Tuesday, October 30, 2007

The Logic of Rendition

There's a new movie out called Rendition. It's about (guess what) torture and seems to be loosely based on the experiences of Maher Arar, although with American characters.

The pro-torture argument is laid out by the US official played by Meryll Streep. When prodded about the illegal use of torture on hidden detainees, she responds:

"Because of this, there are 7000 people alive in London who would otherwise be dead."

In a nutshell, there's the logic of rendition.

And it begs for deconstruction.

1. "Because of this": Translation: "Rendition is the end justifies the means." In effect, if torture can save lives, then torture is good. But let's quantify this saving of lives. What if torture can save only a dozen lives? Or only one life? Is it okay then?

Does it have to be thousands?

And how will an agent know if the plot will involve thousands until after the torture has taken place?

Does this also take into account that violent people like to brag during confessions?

And is the limit just the saving of lives? Could it be extended to other benefits? What if a terror plot involved the sabotage of the US's electronic banking system-- say, a computer virus that destroys valuable information on a massive scale? Would torture be justified if it prevented economic turmoil and the loss of people's life savings?

Should suspicious American geeks be renditioned?

Could we not also propose that George Bush should be killed because he is blocking the world's efforts to stop global warming? Global warming will kill not just thousands, but millions or billions of people, as well as non-human populations, and it will wreak havoc on our economies. Would that be okay according to the end justifies the means?

The problem with the end justifies the means is that it justifies anything -- any end, any means. The end has not been defined or limited; and if officials are working secretly, then there is no way of holding them to any definitions and limits anyway. They could be doing anything for any reason. The public would never know.

2. "7000 people": Really? Keep in mind that rendition is secret offshore torture. This means there are no official records, and everything is "deniable." The public has a jaundiced eye about intelligence-related secret information ever since non-existent weapons of mass destruction were used to justify the invasion of a sovereign state.

If officials want to keep their "facts" secret and deniable, then they can't also expect to be able to use these "facts" as public arguments. Sorry, but you can't have your cake and eat it too.

3. "Alive in London who would otherwise be dead": I want to examine this idea more closely. Does foiling a terror plot save lives? On the surface, one would think so. But this idea fails to consider that most terror plots fail. It also doesn't consider whether more terror agents would simply move in to redo the job if someone got arrested. Al Qaeda keeps trying the same objective until they succeed. So stopping a terror plot simply stops that terror plot. One can't say with any certainty what other effects -- long- or short-term -- might have resulted.

There are also two unstated premises in Streep's character's statement:

1. Saving lives is what government is all about.
Apparently, saving lives trumps the constitution, the laws of the country, the values and principles that have developed through history, and the integrity and scrutability of government leaders. It is also more important than the nation's international reputation, its relations with other countries, and its self-respect. It's more important than justice: tortured confessions are not admissable in court, so legal trials have to be replaced with secret trials, extrajudicial hearings, or just no trial at all.

These are the costs of the lives that torture is allegedly saving. The character that Streep plays simply accepts these costs as something external to the job she has to do. Fortunately for the plot of the movie, another US agent comes to have misgivings.

2. Torture is the most expedient way to get intelligence information--and it's a pity we can't use it more often. Alas, tortured people lie. They'll say anything. The tortured wiccans of the Middle Ages tossed out as many names as they could scream while they begged to be put to death. This creates dubious evidence that is then used to arrest, deport, and rendition more people. Since there is no open scrutiny of this evidence, it can take on a power of its own, like an online meme or an urban legend. When those people in turn are tortured, the net grows wider. More wires are tapped, more calls are traced, more people are arrested. The government leaders crow about how expedient their methods are. Their fingers itch for even more powerful methods.

Yet how much of it is untrue? There is no habeas corpus, no defence lawyers, no trials. The public doesn't know if it is expedient. They don't even know how many people have been arrested or who they are.

Fear makes people behave in terrible ways. If bin Ladin's objective in the 9/11 attacks was not so much to kill as to create a climate of fear that would cause Westerners to turn against themselves and commit democratic suicide, then he was enormously successful.

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Thursday, October 25, 2007

The Spiritual Diet

My son is in occupational therapy for something called "sensory integration disorder" -- his brain and senses don't communicate properly. The general therapy for SID is something called a "sensory diet" which involves making sure the brain gets a full and varied set of sensory information all the time every day. This helps keep the brain alert to sensory information and helps it learn to cope with stimula.

This is tough for a kid who's supposed to sit still at a desk for hours every day!

The sensory diet is not something a non-SID person would ever think about. Who considers whether they have pushed, lifted, listened, balanced, rubbed, squeezed, chewed, and bounced enough in a day? Most people will just listen to Mozart, not listen to a "diet" of music. The sensory diet is really a mind-opening concept.

I think too about the "spiritual diet." Going to church/meeting is one item in the diet. Reading books is another. Talking, listening, centring. Then there's political action, social action, environmental action. I'm probably missing some things from the spiritual "food groups" here, but you get the idea. Emphasizing one area of the spiritual diet too much makes us spiritually malnourished.

Maybe some of us drop out of one part of the spiritual diet because we feel we are getting too much of one thing, not enough of another. Like my son who can't "hear" his senses, we can't "hear" our spirit/Spirit. The revolving-door aspect of many of our meetings may reflect this spiritual diet thing.

This week, another book came in on the reserve list at the library, this time a well-known US author, Barbara Kingsolver. Her newest book is Animal, Vegetable, Miracle and -- if this ain't proof that there's a global movement going on here -- it's about a year of local eating.

Reading the two books (The 100-Mile Diet [aka Plenty] vs this one) back to back, there is a temptation to compare. The Smith/MacKinnon book is less thick, more translucent, more open about human frailties and failures. Kingsolver's book is dense, brisk, and heavier. Perhaps more practical in many ways, too, with more how-to elements in it. Smith and MacKinnon were flying by the seat of their pants, relying on near-genius cooking skills to survive, still in many ways wondering who they were going to be when they grew up. Kingsolver is already a bestselling author, who sits proudly on the list of the 100 most dangerous people in America.

Both sets of authors touch on the cultural antipathy toward spiritual values in diet. But Kingsolver drives the point home.

She points out that as guests, Jewish, Muslim, and Buddhist people can politely turn down the platter of ham on the grounds of their spirituality, with no hard feelings from the host. And in many ways, a vegetarian can do the same thing for lifestyle reasons, although possibly with a more tight-lipped smile from the host.

But what about the person who, for spiritual reasons, cannot eat food that was grown by people paid less than $2/day in a far-away country, then shipped at the expense of our environment to our table, with rich corporations taking all the profits? Or those who, for spiritual reasons, feel they must eat the food that their region produces? Refuse to pour greenhouse gases into their refrigerators and mouths? Respect the dignity and value of an animal's life before it dies to become our ham platter? Treat the human body as a temple and forsake GMO and mass-produced pseudo-food?

"No, thanks, I'm on a spiritual diet"???

Hm, I envision said platter of ham up-ended in someone's lap in response.

Somehow, these values that I/we consider spiritual lie outside of the accepted boundaries of spirituality and therefore don't get the same respect as rules printed in ancient documents. And there are those other rules, equally ancient -- rules of hospitality and good graces -- that trump anything newfangled.

My parents are coming to visit in a couple of weeks for a weekend. I am trying to bring myself to buy the required food-things. Breakfast includes orange juice and oranges. Bread is white and comes with a brand name on the bag. Salads are green at all times of the year.

Do I dare offer them red cabbage and carrot salad, with squash soup, a handful of the mini kiwis I grew in my backyard, and the wonderful meats that I get from my farmer? Maybe some dolmades made with chard leaves, or bruschetta of my own tomatoes and garlic, roasted onto crusty local bread? All of it grown, sought, gathered, preserved, and/or cooked by my own hands, gifts of the earth as the days grow shorter and colder?

Would that seem like a gift to them? Or a snub?

Probably a snub.

I wonder if Woolman's hosts were snubbed when he would slip into the back kitchen to pay the slaved people who had served him. I wonder if he even ever worried about that.

I wonder if he ever snubbed his parents.

Friday, October 05, 2007

Eating What We Are

I finally got around to reading "The 100-Mile Diet" by Alisa Smith and James B Mackinnon (entitled "Plenty" in the US -- I don't know why they came up with a different title for you guys. Isn't that kind of weird??). Actually, my name in the queue at the library hold listings finally came up. It was a good read -- funny, warm, quirky, non-self-righteous.

It's also like a gauntlet being tossed down. Eat locally. Pull thy head out of the sand. Take up this quest.

We've sort of being eating a sort of local diet for a long while now. Mostly the meats and veges. But it's that final push we've never done, the business of saying No More. This book has inspired me. I mean, if they can do it...

Food is a metaphor of a culture. North American food is cheap, low-interest, low-taste, and low-nutrition. This is what we as a people have become. We'd rather import garlic all the way from China and put our local farmers out of work than to pay two bucks more per bushel. It's been bouncing around on a boat for two weeks, but we don't care.

Doing the 100 mile diet brings up some really interesting problems. Where will I get sugar, rice, and flour in eastern Ontario?

The truth is I don't know. The likely answer is that I won't. And that's something we have to work out one item at a time. I have to let go of the ideas about food that are tying me to an insane global agro-food business.

For now, sugar is coming from maple syrup (50 km), honey (40 km), and corn syrup from the grocery store that I have rationalized since Ontario grows lots of corn that this is sort of maybe local syrup. The muffins this week weren't so bad, especially with the local pumpkin mush (30 km) to help sweeten them. I am now trying to persuade one farmer at the farmer's market to grow sugar beets next spring and then find an elderly German immigrant to teach her how to turn them into syrup. Maybe you can process sweet corn into syrup in the same way. Has anyone ever tried it?

Maybe I'll try it this weekend.

Is eating local a spiritual principle? I don't think quakers ever made a distinction between everyday living and spiritual living. This little quest is like a prayer for the earth, to make it better.

And as we head into Thanksgiving weekend, it's good to think of food prayerfully.

We can, truly, eat ourselves into being again.

From the second-last chapter, when Alisa and James are at a local food restaurant with a table full of local food critics. A bottle of wine had been presented to them (200 miles), and everyone at the table had hesitated to accept it:

I had expected the 100-mile experiment to be a platform to think about many things, among them a long list of bummers from climate change to the failure of whole generations to learn how to recognize edibel mushrooms. What I could see around thetable now was a less tangible consideration: a sense of adventure. We are at a point in world history where bad news about the state of the Earth is just as jaded and timeworn as the idea that there is nowhere left to go, nothing new to explore. Put those two statements side by side, however, and something hidden is revealed. Of course there are new things to do, and no shortage of them. We need to find new ways to live in the future. We can start any time; we can live them here and now .