Wednesday, November 16, 2005

On Torture

There has been much discussion over at Shea's of what methods may be justifiably used in interrogation. Unsurprisingly, there has been much debate over what qualifies as torture- a debate which I feel only captures part of what is at stake here.

Mark takes as a jumping-off point an excerpt from an Andrew Sullivan post, which includes this description of a series of interrogations, taken from a Pentagon report:
He was kept awake for 18 - 20 hours a day for 48 of 54 consecutive days, he was forced to wear bras and thongs on his head, he was prevented from praying, he was forced to crawl around on a dog leash to perform dog tricks, he was told his mother and sister were whores, he was subjected to extensive "cavity searches" (after 160 days in solitary confinement) and then "on seventeen ocasions, between 13 Dec 02 and 14 Jan 03, interrogators, during interrogations, poured water over the subject.
Now, Sullivan contends that the reference to water being poured over the subject is a reference to water-boarding (helpfully explained for us here). If so, it would be fairly characterized as torture. But most of what was evilly done doesn't fit well with a traditional understanding of torture- rather, it is equally illegitimate dehumanizing treatment of the prisoner. Forcing prisoners to act like dogs is but the most literal example of this- but making prisoners wear thongs, and subjecting them to unneccessary cavity searches are also in this category. Preventing a prisoner from praying is also beyond the pale. Simply put, it is always wrong to treat any man in a manner that violates his innate dignity.

So, we can say there is torture proper- viz., the infliction of severe or excruciating pain or suffering, be it of body or of mind (the OED's definition). There is also the dehumanizing treatment which seems to be the US military's metier: the cruelty of treating a person as sub-human. Both of these are intrinsically evil, and should not be justified under any circumstances, but ought to be kept conceptually distinct.

What about the "ticking bomb" scenario, much beloved of those who, in a particularly Orwellian turn of phrase, like to defend "agressive interrogation techniques"? I would hope that everyone would recognize that there are intrinsically wrong actions, even in such extreme circumstances. Shooting a terrorist's mother or little sister in front of him, even if we expected this to save hundreds of lives, would be wrong. Why is such a utilitarian calculation wrong? Where our actions are not constrained by intrinsic moral evils, we must choose our path with prudence and wisdom- but such circumstances are limited, because we cannot know with certainty the results of our actions- consequences are hidden from us. There is a certain blindness to the human condition, which is why we must never presume to order the future to our design by ignoring the ethics confronting us in the present.

One question remains- what methods may be used in conducting an interrogation? Certainly, mild psychological stress: four or five hours' sleep, as described above seems not unreasonable. Mocking a prisoner's religious belief or practice would likewise be permissable, provided one did not force the prisoner to participate. Finally, prisoners are not entitled, as a matter of natural right, to due process. Similarly, corporal punishment is not intrinsically wrong. In normal criminal circumstances, prudence demands due process and an abscence of corporal punishment. In situations where crucial information is being withheld, I believe it would be permissable to dispense with the normal due process rights of a prisoner, and to administer physical punishments in conjunction with an interrogation. Such physical punishments could be merely throwing a prisoner against the wall, or might, at an extreme, include lashes. One cannot justify physical means outside of what would be a just punishment for whatever crime or wrong they have done, nor can techiniques of torture be slipped in under the guise of 'punishment': the scope of legitimate corporal punishment is extremely narrow.

I think this answer makes sense- one is not obligated to treat a terrorist with kid gloves, but neither is one permitted to torture or dehumanize him.

Tuesday, November 15, 2005

Forgive a Political Interlude...

Paul Martin has just put forward a mini-budget, including significant tax cuts primarily for "low and middle-income earners". The main thrust of the legislation a $500 increase in the basic personal amount—the amount of income that all Canadians can earn without paying federal income tax and a reduction of the lowest personal income tax rate to 15 per cent from 16 per cent.

So what is so nefarious about this? It marks the further exploitation of the weakness of our democratic system- namely, that it allows citizens to vote the use of other people's money to their own ends. So, if this passes, there will be still fewer people who actually pay tax in Canada, and hence an even larger constituency whose only monetary interest in politics is to see that they get more government largess.

So how do I reconcile this with my strong belief in progressive taxation? Firstly, the government should convert all tax exemptions into tax credits- so instead of a $8,000 exemption, you'd be looking more at a $1,200 tax credit. This would expose even those who pay no tax to the marginal rate of taxation- since their credit would be clawed back at the basic tax rate. Secondly, the basic exemption/credit ought to be substantially reduced, so that a greater number of Canadians contribute something, even if it is minimal, to the upkeep of government. Such measures would leave in place the higher marginal tax rates for high-income earners.

Saturday, November 12, 2005

Ut Unum Sint

There is quite a bit of speculation in the Catholic blogosphere at the moment over the prospect of the (Anglo-Catholic) Traditional Anglican Communion uniting with the See of Peter. If it does come about, it will probably be as a worldwide apostolic administration, or a number of them. We may even see ordinary Anglican dioceses such as The Murray in Australia and San Joaquin in California come along at the same time. Such an arrangement may also help pave the way for the Society of Saint Pius X to reconcile. Perhaps more importantly, the creation of such apostolic administration is likely to contribute to a decentralization of the Western Church. We are already told that Pope Benedict XVI is not a friend to the Curial bureaucracy, and the creation of multiple quasi-independent rites within the Western Church will only contribute to a lessening of Roman control. Hopefully, individual bishops will take up the initiative, rather than bureaucracy-ridden national episcopal bodies.

Friday, November 11, 2005

In Flanders Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

- John McCrae

Thursday, November 10, 2005


Early this morning, very early indeed, it was snowing! As every schoolboy knows, one has to wait either for Advent or for the first snow of the year to sing Christmas Carols. Not, of course, that I have such restraint...
G.K.C. Sighting

Andrew Cusack, who is the sort of wastrel I can but aspire to be, has posted a few strips of G.K. Chesterton interpolated into Dilbert- which apparently appeared in Gilbert Magazine.

Friday, November 04, 2005

Stamps, or Why We Ought to Repeal the BNA Act

The Canadian Christmas stamps this year:

The English Christmas stamps:

So, what is the problem with the Canadian stamps? Firstly, they are ugly. Hideous & trite also. And I didn't even post the truly nauseating Snowman one. Send those on your Christmas cards, and you're insulting the aesthetic judgement of all your friends & relatives. You'd be spreading gloom rather than joy.

Perhaps more fundamentally, they aren't even real stamps. They're stickers. So, not only are we supposed to afix an ugly image no doubt chosen to ridicule and trivialize Christmas, we aren't even permitted the liberty of using a genuine stamp.

Contrast this with the English series above: most are beautiful, and even the ones which I don't prefer have a strong dignity about them. Plus, they're authentic stamps.

Perhaps I'll send all my Christmas cards to England this year, and ask a friend to purchase and affix such stamps to the envelopes, and drop them back in the mail. Canada Post leaves me no other option.

Thursday, November 03, 2005

Climate Change

For someone like myself who is concerned about global warming, the simplistic and oftentimes ignorant discussion of climate change is quite irritating.

The error of skeptics is a complete lack of attention paid to causation. No one disagrees, that all else being equal, additional CO2 results in a warmer atmosphere. Not everything else is equal, of course- but skeptics have to confront the reality that only a catastrophic system collapse allows for a feedback effect to eliminate 100% of the stimulus, such as that posited by The Day After Tomorrow. But since no one really suggests that such a catastrophic cascade effect is likely to occur, we are left with the reality of climate change.

On the other side, advocates of initiatives like Kyoto ignore the fact that any action taken now only pays off decades down the road. The momentum of climate change is such that the economic opportunity cost of addressing climate change is enormously higher than advertised (and this is separate from the underestimation of the immediate cost). Secondly, in order to stabilize the global climate, a dozen Kyotos are needed. This fact is never mentioned, but incredibly important to the public discussion.

Finally, a few observations often left out: the effect of both the ozone hole and the burning of coal has been to mask the effect of global warming. Coal burning, while emitting CO2, also emitted enormous quantities of ash, which deflects solar energy back into space. The ozone layer, on the other hand, itself contributes to the greenhouse effect (though it is not, of course, anthropogenic). The erosion of the ozone layer has allowed more energy to get out of the atmosphere. The effect of coal emissions is on the wane, while the ozone hole appears to have stablized. We can therefore expect the current warming to continue, and perhaps even accelerate.
An Encounter with Relativistic Religion

I happened to bump into a highly eccentric uncle of a friend of mine a while back at a photocopying place- here's an impressionistic record of our conversation:

Gabriel: Mr. C! Good to see you! What are you working on there?
{Mr. C shows me a great number of photographs, some of flowers and landscapes, with many dual exposure nudes overlaying nature shots. Quite a few straitforward nudes. Of particular significance to Mr. C was a topless photo of a young woman with a bunch of bananas on her head.}
C: We had a little private performance art show a little while back. The bananas were an expression of her liberation from social strictures.
G: I quite like the flower pictures, and some of the dual exposures are quite good also.
C: I see your little Theology on Tap brochures. Nice design. So you believe in the sacramentality of alcohol!
G: Well, alcohol is a fine addition to any informal gathering, but it's not quite to the level of a sacrament.
C: O, yes? You believe in the sacraments then? The symbolism of communion, baptism, and so forth?
G: Well, I'm Catholic, so I believe that Christ is really present in the Eucharist, that it's a real sacrifice.
C: Blood sacrifices are so outmoded.
G: Modern society has lost the idea of sacrifice entirely, not merely blood sacrifice.
C: No it hasn't. Lots of religions have a notion of sacrifice... Ganesha...
G: Well, none of them have the true sacrifice of Christ.
C: That's so bigoted. All judeo-christian tradition is racist, because you allow some people to claim to have the "truth". You bigot!
G: Umm, calm blue ocean?
C: Fundamentalist!
{brief pause in the conversation}
C: I'm going to get coffee. Can I get you some?
G: Sure, black tea, please.
{longer interruption}
G: Thank you very much. So, where are you coming from on all of this?
C: I have a spiritual unity with Hinduism- of the Gandhi sort. When I was a boy, I realized that my father's religion was narrow [ed. His father was a Christian missionary in India]. I travelled the world, which opened my mind. I bet you were indoctrinated by your parents.
G: Actually, only my father was Christian when I was a boy, and I was agnostic by the time I was eleven.
C: Your religion is bloody and oppressive.
G: Umm, didn't hinduism encourage suttee [the practice of burning widows alive on their husbands' funeral pyres] until the British shut it down?
C: Suttee was a fine practice. Indian women were being just like Jesus, going to their deaths nice and quietly.
G: Uh-huh. Are you actually saying that Suttee and the Crucifixion were both forms of suicide?
C: Yes, Jesus didn't resist dying either.

That concluded the most interesting part of the conversation. I went out for a time, came back, and changed the subject to art and the idea of the human nude. Mr. C. went on at length about the virtues of nudism, but to his credit, threw in a minimalist apology before we went our separate ways.

One of the things that I don't think I conveyed in the reconstructed dialogue was Mr. C's embodiment of every bad caricature of fundamentalist Christian evangelists: he interupted incessantly, made his declarations in the most bombastic manner, as well as ridiculing ande insulting my religious beliefs rather than advance his own. But, perhaps more than any other encounter, this one illustrated the truth that most relativists aren't actually tolerant- they want everyone to be relativists, and those who aren't are bigots, racists and fundamentalists.

For the record, tolerance isn't getting everyone to accept everybody else's beliefs as valid- it is the virtue of putting up with those who you don't agree with.