Monday, September 27, 2004

Volokh Conspirator Orin Kerr has posed three questions to bloggers who supported US military intervention in Iraq prior to its commencement. Now, given the ambivalence of my prior support for the war, I may not qualify for his poll, but since I mostly answered all his questions back in April, I thought I'd compile my official response:
First, assuming that you were in favor of the invasion of Iraq at the time of the invasion, do you believe today that the invasion of Iraq was a good idea? Why/why not?
To quote myself:
[T]he striking thing about all of the....retrospective assessments of the war is their astonishing level of collective amnesia. The remarkably short, painless, casualty-free conduct of the military campaign itself has apparently now reached the status of an a priori given, and its effectiveness is therefore currently understood to be best measured by the state of Iraq's transition into peaceful, united, democratic statehood....

If one starts from my initial position, however--that is, sincere ambivalence about a risky, potentially catastrophic military incursion with the sole goal of ousting a horrible, dangerous military dictator--then the whole project looks markedly better in retrospect than it did at the outset. It's true that no "weapons of mass destruction" have been found--although few doubt that a chemical weapons program would have been easy for Saddam to reconstitute, given that he had had a highly successful one in the past. On the other hand, the strongest argument against the war--the largely unuttered "body bags" argument", envisioning a long, drawn-out, horribly bloody campaign involving thousands of civilian and military deaths--turned out in the end to have been completely contradicted by events.
I wrote that in April, and I stand by it. The conquest of Iraq had all sorts of enormous benefits--for the US, Iraq, and the world. In focusing exclusively on the current troubles there, antiwar commentators have ignored all the previous troubles: a huge sitting-duck Maginot line guarding a resentful Saudi Arabia against a belligerent northern despot (in between terrorist attacks on its barracks and compounds); regular air patrols--including bombing runs on anti-aircraft installations--to suppress an Iraqi air force bent on slaughtering recalcitrant Iraqis all over the country; a collapsing sanctions regime stoking anti-American feelings in both Europe and the Arab world, while increasing internal Iraqi suffering; and so on and so on and so on. (Remember "rogue nation" Libya?)

If it had been known in 2002 that all of these problems could have been eliminated so cheaply, there would have been no argument at all against the war.
Second, what reaction do you have to the not-very-upbeat news coming of Iraq these days, such as the stories I link to above?
Again, to quote myself, in April:
I've already made it clear numerous times that I consider the grand effort to democratize Iraq to be naively optimistic. And I suppose it's possible that by hanging around for long enough, the American army could ultimately damage its country's strategic position enough to undo its spectacular victory in Iraq. But to declare the current circumstances there a disaster based on a little continued unrest is to lose track of the recent history of that troubled country--which about a year ago experienced, despite a few bumps since, a truly wonderful upturn in its fortunes, thanks to its friends from the United States of America.
I'd alter this assessment in only one respect--and that change represents my answer to question 3....
Third, what specific criteria do you recommend that we should use over the coming months and years to measure whether the Iraq invasion has been a success?
The Iraqi invasion was a success, period. In fact, it was a spectacular success, with many positive effects and very few negative ones. No subsequent events can change that. The management of its aftermath may yet turn out to be a failure, although it would take a great many more major future disasters to turn it into one. At some point, though--and I believe that point has already been reached--blaming future unfortunate developments in Iraq on the initial American military intervention makes about as much sense as blaming them on the invention of fire. The chain of causation may be there, but the myriad oft-unmentioned beneficial consequences overwhelm even the most conspicuous detrimental ones.

Tuesday, September 21, 2004

By now everyone who reads this blog has surely read about the CBS document scandal, in which Dan Rather claimed to possess four 1973 documents tarnishing George W. Bush's record with the Texas Air National Guard. The documents were in fact, really poor-quality forgeries, almost certainly edited on a personal computer running Microsoft Word on its default settings, rather than typed on a typewriter in 1973. I will limit myself to two comments:

1) Much attention has been given to the role of blogs in uncovering the scandal and generally "fact-checking" the press. No doubt blogs increased the speed of the reaction to CBS' malfeasance, but I don't think they would have accomplished much without a much more important development--the collapse of the old "big three" network news oligopoly.

In 1997, the Food Lion supermarket chain won a lawsuit against ABC, after two ABC Prime Time journalists got themselves hired at a Food Lion, then filmed unsanitary practices they found there with a hidden camera. Although the film taken by the ABC employees (subpoena'd by Food Lion and shown to the jury) proved that the "Prime Time" piece had effectively been a set-up, the press generally rallied around ABC. At a panel on ABC's "Nightline", for example, Don Hewitt--then executive producer of CBS' "60 Minutes"--not only spoke in "ABC Prime Time"'s defense, but even castigated the judge for allowing Food Lion to obtain the unbroadcast footage revealing some of ABC's questionable tactics. Hewitt obviously felt that both he and the "Prime Time" producers were in the same boat, as network television magazine journalists, and had to stick together when threatened from outside.

These days, however, ABC is among the more aggressive news organizations exposing the fraudulence of the CBS memos. With the cozy dominance of the "big three" gone--replaced by a chaotic battleground of cable news stations, satellite channels and foreign outlets accessible over the Internet--ABC has its own credibility (and market share) to worry about, and is happy to cannibalize its erstwhile friends at CBS. Its reports, along with the equally skeptical accounts of such organs as the Washington Post, reach millions more Americans than even the most popular blogger, and are the real reason why CBS had to back down in the end.

2) This scandal may, in the long run, prove to be the press' salvation. For while much has been made of the crude obviousness of the forgeries CBS fell for, little attention has been paid to a much more fundamental point: the documents "60 Minutes" touted as evidence were in fact photocopies, rather than originals. In other words, if the forger had simply taken the trouble to type them on a vintage typewriter instead of a word processor, then scanned them into a computer and edited in the image of a real (or painstakingly forged) signature, then the documents' authenticity would have been virtually impossible to ascertain, and CBS would most likely have been able to continue to defend the plausibility of their story.

The problem, of course, is that given the state of modern technology, a photocopied document is terribly easy to forge, in ways that are difficult-to-impossible to detect. If the existing standard of evidence had continued to allow journalists to rely on photocopied documents, then one would expect any number of forged photocopies to be leaked anonymously to the press in the future, and their contents to be dutifully relayed to the public by gullible reporters. The CBS scandal, however, may have sufficiently discredited photocopy evidence that it will never again be considered trustworthy enough to base a story on. If so, then that would without question be the most important positive outcome of the whole affair.

Sunday, September 19, 2004

Should euthanasia sometimes be mandatory?
Conservatives typically abhor all euthanasia. I suspect that's true about the author of this article, but whether or not it is, the author certainly bemoans the slippery slope that leads from the acceptance of some forms of euthanasia to the acceptance of euthanizing children, even without their parents consent. I, on the other hand, am happy falling down that slope. In fact, I want to make an argument that euthanasia should sometimes be mandatory. This argument is only addressed to those people who honestly feel that euthanasia is sometimes acceptable; all others are encouraged to stop reading now.

So if you're still with me, you agree that euthanasia is sometimes acceptable. Presumably it is acceptable when someone who is dying and suffering but still of sound mind repeatedly begs to be killed. But what if the person is dying and suffering but is unable to express himself? I feel that this person should be "euthanized", whether or not his family consents, and whether or not he has left a "living will" to the contrary. More generally, here is my proposal.

The State must euthanize every person who, in the best opinion of medical experts, will never be able to express a desire not to be euthanized.

To put it another way, all you have to do to avoid being euthanized is to say "no thank you", or to have medical experts assert that it's possible you might be able to say "no thank you" at some point in the future. Of course, the "opinion of medical experts" will be taken by a suitable board of medical professionals that has been established for precisely this purpose. There are other situations where euthanasia should be allowed, but I'm only speaking here of conditions where it should be mandatory.

There are two types of errors that might be made here. Let us call the Type A error the case where we euthanize someone we shouldn't, and the Type B error where we fail to euthanize someone we should. If we weren't afraid of Type A errors we would euthanize everyone, so I assume we are all afraid of Type A errors. If we weren't afraid of Type B errors, then we would euthanize no one. Since you are still reading this, I know you are afraid of Type B errors, as am I. The worst kind of Type B error is where the person is suffering and conscious and wants to die, but can't express it; he may go on suffering like that for years, if we let him. I've been told by anaesthesiologists that even unconscious people can experience pain. The best case of Type B error (if you agree with my proposal) is where the person is so dead-like that nothing resembling pain or consciousness can be experienced; I suppose we could weaken the proposal to let such people live, but I won't consider that for now. The worst kind of Type A error is where the person is in no pain, the doctors are wrong, and the person wakes up in the morning as good as new.

For myself, I'm afraid of a Type A error no more than I am afraid of any other form of death. In fact, I am a lot less afraid, since Type A errors will be such a negligible cause of death that it's silly to worry about them. I am very much afraid, however, of a Type B error. There are probably about a million of these in the United States right now. I have seen loved ones become them, and there is a very high likelihood that I will become one as well. If we regard a Type B error as a catastrophe, then we should certainly be willing to accept Type A errors.

But what if a family member wants to keep alive a person who would be killed under my proposal? The article asks, "... since when did parents attain the moral right to have their children killed?" But one can also ask, "Since when did parents attain the moral right to have their children suffer arbitrarily much?"

But what if a person establishes a "living will" asserting that he should under no conditions be euthanized? We can more generally ask the question: to what extent should a person be able to contract to give away future rights? Should I be able to give you the right to torture me? There are even limitations in our society on the contractual validity of certain kinds of prenuptial agreements. So I have absolutely no problem with limiting a person's right to contract to receive arbitrary suffering in the future.

Friday, September 03, 2004

Patriot Act paranoia is a common affliction among the civil liberties-obsessed, but Jeffrey Rosen, Legal Editor for the New Republic, has just taken it to a new level. Rosen is concerned about the FBI's use of the Patriot Act as part of a new, pre-emptive approach to terrorism:
Since September 11, increased information-sharing has been the first element in the Justice Department's two-pronged strategy to prevent terrorism. The second element involves prosecuting suspicious individuals or groups quickly for low-level crimes rather than waiting years to build a more elaborate case. In many ways, the prevention strategy offers a new twist on an old prosecutorial tactic. Call it the Al Capone approach: Unable to prove that Capone was a mobster, the government prosecuted him for tax evasion instead. Now, the government is using similar tactics to take suspected terrorists off the streets before they can launch an attack.
What's wrong with this strategy? Well, according to Rosen, "since September 11, the Bush administration has also used its new surveillance authority to prosecute or deport hundreds of people who have nothing to do with terrorism." His evidence? They're being prosecuted for non-terrorism-related crimes.
A comprehensive tracking study by Syracuse University in December 2003 found that the Justice Department had overstated the number of terrorism-related convictions by creating a new category after September 11 called "Anti-Terrorism," which includes immigration offenses, identity theft, and drug cases "intended to prevent or disrupt potential or actual terrorist threats where the offense conduct is not obviously a federal crime of terrorism." According to the Syracuse study, only half of the more than 6,400 "terrorist and anti-terrorist" matters referred to prosecutors by investigative agencies in the two years after September 11 involved actual acts of international or domestic terrorism....

What's more, the 9/11 Commission noted that, of the 768 aliens arrested as "special interest detainees" and lawfully held on immigration charges, 531 were deported, 162 were released on bond, and only eight--including [9/11 suspect Zacarias] Moussaoui--were remanded to the U.S. Marshall Service as terrorism suspects.....critics of the prevention strategy, such as David Cole of the Georgetown University Law Center, note that, of the nearly 5,000 foreign nationals detained since September 11 on immigration charges, only three were actually charged with any terrorism-related crime.
That's right--we know that the strategy of convicting terrorists of lesser offenses is being abused to round up non-terrorists, because many of those convicted under the strategy are being convicted of lesser crimes than terrorism. (Perhaps the rest were charged with tax evasion?)

Rosen has an additional objection:
[S]tate and local officials seem less enthusiastic about the prevention paradigm than their counterparts in Washington. Four states and nearly 330 local governments have passed resolutions objecting to the Bush administration's use of the Patriot Act and its efforts to enlist local officials in the war on terrorism. For example, the district attorney in Portland, Oregon, insisted that state law banned his city's police from apprehending people who had violated only immigration laws or from collecting information on the political beliefs of citizens, except as part of a criminal investigation.
Note that the Portland DA's rationale had nothing to do with whether the Patriot Act was being used to target real terrorists or mere petty criminals. That is, his complaint was against the FBI's uses of the Patriot Act tout court, even against terrorists or their collaborators. No doubt many--probably the vast majority--of the local resolutions passed against the Patriot Act and the War on Terror were of a similarly undiscriminating variety, outright condemning the Patriot Act, as applied by the FBI, as an unprecedented erosion of civil liberties. Now, where on earth might all those political bodies have gotten such an idea?