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Change We Can Believe In, XIII

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Change We Can Believe In: Mainstreaming brutality

In the last two posts of my Change We Can Believe In series (here and here), I wrote about the recent escalation in the mistreatment of PFC Bradley Manning at the Quantico brig, where he is held in solitary confinement and now forced to spend nights naked. Thursday, while speaking to a small audience at MIT, State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley described Manning’s treatment as “ridiculous and counterproductive and stupid.”

News of Crowley’s comments first appeared in a blog of Philippa Thomas, who was at the event, and who concluded her account with the note that:

A few minutes later, I had a chance to ask a question. “Are you on the record?” I would not be writing this if he’d said no. There was an uncomfortable pause. “Sure.” So there we are.

Crowley’s comments were widely covered yesterday, with Crowley confirming to Foreign Policy’s Josh Rogin that they were indeed on the record, adding that “What I said was my personal opinion. It does not reflect an official USG policy position. I defer to the Department of Defense regarding the treatment of Bradley Manning.”

ABC’s Jake Tapper asked President Obama yesterday if he agreed with Crowley’s comments.

President Obama said Friday that he’d “asked the Pentagon whether or not the procedures that have been taken in terms of his confinement are appropriate and are meeting our basic standards.”

Pentagon officials, he said, “assure me that they are. I can’t go into details about some of their concerns, but some of this has to do with Private Manning’s safety as well.”

Asked if he therefore disagreed with P.J. Crowley, President Obama sidestepped the question, saying he’d responded “to the substantive issue.”

Manning’s safety! Yes, the Defense Department has said Manning may commit suicide, and if there’s even a kernel of truth to this, it’s because they have been systematically driving him crazy by using the same techniques used on prisoners in Guantánamo. But is he really going to kill himself with his underwear? As Manning’s lawyer, David Coombs, explained last week,

his client’s clothing was taken away at night after Manning commented that if he wanted to harm himself, he could do it with “the elastic waistband of his underwear or with his flip-flops.”

He now has to strip every night before bed and also stand outside his cell naked during an inspection every morning, after which his clothes will be returned. He will be allowed to have two blankets at night.

Military officials said the move was a “precautionary measure” to prevent Manning from injuring himself.

Obama’s response yesterday lends credence to Alex Knapp’s observation in a blog post at Outside the Beltway last Monday that Obama is mainstreaming brutality. Well, Knapp doesn’t lay the blame entirely on Obama. Rather, he lays out a familiar, decade-long process. Obama is just the endpoint.

What I find most troubling is that until Obama acquiesced in this process, one could imagine it was a short-term Bush-Cheney aberration. Indeed, many voted for Obama in the belief that he would ensure the short-term, aberrational character of the Bush-Cheney brutality. Instead, by sanctioning such brutality, Obama is ensuring instead that it will move into the mainstream. Knapp explains:

I’ve been trying for the past couple weeks to write about Bradley Manning, but I can’t. It makes me sick to my stomach. The whole trend of brutality and betrayal of American ideals over the past decade makes me sick to my stomach.

We have gone from being the first country that established the principle that prisoners of war should be treated respectfully to a country that operates black sites and sends prisoners to other countries to be tortured–when we don’t torture them ourselves.

In the American Revolution, the number one cause of death for American soldiers was maltreatment and disease in British POW camps. In the Civil War, Andersonville was a cause of national outrage. In the early 20th century, the United States emphatically supported the adoption of the Geneva Conventions. In World War II, German soldiers happily surrendered to Americans in the West, knowing they’d be well treated. But in the East, they fought the Russians to the last man because they knew they wouldn’t be.

Now, in the 21st century, we send robot planes to bomb civilians in a country that’s ostensibly an ally. We have prisons where people are routinely denied basic essentials, denied due process, are maltreated and tortured. We reverse decades of tradition and not only have legalized assassination, but have legalized assassination of United States citizens.

[snip]

Then in 2008, one major reason why I voted for Barack Obama was because he forcefully claimed to be opposed to such policies. And I was mad that that was actually a voting issue for me, because you’d think that not torturing people is a moral no-brainer.

But, as it turned out, Obama lied.

Now, as I look to vote in 2012, I realize that just like in 2000, no part of my consideration for any of the candidates will involve their positions on torture, war crimes, secret prisons, renditions, etc.
Because both candidates will be in favor. Without apology.

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Categories: Law, Politics, Torture

A Loss and a Win

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

Princeton’s Douglas Davis with last-second shot

[Jessica Hill/Associated Press]

Basketball isn’t my sport, so I don’t want to spend much time on this, but I do want to follow up on my post a week and a half ago about Ivy League basketball. At the time, Harvard would be playing Penn and Princeton at home to close out the Ivy League season. With victories, it could win or tie for the Ivy title.

Harvard beat both teams, ensuring at least a tie for the title, pending the result of the Penn-Princeton season ender this past Tuesday. When Princeton beat Penn, it joined Harvard atop the league, necessitating a one-game playoff between Harvard and Princeton to determine the school that would receive the league’s automatic slot in the NCAA tournament.

The playoff game took place this afternoon. A neutral site was required, and Yale is just about halfway between the schools, so Yale served as host. The game wasn’t on TV — no surprise, I suppose — but ESPN did show a live stream of it on espn3.com. I tuned in during the first half. However, the feed wasn’t very good, freezing for seconds at a time, so I abandoned it. Later, still not knowing the result, I turned on another game as the network was using a break in the action to show various highlights. I was just in time to see tape of the Princeton team going wild, with a final score of Princeton 63, Harvard 62. I had missed by just a second the replay of Princeton’s Douglas Davis making a last-second shot.

Harvard is still Ivy co-champion. Just not an automatic qualifier for the NCAAs. Historically, for the Ivy League, not being an automatic qualifier means not being a qualifier. But Harvard is actually being described tonight as a bubble team, with a chance to qualify. That would be fun. Their last NCAA appearance was in 1946.

As for the win of this post’s title, the Harvard-Princeton game was winding down as the Arizona-Washington Pac-10 championship game was heating up. Washington was the pre-season favorite to be conference champion, and widely regarded to be a top 15 team, if not top 10. That was how they were ranked at times, too, but a three-game losing streak during conference play dropped them out of the rankings. A few key victories near the end of the season allowed UW to finish 3rd in the conference, behind Arizona and UCLA, but an NCAA bid wasn’t guaranteed. An early loss in the Pac-10 tournament might have doomed them.

But here they were, this afternoon, in the tournament championship game, after a narrow escape over Washington State two nights ago and a convincing win over Oregon last night. We watched the first half, then Gail, Joel, and I headed over to Northlake Tavern for an early dinner. (You’ll recall that in a post a few weeks ago, I confessed my secret love for Northlake.)

When we walked in, the place was nearly full, with every TV tuned to the game. And we were up! We had erased the 3-point half-time deficit and were up another 3. Alas, that didn’t last long. We were up 59-55 when Arizona scored 8 straight points. But three times in a row, over the last minute and a half, we made 3-point shots to draw close and finally to tie, sending the game into overtime. I don’t think I would have watched so intently if we were home. I would have been too nervous and walked out. But at Northlake, with a full restaurant hanging on every possession, I watched us open up a lead in overtime and keep it until an Arizona 3-pointer tied the game with seconds to go. Then Isiah Thomas, our star all game long, pulled up at the 3-point line and attempted the most amazing off-balance shot imaginable, with the ball falling through the net as the backboard light flashed to show that time had run out. Washington 77, Arizona 75. An NCAA bid assured, as it probably was once UW made the championship game. More important may be the impact of the win on UW’s seed. I think we might have been a 7 or 8 otherwise, but maybe now a 5 seed is imaginable?

Okay, enough of that. This may be my last college basketball post for a while. I have to say, it was fun to be at the tavern for the end of regulation and then overtime, with everyone watching as one. Maybe I’d like basketball more if I did that more often.

Categories: Sports

Move On

March 12, 2011 Leave a comment

A couple of weeks ago, New York Magazine announced that Frank Rich would be joining them in June.

Rich will be an essayist for the magazine, writing monthly on politics and culture, and will serve as an editor-at-large, editing a special monthly section anchored by his essay. He will also be a commentator on nymag.com, engaging in regular dialogues on the news of the week.

For those of us who have been reading Rich at the NYT for decades — first as chief drama critic, then as an op-ed columnist — the news of his departure was a shock. In fact, my Rich reading days go back to my arrival at college years earlier. He was two years ahead of me and a bigwig at The Crimson.

Rich’s farewell column appears in tomorrow’s NYT. I was reading it online earlier this evening with moderate interest until I reached the closing paragraph, which took me by happy surprise.

You will recall that I am a huge Stephen Sondheim fan, and that Sunday in the Park with George is “our” musical — the musical Gail and I saw on Broadway when we passed through New York as one stop on our extended honeymoon and whose music has moved us ever since. Having reminded you of that, I’ll now quote Rich’s final NYT words:

Of all the things I’ve done at The Times, there may be none I’m prouder of than, in my critic’s days, championing “Sunday in the Park with George,” Stephen Sondheim’s and James Lapine’s 1984 musical about two artists in two different eras restless to create something new. For a quarter-century now, the show’s climactic song has inspired countless people in all walks of life when the time has come to take a leap. “Stop worrying where you’re going,” the Sondheim lyric goes. “Move on.”

You will find below, courtesy of youtube, Bernadette Peters and Mandy Patinkin singing the song during the original Broadway run of the show. And at top, their reprise 25 years later at Sondheim’s 80th birthday concert. Both versions are glorious. Together they provide an excellent primer on the change the years bring — in appearance, in voice, in interpretation.

Categories: Journalism, Theater