December 13, 2007

George Mitchell and the Juice Report

Like you, I have spent several minutes thinking about the steroids report on major league baseball put together by former senator, judge and current certifiable stuffed-shirt George Mitchell. Perhaps unlike you, I have thought about a reasoned response to this tattle-tale document, which names some of the brightest lights in the Bigs as juicers and needlefreaks. We have to come to terms with the idea that it's all over now. There's no sense kidding ourselves. Roger Clemens, Andy Pettitte (I think his last name sprouted all those "t's" because of human growth hormone), Albert Pujols, Garry Sheffield, Jason Giambi, Eric Gagne, and of course, the King of Performance Enhancement Hisself, Barry Bonds, who needs a size 12 crown. And, naturally, we know about Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, the Bash Brothers, and as for Sammy Sosa...the asterisks are as the stars in the firmament. One player in the history of major league baseball hit more than 60 home runs in a season without mainlining anabolics, and that was more than 40 years ago.

Americans are by nature addicted to fantasies. For the average baseball fan, the players are just local kids who grew up and kept playing a game they loved and which they happened to be very good at. There's no need to think about the obscene contracts and the obscene ticket prices, the disdain which the players feel for the fans, the transient nature of a player's tenure on the "home" team, the hotel room life, the womanizing, the fist fights in the bars. No, these guys are the local "heroes" of our culture, and for the 3 or 4 years which a player might spend in your city wearing your city's uniform, drawing a $12 million salary and renting a villa right near your home town where he spends nights between home games before going to his real home in the off-season, the golf course hacienda in Florida or Texas where he lives with his third wife, former supermodel Tiffany Krystal, he is absolutely essential to our quality of life.

I think, however, that Reality Therapy has much to say for it. As Thoreau advised, one should "front the essential facts of life" in the most direct way possible. And the truth is, as we have found through such chemical innovators as BALCO and Victor Conte, he of the pencil-moustache and elusive drugs, that the juicers are likely always to be one step ahead of the testers. Thus, the "clear" and other breakthroughs of organic chemistry. Thus, I propose Major Steroids League Baseball (MSLB). The ambivalence of that "major" as a qualifier is, of course, deliberate. I leave nothing to chance, except my life in general. In MSLB ball there will be no testing whatsoever. Players can show up for spring training with bodies that appear to have been formed from molten titanium poured into lost-wax molds. Their feet perhaps have grown four sizes in the off-season and their scrota have disappeared altogether. No matter. The fans will get their money's worth. The power hitters will average over 100 homers a year even though they face pumped-up fireballers throwing 120 mph pitches. As an outlet for all the 'roid rage, the players will carry firearms and those spiked balls on a stick thingies, maces, I think they're called, so that "bench-clearing" brawls will result in body counts like Baghdad suicide bombs.

The fans will love it. Any player entering the league will know that to compete he will have to deal with some of the downsides pointed out in the Mitchell report, like insanity, liver damage and complete disappearance of the gonads. C'est la vie. Attendance at games will skyrocket; MSLB may become a cultural substitute for foreign wars, solving many problems at once. For the traditional athlete who simply wants to play the game, a kind of super-AAA league could be established where drug testing would be used, probably successfully, since the league won't draw flies and salaries will be pathetic. Thus, non-juiced players could be recruited from college, spend a few years in a bucolic pastime, then leave and lead an adult life from that point forward. The freaks in the MSLB, on the other hand, could devote their entire lives, in every sense of the word, to the sport that rewards them so handsomely.

Al Gore in Bali

Can a vice president, even un ancien vice-president, say something like this to an international conference on climate change? And get away with it, I mean?

"Je vais donc vous dire une vérité qui dérange : mon propre pays, les Etats-Unis, est le principal responsable de l'obstruction à tout progrès ici à Bali", a-t-il ajouté sous les applaudissements, lors de la conférence des Nations unies sur le climat.

Note that "sous les applaudissements" bit. The delegates were all applauding while Al said that strange truth about the United States, his own country, being the principal obstacle to progress on a new climate treaty to replace the one the United States never signed in the first place. Naturellement, the first question that comes to my mind is: did Al say all of this in French? That could be the deal-breaker here at home. Here in the "homeland." I'm concerned that Al could wind up on some kind of watch list. He must know as well as anyone that his mea culpa on behalf of his propre pays will not go down well in the West Wing of the White House. President Bush is not given to spasms of self-reflection. If he thinks that American intransigence on international efforts to deal with environmental catastrophe is sound federal policy, that's the way it is. Cooperating would be "bad for the economy."

Now I'm going to dire une vérité qui dérange - Al is suffering from a common side effect of travel abroad. He went directly from the accolades of Oslo to les applaudissements of Bali. While in Europe he was exposed to those deranging features of European life that tend to linger in the memory when an American returns to the blessed homeland: humans with social skills; public amenities, like bathrooms, which are clean and pleasant; trains that actually run on schedule (or, for that matter, trains); roads which are smooth and maintained; good food, good beer; a literate and educated populace; heads of state fluent in their native tongues. By the time he got to Bali, he was entering that Philip Nolan state of mind which haunts the American Europhile after an extended spell abroad.

So I'm inclined to cut Al some slack. As for what he said, it's pretty uncontroversial. Of course the United States is the principal obstacle to international cooperation. But Americans aren't supposed to say that kind of thing while they're traveling abroad. Ask Jane Fonda or Natalie Maines of the Dixie Chicks. We don't pander to foreign opinion, even when we're wrong. Especially when we're wrong.

Al will settle down. He'll come home to a Nashville or Bay Area traffic jam and his limo will bounce along our potholed roadways in the usual bone-jarring style as it rolls past an unending crapscape of Wal-Marts and Targets and strip malls, and the Decider will still be in charge, and Al will order up a bucket of KFC and head down to the multiplex to see the latest teen-boy pop epic, and Oslo and Bali will fade, and then Al will reconsider his conditional promise to the conference delegates that the next election will guarantee a major change in U.S. policy, because he looks at the field of Republican candidates and realizes that almost none of them believes in evolution, let alone something as arcane as anthropogenic climate-forcing, and comes to the realization that, indeed, he might have said, je ne peut pas prometer rien.

December 12, 2007

Why the CIA Destroyed the Torture Tapes

"Notwithstanding the President’s view that the United States was engaged in two separate conflicts in Afghanistan (the common public understanding is to the contrary,see Joan Fitzpatrick, Jurisdiction of Military Commissions and the Ambiguous War on Terrorism, 96 Am. J. Int’l. L. 345, 349(2002) (conflict in Afghanistan was international armed conflict in which Taliban and al Qaeda joined forces against U.S. and its Afghan allies)), the government’s attempt to separate the Taliban from al Qaeda for Geneva Convention purposes finds no support in the structure of the Conventions themselves, which are triggered by the place of the conflict, and not by what particular faction a fighter is associated with."

The citation is from the District Court case of Hamdan vs. Rumsfeld, the landmark case which established that Bush's detainees in Guantanamo are entitled to the protections of Common Article 3 of the Geneva Conventions, which have been the "supreme law" of the United States (through the Treaty Clause) since 1949. The opinion was issued in November, 2004, about a year before the CIA decided to destroy the videotapes of the torture of Abu Zubaydah (and, we should probably assume, others). The Hamdan case then worked its way up the legal food chain to the Supreme Court, where its main points were confirmed in the godawful process which the highest court in the land calls "jurisprudence."

There is a common misconception that the Supreme Court, that august collective of ultimate political appointees and connected insiders, is where the best law happens. This is not the perception of practicing lawyers; to decipher the actual "holding" in one of their decisions, it would help to possess a background in Jesuitical debate and Talmudic exegesis, supplemented by a PhD in electronic circuitry. The actual, useful part of one their decisions must be teased from a blizzard of "concurring" opinions, reflecting the deep political and philosophical divisions among even the justices who "agree" with each other. By contrast, Judge James Robertson's brilliant explication of the application of the Geneva Conventions to Hamdan's case was a model of clarity and concision. On every main point, his opinion anticipates what the Supreme Court, in its muddled, screwed-up way, got around to doing in July, 2006.

Judge Robertson's opinion was a rude wake-up call for the Bush Inquisition. Here was a judge essentially laughing at the White House's moronic interpretation of Common Article 3. According to Alberto ("The Torque") Gonzales, David Addington and John Yoo, Bush and Cheney's legal brain trust, it depended on whom you captured in Afghanistan; if the Taliban, they were entitled to certain rights; if al-Qaeda (meaning: Bush said they were al-Qaeda), then all bets were off. This was always a stupid idea, but with only Congress to oppose him, Bush could get away with this nonsense.

The Supreme Court borrowed all of Judge Robertson's ideas, although they didn't express them nearly so well. Par for the course. The media treated the Supreme Court's decision as a "bombshell," which in a sense it was, but the torture teams had been hyperventilating for nearly two years because of Judge Robertson's holding. Part of the problem was handled by the exoneration provisions of the Detainee Treatment Act passed in 2005, which legalized war crimes in the United States. A compliant and (we now learn) morally compromised Congress, Republican and Democratic alike, were only too eager to forgive torture if it made them look Tough on Terror. But when it comes to serious federal offenses like violation of the War Crimes Act and the Anti-Torture Statute, you can't be too careful. Nothing would be quite as riveting in a court room as a few hundred hours of vidotaped prisoner abuse. So the tapes had to go. Too many "federal officials" had their asses hanging out on this one, and I don't mean just the guys with the water bottles and wash rags.