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Freedom on the march

Onward, Christian soldiers

Yesterday was Memorial Day in the United States, and George W Bush gave a speech at Arlington National Cemetery. He took advantage of the occasion to drive home the current propaganda message:

Because of the sacrifices of our men and women in uniform, two terror regimes are gone forever, freedom is on the march, and America is more secure.

The hastiness of this shorthand, cramming three precision-tooled soundbites into a single sentence when you are supposed to be commemorating soldiers who have died as a result of your policies, looks almost insulting. But the catchphrases are useful. Let us note in passing that the reference to two “terror regimes”, ie Afghanistan and Iraq, makes it clear that Bush is still peddling the lie that Saddam Hussein had something to do with global terrorism, a lie that Dick Cheney, who has lied about ever committing the lie in the first place, is also perpetuating, as his appearance on CNN’s Larry King Live confirmed yesterday:

America will be safer in the long run when Iraq, and Afghanistan as well, are no longer safe havens for terrorists or places where people can gather and plan and organize attacks against the United States.

In fact, as is well known, before the 2003 invasion, no attack against United States interests had been planned in Iraq since 1993, when airstrikes ordered by President Clinton destroyed Iraq’s military-intelligence headquarters. The attacks of September 11, 2001 specifically were planned in places like Egypt, Germany and the United States, at least the last of which Cheney presumably has no plans to invade.

But the larger absurdity is contained within the now-familiar slogan “Freedom is on the march”. Perhaps Bush hopes that the constant repetition of this idea will dull its oxymoronic edge . . .

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Repetitive administration

The calculus of legitimacy

When is it okay to beat a man to death? Why, when that beating consists in “the repetitive administration of legitimate force”.

In December 2002, two detainees at the US base in Bagram, Afghanistan, died after trauma to the legs of such severity that the coroners compared it to being run over by a bus.

The subsequent official legal investigation has been nothing if not creative. As the New York Times reports:

“No one blow could be determined to have caused the death,” the former senior staff lawyer at Bagram, Col. David L. Hayden, said he had been told by the Army’s lead investigator. “It was reasonable to conclude at the time that repetitive administration of legitimate force resulted in all the injuries we saw.”

The logic of this is startling. You may compare it in some ways to the Chinese method of execution, used until 1905, known as “death by a thousand cuts”. Since no one cut can be determined to cause death, no one is responsible for the killing. Similar is the principle behind the firing squad: everyone fires at the same time, so no one soldier can be sure that he killed his comrade. But at least in these two cases the intention is avowedly to cause death.

To use this argument as an excuse for “accidental” extrajudicial killing is different. It is perhaps more like a sophistic application of Zeno’s paradox of motion. Since at every place in the flight of an arrow it can be considered at rest, an infinite number of such points of rest cannot possibly add up to travel, so the arrow does not actually move, and can never reach its target. Similarly, no number of “legitimate” things can ever add up to something that is illegitimate. It’s just one of those unfortunate things . . .

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Religious atheism

‘Intelligent design’ in the courtroom

Legion have been the creative linguistic abuses perpetrated by those who testified at last week’s Kansas State Board of Education hearings. (No transcript is available, but the audio recordings are available at Audible; good news and analysis at Thoughts from Kansas.) The latest attack on evolutionary science shows that the creationists have at least in some respects become more cunning. For one thing, these days they call themselves Intelligent Design Theorists, and probably don’t mind that “intelligent” in that phrase can seem to apply to the theorists themselves, as well as the design. (The use of “theorists”, too, is helpful, appearing to imply that they have a theory; whereas in fact they have none.) One fascinating part of their rhetorical strategy is, rather than to fight a battle between religion and science, to claim that science itself is a religion.

On the third day (May 7), one of the guests was Dr Angus Menuge, a computer scientist who introduced himself as Professor of Philosophy at Concordia University, Wisconsin, while forgetting to mention that he is also director of the Cranach Institute, an arm of the Concordia Theological Seminary. Menuge gave some creative word definitions:

I’m appealing here in this understanding of ‘education’ to the standards that come from the National Assessment Governing Board under the auspices of the No Child Left Behind Act. They argue that education should be secular, neutral, and non-ideological, and they define all of those terms. Secular means that they don’t favour or oppose any religious perspective: they stay neutral, as between religions, so that would mean being neutral as between theistic and atheistic religions. And neutral and non-ideological means, among other things, that they will not advocate a single perspective on a matter of controversy, okay? That’s what it means, to be neutral and non-ideological, okay?

The eagle-eyed reader may have spotted the reference to “atheistic religions”, and wonder whether perhaps Dr Menuge means Buddhism. Not quite . . .

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War not war

War: invariably metaphorical

Here is a modern-history lesson from Dr. Paula J. Dobriansky, the US Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs, who gave a speech to graduates of Westminster College in Fulton, Missouri, on May 7:

We champion democracy because it reflects our American values, and is the desire of people everywhere, but also because it serves our national security interest. Democracies are inherently more peaceful than other forms of government. If you look at major, modern conflicts, you will find that none took place between democracies with universal suffrage. In wars between democracies and non-democracies, it is invariably the latter that is the aggressor.

Hold that thought: invariably, it is non-democracies who attack democracies. However, it also seems to be the widely accepted view that in 2003, the US and Britain, who call themselves democracies, wandered into Iraq with a lot of tanks, helicopters and so on, having not actually been attacked by that dictatorship. How to reconcile these two things?

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All quiet on the West Bank

Ha’aretz reports:

Palestinians on Friday morning fired an anti-tank rocket at a school bus carrying children outside the southern Gaza Strip settlement of Kfar Darom, shaking the fragile lull in violence. The rocket failed to hit the bus.

Shooting rockets at a school bus is an evil thing to do; it may well be said to “shake” a “fragile lull in violence”. Presumably, there had been no violence for a while previously.

The article later refers to “the de facto ceasefire between Israel and the Palestinian Authority”, which was announced by Sharon and Abbas on February 8 of this year. But just two days before the rocket incident, two Palestinian boys were shot dead by IDF soldiers, while they were throwing stones at a West Bank barrier construction site. As Ha’aretz also reports, the deputy company commander involved has now been suspended, because his conduct was “unreasonable”.

These two deaths on Wednesday, it appears, did not perturb the “fragile lull in violence”, which persisted serenely until the Palestinian attack of Friday morning. Can a lull have a blind spot?


Terrific service

What it means to be married to the military

The month of May is a time for labour festivals, dancing round poles in clogs, and putting flowers in your hair. In the US, it is also Military Spouse Appreciation Month. What do you mean, you haven’t heard of Military Spouse Appreciation Month? Here is Pentagon Spokesman Lawrence Di Rita explaining it on Thursday:

If I could take a minute to acknowledge that tomorrow we’ll be celebrating military spouse – will be – Military Spouse Appreciation Month is this month, and there will be some announcements and some other activities associated with that tomorrow and through the weekend. We, obviously, always talk about how we recruit soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, but we retain families, and we retain families largely because of military spouses and the terrific service that they provide as well. We honor them, and this is the month where we will be taking particular time to honor them.

Note the last sentence, where Mr Di Rita hurriedly works to erase any implication that for 11 months of the year, military spouses are not appreciated at all. But what is interesting in this quote is the explanation of why military spouses are so wonderful – it’s because of “the terrific service that they provide” . . .

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Terrorist suspects

Presumed guilty in the war on terror

In the debates about how to tackle the threat of terrorism in the UK and US, one phrase has become the norm to describe those who attract police interest: “terrorist suspects”. It is used freely both by those who defend detention without trial, and those who argue for the conservation of civil liberties. It has appeared several times recently in prominent articles in the Guardian. But the choice of this phrase subtly poisons the argument, and contributes to a climate of fear.

What’s wrong with it? Well, it’s easy to see if you substitute the alleged crime. To call somebody not yet convicted of any offence a “rapist suspect” or a “murderer suspect” is already to assume the guilt of the person in question, to attach to them the descriptive label reserved for those whose crimes have been proven in court. In the same way, to use the phrase “terrorist suspect” commits a pre-emptive essentialism: the person is first defined as a terrorist, and only then is it grudgingly acknowledged that the basis for such a categorisation is as yet untested.

You might still think it desirable that anyone accused of a crime in Britain should be assumed to be innocent until proven guilty. The widespread usage of the phrase “terrorist suspects”, on the contrary, presumes guilt. It derives from, and feeds back into, an alarming assumption that the lamentably old-fashioned ideal of presumed innocence is no longer appropriate to modern times. It is at one with the fine contemporary tradition of contempt for the courts evinced by Labour home secretaries. After the four co-defendants of Kamal Bourgass in the “ricin plot” trial were unanimously acquitted, and a further prosecution collapsed, Charles Clarke said: “We will obviously keep a very close eye on the eight men being freed today, and consider exactly what to do in the light of this decision.” Once you are a “terrorist suspect”, it seems, not even a not-guilty verdict will help you. You may no longer be a suspect, but you are still, by definition, a terrorist . . .

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The abuses of history

So, we went forward, not back. Blair has been re-elected, to what he and everyone else are calling an “historic” third term. It is true that it is the first time a British political party with the word “Labour” in its name has been re-elected twice. It is also true that Blair got the lowest-ever share of the vote. 64% of voters indicated a preference for a different prime minister . . .

This is all “historic”, in the sense that it has happened, in the sense that I just smoked an historic cigarette. But to use the word “historic” too frequently in political discourse is to betray a sort of narcissism, the egotism of power that thinks everything it does is unprecedented, and, perforce, that everything novel is good. It is just a form of political shouting.

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