October 28, 2005

Tortured Response

As Washington buzzes with speculation about Plamegate and the Miers withdrawal, a truly reprehensible request by Vice-President Cheney is slipping under the radar. Last week, I applauded Senator John McCain for standing up in the face of a threatened White House veto and rallying the support of 90 Senators from both parties to attach a provision to a defense spending bill that would ban torture of any detainee held by the U.S.

Standing up against torture is a good thing, right?

Not according to the VP, apparently. Cheney, along with CIA Director Porter Goss, reportedly lobbied McCain to include a broad exception to the ban that would allow CIA agents acting abroad to continue with carte blanche interrogation. No more of the legal-speak about the torture convention or the Geneva accords or even the Constitution. The Administration’s policy is not disturbingly clear: We have a right to treat prisoners inhumanely. How’s that for moral values?

A stand like this by the Administration erases any doubt that it is the leaders at the highest echelons – and not the “bad apples” being punished – that created the detention culture that led to the disgrace of Abu Ghraib. Allowing the CIA to continue inhumane interrogation practices will only further that culture. But don’t trust me. Check out what the government’s own August 2004 report on Abu Ghraib concluded:

“CIA detention and interrogation practices led to a loss of accountability, abuse, reduced interagency cooperation, and an unhealthy mystique that further poisoned the atmosphere at Abu Ghraib. Speculation and resentment grew over the lack of personal responsibility, of some people being above the laws and regulations. The resentment contributed to the unhealthy environment that existed at Abu Ghraib.”

In the face of this, the Administration continues to insist that torture is a necessary, if repugnant, part of gathering intelligence in the war on terror. Yet, interrogation experts repeatedly assert that torture yields a high percentage of faulty intelligence as detainees say whatever comes to mind in order to end their suffering. This is why the McCain torture ban – authored, it should be noted, by a former POW who knows a bit more about sacrificing for his country than the Vice-President with “other priorities” – has the support of two dozen retired senior military officers, including Cheney’s everlasting thorn in the side, Colin Powell.

Torture and the outrage that accompanies its inevitable discovery actually undermines the war on terror far more than any intelligence gained through torture helps it. In other words, torture may put more American lives in danger than it protects. The imagery and resentment that emerge from Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo Bay fuel terrorist recruitment and anti-American sentiment among even the moderate Muslim community and erode any moral authority the US has in the rest of the world. Torture rallies our enemies and alienates are friends. It is not only illegal and generally immoral, but it is bad strategy.

Instead of undertaking the difficult work necessary to create global systems to gather good intelligence, the Administration continues to pursue a lazy strategy of torture. Unfortunately, this unwillingness to tackle difficult problems with thoughtful solutions is nothing new for this Administration or any other recent Administration. Politicians-in-chief look for easy solutions, like torture, rather than effective ones. Politicians, it seems, will always have other priorities.

Still, Senator McCain and his bipartisan Senate allies continue to stand firm on this issue in the face of a disgraceful and unwise, yet unsurprising proposal from Vice-President Cheney and the CIA. At least some in Washington still have their priorities right.

October 21, 2005

E: Democrats

Imagine the manager of the Astros or White Sox delivering this pep talk as the World Series kicks off this weekend:

"Guys, I'm proud of you for getting this far and I've got a fantastic game plan thats gonna win us this World Series. We're gonna take that field and were gonna hope -- and I mean really hope -- that the other team makes a bunch of errors! Are you with me?!"

It's hard to believe that the players would rally around this anti-Lombardian battle cry. The very spirit of competition requires a strategy more bold than hoping an opponent simply screws everything up. Yet, this appears to be the exact strategy employed by Democrats these days. The party of FDR and JFK and LBJ, a party that once dreamt big ideas and pursued them, has been reduced to a cadre of eggshell-walkers and finger-crossers.

While Republicans populate think tanks and cook up big ideas to push their conservative agenda, Democrats read books like Whats the Matter with Kansas? and Dont Think of an Elephant -- excellent accounts of the marketing aspect of politics -- and tell themselves that it is simply presentation that is their problem.

Although Republicans are undeniably winning in P.R., a marketing advantage does not automatically translate to electoral success. How many big budget movies with million-dollar marketing campaigns flop and how many less marketed, but higher-quality films do well? Compare the fates of Troy (flop) and Sideways (Oscar nominee) and youll see that better marketing is far from determinative.

It is not superior marketing that has lead to the recent Republican domination, but the fact that Republican marketing is the only thing filling the current void in American leadership. Any leadership void will be filled by something. Instead of stepping up and filling it with progressive ideas and strong leaders, Democrats have watched the current void be filled by White House propaganda. The results --control of zero of the three branches of government -- speak for themselves.

Sadly, Republicans have been making error after error recently, convincing many Democrats that the wait-and-hope strategy is finally paying off. Such belief is self-delusional. The recent failures and scandals in Republican leadership confirm nothing except the well-known fact that a party left unchecked by effective opposition can undo itself by abusing its power.

This Administration has been failing for five years now and they have yet to pay any price for it because Democrats are spending too much time waiting for the next error and too little time actively offering an alternative. Why should the current Republican struggle be any different? The most recent Democratic presidential candidate was nominated not because he had the best ideas or because he could connect with the American people, but because he was thought to be "electable." We know how that turned out -- electability alone, it seems, does not make one very electable. Still, hopefuls for 2006 and 2008 continue racing to the right to attain that very same badge of electability.

These days the most successful Democratic opposition is coming from a Republican. Senator John McCain recently pushed an anti-torture clause into a defense spending bill in the face of a threatened White House veto, rallying the support of Senators from both sides of the aisle. McCain, himself a veteran of the bullying marketing of the current Republican machine, is unburdened by wariness of electability. Instead, he has repeatedly identified problems and acted to solve them. In the process he has made himself quite electable.

As I sit to watch the Astros and White Sox battle it out over the next week, I will be hoping to see sharp, error-free baseball. I want to see each team give its best effort, pushing its opponent to the brink and fighting back when pushed. The World Series should not be decided by which team makes more errors. Neither should the leadership of our communities and our country.

Come on Democrats. Play ball!

October 14, 2005

Yom Kippur for US All

Yom Kippur, the annual Jewish day of repentance, is upon us, and while we may not all literally believe that going to synagogue and repenting for our sins wins us points Upstairs, this holy day provides a tremendous opportunity for self improvement. Our busy lives are easily consumed by daily tasks and distractions (MTV’s Real World is my personal distraction-of-choice) that prevent us from stepping back and evaluating the world and our place in it. Yet, in order to improve, as individuals and as a community, we must take stock of our faults and strive to learn from them.

Coming as it does on the heels of the Jewish new year, Yom Kippur’s invitation to acknowledge our shortcomings is not so different from our annual New Year’s resolutions to quit smoking or volunteer more. A new year brings the chance to learn from our transgressions and remake ourselves to better reflect the people we would like ourselves to be.

As I sit in synagogue, I will confess my own personal sins. Here’s a sneak peek. In the past year, I have done too much talking about problems and too little actual problem-solving (this column doesn’t seem to help, does it?). I have not acted on compassionate instincts out of trepidation at taking a first step, fear of overall failure, or downright laziness. I have criticized others without doing anything to help. Perhaps most damningly, I have listened to hours upon hours of public radio without pledging any support. I feel that I have done some good, but there is no reason I should not be doing more.

This year, Yom Kippur comes at a particularly appropriate time for our country. For the first time in several years, we, as a country, are beginning to take stock of our failures. Slapped into reality as we were by the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we have the opportunity to learn from mistakes and remake ourselves into a country more in sync with our professed ideals.

In foreign policy, we rarely take into account more than simply strategic military objectives. Considering a more comprehensive perspective would have led us to consider not only the broad strategic benefits of a democratic, WMD-free Iraq (choose your own war rationale), but also the number of lives, American and to a greater extent Iraqi, that would be lost pursuing that goal. Instead of hiding the bodies coming home and ignoring the innocent Iraqis dead, we would acknowledge such sacrifice, honoring it with honesty about the true costs of war. A broader perspective would have forced us to act with more than skin-deep concern for the human beings being slaughtered in Darfur. Perhaps we even could have limited the culture that allowed for our soldiers to torture prisoners, shaming themselves, their comrades who behave most admirably around the world, and us.

At home, Katrina exposed the deep bruise buried at the very root of American greatness. After 229 years of striving, we are still not a country where all men and women are created equal. We do not provide equal opportunities to succeed for children. We do not provide health care for our most vulnerable citizens. We do not take care of our Veterans in a manner consistent with the degree of their sacrifice for us. When I walked home in Boston every day, I passed a homeless shelter for Veterans. Homeless veterans? These people, a pool that is disproportionately poor and minority, put their lives on the line so that we could continue thriving in a secure country. Yet we cannot even successfully reintegrate them into civilian life. Domestic policies that recognized these shortcomings rather than shuffled them under the rug would make our community a healthier place for all of us.

There is much we do right in the United States, but being good does not excuse not being better. Patting ourselves on the back is for Independence Day, not Yom Kippur. On Yom Kippur, we strike ourselves in the heart in repentance and in the eternal hope that next year we will be better husbands and wives, mothers and fathers, friends, neighbors, and citizens. That is a practice all Americans can gain from.

October 07, 2005

Welcome to Uneven Kiel

What makes a writer a writer? There is no degree, no bar, no license to separate a writer from any other soul. There is no qualifying moment, no walk across a stage we can point to that alerts the world that: Here is a writer. Instead, being a writer requires only the belief of the writer herself that a writer is what she is.

I say all this because I know that I am a writer. I am also a lawyer, a husband, a son, a brother, and soon-to-be, a father. But there exist definitions for these labels, known criteria I can point to that qualify me. Not so for a writer. My only qualification is that something inside me comes alive when I sit with a blank sheet of paper and a pen to translate my bouncing thoughts into something coherent. For me, writing is exciting and it is therapeutic. It is part of what makes me tick, a necessary part of who I am. So, I am a writer. I have no qualification other than that belief, but a belief is all I need.

I do not know what this column will lead to, or if it will lead to anything at all. I have no agenda other than to write on issues I am passionate about and about which I feel competent writing. I may recommend a book or a movie or comment on a recent court decision (gotta use that law degree for something). I may assert my opinion, but I hope only when I can support it with more than mere fluff. I may tell a story that surprised me, exposing the world from a new perspective. I may criticize and I may applaud, but I will do both only measuredly and constructively. If I do any of these well, I will consider this exercise a success.

My goal is not to convince you that I am right (unless you are my father), but to engage you – to tell you how I see the world and learn how you see the world. Thoughtful dialogue is too rare in our society, yet it is our lifeblood. Without it we are left with prepackaged “commentary” that insults our intelligence. We are left with leaders who are not really leaders, but play them on TV. We are left without information and so robbed, we are left without choices. Finding thoughtful dialogue is too difficult, but it is there. All it requires is an open mind, a respect for opposing viewpoints, and the faith that the best ideas and not the best marketing campaigns will change the world.

I certainly come, as we all do, with my own viewpoint. I value diversity of experience and perspective. I believe a society should be judged not only by the successes it achieves in various fields, but on the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens. I don’t believe that might equals right or that a majority view is automatically correct. I believe in leading by example. I value education, but I also value getting your hands dirty. I believe in the American dream of lifting yourself to stability and success through hard work, but I also believe in providing the necessary assistance to those who start behind to achieve this dream. I don’t believe in blind allegiance, but I do believe in trusting those who have better experience and knowledge and continue to search for the right balance between questioning and trusting. I believe hours spent with family should be valued as much as hours worked, but I fear this is too rarely an option for many of us. Most of all, I believe that peace stems from doing what you love. And, among many other things, I love writing.

So, welcome to uneven kiel. I hope you’ll enjoy this as much as I will.