Sunday, September 14, 2008


A few thoughts on torture:

1. I'm agin' it, on the whole.

2. But those who think that the argument based on pragmatism--"it doesn't work because you'll confess to anything under torture--" is a good one are deceiving themselves. It's a false argument because if it were true that torture was useless in extracting information, the practice would long ago have been discontinued. To be sure, torture to extract confessions in order to prove guilt is largely useless; innocent people will confess to anything under torture. However, when the guilt is already proved and the torturers already know that their victim has information that they need, this argument against torture based upon pragmatism fails. Why shouldn't we use torture on people who are just defying us, teasing us with the fact that they have information we need and can't get from them? Moreover, the knowledge that their information could be swiftly verified, and if proven false the torture reapplied, would "encourage" them to tell the truth. An example of this was when Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, a key leader in Al Qaeda, was captured and sent to the prison camp at Guantanamo Bay. The American interrogators knew that he had information they needed and when he mocked them and refused to give them any, they proceeded to waterboard him. He cracked after a minute and a half and gave them valuable information that proved to be accurate and useful. So torture works, when used skillfully and in the proper situations.

3. This being the case, other arguments must be found; happily, these are readily available and I need not go over them here: the inherent dignity of the human person, the dehumanizing effect upon the torturer, the chance of retribution in kind by the enemy (although when the enemy already tortures as a matter of course this argument fails along with the pragmatic one), and so on.

4. I am of the opinion that the only act that the American government has committed during the war on terror which can be considered torture is waterboarding, which they used three times. They ought not to have used it at those times, but the use of a fairly mild form of torture three times does not a war crime make.

5. I am in agreement with Al Mohler, here, that during a "ticking time bomb" situation torture is allowable; however, and also like Mohler, I believe that such situations occur in truth very rarely and in fancy very often. As such, Mohler is correct in saying that the law should not sanction torture as a policy, lest it give paranoid, foolish or cruel men license to use torture when it is unnecessary. Torture should always be done at the very last moment--and having a law against it with severe penalties in place would ensure that should such a moment arise the decision to torture would be made with the utmost seriousness. I would also expect the law to be merciful on such occasions to the torturers.

6. One of the main reasons why I supported John McCain early on in the primaries (in spirit, because I have reasons for not voting American) was because of his stance against torture. The above note is also in accord with his position.

7. Has anyone ever noticed that torture is used in the Lord of the Rings by the good guys? Behold the following excerpt:

I endured him as long as I could, but the truth was desperately important, and in the end I had to be harsh. I put the fear of fire on him, and wrung the true story out of him, bit by bit, together with much snivelling and snarling.
This was more psychological torture than anything else, but waterboarding mainly relies upon fear as its weapon as well. And do you know who said the above quote? Gandalf the Grey.

8. Given that there is no man alive with the wisdom and moral clarity of Gandalf, the above example should not be taken as an endorsement of torture.

So there are a couple points on torture.

Meanwhile, Peter Eddy has explained why he distrusts McCain's pro-life credentials. I believe that Pete is misinformed about McCain's record on judges, thus here, here, and here. McCain's only potential problem with conservative justices is the McCain-Feingold act concerning campaign finance reform, as I understand it. And he has said that he will not consider this difference to be a litmus test. The Gang of 14 business was one of which I approved, given the political situation at the time and the necessity of preserving the Senate minority's power--particularly as it may well come in handy for the Republicans under an Obama administration. So cool it, Pete. But then again, I am a member of an officially pro-choice party (and likely, alas, to remain so for the forseeable future), so obviously I am not, like Pete, a one-issue voter.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Arnn on Churchill

Once again, a fine piece of writing. This gentleman discusses Winston Churchill based on the newly republished biography by his son Randolph. Some very interesting things are said, and some wise ones.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Bill Moyers, Hero?

This gentleman skewers Bill Moyers. Quite properly, too.

Sunday, March 30, 2008

Robert Fagles

I heard via the "No Left Turns" blog today that Robert Fagles has died. He composed my favourite translation of Homer's Iliad, and Peter Schramm gives an appropriate good-bye to him:

Robert Fagles has died. It is probable that more literal translations have been done of Homer (and Virgil) than his, but no other had the drive, the "Homeric swagger" (as one calls it), the taking away your breath kind of energy and pace that his had. I have read all aloud and found myself (like a fool, no doubt) speaking in his music for days following. The battles and the hard work and then the great-hearted Odysseus gives living proof to Penelope, and the most understanding man alive wept as he held the soul of loyalty to his breast at last. Thank you, Robert Fagles.

"Rage - Goddess, sing the rage of Peleus' son Achilles..."

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

On Nuclear Weapons

The years of the Cold War are over, and with them the tensions between the great nuclear Powers of the United States and the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union has fallen, and its successor, Russia, is hardly in a position to challenge the United States for supremacy. Moreover, even though Russia and the United States still possess nuclear weapons, there is no potential dispute on the horizon between these two nuclear Powers that could possibly involve nuclear weapons. Yet each nation still stockpiles large quantities of strategic and tactical nuclear weapons. Is this really necessary?

The answer is, I think, largely no--yet there is a crucial caveat to this "no." The most each nation needs is 1000 warheads stockpiled, preferably mostly not on hair-trigger readiness. On the other hand, once nations have nuclear weapons it would be irresponsible and imprudent to get rid of them completely. The only way nuclear weapons are going to disappear from the world is if they are rendered obsolete, which is not on the horizon. The nature of such weapons is such that even if the major nations of the world were to get rid of them, some small nation would no doubt get them and hold the rest of the world to ransom, or come some war the race would be on to re-make nuclear warheads before the other guy. So while continued reductions in nuclear warheads are good, it is highly unlikely that they will disappear, and not a good idea, I think, to talk about getting rid of them completely. Which is why the Bush administration's plans to produce a new ICBM are appropriate and prudent, because they recognize that they cannot let their guard down while other nations still have these weapons. Deterrence will still be necessary, probably for as long as these nations exist. But they should seek to mitigate the threat these weapons pose to world peace, and limit their stockpiles and preparedness.

Friday, February 29, 2008

On Terrorism

An important issue in politics today is the nature of the War on Terror; how it should be waged, if it should be waged, what rhetoric we should use, what means we should use, are all topics that are debated. This post will deal with whether or not we should call those who are the antagonists to the West in this conflict 'terrorists.'

It is an important thing to remember that although 9/11 brought the subject of these kinds of movements and their activities to the forefront of American popular thinking, they are not a new phenomenon. For many years previous to this date the problem of militant organizations carrying out attacks against civilian populations has been one of the issues of foreign policy for most nations. The nation of Israel has dealt with this problem for many years, as has Lebanon, Russia, and the Philippines. Moreover, there have been many movements that do not specifically target civilians, yet are called 'terrorists' by their foes; witness the African National Congress in South Africa during its militant days, the ETA among the Basques, and many others (during the occupation of France during the Second World War, the Germans called the Resistance 'terrorists'). So clearly the term 'terrorist' has been used to describe a wide variety of militant organizations, some of which had good aims, and others which had evil aims (in our eyes).

So the argument runs, 'those who carried out the attacks of 9/11 and who are targets of the War on Terror are merely like the French Resistance, who resisted oppression.' After all, hasn't the West done terrible things in the past against the ethnicities from which the militant organizations spring? It must be admitted that the grievances that Al-Qaeda and others like them claim against the West are not completely illegitimate; after all, if they were all untrue there would be no resentment against the West that would spur new recruits to join. Yet even if these arguments are true, and they are almost always grossly exaggerated and decontextualized, it would still not give Al-Qaeda and their ilk an excuse to take the actions that they have taken.

There is a fundamental difference between proper resistance to oppression and improper resistance, or terrorism. Proper resistance does not specifically target civilian populations. As an example of this, the ANC in South Africa always targeted military and government installations when they rebelled. Now, even this in the situation was inexcusable (which is why Nelson Mandela is a lesser man than Mohandas Gandhi in terms of resistance movements) but nevertheless could not be classified as terrorism. Terrorism specifically targets civilian populations to make a political point, and to cause political change. It is useful to apply the measures of just war to the actions of Al-Qaeda: Proper cause--perhaps; but very open to debate; proper authority--no, as no government has authorized them; no targeting of civilians--no, indeed the whole point of their attacks is to target civilians and so to spur fear in them; proportionality--more difficult, but in general the attacks of terrorists are indiscriminate and so show no care for proportion at all. In all these things terrorism fails to meet the justification of just war.

The words 'terror' and its variants are useful words that should be used very precisely to refer to certain organizations and actions that meet the following criteria:
1) Not a government body, and in the case of actions not authorized by a government body (when governments use these tactics in a war, it is called something different)
2) Commit acts of violence against specifically civilian targets; namely, the using of civilians as pawns to force their governments to do things (once again, when governments use these tactics it is called something different)
Nationalist movements are sometimes terrorist movements and sometimes not; yet the people who perpetrated the 9/11 attacks are not specifically nationalist but rather global. Al-Qaeda has as its aim the intimidation of Western governments so that an Islamic empire may re-emerge. This is not a strictly nationalist aim, but rather a religious/utopian one, one which makes them and those like them all the more odious and so deserving of the epithet 'terrorist.'

Governments doing the acts that terrorists do are committing war crimes or oppression; but by definition terrorists cannot commit war crimes as they are not engaging in war, which must be authorized by a government, and they cannot oppress anyone as they do not rule anywhere. So the term 'War on Terror' is a useful one and should be kept, so long as it is clearly understood who is targeted: organizations like Al-Qaeda that target civilians for political ends.

Monday, February 18, 2008

On Statesmen

What makes a statesman? Is it signing lots of treaties? Is it preventing wars? Is it winning wars? Is it founding great governmental institutions? Is it propagating noble ideas about nationhood? Is it founding a nation? What makes a statesman?

A statesman is one who builds an order, whether it is a national order or an international order. A statesman must have an overall vision for what he wants to do, and must have the savvy to know how to put that vision into effect. A statesman must contribute something lasting to his country and to the world.

Who are examples of statesmen? And why are they statesmen? In the next few posts, I will look at various men throughout history whom I think qualify as statesmen, and examine why they qualify as such. Some are famous, some are not--but each of them had those ineffable qualities of vision and ability.

Lee Kwan Yew
Pictured above, this man is known as the "Kissinger of Asia." His main accomplishment is making the tiny island-state of Singapore into a major world economic power. When he started his rule at the time of Singapore's independence in 1959, Singapore was a poor and defenceless backwater; when he ended in 1990, Singapore was an island of wealth and stability amidst the general poverty of Southeast Asia.

One thing that characterized Lee Kwan Yew was his vision: the government of Singapore knew what it wanted to do, created a blueprint for growth and development, stuck to it, and then after completing it moving on to other things. The government under Lee was (as it remains) extraordinarily competent.

So the primary reason why Lee Kwan Yew is a statesman is because he built a nation-state almost single-handedly into a prosperous and responsible member of the world community. But there are other things about Lee that make him a statesman; his foreign policy efforts, especially after his stepping down from the premiership, are widely respected. As well, he is tactful and self-controlled; witness his care not to overstep his bounds after he stepped down from power in 1990.

Of course, he is not without flaws. An autocrat, he refused to tolerate much political dissent during his career, and even now regularly sues those who criticize him (A little like the Church of Scientology?). Some of his government's policies are harsh and illiberal (illiberal in the best sense of the phrase; that is, opposed to classical liberalism), such as racial quotas for immigration and the capital punishment for drug trafficking. Still, statesmen have used such methods in the past, and Lee is certainly a realist in most matters--which is also important for statesmen.

All in all, Lee Kwan Yew is a statesman due to his role in building Singapore to where it is today.

A Bit of Latin

Quid facis, Catilina? Quid cogitas? Sentimus magna vitia insidiasque tuas. O tempora! O mores! Senatus haec intellegit, consul videt.

Quid: "what," interrogative pronoun
facis: "do/make," a third conjugation -io verb in the second person singular
Catilina: "Catiline," personal name in the vocative; Catiline was a conspirator against Cicero when he was consul
Quid: "what," interrogative pronoun
cogitas: "think," a first conjugation verb in the second person singular
Sentimus: "sense/perceive," a third conjugation -io verb in the first person plural
magna: "great," adjective
vitia: "sins/faults," second declension neuter noun in the accusative plural
insidiasque: "treacheries [and]," first declension feminine noun in the accusative plural with modifying "-que" added
tuas: "your," possessive pronoun modifying 'insidias'
O Tempora: "O Time," third declension vocative neuter noun
O mores: "O habits/morals/character," third declension
masculine vocative plural
Senatus: "Senate," first declension noun in the nominative singular
haec: "this," demonstrative in the masculine nominative
intellegit: "understand," first conjugation verb in the third person singular
consul: "consul," nominative noun; 'consul' describes one of the two executive officers of the Roman Republic
videt: "see," second conjugation verb in the third person singular

What are you doing, Catiline? What are you thinking? We perceive your treacheries and great sins. O Times! O Morals! This Senate understands, this consul sees.
(Marcus Tullius Cicero)