August 25th, 2009


The Threat of Death

I was intrigued and somewhat alarmed by this news that American torturers use the threat of death, particularly staging mock executions.

FOCUS: Report Reveals CIA Conducted Mock Executions
Report Reveals CIA Conducted Mock Executions Mark Hosenball and Michael Isikoff, Newsweek: "A long-suppressed report by the Central Intelligence Agency's inspector general to be released next week reveals that CIA interrogators staged mock executions as part of the agency's post-9/11 program to detain and question terror suspects, NEWSWEEK has learned. According to two sources - one who has read a draft of the paper and one who was briefed on it - the report describes how one detainee, suspected USS Cole bomber Abd al-Rahim al-Nashiri, was threatened with a gun and a power drill during the course of CIA interrogation."

As torture techniques go, credible death threats -- usually involving some serious physical setup to make them convincing -- have two strong advantages. First, physical harm is optional; you can terrify your victim into breaking without leaving a mark on him. Second, this is one of the more effective methods; many people will break in the face of their own death who will break for nothing less. Combined, these two features give it more bang-for-buck than most other techniques.

This is balanced by the tremendous drawbacks, chiefly that three out of the four possible outcomes are undesirable from the torturer's point of view. These are: 1) The victim breaks and tells you everything you ask about. Aside from the standard challenge of sorting truth from falsehood, this is what you want. 2) The victim breaks, but not in a productive way, as the mind is shattered by extreme stress into incoherence. An insane victim is of no practical use to a torturer under most circumstances, as little or no information can be extracted. 3) Exposure to death threats makes the victim unafraid of death, but does not bring enlightenment. You have created a perfect suicide soldier, and had better kill him before he gives other people ideas, kills some of your guards, and/or escapes. 4) Exposure to death threats makes the victim unafraid of death, and also brings enlightenment. This tends to break whatever hapless guards happen to be in the room at the time, divine energy being volatile stuff. Also, freshly hatched saints are extremely dangerous to the kind of regime that allows torture. So again, you'd better kill him quickly.

The first two outcomes are more common. The third is uncommon and the fourth is rare ... but if you make a habit of torturing people with the threat of death, you'll run through the odds fast enough to hit them.

So if you were wondering why there are suicide solders running around, one answer is likely "because we're making them." If the government is admitting one example of this type, it's probably not the only case.

The Morality of Universal Health Care

Having largely exhausted the arguments of logic -- my preferred mode -- let us consider the arguments of morality:

I'm safe on board. Pull up the life rope
Having read through some 600 comments about universal health care, I now realize I took the wrong approach in my previous blog entry. I discussed the Obama health plan in political, literal, logical terms. Most of my readers replied in the same vein. The comments, as always, have been helpful, informative and for the most part civil. My mistake was writing from the pragmatic side. I should have followed my heart and gone with a more emotional approach. I believe universal health care is, quite simply, right.

It is a moral imperative. I cannot enjoy health coverage and turn to my neighbor and tell him he doesn't deserve it. A nation is a mutual undertaking. In a democracy, we set out together to do what we believe is good for the commonwealth. That means voluntarily subjecting ourselves to the rule of law, taxation, military service, the guaranteeing of rights to minorities, and so on. That is a cheap price to pay.

I believe that if you have the power to save an innocent person's life, and you choose not to do so, that is murder, and it is wicked. If you have resources beyond your immediate needs, and you hoard them for yourself rather than sharing them with others who have not enough for their survival, that also is wicked.

I believe that becoming rich is not wicked unto itself, but is wicked if the manner of profit causes harm to persons or the planet we share.

I believe that discriminating among people based on how much money they have is wrong, and destructive both to individuals and to society. Human beings are far more important than money, and indeed, all persons have worth whether they have any money or not. It is wicked to abuse, neglect, or kill people simply because they have little or no money.

I believe that a nation has an obligation to protect the lives and safety of its citizens, to provide them with the basics they need for survival, to furnish opportunities for productive activity and employment such that people are useful instead of burdensome, and generally to promote a sane and healthy society. For if a nation does not do these things, then it is not to the advantage of its citizens to support the nation's continued existence; and more civilized nations will justifiably look down upon it as barbaric.

I know that in many ways I am fortunate. In some other ways, not so much. But when I can share from abundance, I do so gladly. I am aware that there are many people in the world who do not have a place to sleep, or warm clothes to wear, or food to eat, or clean water to drink. This diminishes my happiness and satisfaction, even though none of those problems customarily plague me personally. I wish that the people of the Earth did a better job of distributing resources so that nobody died for lack of them. I can't solve all the problems of the world, but I can certainly work in that direction.

Right now we have an opportunity to make sure that nobody in America goes without health care, because America is -- or should be -- a great nation with the wealth and power to achieve that. It is the right and moral thing to do. So do it. Be thou blessed in the caring for others as for self.

Same-Sex Unions Accepted

I was delighted by this piece of news:

Same-Sex Unions Accepted by Evangelical Lutherans
Christopher Quinn, The Atlanta Journal-Constitution: "Pastors in the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America can bless same-sex unions after a vote Friday by delegates at the Churchwide Assembly in Minneapolis. 'I've been a life-long member at Redeemer Lutheran Church [in Atlanta], and I was never comfortable asking my church to bless my relationship,' said Bob Gibeling, who is at the assembly."

Love is a holy thing. Sometimes religion can distract from that, and then it's difficult to untangle the mess. I am proud of the Lutherans for doing the hard work and the right thing.

Lifestyle Choices and Social Interactions

haikujaguar has written a fine essay on using lifestyle changes to lessen or solve various types of health problems (mental & physical), and how little social support there is for that.

I would just like to say: If someone says they can't do something for health reasons, don't pester them about it. Try to find something else to do that will work for both of you, or if absolutely necessary, excuse yourself to go do that thing alone. It's hard enough to have a dietary restriction, physical limit, or mental quirk without having people climb on your back and take a ride at your expense. Being graceful about other people's needs and limits is a hallmark of good friendship and good citizenship.