Politics Archive

Tuesday, January 13, 2015

Depressing Poll - Majority of Americans Support Torture

This is a few weeks old, but I can't let it go by without commenting on it.

In the wake of the Senate Intelligence Committee's report on the CIA's use of torture, the Washington Post and ABC News conducted a poll to determine American's attitudes towards torture. And the results were depressing. Over half of Americans thought that torture was justified! Let that sink in a minute. We're talking about methods bad enough that we executed the Japanese soldiers who used them against American soldiers during WWII. Some of the detainees were tortured to death. And on top of all that, not all of the people tortured were actual enemies - they were merely suspects who never received their day in court, and some have since been determined to have been innocent. And people think this is justified!

(Image Source: Raw Story)

For a bit of historical perspective, let's consider a document that while not quite a founding document of the USA, was still very important in showing the attitudes of the nation's founders, the Declaration of Independence. Here's the opening line to the second paragraph (emphasis mine):

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

All men. Unalienable. Jefferson and the signatories weren't hedging their words. They thought everyone was deserving of "Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness".

Now, let's move on to a document that actually does carry legal weight in the U.S., the Constitution. Take a look at the eighth amendment (again with emphasis by me):

Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

It's right there in our nation's founding document that 'cruel and unusual punishments' are forbidden, yet here we are doing just that.

Now, you could bring up the practical side, and point out that torture isn't even an effective means of obtaining information - that it's unreliable and non-torture methods are more effective. But that's a bit of a red herring. Torture is wrong on moral grounds, not just practical ones.

Americans are rightly outraged at the horrific examples of ISIS beheading U.S. journalists. But it's not because the beheadings are ineffective at ISIS achieving their goals. It's because the actions are barbaric. But how can the U.S. claim any moral high ground when we do things like this (source: The Guardian):

At COBALT, the CIA interrogated in 2002 Gul Rahman, described as a suspected Islamic extremist. He was subjected to "48 hours of sleep deprivation, auditory overload, total darkness, isolation, a cold shower and rough treatment".

CIA headquarters suggested "enhanced measures" might be needed to get him to comply. A CIA officer at COBALT ordered Rahman be "shackled to the wall of his cell in a position that required the detainee to rest on the bare concrete floor".

He was only wearing a sweatshirt as a CIA officer has ordered his clothes to be removed earlier after judging him to be uncooperative during an interrogation.

The next day, guards found Rahman dead. An internal CIA review and autopsy assessed he likely died from hypothermia - "in part from having been forced to sit on the bare concrete floor without pants". An initial CIA review and cable sent to CIA headquarters after his death included a number of misstatements and omissions.

Torturing someone, and then leaving them chained half naked to a cold concrete floor to freeze to death is barbaric. And whereas a beheading, as horrific as it is, is relatively quick, this was a prolonged torture. And the final freezing to death took hours. It was horrible.

And what about this:

"The two detainees that each had a broken foot were also subjected to walling, stress positions and cramped confinement, despite the note in their interrogation plans that these specific enhanced interrogation techniques were not requested because of the medical condition of the detainees," the report says.

And if forcing people with broken bones to stand on those bones doesn't seem harsh enough, how about shoving food and water up a person's anus:

CIA operatives subjected at least five detainees to what they called "rectal rehydration and feeding".

One CIA cable released in the report reveals that detainee Majid Khan was administered by enema his "'lunch tray' consisting of hummus, pasta with sauce, nuts and raisins was 'pureed and rectally infused'". One CIA officer's email was in the report quoted as saying "we used the largest Ewal [sic] tube we had".


Risks of rectal feeding and rehydration include damage to the rectum and colon, triggering bowels to empty, food rotting inside the recipient's digestive tract, and an inflamed or prolapsed rectum from carless insertion of the feeding tube. The report found that CIA leadership was notified that rectal exams may have been conducted with "Excessive force", and that one of the detainees, Mustafa al-Hawsawi, suffered from an anal fissure, chronic hemorrhoids and symptomatic rectal prolapse.

The CIA's chief of interrogations characterized rectal rehydration as a method of "total control" over detainees, and an unnamed person said the procedure helped to "clear a person's head".

These were sadistic, disgusting acts committed against human beings. And remember that they were only suspects, who never had their day in court to determine their innocence or guilt. It's absolutely shameful that a majority of Americans support this.

Aside from pointing out just how horrible this torture has been, the survey revealed something else. It broke down support for torture by various groups (details here), including political party and religious affiliation. It's probably not very surprising, but support for torture was highest among conservatives, Republicans, and the religious. In fact, the three demographic categories listed with the highest support for torture were conservative Republican (72%), Republican (71%), and white evangelical Protestant (69%) (note that percentages represent people answering 'sometimes' or 'often' to the question of whether torture of suspected terrorists can ever be justified). The three demographic groups with the least support were liberal Democrat (38%), no religion (40%), and liberal (43%). It's still distressing that so many liberals support torture, but at least it's not a majority.

Since I write about religion so much on this blog, I'll also point out explicitly that the 'no religion' category was the religious category with the least support for torture, or conversely, with the most opposition. Every other religious group listed had majority support (white evangelical Protestant - 79%, white Catholic - 68%, white non-evangelical Protestant - 63%). This is just further demonstration that religion doesn't lead people to better morals.

Anyway, I'm done with this entry. Every time I read through it again to proof-read or see if there's anything else I want to add, I just get angry. This is a horrible, horrible stain on our country's reputation. Everyone involved, from Bush and Cheney on down, ought to be taken to the Hague and tried for human rights abuses. But instead of justice, we live in a country where the majority supports this depravity.

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

A Critical Examination of Ben Carson, Part 1 - Evolution

Ben CarsonPrompted by a recent political discussion with someone I know who's a big fan of Ben Carson, I've decided to take a closer look at this potential politician. For links to all of the entries in this series, go to the index.

I've written about Carson a few times before on this blog, for his opposition to marriage equality, his anti-science position in denying evolution (both covered here - Local University Invites Creationist to Give Commencement Address), and his mangled interpretation of the Establishment Clause and the separation of church and state in response to a minor controversy over Bibles in Navy hotel rooms (A Response to Ben Carson's Comments on Navy Bible Kerfuffle). With those three strikes against him, I wasn't all that interested in digging into his positions on other issues, but that discussion prompted me to do so. I figured that maybe by basing my impression of him on only three issues, I'd been being overly critical.

I went to his official website, RealBenCarson.com, where he puts links to articles he's written and had published elsewhere. To get a decent sampling of his opinions, I read each of the articles featured on the home page (at least the articles when I first went there - it's taken me a little while to put together this response, so he's put up more articles since then). While there were some points he made that I agreed with, I found myself in disagreement with him over many issues. I'd started to write up responses to the articles that I was going to send as an e-mail to my friend, but my responses were getting too long for an e-mail. So instead, I sent a shorter reply and decided to turn my responses into blog entries. In the coming weeks, I plan to post those entries as I complete them.

For today, I'll focus on just one issue, one of the first issues I'd ever heard about him and one that I've already discussed before - his rejection of evolution. There's a portion of an interview where he discusses evolution available from the Wayback Macine, Adventist Review - Evolution? No. Here's an example of Carson's abysmal understanding and rejection of evolution.

Even if you accept evolutionary theory--developing a more sophisticated organism in this theoretically "logical" fashion, then there should be a continuum of organisms. And why did evolution divert in so many directions--birds, fish, elephants, apes, humans--if there is some force evolving to the maximum? Why isn't everything a human--a superior human? Darwin specifically stated that his theory hung on the discovery of intermediate forms, and was sure that we would find them. More than a hundred years later we still haven't found them. Even the earliest fossils don't show such intermediates.

If you don't remember enough from high school biology to know why that's such a horrible statement, I wrote an article that addresses some of it, Local Church Misunderstands Evolution - Why Are There Still Apes?.

Here's another quote where he denies a separate area of science, the Big Bang.

So how could our incredibly organized universe come about as the result of a big bang? This flies in the face of the second law, which says it would be less organized as a result, not more! Scientists have to be consistent.

Carson's rejection of evolution is a huge red flag to me. First, there're the obvious reasons - evolution is one of the most well supported concepts in science, and it's been known of for over 150 years, so for a reasonably intelligent person to reject evolution must mean they're either ignorant of science, and/or willing to put ideology ahead of evidence. Ignorance can be cured with education, but putting ideology ahead of evidence is a huge problem for a political figure.

A perhaps less obvious problem, but which seems to be the case given Carson's answers, is arrogance. This comes in two ways - first, thinking that he knows more than the countless scientists and researchers who have devoted their careers to this topic (see the related entry, The Economy & Expertise ). The second is that he spoke so confidently about a subject about which he obviously knows so very little. In fact, this is my main issue with his rejection of evolution - not that he's merely ignorant of the science, but rather that he's so sure of himself when he's so obviously wrong. Elected officials don't need to know everything, but they do need to recognize the limits of their knowledge, and know when to defer to the experts in various fields.

(If you're interested, here's a degreed biologist's response to Carson's comments on evolution, showing just how misinformed those comments were - Afarensis - Stupid Creationist Quote of the Week: Ben Carson on Evolution.)

Anyway, from his articles and what I'd heard of Carson before, although I agree with him on some things, I find myself in disagreement with him over many, many other issues, and have seen a few red flags to make me question his credibility. I have no doubt he's a very talented surgeon, but his political views leave something to be desired.

In the coming weeks, I will post responses to his articles, and maybe a few other things if I get particularly ambitious.

Image Source: Christian Post, Credit: Reuters/Jonathan Ernst

Continue to Part 2 - Religious Privilege

Update 2015-01-22: Added quotes from interview & slightly rearranged other portions to accommodate quotes.

Update 2015-02-10: Removed index from this page to create a stand-alone index page. Slightly reworded opening paragraph on this page to link to the index, and split it into two paragraphs.

Wednesday, November 5, 2014

Election Results 2014

Sad Uncle SamUgh. I'm not terribly surprised, given then way the polls were going, but this is still dispiriting, and especially disappointing that the polls appeared to have a slight Democratic bias this year that gave the Republicans a few more races than predicted (this bias goes back and forth, sometimes favoring one party, sometimes the other - more info: FiveThirtyEight Blog).

As far as the Texas SBOE elections, the best news is that reasonable candidates held their ground and didn't lose to new ideologues. The bad news is that incumbent ideologues held their seats, too, so there's not going to be any change in how the board conducts itself anytime soon. For results, the Texas Tribune has a good page, but I can't link directly to the SBOE results. You'll have to click on the SBOE tab:
2014 Elections Scoreboard

Anyway, I'm not up to writing a whole lot about this, so I'll just provide links to what other people have written.

About the only consolation is that voting trends can change rapidly every two years, so I can only hope that 2016 will reverse the current state, and get Democrats back into the majority. Like I've mentioned before, I'm not a huge supporter of Democrats, but Republican policies are just so horrible that Democrats get my support by default. Anyway, here's a graph I stole from an article on FiveThirtyEight Blog, Is 2014 A Republican Wave?.

Trends on Popular Vote for U.S. House of Representatives

So, two more years of nothing getting done. Two more years to wait until hopefully better results.

Uncle Sam Image Source: FairEconomy.org

Tuesday, November 4, 2014

Get Out and Vote, 2014

I Voted Today

I voted today. If you haven't already, go do it.

Like I've said many times, and almost verbatim two years ago, I hardly ever vote a straight ticket, and this year was no exception. Of course, if you read this blog, it's no surprise that I voted mostly for Democrats, but I judge each candidate individually, so a few Republicans and Green Party candidates also got my vote.

Monday, November 3, 2014

Midterm Election 2014 - Fix the Texas Board of Education

TEA LogoThe midterm elections are tomorrow. Seven seats on the Texas State Board of Education (SBOE) board are up for grabs (sort of - one candidate is running uncontested). With all the shenanigans and controversy associated with the board, this is a chance to replace some of the extremists responsible for those problems, and of course, keep the members who are doing a good job. And of course, you should also be voting just out of general principle on all the races - that's how a representative democracy works.

For general election information, Texas has a pretty good website to inform you about what's going to be on the ballot, where you can vote, etc.:
Texas Voter Information Website

One particularly helpful section that's buried in that site allows you to enter your address to see who represents you at all the various levels of government:
Who Represents Me?

I've found two good resources for assessing the candidates' positions - the Texas Freedom Network, and the iVoterGuide. Both sent out questionnaires to candidates and have listed the responses of those that responded. TFN put them all in one place. iVoterGuide, who also covered much more than just the SBOE election, have it broken down by district. The iVoterGuide links appear to be a little glitchy, so you may just need to go through their main site, iVoterGuide.com.

TFV SBOE Voter Guide
iVoterGuide - SBOE Dist. 3
iVoterGuide - SBOE Dist. 4
iVoterGuide - SBOE Dist. 7
iVoterGuide - SBOE Dist. 11
iVoterGuide - SBOE Dist. 12
iVoterGuide - SBOE Dist. 13

Here's a summary of the candidates for each district. The ones marked with an asterisk are the incumbents.

District 2: Ruben Cortez* (D) - uncontested

Not much to comment on here.

District 3: Marisa B. Perez* (D), Dave Mundy (R), Josh Morales (L)
Perez gets my endorsement. Mundy appears to be exactly the type of ideologue that caused so much trouble in the Board's past.

District 4: Lawrence A. Allen, Jr.* (D), Dorothy Olmos (R)
Allen gets my endorsement. Olmos also appears to be the type of ideologue that caused so much trouble before.

District 7: Kathy King (D), David Bradley* (R), Megan DaGata (L)
From their responses, King and DaGata both look like they'd be reasonable. Bradley is simply horrible, with a proven track record of divisiveness.

Megan DaGata's answers to iVoterGuide questions
TFN Summary of David Bradley

District 11: Nancy Bean (D), Patricia "Pat" Hardy* (R), Craig Sanders (L)

Take your pick on this one. I don't agree with all of Hardy's responses to the iVoterGuide survey, but she's done a good job with her time on the board and hasn't been part of the extremist contingent (during the primaries, it was her Republican challenger, Eric Mahroum, who got the endorsement from the extremists - more info).

District 12: Lois Parrott (D), Geraldine "Tincy" Miller* (R), Mark Wester (L)
Parrott gets my endorsement on this one. Wester's responses to the TFN surveys seem mostly reasonable, except that he doesn't want climate change taught to students. Miller has done some good things in her time on the board, but she's also sided with the extremists too many times, and her answers to the iVoterGuide questions are horrendous.

District 13: Erika Beltran (D), Junart Sodoy (L)

Beltran gets my endorsement. Sodoy isn't as bad as some of the other candidates, but he's against having qualified experts review curriculum standards and textbooks, is against teaching about climate chage, wouldn't take a position on denouncing creationism as not science, and didn't think schools should protect students from bullying and harassment.

So that's my take. I won't lie and say I'm particularly optimistic, but this is a chance to improve the school board responsible for our children's education, and take some of the culture wars out of that organization.

I've written about the board a few times over the years, so for some background on this issue, here are my previous entries, in chronological order, with the newest at the top.


Selling Out