Shut him down

Once again someone needs to explain to Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of the Washington Post, the importance of making "inferences."  Yesterday in an online chat session (courtesy of TPM) there was the following exchange between Hiatt and a reader:

Boston: This doesn't relate to Obama but would you care to address the whole George Will global warming column controversy? Is there any concern that lax standards for accuracy hurts the prestige of The Post opinion page more generally?

Fred Hiatt: Happy to, because we don't have lax standards for accuracy. He addressed the factual challenges to his column in detail in a later column. In general we do careful fact checking. What people have mostly objected to is not that his data are wrong but that he draws wrong inferences. I would think folks would be eager to engage in the debate, given how sure they are of their case, rather than trying to shut him down.

We have talked about this issue here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here and here).  Two quick things.  First, "inferences" in this case are part of the "facts."  As one arrives at all "facts" other than perhaps those immediately obvious to you, by "inferences."  Believe it or not, I make an "inference" regarding all facts about the past.  I ate breakfast this morning, I so conclude, on account of the fact that there is an empty bowl of cereal with spoon in it on my desk.  Ok that is an easy one, but you get the point.  It is a fact that I ate breakfast, but it is a fact I believe on account of the evidence for it.  So it's not so easy to separate "facts" from "inferences." 

Second, I would argue that the Post excludes people with "inferences" all of the time–and rightly so.  The Holocaust denier can claim merely to be making historical "inferences" between "facts".  Such inferences are preposterous, of course.  Drawing this distinction, in other words, is absurd.

Tormenta corpori mentive inflicta

This is perhaps an odd time for a former Bush appointee to take a moral stand.  But Bush's former ambassador to the Holy See–that's the Vatican, see–has declined an award (the Laetare medal) from Notre Dame on account of their offering Barack Hussein Obama, 44th President of the United States of America, an honorary degree.  In favor of this (to me childish) decision writes Kathleen Parker in the Washington Post:

Here on planet "What About Me," principled people are so rare as to be oddities. Thus, it was a head-swiveling moment Monday when Mary Ann Glendon, the former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican, quietly declined Notre Dame's Laetare Medal.

Glendon — a Harvard University law professor and a respected author on bioethics and human rights — rejected the honor in part because Barack Obama was invited to be commencement speaker and to receive an honorary degree.

In a letter to Notre Dame's president, the Rev. John I. Jenkins, Glendon wrote of her dismay that Obama was to receive the degree in disregard of the U.S. bishops' position that Catholic institutions "should not honor those who act in defiance of our fundamental moral principles."

She means "Catholic" principles.  Like these (in Latin because of the profound moral thinking of the Ambassador can only be transmitted in Latin):

Vehementer iam deflevit Concilium Vaticanum II, suo quodam in scripto tristius etiam nostra ad tempora pertinente, complura contra vitam humanam scelera et conata. Easdem sententias in Nostram nunc suscipientes partem, triginta post annis, simili vi rursus universae Ecclesiae nomine, una cum illo conciliari congressu ista lamentamur crimina, nihil profecto dubitantes quin omnis rectae conscientiae veros interpretemur sensus: “Quaecumque insuper ipsi vitae adversantur, ut cuiusvis generis homicidia, genocidia, abortus, euthanasia et ipsum voluntarium suicidium; quaecumque humanae personae integritatem violant, ut mutilationes, tormenta corpori mentive inflicta, conatus ipsos animos coërcendi; quaecumque humanam dignitatem offendunt, ut infrahumanae vivendi condiciones, arbitrariae incarcerationes, deportationes, servitus, prostitutio, mercatus mulierum et iuvenum; condiciones quoque laboris ignominiosae, quibus operarii ut mera quaestus instrumenta, non ut liberae et responsabiles personae tractantur: haec omnia et alia huiusmodi probra quidem sunt, ac dum civilizationem humanam inficiunt, magis eos inquinant qui sic se gerunt, quam eos qui iniuriam patiuntur et Creatoris honori maxime contradicunt” (Gaudium et Spes, 27).[Evangelium Vitae, 3]. [Translation of this passage here]

I would point out in any case that Barack Obama does not act "in defiance" of "our" fundamental moral principles in that he does not share them–he's not Catholic.  Besides, as the above cited passage demonstrates, standing against of the moral principles of Catholicism involves a lot more than not being "pro choice."  I can't say, whether the Ambassador herself has been selective, but I have to wonder:


Bring me the soft pillows

Richard Cohen, big liberal columnist for the Washington Post, makes the following (to my mind) completely misguided observation:

If the threat of torture works — if it has worked at least once — then it follows that torture itself would work. Some in the intelligence field, including a former CIA director, say it does, and I assume they say this on the basis of evidence. They can't all be fools or knaves. This is also the position of Dick Cheney, who can sometimes be both, but in this, at least, he has some support.

America should repudiate torture not because it is always ineffective — nothing is always anything — or because others loathe it but because it degrades us and runs counter to our national values. It is a statement of principle, somewhat similar to why we do not tap all phones or stop and frisk everyone under the age of 28. Those measures would certainly reduce crime, but they are abhorrent to us.

But it is important to understand that abolishing torture will not make us safer. Terrorists do not give a damn about our morality, our moral authority or what one columnist called "our moral compass." George Bush was certainly disliked in much of the world, but the Sept. 11 attacks were planned while Bill Clinton was in office, and he offended no one with the possible exception of the Christian right. Indeed, he went around the world apologizing for America's misdeeds — slavery, in particular. No terrorist turned back as a result.

To the first bolded statement, I would suggest that we are equivocating on "works."  Individual people may or may not provide information that is true under the threat of torture or under torture.  No one really denies that.  What they deny, rather, is that we can make use of the that information as a general intelligence strategy.  If we were ignorant enough to need to torture someone, then we can't really make much use or even verify the little bits of true information they may give us.

Second, as far as I know, our moral authority does not impress many.  But it is a minimal standard for maintaining the respect and esteem of our allies and friends, not to mention ourselves.  On the Clinton analogy, think of the reaction of the world to 9/11/01 and compare that to what it would have been on four years later.  

Viginti quattuor

Michael Gerson confuses sophistical pseudo-skeptical hand wringing with actual moral deliberation.    

The Justice Department memos raise a question: Can coercive interrogation ever be justified? Few Americans would object to the slapping of a terrorist during questioning, for example, if this yielded important intelligence. The coercion would be minimal; the goal of saving lives, overriding. Few Americans, on the other hand, would support pressuring a terrorist by torturing his child. Such a heinous act could not be justified in pursuit of an inherently uncertain outcome — securing information that may or may not prevent greater loss of life.

So the use of coercion in interrogations lies on a continuum of ethics and risk. Lines must somehow be drawn on the slippery slope — the difficult task that Justice Department lawyers were given. On which side of the line should waterboarding lie? It is the hardest case. The practice remains deeply troubling to me, and it was discontinued by the CIA in 2003 after being used on three terrorists. But some members of Congress, it is now apparent, knew of the technique and funded it. The decision was not easy or obvious for them. It was just as difficult for intelligence and Justice Department officials in the months of uncertainty following Sept. 11.

And, skipping a paragraph:

Some have dismissed this argument as "moral relativism" or the assertion that the ends justify the means. But this betrays a misunderstanding of ethics itself. The most difficult moral decisions in government are required when two moral goods come into conflict. Most of us believe in the dignity of the human person, a principle that covers even those who commit grave evils. Most of us believe in the responsibility of government to protect the innocent from death and harm. Government officials pursue both moral goods in a complicated world. In retrospect, they may sometimes get the balance wrong. But national security decisions are not made in retrospect.

I suspect that most Americans, in considering these matters, would come to certain conclusions: There should be a broad presumption against harsh interrogations by our government. An atmosphere of permission can result in discrediting crimes such as Abu Ghraib. But perhaps in the most extreme cases — when the threat of a terrorist attack is clear and serious — American officials may need to employ harsh questioning, while protecting terrorists from permanent injury. In broad outlines, this approach is consistent with the Justice Department memos.

Moral deliberation would seem at least to involve knowing what is minimally acceptable conduct.  Luckily, sometimes what is acceptable is just obvious, there is, for instance, no right time and right place and right woman and right way to commit adultery, so says the Stagirite at least (Nicomachean Ethics II.6, 1107a8-12).  On that analogy, water boarding, and various other techniques considered torture by the US military and the FBI (to name a few relevant organizations) is torture.  Redefining the words (now it's "harsh interrogation") and feigning skepticism (on which side should water torture, ahem, waterboarding lie?) about their meaning and application because of worries about a TV show scenario shocks the conscience.

Boiling of the blood around the heart

There is a fairly simple argument for exploring the possibility of criminal trials against those who justified, ordered and performed torture: torture is illegal.  David Broder, however, seems very confused about the nature of legality.  He writes:

But now Obama is being lobbied by politicians and voters who want something more — the humiliation and/or punishment of those responsible for the policies of the past. They are looking for individual scalps — or, at least, careers and reputations.

Their argument is that without identifying and punishing the perpetrators, there can be no accountability — and therefore no deterrent lesson for future administrations. It is a plausible-sounding rationale, but it cloaks an unworthy desire for vengeance.

Holy crap is that silly.  Vengeance is irrelevant to whether or not someone has broken laws.  Let's say, for the sake of argument, people have broken the law.  The people who trusted them with their vote (and those who didn't vote for them, but implicitly "trusted" them anyway) have a right to be rather narked (I don't know how to spell that Britishism properly) about their violating that trust.  There being angry about it, however, is an independent, mostly irrelevant, fact about their character used ad hominemly to distract the reader from drawing the correct conclusion.

It's about as irrelevant as the following:

The memos on torture represented a deliberate, and internally well-debated, policy decision, made in the proper places — the White House, the intelligence agencies and the Justice Department — by the proper officials.

One administration later, a different group of individuals occupying the same offices has — thankfully — made the opposite decision. Do they now go back and investigate or indict their predecessors?

That way, inevitably, lies endless political warfare. It would set the precedent for turning all future policy disagreements into political or criminal vendettas. That way lies untold bitterness — and injustice.

The question is not whether the torture decision was a policy decision–we all know that it was–the question is whether that policy decision was legal.  Just because the right people sat in a room and debated it doesn't mean it's just politics.  It only makes the crime (should there be determined to be one) worse.    

Credibility Problem

I should keep up on these things, but April 22nd was the sixth anniversary of the following remark by one of our favorite commentators, Charles Krauthammer:

Hans Blix had five months to find weapons. He found nothing. We’ve had five weeks. Come back to me in five months. If we haven’t found any, we will have a credibility problem.

That was 2003 (Thanks Crooked Timber).  At that same event, Krauthammer also said:

I want to talk about the meaning not just of the war in Iraq, but of the war on terrorism. There was a book written about 40 years ago by a man called Joseph Jones, who was in the State Department in 1947. He wrote a book called "15 Weeks." It was the 15 weeks between the day on which the cable arrived from London saying that the British had given up on Turkey and Greece and were pulling out and the announcement that the Harvard commencement by George Marshall of the Marshall Plan.

Those 15 weeks, in 1947, redefined the world, redefined American foreign policy, began the policy of containment, and stand as one of the great sort of intellectual revolutions in modern diplomacy.

I would argue that we have now lived through the 19 months, which stand on an equal plain in their audacity, success and revolutionary nature. The 19 months, of course, are from September 11th, 2001, to April 9th, 2003, a period which, in responding to an attack out of the blue, this administration has redefined the world, reoriented American foreign policy, and put in place a profound new approach which I think will stand with the 15 weeks in history as one of the more remarkable achievements, both intellectually, militarily and diplomatically, and done by a foreign policy team, national security team, which I believe is the most successful and the most impressive since the Truman-Atchison-Marshall team and the others of the late 1940s.

The war in Iraq is simply a battle in this larger campaign and then this larger conceptual structural, and it was characterized by the immediate understanding by the administration in 2001, after 9/11, that the successor to the great ideological wars of the 20th century had presented itself to us, that just as communism was the successor to fascism, in terms of the Cold War being a successor to the second World War, the war on terrorism was now the successor to those great ideological struggles that the 10-year period of the hiatus, the dream sleep that we had in the 1990s had evaporated, and we were in a new world.

And it correctly understood that the struggle was against terrorism in the context of weapons of mass destruction, that the war on terrorism had been entirely misconceived as a war on individuals, a war involving law enforcement, that it was seen as a matter of policing, and trials.

What was understood was the war on terrorism is a real war, and the war had to be taken to the enemy, and it was a war that involved states, that terrorism can only live among states, can only be supported by states and that the distinction had to be made between states which were supporting terrorism, which would inherently be our enemies and states which were not. The war in Afghanistan followed. The war in Iraq has followed.

It's new to me that wars have "successors" in anything but an accidental historical sense (one event or period following another).  Here's the more basic point.  We can all be wrong about predictions.  I've been wrong on occasion–this is going to be the best taco ever! (I've learned to withhold judgment on taquerias).  But Krauthammer is still employed by the Post.  If there going to continue to employ him–seems they will as pundit tenure is better than actual academic tenure–perhaps they (he if he were honest) ought to remind readers of his record as a prognosticator.  


Again via Crooked Timber, here is a very worthwhile site:

Can’t spare a square

Paul Krugman is perplexed, and rightly so I'd say, over the claim (made by some in the Obama administration) that we cannot investigate (and therefore prosecute) torture because we have too much on our plate right now–an economy in the tank, health care to reform, energy policies to write, etc.  Krugman says:

What about the argument that investigating the Bush administration’s abuses will impede efforts to deal with the crises of today? Even if that were true — even if truth and justice came at a high price — that would arguably be a price we must pay: laws aren’t supposed to be enforced only when convenient. But is there any real reason to believe that the nation would pay a high price for accountability?

For example, would investigating the crimes of the Bush era really divert time and energy needed elsewhere? Let’s be concrete: whose time and energy are we talking about?

Tim Geithner, the Treasury secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to rescue the economy. Peter Orszag, the budget director, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to reform health care. Steven Chu, the energy secretary, wouldn’t be called away from his efforts to limit climate change. Even the president needn’t, and indeed shouldn’t, be involved. All he would have to do is let the Justice Department do its job — which he’s supposed to do in any case — and not get in the way of any Congressional investigations.

I don’t know about you, but I think America is capable of uncovering the truth and enforcing the law even while it goes about its other business.

Seems right to me.  But I think the real problem lies with the media.  I don't think they'd be able to sustain focus on the torture investigations (which I earnestly hope for) and the pooping habits of Obama's dog.  I don't think they can spare the people.

Ends and odds

Two things.  In my web edition of the New York Times this morning (6:36 AM Central time right now) there are the following two headlines:

At Core of Detainee Fight: Did Methods Stop Attacks?

and right below it:

Taliban Seize Vital Pakistan Area Closer to the Capital

I thought that was interesting.  Also for fun, perhaps some of you would like play along at home by identifying the errors of reasoning in this discussion of torture (about the middle of the page–still no video here and I haven't found a transcript of the discussion yet.).

All Cretans are liars

A former Bush speechwriter attempts to put our minds at ease about torture.  He tells us that tortured prisoners do not lie, because the lying deceitful terrorists (whom we should never believe) have told us under torture that they don't:

Critics claim that enhanced techniques do not produce good intelligence because people will say anything to get the techniques to stop. But the memos note that, "as Abu Zubaydah himself explained with respect to enhanced techniques, 'brothers who are captured and interrogated are permitted by Allah to provide information when they believe they have reached the limit of their ability to withhold it in the face of psychological and physical hardship." In other words, the terrorists are called by their faith to resist as far as they can — and once they have done so, they are free to tell everything they know. This is because of their belief that "Islam will ultimately dominate the world and that this victory is inevitable." The job of the interrogator is to safely help the terrorist do his duty to Allah, so he then feels liberated to speak freely. 

Besides, it's their religious duty not to lie under torture–and we ought to take that at face value.