Saturday, May 9, 2009

The Corrosion of our Character?

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, May 8, 2009

In his press conference, detailing the reasons behind his decision to release classified memos regarding the interrogation procedures approved for use upon captured terrorists, Obama made the following statement. “Churchill understood, you start taking shortcuts, over time, that corrodes what’s best in a people. It corrodes the character of a country.”

At first glance, I found no problem with that statement. I understood the inference intended and, while catching the not-so-subtle slam against the previous administration, I understood he was intending to follow through on at least one of his campaign issues. But then I took a closer glance, and in so doing I was reminded of an experience in my past that can relate to this issue. The issue, of course, is that of the use of force in interrogation of captured enemy combatants.

I was in the sixth grade, and a discussion with a classmate became a heated argument which he ended with a solid left jab to my nose and a quick exit from the school playground. Then he stood there just beyond the gate of the fence and laughed at my bleeding nose, while I was left with no defense but to utter empty threats. I was bound by the rules of the school – namely that I was prohibited from crossing the fence during school hours. That particular bully used the rules and conventions of the school against me – rules that he had no fear of and conventions that had no hold over him.

Now, let’s fast forward to my sophomore year, and a day on the bus when a senior bully decided to teach my younger brother a lesson by grabbing him by the neck and suspending him over the back of the seat. I knew there were rules against leaving my seat while the bus was in motion, but I also knew that my failure to act in a quick and forceful way would place my brother in danger of permanent injury. I decided the moral thing to do was to act in a way that would prevent further damage. The bully came away with a blackened eye and a renewed respect for the power of fraternal duty.

Now, back to the issue of forceful interrogation used against the terrorists. As in the case of bullies above, they and the terrorists each make deliberate choices that are composed of cost versus reward analyses. In the case of the terrorist, they decided to couch their actions outside the bounds of the Geneva Convention and to hide within the civilian population while attacking unarmed civilians upon our soil. Our corporate signature upon the articles of the Geneva Convention binds us to certain procedures and policies that apply to other signees, but not to those who choose to battle against us without the prescribed use of uniforms and rules of military combat.

That being said, we must go back to the aforementioned quote of our president. He seems to be implying that we have sacrificed our collective morality by taking the “shortcut” of enhanced interrogation – even if it was used upon unconventional combatants. That brings us to the following questions:

Is it morally correct to not use whatever means are available to us – through Constitutional authority granted via congressional approval and through international standards of warfare – to gather information from someone who knows of an impending attack upon our citizenry? Is it morally correct to ever use force in the prevention of a crime?

If we are to believe the current critics of Bush and the CIA during his tenure, the actions used in Gitmo and other places were arbitrarily ordered by Bush, Cheney, et al, and they were also immoral and ineffective. The argument has been offered up that all these practices did was to serve as a “recruiting tool” for more terrorists to join the ranks, and that the information gathered was useless and tainted. Critics also say that these techniques have served to place us on the same moral level as the terrorists we fight.

I beg to differ.

First of all, the techniques used were brought before the Senate and House committees as well as the lawyers in the Justice Department, so an investigation into these memos will most likely not go any further than the national media’s subjective coverage. Secondly, regarding the morality issue, I refer to the above anecdote. I believe I was morally compelled to act in defense of my younger brother – just as I would be compelled to act in defense of my family today should an attacker threaten their safety. I believe the CIA operatives were morally and legally bound to use non-lethal force to gather information that protected our citizens from harm.

Finally, regarding the efficacy of the methods used, I think there is a valid reason why Obama has been selective in the memos released. It has been reported that more than a few planned attacks upon our nation have been thwarted by the use of these techniques and a full and open disclosure would not serve Obama’s political purposes. Personally, I feel no corrosion in our nation’s character unless, of course, I look at the practices approved by Obama to be used upon the millions of unborn children who are deprived of life without due process.

What Are We Fighting For?

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, May 8, 2009

My fellow columnist has gone to great lengths to trivialize the offenses of the Bush Administration where torture is concerned. First, he chooses to omit the word “torture” completely from his essay. This tactic is not surprising since most officials involved in the memo controversy (including Obama and those in his administration) have avoided using the term themselves. Torture is often referred to as interrogation techniques or some other innocuous representation.

My brother also presents his case using anecdotes to color the audience’s perception. Unfortunately, the analogies he offers are quaint but irrelevant to the discussion. The use of torture as a method to attempt to extract useful information is nothing like overstepping rules to come to a brother’s aid or being prevented by schoolyard rules from meting out revenge on an attacker.

The problems with Gordon’s argument are issues of principle and of fact.

For years the United States has successfully engaged various types of enemies in military and aggressive operations. During our dealings with these adversaries, our agents and service men and women were often subjected to techniques that were illegal by international standards, were immoral and unethical, and were classified as torture. Yet, out of principle, our official code of conduct prohibited the use of torture in our name. Yes, some frustrated or rogue soldiers exhibited behavior outside these guidelines, but official policy refused to stoop to the unacceptable methods of the enemy. These were guidelines that attempted to live up to the “city on a hill” image of moral superiority, which has been a model of American conduct throughout history. They also acted as a buffer to protect our own soldiers from more abusive treatment at the hands of captors.

In the early days after the attacks of September 11, 2001, the Bush administration urged Americans to hit the malls, travel and resume life with as much normalcy as possible. The idea behind this encouragement was simple: if we changed our principles the terrorists would have won. By this measure, we lost to terror when we allowed our government to craft definitions of torture in acceptable terms, to vet those definitions through whatever filters the Justice Department or Congress applied, and to put those definitions to practice.

We lost again when, as evidence emerged about abuses in Guantanamo, Afghanistan and Iraq, we accepted administration officials’ denial of involvement and their willingness to prosecute those who carried out these orders as “bad apples.” Yes, some of these abuses even violated the abhorrent standards manufactured by the Office of Legal Counsel (OLC), and those who perpetrated those offenses should accept responsibility for their own actions. However, it was clear that a culture existed that blurred the lines of ethics, morality and the rule of law. This culture permitted and encouraged the abuse.

Throughout history we have engaged enemies for reasons noble and dubious. Regardless of motivation, the official line was always that we were sending our young men and women to fight for American principles. By forfeiting the moral high ground we are selling out our principles and transforming America into something less than its image. Once that nation and those principles are sullied, what are we fighting for?

The fact is, as much as my brother hopes to avoid the term, the techniques approved by Bush’s counsel and employed by the CIA and our military constitute torture. Waterboarding and the practice called “walling” (where a subject is hurled against a false wall) are characterized by most experts (those without political interest at stake) as torture. Yet, both of those practices are approved in the memos of the OLC’s John Yoo and the Justice Department’s Jay Bybee.

However, even though those practices were being directed from the highest offices down through the chain of command, Bush and administration sources were emphatically proclaiming that the United States Does Not Torture. As much as some in Washington are now saying that these methods were necessary to glean actionable intelligence, the attitude of denial suggests the acknowledgement that the American public had no taste for the raping of our rule of law for fear’s sake.

I have to admit that I am surprised that Gordon advocates overstepping the bounds of law in the interest of some arbitrary code of morality. If we were to apply the schoolyard scenarios to real world situations we could condone vigilante justice on our streets. We could condone any conduct by the police in the execution of their duties. We could condone any action by the executive branch of our government that it claims is in the interest of security.

The fact is, we have guidelines in place to prevent that application of lawless “morality”. They are based on principles we hold as uniquely American. If we surrender those ideals, what do we tell our sons and daughters when we send them off to war? What are they fighting for?

The Patriotism of Protest

by Keith Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 24, 2009

For the past eight years, dissent has been viewed by many as a lack of patriotism. Pundits on Fox News and talk radio would demonize protestors for hating America or failing to support the government’s agenda.

For example, when the Dixie Chicks dared to make a public statement criticizing George W. Bush (during his march to war with Iraq), a media campaign was launched that sought to destroy the careers of, and mobilize a grass-roots persecution of Natalie Maines and other band members. Results included death threats to Maines and radio network boycotts of the group.

Fast forward to 2009 and a different mood has dawned on conservative media. National Tax Day Tea Party events were organized largely based on the instigation of those same pundits. Only this time it was acceptable to criticize the administration during a time when our servicemen and women are engaged overseas. In fact, this time dissent was the epitome of patriotism.

For weeks Fox News has been promoting its coverage of the Tea Parties, which were billed as grass-roots protests of taxes imposed by the Obama administration’s policies. Interesting omissions were discussions of the facts that the T.A.R.P. bailout program was the product of the Bush administration, and that the federal surplus its administration inherited from Bill Clinton had been frittered away by excessive spending and unrealistic tax cuts. Those policies contributed greatly to the tax burden that these protests claim to deplore.

The coverage of the actual events exaggerated turnouts, inflating numbers at certain locations to nearly twice the official estimates.

Even local media coverage of events in our area seemed to misrepresent the scope and size of the events. One regional newspaper devoted several column inches to the gathering in Corning, NY’s Centerway Square, which was organized by the Steuben County Young Republicans. Cherry-picked quotes implied that the event had a bipartisan appeal, even though the bulk of the commentary and signs depicted a strong partisan bias. A sidebar alluding to the nationwide events and verbal embellishment gave the impression of a much larger turnout than other estimates suggest.

I am happy to see that dissent and the patriotism of protest are alive and well after a brief absence during the Bush reign. I am a little disappointed that see signs referring to a sizable group of Americans who support the president as the “Obamanation”, as if it were an abomination; or others that compared Obama to Hitler or Stalin. Especially when dissenters on the left were demonized when those misguided comparisons were made to Bush or former Vice President Dick Cheney.

If we continue to cling to double standards like these when it is politically expedient, there is little hope that we can bridge the gaps we must in order to weather the storms that face us in these troubled times.

Distinctions have rightly been drawn between our current struggles and those of early last century. Our economy is stronger than during the Great Depression. Our unemployment rate is much lower than during those dark days. The military actions of today are minor compared to the consuming World Wars of the 20th Century.

However, we are also living in an America that is drastically different. The divisive nature of our politics and social issue thwarts the unity that allowed us to meet yesterday’s challenges. Today’s average citizen is so averse to personal sacrifice that one can scarcely imagine the dedication it required to return the U.S. to the peace and prosperity it enjoyed by the latter part of the last century. We are unlikely to see anything that approaches the noble selflessness of the Greatest Generation. Perhaps we are too concerned with the easy and unearned celebrity of American Idol or reality television to even care.

But if we are to envision a brighter future, we had better learn to care – not just about parties and personalities; not even about policies and issues. We must care about concerns beyond our own narrow interests. We must care about the dream and vision of what our nation could and should be and not blind nationalism. And we must care about our fellow man. Until we realize that we share common challenges and common consequences, we will never succeed no matter how a few may prosper.

May we raise our voices in protest against injustice and may our voices be heard. Yet, may we not be led by those with political agendas into destructive divisions that stand in the way of progress. Only then can we truly celebrate the patriotism of protest.

The Right to Assemble and to Petition

by Gordon Cooper

From Broader View Weekly, April 24, 2009

it is with great pride and patriotism that i admit to the faithful readers of all in the family that i was one of those who stood in centerway square in support of the local tea party. i would like to hereby give a report of what i saw and what i didn’t see. i would also like to set the record straight regarding the motives and the means that drove the several hundred petitioners there.

however, before i delve into the facts surrounding this movement, which, strangely or not-so-strangely, do not always agree with my fellow-columnist’s description of things, i feel i must re-acquaint him and others to what true patriotism is.

i offer the following quote from the bill of rights, that wonderful appendix to our constitution that was added by those prescient men of our first congress.

amendment 1: “congress shall make no law …prohibiting… the right of the people to peacefully assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

despite the claims by many in the mainstream media that this was: 1.) corporate sponsored; 2.) organized as a publicity stunt by fox news; 3.) driven by racist hatred for obama (direct quote from olbermann and garofolo on msnbc); 4.) partisan belly aching by republicans bitter over the recent electoral defeats; i am proud to say that this was truly a grass-roots movement. my definition of grass-roots movement is any movement whereby individuals join in something that moves them to action without regard to a particular political party, labor organization or civic group. it spreads like grass spreads – from one person contacting another and spreading the word by phone, webblog, email or radio talk show. it is true that fox news decided to send many of its commentators to various sites, but the actual tea parties had already been organized by local groups of concerned citizens.

the movement really began after the details of the stimulus package were revealed and many realized that their tax dollars would be paying the mortgages of those who bought beyond their means. it infuriated them the same way the original tea partiers of boston were infuriated when king george imposed unfair tax burdens on the colonies.

now, let me tell you what i did see at the tea party. i saw several hundred people. the local media gave estimates of around 600, however, i would estimate it as closer to 900; and some gave estimates of 1,000. we do know that close to 700 signed the petition (more on that later) and i know that several people left without waiting through the long line at the petition table.

i also saw a crowd behaving decently and orderly. i heard no mindless chanting of rhythmic slogans or incitement to violent coups. there was no litter left behind. the signs were handmade and original, showing passion and political involvement. i saw older people and youngsters. i saw tattoos and biker gear. i saw white collar types and i saw faded jeans and calloused hands. this was not a racist, hate-mongering crowd as some would have you believe.

the speakers included a local merchant who gave a passionate anecdotal glimpse into the struggles she faced as she dealt with the new taxes and fees; and the conversation she had with her employees as she told them the reason why their paychecks were shrinking. another speaker gave a list of the new taxes and fees imposed on a local cigar store. a third speaker spoke about the new york state budget woes and some recent decisions that will spell more job losses, population shrinkage and economic hardships for businesses in new york state.

then there was the wrap-up of the event, in which the crowd was invited to drop off their donated canned goods to the salvation army truck parked nearby and to sign the petition that was to be delivered to our representatives in albany and washington.

the above-mentioned petition was not a partisan declaration. it asked for a repeal of both tarp 1 and tarp 2. it asked for a law requiring a balanced budget. it asked for a business tax ceiling matching the 12.5% ceiling of ireland. it also asked our congress to follow the governments of china, singapore and others who have abolished the capital gains tax.

we also signed our names to a petition destined for our leaders in albany to cap property taxes, and to pass a law requiring a balanced state budget.

i challenge my brother to find examples of “destructive divisions” or “strong partisan bias” in either of the above petitions.

i am thankful that we still have the right to peacefully assemble and to petition for redress of grievances. i am saddened though, by the lack of objectivity and credibility in the news media in the coverage of this event. some of the disparaging remarks and closed-minded comments such as referring to it as “tea-bagging”, which is a sad attempt at a double-entendre, only prove the point that it is the national media that is practicing partisan bias and not the people who gathered at centerway square.