Quantcast

Katrina vanden Heuvel | The Nation

  •  
Katrina vanden Heuvel

Katrina vanden Heuvel

Politics, current affairs and riffs and reflections on the news.

Antonin Scalia: Torture’s Not Torture Unless He Says It Is

Justice Antonin Scalia

Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Perhaps, as Justice Scalia told a Swiss university audience earlier this month, it is indeed “very facile” for Americans to declare that “torture is terrible.” The justice posited to his listeners a classic ticking-time-bomb scenario—this one involving “a person that you know for sure knows the location of a nuclear bomb that has been planted in Los Angeles and will kill millions of people”—and asked, “You think it’s clear that you cannot use extreme measures to get that information out of that person?” Now, I didn’t see that episode of 24, but I have read my Bill of Rights, and I’m far more inclined to align myself here with James Madison than with Jack Bauer—or with Antonin Scalia.

Psychopaths, sadists, and Scalia notwithstanding, no one really asks the asinine question, “Is torture terrible?” because it’s already been answered. Torture, George Washington told his troops in 1775, brings “shame, disgrace, and ruin” to the country; earlier this month, Sen. John McCain called the CIA’s enhanced interrogation tactics “shameful and unnecessary” and decried their employment. The UN expressly banned torture in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948 and twice underlined the position in the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights (adopted in 1966) and Convention Against Torture (adopted in 1984). Common Article 3 to the Geneva Conventions (1949) prohibits “violence of life and person, in particular murder of all kinds, mutilation, cruel treatment and torture,” as well as “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” Finally, torture is illegal in the United States under federal law.

In our constitution, the Eighth Amendment is brilliant in its brevity: “Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.” (Torture is also implicated in the Fourth, Fifth, and Fourteenth Amendments.) Notably, the Bill of Rights omits from its proscriptions countless offenses that a wayward state might commit against humanity, but cruel and unusual punishment is not one of those omissions; along with unlawful search and seizure, torture has been out of bounds since Day One. Still, Justice Scalia has found a chink in the Amendment’s protective armor.

Scalia’s is a truly frightening piece of rhetoric, an interpretation of the Eighth Amendment so narrow as to render it nearly irrelevant. As Judge Sol Wachtler, Chief Judge on the New York Court of Appeals between 1985 and 1993, wrote in December in response to Justice Scalia’s comments, “By saying the torture is not ‘punishment’ if inflicted for a good reason, Scalia redefines the word torture, a component of which is punishment of the most horrendous sort.”

Scalia implies that the emphasis of the Eighth Amendment is on “punishment,” not “cruel and unusual.” Scalia envisions a simple timeline between crime, apprehension, and punishment, seeming to think that the state can do anything it wants to a prisoner, detainee, enemy combatant, whatever—so long as it does not constitute officially meted-out punishment, which to Scalia means one thing: sentencing. In other words, torturing someone in the service of coercion, interrogation, or investigation is fine, right up to when a court assigns culpability and adjudicates consequences, at which point torture instantly becomes punishment and becomes impermissible.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

This callousness to universal principles of human dignity and to the founding principles of the Republic must be challenged. When government’s license to behave inappropriately, immorally, or illegally hinges on the malleable definition of the word “punishment”—and on the technical identification of when conduct is and is not punishment—then we’re in trouble. As Judge Wachtler notes, punishment is a component of torture, whether the torturer admits to it or not: when we torture for any reason, we punish. Would Justice Scalia construct constitutionality at a black site by condescending to a water-boarded detainee that he is merely undergoing interrogation and not, in fact, being punished?

It is a travesty that we must countenance a Supreme Court justice who holds such contempt for both domestic and international law—and for human dignity and decency as well. There is no justice in torture, and we cannot tolerate a justice who is for torture.

 

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on Obama’s new Cuba policy

The Change in Cuba Policy Is a Nod to Reality

American and Cuban flags on balcony

American and Cuban flags hang side-by-side on a balcony in Old Havana, Cuba. (AP Photo/Ramon Espinosa)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

President Obama’s decision to normalize relations with Cuba is a decision to recognize reality. For fifty years, the United States has pursued a policy that has failed. The embargo hurt the Cuban people it claimed to help and bolstered the regime that it intended to undermine. The effort to isolate Cuba has been increasingly isolating the United States both in the hemisphere and across the world. And as the president concluded, “I do not believe we can keep doing the same thing for over five decades and expect a different result.” To believe that would be, as Albert Einstein taught us, the very definition of insanity.

The best evidence that this change was long overdue was provided by the hysterical and incoherent reactions of its opponents. Senator Rand Paul (R-KY), a potential presidential contender, embraced the initiative, making an indisputable comment about the embargo: “If the goal is regime change, it sure doesn’t seem to be working.” Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) replied that Paul “has no idea what he’s talking about.”

Rubio argued that the United States gets nothing in return for normalization: no free elections in Cuba, no free press, no democratic progress of any sort. But while we don’t know what the product of the new opening will be, we do know that the half-century of the embargo hasn’t produced free elections or a free press in Cuba either. By making Cuba David against Goliath, the US embargo provides the regime a rationale for its internal crackdowns while elevating its stature across the hemisphere and the developing world. Normalizing relations with Cuba enables the United States to advocate for individual liberty, without being seen as a bully trying to club a small neighbor into submission.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Watch The Colbert Report’s Triumphant Final Song

Katrina vanden Heuvel bid farewell to The Colbert Report along with an eclectic chorus of some of Stephen’s favorite guests: Jon Stewart, Randy Newman, Willie Nelson, Doris Kearns Goodwin, Jeff Daniels, Keith Olbermann, Samantha Power, Katie Couric, Matt Taibbi, Charlie Rose, Big Bird… We wish him all the best!

We’ll meet again,
Don’t know where, don’t know when,
But I know we’ll meet again, some sunny day.
Keep smiling through,
Just like you always do,
Till the blue skies drive the dark clouds, far away.
So will you please say hello,
To the folks that I know,
Tell them I won’t be long, (i wont be long)
They’ll be happy to know that as you saw me go
I was singing this song.

The Criminal Justice System Is Broken. Here’s How to Start Fixing It.

(Reuters/Eduardo Munoz)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

When a grand jury decided not to indict a Ferguson, Missouri, police officer in the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown, Brooklyn resident Jon Robinson declined to join the public protests. Two weeks later, when a Staten Island grand jury failed to indict the New York police officer who was filmed choking Eric Garner to death, Robinson marched through the night, though he remained uncertain of what the protests would accomplish. “I’ve got this rage and hunger for change,” he told a reporter. “But I also don’t know how you really cause change when you’ve got a system so broken.”

That sense of despair is understandable, given the recent spate of incidents in which black lives have been stolen without any justification or justice. But there are signs that the passion in the streets, which was on display this past weekend as tens of thousands of protesters marched through New York, the District and other cities across the country, could translate into meaningful policy changes. Last week, New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman called on Governor Andrew Cuomo to give his office the power to investigate and prosecute cases in which police officers kill unarmed citizens, a possible model for national reform that could help restore the public’s trust. As Schneiderman wrote in a letter to the governor, “A common thread in many of these cases is the belief of the victim’s family and others that the investigation of the death, and the decision whether to prosecute, have been improperly and unfairly influenced by the close working relationship between the county District Attorney and the police officers he or she works with and depends on every day.”

Indeed, we are now seeing a crisis of confidence in our justice system, which has left black communities in particular fearing that police can torment them with impunity. “This type of independent oversight is a critical first step in making sure officers who brutalize or kill Black New Yorkers are held accountable,” the civil rights group ColorofChange.org said in a statement praising Schneiderman’s request. “The relationship between police and district attorneys is far too close and AG Schneiderman’s request would go a long way to avoid the systemic corruption, cronyism, and failed justice that often results when local prosecutors investigate police abuse involving Black victims.”

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

‘We Can’t Breathe’: The Movement Against Police Brutality Is Just Beginning

protest

(AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

As I write, New York City is witnessing its fifth day of demonstrations after a Staten Island grand jury’s decision not to indict a police officer in the Eric Garner killing. Those demonstrations followed on the protests across the country over the police shootings of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old father of two who was slain while walking with his girlfriend in Brooklyn, Tamir Rice, a 12-year-old boy shot by a rookie Cleveland police officer while playing with a toy gun, and, most famously, the Ferguson, Missouri, police killing of Michael Brown. Conservatives joined liberals in denouncing the grand jury’s outrageous decision in the Garner case. Demonstrations have spread across the country as people of all races have taken up Garner’s plea: “I can’t breathe.”

President Obama met with some of the demonstrators in the White House, where 20-year-old Rasheen Aldridge Jr., director of Young Activists United St Louis, said they made it clear “that we are in crisis.” He added, “It is a crisis when a black American can get locked up for traffic fines, but police officers are rarely prosecuted for killing unarmed children.” The president, as another attendee later reported, “cautioned us against demanding too big and stressed gradualism. He counseled us that the wheels of progress turn sluggishly.” The Justice Department has launched special investigations into the killings of Brown and Garner. The president has announced that he will push for putting cameras on police and has convened a Task Force on 21st Century Policing with instructions to report back in 90 days.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The deaths of Garner, Brown and others at the hands of police are not the only cause sparking mass protests. The day after the Garner demonstrations started, low-wage workers walked off their jobs in more than 190 cities, demanding a living wage and the right to organize. They, too, chanted, “I can’t breathe.” Workers from fast food-restaurants such as McDonald’s were joined by those from low-wage retail and convenience stores and airline service jobs. In Washington, federal contract workers joined the march, calling on the president to issue procurement regulations that would reward good employers that pay a living wage with benefits and allow workers to organize and bargain collectively.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

This Is Why John Oliver Supports Net Neutrality

save the net

(Photo by Stacie Isabella Turk/Ribbonhead, Creative Commons)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In May, HBO comedian John Oliver opened his segment on net neutrality by saying, “The cable companies have figured out the great truth of America: If you want to do something evil, put it inside something boring.” He then delivered an incisive thirteen-minute monologue that was anything but boring, drawing more than 7 million views on YouTube. Indeed, as Oliver demonstrated so effectively, while net neutrality may seem like a dull subject, protecting it is essential to not only the future of the Internet but also the future of our democracy.

Net neutrality is, simply put, the fundamental principle that all Internet traffic should be treated equally. There are very few level playing fields in American life, but in a nation plagued by inequality, the Internet has remained open, free and fair—a powerful equalizing force that has allowed good ideas to flourish whether they came from a corporate board room or a college dorm room. This equality of opportunity is at the core of net neutrality. And it is under relentless attack by major telecommunications companies seeking yet another advantage to tighten their grip on the market.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

This year, for example, Verizon challenged the regulations governing net neutrality in court—and won. In response, the FCC proposed an approach that would allow Internet service providers such as Comcast to charge websites a fee to deliver their content at higher speeds. The new rules would essentially create a two-tiered Internet—a “fast lane” for the rich, and a slow lane for everyone else.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Take Action: Tell the FCC to Stand Up for Real Net Neutrality

Rethinking the Cost of Western Intervention in Ukraine

Kiev's Independence Square

A March rally in Kiev's Independence Square (AP Photo/Sergei Chuzavkov)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Samantha Power, the US ambassador to the United Nations, recently cautioned Americans against intervention fatigue: “I think there is too much of ‘Oh, look, this is what intervention has wrought’…. one has to be careful about overdrawing lessons.” Say what? Given the calamities wrought in Iraq, Libya and now Ukraine, one would think that a fundamental rethinking and learning of lessons is long overdue. The United States needs a sober look at the actual costs of supposed good intentions divorced from realism.

Power’s comments come as Ukraine marks the one-year anniversary of the beginning of the Maidan Square demonstrations in Kiev, surely an occasion for rethinking and changing course. One year after the United States and Europe celebrated the February coup that ousted the corrupt but constitutionally elected president of Ukraine, Viktor Yanukovych, liberal and neoconservative interventionists have much to answer for. Crimea has been annexed by Russia. More than 4,000 people have lost their lives in the civil war in Ukraine, with more than 9,000 wounded and nearly a million displaced. This month, the Kiev government acknowledged the de facto partition of Ukraine by announcing it was ending all funding for government services and social benefits including pensions and freezing all bank accounts in the eastern districts that are in revolt. The Ukrainian economy is near collapse with nowhere near the billions needed to rebuild it at hand. How Kiev or the cut-off eastern regions will provide heating and electricity to their beleaguered people as winter approaches remains to be seen.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

The European Union and the United States have imposed sanctions on Russia, with threats of more to come. Many observers have rightly suggested that we are witnessing the beginnings of a new Cold War. US and NATO forces are being dispatched to buck up the purportedly nervous Baltic nations, now part of NATO’s security guarantee. Meanwhile, the sanctions have added to Europe’s economic woes. Vladimir Putin’s popularity has soared within Russia, even as the nation’s economy has suffered. European unity has begun to fray, with several countries worried about the effect of sanctions on their own economies, and officials questioning the sanctions’ effectiveness.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

The Moral and Political Case for Reforming the Criminal Justice System

criminal justice

(Reuters/Joshua Lott)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

There isn’t much room for optimism among progressives these days. The president’s avenues to legislative achievement in his final two years are narrow and seem mostly to lead to the right — toward a corporate tax reform in one instance, and a NAFTA-style trade deal with the Asia-Pacific region in another.

But in these dark days, there is, as we are already witnessing, reason for hope — in the form of a landmark climate change deal with China last week and an expected executive action on deportations very soon. And today, increasingly, there are signs that the United States could make greater strides on criminal justice reform than at any time in a generation or more.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

From a moral standpoint, the need to reform the justice system is clear. During the past four decades, the U.S. prison population has quadrupled even as the crime rate has dropped. We have some 2.4 million people behind bars, far more than any other country, costing about $80 billion a year to maintain. Worse yet, as result of racial disparities in sentencing, more than half of U.S. prisoners are minorities. These staggering statistics stem from the failure of the “war on drugs,” the true impact of which can only be measured in destroyed lives and devastated communities, especially among the most marginalized segments of society.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

When Mega Corporations Get Mega Tax Breaks, We All Pay

Boeing

(Reuters/Robert Sorbo)

Is corporate CEO pay really out of control? Well, consider Fleecing Uncle Sam, a new report from the Institute for Policy Studies and the Center for Effective Government. Of the 100 highest-paid CEOs in the US, the study finds, twenty-nine of them received more compensation than their companies paid in federal income tax.

Take American Airlines, for example. CEO W. Douglas Parker took home $17.7 million in total compensation in 2013, while his company received a $22 million tax refund. It makes you wonder. After all, American didn’t have a lot of income on which to pay taxes—the company’s pre-tax income in 2013 was negative $2 billion—so is AA sending us a message that tax avoidance, and not air transport, is their real business? Parker certainly piloted his company to be more success at the former than he did the latter.

Scott Klinger, Director of Revenue and Spending Policies at the Center for Effective Government, co-authored of the report. “Our corporate tax system is so broken,” he says, “that large, profitable firms can get away without paying their fair share and instead funnel massive funds into the pockets of top executives.”

But the heavyweight champion of corporate tax refunds is JPMorgan Chase, which earned more than $17 billion in 2013 in pre-tax income. Their tax “payment” took the form of a $1.3 billion refund. How did this happen? How can this all be above-board tax avoidance, not unlawful tax evasion? When it comes to avoiding taxes, American corporations have a veritable salad bar of helpful (and legal) techniques, including inversions and tax havens. But perhaps most galling are “extenders,” subsidies and tax-breaks handed to them by Congress. Every year or two, with little or no debate, Congress votes to extend fifty-five of these tax breaks, with 80 percent of them benefitting corporations.

“Rather than handing out more perks through the ‘tax extenders,’ Congress should focus on cracking down on tax havens, eliminating wasteful corporate subsidies, and closing loopholes that encourage excessive CEO pay,” says Sarah Anderson, IPS Global Economy director and another report co-author.

And then there’s Boeing. CEO W. James McNerney Jr. took home $23.3 million last year—well deserved, if the standard was wrapping Uncle Sam around his finger. Boeing received a tax refund of $82 million in 2013, while at the same time winning $20 billion in government contracts. Between 2008 and 2012, the company received $603 million in research-and-development subsidies. This largesse is outrageous, perhaps only ending when Boeing and its corporate brethren pay so little in taxes that Uncle Sam doesn’t have enough cash to allot their customary refunds, subsidies, and contracts.

When the federal government pays, we all pay. This is, of course, a government of the people, and these are our elected officials; when Congress engages in such epic bootlicking, we all get stuck with the bad taste in our mouth.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

We’re also stuck with the opportunity costs. The study reports that if seven giant corporations—Boeing, Chevron, Citigroup, Ford, General Motors, JPMorgan Chase and Verizon—had paid the statutory corporate tax rate of 35 percent, they would have owed $25.9 billion. Instead, the seven companies received a combined $1.9 billion in tax refunds, a difference of $27.8 billion. What might have been? What could we do with that lost tax income? How about running the VA for two entire months, the study asks. Or resurfacing 22,240 miles of four-lane roads. Or Universal pre-K for every four-year-old in the country. Three hundred and seventy-seven thousand more public school teachers. The list goes on and on.

Congress can fix this. A handful reform bills have been introduced, including Sen. Carl Levin’s (D-MI) Cut Unjustified Tax (CUT) Loopholes Act, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) and Representative Jan Schakowsky’s Corporate Tax Fairness Act, as well as several bills to stop corporate inversions. As the report says, “The American people increasingly understand that what’s good for General Motors and its CEO is not necessarily best for them.” We need to convince Congress that it's not best for them either.

Read Next: Katrina vanden Heuvel on the Republicans' reckoning

The Republicans’ Reckoning

Congressional Republicans

Congressional Republicans (Reuters/Jim Young)

Editor’s Note: Each week we cross-post an excerpt from Katrina vanden Heuvel’s column at the WashingtonPost.com. Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

In the early third century BC, after King Pyrrhus of Epirus again took brutal casualties in defeating the Romans, he told one person who offered congratulations, “If we are victorious in one more battle with the Romans, we shall be utterly ruined.” In his more sober moments, Mitch McConnell (R-KY), about to achieve his lifelong ambition of becoming Senate majority leader, may wonder whether he, too, has achieved a pyrrhic victory.

Republicans are still crowing about the sweeping victories in 2014 that give them control of both houses of Congress. They will set the agenda, deciding what gets considered, investigated and voted on. Their ideas will drive the debate.

Please support our journalism. Get a digital subscription for just $9.50!

But Republicans have no mandate because they offered no agenda. Republicans reaped the rewards of McConnell’s scorched-earth strategy, obstructing President Obama relentlessly, helping to create the failure that voters would pin on the party in power. But the collateral damage is that the “party of ‘no’ ” has no agreement on what is yes. Instead of using the years in the wilderness to develop new ideas and a clear vision, Republicans have used them only to sharpen their tongues, grow their claws and practice their backhands.

Read the full text of Katrina’s column here.

Syndicate content