I’m gonna say these bags of holiday cheer represent Hanukkah, Christmas, Festivus, Kwanzaa, Yule, and Eid al-Adha. Don’t count ‘em and try to guess which three religions I really mean … just go with me on this, okay?
Like most white middle class Americans, we have Jewish and Christian friends. We know pagans and atheists, gays and straights. Most in our circle are white, but we count several people of other ethnicities among our friends and relatives. Thanks to our travels, we know people in different parts of the world.
All of which is to say it’s time for our annual season’s greetings letter and I’m running late … you saw that coming, didn’t you? Oh, the letter’s written, it’s the tough part that’s still to do: the printing, the envelope stuffing, the address labels, licking stamps, and so on. This job always falls to me, which is fair since Donna does literally everything else. This morning I sent out 50 or 60 email versions of the letter; 25 more have to go by snail mail to the Luddites on our list.
The more than welcome storms that recently visited our beloved California drifted east and gave us much-needed rain too, but today is sunny and dry and this afternoon I’ll saddle up the motorcycle and run down to Office Max for envelopes & printer cartridges. I might even drop by Kinkos to make copies of our Thanksgiving family photo, which is part of the letter. That’ll be better than buying up all the color ink cartridges in Tucson in order to print them at home, no?
Of course there are a million other things we have to do to get ready for Christmas, especially since we’re spending this one at home, and we haven’t gotten around to any of them yet. Except for a single strand of colored lights around our front door, you’d think the Grinch lived here. The plastic bins of Christmas decorations are still on the shelves in the garage. The house is a wreck. We haven’t bought the ingredients for the food we plan to cook. And so on. I’d be depressed if I didn’t know it’s this way every year, and that we’ll pull it all together at the last minute.
Since 1979, whenever we’ve been home for the holidays, we’ve invited single friends to share Christmas Eve with us. We have a shrimp boil and feed them clam chowder with cheesy biscuits, and we all trim the tree … which stays unadorned and unlit until that night … together. Back in our USAF days, our single friends were fellow pilots and support officers from squadrons we were assigned to. Today they’re close friends from Tucson, many of them members of the running club we’ve belonged to for years. We’ve invited six to share Christmas Eve with us this year, and we’ll be joined by our daughter Polly as well.
When your kids move away and you find yourself in your 60s, living in an empty nest, the old holiday spirit doesn’t show up until the last minute. These days it doesn’t drop by until Christmas Eve, and I must say with all the news lately I’m looking forward to its arrival.
The family photo I mentioned earlier is already up on the blog, so I won’t add it to this post, but will put up a couple of recent thumbnails you may enjoy:
That’s Schatzi the iDog, helping me with some air museum files & photos yesterday. She loves to curl up on that pillow under the warm desk lamp; snoring and all I couldn’t have a better desk buddy. As you can tell from the second photo, I’m growing another beard. Right now I’m at the homeless-alcoholic-panhandler stage, or at least that’s the way I feel I must look to other people. I led tours at the air museum Wednesday and no one seemed put off, so perhaps to them I look more like I’m at the male-model-who-does-hotel-booking-website-ads-on-TV stage. Barring a sudden change in hormone production, the chin whiskers should fill in soon.
Happy holidays, everyone!
Never mind there should be no debate over torture, any more than there should be a debate over rape or child molestation. There is a debate and it’s heading downhill fast, witness this statement by one of the most powerful men in the land:
“I think it is very facile for people to say ‘Oh, torture is terrible,’” he said. “You posit the situation where a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people.
“You think it’s an easy question? You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?”
Yes, that’s Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, who knows torture works because he saw it work on TV, even referencing the specific episode of 24 he saw it on. He said this on Friday, days after the release of the Senate report on torture.
Jesus. I can’t. Even.
Yes, I’m still writing about an issue everyone clearly wants to ignore; everyone, that is, save for a friend or two who want me to go from talking about things I know about (SERE training, the experiences of Vietnam POWs I’ve flown and worked with) to speculating on things I know nothing about.
As in: why? Why did we torture captives when we knew torture didn’t work? Why did military and CIA interrogators agree to do it? Why did members of the medical profession go along with it? Why are the program’s architects, in the face of the shameful details revealed in the Senate report on torture, defending it so proudly and vigorously?
Why did we torture when we knew it doesn’t work? Historically, the US military (a century or more ago), and the CIA (as recently as the 1960s) had ample experience with torture. Both learned long ago that torture is counter-productive: victims will tell you what you want to hear, say whatever they think might stop the torment.
Making captives say what you want to hear can be useful if your purpose is to obtain false confessions, as in the forced chemical warfare confessions the North Koreans beat out of American POWs in the early 1950s, but it’s not useful at all if you’re looking for actionable information about upcoming attacks or the current location of terrorist leaders. Not once did our military or intelligence agencies learn anything truly actionable from tortured prisoners, either in earlier days or during our more recent experiments with torture, and they’re on record as saying so.
The CIA and US military renounced torture decades ago and rewrote regulations and procedures to ban its use. Then, within hours of the terror attacks on September 11, 2001, even before there were captives to question, these agencies and their shadowy contractors began dusting off old torture plans, even hiring psychologists from the USAF’s SERE School to reverse engineer simulated training torture into the real thing, to be used on captives as soon as they had some. And pretty soon they did, and we were back in the torture business.
Why did military and CIA interrogators agree to torture captives? Well, why do cops so often falsify evidence or suppress exculpatory evidence? Why are they so anxious to close cases, even when multiple witnesses say they have the wrong man? Because their political masters want results. Because they have a quota system. Because career success depends on closing cases.
I’ve read many insider accounts from former administration, CIA, FBI, and military officials. Their accounts share a theme: top-down pressure for results from the highest levels of the George W. Bush administration. Dick Cheney wanted results and wanted them now. Rumsfeld & Tenet (and their successors), the men who briefed Cheney and Bush daily, wanted the same (and in Rummy’s case, metrics). The administration wanted to be able to demonstrate to the American public it was doing something to stop future terror attacks.
Never mind that false confessions made under duress had DHS and FBI agents running screaming from one imaginary threat to another (my god, the Sears Tower is next; oh no, they’re planning to hit a casino in Las Vegas); what was important was that interrogators send intelligence reports uphill, the more the better. Asses were covered, careers made.
And then there’s the torture bureaucracy, starting with the SERE psychologists and their multi-million dollar program, leading to the whole apparatus of contractors, black sites, military prisons, secret flight plans, and an army of interrogators and interpreters. Not to mention huge infusions of cash to agencies like the CIA and DHS. This is exactly the kind of banal corruption that drives innumerable other programs we know don’t work, like new C-130s for an air force that stopped wanting them decades ago, or the wasteful production of ethanol fuel), but never mind that, think of the jobs (I think of billionaire contractors setting up tax shelters in the Caribbean, but that’s just me).
Why did medical personnel agree to go along with it? Who the fuck knows? When I was a kid I believed the police were looking out for me, that I could turn to them if I was in trouble. I grew out of that pretty quickly, but I carried a belief in medical ethics well into adulthood. I guess I should have known better.
Does anyone like torturing captives? Does anyone get off on it? I mentioned the possibility in comments to earlier torture posts, but didn’t really believe it, at least at higher levels. Certainly the young US Army troops who tortured Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib appeared to be enjoying themselves in those infamous photographs, but I can’t bring myself to believe the professional interrogators who waterboarded prisoners were doing it for fun. I hope my belief in some remaining vestige of human decency isn’t as misguided as the trust I once had in the medical profession.
Why are torture’s architects, even in the face of the shameful details revealed in the Senate report on torture, defending so proudly and vigorously what they did? Wow, what a question. Does anyone think we’ll ever get an honest answer?
One writer, Charles Pierce at Esquire, thinks Cheney and other high-level torturers are defending the program because they know the CIA, should Cheney and friends try to throw it under the bus, can hit back, and hard. The CIA knows where the bodies are buried. I expect there’s some truth to that. I also suspect some of the principles have financial interests in the companies contracted to do some of the dirty work.
Then there’s simple embarrassment and legacy protection. No one wants to be a war criminal, not even Dick Cheney. His only option is to defend what he has done.
And maybe George W. Bush and Dick Cheney (and Rumsfeld and Tenet and all the rest of them) are, like Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, fans of 24, where torture always works.
Update (12/17/14): One thing I did not consider, but which Charles Pierce does in the above linked Esquire article, is that Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld (and perhaps Tenet as well) tortured captives in order to extract false confessions, à la the North Koreans in the 1950s. The difference between us and the Norks would be, Pierce thinks, that our forced confessions were not to be used for propaganda, but to establish links … phony links would do just fine, thank you … between Iraq and the 9/11 terror attacks and thus help Bush & company sell the invasion of Iraq they’d been planning since inauguration day, long before 9/11.
Like Pierce, I want to deny the possibility, but it feels very much like something Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld would do. And it ties in with the part of Pierce’s article I did remark upon, the resoluteness with which Cheney defends the CIA today, because if anyone is in a position to expose how Bush, Cheney, and Rumsfeld concocted the false intelligence used to justify invading Iraq, it would be the CIA, so it might be best not to throw the agency under the bus.
Holy shit, this is some low-down snake belly stuff here. I need a shower.
You Can’t Read That! is a periodic post featuring banned book reviews and news roundups.
That’s a photo of my grandson Quentin in the Greenspun Middle School library in Henderson, Nevada. While my wife and I were visiting our kids and grandkids during Thanksgiving week, his school hosted a grandparents’ day. When we walked by the library I asked if we could go in, and Quentin said sure. I wanted to check the shelves for banned books, and here Quentin is holding up a copy of one of the most frequently challenged and banned books on school reading lists and library shelves today. Yay, Greenspun Middle School!
We had a nice chat with the school librarian, Andy S_____, who is well aware of which books in his collection have been repeatedly challenged or banned, and who sends kids home with permission slips for parents to sign if, in his judgement, parents might object to their child checking out particular books. It’s case by case, not a blanket policy, and that seems sensible to me. Quentin could have checked out To Kill a Mockingbird without a signed permission slip, for example. We tried to talk him into it, but right now his interests lie elsewhere (you may have heard of a computer game called Minecraft). By the way, we’re giving him a banned YA book for Christmas … I won’t say which one in case he reads this post, but it’s a good one.
YCRT! News Roundup
Highland Park High backs down; Garth Stein’s The Art of Racing in the Rain is back on a high school class reading list in a Dallas, Texas suburb. This is one of many school book banning flareups where parents and some administrators have advocated “red flagging” any and all controversial books, and the battle is by no means over.
Another un-banning, this time in Riverside, California: John Green’s The Fault in Our Stars is back on school library shelves. Let me emphasize that: the original ban was not over the inclusion of the popular YA novel on a class reading list; the ban was over its mere presence in school libraries.
I have my doubts about this story, which asserts that a high school teacher in Albuquerque, New Mexico, was fired because one of her students turned in a creative writing story about Jesus dealing pot.
Here’s a fascinating story about American censorship of Japanese literature and film during the occupation following the end of WWII. What did we try to expunge? The existence of “comfort women” and prostitution.
America must “fix free speech” with censorship. Say what?
A school board member is challenging the health care curriculum at a Delaware high school. His issue? Any mention of homosexuality, bisexuality, transgenderism, STDs, HIV, or birth control. Just another “free speech fixer” at work.
People keep saying torture can’t be all that bad … after all, we torture our own aviators and special operations forces at a super-secret training facility so they’ll be able to stand up to it if they’re ever captured by the enemy …. and you don’t hear any of them complaining, do you?
The acronym for this specialized training is SERE: Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape. When I went through the training in January 1979, the different services operated their own survival schools, but today it appears an organization called the Joint Personnel Recovery Agency conducts SERE training for all the services at a facility located on Fairchild AFB near Spokane, Washington. It just so happens that’s the old USAF survival school I went to, and from all I read, the course of training there hasn’t changed significantly from what I experienced.
POW camp at the Fairchild AFB SERE training facility
The basic idea behind SERE training is spelled out in the name: you learn to live off the land while evading capture if forced down behind enemy lines. You learn that if captured, the enemy will torture you in an attempt to extract information or coerce you into making propaganda statements. You learn resistance techniques to help you live up to the military code of conduct for as long as you can. You learn how previous generations of POWs communicated with one another in prison camps, and how to make or take advantage of escape opportunities.
The really cool thing about the training is that it’s not classroom stuff. You’re out in the woods and mountains for two days, literally living off the land while navigating from your simulated crash position to an area where partisan resistance fighters might help you get back to friendly lines. You make your own shelters, hide from pursuing enemies, dig up edible roots and rig snares to catch your dinner, and trek across rugged terrain. Mostly you starve, but at the end, the partisans feed you.
The other half of the training is resistance and escape. You’re captured by the enemy, tortured and interrogated, then finally thrown into a POW camp with other Americans. This too goes on for two days, or at least it did when I went through the training: 24 hours of torture and interrogation, 24 hours of POW camp.
When I went through SERE school the curriculum, if that’s the word for it, was based on the recent experiences of our POWs in Vietnam. A USAF major, himself a long-term Vietnam POW, ran the school, and other POWs helped design the training. Before that the school taught lessons learned from the Korean War; before that, WWII. Presumably, today’s training incorporates what we’ve learned from the Persian Gulf wars.
The torture? It’s primarily sleep deprivation, accompanied by contrasting bouts of sensory deprivation and overload, plus physical pain brought on by being forced to maintain “stress positions” for lengthy periods of time. You’re forced into a cramped little box with adjustable floors and walls so that short or tall, you can’t stand straight or squat down for relief, and left there for hours while screechy music and propaganda speeches blare from loudspeakers. It’s black inside and you can’t see a thing. Guards open the peepholes every few minutes and scream at you. Just about the time the good sensory deprivation hallucinations start they drag you out and force you into a horizontal cage, down on your hands and knees, and leave you there for hours. They they drag you out for interrogation and torture, forcing you to stand on one foot while they insult you and scream some more. Then it’s back to the standing box. If you have to pee (or, god forbid, shit), there’s a coffee can at your feet, oh so easy to accidentally kick over in the dark. They clean the coffee cans with an industrial-strength solution I can still smell today. It’s a singularly unpleasant experience.
But it isn’t torture, not even close. Here’s the thing: they can’t actually harm you, and you know it’s going to end. No matter how realistic they make it, no matter how deep into it you allow yourself to get, you never forget it’s just training. By the time you’re with your fellow captives in the POW camp, it’s actually kind of fun.
It wasn’t like that for the captives we tortured in Afghanistan, Iraq, the black sites, or Guantanamo. When we threatened to harm or kill, they knew we meant it (and yes, we did kill a few). They didn’t (and don’t) know that what they were (and still are) going through would ever end. Standing like a stork on one foot for 45 minutes is painful … try it … but it’s not torture.
Torture is being waterboarded, hanging naked from shackles for days on end, having your dinner pureed and forced up your ass, being caged for years in an isolation cell.
Torture is what the Vietnamese did to our POWs, and why we aren’t listening to John McCain rather than that draft dodger Dick Cheney is a mystery for the ages.
Next time some authoritarian chickenhawk tells you we torture our own troops in training and therefore it ain’t no big thing, you have my permission to puree their dinner and force it up their ass. Be sure to toss a couple of habañeros into the Cuisinart first.
Regarding the release of the US Senate’s torture report, it’s tempting to lead off with a inset photo of Dick Cheney, who was once aptly described as the kind of man who, even before climbing into the lifeboat, is already talking about which of his fellow survivors should be eaten first. He was, after all, one of the first administration officials to recommend torturing captives in the wake of 9/11 … even before we had any captives … and has remained torture’s most ardent champion.
But Cheney is one fascist authoritarian among many. It’s not just Cheney, it’s Cheney and his ilk. A hell of a lot of Americans belong to that ilk. Sadly, they’re Americans who look like me. Americans who look like me torture. Americans who look like me want to round up 11 million undocumented immigrants and load them onto boxcars. Americans who look like me dream of a race war that will rid this country of the descendants of slaves Americans like me once brutalized. Americans who look like me waged a campaign of genocide against the native inhabitants of North America, and to this day continue breaking treaties we made with the survivors. Explain to me again just how America is exceptional?
The torture wing of America’s elite class warns the release of this report will result in the death of Americans. That may well happen, but it’s not the reason they tried so hard to keep the report secret. No, they tried to keep it secret to spare themselves embarrassment and avoid accountability. Whenever you hear elites howl that admitting the truth will damage national security and put American lives at risk, you’re hearing elites trying to protect themselves.
I don’t know what they’re worried about, though. No one of any importance will be held accountable for torture. Public embarrassment is the worst that could happen to someone like Cheney, and I doubt Cheney’s ever been embarrassed in his life. He’ll go to his grave a righteous and proud torturer.
Knowing no one important will ever be punished for the crimes spelled out in the Senate’s torture report, Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union, suggests President Obama pardon Bush and Cheney, just as President Gerald Ford once pardoned Nixon. Why? Because a pardon would officially acknowledge, for the first time, their guilt. Would Obama risk such a bold step, even in the last two years of his presidency when he has nothing to lose by it? Only one word comes to mind, and that word is “nah.”
Nevertheless, I’m glad the truth is coming out. Some Americans, who also look like me, are paying attention.
It wasn’t a date, exactly, but one of the first things Donna and I did together, shortly after we met in 1964, was to help other members of a local chapter of the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee pack clothing and food for the freedom riders. We were freshmen at American River College in Sacramento, far from the momentous changes occurring in Mississippi and other southern states, but we were filled with admiration (and anxiety) for the brave young people who went down there to help register black voters.
Last night I watched the beginnings of a new round of mass protests over the killing of an unarmed black man by police, who once again are not being held accountable for their actions. This time it’s New York City, and people are in the streets because a grand jury refused to indict the cops who literally murdered an unarmed black man named Eric Garner. This in spite of a clear video of the entire incident, from the initial confrontation with Mr. Garner, to the cops applying the chokehold and wrestling him to the street, to the eleven times Garner managed to gasp out “I can’t breathe, I can’t breathe” before he lost consciousness on the sidewalk. And at no time did Eric Garner do anything more threatening than raise his voice to the cops.
While I was watching the protests, halfway hoping some protesters would break through the wall of riot police and set fire to the Rockefeller Center Christmas tree (the annual tree lighting ceremony and the protests were occurring simultaneously), I heard black and white leaders calling for a nationwide march.
My god, I thought, Donna and I might wind up packing food and clothing again, this time for a new batch of brave young men and woman. Fifty fucking years after freedom summer, in 21st century America.
Prosecutors and grand juries in all parts of this country routinely refuse to indict cops for killing unarmed black and brown boys and men. The few cops who come to trial are just as routinely acquitted. Sometimes, in egregious cases like the current ones in Ferguson and NYC, the Justice Department threatens to step in and take further action. This has happened before, of course, and it’s no slam dunk. Remember these guys?
Neshoba County Deputy Price and Sheriff Rainey (click image to read more)
This famous photo shows two of the Neshoba County, Mississippi, cops (and also KKK members) at their trial for the murder of three freedom riders in the summer of 1964: Mickey Schwerner, Andrew Goodman, and James Chaney. If you were around in those days you probably remember the murders and the efforts to bring the murderers to justice (if you’re younger, perhaps you learned something about the case from the 1988 movie Mississippi Burning).
Initial efforts to indict the sheriff, his deputies, and other white citizens involved in the murders were stymied by local and state segregationist prosecutors and judges. The Justice Department and the FBI became involved, but it took them several tries to get indictments and, eventually, convictions (and even then, not for murder but for violating the civil rights of the young men they killed). Of the 18 men tried, only 7 were convicted. Most of the killers, including Sheriff Price, went free. Finally, in 2005, justice caught up with some of the surviving killers, who were convicted of manslaughter and sent to prison for whatever days they had remaining.
No slam dunk, indeed.
Racism never went away in this country. The open expression of racism pretty much died out, however, as most whites learned to moderate their behavior, particularly in the workplace and institutions like the military and schools. Now, it seems to me, the open expression of racism is coming back, and with a vengeance.
It feels to me as if the ground has tilted and we’re slipping back to the 1960s; I meant it when I said I can see Donna and I packing clothing and food for freedom riders again, just as we did in 1964.
This photo of Donna and me was taken 49 years ago today. We were at my folks’ apartment in Wiesbaden, Germany, where we had just come after getting married by a German justice in a civil ceremony at the city courthouse.
A lot of things have happened since, but we’re still in love and together, and that’s something. I’m even starting to think we might make 50.
Happy anniversary, Donna!