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).

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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.

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.