March 2013

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Rags and Bones

by Jonathan Wallace

A drone strike

The Times for February 6 has an account of Al Qaeda folk in Yemen meeting a moderate imam who had spoken out against them when "a volley of remotely operated American missiles shot down from the night sky and incinerated them all..."

The collateral damage from the drone strikes has been immense and while doubtless an improvement over, say, the fire-bombing of Dresden, it still raises the ethical question of shooting at people who are in the midst of civilian populations.

Even when we hit them in compounds or convoys, there is a risk innocents will be with them. Some drone strikes, not very well reported, have apparently been on weddings and parties, and many, like this one, on villages. Hundreds or thousands of civilians have died, and we have enraged local populations whose support we need. So its not only a crime, but a mistake.

Morally, there doesn't seem to be any distinction between a targeted drone attack, and a human CIA assassin shooting someone in the street--something we officially made the CIA renounce thirty years ago.

Quoted almost without coment

Garbled syntax in intelligent people can be symptomatic of moral conflict. Here's John Brennan, candidate for CIA director, responding to Congress on drone targeting policy:

What we need to do is optimize transparency on these issues, but at the same time, optimize secrecy and the protection of our national security.

Brave new world

China has greater income inequality than the U.S., which is one of the worst of Western countries. Communism, capitalism, same thing.

Brooklyn College Brouhaha

Brooklyn College cosponsored an event at which Palestinian and American Jewish speakers called for a boycott of Israel. The usual suspects, professor Alan Dershowitz and the Anti-Defamation League, are up in arms.

In a large ad in the February 8 Times, ADL head Abraham Foxman says that he's not trying to chill freedom of speech; that the sponsors had a right to conduct the event on campus; that the college simply shouldn't have co-sponsored it.

But its the usual bombast in the end, because he equates any event opposing Israeli treatment of Palestinians with anti-Semitism and hate speech, even making a KKK analogy. On the same theory, should Brooklyn College refrain from any event criticizing examining French colonialism in Algeria, criticizing the Assad family in Syria, Turkish massacre of Armenians, apartheid in South Africa, other ethnic and political disputes? I really detest ADL's never-ending claim that any criticism of Israeli policies is an attack on all Jews. Israel, as most citizens of that country understand if Americans don't, does not deserve a special pass or an exemption from the laws of nations.

Catholics and birth control

Its astonishing how much bigotry is protected under comforting language of "rights" and "respect". That's what the Defense of Marriage Act was always about, homophobia. The insistence of the Catholic church on its right to refuse to prescribe birth control is similarly based on the denigration of women. The Catholics are howling that we are insulting them if we make them prescribe prophylactics that are in some cases medically necessary to women who can't risk a pregnancy. But to determine how immoral their position is, all that you need to do is make a small substitution: imagine a very similar religion, let's call them the "Batholics", who believe that asthma is a soul-purification sent by God, and therefore refuse to prescribe inhalers or treat people with asthma attacks who come into their ER's. Are we bound to respect them by allowing them to withhold treatment from people who may die as a result? Or wouldn't we resolve that controversy by denying Batholic institutions licenses to run hospitals?

A drone court?

Nothing has shocked me as much in recent times as the straight-faced proposal that we institute a secret drone court to decide when we can target an American citizen. Professor Dershowitz' suggestion of a torture warrant some years ago was not as disturbing, because the man, though powerful, is crazy and I didn't take him seriously. But the idea of a secret drone court is being urged by Congress and considered by the Obama administration.

The precedent is a secret wiretapping court which sits in D.C. and about which very little is known. There was a published report at some point that the wiretap court has approved hundreds of applications and denied only one, making it more of a rubber stamp than a court. Also, because its decisions are secret, it is unaccountable to anyone, unlike a normal court whose decisions are a matter of public record.

More significantly, we can't whitewash immoral behavior by putting a court in charge. The confusing and ambiguous element of the drone campaign is that we have recently used it to kill an American born man, Anwar Allaki, in a country, Yemen, with which we are at peace. Nor was he wielding weapons against Americans at the moment of his death; he was traveling in a convoy of cars from one place to another. Though he was a definite bad guy, who had incited several people to murder Americans, such as the Fort Hood shooter, there was still no moral distinction between a drone strike and say, a CIA assassin shooting him in the head at a cafe in Paris. Or a cafe in New York. In the '70's, we passed legislation that supposedly removed the CIA from the murder business. The fact that it is now done with high technology doesn't take it out of the murder realm.

So what we are really talking about is getting a court to issue a murder warrant. Since we have several times recently killed people Navy Seals could have captured, probably including Allaki, we may be on a slippery slope towards executing murder warrants against such "enemy combatants" on American soil, without the complications of a trial, a defense or a jury.

After Pinochet overthrew Allende, in Chile, there was a notorious prison camp in which female political prisoners were repeatedly raped by their guards. Would you feel any better about that if there had been a Chilean court responsible for issuing a rape warrant?

Technology failures

It used to be that technology was highly commodified--everything worked, and worked the same way. A toaster at the same setting would toast the bread to the same color every time. A microwave would take the same amount of time as any other microwave to cook a potato.

It is only with the advent of computers that we, the consumers, have been trained to accept the idea that each thing we buy is a flaky individual, that will work some days and not others, that will vary its performance, exhibit quirks, freeze and crash sometimes, and require a wizard, someone much smarter than us, to understand. In reality, there is no technological limit that requires that computers be unreliable, just a combination of greed and laziness that has freed the manufacturer from living up to standards while persuading us to be complacent about the fact that everything we buy is a lemon in its own way.

I am thinking about this because I just broke down, after a year and a half without television, and installed cable. I handled it bass-ackwards, getting the box installed weeks before I bought a television (I needed Internet right away). The box had a DV1 to HDM1 connector and two audio cables. I plugged everything into the TV and had a brilliant picture, no sound. I read the densely written TV manual and found a statement: "If you are using a DV1 to HDM1 connection, you will not have sound." There was no diagnostic advice as to how to work around that. Apparently on most TV's, the two cables would provide the sound which the DV1 connection was incapable of out-putting, but on this particular TV, if the sound wasn't coming in through the DV1 to HDM1 cable, the set wouldn't look for it anywhere else. It took me about an hour to speculate that if I abandoned the HDM1 ideal, and hooked up component cables in the old-school way, I might have sound. I bought the cables for $26 at Radio Shack, came home and plugged them in. Nothing. I rebooted the cable box. Still nothing, just a "No connection" message on the screen. I hit the Settings button on the cable box remote: nothing. The box was no longer even communicating with the TV. I was about to give up but started hitting buttons on the remote at random, and a moment later was watching cable television, with sound.

I looked on the web and discovered that hooking up the latest generation of cable box, and discovering you have no sound, is a common complaint, which happens for a number of different reasons, not just the simple and obvious one that a DV1 connection doesn't output sound.

Modern technology is like a toaster which burns the toast some days, fails to even warm it up on others, and has results everywhere in between other days, all on the same setting.

The sequester

What a truly terrible idea. How predictable that the breakdown of the political process is so complete we won't easily be able to avoid it. Its like a sword we hung over our own head, at a time when things were already dire enough.


I just started using JSTOR, which has an item on its top page ostensibly mourning Aaron Swartz, the young computer genius who recently killed himself rather than face thirty-five years in prison for stealing scholarly journal articles from JSTOR as a protest. JSTOR is a unique and monolithic gateway to thousands of scholarly journals ranging back to the nineteenth centry. A few are free, but you are asked to pay $12 or more for most of them. The organization, putatively a nonprofit, recently added a new beta feature, MY JSTOR, which allows independent and not very wealthy researchers like myself to access three articles for free at a time--every two weeks. Having just finished a 1975 article on freedom of speech in Athens for a book I am writing, I now can't delete it, and save another to my "shelf", for nine more days. Its the commodification of our past, our dialectic, of free speech itself, and particularly sad when you think of how we expected the Internet to provide global and free access to such content. Ask me how we propose to pay for all that "free" content, and I will answer that Wikipedia proves there are no end of volunteers who would be happy to upload (even if it meant typing it) and to manage all that legacy content for free.

Aaron Swartz

He made a mistake when he put on a bike helmet and snuck into MIT, a school he didn't attend. But for goodness sake, trespass starts out as a violation in my town, for which a fifteen days' sentence is the maximum. If you get past a fence or other obstacle meant to keep you out, it becomes a misdemeanor, and you can go away for a year. Aaron, who was making a point about copyright, was facing a thirty-five year sentence, an example of gross prosecutorial irresponsibility and overkill if I ever saw one.

Video and the Supreme Court

Its disturbing that even newly appointed Justices don't want oral arguments videotaped. The highest courts of most Western nations now permit it, and the Court could stand to have a little more transparency. Not all of us can afford to go to Washington and then stand on line overnight to watch oral argument in an important case. Taping the arguments would do a lot of good in what is supposed to be a democracy with the metadata and process exposed.

"Russian Legislator's Body is Found in a Barrel Filled With Concrete"

That evocatively titled New York Times story, for February 19, confirms a suspicion that the government of Vladimir Putin is morally and practically indistinguishable from the Mafia. The politician in question, Mikhail Pakomov, was a young celebrity in Putin's party, but had confronted another ex-minister over construction industry corruption in a classic "disagreed with something that ate him" scenario. Kleptocracy and the rule of law are completely inconsistent. I hope things will moderate post-Putin.

Moderating rhetoric

What a difference a year or two has made and the loss of an election. The Republicans have backed some distance away from their rhetoric of violence and illegitimacy, stopped trying to portray the victory of a centrist Democrat as the end of the republic. But there remains, exacerbated by the Tea Party contingent, a lack of common ground, of the perception that America is an enterprise we have to run together. I have been reading about the fifth century Athenians, who certainly aren't all that they're cracked up to be: neither as democratic or as protective of free speech as we tend to imagine them. but the one thing they had down pat was it was their damn city, rich and poor, millionaire and shipwright. There was none of this faction, no adversarial crap, and when it finally began as the years shaded into the fourth century, the democracy ended.

Patriot games

The Supremes just held that Americans such as journalists who interview terrorists can't challenge increasingly all inclusive government surveillance because they have no standing. Its a classic Catch 22: executive secrecy means we don't know for sure who's being watched, but you can't sue to find out because you can't prove its happening. So you have to know already, in order to find out.

I feel a bit as if I have a split personalty, observing Obama: out of one set of eyes, I see a Democrat who achieved what Truman, Johnson, Nixon and Clinton could not, a step closer to national health insurance. Through other eyes, I also see a man who has run the national security state through the goalposts and into the next county.

Vatican irony deficiency

The Church's greatest argument against "secular humanism" (I am a secular humanist, proud to be one) has always been that, if you don't believe in God, everything is permitted! Society will fall into random evil! Molesting children, for example! Oh, wait, that's what the true believers have been doing, and covering up, these last sixty or seventy years, maybe longer. But maybe, at some point, they can blame the fact their are secular humanists in the world for their own sins, the way capital L Libertarians blame the violence in Somalia on the shreds of government that are left. Always blame someone else, vaunt your own integrity.