Friday, January 23, 2009

Danger Man

In college, at the apex of the Cold War, I spent a summer in the Soviet Union on an intensive Russian language study course. We had a little free time to wander around on our own, during which I met and spoke to many random Russians. Most were quite interested in talking to an American, but very hesitant to be seen doing so, especially anywhere near our hotel. In Leningrad I stopped to watch a young man working on a painting, very much against the grain of "Soviet Realism." He spoke candidly about the restrictions on artists, wishing he could be in America. Unlike everyone else I'd met, he not only accompanied me back to the hotel, but came to my room, where he continued to express his frustrations as an artist. Then he came with me to the train station, where my group was to commence a ride back to Moscow.

Once on the train, I looked out the window in time to see my new friend being escorted away forcefully, a policeman on each arm.

The Bush surveillance program, we are now told, was vastly more far-reaching than we knew: virtually every communication of every American citizen was subject to scrutiny. Especially journalists. Like the Soviet Union, but higher tech. Is that what we want? Is it necessary for our safety? Are we willing to have every email, every google search, every blog post screened by our government? Yes, or no.

From Marc Thiessen, chief speechwriter for George Bush:

"...The CIA program he is effectively shutting down is the reason why America has not been attacked again after 9/11. He has removed the tool that is singularly responsible for stopping al-Qaeda from flying planes into the Library Tower in Los Angeles, Heathrow Airport, and London’s Canary Warf, and blowing up apartment buildings in Chicago, among other plots. It’s not even the end of inauguration week, and Obama is already proving to be the most dangerous man ever to occupy the Oval Office.

Strong stuff. Probably a mere whiff of what's to come. The above commentary begins by referring to an article in the WaPo, and to a paragraph within that says:

"With the stroke of his pen, he effectively declared an end to the "war on terror," as President George W. Bush had defined it, signaling to the world that the reach of the U.S. government in battling its enemies will not be limitless...While Obama says he has no plans to diminish counterterrorism operations abroad, the notion that a president can circumvent long-standing U.S. laws simply by declaring war was halted by executive order in the Oval Office."

Strong stuff. The entire article is worth reading, because, unsurprisingly, there's lots more there than the parts over which the speechwriter chose to go ballistic. But the two pieces are good center-points for any discussion (assuming there can be discussion, as opposed to polemics) on the subject of surveillance, rights, and torture. I disagree with most of the former one, and at least part of the latter.

Both paragraphs mischaracterize what happened, as I understand it: Barack Obama neither suspended surveillance activity, nor declared an end to the "war on terror." He did, however, change the rules in favor of legality. Had he re-named the struggle we are in with those who wish us harm, that'd have been okay with me, too. "War on Terror" was always a misnomer at best, and at worst a means of justification for tossing centuries of law out the window.

I've said forever that intelligence-gathering, as opposed to invading Iraq, is central to keeping us safe. So has Barack Obama. In no way is he ending that. He is, however, saying it can be done within the law, and that there are reasons to do so.

I'd love to know the truth: are the so-called plots that have been uncovered (some of which are laughably lame) the result of surveillance that could have only been done without warrants? Have we in fact gotten accurate information from prisoners as a result of torture? If so, is it the case that the information could not have been otherwise obtained?

Contrary to the frothing of the speechwriter crazy guy, it seems President Obama actually plans to investigate exactly those sorts of questions. Are there techniques not covered in the Army Field Manual that have a place in our armamentarium? If so, under what circumstances. To the alarm of some, he actually wants to know the facts.

Somewhere along the line, between here and being forcibly taken out of train stations, we have some serious discussions to hold, and choices to make.



Anonymous said...

HA!! I knew it wouldn't last, less than 96 hrs into the new administration and here you are still with your Panties in a Bunch about "W"..

You are Officially Gay.

Speaking of which, where's that Executive Order overturning "Don't Ask, Don't Smell"??


Sid Schwab said...

It was the Bushwriter with his panties in a bunch. And I note you failed to note the GITMO order that you were neenering, and changed the shrei.

Anonymous said...

Gitmos closed?
Let me know when it actually happens,


Ellen Kimball said...

Hi Sid,

It will be interesting to see what happens with Russia and China under this new administration.

I envy your travels as a young man. Prior to my current marriage, I had only been to Quebec City, Canada, in December 1963 and then to Nassau in the Bahamas briefly a couple of times in my younger years.

Basically, from my birth to about age 45, that was the total of my "international" travel until our children were launched in the middle 1980s. That's when my husband and I really began to visit the world outside the U.S.A.

My husband's father, Samuel, was born in Russia and came to the U.S. in the early 1900s as a teenager. He spoke Russian, Yiddish, and some Polish, but never learned to read or write much English. He read the Jewish Forward newspaper with some zest. His verbal skills in English were quite meager, but good enough to run a leather business in Boston, Massachusetts for many years. Sam had many immigrant friends of all nationalities, and enjoyed raising and trading fancy pigeons.

Because Sam and his family were Jewish and essentially thrown out of Russia, he never evidenced any interest in returning during any of his 83 years. He was once quoted as saying, "They didn't want me there, so why should I ever want to go back?"

My grandfather -- Harry K. -- was also an immigrant, born in 1886 in Vilna, Russia. Harry ran a butter, egg, and cheese business in Pittsburgh. He died young and I know very little about him. My father -- Leonard K. -- was born in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As far as I know, Dad never professed any longing to know more about his background.

Which brings me to the reason why I would LOVE to go to Russia, especially Moscow and other places. I would even welcome going to Germany, Bavaria, and Austria. It's more than just wanderlust; I am just fascinated by those countries.

Unfortunately, my husband -- an avid travel junkie -- does not show any interest in trips to those places. He was in Munich, Germany on business years ago and said he felt very weird being there. This is the guy who has mostly severed his relationship with Judaism -- except for the gastric part. That would be lox, cream cheese, bagels, matzo balls, gefilte fish, all those wonderful things my daughter makes. Oh, and he loves BORSCHT, too!

On the plus side, this is the year we head to Australia in October for two weeks. It will be springtime in Sydney. We've been talking about this for years, and just worked out the details only recently through our timeshare program. Hurrah!

Thanks for your kind remarks re: hand surgery for the small synovial cyst and bone spur. The tiny sutures were snipped Friday, I'm down to a couple of steristrips and hope to go back to swimming next week.

Warm regards,


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