America Scares Me

OK, I have finally torn myself away from the accursed Wii long enough to surf the internet, read some articles and comments and become quite worried about the future of the human race.  Before I am accused of massive hyperbole, remember America is the worlds only superpower and, like it or not, societal changes there radiate out across the English speaking world quite quickly. (Yes, I am looking at you Creationism).

It seems that, despite being the leader of the free world, a beacon of Democracy and willing to invade other nations who abuse human rights, the USA has a very ambivalent approach towards one of the most inhumane of activities – torture. I know I have talked about this previously, but reading through the comments on the USA Today letter reminded me of conversations I have had with people in the US, and gives an insight into how the government policies seem to be built.

First off my position on the matter: Torture is never, ever, acceptable. It is a war crime and the practitioners of such acts should be treated as international war criminals. Waterboarding is torture. Calling torture “enhanced interrogation” does not change what it is any more than calling my car a boat will make it sail. I can think of no (real) circumstances in which torture is justified. Saying torture is better than execution is farcical.  The idea that torture would be carried out in my name, or to protect some nebulous concept of my safety is abhorrent.

However, I consider myself a rational person and I am willing to explore viewpoints and opinions that differ from my own. It is possible that I could be wrong in my stance about torture so I will look at some of the arguments for it. For the purposes of this rant, I will use the responses to the, frankly, insane USA Today letter. From these it appears the following “justify” torture: (Some I will post in full, others I will try to identify the more coherent parts)

in the meantime…they saw off our heads…….while weak dems say nothing about that……why do dems defend these killers of U.S citizens is alarming…..shows there huge weakness for our security. (from wave who, unsuprisingly, has no friends but 5 recommends for this nonsense)

This makes no sense. It is nothing but an appeal to fear, wrapped up in some bizarre attempt to make 2+2 equal three hundred and eleven. But it is a common one so I will try to salvage some sanity out it and see if it holds any water.

It breaks down into a few parts. First off the claim that torturing people is the only defence against “them” sawing off American heads. Now, given that people in custody are no longer in position to weild a saw this is true, but there is no requirement to torture them for this. Has the mistreatment of people in places such as Guantanamo reduced the amount of beheadings of Americans in the middle east? Erm, no. So we can strike that part. The second bit is just a sign that wave is insane. Objecting to torture is not defending the killers of US citizens any more than not torturing murder or rape suspects is. Shall we advocate tortuing people suspected of drink driving (which kills many, many more citizens each year)? If not the argument makes no sense.

The next one hints at what worries me about society.

Why is this such a difficult question for you? Given the choice between the safety and security of my loved ones *and* subjecting a terrorist to a few moments of anxiety (enhanced interrogation techniques), this is an easy choice! Glycine

Oh my Thor. Worryingly this is an attitude similar to one I encountered in people I talked to during my visit to the US. It shows the horrific effect language has had on people. 24 is not real. People do not get up at the end of the show, take a bow and give a PR conference to promote the sale of their DVD. Torture is torture. The clue is in the name. Waterboarding is not a “few moments of anxiety.”

This whole bag of madness falls down on a few levels. First off, if it is so mild how can it work on embittered, committed jihadists? If it is so mild (I can generate more than a few moments of anxiety for most people going to an interview, let alone questioning by law enforcement) why is it called “enhanced interrogation?” Dispel forever the idea that waterboarding is tame. That any form of torture can be passed of as time and almost humorous. It is not. It is there to break a persons will in the shortest possible time. This is not something people ever fully recover from.

Equally sad is the loss of any form of “innocent until proven guilty.” It now seems that if someone thinks you are a criminal you are one and will be tortured until you confess. Sounds all very 21st century to me. The people subjected to torture by agents of the US government are not always confirmed terrorists. Some will be people who are massively unlucky. Is torturing them (which will provide no extra security to your loved ones) acceptable? If so, where do we draw the line? When do we stop torturing people on the off-chance they may know something which may help increase the security of your loved ones? Crucially, what happens when someone comes to torture you to protect their loved ones? Would you be OK with that? Even if you are actually insane enough to think that torturing people based simply on their nationality and skin colour is acceptable, you have to face the fact it decreases national security. For every person who is interned and tortured, there will be families at home who rail against the injustice. Mistreatment of prisoners is the greatest recruiting tool an insurgent or terrorist organisation can hope for. For every suspected terrorist you torture, you recruit four or five more into his organisation. How does this make any sense at all?

We have the token argument from insanity:

Torture like many evils will not ‘go away’ because do-gooders wish it so.
Which is worse: killing the enemy outright or keeping them for the duration in a POW camp? (or Federal prison?) Incarceration, even with three meals a day, a bible, a toilet, clothing, bedding, et cetera, is none the less, torture — but who gives a damn? Ronald David (who, amazingly, has 8 friends on USA Today. Wow).

This is no argument, its just mad ranting. Torture like any crime will never quite go away but does that mean we should accept it? Do we accept rape or murder? No. If someone abducted ten people from US cities and tortured them for a few months, they would go to jail or face the death penalty. If the government does it, its OK. Does that make sense? I just love the attempt to use a derogatory “do-gooders” term against those who oppose evils such as torture. I’d rather be a do-gooder than a do-eviler. Maybe its the atheist in me.

Comparing torture with incarceration is madness. Nothing further needs to be said. Everything else this nutter has written on this letter speaks of mental illness.

(two chestnuts from Crazyfun_22 who has 11 bloody friends) In addition to Michael, the other loons posting about waterboarding are also subscribing to something in either their water or thier “Pipe”. The waterboarding the japanese did is not even close to what we did following 9/11, those people were drowned in the process. Waterboarding that ends in death can and shoud be classified as torture…so put down the remote after you turn off MSNBC and look some stuff up from multiple independent sources and get your facts straight.

Right, so torturing someone and stopping just before they die is OK then. This is insane. Torture is torture. Murder is murder. You can torture someone to death which is both torture and murder. Its like saying raping someone but not killing them is OK. All this crazy makes my head hurt.

Lastly, all you people who are commenting on waterboarding being used to get info on Iraq and make an Iraq-Al Qaeda connection….WRONG….it was used to try and determine intel on potnetial threats to Americans…period. While I am sure Saddam was part of the questioning, it was for American’s safety…and that does include you loony bins.

Here we come to the basic claim that seems to sustain the support for torture.

Torturing person X (who is hopefully not the from the same ethnic or religious background as you) is acceptable if it provides actionable intelligence that can save lives of people you care about.

This argument allows Americans to condemn other nations who torture prisoners (because the information gained is not helping people they care about) while practising it themselves. It carries a strong moral appeal because, seriously, who doesn’t want to save lives. There is even a utilitarian argument that the suffering of the few outweighs the benefits for the many. You can see why so many people agree with this concept and, as a result, support the use of torture by agents of the government .

Sadly it is all nonsense, and for so many different reasons it is hard to know where to begin.

If we take the utilitarian argument first. You have no way of knowing if the information provided from the torture will save lives until after you have tortured the person. If you know in advance enough to make this call, you know enough to not need to torture the person. Without knowing this you have to react to everything the person says – including lies and confusion. This takes up resources and manpower better spent elsewhere. A committed jihadist could even use this to distract your resources from where they would be best placed. If you are tortuing someone who genuinely doesn’t know what you are asking, when do you stop? Do you wait until they make something up? Unlike Jack Bauer you have no way of knowing the veracity of what your victim is telling you. You may get the truth in the first 10 seconds (about how long I would take to crack) but would you believe it? Would you continue to torture until you broke them and they changed their story? In reality, unlike 24, torture is a good way of making somone say what you want them to say – nothing else.

Following on from this, if you torture the person and it turns out they cant give you useful information, what then? The argument that useful information means torture is justified now means this was not-justified. Do you proceed to punish everyone involved with the now-criminal act? Anything else means the utilitarian argument suggests all torture is justifed on the basis that an unknown amount of information gained may be useful – but this applies to everything. Maybe torturing you or your parents will be useful. How do we know until we try?

It strikes me people can be quick to come up with hypothetical situations where torture would be acceptable, as long as it is someone else on the receiving end. Knowing that no system is 100% correct, innocent people will occasionally get caught up, would you be happy if you were that innocent person? If not, then torture is not acceptable. If you feel you would be happy to spend five years in “enhanced interrogation” because you knew, deep down, it was making the world safer, then I think you are insane.

(ranting over, back to the Wii…)

Miss Marple under threat

Blogging comedy gold uncovered. The slim grasp on reality that we associate with Wingnut Daily is yet again proved to be truly anorexic. According to worldnet daily

Picturesque villages now terror ‘hot spots’
Al-Qaida suspected of moving cells into British countryside

This article, which asks the (by definition) gullible reader to cough up $99 to read the full report, suggests that sleepy villages in the West Country and the Cotswolds are in imminent danger.

The British intelligence service MI5 has redrawn its electronic map of Britain’s “hot spots” terrorist targets – to include provincial university towns, colleges and picturesque villages close to high-security installations

Well, Worldnet Daily, maybe you need to grasp the most basic facts about English demographics. Picturesque Cotswold and West Country villages are incredibly expensive to live in, without offering many ways to make a living that bring even the minimum wage. (Sting and Madonna are the sort of people who can afford to buy houses there. These villages are “picturesque” and historic and remote, remember. The rest of us can only dream of living there.)

The handful of Muslims living in them are therefore very rich and generally, almost by definition, not keen on extremist politics and, well, suicide. They aren’t alienated and uneducated youths on the London-tube-bombings model.

And even if they were, they could hardly engage in plotting subterfuge without it being noticed by everybody in their villages. These are not inner-city neighbourhoods where you don’t recognise the person who lives next door. Like country people the world over, the local residents probably know which brand of toothpaste you use, after you’ve lived there a week. And, mass immigration having largely passed these villages by, they aren’t so used to Islamic residents that they wouldn’t pay obsessive attention to them.

And yes, there are high-security installations dotted around these areas. They are protected by security professionals. That’s why you can call them “high-security installations”, Wingnut Daily. The clue’s in the name.

These picturesque villages represent England to many people in the US, thanks to Miss Marple and several other fictional detectives. Books, movies and TV shows give the impression that Baltimore would be hard-pushed to rival the murder rate of the real-world versions of fictional villages like St Mary Mead and Midsomer Norton.

It almost pains me to have to report that this is fiction. You know, Worldnet Daily, “made-up stuff”. Like the idea that large numbers of crazy terrorists are operating in these places, unnoticed by the rest of the local population.

ID Cards for your own good…

Well, Orwell is still spinning in his grave. Despite some apparently premature optimism, it seems that ID cards are very much on the government’s agenda. Today’s news headlines have been very much about the “ID Card Rethink [bbc as example]” and how we are all going to end up with one.

This is all despite the House of Lords “setback” and the massive online YouGov poll that showed a significant percentage of the population were against the idea. To me, in addition to the hateful ideas of forced identity documents, the fact the government is able and willing to completely ignore over a million of the electorate’s opinions speaks volumes for how modern democracy works…

In a token gesture to people’s opinions, the government is planning to bring ID card by stealth in a phased manner. I assume the thinking is target the least popular / most vulnerable parts of society then, in a few years everyone will have come round to the idea and we will all carry one. Distasteful is an understatement.

In her speech announcing the new Identity Card plans, the Home Secretary, Jacqui Smith made the following statements:

I start from the premise that the National Identity Scheme is a public good.

Starting from a false premise is never going to lead to anything of value… This is largely, Smith saying the assumption was always we were going to have Identity Cards, like it or not.

As citizens, it will offer us a new, secure and convenient way to protect and prove our identity.

What is new about it? How is it more secure than, say, a passport or driving licence? Equally, how the **** does the existence of an ID card protect your identity?

And it will provide us with the reassurance we need that others who occupy positions of trust in our society are who they say they are as well.

This is odd, and the radio news made a big deal about this. What people who occupy positions of trust don’t already carry a form of ID? Lots of news sources go on about how Airport staff will be early ones to get them – oddly, you already need to have an ID card to get airside at an airport. What will have actually changed? Are the current procedures flawed?

Now, at this point I was going to do a line by line rebuttal of her claims but as they are all insane it will take much too long. Nearly every sentence she utters in her speech contains falsehoods and spin to trick people into thinking ID Cards will solve the worlds problems. They wont.

In an effort to be brief, I will try to address her main points.

Surveillance is everywhereFirstly, ID cards are supposed to be brought in to prevent crime and terrorism. Wow. If having to carry an ID card would prevent someone from being a terrorist, why are there still terrorists in the world? Same with crime. Neither activity will be deterred simply by the existence of a voluntary ID scheme. The best that could possibly be hoped for would be for a compulsory ID card, with fingerprint data, that may enable the police to catch people after a crime(*). In years gone by crazy ideas were often supported with a “wont anyone think of the children” (as parodied by the Simpsons), now we have Prevent Terrorism as the buzzword. If the government want to pass laws people will hate it is always linked to prevention of terrorism. Didn’t anyone watch “In the Name of the Father?”

Secondly they are supposed to prevent Identity Fraud. How this happens is never, ever, mentioned and, frankly, defies even the most cursory examination. Again reading through Ms Smith’s speech is an exercise in logical fallacies, there are more appeals to fear than I care to count. The phrases basically go along the lines of criminals steal identities so get an ID card. This sounds good and there is a half-hearted example of one person who defrauded the state out of £2.5m over five years. Compare this to Northern Rock who have taken over £100billion from the state in as many months. Who is the worse criminal? On a more personal level, ID theft is a terrible thing and I genuinely feel for anyone it happens to. Would the national ID card prevent it? Ninety nine times out of a hundred the answer is no, and in the other one is it a maybe.

CCTV Cameras Cover the CountryFor example, if some one hacks your Ebay account and runs up charges would an ID card have protected you? Same with anything online (where most ID theft apparently takes place) and in the offline world it only works when it interacts with the government. Someone can steal your ID and apply for credit cards, loans etc., and unless the issuing authority has access to the central database there is no way to find out.

This leads to the other problem. The database itself becomes a single point of failure. All a person needs to do is attack that to gain a legitimate, but false, identity. As recent months (and years) have shown, the Government is a largely inept organisation when it comes to protecting the data it holds. The news has covered dozens of “accidents” where huge amounts of personal data have been lost into the public domain. Do you feel safe thinking that a group with this track record will hold the gold standard of data about your identity?

Ms Smith has considered this and some reassurance is given:

Private firms will be encouraged to set-up “biometric enrolment centres” where passport and ID card applicants will be fingerprinted. [BBC news]

WTF! To make matters worse, this personal and private data will be collected by non-accountable organisations who have, by definition, their primary goal of making profit. By Toutatis this is madness. Here we will have the situation where staff on a minimum wage will be responsible for inputting your ID details and making sure no one else can get access to them. People who can be bribed with the price of a pint down the pub. Terrifying.

When Ms Smith talks about how they will protect the data the ID system will store, she manages to confuse me as to how it will work:

 The way in which we are designing the National Identity Register, with separate databases holding personal biographic details physically and technologically separately from biometric fingerprints and photographs, will greatly reduce the risk of unauthorised disclosures of information being used to damaging effect. …(followed by)…  I should make it clear that none of the databases will be online, so it won’t be possible to hack into them. [BBC transcript]

Now call me an old fashioned security professional, but there is a bit here that makes sense. By preventing people from getting access to the data you really do reduce the risk of unauthorised disclosure. However, and this shows more madness, if huge segments of society can’t access the data it is useless. The idea as I see it is that you go into the bank to open an account and show them your ID card. They scan it and compare it to the record of you. If it matches you get account. Seems easy, except now it looks like the bank wont have access and even if they did there is an air gap between the two technologies.

How is it supposed to work?

Lastly (phew, I hear you cry), the introduction by stealth. This shows the government KNOW this is an unpopular idea and it would never get off the ground if they tried to roll it out now. Instead they are going to play on the “white working class fear” of the Evil Immigrants by making them carry ID cards (why not force them to carry a sign round…(**)). What effect this will have is beyond me because if I was an immigrant and challenged by “authority” I would simply say I wasn’t an immigrant. Prove me wrong. Next come the “UK citizens and EU nationals who work in ‘sensitive’ airport jobs” who already carry ID cards and aren’t likely to complain, but again the question is “why?” Finally in 2011 it will be an opt-out option on passport renewals. Passports already have biometric data and are acceptable as proof of ID the world over. Why do we need another form of ID?

That is it in a nutshell, though. Why on Earth do we need another form of ID?

(*) remembering to account for the error bars of partial fingerprint matches when you have a database of 60+ million entries, and hoping the criminals are too stupid to wear gloves…

(**) Hmm. This seems familiar. I wonder why…