Friday, February 8, 2008

Crime As Political Capital

We spend a lot of time discussing the role of crime as political capital. Here are two examples, both from our current U.S. Attorney General Michael Mukasey in testimony before Congress yesterday.

Justice Department "Cannot" Probe Waterboarding:

"The attorney general yesterday rejected growing congressional calls for a criminal investigation of the CIA's use of simulated drownings to extract information from its detainees, as Vice President Cheney called it a "good thing" that the CIA was able to learn what it did from those subjected to the practice.

"The remarks reflected a renewed effort by the Bush administration to defend its past approval of the interrogation tactic known as waterboarding, which some lawmakers, human rights experts and international lawyers have described as illegal torture."

Waterboarding (from its ancient forebear the Ducking Stool) is at the heart of the torture question concerning CIA interrogations, yet the politics of the method, as opposed to the legality of it, seems to dominate the debate. Leaving it on the table to "prevent further attacks" against the U.S., clouds what is otherwise a simple, straightforward question.

Also from the AG's testimony yesterday, Mukasey Warns of Drug Case Releases:

"Attorney General Michael B. Mukasey warned Congress on Thursday that unless it enacted legislation quickly, hundreds of people in jail for cocaine offenses, “many of them violent gang members, will be eligible for immediate release into the community nationwide.”

This has to do with the "ruling by the United States Sentencing Commission that, beginning March 3, defendants convicted of crack cocaine offenses be sentenced under new guidelines with lesser penalties. The commission also said that the new guidelines would be applied retroactively...to narrow differences in sentences for crack and powder cocaine."

And this comes on the heels of the Supreme Court decision in December (as I wrote about here and here) which allows judges to deviate from federal sentencing guidelines when appropriate.

Whether there are "violent gang members" who might be released "into the community nationwide" should the Sentencing Commission act retroactively is, of course, debatable. On the whole, there is little evidence indicating that the aspect of the War on Drugs which focused predominantly on crack cocaine over the past 25 years has been wholly gang-related. And as the Judiciary Committee members noted, it's probably a "vast overstatement" to suggest otherwise.

Nevertheless, you see again how the politics of torture, crime and punishment often surpasses the facts surrounding these issues. Fear tends to muddy the waters of reasoned debate, but in the political realm, that's nothing new.

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