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.”

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.

On the NSA’s Surveillance Program: The Brown, Muslim, South Asian Elephant In the Room–or On the Phone

A frequent response of those untroubled by the revelations of the NSA program is “If you have nothing to hide, you have nothing to fear.” Perhaps we need to translate that phrase, along with the relative colorblindness through which the entire series of revelations has been scrutinized, as “If your last name isn’t Khan, and you have no family in Pakistan/India/Iran, etc., you have nothing to fear.”

The revelations of NSA’s collection of “metadata,” as cybersecurity expert Susan Landau explained on Democracy Now is, in fact, even more invasive than actual content collection. She gives an example of how that can be the case: Even if all the NSA does is trace the one or more calls from your home to your doctor on a day when you would normally be at work, followed by one or more calls from your phone that is now located at the doctor’s office to your family, that information strongly suggests that the content of the call was bad news.

Similarly then, if the NSA collects metadata of all calls and online traffic in the US, they are probably much less interested in an person living in New Paltz, NY who calls Barcelona 8 times a week than they are in biweekly calls from an Indo-Pak restaurant owner in Edison NJ to a “terrorist-heavy” locale in Pakistan—say Waziristan. Clearly, in both cases, the pattern reveals the obvious: that both the NY and NJ residents have some connection to folks in the receiving nation. But what does it tell the NSA about who they are? To judge from the NSA’s datamining project, the intensity of NSA surveillance is heavier in Pakistan than in Europe. Thus, even if the calls from New Paltz are to a terrorist cell in Barcelona, it seems more likely that the calls to Waziristan (say, to the restaurant owner’s mother and brother and his family) will be more suspicious—of course due to the US’s framing of where the War on Terror must be waged.  Still, the latter would be, as Marcy Wheeler discusses in a related issue, ‘false positives.’

What is the starting framework that informs the NSA to target your call? That folks with close/frequent connections to Pakistan should have their calls monitored? That these same folks have an increased likelihood of being terrorists/sympathizers? Or, alternately, that if one is an Iranian migrant, from a family that left sometime around the Revolution, yet retains close friends who work for the Iranian state (even as low-level civil servants), then their calls should be the subject of targeting, because as DiFi has now announced, Iran is a terrorist state?  Or, as DiFi has also stated, it allows the state to keep records of people who become terrorists later (a la Minority Report).

I can hear the liberals now: “Of course, there she goes, making it all about race again.” Um, no. The NSA is making it about race/religion/ethnicity –as these are uniquely combined in the conceptual category of ‘Muslim Terrorists.’ Other branches of the state have long established that terrorism is a unique category that, while defined race-neutrally as having to do with international or domestic political violence targeted against the US government or its citizens, is almost uniquely and singularly applied to Muslims. We’ve seen evidence of this at other levels of government, as in the case of the NYPD’s surveillance of Muslims—in NY, CT, PA, NJ and internationally. Most recently, we saw this assumption with the immediate rush to assume that a Saudi national that fled the Boston bomb blasts must have been the person who set them—before he was cleared the next day.

If this is the framework that underlies the massive dragnet, then I’m hardly the one making it about race. Meanwhile, as is so often the case, Marcy Wheeler and Rayne (writing at emptywheel.net) have each been presenting some of the most careful and detailed analysis of these programs.  While the PRISM program is limited to collecting data from non-U.S. persons (and what that means is still unclear: does US person include non-citizen residents from India/Pakistan/Iran, etc. residing legally?), as Rayne asks

Does this mean that all communications between individuals who do not have an Anglo-Saxon name are likely to be sniffed if not collected?

Does this sketchy “(foreign) + (less than 3 hops)” approach executed by humans explain known false-positives? Could the relationships between the false-positives be as tenuous as shopping at the same store? What happens in the case of targets possessing a highly common name like “Ahmed” — the equivalent of Smith in terms of frequency among Arabic surnames — in collection so large it could be called a dragnet?

As some have pointed out, some of these details are hardly new, although the names and scope of the program have changed. As far back as 2005 (yes, under an order signed by then-President Bush), USA Today was reporting details of the NSA’s data collection, warrantless wiretapping, and telecom companies turning over data to the feds. It’s also true that there was hullaballoo about it (though not as loud in mainstream media) by those who are labeled hardcore “privacy freaks,”—folks like the ACLU, etc.  At some level, we may not have heard that much ‘new’ information—but between Edward Snowden, Laura Poitras, Ewen MacAskill, and Glenn Greenwald, we now have unquestionable, tangible, proof that the intelligence dragnet has been extensive and long-standing even after Bush’s executive order was rescinded.

Ultimately, the political celebration of NSA’s surveillance programs appears to rest on the same old tired flackery parroted by Lindsay Graham: “I don’t care if the NSA collects my data.”  Of course, Graham doesn’t care. Of course, DiFi thinks NSA data collection is crucial to catching terrorists. Of course, white suburban soccer moms are more interested in the intrigue of Snowden’s (ex?)girlfriend. Why should they care? They don’t worry that they will awake some morning and find themselves on the wrong side of the state—and certainly not because ‘they’re not doing anything wrong,’ but rather because they’re not the wrong color, the wrong religion, the wrong ethnicity, the wrong family (Remember Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs on 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki’s death? “He should have been born to a far more responsible father”). But of course.

That’s why Lindsay Graham, DiFI and the white burbie housewives think that NSA surveillance is a great idea. They’re not politically vulnerable (okay, that’s an understatement). They’re officially in favor of the War on Terror. And certain under this Administration and the previous one, their calls to the doctor and to family (or even Graham’s hypothetical call to Waziristan) are not registering as the ‘suspicious’ activity that the NSA is looking for.

As I’ve said before, this all comes down to a familiar form of American privilege:

[T]he privilege of not having to know (or know about) foreign nationals or feel particularly obliged to them, or know about the harms done to them, simply because the wars, jingoism, and aggressive foreign policy of the US empire won’t affect you.

The other side of the NSA leaks has to do with what we know or can infer about the profiles of people who get top-security clearance. If the NSA’s dragnet is designed to look for ‘suspicious’ activity, then besides being directed towards foreigners and foreign threats—it should also be looking for people like Snowden (of course I’m not endorsing this—just considering the logic of the hunt): seeming ‘one of us’ kinda guys: conservative, a believer in American ideals as decided and executed by the US government, a former troop, a “regular guy” with top national security clearance. Who, as it turns out, doesn’t like what he is coming to learn in the course of his work, and is beginning to take serious issue with the size and scope of the project. Except that all the national security surveillance in the world didn’t catch him before he flew to Hong Kong to meet with reporters and turn over evidence of these secret slides that document an out-of-control surveillance program. Whoops.

As Marcy Wheeler also points out, we need to question the success of such tracking programs if ‘success’ is defined as catching David Headley, suspected facilitator of the Mumbai attacks after 166 Indians are killed, or as Floyd Brown points out, catching Maj. Nidal Hassan after his killing rampage, etc., etc.

That again raises questions about whether the national security apparatus is working—or whether it merely is a foundational aspect of the ‘architecture of oppression,’ that Snowden refers to. But that will be the subject of another post.

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A version of this piece was published at http://www.salon.com on June 14, 2013.

A “Roadmap” to Restoring Our Constitutional Liberties

Hi, folks–FS here. Apologies to followers of this blog for not having posted for a while. The term knocked the wind out of my sails, as the saying goes. I hope to have a new piece sometime in the next day or so. In the meantime, TransEx blogger Robert E. Prasch proposes a set of reforms to address the latest wave of news concerning NSA leaks and the general encroachment upon Constitutional protections.

A “Roadmap” to Restoring Our Constitutional Liberties

Robert E. Prasch

From Bush to Obama: Continuity You Can Believe In

Edward Snowden’s revelations have collectively stripped away the last shred of hope that the Obama Administration or the Congressional Democratic Leadership have established or intend to establish any meaningful changes from the dangerous precedents laid down by the openly and unabashedly anti-Constitutional Bush Administration. Indeed, the actions of this Administration arguably represent an even greater betrayal of American values, as they have provided the imprimatur of bi-partisanship to the shredding of our long-standing Constitutional rights. Unsurprisingly, the Obama Administration now finds that its greatest cheerleaders and apologists are the former consigliore of George W. Bush’s disgraced Administration. No less than former White House flak Ari Fleischer has happily tweeted that “Drone strikes. Wiretaps. Gitmo. O[bama] is carrying out Bush’s 4th term.”  The Administration’s newfound friends confirm the old adage, “If you lie down with dogs, expect to wake up with fleas.”

How bad is it?  Consider the stance now being taken by The New York Times, a newspaper that once worked hand-in-glove with the Bush Administration to amplify its pro-Iraq War propaganda and then, less than a year later, cooperated in covering up that same Administration’s massive and illegal domestic wiretapping program until after the 2004 elections were safely over. Yet these new revelations are so bad that the Times, despite its long and pitiful record of subservience to executive power, claims to be shocked. Its editors have concluded that the Obama Administration “has now lost all credibility on this issue.” (The phrasing of the sentence suggests that the Administration retains credibility on other issues. We can only speculate as to what issue or issues they have in mind. Prosecuting fraudulent bankers? Supporting meaningful financial reform? The 49 State Mortgage Settlement? Closing Guantanamo? Renditions? Bush-style “Free Trade” Agreements? Drone Warfare? The restoration of due process of law to Americans that the executive branch suspects of terrorism? But I digress). In the same editorial the Times also, and correctly, dismissed Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s pathetic justification of the these massive surveillance programs as “absurd.” Happily, they refrained from implying that Sen. Feinstein retains credibility on other issues.

What Should Be Done?  Lessons from the Democrats’ Undermining of “Financial Reform”

But, one might ask, how should we proceed?  This is an important question.  While it is impossible to formulate a detailed answer so soon after these revelations, it is not too early to sketch out a strategy. As we consider our way forward, it would be useful to remember the hard lessons learned in the course of an earlier episode in which the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congressional Leadership felt compelled to act in a situation where “success” would mean taking substantive action against their largest donors, their personal ambitions as politicians, and their deepest political instincts as so-called “Centrists” or “Clinton Democrats.” That issue was the reregulation of the financial system in the wake of the greatest financial debacle since 1929. The bill that emerged, a veritable monument to doing nothing while presenting the appearance of attending to the public’s interest, was the Dodd-Frank Act of 2010.

Let us briefly recall how that process unfolded. Immediately after the crash occurred, the public was repeatedly told that the debacle was the consequence of a “panic,” and for that reason we should rest assured that nothing was wrong with either the nation’s financial system or its most prominent firms. All that was needed was some “temporary liquidity,” after which all would be well. Remarkably, Timothy Geithner’s Treasury Department and the Too Big To Fail banks never wavered from this story, and regularly deployed “creative accounting” to support it.  To their regret, the public failed to be persuaded despite the best efforts of the financiers, their kept politicians, and industry-friendly regulators.

Seeing that this initial ruse had failed, their second ploy was to stall for time. To that end, they argued that the system was “complex,” and for that reason “rushing to enact reforms” would be unwise. Time would be required, and the crisis would have to pass, before the nation should even start to consider reregulation. Translated into plain speaking, the Administration and its Congressional allies wished to postpone any push for reforms until such time as the public’s outrage had died down and Wall Street’s political hegemony had been restored. Massive and ongoing bailouts greatly facilitated the latter goal. As to the former, American incomes continued to decline, unemployment remained high, housing prices continued to tank, and constituents remained angry.

With the 2010 mid-term elections approaching, and with the Democrats dominating Congress for the two years immediately following the Crash of 2008, it became evident that the Party leadership would have to do “something” if they were to retain any standing with a public whose anger remained palpable. This was the basis of their third and final ploy – passing a regulatory reform bill that was designed to fail, conjoined with a public relations blitz proclaiming a great victory that would end Too Big To Fail while greatly stabilizing the financial system and its most prominent firms. In Washington, appearance is substantially more important than performance. This, in the final analysis, explains why the Congressional Democratic Leadership gave the nation the Dodd-Frank Act instead of substantive financial reform.

Looking to the Future: The Obama Administration vs. Meaningful Reform of Surveillance State

With the above understanding of the politics of futility in mind, we can now turn to formulating a strategy for achieving some meaningful and lasting reforms. We can begin with their first step – denying that a problem even exists.  Those following the news will have observed that the Administration and its Congressional allies have already embarked on this line of argument. The President and leading Democratic Party senators, most prominently Harry Reid and Dianne Feinstein, are already telling us that this week’s revelations are “overblown,” that it is all “hype,” and that “nothing is amiss,” etc. Check that box.

As they are unlikely to be believed, we can anticipate that they will soon move on to phase two. Again, and in parallel with the effort to not reform the financial system, we should expect to be told that intelligence-gathering programs and agencies are “complex,” that their “mission is sensitive,” that we need to “slow down,” that we must “deliberate carefully” so as to bring about “the best possible reform”, etc. As a wrinkle on this theme, we should expect to see a major effort made to distract us with long-running debates or disputes over the personality or quirks of Edward Snowden (In this, David Brooks has taken the lead with an Op-Ed that is idiotic even by his standards, and that is really saying something). The point of such stalling techniques, as it was with financial reform, is to allow the scandal to become “old news.” If this should come to pass, Congress will be able to talk the issue to death, and perhaps even get away with doing nothing at all (the failure to reform the gun laws despite the public’s outrage after the massacre of schoolchildren and their teachers in Newtown nicely illustrates the power of this approach).

A time-honored variant of this venerable strategy is to form an “official” study group to examine reforms. Assuming that Congress and the Administration pursue this approach, we should expect a “bi-partisan” commission featuring “sound” persons who can be relied upon to discover that nothing is amiss. Ideal candidates for such a commission would be Sec. of State John Kerry, Sen. Dianne Feinstein, former CIA and DoD heads Leon Panetta and Robert Gates, and any of a large number of potty-trained “experts” from the usual beltway think tanks, all of whom will solemnly promise to “look tirelessly into possible abuses.”  If, thereafter, sufficient political pressure remains, expect a bill that is long, complicated, and vaguely worded. For performance, it will call for intelligence agencies to be monitored by, at most, deeply conflicted parties in opaque processes. In short, it will be legislation resembling Dodd-Frank.

Four Guidelines for the Achievement of Meaningful Reform

The failure to reform Wall Street provides several lessons that collectively point to four necessary components of any successful strategy to bring our nation’s bloated and overreaching intelligence agencies (and their contractors) to heal.

First, and of most importance, it must be understood that the Obama Administration and the Democratic Congressional Leadership will resist any and all meaningful reform with every means at their disposal. To that end, we can expect them to continue to prosecute and vilify whistleblowers while libeling critics and reformers. They will also continue to stir up fears that are, to be blunt, as beside the point as they are beneath the dignity of anyone who thinks of themselves as the citizen of a free nation.

Regrettably, such fear-mongering is so prevalent that it must be addressed directly. Since 9/11 we have been repeatedly told that giving up our liberty and privacy is worthwhile as it enables the government to “Keep Us Safe.” Those who make this argument should be reminded that the best-fed, healthiest, and safest animals live in zoos. Seriously, folks, living and thriving as a free people in a free nation involves a degree of risk. But is there anyone out there who thinks that it isn’t worth it? Everyone who has ever volunteered for the armed services has already answered this question. I would submit that it is well past time for the citizenry at large to honor the commitment of our young servicemen and women by agreeing to live with the immeasurably small risks we must shoulder to live as free people in a free nation. Let us recall that our heritage is not one of bowing to fear. Two hundred and forty ago Americans willingly took up a substantial risk. They fought the world’s largest empire so that they might live as citizens rather than subjects. Does their sacrifice mean nothing to us today?  Has July 4th been reduced to one more great day for a BBQ?

The second condition we must take into account is the fact that the public’s attention span is limited.  No one is more aware of this than the Administration and its Congressional allies. To achieve meaningful reform we cannot allow the process to be diverted into endless “hearings,” “commissions,” “inquiries,” etc.  This is especially the case if these hearings are exclusively staffed by the usual suspects. We can only allow such an investigation to take place if it is short in duration and led by former Senator Russ Feingold or one of the Oregon Senate delegation.  Otherwise, forget it.

Third, we must demand simple laws featuring bright lines and clear performance criteria. Rules that are simple and clear can be easily and readily monitored by any interested citizen or group of citizens. An example from finance was the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 that separated investment banking from commercial banking. If you were in one business, you could not be in the other. Full stop. It was simple to state and simple to regulate (the lines only became grey after the banks induced the Federal Reserve to make them grey, but that is another story).

In spying, we developed equally simple rules after the Church Committee hearings of the 1970s. NSA and CIA could conduct their activities overseas, but not in the United States. Americans could not be investigated without a warrant from an independent judge (although the secrecy granted to the FISA court and its opinions must be wholly and radically rethought). Again, we want simple laws that are easy to monitor and thereby difficult to elide or evade.

Fourth, we must be ever mindful that the intelligence agencies being subjected to reform will not like it and can be expected to put up a powerful and unceasing resistance. The reason is simple.  As with the equally pathetic “War on Drugs,” there is a massive amount of easy money to be “earned” in the course of spying upon one’s fellow Americans.  Moreover, it is a line of work where one is primarily rewarded for who one knows, not what one knows. What this means is that meaningful reform will undermine comfortable and highly lucrative careers in the “Making Us Safe” business.  With so much at stake we should anticipate vigorous resistance, not limited to highly damaging smear campaigns against any persons or groups pushing for meaningful reform. Also, in the event that binding rules are passed, the leadership of these agencies will almost immediately begin reaching out to their political allies, and especially to their contractors, to have any substantive rules repealed, “reinterpreted” (a task that now appears to be a specialty of the Office of Legal Council), or reworked.  Happily, while blocking the ability of these agencies and their allies to unravel reforms may be difficult, it is not impossible. But, success requires that we be pro-active.

The place to begin is by significantly, and I do mean significantly, reducing the resources available to these agencies. This immediately shrinks the size of the prizes to be gained and thereby the interest in going after them. And let us be clear, these agencies are effectively the “anchor firms” of enormous private sector industries with substantial political reach. Any reform that fails to reduce the bloated budgets of these behemoths will not stick for long. As speed is of the essence, the process of cutting back should resemble the manner with which one deals with a massively overgrown hedge. Begin by hacking back the overgrowth with large indiscriminate swings. Only after the bulk of the trimming is accomplished should one return to the task with an eye to shaping its appearance. So, for example, cutting NSA’s budget by 33% the first year, followed by another 10% over each of the next three years would be a great start. Again, the point of such cuts is to substantially reduce the political power of these agencies and the innumerable contractors who feed at the trough of their porcine budgets. Half measures will be insufficient if we are to get the genie back in the bottle. I should add that publishing the actual budgets of these agencies is essential. Despite the shrill claims that will undoubtedly be made to such a suggestion, publishing these budgets will in no way or manner put the public at risk. Why? Because in this world of doubt and uncertainty one of the few things about which we can be sure is that the Chinese, Russians, Israelis, and all major European powers already know just how much money each of these agencies have been allocated. Only American citizens remain in the dark.

The CIA, we should briefly note, is a qualitatively different problem.  The reason is that they field what is essentially a small army.  The problem with this force is that it is solely and exclusively accountable to the President. That Presidents like having a small army that they can use on a whim should not come as a surprise. Nevertheless, an army that can be deployed at the behest of a single individual goes strongly against every known or imagined notion of  “checks and balances.” To make matters worse, our experience with CIA special operations has in no way or manner validated this Constitutional loophole. The record has not fluctuated between good and bad. On the contrary, it has been a continuous string of disasters. The blowback and loss of moral authority that the United States has experienced from CIA misadventures in Guatemala, Iran, the Bay of Pigs, Cambodia, Afghanistan, El Salvador, the Iran-Contra scandal, “Black Site” prisons, rendition programs, ongoing Drone Wars in at least a dozen nations, etc., have been individually and collectively intolerable.  It must end.

The CIA’s record of repeated failure suggests a problem, one that runs to the core of that institution and its lack of accountability. Which is the reason that it must go. In 1991, Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan introduced the “End of the Cold War Act” that would have abolished the CIA altogether while moving its (very) few useful functions into the State Department. He tried again in 1995 with the “Central Intelligence Agency Abolition Act.”  Now would be an excellent time to revisit this wonderful idea. Moreover, the successful closing of that agency would send a clear message – one that is nicely designed “pour encourager les autres.” To repeat, the CIA does not need to be reconfigured or reformed, and its leadership does not need to be reviewed or reshuffled. It needs to be shut down. Period. It is of particular importance that its special operations branch be closed. Again, not reformed or recalibrated, but closed. If the President wishes to have a war with another nation, or a particular group within another nation, let him or her argue for and receive explicit Congressional authorization.

Related to this is another essential precondition to the achieving, and especially the sustaining, of substantive reform of our intelligence agencies. We need to eliminate any and all “contractors” (a.k.a. mercenaries) from the payrolls of every branch of the United States government. This includes the Pentagon, all intelligence agencies, and the State Department. The rule should be simple – if you are authorized to carry or operate a weapon in the service of the United States government you will wear an appropriate United States military or police uniform (unless you have been specifically and temporarily assigned to undercover duties).

Likewise, everyone working for an intelligence agency should be an employee of the United States government and earning a government salary. This is important for three reasons. The first is that private firms can and do give political donations, lobby our representatives, and provide our elected officials and their staffers with cushy post-electoral sinecures. Now, it is one thing to lobby for a padded no-bid contract to provide copy-paper to the Pentagon, but it is another thing altogether to lobby for the initiation or continuation of a state of conflict. The second reason is that government employees are considerably harder to fire than private sector employees (although the rules are substantially more lax in areas such as intelligence and Homeland Security – a fact that must be changed). With greater job security, lower-ranking employees who witness wrong-doing have more protection in the event that they attempt to talk to superiors, inspector generals, or members of Congress about what they have seen. The third reason is that uniformed military and intelligence agents are paid considerably less than the fat-cats working for their private-sector counterparts. Contrary to the collective wisdom of the District of Columbia, this is not a fact to be deplored. On the contrary, it is to be proclaimed from every rooftop. When these professions earn below “market rates” we can be certain that everyone who opts for the job must be motivated by something other than the salary. Being “believers” in the importance of their mission, such persons will be more likely to speak up or, as a last resort, become whistle-blowers in the event that the leadership of their agency is heading down the wrong path. Whistle-blowing, as we have seen, is often the last – and for that reason a critical — check on out of control government programs and agencies.

So, to reprise, a successful strategy to restore our Constitution must, (1) recognize that the Obama Administration and its Congressional allies are firmly on the wrong side of the issue, (2) push for immediate and substantial reforms without allowing the process to be stalled by talking it to death in Congress or waiting around for pointless reports from commissions staffed by the usual Washington sycophants, (3) place an emphasis on clear, simple, transparent, and easy-to-monitor rules, and finally (4) significantly defund the beast, with special attention to eliminating the CIA and all outside “contractors” and mercenaries. By design, this list avoids speculating on the specifics of the rules we will need to put in place to restore our privacy and liberties against an overreaching government. Nor does it cover what penalties should await those who violate such rules. But achieving and sustaining meaningful reform requires more than good ideas, it needs a strategy for getting there. If the disappointing outcome of the effort to reregulate the financial system has a silver lining, it is that it has given us some insight into how we should proceed against well-entrenched interests.

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Robert E. Prasch is Professor of Economics at Middlebury College. Click here to read more of his posts.

Violence Begets Violence: Turning to Dr. King in the aftermath of the Boston Bombings

This piece is in Salon, under various headlines:

Where does the hate come from?

Amid this tragedy, we ought to remember that violence begets violence, force begets force

By

Yesterday’s news of multiple explosions going off near the end of the Boston Marathon route was heart-stopping. That such a joyous event — attended by tens of thousands of families, of international visitors and athletes — could be so violently disrupted by such heinous evil was unfathomable. The tragedies are made all the worse by the realization that for some, it was a memorial in the name of the children and adults who died in the Newtown massacre. And even as I empathized with yesterday’s victims and their families, I shudder to think that they experienced what countries around the world treat as a fact of their quotidian existence.

That pain and grief was the same as that which occurs whenever I read another report about a U.S.-led drone strike that has killed children, maimed teenagers, destroyed weddings in Pakistan or Yemen or Afghanistan. Yesterday’s news — of a child dead, of the injuries of many a father and mother, of the limbs of exhausted athletes and supportive spectators blown off, of others whose limbs were amputated in the triage for survival — again brought to mind the prophesy of “violence begetting violence.” As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. warns in his “Loving Your Enemies” sermon, delivered in Montgomery, Ala., on Nov. 17, 1957:

Men must see that force begets force, hate begets hate, toughness begets toughness. And it is all a descending spiral, ultimately ending in destruction for all and everybody.

And yet, that cycle of force begetting force, of the increasing permanence of violence that is soaking into every facet of our society, seems to be lost on so many, especially those who are capable of stopping it: our political and military leaders. Again, in the prescient, wise words of Dr. King:

Somebody must have sense enough to dim the lights [of destruction], and that is the trouble, isn’t it? That as all of the civilizations of the world move up the highway of history, so many civilizations, having looked at other civilizations that refused to dim the lights, and they decided to refuse to dim theirs. And Toynbee tells that out of the twenty-two civilizations that have risen up, all but about seven have found themselves in the junkheap of destruction. It is because civilizations fail to have sense enough to dim the lights.

Click through to read the rest….

Heaping Insult on Injury: Bill Keller’s Character Assassination of Bradley Manning

On Monday, New York Times columnist and editor Bill Keller made a number of troubling, distracting points in his column about Pfc Bradley Manning’s Pre-trial statement, which included some serious morally laden—and ungrounded–condemnations. Keller’s position is fairly condemnable itself, given that he works for a newspaper that has been on record as cooperating with maintaining government secrecy on multiple occasions.

1)     Keller points out that Manning said he left a voice message for the Times but never heard back. From this, Keller insinuates that Manning was somehow incompetent and wasn’t able to get his message to the editors—something that thousands of Times readers do everyday.

It’s puzzling to me that a skilled techie capable of managing one of the most monumental leaks ever couldn’t figure out how to get an e-mail or phone message to an editor or a reporter at The Times.

First, it’s not clear what being a ‘skilled techie’ has to do with leaving a voicemail. The two, needless to say, are unconnected. Keller’s response doesn’t squash doubts in my mind that the Bradley may have successfully left a message, only to have it ignored or deleted for any number of reasons: Perhaps because a) the NYT staff found it seemed too outlandish to be true; b) there was incompetence on the part of the staff whose job it was to check the messages; or they decided it was a hoax or unimportant; c) the NYT may have decided to deny receipt of the message in order to stay out of the fray. We know that the Times has had a history of cooperating with the US in protecting state secrets. We saw one glaring example of this under Keller’s own watch, in a story admitting that the Times sat on a story for over a year about how the US was illegally wiretapping American citizens.

The White House asked The New York Times not to publish this article, arguing that it could jeopardize continuing investigations and alert would-be terrorists that they might be under scrutiny. After meeting with senior administration officials to hear their concerns, the newspaper delayed publication for a year to conduct additional reporting. Some information that administration officials argued could be useful to terrorists has been omitted.

It is still unclear how much of that story would have endangered national security, and how much of it was a cover-up for a crime conducted under the Bush Administration.

2)     That fact again raises doubts about Keller’s confidence that if the Times had received information, they would have sifted it carefully and published information that they felt was important for the public to know. We see the repeated collaboration on the part of the NYT with the US government—which often at odds with an American public’s interest. The latest example of this was seen in the speculative, often speculative or unfounded story published in last Sunday’s NYT about the deaths of Anwar Al-Awlaki, his son Abdulrahman, and his colleague Samir Khan, which several journalists suggest are at odds with known details. Much of that story was confirmed primarily—and only–by government sources, and challenged at many points by detailed investigative independent journalist Marcy Wheeler.

3)     Keller assassinates Manning’s character by using Manning’s self-description as

“emotionally fractured” — a gay man in an institution not hospitable to gays, fragile, lonely, a little pleased with his own cleverness, a little vague about his motives,”

as a vehicle by which to raise doubts about the importance or integrity of Manning’s intentions in wanting to share the classified documents with world—given that, as Keller says, Manning’s own explanation was inchoate.* I don’t see why Keller has to comment on Manning’s emotional state which, for someone who most likely knows he’s about to get into a massive amount of trouble, isn’t surprising. One doesn’t need to be an articulate ethics professor in order to know the difference between what is indisputably ethically troubling and what is not. Further, as Nathan Fuller pointed out to Keller in response to his initial column, in fact, Manning had extremely detailed and eloquent objections to the corruption and military practices that he saw.

Regardless, as Keller states, at his sentencing statement—after many years in solitary confinement, during which Manning has much time—if not many hospitable circumstances– to reflect, he makes clear that he is troubled by the dehumanization of the casualties in one military attack captured on video, where the US soldiers who perpetuated the attack cheered at the large number of casualities that they managed to engender.  That statement is consistent with his earlier actions and perspective, to say the least.

4)    Finally, in order to show that the NYT has no obligation to with support–either a whistleblower or– treasonous ‘enemy’ of the state, Keller refers to Max Frankel, who was The Times’s Washington bureau chief during the Daniel Ellsberg’s leaking of the Pentagon Papers. According to Frankel:

“[Ellsberg] was committing an act of civil disobedience and presumably knew that required accepting the punishment. We were privately pleased that the prosecution overreached and failed, but we did not consider ourselves his partner in any way.

But isn’t that precisely the ethical and deceptively neutral stance that journalists such as Nathan Fuller, Kevin Gosztola, Glenn Greenwald, and others are challenging?  If you’re a journalist—and that means anything to you—it means reporting to the public—even, especially, at risk of pissing off the state. And that means standing with your sources and ensuring that they are not targeted or persecuted for sharing important information with the Fourth Estate. That requires public support for information-sharing.

This should be the rule for journalists, especially when there may be concerns about criminal activities on the part of the state. Protect your sources, support them, and report on harassment, corruption and wrongdoing.  Such a stance would be ‘truly’ neutral, because it would ensure allegiances to its public readership, and promote trust by showing its adversarial, watchdog–not lapdog–stance toward the state.

5)     Keller suggests that Manning ‘pilfered’ documents. That suggests that Manning was stealing property that is owned by the government. In fact, this is precisely the issue that is at stake regarding Manning’s actions. As such, Keller is begging the question (i.e., assuming the very thing that is being questioned).

Did Manning steal? Or did he release documents that the state wanted to be kept secret for “national security” reasons–which are unconvincing to many, many people, including former whistleblowers, journalists, and a segment of the American population.  In many people’s understanding of a liberal democratic state—a government is accountable to its people. If this is the case, then a government’s actions must be made known to it people.

If we accept the latter explanation which, barring an actual state of emergency, is the only Constitutional one, another interpretation of Manning’s actions is NOT that he was stealing, but rather attempting to share evidence of state corruption and wrongdoing with Americans—those people to whom the US government is accountable. That would make him by most accounts except for those who are concerned about having wrongdoing exposed—a whistleblower.

6)    Finally, as whistleblower Daniel Ellsberg stated yesterday, there is a misconception about the kind of material that Bradley Manning leaked. In his letter, Ellsberg clarifies Manning WAS selective in the information he leaked. From Ellsberg’s statement on the Manning recorded statement, released today:

“MANNING WAS DISCRIMINATING


Critics have alleged that a major difference between my case and Manning’s is that I was discriminating in what I leaked, while Manning wasn’t. He just dumped some material that doesn’t need to be out, they say. This is simply false.

First, it’s important to point out most of the material he put out was unclassified. The rest was classified ‘secret,’ which is relatively low level. All of the Pentagon Papers was classified top secret.

But in a fact no one seems to observe from his statement, Manning was working within a “SCIF,” which stands for Sensitive Compartmented Information Facility. To get into a SCIF, a soldier needs a clearance higher than top secret. This means he had access to the highest classified material, such as communications and signals intelligence. This means he could’ve put out information top secret and higher, and purposely chose not to do so.”

Especially in light of Ellsberg’s point, Keller’s statement seems disingenuous at best, and self (and employer-) serving as well. But the set of terms that Keller deploys to refer to Manning–a ‘geek,’ ‘fragile gay man’ (how is his sexuality relevant?), “nervous, troubled, angry young Army private,” and in effect, a thief, suggests a character assassination more than a clarifying explanation of the NYT role in this affair.  Neither courageous nor morally upstanding on the part of Keller. And not surprising.

________

*Since I first wrote this piece, independent journalists such as Nathan Fuller, Kevin Gosztola, and Greg Mitchell have published challenges to Kellers’ assessment of Manning’s motivations. I have revised to include some of their points; my assessement overlaps at points with theirs.

Response to Responses to The Onion’s Hipster Misogyny

Singling out a young girl—a child—for that kind of treatment was gratuitous and hostile. It’s hurtful enough to hear it as a young or older woman—but by the time a young woman of color is an adult, she has already heard it: tens or hundreds—or—ouch—thousands of times.  Even Quvenzhané never hears of this tweet, she will likely hear the term directed towards her before she becomes an adult. And it will have affected her in any number of ways; perhaps her wounds will have scabbed over, only to be refreshed by each such horrific insult anew. Or maybe, it will amplify her by then–already politically and socially vulnerable existence, reinforcing a horrific message that women should be understood, not as human beings, but as sexual vehicles.

This is an excerpt that I deleted self-censored from my last piece, a critical response to the Onion tweet about Quvenzhané Wallis, on the grounds that it was too pathos-laden. The editor asked if I really wanted to cut it out.  After five minutes reflection, I asked him to cut it.  On 72 hours’ reflection, perhaps I should have left it in–as a way to anticipate and meet the anger that my own outrage generated.

I was surprised that this article generated way more controversy than the previous piece that I wrote on racial double-standards.  I thought it was a kind of obvious argument for political liberals—and so must have others, because later I read similar pieces about the Onion tweet, including two cited below.  And it wasn’t just disagreement, or indifference [“Onion fatigue”—which is funny when you think about it, because presumably fatigue typically causes lethargy]—but serious heated anger.

Some wanted to point out that the Charlize Theron’s ‘mortified’ expression was ‘canned,’—as if that somehow invalidated my point about the nature of the skit or the tweet. Others wanted to teach me about racism. Others thought it was ridiculous to use Critical Race Theory to think about an Onion Tweet. Others couldn’t possibly understand how the Onion tweet was racist. Sexist maybe. Misogynist? Only if you were really sensitive. But racist? Never! After all, we’re libs/progressives and we know that racism is found in political/legal/economic structures–not in satire.

As well, there wasn’t a single interpretation about what made the tweet funny–I was given multiple–often conflicting–explanations. Ditto about what made the tweet humorless/tasteless/bad.

In the US, the term ‘cunt’ is a sexual epithet–of the most painful kind, to be sure. Does it make it automatically racial if the label is directed toward any woman of color? I don’t know.

My motivation in discussing the racial and sexual implications of the Onion tweet was this: I was surprised/upset that there was any context in which it’s okay to call a young child a cunt. At least in the context of the US, it is almost exclusively leveled at women. Many objected to my characterizing the tweet as racist: would it have been racist if it were leveled at a young white girl? Probably not, though it would still be misogynist.

But here is what I wonder: Colleagues tell me that many young—famous—girls such as the person who plays Hermione Granger in the Harry Potter movies, have had their sexuality unraveled and graphically discussed. But how many young famous or otherwise–white girl-children are laughingly referred to as cunts?  Someone suggested that the same epithet would have been directed toward Shirley Temple in the 1920’s.  I can’t know for sure, but somehow I doubt it.

Others, if not livid, were puzzled that I chose to write about this tweet. But my surprise about the tweet was about a point that I found obvious and had therefore not articulated. As Roxanne Gay said eloquently, the objection is not about the Onion tweet per se, but

 the cultural disease that spawned this tweet, the one where certain people are devalued and denigrated for sport and then told to laugh it off because hey, you know, it’s humor.

But as much, my objection is about the re-iterative, intimate association between the vulgar obscene reference to this intimate/sexual/reproductive body part and Black women, for whom the association has long-standing political, historical, social, significance: as slaves who were but dehumanized/objects of pleasure for white slave-owners. Who, even post-slavery, have less recourse to sexual and political and economic justice—because on the continuum of sexual justice, they fall way below in terms of so many gauges: protection from rape in courts as well as in prison, where so many poor Black women are incarcerated; access to reproductive justice is much more limited for women of color, especially if they are poor; associations with women in power rather than as (single) mothers, nannies, etc. are also extremely limited in media and entertainment.

In large part, this is because Black women are considered still–still–sexually promiscuous beings [through denigrated discourses about welfare, having too many children, lack of moral awareness].  In this case, the term ‘cunt’ is being used in reference to someone whose gender/racial identity overlaps with those who descend from Black women slaves, whose bodies were used as sexual vehicles—forcefully, coercively (even consent isn’t truly consent under slavery—we know that).  There is a long history and ample literature about the continual re-iteration of the sexual objectification of the bodies of Black women.  And context—and consciousness—about this history (even when deeply buried), doesn’t (pdf) disappear quite so quickly. I daresay this is why Blacks—among other populations– worldwide are still politically, socially, denigrated and subjected to dehumanized treatment.

Part of my concern was expressed by this writer:

The underlying assumption is that folks who are outraged about the Onion’s tweet are not also vocally opposed to state-sponsored violence. It’s a snarky way to belittle the justified anger that people were feeling about the Onion’s actions. It also assumes an inability to hold at least two thoughts in one’s mind at once.

The rest of the piece is as poignant and speaks to the concern that underlies the critical comments about the tweet.

Was the Onion tweet so significant? More significant than, say, massive incarceration of Black men through Drug wars? The unjust imprisonment of Black and Latina women? More important than other forms of institutional injustice? Larger than the injustice of a flawed judicial system? The death penalty? Drones? Renditions? Torture? CIA Black Sites? Pre-emptive Detention? OLC White Papers? The Supreme Court’s dismissal of FISA in the Clapper v Amnesty case?  Aren’t these the real issues? The serious issues?

Why must we make the comparison? Can’t, shouldn’t, we resist both? Is it so difficult to allow that the general cultural and social psyche that facilitates the acceptance and casual dismissal of the Onion tweet is part and parcel of a political and legal context in which the status of Black women (and men) is that of sub-persons, as Charles Mills describes in his book, The Racial Contract? That Black women were neither the explicit focus of the 13th Amendment (for emancipation), nor the 15th Amendment (Black suffrage), nor the 19th Amendment (for ‘women’s’ suffrage)?

Is it that outrageous to consider that the attitudes towards people of color, as expressed casually in a satirical tweet is connected to the absence of empathy towards people of color in a variety of other dehumanizing situations—such as all of those listed above?

Many theorists and writers and activists have expressed the connections between material and legal circumstances and the psyche. Alienation is, among other things, the forced disconnect between one’s material conditions and self-understanding. How does one begin to participate in resistance to injustice—except through empathy? It seems that empathy is the place to begin the challenge to legal, political, material denigration.

That is why, I think, we must consider these links—as trivial, as ‘pc,’ as trite, as they may seem.  As importantly, I think this is so for those of us who argue and write about more lofty topics: how we can expect empathy for Black and Brown folks internationally, who are daily assaulted through US-led unjust practices in the name of the War on Terror, when we are unable to muster empathy for US—vulnerable, dehumanized, minority populations who suffer—not just serious political and legal injustices—but the casual denigrated—satirical–reference or treatment as sub-persons?

I think there’s another element here, as well: Quvenzhané is a young Black child. She is hardly threatening, but also considered barely worthy of serious awe or respect—in part because of her youth, in part because of the lack of any formal political status.  It makes it easier to have her be the stand-in to denigrate someone in a humorous context.

But that should also be part of what makes her off-limits for such references: youth, vulnerability, and absence of a legal status of her own.  While I wasn’t a huge fan of the film in which she acted, I thought she was a remarkable actress, especially given her youth. I wish for her achievement to stand without taint.

Maybe it’s just me. But I cannot imagine the Onion making a similar comment about Michelle Obama. Not just because she is FLOTUS and the FBI/DHS/CIA will all come after you for doing so (“Drones! You won’t even know what hit you.”), but because she is considered to be plenty worthy of respect–or least, unworthy of sexual denigration/satire/humor. Ditto the late former Prime Minister of Pakistan Benazir Bhutto, or Condoleeza Rice, the former Secretary of State under the Bush Administration, or Hillary Clinton, the current Secretary of State?  They are all women whose are either deeply loved or deeply despised.  Yet, I can’t imagine such things because they are so worthy of a sexual (and in several cases) racial hands-offness.  To denigrate them with that kind of a satirical reference would be considered beyond the pale. In part, I think this is because—they are considered worthy of respect in regard to “that” aspect of their personas.  But maybe that’s just me.

Racial Profiling, Islamophobia, and Whistleblowers: Targeting the Unruly Threat

Revised (11:05 am/Feb. 18, 2013).

I’ve been dithering about writing this column for a while. But my Twitter feed in the wake of today’s “Up with Chris” segment about U.S. Air Force veteran Saddiq Long, an African American Muslim who has been placed on the TSA’s no-fly list in both directions, tells me it’s time.

Categorical distinctions are thought to be the cornerstone of philosophy. But there are sometimes important reasons to challenge distinctions, especially when they cleanse reality of important political implications.  Example 1: The CIA didn’t torture detainees. They used “enhanced interrogation techniques.”

As many social science and humanities scholars write, race is not biological, or physical, or about phenotype. Rather, it is ‘socially constructed,’ a once-promising notion that is now stultifying. In part, the ‘social construction’ trope is troubling because it seems to quell further curiosity about what to do with this thing (race) that doesn’t seem to have an objective basis, but which is still very real for many people. There is also the concern, which I share, that the term ‘racism’–or its counterpart, “White Supremacy”—does not address the reality that persecution, harassment, and exploitation isn’t just limited to darker people. I agree: exploitation, persecution, harassment certainly extends to poor whites and sexual minorities, and other marginalized groups—like Muslims of various backgrounds. White Supremacy also seems to ignore that people of color—like Condoleezza Rice, John Yoo, Alberto Gonzalez, Eric Holder, Carmen Ortiz…and yes—President Barack Obama can be actively involved in spearheading racism, exploitation, and persecution against people of color, among others.

Certainly, nothing here can annul the urgency of acknowledging class exploitation and marginalization of various populations. As Prof. Dylan Rodriguez and others, including myself, have discussed elsewhere, White Supremacy can be multiracial.

But there is another lens by which to view the exploitation, marginalization, harassment of various populations throughout the centuries: black, Muslim, brown, poor white, various women, sexual minorities. In that framework, ‘race’ isn’t the foundation, but the effect, of harassment. Race is about power as deployed against the vulnerable, the (much) less powerful, the scary threat.

On my Twitter feed, some disagreed with my insistence that racial profiling (as found in WoT-era policies) are not just randomly directed towards Muslims. Some wanted to insist that the same policies could easily be redirected towards whites, or that it’s a matter of coincidence that darker Muslims– not whites–are being targeted. In fact, the argument that some civil liberties proponents give for being concerned about the extrajudicial and undue profiling of Muslims—is that such policies could easily be extended to whites. Others pointed out that there are white men and women who have also been placed on various watch lists: Jesselyn Radack and late Sen. Ted Kennedy, among others. True. We can safely guess that Julian Assange and Bradley Manning have also been placed on those lists.

Others wanted to insist that because religion and race are distinct categories, “religious profiling” should be distinguished from “racial profiling.” Yet others insisted that Muslims should be profiled because ‘most terrorist acts are committed by Muslims.’  Nope. Not even if you don’t quibble with the definition of terrorism. Also not if you look at the demographics of mass murders, committed with the intent to terrorize some population.

According to Mother Jones, 44 of the last 62 mass shootings since 1982 have been committed by white men. According to UNC sociologist Charles Kurzman’s report, “Muslim-American Terrorism in the decade since 9/11,” Muslim terrorism is a negligible threat: 14,000 murders were committed in 2012 alone. Yet, fewer than 20 Muslims have been indicted annually since 9/11. Between 2000-3000 Pakistanis have been killed by U.S. drones in the last 9 years, although only 900 are defined as non-combatants. Over 114,000 Iraqi civilians have died under the false pretenses by which the US invaded Iraq in 2003. Hundreds of Muslim men have been rendered and tortured at CIA black sites.  U.S.-led terrorism is rampant.

‘Racial profiling’ (as seen in US counter-terrorism policies as well as immigration-regulation and drug wars,) does accord with certain populations being targeted: darker Muslims, African Americans, Latin@s, (Muslim and non-Muslim South Asians and Arabs, Iranians, Palestinians).  Policies like TSA watch and no-fly lists also include some relatively upper-class whites who used to work for the CIA or NSA.

Obviously, we don’t identify all these groups as “races,” per se. Some are ‘religious,’ ethnic, sexual, national, cultural, or class-based groups.  Yet, most of us would be hard-pressed to disagree that under the War on Terror, those groups are more often profiled—for any number of dubious reasons. But these reasons remain largely unknown. As attorney Gadeir Abbas said about Saddiq Long, the reasons he is on the no-fly list are known only to the FBI and God.

So what do they all have in common?  They are perceived as unruly threats. Some might have customs that are hated or feared (being visibly Muslim or not ‘generically’ American). They might have accents, appearances and comportment that the population has been taught to fear (dark skin, hoodies, baggy low-hanging jeans, beards, turbans, hijabs).  Or they are unruly because they criticize/challenge the state (as do dissenters and whistleblowers).

Criminalizing the unruly publicly (and under the pretense of public safety/national security) “clarifies” the good guy-bad guy distinction. It also perpetuates the stigmas that made them vulnerable and hated in the first place.  Which makes them even more vulnerable being kicked outside the gates of the city, so to speak. But look on the bright side: at least this way, the “patriots” know exactly where to stand. Behind the state.

There is little random about this. Those who are stigmatized or feared or hated are likely to be targeted. Those who are wealthy are less likely to be targeted. Those who vociferously champion or parrot the state’s policies are less likely to be targeted. Those who have powerful political connections are less likely to be targeted.

There is nothing universal about this—not all people are equally vulnerable at any given time.  Dick Cheney is hardly about to be placed on the TSA’s watch/no-fly list. And if he is, as Sen. Ted Kennedy was, it will be loudly and publicly announced as an error. Some whites will be vulnerable—if they are critical enough and loud enough for the state to hear. If they are poor. If they are part of a stigmatized group. Most whites don’t need to fear. Ditto for many (not all) wealthy brown and black people who closely conform to a generic, non-threatening, stereotype of “American.”

Racialization is the effect, not the cause, of stigma, vulnerability, and state-led targeting of unruly peoples/groups. Most often, groups are vulnerable because of their darkness or foreignness or relative poverty. We have seen the pattern of targeting the unruly threat over and over again: Enslavement of West Africans; Jim Crow; one-drop rules; Chinese Exclusion in the 19th century; the internment of Japanese migrants and Japanese-Americans in the 1940’s; the criminalizing of protesters through the second half of the 20th century; drug wars; the War on Terror.  But also vulnerable are those who can encourage the public to question the state or other authorities.  Think Socrates, Rosa Luxembourg, Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Or white or upper-class whistleblowers and political dissenters such as Thomas Drake, John Kiriakou, Julian Assange and Bradley Manning.

There is little accidental about these events, except the precise event that will precipitate the fear, and thereby ‘compel’ the state to clamp down and tame the ‘threat.’

What does all of this have to do with Saddiq Long? Was he placed on the no-fly list because he is African American? Because he embraced Islam? Because he decided to make his post-Air Force life in the Middle East? Probably all of those are relevant to his stigmatization and political vulnerability. Would he still be on the no-fly list if he weren’t Muslim? If he were white?  I don’t know.

But I doubt that “religious profiling” is different from racial profiling in this context.  Among other reasons, those who fear Muslims don’t know jack about Islam; but they do know that they despise what Muslims supposedly represent. If we understand racialization as the systematic attempt to humiliate, dehumanize, and marginalize those who (baselessly) signify a threat to–a state or another population, then race is about the kind of persecution that applies to a range of populations across a range of situations. And it is also possible to understand how a multi-racial White Supremacy is possible.

It makes sense to point to the overlap between GWoT policies and the racial profiling of certain groups. But race doesn’t always pertain to the 3—or 5—or 7—or 42—‘races.’ Rather it points to those who are seen as unruly threats who are vulnerable to the state’s wrath. And that unruliness is hardly accidental or random.

White Papers, Targets, and U.S. Citizens: What’s All the Fuss?

Revised 6:59 am.

The last few days, the mainstreamish media and Congress have professed shock and outrage over the Office of Legal Counsel white paper and its ambiguous rationale on President Obama’s targeted killing program. But, really, there’s very little new about it, save some ostensible rationale that will facilitate a long-standing politics of execution.

But, much news media and Congress (except for DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz) have known about targeted killings for years. As Tara Kelvey and Josh Begley have noted, the New York Times has covered drones for years, even when they have ostentatiously skirted around the reasons for those killings. Similarly, the Brennan hearings were a perfect place for Congress to engage in, as Jeremy Scahill called it on Up with Chris this morning, “Kabuki oversight”—namely, the spectacle of watching senators like Dianne Feinstein and others to act as if they were overwhelmingly outraged by the non-responsiveness of the CIA, OLC, and WH to their repeated requests for an answer to the question of the rationale for targeted killing without oversight.

Why then are they suddenly exercised over it now? I’m puzzled by the fuss, given the way the sudden controversy is framed is shock and horror that a U.S. citizen might be fingered for death if they are suspected to be an “imminent” threat to America. So, suddenly—what—everyone cares that U.S. citizens Anwar and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki , Samir Khan, and Kamal Derwish were killed?

Why weren’t our esteemed media and Congress that exercised about the provisions in NDAA 2012 that authorized POTUS to arrest and detain U.S. citizens (um…and foreign nationals) anywhere for posing an imminent threat?

After all, many more U.S. citizens are likely to be intercepted and indefinitely detained by the following NDAA 2012 provision (the one that Obama insisted be included on threat of veto. Remember?):

Subtitle D–Detainee Matters
SEC. 1021. AFFIRMATION OF AUTHORITY OF THE ARMED FORCES OF THE UNITED STATES TO DETAIN COVERED PERSONS PURSUANT TO THE AUTHORIZATION FOR USE OF MILITARY FORCE.
 
    (a) In General- Congress affirms that the authority of the President to use all necessary and appropriate force pursuant to the Authorization for Use of Military Force (Public Law 107-40; 50 U.S.C. 1541 note) includes the authority for the Armed Forces of the United States to detain covered persons (as defined in subsection (b)) pending disposition under the law of war.
    (b) Covered Persons- A covered person under this section is any person as follows:
    (1) A person who planned, authorized, committed, or aided the terrorist attacks that occurred on September 11, 2001, or harbored those responsible for those attacks.
    (2) A person who was a part of or substantially supported al-Qaeda, the Taliban, or associated forces that are engaged in hostilities against the United States or its coalition partners, including any person who has committed a belligerent act or has directly supported such hostilities in aid of such enemy forces.

The rest of the clause is just as interesting.

After the November elections, Sen. DiFi tried an interesting re-do in NDAA 2013 with an amendment that limited indefinite detention to non-citizens—but you’ll remember that it ‘mysteriously disappeared.’  If anything, U.S. citizens are much more vulnerable to the arrest and indefinite detention provisions from these bills than drones strikes. Right?

Mind you, it is heartening that even ‘forward leaners’ like Kristal Ball are so worked up over the undue authority that the WH/DoJ/OLC is taking to dilute the grounds by which they justify the targeting of U.S. citizens.

But the issue with drones is not just that they target U.S. citizens. But that they miss. And kill thousands of non-US citizens. And thousands of innocent civilians. And hundreds of children. On other sovereign lands. And turn peaceful foreign nationals into hostile, understandably vengeful, potential allies of organizations that the US has deemed to be our enemies.

There are compelling reasons to review the underlying rationales and “logic” of an Administration that wants to maintain a thick shell of secrecy around policies and authoritarian practices as heinous as killing U.S. citizens. The urge to dissect these policies is especially important as we consider future elections in relation to the executive authority that has been expanded for future presidents to exploit.

While the white paper is in the news, it’s worth taking advantage of the timeliness to explore other, older, facets of the Bush and Obama Administrations’ expansion of power.  In the short run, U.S. citizens stand to be much more vulnerable to the provisions of NDAA 2012 than the targeted killing rationale of the white paper.  This is especially true of Muslim-American men, who have been vulnerable to Sec. 1032 of NDAA 2012 since the endless, borderless, War on Terror was declared. And have been vulnerable to much, much, much, muchmuch, more than that.

Drones are being used for tracking here in the U.S, but not yet as lethal weapons. On the other hand, the (ex post?) rationale of Sec. 1032 in NDAA 2012 stands to round many more up in conjunction with anxieties about their acquaintances, associations, and communications in relation to the monstrous fear of Al-Qaeda and the all things “terrorist.” But we know that those ‘more’ will less likely be young white men from the burbs of Mill Valley (to date, we’ve only seen one like that–and he got a trial), than young brown and black men from the “terrorist-laden” terrain of Queens, the Bronx, or the less-than-affluent suburbs of Boston and Portland, OR.

And in so saying, perhaps I’ve answered my own question: maybe we care more about the OLC white paper because it obfuscates the obvious: these aren’t policies intended towards non-Muslims. We can scrutinize the rationale of the white memo as a way to distract most Americans from focusing on the fact that policies like indefinite detention, pre-emptive policing, and—yes—targeted killings—haven’t been and won’t likely be directed towards innocent (non-Muslim) Americans. Rather, such policies will continue to be aimed many more Muslim-Americans (and non-Americans) who won’t–can’t–possibly expect the U.S. to respect their innocence unless there are clear and evident reasons to suspect otherwise.

In America, Journalists “Push Back”: The Magnificent Hypocrisy of Touré

Update (2/17/13) below:

Yesterday, the news of the leaked Department of Justice white paper brought on a flurry of “debates” about whether POTUS’ ever-expansive rationale for targeting U.S. citizens was acceptable. The rationale is that a mere suspicion WITHOUT evidence that a U.S. citizen was a senior official in Al-Qaeda (designated as a terrorist organization by the U.S.) is an acceptable basis to target him via a drone strike.

It’s hard to have a believable “debate” when folks who should be aware and up-to-date on the Administration’s doings are ignorant, skeptical, or indifferent. Those were the reactions of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, when she was challenged about the legitimacy of WH-directed kill lists and drone strikes. This clip is from last fall, after the second Presidential debate at Hofstra University. Wasserman-Schultz–an elected Congressional representative from Florida–has NO idea about the secret kill list whatsoever (FF to 00:25 and again to 00:35-60 for “the look”):

Wasserman-Schultz appears confused and skeptical when asked about the kill lists. In fact, she has the same blank look on her face that Touré, a political commentator for cable tv’s “left-leaning” MSNBC’s SpinCity, does when his co-hosts Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp confront him about the fact that a drone was used to kill 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi, the son of the alleged “#2 official in Al-Qaeda.” His father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, was killed by drones on Sept. 30, 2011, 2 weeks AFTER John Brennan, the Obama nominee to be the next director of the CIA, argued for upholding transparency and rule of law when deciding the targets of drone strikes. Abdulrahman was killed exactly 2 weeks later. Both father and son were U.S. citizens.

Compare Wasserman-Schultz’ reactions to those of Touré on the same topic (unfortunately, this clip won’t embed on this site, so you’ll have to click it. It’s short, and I promise it’s worth your time).

https://www.mrctv.org/videos/watch-two-far-left-msnbc-hosts-actually-support-doj-drone-memo

Touré was embroiled in a controversy last year with Piers Morgan over the death of Trayvon Martin, whose 18th birthday would have been yesterday. Martin’s ‘crime,’ as “journalist” Geraldo Rivera and prosecutors allege—was not that he was black, but that he was wearing a hoodie in an exclusive gated community. Touré was especially critical of Morgan about not having interviewed George Zimmerman–who shot and killed Martin–and his brother Robert, critically and forcefully.

You will see from the below clip one such heated discussion between the two of them where, invoking certain nativist sentiments, Touré insisted that because Morgan was not American, he didn’t understand true journalistic rigor.

Morgan is hardly an icon of journalistic responsibility, but Toure’s comments are remarkable and self-righteously patronizing:

Let me explain to you a little bit at what’s at stake here. This is a major moment in American history and America’s reaching a bit of a boiling point in terms of dealing with this issue. And when we allow for misinformation and obfuscation and people to become confused about the truth about what’s going on, then we become part of the problem and not part of the seeking a solution.

He continues to berate Morgan for “being a part of the problem” for allowing the Zimmerman brothers to come on the air and spread misinformation and lies that “we know many people will believe.”

Do you know that in the hallways of MSNBC we were laughing at you today? We wouldn’t even take ‘em–standards of practices at MSNBC wouldn’t even let them through the door. (1:15)

I’m hardly a fan of Piers Morgan; but Touré’s response was an especially interesting one. Remember this part from the SpinCity clip?

If you join Al-Qaeda, you lose the right to due process, you become an enemy of this nation. And you’re committing treason. And I don’t see why we should expand (sic) American rights to people who want to kill Americans. This is not criticizing the United States. This is going to war against the United States.

Treason is a charge that can be leveled at a U.S. citizen, not a “foreign” enemy. He is also surprised to learn that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki is American minor. Take a look again at 00:34.

Touré: What do you mean a 16-year old who is killed? I’m not talking about civilians.

Steve Kornacki and S.E. Cupp (the ‘conservative’) assure Touré that they are talking about a 16 year old Denver-born teen who was killed. Touré looks confused.

Touré: If people are working against America, then they need to die.

According to Touré’s own standard, he is part of the problem. Is MSNBC laughing at Touré, one wonders?

There is a certain nativist, if not xenophobic, consistency on Touré’s part. Rightfully insisting on paying attention to the racist context surrounding Martin’s death, he nevertheless challenges Morgan’s attitudes on the grounds that Morgan is not “from here.” For all of Touré’s understanding about the racial context of unfair murders, he appears to be ignorant of and indifferent to the fact that a young Muslim (American) boy was killed by a drone under the auspices of the POTUS.

We see a similar nativism in Touré’s sentiments about restricting due process to “Americans”—even after he learns that Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki IS American. [Not to worry though, Kristal Ball jumps in to assure us that this issue is not “black and white,” but “definitely one of those areas of grey.” As S.E. Cupp points out, killing 700 children through drone strikes is hardly “an area of grey.”]

According to Touré (5:30), what Morgan understands as “challenging” interview subjects is barely critical, barely journalistic. Says Touré:

What you understand as challenging, perhaps, maybe that’s what goes in England. That’s not what we do in terms of challenging in America…I would have liked to see him pushed and challenged, more followup, more pushback, more research to understand.

Really? Considering that Touré’s “version” of critical (“leftie”) journalism takes the form of vociferous unwillingness to ask for proof of one’s “terrorist credentials,” or to question the validity of the white paper (never mind the range of “counter-terrorism” law that has increasingly shrouded executive decisions in secrecy), I have to wonder what it is “that we do here in America.”

Touré goes on this vein for another 10 minutes: a lecture to Piers Morgan about aggressive journalism, and how impossible it is that Zimmerman’s story is true, so “at that point, we can’t give him a light pushback; we have to give him a much tougher follow-up than that.” (6:20).

I’m waiting for Touré’s tough follow-up on POTUS’ kill lists, the WH’s Terror Tuesdays, and the white paper on targeted killing. As Touré snidely pretends to be impressed that Morgan has been covering the Trayvon Martin story for “a whole week, wow!” I’m wondering why Touré knows not at all about the 2011 murder of 16 year-old Awlaki or of the deaths of 700 children by drones.

Given his anger over Martin’s death and apparent ignorance about who Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was, or what his crime was (namely that of having an “irresponsible father”), one could accuse Touré of having double-standards about the value of the lives of African American v. Muslim American 16 year old-teens, not to mention his own hypocritical indignance about Morgan, given that Touré is vociferously spreading misinformation.

Even then, his position regarding the white paper on targeted killings is that America is being attacked, Al-Qaeda is fighting a “post-geographic” war, and therefore the President, as the Commander-in-Chief is correct to decide who to kill–in secret and without any due process.

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The last person in this thread is correct; her words point to Blackstone’s Commentaries on the Laws of England–back in the 1760’s–when they had kings with political clout (Book 1, Ch. 7):

THE king, moreover, is not only incapable of doing wrong, but ever of thinking wrong: he can never mean to do an improper thing: in him is no folly or weakness.

One wonders how exactly how our “left” political class is “leaning forward.” If they dare to concede that wrong is done, it’s purely an accident. Which must make it morally acceptable.

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Feet to the Fire! Or is it “Lean Forward”?

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Update (2/17/13): This article by Jemima Pierre on Black Agenda Report is a MUST READ. Written one year ago, it is dead-on accurate and precise. Pierre compares the assassinations of Trayvon Martin and Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki. Pierre, rather than Touré, should have been on this segment of The Cycle–without spin.

On the Regulation of Firearms

Robert Prasch thoughtfully unpacks the firearm regulation debate.

Robert E. PraschAlmost two months after the massacre in Newtown, and six months after Aurora and Oak Creek, our political classes show some signs of taking an interest in gun control.  I say some signs as the President has reiterated his deep concern for “rural gun culture” and Senator Harry Reid is on record as being unenthusiastic.  Senator Dianne Feinstein, amazingly, is largely on the correct side of this issue.  I guess there is a first for everything.

To enhance our understanding of the problem, we need to define some terms.  The next step is to consider the several parts of these crimes so as to reveal where intervention may be most effective.  Hopefully, such an exercise gets us away from the fatuous “pro-gun” vs. “anti-gun” narratives that generate more heat than light.

A Definition and a Few Facts

Mass shootings and serial murders are each forms of mass murder. In the United States, mass murders are, statistically speaking, a relatively minor element of the death-by-firearm problem. However, mass shootings are different from serial murders in that the latter occur over a period of time.  Additionally, serial murderers often target a specific type of person or persons (rival mobsters in the case of mafia hit-men, young couples in the case of the Son of Sam, or prostitutes in the case of the Green River killer).  However, though mass shootings are a small part of the problem, they induce the greatest “headlines.”  The reason, besides their intrinsic horror, is that their victims are often drawn from populations that — statistically speaking — are substantially less likely than others to be the victims of gun violence (Newtown, Columbine, Aurora, the Amish of Lancaster County, etc.).

Of the approximately 30,000 people killed by firearms in the United States during any one of the last ten years, just short of 2/3rds have been suicides.  Of the approximately 10,000 people murdered by gunshot, about 2/3rds were killed with a handgun.  Shotguns and rifles account for somewhat less than 10%.  The data on the variety of firearm used in the remaining 25% of murders seems to be unknown or unrecorded.  Some writers have invoked these statistics to suggest that “assault weapons” are too small a part of the overall problem to warrant regulation or an outright ban.  But their conclusion is founded upon the erroneous belief that a handgun cannot be an assault weapon (The Austrian Ministry of Defense clearly thought otherwise in 1980 when it selected Glock as the manufacturer of its semi-automatic pistols).

The Three Components of the Problem

Speaking analytically, mass shootings have three components: a malevolent shooter (or in a very few instances, shooters), one or (typically) more firearms, and a target location.

Examinations of what have by now become a tragically large number of such episodes points to an emerging “profile” of the “typical” mass shooter.  They are overwhelming white, male, between 17 and 35 years of age, and from small towns.  Most of them exhibit a fascination with violent games and movies, combined with little if any prior military experience (Wade Michael Page is an exception, although his poor record resulted in a General Discharge from the US Army, rendering him ineligible for reenlistment).  While, ex post, it has been found that most perpetrators were depressed, few of them had an “official record” at least in part because, being psychopaths rather than psychotic, they had few interactions with mental health professionals, and for that reason were not identified as a threat to society.

Let us turn to the qualities of weapons.  Relative to murderers and even serial murderers, mass shooters are more likely to use firearms that can be described as “assault weapons.”  Now, it must be understood that “assault weapon” is a popular but loose category, one that requires elaboration.  Usually implied in this term are semi- and fully-automatic rifles and handguns with detachable magazines that can hold ten or more rounds.  Precision requires a bit of context.

Soldiers are defenseless unless they can fire their weapon.  It follows that periods when the weapon is being reloaded are moments of vulnerability unless the soldier is being “covered” by companions.  As most mass shooters operate alone, the moments spent reloading are the single best opportunity for bystanders to charge the perpetrator, thereby bringing an end to their rampage.  As an example, the Tuscon shooting came to an end when Jared Lee Loughner attempted to change the 33 round magazine on his Glock semi-automatic pistol, which presented Patricia Maisch with an opportunity to grab it as other bystanders wrestled him to the ground.

In the 18th century, a well-trained soldier needed between 15 and 20 seconds to “prime and load” a musket after firing.  This means that four rounds a minute were his maximum sustainable rate of fire.  The bolt-action rifles that eventually replaced this weapon in the 19th century were not only more accurate, but the expended cartridge could be rapidly discharged and the firing chamber reloaded by merely pulling back and rotating a bolt on the side of the weapon.  This would take only 4-5 seconds depending upon the experience of the rifleman (today’s models, such as the Remington 700, a widely used hunting rifle with a 3 to 5 round internal magazine, are even faster).  The result was a substantial advance in the weapon’s offensive and defensive value.  Offensively, more shots may be fired per minute.  Defensively, there is less “down time” between shots, which reduces the rifleman’s vulnerability.

Let us consider the phrases “semi-automatic,” “fully-automatic,” and “selective fire.”  The quality of being “automatic” is all about reducing the lapse of time between the firing of rounds — an essential quality for any weapon to be useful for military or police purposes.  A semi-automatic weapon, which can be either a rifle (such as the A-15) or a pistol (such as the Glock), has the following quality. Upon pulling the trigger once, the weapon will fire, discharge the spent cartridge, and load a new round in the firing chamber without any further action on the part of the person firing it.

In the case of a fully-automatic weapon (such as the M16), all of the above will occur and the weapon will continue firing until such time as the person operating it releases the trigger, the magazine containing additional rounds empties, or the weapon jams.  The only factor limiting the rate of fire of a semi-automatic weapon is the speed with which one can pull the trigger.  By contrast, the limitation on the rate of fire of a fully automatic weapon is exclusively mechanical.  Consequently, the latter can fire at rates of between 450 and 900 rounds per minute (obviously, a soldier will have nowhere near enough ammunition on hand for this to be a sustainable rate of fire).  Finally, a selective fire weapon, such as the M16 (the military version of the A15), can be switched at will from semi- to fully- automatic.  Its most modern version, the M4, allows for an additional choice, a three round “burst.”

The final factor to consider is the locations favored by mass shooters.  As with their personalities, many factors are present, but the number of recent tragedies allows for the identification of some patterns.  In general and perhaps unsurprisingly, mass shooters are drawn to places where substantial numbers of unarmed persons congregate.  This suggests that these individuals are interested in killing while seeking to avoid a fight.  We do not see them going after “hard targets” such as police stations or border posts.  On the contrary, the locations they select have much in common, perspective-wise, with the violent video games and movies they seem to favor – where the “action figures” can act upon others without themselves being targets in any meaningful sense.  Stated simply, mass shooters are not “tough guys.”  Taken as a whole, they are distinctly cowards.  While they are clearly suicidal, they seem anxious to avoid a painful death.  While they are willing to kill themselves with a bullet to the head, or surrender to authorities, they appear equally anxious to avoid being shot in the course of their crime.  Of course, and most sickeningly, they do appear to take pleasure in imposing pain (and death) upon masses of people whom they have not met or otherwise interacted with.

What Can We Do?

From the above, it seems that there are essentially three “points of entry” for preventive measures.  We may enhance the monitoring and regulation of individuals.  We may enhance the regulation and monitoring of weapons. Or we may enhance the regulation and monitoring of spaces where large numbers of unarmed persons gather for fun, prayer, learning, or shopping.  Let us consider each of these, in rank order of their undesirability.

Greater Monitoring and Regulation of People

 For the past twenty years, there has been a strong and uninterrupted push by governments across the English-speaking world to increase the monitoring and surveillance of the citizenry.  CCTV cameras are ubiquitous in the United Kingdom and rapidly gaining ground across the United States and Australia.  National ID cards were a fascination of the Labour Party in the U.K. and are periodically raised in the United States.  Private data collection, NSA’s massive monitoring of all our communications, the evisceration of FISA under the flimsy guise of reform, data fusion centers, the insidious but persistent push for a national biometric data-base, and other efforts have each and severally been embraced by the political classes.  Whatever happens with firearms regulation, and we are already seeing it in the several Democratic Party proposals for “immigration reform,” we can be sure that increased monitoring of the citizenry will be part of the plan.  We already select whom to kill in Pakistan and elsewhere on the basis of a “disposition matrix,” and those who may or may not board an American flagged commercial aircraft are selected, secretly of course, by the same methods.  You can be certain that many of those who rule over us are itching to extend these information-based technologies to gun ownership for reasons other than the safety of the citizenry.

Just in case you do not know, a disposition matrix determining whether or not you could own a gun would likely draw upon criteria such as the status of your student loan, your credit rating, your employment history and whether or not you change jobs frequently, whether or not you adhere to an unpopular religion, things you have said by email or on your Facebook page, etc.  These and many other criteria could all be factors in the construction of such a matrix.  Again, as with those being barred from commercial aircraft, you would be deemed guilty until proven otherwise, you would not know the rationale for your having been barred, and there would likely be few, if any, grounds for appeal.  Big brother knows best.  As is always the case in these matters, being poor or individualistic are prominent “red flags.”  In short, the program would be just one more form of enforced homogenization of the population and its attitudes.  As mentioned, we have enough of this in the United States already.  Lets not present our government with yet one more rationale to secretly monitor and manage the population.

Securing Places Where the Public Congregates

What about securing more of the locations where innocents congregate?  This has been the “solution” advanced by the National Rifle Association and other self-styled 2nd Amendment protectors.  Their proposal is that more of us should carry weapons, and especially concealed weapons, in the hope that a modification of risk-factors will deter future shooters who, as indicated above, usually do not have any inclination to fight.  Now, if our focus is narrowly and exclusively to address the problem of mass shooters, this is not a completely stupid idea because, as we have seen, these are not “tough guys.”  Being fearful of pain and lacking much military experience, they are not prepared to handle the chaos of a shootout, even if (as would be likely) they had the inherent advantage of superior weaponry over a random civilian who happened to be nearby with a small pistol tucked into their handbag or under their coat.

Where the NRA is mistaken is in their belief that comparative firepower is the only consideration.  We know that suicides and accidental shootings rise sharply in households owning a gun, so it is likely that the total number of firearms deaths would rise.  Also, as fewer and fewer people have had any experience with the military, we have ever-fewer persons with any exposure to combat training.  Among other risks, we face the danger of a teacher’s weapon being grabbed by someone with evil intent, or of a civilian mistakenly shooting an innocent person in a panic.  Training America’s teachers, to say nothing of any substantial portion of civilians, in close-quarters combat, fire-discipline, and gun safety would seem to be both impractical and too expensive to be a serious solution.  Finally, the proposal to hire retired cops to wile away the day snoozing by the doors of our schools simply provides additional targets and the illusion of safety without adding much in the way of a deterrent.  Why?  Because the shooter will always have the element of surprise and it is unrealistic to expect an armed guard to be able to nullify that advantage by remaining at maximum vigilance throughout their shift.

Regulating the Qualities of Legally-Owned Weapons

This brings us to the qualities of the weapons circulating amongst the public.  Now, before we begin, let us be clear that the United States has always regulated the public’s access to weapons.  None of us can own or operate an F-18 fighter jet, a tank, or an artillery piece.  Neither may we own a heavy machine gun with its fully automatic features and light-armor-piercing .50 caliber rounds.  The principle as to whether or not the government may regulate the public’s access to certain classes of weapons has long been settled.  Our contemporary dispute is solely and exclusively about the variety of weapons that we may or may not own.

Let us, then, jump straight to the conclusion.  There is no reason why any law-abiding American civilian would ever need a semi- or fully-automatic weapon.  Rapidity of fire rather than accuracy is the only reason for such features and that quality, in itself, makes such weapons unsuited to our neighborhoods.  Moreover, there is no reason why a civilian would need a magazine that can hold more than seven rounds.  They should be banned.  I will add that the gun legislation recently passed by New York State’s does not “grandfather” large magazines already in the public’s possession, and I believe that any federal legislation would be wise to follow that example.  The problem is not the age of large magazines, it is their existence.  We don’t want them around.  Our police don’t want them around, and they should be illegal.  To ease the burden on those who purchased them in good faith, the government could offer to buy them back, perhaps at a reduced rate over time.  After a fixed period, owners of such magazines should be subject to non-trivial fines and other penalties.

The Counter-Arguments

But what of hunters?  Many people hunt for sport, but we should not ignore the fact that hunting makes a difference in the food budgets of many families.  Moreover, with the United States vigorously renewing its commitment to neoliberalism under Barack Obama, we can expect that the median family wage will to either continue the declines it suffered during his first term or the stagnation of the Bush terms that immediately preceded it.  Happily, the rules proposed above in no way impede hunting.  Hunters have freely selected their weapons for years and, for reasons of weight and accuracy, they overwhelmingly prefer bolt-action rifles.  Unsurprisingly, and for the same reason, the US military’s M24 sniper rifle is modified Remington 700 bolt-action rifle, so we can be confident that it is the superior firearm when accuracy is the primary consideration.

But what of defending our homes?  After all, with neoliberal economic policies, local budgets have been under pressure for decades.  One consequence has been a reduced police presence in the neighborhoods of the poor.  Simultaneously, that most stupid of all American wars – the War on Drugs – is continuing to support the growth of gangs.  For these reasons, many of our poorest citizens have been forced to contend with greater rates of violent crime even as they are increasingly dealing with it on their own. Are they not entitled to weapons with which to protect themselves?  While aggregate statistics support the propositions that increased gun ownership is correlated with increased accidental gun deaths and an increased probability of being the victim of a shooting, it is unreasonable for us to smugly suggest that statistical aggregates should define the choices of every citizen or family.  That said, it is hard to understand why any household would need a Glock semi-automatic pistol with one or more 19 or 33 round magazines for self-defense.  Anyone anticipating the possibility of such a destructive shootout in their home should be asking themselves some questions about what kinds of goods they are storing in that home.  The point is simple.  For most of the past hundred and fifty years, people who have felt the need for an additional level of home or personal protection have been well served by revolvers such as those manufactured by Smith & Wesson.  The ability to fire 5-7 rounds without reloading should be more than enough to deter anyone attempting to break into a home or, failing that, delay their progress until the police arrive.

In light of the above, the only constituency clearly harmed by the rules such as those proposed above would be “gun enthusiasts.”  Some people, as we know, enjoy owning and firing automatic weapons.  And let us be clear, they are not criminals and have no criminal intent.  While others may not share their taste in recreational activities, we should acknowledge that for some Americans laws such as those proposed here would constitute a positive harm.  However, all laws restrain the actions of a few in the interests of society.  This is no exception.  The point is to make such laws only when necessary.  Sadly, we cannot allow the recreational pleasures of a minority keep military-grade “weapons of mass destruction” legally available for anyone who can afford to purchase them.

There is a final point to consider.  A popular bumper sticker observes, “If guns are outlawed, only outlaws will have guns.”  This may be true.  But automatic weapons are complicated to use, especially if one is planning a mass shooting.  Potential perpetrators who have not had the benefit of military training will need opportunities to learn to use them and maintain their skills, which will be difficult if such weapons are illegal.  That, in itself would constitute a substantial addition to public safety.

Progress: Cheering Feminists Who Kill

Revised (1/25/13, 7:38 am).

Leon Panetta’s announcement, overturning a 19-year ban on allowing women to join small-group combat units in the military, heralded some predictable responses from liberals and feminists: “How great! Let there be no inequality between men and women anywhere.” Some veterans tried to point to the legitimacy of this new permission by pointing to their newfound realization that women were just as capable as men in combat roles.

My generation assumed women’s capabilities—in all areas—were equivalent to those of men, so the veterans’ realizations were hardly earth-shattering. Generally, I’m in agreement with removing gendered and racial barriers to inequality and discrimination: in education and all other opportunities.  Moreover, there are genuine benefits to the DoD’s official position.  For women who are already in the army and serving de facto in combat-vulnerable positions, e.g., if they are attacked while serving in maintenance units (remember Pfc. Jessica Lynch?), ambulance units or escorting convoys, they can finally be compensated, promoted, and rewarded for the work that they have already been doing for years.

But I can hardly join in the feminist shouts of victory. Many have already understood the irony of this new “freedom”: women will now be officially allowed to join a war-time military that has been involved in several long-standing deadly wars, notably all over the Middle East. President Obama’s 2nd inaugural reality-bending notwithstanding, there is little evidence that a decade of war has ended, except in terms of troop withdrawal from Iraq.  As we know, that withdrawal is being done according to a timeline set under the Bush Administration, which the Obama Administration was unsuccessful in renegotiating. Never mind that a significant presence of non-combat U.S. troops private contractors will still remain in Iraq.

The war has gone underground or been expanded through remote-controlled drones directed towards regions with whom the US is not officially at war. War-like threats have also increased through the expansion of military bases all over sub-Saharan Africa. To boot, the US is now “assisting” France in invading Mali. These wars, it should go without saying, are targeted toward large swaths of the world’s brown and black populations.

There is a remarkable shallowness to the notion of “feminist progress.” We have heard various sources, including director Katherine Bigelow, exhorting the wonderful feminist dimensions of Zero Dark Thirty, which shows Jessica Chastain as Maya, the CIA operative and supporter of torture. As feminist scholar and professor Zillah Eisenstein points out,

This film is not to be made seemingly progressive or feminist because it presents a female CIA agent as central to the demise of Osama. Nor should any of us think that it is “good” that Maya is female, or that several females had an important hand in the murder of Osama. There is nothing feminist in revenge.

While I disagree with Eisenstein on this—sometimes revenge can be a feminist act, —there is typically nothing feminist in committing bodily, emotional, or psychic harm to any other person.

Harm to others violates the principle of the innate dignity of human beings.  Seeking physical retribution without using court and legal procedures violates due process, which is a US constitutional principle, but which should be a standard of human rights upon which states and individuals should be able to depend.

Still, I find it puzzling that there is something in the ethos of our age that suggests that “feminism” can be ascribed to women and policies supporting the most destructive of actions—from Maya, to Secretaries of State Condoleeza Rice and Hillary Clinton as advocates of violence military actions in the name of defending American security.

Last night, Jon Stewart and MIT drone expert Missy Cummings had this bizarre, if enthusiastic, interchange about the coolness of drones.  In the midst of it, Cummings pointed to her feminist credentials as one of the first female fighter pilots. Sounds great. Until one realizes that being a fighter pilot means that one is being trained…to engage in combat…to kill. It is a progress of a certain sort to realize that women can kill as easily and emotionlessly as men. Just as, I suppose, it is progress for an African American president to exceed a white president in his ability to promote secrecy, violence, absence of transparency, and endorse human rights violations.

What does it mean to talk about feminist progress when defined as enabling women to participate combatively in the colonizing project? To fight aggressively in the name of creating a world-wide imperialist presence? To join an institution whose policies for 11 years have involved, as Wikileaks has shown us, the shooting, maiming, and plundering of black and brown men, women, and children in the name of “U.S. freedom and security”?

There are other dimensions of this “feminist” policy to consider here as well: Why is this decision being taken now? It comes in the aftermath of another achievement for which the Obama Administration is being given full credit: the end of a 18 year “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” policy initiated under another neoliberal Democratic president.  Both of these policies augment the already-aggressive practice of recruiting poor or working-class whites and minorities–with more female and/or lesbian/gay/bisexual soldiers–for the US Army.

The timing of Panetta’s announcement is hardly coincidental: in the context of an improving economy, it is difficult and precarious to maintain a steady supply of troops in an all-volunteer army to service a global war that is more unpopular than ever among Americans (not to mention the folks that the U.S. is targeting—but perhaps that was obvious). The supply chain, as it were, is dying and new food sources need to be found.

The U.S. Armed Services, as a federal employer, provides a broad range of remarkable benefits to government employees: health care (not to be confused with Obamacare, which is a health-insurance scheme); child-care, housing, lodging, skilled training, and other forms of subsidized or free education.  It is neither hard to understand nor sympathize with the men and women who see the US Army as an employer of last resort in the face of a failing economy. But addendums such as the dissolution of DADT and “women in combat” will help erase any remaining barriers and supply a steady stream of—male, female, black, brown, working-class, gay, and patriotic—bodies to the war-feeding machine.

There is only one remaining obstacle. The Department of Defense hopes, with any luck, that said obstacle will soon be overcome with the passage of the DREAM Act. This act will offer young undocumented migrants the Faustian opportunity to enroll in college (one that they can somehow afford or which will subsidize them) or participate in American wars against other black and brown people around the world, in return for the miraculous chance to become “legal” residents of the United States.

3 cheers for Feminist Progress.

The Irony of MLK Day 2013: A Renewed Invitation into White Supremacy

I wonder how many consider today to be a magnificent symbolic coincidence rather than a Manichean irony: today, we commemorate the birthday of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the 1964 Nobel Peace Prize winner and one of the greatest civil rights leaders of modern United States history—a man who went to jail to defend the civil rights of hundreds of thousands of minorities and to speak against injustice at home and abroad.  Today, we will also commemorate the re-election of the President of the Unites States and the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize winner—a man who supports a drug war that incarcerates hundreds of thousands of black and brown minorities; kills U.S. citizens and foreign nationals; eviscerates civil liberties for alleged terrorists and citizens alike; deports 1.5 million migrants and separate parents from their children; protects bankers while allowing poor homeowners to lose their homes; and persecutes whistleblowers without mercy.

There are those who insist that the wrongs of the last four years should be attributed to the malevolent impulses and political calculations of Congress. It is true that Congress can’t be exculpated from its decade-long foaming submission to the American drive to control what it refuses to try to understand, namely the War on Terror. Its shills and hacks have quickly leaped on the bandwagon to push (lean?) forward to sanction a military budget bill that continues the expansion of the drone program and the U.S.’s continued military presence in Afghanistan along with the expansion of bases in large swaths of Africa, the Pacific, and the Middle East. Congress enthusiastically pushed for the renewal of FISA in 2008 (along with the eager support of Senator Obama). In 2013, Congress again with the relentless leadership of Senator Dianne Feinstein, pushed for the passage of the renewal of FISA (without oversight) for five years, along with the passage of NDAA 2012 and 2013, despite the clear purpose of those bills to eviscerate the separation of powers. Congress eagerly endorsed Obama’s loud requests for unilateral presidential authority to arrest and detain any and all persons that it deems a danger to the United States—US citizens and foreigners alike.

With a couple of exceptions, our politicians in Congress are without initiative or honor.  But Congress is not the source of numerous other wrongdoings.  My optimism for this Presidency has all but evaporated in the face of Obama’s policies—unhampered by Congress–designed to tear apart families in the United States and around the world.  I cannot celebrate the second inauguration of the POTUS, under whose watch in the last 4 years, the minds and lives of thousands of innocents have been broken, if not downright destroyed. By drones, invasions, bombs, torture, solitary confinement, renditions, due process-less proceedings, secrecy, and lack of accountability or transparency.  Instead, I will be retracing the steps that have led to the amorality of the Democratic Party and the Presidential Administration that has been able to retain and expand some of the most heinous policies of the previous Republican Administration, and which has been able to initiate some horrifically destructive policies of their own (click on the link to see just a few of the actions I have in mind).

Today, some writers will invoke Dr. Martin Luther King’s courageous April 4, 1967 speech, and rightfully so. King calls for us to see the connections between the fight for civil rights at “home” and the injustice of the U.S.’s incursions, bombings, deaths, and destruction abroad.  He tells us of the response by those who are puzzled by his challenge to US continued attack in Vietnam:

Over the past two years, as I have moved to break the betrayal of my own silences and to speak from the burnings of my own heart, as I have called for radical departures from the destruction of Vietnam, many persons have questioned me about the wisdom of my path. At the heart of their concerns this query has often loomed large and loud: Why are you speaking about war, Dr. King? Why are you joining the voices of dissent? Peace and civil rights don’t mix, they say. Aren’t you hurting the cause of your people, they ask?

In his long, detailed, passionate response—which is as apt today as it was in 1967, Dr. King pointed to one source of his awareness of the links between peace and civil rights:

It was sending their sons and their brothers and their husbands to fight and to die in extraordinarily high proportions relative to the rest of the population. We were taking the black young men who had been crippled by our society and sending them eight thousand miles away to guarantee liberties in Southeast Asia which they had not found in southwest Georgia and East Harlem. So we have been repeatedly faced with the cruel irony of watching Negro and white boys on TV screens as they kill and die together for a nation that has been unable to seat them together in the same schools. So we watch them in brutal solidarity burning the huts of a poor village, but we realize that they would never live on the same block in Detroit. I could not be silent in the face of such cruel manipulation of the poor.

It is a prescient statement that resonates with the imperialist policies of the United States today. The men and women who enthusiastically endorse sending our young people to war will not suffer the same hurtful ramifications as those men and women who are sent to war–or those on the receiving end of drones, bombs, guns, and destruction. Dr. King’s speech itself is long, insightful, poignant and courageous. Please take some time to read it today if you haven’t already.

What, if anything, has changed between the circumstances of American imperialism in the 1960’s and today? I think it is this: that more and more men and women of color have been invited into the offices of White Supremacy to share in the destruction of other men and women of color who are vulnerable, disfranchised, and rapidly being eviscerated through the policies of a multi-racial white supremacy.

As philosopher and political activist Dr. Cornel West pointed out last week, if Dr. King were alive today, he would have been detained and arrested for his associations with then-terrorist Nelson Mandela, under the auspices of NDAA. Dr. King might have also been arrested for his political speech, namely, his ability to rouse millions with his stirring calls for political justice in the face of American-led atrocities.

By remaining steadfast in their allegiance to illegal overtures in domestic and foreign policy, Barack Obama, Eric Holder, Deval Patrick, Susan Rice, Carmen Ortiz, Preet Bharara and other leaders of color have helped the structures of White Supremacy profit and flourish: The imperialist state has extended its hand to brown and black “liberals” in order to help them into the reigning structures of Imperialism.  It has been remarkable to watch leaders of color as they refuse to challenge the wrongful legacy of colonialism and Jim Crow.  Yes, the civil rights of whites have also been slowly scrubbed away, but—with the exception of poor whites—it is much less than the wide-scale evisceration of the peaceful ability to live for Muslims in the U.S., Pakistanis, Yemenis, Somalis, Malians, Afghans, Iraqis.

I think there is another question that we must come to terms with: What is the function of an African American president in a society that has clearly not come to terms with its legacy of slavery, Jim Crow, legalized slavery and racial apartheid in the form of mass incarceration and the widespread criminalization of Blacks?

As Prof. Eduardo Bonilla-Silva points out unflinchingly, given the history in this country, how is it even possible that we could have elected a Black man to the presidency in 2008?

This brutally frank and funny 29 minute interview is worth watching in its entirety. But FF to 4:35 to hear some of Bonilla-Silva’s answer: The successful election of Barack Obama was an invitation to do the dirty work of White Supremacy for it.  He points out that in Puerto Rico, where he grew up, it was hardly unusual to see black leaders engage in the same racial apologetics and detrimental politics that the former colonial Spanish and current American government engaged in vis-à-vis Puerto Rico’s inhabitants. It doesn’t surprise him that this can be so.

There are many other such examples that we can choose from that illustrate similar white supremacist dynamics. Take for example, the White Supremacist government of Rhodesia that selected Bishop Muzorewa to take over the daily administration of its racist state.

But we have even more recent and better-known examples: Bush Administration’s former Secretary, Condoleeza Rice, DOJ attorney John Yoo (author of the Torture Memos), and U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzalez, who created the marvelous quick-sandlike legal structure of Guantanamo and others.  Their invitations into white supremacy were still novelties, but identifiable because they did so under the auspices of a Conservative Administration that could make few credible claims to anti-racist activity. Nevertheless, the Bush Administration and the Republicans were able to promote their claims to be non-racist by using the presence of these individuals as cultural symbols to distract many of us—especially and including liberal Democrats in the Senate and Congress—from its overt return to a racial mission in the Middle East under the auspices of a colonizing/civilizing project. The War on Terror could thereby be couched as an ostensible hunt for justice and legitimized aim for retribution.

In order to engage the issue of state-led racism initiated, deployed and conducted effectively by men and women in power, we must address a system of multiracial white supremacy. This is a terrifying and politicized term. But we need to wrap our minds around it.  A multiracial white supremacy is a system of power that has invited in—or exploited wherever it could– people of color in order to wage institutional, legal, political assaults on other black, brown, and poor people—at “home” and internationally.

Four years ago, Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodriguez wrote a frank and prescient assessment of the election of the first Black President. It is still painful to read, because it is still relevant. In 2008, Rodriguez wrote:

Putting aside, for the moment, the liberal valorization of Obama as the less-bad or (misnamed) “progressive” alternative to the horrible specter of a Bush-McCain national inheritance, we must come to terms with the inevitability of the Obama administration as a refurbishing, not an interruption or abolition, of the normalized violence of the American national project. To the extent that the subjection of indigenous, Black, and Brown people to regimes of displacement and suffering remains the condition of possibility for the reproduction (or even the reinvigoration) of an otherwise eroding American global dominance, the figure of Obama represents a new inhabitation of white supremacy’s structuring logics of violence.

The only phrase I would change is “new inhabitation.” It is no longer so.

Rodriguez ends his essay with the following:

At best, when the U.S. nation-building project is not actually engaged in genocidal, semi-genocidal, and proto-genocidal institutional and military practices against the weakest, poorest, and darkest—at home and abroad—it massages and soothes the worst of its violence with banal gestures of genocide management. As these words are being written, Obama and his advisors are engaged in intensive high-level meetings with the Bush administration’s national security experts. The life chances of millions are literally being classified and encoded in portfolios and flash drives, traded across conference tables as the election night hangover subsides. For those whose political identifications demand an end to this historical conspiracy of violence, and whose social dreams are tied to the abolition of the U.S. nation building project’s changing and shifting (but durable and indelible) attachments to the logic of genocide, this historical moment calls for an amplified, urgent, and radical critical sensibility, not a multiplication of white supremacy’s “hope.”

Instead, we saw the precise inverse of Prof. Rodriguez’s calls for action: Not only invocations of “white supremacy’s hope,” but languor and denial. In the last 12 months, we heard a constant (white) feminist and (multiracial) liberal moral “shaming” of those—especially whites–who attempted to point to a reality-based truth.  In this sense, the last four years have enhanced the wishes of a dominant power structure that deflects charges of racism through the public responses of “post-racist” liberal feminists, Democrats, and pundits who support African Americans and other minorities in leadership positions while marginally attending to the systemic force-feeding of a US military with black and brown bodies; while remaining silent in the face of the mass penalties that brown and black people face in this country under the auspices of the War on Terror and the War on Drugs; massive foreclosures on homes disproportionately affecting minorities; and in one of the latest international affronts to people of color—while insisting on Israel’s “Right of Self-Defense” in the face of what is clearly a bullying and brutish beat-down of a long oppressed Palestinian population.

What is egregious about the latter is not only the clear indifference and neglect of basic human rights for a group of people whose land has been increasingly diminished, but the willful blindness and insistence that those who have been imprisoned, brutalized, emaciated through sanctions, bombs, and sheer daily terror at the end of the legal machinery and weapons of a colonial police state—are on an equal playing field with a state with sophisticated arms funded and supported by the United States.

As we enter the second term of a Presidency that has proved that the wide-scale destruction of black, brown and Muslim peoples for political gain can be conducted spectacularly and quite profitably, I wonder what it will take for Americans to take stock of their racist and imperialist legacy to challenge the injustices waged at home and abroad? Is it even possible to remember the legacy of Dr. King without being ashamed at the intentional destruction of people of color at home and internationally? And if we can, doesn’t that say more about the dessication of the American moral conscience than anything else?

What a Small World: Carmen Ortiz, Aaron Swartz, and Tarek Mehanna

Revised: January 15, 2012, 3:25 pm; revised again 10:02 pm.

Update I & II (below).

You have probably heard of Carmen Ortiz. She is the US Attorney who has become notorious for vigorously initiating charges against Aaron Swartz, a cyber-activist and prodigy who, according to the Massachusett’s US Attorney‘s office, engaged in criminal activity by breaking through the security firewalls* of JSTOR via MIT computer networks and downloaded millions of public-access files. Swartz committed suicide a few days ago; his family suggests that the cause in part was the intense prosecutorial zealousness, where he faced a possible felony conviction and 30-year sentence, and up to $1 million in fines, for the “theft” of public-access articles. This was a prosecution which JSTOR opted out of supporting, but which MIT did support despite the fact that it has one of the most intentionally accessible networks of most universities.

What you may not know is that under Massachusetts law, the potential sentence that Swartz faced was more than the maximum sentence given to a rapist who has subdued his victim with a threat of physical force, namely 20 years. If a firearm is added to the mix, but if the victim is not subjected to “serious bodily injury,” then the rapist can receive a maximum of 20 + 10, or 30 years. In other words, the same as for downloading gazillions public-access, royalty-less articles—a crime which caused no harm.

What you also may not know is that Ortiz, who—until 5 days ago–was considering a run as the Democratic candidate for the Governor of Massachusetts, was chosen as the 2011 Bostonian of the Year by the Boston Globe. As evidence of her brilliant credentials, the Boston Globe referred to her work alongside a young Eric Holder in the Justice Department over fifteen years ago, during which time she helped to prosecute Abscam, sending the likes of Jim Jenrette and other Congressmen to jail for accepting bribes in one of the most famous FBI stings until the era of the War on Terror. Of course, in order to ascend through the ranks of (the Department of) Justice, one must make it a religion to be a “law and order” prosecutor. The Globe, in its attempt to confirm its support for this marvelous candidate, makes sure we know about Ortiz’ famous pursuit of James “Whitey” Bulger, the mafia member who was on the lam for 20 years before he turned up a few years back.

What you also may not know is that under Ortiz’s auspices as the US Attorney, other young Massachusetts men were inordinately harassed and pursued for political dissent–along with the singular crime of being Muslim. Among them are Tarek Mehanna and Rezwan Ferdaus. Mehanna, a US citizen, was convicted and sentenced to 17.5 years. Ferdaus, also a citizen, was entrapped by the FBI, convicted, and sentenced to 17 years for building explosive devices. I wrote about them some months ago, so here I will mostly highlight Mehanna’s case.

To judge by the U.S. Attorney’s prosecution of Mehanna, you would have thought there were enormous amounts of evidence pointing to his terrorist activities. Mehanna’s crime was political dissent against the U.S.’s vigorous pursuit and harassment of Muslims in its self-declared War on Terror. In fact, let me be even clearer: Mehanna was not convicted of killing, assaulting, or even threatening Americans. He was convicted of

conspiracy to provide material support to al Qaeda, providing material support to terrorists (and conspiracy to do so), conspiracy to commit murder in a foreign country, conspiracy to make false statements to the FBI, and two counts of making false statements.

In the scheme of counterterrorism laws, conspiracy is one of the weakest charges that can be leveled, since conspiracy charges require an extremely low standard of evidence. In fact, the three men of Somali descent who were rendered from Djibouti last month to a Brookyn Federal court, are also charged with “conspiracy,” despite having been detained for over 3 months in Somalia and over 1 month in Brooklyn. This tells us that very little evidence has been found to support a stronger charge, like of actual material support to terrorists.

To hear the Boston Globe and the Boston FBI’s office tell the story, Mehanna was on the verge of waging jihad. The accounts by Adam Serwer, Kevin Gostola and Glenn Greenwald vigorously counter this story. Adam Serwer, for example, suggests:

Civil liberties advocates say the case represents a slippery slope. In the 2010 case Holder v. Humanitarian Law Project, which decided whether or not providing nonviolent aid (such as legal advice) to terrorist groups constitutes material support for terrorism, the Supreme Court ruled that even protected speech can be a criminal act if it occurs at the direction of a terrorist organization. Based on that ruling, you could be convicted of materially supporting terrorism merely for translating a document or putting an extremist video online, depending on your intentions.

And yet, Mehanna was left in solitary confinement without a trial for over 3 years, with very few chances to see his parents–or anyone else. In prison, he like many other young Muslim men, faced a range of “Special Administrative Measures” (SAM’s) that are rather arbitrarily administered for various infringements of ad hoc rules, such as praying in Arabic, etc. All this…for…critical political speech.

Regarding Ferdaus, as I wrote in October, he is:

Another Massachusetts resident, a U.S. citizen of Bangladeshi descent, who was convicted of terrorism by making IED detonators per request of undercover FBI agents. He pled—i.e. there was NO trial and so NO public evidence—to charges of attempting to destroy a federal building and “attempts to provide material support” to terrorists.” He was also a drummer in a rock band “Goosepimp Orchestra,” and went by the name “Bollywood.” Until 2010—when he was 25 years old—not 16, 18, or 20—he suddenly evinced an urge to kill Americans—at the prompting of undercover FBI agents. Really? At the age of 25, he undergoes a shift from drummer to terrorist? Clearly, young South Asian musicians need to watch out—they might find themselves overwhelmed by “terrorist leanings.” Prior to 2010, Ferdaus’ only evidence of “terrorist” behavior was a high school prank—pouring cement on the doors of his high school as a senior, and smoking pot. Yes—such evidence of “terrorist behavior…just imagine. By this rubric, every male white high school senior is well on his way to being a terrorist. Wait. Except of course that they’re white. And Ferdaus is not.

Conversely, Aaron Swartz was not Muslim, and thus his chances of being targeted as a potential terrorist were significantly decreased. However, his crime was taking concepts like public-access and creative commons too seriously–and thus thwarting the private property interests of info-hoarding profitable (though “officially” non-profit) companies like JSTOR–and officially for-profit companies like Elsevier. As with most policies under the Bush and Obama Administrations, what we have come to understand is that they will fiercely, staunchly, defend the interests of banks, mortgage companies, and their Wall Street friends–and be perfectly equanimous about trampling powerless individuals–especially if they are hotheaded, suggestible, or “excessively” idealistic about standards of fairness and justice.

It is not surprising that Eric Holder and Carmen Ortiz are consistent in their overzealous prosecutions against individuals who are engaged in political dissent: For Aaron Swartz, this dissent took the form of challenging the electronic paywalls that prevented public access to work done by scholars like myself, who will never see a penny from the tens of articles that I have published. Mehanna’s speech at sentencing is worth reading; he is clearly a politically aware young man. His dissent took the form of challenging and criticizing the US government’s imperial war—perhaps in extreme terms—but that is also part of the flexible boundaries of speech.

When young white men engage in extreme speech in colleges, they might be suspended, but they are rarely put in maximum security prisons and solitary confinement for years at a time before they are given a trial. It appears however that the inexcusable sin of young white men–is to effectively run circles around big corporations and wealthy educational institutions–and to do so without remorse. That’s enough to get the state to come after you. As Marcy Wheeler notes, 2 days before Swartz’ arrest, his case was taken over by the Secret Service.

Are these cases really that different, then? They are all targets of nationally directed efforts to target young men for–essentially–the crime of significantly challenging the state’s actions and loyalties. In Walter Benjamin’s words, that makes them Great Criminals.

Swartz, Mehanna and Ferdaus are also young men who have little capacity to come up with the resources—the money or the connections–needed to fight the U.S. government. These are small fish, they’re easy to hook, and the prizes are big: fame and professional ascendance as the “good guys,” at the same time that—at least Holder’s office—decides to ignore the crimes of big banks like HSBC, who are engaged in deliberate money laundering and massive material support to terrorists and drug cartels.

It is horrific and tragic that Aaron Swartz is dead, by suicide no less. I didn’t know much about him, or even his name until Saturday morning, but I do remember the case of a young “hacker” who managed to download 4.2 million public-access JSTOR files. Given that they were public access files that could only be obtained by being affiliated with an institution who subscribed, i.e. paid thousands of dollars to JSTOR—and given that those profits were never seen by the authors whose articles were included–it is clear that this is a theft without a victim. The bigger theft is conducted by academic publishers and databases—and I suspect, by copyright attorneys, who made it profitable to aggregate these files and demand exorbitant rates for access to them.

Judging from the moving testaments by so many others whose work I admire, I sense that his is a tragic loss not only to his family and friends, but to the project of political justice. For that I am intensely sad and furious at the pressure that he must have felt during the last few years.

It is also horrific and tragic that Mehanna and Ferdaus were each subjected to years in solitary confinement and entrapped by the FBI, and that the FBI is doing this more and more frequently. These two men did not kill themselves. However, a number of young Muslim men have died at the hands of US government, like Adnan Latif did (see my last post for links). Still, Mehanna and Ferdaus are part of the same move to overzealous prosecution that has victimized many young men under the auspices of the US Attorney Ortiz—in Massachusets and her counterpart, Eric Holder, at the federal (and international) level. We can see similar prosecutions all over this country–including in New York under US Attorney Preet Bharara. Bharara’s office zealously prosecuted Fahad Hashmi–again for political dissent. Hashmi, who was ultimately convicted for “conspiracy” to provide material support, also spent years in solitary confinement and was sentenced to 15 years on the basis of very little evidence.

One of the many things that those who are outraged at the death of Aaron Swartz can do is to challenge the copyright restrictions that publishers and academic databases impose on universities and scholars alike.

Another is to recognize and articulate–constantly, repeatedly, loudly–the commonalities between Swartz’s prosecution and the persecution of others like Mehanna, Ferdaus, and Hashmi. Challenges to the harassment of individuals–whether cyber-activists, Occupy protesters, whistleblowers, or Muslim political dissenters by the U.S. state–need to be sought –and based–in the legal, political, thematic links between individuals who may look and appear to be engaged in different “crimes” but who in fact are not so different in terms of how they are being pursued and targeted by the US state.

_________________________________________

Update (Jan 14, 2013, 7:33 am): I forgot to add the obvious: Swartz was also a key figure in challenging SOPA, another reason the state was none too happy with him.

Update II:( January 19, 2013: 12:20 pm): Marcy Wheeler has made a remarkable set of connections between Aaron Swartz’ FOIA request for information on Bradley Manning and the Secret Services’ confiscation of his computer and then arrest several days later, and DoJ’s ensuing harsh treatment. Read her posts that follow as well.

*An earlier version of this post incorrectly described Aaron Swartz’s ‘crime’ as having hacked through JSTOR’s paywall. In fact, according to the US Attorney’s office, Swartz is alleged to have broken through the JSTOR’s and MIT’s security firewalls.

Down the Rabbit Hole: The Obama Administration’s Version of Transparency

As soon as Judge Denise Lind’s ruling in the pre-trial punishment motion for Bradley Manning came out, the ironies began to pile up: It took nearly 2 hours to read her decision. She ruled that although Manning was mistreated at Quantico, she rejected the idea of “any unlawful command influence from superior officers that led the commanding officer of Quantico to keep Manning in restrictive conditions for no justifiable reason.”  For those reasons she refused to dismiss the charges against Manning, although she did give him 112 days’ credit for time already served. And even though it was apparently a long, detailed, decision, the ruling itself could not be released to the public. As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Nathan Fuller pointed out: this lack of transparency is in a case about a whistleblower making information available to the public.

This absence of transparency comes on the heels of a ruling by Judge Colleen McMahon denying FOIA requests for the reasoning behind Obama Administration’s targeted killings. In her ruling, she refers to the fact that relevant information on which she bases her ruling is classified.

And on the heels of the plea taken by ex-CIA official John Kiriakou, whose crime was—not to name—but merely to confirm a suspicion that a journalist already had about a CIA interrogator in the torture of Abu Zubaydah. Compare Kiriakou’s crime with that of Obama nominee John Brennan who (beyond his endorsement of torture and remarkable statement about there never having been any civilian casualties in drone attacks) is accused of being responsible for multiple high-security leaks. For Kiriakou, 3 years in jail. For Brennan—neither arrest, detention, or solitary confinement, but rather Deputy Chief of NSA, which moved him closer to POTUS’ long-held wish for him to become head of CIA.

The most remarkable irony (if that is the right word. Where is Alanis Morissette when I need to consult?) lies in a comparison of the above events to the 2 Presidential Memos that President Obama issued in the first 4 months of his Administration.

On the first day he took office, Jan. 21, 2009, POTUS bragged about the intention of his administrations to create transparency. The first “Transparency” memo (.pdf) was hailed by ProPublica as well as Electronic Frontiers Foundation.

My Administration is committed to creating an unprecedented level of openness in Government. We will work together to ensure the public trust and establish a system of transparency, public participation, and collaboration. Openness will strengthen our democracy and promote efficiency and effectiveness in Government.

To that end, Obama asserted that

government offices should harness new technologies to put information about their operations and decisions online and readily available to the public.

In his FOIA Memo, also issued the same day, the President loftily refers to Judge Louis Brandeis’ quote about sunlight and disinfectant. It continues on the same righteously lofty vein that was supposed to distinguish his Administration’s policies from the elusive, highfalutin, “we know better than you” tone of the previous Bush Administration:

Nondisclosure should never be based on an effort to protect the personal interests of Government officials at the expense of those they are supposed to serve. In responding to requests under the FOIA, executive branch agencies (agencies) should act promptly and in a spirit of cooperation, recognizing that such agencies are servants of the public.

All agencies should adopt a presumption in favor of disclosure, in order to renew their commitment to the principles embodied in FOIA, and to usher in a new era of open Government. The presumption of disclosure should be applied to all decisions involving FOIA.

Mr. “Hope & Change” continues on in the same vein, urging offices not to wait for requests in order to disclose information, but to be proactive in disseminating information.

The last time I checked, the Department of Justice was a government office. So were the CIA, NSA, and DoD. Yet, the trend over the last four years is the continual expansion of secrecy, an ever-increasing breadth of classified information—so much so that as the Senate debated Sen Wyden’s oversight amendments to FISA on New Year’s Day, Senator Feinstein boasted about how she knew that there was important information that couldn’t be shared—because it was classified, but she promised to retrieve it from the room it was in, and to “wave it around” so that everyone would know that it existed and said…something that she knew was important but classified. What we also know, as a leaked memo shows, is that she was doing exactly the White House’s bidding.  See how cool the whole accountability thing works?  Leaking classified information allows us to know what our pols’ intentions really are.

This is part of the series of hypocrisies ironies piling up: as the US government insists on making more and more information confidential, private, and unavailable for oversight, it insists that its own citizens have no right to privacy—none—in their cyber or phone communications, cars, among other activities.  Moreover, by breaching or challenging the punitive rules coming out of the White House and Congress, the only outcome that citizens or non-citizens face is severe punishment ranging from arrest to indefinite detention to solitary confinement. The latter, regardless of Judge Lind’s ruling in Manning’s case yesterday, can only be defined as torture.  The rules are arbitrary—what else can we call them when we have no ability to call our representatives, DoJ lawyers, CIA officials, or President and his staff to account for their actions?

Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor Colonel Morris Davis suggested in his interview on Russian TV yesterday that the most severe crime that Bradley Manning committed was to embarrass the Administration and the Department of Justice (see at 1:55), rather than aiding the enemy or harming anyone.

At one point, Obama was thought to have the integrity that the Bush Administration did not, when his FOIA memo clarified that

In the face of doubt, openness prevails. The Government should not keep information confidential merely because public officials might be embarrassed by disclosure, because errors and failures might be revealed, or because of speculative or abstract fears.

The seeming transparency of that memo is augmented by this one on “Classified Information and Controlled Unclassified Information,” issued just four months later in May 2009.  It insists on the centralization of procedures for the public dissemination of information, also stating that

Effective measures to address the problem of over classification, including the possible restoration of the presumption against classification, which would preclude classification of information where there is significant doubt about the need for such classification, and the implementation of increased accountability for classification decisions;

Such a directive should have the beneficial effect of pushing previously presumptively classified information into the “disinfecting” sunlight.  Instead, the defining trend during the first Obama term was the very opposite.

That May 27 memo seems to be directly abnegated by the quiet passage of the Whistleblower Protection Enforcement Act. In effect, the WPEA explicitly re-envisions John Kiriakou’s actions as criminal even as it purports to reinforce protections for whistleblowers. As I wrote when it was quietly signed on the day after Thanksgiving last year, WPEA will criminalizes attempts to speak to agencies or journalists without permission from one’s supervisors.  This provision cuts off the ability to disseminate information informally and casually, and implicitly threatens severe punishments for those who have any sort of relationship with journalists.

Contrary to Samuel Rubenfeld’s bizarre article in the Wall Street Journal, the WPEA insists that email communications will not be protected under this act. Rubenfeld offers as proof of Obama’s whistleblower courage adoring quotations from Angela Canterbury, director of public policy at the Project on Government Oversight, who claims that

He’s done more to affirmatively protect whistleblowers than any other president

and

Obama wants to encourage internal reporting of wrongdoing.”

“Obama believes that “if there are more protections for internal whistleblowers, there will be fewer leaks of national security information,” Canterbury said. “We share that belief, but that does not de-legitimize the need for external whistleblowers.”

“Sometimes information needs to be disclosed outside the government for there to be accountability,

It’s hard to know whether these are prevarications or the trite misty-eyed aspirations of liberal Obama voters. But whatever they are, the statements are blatantly inaccurate. Notwithstanding Canterbury’s official title, which apparently negates the need to crosscheck her claims with actual content, the bills and memos that purport to protect whistleblowers have increasingly done the opposite.

The “Alice in Wonderland” reference that Judge Colleen McMahon made in her ruling on drone strikes last week is an apt literary allusion to the craziness, the upside-downness, the inversion of meaning of all statements emerging from the White House and…its fore(wo)men?

Today, when a memo is prefaced with a statement about the need for transparency, one can be fairly certain that the purpose of the memo will be the opposite. When the POTUS’ allies insist that they are pushing for the renewal of FISA for the “safety” of the American people, what comes to mind are the Muslim men (who are known to be) in detention in the U.S. and the fear that non-whites have of being arrested, detained, or deported. It is clear that FISA is being used against the “safety” of Americans, and its absence of oversight is used to guard against detecting the misuse and abuse of secret surveillance privileges by government offices.

When Obama insists on nominating Brennan—a man who endorsed torture, denied civilian casualties, and was himself responsible for leaks—to be the next director of the CIA—literally biding his time for 4 years until the furor of Brennan’s notoriously unethical credentials inevitably died down (Feet! To the Fire!), I can only believe that Obama and his Administration are only interested in continuing—as Glenn Greenwald calls it—the never-ending War on Terror.

Perhaps it is hardly shocking that the POTUS–and our Senators and Congresspersons—continually refer to that ubiquitous, irrefutable, state of national security in order to invoke a continual state of emergency. But the unflinching, chest-strutting, arrogance with which they do so—while creating ever-growing secret kill lists and disposition matrixes, is in large part engendered by the voters who continue to rehire them on the grounds that torture, drones, renditions—are tastier, more flavorful, and absolutely more palatable when done by a liberal.

After all, would you rather have Romney?