Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The latest bad news and our common life

Memphis protester, swiped from Memphis Commercial-Appeal
Those of us who expressed loud relief at the conclusion of the late election season ought to have been careful for what we wished. We are most of us used to election-year bloviating, after all, and eventually it goes away, and we move on with our lives. The news that has replaced all the campaigning this year, however, has dealt a series of body blows to our quest for a common life. It's enough to make you nostalgic for Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-California) and his rumors of ISIS agents carrying Ebola germs over the Mexican border.

The grand jury decision not to seek indictment in the case of Eric Garner gave new life to restiveness about police treatment of blacks. The latest chapter began in August with the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, in August. Garner, like Brown, was unarmed; he died of suffocation this past July while being physically restrained by a New York City police officer, and his last words were the now-famous phrase "I can't breathe." A 42-year-old man with a wife and children, he made a more sympathetic figure than the 18-year-old Brown, who had just come from robbing a convenience store. While sorting out facts and causation in specific incidents is difficult, the two men's deaths have symbolized a broader theme of problematic relations between police departments and blacks. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People produced a list of 76 unarmed people of color who have died in police custody since 1999. Maybe Michael Brown is easy to dislike, and maybe the 12-year-old boy in Cleveland was extremely foolish, but it's more difficult to claim that all 76 killings were justified. Or to claim that racial disparities in sentencing, or the amazing proportion of African-American men who are under control of the justice system, are all due to individual irresponsibility.

This restiveness gave rise to a series of protests throughout the fall of 2014 and into the winter, including one December 9 at Coe College, where I teach. Police response in different communities has varied, from charm offensives to bemusement to circling the wagons. The NYPD publicly asked Mayor Bill DeBlasio to stay away from officers' funerals after remarks by DeBlasio--whose wife is black and son is dark-skinned--upon the Eric Garner verdict that they considered insulting (Ruud). I certainly understand the inclination to react defensively: As a college professor, I sometimes take personally stories of student loan debt or excessive classroom ideology. But this is entirely the wrong reaction. We need effective policing, because no matter how successful we are at creating a common life there will always be some crime from which society needs protection. Policing, though, remains effective if and only if the police are seen as serving the whole community. If African-Americans perceive that the police are not there to serve and protect them, how can we live together? If white Americans rely for protection from blacks on aggressive policing--or, heaven help us, vigilantes like the delusional George Zimmerman--common life is impossible.

The same day of the Coe student protests brought the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee report on "enhanced interrogation" of terror suspects by the Central Intelligence Agency in the middle years of the last decade. The report--based on an extensive review of CIA records--details what most of us already knew, at least vaguely: that American agents practiced a variety of psychological torture techniques at secret prisons in countries like Poland and Romania. The program's defenders--including former Vice President Dick Cheney and current CIA director John Brennan--claim valuable intelligence was gained from these practices ("Cheney Defends," Baker and Mazzetti), albeit details of the benefits aren't forthcoming and the report itself debunks some of those claims. More than 20 percent of these prisoners were found to have no links to terrorism at all, and many others were not connected to 9/11, which ought to give people pause before arguing what "they" did to us justified whatever our agents did to "them."

Remarkably, national Republicans have closed ranks around the program, to the extent of refusing even to participate in the preparation of the report. This is too bad. President Obama, a Democrat, while anti-waterboarding, has hardly been out front on the issue. But the most eloquent, moving contribution to this debate came from U.S. Senator John McCain (R-Arizona), who knows a thing or two about torture from his long years in Vietnamese prisons:

Sen McCain, swiped from
I have long believed some of these practices amounted to torture, as a reasonable person would define it, especially, but not only the practice of waterboarding, which is a mock execution and an exquisite form of torture. Its use was shameful and unnecessary; and, contrary to assertions made by some of its defenders and as the Committee's report makes clear, it produced little useful intelligence to help us track down the perpetrators of 9/11 or prevent new attacks and atrocities.
I know from personal experience that the abuse of prisoners will produce more bad than good intelligence. I know that victims of torture will offer intentionally misleading information if they think their captors will believe it. I know they will say whatever they think their torturers want them to say if they believe it will stop their suffering. Most of all, I know the use of torture compromises that which most distinguishes us from our enemies, our belief that all people, even captured enemies, possess basic human rights, which are protected by international conventions the U.S. not only joined, but for the most part authored. (McCain; see also Rosenthal)
Outgoing U.S. Senator Mark Udall (D-Colorado) has also been forcefully articulate.

The debate on torture tends to conflate two distinct aspects of the issue: effectiveness (was this the best way of getting good information?) and morality (were these torture techniques good or evil?). The CIA itself had concluded as long ago as 1989 that the techniques were not very useful, and there has been an impressive pile of evidence to that effect. But even if some usable intelligence was obtained, should the U.S. have tortured? From early settlers looking to build a "city on a hill" to international leadership on human rights since the 1970s, the United States of America has always had a moral component to it. If we treat people in our custody cruelly, if we use the actions of terrorists as the standard by which to judge our own actions, we are nothing more than any other country, except for being more powerful. If right makes might, the CIA actions have made us less powerful as well as less exemplary. (Now I'm conflating, aren't I?) I'm reminded of a pivotal moment in the play "A Man for All Seasons" by Robert Bolt about Sir Thomas More, the 16th century English chancellor who defied King Henry VIII:
ROPER. So now you'd give the Devil benefit of law!
MORE. Yes. What would you do? Cut a great road through the law to get after the Devil?
 ROPER. I'd cut down every law in England to do that!
MORE.  Oh? And when the last law was down, and the Devil turned round on you--where would you hide, Roper, the laws all being flat? This country's planted thick with laws from coast to coast--man's laws, not God's--and if you cut them down--and you're just the man to do it--d'you really think you could stand upright in the winds that would blow then? Yes, I'd give the Devil benefit of law, for my own safety's sake. (p. 66)
Paul Scofield (left) as Sir Thomas More; swiped from

Finally, and less violently, Congress and the President agreed on a continuing resolution to keep the government (excepting the Department of Homeland Security, due to controversy over Obama's executive order on immigration) open through September. This is good, because we need the national government, at least for some things, but some of the riders needed to pass the resolution were obscene. Some were out-and-out giveaways to the well-connected: weaker regulation of financial services, environmental reporting exemptions for agribusiness, a travel promotion program for Las Vegas (cf. Pear). If anyone wants to make the unfortunate case that the government in Washington is about the powerful helping themselves at the expense of ordinary people, this budget deal provides plenty of grist for their mill.

How to respond to all this, to defend the notion of a common life? Well, maybe after seven paragraphs of lamentation I feel my work here is done. Beyond that, have the widespread protests any value? I argue they do. As a middle-class white American male, I am chagrined to admit that much of what I've described above has been done on my behalf. So, like it or not, I own these messes, so it behooves me to cry out against them: "Not in my name!" [The only time I've ever brought up something political in a church service was back in the bad old days of the Northern Irish troubles, to complain about a particularly egregious action by Protestant militants. Not that Catholics didn't have egregious militants of their own, but as a Protestant I felt more responsible for Protestant violence.]
Protest at Coe College, swiped from Coe Facebook page

So, protest is not a bad first step. But it doesn't repair the breach in our common life. What then is step two?

"Are We All Ferguson?," 19 August 2014
"Race Matters, Damn It," 16 April 2013


Peter Baker and Mark Mazzetti, "Brennan Draws on Bond With Obama in Backing C.I.A.," New York Times, 15 December 2014, A1

Robert Bolt, A Man for All Seasons: A Play in Two Acts (New York: Random House, 1962)

"Cheney Defends CIA Interrogation Techniques, Calls Senate Report 'Deeply Flawed,'" FOX News, 11 December 2014,

John S. McCain, "Sen. McCain's Full Statement on the CIA Torture Report," USA Today, 9 December 2014,

Robert Pear, "In Final Spending Bill, Salty Food and Belching Cows Are Winners," New York Times, 15 December 2014, A1, A15

Andrew Rosenthal, "John McCain: The Anti-Cheney on Torture," Taking Note, 16 December 2014,

Candice Ruud, "NYPD Union Asks Mayor de Blasio Not to Attend Officers' Funerals," Newsday, 12 December 2014,

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