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Would You Fight for the Life of a Man Who Shot You and Left You for Dead? July 24, 2011

Posted by rogerhollander in 9/11, Criminal Justice, Texas.
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Roger’s note: the United States is one of the few nations in the world that allows for the barbarism of state execution.  I read a few years ago that the thee jurisdictions in the world with the most state executions were China, Texas and Florida.  By pure coincidence Texas and Florida for many years were governed by a couple of renowned statesmen who go by the names of George W. and Jeb Bush.  A proud heritage.
LilianaSegura.com / By Liliana Segura

Capital punishment is supposed to bring closure to victims’
families, but ignores the wishes of those who prefer forgiveness.
July 22, 2011  |

A death penalty case in Texas received a lot of media attention in the past several
weeks, as state prison authorities prepared to execute Mark Stroman, a man who
shot and killed two people in a vengeful rampage after September
11th. His victims, who he targeted because he thought they were Arab,
were a Pakistani man named Waqar Hasan and an Indian man named Vasudev Patel. A
third man survived. His name is Rais Bhuiyan. He is Muslim, from Bangladesh. He
has told his story to news outlets across the country; how he was approached at
the gas station where he worked, how Stroman, a tattooed white man, demanded,
“where are you from?” as he brandished a gun. How he had not yet answered when
he felt “the sensation of a million bees stinging my face, and then heard an
explosion” as Stroman shot him. Bhuiyan survived, somehow, and was
left blinded in one eye.

To the surprise of many, Bhuiyan devoted himself in the past several months
to fighting for Stroman’s life, pleading with Texas not to kill the man who
brutally shot him and left him for dead. After discussing it with Hasan’s and
Patel’s families, he started a petition on Stroman’s behalf asking the Texas
Board of Pardons and Parole to spare his life, and posting it on a
website
in which he preached forgiveness: “In order to live in a better and
peaceful world, we need to break the cycle of hate and violence,” he wrote. “…I
forgave Mark Stroman many years ago. I believe he was ignorant and not capable
of distinguishing between right and wrong. Otherwise he wouldn’t have done what
he did.” Despite Bhuiyan’s efforts, Stroman was executed by lethal injection on July 20th.

Bhuiyan’s story is extraordinary in many ways, heavy with the symbolic weight
of 9/11. His willingness to forgive and even fight for the life of a man who
tried to murder him has moved many people, with good reason. But it’s worth
remembering that victims of violent crime oppose the death penalty more often
than we may realize, and, like Bhuiyan so far, they are often disregarded. As
much as prosecutors and politicians love to insist that the toughest penalties
are meted out on behalf of victims and their grieving family members, the
reality is that deference to the mantle of “victim” often relies on a
full-throated embrace of the harshest sentence for the people whose job it is
for them to punish. Anything less is liable to be ignored.

Take another Texas case from a few months back. An Army veteran named Timothy
Adams was put to death in the killing of his 19-month-old son during a standoff
with police. Adams was suicidal at the time; he immediately turned himself in
and expressed remorse for his crime. As Texas prepared to put him to death, his
family members begged for clemency. “Our family lost one child,” his father said. “We don’t deserve to lose another. After my grandson’s
death, we lived through pain worse than anyone could imagine. Nothing good will
come from executing my son Tim and causing us more anguish.” Adams was executed by lethal injection on February 23rd.

That same month, in Ohio, a man named Johnnie Baston faced execution for the
killing of a South Korean store clerk in Toledo. The man’s family members fought
for clemency, but were ignored by the state parole board, which voted
unanimously to put him to death. “While many members of Mr. Mah’s family favor a
commutation to life without parole, Mr. Baston’s lack of accepting
responsibility, criminal history, and the severity of the execution-style
killing of Mr. Chong Mah outweigh their personal opinions regarding the death
penalty and their wishes as to the sentence imposed in this case,” the parole
board concluded.

“The death of Johnnie Baston isn’t going to do anything that’s going to bring
back our father, give us any closure or gratification,” his son, Peter Mah
argued to no avail. Baston was executed on March 10th.

The same thing happened in Alabama in January. Leroy White was executed over the wishes of his victim’s family members,
who, as in the case of Timothy Adams, included family members of his own. White
was sentenced to death for the killing of his wife, Ruby, with whom he had a
young daughter, Latonya. In a signed affidavit, she described how despite years
of anger at her father for taking her mother away, she was now very close to him
and “have grown to love him just as much as any child would love their parent…I
know that he did a terrible thing by taking my mother’s life, but I have
forgiven him completely.”

I am deeply opposed to my father’s
execution. He is the only thing that I have left that’s a part of me. Taking
away my only remaining biological parent will hurt me more than I can say.
Executing my father will do nothing to bring my mother back. I would do anything
in my power to stop this execution from taking place.

Leroy White was executed on January 13th.

Some would argue that cases like White’s and Adams’s are different, that
of course family members of murderers will argue to spare the life of a
relative, even if they have taken one of their own. To do so sets up a strange
hierarchy of victimization—who are the “good” victims?—but one that is all too
real. The family members of death row prisoners are rarely included under the
banner of “victim’s family,” but when the state has killed your loved one, what
are you then?

As we were so aggressively reminded after the death of Osama bin Laden, the
killing of killers is celebrated as a way to bring “closure” to people who have
suffered terrible losses at their hands. There are many reasons to question this notion, but whether this is ever
true can only depend on individual experiences. What is clear is that, when
those in a position to carry out the death penalty stand upon the moral pedestal
bestowed to them as a defender of victims’ rights, such  “rights” have limits.
As Jeff Gamso, a criminal defense attorney in Ohio who has worked on capital
cases, wrote a few days before Stroman’s
execution: “Texas, of course, like Ohio, like other states, like the feds, is
deeply committed to ensuring the rights of crime victims. Their voices will be
heard. Their needs will be met. They will be offered support and comfort and
help. As long as they seek vengeance. The rights of victims don’t extend to
seeking mercy. At least, not so far.”

 

Liliana Segura is an independent journalist and
editor with a focus on social justice, prisons & harsh sentencing

After the Latest U.S. Airstrike, Can Anyone Wonder Why Do ‘They’ Hate Us? May 10, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Iraq and Afghanistan, War.
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child_burnt afghanistan

In the eyes of the children whose families die in U.S. led wars, the Americans are the terrorists.

Posted by Liliana Segura, AlterNet at 2:23 PM on May 8, 2009.

About a half-hour north of Jalalabad, the children along the road change. No waving. No smiling. No thumbs up. No screaming for candy. Only serious stares and empty eyes!

I have seen this in Iraq, and it’s deeply uncomfortable until you get used to it — if you get used to it. Children by nature are friendly, when they’re unfriendly it’s because their parents, possibly their extended family, maybe their whole community is worse than unfriendly. And the change can be fast, in the next village, yet most of the time the change comes slow. But you have to be looking. Otherwise you look up and the smiling and enthusiastic little ones are suddenly frosty and distant little ones.

– Embedded journalist in Farah Afghanistan, March 2009

 This was written during a four-day convoy ride with the Regional Corps Advisory Command of the U.S. Marines. The author, a Vietnam vet who says he has traveled to 109 countries — including multiple trips to Afghanistan — and “reported from more than a dozen wars,” has no doubt seen his share of action. But reading it this week, days after a U.S. airstrike killed up to 130 people in Farah, Afghanistan, including 13 members of the same family, this quote from an journalist embedded with soldiers in a warzone that is escalating at this moment, is chilling.

It is a glimpse into the black and white logic that gave birth to the “War on Terror,” where there is a “good” side and a “bad” side, and as long as we know where the bad guys are, perpetual war against an entire people is justifiable. Thus, if a child stares coldly at U.S. military convoys, it must be because their “parents, possibly their extended family, maybe their whole community(!)” is comprised of terrorists. Thus by the unfortunate accident of lineage and geography, they too must be terrorist in the making themselves.

Is it too obvious a point that the “frosty and distant” children who stare at U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan might do so not because “their parents, possibly their extended family, maybe their whole community is worse than unfriendly” but because “their parents, possibly their extended family, maybe their whole community” were recently slaughtered by the U.S. military, like those killed this week in Farah?

Even in the face of an official apology from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, reports that villagers collected “two tractor trailers full of pieces of human bodies” and remarks from Afghan president Hamid Karzai that the U.S. forces must operate from a “higher platform of morality,” the Pentagon has tried to claim that the civilian victims of this week’s deadly airstrikes in Farah were actually killed by the Taliban, who staged the massacre in order to pin the blame on the U.S. For those who see the fight against the Taliban as a battle of good versus evil, this might seem plausible.

But six years into the bloody war on Iraq, almost eight years into the war in Afghanistan, five years after the release of the photographs of torture at Abu Ghraib, weeks after the release of the grisly CIA torture memos, and one day after a U.S. soldier was found guilty of raping a 14-year-old Iraqi girl, then killing her family it is hard to imagine that people around the world still have much faith in the infallibility — let alone moral superiority — of the U.S. military, even over the murderous Taliban. As more civilians die by U.S. hands in the escalating war on Afghanistan — including children and their families — the less convicing such cynical claims and cover-ups will be.

 

Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet’s Rights and Liberties and War on Iraq Special Coverage.

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Federal Court to Obama DOJ: ‘State Secrets’ Excuse is Bogus, Torture Victims’ Lawsuit Can Proceed April 28, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Human Rights, Torture.
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 jeppesen-supports-torture

Posted by Liliana Segura, AlterNet at 1:39 PM on April 28, 2009, www.alternet.org

In a crucial defeat for the Obama administration, an ACLU lawsuit on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition will move forward.

In February, lawyers for the Obama administration dismayed many of his supporters by attempting to block a lawsuit on behalf of five victims of  extraordinary rendition on the same bogus “state secrets” grounds so often invoked by his predecessor.

“This case cannot be litigated,” Department of Justice lawyer Douglas Letter argued at the time. “The judges shouldn’t play with fire in this national security situation.”

This claim, a throwback to the shameless secrecy and fearmongering of the Bush era, was devastating to those who had hoped that the Obama presidency would mark a shift towards seeking justice for the countless men wrongfully swept up in the early days of the so-called “war on terror” — and accountability for those who sanctioned their torture.

As I explained at the time:

 

 

The case was Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, a lawsuit originally brought in 2007 by the ACLU on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition, the notorious CIA program in which terror suspects are kidnapped, thrown on a plane and flown to another country to be tortured and interrogated.

Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, is said to have provided the logistical support for the rendition of all five plaintiffs, among them, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national who, in July 2002, was taken from Pakistan to Morocco, where for 18 months he was imprisoned and brutally tortured, including being cut with razorblades on his testicles. Mohamed was later sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he supposedly awaits imminent plans for his release. He has never stood trial.

 

 

Two weeks later — and seven years after his initial capture — Binyam Mohamed was finally released.

 

 

“The very people who I had hoped would come to my rescue, I later realized, had allied themselves with my abusers,” he said in a statement released upon his arrival to Britain.

 

 

Likewise, the same administration many hoped would finally allow torture victims to have their day in court instead has followed the Bush administration’s footsteps by seeking to block their lawsuits.

Today, however, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit came down on the side of Mohamed and his fellow plaintiffs, ruling that the ACLU case against Jeppesen Dataplan can move forward.

“The Executive’s national security prerogatives are not the only weighty constitutional values at stake,” the court concluded, quoting the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark opinion in Boumediene v. Bush that security depends on the “freedom from arbitrary and unlawful restraint and the personal liberty that is secured by adhering to the separation of powers.”

 

 

According to the court’s decision, the government can only use the state secrets privilege with respect to specific evidence, not to throw out the lawsuit itself.

In a statement released today by the ACLU, staff attorney Ben Wizner, who argued the case for the plaintiffs, said, “This historic decision marks the beginning, not the end, of this litigation. Our clients, who are among the hundreds of victims of torture under the Bush administration, have waited for years just to get a foot in the courthouse door. Now, at long last, they will have their day in court. Today’s ruling demolishes once and for all the legal fiction, advanced by the Bush administration and continued by the Obama administration, that facts known throughout the world could be deemed ‘secrets’ in a court of law.”

“I am happy to hear this news,” said Bisher Al-Rawi, a plaintiff in this case who was released from Guantánamo last year without ever having been charged with a crime. “We have made a huge step forward in our quest for justice.”

 

 

The ACLU has more.

Obama Lawyers Invoke “State Secrets” to Block Warrantless Spying Lawsuit April 6, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, Torture.
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Posted by Liliana Segura, AlterNet at 10:15 AM on April 6, 2009.

It’s not the first time Obama’s DOJ has employed the tactic so often used by the Bush administration to block accountability for government crimes.

Oops, they did it again: lawyers for Barack Obama’s Department of Justice have invoked the “state secrets” privilege to block a lawsuit seeking to reverse one of the most scandalous policies of the Bush administration.

In a motion filed in a San Francisco court on Friday, attorneys for the Obama administration moved to dismiss a challenge to the National Security Agency’s notorious warrantless wiretapping program. “The information implicated by this case, which concerns how the United States seeks to detect and prevent terrorist attacks, would cause exceptionally grave harm to national security,” DOJ lawyers argued in the 36-page brief, echoing an argument made ad nauseum by the Bush administration.

 

 

The case, Jewel v. NSA, was filed in September of 2008 on behalf of five AT&T customers “to stop the illegal, unconstitutional, and ongoing dragnet surveillance of their communications and communications records,” according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation, the civil liberties organization that brought forth the suit. “Evidence in the case includes undisputed documents provided by former AT&T telecommunications technician Mark Klein showing AT&T has routed copies of Internet traffic to a secret room in San Francisco controlled by the NSA.”

Klein, the whistleblower who blew the lid off AT&T’s participation in the NSA spying program, was an employee at AT&T for 22 years but showed no qualms about exposing the company. “If they’ve done something massively illegal and unconstitutional — well, they should suffer the consequences,” Klein told the Washington Post in 2007. Teaming up with EFF, Klein has played a critical role in furnishing the evidence for multiple lawsuits brought against the NSA’s spying program, including Hepting v. AT&T, a class-action lawsuit against AT&T itself. (That case was brought forth in 2006, before Congress passed legislation granting immunity to telecoms that participated in the government’s warrantless wiretapping program.)

Although Jewel v. NSA is not a lawsuit against AT&T, the DOJ’s court motion displays its full support for the company. “All of plaintiffs’ claims require the disclosure of whether or not AT&T assisted the Government in alleged intelligence activities, and the (Director of National Intelligence) again has demonstrated that disclosure of whether the NSA has an intelligence relationship with a particular private company would also cause exceptional harm to national security”

It may have been fantasy to imagine that the Obama DOJ would allow AT&T — whose corporate logo graced the official goody bags at the Democratic National Convention this summer — to be at all vulnerable to litigation for its role in the warrantless wiretapping scheme, particularly after Obama himself cast a vote for telecom immunity. But its invoking of the state secrets privilege is a disturbing move — particularly because it is not the first time it has done so.

 

 

On Monday EFF sent out a press release condemning the Obama administration’s use of state secrets privilege to conceal the government’s criminal activity. “President Obama promised the American people a new era of transparency, accountability, and respect for civil liberties,” Senior Staff Attorney Kevin Bankston said in a written statement. “But with the Obama Justice Department continuing the Bush administration’s cover-up of the National Security Agency’s dragnet surveillance of millions of Americans, and insisting that the much-publicized warrantless wiretapping program is still a ‘secret’ that cannot be reviewed by the courts, it feels like deja vu all over again.”

Why is the Obama Administration Protecting Bush Officials?

Over e-mail, Cindy Cohn, legal director of EFF, called the legal filing by Obama’s DOJ “very significant.” “Obama is attempting to block the courts from considering serious constitutional issues raised in this case entirely,” she said. “This is the sort of disdain for the rule of law and the role of the courts that he campaigned against.”

 

 

Cohn added, “It’s also a continuation of the outrageous secrecy claims that Bush was criticized for — after all, the warrantless wiretapping is hardly a secret. We presented a box of Congressional testimony, Congressional admissions, news stories, and even a few books to the court describing it. The argument that this is still a secret really strains belief.”

 

 

Jewel v. NSA is not just a lawsuit against the NSA. It is also a lawsuit against the individuals who created the government’s spying program, including George W. Bush and his senior staff.

 

 

As Raw Story’s John Byrne points out, “in attempting to block a San Fransisco court from reviewing documents relating to the NSA program, the Obama Administration is also protecting other individuals named as defendants in the suit: Vice President Dick Cheney, former Cheney chief of staff David Addington and former Bush Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.” These, of course, are the same individuals many Americans would like to see prosecuted for their role in implementing the government’s “harsh interrogation” policies. But on the question of torture, the Obama administration has shown no inclination to bring former Bush officials to account.

Quite the opposite. In February Obama lawyers used the same “state secrets” tactic to block a lawsuit brought by the ACLU on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition — the CIA’s famed kidnap and torture program. “This case cannot be litigated,” Department of Justice lawyer Douglas Letter declared on February 9th, arguing that the case, Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, should be thrown out. “The judges shouldn’t play with fire in this national security situation.”

ACLU director Anthony Romero decried the move. “Eric Holder’s Justice Department stood up in court today and said that it would continue the Bush policy of invoking state secrets to hide the reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations committed by the American government.”

 

 

Now, warrantless spying can be added to the list.

 

 

“In our case we have no reason to believe that the warrantless wiretapping has ended,” said Cohn, “so at some point we have to call it Obama’s warrantless wiretapping.”

Liliana Segura is a staff writer and editor of AlterNet’s Rights and Liberties and War on Iraq Special Coverage.

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Questioning Authority: A Rethinking of the Infamous Milgram Experiments February 13, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Science and Technology, Uncategorized.
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milgram-experiment

By Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Posted February 12, 2009.

A famous 1970s experiment was recently replicated, revealing what it takes for us to question and resist those in positions of authority.

Between 1963 and 1974, Dr. Stanley Milgram conducted a series of experiments that would become one of the most famous social psychology studies of the 20th century. His focus was how average people respond to authority, and what he revealed stunned and disturbed people the world over.

Under the pretense of an experiment on “learning” and “memory,” Milgram placed test subjects in a lab rigged with fake gadgetry, where a man in a lab coat instructed them to administer electrical shocks to a fellow test subject (actually an actor) seated in another room in “a kind of miniature electric chair.”

Participants were told they were the “teachers” in the scenario and given a list of questions with which to quiz their counterparts (the “learners”). If the respondent answered incorrectly to a question, he got an electric shock as punishment.

The shocks were light at first — 15 volts — and became stronger incrementally, until they reached 450 volts — a level labeled “Danger: Severe Shock.” The actors were never actually electrocuted, but they pretended they were. They groaned, shouted, and, as the current became stronger, begged for relief. Meanwhile, the man in the lab coat coolly told the test subjects to keep going.

To people’s horror, Milgram discovered that a solid majority of his subjects — roughly two-thirds — were willing to administer the highest levels of shock to their counterparts. This was as true among the first set of his test subjects (Yale undergrads), to subsequent “ordinary” participants as described by Milgram (“professionals, white-collar workers, unemployed persons and industrial workers”), to test subjects abroad, from Munich to South Africa. It was also as true for women as it was for men (although female subjects reported a higher degree of anxiety afterward).

For people who learned of the study, this became devastating proof, not only of human beings’ slavish compliance in the face of authority, but of our willingness to do horrible things to other people. The study has been used to explain everything from Nazi Germany to the torture at Abu Ghraib.

But what if Milgram’s obedience studies tell us something else, something just as essential, not about our obedience to authority, but what it takes for people to resist it? Now, for the first time in decades, a psychologist has replicated Milgram’s famous study (with some critical changes).

The bad news: His results are statistically identical to Milgram’s. The good news: Contrary to popular perception, the lesson it teaches us is not that human beings are a breed of latent torturers. “Actually,” says Dr. Jerry Burger, the psychologist who led the exercise, “what I think is that the real lesson of the demonstration is quite the opposite.”

Replicating Milgram: ‘I Can’t Tell You Why I Listened to Him and Kept Going’

Burger works at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, Calif. Like many in his field, he has long been interested in Milgram.

“Everybody who works in my area has his or her own ideas about why Milgram’s participants did what they did,” he says. And many have ideas about what they would change if they did the study themselves. “I have kind of had ideas like that forever … but it’s pretty much been considered to be out of bounds for research. I think we all kind of assumed no one was every going to be able to do this study again.”

Indeed, Milgram’s obedience study was deeply controversial in its time. His deceptive methodology would later be criticized as unethical, and stiffer regulations concerning the psychological well-being of participants in such studies would follow. Thus, despite its enduring role in the popular imagination — and relevance to the events of the day — Milgram’s study would remain firmly entrenched in its time and place.

Then, in 2004, the Abu Ghraib scandal broke. In the analysis that followed, many pointed to Milgram’s findings as a way to understand what could have led otherwise-average soldiers to act so cruelly. At ABC News, producers decided they wanted to do an investigative report on this question.

“I think what they had in mind at first was some sort of journalistic stunt,” Burger recalls “… to set up the Milgram study themselves.” But ABC was advised not undertake such a project lightly. “Someone told them, ‘If you want to do some sort of exploration of obedience, you need to talk to someone who works in the field,’ ” says Burger. “Somehow my name surfaced in this conversation.”

When ABC called him, “I told them, ‘No you can’t replicate Milgram,’ but I thought it was great that they wanted to explore these questions. … I was not interested in helping them put on some kind of stunt (but), it was something that I always wanted to do. And if ABC would foot the bill …”

It took months to set up the project — recruiting and vetting participants, getting insurance, consulting lawyers, etc. When it came to conduct the experiment, Burger had implemented significant changes to Milgram’s original study. One crucial adjustment had been to establish a threshold that did not exist under Milgram. Burger calls it the “150-volt solution.”

“You can’t put people through what Milgram did,” says Burger. Revisiting descriptions of his subjects, he says, “you see that people were suffering tremendously.” They believed they were torturing people, that people were “presumably even dying on the other side of the wall.”

Thus, based on Milgram’s original data, which showed that the majority of the participants who administered 150-volt shocks to their subjects were willing to go all the way to the highest levels, Burger decided that he would stop participants at the 150-volt mark, “the point of no return.”

When the ABC special aired in January 2007, it took a predictably sensationalist approach. “A Touch of Evil” was the title, and foreboding music provided a dark backdrop.

The segment showed men and women of various ages, ethnicities and professions doing the same thing — administering what they believed were electric shocks to a person in another room.

Often the participants would be startled by the shouts behind the wall, turning to look to the man in the lab coat with nervous expressions. But at his behest, they continued, even amid protests from the actor. (“Get me out of here, I told you I had heart trouble. My heart’s starting to bother me now.”)

In the end, 70 percent of the subjects reached the 150-volt mark — a statistic basically identical to Milgram’s. Unlike in Milgram’s experiment, however, Burger told his subjects immediately after their time was up that the whole thing had been staged.

“I can’t tell you why I listened to him and kept going,” one participant told his ABC interviewer. “I should have just said no.”

In the media and the blogosphere, the response to Burger’s study has played into the notion that Milgram’s findings, as true now as they were a generation ago, point to some intrinsic capacity for evil in human beings. It was more or less summed up by one blog’s headline, which Burger noted, chuckling: “This Just In: We Still Suck.”

‘Under the Right Circumstances, People Will Act In Surprising and Unsettling Ways’

Although Milgram’s research is understood mainly through the lens of “obedience,” Burger believes that authority is actually not the definitive factor in the situation.

Just as important, if not more so, are the combination of factors that make up the scenario and which make subjects so dependent on authority. For example, despite being shown the “learner” strapped in before the experiment begins, participants are operating on relatively little information.

“They want to be a good participator, they don’t know, ‘should I stop, should I not,’ ” says Burger, “… Except there’s a person in the room that’s an expert, who knows all about the study, the equipment, etc … and he’s acting like, well, this is nothing unusual … If the only information you have is telling you that this is the right thing to do — of course you do it.”

Participants are also absolved of any real sense of personal responsibility. “I was doing my job,” is a common refrain. Burger notes, “when people don’t feel responsible, that can lead to some very unsettling behaviors.” And then, there’s the high pressure created by the limited window of time participants have to choose whether to shock their “learner.”

“Imagine if Milgram had allowed those people to take 30 minutes and think about it,” says Burger. “They don’t have time, and the experimenter doesn’t allow them time. In fact, if the person pauses, the experimenter steps in and says, ‘Please continue.’ “

But perhaps the most important enabling factor is the fact that the volts go up in little by little.

“Milgram set this up so that people responded in small increments,” says Burger. “They didn’t start with 150 volts, they started with 15 and worked their way up … That is a very powerful way to change attitudes and behaviors.” Most people, after all, don’t start with extreme behaviors right off the bat.

“People didn’t start by drinking Jim Jones’ poison Kool-Aid,” Burger says. “They probably started by donating money, or going to a meeting … you probably see that in most examples where you’re scratching you head and saying, ‘How can they do that?’ “

In Burger’s opinion, the significance of Milgram’s findings are widely misunderstood. “The point is not ‘look how bad people are.’ … What we fail to recognize is the power of the situation and [that] under the right circumstances, people will act in surprising and sometimes unsettling ways.”

Indeed, what these factors demonstrate is not how easily people will harm another person, but how quickly people will cede their own authority to another person when they feel isolated, pressured and powerless. The more controlled an environment, the more vulnerable a person is.

What Does It Take to Resist Authority?

Long before his most famous experiment, Stanley Milgram was interested in phenomena showing that people placed in the right situation will often do the wrong thing.

Writing in The Nation magazine in 1964 about a case in which a New York woman named Kitty Genovese was killed within earshot of 38 neighbors, none of whom intervened, Milgram wrote, “We are all certain that we would have done better.” But, he argued, it is a mistake to “infer ethical values from the actual behavior of people in concrete situations.”

“…We must ask, did the witnesses remain passive because they thought it was the right thing to do, or did they refrain from action despite what they thought or felt they should do? We cannot take it for granted that people always do what they consider right. It would be more fruitful to inquire why, in general and in this particular case, there is so marked a discrepancy between values and behavior.”

One lens through which to understand this is politics, a profession notorious for its moral corrosiveness. In his book, Conservatives Without Conscience, John Dean, Richard Nixon’s White House counsel, wrote about the Milgram experiment to explore how members of the Bush administration could be so complicit in the immoral policies of the so-called war on terror.

In a 2006 interview with Thom Hartmann, Dean explained:

“I looked at this because I was trying to understand, how do people who work at the CIA and know that they’re part of a system that is torturing people in the Eastern European secret prisons — and they’re supporting that system, they’re providing information or bringing it out of it — how they do that every day?

“How do the people who work at NSA who were turning that huge electronic apparatus of surveillance on their neighbors and their friends, where’s their conscience?

“And then I realized that this is a perfect example of the Milgram experiment at work. They’re under authority figures. What they are doing is, they’re haven’t lost their conscience — they have given their conscience to another agent, and so they feel very comfortable in doing it.” 

If Milgram’s experiment showed a sort of moral death by a thousand cuts, the decisions, compromises and rationalizations that politicians make on a daily basis from their Washington offices that seem otherwise unfathomable indeed seem easier to explain, if not justifiable. After all, unlike the participants in Milgram’s original study, who were paid $5 for their time (and notoriety), politicians in the White House or on Capitol Hill build their careers on decisions that can destroy human beings. Whether in Iraq or at Guantanamo, the suffering on the other side of those walls is real.

But Milgram has much to teach us, too, about what it takes to resist powerful governments and their destructive policies. It’s not easy, and the stakes can be high.

Writing about war resisters in The Nation in 1970, Milgram noted, “Americans who are unwilling to kill for their country are thrown into jail. And our generation learns, as every generation has, that society rewards and punishes its members not in the degree to which each fulfills the dictates of individual conscience but in the degree to which the actions are perceived by authority to serve the needs of the larger social system. It has always been so.”

But while Milgram so effectively demonstrated the challenge of defying authority, he also showed that subjects were far more likely to do it when they saw other people doing it. He wrote in The Perils of Obedience, “The rebellious action of others severely undermines authority.”

“In one variation, three teachers (two actors and a real subject) administered a test and shocks. When the two actors disobeyed the experimenter and refused to go beyond a certain shock level, 36 of 40 subjects joined their disobedient peers and refused as well.”

Put in a political context, this is perhaps the most important lesson Milgram has to teach us. The best hope people have of resisting an oppressive system is to validate their experiences alongside other people. There is no more basic antidote to authoritarianism than support, solidarity and community.

Milgram wrote, “When an individual wishes to stand in opposition to authority, he does best to find support for his position from others in his group. The mutual support provided by men for each other is the strongest bulwark we have against the excesses of authority.”

Obama’s Legal Team Copies Bush’s ‘State Secrets’ Trick to Cover Up Torture and Renditions February 11, 2009

Posted by rogerhollander in Barack Obama, Criminal Justice, George W. Bush, Human Rights, Torture.
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(Note from Roger: More “plus ca change …” you can believe in.  ‘Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an impassioned statement. “This is not change. This is definitely more of the same.”‘)

 Liliana Segura, AlterNet. Posted February 10, 2009.

Attorneys representing the Obama administration are defending one of the most controversial practices of the Bush administration.

On Monday in San Francisco, attorneys representing the Obama administration did what many of the president’s supporters would have considered unthinkable on election day: they arrived in a federal courtroom and defended one of the most controversial practices of the Bush administration.

“Eric Holder’s Justice Department stood up in court today and said that it would continue the Bush policy of invoking state secrets to hide the reprehensible history of torture, rendition and the most grievous human rights violations committed by the American government,” Anthony Romero, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union said in an impassioned statement. “This is not change. This is definitely more of the same.”

The case was Mohamed et al. v. Jeppesen Dataplan, a lawsuit originally brought in 2007 by the ACLU on behalf of five victims of extraordinary rendition, the notorious CIA program in which terror suspects are kidnapped, thrown on a plane and flown to another country to be tortured and interrogated.

Jeppesen Dataplan, a subsidiary of Boeing, is said to have provided the logistical support for the rendition of all five plaintiffs, among them, Binyam Mohamed, an Ethiopian national who, in July 2002, was taken from Pakistan to Morocco, where for 18 months he was imprisoned and brutally tortured, including being cut with razorblades on his testicles. Mohamed was later sent to Guantanamo Bay, where he supposedly awaits imminent plans for his release. He has never stood trial.

Under Bush, the ACLU’s lawsuit was thrown out multiple times on “state secrets” grounds — a bogus excuse according to human rights lawyers who have long argued that the real goal was to keep evidence of the sort of torture endured by Mohamed away from a courtroom.

“To date, not a single torture victim has had his day in court in the United States,” ACLU attorney Ben Wizner told reporters last week. Thus, the objective of yesterday’s hearing was simple: the ACLU was asking that the lawsuit move forward. But to the dismay of many who believed Obama would open the door to justice for torture victims in the so-called war on terror, it appears his administration is instead following in Bush’s footsteps.

“This case cannot be litigated,” Department of Justice lawyer Douglas Letter said on Monday. “The judges shouldn’t play with fire in this national security situation.”

For those who spent the past eight years fighting back against cynical claims of “national security” to justify illegal and inhumane practices, the words smack of the Bush era.

“If the Obama administration, so early on, is toeing the Bush line,” Romero warns, “that speaks volumes for where we might end up years from now.”

The Debate Over Rendition

The Jeppesen hearing came on the heels of a week that saw the topic of extraordinary rendition — and Obama’s approach to it — under particular scrutiny. On Feb. 1, the Los Angeles Times ran a story that caused a stir around the issue in the media, the blogosphere and the human rights community.

“The CIA’s secret prisons are being shuttered,” the article began. “Harsh interrogation techniques are off-limits. And Guantanamo Bay will eventually go back to being a wind-swept naval base on the southeastern corner of Cuba.

“But even while dismantling these programs, President Obama left intact an equally controversial counterterrorism tool.

“Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States.”

The article quoted an anonymous administration official, who said,

“Obviously you need to preserve some tools — you still have to go after the bad guys.

“The legal advisors working on this looked at rendition. It is controversial in some circles and kicked up a big storm in Europe. But if done within certain parameters, it is an acceptable practice.”

The official’s statement was backed up with a quote from a representative from Human Rights Watch: “‘Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place'” for renditions, said Tom Malinowski, the Washington advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.”

The article sparked anger and controversy from op-ed pages to the blogosphere. (“So, it would appear that we will not see the end of torture under this administration after all,” lamented blogger Digby.) But backlash against the LA Times quickly followed.

In a post titled “Renditions Buffoonery,” attorney Scott Horton, who writes the Harpers blog “No Comment,” called it a “breathless piece of reporting,” which, among other problems, “misses the difference between the renditions program, which has been around since the Bush 41 administration at least … and the extraordinary renditions program which was introduced by Bush 43 and clearly shut down under an executive order issued by President Obama in his first week.”

The earlier renditions program regularly involved snatching and removing targets for purposes of bringing them to justice by delivering them to a criminal justice system. It did not involve the operation of long-term detention facilities and it did not involve torture. There are legal and policy issues with the renditions program, but they are not in the same league as those surrounding extraordinary rendition.

The LA Times, said Horton, “got punk’d.”

Constitutional lawyer and blogger Glenn Greenwald had his own criticisms about the article, and got into an e-mail debate with its author, Greg Miller, whose response defending his report was posted on Greenwald’s blog.

“The story made clear that Obama intends to administer the rendition program in a very different way,” Miller argued. “… This is not a story saying it’s business as usual under Obama.”

“Nevertheless, the rendition program is controversial. Even if administered in the most enlightened manner, it is a program that involves the use of the CIA in secret abductions and prisoner transfers.”

Even as some backpedaled on their initial reactions (“You’d think I’d know better than to take a newspaper article about the intelligence community at face value by now,” Digby wrote), for some who have closely followed the Obama administration’s handling of torture in his first days in office, the discussion was far from over.

“Liberal bloggers have jumped on the bandwagon defending President Obama’s executive order calling for a review of the practices of transferring individuals to other nations in order to ensure that such practices comply with the domestic laws, international obligations, and policies of the United States,” wrote psychologist and blogger Jeffrey Kaye, who has spent the past few months waging a one-man crusade against the torture loophole embedded in the Army Field Manual. “Forget that Obama did not outlaw the practice of rendition. But this is because, according to certain liberal bloggers, and a few human rights spokespeople (like Tom Malinowski of Human Rights Watch), ‘Under limited circumstances, there is a legitimate place’ for renditions.”

According to Horton et al., extraordinary renditions are war crimes, because the government sends prisoners to foreign countries to be tortured. (That is certainly correct, so far as that goes.) “Legal” renditions — as defined by Richard Clarke in a recent article … are examples of “renditions performed by the American government [and] are legal, effective and done within the scope of human rights” (emphasis added). And if you think differently, then you are “ridiculously misinformed,” a “buffoon,” a “moron” (the latter by a Daily Kos commenter to yours truly).

Like other defenders of Obama’s right to maintain some version of the policy in place, Clarke, a counterterror advisor to Bill Clinton, sought to clear up “the confusion over rendition.” Rendition “proved workable before the Bush administration,” Clarke wrote, “And it need not be something to fear in the future.”

What Is Really at Stake

The differences between Bush-era rendition and its precursors are not insignificant — in fact, Horton and Center for Constitutional Rights President Michael Ratner debated them on Democracy Now! last week. But, given that they largely boil down to what the CIA did as a matter of policy under Bush (torture) versus what was allegedly done under Clinton unofficially (torture), neither are they the most urgent issue at hand. Obama’s much-lauded executive orders are vague enough to elicit endless speculation when it comes to rendition and other intelligence policies. But the actions of his Department of Justice on Monday were not.

“This was an opportunity for the new administration to act on its condemnation of torture and rendition, but instead it has chosen to stay the course,” Ben Wizner said. “Now we must hope that the court will assert its independence by rejecting the government’s false claims of state secrets and allowing the victims of torture and rendition their day in court.”

Indeed, at stake in the Jeppesen case is not only justice for the victims of a hideous policy — one that, in whatever form, should not be exercised by a country that claims to be a beacon of democracy and human rights — but a changing of course when it comes to the flagrant abuse of the state-secrets doctrine, which was repeatedly used by the Bush administration to stamp out lawsuits against the government for its myriad abuses, from torture to illegal spying.

Both Obama and his Attorney General, Eric Holder, have vowed to review the Bush administration’s use of the state secrets privilege. As a DOJ spokesperson told the Washington Post yesterday. “It is vital that we protect information that if released could jeopardize national security, but the department will ensure the privilege is not invoked to hide from the American people information about their government’s actions that they have a right to know.”

But as Romero told reporters last week, the actions of the Obama administration “are unfortunately speaking louder than their words.”

“What this is clearly about is shielding the U.S. government and Bush officials from any accountability,” wrote Glenn Greenwald following the Jeppesen hearing Monday. “Worse, by keeping Bush’s secrecy architecture in place, it ensures that any future president — Obama or any other — can continue to operate behind an impenetrable wall of secrecy, with no transparency or accountability even for blatantly criminal acts.”

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