Random thoughts, 22 April 2009

2009/04/22

Apparently, today is Earth Day, and up to one billion people around the world will be marking the occasion; [1] those of you who have read some of my previous posts have probably already figured out that I won’t be one of them. I don’t plan on doing anything in particular, which should be a plus for those who do celebrate the occasion; it could be worse: for Earth Hour, I observed the occasion by turning on all the lights in my apartment (even the lights in the closets) for the entire hour. Also, for those of you who worry that our activities are “killing” the planet, there is this website; just think about that the next time you worry about CO2 emissions “destroying” the planet.

On a domestic note, some furor has arisen regarding the President’s “controversial” decision to release the CIA memos regarding the “enhanced interrogation tactics” authorized by Bush II’s administration. On the one hand, I am not convinced that the release of these documents constitutes a threat to national security; as the President correctly pointed out, most of the information regarding the techniques themselves (waterboarding, physical abuse, etc.) is already (very) public knowledge, so in that regard, the “damage,” whatever that may be, has already been done. I am also not entirely comfortable with the notion of prosecuting those involved in creating the policy, [2] first of all, because I am not sure that their directives violated any law, [3] and secondly because the President himself has characterized this as a “moral” issue, and I am not at all comfortable with the notion of the legal system being used as a tool for punishing opposing moralities. Granted, this may have been a poor choice of words on his part (surprising, given his renown as a “great” public speaker), but it still worries me somewhat; like it or not, the law does not exist to enforce morality – this is the exclusive province of religion. The law exists to ensure that individuals (or the government itself) may freely exercise their guaranteed civil liberties, without overstepping their boundaries by infringing upon their neighbors’ right to do the same. To be fair, civilizations typically approach the creation of their systems of law from moral perspective, but it is not the intent of the law to punish moral infractions. Morality is also, ultimately, a personal matter, which is what concerns me most about such issues. If we accept that the law may be used to punish moral infractions, how long will it be until someone in a position of authority will use this to punish his or her opposition? This is not a situation we should willingly accept.

Another AP article also brings up an interesting twist to this entire situation. [4] It might have been interesting if the memos had included information on whether or not the techniques were even effective, and with whom they were effective. I suspect that the answer to the underlying question is that coercion works sometimes, and sometimes it does not work. Certain individuals may respond with usable information if pressed by such methods, while others will either shut up, or respond with erroneous information. I also suspect that the results depend greatly on the mental discipline of the individual under coercion. A strong-willed individual would likely be able to hold out long enough that when he does provide information, said information will appear truthful even if it is false; an individual with a weaker will would be more likely to break under the pressure, and provide whatever information they had, though this only matters if the individual in question has any information to provide. This, perhaps, is the most difficult aspect of such methods; if someone is withholding information, then such methods may, indeed, be sufficient to extract it. But how does one determine if an individual has any information to provide? I’m not sure I have a good answer for that question; I suspect that coercive interrogations are useful to some degree, but certainly not in all cases.

In other domestic news, the EPA has now announced that greenhouse gases pose a health hazard; [5] perhaps I’m reading the article incorrectly, but I couldn’t figure out what kind of hazard they pose, apart from, of course, the argument that these gases contribute to the slight increase in global temperatures over the course of the next century. Of course, given that CO2 is now considered to be the greatest hazard to the planet, perhaps we should all stop exhaling; those of you who recall high school biology will note that the primary end product of our respiratory cycle (along with those of all other animal life on the planet) is CO2. Even after we stop burning things for energy, will there still be measurable negative environmental effects due to the CO2 emissions of the six billion human beings on the planet, along with the emissions of all the animal life on the planet? Perhaps these emissions should be regulated, as well?

Finally, a recent Gallup poll indicates that most Americans still worry about the effects of big government. Of course, given recent events, the appraisal of big business has gone down slightly, but big government still holds higher disapproval, by an almost 2 to 1 margin. I wonder how long it will be before this sort of sentiment begins to mar the President’s stellar approval ratings. Of course, this is contingent on whether or not the people at large make the connection between the President’s grandiose schemes and the notion of big government; hopefully, this will not take too long.

Notes:

[1]: CNN article, 21 April 2009.

[2]: See articles here and here; AP article, 21 April 2009, & USA Today article, 22 April 2009.

[3]: Lets face it, apart from the waterboarding issue, most of these “enhanced interrogation tactics” sound like a bad fraternity initiation rite, or the results of an epic drinking binge. Yes, they are demeaning activities, but do they truly rank on the same level as, say, the rack or the iron maiden? Civilized perspectives are not necessarily a bad thing, but they also, sometimes, soften us a bit too much.

[4]: AP article, 22 April 2009.

[5]: CNN article, 17 April 2009.

[6]: Gallup poll, 20 April 2009.

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