Friday Talking Points [74] -- Pirates And Torture

05/25/2011 01:15 pm ET

Pirates are in the news these days. So is torture.

What a strange set of sentences that is to begin an article about the twenty-first century world we live in. But pirates are attacking ships with regularity off the coast of Somalia. This has been going on for years, but Americans just realized it is happening (because an American ship was just attacked). And, while the two are not connected (and I am not advocating for their connection, sorry for the slightly-misleading headline), people are finally talking about torture after President Obama released the Bush torture memos to the public. We'll get to the Bush torture memos in a bit, but I'd like to begin with a proposed solution to the pirate problem first.

While the U.S. Navy pulled off a spectacularly successful rescue last week, this should not be seen by anyone as the ultimate answer to the problem. It's not going to end this way every time, folks, no matter how much of an optimist you may be. There are millions of square miles of open ocean to patrol, and we'd have to throw something like half our Navy at the area to adequately secure it. Which just isn't going to happen. There is a better answer to the problem which I haven't heard proposed yet, which is why I am doing so now.

The problem is not just one of open ocean. The businesses which do the shipping (and the insurance companies behind them) are willing to pay an occasional ransom and absorb it into the cost of doing business. The merchant ships are not in favor of arming their crews. The crews themselves are not trained for this sort of thing, even if there were no objection from the ships' owners. And gun laws within several countries which these ships visit would make such weaponry illegal. So, what to do?

The easy answer is to hire someone like Blackwater to do it for them. Now, Blackwater has a reputation which might provoke gasps for this suggestion, but isn't that exactly what we want? There is actually a time and a place for mercenaries (or "private security guards" if you will), and this seems to be a dandy one. When I say "Blackwater," of course, I do not refer to merely one company (they don't even call themselves that anymore), but rather to the concept itself of hiring someone who knows how to shoot a gun to protect your ship while it is in the danger zone.

This would remove several of the arguments against arming the crews, chiefly that they are not trained for such duty. And this also avoids the problem of guns on board the ships in ports, because the guns wouldn't ever be in port. A ship approaching the danger zone would helicopter in some guards, with their equipment, and they would be on duty while the ship traverses the zone. At the other edge, the guards could be flown off the ship and onto another ship about to make the journey in reverse.

As for legalities, isn't the "Law of the Sea" pretty much based upon the concept that every ship has the right to defend itself (with deadly force, if need be) against pirates?

And as for the cost of doing business, isn't it cheaper to pay guards to protect your ships rather than pay out multimillion-dollar ransoms? If it isn't, then how about an international law which fines anyone paying a ransom 100 times the value of the ransom? That would change the financial risk calculation in a hurry.

I'm no fan of Blackwater-style companies when they are doing what should be done by the U.S. military (as happened in Iraq), but I do believe they serve a purpose. And fighting pirates -- out where there are no bystanders or civilians to complicate things -- seems to me to be an excellent job for them to tackle.

Maybe I'm missing something, because I wonder why nobody else has suggested such a scheme. Sure, it would take some logistical planning, but it doesn't seem all that tough to match a crew of guards with each ship. And if we could avoid ridiculous standoffs between a lifeboat and the U.S. Navy in the future, then maybe it's time to consider it.


Most Impressive Democrat of the Week

Because Congress is on (yet another) vacation, the political world was muted this week. Except for President Obama, of course, who makes news wherever he goes.

Obama's biggest news this week (other than the dog rollout in the media) was releasing the "Bush torture memos." For doing so (instead of refusing and defying the courts), Barack Obama wins the Most Impressive Democrat Of The Week award this week.

Now, before you post irate comments about this, I would caution you to read through the Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week section first.

Because while Obama's statement that he would not be prosecuting any CIA agents who actually carried out such torture has raised a storm of anger, what gets lost in this is the fact that Obama even released the memos at all.

He could quite easily have decided to stonewall the courts with a "national security" stance which would have kept the case dragging on for years, while the memos stayed secret. He could also have redacted major parts of the memos, so that anything truly embarrassing was blacked out and remained secret.

He did not do either of these things, even though he was under heavy pressure to do so from a certain faction within his administration. He released the memos anyway, and even critics begrudgingly admitted that the redactions were minimal.

But Obama will have to share his award this week with Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont. Because Pat Leahy is not willing to sweep all of the Bush era under the rug (which Obama seems almost eager to do, wanting to "look forward" and not back). The Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee has been calling for a commission to look into what was done in all our names, and he has renewed his push for just such an investigation. He should be supported in his efforts to find out what was done, who ordered it, and what we're going to do about it.

So a second MIDOTW award goes out to Senator Leahy in honor of his tireless attempts to keep this issue alive and not just brush it aside. As he explains in his press release: "We must take a thorough accounting of what happened, not to move a partisan agenda, but to own up to what was done in the name of national security, and to learn from it."

[Congratulate President Barack Obama on the White House contact page and Senator Pat Leahy on his Senate contact page to let them know you appreciate their efforts.]


Most Disappointing Democrat of the Week

On the same subject, President Obama is also awarded a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award, for his indefensible stance on prosecutions for the torture which happened under President George W. Bush.

The torture memos' release was a step towards accountability, but a very small one. The memos speak for themselves (read them in full, if you've got the stomach for it). The best commentary I've heard yet on the actual content of the memos comes from Dan Froomkin at "These memos gave the CIA the go-ahead to do things to people that you'd be arrested for doing to a dog. And the legalistic, mechanistic analysis shows signs of an almost inconceivable callousness. The memos serve as a vivid illustration of the moral chasm into which the nation fell -- or rather, was pushed -- during the Bush era."

Obama, in the statement he made about the memos' release, said the following:

This is a time for reflection, not retribution. I respect the strong views and emotions that these issues evoke. We have been through a dark and painful chapter in our history. But at a time of great challenges and disturbing disunity, nothing will be gained by spending our time and energy laying blame for the past. Our national greatness is embedded in America's ability to right its course in concert with our core values, and to move forward with confidence. That is why we must resist the forces that divide us, and instead come together on behalf of our common future.

The United States is a nation of laws. My Administration will always act in accordance with those laws, and with an unshakeable commitment to our ideals. That is why we have released these memos, and that is why we have taken steps to ensure that the actions described within them never take place again.

This is doublethink of the first order. Because the first paragraph simply cannot be reconciled with the second. "The United States is a nation of laws" sure sounds good politically, but if the laws can be broken and nobody held accountable, then we are not "a nation of laws." Otherwise any defendant in any criminal case in this country could say "I promise I won't ever do it again," and he would not just be found innocent, the case would be thrown out of court at that point. This is not "a nation of laws."

When I say doublethink, I mean doublethink in its worst sense. Consider, for a moment, what happened to the guards at Abu Graib. They were called "a few bad apples" and chucked in military jails for what they did. Their higher-ups were not prosecuted, or even truly investigated. Nobody (at the time) wanted to hear that the orders did actually come from higher up in the military chain of command.

So why are they different than CIA agents who may have been in the same Abu Graib prison at the same time doing similar (or worse) things to the same prisoners? What, exactly, is the difference between the two groups?

This is why Obama's position is not logical, not legally defensible, and not morally defensible. "I was only following orders" is not supposed to be an adequate defense for war crimes. Otherwise, a lot of people paid a penalty at Nuremberg that they shouldn't have. You simply cannot have it both ways.

You can argue many positions on this issue. You can argue for pardons, or prosecutions, or whatever. But whatever position you have, it should be consistent, both legally and morally. Either treat the CIA guys the same way we treated the Abu Graib guards, or else pardon the Abu Graib guys and insist that they were following legal orders at the time.

Obama, a former constitutional law professor, should know this. Which is why he also gets a Most Disappointing Democrat Of The Week award.

Be he will have to share this one, as well. Because we're also awarding another MDDOTW award to CIA head Leon Panetta. Panetta, formerly loved by liberals and moderates in California (and elsewhere) apparently led the fight not to release the Bush torture memos. It's his duty to protect the agency he now runs, and you can bet he was instrumental in getting Obama to announce at the same time that all CIA agents would not be prosecuted. And for that, he has earned his co-award with Obama for the week.

Once again, to sum the core issue up: "These memos gave the CIA the go-ahead to do things to people that you'd be arrested for doing to a dog."

[Once again, contact President Barack Obama on the White House contact page to let him know what you think of his actions.]


Friday Talking Points

Volume 74 (4/17/09)

Sorry this is such a grim column today, but the whole issue of torture is a grim one indeed.

For Democrats talking to the media this week, the grim nature of the subject needs to be brought out. So here are this week's Friday Talking Points, a grim bunch for the most part. I promise, I'll throw in something to lighten it up at the end, how's that?



   Bush torture memos

The first thing is to slap the correct name on the memos themselves. And never reference them without using the term.

"The Bush torture memos were released this week by President Obama, and I think they show what happens when executive power gets out of control. The Justice Department is supposed to give legal advice to the president, and tell him what he can and cannot legally do. Instead, as the Bush torture memos show, the people who were charged with doing so worked backwards. They took the result Bush wanted, and tortured the law itself to try and justify its legality. But the Bush torture memos fall far short of what our laws and international laws require of us as a country."



   Slamming a prisoner's head into a wall

This one is insidious. The media has already picked up on a euphemism from the memos -- "walling" -- which sounds like something Wall E the robot would do in his spare time. This needs to be smacked down before it catches on.

"I'm sorry, did you just say 'walling'? I have to explain that in plain English here. What you are talking about is wrapping a towel around a prisoner's neck, and repeatedly slamming his head into a wall. That's what people are now calling 'walling' and I think the American people deserve more than some namby-pamby term to describe what was done to people in our custody. Prisoners we held were beaten to death in our care -- let us not forget that. And let us not dismiss it by some euphemism. Call it what it is -- throwing a prisoner against a wall. Slamming someone's head into a wall. If that doesn't fit the definition of 'torture' then I don't know what does."



   Water torture

This is an old gripe, but now is the time to try again, in keeping with that last point.

"Can we stop using the term 'waterboarding' as if it was some new surf rage sweeping the California beaches? Call it what it is -- water torture. We used a torture method developed during the Spanish Inquisition. We have prosecuted Japanese soldiers for doing this during World War II, and we prosecuted our own soldiers for doing it in the Spanish/American War. We had the honesty to call it what it was back then, and we should have the same honesty now. Waterboarding is water torture. Period. It's not an 'enhanced interrogation technique,' it's not 'a technique which some have likened to torture,' it is, in fact, torture. Call it what it is."



   Room 101

Did anybody else notice the bit about the bug and the confinement box? One prisoner had an inordinate fear of bugs. So our answer was to lock him in a box and put an insect in with him, and tell him it was a stinging insect. It's unclear whether this was actually done, or just authorized. But the technique should be familiar to anyone who has read George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four.

"Did you notice that bit in the Bush torture memos where he authorized stuffing a prisoner in a box and then putting in the prisoner's worst fear -- in this case, an insect -- with him? Does anyone else remember reading Orwell in high school? What we are talking about is 'Room 101,' where a prisoner had to face the torture of his worst fears. This is exactly what was authorized by the highest levels of our government. Room 101."



   What would you call it if it happened to your son or daughter?

Some may balk at using the word "torture," so be prepared to defend the word.

"You don't want to call what we did to prisoners 'torture,' is that what you're saying? Well then, I ask you: what would you call it if it was done to your son or daughter while wearing the uniform of the United States of America? If an enemy did this to American prisoners, what would you call it? Would you be quibbling about the legal meaning of the term, or would you be denouncing these enemies for 'torturing' American prisoners? I bet I know which term you'd use in that case, and I defy you to say otherwise. If it was your daughter, would you call it torture? Would you, or wouldn't you?"



   Rocky IV wiretapped

This is just too ironic for words. Senator Jay Rockefeller IV (or, as we like to call him here, "Rocky IV") thinks the NSA may have wiretapped his phone without a warrant. Excuse me while I weep some liberal crocodile tears for him. Boo hoo.

"Senator Rockefeller thinks he may have had his communications tapped by the NSA. I would feel sorry for him, except for the fact that he led the fight to gut the FISA laws and took a whole bunch of telecommunications industry money to write the laws to exempt them from any penalty for cooperating with the NSA's illegal wiretap program. If Rockefeller hadn't personally made it his highest priority to assure that nobody could ever find out in court what the telecoms and the NSA was up to, by now we might have some answers as to what they are doing. But since he led the fight to gut these laws to allow such illegal activity to go unpunished, it is hard to work up much pity for him now when he finds himself on the other end of the equation."



   Sorry, Rush!

OK, I promised you a cheerful end to this, and I'm going to deliver. First, a completely unrelated issue, though. Everyone should go support their local record store (my favorite is Amoeba in San Francisco) tomorrow, on "Record Store Day." Sorry for sticking that in this article, but I just heard about it myself.

But on to our amusing item of the week. Those mischievous folks over at the DCCC (the House Democratic re-election group) have posted a handy page for Republicans to issue their apologies to Rush Limbaugh. This is a one-stop shopping page for any Republican who says anything Limbaugh may not agree with. Since the immediate response by Republican politicians is to beg forgiveness from their de facto leader, the Democrats have helpfully made it easier for them to do so. Check out the DCCC's "I'm sorry, Rush" page, it's hilarious!

"I would like to say to Congressman Todd Tiahrt, in response to his calling Rush Limbaugh 'just an entertainer,' that the DCCC has a new helpful site where he can apologize to Rush much more quickly and easily than ever!"


Chris Weigant blogs at:

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Cross-posted at: Democratic Underground


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