When It Should Be Simple

Political disputes in America seem to be about telling the other guy he’s worried about the wrong things. Everyone is worried about the economy that refuses to come back from the dead. Corporate profits are soaring again – even if no one is hiring and any sensible organization is hording all its cash and not investing in anything at all – and Goldman Sachs and the rest of the surreal-investments-in-the-purely-hypothetical-with-imaginary-future-money crowd are rolling in dough again. But unemployment holds at record levels, as if you combine those looking for work who have filed claims for unemployment payouts with those who have given up looking and don’t even bother to file, and with those don’t show up in the official unemployment figures as they’ve exhausted the unemployment insurance that they had paid into over all the years and now cannot file for anything at all, you come up with thirty million or so out of work. That is not getting better, and the foreclosure rate holds at record levels – no job, no prospect for a job, so no income, so no way to make the monthly mortgage payment, so you lose your house. And the states are going broke – shutting down essential services and laying off policemen and teachers and whatnot – as state income tax depends on folks actually having an income, and state sales tax depends on sales – you know, people with some money coming in buying basic goods and services and, more importantly, people with substantial discretionary income buying what they really don’t need but feel like buying anyway – and local property tax depends on people owning property and not getting tossed out in the street. Those sources of state income have dried up.

It’s quite a mess. But what should we be looking at here? The Keynesian Democrats say we should be looking at priming that pump – spend money now, even if it increases the deficit, by doing a lot of public works and infrastructure stuff – build roads, repair bridges, fund alternative energy research and fund start-ups of this and that. FDR did it with the Civilian Conservation Corps and then the Work Progress Administration. You create work – work on stuff that needs done but had been only a nice-to-do-one-day idea. The government funds it all, just to get people back to work on something, so they have money in their pockets, which they will then spend on goods and services, reviving the economy. Sure it’s government work, and temporary. But so what? And you do get smooth roads and bridges that don’t fall apart and all the rest. At least send aid to the states so they don’t have to fire teachers and policemen and close down services – do that and those who had been slated to be laid off will be able to keep their houses and be able to buy things and, most of all, be able to pay their taxes. It’s pretty simple. One way or the other you want consumers. The economy doesn’t work when there’s no demand for goods and services.

But the other side says that’s looking at the wrong thing. It’s that Supply Side stuff – Milton Freidman whispering in Ronald Reagan’s ear long ago. We should be looking at lowering taxes and ending all regulation of business of any kind, so capitalists will go wild and create all sort of goods and services at lower and lower cost – and the other stuff will work itself out, as private business will have to hire tons of people to make all the stuff that is so easy to make now that there are no rules and you get to keep all your profits and pay no taxes to anyone ever. And the government creating work – even if you get smooth roads and nifty bridges – is just wrong. The government should not complete with private business, doing things for no profit and undercutting any incentive they have to create goods and services. That’s unfair competition, and a sure-fire way to end unfettered capitalism – which is the very thing that made us kings of the world. It’s pretty simple. The other side is looking at the wrong thing. And if you want to worry about something you should worry about the ballooning deficit. All that government spending will make that deficit unsustainable and everything will eventually collapse, ending America. And it’s too bad about the unemployed – but there’s a reason they’re unemployed. They’re probably all drug addicts (Orin Hatch) or just spoiled (Sharron Angle) or just unpleasant people who don’t know how to do a day’s work, basically people with poor work habits and poor personalities (Ben Stein). The idea is that when Obama says he wants to help people who have lost their jobs through no fault of their own he’s looking at the wrong thing. There’s no such thing as losing your job through no fault of your own – personal responsibility and all that. He’s looking at the wrong thing.

But there is a lot of that going around. There’s the Ground Zero Mosque, which isn’t at Ground Zero and isn’t exactly a mosque. But that doesn’t matter as each side tells the other that they’re looking at the wrong thing. One side looks at religious freedom – we should encourage that community center at that location and not be like the severely and absolutely intolerant al-Qaeda crowd. Is there a better place than Lower Manhattan to show that? And the other side sees a religion that abetted mass murder – even if these Manhattan folks are not connected to the al-Qaeda crowd at all, and don’t want to be. It doesn’t matter – close enough. They see an insult and provocation. The other side sees an opportunity to show the world our decency and sanity, and that we’re nothing like that al-Qaeda crowd. Who is looking at the wrong thing? Opinions vary.

And you could chose most any issue in the current national debate and see one side saying the other side is looking at the wrong thing. Take gay marriage and this in the Los Angeles Times on Friday, August 13 – Proposition 8 Backers Unhappy with Federal Judge’s Ruling. It’s a curious item. The Prop 8 folks are most unhappy that what started as a moral argument against gay marriage has morphed into a debate over the democratic process and due process and equal protection and civil rights and all that stuff. They say now everyone is looking at the wrong thing. People are looking at the law. To them this doesn’t seem fair. People were supposed to be looking at immoral behavior. But it’s the same as with the economy. Look at the thirty million without jobs! No, look at the ballooning deficit! The other side is always looking at the wrong thing. It’s a wonder we can talk to each other at all. This martini is mighty fine. Yes, but the Yankees really shouldn’t be in first place in the East. No, Franz Liszt was always overrated. What are we talking about?

And some things we just don’t want to talk about, even if they’re there. There’s always some elephant in the room – something we’d like to ignore, or forget. And a lot of those elephants were born and raised in the Bush years. And now they’ve grown full-size and getting harder and harder to ignore. After all, Guantanamo Bay is still down there, with fewer than two-hundred prisoners now, but a full-grown mess. And we had eight years of folks say the whole Guantanamo idea was an awful response to the threat of terrorism. Think about due process and fairness, and of the consequences of a regime of what everyone knew was torture, plain and simple. And we were told no, that’s looking at the wrong thing. These were the worst of the worst, and Guantanamo Bay was not America – it was on foreign soil – so the rules didn’t apply. Looking at rights – knowing what you’re being changed with and having the chance to respond, and not be tortured – was looking at the wrong thing. These folks deserved none of that constitutional and Geneva Conventions stuff. And anyway, the Constitution is not a suicide pact, after all. That’s looking at the wrong thing. And we had eight years of that discussion.

But now the chickens are coming home to roost. No, wait – wrong metaphor. Now that particular elephant can no longer be ignored. That’s better.

Dahlia Lithwick discusses this in The Memory Hole – an item in Slate that discusses the ongoing trail of Omar Khadr, the child soldier we grabbed and have held for eight years. But she opens with this:

When Attorney General Eric Holder announced last fall that he planned to try Khalid Sheikh Mohammed in a civilian court in New York, he was met with a firestorm of abuse. Despite the fact that hundreds of terror suspects have been tried and convicted in U.S. courts, the administration’s Republican opponents spun out a thousand reasons for treating Mohammed differently: His trial would create a target in New York City that would cost millions of dollars for security measures; he would use the proceedings to spread jihadist propaganda; he shouldn’t be entitled to the constitutional rights and protections afforded U.S. citizens. In short, KSM became the poster boy for the man too dangerous for the law. In March, the White House indicated that a decision on Mohammed’s trial was just weeks away. Months later, the administration is still mulling.

It was more of each side saying the other side was looking at the wrong thing, and was the hot issue for a week or two, but Lithwick is right – resolution of the issue became impossible. Everyone was talking at cross-purposes. This was really about the rule of law and our sane and fair system of justice, and how we can deal with terrorism without getting all crazy about it. No, this was about public safety, and the Obama crowd putting a major American city at risk. Which was it? It was best to let it slide. We could get back to it later.

But Obama wants to close Guantanamo Bay – no point in enflaming another generation of terrorists – and he seems to want to show we can give those still there a fair trial, of some sort, maybe just a military tribunal, and then lock them up and throw away the key, or execute them. It’s just that Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was not the place to start – so no trail in civilian court, or anything else. He was too hot. Omar Khadr, the child soldier, was not.

Khalid Sheikh Mohammed was the problem. But he could be ignored:

… instead of subjecting the so-called “worst of the worst” to a military tribunal, this past week the Obama administration fired up the tribunal system to try Omar Khadr, a child soldier. Khadr’s defense counsel, Jon Jackson, collapsed Thursday while questioning a witness and was airlifted back to the United States for treatment. There will be at least a 30-day delay in the proceedings. Maybe we can use this small break to look again at what Guantanamo has become and to acknowledge that Omar Khadr represents everything we shouldn’t be trying before a secretive military commission.

And Lithwick hammers home how absurd this has become:

At 23, Khadr is the youngest detainee of the 176 remaining prisoners at Guantanamo Bay. He’s been there for eight years – one-third of his life. Born in Toronto, he is the only Westerner there. Khadr is charged with being an “unlawful enemy combatant” (later changed to “unprivileged enemy belligerent”) for allegedly throwing the grenade that killed Special Forces Sgt. Christopher Speer in Afghanistan in July 2002. Khadr was 15 at the time.

As a U.N. envoy who condemned the trial this week noted, no child has been prosecuted for a war crime since World War II. Under international law, children captured in combat are to be treated as victims, not soldiers, and their captors are meant to rehabilitate and repatriate them. There’s also a question as to why someone who allegedly committed acts of war against a military invader has been classified as a war criminal and terrorist. Finally, there’s the question of physical abuse: Khadr’s attorneys say the prosecutors have relied on confessions extracted after Khadr was coerced, abused, and threatened with gang rape by military interrogators. Last week, the military judge in the case ruled that Khadr’s statements were admissible, and they make up the bulk of the evidence against him.

In short, Khadr’s trial forces us to revisit the long and disappointing history of President Bush’s military commissions, the demands of international law, the terrible abuse of prisoners held by the United States – everything we want to forget about our worst legal missteps in the wake of 9/11.

That’s some elephant in the room. And saying this kid was one of the worst of the worst seems absurd:

Nobody disputes that there should be consequences for a teenager who throws a grenade on a battlefield. The question is whether a lifetime in prison, after a third of a lifetime at Gitmo, is proper, and whether the procedures that have been set up at Gitmo are fair: child soldier, torture, plus eight years of justice delayed. It’s why ACLU staff attorney Ben Wizner describes the case as “the perfect storm of what’s wrong with the military commission system.”

Have we been looking at the wrong thing? We seem to have been trapped in looking at this thing the wrong way, which generated its own momentum:

In 2005 the Bush administration decided to press forward with Khadr’s case because it felt it would be “easy” to prove. Last November, President Obama – who campaigned against the use of military commissions and promised in January 2009 to shut down Guantanamo – opted to put Khadr on trial, evidently to showcase the new and (slightly) improved military justice system that refined some but not all aspects of the original commissions. (The trials still allow hearsay testimony, for example.) How the commissions are to be shown to their best advantage by the trial and conviction of a marginal fighter who was dragged by his father into jihad, then possibly dragged by Americans into confessing, is unclear. If the point of this first trial of the Obama administration was to highlight evenhanded American justice, then is not the way to do it. It’s still beating up on a Canadian teenager – and the only reason he’s not a teenager anymore is that he’s been in custody for eight years.

Lithwick notes that this trial is not getting much if any coverage here, which is good for the Obama folks. But the foreign media have followed every bit of it, along with the previous trial of Osama Bin Laden’s cook. It’s not like people don’t notice. We just don’t want to talk about the elephant in the room – “What happens at Gitmo stays at Gitmo, and thank goodness we don’t have to think about it anymore.”

It comes down to this:

We like the idea of Gitmo; we just don’t care to hear about what happens there. In the eight years since we first invented the military commissions system at Guantanamo, only four terrorists have been convicted (two in trials), and two are now free men. The sad coda to the whole U.S. misadventure at Guantanamo is that we built a prison there for the people who most terrify us and have used it to go after people who didn’t much matter. We built it to hold people too dangerous to be brought stateside, then used it to warehouse people too embarrassing to let go.

The whole object of Guantanamo was to create a legal black hole, a place where we could make up the law as we went along. But that doesn’t quite capture the secondary tragedy of the place: Over time, it’s also become a memory hole, a place into which America has been allowed to banish all the evidence of a lawless, embarrassing, hysterical past.

That’s all very well, but it doesn’t capture what’s really going on here. Jennifer Turner is with the ACLU’s Human Rights Project and is observing these proceedings at Guantanamo, and she has the details:

Yesterday was a stark reminder that instead of closing the book on the Bush-era military commissions, President Obama is adding another sad chapter to that history. Although President Obama promised transparency and sharp limits on the use of tortured and coerced statements against the accused, at Guantánamo today one military judge ordered that a sentence be kept secret from the public and another military judge allowed statements obtained by abuse and coercion of a 15-year-old to be used at trial.

Monday was Day One of the sentencing hearing in the case of Sudanese detainee Ibrahim al-Qosi. Al-Qosi was the first detainee to be convicted under President Obama, in a plea deal entered this June in which he admitted to being an al Qaeda cook and occasional driver. … But in an unprecedented move, military judge Air Force Lt. Col. Nancy Paul ordered today that al-Qosi’s true sentence will be kept secret until he’s released. The judge said the government requested that the sentence be kept secret.

A fellow observer of the military commissions here, former Marine judge and law of war expert Gary Solis, here to monitor the commissions for the National Institute for Military Justice, says he has presided over 700 courts-martial and has never heard of a secret sentence.

This is pretty nuts. And there’s this:

A final pretrial hearing also took place Monday in the case of Canadian Omar Khadr, who will start trial today as the first test trial of the military commissions under President Obama. In a summary decision of only a few words, and with no explanation, the military judge in Omar Khadr’s case, Col. Patrick Parrish, denied defense motions to exclude self-incriminating statements Khadr made to interrogators because of torture and other abuse. The judge will issue a written decision, certainly after the trial begins and possibly after it’s ended, but for now he’s offered no explanation.

It boggles the mind that the military judge could find that Khadr was not coerced and gave these statements to interrogators voluntarily. Khadr, then 15 years old, was taken to Bagram near death, after being shot twice in the back, blinded by shrapnel, and buried in rubble from a bomb blast. He was interrogated within hours, while sedated and handcuffed to a stretcher. He was threatened with gang rape and death if he didn’t cooperate with interrogators. He was hooded and chained with his arms suspended in a cage-like cell, and his primary interrogator was later court-martialed for detainee abuse leading to the death of a detainee. During his subsequent eight-year (so far) detention at Guantánamo, Khadr was subjected to the “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program and he says he was used as a human mop after he was forced to urinate on himself.

And what they made him say as they did all that to him, for eight years, is admissible evidence of his guilt? That’s curious:

In closing arguments before the judge’s ruling, Khadr’s sole defense lawyer, Lt. Col. Jon Jackson, told the judge, “Sir, be a voice today. Tell the world that we actually stand for what we say we stand for.”

Though President Obama promised that coerced evidence would not be used against detainees in the military commissions, today’s ruling suggests that as a country, we stand for abusing a 15-year-old teenager into confessing, and using those confessions against him in an illegitimate proceeding.

And this is the point where there should be a link to someone saying no, Jennifer Turner and the world’s media is looking at the wrong thing, and should looking at something else. There is none, just silence out there. The folks who used to say there was another way to look at all this are gone. There’s only Obama, letting this go forward. Hell, with another eight years of that “frequent flyer” sleep deprivation program the kid might have admitted he was the one who kidnapped the Lindbergh Baby and was really the one who shot Lincoln at the Ford Theater.

Glenn Greenwald comments here:

As I’ve written before about the Khadr case (as well as the very similar case of child soldier Mohamed Jawad), what is most striking to me about this case is this: how can it possibly be that the U.S. invades a foreign country, and then when people in that country – such as Khadr – fight back against the invading army, by attacking purely military targets via a purely military act (throwing a grenade at a solider – who was part of a unit ironically using an abandoned Soviet runway as its outpost), they become “war criminals,” or even Terrorists, who must be shipped halfway around the world, systematically abused, repeatedly declared to be one of “the worst of the worst,” and then held in a cage for almost a full decade (one third of his life and counting)? It’s hard to imagine anything which more compellingly underscores the completely elastic and manipulated “meaning” of “Terrorist” than this case: in essence, the U.S. is free to do whatever it wants, and anyone who fights back, even against our invading armies and soldiers (rather than civilians), is a war criminal and a Terrorist.

For years the Bush crowd would say Greenwald is just looking at the wrong thing. And Greenwald reminds us of Maher Arar, the Canadian citizen who was abducted by the Bush administration, sent to Syria for none months to be tortured, and then denied any justice in American courts even once it was clear that he was completely innocent. There is that, and Maher Arar offering his view in this item at the Huffington Post:

The final question is: Why is Omar Khadr being tried by a military court if the government is certain he was the one who threw the grenade? Don’t they have trust in civilian courts? I think we all know the answer: these military courts are made to convict. After all, the government, as is usually the case, is throwing multiple charges at him in the hope that one of them sticks.

This farce trial is already showing us its ugly face: his military judge has just ruled that Khadr’s confession can be used in trial.


If anyone can recognize the horror and tyranny of America’s “War on Terror” abuses, it’s Arar. And he clearly recognizes it here.

But Arar is a Canadian. What does he know? And anyway, such disputes in America seem to be about telling the other guy he’s worried about the wrong things. It’s pretty simple, really.

The odd thing is that when that becomes impossible, the other side just shuts up. Maybe they should.


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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