Swiftboating Obama

“Sen. Kerry approaches the world with a September the 10th mindset…”

George Bush, October 7, 2004

“Fear was Bush’s ace in the hole. The Bush campaign wanted Americans to believe that if John Kerry was elected president, their families would be killed by terrorists.”

Sen. Al Franken, on the 2004 presidential campaign


“Senator Obama is a perfect manifestation of a September 10th mind-set. … He does not understand the nature of the enemies we face.”

Randy Scheunemann, McCain campaign adviser, June 17, 2008

 “What they’re trying to do is to do what they’ve done every election cycle, which is to use terrorism as a club to make the American people afraid.”

Barack Obama, June 17, 2008


In 2004, I cast my first vote for a Democratic presidential candidate. It was for John Kerry.

And John Kerry should have been president.

But Republicans have always been good at casting Democrats as panzies on national security.  They waged an almost unspeakably dirty campaign against John Kerry in 2004. Kerry was a Vietnam veteran with three Purple Hearts, a Bronze Star, and a Silver Star.  Yet, Republicans managed to scare enough voters that year to get George W. Bush elected again.

I will not forget that.

On Sunday night, Barack Obama, himself a target—but thankfully not a victim—of Republican scare tactics in 2008, announced the death of Osama bin Laden. By implication, he also announced the death of the terrible Republican strategy to smear Democrats with the soft-on-terrorism label, with the idea that voters should fear Democrats because they will not keep the country safe.

But there are many on the right who are trying to resurrect that strategy. 

That’s what all the torture talk, fueled by right-wing radio and television, is all about.  Instead of directly attacking Obama for being a 98-pound national security weakling—which just wouldn’t sell now with bin Laden’s bloody mug shot about to become an Internet sensation*—they are attacking him for not seeing the light on the “fact” that waterboarding brought us invaluable information that led to the killing of bin Laden.

I saw Donald Rumsfeld this morning on Fox “News” pushing this exact idea. After giving Obama “credit” for getting bin Laden, he added,

… they campaigned against most of the structures that President Bush put in place—the structures that have protected the American people now for close to a decade, indefinite detention, Guantanamo, the Patriot Act, military commissions. They’ve reversed their positions on all of those. 

The one place they seem not to have reversed it is with respect to enhanced interrogation techniques.  I think the CIA program that included waterboarding has been discontinued, notwithstanding the fact that George Tenet, the former CIA director, and General Hayden, the CIA director, and I believe most recently Leon Panetta, have all indicated that the enhanced interrogation technique used by the CIA actually produced a great deal of important intelligence.

Of course, Leon Panetta said no such a thing. Here’s what he did say:

BRIAN WILLIAMS: Can you confirm that it was as a result of water boarding that we learned what we needed to learn to go after Bin Laden?

LEON PANETTA: Brian, in the intelligence business you work from a lot of sources of information and that was true here… It’s a little difficult to say it was due just to one source of information that we got… I think some of the detainees clearly were, you know, they used these enhanced interrogation techniques against some of these detainees. But I’m also saying that, you know, the debate about whether we would have gotten the same information through other approaches I think is always going to be an open question.

BRIAN WILLIAMS: So finer point, one final time, enhanced interrogation techniques — which has always been kind of a handy euphemism in these post-9/11 years — that includes water boarding?

LEON PANETTA: That’s correct.

No matter how many times you read that interview, you will not find Panetta admitting that torture produced “a great deal of important intelligence.”  In fact, the White House pushed back and said essentially that there is no evidence that torture produced information leading to bin Laden.**

So, we have the same old thing here.  John Kerry, war-hero, was unconscionably smeared in order to win an election.  Barack Obama, in the midst of a great victory that eluded our two previous presidents, is being smeared for not sufficiently embracing the obviously illegal and, for many Americans, morally unacceptable, practice of torturing our prisoners.

Stay tuned. The Right isn’t finished. The swiftboating has just begun.


* UPDATE:  NBC News reported this afternoon that President Obama has decided against releasing the photograph.

** From The New York Times:

…a closer look at prisoner interrogations suggests that the harsh techniques played a small role at most in identifying Bin Laden’s trusted courier and exposing his hide-out. One detainee who apparently was subjected to some tough treatment provided a crucial description of the courier, according to current and former officials briefed on the interrogations. But two prisoners who underwent some of the harshest treatment — including Khalid Shaikh Mohammed, who was waterboarded 183 times — repeatedly misled their interrogators about the courier’s identity.


Torture Redux

As the “torture works” meme makes its way around right-wing radio and television, no doubt it will soon become a part of right-wing folklore, sort of like Obama’s Kenyan birth or his allegiance to anti-colonialist ideology or his fondness for socialism.

And, naturally, it will slip into the mainstream media via “discussions” about the truth of the matter.  That’s how this stuff works, as the birther “controversy” demonstrated.

Most on the Right now “know” that torture led to the killing of Osama bin Laden.  It doesn’t matter that the evidence for that claim is, at best, skimpy.  At worst, the evidence is non-existent.  But when it comes to trashing Barack Hussein Obama, assertions based on flimsy or fictional evidence are enough. 

The truth is that a good argument against the effectiveness of torture can be made using what we know about the present case.  The 2003 torture—involving 183 waterboard applications—of Khalid Sheikh Mohammed failed to get the actual name of bin Laden’s most trusted aid, the courier who eventually led Pakistani agents working for the C.I.A. to the compound in Abbottabad. 

It wasn’t until years after the torture of KSM, according to The New York Times, that the C.I.A. got the family name of the courier and then it took some time, using the National Security Agency, to get his complete name.  As many are rightly asking, if waterboarding were so effective, why did it take another eight years to finish the job?

Finally, even if it could be proven in this or any case that torture was an effective tool in getting valuable information, that still leaves open the moral and legal issues surrounding it.  But most fascinating in all this is how memes are made and propagated and how hard they are to kill once they get started.

I have little doubt that even if there is never any hard evidence adduced to support the idea that torture led to the demise of Osama bin Laden*, the idea will always be a part of the narrative the Right uses to attack Democrats in general—they are weak on national security issues, you know—and President Obama in particular—he merely benefited from the Bush-Cheney torture strategy he once condemned.


* According to a budding idea being promoted on television by Fox’s Andrew Napolitano, Osama bin Laden might not be dead.  After all, we only have President Obama’s word for it, and as Napolitano suggested, perhaps it is Obama’s “lagging poll numbers and the sickening economy” that precipated this whole thing.

“That Tiny Central Self Which No One Sees In This Life”

“Reality, in fact, is usually something you could not have guessed.”

C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity


Today’s Joplin Globe carried a headline that made me cringe:

The lede, from the version of the story on the website of the Nevada Daily Mail:

KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Beth Phillips, United States Attorney for the Western District of Missouri, announced that Dennis Henry, 51, of Wheatland, formerly the postmaster of Nevada, Mo., pleaded guilty in federal court Thursday to his role in a sex-trafficking conspiracy in which a young, mentally deficient woman was coerced into being a sex slave for several years while she was tortured in a trailer home located in a wooded area in Lebanon, Mo.

This story, in all its dreadful detail, involves someone I know.  In fact, the last time I saw Dennis was when I had lunch with him in Nevada. I had met with him many times as part of my job as a union advocate.

And I liked him. 

In fact, he was one of the “good guys” I had to deal with, a man who seemed to care about his employees and who seemed to want to do the right thing.

Dennis admitted to the world that he did some appalling and horrifying things with a girl he knew to beneglected,” who appeared to be “developmentally delayed for someone her age,” and who “did not know how to think for herself.”  Here’s more:

By pleading guilty today, Henry admitted that he engaged in sex with the victim, who is identified in court documents as “FV” (female victim), and participated in torture sessions with FV that would last for hours. According to Henry, FV was subject to the most extreme forms of torture he had ever seen. Henry saw pictures of FV’s vagina sewn shut, which he was told was a form of punishment. Punishment also included locking FV in a cage. Henry never asked FV if she needed help and never offered to assist her in any way.

The story continues:

In 2006, Henry helped transport FV to California for a sexually explicit pornographic photo shoot. The sex toys, machines and devices filled the trunk and backseat of the car, with Henry, FV and another person crowded into the front seat. Henry drove most of the way from Missouri to California, where they stayed in a dirty motel room that was located in front of an alley filled with trash, needles and drug paraphernalia.

According to Henry, FV became scared when they arrived in California. When she saw the crank phone that was used to administer electric shocks, she withdrew and “melted.” Henry found FV crying in a room. FV told him she hated the crank phone and was worried she would not be able to take the pain. Henry provided approximately $1,400 for this trip to California. At a later date, he provided another $500 for a return trip, which he did not join.

Henry also admitted that he visited the woman at a Lebanon strip club where she was forced to work.

Those details are the ones suitable for inclusion in a blog associated with a reputable newspaper.

Now, as I said, I liked Dennis.  I wouldn’t have imagined in a thousand lifetimes that he was capable of doing the things he has admitted to doing.  In fact, while these things were still allegations, I held out hope that somehow they weren’t true, that they had the wrong guy.

But they didn’t.  He was involved.  He said so. 

Now what?  How do you process such information?  How do you make sense of the reality of these events, which contradict what you thought you knew someone to be? 

I suppose the biggest shocker is that I couldn’t detect the apparently underlying humanity of Dennis Henry, who while I was formulating my personality assessment of him as a “good guy,” was doing horrible things to a mentally-deficient young woman. Yes, that’s a shocker. 

What other things about other people have I missed?  About myself?

C. S. Lewis, in a Christian context, talked about “the little mark on the soul” that each of our actions leave on “that tiny central self which no one sees in this life but which each of us will have to endure—or enjoy—forever.”  Even if you’re not a believer in a soul or in a world to come, you can’t ignore the force behind the idea that our actions, big or small, do help define who we are.  Lewis:

One man may be so placed that his anger sheds the blood of thousands, and another so placed that however angry he gets he will only be laughed at. But the little mark on the soul may be much the same in both.

I don’t know if that is true.  But I do know that a man who can seem so reasonable and decent in one context and in another can do the things that Dennis did, is a man whose humanity is in question.  As with all forms of cruelty, there seems to be nothingness where compassion should be.  I don’t know if Dennis struggled with any native impulses of decency while he was indulging his obvious sexual perversion, but I’d like to think he did.

Somehow, that would make this all easier to understand, but I can’t explain how.

In any case, as I sometimes do in times like these, I turn to an old friend again, C. S. Lewis, to try to aid my understanding of such realities, even if I have parted ways with what I once believed about God, most of which I adopted under his influence.  Here is his view of the old “hate the sin but not the sinner” doctrine from his Christian perspective:

For a long time I used to think this a silly, straw-splitting distinction: how could you hate what a man did and not hate the man? But years later it occurred to me that there was one man to whom I had been doing this all my life—namely myself.

However much I might dislike my own cowardice or conceit or greed, I went on loving myself. There had never been the slightest difficulty about it. In fact the very reason why I hated the thing was that I loved the man. Just because I loved myself, I was sorry to find that I was the sort of man who did those things.

Consequently, Christianity does not want us to reduce by one atom the hatred we feel for cruelty and treachery.  We ought to hate them.  Not one word of what we have said about them needs to be unsaid.  But it does want us to hate them in the same way in which we hate things in ourselves: being sorry that the man should have done such things, and hoping, if it is anyway possible, that somehow, sometime, somewhere, he can be cured and made human again.

The Bishop and Mrs. Beasley

Paul Greenberg, who is a man of the Right and an excellent writer, contradicted the Bible in his column this morning. He wrote:

There is something more than irreverence in the rationalist’s demand that the believer explain why he believes; there is something of the voyeur. To insist on an explanation of another’s belief amounts to an invasion of privacy, an intrusion into an intimate relationship—the one between worshipper and Worshipped, the created and the Creator, the loved and the Lover.

Rarely do I find myself in agreement with Mr. Greenberg these days, but I agree with the last line of his piece: “The heart owes no one an explanation.

The problem is the Bible doesn’t agree with us:

But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to every man that asketh you a reason of the hope that is in you with meekness and fear. (1 Peter 3:15).

Mr. Greenberg , who spent most of the column criticizing a liberal Episcopal bishop for daring to flout the teachings of his church with rather unchristianly interpretations of the Bible, may want to rethink his own flouting of a clear admonition in Scripture.


Speaking of unchristianly interpretations, Marilyn Beasley was back in the paper today. Ms. Beasley is a fundamentalist Christian who has been extremely critical of fellow-believer Barack Obama.

She has determined that President Obama, despite his claims, is not a “true” Christian.

Last September in a letter to the Globe and last April in a publication called “The Beacon,” she openly questioned his Christianity in various ways, based on this reasoning:

A Christian is one who loves the Lord Jesus, tries to live their life to please the Lord, and with the Lord’s help stands up for what is right and speaks out against the wrong.

I don’t think most believers would have a problem with her first two requirements. A reasonable person would agree that a person claiming to be a Christian ought to love Jesus and try to follow his example.

But the third requirement in her fealty triad is the one that could get her in hot water with God. Standing up “for what is right” and speaking out “against the wrong” obviously involves subjective judgments, about which good people can differ. But not to Mrs. Beasley. She, and she alone, gets to determine what is “right” and what is “wrong,” and if Obama or any other professing believer disagrees with her, they are not true Christians. She has passed judgment on them in defiance of the scriptural admonition not to.

Sure, in her indictment of Obama in the article in “The Beacon,” she defends her judgmentalism by appealing to the “by their fruits you will know them” argument, also sanctioned by the Bible. But other than revealing a contradiction in biblical advice, this appeal does not advance her case. Who gets to determine what fruits are good and what fruits are bad? Ms. Beasley believes that supporting abortion rights is a bad fruit. Does she feel the same way about supporting Social Security or Medicare or Medicaid or the WIC program? Or is supporting those programs a good fruit?

Does the Lord love the welfare state?

In her letter today, Mrs. Beasley classifies waterboarding, which nearly everyone this side of Dick Cheney believes is torture, as a good fruit. She “thanks” the CIA for using it. Now, could President Obama petition the Lord for a reconsideration of her Christianity based on the fact that she supports torture? Or does the Lord himself approve of torture?

There’s nothing wrong with Mrs. Beasley or any other Christian criticizing Barack Obama and his administration. But she has historically done so by claiming that his Christianity is false, that he is lying about what is fundamentally a publicly unknowable claim, his relationship with the Creator. How can he defend himself?

Enter Paul Greenberg:

The heart owes no one an explanation.




Friday, May 15, 2009, 05:17 PM

Pff! Everyone knows that the Bible has a liberal left wing bias! Much like the mainstream media, academia, Europe, Big Gubmint, reality…anything besides Fox News and talk radio honestly.

(you may want to get rid of the “d” in “the heart owes no one and explanation”)


Friday, May 15, 2009, 05:45 PM

Thanks. I have a poor editor.



Nathan Jones

Friday, May 15, 2009, 06:13 PM

Do these Joplin Globe Blogs get any volume of traffic? I had never even heard of it ’til Mardell introduced us at Columbia Trader’s.

I’m not a big fan of newspapers, why in the world would somebody ever think it was a good idea to print on such large paper. What a pain in the butt to read. Why do they not just print on normal size paper?


Saturday, May 16, 2009, 10:58 AM


Why am I not surprised that you–a conservative–are not a big fan of newspapers?

By the way, why in the world would someone think it was a good idea to jot down the Ten Commandments on stone tablets?

They make terrible cage liners.



Nathan Jones

Saturday, May 16, 2009, 12:34 PM


Newspapers are the least practical medium in the market today is all I was pointing out, and wondered, honestly, what was the original purpose of such big paper, whose refolding would be such an enigma.

God didn’t think stone was the best medium, shortly thereafter, He told the people that one day He would write His words on their heart. He said He would take out their heart of stone, which always rejects Him and turns away from Him; and give them a heart of flesh (or a tender heart) which He would reveal His love to them and draw them to Him. The ten commandments on stone was a metaphor for the everlasting nature of God’s words. Which in contrast to the newspapers are so quickly forgotten and fade away. How many billions of words have been printed and forgotten, how many writers poured out the heart of paper in black and white, and how few of those words are still remembered. But God writes ten sentences and they are remembered (if the story is true) for 4,000 years. That’s efficiency. Now if we could get newspapers to print something worth remembering, and we’d give them a couple of stone tablets also.

I have no idea what “cage liners” are, sorry.:)

nate jones

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