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Saturday, March 31, 2012

 
Jonathan Alter and the butterfly effect

by digby

I expect Villagers to blame the liberals for everything, but this one by Jonathan Alter --- honestly --- just floored me:

Oh, Ralph. If Ralph Nader hadn’t gotten under Lewis Powell’s skin, we wouldn’t be having these arguments over whether the individual mandate in Obamacare is unconstitutional.

And “stand your ground” laws — like the one at issue in the Trayvon Martin case — wouldn’t stand a chance in the rest of the country.

And free market conservatives would not be unconsciously defying police and doing the bidding of the National Rifle Association.

Yes, like Edward Lorenz’s “butterfly effect” (where the course of a tornado can be traced all the way back to the flapping of a butterfly’s wings thousands of miles away), it’s all connected, and in ways that should make us more conscious of how we associate ourselves with other political insects.

Of course. The liberals killed Trayvon. If we hadn't been out there agitating for change in the 60s there wouldn't have been a backlash and there wouldn't be any racism or gun violence today. Why didn't I think of that?

I have another theory. Alter goes way back to he 1970s to blame Nader for the consumer movement which allegedly scared Lewis Powell into writing his famous memo that inexorably led to the NRA and ALEC --- and Trayvon's death. But he doesn't need to go back that far to feel the butterfly effect. There was a more recent insect buzzing around that led directly to our country becoming more a more violent, paranoid extremist state.

That insect's name is Jonathan Alter, who wrote this in the wake of 9/11:

In this autumn of anger, even a liberal can find his thoughts turning to... torture. OK, not cattle prods or rubber hoses, at least not here in the United States, but something to jump-start the stalled investigation of the greatest crime in American history. Right now, four key hijacking suspects aren't talking at all.

Couldn't we at least subject them to psychological torture, like tapes of dying rabbits or high-decibel rap? (The military has done that in Panama and elsewhere.) How about truth serum, administered with a mandatory IV? Or deportation to Saudi Arabia, land of beheadings? (As the frustrated FBI has been threatening.) Some people still argue that we needn't rethink any of our old assumptions about law enforcement, but they're hopelessly "Sept. 10"--living in a country that no longer exists...

Actually, the world hasn't changed as much as we have. The Israelis have been wrestling for years with the morality of torture. Until 1999 an interrogation technique called "shaking" was legal. It entailed holding a smelly bag over a suspect's head in a dark room, then applying scary psychological torment. (To avoid lessening the potential impact on terrorists, I won't specify exactly what kind.) Even now, Israeli law leaves a little room for "moderate physical pressure" in what are called "ticking time bomb" cases, where extracting information is essential to saving hundreds of lives. The decision of when to apply it is left in the hands of law-enforcement officials.

For more than 20 years Harvard Law School professor Alan Dershowitz has argued to the Israelis that this is terribly unfair to the members of the security services. In a forthcoming book, "Shouting Fire," he makes the case for what he calls a "torture warrant," where judges would balance competing claims and make the call, as they do in issuing search warrants. Dershowitz says that as long as the fruits of such interrogation are used for investigation, not to convict the detainee (a violation of the Fifth Amendment right against self-incrimination), it could be constitutional here, too. "I'm not in favor of torture, but if you're going to have it, it should damn well have court approval," Dershowitz says.

Not surprisingly, judges and lawyers in both Israel and the United States don't agree. They prefer looking the other way to giving even mild torture techniques the patina of legality. This leaves them in a strange moral position. The torture they can't see (or that occurs after deportation) is harder on the person they claim to be concerned about--the detainee--but easier on their consciences. Out of sight, out of mind.

Short of physical torture, there's always sodium pentothal ("truth serum"). The FBI is eager to try it, and deserves the chance. Unfortunately, truth serum, first used on spies in World War II, makes suspects gabby but not necessarily truthful. The same goes for even the harshest torture. When the subject breaks, he often lies. Prisoners "have only one objective--to end the pain," says retired Col. Kenneth Allard, who was trained in interrogation. "It's a huge limitation."

Some torture clearly works. Jordan broke the most notorious terrorist of the 1980s, Abu Nidal, by threatening his family. Philippine police reportedly helped crack the 1993 World Trade Center bombings (plus a plot to crash 11 U.S. airliners and kill the pope) by convincing a suspect that they were about to turn him over to the Israelis. Then there's painful Islamic justice, which has the added benefit of greater acceptance among Muslims.

We can't legalize physical torture; it's contrary to American values. But even as we continue to speak out against human-rights abuses around the world, we need to keep an open mind about certain measures to fight terrorism, like court-sanctioned psychological interrogation. And we'll have to think about transferring some suspects to our less squeamish allies, even if that's hypocritical. Nobody said this was going to be pretty.

If you haven't read that in a while, or if it's your first time, read it again to make sure you get the full effect of what this man was saying.

I honestly don't know any other liberals whose thoughts automatically "turned to torture" after 9/11. But in the Village he is what passes for one, so his endorsement of this heinous and immoral practice went a long way toward legitimizing it. And so, by his own logic, the paranoia that has permeated our society ever since, including the lax gun laws we now have in 38 states, should then be laid at his feet.

The idea of blaming Ralph Nader's work to keep cars from blowing up and killing your children for right wing extremism is a new low. Lewis Powell was a paranoid and repulsive man who saw millions of Americans in the streets, including African Americans, and feared that the elites were under seige and needed to band together to preserve their privilege. Alter might as well have blamed Martin Luther King for Trayvon's tragic killing and saved Pat Buchanan the trouble. After all, King was no friend of the wealthy elite either.


Update: This transcript of Alter on TV, years later, failing to admit his personal call for torture as everyone was blaming the Bush administration says everything you need to know about the Village "liberals."

Update II: Alter has taken to twitter to say:
Irony, anyone? In Bloomberg View column I wasn't saying Nader actually caused RW craziness any more than the butterfly caused the tornado.


Hmmm. What's "ironic" about this, do you suppose?

"it’s all connected, and in ways that should make us more conscious of how we associate ourselves with other political insects."


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