The Interest-Divergence Dilemma Between the Tech Companies and the NSA*

The intensity of the semester has precluded me from writing much on the blog over the last few months. But as the term ends and the winter session begins, I hope to post more frequently here. This post marks the beginning of that aspiration.

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As philosopher Robin James has insightfully pointed out last week, “privacy is a red herring,” that is, it is not a relevant consideration in the debate over surveillance and government power. Rather, the real issue is the balance between “security and freedom,” as Obama and DNI Director James Clapper repeat ad nauseum the trite pro-surveillance mantra. Balance, according to James, can be considered either as “the average of two extremes” or it “could mean a dynamically-adjusting continuum (the kind of balancing done, for example, by an audio equalizer or an electrical resistor).” She argues that the discussion over balance is about the latter—how to continually fine-tune the precise resting place between security and freedom.

James’ point is well taken. One of yesterday’s major stories seems to confirm the success of neoliberalism in precisely this vein: Eight top tech companies published an open letter to the POTUS, in which they urge him to limit the state’s surveillance activities because the “balance has tipped.” It’s not clear what the balance is, though here is how they describe it in their letter:

The balance in many countries has tipped too far in favor of the state and away from the rights of the individual – rights that are enshrined in our Constitution. This undermines the freedoms we all cherish. It’s time for a change.

Prima facie, the tech companies are concerned about the encroachment upon individual freedoms, such as privacy.  Coincidentally, such “tipping” dovetails with profit losses for these companies, since as customers continue to hear about how these corporations have turned over supposedly private information to the government (sometimes making even more profit in the mix), they may challenge them by shutting down their Facebook, LinkedIn, and Yahoo accounts (which in turn induces further lost revenue from advertisers). They may engage in some other form of resistance (as encouraged through a neoliberal environment—of relocating their money (and potential corporate profits elsewhere), such as by shifting to non-profit tech organizations or open-source browsers, software, etc. whose primary mission is to protect user privacy. As such, the tech companies’ own “balance” of interests–located between complying with government requests and profiting by (falsely) claiming to protect their customers’ privacy for profit–also tips: in favor of the state.

Elsewhere in their (advertising) campaign to reform government surveillance, they suggest five “principles.” This is the first one:

Governments should codify sensible limitations on their ability to compel service providers to disclose user data that balance their need for the data in limited circumstances, users’ reasonable privacy interests, and the impact on trust in the Internet. In addition, governments should limit surveillance to specific, known users for lawful purposes, and should not undertake bulk data collection of Internet communications.

So, the “balance” that the tech companies suggest is a balance between the government’s “need for data,” “users’ reasonably privacy interests” and “impact on trust in the Internet.”

Funny how the “principle” is rather an exercise in pragmatism: The tech companies don’t disagree that the state “needs” private information. They just insist that the state restrict its demands to that information that falls outside of “users’ reasonably privacy interest.” Presumably, “we” would all be okay if the NSA just collected the data of only those who might be terrorists and threatening American security interests.

Still, on this “principle,” I wonder how the US would distinguish between terrorists and reasonable privacy unless they collected everyone’s data. Doesn’t that bring us full circle back to the premise of all-encompassing surveillance?

I would add that, as the tech letter shows, while the language they resort to is the time-honored liberal discourse between security and freedom, in fact the balance they care about is the balance between corporate profits, government power, and customer complacence. It is not necessarily a problem to tip over from freedom to security, as long as government surveillance doesn’t begin to cause unrest among their customers such that they lose their profit machine.

Presumably “being sensible means not undermining “trust in the Internet,” which makes total sense, when your business profits depend on your customers’ trust in the Internet. So the appeal from the tech companies to the USG, in essence, is to continue their collaboration with the corporations to mine and acquire as much data as possible, but to be less obtrusive, less extreme, less confrontational about it. One way to do so, is to re-institute strict controls on which persons are the focus of data collection.

This is the quintessential neoliberal environment: corporations and the government converge to strip the focus away from rights so as to have better control over individuals. But at the moment that corporate profit is threatened, corporations no longer act in complete concert with the state, but rather each “institution” (the government and corporations) battle each other for control over consumers/citizens.

I think there’s a different (or another) red herring, to borrow from James: It is the red herring of “interests.” In other words, the discourse of interests distracts the “public” conversation from naming several realities (i.e. this is what is NOT printed as part of the official record, as in Reuters or the NYT; it doesn’t mean that many of us don’t see it).

1) It distracts us from being able to identify the struggle over the limits of surveillance as being about the limits of corporate power versus the state’s power and not, as its typically articulated, to protect persons/subjects/consumers/citizens.

2) This struggle is better understood as that between corporate interests for profit and (managing its customers’ behaviors for that purpose) v. government interests to acquire all information as a mode of securing control over subjects and companies.

In other words, the struggle between the tech companies and the government is over managing individual actions en masse, and by extension, its dialectical counterpart: consumers’/subjects’ resistance to being managed.

And this battle reflects the red herring of interests: The discourse of “interests” saturates the public conversation, such that privacy is no longer a relevant question. In fact, the prime concern that governs state actions is “its” own interests. This makes more sense if we revert to the assumption that the state’s interest is in its own survival, not that of its subjects/citizens. The corporations have their own interests in mind is obvious, but their interests are profits as extracted through the control/management of consumers’ actions (such as through Google’s and Facebook’s datacollection methods, which in turn are enhanced by targeting personalized ads at each user, which in turn extracts more information about user behavior.

The issue at stake is not about principles, or ethics, or privacy per se. Rather, the real concern—from the perspective of the tech companies is their profits being lost. That is the tipping point that shifts the balance away from profit in the service of overwhelming government desire to know everything that’s going on.  That interest was okay, so long as the public (customers) didn’t know (or didn’t focus so much on) the fact that their information was being handed over in volume by the tech companies. But when that knowledge threatens to drive away their customer base, then the “balance” qua fine-tuning has been lost.

I think James is right when she questions the relevance of privacy: she and I don’t disagree per se. But my emphasis on “interests” emerges by shifting the analytic:  The language of “interest” distracts us from the question of privacy. In part, this is because the language of privacy reflects an old liberal discourse of principles in relation to the limits of state power. But the discourse of neoliberalism concentrates on interests rather than rights or principles per se.

As such, the political framework changes from individual security to question of “what’s in my interest?” That’s why the common articulation of “disinterest” takes on so much resonance: But if I’m not doing anything wrong, then why should I care?”

The discourse of “interests” has begun to hegemonize the shape of public concerns. Because the language of interests is so commonplace, very few raised an eyebrow when the state appropriates the same language to explain its actions. For example, the US military announced this past weekend that it will no longer communicate information about Guantanamo detainees who are on hunger strike.

Officials have determined that it is no longer in their interest to publicly disclose the information, said Navy Cmdr. John Filostrat, a spokesman for the military’s Joint Task Force Guantanamo.

Filostrat has reported that is more important to worry about the welfare of GiTMO guards (sympathy for whom had to have been enhanced by 60 Minutes’ report inside Camp Delta, which consisted of prisoners yelling, and reports of feces being flung at the guards, among other atrocities), and that of the detainees rather than reporting these strikes.

As the Washington Post reports, of course, the reports on the detainees’ hunger strikes was itself the barometer of the prison. Thus, the absence of information shuts down journalists and human rights advocates, not to mention the public’s, access to this information. But the reason cites was that it was NO LONGER in the interest of the government.

Since when does the interest of the government become an express–and justifiable–factor in which information is publicly reported? It is hard to imagine the state making this the basis of its defense in an earlier era. Arguably, this has been the overwhelming concern for the decade since September 12, 2001, but government policies have always been articulated as having the “interests” of the public in mind: i.e., national security.

The convergence of the language (e.g., of interests) that marks corporate motives and state motives illuminates how the force of biopolitics (or ontopolitics, as I write elsewhere—namely the creation of moral monsters in contrast to good citizens) shifts from one group to another. This is not a question that Michel Foucault answers: how does the focus of biopolitics change from epoch to epoch? Why are some groups persecuted in one moment, but not the next, and how does the focus change? In this moment, as the case of surveillance suggests, it is because the state has taken up the language of interests, as the corporations did already, to manage/discipline their subjects. But, the next chess move is that the corporations have taken up the debate of “freedom/security” in order to battle consumers/subjects’ resistance to being managed or controlled, in order to ensure the corporations’ continued existence and profit-making capacity.


*With a nod to the title of the late Prof. Derrick Bell’s article, “Brown v. Board and the Interest-Convergence Dilemma.”

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The Clintons: Back on the campaign trail with the help of the New York Times

This article was published at Salon.com on December 4, 2013 under the headline, “New York Times’ blind spot on Clinton and race.”

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The New York Times published a piece this week in the service of the Democratic Party’s campaign for the 2016 elections that reveals a grave misunderstanding of recent history. Reporters Amy Chozick and Jonathan Martin profiled the tactics of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and her husband, the 42nd president of the United States, to restore their fragile relationship with African-Americans in anticipation of the former’s 2016 presidential run. The Times frames it as an attempt to “to soothe and strengthen their relationship with African-Americans,” apparently strained after Bill’s 2008 comments about the Obama presidency.

Here is the motivation they assign to the Clintons:

This task [of courting the black vote] has taken on new urgency given the Democratic Party’s push to the left, away from the centrist politics with which the Clintons are identified. Strong support from black voters could serve as a bulwark for Mrs. Clinton against a liberal primary challenge should she decide to run for president in 2016.

It would have been illuminating, and accurate as well, to distinguish between Democratic Party functionaries and Democratic voters in their description; I don’t see much in the way of Democratic politicos’ “push to the left”: NDAA 2012/2013, bank bailouts, the ACA, among other laws, don’t strike me as overly progressive.

Chozick and Martin assiduously cover the various black leaders with whom the Clintons have consorted since Hillary’s resignation as secretary of state earlier this year. Along with that coverage is a telling, if not accurate, description of Bill Clinton’s legacy, which Hillary will surely be relying on to vouch for her “progressive” credentials. Here is perhaps the most remarkable paragraph of the article:

Mr. Clinton has a rich, if occasionally fraught, history with African-Americans. He was a New South governor and a progressive on race who would eventually be called “the first black president” by the author Toni Morrison. But he infuriated blacks in 2008 when, after Mr. Obama won a big South Carolina primary victory, he seemed to dismiss the achievement by reminding the press that the Rev. Jesse Jackson had won the state twice and calling Mr. Obama’s antiwar position “the biggest fairy tale I’ve ever seen.”

Many African-Americans took Mr. Clinton’s fairy tale comment to mean that Mr. Obama’s candidacy itself was a hopeless fantasy.

It is true that black Americans were mightily irritated by Bill’s comments. But that’s hardly the only source of the injury.

(Un)surprisingly, even as Chozick and Martin tritely repeat Toni Morrison’s description of Clinton as the first black president, proudly repeated by Bill (and ad nauseam by mainstream media), they don’t offer any context for her remarks.

Morrison, writing in the New Yorker in 1998, was reflecting on the Republicans’ move to impeach Bill Clinton in the aftermath of revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky, his intern at the time. She says:

African-American men seemed to understand it right away. Years ago, in the middle of the Whitewater investigation, one heard the first murmurs: white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas. And when virtually all the African-American Clinton appointees began, one by one, to disappear, when the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched, who could gainsay these black men who knew whereof they spoke? The message was clear: “No matter how smart you are, how hard you work, how much coin you earn for us, we will put you in your place or put you out of the place you have somehow, albeit with our permission, achieved. You will be fired from your job, sent away in disgrace, and—who knows?—maybe sentenced and jailed to boot. In short, unless you do as we say (i.e., assimilate at once), your expletives belong to us.”

It is clear that Morrison is poetic and pained here. She analogizes the experiences faced by Clinton to those faced all too often by black men. There is much that can be said about this piece. But the cynicism of Clinton and his supporters is such that her phrase was co-opted as an endorsement of his “progressive” politics, rather than what it signaled at the very least; it is a searing insight into the inferior, abject status of black men in the United States at the end of the millennium. And here is Morrison in her own words in 2008.

But Chozick and Martin, in their own perhaps subconscious cynicism merely repeat Morrison’s endorsement and omit any discussion of Clinton’s policies during his two terms as president, or during his time as governor of Arkansas.

The first “black” president and his partner in devastation proudly designed the prototype of Clinton’s famous 1996 welfare reform bill when he was the governor of Arkansas. Women who applied for aid from the state were required, among other indignities, to name the potential fathers of their children. Yes, yes, save your objections: This policy was created to search out “deadbeat dads,” and get them to pay child support.

But somehow it never occurred to many — not the press, not white liberals, not liberal feminists, much less the Clintons (if they cared at all) — that such a reform would only be effective in further humiliating already poor women, women who, had they other options, would never have resorted to the state for help. Here’s a brilliant letter from a Seattle feminist to N.O.W. back in 2007, which sets out the various assumptions and implications of welfare reform.

The ballast for welfare reform exploited the racial antagonism against black women that was inflated and gained momentum under Ronald Reagan’s administration. But as many, from Barbara Ehrenreich to digby to Jason DeParle, point out, the Clintons and their Democratic buddies endorsed the righteous smokescreen that “workfare” was needed to teach the poor how to keep a job rather than asking for money, and to teach poor (black) women “chastity training.” Patronizing? Racist? Those words don’t even cover half of it, especially as they’re accompanied by the convenient selective amnesia about the legacy of slavery and the still-existent practice of institutional discrimination against blacks. We can see this in the history of the drug war, the prison industry, red-lining, not to mention plain old-fashioned racism as seen in our public school system, post-secondary admissions practices, and employment across multiple industries.

Hillary’s express support for welfare reform enabled Bill to get the 1996 Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Act passed. Peter Edelman, a senior Clinton appointee who resigned in protest of the bill, pointed out that this was the “worst thing Bill Clinton has done.” Due to the remarkable efforts of the “first black president” and his wife, and like-minded “liberals” and conservatives who believed that the poor needed to be taught to climb out of a “culture of poverty,” welfare was no longer the entitlement that it had been for decades (and should have remained as such). Rather, it was transformed into a sporadic privilege periodically and provisionally bestowed on the poor, all the while leaving millions more in poverty. As Edelman pointed out in 2011, that 1996 bill made things much worse for the poor: “There are now people who cannot find work, and who cannot get welfare.”

Needless to say, Democrats and Republicans have managed to augment, enhance, exacerbate the level of nationwide poverty through its support of banking deregulation and absence of serious sanctions for bankers and subprime mortgage companies.

When Chozick and Martin write about Bill Clinton as a “progressive on race,” I have to wonder which criteria they use to measure. They use certain famous black politicians’ comments (such as those of Democratic Rep. James Clyburn or Rep. Elijah Cummings) or public gestures (such as sitting next to “friend and rival” and former Democratic Virginia Gov. L. Douglas Wilder at Howard University’s May 2013 commencement) at face value and out of context. To gauge race progress by which friends a white Democrat sits next to — doesn’t this strike anyone as uncomfortably close to the “Some of my best friends” cliché?

Why not consider the effects of NAFTA and WTO, which decimated the manufacturing industry that employed enormous numbers of African-Americans? Many journalists and left economists have detailed the detrimental impact of the offshoring of corporations, the forgiveness of taxes, the eradication of labor protections for foreign nationals who work at formerly American companies. Why does none of this figure into the assessment of “racial progress”? Even one paragraph might have allowed for the possibility that the Times was engaged in some critical questions about the releases and information that they were being fed by the Clinton campaign.

Why not consider the effects of the 1996 Immigration Reform Bill, which was a precursor to the enormous anti-immigration tide that has swept the country, enhanced by the right-wing and neo-patriotic impulses of both Democrats and Republicans in the aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks?

Why not consider the effects of the 1994 Crime Bill, which heralded in “three strikes” legislation at the federal level, also signed under the “first black president”? The expansion of the death penalty in the 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Death Penalty Act?

I can hear objections that Hillary should be able to run on her own record. OK, why not examine a few of her votes? Remember, it was Sen. Russ Feingold — not Sen. Clinton, or Sens. Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, or Secretary of State John Kerry — who stood up against the USA Patriot Act, as a harbinger of a (by now) vengeful, 12-year, racist and arbitrary tide of vitriol against Muslims in the U.S., Iraq, Afghanistan, U.K., Yemen, Pakistan, Somalia and elsewhere in the world. How about on the 2002 authorization to invade Iraq? AUMF 2005? The 2007 surge in Iraq? She voted in favor of them. To her credit, she voted against the 2008 FISA bill, citing checks on presidential authority, even as elsewhere she has been in support of increasing it. How does she feel about WikiLeaks? Edward Snowden? The death penalty (supports it, but not for Iran).

These are hardly left votes. These are hardly liberal votes. These are hardly racially progressive votes.

Let’s not judge whether someone is a “race progressive” — especially a politician — by the utterances of his/her friends. Presumably, journalists understand that the notion of an alliance does not confirm the truth of one’s race politics; it merely demonstrates that all other concerns have been provisionally subordinated in order to further one particular goal. Sure, we can call it pragmatic, strategic, realpolitik. But regardless of the term used, journalists — of all people — know that citing such alliances does not offer a valuable insight or confirmation about the truth of one’s politics.

I tell my students that if they want to write about politics effectively and forcefully, they must major in something other than journalism: history, sociology, ethnic studies, politics — something other than a field that disciplines its students to forget that accurate narratives have a long-seated, deeply buried history that cannot simply be articulated through a repetition of sound bites aired by corporate news media or covering poll results. Facts, those snippets that refer to a certain state of the world, must be assembled and grounded by searching through indirect, long-buried records that have long slipped the public (and corporate media’s) memory. Such an excavation requires the skills of an archaeologist and the critical distance of an outsider — not the propitiatory writing skills of someone familiar with the well-worn seat of an election press bus or who lunches with his subjects on a regular basis.

Of course, that assumes that establishment media such as the Times is interested in reportage from a critical perspective. Perhaps that’s the most flawed assumption of all.

Don’t Buy the Spin on Guantánamo: It doesn’t mean what you think it does

This article was originally published on Salon.com on November 18, 2013.

 

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Technically, President Obama appears to be making strides on his 2008 promise to close down Camp Delta at Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. But despite Fox News’ takeaway, let’s not get confused: closing down the prison has little to do with releasing the remaining prisoners, some of whom have been held there for nearly 12 years—almost none of them ever charged with a crime.

In fact, closing down the prison doesn’t clear up the issue of what will happen to the 164 prisoners, all of whom are foreign nationals, except that they will be “transferred,” a term that can mean whatever the President wants it to mean: relocating prisoners to another prison, releasing them to the custody of their home governments, placing them in “rehabilitation” facilities, or just simply: get them off the base.

The ACLU, surprisingly, didn’t speak to that distinction when it showcased the costs of keeping Guantánamo open over the last decade. They pointed out the millions that could be allocated to other important programs by “transferring detainees” out of Guantanamo: keeping down healthcare costs for military families, fully funding assistance in transitioning U.S. veterans to civilian life, covering the military’s body armor budget, funding prosthetics research (presumably for vets who lost limbs).

To be fair, the confusion can be partly attributed to the President’s waffling on the issue. He has offered several renditions of  “closing down” Guantánamo: Shortly after he took office in his first term, he conceded that some of the prisoners, despite lack of sufficient evidence or due to “contaminated” evidence, could never be tried. By implication, they could never be released.  Sometime after that, he toyed with the idea of relocating them to a new prison in Illinois. That plan would have allowed him, technically, to keep his promise to close Gitmo. Protests from various corners of the U.S. quickly put a kibosh on that idea.

More recently, the Obama Administration has been in talks with the Yemeni government to transfer somewhere between 55 to 80 Yemeni prisoners to Sana’a, on the condition of a new Guantanamo prison rehabilitation facility of some sort being built there. It would be funded by anyone but the U.S. — most likely the Saudis, who according to the LA Times, have had a successful track record of “rehabilitating” terrorists, presumably so that they will not fight back (against governments who’ve done them harm). The U.S. has promised that the “rehab” would include “counseling, instruction in a peaceful form of Islam, and job training in Yemen before any decision on freeing them.”  Still, I shudder to think which other tactics will be used. See this recent clip, which shows torture being inflicted under the watchful eye of American military personnel in Afghanistan (warning: it is extremely violent). Is it unreasonable to anticipate that that the transfer of Yemeni detainees to Sana’a will be accompanied by the transfer of torture, death, and harm to their families?

Given its own track record, the Yemeni government hardly inspires confidence in the promise of ethical treatment: at times, it purports to represent the interests of the families of the Gitmo prisoners; in the same breath, it reveals itself to be a faithful servant of the U.S. by justifying or covering up U.S. drone attacks into Yemen. And now, it is engaging in negotiations with the U.S. to build a prison/halfway house to house the as-of-yet uncharged Yemenis, going so far as to offer to pay for it before rescinding its offer due to a tight government budget. It is noteworthy that the home-governments of other Gitmo prisoners have refused to imprison them again upon “transfer,” on the grounds that they have not been convicted of any crimes.

Like me, Sen. Saxby Chambliss also thinks transferring prisoners to a prison in Yemen is a bad idea, but for different reasons. Chambliss believes that the Yemenis, at least 20 of whom have been deemed “low-risk” detainees, would be a danger to the U.S. even if they were not released but transferred to a Yemeni prison. Chambliss’ logic makes sense, and could even construed be an implicit acknowledgment that the U.S. has treated these prisoners abominably. After all, if the agents of a foreign government kidnapped and tortured you, threatened to hurt your family, locked you up in a tiny cage for twelve years while guards disciplined and humiliated you, mashed up your Bible, periodically beat you for having the temerity to be unsatisfied with the arrangement, and challenged your ability to hunger strike by violently forcing a tube up your nose three times a day— all without ever charging you with a crime or showing evidence of wrongdoing — you’d be angry enough to dream of ways of getting back at that government and its officials if you were ever released.  Thomas Jefferson suspected as much back in 1781, when he suggested that after emancipation, ex-slaves should be expelled for fear of retaliation against their former owners for the inhuman treatment they had received.

But Chambliss’ fears are not substantiated. As Adam Hudson cites in a brilliant analysis of the supposedly concluded Gitmo hunger strikes, the “recidivism rate” for released Guantanamo prisoners is 4 percent. That low rate suggests that these men, if they ever were prone to violence (which we can’t determine, given the lack of evidence) are remarkably forgiving of those who have inflicted serious violence and other wrongdoing on them.

There are other reasons to oppose “transferring,” rather than releasing prisoners. Relocating human beings who’ve been caged for 11 or more years— despite any public evidence of wrongdoing–to a prison in another country is yet another feature of the quest for global hegemony by the U.S. empire.  The Post-Human Rights State, we might call it.

In this instance, U.S. imperial power, disguised as a liberal polity concerned with protecting the freedom and rights of all human beings, is revealed when it selectively showcases certain human rights that support the destructive actions planned by the state. WMD’s in Iraq.  Women’s rights in Afghanistan. Such “principles” are clearly exhorted almost exclusively to enable voters to support otherwise dubious or indefensible policies.

The issue here is one of principle as well as of realpolitik. Under the Bush Administration and its minions, heinous and unconstitutional actions were undertaken in the name of national security. Those minions, as we know, included plenty of Democrats, like Senators Feinstein, Kerry, and Clinton, who approved and supported those actions. Counter-terrorism, as we now understand it, is about exchanging sacrificing selling out human rights principles in the name of American security while chiseling away at the rights long claimed by American citizens and residents: free speech, privacy, dissent, knowing the charges that warrant my arrest, fair trials before an impartial judge, publicly shared evidence in order to convict.

The Obama Administration unabashedly continues the destruction that the Bush Administration began in 2001 in the name of national security.  Highlights include pushing for NDAA 2012; winning back on appeal (in the lawsuit filed by Chris Hedges, Alexa O’Brien and others) the right to detain people infinitely (sic) with impunity; wiretapping Americans, foreigners, the press, and heads of state alike; and persecutingwhistleblowers through dubious laws and the revocation of passports, and in collusion with foreign governments.

It is not possible to continue to violate the freedom and bodies of so many people — American or foreign, citizens or otherwise — without confronting the inevitability that those chickens will come home to roost. I don’t mean revenge. History has disproven Jefferson’s fears wrong, despite the continued persecution and mass imprisonment of Black Americans up to this day. I mean the disintegration of a society that claims to respect the bodily and psychic integrity of human beings to live and speak without fear of despotic retribution. Consequently, the United States can no longer credibly claim to be a beacon of democracy or protector of rights without hearing the loud, widespread, jeers of derision and contempt from the victims of the US’s unceasing violence: the families of droned Pakistanis and Yemenis as well as those of Gitmo detainees who have already ended their own lives; the family and friends of Aaron Swartz, as well as those of Chelsea Manning, Barrett Brown, John Kiriakou and many others. The list is long, too long.

In the face of this knowledge, closing Guantanamo and releasing its uncharged prisoners may be a trivial act. But it would constitute one step in the right direction — of trying to observe human rights principles while beginning to forge international relationships on a basis other than the force embodied in the long reach of destructive weapons and aggressive, unchecked, despotism. Perhaps then, we might be able to look forward to reclaiming the US’s integrity as a champion, rather than the destroyer, of human rights.

Miriam Carey’s Temper, or Why Post-Partum Depression Doesn’t Mean You’re Crazy

 

Yesterday Miriam Carey, a 34 year-old African-American dental hygienist from Stamford, Connecticut, was shot dead by police after having veered her car into some blockades near the White House and Capitol building, after having gotten out of her car.

Ms. Carey managed to get out of the car, and was shot by several officers. According to a law enforcement official, she was not armed, and it was not known whether she presented an immediate danger.

There is a video clip of her trying to escape the horde of security people, while being pursued by a police car. There may be other clips as well, more graphic, more heartbreaking—but I can’t stand to look for them.  It’s still not clear how much of this event was instigated malevolently or was the consequence of a series of misinterpretations, errors, or overreaction. Initially, media outlets were reporting that the woman in the car had a gun and was a shooter. Only later did we learn that Carey was unarmed and had her 1 year-old daughter in the car, who was not hurt. Of the exact story, I am not sure.

What I am sure of was the immediate leap made by police and the media suggesting that Carey had “mental health issues.” Yet, even though various sites ran with headlines suggesting that Carey was mentally ill, they did not provide any solid evidence of this detail beyond a mention by a former employer, a periodontist, that she’d had a head injury resulting from falling down the stairs and the suggestion she had a temper and was fired because of it.

Carey’s former boss, Dr. Brian Evans, told The News that she “fell down some stairs and she had a pretty significant head injury” toward the end of the nearly two years she worked for him.

The story uses Evans’ words denying that her firing had been connected to mental illness to imply the opposite conclusion.

When they let Carey go last year, “it was nothing related to any mental problems that we were in tune to,” he said. But Evans added that Carey had a temper, and he recalled how she became incensed when he asked her to quit parking in a handicapped spot at the medical building.

“She got very angry with that, so that started some friction. And then from there she was never insubordinate per se, or anything like that, but she tended to go against the grain a bit,” said Evans, whose practice is in Hamden, Connecticut.

The story goes on to note her Facebook comments about ‘wack men,’ and her presumably frustrating dating experiences—as if that is a strange thing for a single, presumably heterosexual woman to post.

On NBC, the framing of Carey changed somewhat, but the main impression was that she was still crazy and violent.

Dr. Barry Weiss, a dentist, told NBC Connecticut that Carey was working for him in January 2012 when she suffered a fall and missed two to three weeks. He said that she appeared increasingly stressed after an unplanned pregnancy. Relatives have said that she may have suffered postpartum depression.

Weiss said that he fired her in August 2012 after patients complained that she was too rough.

Her mother has confirmed that Carey had post-partum depression after the birth of her daughter a year before. It is certainly true that defense attorneys for women on trial for killing their children, such as Susan Smith or Paula Thompson, have used post-partum as the basis of insanity defenses. But defense strategies are a poor foundation for identifying post-partum depression with violent tendencies, unless substantial proof is demonstrated.

The fact that Carey is Black has “politely” been ignored, much in the same way that Aaron Alexis’s racial identity was not mentioned by most media in the aftermath of the Navy Yard shooting. In fact, when I heard about the Navy Yard shooting, I assumed that the shooter was a white male. My assumption was partially based on the conspicuous absence of any mention of the shooter’s religious or racial identity and the immediate dismissal that the event was connected to “terrorism” (which amounts to the same thing).  As importantly, I knew that most mass shootings are committed by white men, as Mother Jones reported earlier this year.  It wasn’t until later in the day, after his photo was posted, that I realized Aaron Alexis was African American.

In his case, as in the case Miriam Carey, we’re starting to see the linguistically polite meme (because every group has got to have a meme!) that is being ascribed to non-teen-aged Black Americans who are associated with violent events: mental illness.  For male Black teens, they are still closely associated with inherent criminality, “thuggery,” and other violent, animalistic, and sexualized personifications. We have seen this for centuries. We still see it: from the slanderous superpredator mantle of the 1980’s, to the Central Park Five, who were convicted in the media as beasts and brutes, and the defense of stop and frisk by Ray Kelly, Mayor Bloomberg and the NYPD.

And still true to form, mainstream media reporters notoriously strain their necks trying to find a way to legitimate these stereotypes on behalf of the powerful and political authorities—repeating innuendo without proof—until they can string together a narrative that justifies the faulty assumption with which they began. And so, an unarmed black woman is again quickly assimilated into the meme of crazy, angry women who must have been at fault for the racial perceptions imposed upon her.

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A longer, different, version of this article entitled “The Smearing of Miriam Carey: How the Media Bungled the Capitol Hill Shooting,” was published on Salon on Oct. 7, 2013.

This should not be who we are: Mahdi Hashi’s rendition and solitary confinement

In the last 10 days, the story of Mahdi Hashi’s hunger strike has seeped, barely, into the public sphere. There has been one “official” tweet about Hashi’s failing health, as he entered his fourth week of a hunger strike at the Metropolitan Correctional Center in lower Manhattan. There have been few stories about it since that tweet.

Hashi’s name is not well known, but his treatment at the hands of the U.S. and U.K. over the last year should give pause. A British citizen of Somali descent, he migrated to England at a young age with his parents. At 18, he was a community youth worker, and was continually pressured by MI5 (the British equivalent of the CIA) to cooperate with them and spy on fellow Somalis (akin to the tactics of the FBI and the NYPD). Growing tired of their harassment, Hashi filed a complaint with his local MP Frank Dobson in 2009.  As well, he spoke with a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, which recorded his story (see pp.18-20 of pdf). ​

But things became worse. On several occasions, he was detained at British airports, interrogated and warned against leaving. On one occasion, after having been interrogated at Gatwick Airport, he insisted on continuing his trip to Djbouti to visit his grandmother, only to be detained and interrogated for hours there. He was refused entry and sent back to the U.K. Finally, escaping the unceasing harassment, Hashi moved to Somalia, where he married and had a child. In mid-2012, at the age of 23, Hashi disappeared altogether. Worried, his family appealed to the British government, who informed them that their hands were tied, because—alas—he was no longer a citizen.

Perhaps because he renounced it, you speculate. Not quite. The British government disfranchised him.  British Home Secretary Theresa May stripped him of his citizenship, which she informed him by letter:

“As Secretary of State, I hereby give notice … that I intend to have an order made to deprive Mahdi Mohamed Hashi of your British citizenship.

‘This is because I am satisfied that it would be conducive to the public good to do so. The reason for this decision is that the Security Service assess that you have been involved in Islamicist (sic) extremism and present a risk to the national security of the United Kingdom due to your extremist activities.’

May has made it a signature of her tenure to strip 17 others of their citizenship, in each case doing so after they left the country. All but one (Anna Chapman, the Russian spy) were Muslim. Technically, the British state may only do this when a person has dual citizenship, in order to avoid leaving a person stateless. Still, it is difficult to argue that Hashi could have turned to the Somali government to defend him, even if he had learned of the decision before he disappeared. May’s letter to Hashi was dated several weeks before he was rendered to the United States.

The ease and timing of the British decision is worthy of harsh and loud criticism.  Hashi had never been arrested in the U.K. However, at age 16, he was held in an Egyptian jail for nine days for a visa that still had  two weeks left before renewal was needed. That event, which Hashi reported to the advocacy group Cage Prisoners back in 2010, was somehow linked to suspected terrorist activity, although it is unclear whether there was evidence to back that suspicion. It is also unclear what constitutes evidence of “Islamicist extremism.”  By the time he moved to Somalia, there were still no evident ties to terrorists — except insofar as his work with British Somali youth was automatically assumed to be such a tie. In other words, Hashi’s guilt was through his association with other Somalis.

For the British, whose collusion with the U.S. on most things “counterterrorism” is noteworthy, this was an occasion to let someone else deal with the “problem” of Mahdi Hashi. As Paul Pillar, an ex-CIA employee suggests in this very good article by the Guardian’s Ian Cobain on the British collaboration with the U.S.:

From the United Kingdom point of view, if it is going to be a headache for anyone: let the Americans have the headache.

In other contexts — outside of America’s counterterrorism practices, where accusing young men of criminal and terrorist activities without evidence is endorsed uncritically in the name of national security by all good Americans – we call such suspicion in the absence of evidence racism. When the NYPD does it, we call it racial profiling.

African-AmericanLatino and Muslim communities in New York are intimately familiar with the judgment of “guilt by association.”

Hashi was detained, abused, and interrogated in Djbouti for several months before being handed over for more interrogations to the Americans. After several months, he suddenly appeared in handcuffs in a Brooklyn Federal Court right before Christmas of 2012, along with 2 Swedish men of Somali descent.

No news had been heard about Hashi until Friday, Sept. 13, 2013, when Cage Prisoners reported that he had been on a hunger strike and that his health was failing.

The MCC, where Hashi is being held in solitary confinement, did not confirm that he was on a hunger strike or that he was in critical condition. According to Saghir Hussain, the solicitor for Hashi’s family, they learned of his strike through a phone call with Hashi, which was interrupted “after about 60 seconds or so.” Calls to Hashi’s attorney, Harry Batchelder, were not returned.

According to Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, the organization that originally tweeted out the news, “He was in hospital for a week due to his hunger strike. He was diagnosed with jaundice. He was released from the hospital after one week. As far as we know he’s still on a hunger strike.”

He does not appear to have been force-fed yet. The Hashi family was unable to learn much more because of the special administrative measures (SAMs) imposed on him.

According to Mafille, Hashi is refusing food in a last ditch effort to have the SAM’s, which have imposed extremely limited contact with his family, removed.  SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone including family members and attorneys. SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. These determinations are often based on guilt by association with an organization or individual, as for persons of Somali descent who may have donatedeven a small amount of money for charitable purposes to groups affiliated with Al-Shabaab.

No new details in Hashi’s case were heard until last Wednesday, several days after his hunger strike and failing liver had been reported. Independently, it appears, CBS News reported that a new document was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and his co-defendants, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files.

The letter, by U.S. Attorney Loretta Lynch, alleges that they had substantial knowledge that al-Qaida was building a chemical weapons factory, and that they had substantial countersurveillance expertise. I have written about Lynch’s allegations in more detail elsewhere, but here it’s noteworthy that there has been no mention of their supposed familiarity with a chemical weapons program or countersurveillance expertise until now.

It’s also worth noting the timing of Lynch’s letter. It is entered into Hashi’s and the others’ files one month after the chemical gas attack in Syria, and four months since Edward Snowden’s leaked documents confirmed extensive NSA surveillance of American citizens, foreign nationals and international citizens alike. And perhaps it’s also worth noting that those revelations were met by the standard National Security response that surveillance was needed to foil the terrorists, who presumably had superior intelligence capacities.

Lynch’s letter also requests separate appearances for all three defendants on the grounds that their terrorist “proclivities” might cause death or bodily injury to others, or to themselves. Given that their SAMs probably mandate extremely restrictive conditions with negligible contact with anyone or anything, it’s unclear how exactly they could be a danger to anyone.

Last week, a Twitter account called @StatelessMahdi tweeted a picture of Hashi’s mother standing outside the US embassy in London, holding a sign that says “Free Mahdi Hashi.”  It reminds me of the pictures of Yusef Salaam’s mother who, in 1989, would appear at her teenaged son’s trial wearing a “Yusef is Innocent” T-shirt.

In Ken Burns’ recent documentary “The Central Park Five,” there is footage of Sharonne Salaam encountering jeering and laughing crowds on her way into the courtroom, wearing a T-shirt declaring her son’s innocence.  These were crowds who were convinced of New York Daily News’ headlines, naming Salaam and the 4 other black teenagers as part of a “Wolf Pack,” as marauders, animals, brutes who preyed on a young white woman, known as the Central Park Jogger. Many other newspapers across the country followed suit in sensationalizing the racial dimensions of the case. They convicted the teenagers by media, as did Mayor Edward Koch, then aspiring mayor David Dinkins, Donald Trump and others. Trump went as far as spending $85,000 to publish full-page ads in four daily New York City newspapers, demanding the return of the death penalty and more police for these “roving band of wild criminals.”

As we know today, Salaam and the other four teenagers would spend years in jail after having been railroaded into false confessions. As we also know today, they were innocent of any wrongdoing. As in Salaam’s case, the signs that Hashi was going to be profiled were there when he was a mere teenager, well before his disappearance from Somalia.

The U.S. has become a nation that zealously kidnaps men from foreign countries on the scantest suspicion of being threats to the U.S. and tortures them for indefinite amounts of time. Yes, solitary confinement is torture. Hashi and his co-defendants are three among many such men held here in the U.S. — outside of Guantánamo. Many have still not been charged.

This should not be who we are.

If Lynch’s allegations that Hashi and his co-defendants have substantial knowledge of a chemical weapons programs and are countersurveillance experts, then we need to have a speedy and open trial to see exactly how that expertise was acquired — and how the U.S. obtained that evidence. If Hashi is indeed guilty, that fact will not be established through secret interrogations or unlawful renditions. If he is guilty, that fact won’t be established by secret evidence or tortuous SAMs that eliminate his ability to have contact with the outside world.  It will only be established through a lawful prosecution, a vigorous defense, timely evidence and a transparent trial. The U.S. government’s case against Hashi can only be enhanced by treating him and his co-defendants humanely and sharing the evidence with the public. Until then, skepticism and doubts about the ethics of this nation’s counterterrorism practices will and should prevail.

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This article appeared in Salon.com today under the title: “This is counterrrorism?: The Shocking Story of Mahdi Hashi”

Why our best students are totally oblivious

Why our best students are totally oblivious:

While being up in arms about popular injustices, they’re educated how not to see race, empire and colonialism

This past week, I taught my first classes of the semester. The college where I teach attracts young men and women who are generally left of center. Some of them are the children of progressive activists and academics. Many of the students who enroll in my courses hope to spend the rest of their lives ending poverty, racism, sexual oppression, among other forms of injustice. As such, they are an extremely aware crowd.

In one of my courses, which deals with race, philosophy and legal theory, I listed a series of names on the board and asked students to describe who they were: Trayvon Martin, Yusuf SalaamShaker AamerAafia SiddiquiJosé Padilla. Nearly every student in the room was familiar with the first name, and could give in excruciating detail the facts of the case and trial, and the questionable laws used to defend George Zimmerman in public discussion. Most of the students knew immediately that Yusuf Salaam was one of the Central Park Five who, despite their innocence, had been convicted of raping a woman and had spent years in prison. They were making astute connections to New York’s stop-and-frisk policy, racial profiling, “stand your ground” laws (yes, even though these were not explicitly part of the Zimmerman trial, they are relevant). You may not have known some of these details, but they did. As I mentioned, they’re rather politically aware.

Not a single student recognized the other three names.

In another course on political philosophy that also began last week, several students had only the faintest idea that Guantánamo was a prison, and could not describe who the prisoners were, why they were there, or why it mattered.


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These were illuminating reminders for me. Most of these students are not to blame for not knowing. They were born between 1992 and 1995. A few are slightly older. For them, the U.S.-led War on Terror is a constant background in their lives. They have few memories of a time when the U.S. was not waging war in the Middle East. They grew up in the shadow of the first Gulf War. But shadows are just that: observable, yet elusive, ungraspable. In the same way, the War on Terror, unless it has affected them directly, is neither unfamiliar, nor completely familiar. It’s not close enough for them to know which questions to ask in order to have a clear picture; yet it’s too close to know what the opposite of a War on Terror would look like.

The context in which my young progressive students can know so much about some populations and nothing about other populations who face analogous circumstances is worthy of pause. It is true that most of us find it difficult to remember names and figures when they cycle through the mainstream news hour for less than a few minutes, for only a day or two. We know Trayvon Martin’s name because there were assiduous protests surrounding his death, and because the mainstream news media became interested in it. The names of so many young black men who died similarly will not be known to us because of the absence of organized protests and the lack of media interest.

Similarly, the names of Padilla, Siddiqui and Aamer have not been mentioned for quite some time in the mainstream news cycle to which my students are attuned. When they were noticed, the mentions were generally brief and in the context of the state’s successful fight against “Terror.” In certain spaces, there have been continual protests and excellent critical coverage. But few dissents against the U.S.’s sustained foray into empire — through drones, torture, indefinite detention and other means — have commanded alert and aggressive attention from our patriotic and subservient mainstream media.

My students’ lack of knowledge of most things related to the U.S.’s war on terror indicates other predictable and alarming things: The principle of preemptive policing — jailing men indefinitely without charges, torturing them — is commonplace and no longer (if ever) worthy of shock. The racial profiling of Muslim men, because it is done in the context of an explicit state-led war, is difficult to be alarmed about without challenging the moral credibility of the government that leads it.

If racism is discussed, it is, correctly, within the context of the U.S.’s morally troubling and murky history of slavery. But the discussions are not usually linked to the equally troubling history of colonialism and conquest of indigenous populations. The U.S.’s history of racism against migrants such as Asians and Latinos is perhaps better known for some. But it is difficult to be a “good citizen” and still be critical of the ideological war that the U.S. wages on Muslims — especially in the midst of the U.S.’s ever-continuing attacks — covert, drone, explicit.

My students’ lack of knowledge about the effects of the Global War on Terror on men and women in the U.S. indicates to me that they are the successful product — even in the elite grammar/high schools from which so many of them graduated — of a patriotic and “morally upstanding” education. They have learned that many institutions — like their schools — work in their favor, even on their behalf. They have not come face to face with prisons, border police, customs officials, NYPD or hostile judges. They have learned how not to see race, empire and colonialism while being up in arms about the more popular facets of injustice — even though these are closely linked: the environment, sexual and reproductive rights, and “wringing bias out” of our hearts.

The latter phrase is invoked by President Obama in a speech, given after the “not guilty” verdict in the George Zimmerman trial: “Am I wringing as much bias out of myself as I can?” This question reduces racism to an individual failing, a problem of conscience, rather than one of laws (drug and three strikes, preemptive policing, racial profiling), institutions (carceral, banking, social, state, military, cultural), ideologies (lynch law, slavery, empire, national security, surveillance, the War on Terror), and accepted culture.

The president’s follow-up question — “Am I judging people as much as I can, based on not the color of their skin, but the content of their character?” — elides the complex interplay of ideology, institutional power and political circumstances in ascribing morality to any individual person.

When young black men are arrested for petty theft, it becomes commonplace to discuss their “individual moral failings.” When senior, often white, investment bankers embezzle money, they are rewarded with bailouts, bonuses and bona fides.

When a young Somali-American woman sends less than $2,000 to Somalia to aid the poor, she is convicted of aiding terrorists, and given extended prison time. When HSBC Bank skirts material support statutes by laundering $850 million, they are fined less than a month’s profits.

When young Muslim men speak critically of the U.S.-led wars against predominantly Muslim countries, they are immediately assumed to be terrorists.

Are the judgments ascribed to each of these groups about character alone? I would suggest they emerge from a history of ideological biases, cemented by unaccountable institutions, including the last two presidential administrations. These judgments are embedded in the political discourse spun by political authorities. They guarantee that only those who are poorer, darker or less powerful will pay — heavily, disproportionately, with their lives. These matters are hardly only about the bias in our hearts and judging the content of one’s character.

Within the American tradition of adventure-packed action movies and the 30-minute news cycle, individual failings are easier to focus on, to obsess over, to judge, to be outraged about.

Cultural worldviews, pernicious politics, racial histories and ideologies are more difficult to disarticulate. They require reading histories and thinking through multiple logics, and weeding through numerous laws and political contexts.

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This article appeared in today’s edition of Salon (www.salon.com).

The Decision to Bomb Syria

Robert E. PraschBy Robert E. Prasch

Congress Gets to Vote on a War!

Our most gracious sovereign – Barack Obama — has condescended to allow the elected representatives of the American people to engage in what his Administration openly states is a “non-binding” vote over whether or not the armed forces of the United States should enter into hostilities with yet another Middle East nation. This, it goes without saying, is a significant development. After all, our representatives have never been asked to debate or authorize the ongoing bombing campaigns being conducted in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, or any other of a number of nations with substantial Muslim populations. No wonder the Washington establishment is all aflutter.

The Principle at Stake

What has brought about this historic occasion? Well, if we can believe the Administration (and given this Administration’s penchant for prevarication, this is a big “if”), Syria has broken a long-standing taboo. Indeed, the Syrian government may have violated a long-standing principle that is well-known among nations. What is this principle?  It is that only nations working in concert with the United States, and advancing an agenda pre-approved by the United States, may deploy lethal gas against its enemies (or alternatively, against its own civilians as occurred in Halabja). If we can believe the Administration, Syria has violated this taboo.

While Saddam Hussein conducted the gas attacks described above, he was neither then nor now deemed to have been in violation of the principle as stated. Why? Because at the time he was de facto allied with the CIA and the upper echelons of the Reagan Administration in a conflict with the Islamic Republic of Iran. The United States was, then as now, preoccupied with weakening Iran for having had the temerity to overthrow the ruler the CIA had installed after orchestrating a coup in 1954. By the logic of the Washington foreign policy establishment, the Iranians had displayed arrogance on a grand scale. For that reason the CIA was complicit in the Iraqi Army’s deployment of lethal gases against the Iranian Army in the 1980s. Emboldened by what he could only perceive to have been a “green light” from the Reagan Administration, Saddam Hussein later gassed approximately 100,000 Kurdish civilians, whose transgression was to either be in the wrong place at the wrong time (that is to say their own villages) or for taking an anti-Saddam Hussein stance before such a position had been formally sanctified by the United States.

Three Options in Syria

This brings us back to what should be done about Syria’s transgression. In effect, the Obama Administration has indicated that we have three options: (1) do nothing other than express outrage, (2) engage in a serious bombing effort, one designed to significantly reduce the fighting capability of the Syrian Army so that it becomes vulnerable to succumbing to the several rebel forces now in the field, or (3) engage in “limited strikes” wherein targets are selected in a manner that “teaches a lesson” without disturbing the current balance of power of the ongoing civil war (although interestingly, the actual wording of the letter sent by the President to Congress requesting authorization is very open-ended on the use of force). Before continuing, let us take a moment to think through option (3). Given the size and severity of the rebellion it is hard to imagine what targets would actually qualify. Perhaps the United States could bomb some lonely outposts or check-points outside of the combat zones, military vehicles or aircraft that are undergoing repairs and/or about to be replaced, or perhaps we would demolish Syria’s Department of Motor Vehicles office. Seriously, it is hard to say which targets would fall under this third category.

As things stand, if we care about bringing an end to the war and the stopping the death and destruction along with the alarming rise in the number of refugees, choice (1) or (2) should almost self-evidently dominate (3). After all, (3) simply brings the United States into another conflict in a manner designed to ensure that nothing is done that might change the situation on the ground and thereby move the combatants toward a resolution of the war. Again, by design, the point of such a bombing campaign would be to solely and singularly express the United States government’s willingness to uphold the less-than-glorious principle expressed above. Worse, it defends this principle by killing or maiming a number of low-ranking Syrian Army troops and whichever civilians happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. My guess is that neither of these groups would have been enthusiasts of gassing civilians in the event that they had been asked. However, Bashar al-Assad has shown that he is as inclined to be as concerned with the public’s position on decisions related to war and peace as … well, never mind.

But what of the principle being upheld?  Surely it is important to establish that only regimes working to advance ends pre-approved by the United States government have the right to deploy lethal gases. Not many people living outside the United States support the principle summarized above. True, many people across the globe do favor a complete ban on the use of lethal gasses as weapons, but if the United States were to adhere to this latter principle, it would be necessary to mount an investigation and prosecution of the Reagan-era officials and agencies that actively assisted and/or covered up for Saddam Hussein’s use of lethal gas during the Iran-Iraq War. The Obama Administration has demonstrated that it can be feckless on its campaign promises, but no one can claim that they have not vigorously stood by the principle that any and all American officials who engage in war crimes should be favored with absolute legal impunity. If we believe the news reports, this last decision was taken because the Administration was pained to discover that there was low morale amongst those who claimed that they were “just following orders” when they knowingly committed war crimes.

Why Does the Administration Favor a “Limited Strike”?

Let us assume that a decision to bomb Syria has been or will be taken. Why would the Administration elect to limit the scope of such a strike before it begins? The answer is actually right in front of us – the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, wishes to preserve the Assad regime or something that looks and acts very much like it. Why? The reason is that, despite formal enmity, the United States has something of a “working relationship” with Assad. We also know that a genuinely democratic Syrian government, even if largely free of fundamentalist influence, would want the return of the Golan Heights (and the all-important right of access to water from the Jordan River and the Sea of Galilee that comes with it), support Palestinian claims over substantially more of the Occupied territories than the current Israeli government is inclined to cede, and will generally take “awkward” or “unsettling” positions on a variety of other regional issues. Worse, it could do so with all of the legitimacy that the world tends to confer on democratically elected governments.

Moreover, Assad has long proven his willingness to work with the United States on what might be described as “delicate matters.”  One could say that the United States and Syria share an implicit understanding about several matters of mutual importance. For example, we rarely hear of attacks on Israel from Syria, even by irregular forces (Israel, by contrast, periodically bombs Syria). Consider another example. In September 2002, the United States government was anxious to have a Canadian citizen of Syrian descent questioned under torture. At the time it was thought that it would be awkward for the United States government to do the job, so the intended victim was flown by private plane to Jordan where the wonderfully cooperative and “enlightened” King had Maher Arar transferred to Syria for a year of utterly inhumane treatment accompanied by extended torture. A year later Syrian officials apologetically reported that, despite their best efforts, they had found Arar absolutely innocent of any wrongdoing. Needless to say, the Bush and Obama Administrations, along with the US judiciary, will never forgive Arar for being innocent, which explains why to this day he cannot enter the United States and remains on the No-Fly list despite a formal apology and $10 million settlement from the Canadian government.

This, I submit, is the crux of the problem. Barack Obama probably doesn’t like Assad. As well, it is likely true that Sec. of State John Kerry really believes that the President of Syria is like Hitler (although not so much like him as to ruin the lovely dinner that then Sen. Kerry and his wife enjoyed with President Assad and his wife). We can safely assume that they would like to see a world in which Assad did not play a part. But, as with the case of Egypt, the Washington foreign policy establishment generally and the Obama Administration in particular have a deep and visceral fear of the Syrian and Egyptian publics. Their concern is that the peoples of the Middle East have shown a disconcerting tendency to make up their own minds when voting for representatives, rather than selecting those whom the United States government wants them to want. Until the peoples of the Middle East learn to vote “correctly,” the United States government can be counted upon to resist the emergence of democracy across the region.

This, ultimately, is the logic of Option (3). The United States government, when push comes to shove, wants Assad or someone very much like him to rule over Syria. A disdain or contempt for public opinion across the Middle East is the underlying reason why there has long been a bi-partisan consensus in support of military rule in Egypt, in support of the violent repression of the people of Bahrain, in support of the extreme fundamentalists who have long miss-ruled Saudi Arabia, and in support of a policy of relentless hostility directed towards Iran.

Worse of all, from the perspective of the Washington establishment, Assad fully understands the situation and the leverage that it inadvertently grants him. This was the reason that Assad demonstrated his contempt for President Obama’s implied threat of a “Red Line” by deploying lethal gas. The Administration is especially angry because in their hearts they already know that they are going to let Assad get away with it.

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Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College.