Monday, August 26, 2013

Very Smart Response to “Snowden, His Freedom Paradises and Our Means Vs. Ends Decisions”

By Vince Gay
I share your concerns about the balance between individual conscience and community safety, and have a take that’s similar to yours in some ways, different in others.
I truly value the safety of my family and myself. If offered a clear choice between doing nothing and sharing a piece of information that would save a school full of children or a sidewalk full of marathon watchers, I would, of course, share the information.
But that isn’t the choice offered to me, or my wife or my son. Those are never the kinds of choices truly offered. I would like nothing better than for my son to live in a world where nothing bad happens, a world of “absolute safety”, whatever that is.
The choice that is offered to us, though, is one between a frequently broken illusion of “absolute safety” and the very real danger of constantly having to look over one’s shoulder, to always wonder how everything he does looks and sounds to the most authoritarian eyes and ears that may be observing him.  It is to hold back on the public expression of anything that might be interpreted as “radicalism”--non-violent (or strictly defensively violent) radicalism being legal, and even necessary in a free society—and to have to hold back even more, every time something bad happens, and the illusion of absolute safety is broken, and the authoritarian grip tightens.
The value of privacy may be difficult to grasp from the standpoint of a society in which lack of privacy has long been considered a given. Privacy’s value is that it is the first layer of the thin membrane between living in a police state and living in a society that at least puts forth a pretense of trying to be free and open. It is the expectation of the minimization, if not the removal, of the constant threat of being heard, of being misinterpreted, of sounding more frightening than you are, of constantly having to explain yourself—or of simply being punished for dissent.
The abolition of slavery, the women’s movement, the civil rights movement, environmental movements and the gay rights movement were all born in thousands of private and very subversive conversations.  Even the parts of these movements that were perfectly legal in their day involved the kind of subversion of the status quo that many in authority would happily and violently stamp out, “just in case” the entertainment of such ideas might lead to violence by someone not properly authorized, or “just in case” they interfered with the agendas of the powerful. To the ears of the authoritarian who listens in, tomorrow’s liberation movement and the hope of progress look and sound an awful lot like today’s terrorism. They must be squelched.
The spirit of the oaths Bradley Manning and Edward Snowden took was that of protecting information whose secrecy is necessary to national security, not to protect their government from accountability. Both Manning and Snowden have been true to the oaths they took, and then some. They have helped to protect the American people from enemies foreign and domestic—including their own government.
They didn’t reveal anything about government snooping that wasn’t already widely suspected (and taken into account by those with nefarious aims).  They did force at least some accountability by robbing the government of the opportunity to hide behind a paper-thin shield of plausible deniability.
If this kind of mining of data is necessary to national security, then let the government make a case for it, in the open—not sneak so-called “laws” and police practices into existence. Let the government explain how the public is endangered by a need to obtain warrants (in a court that actually scrutinizes requests to search and seize), and to demonstrate probable cause or reasonable suspicion before scooping up information that is reasonable to assume is private. 
As it is, there is precious little to indicate that so much as one life has been saved by these practices, or by torture, which tends to produce highly suspect non-information. More lives were lost in the video of the taxpayer-supported slaughter of civilians that Manning made public.
Even if the government could show that this kind of surveillance (which always shows potential guilt before it shows actual innocence) could prevent a Newtown or a Boston bombing (which it didn’t, after years of data analysis), it would be telling us what we already know: if you ransack the homes, cars, businesses or communications of everyone in the world, you will, without a doubt, come across some people with plans to do bad things. But the ransacking itself will do more damage to peace of mind, to political processes, and to safety than any bad that might be discovered—and this is assuming that the bad in question could not be discovered in some far less damaging way that wouldn’t destroy this village in order to save it.
And who knows what has been lost as Americans everywhere learn to carefully self-edit anything they might think to speak, write, do?
The exercise of individual conscience is not a threat to free, open and—yes—orderly societies. It is central to them. Thoreau advocated civil disobedience in the name of the greater good, not just in the name of whatever cause someone happened to latch onto. Certainly, anyone who poses an actual threat by leaking information that actually endangers people should be subject to serious penalties (Note that there is no sign that this has happened, as a result of the actions of Snowden, Manning, Assange, Greenwald…). None of this means that government should be free to keep secret any inconvenient truth it might want to, or to punish those who bring non-security-sensitive secrets into the open.
Thoreau also advocated respect for rule of law: Hold back on paying your taxes, but be willing to go to jail. Block traffic as part of a protest, but accept the ticket.  This makes sense with laws and penalties that may or may not be disagreeable, but are implemented in a fair manner for their intended purposes. There is a reason taxes, if issued, have to be paid by everyone according to the same rules. There is a reason it’s not legal to block traffic. One should have to weigh benefits and risks before breaking these rules: Is something going on that’s more important than the smooth flow of traffic? If so, take to the street and call needed attention to the cause, but respect the rule of a reasonable law, and be prepared to pay a reasonable price.
And traffic laws are made to smooth traffic flow, not to chill free speech.  To far too great an extent, the unfair laws and unfair penalties in the Manning and Snowden cases are being used, not to protect, but to chill--and to undermine their stated purposes, not serve them.
Bradley Manning didn’t endure months of imprisonment and cruel treatment before his trial because this was needed to protect the public. He was subjected to this treatment so that the government could make an example of him, even before obtaining a conviction. Along with the greater price paid by Manning, you and I are paying a fear dividend every time we feel the impulse to hesitate a moment before speaking up.
Edward Snowden saw what happened to those who had gone before him, those who had blown the whistle, by both legal and illegal means. To the extent possible, he has avoided providing a negative example, or at least minimized it. He has gone through an exile in purgatory, but he has also shown that one can provide needed revelation of truths, and not necessarily be thrown in solitary—as of yet.
No, there is no “good” country for Snowden to run to—but anyone can put Snowden to use for propaganda purposes, no matter where he goes, or what he does. Snowden being in Russia demonstrates only that there really is no appropriately free and transparent country to run to. His presence there doesn’t endorse anything, or trivialize the oppression of anyone. If anything, it underscores the pervasiveness of this oppression. The methods and degrees may vary from country to country, but does knowing what country Snowden is in right now make you think of the substantial differences between Russia and the United States, or the sad similarities?
Is no one to stand up to the United States or any other power, until there is a morally pure country to run to? Should civil rights action in the south have waited until the north developed a perfect track record on race? Those would be long waits, indeed.  And wouldn’t it be nice if the U.S. had to clean up it’s own act before pressuring others—including those with far worse records—to do the same?
If saving our society were truly reliant on living in fear about how everything we say and do looks and sounds, and reliant on resignation to being spied on or even tortured—with inconsistent regard for whether anything has been done to arouse reasonable suspicion—I would have to wonder who or what was truly being protected from anything, and if what was left of our society was worth saving.

Thursday, August 22, 2013

Immigration Check Point Three Miles from the Quito Airport? That’s Efficiency!

By Isabel Manuela Estrada Portales
On June 12 I left Quito to go to Bonn, Germany, to the Global Media Forum conference. I took a taxi to embark in the adventure… No, I mean the adventure to the Tababela airport, which has become a brunt of jokes, cries, and damnations among frequent travelers and the taxpayers who paid for it.
Great friendships develop among taxi drivers and passengers in route to the airport. I believe more than one love affair emerged as cars wait to cross the Chiche bridge. Since one could wait there for two hours, I wouldn’t be surprised if a couple of pregnancies have begun there as well.
In the eternal quest for efficiency that characterizes at the current government of Ecuador, apparently they have decided to improve and speed up the process of immigration check in the airport. Now the police stops your taxi ten minutes before getting to the airport and questions you about your final destination, reason to be in the country, who invited you, your reasons for being, what your children want to be when they grow up and your first sexual experience. Meanwhile, they have their noses all over the car, while the other policeman blocks the driver’s door. Perhaps thinking he may decide to run and jump with one push across the Chiche Bridge.
Now the details. That June 12, while I was on my way to the airport, the police stopped the taxi and subjected me to a questioning of sorts, with questions such as: where are you going? I answered: the airport. They asked again: no, to where are you traveling? We were at least another 10 minutes from the airport, so I don’t even know what made him think I was traveling somewhere – since the suitcase was in the trunk – and not going to the coffee shop for an espresso. But, most importantly, what gives him the right to ask me where am I going, where I come from or what time it is?
Since it took me a second to react and remembered that I was in Syria, I responded that my final destination was Germany. Then, he asked me why was I in the country, if I had a government invitation and the like. By then, I had recovered my common sense and the contempt that policemen at the service of authoritarianism arouse in me, so I put on my sardonic smile and began to give the same answer for everything: Fulbright. They didn’t like it. But I didn’t like them either, so we were even.
They were armed policemen with uniform and vest. All the while with the entire head inside the car and devouring me with their eyes, looking everywhere, while the other policeman had his head on the driver’s side. The thing lasted a good five minutes.
I realized the driver was very scared, which made me limit my cynicism and irreverence. He was an older gentleman, in his sixties. He swore back and forth that he had never seen something like this and it never happened to him before. And said: “this is already like Cuba.” We were just being talking about his visit to Cuba, my native land, in his second honeymoon about ten years ago.
The cab driver was really tense. The poor man, he probably thought initially that he was driving the second wife of Mexican drug lord “El Chapo” Guzmán, given the deployment of forces. They had set up an ad hoc checkpoint, but neither the driver nor I saw that they stopped anyone else before us. They signaled the driver to get into a closed lane. He thought they were stopping taxis, but then saw a lot of them continue on without being stopped.
I’m always suspicious of authority, but I don’t think my criticism or research has put them after my steps or that they are trying to intimidate me. I’m not that important. But, just in case, I do come from a dictatorship 50 years strong… you are just beginning.
But the issue is not if they tried to intimidate me, but that there is the possibility that the police can stop a citizen in the streets and question him because he was breathing in the open air. That happens in Cuba, in fact, any policeman can ask you to identify yourself for stand in a corner.
Imagine that the police or any law enforcement agent could stop you anywhere and ask you questions without probable or even apparent cause. I don’t have to explain to the police where I’m going, where I come from or my food preferences. Ecuador is not in a state of siege. There is no emergency. People have the right not just to privacy but also to being anonymous. I know I have to submit to a colonoscopy if the airport authority deems it necessary. If I choose to fly, I know those are the rules. But there is no reason or law that forces me to report my activities to any clown in uniform. And if there is such law, be very careful, because just because it is legal doesn’t mean it is just or moral. All dictatorships have passed laws.
Ecuadorians, pay careful attention to the things you submit to smilingly….before night falls, as Reynaldo Arenas would say. And do not believe that it is always darker before dawn. In Cuba we have been waiting for the sun to come out for 50 years.

The only thing I can say is that the roads to the airport was so pretty that the affront to my civil liberties passed almost inadvertently.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Snowden, His Freedom Paradises and Our Means Vs. Ends Decisions

One who breaks an unjust law that conscience tells him is unjust, and who willingly accepts the penalty of imprisonment in order to arouse the conscience of the community over its injustice, is in reality expressing the highest respect for law.

Martin Luther King, Jr.
The situation with Edward Snowden, the most-wanted NSA leaker, puts to the test every one of my beliefs, convictions and capricious thoughts. On the one hand, the quixotic side of my polygonal being applauds his impetus for freedom. The part of me that is happy for the capture of the Boston Marathon bombers, however, wonders…
As someone who grew up in Cuba, where the notion of privacy – to say nothing of individual freedoms and civil liberties – is completely foreign, I have had to educate myself to be intellectually outraged when the ACLU or Rand Paul says our privacy was violated. I mean, it is not the gut-wrenching outraged I feel when, say, an American bomb falls on a wedding in Afghanistan and men, women and children are killed.
Back to Snowden, I feel slightly less offended that he did not finally request and receive asylum in those bastions of transparency and press freedoms that are Cuba, Ecuador, China or Venezuela. However, the fact that he is requesting and getting it in Putin´s Russia, where good journalists have an uncanny tendency to drop dead apparently by the force of gravity, makes my blood boil.
There is a particularly painful and incisive irony in the fact that the Amnesty International’s representative who brokered the asylum deal had to flee Russia not too long ago due to threats to her life. Putin has a radical way to deal with criticism.
The left in America (among which I count myself) – perhaps not all the left – has been supporting what Snowden did as an act of unparalleled bravery, but saw no problem in the fact that the list of countries vying to lend him refuge reads like a who´s who of the latest graduation of the Dictatorship for Dummies online seminar. “China, Ecuador, Cuba, Venezuela and Russia walk into a bar to meet Snowden and the bartender asks: where is Syria?”
That is the saddest irony, that what the left and Snowden are saying is what the left in the rest of the world always criticizes of the United States: at the end of the day, Americans are only concerned with the violation of the rights of Americans. Snowden is no fool. He knows full well he would be hanging from his thumbs if he had pulled that 007 play in any of the aforementioned countries.
Moreover, the Cuban people want to be supportive of Snowden but they are still trying to figure out exactly what was his heroic deed. What was it he uncovered again? Because as Cubans, we don´t even have a word for spying on your citizens. The idea that we are living under a watchful eye is imprinted on us at the time they cut the umbilical cord, perhaps before. So, the idea of Snowden discovering that the government spies on its citizens sounded to Cubans as the discovery of the Galician prostitute who was crying because she found out the others were charging for the services.
The case of Ecuador is different. According to the newly minted communications law, the spying work will be done directly by the media outlets which will be forced to gather intelligence – means to trace back and identify – those who comment on their pages, lest they be responsible for the commentary. Just to mention one lovely example of the expansion of freedoms the Assange-protecting government has brought about.
I´d say something about Russia, but why bother?
I do realize that Snowden’s choices are similar in breadth to those of Sophie (Meryll Streep), but I guess he didn’t think this would be a walk in the park when he decided to put his life on the line to defend those civil liberties he deems so precious. Are they only precious for Americans? Are they only precious when the offender is the U.S. government? Are the privacy and rights of Cubans, Russians or Ecuadorians not as precious, so we don’t have a problem allowing those governments to use Snowden to attack the Big Bad Wolf while their own citizens wouldn’t have a chance of playing Snowden?
As I said, the Snowden case puts all my beliefs to the test and the more I think about it the more questions I have.
So, anyone with a security clearance can/should begin making individual judgments about what information to divulge? Make notice of the should because if we believe Snowden was right, then, we should encourage that behavior. Isn’t that what we do with heroic behavior, to encourage more of it?
What happens if someone agrees with the Syrian government and decides to divulge to them information that U.S. is using to, say, help the rebels? If we all act according to our conscience, if that person agrees with Assad then he/she is following his/her conscience and so is right?
If you want to follow your conscience, what you do not do is taking an oath to keep secrets for a government you already know is acting wrongly and then break it. And if you so firmly believe that what you did is right, then face the music. If you purposefully sign up for it in order to expose it, well, yes, that’s called spying. Then, yes, do go run and protect yourself, but do understand that any government will use all its power against spies. Period. In my idyllic realm, spying won’t be necessary… but we ain’t there yet. But, please, don’t go and run to places where people who do half of what you did have a tendency to defy the laws of physics and gravity and mysteriously fall from grace and buildings, sans a previous stop at a court of law.
But let’s explore further the acquiring of information. What if it was information that would prevent an attack?
I do have a significant problem – despite being Cuban and have my privacy and freedom muscles quite atrophied – with the government listening in my communications and reading my emails. And, no, I don’t subscribe to the theory that it shouldn’t matter if you don’t have anything to hide.
But we also would have to honestly decide what we want. We cannot pretend to be outraged with the government spying on us, but have no problem when that spying leads to stopping the next plot… and forget terrorism for a second, since it has been so manipulated that it elicits strong rejection. Let’s think other scenarios.
How many of us can honestly say: I rather a bomb to explode in my children’s school than to allow the government to use the information from a listened-in phone call to stop it? I know I am not able to say that.
Can you all honestly say that if, while listening illegally to a conversation, the plan of the guy in New Haven, Connecticut, was discovered and we could have prevented all those kids’ deaths you would say: “can’t use it. It was obtained illegally?” I know I wouldn’t mind if they got it while tapping the guy having sex with his girlfriend: Use it, darn it!
Let’s go a step further and say: then, they use it to prevent the carnage in the school, but they cannot use the evidence against the guy because it was illegally obtained. Then, they will have to continue for the rest of the guy’s life illegally wiretapping him because they know this is a guy who would like to go on a killing rampage in a school. Do you see a problem here?
And I am, however, quite able to say I don’t want torture use in ANY circumstances. I don’t care if it works. I don’t want it used because it is wrong…always wrong. I want to believe I would never do it. I want to believe my children would never do it. I cannot live with myself accepting that someone else’s child is torturing people on my behalf and with my tacit consent.
But are Americans even willing to reject torture in all circumstances? I was against the war in Afghanistan, let alone Iraq, because I don’t believe war makes us safe and I believe is wrong. Period. But I distinctly remember that a majority of Americans were in favor of both wars. Exactly how do we think the intelligence part of those wars is fought?
If we are ok with those ends by any means, we shouldn’t feign be so scandalized when the means are revealed.
I am totally against illegal wiretapping and spying. Key word: illegal. I believe that’s the discussion we must have openly in a democracy: in the current state of affairs, what are we willing to tolerate? What are we willing to give up? We cannot pick and choose when to accept illegality; nor can we live happily with its fruits – if we ended up saving some kids, for instance – but then yell bloody murder in a vacuum.
Spying, obviously, happens in secret. But we need to agree as a society as to how much spying we are wiling to tolerate and under which circumstances. We need to stop the hypocrisy and stop the discussion in a vacuum.

Sunday, July 14, 2013

Bucolic Scenes: Children Picking Horse Manure

By Isabel M. Estrada-Portales

Look at these beautiful pictures of children picking up horse manure, so that the public can leisurely ride horses at La Carolina Park in Quito, Ecuador. This is on a Sunday afternoon… when my own kids, who could actually be the mothers of at least one of these children, are throwing a tantrum about cleaning up their rooms.

We pass these children working every day. It is so normal that nobody pays the slightest attention. I remembered the time I visited schools in certain neighborhoods in Memphis, Tennessee and Philadelphia and had to pass a metal detector. I was enraged. I could not believe those children had to pass that everyday to go to class. With the callousness of those who don´t really need to make those choices, I said that over my dead body I would live in a neighborhood in which my kids had to go through a metal detector at school. I guess in my mind those parents actually had a choice.

These aberrations look so normal to us that it scares me. The manure was the least disgusting thing in this bucolic landscape.
Today is really not a good day. And then people are surprised of the addiction crises and the wave of suicides. I discovered today that children do have some uses. Only remembering that I still have two to put through college is preventing me from chaining myself to a bar stool and telling the bartender don´t even bother to ask if I wanted another shot, until they drag me from there in an alcoholic coma. I would consider a cocaine overdose as well, but my connections have apparently dried out.

I swear, if the species would consider mass suicide, from where I´m standing hardly another day has looked better. I´m sure there is a better part of me somewhere. I know it has been there before. But I think I may need to use fracking to bring it out today.

Here I am, deep diving in my mind in Rilke, Yourcenar, Hans Castorp´s beautiful and amazingly extraordinaire declaration of love in Mann´s The Magic Mountain, the exceptional hara-kiri scene, after incredible love-making, of the protagonists of Mishima´s Patriotism. I´m going back to all those old friends to find that hope I used to have that there could be salvation through literature. Sadly, one of those old friends is Sábato´s Fernando who broke the news to me quite early on that Germany in 1933 was the most educated country in the world. But, when you are 16, you still hope. At 41, apparently Fernando has won.

I don´t believe. Today, I especially don’t believe. But if there is a Christ to whom I can relate it´s the one Borges´ brought to us in Christ on the Cross:

Christ on the cross. Confusedly
he thinks of the realm that maybe awaits him,
thinks of a woman who is not his.
It’s not given to him to see the theology,
the indecipherable Trinity, the Gnostics,
the cathedrals, Occam’s knife,
the purple, the miter, the liturgy,
the conversion of Guthrum by the sword,
the Inquisition, the blood of the martyrs,
the atrocious Crusades, Joan of Arc,
the Vatican that blesses armies.
He knows that he is not a god and is a man
who dies with the day. It doesn’t bother him.
What bothers him is the hard iron of the nails.
He’s not a Roman. He’s not a Greek. He moans.
He has left us splendid metaphors
and a doctrine of pardon that can
annul the past. (That sentence
an Irishman wrote in a jail.)

The soul seeks its end, hurriedly.

You can read the poem, Christ on the Cross, by Jorge Luis Borges.