(Un)civil discourse

For the CBC on July 31, 2017

“It is simply impossible to overestimate the love, bordering on worship, that reporters in Washington long had for McCain, and to a great degree still do,” Washington Post contributor Paul Waldman wrote Tuesday as Senator John McCain, diagnosed with an aggressive form of brain cancer, returned to Capitol Hill to vote on the Republican effort to repeal and replace Obamacare.

“He alone is written about as though he never considers politics or his personal advancement,” Waldman continued, “but makes decisions only on the basis of his unimpeachably virtuous ideals.”

McCain’s “maverick” credentials have always been part of a carefully-crafted persona, though closer examination of his voting record reveals a predictable toeing of the Republican party line — roughly 87 per cent of the time, to be precise.

Indeed, he continued to toe that line last Tuesday, voting to move ahead with debate of the Senate’s health care bill while vowing to block any final passage of the proposed legislation unless substantive changes were made. As The Atlantic’s David Graham put it: “[McCain] delivered an impassioned critique of partisanship, haste, and win-at-all-costs legislation, just moments after casting a vote to debate a bill that exemplifies all three.”

It’s not unreasonable to suggest McCain’s calculated performance was hypocritical and largely self-serving, nor was it wrong to voice disappointment, even disgust, at the display. Pointed commentary, when offered fairly, is both necessary and constructive. Yet the viciousness of much of the Twitter backlash, in response to a vote which merely allowed a bill to proceed to debate, crossed far beyond righteous indignation.

“Would have been better off if he died in Nam. I have no reservations saying those words. Evil person, who just chose to kill thousands,” read a top response to one particularly popular tweet noting that “McCain left hospital stay paid by taxes on flight paid by taxes to remove health insurance from taxpayers.”

“Ted Kennedy fought cancer while trying to ensure healthcare for all. McCain fights through cancer to take healthcare from millions,” read another of the gentler, viral missives.

Kennedy, the Democratic senator who died in 2009 of the same brain cancer now threatening McCain’s life, considered comprehensive health care reform his life’s mission — a cause to which he remained dedicated to the end.

Those of the far-right, then — like those of the far-left now — were happy to use Kennedy’s mortality as a weapon against his political positions. At a rally against Obamacare in 2012, signs were printed to read: “Bury Obamacare With Kennedy.”

This brand of ugly, partisan warfare has become standard on Twitter, an arena where the in/out group dynamic punishes moderation and stifles same-side dissent. This serves to bolster the extremes which fuel the most savage polarization: it’s not enough to disagree — the other side must be despised, shamed and demonized, even if that means finding delight in another’s terminal cancer diagnosis.

Regardless of circumstance, those in positions of power are open to honest reproach. But this sort of conduct is abhorrent, full stop. Excusing or engaging in the very behaviour you’d never tolerate, were it directed at one of your own, directly contributes to the toxic and abusive atmosphere routinely bemoaned on Twitter.

Broader civility is cultivated through individual actions. Granted, there are times when emotion runs high and judgement falls short, and there’s plenty of room for both good-natured teasing and intense disagreement. It’s the routine, unchallenged maliciousness that’s destructive. Abuse is a choice. So is decency. Holding yourself and your allies to the higher standard will serve your cause better than dropping the calibre to meet the level of an adversary.

One of the few who gave McCain the benefit of the doubt after his procedural vote last Tuesday was Adam Jentleson, former deputy chief of staff to Harry Reid, the Democrats’ minority leader in the Senate.

“There are those rare moments when one person can alter the course of history,” he tweeted Tuesday. “If McCain is serious, he can vote for whatever amendments he likes but will vote against final passage. If (he) folds, he will end his career as a toady for Trump. But I will sleep well at night and never regret choosing to have at least a little bit of faith in an American hero.”

In the wee hours of last Friday, when it mattered, McCain cast one of three decisive Republican votes to defeat his party’s destructive health-care legislation. His credibility and legacy were always his own to lose. All the vitriol directed his way, in the end, undermined only the integrity of those from which it came. And ultimately — and ironically — that abuse helped McCain emerge as the maverick once again.

 

 

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Colin Powell’s Lesson For Republicans

For the National Post on August 11, 2016.

Sixteen days before the 2008 presidential election, George W. Bush’s former secretary of state, Gen. Colin Powell (Ret.), appeared on NBC’s Meet The Press to reveal his much-coveted endorsement.

Powell felt Barack Obama and John McCain were equally fit for office, both distinguished, patriotic and “dedicated to the welfare” of America.

 Obama, however, offered an “inclusive, broader reach into the needs and aspirations” of Americans, whereas McCain, Powell’s “beloved colleague and friend of 25 years,” took the increasingly narrow approach championed by his running mate, former Alaska governor Sarah Palin.

“I’m troubled,” Powell explained, “by what members of the party say, and it’s permitted to be said. ‘Well, you know Obama is a Muslim’ … He is not a Muslim, he’s a Christian. He’s always been a Christian.”

“But,” he continued, “the really right answer is, what if he is? Is there something wrong with being a Muslim in this country? Is there something wrong with some seven-year-old Muslim-American kid believing he or she could be president? The answer is no.”

Had more Republicans followed Powell’s lead in pushing back against the explicit pandering to extremes, they may not be retreading this ground, eight years on, at the behest of their presidential nominee, Donald Trump.

In 2004, U.S. Army Capt. Humayun Khan sacrificed himself for his men while in Iraq, and was posthumously awarded the Bronze Star and Purple Heart. At the Democratic National Convention, the Muslim-American soldier’s father, Khizr Khan, delivered a powerful antidote to the rhetoric Trump has used to fuel his political rise.

“Donald Trump consistently smears the character of Muslims, disrespects other minorities,” Khan said, before asking of Trump: ”Have you ever been to Arlington Cemetery? Go look at the graves of the brave patriots who died defending America — you will see all faiths, genders and ethnicities. You have sacrificed nothing and no one.”

Indeed, Trump dodged military service through five draft deferrals, later equating his dating during the Vietnam era to fighting the war. “I feel like a great and very brave soldier,” Trump told Howard Stern in 1997, for “surviving” free of STDs. He declared it a “personal Vietnam.”

Trump similarly dismissed Khan’s challenge, compared his supposed business acumen to Humayun’s sacrifice, then proceeded to impugn the character of the Gold Star parents by insinuating their true sympathies lie with terrorists.

The abhorrent treatment of the Khans drew scathing condemnation from decorated military personnel and veterans’ organizations, and earned direct denunciation from fellow Republicans. “In recent days, Donald Trump disparaged a fallen soldier’s parents,” wrote McCain, whose own heroism was once trivialized by Trump. “He suggested the likes of their son should not be allowed in the United States — to say nothing of entering its service. I cannot emphasize enough how deeply I disagree with Mr. Trump’s statement. I hope Americans understand that the remarks do not represent the views of our Republican Party, its officers, or candidates.”

In 2008, Powell backed Obama over McCain, and in doing so, described a pivotal moment in solidifying his decision: “It was a photo essay about troops serving in Iraq and Afghanistan,” he explained, where one poignant image, “a mother in Arlington Cemetery … her head on the headstone of her son’s grave” caught his attention. “As the picture focused in, you could see the writing on the headstone. It gave his awards — Purple Heart, Bronze Star; showed he died in Iraq. Then, at the top of the headstone, it didn’t have a Christian cross, it didn’t have the Star of David, it had a crescent and a star of the Islamic faith.”

“His name was Kareem Rashad Sultan Khan … He was 14 years old at the time of 9/11, and he waited until he (could) serve his country, and he gave his life.”

That was Powell’s America, one threatened by the bottom half of McCain’s ticket, the Palin-wing of the party, which metastasized into the poisonous movement that propelled Trump to the top of the 2016 ticket.

Though it’s a different Khan resting in Arlington whose story has moved conservatives, it’s again an extraordinary Muslim-American providing the catalyst that has principled Republicans now distancing themselves from what their party has become.

Far from defending the debasement of the Khans, when Trump’s campaign issued an “urgent” plea for vocal support, congressional allies instead leaked the memo to the press. Trump’s indifference to the constitution factored into an open letter signed by 50 senior Republican national security officials, one detailing Trump as a threat to “national security and well-being.”

Former president Bill Clinton once said, “There is nothing wrong with America that cannot be cured by what is right with America.” The vigorous, bipartisan defence of the Khans offered a glimpse of what remains right with America, and that precise “greatness” threatens to fell the very demagogue claiming it doesn’t exist.

Of Torture And Tortured Logic

This piece appeared in The Ottawa Citizen on December 18, 2014 

The executive summary of a nearly 7,000 page report into the C.I.A.’s Detention and Interrogation program under the Bush administration confirmed not only what has long been public knowledge – that America did, in fact, engage in torture – but also revealed that, despite an aggressive PR blitz extolling the virtues of its interrogation program, the C.I.A. knew full well the “enhanced” techniques had failed.

Not only was it ineffective; it was counter-productive, just as it had proven to be in the late 1950s, early 1960s and again in the 1980s, as Richard Stolz, chief of the clandestine service under Presidents Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush, testified to Congress: “Physical abuse or other degrading treatment was rejected not only because it is wrong, but because it has historically proven to be ineffective.”

Yet, as the Senate’s report reveals, just weeks after 9/11, C.I.A. lawyers prepared a draft memorandum regarding hostile interrogations, noting “a policy decision must be made with regard to U.S. use of torture.”

“States may be unwilling to call the U.S. to task for torture when it resulted in saving thousands of lives … C.I.A. could argue torture was necessary to prevent imminent, significant, physical harm to persons, where there is no other available means to prevent the harm.”

The resulting torture program – not my definition, mind you; despite officials’ attempts to sanitize the term, first referring to “enhanced interrogation techniques”, now further reduced to the innocuous “EIT” acronym, torture is the C.I.A.’s own definition – as described in the report, wasn’t devised out of necessity, it was borne out revenge, modelled after methods intended to yield false confessions, and developed by a pair of retired Air Force psychologists, neither of whom “had any experience as an interrogator, nor did either have specialized knowledge of Al Qaeda, a background in counterterrorism, or any relevant cultural or linguistic expertise.”

One of the two psychologists, in an interview with Vice News following the report’s release, conceded the committee’s conclusion that torture failed to result in actionable intelligence. According to Dr. James Mitchell, his methods were only meant “to facilitate getting actionable intelligence by making a bad cop that was bad enough that the person would engage with the good cop.”

“I would be stunned,” said Mitchell, “if they found any kind of evidence that EITs, as they were being applied, yielded actionable intelligence.”

The extent of the torture, the full scope of the program’s depravity went far beyond what had been previously known, as the report painstakingly documents: Waterboarding so frequent, a detainee so broken, that “when the interrogator ‘raised his eyebrow,’ without instructions, ‘(detainee) slowly walked on his own to the water table and sat down … when the interrogator snapped his fingers twice, (detainee) would lie flat on the waterboard,” prepared for torture.

Sexual assault under the guise of “reverse sustenance” as a means of exerting “total control over the detainee”; sodomy so frequent and/or forceful it resulted in a torn anus and dislodged intestine.

Mock burials and executions, games of Russian Roulette; Threats to rape or murder family members; Torture even if a detainee agreed to fully cooperate.

Wrongful detention and torture of innocents — some of whom were the C.I.A.’s own informants, another whom was tortured to death.

The torture proved so extreme some C.I.A. personnel attempted to halt the techniques; others reached “the point of tears.” When officers questioned the program, they were “strongly (urged)” by then-head of the C.I.A.’s Counterterrorism Centre Jose Rodriguez, “that any speculative language as to the legality of given activities or, more precisely, judgment calls as to their legality vis-à-vis operational guidelines for this activity agreed upon and vetted at the most senior levels of the agency, be refrained from,” as “such language is not helpful.”

As for the C.I.A.’s “most frequent and prominent examples of purported counterterrorism successes” attributed to torture, the report dismantles them all. From the identification and capture of 9/11 mastermind Khalid Sheikh Mohammed to the tracking down and killing of Osama Bin Laden, all quality, actionable information was gathered through conventional means prior to the ‘enhanced’ methods.

One instance where torture did produce ‘actionable’, though entirely fabricated, information: Establishing a link between Saddam Hussein and Al Qaeda, including those notorious WMDs.

This bogus admission was later recanted after the detainee admitted he’d only told the interrogators what he “assessed they wanted to hear” to end the torture. But that false intelligence nevertheless made its way to then-Secretary of State Colin Powell – who, the report notes, was kept in the dark about the C.I.A.’s program over fears he’d “blow his stack” – and was cited in Powell’s U.N. speech to justify the invasion of Iraq.

Perhaps that’s why former Vice President Dick Cheney insists – facts be damned – that torture worked; why he shrugs at the notion of an innocent man tortured to death; why rape is no longer an abhorrent weapon of war when given a euphemism and committed by Americans.

Why he – a man who sought and received five draft deferments, thus successfully avoiding military service – feels he is more knowledgable on the matter than fellow Republican John McCain, a man who served his country honourably and, as a prisoner of war, endured the brutality of his captors.

A man who, in response to the torture report, delivered a remarkable address:

“In the end,” McCain argued, “torture’s failure to serve its intended purpose isn’t the main reason to oppose its use. I have often said, and will always maintain, that this question isn’t about our enemies; it’s about us. It’s about who we were, who we are and who we aspire to be. It’s about how we represent ourselves to the world.”

In the aftermath of 9/11, rather than seeking justice, those in power sought revenge, and in doing so found themselves both financially and morally bankrupt. The wounds terrorism inflicted on America were deep, but it’s those which were self-inflicted that continue to do damage.

Until Republicans choose to be the party of McCain rather than the party of Cheney, those wounds will never heal.