Saturday, January 28, 2006

Temporal Statutory Decay

Below is an excerpt from the official transcript of President George W. Bush's White House press conference Thursday morning. The President responded to a reporter's question on the Federal Intelligence Surveillance Act (FISA) as it relates to NSA wiretapping of certain telephone calls. It's hard to parse (wouldn't you hate to be the President's transcriptionist?), but Mr. Bush seems to be implying--at least in part--that the FISA statute's force of law is somewhat reduced because the law is almost 30 years old.

This would be a new and dubious legal theory, it seems to me. Dubious or not, the theory needs a name. Might I suggest we call it "Temporal Statutory Decay"? No doubt that, as the term comes into common use, it will be abbreviated (outside of scholarly publications) to "TSD".

If this novel legal approach gains acceptance, I propose that we apply it posthaste to the antiquated 1866 Mining Act, which is still in force today and still causing great destruction.

Q Mr. President, though -- this is a direct follow up to that -- the FISA law was implemented in 1978 in part because of revelations that the National Security Agency was spying domestically. What is wrong with that law if you feel you have to circumvent it and, as you just admitted, expand presidential power?

THE PRESIDENT: May I -- if I might, you said that I have to circumvent it. There -- wait a minute. That's a -- there's something -- it's like saying, you know, you're breaking the law. I'm not. See, that's what you've got to understand. I am upholding my duty, and at the same time, doing so under the law and with the Constitution behind me. That's just very important for you to understand.

Secondly, the FISA law was written in 1978. We're having this discussion in 2006. It's a different world. And FISA is still an important tool. It's an important tool. And we still use that tool. But also -- and we -- look -- I said, look, is it possible to conduct this program under the old law? And people said, it doesn't work in order to be able to do the job we expect us to do.

And so that's why I made the decision I made. And you know, "circumventing" is a loaded word, and I refuse to accept it, because I believe what I'm doing is legally right.

You can read the entire press conference transcript at the White House's offical web site.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Saturday, January 21, 2006

Sabotage is not Terrorism

A federal grand jury yesterday indicted 11 people with ties to radical environmental groups for committing acts of what officials labeled "domestic terrorism". According to the New York Times, charges included arson, sabotage, and conspiracy in attacks against government facilities, research centers, and private businesses.

Attorney General Alberto Gonzales said that "the indictment tells a story of four and one half years of arson, vandalism, violence and destruction claimed to have been executed on behalf of the Animal Liberation Front or Earth Liberation Front, extremist movements known to support acts of domestic terrorism."

Alleged crimes include burning down a ski resort and a lumber mill.

Federal officials have made it clear that they'll not tolerate such activity. FBI director Robert Mueller said that prosecuting persons who commit crimes "in the name of animal rights or the environment" was one of the bureau's "highest domestic terrorism priorities." Last year FBI officials told a congressional committee that eco-terrorism is the bureau's top domestic terrorism concern.

Wait just one minute.

Arson may be a serious crime, and we can hardly expect law enforcement to overlook it. But it isn't terrorism. The alleged crimes in yesterday's indictment are about sabotage, not terrorism. There's a huge difference.

Imagine how Osama bin Laden might dismiss your average garden-variety eco-saboteur: "I know terrorism. Terrorists are friends of mine. You, sir, are no terrorist."

The distinction is really quite simple: terrorism is about violence against people. Eco-sabotage is about destruction of property.

As the name implies, terrorism aims to "terrorize", usually to achieve a political end. Eco-sabotage aims to impede a specific activity deemed to be harmful to the environment or, in the case of ALF, to non-human life.

As such, sabotage is carefully targeted. Terrorism tends to be indiscriminate, random, capricious. In fact, it is most effective when it is so. Any victims, even (or especially) innocent ones, will do.

Terrorism is intended to create fear. Sabotage is intended to disrupt. Often the target of disruption is a particular economic activity.

Terrorists detonate bombs on crowded streets in the middle of the day. Saboteurs destroy property in the middle of the night when nobody is around.

Terrorists deem harm to people to be their primary effect. Saboteurs deem harm to people to be an unintended side-effect, and take pains to avoid it.

Eco-saboteurs tend to be scrupulous about not harming people. And indeed, not one person has died in the United States as a consequence of eco-sabotage. (Compare this with the activities of true domestic terrorism groups such as white supremacists and other right-wing groups that do attack people. For example, 168 people died in the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing. But of course, Timothy McVeigh intended for people to die.)

Dave Foreman, co-founder in the 1980s of the radical Earth First! environmental movement has written books, such as Ecodefense, on the subject of eco-sabotage (also called "monkeywrenching"). In the chapter "The Principles of Monkeywrenching" of his book Confessions of an Eco-Warrior, he writes:

"Monkeywrenching is nonviolent. Monkeywrenching is nonviolent resistance to the destruction of natural diversity and wilderness. It is never directed toward harming human beings or other forms of life. It is aimed at inanimate machines and tools that are destroying life. Care is always taken to minimize any possible threat to people, including the monkeywrenchers themselves."

Perhaps nowhere more than in this bastion of materialism we call America is it so easy to equate destruction of property with violence against people. But the equation is wrong.

Said director Mueller: "Terrorism is terrorism, no matter what the motive. The FBI is committed to protecting Americans from crime and terrorism, including acts of domestic terrorism in the name of animal rights or the environment."

It is quite true that the means and not the motive are what defines terrorism. But statements such as Mueller's and Gonzales's mischaracterize the means.

Does it really matter if we refer to eco-sabotage as "domestic terrorism"? You bet it does. How we refer to a thing affects how we think about it. "Terrorism", particularly now, is a distinctly loaded term. If we can refer to some group--any group--as terrorist, we can more easily marshal all forces of the state (and, indeed, the police state) to obliterate it and its adherents--and also its cause. Incorrect, imprecise, and misleading labels are a primary tool of totalitarian propaganda--especially if those labels carry great emotional charge. We should insist upon meticulously correct terminolgy whenever police power is involved.

Since from a political standpoint terrorism is the lifeblood of the Bush administration, there's no surprise that it readily finds terrorism wherever it wants. But the "war" on terrorism is unlike any conventional war in that it is apparently unending. The more broadly terrorism can be defined, the more open ended is the war--and the presidential powers required to wage it.

In this era of domestic spying*, extraordinary rendition, Guantanamo, and contract torture, that's something we should all be worrying about.

* I suppose they'll be watching me now ... -sigh-

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Friday, January 20, 2006

Sixty-Eight Dollar Oil

Oil flirted with $69 today before closing at $68.35 per barrel on the New York Mercantile Exchange. The dispute over Iran's nuclear program is behind this latest runup. Iran, of course, is one of the world's major oil producers.

You thought, after last summer's spike, that the worst was over? Dream on. Markets don't go anywhere in a straight line, so the dip into mid-50s prices in the second half of the year was nothing to take comfort in. With oil supplies tight in perpetuity, the long term outlook is bleak. And guess what: the long term is now.

As I said last August, get used to it.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

Faith and Reason

Two aphorisms on faith and reason:

"The problem with faith is that it's a conversation stopper." --Sam Harris, in a lecture televised by C-SPAN (my transcription)

"The difficulty with making the case for rational thought is that the argument requires the use of rational thought." --Me, Mike Brennan, in This Here Blog

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved

Sunday, January 08, 2006

First Causes

Imagine that you are walking in the woods and come upon a watch. You're certain that an instrument of such function and complexity could not have come about in nature by accident or by chance. You posit that it must have been purposefully created by some higher intellect--a watchmaker.

In the same way, many persons who contemplate the order and complexity of the universe cannot imagine that it could exist independently of a higher force which caused it to be and which determined its properties. The universe seems so obviously to have been designed that there must be a purposeful designer.

The watchmaker analogy was proposed in the early 1800s by the theologian William Paley as a way of justifying belief in God from the standpoint of design. Paley's God is the universe's "watchmaker". The notion lives on today in the Intelligent Design movement, which argues that the universe is so ordered and so complex that it must surely have been designed. And if the universe was designed, there must be a designer. (Primarily for political reasons, the designer is often not explicitly identified as "God".)

My own miniscule contribution to this philosophical debate involves the mere observation that Intelligent Design advocates, while loathe to believe that the universe could be "all there is", are quite content to believe in an equally inexplicable designer. That previous sentence is so obvious that the irony it contains might not be.

It all comes down to "first causes". How far back do we need to go in the chain of causation in order to explain what is? It seems to me that, based on our current scientific and philosophical understanding of reality, no matter where we choose to stop we will be in a place that is less than satisfying.

Let me put it this way. It's fine to suppose that a watchmaker created the watch, but you can't stop there. The watchmaker is himself even more ordered and complicated than the watch. Who made the watchmaker? If you're going to explain the watch, then you have to explain the watchmaker. Similarly, if the universe was designed, who designed the Designer?

Most major religious orthodoxies hold that God is the first cause. God always was and always will be; God caused all that there is. And beyond that, the nature of God can't be understood--at least not yet.

How convenient.

We have postulated a God that we admittedly can't understand, and we use that God to explain everything else. Why is that approach intellectually any more acceptable than postulating that the universe is itself the first cause? Why is it acceptable to say that God always was and nothing came before God, but not to say that the universe itself (in some form) always was? I cannot see how one is more palatable than the other, except that we have a lot more direct evidence that the universe exists than we do that God exists!

Proponents of Intelligent Design say that we can't logically explain an ordered universe apart from a Designer, but they don't feel any need to logically explain the Designer.

I make no claims about whether or not an Intelligent Designer caused the universe to be, and I'm basically happy with either possibility. Within the limited context of this discussion, these are the choices: (1) The universe is all there is, and I don't understand how that can be; or (2) an inexplicable God created the universe, and I don't understand how that can be. If I chose one possibility over the other, the choice would be arbitrary. (I suspect that the principal reason the second option is "easier" for many people is that they have been indoctrinated along those lines from an early age.)

Or again: The universe has incredible structure, order, and complexity. I can't imagine that it could explain itself. But then, the universe's Designer has incredible structure, order and complexity. I can't imagine how that can be either. Whichever is true, it is beyond my comprehension.

It seems to me that the Intelligent Design crowd (and, dare I say it, religion in general) uses the idea of God as a convenient crutch to accommodate everything that cannot currently be rationally explained (and indeed some things that can be explained but which require a measure of mental fortitude). In at least that one respect, I contend that the notion is intellectually weak.

Copyright (C) 2006 James Michael Brennan, All Rights Reserved