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First Person Personal

My personal views on a variety of matters ranging from popular culture to quantum physics to religion to politics to history to bushido to ... well, whatever I feel like, really. Warning: we all have agendas. Trust no one totally, myself most specifically included. Email me at wbrerwolf at gmail.com

Wednesday, November 23, 2005

Torture, Part One - I'm against it.

I, personally, am of the old school on torture.

I do not believe that torture works well enough to justify the costs involved.

Now, let’s say that you are in an interrogation room and the interrogator is breaking your fingers until you tell him what he wants to know. Do you tell him the truth, no matter how unpleasant or unbelievable he might find it, or do you come up with a plausible lie? Remember that Galileo told the Inquisition what they wanted to hear. You’d be surprised at how good you can be at sucking up to someone who can run an electric current through your genitals.

What if you don’t know the answers to the questions the torturer is asking you? The torturer obviously thinks you know something, so if you say “I don’t know”, he’s only going to think that you’re resisting, so he will step up the pressure. Eventually, you come up with an acceptable lie. Senator John McCain, a man who was actually tortured during the Vietnam war confirms this.

Let’s say you do know something and tell it to the torturer. Many torturers assume that you know more than you are telling and try to get more information out of you by continuing the torture. Sooner or later, you run out of things to tell him and you have to start feeding him plausible lies. The French used continuing torture in Vietnam and this was cited by Robert McNamara in his book ARGUMENT WITHOUT END as a reason why Vietnamese prisoners uniformly refused to talk while in custody, regardless of whether or not they had ties to the Viet Minh.

Suppose that they ask you for your collaborators, your fellow conspirators. Perhaps you give them up, perhaps you simply throw out names, more or less at random. Very likely there are at least a few people that you’d pay to have tortured, just to settle some old scores. So the torturers drag in the people you have named and work them over. Some of them know things that the torturer wants to know, some do not. Quite a lot of what the torturers get from these people are lies.

So torture produces quite a lot of bad information, possibly enough to actually interfere with the information gathering process. Crosschecking with other sources can eliminate bad information, which is a time consuming and manpower intensive process. Still, this is part of the normal verification process, so in and of itself, this is not a problem. But what if the person you are torturing is the only source you have? Is he lying or is he giving you vital information? This is, of course, a general problem with intelligence gathering, but I contend that information obtained through torture only exacerbates the problem.

Further, torture produces other bad effects.

Firstly, whom do you torture?

Do you torture only terrorists who are believed to have vital information? How about torturing anyone who is a terrorist and hoping that some of them know something important? How about torturing people who might be terrorists? How about the friends and relatives of suspected terrorists? How about foreign nationals who are not actively harming anyone but instead organizing mass protests against your country’s polices? How about torturing citizens of your own country, obviously traitors or fellow travelers, who are likewise protesting your country’s policies to see what links, if any, exist between them and various terror organizations? How about people you or someone in a position of power just don’t like very much? As a little bit of thought will reveal, once you start torturing someone, it is a very small step to torturing anyone.

And even if “proper” targets are selected for interrogation by torture, there are other side effects. Let’s say that you have Achmed in custody and are persuading him to talk with a bit of light torture. Nothing too serious, just interfering with his sleep, preventing him from bathing, causing him to miss his religious observances, giving him food he finds to be unclean, perhaps a bit of sexual humiliation by a female guard.

You know: head games.

Let’s further assume that you run the first absolutely leak proof operation in human history, that no one outside your authorized circle knows who you have, where they are or what you are doing with them.

But Achmed and his fellow prisoners did not come out of a vacuum. They have friends, family, neighbors and comrades who are wondering what happened to them. Human nature being what it is, if they do not know what has happened to Achmed, they start making things up. Probably they end up by accusing you of doing worse things than you are actually doing. Further, since you are running a leak proof operation, any missing person is considered to be in your prison, regardless of whether they are or not.

So the foreign populace becomes increasingly upset with you. People who had neutral or friendly attitudes towards you become hostile. They may not decide to take up arms against you, but they do become increasingly willing to work against you and your cause and increasingly unwilling to cooperate with you. Those who already are hostile to you become increasingly fanatical and desperate to strike back in revenge or they fight to the death to avoid being taken to your camps. Suicide attacks become more common.

You are now faced with some very unpleasant alternatives. You can stonewall and watch as enemy propaganda accuses you of everything up to and including running death camps. You can parade a select group of prisoners in front of the camera, tell them what to say and hope that they look more convincing than the American POWs in Vietnam looked when they were talking about how well they were being treated in the Hanoi Hilton. Or you can open up your prisons and interrogation procedures to the scrutiny of some impartial third party such as the Red Cross or Amnesty International and deal with the political fallout involved by promising – and delivering – major reforms. Or you can blame all of this on people low in the chain of command exceeding their authority and making them into scapegoats. Military morale and initiative plummet. Or you can kill everyone in the prisons, destroy the corpses, and deny that you ever had anyone there. This last would be particularly bad for military morale as the guards and staff would probably consider themselves to be next on the list to be disappeared as possible embarrassments to the State. Further, you have established a government policy of mass murder, a policy that is almost certain to be eventually revealed.

Such things would be very bad for us domestically. Earlier civilizations could shrug off human rights violations as part of the cost of empire and not worry about them very much. We, however, like to think of ourselves as “the good guys”. As a matter of definition, good guys do not resort to torture and mass murder. If we torture prisoners, it becomes increasingly difficult to think of ourselves as being the heroes. This could make our government increasingly unpopular as happened during the Vietnam era. I very seriously doubt that we would find ourselves in open revolt over such matters. However, I would anticipate an increase in cynicism along with an overall reduction in morale.

I don’t want to be a citizen of the new Evil Empire.

I don’t think that many Americans do.

Thursday, November 17, 2005

With My Back Against the Wall

“You are overdrawn by $2,800.”

About the only good thing about this announcement was that I was talking to an automated system. I find this to be considerably less humiliating than dealing with a human being.

Strangely enough, there are fairly obvious similarities between a sword fight and a financial meltdown. First off, you set up your priorities: what must be protected? In a sword fight, you protect your vital organs, your sword arm and, if you can, your legs. Flesh wounds can be ignored; even major wounds that will not kill you or stop you from fighting in the next fifteen minutes or so can be tolerated. You are concerned with what will keep you alive right now. You look for every advantage, fair or foul. This is a fight for survival, not an Olympic match.

Likewise, the financial injuries must be prioritized. A lot of the $2800 temporarily disappeared as some checks bounced. The account was still negative, but only by about $800. The checks will come back with added fees later, but I was only trying to get through the week or possibly the day. The bank is willing to cover SOME checks as I have automatic deposit on my paycheck, but I don’t get paid that much every check.

Some debts must be paid immediately: Utilities, such as power and water must be paid or some arrangements must be made or they will shut you off. Modern homes require power to be livable. Once they turned off our electricity, twice our water and our garbage collection service has been interrupted twice as well. I was reduced to stealing water from a nearby construction site and dumping our trash in the construction site Dumpster.

Communications are also important: if you are involved in a job hunt, there must be some way for an employer to find you, so the phone must stay on. However, luxuries such as a second line or a cell phone can be dispensed with until things improve. If you are broke and people are looking to get money out of you, a call identifier and voicemail is not a luxury, it is a necessary medical expense: I find that I must duck calls from bill collectors if I am to be able to function during the day. Likewise, I need to keep the computer line up to be able to check jobs online. In our case, the computer line is a package deal with our cable company, and my wife wants to keep the TV as well as the computers.

Transport is likewise important: unless you can walk to your job, or can take a bus, you must have enough money to keep your car on the road. Some maintenance can be postponed, but critical repairs (brakes and steering, for instance) must be paid for somehow. Right now, my brakes are making the metal on metal sound and I hope they will last until I can afford to buy new pads and have them installed. Likewise, your car will not accept IOUs for gas or oil. Insurance and registration can be skimped on, but depending on your area you could face serious legal charges if they catch you. You must understand the law in order to break it with minimum risk. Further, if you do not own your car outright, you must keep up the payments or they will take it back. Right now, my wife has to pay $125 a month on her car, money we could use for other items. If we can double up a few payments, this obligation could disappear by spring. You may decide that your best option is to get rid of all except one car to save on money. As for me, carpooling with my wife comes very close to my definition of eternal damnation. If you live in the right neighborhood, you might decide to walk or bicycle to work; in my area, this seems to be a synonym for suicide, not because the neighbors are scary, but because the drivers are. I like to have a lot of steel between the Driver’s Ed dropouts and me.

Then we have the expenses of living: food, both for family and pets, basic supplies such as toilet paper and soap, clothing, grooming (if looking for work or working, neither of these last two can be totally eliminated, although they can be reduced somewhat). I have friends who can shop off the rack at Goodwill or some other thrift store. I, unfortunately, am a bit too oddly built for that. If at all possible, budget something for morale: perhaps a matinee at a local movie and eating before you go: the movie is not that expensive, but popcorn and drinks are: for a few bucks more you can get a good meal. Some people smuggle in drinks and munchies, but I prefer not to. It strikes me as rude. Other morale builders can be quite inexpensive: picnics at public camp grounds, hikes through national parks, some videos and music are available through your local library as well as books, another good morale builder. My wife enjoys a good, long hot bath with scented candles. Pets, also, cannot be neglected as morale builders. There is nothing like a pet to make you feel better about yourself when everything else in your environment is turning to crap. Our dogs Y and Z as well as our late cat C were well worth every penny we spent on them.

But battles are not survived by being on the defensive. One must also attempt to damage the enemy, kill the enemy. In a financial meltdown, this means that one must somehow bring in more money. The best way of doing this is by looking for a new or a second job. For no particularly good reason, I have decided to look for jobs with a twenty-percent higher salary and/or some sort of health benefits. Just getting a new job is no guarantee of being able to keep it, so one must factor in the risk of being fired in a few weeks. Increased reward must balance increased risk. So far, I have had three interviews and no strong nibbles. My wife is currently up for a job that will bring in three times what my current job does. If she gets it, she will have to temporally relocate to another state, coming home only on days off until she gains enough seniority to be transferred back to this area. This will be a major sacrifice for both of us: I cannot seem to really relax without her being around and she has similar issues. Costs and benefits, again.

After actual short-term survival, one must deal with major injuries.

Most important are the injuries that will kill you in the near term. At the very top are the bad checks or other items with serious legal consequences such as IRS or government fines and fees. Failing to honor bad checks can put you in jail eventually. Fortunately, most places would rather have their money than have you in jail and are willing to work with you for quite a long while, but not forever. I have been arrested several times for bad checks in the past and it seems very likely that I will be arrested again as a result of this meltdown. So far, I have not done any jail time, but it sure screws any chance I might have had of getting a security clearance. As far as taxes, or other government debts, these expenses must be paid eventually. Cheating the government is a bad plan; however, the government tends to move very slowly, perhaps giving you time to cut a deal with them.

One must also somehow stop blood loss if one is to survive. To survive in the short term, one often is forced to take extremely disadvantageous loans, pawn valuable possessions for a fraction of their worth and max out your credit cards. Pay off high interest loans ASAP. It is horrifying how much of these loans go to interest and how little towards the principal. Each small decrease in the principal reduces the horrific interest that one must pay each and every month and thus makes it possible to cut into the principal even more. Even very small bites out of the principal add up surprisingly quickly. Some folks recommend hitting the smallest loans first and wiping them out as a morale builder. However, at the moment I am trying to keep attacking the largest interest loans first. It may not be smart, but it seems like a good idea to me. Every month I debate with myself about simply abandoning the items we have in pawn, but so far I keep paying the ruinous interest and buy down the principal as I can.

Messages from people who you don’t know who refuse to say why they are calling should be ignored until the money comes back: these people are bill collectors and are NOT nice people. They will not have pity on you and they do not have noticeable amounts of mercy in their dispositions. Their job doesn’t pay all that much, they just like doing it. You don’t have the money to pay them or you would be paying them and all any conversation with them will do is confirm this and tell them that they should take you to court and get what they can out of you. Even when you have money again, these people should be approached cautiously; lawyers might be a good investment here. Also remember that there are several reverse switchboard sites that can tell you who a particular number belongs to.

Then, one must begin to heal injuries. Perhaps most important are the debts of honor, monies owed to friends and relatives who probably do not ever expect to see the money again. Remember that you are not giving the money back to them as much as you are buying back your self-respect. Next, the devastated credit record must be carefully examined, corrected and each item must be dealt with one at a time. This allows you to hopefully build up some sort of security against future catastrophe. If you don’t really need it, you can get a loan at an amazingly low rate of interest. If you really need it, you have to pay with jugs full of your life’s blood. In particular, I have borrowed over five thousand dollars from my widowed mother. I cannot tell you how much it upsets me to do this, but I could see no alternative. If the situation gets worse, I hope that I can muster the courage to go down by myself and not take my mother with me.

Finally, we must look towards the future somehow; without hope for the future, we might as well give up and die now. I must bring in more money somehow; I must devote some effort towards being more employable. So I am going back to school to try to join the modern workforce. In a peculiar sort of way, our current financial situation is beneficial: if we were just getting by, the expenses involved in going back to school could not be defended. As things are, a few thousand dollars more due and payable after I finish my classes won’t make much difference. My wife and I discussed this and I asked my sister to cosign a loan so that I could go back to school and upgrade my computer skills. She agreed and I started classes in September of 2005 while continuing to work full time. So far, it is a big morale builder; I feel like I am accomplishing something worthwhile. Considering everything, it seems like a very good investment. Again, this is a debt I must cover, and a task that I cannot allow myself to fail at. So far, seven weeks into the quarter, I have a straight A average. On the other hand, this is just review with a few new things for me to soak up. When I get to the new stuff in a quarter or so, things could change dramatically for the worse.

Still, I am usually pretty optimistic about the future these days. As some old Chinese general once wrote: “This situation is desperate, the prospects are excellent.”

Note: while I was writing this, one of the Blogs I follow (Whatever at Scalzi.com) posted Being Poor – some of his stuff really hit a chord with me. For me, being poor in the sense of going without luxuries or even missing the occasional meal does not bother me very much. What bothers me is feeling that I am a drain, a burden that others must carry rather than being able to help others. It bothers me that I owe my mother money and have no idea of when I can pay her back. It bothers me that my sister had to cosign my loan. It bothers me that I cannot be sure that I can pay for my wife’s medications each month. It bothers me that I cannot even donate ten dollars to a worthy cause such as the recent hurricane relief or for books and materials for poor children to go to school.

Back where I came from, we have a saying: “A hand full of nothing and a mouth full of ‘gimme’.”

I really hate having to apply that phrase to myself.

Thursday, November 10, 2005

And my dog died

One of my dogs died over the Labor Day weekend. Y was a miniature schnauzer and weighed about twenty-five pounds. He was very affectionate and loving, always ready to cuddle. Like most of his breed, he was very powerfully built and energetic. We inherited Y when his previous owner D died of complications from AIDS. My wife was D’s primary caregiver and I helped out some, mostly by taking care of Y and doing some muscle work. D left him to me in the will with the understanding that Y would be buried with him when the time came.

I first met Y before S and I got married; he was about nine weeks old at the time and S was babysitting him while his owners were elsewhere. S’s cat C immediately started to stalk Y.

Y was very (and justifiably) wary of C. While he was a bit bigger and his bite was worse, he did not have claws and was always more of a lover than a fighter. I warned S against leaving Y alone with C. S, as per usual, ignored me.

When we got back to S’s apartment, C had backed Y into the corner next to the outside door. Y had made a heroic effort to dig under the door to get away. The linoleum had to be replaced because of this.

Y lived a very full life for a little dog: he was part of at least five households, with ours being the last. D, before his final illness, was deeply involved with care giving for other AIDS sufferers. I think that D, a natural scholar, was studying how to face his own death. Y was by D’s side throughout all this and I believe that he was a great comfort to the people that D was taking care of and I know that he was a great comfort to D.

I don’t know if Y ever understood what was going on around him. I mean, I know that he knew that a lot of people were sick, but I don’t know if he knew that most of the people in his various households died and that the other dogs died or were relocated when their owner’s died. I think he just thought that people and other dogs kept abandoning him. He didn’t mind being left with new people, but it seemed to make him nervous to be left alone for extended periods of time.

Y had an amazing talent for getting along with other dogs. One day Y got away from me and ran up to three Rotties that were being walked by their owner. I knew the dogs were guard dogs and each one was at least a hundred pounds of solid muscle and bone. I thought that I was going to have to bring Y home in a plastic bag and spend the rest of my life apologizing to S for letting Y commit suicide.

All three Rotties sniffed Y and their tails started wagging in unison, as if to say, “Aren’t you the cutest little dog!”

I have only run into two dogs that weren’t at least willing to tolerate Y, and I think that both of those dogs were dangerous and should have been put down for public safety reasons. Even if the other dog was much smaller than Y, Y would befriend it rather than try to be the “big dog”.

About a year ago, Y had to have major surgery because of problems with his pancreas. Strangely enough, Knoxville has a vet who specializes in pancreatic surgery, and we were able to fix Y up with her. It cost a lot of money, a major contributing factor towards our current financial mess, but we hoped that it, along with switching Y to a prescription diet, would buy him another five or ten years.

It did not.

In late July, Y started to refuse food. We thought that it might be his teeth and switched him over to soft food. This worked OK for about a week, and then he started to refuse it and began to occasionally vomit. My wife is, among other things, a very skilled professional cook and she started to cook his food from scratch. This worked for another couple of weeks, and then he started to refuse these meals as well as vomiting what little he ate. We scraped together enough money to get Y to his vet.

I believe that Y realized that he was at the end of his life because of the expression on his face when I took him to the vet. He normally enjoyed his visits there, but this time he seemed to be very unhappy to be left.

The vet kept Y for two days and ran several tests, rehydrated him with an IV, diagnosed liver problems and attempted to treat him with various medications, all to no avail. Y was more alert, in less discomfort, but was still dying of liver failure.

The vet called and told us it was time.

My wife and I went to the vet’s office and they brought Y in. He was very glad to see us and we played with him for perhaps a half-hour and took a few pictures. Y was almost his old self, except that his skin had taken on a yellowish color indicative of liver failure. The vet told us that we could take Y home and let nature take its course or we could end Y’s life immediately.

We decided to have him put to sleep while my wife was holding him and I was stroking his head. We did this because we did not want Y to suffer and perhaps die alone, with neither my wife nor myself around.

We were impressed with how quickly the drugs worked. Y apparently felt no pain and was dead between one second and the next. I think he was a little surprised, but not afraid when he died. S told me afterwards that if she knew she was dying, this was how she wanted to go, surrounded by loved ones and quickly, with no pain.

Just in case some parts of his central nervous system were still sending in reports, I held Y in my arms for about twenty minutes while S was preparing the coffin and his shroud. S cut Y’s sleeping blanket to fit and we wrapped it around his little body with strapping tape, then we put him in a cardboard box that I had picked up for the occasion.

S had wanted to bury Y’s bowl with him, but we forgot to bring it. Later, S had me break it with a hammer and scatter the pieces above Y’s grave. It is amazingly satisfying to pulverize a ceramic bowl when you are feeling sad. Maybe this is why so many of the Ancients buried broken utensils with their dead.

We got a plant for cover, just in case anyone should ask why we were digging in the graveyard and then fulfilled D’s request, burying Y in between D and his lifemate’s graves. Y liked to sleep in between two people he loved; I hope he is happy there.