Occasional reflections on Life, the World, and Mathematics

Posts tagged ‘human rights’

Papers, please!, ctd.

Apparently Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) in the US has been conducting raids targetted enforcement in major US cities.

A DHS official confirmed that while immigration agents were targeting criminals, given the broader range defined by Trump’s executive order, they also were sweeping up noncriminals in the vicinity who were found to be lacking documentation.

For me, this raises again a question that has genuinely puzzled me for a long time: How many Americans typically carry with them documentation that would show their citizenship, or otherwise prove their right to be in the US? A birth certificate would do (unlike in the UK, where the government has been at pains to show that it won’t even recognise the right to citizenship of people of tainted foreign blood, even if they were born in the UK at a time when everyone thought the law automatically granted them citizenship), or a passport, but most people don’t carry these things around every day. Many Americans don’t have passports, and birth certificates may be hard to lay your hands on at short notice. (Besides which, what good does it really do to show a birth certificate if your name is John Smith — or, let us say, José Garcia?)

This is what sovereignty looks like

after Brexit. Good thing British values aren’t going to be subordinated to Brussels eurocrats!

People who wore top hats

In thinking about the response of many Americans to the revelations of torture of prisoners by the CIA (not that it was a huge secret before, but I think most people still found something to be surprised and appalled by in the Senate report, such as the 26 people whom even the CIA acknowledges were held in error, or “rectal feeding”), but also the response of many American and British Jews to atrocities and human rights abuses by Israel, I often find myself coming back to the remarks of Aldous Huxley, in his 1958 Brave New World Revisited. In discussing the distinction between the old-fashioned totalitarianism of 1984 — innovative propaganda and mental manipulation, to be sure, but backed up by hard power and torture — and the purely medical and psychological manipulation of Brave New World, he admits that he was too hasty in consigning the crude atrocities to the ashheap of history:

Fifty years ago, when I was a boy, it seemed completely self-evident that the bad old days were over, that torture and massacre, slavery, and the persecution of heretics, were things of the past. Among people who wore top hats, traveled in trains, and took a bath every morning such horrors were simply out of the question. After all, we were living in the twentieth century. A few years later these people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats were committing atrocities on a scale undreamed of by the benighted Africans and Asi­atics. In the light of recent history it would be foolish to suppose that this sort of thing cannot happen again. It can and, no doubt, it will. But in the immedi­ate future there is some reason to believe that the punitive methods of 1984 will give place to the rein­forcements and manipulations of Brave New World.

This phrasing is perfect. (I’m willing to give Huxley the benefit of the doubt by reading ironic scare quotes into “benighted Africans and Asiatics”.) Compare “people who took daily baths and went to church in top hats” with this excerpt from an interview with torturer-in-chief Dick Cheney:


Well, let me start with quoting you. You said earlier this week, “Torture was something that was very carefully avoided.” It implies that you have a definition of what torture is. What is it?


Well, torture, to me, Chuck, is an American citizen on a cell phone making a last call to his four young daughters shortly before he burns to death in the upper levels of the Trade Center in New York City on 9/11. There’s this notion that somehow there’s moral equivalence between what the terrorists and what we do. And that’s absolutely not true. We were very careful to stop short of torture. The Senate has seen fit to label their report torture. But we worked hard to stay short of that definition.


Well, what is that definition?


Definitions, and one that was provided by the Office of Legal Counsel, we went specifically to them because we did not want to cross that line into where we violating some international agreement that we’d signed up to. They specifically authorized and okayed, for example, exactly what we did. All of the techniques that were authorized by the president were, in effect, blessed by the Justice Department opinion that we could go forward with those without, in fact, committing torture.

Instead of going to church in top hats to have their crimes blessed by God, they went to the Office of Legal Council in slick suits to have their crimes blessed by the Justice department. But the idea is, people like us don’t commit atrocities, because they’re people like us.


Let me go through some of those techniques that were used, Majid Khan, was subjected to involuntary rectal feeding and rectal hydration. It included two bottles of Ensure, later in the same day Majid Khan’s lunch tray consisting of hummus, pasta, sauce, nuts and raisins was pureed and rectally infused.[…]  Does that meet the definition of torture in your mind?


–in my mind, I’ve told you what meets the definition of torture. It’s what 19 guys armed with airline tickets and box cutters did to 3,000 Americans on 9/11. What was done here apparently certainly was not one of the techniques that was approved. I believe it was done for medical reasons.

Muted outrage

Psychologists say that children under 4 or so are generally incapable of understanding that other people’s minds are distinct from their own, that to understand other people they need a distinct representation of the knowledge and beliefs of others. But some people take longer:

Brian Williams asked former NSA Director Michael Hayden how he would have felt had a member of his own family been tortured. Hayden’s flippant response: “I actually think that my concern or my outrage, if that were ever done to any of my family members, would be somewhat muted if my family member had just killed 3,000 of my citizens.”

What about a family member who had been piloting drones in attacks that killed hundreds of civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Yemen? I’m sure he believes that he can put himself in the place of a man whose entire extended family were wiped out because the CIA decided to bomb their wedding party. Simple herder that he is, he would nonetheless be aware that Americans only act with the best of intentions, and this unfortunate accident is only one more reason to support them in in their noble struggle to rid the world of those who are truly responsible for this mass slaughter, the terrorists. And anyone who does attribute evil intentions to Americans must be in the grip of a fanatical ideology, and so belongs on the target list anyway.

Wer es glaubt wird selig, is the German expression for such an exuberance of presumed naïveté. Only a saintly fool could believe that.

Pardons instead of prosecutions

Anthony Romero, director of the American Civil Liberties Union, has published in the NY Times a plea to pardon the officials who approved or conducted torture. This seemed to me ridiculous at first, but on reading his argument I find that it makes a certain kind of perverse sense. Given that the US government has shown itself incapable of prosecuting these atrocities, the only way to assert the principle that these were in fact crimes, and not simply exuberant excesses of patriotic zeal, is to issue pardons. It would also have the salutary effect of making explicit the intention of the US not to prosecute, opening the way for other governments and international courts.

But when you let that sink in, it makes clear how close the corruption of the American state has come to making the US ungovernable. A state that is incapable of punishing officials who conspire to commit some of the most heinous war crimes of recent times is either a tyranny or constitutional anarchy; and the US is definitely not a tyranny. The US constitution has had a good run, but it seems to be coming apart at the seams. (more…)

“The same terrorists”

Andrew Sullivan quotes conservative journalist K. T. McFarland:

According to media reports, the report concludes that we tortured terrorists.

These are the same terrorists who blew up the World Trade Center, bombed the Pentagon, and tried to level the U.S. Capitol. These are the same terrorists that today have beheaded Christians, Westerners and, just this past weekend, another American citizen.

It’s a bizarre and revealing statement. Putting aside the fact that some of the people tortured by the CIA and its confederates were completely innocent and not any sort of terrorists, they obviously weren’t the same terrorists who did any of the things on that list. A few of them were involved in planning the World Trade Center attack, but none of them was anywhere near beheading Americans last weekend. This notion of collective guilt expresses very well the sense of indiscriminate impotent rage that led to the disasters of the first decade of the 21st century. It’s simply inconceivable that something terrible can happen to America, and that they are unable to strike back. If the perpetrators are dead — and that’s the frustration of suicide attacks — then someone else must be punished. And if it has been decided that the barbarians wouldn’t mind dying, then they’ll have to dig deeper to find a way to assert dominance.

More self-deconstructing clichés: Bill of Rights edition

The UK government is now all hot on pushing through a “British Bill of Rights”, which bears the same relation to what one ordinarily thinks of as a “Bill of Rights” as “Soviet realism” bears to realism, or “French letters” to letters: The emphasis is definitely on the “British”, rather than on the “Rights”. The goal is to limit rights (by preventing appeals to any authority above the UK parliament), rather than to expand or guarantee them. Anyway, Dominic Grieve, the now suddenly former Attorney General, who was fired along with all other opponents of this approach within the government, referred to it as

legal car crash with a built-in time delay.

If there is a time delay, then is it really a “car crash”? I’m having trouble picturing how this works, purely automotively. Perhaps this particular colourful expression would be better reserved for something that has more of a sudden and unexpected quality. And perhaps there is some other tired expression that a politician could trot out for a dangerous — perhaps even explosive — situation with a built-in time-delay fuse… Oh, I’m sure it will come to me…

For German self-deconstructing political clichés see here.

Cutting the Snowdian knot

All Five Eyes — really, all eyes in the democratic world — are on Australia, watching its ingenious solution to what seemed an insoluble problem: How to conform the needs of modern network surveillance for combatting crime and terrorism, with the demands of democratic governance. In their remarkably forthright way, they have recognised that there are two basic problems:

  1. Espionage agencies have an alarming tendency to involve themselves in illegal activity;
  2. Their activities tend to cause scandals, as citizens grow alarmed by hearing of what they consider to be threats to their privacy.

Their solutions are equally forthright. Rather than trying stopgaps of limiting the information collected, time periods for which it can be stored, purposes to which the information may be applied, and blah blah blah, which are completely arbitrary, and only end up forcing hard-working spies to spend their time thinking up ingenious subterfuges to evade the rules, they have attacked the problem at its roots. According to a recent news report, the Australian government plans to propose legislation under which

  1. ASIO (Australian Security Intelligence Organisation) will have the power to declare their activities to be “special intelligence operations”, in which intelligence officers receive immunity from liability for actions that would be “otherwise illegal”. Since requiring even the head of their own agency to sign off on unlimited warrants for lawbreaking would be too onerous, approval of ASIO’s deputy director general will suffice.
  2. To avoid scandals, all reporting on special intelligence operations will be banned, punishable by up to five years in prison. (And that’s only if the leaks are inconsequential; disclosing information that would “endanger the health or safety of any person or prejudice the effective conduct of a special intelligence operation” could get you 10 years.) The beauty of the system is that, since no one outside the organisation actually knows which operations are special, journalists — and academics, and pretty much everyone else — will have to stop talking about the security services altogether. And since the security services will have access to all of their electronic records in real time, there’s little risk of people deciding to hold these discussions in private.

Problem solved!

Once  Australians have stopped troubling their pretty little heads about espionage, all that redirected intellectual energy will help the Australian economy to better compete with China.

Universal human rights, with some qualifications

A public statement of the US military’s Southern Command:

We do not force-feed observant Muslims during daylight hours during Ramadan.

That creaking you hear must be the sound of the moral arc of the universe bending toward justice…

The right to bear codes

Back when I was a graduate student, in the late 1980s and early 90s, there was a lot of discussion, among those interested in cryptography and computing (which I was, only peripherally) of the status of cryptographic algorithms as “weapons”, subject to export controls. The idea seemed bizarre to those of us who thought of algorithms as things you prove theorems about, and computer code as something you write. It seemed as absurd as declaring a book to be a weapon. Sure, you might metaphorically call Das Kapital  a weapon, or the Declaration of Independence, but it’s not really a weapon, and a country was much more likely to think about banning imports than banning exports. The author of PGP was then being threatened with prosecution, and had the code published as a book to mate the analogy more explicit.

So, I used to defend free access to cryptography because I thought it was ridiculous to consider codes to be weapons. I now think that was naïve. But if codes are weapons, does that provide a justification for a right of free access (in the US)? Maybe it’s not freedom of speech or the press — 1st amendment — but if cryptography is a weapon, is the use and manufacture of cryptographic algorithms and software protected in the US by the 2nd amendment? Certainly the main arguments made for a right to firearms — sport, self-defence, and bulwark against tyranny — are all applicable to cryptography as well. Are there current US laws or government practices that restrict the people’s free access to cryptography that would be called into question if cryptography were “arms” in the sense of the 2nd amendment?

This is connected to the question I have wondered about occasionally: Why didn’t strong cryptography happen? That is, back then I (and many others) assumed that essentially unbreakable cryptography would become easy and default, causing trouble for snoops and law enforcement. But in fact, most of our data and communications are pretty insecure still. Is this because of legal constraints, or general disinterest, or something else? The software is available, but it’s sufficiently inconvenient that most people don’t use it. And while it wouldn’t actually be difficult to encode all my email (say) with PGP, I’d feel awkward asking people to do it, since no one else is doing it.

It seems as though the philosophy of the Clipper chip has prevailed: Some people really need some sort of cryptography for legitimate purposes. If you make a barely adequate tool for the purpose conveniently available, you’ll prevent people from making the small extra effort to obtain really strong cryptography.


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