Saturday, April 20, 2013

A Criminal Vs. An Enemy Combatant. Words Have Consequences.

I have been following the Boston Marathon bombings and its aftermath.  I'm glad that at least one of the alleged bombers was captured alive, for the sake of more information and clarity and, of course, for the sake of carrying out the tasks of a proper system of justice.  Those tasks are important for civilization to exist.

My political awakening coincided with two events:  The election of the second Georgie Porgie and the political events following 911.  The latter, in particular, was a rough awakening:  Plans to attack Iraq, a country which had nothing to do with the 911 massacres, pushed everything else into a hasty foreplay before the intended war could be started.

But there was so much else wrong with those "everything else" events, including invading Afghanistan without an exit plan, not mentioning the country which in fact produced (and produces) the terrorists and the hasty creation of an enemy for the wars this country is still waging.

This enemy is a nebulous one, hiding under different names and inside different groups, not defined by much anything than one religion, and sometimes not even that.  We were told to create an image of the enemy in childish political terms (they want our toys, our freedoms/it is our sexual license that makes them do it) which omits US foreign policy from all consideration,  and we were told to look elsewhere when actual information could have clarified that frightening enemy lurking in the shades, could have made it less frightening, more objective and thus more possible to actually conquer.

I get the great advantages the Bush administration reaped from placing the country on a permanent war status.  For one thing, he probably got re-selected because of that, and he also got free hands to do almost anything he wished to do.

But from the very beginning of this  I was adamantly opposed to that framing.  The correct approach seemed to me then to treat the criminals as criminals.

This is still true, and the reasons are many.  First, the real terrorists regard themselves as soldiers in a holy war. By giving them that label voluntarily, they get greater recruiting potential, greater fame, greater martyrdom.  They were taken seriously, in the sense of an honorable opponent, someone we could declare a war against.  But in reality that group IS undefined, nebulous, and ultimately quite small.  What the US administration chose to do in 2001 elevated it, gave it mythical importance and a greater justification for existing.

Being declared a criminal has less glory attached to it than being declared an enemy combatant.  Thus, by choosing the latter (as would want to do) we are giving the terrorists exactly what they want.

Second,  the position of permanent and eternal war gives the US government powers to breach civil rights and human rights, a blank license to do things we would never accept done in ordinary crime prevention and crime-solving.  But because the danger is now existential, almost anything, from water boarding to sending suspects to torture in other countries, can at least be debated.  Once again, this gives the terrorists pretty much what they want if they happened to be motivated by the belief that Americans have too much freedom.

Third,  that treatment creates the foundation for illogical reptile-brain fears to fog out logical thinking.  If this danger is existential, it matters much more than the types of catastrophies (the Texas plant explosions) which cost us many more lives.  If this danger is existential, almost any amount of money can be spent on averting it, whereas the causes which cost many more lives are regarded as "spending we cannot afford."  This danger can be used to prop up utterly preposterous divisions of the federal budget pie and it can be used to fatten up parts of the bureaucracy which really do not need any more fattening.

Fourth, and this is a reason I only started thinking about recently, after reading articles about what might follow these events among American Muslims, Sikhs, or almost anyone who might look like whatever the imagination decides a frightening terrorist looks like:  Harassment, perhaps even violence aimed at those who might look like that nebulous enemy in the hind-brain of some frightened television-overloaded asshat.

Some of that bigotry and fear is unrelated to the use of war terms, but some is strengthened by that.  If the terrorists were regarded as mere criminals, they would be a clearly defined group.  Once they are defined as enemy combatants, even when they are American citizens, the idea of a fifth column is supported, grows horrible tentacles and infects the minds of individuals who might not otherwise have reacted that way:  If this is a real enemy, how can we tell who belongs to it?  They might be everywhere!  Help!

And because of that nebulous aspect of the enemy, anything the known cases might share with groups in the society becomes focal, becomes the criterion used to differentiate between "us" and "them."

As I mentioned, this is not the only reason for racial or religious profiling, and it has never worked for the white Christian terrorists (because whites and Christians are too large groups in the US, perhaps, but also because they are the home-group of many of those who practice the profiling).

Neither does it work for the one aspect of terrorists which in some ways is the most informative:  They are overwhelmingly male.  That, too, may be because the category is too wide but also because being male is the default category in our thinking and in that sense uninformative.  For instance, if most terrorists were female we would have hundreds of books on that because being female is not the default category.

Had we gone down the road of defining these horrors as crimes and their perpetrators as nasty criminals I think we might have had less bigotry and anger aimed at vast groups of innocent Americans and citizens of other countries.  International cooperation might have been strengthened, too.

These are my thoughts after reading this:

At the same time, some Republican senators, including John McCain of Arizona and Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, argued that using the criminal-justice system was a mistake and that Mr. Tsarnaev should instead be held indefinitely by the military as an “enemy combatant,” under the laws of war, and questioned without any Miranda warning or legal representation, in order to gain intelligence.Still, there is not yet any public evidence suggesting that Mr. Tsarnaev was part of Al Qaeda or its associated forces — the specific enemy with which the United States is engaged in an armed conflict. And some legal specialists also doubted that the Constitution would permit holding a suspect like Mr. Tsarnaev as an enemy combatant.
“This is an American citizen being tried for a crime that occurred domestically, and there is simply no way to treat him like an enemy combatant — not even close,” said Alan M. Dershowitz, a Harvard law professor and seasoned defense lawyer.
So.  At the time I write this we don't know what may have motivated the Tsarnaev brothers, in any case, but the flag of war has already been raised.   Even if the older brother had raised such a flag himself, taking that seriously would be a mistake.  It would give him (and any copycats) exactly the kind of martyrdom and glory they desire.  Being called a criminal is not glamorous.  It is also much closer to the truth.

The Shame Of Dressing in Women's Clothes

An interesting story from Maravan, Iran:

A group of Kurdish activist women from Marivan, along with a few citizens of the city, held a demonstration April 16 on the main streets of the city in protest of the authorities’ parading a man in Marivan after dressing him in the traditional women’s clothing of Kurdistan, a local source told the International Campaign for Human Rights in Iran. The Special Guard Unit violently confronted the demonstrators.
According to the human rights activist, the women activists clad themselves in red Kurdish costumes to protest the red Kurdish clothes the man, T. Daabaashi, was forced to wear for what the authorities called punishment of “hoodlums.” The women carried placards and called the act of parading the man an insult to women and to Kurdish people, an act they strongly condemned. After the initial gathering and the flow of the demonstrators from Moosak Square towards the Shabrang intersection, Special Guard forces surrounded the protesters and attacked them in the 12 Sawareh Square of Marivan, injuring a number of the participants with pepper gas and batons. According to an eyewitness, the severe attack resulted in a broken leg for one of the female protesters and severe head injuries for several others.
The human rights activist added that the man who had been dressed in female Kurdish clothing was accused of quarreling and wielding a knife, and by the orders of the Mariwan prosecutor, was forced to wear a headscarf, Kurdish pants, and red women’s clothes as security forces paraded him on the main streets of Marivan on April 15. The widespread protest in the city caused several Kurdish Members of Parliament to write a letter and demand admonishment of the Interior and Justice Ministers.

The basis of the sentence is the assumption that men are "lowered" or shamed by being forced to dress as women.  By the way, this does not work in reverse.  Try a thought experiment.  Thus, this is about the fact that being a woman is regarded as lower than being a man and men can be punished by making them temporarily dress as women.

Here is the Facebook response from many Kurdish men who want to support women:

One participant writes:

To show my solidarity and support to the “womanhood” and their suffers and torments during the history mostly have done by “men” [sic]. as we have faced recently a stupid judge”s order to punish a person by putting on him the feminine customs, so it is one of the times that we should gather around each other and condemn this stupidity, brutality and inhumanity against the womanhood; the half of society as well as at least half of the human being on the earth. I am supporting womanhood by the at least I can do for them.
What makes this interesting is that the power of social shaming does depend on others implicitly believing in something being shameful.  If enough people refuse to go along with that, the connection between the punishment and the shame is reduced.

In one of those bouts of serendipity I noticed something similar working in quite a different story, this one about slut shaming:

It all started when the good folks at George Washington High School decided to address this rampant problem of teen sluttery by having a guest speaker come in to yell at their students about their whorish ways. No for reals the speaker, Pam Stenzel… decided that the best way to get her message across to these kids requires a healthy dose of apoplectic misogyny with a sprinkling of utter bullshit:
At GW’s assembly, Stenzel allegedly told students that “if you take birth control, your mother probably hates you” and “I could look at any one of you in the eyes right now and tell if you’re going to be promiscuous.” She also asserted that condoms aren’t safe, and every instance of sexual contact will lead to a sexually transmitted infection…

Katelyn Campbell, a senior at the school and the student body vice president, took the initiative on her own to make sure that future classes aren’t subjected to that level of derp:
Campbell refused to attend the assembly, which was funded by a conservative religious organization called “Believe in West Virginia” and advertised with fliers that proclaimed “God’s plan for sexual purity.” Instead, she filed a complaint with the ACLU and began to speak out about her objections to this type of school-sponsored event. Campbell called Stenzel’s presentation “slut shaming” and said that it made many students uncomfortable.
Shaming is a weapon much used in female socialization.  Perhaps more than in socialization in general.

Thursday, April 18, 2013


That's the reason for no deep, meaningful or boring posts today.  I love this arrangement.  It might be a bit like being the grandparent and not the parent:  I can pamper the dog and have fun but nobody expects me to train her out of any of her bad habits in one weekend!

But the dog needs to be exercised and then I have to follow her around the house because one of her not-so-good habits is eating everything that fits in her mouth, whether it's food or not, and the Snakepit Inc. is not exactly the sort of place where one can eat off the floors...

Wednesday, April 17, 2013

What Should Be Written

Articles that should be written and researched:

1.  What actually happened to the culprits in the aftermath of the financial and housing markets collapses.  Which culprits were punished and how?  How many scapegoats were sacrificed?  Is the power now removed from those who caused the collapses?  What corrective mechanisms have been put in place to prevent similar collapses in the near future?  Who rules the stock markets?

Writing this should begin with the promises made, by the way.  I believe that the major culprits got no punishment and are still holding the reins.

2.  An easier but similar article:  What was the reaction to the need for gun control after the Newtown massacre?  And where are we now, in terms of that reaction?  Is anything going to change, except for more armed people milling around in elementary schools?  How does real power operate in this area?

There are researchers and writers who have done work on these topics, but I yearn for a very wide-angle take of the processes, the way power actually sticks exactly where it was originally, while the powers that be wait for the public memory to evaporate.

Today's Research Snack

Here's a fun study about how men find it more difficult to judge women's emotions than men's emotions and how different parts of their brains light up in the two cases.  The study has photographs of eyes only, twenty-two men looking at them and a humongous amount of statistical manipulation to produce the results.  It is summarized here.

I'm not saying that the results are wrong.  I can't tell, actually, given that the raw data isn't there, and I'm too tired to try to sleuth through the statistics.  But with 22 cases it should have been possible to post the success rates of each individual man.  This is important, because a few outliers could seriously affect the findings.

The discussion of the results is fascinating, too.  The authors mostly address the possibility that these men are better at getting emotions expressed by men's eyes right, because, roughly, they learn them by looking at the mirror in the morning.  Or, rather, we are better at deciphering people most like ourselves.

But then at the very end of the report they give a nod to evolutionary psychology:

The finding that men are superior in recognizing emotions/mental states of other men, as compared to women, might be surprising. From an evolutionary point of view, accurate interpretations of other men’s rather than women’s thoughts and intentions, especially threatening cues (also related to amygdala responsiveness [40]), may have been a factor contributing to survival in ancient times. As men were more involved in hunting and territory fights, it would have been important for them to be able to predict and foresee the intentions and actions of their male rivals.

Perhaps.  But note that usually evolutionary psychology is all about the necessity to pass one's genes on, and the prelude to that requires to find someone of the opposite sex to mate with.  Suddenly understanding that opposite sex (women) matters not a whit but male aggression does.

I guess I have trouble with articles which are all about brain imaging and technical language and suddenly the discussion adds a few hypotheses that nobody can ever confirm, based on the assumption that men were more involved in hunting and territory fights and that those fights were so crucial for survival that they created an adaptation which made men better at reading emotions in other men than in women.  What about all that need to find women to mate with?

There are alternative explanations, including the theory that one is best at interpreting emotions in people who are most similar to oneself, but also the fact that even in today's society it is more important to understand the emotional cues given by more powerful people.  Because they matter more.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Pope Francis And the Uppity Nuns of America

Well, we learn that in some ways the New Pope Is The Old Pope:

In a statement issued Monday, the Vatican said Francis had “reaffirmed” the doctrinal evaluation and criticism of U.S. nuns carried out last year by the Vatican under his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI. The assessment accused the Leadership Conference of Women Religious, an umbrella organization that represents most U.S. female Catholic orders, of promoting “radical feminism” and of ignoring the Vatican’s hard line on same-sex marriage and abortion.

What stinks about all that is naturally the fact that the church=boyz in all this, and celibate boyz at that.  Thus, the control and command of the nuns with their "radical feminism" is in the hands of guys who absolutely do not want any kind of gender equality inside the church.

The Ghouls

That would be a lot of the US media covering the Boston Marathon bombings.  Because of 911, I was aware of certain things to look for, even without intending to look for them, and I spotted them very very fast.  For example, a local television station showing injured people being pushed in wheelchairs by emergency personnel seemed to apologize for the fact that these were the people being helped later because they were less hurt.  So we got told there was a lot of blood and missing limbs earlier.

We are invited to participate in a disaster vicariously.  For that to work, the coverage must focus on suffering, the more gruesome the better, and repetition of the worst possible shots.  As I mentioned in earlier comments, one television station told the viewers: "And now you can watch the bombings one more time."

Even the people on the site only watched the bombings once.

All this is very bad, for four reasons:  First, acting ghoulish serves the goals of any terrorists.  They want to terrorize us, the media participates in producing maximum fear in its audiences.

Second, as I have written elsewhere, watching the disaster unfolding, over and over again, is very harmful.  It may give the viewer vicarious PTSD, and that benefits nobody, but may cost money one day to treat and may also warp our thinking about the events.  Our bodies think we were there, our bodies store the memories, for them to crop up later at certain cues.

Third, if it doesn't cause PTSD in someone, it may cause a confusion between reality and movies, hardening the viewer, making the events seem altogether unreal and contrived.  From that it's not a big step to the assumption that all disasters are unreal, conspiracies created by this government or some other nefarious group, rather than terrorists of whatever stripe.

Fourth, there is a flavor of pain pron in much of the coverage:  Looking for the most heart-breaking case, repeating it over and over again, shifting from that to the next most heart-breaking case and so on.

I get that we are all drawn to be ghouls, that our natural reactions are to watch, mesmerized and shocked.  I get that, because it would be a somewhat useful reaction if we were on the site and unable to help, because some learning could come from all that.  But it's not helpful when the events unfold elsewhere, when we are not there, and when our watching doesn't help anyone but may harm us.

Monday, April 15, 2013

On the Boston Marathon Bombs

My thoughts are with those who suffer, both in Boston and in Iraq.  It is far too early to conclude anything about the Boston bombings, except that the events qualify as terrorism.

So let's not get terrorized.  Note the kindness of strangers, in the aftermath, ranging from the runners who continued to run after the end of the race, straight to the hospital to donate blood to those who have opened their houses and apartments as safe havens to other strangers.  And note the excellent work of the first responders.