Saturday, April 12, 2008

They're Reading Tolkien at Guantanamo

So, this one is weird even by my standards, and I'm not as easily weirded out as some people. I have not confirmed the story, but according to the following website, which I discovered thanks to Wendell Wagner's posting the link to the Mythsoc site, a prisoner in the Gulag at Guantanamo Bay has just had the script for the Peter Jackson LotR movie taken away from him (which installment it did not say). The reason given is that a lawyer is not allowed to give a prisoner there anything "not related to the defense of his military commission case". The lawyer has similarly been forbidden to play chess with the prisoner, or dominoes, all activities he'd undertaken to get to know the prisoner and win his trust. Apparently this particular prisoner "wants nothing more in life than to see Lord of the Rings".

As if all this were not strange enough came the news that the Gulag library has "all three installments of the book version of J.R.R. Tolkien's 'Lord of the Rings' trilogy . . . available to prisoners. It was not clear why [the prisoner] wanted the screenplay. Some detainees have complained through their lawyers about long waits for books from Guantanamo's library." Not surprising it'd take them quite a while to read, since so far as I know LotR has never been translated into Pashtun or even Arabic.

So, for humanitarian purposes should we be shipping more copies of Tolkien's work to the Gulag?*

Here's the original link:
http://www.metro.co.uk/weird/article.html?in_article_id=141334&in_page_id=2

--JDR


*This particular prisoner, by the way, is in the Gulag for having killed an enemy soldier in a firefight six years ago. At that time he was a boy soldier of fifteen. He's been in prison ever since; the Military Commission is seeking a life sentence.

17 comments:

Aelfwine said...

Do you really mean to equate the imprisonment of an enemy combatant, apprehended on the battlefield, with the internment of domestic political dissidents? Really?

And how is this equation fair, but the comparison of Osama bin Laden with Sauron not?

Aelfwine said...

P.S. I'm all for sending copies of The Lord of the Rings to Guantanamo, as exposure to the moral bases of the work can only do the enemies of the West good. I have a spare copy of the book I'd be glad to donate. Will you act as a collection center for us?

And let's not stop there. Let's also send copies of LotR to the (actual) Gulags of the world, such as in the Castros' Cuba, in North Korea, and in the Middle East. (Somehow, though, I expect we'll have far less success in getting copies of the book through those regimes to those prisoners, than we will with the US in Guantanamo...)

Thanks for suggesting this!

Janice said...

Comparison of Sauron and Osama bin Laden makes a fine sound bite but like far too many sound bites is a serious impediment to thoughtful and effective action. The trait Sauron and bin Laden have in common - using the terrible tool of horrible violence against innocents to achieve their ends - is a trait shared by much of humanity. If we're comparing only methods, then many leaders can be aptly be compared to Sauron. Sadly the body count doesn't distinguish the good guys from the bad guys in either fiction or reality.

Luckily Sauron and bin Laden are polar opposites on meaningful levels and in these differences our hopes lie as should our strategies. Sauron chose to follow Morgoth in defiance of Illuvatar. He abandoned the Blessed Realm. There is nothing that we on earth can offer as an inducement to some one who has chosen to reject the Good of Heaven. Bin Laden is following what he believes is Allah's will in an attempt to enter Paradise. It's unlikely in the extreme that we can change bin Laden's incorrect beliefs. (For those curious about what Islam teaches about gaining entry into heaven, I recommend Karen Armstrong's most excellent book Islam: A Short History.) What is possible and what we must try to do, is convince bin Laden's potential followers that he's wrong. If we can accomplish that then we can reduce our enemies' numbers and the threat to ourselves and our allies. As Robert A. Heinlein teaches us: "Your enemy is never a villian in his own eyes. Keep this in mind; it may offer a way to make him your friend. If not, you can kill him without hate - and quickly."

If we are to stand a chance of winning hearts and minds and ultimately the war on terror then we must be true to our words. When we say that, "The United States does not torture." then we must not torture. (The only people politically correct situational ethicists are fooling by calling torture "enhanced interrogation techniques" are themselves.) If we say that Iraqi freedom is worth Iraqi civilian casualites then we must say, believe, and act as though American freedom is worth American civilian casualties. To do less is to risk winning the battle but ultimately losing the war.

John D. Rateliff said...

Aelfwine said:
"Do you really mean to equate the imprisonment of an enemy combatant, apprehended on the battlefield, with the internment of domestic political dissidents? Really?"

Are you really claiming to be ignorant of the Geneva Convention?


". . . Let's also send copies of LotR to the (actual) Gulags of the world . . . in the Middle East."

You're quite right: I shd have mentioned Abu Ghraib, the other main hub in our Gulag system, where we have detained, tortured, and held thousands of people for months without charge.

--JDR

Aelfwine said...

"The trait Sauron and bin Laden have in common - using the terrible tool of horrible violence against innocents to achieve their ends"

That is not the only trait they share, nor it is the trait that forms the basis for the pundit's metaphor. The common traits relevant to this discussion are that Sauron and Bin Laden both seek the downfall of the West, and both worked through agents (Rings, terrorist cells) to accomplish their goals why they themselves were sequestered. Hence the aptness of the pundit's metaphor.

As for the rest of your comments, I don't see how they are relevant. You seem to think I'm arguing in favor of torture. And I absolutely agree with the necessity of winning "hearts and minds" (which is why developments in Iraq this past 9 mos. or so are so heartening -- Al Qaeda has deeply discredited itself among Iraqis et al. by its tactics of torture and brutal slayings of innocents, and are all but finished in Iraq).

Aelfwine said...

"Are you really claiming to be ignorant of the Geneva Convention?"

Are you really going to answer my question?

Janice said...

Aelfwine said:
"That is not the only trait they share, nor it is the trait that forms the basis for the pundit's metaphor. The common traits relevant to this discussion are that Sauron and Bin Laden both seek the downfall of the West, and both worked through agents (Rings, terrorist cells) to accomplish their goals why they themselves were sequestered. Hence the aptness of the pundit's metaphor."

Sadly, it is impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys by these traits. Just and unjust warriors seek the downfall of their enemies. Just and unjust warriors battle with weapons (rings, swords, firearms, fill in the weapon of your choice). Just and unjust warriors organize themselves. The realities of modern warfare do not permit either just or unjust leaders to lead a charge. The Sauron comparison remains, for me, a sound bite.

Aelfwine said:
"You seem to think I'm arguing in favor of torture."

No not at all. I must have expressed myself very poorly indeed if I gave that impression. I can't comment about your views on torture since I don't know what they are.

Let's see if I can do better. I believe that sound bites and talking points make it all too easy for us to talk past each other. That won't help us win the battle we're in. I believe that winning requires us as a nation to ask ourselves hard questions, to use honest language when searching for answers to those questions, and to recognize that thinking people of good conscience can disagree.

One of the hard issues I'm thinking about and that I'd like to see debated in the media is:

Soldiers past and present have been maimed and died to protect our civil liberties, our lives, and our property. Are they the only ones who should be asked to make the sacrifice of physical suffering to secure the good we all share? Should I as a civilian honor their sacrifice for my freedom by accepting the personal danger that is inherent in living in a free society in a dangerous world? Should I as a civilian, give up civil liberties to protect the life they've sacrificed to save? Should lives, civilian and or soldier, be sacrificed to protect our property and our economy? How do we put a dollar figure on the sacrifice of lives?

Surely in the world of 24/7 news coverage there is time enough for such a discussion.

Aelfwine said...
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Aelfwine said...
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Aelfwine said...

[Sorry for the repeated edits]

"Sadly, it is impossible to distinguish the good guys from the bad guys by these traits."

I'm sorry, but no it isn't. There is simply no comparison, no moral equivalence at all between those who seek the downfall of the West -- the subjugation of an entire population; and those who seek the downfall of Sauron/Al Qaeda and their murderous agents.

"The Sauron comparison remains, for me, a sound bite."

The fact that it is a sound bite (which of course it is; that's the nature of the media) doesn't render it inapt. (I'll also note that it is no more of a sound bite than referring to Guantanamo as a "Gulag" -- which further relies on moral equivalence.)

"Are they the only ones who should be asked to make the sacrifice of physical suffering to secure the good we all share? Should I as a civilian honor their sacrifice for my freedom by accepting the personal danger that is inherent in living in a free society in a dangerous world? Should I as a civilian, give up civil liberties to protect the life they've sacrificed to save? Should lives, civilian and or soldier, be sacrificed to protect our property and our economy? How do we put a dollar figure on the sacrifice of lives?"

Those are all excellent questions, and they are as old as government itself. Our founders in their great wisdom answered them by giving us a tri-partite republic and distributing certain limited powers pertaining to those questions to each of the three branches. I would like to focus though on this question:

"Should I as a civilian, give up civil liberties to protect the life they've sacrificed to save?"

Do you feel that you've given up any civil liberty at all as a result of the current war? If so, I'd love to know which one(s). Because frankly I can't think of a single liberty that I've lost.

Janice said...

Aelfwine said

"Do you feel that you've given up any civil liberty at all as a result of the current war? If so, I'd love to know which one(s). Because frankly I can't think of a single liberty that I've lost."


From Wired:

"Mark Klein, a retired AT&T communications technician, submitted an affidavit in support of the EFF's lawsuit this week. That class action lawsuit, filed in federal court in San Francisco last January, alleges that AT&T violated federal and state laws by surreptitiously allowing the government to monitor phone and internet communications of AT&T customers without warrants."

I don't know for a fact that mine were any of the monitored communications but I don't consider it to be outside the realm of possibility that they were. So the issue arises: Does pushing to know if my telephone calls were monitored without a warrant honor the fallen by vigilantly guarding against possible government abuses of power? Or does pushing to know if my telephone calls were monitored without a warrant dishonor the fallen because I am placing myself in physical jeopardy by insisting upon an answer?

Aelfwine said...

What "physical jeopardy" would you be in for trying to determine if your communications were monitored in such a way? Has Mark Klein, who outed AT&T and the NSA, been imprisoned or threatened? Not so far as I can determine.

The real questions are: 1) Was this activity authorized by law? In two years now, no finding has determined otherwise. 2) Is the monitoring or even interception of communications by Americans with suspected foreign enemies anything new? A little reading in American history will show that it has occurred since the beginning of the country (in other words, no American citizen has ever been guaranteed that their foreign communications we not subject to monitoring and interception, esp. during war). 3) How important is such monitoring of foreign communications to protecting the citizens of the US from enemy attack, and how narrowly is the monitoring constrained to furthering that protection?

I don't wish to minimize your concerns: I understand them and to an extent share them. But to the extent that this monitoring is authorized by law and is directed and used only to determine and thwart nefarious plans with foreign enemies, it's both nothing new and directed towards a vital governmental purpose (protecting its citizens from foreign attack). And thus far I've read nothing that indicates otherwise. Not even in the NYT.

Aelfwine said...
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Aelfwine said...

To answer your questions, Janice:

"Are [soldiers] the only ones who should be asked to make the sacrifice of physical suffering to secure the good we all share?"

No, certainly not. But that doesn't mean we should turn a blind eye when civilians make that sacrifice, when civilians are hurt or killed, any more than we turn a blind eye when a soldier is hurt or killed (in fact, far less so!). It seems like what you're really asking is, should we not accept a certain level of risk, and a certain level of harm, to civilians? Yes we should, and do: many human activities are fraught with peril: driving cars, flying in planes, etc. It's always a trade-off, and always a situational and historical calculation. In the case of Islamic terrorism, we're not talking about a few here and a few there, we are talking about thousands upon thousands of victims over the years. Even if only American victims are considered, we've had hundreds of victims over the years, with little or no response until the attacks of 9/11/2001. At which point the calculation of the US (government and people) was that enough was enough, and that the risk attending further complacency in the face of Islamic terrorism was no longer acceptable.

"Should I as a civilian honor their sacrifice for my freedom by accepting the personal danger that is inherent in living in a free society in a dangerous world?"

To a point, absolutely. But under our Constitution, your level of comfort doesn't determine the level of personal danger that others must find acceptable. What is acceptable to the US as a nation is determined by our representative government, as limited by law and by the Constitution. And I don't think any soldier would be honored if the US did nothing in response to such outrageous attacks as occurred on 9/11/01, or if it allowed itself to be subverted from within by terrorist cells. In other words: no soldier would be honored by treating the Constitution as a suicide note, requiring us to ignore forces that wish to destroy the tenets, rights, society, and government affirmed by the Constitution, that use the freedoms we enjoy, and that our soldiers secure for us, in order to destroy those same freedoms.

(I also can't help but wonder, btw, if you are as concerned about other parts of the Constitution beyond the 4th Amendment, such as the 2nd, 9th, and 10th?)

"Should I as a civilian, give up civil liberties to protect the life they've sacrificed to save?"

No, certainly not on a permanent basis. But consider: habeas corpus was suspended both by Lincoln in the Civil War, and by Roosevelt in WWII. Both suspensions were temporary (thankfully), and may or may not have been necessary: but both Presidents thought it so at the time, and did not have the gift of forevision to determine if they were correct. Lincoln at least was severely criticized by his political enemies for doing so. Did they dishonor soldiers by doing so? Should they have been impeached and brought up on charges?

(And as with Lincoln, I can't help but wonder whether the current President -- who, btw, has not suspended habeas corpus, which further does not and never has applied to non-citizen enemy combatants -- would be so reviled by certain quarters were there a (D) rather than an (R) behind his name. Clinton, after all, limited h.c. even for citizens in the 1996 AEDPA, and I don't recall any outcry from the (D)s then. BTW, I didn't vote for Bush either time, just so you know. I am not myself an (R). Or a (D).)

"Should lives, civilian and or soldier, be sacrificed to protect our property and our economy?"

According to our Constitution, yes. In fact, it is a purpose and duty of government to do so, as stated in the preamble. Hence the power to raise and employ armies.

"How do we put a dollar figure on the sacrifice of lives?"

According to our Constitution,, that is for the people to decide, via their elected representatives.

Consider: we lost many times more lives in WWI, and on just D-Day alone, and more than a hundred times more lives in the Civil War, than we have lost in Iraq: Was our participation in WWI a mistake? (Many at the time thought so!) Should we have ceased our participation in WWII because of the losses of D-Day? Was the federal government's waging of the Civil War wrong, or not worth the huge sacrifice? My point being: numbers (lives, dollars) obviously do not, in themselves, determine the rightness or wrongness of war, either at the time or in hindsight.

Aelfwine said...

P.S. I also don't think we honor soldiers, or anyone else, by referring to Guantanamo, a military prison for enemy combatants -- i.e., for those who sought to, or did, kill our soldiers -- as a "gulag", i.e., as a prison for domestic political dissidents.

Janice said...

Aelfwine said:
"What "physical jeopardy" would you be in for trying to determine if your communications were monitored in such a way?"

Again, my writing was unclear. I was trying to express the possibility of the foreign terrorists having increased opportunities of harming American civilians if there is an attempt to determine if a) were there wire taps and b) were those taps legally implemented. I'm not worried about a visit from a U.S. government domestic hit squad.

Aelfwine said:
"In two years now, no finding has determined otherwise."

Having just this year sat on a jury that was trying a crime that happened on 10/30/04, I can't say that I'm surprised that it's taking a long time to reach a finding of any kind. (In case you're curious: The verdict was 2 men guilty as charged and 2 not guilty though we the jury would have preferred the ability to give a verdict of not proven.)

Aelfwine said:
"2) Is the monitoring or even interception of communications by Americans with suspected foreign enemies anything new?"

Two points on this one. a) The allegation is that there was no distinction made between communications among citizens within the U.S. and international communications. b) Failure to prosecute an illegal act the first time it is committed does not confer legality on subsequent acts of the same kind.

Aelfwine said:
"3) How important is such monitoring of foreign communications to protecting the citizens of the US from enemy attack, and how narrowly is the monitoring constrained to furthering that protection?"

Yes, exactly. I'd like to hear all sides of this.

"Aelfwine said:
" many human activities are fraught with peril: driving cars, flying in planes, etc. ... In the case of Islamic terrorism, we're not talking about a few here and a few there, we are talking about thousands upon thousands of victims over the years.

That the number of people who die on planes is small there is no doubt. Not so traffic fatalities. Death Statistics Comparison: The total number of people killed in highway crashes in 2001 was 42,116, compared to 41,945 in 2000. An average of 114 people die each day in car crashes in the U.S. A not at all scientific search for the numbers dead from terrorism turned up a Washington Post article showing that world wide 2000 people were killed by terrorists in 2004. As a caution - there is debate as to the methodology of counting. There are some who argue that the number of terrorism related deaths in 2004 was over counted and some who would argue that it was undercounted. Regardless, I'm much more likely to be killed in a car accident that by a terrorist.

Aelfwine said:
"(I also can't help but wonder, btw, if you are as concerned about other parts of the Constitution beyond the 4th Amendment, such as the 2nd, 9th, and 10th?)"

I confess to being most concerned with the amendments that touch closest to my life. Hence I haven't given thought to the 3rd, 9th or 10th amendments. I've thought about the 2nd amendment a lot. Guns per se are not bad. The problem is that our current level of gun technology allows evil/stupid/distraught/mentally impaired people to do irreparable harm very fast. We've got to find a way to deal with that fact while maintaining the rights of gun owners. It'll take some one much wiser than I am to untangle that knot.

I've often thought that if there are 2 people in this world who must understand each other's problems it's the head of the NRA and the head of the ACLU. Both are protecting important civil liberties and I suspect that both of them find some of the things they are compelled to defend distasteful. I do believe that they could benefit by getting together over the adult beverages of their choice and swapping stories.

Sorry not to be able to give the rest of your post the thoughtful response it deserves tonight. My energy levels are falling and these middle-aged, if I were going to live to be 102, eyes are beginning to whine about too many hours in front of a computer screen.

I'm certainly agreeable to continuing the discussion if you like but all the scrolling and typing in little boxes is beginning to make me cranky. May I suggest we take this to e-mail if you're interested? I believe you have my address.

Aelfwine said...

Janice, I think (and I think you agree) that this conversation has run its course in this forum. Perhaps we can continue one day over a good meal, when we can speak and consider, rather than try to funnel our thoughts into type? Let me say that I do appreciate your politeness, good will, and thoughtfulness in all this, despite our different perspectives.

Very best wishes to you (both).