Torture Report Shows We Are Unjust and Creepy

We Tortured Some Folks - This Modern WorldThe torture report executive summary (pdf) is out, and it makes me something more than depressed. What’s wrong with us? Can’t we even be evil without being creepy? I read in International Business Times, CIA Torture Report: “Rectal Feeding” Pasta, Hummus and Nuts to Detainees Revealed. Who thinks these kinds of things up? This is the kind of stuff that comes out of the mind of a psychopath, and I mean that literally. The officials, of course, claimed that it was all for a good cause: to show the supposed interrogator’s “total control over the detainee.” That sounds a whole lot like a kind of psycho-sexual, sadomasochistic hoohah — done for the pleasure of the “interrogator” and for no other reason.

At USA Today, Paul Singer provided, 7 Key Facts About the Senate’s CIA Torture Report. It shows that the report itself is something of a whitewash. It claims that the supposed enhanced interrogation techniques “in some cases amounting to torture.” Some cases? Based upon other things in the report, it isn’t clear that there was effective enough oversight to say that torture was ever not used. The general idea during the Bush years was simply that if we did it, it wasn’t torture. Instead, it was “enhanced interrogation techniques!” George Orwell would have loved this stuff!

But despite the 499 page executive summary (of the still classified 6,200 page report) being in large part a whitewash, it is still damning. In addition to putting food up the rectums of detainees, they killed at least one detainee. And, of course, they operated black sites. I love this last part, because one of the worst acts of despotic regimes is how they just make people disappear so that their family and friends don’t know what has become of them. It isn’t surprising that the United States would do that (and still does). After all, we’ve supported countless regimes that did it. But it is disappointing.

One funny thing is what Obama said, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong, in the past.” That’s just what the father of a dysfunctional family says. “Can’t we just leave all the mental, physical, and sexual abuse where it belongs, in the past?” This is supposed to be a happy occasion! Let’s not bicker and argue about who killed who.

And in the end, what does it all mean? The United States of America — my country — tortured people, even to death, and did it using some very creepy means that could only come out of the mind of a very disturbed person. But half the country won’t even believe it. Republicans Marco Rubio and Jim Risch are already claiming that it is a partisan report, despite the fact that the whole thing gives the Bush administration a complete pass. But the “America right or wrong” crowd will never actually admit that the country ever does anything wrong. You know, IOKIIA (It’s Okay if it’s America).

John KiriakouMeanwhile, the only person in the whole world to have been prosecuted in regard to this is John Kiriakou (see also links at the end of that article) — the man who told the media about it. Because we need to have priorities! Cramming pasta into the anuses of people in our custody may be wrong. Allowing them to die of hypothermia may be unfortunate. But alerting the American people about these crimes that are being done their names?! That’s an outrage! (FYI: Kiriakou is still in prison.)

And the la-hand of the Freeeeee!
And the hoooome, of thhhhhe, braaaave!

Bill Maher Trashes Pope for No Good Reason

Bill MaherI’ve always really liked Bill Maher. He’s a great comedian. In recent years, he’s become much more of a political cause célèbre on the left and in atheist circles. But I’ve always liked seeing him at his concerts where people start cheering and he would settle them down and say, “It’s not a rally.” Indeed, it isn’t. And Bill Maher, while certainly bright and reasonably well informed, is no political analyst. He tends toward libertarianism of the “glibertarian” variety. But by far, he is most clueless when it comes to religion. But maybe I’m being too harsh, because pretty much all of the prominent atheists are pretty clueless. As an atheist, I find them offensive when I don’t find them simply silly. I really wish they would take the name “antitheists” and leave the rest of us alone.

Maher wrote an article last week, Pope Frank: Papal Pleaser. I hate to find myself in the position of defending the Catholic Church, but it seems to be one of the burdens in my life. They believe in a bunch of hokus pokus. But they also do a lot of good scholarship and I appreciate their theology — or at least I appreciate that they have a theology that they take seriously. A good critique of Catholicism (and Christianity more generally) can be found in Garry Wills’ writing, like Why Priests?: A Failed Tradition But people like Maher know little of what they complain about.

Maher can’t even get past the first sentence without annoying me:

Pope Francis has quickly established himself as the progressive Pope — not your father’s Holy Father.

Not really. Many Americans seem to think that the papacy started with John Paul II. All right, that’s an overstatement. But I was amazed for decades that most Americans considered John Paul II a good and even liberal pope. He was anything but. I think it’s his face. He seemed like a friendly guy, but he was as regressive as Pope Benedict XVI who followed him. Pope Francis is exactly in the tradition of Pope John XXIII. So he is very much my father’s Holy Father. (Although my father is a Catholic in the same way that Graham Greene was.)

Early on, he said atheists can get into heaven. He’s expressed compassion for gays and even said that there’s a place for them in the Church.

This is all very Franciscan of him. And what is important is Francis is showing some humility. Too often, Christians confront tragedy with, “God works in mysterious ways!” They don’t try to second guess God when he sees fit to kill 300,000 people with the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami. But when it comes to whether gays or heretics go to hell, such Christians know. The funny thing is, I suspect that John Paul and Benedict would have said the same thing had it come up. But they weren’t the kind to push it. Francis is the kind to push it and that’s a good thing.

He’s affirmed the Big Bang Theory and evolution. He’s got a gambling problem he jokes about and it’s long been an open secret that he has a wife and three kids.

Affirmation of the big bang and evolution is nothing new. The Catholic Church does not have a literalist view of the Bible. (In general, they don’t much encourage the congregation to read it because — and they are right about this — it is a difficult book.) So as early as 1950, the Catholic Church accepted evolution. And in general, they have followed along with the scientific consensus. Again, I feel odd being in this position, but compare this to most American protestants who are science-hating fideists. Regardless, Maher is making a big deal out of ways that Pope Francis is supposedly going out of his way to appear liberal, but that just isn’t the case.

I appreciate the joke, and so would Pope Francis. But much more than Francis, Pope John XXIII was especially known for his sense of humor. I’m actually rather fond of this one: “In reply to a reporter who asked, ‘How many people work in the Vatican?,’ he reportedly said: ‘About half of them.'” It’s even funnier in Latin.

But every time this Pope makes me think he’s dragging the Catholic Church kicking and screaming — like an altar boy into the rectory — into the modern, rational era, he goes and kicks it old school.

The problem is not in the pope, it is in Bill Maher — and many other American liberals, I dare say. And this is delusional. Maher thinks the pope is crazy for some of the things that he does and believes? I think Maher is crazy to think that the Roman Catholic Church would put someone in charge of itself who would dismantle the church as Maher would clearly prefer.

Pope Francis is not a liberal in the sense that I’m a liberal — at least on religious issues. But he is a liberal in the sense that he is liberalizing the church. (Also and critically: he is a liberal on economic issues, but that is a matter for another time.) But this liberalism has mostly to do with fighting corruption in the Catholic Church; holding people accountable for the cover up of child rape; perhaps even reform on divorce. But we won’t see it change on birth control, much less abortion. We won’t see it change on the acceptability of homosexual relations. We won’t see female priests or even married priests. This is the Catholic Church — it moves slower than glaciers in a non-global warming world.

The latest is that he met with and affirmed the work of the International Association of Exorcists, a group of 300 practicing Catholic exorcists.

So finally we get to what Bill Maher is upset about. The pope didn’t make a bold stand against exorcisms. Boo hoo! With all the problems in the Catholic Church and all the challenges that face Francis, I find it hard to believe that Maher really thinks a fight on exorcisms is a good use of his time and resources. I get it: exorcisms are ridiculous. The problem is that Jesus did them throughout the Synoptic Gospels. So to get rid of them would be to get rid of the priesthood. And as with Garry Wills, I’m all for that! But it is totally unreasonable to expect such a thing from the head of the Catholic Church.

Embracing the idea that people are possessed by demons and that there are rituals to cast these demons out — that’s not just crazy, that’s Antonin Scalia crazy. I’d like to believe that Pope Francis doesn’t really believe this crap, but rather just feels he has to stay “on script.”

Actually, Maher isn’t completely right here. Rituals (secular and nonsecular) can help people. I would recommend that Maher spend some time reading the extensive literature of the positive effects of placebos. In this statement, we get what I consider typical New Atheist hubris: ignorance posing as authority based upon science he doesn’t fully understand. As for the other comment, I suspect he’s right: Francis is staying on script because this is not a fight that is worth starting. And that raises the ultimate question: why did Maher even write his blog post?

Maher ends with a good line that nonetheless makes me bristle:

My hope is that someday he’s going to have a little too much sacramental wine and just blurt out, “I’m not really religious, but I’m spiritual.”

My guess is that Pope Francis really is a believer, but not a stupid one. I’m sure he feels God’s love, even as I am pretty sure it’s just a harmless delusion. I kind of doubt that he believes in demons taking over people — or even the existence of demons. He’s a sophisticated man. But I find it hard to accept that it is all a charade.

Pope FrancisThe problem with the comment is the old atheist’s scoff at the difference between “religious” and “spiritual.” This is a problem I have a lot when discussing ontology with fellow nonbelievers: they pretend to be ignorant about things they can’t possibly be ignorant about. When people claim to be spiritual rather than religious, they mean that they have thoughts about the nature and cause of existence but they don’t follow any dogma. And that makes the “spiritual” people — silly as they often are — infinitely more benign than religious people.

Regardless, Pope Francis is a force for good in the world because he is moving the Catholic Church in a positive direction. The question is not whether Francis is doing everything that we would hope he would do. The question is whether we are better off with a Catholic Church led by Francis or Raymond Burke. Bill Maher’s article is just an excuse to complain about one of the many silly aspects of the Catholic Church. That’s fine, but he shouldn’t use it to slam Pope Francis, when even Maher understands (and I assume agrees with) what the pope is doing.

H/T: Infidel753 (I stole a small part of my comment there.)

Pardons May Be Only Sign of Torture’s Illegality

Anthony RomeroBefore President George W Bush left office, a group of conservatives lobbied the White House to grant pardons to the officials who had planned and authorized the United States torture program. My organization, the American Civil Liberties Union, found the proposal repugnant. Along with eight other human rights groups, we sent a letter to Mr Bush arguing that granting pardons would undermine the rule of law and prevent Americans from learning what had been done in their names.

But with the impending release of the report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, I have come to think that President Obama should issue pardons, after all — because it may be the only way to establish, once and for all, that torture is illegal.

That officials at the highest levels of government authorized and ordered torture is not in dispute. Mr Bush issued a secret order authorizing the CIA to build secret prisons overseas. The CIA requested authority to torture prisoners in those “black sites.” The National Security Council approved the request. And the Justice Department drafted memos providing the brutal program with a veneer of legality.

My organization and others have spent 13 years arguing for accountability for these crimes. We have called for the appointment of a special prosecutor or the establishment of a truth and reconciliation commission, or both. But those calls have gone unheeded. And now, many of those responsible for torture can’t be prosecuted because the statute of limitations has run out…

Mr Obama could pardon George J Tenet for authorizing torture at the CIA’s black sites overseas, Donald H Rumsfeld for authorizing the use of torture at the Guantánamo Bay prison, David S Addington, John C Yoo and Jay S Bybee for crafting the legal cover for torture, and George W Bush and Dick Cheney for overseeing it all…

The spectacle of the president’s granting pardons to torturers still makes my stomach turn. But doing so may be the only way to ensure that the American government never tortures again. Pardons would make clear that crimes were committed; that the individuals who authorized and committed torture were indeed criminals; and that future architects and perpetrators of torture should beware. Prosecutions would be preferable, but pardons may be the only viable and lasting way to close the Pandora’s box of torture once and for all.

—Anthony Romero
Pardon Bush and Those Who Tortured

Shocking: BP Forced to Pay What it Owes

BP Oil Spill

You may remember back in May I wrote, 60 Minutes Spins for BP. It was about one of the most disgraceful segments I have seen on the once great news program. After the BP oil spill catastrophe in the Gulf of Mexico, BP made general settlement with the businesses in the area. But three years later, after the heat was off, the company tried to backtrack. It noted that some business that hadn’t been directly harmed by the spill were getting money. Poor BP!

While there were certainly some highly questionable claims, there were thousands of others that were at best open to debate that BP also didn’t want to pay for. Basically, they agreed on a half billion dollar settlement — which was a great deal for them at that time — and now they were doing everything they could think of to take back some of that money. So they hired Ted “I stuck you with the worst president ever!” Olson to use every legal trick in the book to get BP out of its legal accountability.

That’s all to be expected from a soulless corporation and a legal hack. The true disgrace came in the form of the 60 Minutes segment that was a total whitewash of the situation. Although there were a couple of experts who pushed back against the BP case, the whole story was told just the way BP and Ted Olson wanted it. The segment could not have been any better if they had directed it themselves. As I noted at the time, “In the golden years with Mike Wallace, 60 Minutes took on the big guys and how they were screwing the little guys. Now? 60 Minutes wants us to decide whether the little guys are screwing the big guy BP, who just happens to have destroyed the Gulf of Mexico.”

Up until yesterday, BP has been losing all of its cases. As far as I can tell, the logic is clear. BP agreed to a settlement. Just because they would like to back out of it now is no reason why the courts should allow them to do it. I don’t think any of this surprised BP and its hired guns. But I suspect that they thought (as did I) that if only they could get it to the Supreme Court, there were four justices (and maybe a fifth) who would side with them, because, hey, when did facts ever get in the way of finding for a huge corporation when it was trying to screw the little guy. But that didn’t work this time.

Without dissent, the Supreme Court dismissed the case, “The petition for a writ of certiorari is denied.” I looked up the word “certiorari” and it claims it is a writ that higher courts consider, which strikes me as kind of dumb — “writ of a writ”?! But what it means is, “Go away boy, you bother me!” This is very good news. It is nice to be reminded occasionally that evil does not always win in his country and that the conservatives on the court aren’t totally corrupt.

John Cassavetes

John CassavetesOn this day in 1929, the great American filmmaker John Cassavetes was born. It seems to me that in recent years, younger film lovers have often discounted him. In fact, among some it seems hip to do so. I think you have to be determined to find fault. Either that or you must care for style above all else. Like all artists, Cassavetes has to be seen within his historical context. But even outside that, he made some of the most powerful films ever. And that is why among more mature viewers — and internationally — Cassavetes’ reputation has only grown.

I’ll admit, I’m a special kind of sucker for Cassavetes’ film. He was one of the rarest of creatures: someone who was both idiosyncratic and brilliant. Even the goofy genre film Gloria eschews the formula and tells an interesting story with surprising simplicity. But it isn’t what I most love about his work. For that, you have to go back to Faces and especially A Woman Under the Influence, which is probably Cassavetes’ masterpiece. But if you want a less intense film, you might try, The Killing of a Chinese Bookie. It’s a lot like Gloria but not quite so silly:

Happy birthday John Cassavetes!