Category Archives: Crime & Punishment

Torture discussion

Vic and I have been trading emails arguing about whether torture can ever be excused. Vic took the trouble of looking up an old article by Harvard’s Alan Dershowitz which was published in the L.A. Times. I’m taking a copywrite liberty here by posting nearly half of what Dershowitz said but his comments are worth pondering. Has America had the public discussion about interrogation techniques that Israel had? I don’t know.

“Before 1999, Israel tried to come to terms with the torture issue. Rather than denying it publicly and winking at it privately like many other countries (and many police forces even in the United States), Israeli officials sought to codify what was and was not permissible in order to wage the most effective battle against terrorism within the rule of law.

They set out rules allowing “moderate physical pressure” in specific cases – including such non-lethal tactics as sleep deprivation, tying up prisoners in painful positions with hoods over their heads, violent shaking, and loud music. The argument was that such measures were justified in “ticking bomb” cases in which getting instant information out of a terrorist suspect about an imminent attack was essential.

Esther Wachsman, for example, whose son was kidnapped by militants, has said that she knew Israeli agents tortured a captured Palestinian to force him to reveal the 19-year-old’s whereabouts and that she had no regrets about it. “Was this man going to reveal this kind of information if they served him tea and played some Mozart?” she asked.

For some years the rules were in place, even though opponents argued that torture of any kind was a black-and-white issue – always wrong, never allowable.

In the end, the Israeli Supreme Court issued a decision in 1999 prohibiting all forms of rough interrogation. In rendering this decision, the court described in detail what was prohibited: shaking, stress positions, hooding, playing “powerfully loud music,” and other physical pressures. The court did leave open a tiny window in ticking-bomb cases. It suggested that if an interrogator honestly and reasonably believed that the only way to prevent an attack was to apply moderate physical pressure, he could try to convince a court after the fact that his actions fell under the defense of “necessity.” Thus far, no such defense has been offered.

This decision stimulated an important debate inside and outside Israel. It is unlikely that it ended all physical abuse, but even Israel’s most strident critics acknowledge that it certainly has been curtailed.”

When did the beheadings begin?

I’ve just been listening to an interesting interview on MPR’s Midday Program with Dr. Steve Miles. He’s recently written a book about how doctors co-operated with military interrogators in the abusive prisons of the war on terror. The treatment of these prisoners was dictated by the Bush Administration, which turned its back on the Geneva Conventions.

Among the many interesting observations Miles made was this. In response to the question that our strong-arm tactics were justified in dealing with an enemy that beheaded their captives, Miles said that the first documented beheading came eleven days after Abu Ghraib hit the news. Before that most of the American captives had been able to escape or walk away from their captors. Few if any have escaped since.

 

A drug debate

Vic and another reader took issue with my reply to Vic: The other correspondent suggested that I look to Alaska as an example of a state where, apparently, lots of people smoke grass and nobody does anything about it. My first thought was flippant”- “What! A good Republican state that doesn’t care if its citizens smoke pot!!!” Vic’s riposte to me explains why this could be:

“I suggest that our streets (and homes and persons) are not safe, and that they would be safer without our idiotic drug laws, because then there wouldn’t be black-market prices for drugs, there wouldn’t be robberies and burglaries (and worse) for drugs, and there wouldn’t be gang-banging for the purpose of maintaining drug territories. Booze, too, is troublesome for our society, but I suggest that because of the repeal of prohibition, booze is less troublesome than it was during prohibition, and it is less troublesome than the drugs that are the subject of our idiotic drug laws. Vic”

I mostly agree with Vic. As a child of the “me generation” I went for a couple years getting stoned nearly every weekend. For a short period it was closer to four or five nights a week. I even experimented with amphetamines for a few months. I’m aware of the lure of mind-altering drugs. Today I’ve become a poor-man’s wine snob.

I’ve never tried heroin, cocaine or meth-amphetamines. I can imagine a time when a potent enough strain of marijuana, which is already much more potent than the stuff I smoked thirty years ago, could become a menace through hybridization. I would be happy to let doctors prescribe marijuana’s THC to give sick people an appetite. I know from personal experience that it works. I’d be happy to let doctors prescribe heroin to people suffering great pain. But the three other drugs I mentioned are far greater threats to people and society. I’ve come to buy the conservative argument about gateway drugs. If we were going to legalize marijuana I’d want it regulated as strictly if not more so than liquor.

It’s often argued that motorcycle riders should have the freedom to choose to ride without helmets. It’s also argued that it’s not fair for society to cover the medical expenses of injured riders who have lifelong brain injuries because of their choice to be free. I agree with both positions. This is just one more example of why the middle ground appeals to me. People are often wrong only when they insist that the people who disagree with them are wrong.

A word of warning for the Grassroots Party – marijuana legalization is not my top priority. If I’m elected to Congress I’d probably be content to speak candidly about marijuana law reform and leave it at that.

As for our prison populations. . . As a former school board member I was always unhappy that we were willing to pay the much more exorbitant expenses of 24-hour-a-day jailing than for a good 8-hour-a-day education. The little Republican under my new Democratic skin is appalled at this.

Vic’s Challenge

My email buddy Vic who has sent me interesting items for years recently read my gushing praise for the “This I believe” segment sticking up for the middle.

“And where is “the middle” for would-be Representative Harry Welty regarding our drug laws? The idiocy of prohibition revisited, which is what we have; or decriminalization and treatment? ‘the greatest freedom’, with everyone being prohibited from toking, and with almost half of our prison populations existing because of those idiotic drug laws?”
Vic

One advantage I have over Grams and Oberstar is that as someone not dependent on a political party I can be candid without fear of outraging the party I depend on. So here goes, Vic. You’re right. We’ve put millions of Americans in jail over the last decade for drug crimes and made our streets momentarily safe. We did not try to rehabilitate these folks. Some states, like California, skimped so much on their vast, chaotic prison systems that they are out of control; little more than gang-breeding programs. And last week there was the terrible shoot-out by prison guards of FBI agents who were about to arrest them for the business-like way the guards solicited sex from female inmates. A guard killed an agent.

Now this prison population is poised to flood back into the streets as their sentences reach their conclusion. Our get-tough drug policies have only created bitter graduates who will wreak havoc on the streets.

I’m not eager to make America a Netherlands-like land of pot heads but our punitive drug laws are and have been stupid for years. Now we are facing another terrible drug, methamphetamine. Maybe, since it is ravaging a rural white populataion instead of black inner city neighborhoods our leaders will be motivated to rethink our drug laws. I know if I’m elected I will be prepared to change them from the ground up.

As a proponent of the middle I think it’s fitting to ease up on the most draconian laws but I’m also willing to put hurdles in the way of free and unimpeded drug recreation.

Another sign that the Duluth School District is on the right path

I recently heard a story which confirmed a long held belief. People who are being watched are more likely to behave. This has also been confirmed by video cameras placed in cars and directed at drivers. People behind the wheel correct their careless behavior rather than let it be captured on camera.

Of course, doing what is right because it is right rather than doing right because you’ll stay out of trouble is not particularly honorable but just tell that to the person whose gotten hit by a wreckless driver or mugged, raped and cheated because no one was watching.

When I was on the Duluth School Board one of the more troubling incidents involved a rape in a Denfeld High stairwell. The Board talked about getting cameras but was stymied due to their prohibitive expense. Apparently this roadblock has been lifted. Way to go Duluth Schools!

tattle tales vs. whistle blowers

One more story about the shabby way whistle blowers are treated. In this case the fellow who exposed his company for taking 45 tons of goods donated after the destruction of the World Trade Towers is fired after death threats.

Too often we confuse whistle blowers, who are often the only people willing to keep the rest of us honest, with school yard tattle tales.

This shortsighted thinking seems to explain the Supreme Court’s recent descision to weaken the protection of government employees who blow the whistle when government goes bad.

Old News

I’m writing a book online. Its not the book I had planned to write. Two others were already in the waiting. One was an account of my Mother’s career as an artist. The other was a fictionalized account of my Grandfather’s experiences in the First World War.

This new writing project came out of left field after a column I wrote last November about one of the biggest political scandals to hit Minnesota. It rather mysteriously died with a whimper when, surprise surprise, a couple low level functionaries got all the blame.

I’ve given it the accurate but lack luster name “Old News” as its working title. I hope to come up with something better over the Summer. I’m looking for help in writing it.

Life vs. Capitol Punishment

As a little kid I concluded that a life sentence was far worse than capitol punishment. What was the point of living, I asked myself, if you were denied the opportunity to live it?

The Federal Government’s expensive but failed bid to execute Zacharias Moussaoui helps demonstrate this point. In the face of rotting (that’s how the judge put it) the rest of his life away in a supermax prison Zacharias now says, I was just kidding. I didn’t realize you would really give me a fair trial. I’d rather not rot for the rest of my life in oblivion. I want a do over.

The pragmatist in me asks why I should spend taxpayer dollars to keep this man alive for the rest of his natural life. His response to the agony of people was two fold. He laughed at it and regretted that he hadn’t be able to help inflict it. The eye for an eye part of my brain thinks death is too good for him.

I get a little satisfaction every couple of years when I hear that Sirhan Sirhan has been turned down yet again for a pardon. Sirhan is the fellow who shot Robert Kennedy dead. He now serves a life sentence where he wakes every day knowing that the four corners of his cell are all he has to look forward to when he wakes on the morrow. Now that’s what I call punishment.

What’s the murder with kids these days?

The foiled plot to exceed the carnage Columbine put writer Walter Kirn in a reflective frame of mind. He’s been filling in for Andrew Sulivan for the past couple weeks. His post put what a lot of us have been thinking quite well:

“There’s something about the world these days that brings out the worst in the lonely and the obscure and feeds their grudges until they grow enormous. And I don’t think it’s violent video games and movies. I don’t think it’s access to firearms. I think it’s the simple message that you’re not anyone until you’ve done something worthy of media coverage, whatever that thing may be. The star-system has become a kind of moral code with only one commandment: Thou Shalt Not Go Unnoticed. When the concept of fame broke free from its old grounding in the concept of public virtue — when it was supplanted by the lesser idea of Warhol-ish celebrity — the lid was off the jar.

Luckily (I think), the Web has come along, where anyone can make his presence felt — or have the illusion of making his presence felt — without having to perpetrate a sensational crime. The Kansas kids were eager to do both, of course, and they foiled themselves. Perhaps the Web’s promise of liberating people from anonymity will aggravate their mania, but here’s hoping it will bleed it off some.”