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Friday, January 27, 2006

Three short reads 

Extinction denial
Conservationists are mistaken, argues Professor Tim Halliday in this week's Green Room; many animals and plants cannot be saved from extinction, and the job of conservation scientists is to document them as they disappear.

If public speaking makes you nervous...
Forget pretending you are talking to one person or concentrating on a single point in the audience -- having sex is good way to calm nerves before giving a speech or presentation.

But Stuart Brody, a psychologist at the University of Paisley in Scotland, said it has to be full sexual intercourse to get the best results.

Ah. But what does it take to get only mediocre results? (CWCID: Cassandra)

Richard Posner: What if wiretapping works?
The revelation by The New York Times that the National Security Agency (NSA) is conducting a secret program of electronic surveillance outside the framework of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Act (fisa) has sparked a hot debate in the press and in the blogosphere. But there is something odd about the debate: It is aridly legal. Civil libertarians contend that the program is illegal, even unconstitutional; some want President Bush impeached for breaking the law. The administration and its defenders have responded that the program is perfectly legal; if it does violate fisa (the administration denies that it does), then, to that extent, the law is unconstitutional. This legal debate is complex, even esoteric. But, apart from a handful of not very impressive anecdotes (did the NSA program really prevent the Brooklyn Bridge from being destroyed by blowtorches?), there has been little discussion of the program's concrete value as a counterterrorism measure or of the inroads it has or has not made on liberty or privacy.

Not only are these questions more important to most people than the legal questions; they are fundamental to those questions. Lawyers who are busily debating legality without first trying to assess the consequences of the program have put the cart before the horse. Law in the United States is not a Platonic abstraction but a flexible tool of social policy. In analyzing all but the simplest legal questions, one is well advised to begin by asking what social policies are at stake. Suppose the NSA program is vital to the nation's defense, and its impingements on civil liberties are slight. That would not prove the program's legality, because not every good thing is legal; law and policy are not perfectly aligned. But a conviction that the program had great merit would shape and hone the legal inquiry. We would search harder for grounds to affirm its legality, and, if our search were to fail, at least we would know how to change the law--or how to change the program to make it comply with the law--without destroying its effectiveness. Similarly, if the program's contribution to national security were negligible--as we learn, also from the Times, that some FBI personnel are indiscreetly whispering--and it is undermining our civil liberties, this would push the legal analysis in the opposite direction.

Ronald Dworkin, the distinguished legal philosopher and constitutional theorist, wrote in The New York Review of Books in the aftermath of the September 11 attacks that "we cannot allow our Constitution and our shared sense of decency to become a suicide pact." He would doubtless have said the same thing about fisa. If you approach legal issues in that spirit rather than in the spirit of ruat caelum fiat iusticia (let the heavens fall so long as justice is done), you will want to know how close to suicide a particular legal interpretation will bring you before you decide whether to embrace it. The legal critics of the surveillance program have not done this, and the defenders have for the most part been content to play on the critics' turf.

RTWT.

6 Comments:

By Anonymous Ivan, at Fri Jan 27, 07:22:00 PM:

How can you analyze the effectiveness or consequences of a program if the gov't won't give you any details of said program, because it is "secret"?  

By Blogger Counter Trey, at Fri Jan 27, 07:59:00 PM:

Richard Posner is one of the most brilliant people on the planet.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Fri Jan 27, 08:36:00 PM:

We can talk about the effectiveness of the program. But we can also talk about the Rule of Law and the power of the Presidency.

If the program is amazingly effective and infringes on the civil liberties of only a very few non-terrorist organizations, then it's worth looking at how to prevent abuses and improve the whole thing to use as a tool in policing the nation. However, if the tool is too crude to use with any effectivenss and it nails fewer actual Allah-fearing terrorists than it does Bake Sale Quakers, if it's used to gather information on political opponents or unfavorable media sources, if the wrong people get jailed, then the program is a wrong turn for the nation.

Either way, the Rule of Law still governs democracy. Bush deliberately lied to America when he stated in 2004 that wiretapping requires a court order, so we shouldn't worry about it. That's not a crime. The crime is what he was lying about.

Why was he lying? The data-mining method of information gathering has been public knowledge since the mid-90's, so there's no big national security secret there. He lied because he didn't want anyone to know he was breaking the law. Now he's claiming he's within the law when a year ago he was arguing just the opposite. It's irresponsible to dismiss this.

I sure hope we get the data mining thing sorted out, and I hope the Rule of Law still applies to the President at the end of it.  

By Blogger Screwy Hoolie, at Fri Jan 27, 08:39:00 PM:

Hawk, did you read this at ScruHoo?  

By Blogger sirius_sir, at Sat Jan 28, 09:27:00 AM:

And here I thought this comment thread was going to be about extinction denial...

Seriously, though, I'm troubled that we can apparently do no more than note and catalogue the removal of species from the planet. I have the disquieting thought that maybe we are seeing something akin to the proverbial 'canary in the coal mine' at work, which should give us all reason to be curious about these disappearances.

In any event, I look forward to hearing the spring peepers again, their voices joined in a night chorus that always fills me with a combined, odd sense of reassurance and loneliness. Listening to them now will be less reassuring and more lonely, I expect, given the prospect of silence.  

By Blogger TigerHawk, at Sat Jan 28, 10:02:00 AM:

When the 'Villain and I were but wee 'uns, each spring our father would take us on a hunt for "squigglies," which were generally tadpoles. We would raise a few of them into frogs in an aquarium on the back porch. Since then, I have kept my eyes open for the big colonies of tadpoles that you used to see in pools and swampy places. It has been a long time since I have seen one.  

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