It hasn't gotten much press attention that I can discern, but the country took a long-overdue step forward yesterday when the House of Representatives passed the Employment Non-Discrimination Act by a vote of 235 to 184. This measure, for which supporters have been fighting since 1974, would make it illegal for businesses to base hiring decisions upon perceptions of sexual orientation. Though some on the left are sufficiently upset with what the bill leaves out--protections for transgendered individuals--that they could not support it, anyone familiar with the history of civil rights movements understands that you never get everything you want in one shot. Once the principle of nondiscrimination is enshrined in the law, it becomes easier to make the broader case--and once hysterical opponents are faced with the fact that the measure they deplore hasn't led to the downfall of civilization, or in fact any discernable change at all, their objections become much easier to refute.
Heartening as this is for anyone who deplores the fact that homophobia remains our last societally accepted prejudice, it is unlikely that the legislation will become law anytime soon. Prospects in the Senate are favorable, with Ted Kennedy set to champion the bill and Maine Republican Susan Collins interested in co-sponsoring. But Bush is going to veto it, of course, and supporters do not have the votes in the House to override.
Nonetheless, the passage of ERDA is a welcome reminder that the Democrats' victory in last November's midterm elections did, in fact, mean something. Under the Republicans, the agenda of Congress was filled with non-issues like flag burning, and the leadership was more interested in measures restricting the rights of homosexuals--namely the Hate Amendment to the Constitution--than protecting them. The Senate will pass this bill early next year; Bush will veto it; and any Democratic president--yes, even Our Lady of Perpetual Triangulation--will make it the law of the land, provided Democrats retain congressional majorities, in 2009. This might be the single finest thing the 110th Congress has done to date, and upon hearing the news, for the first time in a long time, I felt proud of my country.
It was also thrilling for me to see one of the great heroes of the last civil rights movement, Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, rise to support the cause of justice in the current movement. Check it out.
Another encouraging step came today in a House hearing on torture. An Arizona Republican named Trent Franks asked Col. Steve Kleinman, a military interrogator and intelligence officer who strongly opposes torture, whether perhaps "extreme measures" can be justified in a "ticking timebomb scenario"--you know, when you've got the suspect in custody, there's a nuke set to go off somewhere in the city, and he knows where it is and how to defuse it but won't tell you unless and until you hook up a car battery to his balls. Kleinman said, in essence, No--and offered an argument about the inefficacy of torture that I'd like to think might resonate even with the growing legion of right-wing creeps who are ever louder and prouder in their support of techniques embraced by the Inquisitors and the SS:
...[H]e offered a brief explanation of that process that sheds light on why torture is counterproductive for a professional interrogator, leaving aside questions of morality and law.
It's not just what a subject says in an interrogation that an interrogator needs to watch for clues, Kleinman said. The way in which he expresses himself is significant: does the subject fidget? Does he shift in his seat? Does he gesture, or suddenly stop gesturing? All of these non-verbal clues -- "clusters, groupings of behaviors," Kleinman called them -- provide interrogators with valuable information to observe what a detainee is like when he's lying, when he's being uncooperative, and when he's being truthful, or a combination of the three.
But if a detainee has his hands tied, or if a detainee shivers because a room is chilled, then "I don't know whether he's shivering because the room is cold or because my questions are penetrating," Kleinman said. That degree of abuse "takes away a lot of my tools." It's one of the clearest explanations in the public record about what torture costs professional interrogators in terms of actionable intelligence, as the debate is so often set up as what a lack of torture ends up costing national security.
If those who know best don't think it works, then what you're left with is an essentially pornographic wish by some deeply disturbed individuals to utilize these measures for their own sake. I'd like to think the public will recognize this for what it is.