especially if one imagines the smoking cow in a smoking jacket with a glass of good brandy.

"Torture Doesn't Work"

The following post continues the conversation begun here, and carried on here and here, between myself and an anonymous commenter whom for convenience I address as "Arnie".

I think, before tackling the complex question of implementation of the Golden Rule, I’d like to put to bed a very common argument: “torture doesn’t work anyway.”

Now, just on an a priori ground, this doesn’t make much sense. We’re talking interrogations in which tens of thousands of people may be potentially at risk if the interrogation fails. If an interrogation tactic has a one-in-a-hundred chance of extracting genuinely useful information, that chance – given the stakes – would seem worth taking a shot at. Besides, if it were really useless, and if its uselessness is the established fact that Arnie and others seem convinced that it is, then you would think the interrogation experts would know it. I mean, it’s not like Arnie’s going to be up-to-date on the latest information about the various methods’ efficiency ratings while the guys actually in charge of anti-terrorist intelligence have somehow had that memo slip past them unnoticed.

I’m not sure Arnie realizes this, but his position appears implicitly to be that the American interrogators who wish to use these tactics, are sadists who are just looking for an excuse to inflict pain. Think about it: Arnie wants us to believe that the uselessness of interrogation by “torture” is a fact established pretty much beyond reasonable doubt. Yet American interrogators still want to use it, or else nobody would be arguing about doing it in the first place. Now, I see only three explanations for why these interrogators would be pushing the nation into such an ethical dilemma. One would be because they reasonably believe that such tactics have a reasonable chance of extracting information that turns out to be life-savingly, and potentially even city-savingly, useful – but if I understand Arnie properly, he would have us accept that it is not possible that such a view could reasonably be held by informed persons. A second explanation would be that Arnie believes that he knows more about professional interrogators' jobs than they do; but I think Arnie is humble enough to admit that anything he knows about the effectiveness of various interrogation tactics, our professionals know as well. But with the first and second possibilities ruled out by Arnie’s position, we are left only with the third, which is that our guys know perfectly well that torture is useless – but they are lying and pretending to think it’s useful, because they get a sick kick out of it somehow. Arnie’s position on the uselessness of torture, in fact, entails the corollary that Americans who “torture” terrorists under the pretense of getting information from them, are doing exactly the same thing that the jerks at Abu Ghraib were doing – they are giving themselves some sort of pleasure at their prisoners’ expense.

Being rather unready to condemn our interrogators so sweepingly, and rather more skeptical of conventional wisdom than Arnie seems to be, I instead think it reasonable to say that if our interrogators want to use the tactics, it’s because they think those tactics have a decent shot at giving us potentially critical information – and they would know better than anybody else. With all due respect to Arnie, they would certainly know better than he does, and better than any Congressman does, and far better than any Democratic Party talking head does. In particular, they would have a much better idea of what sort of modern techniques are effective in the hands of Americans dealing with Islamofascist terrorists, than would John McCain – whose expertise comes from being an American on the receiving end of thirty- or forty-year-old tactics wielded by the Vietnamese.

Furthermore, consider that our interrogators know perfectly well that people under torture will sometimes make stuff up in order to make the torture stop, and are perfectly capable of taking the information and cross-checking it with other information. It seems obvious to me that if somebody gives you bogus information, then you simply go back and say mournfully, “Ah, Ahmed, you lied to me. How unfortunate for you. It appears we will have to return to our little chats.” If, as Arnie assures us, a person under torture will say anything to make the torture stop, then I need merely make sure my subjects realize that in the end, only the real truth will make the torture stop for good – and wouldn’t at least a certain percentage of subjects, upon the dawning of that comprehension, give you the real truth? Remember, with the stakes that we’re talking about (e.g. a dirty bomb in New York Harbor), we really just need a decent chance that some of the subjects will break and give us the information we need. The “it doesn’t work” objection, it seems to me, is an objection that can have no compelling force unless you can be confident enough to say, “The tactics under question are guaranteed never to give us useful information that we couldn’t get just as quickly any other way.” And it seems to me to be a priori absurd to think a torture-skeptic could possibly have any rational justification for being that certain of such methods’ unvarying failure.

Now, if you wanted to argue that such methods should be methods of last resort, then you might have a good argument on your hand. You could say that more reliable but slower methods should be in general preferred; you could say that quality interrogations would tend to avoid torture in favor of methods that gave better results; and you could argue that therefore torture should be confined to situations in which there’s special reason to think that nothing else will work or else that speed is of the essence. But you know what? Everybody already agrees with that. None of the “pro-torture” people are running around saying that anytime we can lay our hands on somebody with an Arab name and a funny accent, we should start right in on ripping his fingernails out and shoving cattle prods up his butt. None of us like the idea of “torture,” and none of us want to use it unless there’s a good chance it will prove useful, and none of us want to use it when it isn’t necessary. The issue is precisely: what about when there’s good reason to think nothing else will work and that innocent lives are at stake? That torture is rarely necessary, and that it shouldn’t be used unnecessarily, we all agree on already. So unless Arnie can show that “torture” never works, he’s not going to get far with the “it doesn’t work” argument.

All of that seems to me to be what a reasonable person would think if he didn’t know all that much about the subject. We can actually do even better with Arnie’s argument, though, if we start looking into the evidence more closely.

Having reached this point in my musings, I decided I might as well do some research about the efficacy of “torture” tactics. And then I stumbled across a reference to this interview on Bill O’Reilly – which, being somebody who never watches Bill O’Reilly if I can help it, I hadn’t seen. O’Reilly was interviewing Brian Ross, who I think is the ABC News guy who broke the news about the secret prisons and is certainly no member of the Bush Propaganda Team. Now, according to Ross, the CIA broke fourteen high-value al Qaeda prisoners using a range of techniques of which the worst was waterboarding – though they didn’t use waterboarding on all of them because it wasn’t necessary. “They start with a slap, and then a slap on the chest, the cold room, uh, sleep deprivation, which seems to be the most effective, but for some, the waterboarding is what it took.” In other words, the most effective method generally speaking wasn’t torture (which I think everybody agrees with as a general statement), but for some people the only thing that worked was waterboarding (which contradicts the Sullivan/McCain/Arnie position that, with exceptions so rare as to be insignificant, either waterboarding doesn’t work at all or else something else will work just as well instead). What struck me were these two points in particular:

1. Some of the information the subjects gave was bogus, which is what McCain and company would have us believe almost always happens. Yet not all of it was; useful information was extracted by waterboarding even though we’re only talking about a sample size of fourteen people. “Some” would appear to be at a minimum two and probably more – which is to say, you’re talking at least 10% of these guys would not respond to anything but waterboarding, making the “it doesn’t work except in exceptions too rare to be worth it” seem pretty thoroughly refuted by actual empirical experience.

2. The information we got from Khalid not only was information that clearly we could not have gotten without waterboarding, but that also was clearly valuable and accurate once he did finally break – and that, according to ABC sources who are hostile to the idea of waterboarding, was instrumental in breaking up more than a dozen plots including the plot to pull a second 9/11-style attempt in L.A.

So can we all agree that the “torture doesn’t work” line has been well and truly and thoroughly discredited by actual events? Arnie has expressed in his comments a preference for actual events that have already taken place rather than hypothetical events that might take place. Okay, no problem. Let’s get rid of the hypothetical, and look at those dozen actual plots, in which I think it is reasonable to assume that at least ten or fifteen entirely innocent Americans would have died. Now, given the choice between breaking Khalid, and saving those lives, by waterboarding, or else protecting our moral purity and allowing the plots to proceed as planned, would those of you who oppose "torture" say that you wish we hadn’t waterboarded Khalid?

That’s the most basic question. A "yes" answer places you in the realm of moral absolutism in which no ends can justify this particular means; a "no" answer means all our disagreements are pragmatic questions about where the line is prudently drawn. But the complaint that "torture doesn't work" is really just not one I'm likely to have any further patience with. Because, clearly, sometimes what you guys call “torture” does work, and it can save innocent lives – can, does and has.

Wednesday, October 25, 2006

Arnold King explains the fundamental insight that makes a person a libertarian

And thus I don't have to explain it myself. Here are some money quotes from Kling's terse but enlightening little post:

"The conventional wisdom is that we would be better off if politically powerful leaders were less mediocre. Instead, my view is that we would be better off if mediocre political leaders were less powerful."

"Democracy does not lead to particularly good choices. Most successful institutions in society are not democratic....[T]he value of democracy is that it provides a check on government officials."

"We have to expect mediocrity from political leaders. They are selected by a very unreliable process."

"In general, I try to avoid contact with narcissists who spend their time pleading for money. Those are hardly the intellectual and emotional characteristics that make someone admirable, yet they are the traits of people who go into politics." [Amen, brother Kling!]

"Do not look upon the electoral process as a search for great leaders. At best, it gives us an opportunity for damage control."

Couldn't've said it better myself.

HT: Insty

Tuesday, October 24, 2006

An answer to an excellent question

In response to my last, The Commenter Presently Known As Arnie asks the very excellent question:

"Since your original question was about the morality of torture, how can you justify not using the Bible? Or are you saying that morality comes from somewhere else?"

That question is so good it deserves not to be buried in a comments section. Let me try, no doubt inadequately, to answer it. It deserves a whole series of essays but I simply don't have time to do it justice. So I hereby proceed to do it an injustice:


I'm not exactly not using the Bible; my whole point of departure is after all Romans 13:4. But it's quite true that I'm arguing that the Bible doesn't address the particular political question of the use of torture as an interrogation technique of last resort against mass-destruction-wielding terrorists. I've laid out in some detail precisely why I don't think any passages of Scripture address the question with enough specificity to let us say, "Thus saith the Lord." Yet you still don't feel that your question has been answered; and I think that's because your question is a deep and general one, rather than a question about this specific issue. I think you want to know how I approach Scripture in general, not how I think Scripture relates to this particular issue. So I'll do my best to explain it.

Basically, morality comes from the nature of God as expressed in this particular creation. Our knowledge of what is moral comes from two sources: special revelation (Scripture and, in some schools of thought, the Church), and natural law. Special revelation is much more reliable, but doesn't cover everything that we want to know. Natural law covers the entire field of human decision-making, but is notoriously unreliable.

The obvious approach, then, is to use revelation as much as you responsibly can. Unfortunately revelation is not unmediated; nobody really trusts sola Scriptura. This is because...

Okay, look, I'm a dad, and I think there's a good chance you're a parent, too. I think most parents would recognize the following experience: you try to explain something to your kid about how you expect him to behave in a certain situation. Then three months later he does something that you really didn't want him to do -- but when you start to talk to him about it, he says, "But you said such-and-such!" And in frustration you hear yourself saying, "But that's not what I meant!" In other words, "Yes, but when I said that I wasn't talking about this situation; you're misapplying my advice."

Now if you look at how you deal with your kids you will see that sometimes you don't get mad at them for misunderstanding you, because it was an understandable mistake. On the other hand, sometimes you get royally angry because you know that they knew exactly what you meant and they're just making excuses. In that case, you would say, "You know perfectly well that's not what I meant! And now you're grounded."

But sometimes they were honestly confused, and yet you get annoyed with them all the same. That's because their confusion comes from their having been too lazy to bother to ask themselves what you meant. In that case, when they say, "But I thought you meant..." you are likely to say something like, "Then you weren't listening very carefully." Which means they're still in trouble.

My point is that we expect our children to respond to what we meant, not to what they wish we meant or to what they can (like little Supreme Court Justice wannabes) pretend we meant. And even though we recognize that honest misunderstandings happen, we still consider that our children have a duty to put some effort into thinking about what it is we really meant and how we want them to act in different situations -- even when they're in a situation for which we haven't given them specific instructions. Furthermore, we don't expect them to run around telling everybody in the neighborhood, "My daddy says..." when what they're saying is not at all what we meant; if they're going to go around telling people, "My daddy says..." then there's a much higher standard of caution and diligence that we require of them, to make sure they aren't giving their own opinion disguised as ours.

Now the situation we are in when we come to Scripture, is that we have a record of things that God has said to our older brothers and sisters, when they were faced with various situations that were more or less similar to situations in which we find ourselves -- in some situations more, and in some situations less. And from what God has said to them, we have to deduce (barring direct instruction from the Big Guy himself) what God wants us to do now. In some cases, it's easy: if your neighbor's wife is gorgeous, and you sneak over while he's gone and knock her up, and then you arrange to have him killed so that you can marry her, well, God doesn't like that. In other cases it's not so easy.

To return to my analogy: let's say that I have two sons; that when the older was first a teenager we were living in some fiercly traditional Muslim country; that before the younger hit puberty we moved back to the States; and that for the past five years I have been in a coma. When we were in Islamostan my older son wanted to date, but I told him he was not allowed to, and that I was not at any time to see him so much as holding hands with a girl. Now my younger son wants to start dating, and the question they are asking themselves is: would Dad approve?

In order to settle that question, if they are at all sensible, they will ask themselves why I laid down that rule, and how general a principle I meant it to be. And they will draw on their memories of all the other conversations we had...if, for example, I had been heard to say that the practice of dating was a clear sign of Western post-Christian decadence, that would argue strongly for the idea that I would be opposed to all dating. If I had told my older son that I didn't want him dating and had added, "I don't want you killed by some honor-obsessed older brother," that would tend to support the idea that I wasn't opposed to dating per se, but just thought it inadvisable in that particular special situation.

But if I had said at some point, "You know, when you're a teenager living in America, dating is how you get to know a girl you think you might be interested in marrying," then the older brother would definitely be way out of line if he tried to say, "We're not allowed to date because Dad told me so." That would be a clear misrepresentation of what I had meant when I told him, "You're not allowed to date," given what I had said about dating in America.

Yet even in that last case, even after we had established that the boys could date as long as they were in America, there would still be the question of what you were allowed to do on a date. And if I hadn't said what those rules were, then it wouldn't be right for one boy to say to the other, "Well, Dad says you can't do such-and-such on a date." But that wouldn't mean that they could therefore just do whatever they wanted to because, "Hey, Dad didn't say anything one way or another." They would still need to look at the general purpose I had laid out for dating (to decide whether you really wanted to marry a particular girl, in my hypothetical), and then work out for themselves what rules seemed best to honor the general principles I had taught them, while in the special situation of dating.

For example, if I had given them a general rule that sex was out until they got married, then the question of, "Can I jump her bones?" would be readily answered. But the question of, "Does holding hands count as sex?" might be a bit trickier. There would even be room for sincere disagreement between the brothers. But they would both be responsible for doing their best to do what I wanted, while still recognizing the differences between:

1. What I said clearly they could and could not do.

2. What they thought I probably meant by some of the things I didn't say as clearly as they would have liked.

3. What I didn't address, but that their own best efforts to be reasonable and to apply the principles they learned from me, led them to think I probably would say if I were to pop out of my coma long enough to answer a few pointed questions.

4. What I didn't address, and that their own best efforts, etc. led them to think I wouldn't care about one way or the other.

What I'm trying to illustrate is that sola Scriptura, if interpreted to mean "Scripture literally on its own," has never been realistic; every human being is faced with moral choices where he has to try to do the right thing even though Scripture doesn't give him explicit instructions, and in such cases he must bring to bear all the resources at his disposal -- guidance of the Holy Spirit through prayer, wise counsel from other people (which includes Church tradition), his own moral intuition, reason, empirical evidence, etc. When he does so, some of the answers will be clear and some will still be tough. In the end, you make your best and honestest effort and trust to God's grace to deal with the things you get wrong.

So, in the places where it's not easy to know what God means, we don't actually wind up trusting Scripture per se. We wind up trusting somebody's interpretation of what God meant to say -- our preacher's, or our parents', or the Pope's, or C. S. Lewis's, or our own logic, or what we think we heard God tell us in the prayer closet, or (what is probably wisest in most cases) a mix of all of that -- the voice of the Spirit, the Church, tradition, and reason. Where Scripture speaks clearly -- and it often does, even though people who don't like what the Scripture says try very hard to pervert its meaning -- then it trumps everything. Where Scripture doesn't speak clearly, you bring to bear all the resources at your disposal to help you make the decision that is most likely to be God's will for you.

If Scripture addressed the question of torture clearly and unambiguously, I would absolutely yield to Scripture. But it doesn't. And if it doesn't, then I have no business running around pretending that what are actually rules I've come up with out of my own head, are established by Divine endorsement; that is the kind of presumption for which Jesus ruthlessly condemned the Pharisees. But even in the cases where Scripture doesn't choose to answer our questions, you're not off the hook for behaving morally.

And it is for precisely that reason that I started this whole thread. The question of the limits of magisterial violence seems to me to be precisely one of those questions where (a) there's a right answer, (b) it's important to come as close to the right answer as we can, and (c) God has chosen not to give us much help in the way of the shortcut that is special revelation. And that's why, my dear Arnie, even though you're being deeply critical of my position and have been rather less than gentle in expressing your opinion of my moral character, I'm grateful for, and not in the slightest offended by, your admirably voluminous comments. On tough questions like this, there's nothing a sincere Christian needs more than a few other sincere Christians who think he's utterly in the wrong and are willing to explain in painstaking detail why it is that they think so.

Does that help?

Saturday, October 21, 2006

On the folly of arguing politics from Scripture

The following post begins a series of responses to an anonymous commenter whose comments on this post I have thoroughly enjoyed, and whose passion and moral seriousness I admire – even though I disagree with practically all of his conclusions. For convenience, I shall be addressing this commenter as “Arnie.”

The very first words out of Arnie’s keyboard, after reading what he considers “one of your worst posts” (a dire indictment indeed considering some of the posts that have appeared on this blog), were an incredulous, “You are a Christian?” And a significant percentage of the extensive commenting he has provided, has continued to strike the explicitly religious theme: Arnie thinks I am being a bad Christian by saying that I think waterboarding (for example) could be morally applied by the American government in certain situations.

I think Arnie is making a mistake that literally millions of Christians have made down through the centuries: he thinks that Scripture takes sides in most political disputes, and that the side Scripture takes is (most conveniently) his own. I think he is disastrously wrong in the first and most fundamental of those beliefs, and this post attempts to explain why.

(I should pause to say very clearly that I am not, in fact, a very good Christian at all. It is one thing to be able to think clearly about what is virtuous and what is vicious; it is another thing entirely to have the character to act virtuously. I would never set myself up as an example for other people to emulate, generally speaking. Let’s not have any confusion on that point.)

When we ask ourselves what side Jesus would take in any modern political dispute, I think one has to be struck by three remarkable facts.

1. Jesus himself refused to have anything to do with political power – despite the fact that, as the God of Israel incarnate and the Heir of David, he had every right to wield that power.

2. Jesus had very little to say about politics in general – for example, when specifically asked about taxation, he responded with a deliberately paradoxical and non-specific answer.

3. Yet it is practically impossible to find any political philosophy or program under the sun that doesn’t have Christian adherents who are absolutely convinced that their political program has Jesus’ special approval – from the God, Guns and Guts redneck fundamentalist who starts every day of Vacation Bible School by reciting the Pledge of Allegiance and rides home in his Confederate-flag-adorned pickup truck, to Quaker pacifists, to the Inquisition-ridden regime of Ferdinand and Isabella, to the abolitionists John Brown on the one hand and William Wilberforce on the other, to modern Marxist liberation-theology nuns. If you were to assemble in a room all the people who have been convinced that they know from Scripture how Jesus wants government officials to carry out their duties, you would literally not be able to find a single significant point of agreement.

What this tells us is that we need to be very cautious before we declare that people who disagree with us about what the government ought to be doing, are disagreeing not only with us, but with God as well.

Now, the first question to ask ourselves is surely, “Are the pacifists right? Is it immoral for Christians even to be part of the government at all?” Government is coercion by violence or the credible threat thereof; there has never been and never will be a government that does not make use of violence. The government is the people who have, for some reason, the right to tell you what to do and to hurt you if you don’t do what they say. And so the very first question to ask is, “Is this ever morally acceptable?” The extreme pacifist would say that it is not.

Now, when I was a young man I thought that pacifism and opposition to the death penalty were both very stupid positions, and if you had asked me why it was stupid, I would have said something like this: “The death penalty is obviously moral, because God commanded the Israelites to execute people for all kinds of different crimes. And if it was immoral He certainly wouldn’t have commanded it.” Unfortunately – as so often happens when one thinks other people are being stupid – it turned out that my own argument was stupid, and it is very important to understand why.

You see, if we are trying to decide what America’s laws ought to be, then any appeal to the example of the Law of Moses is an appeal to analogy: “The Israelite government had the following laws, and our government should be like the Israelite government; and therefore we should have those same laws.” But any appeal to the example of Moses founders irretrievably, because the government of Moses was unique in human history: God chose to have a relationship with Israel unlike with any other nation, and part of the uniqueness of that relationship was that God was to be Israel’s king, the head of her civil government. The Bible comes right out and says so, in fact: in I Samuel 10 through 12, Israel says to Samuel, “Give us a king like other nations,” and the Lord tells Samuel, “It is me they have rejected, not you.” In the end Samuel gives the people their king, but tells them that in asking for a king they behaved evilly: “You said to me, ‘No, we want a king to rule over us’ – even though the LORD your God was your king.”

Furthermore, we know from St. Paul that the Law of Moses was a multi-purpose kind of thing – the one body of law served not just for establishing the rules of civic interaction, but also embodied the revelation of the moral code, and ceremonial measures designed to help establish categories of religious thought that could, once established, be used to help comprehend what God would ultimately do in the Passion and Resurrection. Indeed, it’s hard for me not to have the impression that God was considerably more concerned about the moral and pedagogical aspect than he was about the civil; but that is a subjective opinion. What is clear is that all three concerns were mixed up together, and that with the Law of Moses God was doing something amongst the Israelites that he didn’t do with any other nation or race – or government.

At the very least, any Christian who doesn’t keep all of the sacrificial and ceremonial law, has no choice but to admit that not all of the Mosaic provisions can appropriately be imposed by force upon a modern society the way the Law calls for them to be imposed by force upon the ancient Israelites. So we cannot argue that because the Law called upon Israelite magistrates to implement any particular measure, it is therefore moral for our own magistrates to implement that measure as well. God was doing something in the Law of Moses that He did in no other nation’s laws; he was doing something with his chosen Israelite people that He chose to do with no other nation. The appeal to an analogy between the laws of a modern nation and the ancient laws of Israel, in short, cannot but fail.

Unfortunately for the pacifist, however, this doesn’t mean that they’re out of the woods. We do have New Testament Scripture that addresses, in passing, the question of whether there are circumstances under which the magistrates of other nations may use deadly force, and its answer is definitive. The ruler, says Paul, is appointed by God and “bears the sword to punish the evildoer.” Now, there’s only one thing Romans did with their swords, and that’s kill people. What the state does, it does by violence or by the threat of violence; a state that won’t kill people is a state that will inevitably be overrun by people who will kill people; and Paul here clearly states that the magistrate is authorized by God to kill people.

But that’s as helpful as the New Testament gets. Obviously the magistrate can’t kill whomever he wants – Scripture has plenty of denunciations of evil Gentile kings and rulers in both the Old and New Testaments, and thus there clearly are moral principles that God demands be followed by all magistrates. But what, specifically, are those moral principles? Whom can the magistrate or soldier kill, specifically, and under what circumstances? The magistrate is authorized to kill “the evildoer.” Well, presumably he’s not supposed to kill people who shoplift or tell little white lies, and there are very few of us left who think he should kill teenaged girls who are engaged to be married to one man but lose their virginity in town to another man and don’t scream loudly enough to convince the judges that it was rape rather than seduction. So where is the line?

The New Testament simply doesn’t say.

You see, the New Testament is not, despite the efforts of lots of politically passionate Christians to pervert it into one, a political treatise; and the epistles in particular were addressed to congregations that consisted of the ruled, not the ruler – and therefore the epistles have no instructions to give to the rulers, who would neither have heard the instructions to begin with, nor paid any attention had they heard them. So when people try to find support for their political beliefs in Scripture, they have either to try to extend to the magistrates ethical teachings that were addressed to people behaving in a private capacity, or else to appeal to the example of Jesus (which I have tended to do myself in support of libertarianism, I hasten to confess).

But Jesus’ mission – which was a unique mission, as I’ll discuss in a later post – was clearly, for whatever reason, not compatible with the exercise of political power, even on such a minor matter as settling an inheritance between two brothers; and therefore appealing to the What Would Jesus Do question is even more pointless than it usually is. If we were going to make Jesus’ political behavior the standard to which all governors would have to conform, then we would have no choice but to say that Christians could never take part in government – indeed, no Christian could even serve as a judge in a case of disputed inheritance. But Jesus was constrained by his unique mission to avoid several kinds of behavior that are not intrinsically immoral – marriage and fatherhood spring obviously to mind – and therefore it is foolish to say, “Jesus refused to do x and therefore no Christian may engage in that activity.”

Again, the ethical teaching of the New Testament as directed to private persons...well, the most agressive way you can get away with expressing it is that violence, even in self-defense, is endorsed rather less than wholeheartedly. Yet clearly the magistrates are authorized – indeed, they apparently have an actual duty – to exercise the very same violence that private Christian citizens are not allowed to exercise on their own behalf. What Jesus says to private persons – turning the other cheek, not resisting an evil person – is clearly not applicable to magistrates, whose responsibility before God appears to be precisely that of resisting evil persons; and that means that a naive “but Christians aren’t allowed to take vengeance” sort of argument against, say, the death penalty, is out of court. But under what circumstances does this special license come into play? And what are the limits on this license? Why does God even authorize it in the first place? On not a single one of these questions does the New Testament speak.

What we find, in fact, is that the New Testament makes it clear, in passing, that magistrates have a special vocation from God, a vocation for which acts even of deadly violence are morally admissable in certain (unspecified by the New Testament) cases. Indeed, the magistrate actually has an outright duty to act violently under certain (also unspecified by the New Testament) circumstances. He has been appointed by God to punish the evildoer, for which purpose God has given him the sword; he is presumably answerable to God both for situations in which he has used violence unjustly, and also for situations in which God expects him to do his duty and (perhaps through foolish scruples) he fails to do so. But no further instructions are given, and in particular no explicit instructions are given on when he crosses the line he ought not cross.

This may seem very unfair of God, but only, I think, if we fail to keep in mind three critical and unquestionable truths. (1) Christians are not given a free pass on the use of our minds; indeed we are commanded to use them to the best of our ability. If God has chosen to give us a hard assignment rather than providing us the answers in nicely, conveniently, non-intellectually-challenging explict form...well, why exactly is that surprising? (2) Magistrates are as dependent on God’s grace as are the rest of us, and God’s grace is as available to them as it is to anybody else. A magistrate who gets these questions wrong is in the same situation before God as anybody else who makes a mistake. (3) God’s priorities are rarely our own, and He provides us with the answers that are important on His agenda, not with the answers that are important on ours. No matter how badly we want to be able to tell those who disagree with our politics that they are bad Christians and that God wants them to admit that we are right, Scripture remains stubbornly silent – but of course, that makes it just that much easier to put our words into Scripture’s mouth.

On politics, the Bible leaves us in the same position as it leaves on economics or physics or medicine: we have been given brains, God apparently expects us to use them, and He leaves it up to us to get to work on solving the problems He’s assigned us. A person who says, “Tell me where in Scripture God gives us the answer to when it acceptable to cause discomfort to terrorists, and how much discomfort you are allowed to impose, and under what conditions you are allowed to impose it,” is being roughly as reasonable as a person who says, “Tell me where in Scripture God explains Newton’s Laws of Motion,” or, “I don’t see anything in Scripture about the law of supply and demand,” or even, “Tell me where in Scripture God says that Christians are allowed to play electric guitars.” Would it have been nice of God to explain to us exactly when, and under what circumstances, the death penalty or “torture” could be used – or else to say explicitly, “You’re never allowed to do this”? Well, sure. But then it also seems like it would have been nice of God to tell us up front about, say, penicillen and smallpox vaccine, instead of letting the human race be ravaged by disease for several thousand years until we finally got around to working out those answers for ourselves. Just because it seems to us like God ought to have done something, is no evidence that He actually has done that thing.

Now, I do think that Jesus’ refusal to wield political power – and his apparent dislike of the Apostles’ wielding it as well – raises serious questions about the validity of the Church’s using violence in support of the special purposes of the Church. But even that case is very much further from definitive than I used to think it was, because one has to make judgments as to the extent to which the special mission of the Church coincides with the special mission of Jesus.

It remains true that the Religious Rightist or liberation theologian needs, I think, to pay very serious attention to Jesus’ plain statement that his kingdom is not of this world, especially when (like liberation theologians) the would-be theocrat is explictly wielding the rhetoric of “the kingdom of heaven.” There is a role in the Divine plan for the secular State; but there are clearly other ends and means for which the weapons of the State are rejected by Jesus. Yet even so, the principle of the separation of Church and State is not, I have had to conclude, definitively established by the New Testament. I think you have to admit that it leans in that direction. Certainly there is a dramatic difference between the example of Jesus and that of Mohammed. But an explicit endorsement of the principle, so clear that only intellectual perversity could lead a Christian to deny that God wants the Church to stay out of the violence business and the State to stay out of the religion business? Much as I’d like to think such a clear endorsement is there, I have to admit that it’s just not. To say, as I myself have said in the past, that Jesus definitely endorses the principle of separation of Church and State, is to go further than the evidence of Scripture alone really allows.

At any rate, my dear Arnie, when you ask me to show you where in Scripture God says that "torture" is justifiable in any circumstances, I cheerfully admit that He never addresses the question at all, and that both the pro- and anti-waterboarding political opinions, are compatible with the Scriptural evidence. I do not think, and have never argued, that believing that American interrogators should never waterboard captured terrorists makes you a bad Christian – even though I still think you’re wrong in that belief. That’s because I don’t think Scripture addresses the question. I don’t think, unfortunately, that that’s actually the answer you want to hear; and if you ever find yourself forced to the same admission, I fear it won’t be cheerfully.

UPDATE: corrected some typos.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

"Any Fool Knows It's Банқ, Not Банк" Dept.

Jim Raffensperger has just passed on a heads-up in re competence at the Kazakh Central Банк -- oops, I mean, the Банқ.

UPDATE: Oh, phooey, apparently most browsers don't support the Kazakh letter қ, which rather undercuts my dramatic visual point about how little difference there is between the two letters. Let me see about uploading a bitmap:

Monday, October 16, 2006

Two stupid things and one dishonest one

Here's the kind of e-mail you write only if you're a bully and a fool. There are three things that leap out about it.

1. It is an attempt to intimidate a blogger who said basically, "Fletch could be the person who pulled this stunt," by a threat of legal action. This is stupid because all that happens is that the blogosphere passes the link all around the country, thus earning a much bigger audience for the piece you're trying to surpress than it could have achieved on its own without your help.

2. The fundamental criticism is that Fletch is the type of person whose first instinct, upon coming into posession of evidence that a political opponent was preying on young people, would be to use that evidence for political gain, not to try to ensure the safety and privacy of the minors in question. So Fletch obligingly proves this criticism valid out of his own mouth: "You can bet if I had known the depths of Foley's depravity, I would have immediately gone to the proper authorities with the evidence so that an appropriate investigation..." Oops, no, sorry, I'm misquoting him. He actually says -- voluntarily -- "I would simply have made a spot about it."

3. Note the line, "You do not have my permission to publish this e-mail in whole or in part. This is a private communication from me to you and I expect you to honor that." Hey, you know what? You can say that all you want; but if the other person didn't agree to it in advance, too bad for you. If you really do want to tell somebody something in confidence, then you do NOT mouth off and then after telling them say, "Oh, and by the way, you're not allowed to tell people that." Instead, you say, "Look, there's something I need to say to you, but I need for you to agree not to tell anybody else." And then they can either say, "Okay" -- in which case you have a claim on their silence -- or else they can say, "I'll make no such promise." In which case you can keep your mouth shut.

That is, after all, what a confidentiality agreement is all about. Did Fletch get a confidentiality agreement from this lady? No? Then he can forbid her from showing the letter to the whole wide world all he wants. He can also forbid the sun to come up in the east while he's at it; I imagine that the courts will respect the two claims about equally. (It's particularly absurd for you to send somebody a threatening e-mail and then tell them they don't "have your permission" to show it to anybody else.)

What a loser this Fletch dude is. If you're going to be a bully, you ought at least to be a shrewd bully.

Hilarious political stunt of the season

Raj Peter Bhakta is running for the House of Representatives as a Republican from Pennsylvania, and -- like any Republican who doesn't want to alienate The Base further than Dubya and the Republican Congress have already alienated it -- he is not exactly trying to run based on Dubya's stellar record as a Leader In Touch With The Masses, especially when it comes to immigration. He decided to go down to see what our southern border security was like with his own eyes -- and was appalled. But anybody can be appalled. What makes Raj blogworthy is the puckish sense of humor with which he decided to express his dismay.

As Raj watched people cross the Rio Grande right under the eyes of the Border Patrol, he found himself thinking, "Good Lord, you could march an elephant across this river accompanied by a marching band and I don't think anybody would notice."

And the more he thought about it, the more he thought it might actually be literally possible, absurdly over-the-top as it seemed. So he scouted around and found a circus that was in the neighborhood; hired three elephants from the circus; hired a mariachi band (this is Brownsville so that wasn't exactly hard) -- and proceeded to parade back and forth across the Rio Grande, on his elephants, without authorization, to the vigorous accompaniment of the band. And eventually, U.S. government agents did show up...what's that you say? Well, no, actually, it wasn't the Border Patrol or the Department of Homeland Security. The Department of Agriculture showed up. To make sure the elephants didn't have ticks.

Look, if you'd like to use this episode to say what a farce the Department of Homeland Security is...well, that's why the guy did it in the first place; so feel free. But that's not why I blogged it. I blogged it just because I thought the whole stunt was hilarious. There's even video of the guy with his elephant and with his fully-decked-out mariachi band, all having a high old time.

I don't expect politics, in my lifetime, ever to be civil or sane or conducted in the best interests of the American people. So three cheers for politicians who can at least make it insouciantly entertaining.

Sunday, October 15, 2006

"Couldn't Happen to a Better Guy" Dept

I am, to put it mildly, no fan of Al Davis (seen here greeting his spiritual advisor). Therefore it does my heart good to pass on the observations of Dave from Washington, who writes in to Bill Simmons:

"The Raiders suck so bad that they are 15-point underdogs to a team that scores 12.2 points a game. This has to be a sports first. The sickest part? The Broncos are a mortal lock to cover."

Thursday, October 12, 2006

Kegster update

Various bits of vital information about the aftermath of Kegan's recent Educational Experience (scroll down to get to the part about Kegan):

1. Time under general anaesthetic: a couple of hours.
2. Number of weeks before they take the wires off and he can open his mouth again: six.
3. Estimated cost out of our pocket if the other kid's parents don't contribute to the cause: $3,000.
4. Number of other kids eager to explain to the police that they saw what happened: five.
5. Number of eyewitness accounts that made Kegan sound more innocent and more unjustifiably wronged than did Kegan's own account: five. (Which actually makes me proud of Kegan's honesty.)
6. Chance that the insurance company's lawyers will go after the other kid's parents for the other two grand or so: oh, let's see, what do you think?
7. Chance that the insurance company's lawyers will also go after the school on the grounds that there were no adults monitoring the hall in which the incident took place: hmmm, I suppose that depends on whether the kid's parents have deep enough pockets to make the insurance company whole.
8. Time required for Kegan to master the art of talking with his mouth wired shut: um, let's see, how long did it take for the anaesthetic to wear off?...

"A Man Can Dream, Can't He?" Dept

Making the rounds, apparently:

Wednesday, October 11, 2006

"Finally, a Good Use For Telemarketers" Dept

It has been awhile since I laughed until I literally cried...literally stood up and staggered around the office in hysterics clutching my side. But this did it for me.

Though the fact that it's 3:00 in the morning and I'm at work (because I spent the evening at the hospital and will spend tomorrow morning there as well, probably) might have something to do with how funny I found it. Nothing like a little punchiness to make a comic's life easier.

HT: Ace.

Oh, who's in the hospital? Sorry, meant to blog that earlier tonight and had forgotten to. Here's you a little vignette from Kegan's afternoon at the school bus stop just before coming home today (well, yesterday now), in which Life teaches Kegan the lesson he hasn't been that interested in learning from his parents -- namely, that if you're quick to fly off the handle when you're annoyed, sooner or later discomfort is likely to ensue:

KEGAN: [accidentally brushes his backpack against a kid he doesn't notice at the water fountain]
OTHER KID: [nastily] Hey, stop shoving!
KEGAN: [annoyed] Oh, shut up.
OTHER KID: You shut up! [pushes Kegan in the chest]
KEGAN: [pushes him back] Hey, get off me!
OTHER KID: [breaks Kegan's jaw in two places with a right hook]

[sigh] The education of my children proceeds apace, I suppose.

We have to have him back up at the hospital at 8:30 tomorrow so that the surgeon (who had already gone home for the night) can decide whether surgery is called for, but I had an 8:00 code deadline tomorrow morning, and thus you find me at work in front of my computer at 3:17 a.m. But the work's finally done and I should be able to get a little sleep. Except that, having sort of missed supper in the excitement, us is kinda hongry...

But hey, any day in which at least once you laugh until you are crying and in pain, can't be all bad.

Tuesday, October 03, 2006

On "torture"

Note: it should go without saying -- but in American political discourse does not -- that you can always talk about how stupid are most of the people who hold a particular political opinion, simply because most people who hold political opinions hold them for what are, strictly speaking, intellectually sloppy and inadequate reasons. In this post I am challenging the defenders of a particular political viewpoint to come up with logically coherent arguments for that viewpoint, and ridiculing the arguments I've heard so far, precisely because I would like to hear the sane and rational and intellectually careful defenders of the Andrew Sullivan position on "torture," but in the American media world such reasonably and admirable voices -- on either side -- are routinely drowned out by the noisy asses -- Andrew Sullivan, for example, or on the other side of the aisle Sean Hannity. I cringe whenever I hear Sean Hannity defend one of my own positions, because I can hardly help but be tainted by association; and I assure any reasonable person who is uncomfortable with the idea of American use of "torture" that I will not hold their unfortunate association with Andrew Sullivan and John McCain against them.

In short, if you think I'm misrepresenting your reasons for opposing American use of "torture," then fire away in the comments -- because, if you are a more reasonable person than Sully and the other talking heads who make most of the noise on the Left, I almost certainly am misrepresenting your position. And it's you reasonable Leftists' opinions that I'm really interested in. The arguments of fools (like Sully) who disagree with you have the unhealthy effect of increasing your own estimation of your own intellectual superiority. The arguments of wise people who disagree with you have the exceptionally salutary effect of educating you about the ways in which you yourself are being a fool.

In short, don't think for a moment that I think everybody who is opposed to American use of "torture," is the same kind of narcissistic moron that Andrew Sullivan is.

Here’s you a bit of imaginary dialogue between a member of the Religious Right and a member of the secular Left:

JAMES DOBSON WANNABE: Look, it doesn’t matter whether or not legalizing and regulating abortion would result in fewer dead and maimed women. It’s fundamentally evil and our government simply cannot destroy its character by endorsing the practice. We stand at a moral crossroads: the soul of America is at stake.

ANDREW SULLIVAN WANNABE: How dare you impose your arbitrary moral absolutes on me?

Lest you think I am misrepresenting the Sullivanesque position, here are extended quotes from his latest attempt (in Time magazine's edition of 9 Oct 2006) to prove that he (a) detests "fundamentalist" Christians and (b) hasn't bothered to understand them before condemning them. Sully is writing an extended, ill-tempered, and remarkably ignorant screed on the superiority of "humble" religions to religions that feel "certainty" -- his own humble religion (humility being the first word that springs to mind in any word-association session when the shrink says, "Andrew Sullivan") to Benedict's arrogant "certainty," for example. He is boasting about the superiority of his own subculture's approach, the superiority of the kinds of "faith" represented by liberal Episcopalianism, liberal Catholicism, Thomas Jefferson, etc. -- which is to say, religious subcultures whose emotions in religious discussions are dominated by the Results metaphor rather than the Fact metaphor, though Sullivan utterly misunderstands the true nature of the distinction between himself and the detested "fundamentalists."

Those kinds of faith [that is, the "humble" Andrew Sullivan kind of faith] recognize one thing, first of all, about the nature of God and humankind, and it is this: If God really is God, then God must, by definition, surpass our human understanding. Not entirely. We have Scripture; we have reason; we have religious authority; we have our own spiritual experiences of the divine. But there is still something we will never graps, something we can never know -- because God is beyond our human categories. And if God is beyond our categories, then God cannot be captured for certain. We cannot know with the kind of surety that allows us to proclaim truth with a capital T. There will always be something that eludes us. If there weren't, it would not be God...

If we cannot know for sure at all times how to govern our own lives, what right or business do we have telling others how to live theirs? From a humble faith comes toleration of other faiths...In global politics, it translates into a willingness to recognize empirical reality, even when it disturbs our ideology and interests. From moderate religion comes moderate politics. From moderate religions comes pragmatic politics.
That bit of dialogue with which I started the post...I thought of that after listening to months and months of hectoring from the Andrew Sullivan school of thought that believes that the United States is quite simply morally obligated not to engage in “torture,” the definition of which seems to be...well, actually, getting anything remotely resembling a decent definition of the term out of the Left is quite a challenge. But the form of most of the Left’s argumentation is as follows:

ANDREW SULLIVAN WANNABE: Look, it doesn’t matter whether or not using torture would give us the information we need to save innocent lives. It’s a fundamentally evil practice and our government simply cannot betray everything our country stands for by engaging in the practice. We stand at a moral crossroads: the soul of America is at stake.

To which my immediate reaction is: Okay, I know where the Christian fundamentalists are drawing their moral absolutes, and I know why they think the moral principles in which they believe are binding on everybody – they believe that one God created everything, that he built certain universal principles into human nature, that those universal principles hold throughout the human race, and that God has told us what those principles are. Whether or not I agree with them about the details of those principles, there is logical coherence in their claim that their principles are valid for everybody even if not everybody recognizes the validity of those principles. The seasons change for Frenchmen who think the sun goes around the earth rather than vice versa just as surely as the leaves fall in the yards of those of us who have heard about that new-fangled Copernican theory; and Christians think the moral laws are valid even for those who get them wrong, just like the laws of science are. So there’s coherence to their approach even though I think they frequently get the details wrong.

But what am I supposed to think about somebody like Andrew Sullivan? – that is, someone who sees a lurking theocrat in every conservative Christian who expresses a political opinion, yet wants me, on moral grounds, to agree that we should discard a potentially critical tool in our defense against terrorism; someone who demands that we risk potentially tens of thousands of unnecessary deaths of innocent Americans in order to satisfy this moral absolute to which he happens to pledge allegiance; someone who pledges allegiance to that moral absolute for no apparent reason other than the preconceptions and presuppositions of the subculture to which he happens to belong; someone who demands that we kowtow to his subculture’s preconceptions and presuppositions even though that very subculture incessantly lectures all the rest of us about the importance of “tolerating” all the behavior in which they engage, even when the rest of us believe it is immoral and socially destructive. How am I to be expected to respond to such a demand with anything less than derision and contempt?

We say, "Look, what if we capture a terrorist, and by waterboarding we have the chance to save five or ten thousand innocent American lives?" and Sullivan responds, "But torture is evil and we cannot betray our national character merely because such behavior would save American lives." One of those positions, clearly, is the position of a person who believes that he has certain knowledge of a moral absolute; the other, equally clearly is the position of someone whose political calculation is based on "pragmatism" and "empiricism." And it's not hard to tell which is which. That "humble," "moderate" religion of Sully's...where did it go? It's Princeton University all over again for me -- a place where I learned to prefer the narrow-mindedness of the redneck "fundamentalists" I grew up with in the Kiamichi hills, to the narrow-mindedness of the narcissistic Andrew Sullivan intellectuals I went to school with, because while in either case you had to put with fatuous and narrow-minded intellectual provincialism, at least with the Southern Baptists you didn't also have to listen to them congratulating themselves on how open-minded they were.

As far as I can tell, the Left’s case against “torture” consists of four arguments and a strategy. The strategy is to be very, very careful never to define what constitutes torture; this relieves them from the danger that something they find distasteful will be logically proved to be less than torture. If you refuse to draw the line or even give any indication of the general vicinity in which the line might lie, then those whom you wish to condemn can never prove that they have not in fact crossed it.

As for the arguments, they seem to be these:

1. “Torture” (whatever that is) is an intrinsically evil action, and no means can justify an intrinsically evil end. Therefore any appeal to the balance of consequences (that is, to the question of the innocent lives that could be saved by judicious use of “torture”) doesn’t have to be refuted. If your opponent appeals to the balance of consequences, you don’t have to prove logically that your opponent is intellectually wrong by disproving his arguments – you simply declare him to be morally wrong by appealing to the moral absolute that you have just embraced.

If you are a foe of “torture” and you appeal primarily to the idea that “torture” is evil and therefore we shouldn’t use it no matter how many lives it might save, then you should understand that you’re not going to convince anybody of this by appeal to your moral absolute, until you take the trouble to provide a rational justification for your moral absolute. If you have been in the habit of condemning religious fundamentalists for “imposing their morality on the rest of us,” then this justification absolutely must include explaining why all of a sudden moral absolutism is a good thing and not a bad thing. It involves explaining why your moral absolute rests on transcendent and inviolable moral principles rather than on utilitarian/net-social-good ethical premises – since the latter reduce all moral questions, including the question of torture, to precisely the sort of balance-of-consequences argument that you’re trying to claim shows that your opponents are morally depraved rather than practically perspicacious.

Good luck with that one. I’d love to hear it. I don’t mean that sarcastically at all; I’d love to see the moralizing Left genuinely attempt to explain why the government should impose the Left’s moral principles (no discrimination! no sexism! no “torture”!) but not the Right’s. The Left has for as long as I’ve been listening to them indulged in sweeping moral condemnations of the Right’s “judgmentalism” and “legislation of morality,” right alongside a remarkable eagerness on the part of the Left to pass moral judgment and to pass laws enforcing those moral judgments.

To me, at least, the moral case seems very far from being as open-and-shut as the anti-“torture” crowd seems to think. They seem to me to ignore the fact that there are sins of omission as well as sins of comission; it is evil to rape a woman, but it is also evil to stand aside and allow a woman to be raped when there’s a perfectly good pipe to hand with which you could clobber the would-be rapist over the head. The anti-“torture” people seem to me to be saying something very close to, “It’s evil to clobber people over the head with pipes; and therefore we should never do it.”

For example, take waterboarding. Now, I’m no expert, but my understanding of waterboarding is that it breaks people’s will to resist questioning in a matter of minutes; and also that there is no actual physical risk to the subject, nor are there any permanent negative physical effects – and by “permanent” I mean “anything you’d notice half an hour later.” To me, what you have there is an absolutely perfect – an absolutely morally ideal – interrogation technique.

But to Andrew Sullivan, waterboarding is “torture.” I don't know why; but a simple perusal of the hyperbolic and frantic language that the topic elicits from this person who brags of how moderate religion does not flip out when pragmatic considerations disturb its ideology, will show that Sullivan is very much disturbed indeed by the idea of waterboarding.

So let’s say that you have captured a terrorist who you think probably has information that, if you can get it out of him within the next six hours, may make the difference between thwarting an attack like September 11 – that you reasonably believe that five thousand or more innocent lives may hang by the question of whether you can get him to tell you what he knows within the next few hours. To make it simple, let’s say that you genuinely believe that your choices are: waterboard, the consequences of which are that your murderous terrorist subject has a miserable few minutes but emerges perfectly healthy while five thousand American lives are saved; or refrain from waterboarding because Andrew Sullivan thinks it’s “torture,” and let hundreds or thousands of innocent Americans go through something like this (I warn you that that video is traumatic just to watch – much less to live through, or I should say die through). Andrew’s position, if I understand it, is that the person who chooses not to waterboard is morally superior to the person who decides at least to try to get the information needed to save those lives. To which I can only say, perhaps that particular moral judgment is correct; we can discuss that seriously if we are both rational people. But if you think that that particular moral judgment is self-evident – as Sully certainly seems to consider it – then either you are, or I am, morally blind. For it seems to me that you might as well congratulate the pipe-holding pacifist who stands aside and allows the rapist to proceed, while condemning the “vigilante” who whacks the rapist over the head and rescues his intended victim. Inaction can be evil and despicable as surely as action can be. Omission can be just as much sin as can commission. Our government has a solemn duty to protect the innocent against the violence of the murderous, which duty the anti-“torture” crowd appears to disregard most cavalierly. In fact Sullivan appears to me to be arguing that the action of causing temporary discomfort for a terrorist outweighs the inaction that ends in a mass murder of innocents that would have preventable by anyone who cared more about protecting innocents than about protecting terrorists.

I do not find this a convincing argument against “torture.” I find it, on the contrary, evidence that Sullivan’s moral judgment is grossly perverse. I am perfectly willing to be persuaded otherwise by rational arguments; but I require genuinely rational arguments – that is, something a bit more rigorous than are hissy fits, sneers, and shallowly platitudinous self-righteousness. (Which is to say, something other than Sully's stock in trade.)

2. “Torture doesn’t work.” This is an empirical question, and the ability to express an informed opinion on it would seem to require some quite specialized experience. It also seems extremely likely that some types of “torture” work consistently well in certain circumstances, and that other types of “torture” do not work well in those circumstances but might work decently in others, etc. In other words, “torture doesn’t work” is precisely the sort of vague generalization which a practical person may take as a rough starting point, but which anyone sensible will proceed to try to refine into much more specific generalizations about what sorts of techniques work and when they work and whether or not their practical weaknesses can be mitigated in combination with other techniques of interrogation and intelligence-gathering.

But since you can’t even get a decent definition of “torture” out of the anti-“torture” crowd, how can you hope to get from them the sort of definitional precision that makes a meaningful empirical and pragmatic analysis of the effectiveness of various techniques, even possible? If they won’t tell you what torture is, how can you tell whether they’re telling the truth when they tell you it doesn’t work?

It certainly seems to me that if you’ve captured a high-value terrorist and there’s danger of imminent attack, then even if a particular technique only has a 10% chance of giving you accurate information – hell, it’s worth a shot. And that’s especially true if you know that the value of what he knows falls with every minute that passes without your being able to get the information and act on it. Thus the people who say, “Torture doesn’t work,” seem to me to be saying something that doesn’t sound at all reasonable (especially in light of the success of the snatch-extract-dash-to-the-next-snatch waterfall blitzkrieg tactics described by Michael Yon during his time in Mosul). And while I freely admit that I have little expertise in this area, I don’t see any reason to think that, say, Andrew Sullivan has any more expertise than I do. The people who do have the practical experience necessary to have an informed opinion on which techniques work and which do not, are the military intelligence personal who actually conduct interrogations – which seems to me to be an excellent reason to leave it up to them, generally speaking, to decide which techniques will be practically effective and which will not.

3. “The rest of the world will have a lower opinion of us.”

So what?

Hm, let’s try a slightly less dismissive version of that, for the sake of politeness.

By “the rest of the world” people on the Left mean overwhelmingly, “The people from the part of the worldwide political spectrum who pretty much don’t like us anyway, and who are only willing to say they approve of us if we behave in the same very foolish and self-destructive manner that their own governments behave.” We’re talking about the sort of people who believe that our foreign policy should defer to the moral giants of the United Nations, for example.

But one thing that every American father used to teach his children (though the Baby Boomers sort of abandoned this part of the curriculum) is that no man who’s worth anything, backs away from doing the right thing just because public opinion will be against him. On things that don’t matter a whole lot, sure, you can go along to get along, because it’s better to be at peace with your neighbors than to be fighting with them. But when it comes to the things that have to be done, a man who cowers away from his duty because he’s worried about what other people will think, doesn’t deserve to be called a man at all; and his children, if they have any sense at all, will be ashamed of his conduct.

Now the Islamofascists must be stopped, and it must surely be obvious at this point that Europe, at least, doesn’t have the courage and manly virtues necessary to stop them. If they’re going to be stopped, it won’t be by the Europeans. But they must be stopped, and the duty of stopping them falls to those countries that still have brave men and women who will pay the price – countries like America and Australia. It must be done. And if doing what must be done, causes you to be badly thought of by the people who won’t do it themselves...well, I say again, so what?

In short, this anti-“torture” argument is neither more nor less than a teenaged-level appeal to peer pressure. If “torture” is morally permissible, and if there are situations in which “torture” is the most effective, or even possibly the only effective, way for our armed forces to fulfill their duty of protecting the innocent and crushing the Islamofascist threat to Western civilization, then it would be a fundamental failure of moral courage for us to draw back just because “world opinion” would go from “America is run by a bunch of arrogant imperialist jerks” to “America is run by a bunch of arrogant imperialist jerks who torture terrorists.”

Now, if it were going to affect Australia’s opinions, then we might pay more attention to that; because Australia’s conduct in the war against terror has earned them much more respect than, say, Norway’s or Germany’s. But if you just mean, “The people around the world who don’t like America, will now like us even less...” So what? Any man, or any country, that deserves respect, will do what is right even in the face of peer pressure, and the more so when the pressure against doing what is right comes from those whose conduct has never itself been such as to earn respect – into which class continental European voters (in the aggregate) most definitely fall.

Again, if “the world” doesn’t approve, and if they have solid and rational arguments to offer to show why we’re wrong, why then it that case again we should take them seriously. But to back away from doing what must be done simply in order to placate the prejudices of the noisily foolish, is not the act of a man – or a country – of principle and character.

4. “If we don’t follow the Geneva Conventions then people will torture our own soldiers when they are captured.”

This has got to be one of the stupidest arguments ever put forward in defense of any political proposition whatsoever. In the first place, the Geneva Conventions offer no protection to terrorists, and the whole point of the Geneva Conventions is to provide incentives to countries not to use terrorists – which the Conventions accomplish by affording special protections to soldiers of countries that obey the rules, and not affording those same protections to terrorists and to soldiers of rogue countries. I find it hard to imagine that anybody who had actually read the Geneva Conventions and knew the history behind them, could for a moment seriously believe that affording those protections to terrorists would do anything except destroy the whole point for which the Conventions were drawn up in the first place. Instead this appeal is made by people who appear to suffer under the delusion that the Geneva Conventions were designed as a document of moral theology, a sort of Inalienable Human Rights document – a secular Gospel of moral certainty to which all pragmatic considerations must humbly yield. So right away when you hear people appealing to the Geneva Conventions as protection for terrorists, you know that you are dealing with someone who is either shamelessly intellectually dishonest (this would describe, say, Justice Kennedy) or else a complete ignoramus.

But that’s not even what’s absurd about this argument. What’s absurd about this argument is that our soldiers have been getting tortured for decades, by people who never have and never will give a damn about whether or not we follow the Geneva Conventions. What the hell does John McCain think – that the reason the Vietnamese tortured him was that we didn’t follow the Geneva Conventions with enough faux-religious ardor, and that if only we had been more careful to follow international law, the Vietnamese would have been equally scrupulous? Islamofascists thugs kill civilians whom they have kidnapped by sawing through their necks with dull knives, and they celebrate the occasion with a snuff video. What, do you delusional people really believe that, as some would-be al-Zarqawi places the knife at the latest victim’s neck, a messenger will rush and say, “Wait! The Americans are giving us Geneva Convention protections,” and the thug with the knife will say, “Oh, really? Why, in that case, let me help to your feet, sir, and give you a comfortable bed and a hot meal”?

“That’s a straw man,” I hear you reply. “What we’re saying is that other nations that would have treated our troops with Geneva Convention restraint, now will refuse to do so.”

Fine. Name one.

Go ahead. Name a single Geneva-Convention-compliant country that wasn’t planning to torture our troops, but now will say, “Oh, well, since the Americans are waterboarding terrorists we’ll go ahead and start chopping the fingers off of American POW’s.”

I’m still waiting.

You unspeakable morons. The Geneva Conventions will continue to have exactly the same force they always have had – because we will continue to say exactly what every single signatory said when the Geneva Conventions were first created. And that is, “If you make it easy for us to tell the difference between which people on your side are soldiers and which people aren’t, then we will make every effort to keep from killing your civilians; and if you treat those of our soldiers whom you capture with the respect and care that the Conventions lay out, then we will return the favor. But if you try to make your soldiers look like civilians so that we can’t help but kill lots of your civilians by mistake, or you torture our soldiers, then God help your guys when we get our hands on them.” And if we ever find ourselves in a war with, say, France...wait, bad example, I need somebody who won’t surrender before we have had time to capture any of their soldiers...let’s say we find ourselves in a war with Germany. I can assure you that the Germans will be much less likely to torture our soldiers if they know that their own soldiers will pay the price. In other words, the whole deterrent force of the Geneva Conventions lies precisely in the fact that the country we’re fighting knows that if it abuses our guys, their guys will pay for it. The attempt to extend Geneva Conventions protection to terrorists completely pisses away that entire deterrent effect and leaves our soldiers entirely at the mercy of the good will and moral character of our foes – which is to say, it makes it one hell of a lot more likely that they’ll get tortured.

You morons.

Oh, and one last thing for you morons who use that last argument: welcome to the club, from a guy who has frequently made a mountainous moron of himself and could conceivably be doing so again this very moment.

Why Rumsfeld should go

Because the s.o.b. is psychologically incapable of saying, "Okay, I admit it, I was wrong."

It does not bother me terribly that Dubya, due largely to the influence of Rumsfeld, made mistakes in the planning and execution of the Iraq war. Every war begins with mistakes in planning and proceeds with mistakes in execution. But for God's sake, you have to be willing to learn from your mistakes.

How long has it been obvious that it takes more troops to defeat an insurgency than it does to defeat an army? How long has it been obvious that we had plenty of troops on hand to conquer Iraq but not nearly enough to make it peaceful? Do we really need the eloquent First Lieutenant Hegseth to explain to us that "[v]iolence persists not because American troops are present, but because our presence is futile," and that "we have just enough troops in Iraq not to lose"? Can there be anybody in America who at this point doesn't recognize that Bush is refusing to increase America's troop presence in Iraq simply and solely because, despite all his rhetoric, this administration cares more about avoiding having to admit that Rumsfeld was wrong and the Democrats were right, than it cares about winning in Iraq?

You know, if Rumsfeld were just willing to stand up like a man and say, "Look, we've been wrong about this, and I congratulate my critics on their perspicacity. We are changing course right now" -- if he were willing to do that, I'd say there's no reason for him to resign. He's done a lot that I agree with, and I don't think in matters military you fire a guy just because he's wrong occasionally. I don't think Rumsfeld needs to be gone because he was wrong. I think he needs to be gone because he's not man enough to admit it.

(Ghost Dansing, if you're reading this, then I'm happy to have warmed the cockles of your heart.)

Sunday, October 01, 2006

"Why Do the Cobbler's Children Have No Shoes?" Dept

If you want the Chimfex Fire Suppressor you're out of luck:

"Due to a fire at the Factory the Chimfex product is no longer available."

HT: Mr. Barry.

The Peril's heartiest congratulations...

...to the crack young staff at Hatemonger's Quarterly, who have been Instalaunched, after a campaign notable for its quiet dignity.

That is, after all, the single phrase that best sums up the Hatemongers: "quiet dignity." I never go to their site without pouring myself a glass of whichever white wine happens to be the best I have on hand.

Always white, of course. The tannin in the reds hurts too damn much when snorted through one's nose.