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>> Thursday, September 08, 2011

When Brian Williams of NBC mentioned that 234 people had been executed in Texas, the audience applauded—which they did not do when [Texas Governor Rick] Perry credited Obama with ordering the operation to kill Bin Laden.
-John Dickerson, "The Duel"
Slate, September 8th, 2011


I didn't applaud or cheer or gloat when Navy SEALs took down Osama bin Laden, but I wasn't the least bit sorry the bastard was gone and I understood why some people were inclined to celebrate. I would even go so far as to say I was kind of glad he was dead, even if my personal preference would have been for a trial; hell, I'm not as stupid as some people may have think--I even acknowledge that a trial probably would have been impractical and just shooting the son of a bitch in the head was for the best, my bleeding-heart principles notwithstanding.

I am opposed to the death penalty and philosophically inclined towards pacifism, and I'm not inclined to celebrate anybody's death; that's just the way I am. But you're damn straight that I can be blasé about Osama bin Laden's death and even consider it justified because I am satisfied beyond a reasonable doubt by evidence presented to the public--including evidence in the form of gloating and threatening video and audio recordings of bin Laden that have been released by al Qaeda over the past decade--that the man was complicit in the premeditated murders of 2,977 victims, along with however many other deaths he orchestrated in the course of his terrorist career. My civilized brain is unsympathetic towards bin Laden and my savage heart feels, I confess, a certain grim satisfaction, the kind of quiet, fierce sense of placation one feels when an ugly but necessary job has been finished well. He was guilty, and while I'm loathe to say any human being deserves to die, there is no rational case to be made that bin Laden deserved to live.

President Barack Obama signed off on the death of a guilty mass murderer. Governor Rick Perry signed off on the death of an innocent man.

If you haven't heard of Cameron Todd Willingham, I'll be blunt: you are grossly uninformed and need to know. Willingam was a Texas man accused of killing his children in a fire; and was convicted almost entirely by testimony from arson investigators that has subsequently been deemed pseudoscience, conjecture and folklore--and to have violated even those fragile principles (i.e. not just pseudoscience, but badly-conducted pseudoscience to boot). The only evidence that wasn't woo consisted of a jailhouse snitch's recanted claims that Willingham had confessed to the crime (in fact, Willingham turned down a plea for a life sentence and continued to protest his innocence even while strapped to the gurney to receive his lethal injection) and prejudiced speculative testimony from eyewitnesses (witnesses who initially described Willingham as a hysterical father who tried to run, half-naked, back inside a burning house to rescue the children, later--after prosecutors had charged Willingham with murder--decided he must have been acting or was seemingly unconcerned about their fates), along with psychiatric testimony from the notorious and oft-criticized James "Dr. Death" Grigson (Grigson, who provided psychiatric testimony for prosecutors all over the United States, has been expelled from the American Psychiatric Association for ethics violations, for what it's worth). There is a long and well-known article by David Grann that appeared in The New Yorker in 2009 that goes into detail and has to be read to be unbelieved, that ought to be required reading for any citizen in this country.

State Governors, of course, generally have the power to issue stays, commutations and pardons. Governor Perry, however, appears to have done both more and less than that. Prior to Willingham's execution, the Governor not only denied a stay of execution until questions about the case were cleared up or commutation of the sentence to life, but it also appears the governor's office and parole commission ignored a report questioning the "scientific" testimony produced at Willingham's trial. As bad as this was, it appears that Governor Perry has subsequently interfered with the proceedings of a forensic science review panel which almost certainly would have exonerated Willingham; too late to save the man's life, but dubiously better than nothing and an honest acknowledgment of the need to review capital punishment procedures (or to review the legitimacy of the death penalty entirely). Perry is accused of improperly using his position to remove members of the panel, forcing the cancellation of a scheduled review of the Willingam case forty-eight hours before the commission was to meet. A lengthy discussion of the machinations that derailed the review of the Willingham case, and Governor Perry's role therein, recently appeared in a long (and also very much worth reading) piece by Jason Linkins at The Huffington Post.

That Governor Perry seems to have allowed the state of Texas to kill an innocent man and then used his position to try to perpetrate a cover-up of that state-sanctioned murder isn't likely to derail his presidential aspirations. Audiences don't just applaud that sort of thing; Politico reported:

Veterans of Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison’s unsuccessful 2010 primary challenge to Perry recalled being stunned at the way attacks bounced off the governor in a strongly conservative state gripped by tea party fever. Multiple former Hutchison advisers recalled asking a focus group about the charge that Perry may have presided over the execution of an innocent man--Cameron Todd Willingham--and got this response from a primary voter: "It takes balls to execute an innocent man."


It certainly does--if by "balls" one in fact means a cold-blooded, sociopathic indifference to human life and an utterly amoral disregard for justice, however belated and useless. If that's how one is defining "balls", it's possible that Governor Rick Perry's balls require special pants and a custom-tailored shoulder harness that keeps them from dragging along the ground and getting caught in automatic doors. If that's how we're defining "balls" these days, Rick Perry may very well be the first presidential candidate who is entirely nothing but balls.

I am reluctant to embrace the right's concept of a "culture war" but am willing to admit I may have been mistaken: if there are people in this country who will cheer the executions of 234 people, at least one of whom was almost certainly innocent; and people who think it takes balls to kill the innocent; but these same people won't express the same enthusiasm for the death of a confessed and undeniable mass-murderer or give credit where it's due to the successful elimination of a persistent threat to Western democracies, then we do, indeed, have a culture war. We have, in fact, a war between civilization and barbarism, between culture and a grunting ritualized pantomime of culture. One might not expect applause for the death of an actual mass-murderer any more than one might expect applause for the removal of garbage from one's curbside or applause for the flushing of a toilet; but to applaud the news of 234 executions while silently ignoring the death of one man because you have some irrational hatred of the man ultimately responsible for his death seems well beyond the pale of hypocrisy, into territory exclusive to grunting and hooting primates armed with animal bones and cowering ignorantly in their cold, hearthless caves. One steeped in liberalism is revolted and conflicted: at the heart of liberalism is (amongst other things) an urge to understand The Other, but who wants to understand this crude and alien mentality? May any gods lurking out there in the universe have pity on us for harboring such in our midst, and judge us gently for our failure to spread civilization's light to all corners of humanity's collective heart.




15 comments:

Leanright,  Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 2:20:00 PM EDT  

I am not a big supporter of the death penalty, unless a murder was witnessed by a coherent, legitimate source, there will always be a sense of "well, maybe not".

My question for you Eric, and it stems from your feelings that Dick Cheney is akin to a war criminal, if Barack Obama used information, obtained through means to which you believe to be a crime or torture, was ordering the raid and the execution of a murderer justified? It seems that "illegally obtained" evidence would not be admissible. Just looking for your thoughts.

Megan Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 3:14:00 PM EDT  

Leanright, do you have proof that the information used was obtained through torture, or is this a just an exercise?

Jeri Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 3:16:00 PM EDT  

Your comment about liberalism wanting to understand the Other is where I part ways with my liberal beliefs. I don't particularly care any more what makes a bigot a bigot, a misogynist a misogynist, a selfish cretin a selfish cretin, etc. All I care about is that they're not allowed to make anyone else's life a living hell. I don't think they deserve any more courtesy than they give. They don't deserve respect, since they are willing to give none. There is a culture war going on right now, and the left is proving too weak, too polite, too understanding and too willing to be pushed around to stand a chance.

Leanright,  Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 3:31:00 PM EDT  

It's an exercise. We'll never know. For the record, I don't care how the son of a bitch was killed. I'm just glad he's gone.

Eric Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 3:56:00 PM EDT  

Dave, that's a vastly complicated question.

First, let's be clear: if Dick Cheney was complicit in and/or authorized torture, he has violated Federal and international law. Furthermore, if Barack Obama has been complicit in or authorized torture, he would be in violation of the same laws; and furthermore, if Obama is aware that Cheney (and/or any other officials) violated the laws against torture, his harboring of Cheney (et al.) and refusal to prosecute would also constitute violation of those same laws and our treaty obligations under the Convention Against Torture. There's no "akin" to it: Cheney and others (possibly including President Bush) either did or did not break the law, and the current administration either is or is not complicit after-the-fact; it's a straight-up-or-down question of fact.

Now, as for your actual question: admissibility of evidence is a sometimes complex legal question, and it isn't necessarily an ethical question nor is it necessarily a sufficiency question. That is, one might readily imagine (for example) a situation in which a law enforcement officer destroys an illegally-discovered dangerous item, thereby making a prosecution impossible as a matter of law but nonetheless (a) performing a moral, lifesaving deed and (b) uncovering something so that everybody knows what's happening as a matter of fact, even if everybody also knows the matter can never be tried in a court of law.

The point is that one might conclude that evidence obtained immorally and illegally might nonetheless be used to perform an act that has net public good, even if that net public good does not include a trial.

Which also leads back to a larger political and legal problem that the Bush Administration created by taking the Yoo et al. memorandums at face value and acting upon them: it is quite likely that Osama bin Laden had to be shot as a practical matter because the Bush Administration made it difficult or impossible to prosecute him by violating the law and Constitution to obtain evidence against him; this is also an issue with regard to a number of other terror suspects in and out of custody. (The political problem is that trials may be impossible without raising the question of why Cheney et al. aren't being prosecuted, something the President has made very clear he doesn't want to do at all, and something it has to be conceded would turn into a hyperpartisan shitstorm the like of which hasn't been seen in the U.S. since the American Civil War.)

All of which does factor into the conflict described in the first paragraph of the post: shooting bin Laden may have been for the best, notwithstanding a personal ideological preference for due process. Pragmatism versus idealism, if you want a shorter way to put it.

That having been said, I'm not convinced that the only evidence against bin Laden in a hypothetical trial would have been inadmissible. An issue that frequently confuses laypeople is that admissibility of evidence only deals with the piece of evidence in question. E.g. if a suspect is believed to have shot up a McDonald's and everyone in it, and the police beat a confession out of him with a rubber hose, the inadmissibility of the confession doesn't preclude prosecutors from calling survivors to testify at trial, showing the jury security video footage, or producing other evidence that was not obtained as a result of the savage abuse at the station house.

Hope that answers your question, Dave, which was actually a good one.

Eric Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 4:05:00 PM EDT  

Ah, wait: one more point, Dave. The question that you ask also raises other complicated questions that I'm less able to answer about war. Was the raid on the bin Laden compound a "raid and execution of a murderer" or is it more appropriate to characterize it as a military strike against a strategic human target using unconventional forces. (And here we also get into a legal and moral thicket over assassination.) Just throwing that out there; I suppose what we have all-in-all is a very complicated legal, political, military and ethical tangle that can be approached in multiple ways.

filelalaine Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 4:17:00 PM EDT  

Mr. Perry and his balls are to me the perfect reincarnation of another Texan with another set of larger-than-usual balls. I get goosebumps of terror at the idea of some people even entertaining the thought of voting for him.

We have enough of a mess as it is, we don't need another oil-company subsidized smooth Texan to bulldoze whatever good we do have left in this country (or in this world).

Nathan Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 5:50:00 PM EDT  

Personally, I hope Mr. Perry proves to be an unqualified success...at least as far as his wanting Texas to secede from the Union.

And then he'd be the leader of a foreign nation and wouldn't be permitted to run for President of the U.S.

Win-Win.

Leanright,  Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 6:20:00 PM EDT  

Yes Nathan, but then Obama's job creation number would plummet even further.

Eric Thursday, September 8, 2011 at 9:33:00 PM EDT  

Well, Dave, if government had spent more money on the stimulus when the Democrats controlled the House, I'm sure things would be better on the jobs front. Missed opp, I agree. Especially now that the branch of government that spawns the budget is in the hands of a party whose sole agenda is making sure Obama only serves one term--even if that means making the country bleed through its nether regions.

Personally, I sort of hope Texas doesn't secede, but only because I don't want to have to get a passport to go to SXSW again. Though, on second thought, if Austin wants to remain part of the United States while the rest of Texas secedes, sort of a latter-day West Berlin surrounded by a failing state, hey, that works for me. Maybe airlifting supplies to Austin could become a new growth sector for American jobs, too!

You know, I've said for years that some Texans want to build a border fence on the wrong side of the state....

Leanright,  Friday, September 9, 2011 at 12:47:00 PM EDT  

Very Keynsian of you Eric. Unfortunately we'd have the catastrophic cloud of dramatic inflation looming, and surely astronomical interest rates to follow.

(of course, Keynes advocated HIGHER spending and LOWERING taxes)

Leanright,  Friday, September 9, 2011 at 12:55:00 PM EDT  

"...At one of our dinners, Milton recalled traveling to an Asian country in the 1960s and visiting a worksite where a new canal was being built. He was shocked to see that, instead of modern tractors and earth movers, the workers had shovels. He asked why there were so few machines. The government bureaucrat explained: "You don't understand. This is a jobs program." To which Milton replied: "Oh, I thought you were trying to build a canal. If it's jobs you want, then you should give these workers spoons, not shovels."

- Stephen Moore, WSJ. 5/29/2009

Eric Friday, September 9, 2011 at 3:05:00 PM EDT  

Yes, Dave, I'm something of a Keynesian. Yes, there's a long, ongoing debate between Keynesians, critics of Keynesian theory (including Friedman), and neo-Keynesians about the relationship between government job creation and inflation. A conversation that has nothing to do with whether Rick Perry allowed an innocent man to die on Texas' death row and then improperly used his gubernatorial powers to keep that matter from being officially recognized and investigated.

There's a certain amount of wandering from a topic in blog threads that occurs and is excellent and sometimes productive; e.g. your question about the use of intelligence acquired by torture was an interesting detour I didn't mind going down. But getting into a seventy-year-old debate over economic theory isn't actually a direction I'd hope the conversation would take. One reason, frankly, is that economics isn't a personal forte, although (having admitted that) I happen to think the historical arguments for Keynesian policy are sound (the only argument I think I've ever heard that the New Deal was a failure claims that WWII--a massive jobs creation program that provided millions of American soldiers with government-issued healthcare, food and shelter--really deserves the credit; setting aside the factual problems with this claim, it's self-refuting on it's own terms, if you ask me).

But now I'm going down the rabbit hole again! Enough! Dave, if you want to discuss jobs policy, start your own blog or wait for me to write a post about it! I don't mean that to be rude, it's just that this was a post about Rick Perry, capital punishment, and (to a lesser extent) feelings about the ethical knots surrounding the mission/strike/hit on Osama bin Laden. I'm putting the car back on the road!

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