Wednesday, October 22, 2008

The Dark Side

Jane Mayer's book "The Dark Side" was more disturbing than Woodward's book. I have to admit I started to read "Hubris" (by David Corn and Michael Isikoff) right after I finished "Cobra II" (by Michael Gordon and Gen. Bernard Trainor) and had to stop reading because I went into overload. The lies, deceptions and mismanagement were just too much. I was getting sick. So I waited a few month's before tackling Jane Mayer's book. Even with the pause to calm my anger, several times while reading this book I had to pause again for fear I would soon jump up and start screaming. At other points I just became very sad for the things that were done in our name.

Much of the story about torture and the attack on civil liberties had already been documented in the press., but I was struck by several points.

It is clear that the emotion driving the White House after 9/11 was not fear, but panic. The basic policy mandate was not analyze, but act. The extent to which panic overrode everything, even the Constitution, was amazing.

I was also struck by their total disregard for civil liberties, international law, the Constitution of the United States and in many cases, common decency, fairness and common sense. The guidance from the top, particularly the Vice-President, was that we are in a war for our existence and we should do anything and everything to counter this threat. One can understand this rational on 9/11, but that mind set prevailed for several years.

People who were identified as "bad" were no longer human. They no longer had any rights including the right to know what they were accused of or defend their innocence. While there were terrorists in the group of people that were tortured, there were also many innocent people who were tortured for extended periods. The fact that they were innocent didn't really seem to matter. It also sounds like there are still people, dead and possibly alive, that we do not know about. I think the torture program was much broader than I thought and there may still be people imprisoned, tortured and killed that we will never know about.

I was amazed at the lengths people would go to sanction and defend these terrible torture policies.

I was also amazed with how many people had no moral compass or whose compass always pointed up. When legal opinions were needed to justify torture, the question was not what does the law tell us, but how do we twist the law to justify what the people we report to want us to do. The extent of this legal and moral plasticity was at times breathtaking.

I was somewhat surprised, and a little ashamed at my surprise, at how many good people stood up to authority, resisted pressure and took personal risks to do what they thought was right. Much went wrong in the last few years, but even when this administration went to great lengths to surround itself with right thinking, compliant, sycophants, it managed to let in some people who were willing to take risks to do the right thing. There are heroes in this book.

I think it is important that people read Jane Mayer's book. The use of torture was more widespread than I had appreciated. But even more importantly, I came away with the strong feeling that freedom is tenuous and the threat is more internal than external. I can't seem to find the right words to explain how this book has affected me, but it did. Of all the terrible things that happened on 9/11 and since then, I wonder if the Bush descent to the "Dark Side" is the worst.

If you read this book, hang in there and read the entire book. It has a lot of details that get wrapped up into a hell by the end.

Monday, October 13, 2008

The War Within

I recently finished two books, Bob Woodward's "The War Within" and Jane Mayer's "The Dark Side"

Woodward's book was interesting, but most of it was confirmation of information that I already knew. What was particularly interesting was the description of the organizational dysfunction that existed in the White House. I know that this is not unique to the Bush White House. I suppose that when you have that many smart, powerful, egotistical people in close proximity, squabbles and fights are to be expected. I did wonder how useful work or sound policy making was ever accomplished. I also wondered if a less ideological group could have worked together more effectively.

I was taken by President Bush's seeming serenity and resolution in the face of such obvious failures. Obvious even to him, although there were incidents that seemed to indicate he never knew or, at least would never admit to himself, the full extent of the problems. I still think his psychological defense is to refuse to acknowledge failures and "Stay the Course." I don't believe that the Surge was so much a new strategic direction as much as it was the only option available that let him continue on the same path and not have to challenge his basic beliefs or admit fundamental errors.

I'll discuss Jane Mayer's book in a later post.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Right Of What Center?

Fish scuplture by Niki de Saint-Phalle
While reading an article I came across another comment that the United States is a right of center country.

That may be, but a more accurate statement would be, "This is a right of center country on a political path that historically tacks to the left."

Another way to say this might be "The United States is a country that dislikes change, but can't resist its innate appetency to be better."