Someone please high-five Charli Carpenter

For tackling torture proponent Marc Thiessen’s central argument in Courting Disaster: How the CIA Kept America Safe and How Barack Obama is Inviting the Next Attack on utilitarian grounds as well as liberal ones.

What if we were to accept that the CIA has made America a wee bit safer by torturing KSM?

Liberals actually need an answer to this question, I would argue, because so many of their fellow Americans will buy Thiessen’s empirical case. So the most important part of his argument to refute is actually not the causal argument. The most important part of his argument is his moral argument.

In fact, the most fascinating chapter of his book is the one in which he poses the question: why should torture be considered an absolute prohibition, when killing is not? He explores just war theory and makes an interesting argument that non-lethal forms of torture – the kinds that are scary more than physically injurious – are a lesser evil if innocent civilian lives can be saved as a result.

But this argument as it turns out can be answered by liberals on Marc Thiessen’s own terms as well, because if you read closely it is clear that Thiessen’s overriding goal is not to promote a torture culture per se, but something much nobler: to protect innocent civilian life. The problem with his analysis is that he simply doesn’t have a clear empirical understanding of the factors that most threaten innocent civilian life.

As a matter of fact, terrorism falls pretty far down that list, but state repression is a rather important risk. Think-tanks that track terror fatalities measure the number of dead from terrorism since 1970 in the tens of thousands. Compare this to the hundreds of thousands killed by their own governments over the same period, a number that rises, RJ Rummel tells us, to a staggering 169,198,000 between 1900-1987. International terrorism may be scary, but in relative terms it’s pretty small beer.

It stands to reason that if the goal is to protect civilians the means used to be consistent with the wider protection of civilians. So although liberals are fond of making the absolutist moral argument and the constitutive argument against torture, it turns out that you can also argue against torture on purely utilitarian grounds. And the argument is not that it’s ineffective. The argument is that even if it’s sometimes effective and even if it’s necessary to protect civilians, civilians stand to benefit far more from preserving a rule of law political culture than they do from avoiding every single risk that comes with living in an era of techno-globalization in which the gap between the haves and have nots is widening.

So, my friends, that’s the argument you use when your crazy uncle starts banging on about how liberals aren’t willing to do what it takes to protect their way of life.

A story from the other side of the world

A Twitter link led me to Blog-a-stan, the blog of an American Ph.D student doing her dissertation research in Kazan, Russia. Immediately, I was hooked by the author’s dark humor and storytelling. And when I came to the half-way point in a post titled Sud’ba (“Fate”) I stopped, and shivered, because I knew the story already.

Read, and then I’ll explain.

Tanya was sitting wrapped in a goat fur blanket rocking herself back and forth. It was only 8pm but they seemed to have already finished off a bottle of vodka and Valeria was now opening the second. “Leslie, come, sit, eat with us” she said. “Oh I just ate” I said but sat down for conversation. Tanya was moaning and crying and Valeria began to explain that her only daughter had just died. “It was a stomach illness. They did an operation but 100 days later, two days ago, she died. She was 37 years old.” Tanya sobbed and shook. I said how sorry I was to her, my eyes wide, slowly becoming conscious of the fact that I was rocking back and forth on my own chair empathetically. “Sud’ba” Tanya shook her head, “Sud’ba,” she sobbed as she tightened the goat hair blanket around her. I tried to remember the word, which I knew I knew but couldn’t find in my head at the time, only to look it up in the dictionary later and remember it: “Fate.” Valeria explained that Tanya’s husband had died five years ago of cancer so now she was all alone in her house. And she continued, hesitantly, touching my arm as she explained, “Tanya can’t sleep at her place any more. It’s just too sad for her there. Would you mind if she stayed here with us for awhile?” For a moment, and I know this is awful, but for a moment the thought crossed my mind that the dead daughter was an elaborate ruse and that they were together and felt they needed to come up with an excuse for Tanya sleeping over all the time. “Of course I don’t mind,” I said with the utmost sincerity, whichever story was true I was happy to have Tanya stay. From then on I became accustomed to walking in to find Tanya with Valeria at the table, a bottle of vodka by her side that they would stay up late drinking rocking back and forth and talking about “Sud’ba.” Valeria too is a victim of Sud’ba at the moment as her ex-husband is currently insisting she sell the dacha she uses on the weekends and there’s nothing she can do about it. Both situations strike me as things we would deal with not just emotionally but practically through lawyers in the States to regain our control over the situation. We would find a pretense for suing the hospital for the botched operation, take the husband to court to insist on our right to half the property, maybe even the whole thing. And while this wouldn’t take the pain away, particularly in the first case, it would at least give us a feeling of some agency over this damn Sud’ba.

Yes, I know this story, with some slight differences. My version has loose leaf tea instead of vodka, an old comforter from Bagram Airbase instead of a goat hair blanket, and a young Afghan man in the place of a middle aged Russian Tatar woman.

But the grief-stricken rocking, and the wide-eyed American, and the very real, physically wrenching absence of justice, the rule of law and human agency are the same. So is the sud’ba.

“Meh. Let the kids fight,” says Obama

What the sweet fuck is going on at the White House?

This is a real memo:

Presidential Memorandum–Child Soldiers Prevention Act
Presidential Determination
No.       2011-4

MEMORANDUM FOR THE SECRETARY OF STATE

SUBJECT:    Presidential Determination with Respect to Section 404(c) of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008

By the authority vested in me as President by the Constitution and the laws of the United States of America, pursuant to section 404(c) of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA), title IV of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008 (Public Law 110 457), I hereby determine that it is in the national interest of the United States to waive the application to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen of the prohibition in section 404(a) of the CSPA.

You are authorized and directed to submit this determination to the Congress, along with the accompanying memorandum of justification, and to publish it in the Federal Register.

BARACK OBAMA

For those of you in locales where drinking is legal, please start now. I will catch up with you later.

T.I.A.

I search for Max’s facbook profile, so I can post a news article on his wall, and find it gone. Later, I ask him about it.

“I took it down because I was getting threats,” he tells me, frowning, “And weird questions about why I changed my religion.”

“But you didn’t change your religion –and I don’t remember you even listing it on your profile.”

Max leans back in his chair and looks me in the eyes. “Una, this is Afghanistan.”

I take a sip of tea and leave the room. The temperature is dropping and I need to switch on my heater.

If some night I don’t come home

Another aidworker has been kidnapped in Chechnya. Zarema Gaisanova, an employee of the Danish Refugee Council, has been missing for five weeks, and, surprise, surprise, the police are being accused of abducting her. Gaisanova’s family and friends want her back.

I’m no longer going to feign hope when it comes to abductions of aidworkers, journalists and human rights activists in the North Caucasus.

We know how this story ends.

“That is why you are here”

AREU just released a new report on the Shia Personal Status Law (previously known in the Western press as the Shia Family Law), and it is one hell of a report –fifty one pages long and illustrative of how the international community interacts with the Afghan government and Afghan civil society. I’m making my way through it now. When I’m done, I hope I’ll have time to post something on it. Until then, here’s a telling snippet:

The Afghan organisations interviewed reported being consistently told that this was an internal issue of the Afghan state and it was outside of the role of international institutions to interfere. UNAMA was singled out for particular criticism for their inaction. Civil society had higher expectations of UNAMA’s role in speaking out on human rights, gender and political development issues. One MP remarked on UNAMA’s cumbersome bureaucracy, slow reactions and the institution perceiving itself as always having its hands tied.

Representatives from UN agencies as well as western embassies were also reportedly present in the parliamentary gallery when the bill was being discussed and did not raise the issue as a concern with their own governments at that time, to the consternation of MPs alarmed at the bill’s contents and the lack of debate. During a meeting hosted by a UN agency between Afghan women activists, MPs, UNAMA and several embassies, one Afghan woman stated, “We understand if the embassies have to work behind the scenes. But they should be working, you know? And it is UNAMA’s job to be interfering, to speak up on human rights issues. That is why you are here.”

These people are beyond parody

Too bad, because parody is fun.

Anyway, here is a video that will ruin your afternoon:

You’re welcome.

*
A side note: Videos like the one above make me think, and we’re the ones advising other countries how to run liberal democracies and promote civic involvement and all that warm, fuzzy stuff? Insane.

But then, mercifully, I remember that it’s not the crazies doing that work, it’s people like me, or, more precisely, people like my superiors.

File this under “things that make me ashamed of my country”

It would have been nice of  the judge who sentenced sixteen year old Sara Kruzan  to life without parole for the crime of killing her pimp (the man who raped Kruzan and forced her into prostitution when she was just a middleschooler) to have weighed seriously not only Kruzan’s young age, but also the fact that she was also, very obviously, a victim of human trafficking.

Mindboggling.

This temporary flesh and bone

This is crushingly depressing in that special way something that seems totally unstoppable is.

Via Human Rights Watch, the latest threat against human rights advocates in Chechnya:

Akhmed Gisayev, a Memorial employee who had been working with Natalia Estemirova to investigate a sensitive human rights case in the days before her murder on July 15, 2009, has experienced a series of menacing events in the past days and weeks.

In the evening of August 13, a group of three or four armed men stopped Gisayev and his wife near their apartment in Grozny. The men pointed their weapons at Gisayev and demanded his documents. They refused to identify themselves or explain the reasons for the search. When Gisayev said that he worked at Memorial and showed his Memorial ID card, one of the men said: “And it’s your colleagues who are getting killed? And do you know why they’re getting killed?” They then returned Gisayev’s passport and left. The next morning, on August 14, Russian military and local security personnel conducted a passport check-and-search operation on Gisayev’s street. Such operations used to occur regularly, but have not occurred in Gisayev’s region for a long time. Some of the men who had threatened him the previous evening were among those who searched his apartment.

Prior to these events, Gisayev had observed a car parked next to his house on several occasions. The car had dark windows, a radio transmitter, and a license plate with a number not used for civilian vehicles, leading him to suspect that it belonged to the security services. Gisayev reported these incidents to the prosecutor’s office in Chechnya, but the authorities did not undertake any concrete measures to investigate them or to ensure Gisayev’s protection.

[...]

In the days before Estemirova was killed, Gisayev and Estemirova had been researching the case of a man who had been abducted and tortured by local law enforcement officials. When the man’s relatives began to work with Gisayev and Estemirova to take action on his case, the man was taken into incommunicado detention by local law enforcement from the hospital where he had been receiving treatment for his torture injuries. Memorial staff and the man’s relatives appealed to the local prosecutor’s office in the first week of July. Soon after, Gisayev began to notice the suspicious-looking vehicles outside his home.

Gisayev is an applicant in a case pending before the European Court of Human Rights, relating to his own illegal detention and torture by Russian servicemen in 2003.

The human rights movement does not need any more martyrs. If  Akhmed Gisayev was my friend or co-worker, I would be doing my utmost to convince him to leave Chechnya, to leave Russia and seek asylum somewhere in Western Europe.

And yet, if every human rights advocate in a dangerous place took that advice, there would be no one to track down disappeared prisoners, uncover unmarked graves, and amplify voices of living victims. In the North Caucasus, this is lonely and, for many, eventually lethal work. Allies and colleagues in Brussels, Washington, London, New York and even Moscow can do little more than wait in dread by their phones and keep their computer screens open to email.

The condemnation of an activist’s murder in the Russian Federation now has its own form letter; all one needs to add is the who, where, and how. Everyone knows the why.

What more can one even say?

Stay safe? Good luck? Solidarity?

And the hits just keep coming

Literally.

Malik Akhmedilov, an investigative journalist in Dagestan, was found murdered today. In true North Caucasus fashion, his body was found in the trunk of a car.

Akhmedilov was known for his reporting on the one story sure to get you killed sooner or later: political assassinations and extrajudicial killings.

In the North Caucasus, reporters finish their careers by becoming part of the story in the worst way.