The Politics of Distraction and Chaos

The latest Executive Order from DT, banning Syrian refugees and putting a 90 day hold on Iraqi nationals who want to enter the US has, at least on the surface, put us on a new playing field it seems. I tried to find the list of the other 5 countries that the press, from the NYT to CNN, has insisted is on the list of banned countries. There is nothing in the executive order about it, although there are references to earlier segments of US law that appear to list those countries. According to CNN, an earlier draft of the order (why can’t we have access to that??) listed the seven countries to which this EO applies. But I see no other confirmation, apart from the media parroting each other.

Here’s the upshot as far as I can tell: those five countries were listed on an original list of exceptions to Visa waivers, passed in December 2015 as part of an Omnibus Appropriations Act of 2016 (h/t to Emory Law School professor Deborah Dinner for helping me figure where to look, and for pointing me to Seth Frantzman’s site for some leads). I don’t agree with Frantzman’s conclusions, but still his efforts to find where the assumed countries are listed are commendable.

Frantzman points us to an announcement from the DHS website, wherein in they list 3 more countries to the list of 3 others already on the list to be exempted from the Visa Waiver Travel program, i.e., travelers from this list will not be eligible for visa waiver exemptions). The six countries are as follows: Libya, Somalia, Yemen, Iran, Iraq, Sudan, and Syria (already mentioned in DT’s EO).



You will notice that these are seven countries listed under a Travel Visa Waiver restriction that was passed in December 2015, announced in February 2016, that is, under the Obama Administration. Trump’s EO in effect develops further the policy enacted under Obama’s DHS, namely suspending visa issuances to those foreign nationals. To be sure, The Obama policy was narrower than the Trump EO, But let’s also be clear: these were countries of concern under the Obama Administration’s watch.

Trump’s EO suspends the Visa Waiver altogether, requiring in-person interviews for all persons seeking non-immigrant visas.

It is also the case that Trump’s EO is much more sweeping than the DHS restrictions, in that it seeks to suspend the entry of all refugees for 120 days, pending further scrutiny, and suspends the entry of all Syrian refugees until further notice (which is not the same as forever, but perhaps that’s a distinction without a difference).

Trump’s is a rather cleverly crafted EO, in that there is no explicit reference to all Muslims, but rather to “Islamic terrorists” (which we can certainly read as an “existential threat,” to paraphrase Judge Bruce Selya in his 2013 opinion on the Tarek Mehanna case. And we know that “terrorist” is a salient and legally acceptable category in a way that “banning all Muslims” is not. So, I suspect that this EO will-through conventionally narrow legal readings—be upheld as constitutional.

But all that is neither here nor there. I think there is another point here which is extremely salient: This is a politics of distraction and chaos in to which we would do well not to cave. Remember that this EO was effective in stopping exactly 109 travelers in the first 24 hours of the EO taking effect. 109 of 325,000 foreign nationals who fly into the US in a 24 hour period. Of course, this doesn’t include the number of travelers who were turned back in international airports, who are stranded elsewhere. But I worry that the Trump Administration in delivering these splashy—incredibly incompetent, ill-planned, insufficiently vetted EO’s–is leading us around like trained seals. They know we’re protesting, they’re expecting it, and it expends our energy while other less visible chaos is being wrought. In that sense, (and I did join the protests yesterday), I’m reminded of Walter Benjamin’s comments about the aestheticization of politics in his 1936 essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.”

Fascism attempts to organize the newly created proletarian masses without affecting the property structure which the masses strive to eliminate. Fascism sees its salvation in giving these masses not their right, but instead a chance to express themselves. The masses have a right to change property relations; Fascism seeks to give them an expression while preserving property. The logical result of Fascism is the introduction of aesthetics into political life.

Agreed, we are not proletarian masses, and I hestitate to use the term “Fascism,” because it is overused. But I’m struck by his point that property is preserved while political expression is exercised. I’m also reminded of Hannah Arendt’s point about how the success of authoritarian regimes depends upon throwing us into confusion and chaos, while other devastating acts are undertaken under “dark of night,” as it were (my phrase).

This is not to say that there isn’t important reason to be on record as dissenting. This is not to say that there is no cause for concern—but Trump/Bannon et al are continuing a certain politics of distraction that has been in effect for a long time, including under the Clinton, Bush, and Obama Administrations—namely getting us to focus on a certain social politics of antagonism and hate, while they enact other deeply destructive economic policies: NAFTA, the repeal of Glass-Steagall (leading eventually to the massive mortgage foreclosure crisis), financial treats for pals in the investment banking industry, the loss of pensions, bailing out the banks, cowtowing to the health insurance industry, etc.

We know that Trump has put Steve Bannon, clown and white supremacist extraordinaire (excuse me, his “Chief of Staff” on the NSC), along with the NSC Executive Secretary, while removing the Director of National Intelligence and the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs from permanent status. This is a WTF moment. Responses from the Trump administration responded that they didn’t want to waste the DNI’s or Chairman’s time. I repeat: WTF?

We also know that over the weekend, Trump launched a barely-noticed drone strike in Yemen that killed the the 8 year old daughter—and the second, US citizen, child– of suspected terrorist and US citizen Anwar Al-Awlaki’s children (the first, American 16 year old Abdulrahman having been killed during an Obama Administration drone strike). You can read all about the heinousness of the Obama Admin’s actions at the previous link.

The big question for me here is: what else are these bozos up to? What are they trying to pass under the radar while keeping our noses focused on this superficial “Clash of Civilizations” approach to foreign policy and immigration/visa policies? What kind of economic destruction are they playing into? Funnily enough, even Benjamin Wittes, on his Lawfare blog (with whom I agree about almost nothing), also thinks there’s something else going on besides “national security concerns”.

Something to consider while we’re being distracted and thrown into chaos.





Some thoughts as we head even further* into the KaliYuga (the epoch of terrible things)…

This post comes after a long hiatus from this blog: almost 2.5 years later. As some of you know, I lost my darling almost 2 years ago next week, and I moved to the South  which, remarkably, has showered hope on me again despite the current moment.  Salon has dropped me from their masthead (without notice), and so I return to my blog. I’d like to think that this piece constitutes a happy (re)inauguration of this blog. Happier than the one happening in DC today in any case. This piece honors the memory of Robert E. Prasch III, and speaks to some of our shared concerns. Love to you all and thanks for reading.


Two days ago, I was called in for jury duty in my new home territory of DeKalb County, Georgia. That’s part of the 5th district, for all y’all who are keeping track of the spat between Rep. John Lewis and the Trumpster. I spent nine hours in total in the DeKalb County Courthouse. Six of those hours were in a courtroom with 17 others while lawyers for the state of Georgia and the defense asked us a series of questions. The questions were designed to weed out potential jurors who might present obstacles to either side of the case. The charges involved domestic battery, leveled against a young black man, probably not older than 20.

We were ushered out of the courtroom several times so the lawyers could confer privately or speak with some of us who declined to elaborate on our answers publicly. As the day wore on, the 17 of us (one was dismissed immediately for an important reason which I won’t share with you so as not to give any of y’all ideas) developed a sense of camaraderie, kind of like “feeling close” to the participants of your favorite reality TV show. And people’s most intimate views came out. In particular the following 2 views were ringing loud and clear: 1) the accused guy was guilty of the charges. 2) they were hoping to be excused from the jury, because they had a bunch of important work meetings. It was patently clear that a number of us were grasping at straws, but giving lame answers to questions in the hopes of getting off jury duty.

Many of us, I’m betting, were anti-Trump folks. I know that the two who expressed the previous comments were definitely anti-Trump. When they (both women) found out that I was a WGSS faculty member at Emory, they anticipated that I was going to participate in the Women’s march. I’m wondering if anyone else besides me sees the tension in this story: Participating in the Women’s march was important. But giving the man in front of us the benefit of the doubt, and feeling obligated to participate on a jury of his peers somehow didn’t occur to them.


As I read lots of suggestions about what do instead of/after the Women’s March (talking circles, get-togethers for strangers who don’t talk to each other, be nice to people, make space for everyone to speak, “resist hate, exclusion, and policies that impoverish your community”…run for office, etc. etc.), I’m struck by how there has been little mention of practices that seem to be the least glamorous and the most important:

Maintain your civic responsibilities. Undertake your political obligations as citizens: not just to vote and to speak. But to try NOT to get excused from jury duty if you think you can be a fair juror (being impartial, I think, is next to impossible, but one can try to be fair). Juries are hugely important sites of social change and justice. Thinking thoughtfully, deliberatively, generously, and fairly is one of the most underestimated values of civic citizenship. And remember that for many decades, non-whites, women of any color or status, COULD NOT SERVE on a jury as the peers of the accused. This is, as problematic as it is, an important civic responsibility—undervalued, and casually dismissed by many of the most otherwise justice-minded of our friends and family.

On a broader level:

Figure out what kind of assistance/advocacy you can offer to men/women/children who are inadequately represented in our legal system. Be a children’s advocate. Join organizations that assist those who are charged with crimes and don’t have adequate laws or protections of their dignity and interests: the elderly, children without parents/legal guardians, men and women of color (Black, Arab, Latino, often) to protect their interests in the courtroom or in prison.

It’s important to be nice and generous and practice kindness and organize gatherings where we talk to each other and make each other feel better.

But there are a lot of folks who are already suffering under policies that, if not enacted under the Obama Administrations, were continued or exacerbated over the last eight years: Muslim men in solitary confinement due to specious material support statutes that make it nearly impossible for them to get a fair trial; men and women of color who are falsely accused of crimes against police officers; undocumented migrants who are penned up in prisons for months because they have “made the mistake” of trying to flee violence (public or domestic or sexual), disbelieved by overworked, harried, or indifferent bureaucrats. The list could/should be continued indefinitely, but you know the details.

Often, the best resistance is that which is everyday, obvious, and unsung. Be a citizen if you still have that privilege and defend others who don’t have—or who may have lost that right–through no fault of their own.

*As Jane Bunker aptly reminded me, we’ve been in the KaliYuga for a while. And it doesn’t really mean the epoch of terrible things, although it does suggest the Dark Epoch. Forgive my idiomatic interpretation…

Shoot first, ask later: Why the concept of “reasonable fear” is anything but reasonable

Hi, all. I’ve taken a Twitter breather. I’m finding that my work is a little more focused off Twitter, but will probably be back a little later. This post came out in Salon earlier in the month, but I thought I’d post and link to it here for readers who might have missed it:


Recently, Tamara Nopper and Mariame Kaba authored a haunting article, “Itemizing Atrocity,” analyzing reactions and analyses of the police shooting of Michael Brown and the seemingly sudden militarization of the police. They point to Ferguson as an example of the excess of the spectacle that draws attention to the most extreme cases of brutality or violence, and simultaneously renders the daily, hourly, violence faced by black Americans as ordinary and therefore unworthy of the empathy engendered in extreme cases.

Attention is drawn to the “spectacular event” rather than to the point of origin or the mundane. Circulated are the spectacles — dead black bodies lying in the streets or a black teenager ambushed by several police officers in military gear, automatic weapons drawn.

Their insights resonated as every major media outlet covered the repeated, more extreme, ever-growing confrontations between protestors and Ferguson law enforcement. The sympathy for the brutalized in Ferguson emerged as a response to the documented ill treatment of relatively privileged and protected whites (reporters, supporters, observers) who momentarily faced the same treatment that is de rigeur for vulnerable blacks — in Ferguson, St. Louis, Chicago, Paterson, Charlotte, Houston, New Orleans, Los Angeles and elsewhere.

Read the rest at Salon.

What Do You Mean “We” Tortured Some Folks?

About a week ago, for the first time ever, the US government, through the comments of its Chief Executive no less, confirmed that “folks were tortured.” Simultaneously, he observed that there “was little need for sanctimony” given the heightened fears of the American public in the wake of the 9/11 attacks, and the enormous pressure that law enforcement officials were under to prevent future attacks.

The President’s official confirmation that “folks” were tortured and not just undergoing “enhanced interrogation techniques”–was remarkable. They were striking not so much because the public learned something new, but because they should have ramifications for those who designed, justified and endorsed torture as part the US’s National Security strategy to combat terrorism.

For those who provide the legal cover for torture, including John Yoo and Jay Bybee, there might be some fear that an official US confirmation of torture will have ramifications for them. But they claim not to be afraid of prosecution. Given the soothing, exculpatory tone of the President’s remarks and AG Eric Holder’s lapdoggish compliance, (despite his 2009 resolute acknowledgment that waterboarding is torture), they have every reason to believe it.

Yet, his remarks are notably deceptive on a number of fronts.

Read the rest at

Ferguson: Not a revelation, but a reminder of White Supremacy

The news that a police officer shot an African American teen several times in the chest was shocking, horrifying, gut-wrenching. But it was not surprising. As even a weekly perusal of newspapers tells us, the murders of Black teens and men by private white citizens or police officers are common, ordinary, every day events. Two days after the shooting of Michael Brown, another young unarmed Black man, this time in Los Angeles, was shot by a police officer.

Yet, in the initial twenty-four hours after Michael Brown’s shooting, I saw flashes of the same questions in the comments to news articles and on Twitter: “What did he do?” “Why?” “Wtf?” Certainly, some of these were plaintive questions asked by grieving persons. But others reflected an earnest, though frustrating, innocence—one that found a shooting of a Black teen by a policeman to be unusual, accidental, coincidental, extraordinary. Their questions echoed as I flipped through the fleeting images that followed the news of the shooting—rows of police officers with shields and batons and terrifying looking dogs, pumped up and ready to attack–accompanied by articles about “looting and riots,” tear gas, sniper guns, and bullets.

Photo 6 in this New York Times slide show, among others, remains in my mind.

In the first three days after Michael Brown’s shooting, as the Black community gathered to protest his death, “left” media analyzed this event as if it were just a case of the police accidentally losing control. Elsewhere, mainstream news sites reported on the protests as if commenting on two equally strong baseball teams: The Cops versus Black people, rather than a case of Black protests against continual injustice. Other news sites report “rioting” and “looting,” as if looting is the prime obstacle to safety, rather than protecting Blacks against an arrogant, secure police force.

Read the rest at




Consumer Activism and the Biopolitics of Consumption

In my research, I’ve been exploring neoliberalism and the biopolitics of charity. How do we understand consumption and activism in a society whose social/public safety nets are increasingly eroded?

I’m going to try to post a series of pieces on neoliberal practices.  This is the first. And there’s a fun snarky video at the end.


Last month, I wrote an article about former financier Sam Polk, whose move from Wall Street to Groceryships has been celebrated as an example of the 1% awakening to a moral conscience.  Groceryships is a charity that gives “grocery scholarships” to “poor moms” in order, ostensibly, to alleviate their meager budgets for healthy foods. But the scholarships come with many strings attached: to swear an allegiance to want to be healthy; commitments to attend weekly nutrition classes, do homework, take cooking classes. More on Groceryships in my next piece.

In my original article, I suggested that this kind of charity was an instance of a colonizing mission akin to religious charities who deliver sermons along with meals to the poor. And…needless to say, I challenged the legitimacy of this mission.

Polk’s shift from being a trader to the director of this charity (and the existence of such a charity) represents but one datapoint in an increasingly hegemonic neoliberal society. He characterizes his past existence as about addiction: he was addicted to making lots of money, as he understands it. As Chris Maisano has discussed in an aptly named article, “Chicken Soup for the Neoliberal Soul,” this kind of self-assessment is but part of a dominant therapeutic culture in which certain socially disapproved actions (e.g., excessive drinking/extramarital sex/public prayer/corporate plunder/civilian violence) are attributed to personal flaws. Therapeutic discourse individualizes the action and isolates it from larger, societal phenomena that are indicative of a certain worldview. It also locates anti-social practices in personality attributes that must be corrected and improved by the individual, presumably in ways that are easily visible to others.

This model underlies a range of consumer-activist campaigns: from spending a year producing zero trash, or without spending or shopping or driving or using toilet paper or electricity, or “voting with your fork.” The idea is that one’s politics is best enacted through what one consumes (or doesn’t).

Although the details of each of these various campaigns differ, there are some details that they have in common: each project centers on the individual as the locus of responsibility, thereby depoliticizing the issue at hand, and reducing it to an “individual” choice: to make garbage or recycle; to spend or not; to have a carbon footprint or not; to consume only healthy foods or not.

Such campaigns don’t take into account the context of the issue about which they drumbeat: whether it be waste management (such as where landfills are located, or the health impact of these landfills on surrounding populations), or trash production (involving the notable absence of regulations requiring companies to produce goods in recyclable containers).  The precise point of such consumer-activism is that larger social structures that induce ill impacts on a larger society can be ignored in favor of the “every individual can make a difference” model.  True: if 350 million individuals discarded their cell-phones, or decided to live off the grid, or stopped spending or producing trash simultaneously, we would certainly notice the impact right away. But this hope ignores several important things:

1. It is easier and morally satisfying to shame individuals about their individual behavior, even though it is not as effective as changing the choices they face.

2. It is possible to achieve changes in collective social behavior: by regulating certain practices and penalizing individuals who violate the law.

3. Passing legislation that compels companies to stop polluting, producing trash, (or encouraging them) to grow healthier crops, distribute whole foods widely, find alternative energy sources, etc., may be much more effective in reducing the overall destructive impact—though much more difficult—than changing collective behavior.

4. Consumer-activism reinforces the myth of choice and the neo-classical emphasis on free-markets by focusing on the individual as the locus of change rather than considering the role of social structures (such as the practices of corporations that benefit from the myth of free markets and individual choice).

In other words, the standard corporate response to individual-consumer activism can safely remain: Buy our products if you like them. Or don’t. It won’t really affect our profits or force us to change our practices if individuals act alone. Because hey, the state doesn’t really care, and it is the only force that can compel us to change or lose money. And they (Congress/Senate/President) won’t compel us to change, because we are among their major contributors.

Consumer-activism is but an expression of neoliberal society. There are multiple aspects to neoliberalism, but for my purposes here, a neoliberal society is one in which state support of citizens is evacuated in favor of the privatization of individual well-being. So if you want to be healthy, spend more money and eat better and join a gym, or (“less expensively”) buy sneakers/”cheap” workout accoutrements. If you want a better environment: recycle more, produce less trash. If you want to be less stressed: work less, get off the grid, go for nature walks in the woods across the street.

This model ignores the class dimension of “choice”: one doesn’t just decide to eat better, work less, use less electricity, spend “less,” in a vacuum. In fact there is an invisible context for each “individual” decision, which because it is invisible becomes depoliticized. That context requires an indefinite supply of time or money, preferably both:

1. Money and time are trade-offs. One often spends money in order to save time. One may eat out to save the time of making and packing lunch. On the other hand, it is much easier to eat better—especially in US society (where street and fast foods are often greasy, fried, and/or made of low-quality ingredients)—if one has the time to cook whole grains and unprocessed foods at home.

2. Money buys access to better resources/ingredients: organic, chemical-free, exotic unseasonal foods that are often grown across the country and shipped to one’s local health food/Whole Foods Market-like store.

3. Time is a scarce resource for the professional-class, working-poor, and the indigent. For different reasons. Some of them have to do with “labor-markets,” in which our job hours are not regulated by the state, or by other factors such as job-precarity (I may lose my job if I don’t work the longer hours my employer quietly/implicitly demands).

4. Those with limited access to money must make up for it with time:  For the indigent and working-poor, time poverty is further exacerbated by bureaucratic demands and long waits at social service organizations (public health clinics, etc.), long distances from and public transportation to areas where higher-quality/lower-cost goods can be found; time-poverty is also exacerbated by limited access to affordable child-care (when it cannot be outsourced to a private nanny or day—care center) among other constraints.

By contrast, those with money but limited time can buy their way out of politically, socially, economically exploitative situations. Likewise, those with money, to differing degrees, can buy their way out of limited choices, such as:

-Low-quality food (and thus move to more-expensive foods)
-Low-quality or resource-constrained health care (public medical clinics)
-Child-care constraints

Those with time (and a lot of money, or some money but other abundant resources, such as large plots of land, clean water, decent housing, and robust social networks) can “choose” to grow their own food, can preserves, eat organically, etc.

While this group may contain poor folks, these are often those who have been able to “downsize,” from a wealthier life. These (I’ll call them “Downsizers”) should not be confused with those who are forced to live frugally because of forced unemployment, limited employment, disability, or other imposed financial constraints (“Forcibly Poor”).

The “Forcibly Poor” do not necessarily have time in the way that “Downsizers” do, since they can’t trade in their time for money (They can’t just pick up a paying job or liquidate some of their stocks in order to access money). The corollary to this is that those who are forced, but do not “choose” to live frugally, are also treated with less dignity.

I suspect this is because those forced to live in poverty are seen as hapless, incompetent, and unable or unwilling to “choose” to have money. Therefore, they are treated as lesser rational beings, like young children, who must be instructed, guided, disciplined and ushered along.

This assumption, too, is part of the ideology of free-market liberalism: Those who are wealthy or actually choose to live frugally, are more rational than those who are poor. And those who are poor just don’t know how to live a good life. Their poverty is presumed to be an expression of their lack of desire to live a good life. This logic follows straight from John Locke’s 2nd Treatise of Government: God has given the world to all men (sic) in common. Since the earth is accessible to all, then property (wealth) can be acquired by all who choose to labor.

How else, then, to explain poverty, except by lack of rationality? The poor must be irrational (insane/idiotic/criminal/indigenous), because otherwise they could have used their God-given intelligence to labor and acquire a sufficient share of God-given resources.

If these assumptions make sense, then it seems that several things follow:

1. Consumer Activism is a certain way of comporting oneself in the world so as to appear politically conscious, without necessarily being effective.

2. Charity organizations that distribute various goods/services to the Forcibly Poor with various strings that require behavior modification, are enacting a certain mode of Consumer Activism and imposing it on the Involuntarily Poor. But instead, without the accompanying discussion of the evacuation of public safety nets, or the reasons behind the lack of money and time, such models of Charity become normalized and celebrated as the primary means to “help the (forcibly) poor.”

3. Imposing Consumer Activism on the Forcibly Poor, as Sam Polk does with Groceryships, looks a lot like colonizing/civilizing the poor. More on that in my next post.


*An earlier version of this article discussed the “Forcibly Poor.” In this version, that term has been changed to the “Involuntarily Poor.”

**The phrase “Involuntarily Poor” has been returned to its original “Forcibly Poor.” It’s more accurate.

Sam Polk and his civilizing mission

A shorter, cleaner, version of this article was published over at on Jan. 23, 2014. Here’s the messier, longer, less clean version:

Part I (yes, a few more parts to come):

In the Sunday New York Times, former trader Sam Polk has a weepy confessional candid opinion piece, “For the Love of Money,” about his addiction to money, and how he’s overcome it (but not before pocketing the millions, mind you). It doesn’t really stand out, whether as contribution to the genre of former plunderers financiers, or a redemption narrative. But it is helpful in understanding the “pipeline” from the “free market” to the neoliberal (bio)politics of charity.

You see, Sam Polk locates his “addiction” within the context of his addictive personality, to cocaine, to alcohol, and finally, to money. He points out that he was the child of a Willie Loman-like father, who always wanted to be rich, always dreaming the big dream, but who never got there. I suppose, inpart, his piece is supposed to locate his desires as part of a quest to fulfill his father’s dreams. But even in this, he doesn’t stand out. After all, many children grow up to be adults who strive to fulfill their parents’ hopes for success, however that turns out.

But the issue that really pisses me off troubles me is his proseletyzing zeal (like the kind that envelops ex-smokers and new vegans or philosophy students who’ve just discovered Foucault) with which he points out that having all that money really isn’t that great, and that it’s better put to use in distributing among the less fortunate.

Conspicuously absent in Sam Polk’s heart-warming confession is any description of the role he played in a financial sector that led to one of the most destructive economic decimations since 1929, and to a widespread societal poverty or misery. Apparently, his only sin was gluttony.

And voila: back to a moral accounting. After all, this is a Judeo-Christian framework, isn’t it?.

What better way to atone for one’s sins than to confess and pursue redemption by distributing alms to the poor. And coincidentally, it dovetails with the ongoing neoliberal mode of addressing widespread social crises: increase pressure on “civil society” to remedy hunger, poverty, homelessness, domestic violence, access to reproductive rights social problems through private charity.

As we know, these are social problems created through the decimation of federal budgets, because its much more urgent to feed the chickenhawks by funding the War on Terror through its respective bureaucracies: the NSA, DHS, ICE, the DoD, etc., etc. And they’re created by the same corporations who are now bereft of the voracious, graciously hedge funded presence of Sam Polk.

But then again, maybe redemption has an upside. Here’s what Sam Polk has decided to do in his saintly afterlife: he has created a charity that “gives” six months of groceries to needy families (those who make less than $40,000 annually). You might think, kudos to Polk! Wow, what a guy!

But as we know, nothing in life (that actually matters) is ever free. In a very beautifully worded story, Polk and his beloved physician spouse, watch a show about eating more healthily. Spouse bursts into tears at the new idea (New? Really?) that eating more whole foods and grains will make her healthier. And sure enough, after a few weeks of better eating, the Polk clan feel better, lose weight, get off Lipitor, lower their cholestorol, etc.

So they decide to share their newly discovered insights to (drumroll, please)–say it with me:  Help. The. Needy. Watch out, Bill and Malinda!

And how will they do so? By using their So. Cal networks to pressure Gov. Jerry Brown to commit more money for poor families to be able to buy better food? By hounding the California State legislature to expand welfare budgets? By using his former Wall Street influence to pressure their Senators DiFi and Barbara Boxer to start winding down the War on Terror so as to make local foods more affordable? To re-allocate defense spending in favor of transportation subsidies?

Um, in case you haven’t guessed already, no.

Instead, the Polk family (and there are many of them listed on the website; check it out) will “award” grocery scholarships to those who REALLY want it (I kid you not).  Yes, the allusion is certainly to “merit”—because not every single poor family is worthy of eating well, simply by being alive—instead they must commit to taking weekly nutrition classes, meetings, counselors, tests, etc.

Much like a Christian charity, where the needy must accept a healthy lecture on their sins along with their dinner, the Polks have created a cult of granola, in which the needy will be helped only if they realize that it is in their own best interest to eat better.

Apparently, that is what is missing for poor people: knowledge and know-how about nutrition, at least according to Sam Polk and Doctor Spouse. Not money, time, or the social space and dignity to arrange their own lives on their own terms, but “rewards” with strings attached.  That’s because—remember–the poor don’t have beliefs; they only have compulsions and misguided beliefs and ideas. True moral uplift means the poor must be cultivated in the image of Southern Californians and other bourgie liberals who focus on the body as the site of virtue. You are what you eat. So fat, dark people (let’s face it, that’s who Polk and friends are targeting—look at the website!) must be cultivated to seek self-improvement. Morality, yet again, is individual. To hell with pressuring the state to reallocate funds for a well-funded social infrastructure enabling people to decide how to live a healthy life (say, expansive healthcare, subsidized public transportation, no-strings attached food subsidies. Just a thought).

Groceryships reveals Sam Polk to be the former Mayor Michael Bloomberg (surely you haven’t forgotten his failed ban on large sodas). Just add photogenic dimples, long sunbleached hair and a tan.

“What’s wrong with helping poor people eat better?” you ask “Even you eat kale and legumes on a regular basis. Are you such a classist hypocrite that you want to deny poor people that chance, too?”

It is true. I am more into granola and yoga these days than in my youth. But it is a decision that I made after years of a diet weighted toward animal proteins and fermented grape and barley. And my partner has mostly disdain for it and doesn’t join me. And doesn’t have to. Because each of us can afford to make the decisions we like without having to account for it to anyone else (except to my mother, who was a strict religious vegetarian tee-totaler her entire life. No eggs, no meat, no booze, no cigs—licit or otherwise. But she died after succumbing to diabetes, breast cancer twice (20 years apart), kidney failure, high blood pressure and cholesterol, all before she hit 70. She lived a fairly healthy life. But there are no guarantees. And she, like me, offered no explanations or accountability to anyone.

And that is the point. The ability to live a dignified life should not be dependent upon the whims of others—or on one’s personal (lack of) wealth. And if one or many do not have sufficient money—perhaps because they lost their already meager homes, wealth, and livelihood in the course of the recent financial machinations and ensuing crash (with hedge fund traders, among others, at the helm), then they should certainly not have to be at the mercy of private monies funneled by the formerly predatory do-gooders who are seeking a new colonizing mission (to help the poor learn how to eat healthily!)–to redeem their immoral souls.

The perhaps not-worst aspect of this is the sheer condescension of the former parasites. They preach nutritional moral uplift for the poor (not because they don’t have time and energy and money, because they don’t know better, apparently). But wouldn’t subpoenas to testify about legalities of their previous business dealings be a better way to save their own souls? Now there’s real redemption.

Will We Ever Close Guantánamo Bay Detention Center?

I’ve drifted away from blogging the last few months, but hoping to put up some original pieces soon. In the meantime, here’s a piece that I published over at Salon last month. Guantanamo has been on my mind ceaselessly, especially as I teach my Global War on Terror course this term.

I’ve been writing away, and so more pieces on other topics to be post over the next few weeks…


January 11th marked the 12th anniversary of Guantánamo Bay Detention Center, which, according to former Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld, is the “least worst place to house” men suspected by the U.S. government links to al-Qaida and the Taliban.

But Rumsfeld’s statement reeks of incredulity. Beginning with the Bush administration, the U.S. has done more than merely house them. Through its military and medical personnel, it has inflicted physical brutality, extended torture, solitary confinement, force-feeding upon these men, all the while remaining publicly indifferent, even righteous, about the absence of charges, due process and legitimacy of the imprisonment.

Of the nearly 800 prisoners who have been confined there, 115 remain. Eleven were released in the last five months, twice as many as were released the previous three years.

Yet, as artist and writer Molly Crabapple pointed out in her recent Guardian column noting the prison’s anniversary, we also know — we have for some time — that over half of all the detainees who have been imprisoned there were handed over for U.S.-paid bounties, rather than because they were hostile or dangerous enemies of the U.S.

Crabapple is not asserting this as a fantasy of her own making. She cites an important but not widely known report written by Seton Hall law professor Mark Denbeaux, lawyer Joshua Denbeaux, and several Seton Hall law students. The Denbeaux are legal counsel to several of the detainees. In their report, the authors show extensive evidence that over half (55 percent) of the 517 prisoners that they profiled committed no hostile acts against the U.S. or its allies. Of those 517, only 41 (8 percent) are “characterized” as al-Qaida fighters. One hundred ninety prisoners had no connection to al-Qaida, and 86 had no links to al-Qaida or the Taliban. And of those 517, 445 were captured by Pakistan or the Northern Alliance were handed over to the United States at a time in which the United States offered large bounties for capture of suspected enemies.

Offering a large bounty doesn’t disprove the assertion that these men were a serious threat. But when a government creates these classifications without external accountability, and it is supported in this by a supine judiciary, the circumstances do present a serious — overwhelming, unmitigated — doubt about whether these prisoners are a danger to Americans. The Denbeaux have made evidence of this doubt available since 2006.

What should have amplified this doubt even further for all of the serious, fact-finding, mainstream media is that the Combatant Status Review Board – enacted under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense, and which has no incentive to be critical of the U.S. government — also made the same evidence of this doubt available as early as 2005.

As striking was a second report published by the Denbeaux group. This report pointed out that of the 72 groups recognized as terrorist organizations by the Department of Defense, 52 of them (72 percent) are not on any of the terrorist-watch lists maintained by the State Department. By this measure, the DoD keeps its own list of terrorist groups that are neither reviewed, confirmed nor double-checked by any other government office. As the Denbeaux report concludes,

This inconsistency leads to one of two equally alarming conclusions: either the State Department is allowing persons who are members of terrorist groups into the country or the Defense Department bases the continuing detention of the alleged enemy combatants on a false premise. (my emphasis)

Given that we have had few further terrorist acts committed within the confines of the United States by foreign nationals in the last decade, the second conclusion is more likely.

What is striking about this truth today is that it is possible to state it in print in established media such as the Guardian. Even as several more prisoners were released this past month, there appears to be a slight opening in the conversation, one enabling human rights advocates’ criticisms to echo for more than a few seconds.

This was not the case a decade ago, when early critics of the Bush administration’s policies tried to suggest that there was little proof that captives brought to Guantánamo were a danger to the U.S., and that the prison should not be treated as a “legal black hole.” Those critics’ voices included several U.N. high commissioners for human rights as well as Richard Goldstone, the former chief prosecutor of the International Tribunal of the former Yugoslavia, and American lawyers such as Michael Ratner, the head of the Center for Constitutional Rights and Michael Posner, the head of the Lawyers’ Committee. But their criticisms were drowned out by officials and polls indicating that Americans were overwhelmingly in favor of the prison and the inhumane treatment meted out to Afghan men.

Indeed, the original head of Guantánamo, Maj. Gen. Mark Lehnert, recently confirmed his own early doubts. Writing forcefully, Lehnert insists that Guantánamo never should have been opened, and many of the detainees should have never been sent there.

As cynics will suggest, that is how politics works, as even a casual perusal of American history reveals to us.  After the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941, 120,000 men, women and children of Japanese descent were incarcerated across 10 prisons for little reason other than the fear shared by the U.S. government and non-Japanese populace alike. The fear, suspicion and contempt acted on by then-President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, was that these civilians, if allowed to live in the populace freely, might turn their freedom toward aiding the “enemy,” the Japanese government.  This fear was pursued, despite the Roosevelt administration’s knowledge that these civilians, many with American citizenship, had few ties to the country of their parents’ origin.

These same residents had been scapegoated by the U.S. for decades. In 1913, in California, a law stripping Asian non-citizens of their businesses had been passed. That law was a mere continuation of decades of policies designed to manage the “Japanese problem,” as historian Greg Robinson’s book, “By Order of the President,” informs us. By May 1942, many Asians, residents and citizens alike, were being ordered to board trains and buses to whichever “internment camp” they had been assigned, with only what they could carry with their own two hands. At that point, nearly any Japanese American families who still owned businesses had to forfeit them as they were dispatched to stark campsites, thousands of miles away from their towns, any towns where they might be in danger of talking to other non-Asians. (See here for a remarkable pictorial spread published by the Atlantic several years ago that show some moments from that period.)  The internment had the extended benefit of politically and socially ostracizing the internees. Friends, if any remained or wished to claim that mantle, would have found it prohibitive to visit them.

I visited one of those former camps about six years ago—Manzanar Camp, which sits at the foot of the Sierras, just outside of Death Valley. A U.S. park ranger, with a degree in comparative literature from the University of California, Irvine, had painstakingly curated the camp, whose vast desolate grounds had been denuded of most traces of that shameful period (scroll down for photos of what Manzanar looked like in 1943). In the main auditorium — the only structure that was left standing — the ranger had retrieved or reconstructed several barracks in which these families lived. Each housed several families of four, five, seven, eight or more: grandparents, babies, young children, teenagers, newlyweds and others. According to accounts made by former inhabitants of other camps, such as Tule Lake in Northern California, the sheds would be marked by makeshift curtains to divide the rooms into smaller, closet-like sleeping areas, for some semblance of privacy in which occupants could retreat for a while. Other inhabitants remarked on the unceasing wind that threatened to drive them mad, along with the fine layer of sand that covered every possession, including tablecloths, beds, makeshift dressers or dry goods.

Outside the auditorium, the vast grounds were marked by signs indicating where the canteen had been erected, and the school for the children had been built. There were maps that indicated the order of other structures, including watchtowers to ensure that none of the civilian internees escaped. Also remaining were traces of some old Buddhist gardens, created by some of the internees in an effort to bring beauty and life in that desolate, dry place.


Buddhist gardens in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

As well, there were several burial places, marked by stones. One was as small as 2 feet, marked by the usual ring of stones, and several toys, indicating that an infant was buried there.


An infant’s grave in Manzanar (Photo credit: Falguni A. Sheth)

I remember that the map indicated a building marked as a fire station, which presumably held water to be deployed in the likely event that a blaze might decimate the brittle wood buildings that sat on the desiccated land.

Manzanar was one of 10 camps to which American citizens and residents of Japanese descent were incarcerated during the remainder of the war. There, as with the prisoners in Guantánamo, the internees attempted to challenge their resistance in a myriad of ways, procedurally and physically.

As well, there was another group, nearly forgotten, who were also victimized by the U.S. Several thousand Japanese Latin Americans were arrested by their own governments (mostly Peru) and shipped to U.S. camps, including one in Panama.  The U.S. had hoped to trade them to Japan in exchange for American prisoners of war (it was unsuccessful). Many of these men and women, like their U.S. counterparts, had little actual connection to Japan. They had their passports confiscated. They remained in these camps for the duration of the war. After the war, betrayed by their home countries, both groups were essentially homeless, due to no fault of their own. They had no desire to return to Japan or the countries that had betrayed them, and the U.S. had revealed itself to be a hostile land.

Even though I had previously studied the historical and political aspects of the internment of Japanese Americans, thanks to the effort of this ranger, that trip to Manzanar foregrounded for me the extreme consequences of the unthinking panic legislated at the executive and congressional level little over 60 years ago.

It reminded me of the collective panic that recurred just over 12 years ago, a panic cynically exploited by U.S. leaders and representatives. Though these functionaries might have been zealous to protect their country, they could not see past their immediate interests to the moral stanchions of judicial procedures and habeas corpus, or to the effects of their short-sightedness: the ubiquitous ether of injustice that still mars this country’s reputation.

It appears that this is how politics has worked again and again. But such politics can only work when leaders and functionaries can savor the successes of their deal-making with immunity; when their decisions are not expected to be compelled by moral dictates, when they are affirmed and rewarded for their egregious human rights violations by being reelected; when military commanders and politicians prioritize “the masculine logic of the security state,” as the late philosopher Iris Marion Young called it.

This country and its leaders have never figured out how to redress wrongdoing. The U.S., beginning with President Ronald Reagan, paid out $1.6 billion to the 82,000 descendants of the Japanese internees, along with an apology. But these “reparations” can not make up for the damage done to an entire people; and it has little effect if no lessons are learned from such recent mistakes.

As Carol Rosenberg points out, in the intervening decade, the suspicions against these prisoners have diminished, perhaps because the panic has abated and many more have had time to reflect on the hasty actions that have led to Guantánamo. Many prisoners have been released, finally. The next remedy is obvious, but it will take a moment of courage by the current administration to enact it.


A version of this article was published on on Jan. 16, 2014

Victoria Brittain’s “Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror”

My blogging has slowed down considerably over the past few months for all kinds of reasons.  I hope to be back at it soon. In the meantime, here’s a book review that I wrote for, a great site that offers insightful articles and analysis on Middle East politics, culture, art, and other themes.

This article originally appeared in on August 26, 2013 and is reprinted with permission.


In 2001, the British government accused “Mr. G” of being a terrorist. In withholding his full name, the government claimed even this basic scrap of humanity posed a security threat.  In 2004, the British government grudgingly conceded that imprisoning individuals indefinitely without charge (a lesson still not learned by the United States) was inappropriate.

As a result, Mr. G and a dozen others accused of “terrorism” were moved out of the infamous Belmarsh Prison – known as the British counterpart to the U.S. detention facility at Guantánamo Bay – and placed them under strict house arrest.

Under house arrest, known as “Control Order,” the British outfitted Mr. G with an electronic tag, which prevented him from freely leaving his home. Mr. G was also required to call the tagging company five times a day to confirm he was abiding by the terms of the arrangement. This required he make one phone call every four hours and forty-eight minutes, without exception. This meant Mr. G. was not able to sleep for more than several hours at a time.

Mr. G was permitted to leave his house for two hours a day to visit one of a handful of places in the small geographic area permitted by the Control Order, but he was required to call the company when he departed and returned home.

If he missed even one phone call or if the phone issued by the government malfunctioned (which frequently happened), Mr. G would be arrested and taken back to the Special Immigration Appeals Court (SIAC) for a hearing. SIAC, a Kafkaesque system instituted for the purposes of managing “foreign nationals that the Home Secretary wished to deport on national security grounds” (p.54), differs in key ways from the American military tribunals set up for Guantánamo detainees who have been granted trials. Under SIAC, special lawyers with high security clearances were able to see evidence but not meet their clients. In other ways, the SIAC resembles the US immigration system, in which immigrants can be deported without judicial review.

Of course, the tagging company could check on him at any hour of the day. The company often visited him late at night, which would inevitably involve waking up Mr. G, his wife and their young children.

Mr. G’s story is embedded in a larger phenomenon of discipline and harassment of many Muslim families, as told by Victoria Brittain, an acclaimed journalist, author, playwright and former associate foreign editor at the Guardian, in her harrowing chronicle of lawlessness by the British and US governments, Shadow Lives: The Forgotten Women of the War on Terror (London: Pluto Books 2013).

Shadow-Lives-CoverThough Brittain’s book focuses primarily on the often invisible and ignored women affected by the West’s so-called counterterrorism policies and military adventurism, it is impossible to tell their stories in isolation from the men who have also been affected; it is their plight – targeted, spied on, abducted, arrested, tortured, held captive and denied fundamental human rights in Guantánamo, Belmarsh and under house arrest. These bureaucracies, dominated by contempt and an astonishingly ungrounded belief that Muslims are inherent threats to national security, exacerbate already the trying circumstances under which these women must decide how to sustain themselves and their families.

The women featured in Brittain’s book must shoulder the burden of keeping their families intact and, all too often, face the maddening task of ensuring those they love and care for do not lose their mental bearings, as many of their husbands and sons already have.

In fewer than 200 pages, Shadow Lives reveals the compelling and tragic stories of multiple women and their families, who endure extraordinary alienation and punitive circumstances on a daily basis.

There is Hamda, whose elderly, wheelchair-bound and diabetic husband, Mr. OO, was a teacher and imam tortured by Jordanian authorities before obtaining refugee status in Britain, only to be subsequently imprisoned in Belmarsh.

There are the children of Abu Qatada, who look forward to daily calls from their imprisoned father, so they can tell him about their school day.

Farida, the mother of Talha Ahsan, describes her detained son’s reflective nature and voracious appetite for literature.  Ahsan was imprisoned in Belmarsh before being extradited to the United States and placed for several years in solitary confinement in a Supermax prison—despite suffering from autism.

Noor Elashi is the youngest daughter of Ghassan Elashi, a Palestinian businessman, philanthropist and former director of the Texas chapter of the Council of American-Islamic Relations (CAIR). In 2009, her father was convicted of materially supporting terrorism simply for running a charity, the Holy Land Foundation, which sent aid to the besieged people of Gaza.

Now a writer and advocate, Elashi remembers how her father Ghassan would take her to human rights demonstrations as a child, and recalls spending her teen years in courtrooms where her father was on trial.

Laila Al Arian, a journalist, whose own father was also convicted under the material support statute, cries when she thinks of another woman, Mariam, suffering from the absence of her brother Ahmed, who is confined in a Supermax prison in the United States.

For many men subject to the UK’s Control Orders system, house arrest has meant stark conditions and restrictions for their families as well.  Toys and computers are typically confiscated. There is “no Internet for homework, no mobile phones for calling friends,” explains Brittain. While these prohibitions may seem trivial by comparison, they are harsh measures for children.

Police are allowed to enter the house at any time, exposing children and their school friends to the intrusion, violation, and humiliation, stories of which often quickly spread through a community.

Under the Control Order system, Muslim men are prohibited from setting foot outside their own house, even to go into the garden, without permission. Visitors must be pre-cleared by the British Home Secretary.  The extreme psychological effects of this kind of legal, institutional, and systemic harassment are painfully present.

Women and children must learn to live with the knowledge that a family member extradited to the United States will remain confined for years. They witness strip searches, which violate the tents of their faith.

Many of the spouses of these unjustly detained men must ensure their accused family members abide by the conditions of the Control Order, leading to stressful, – if not outright absurd – scenarios.

At one point in the book, Josephine, Mr. G’s wife, tells of the tragicomedy of errors surrounding the delivery and installation of a new washing machine.

Because visitors must be pre-approved, the new appliance had to be dropped off on the street outside the family’s house. Josephine was left to push the washing machine inside, since her disabled husband was unable to help.  Josephine recounts,

Then I was ringing the solicitor, and she needed the name of the plumber who was coming after the delivery men, to get permission from the Home Office for him to enter, but the plumbing company could not say the name of which man would come.  It was stalemate. In the evening my solicitor hired a different plumber and told the Home Office his name, and he came, and the man from the Home Office came at the same time. Then after all that, the man from the Home Office just sat there on the sofa and never even went downstairs to see the plumber fixing the machine. So, we’d paid two plumbers. For what?

Brittain reports that Josephine laughed as she recounted this anecdote. Behind the smile, though, is the stamina and determination emblematic of all the women profiled by Brittain.

Their efforts are doubly striking, as many of them are migrants accustomed to intimate extended family networks in their countries of origin, but are completely isolated in their country of residence. Some have limited English-language skills and must learn how to navigate the bureaucracy that oversees their spouses’ incarceration.

These are but some of the details that emerge from the stories Brittain weaves. Together, they illuminate both the internal dynamics of strength and sorrow that grip affected families, as well as the suspicion, bigotry and hostility that serve as their constant ether that they must breathe in order to get from one day to the next.

Brittain’s book is as riveting as it is disturbing. Many writers covering the impact and implications of the Global War on Terror are often uninterested or incapable of integrating a structural analysis into attempts to humanize the myriad families whose lives have been deeply affected by post-9/11 fear, paranoia and hysteria.

The elements that form the building blocks of the Global War on Terror are drawn in extensive detail in Brittain’s introduction. They frame the personal stories told in her book.

Brittain discusses the genealogy of the U.S. war against the Soviets in Afghanistan in the 1980s, highlighting the transformation of an “anti-Soviet jihad” to an “anti-Saudi jihad,” and, ultimately, an “anti-American jihad.”

She augments this vital history with the story of post-colonial Algerian politics, Chechen struggles, Islamist conflicts in London, U.S. embassy bombings in East Africa, and the politics of Egypt and Pakistan and their evolution into a global struggle against the United States led by the Muslim Brotherhood—and eventually, Al Qaeda.

Continuing through the attacks of September 11, 2001, Brittain’s geneaology also explores more familiar post-9/11 politics of fear-mongering stoked by George W. Bush and Tony Blair.

She points to the key pieces of legislation, such as the USA PATRIOT Act, which created a legal apparatus that further removed national security from the protection of individual rights and liberties. The law would facilitate extraordinary rendition, torture, and the eventual documentation from Wikileaks that revealed “how slight the ‘evidence’ was against many of the men in Guantánamo, the vast majority of whom were held but never charged with a crime.” (p.15)

We learn of the passage of punitive material support laws and policies of profiling and surveillance.

In so doing, Brittain, incorporates stories of other men who have been targeted by the United States in the War on Terror. She introduces her readers to University of South Florida professor Sami Al Arian and an oncologist named Rafil Dhafir, both convicted of “material support for terrorism”: Al Arian for championing Palestinian rights; Dhafir for sending food and medicine to Iraqis in violation of U.S. sanctions.

She also includes the bizarre case of Aafia Siddiqui, a U.S.-educated neuroscientist who, along with her three children, disappeared in Pakistan for years. Siddiqui mysteriously reappeared in U.S. military custody in 2010 and was charged for firing at a U.S. soldier (and not for any terror-related charges). She was named as a co-conspirator by her husband’s uncle, Khalid Sheikh Mohammed, while he was subjected to torture. Despite the lack of corroborating evidence for the shooting, Siddiqui was convicted and sentenced to 86 years in federal prison.

The Global War on Terror is demystified and de-exoticized by Brittain’s deft narrative.  She presents the war as the latest incarnation of a decades-old global conflict, which has reinvented enemies as allies and cast entire Middle Eastern, North African, and South Asian populations as criminals and combatants.

In her past reporting, Brittain has been closely involved with victims of the Global War on Terror. She has written numerous pieces defending men who have been targeted without a shred of evidence and detained indefinitely without charge.

In a recent article, she recounted the story of Omar Othman, aka Abu Qatada, an imam who lost an eight-year fight against deportation from the UK, based exclusively on classified evidence, and accompanied by much vitriol from politicians such as David Cameron.

Brittain has also co-authored a book with Moazzem Begg, one of the better known former Guantánamo detainees, who has since formed the advocacy group, Cage Prisoners, which publicizes the stories and champions the rights of those imprisoned at Guantánamo and elsewhere under the guise of the Global War on Terror.

There are many unforgettable stories in this deceptively short volume, too many to recount here in detail. They are rendered in exquisite and sympathetic detail, and illustrate the miraculous achievement of  keeping families together in the face of persecution.

Brittain writes of the structured home lives created for the children, and the easy intimacy between all family members. It is clear that Brittain considers these people friends and feels honored to be allowed into their world.

Shadow Lives is a book to be read by all who are keen to examine the unmentioned details of the Global War on Terror – even those who believe they are already familiar with the undue tribulations faced by the accused and their families.

It is a book to be examined by those who remain unconvinced that American and European counterterrorism policies result in inhumane or deep hardship for Muslims.

It is accessible enough to be read by teenagers and college faculty alike. It is politically and culturally informative enough for Western feminists and other political activists to learn something substantial from it.

There are deep ethical and philosophical issues embedded in every chapter of this book yet, to Brittain’s credit, these topics emerge organically through the details of each personal story of struggle and courage.  Her beautiful prose is the ultimate counterweight to the horrors she reveals.

In painting (‘writing’ is not an adequate term) these portraits, Brittain has soberly drawn us into the lives and livelihoods of sturdy, resilient, and resourceful women, each of whom is heroic in her own quiet, subdued way.

Shadow Lives is the ultimate account of a society that has traded the rule of law for violence and fear; a poignant reminder that the humanity we have been forced to sacrifice on the altar of security remains intact in the hearts of our innumerable victims.


A Q & A with Glenn Greenwald

Apologies for having been offline for a bit. I was finishing some scholarly pieces and traveling far away from the lure of internet. In any case, I’m back and have just done an Q & A with Glenn Greenwald about the domestic and global impact of his reporting over the last few months. I would have liked to explore many other things, but we had time and technology constraints. It was published on Salon today. I’m reproducing it here, along with the link to Salon.


Q&A with Glenn Greenwald: Americans’ reaction “surprising and gratifying”

Glenn Greenwald discusses how Americans see Snowden, and details the non-U.S. world’s anger at NSA privacy invasion

In the wake of his explosive reporting about the U.S. government’s surveillance regime over the last six weeks, I spent some time talking with Guardian reporter (and Salon alumnus) Glenn Greenwald Friday about the impact and scope of these revelations — as well as some other aspects of the fallout in the U.S. and internationally. The following is a transcript of our conversation, lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

There was a Quinnipiac poll that came out two days ago reporting that over half of Americans regarded Edward Snowden as a whistleblower rather than a traitor, despite the fact that we’ve heard tons of calls for him to be arrested and tried for leaking state secrets. What do you think? How do you reconcile these? Do you think something substantial has changed in terms of Americans’ opinions about the state’s tracking?

I do. What was most amazing to me about that poll was the idea that he’s more of a traitor rather than a whistleblower has become pretty much the consensus of the United States government, both political parties, the leadership of these parties and the D.C. press corps. So the message that has just been continuously churned out from those large institutions is that what he did was bad and wrong, that he shouldn’t be treated as a whistleblower and that he’s really a criminal. So to watch a large majority of Americans reject that consensus and reach their own conclusion, which is that what he has revealed is a good amount of wrongdoing, which is the definition of a whistleblower, is both surprising and gratifying. I think it’s really a testament to how powerful these revelations are that they have disturbed Americans so much that they have just disregarded the message they’ve been bombarded with for six straight weeks now.

It feels like the message coming from Congress is pretty much the same: This is a legal program; there was nothing unethical about it; we need to do this to fight the terrorists. What do you think? Is there a space to challenge Congress on this?

Well, Washington has proven, over and over, that they’re not bothered by the fact that what they’re doing and thinking is completely at odds with mass sentiments of the public that they pretend to represent. So the mere gap between public opinion and what they’re doing isn’t, in and of itself, enough to change their behavior. But what they do start to respond to is serious pressure on the part of the American public over some of the things that they’re doing, and you do see some movement in Congress already to start to institute reforms, to put checks on these surveillance abuses. But I think that ultimately the real issue is the top levels of the Obama administration repeatedly went to Congress and lied to the faces of Congress, which is a felony, over what these NSA programs were and weren’t. And ultimately, I think the first step is going to have to be, are we willing to tolerate having top-level Obama officials blatantly lie to our representatives in Congress and prevent them from exercising oversight about these spying programs? And that, I think, has to be the first scandal to show that there are actually consequences for this behavior.

That would require them to call someone like [Director of National Intelligence] James Clapper to task in the same way – “You blatantly lied, we’ve got you on record, what do you have to say about it?” And that hasn’t seemed to have happened yet.

I think there’s clearly some influential members of Congress, not just the handful of dissidents, but people who genuinely wield some influence, both within the Congress and the Democratic Party, who are quite angry over what happened with Clapper. His credibility is clearly damaged. He hasn’t made very many public opinions throughout this period. He’s definitely on the defensive. I think the same is true for [NSA Director] Keith Alexander. Washington scandals tend to erode people’s credibility slowly rather than instantly, but I do think that Clapper’s credibility is irrevocably damaged, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see some serious repercussions in terms of him leaving at some point in the near future.

Let’s turn to the other part of this. Yesterday, you reported some more details from these documents that Snowden has been sharing, including the fact that “Microsoft has helped NSA to circumvent its encryption to address concerns that the agency would be able to intercept web chats.” I’m quoting directly from the story. So it’s not just that NSA is intercepting emails and data, but there’s actually more and more proof that these companies have been working hand-in-hand with the NSA.

Right. The relationship between the private telecoms and Internet companies and the NSA is one of the crucial components of this entire story. The NSA really can’t do that much spying domestically or internationally without the ongoing cooperation of these private corporations. So with the revelations that we’ve published in the past week and a half – with Laura Poitras reporting in Der Spiegel about mass spying in Germany, in Europe, and the reporting that I did with O Globo in Brazil about a similar collection of communications in Brazil and Latin America, more broadly – the linchpin of all of this is that there’s some large telecommunication company, an American company, exploiting their partnership with foreign telecommunications companies to use their access to those countries’ systems to direct traffic back to NSA repositories. Domestically, the same thing is happening. All these companies like to say they only cooperate with the bare minimum way under the law with the NSA, but what the documents we published yesterday and reported on demonstrate is that Microsoft has continuous and ongoing meetings with the NSA about how to build and construct new methods for enabling unfettered access to the calls and emails and Internet communications that the NSA specifies that they want, and the technicians at Microsoft work hand-in-hand with the technicians at NSA to enable that, and that is really at odds with the public statements Microsoft and Skype and Outlook have made to their users about what they’re doing to protect their privacy.

Are these actions technically legal? What’s the implication that we should be walking away with? That there was “just” hand-in-hand cooperation, or that there was something illegal that’s being done?

Well, first of all, hovering over everything is always the Fourth Amendment, regardless of what Congress says is legal. The Fourth Amendment constrains what Congress and the government are permitted to do. One of the arguments from privacy activists and the ACLU and other groups has always been that the new FISA law, which was passed in 2008 with the support of all parties in Congress including President Obama, which was designed essentially to legalize the illegal Bush-Cheney warrantless eavesdropping program, is unconstitutional. And there have been all sorts of lawsuits brought to argue that this law that Congress passed is unconstitutional, and yet no court has been able to rule on the merits of it, because the Obama administration has gone into court repeatedly and said two things: Number 1: All this is too secret to allow courts to rule on, and Number 2: Because we keep everything so secret, nobody can prove that they’ve been subjected to this spying, and therefore nobody has standing to contest the constitutionality of it. So there’s this huge argument out there, which is that all of this is illegal because it’s a violation of the Constitution, that the Obama DOJ has succeeded in preventing a judicial answer to.

Secondly, under the law, the U.S. government is free to intercept the communications of anybody they believe with 51 percent probability is not a U.S. citizen and is not on U.S. soil. So they’re free to go to any of these Internet companies or just simply take off the cables and fiber-optic wires that they have access to, whatever communications they want of anybody outside the United States who’s not a U.S. person, and oftentimes those people are speaking to American citizens. The NSA is free to invade those communications without having to go into a FISA court and get a specific warrant, which is why when President Obama said nobody’s listening to your calls without a warrant, he was simply not telling the truth. That was completely false and deceitful, what he said, because even under the law, the NSA is allowed to intercept communications with American citizens without getting a warrant. The only time they need a warrant is when they’re specifically targeting a U.S. person, an American citizen or somebody on U.S. soil. So it’s a scandal in that – not just that they’re violating the Constitution, but also what the law allows, because of the level of abuse that it entails.

As you’ve pointed out in the last few weeks as well, this is about American citizens, but it’s also about non-American citizens, right? It’s about world citizens. A number of people have written stories about how it really tends to affect those who are much more vulnerable under American foreign policy and domestic policy – Muslims of various backgrounds. But it also affects Brazilians, the French, the Germans, and so it’s an international scandal. What has been happening in Brazil with regards to these revelations?

Right, so let me just say one quick thing about domestic versus international. Even domestically, there are indications that the law has been violated. I mean, the bulk collection of telephone records of all Americans, for example, has been done under Section 215 of the Patriot Act, which even the Republican author of that [Jim Sensenbrenner] has said they never imagined it would enable bulk collection of records. It was only supposed to lower the threshold to be able to get specific records of people who were targeted with investigations.

But internationally, the response is so much different than it is in the U.S., you know in the U.S. there’s this obsession with what are Edward Snowden’s personality flaws: Why is he choosing the countries that he seems to be wanting to seek asylum from? Should the journalists involved in reporting these stories be arrested?

Everywhere else in the world, the focus is on the actual substance of the revelations, which is why should we allow the U.S. and its allied governments to construct a ubiquitous spying system that basically destroys privacy globally for everyone on the planet who uses electronic means to communicate. And in Brazil, ever since we published these stories last weekend about mass spying on Brazilians by the millions, in terms of emails and phone calls, it has completely dominated the news cycle of the political class. Not just in Brazil, but in Latin America generally there are formal criminal investigations underway to determine the culpability of Brazilian telecoms, to find out the identity of the U.S. telecom who enabled all this mass access into the telecommunication systems of Latin America. There’s real indignation and a genuine debate over privacy that is taking place throughout the world, much, much more serious and more substantive and profound than the one that has been led by American journalists inside the U.S.

I noticed the president and other high-level political officials in Brazil said that there were chills running down their spines when they were reading that Brazilians were being spied on [note: Actually, it was stated by Argentine President Cristina Kirchner]. Presumably the French government and the German government were also startled about it, but they don’t seem to have had as strong a reaction. Do you think that there’s a definite difference in degree or quality of response from the Brazilian government versus some of the Europeans, or that it’s pretty much on the same level?

I think that a lot of the indignation expressed by European governments is completely artificial and manipulative, designed to show their populations that they’re angry about this, when in reality they’re not. In part because they participate in many of these U.S. spying programs, and in part because European governments are incredibly and completely subservient to the dictates of the U.S. So, we saw that very vividly, when the French and the other EU states spent a week, you know, parading around, showing how angry they were at what the U.S. had done, but then immediately obeyed American orders to deny airspace rights to a plane that they thought was carrying the person who had allowed them to learn about this—Edward Snowden. And they did it by taking the very extreme step of denying airspace rights to a plane carrying the president of a sovereign state, Bolivia, and sparking anger in the continent, over what felt to them — Latin Americans — like the standard type of racism, colonialism and imperialism that they have been subjected to by the U.S. and its Western allies for… for centuries. And so, I think that the true colors of the E.U. states with regard to all of these issues was revealed very clearly in that incident, although the populations of the E.U. are genuinely angry. The contrast of Latin American governments is very stark. They are genuinely angry, because they weren’t aware of any of this; they weren’t participating in it, and often they were the targets of it. And so I think the repercussions of these stories is going to be very long term, and still has yet to be really appreciated, just in terms of the wedge that it has placed between the U.S. and these governments, and the change in how populations around the world think of the U.S. government.

This has been an occasion to call a number of Latin American states together to decide what to do, how to respond to the U.S. It seems to be a catalyst for further declaring their independence from American imperial dictates. Even Bill Richardson has said something to that effect, that this is really kind of going to be this pivotal moment there. That raises the issue of asylum for Snowden, which we know a number of European countries have rejected. Venezuela’s indicated that they’re quite open to it, I guess Bolivia as well. How is this going to play out? Snowden’s stuck in the airport. He is a stateless person, as he’s pointed out. I think by most legal contexts, he’s right. I don’t think he’s exaggerating in any sense. So, what happens here in terms of his seeking of asylum? And to these Latin American states’ responses to the NSA issue?

Well, there’s a really great article by the ACLU today by Jamil Dakwar, who’s the director of the ACLU Human Rights program, and another senior staff attorney [Chandra Bhatnagar] with the Human Rights Program, describing that the behavior in the Snowden case is basically threatening the right for people around the world to seek and obtain asylum, a right that is centuries old and is guaranteed under the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, and other conventions to which the U.S. is a signatory, because essentially what they’ve done is not just bully other states that have offered asylum to him or are considering doing so, but have demonstrated that they’re willing physically to block him from going to countries to seek asylum or obtain asylum, or even to use lawless or rogue behavior, like we just discussed with the effective downing of Evo Morales’ plane. And so the precedent that’s being set is that if you are a sufficiently powerful country, you can prevent weaker countries through bullying tactics from granting people asylum who are the subject of persecution.

I encourage everybody to go and look for that ACLU piece on it, and I hope you’ll link to it because it really, you know, demonstrates just how extreme the U.S. behavior in this case is. As far as whether or not he’s being persecuted, there are all kinds of liberal journals who generally support the Democratic Party and the Obama administration — from Mother Jones and The Nation, and lots of others — that have detailed that the Obama administration’s treatment of whistleblowers, people who leak classified information, is unprecedentedly vindictive and hostile and aggressive. Of course, the Obama administration has prosecuted more whistleblowers under espionage statutes than all prior presidents combined, including George W. Bush and Richard Nixon, and so the fact that Snowden is being persecuted is hardly in dispute. And Daniel Ellsberg made this point himself in an op-ed he wrote in the Washington Post a week ago or so, in which he said, “the fact that Snowden fled the U.S. makes all the sense in the world. He should have because the U.S. has changed radically in the four decades since I was on trial. I was allowed to be on bail and participate in public debates about my case. Snowden would be put into a cage, unquestionably, and never released and be silenced. And the justice system would treat him unfairly, which was never the case for Daniel Ellsberg, even in the Nixon years,” said Daniel Ellsberg. I think clearly there’s a case for persecution. He has a right to seek it, but the U.S. is blocking him from seeking that right.

Yesterday, there was an interview on “Democracy, Now,” with Peter Ludlow, who’s been reporting on the Barrett Brown case…Barrett Brown has now faced over 300 days in jail. He’s been pursued pretty vigorously by the U.S. government, especially in the face of an interview [with NBC’s Michael Isikoff] where he thought he was fairly protected because he had a bunch of high-level lawyers. They’ve also gone after his mother and you know it looks like — this is in a way, along with Assange, an important precedent for the fears that Edward Snowden has. It turns out that one of the things that he discovered, or at least that Anonymous discovered, was that this company, HBGary, was trying to plant information that would undermine yours and Wikileaks’ credibility at the same time, so it looks like the U.S. government is definitely aware of the kind of damage that whistleblowers can cause. Do you have any thoughts about the Barrett Brown case in connection to Snowden as well?

Sure, I’ve written about the Barrett Brown case. I think the broader point is that if you in some way are any kind of dissident to the United States government and the private corporations that essentially have merged with it in the intelligence and national security worlds, then you’re going to suffer serious repercussions in terms of legal prosecutions or other kinds of recriminations that are formal in nature, and it’s happened to every single person who has done that. I remember when those emails were first divulged about how they were going to try and put me in a position where I had to choose between cause and career, meaning if I continued to support Wikileaks they would try and destroy my career. At first I sort of swept it off as people who had been watching spy films until I realized that the corporations and companies involved in that planning were some of the most well-connected ones in the tech and D.C. worlds, you know, Palantir and others, and I took it more seriously, and what it really indicated to me was that this is how people in that world think — that if you oppose them in any meaningful way, even through constitutionally protected activities like whistleblowing or journalism — that you should be and will be punished, and the point of this is to create a climate of fear where people are intimidated out of opposing the U.S. government or working against its interests or opposing its policies, not through the ballot box, which they don’t care about, but through more aggressive action, and that I think is the lesson of Edward Snowden and Barrett Brown and Bradley Manning and Aaron Schwartz and a whole variety of other cases that we’ve seen similar to it, and the persecution of whistleblowers as well, that are all designed to bolster this point.

As you know, we’ve just entered the month of Ramadan, which is a very important month of fasting for Muslims. On top of just the general kind of human rights concerns about detaining political prisoners in Guantanamo, there are also, as we know, at least 45 Guantanamo prisoners who are being force-fed. Any thoughts about this?

You know the thing that has struck me the most about this whole last six weeks of political discourse, obviously I’ve been most focused — to the exclusion of almost everything else — on the NSA stories, is the idea that somehow Snowden is illegitimate for seeking asylum in countries like Venezuela or Nicaragua or Ecuador or traveling through Russia and China in order to get there, at the very same time the United States continues to maintain this incredibly oppressive lawless prison system at Guantanamo where people are dying from having been in prison for over a decade, with no charges of any kind, to the point where they’re actually committing suicide virtually through a hunger strike in protest of the helplessless of their situation.

During the same six weeks we’ve killed dozens of people again with drone strikes, have propped up the most oppressive dictators in the world. And the refusal to focus on how oppressive we are to Muslims around the world, specifically, and human beings generally, is just incredibly striking as we sit there and rail against and mock other countries for their supposed human rights abuses. At the same time we are supportive of — or at best apathetic to — the much more severe ones of our own government, and I think Ramadan is a perfect time to reflect on that, given how the vast bulk of that oppression and violence and aggression over the last decade has been born by Muslims around the world.

There’s been speculation that you’re really covering the story for personal glory, that you’ve never cared about Muslims before, that you’ve barely written about Muslims before and that this is really kind of about catapulting yourself and Snowden into the spotlight. Thoughts about this?

Anybody who says that is either extremely stupid or extremely dishonest — probably both. I have spent the last eight years writing about one topic more than any other, and that has been the persecution of Muslims domestically in terms of civil rights violations, civil liberty violations and the targeting of them internationally with all kinds of oppression and torture and state violence, and so anybody who claims that I’ve just suddenly discovered these issues or I only cared when Obama got into office, has to be one of the stupidest people in the world to say something like that. I wrote three books on George Bush’s civil liberties abuses, I have given all kinds of speeches to Muslim organizations around the world about the profiling and persecution that American Muslims and Muslims around the world face from exactly these same kinds of policies, including surveillance. So it’s almost just too stupid to even dignify by addressing.

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

As Edward Snowden’s name is bandied about, with a debate emerging over whether he is a hero or a criminal, whistleblower or traitor, the words of philosopher Walter Benjamin come to mind.  In his 1921 essay, The Critique of Violence, Benjamin discusses the law’s goal to pursue the monopoly on violence:

The law’s interest in a monopoly of violence vis-a-vis individuals is not explained by the intention of preserving legal ends but, rather, by that of preserving the law itself; that violence, when not in the hands of the law, threatens it not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.

Here Benjamin restates one of the fundamental goals of classical liberal political philosophy, at least for philosophers such as Hobbes and Locke, namely to eliminate the use of violence from everyone except the state and its duly appointed deputies. This is why in Locke, the state ‘agrees’ to protect the rights of individuals in exchange for individuals giving up their right of retribution and punishment. The right of violence becomes the sole provenance of the state, whether through the death penalty, prisons, or defense of the state itself.

However, as we also know, the state monopolizes and regulates the use of violence in the interests of those who have the most influence over the state: these wealthy men who decide the personification of the state. In the 1600’s English North America, this would have been white Englishmen. In the 1910’s, Benjamin was interested in the role of workers in challenging the monopoly of state violence.

Understood in this way, the right to strike constitutes in the view of labor, which is opposed to that of the state, the right to use force in attaining certain ends. The antithesis between the two conceptions emerges in all its bitterness in face of a revolutionary general strike. In this, labor will always appeal to its right to strike, and the state will call this appeal an abuse, since the right to strike was not “so intended,” and take emergency measures.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, unions aroused a widespread secret admiration from a public that was weary of the state’s imposition.  Today, as Occupy and other movements point out, the most influential are still the 1%–though the colors, sexes, and sexualities of this privileged demographic have been somewhat expanded.

For example, Locke’s story of slavery is more accurately read as the story of colonialism –and eventually—imperialism. Strangers attack Englishmen. Englishmen fight back and win. They have the right to kill the strangers, but grant them their lives in exchange for their agreeing (at least implicitly) to be slaves. It is, an apologia for the conquest of American Indians. But in the modern moment, it is a story that is replicated by Samuel Huntington in the “Clash of Civilizations.”

Back to Benjamin, who is thought to have committed suicide in Southern France as he was trying to flee from the Nazis.  Here is another excerpt from the “Critique of Violence”:

The same may be more drastically suggested if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public. This cannot result from his deed, but only from the violence to which it bears witness.

How might this apply to Edward Snowden? Snowden’s ‘crime,’ if you will, was that he disrupted the state’s ability to protect its monopoly of violence by exposing its widespread surveillance activities.  He did this despite the widely claimed fears of interested parties that doing so would “undermine national security,’ and in the face of the state’s insistence that these activities are justified and justifiably secret. In this sense, the fact that he challenged the prerogatives of the state itself, makes his alleged ‘crime’ so much more transgressive than, for example, merely lying to Congress about weapons of mass destruction, starting a war with a random nation in which tens of thousands die, or torturing rendered persons. None of these latter crimes are a threat to the state itself, and for that reason may be readily forgiven and forgotten.  Manning and Snowden are, however, ‘great criminals’ in that their actions embarrassed and undermined state power.  They can never be forgiven or forgotten.

So, for a significant portion of the public, there seems to be an–open or perhaps grudging…admiration of Snowden because he has dared to challenge the state’s monopoly on violence. He challenges the state even as he acknowledges that the state will use every resource at its disposal to exact its revenge. We know from the tragic example of Aaron Schwartz that challenging the Department of Justice will require endless resources, from millions of dollars of legal know-how and the filing of endless FOIA requests. We know from the example of John Kiriakou that even going through formal channels of whistleblowing—including being


“the first CIA officer to call waterboarding “torture”; to reveal that the CIA’s torture program was policy rather than a few rogue agents; and to say it was wrong”


will not stop the state, even a state led by a “transformative presidency,” from making sure that no one disturbs its monopoly on violence.

In this case, therefore, the violence of which present-day law is seeking in all areas of activity to deprive the individual appears really threatening, and arouses even in defeat the sympathy of the mass against law. By what function violence can with reason seem so threatening to law, and be so feared by it, must be especially evident where its application, even in the present legal system, is still permissible.

What makes Snowden so interesting is that it appears that he is an old-fashioned “believer” in the American project—someone who wanted to fight the good fight, to uphold American principles and ideals, as the US government has long professed is also its mission. He contracted to work for defense contractors who in turn worked with the NSA, and for that reason did not begin his (short-lived) post-military career with misgivings about the American imperial project. As he got to see the how its affairs were being misconducted, he continued to believe in “doing the right thing.”  What also makes Snowden remarkable is his awareness that

[T]he “US Persons” protection in general is a distraction from the power and danger of this system. Suspicionless surveillance does not become okay simply because it’s only victimizing 95% of the world instead of 100%. Our founders did not write that “We hold these Truths to be self-evident, that all US Persons are created equal.

Whether or not one agrees with his actions, whether or not his politics and ideology mesh with the ideas of the right or the left–it will always be a remarkable sight to a see a lone person stand up to the Leviathan, composed as it is of its myriad eyes, all watching, waiting, to clamp down on any threat, no matter how trivial to it relentless monopolistic pursuit of violence—and power.


This piece was republished in Salon on June 19, 2013 as “Edward Snowden’s real crime: Humiliating the state.”

GiTMO Prisoners, Their Hunger Strikes, and Our Humanity

The Guantanamo Hunger Strike Should Remind Us of Prisoners’ Humanity

—and Reawaken Ours.

Recently, Olga Khazan, The Atlantic’s global editor, wrote a piece doubting the effectiveness of the hunger strike being led by Guantanamo detainees since February 7. The strike, begun in protest against the prisoners’ Korans being rifled, has taken on a much larger significance: It is a protest against the continual incarceration and brutalization of the prisoners, some of whom have been there, without being charged, since the opening of prison 11 years ago. The actual number of strikers varies, depending upon who is reporting. According to a military spokesman, there are 39 strikers, with 11 being force-fed nutritional supplements through their noses. The lawyer for Shaker Amer, one of the detainees participating in the hunger strike since it began, reports that there are 130 strikers.

Khazan’s main argument is that hunger strikes are most effective when conducted by a sympathetic group. It is, in several ways, a bizarre conclusion to draw. What does it mean to say that the GTMO detainees are an unsympathetic group? Unsympathetic to whom? To that crowd for whom unilateral Executive declarations of guilt—without public charges, evidence, or trial–are to be received uncritically, much like religious faith? Or perhaps to reporters like Robert Johnson who, as Glenn Greenwald reports, clearly believes Guantanamo is a vacation paradise with first class food. Clearly, that’s not the group to whom the detainees are appealing. After all, if that were true, they wouldn’t be atrophying in frigid cells, suffering kidney and urinary tract infections from nonpotable water, worrying about whether the next beating they received from a 300 lb guard was going to paralyze them for life, or whether they would ever be released.

On the other hand, a group of people who has been detained for 11 years without being charged–with anything–is a remarkably sympathetic group for those of us who are committed to the rule of law, who object to violations of procedure, and the imperious expansion of state authority. Judging from the length of this strike, as Amy Davidson states, something has gone very wrong at Guantanamo. But something went wrong 11 years ago, and has yet to be rectified—namely that ANY populace ANYWHERE would tolerate men being imprisoned without trials, evidence, charges for any sustained period time.

Khazan is correct that the GTMO detainees will receive no sympathy from the current Presidential Administration. That is precisely the motivation to strike publicly. Since when have hunger strikers ever had the sympathy of the institutions or regimes against whom they are striking? Neither suffragettes nor the students in the Tiananmen protests against Chinese state authorities, nor anti-colonial leaders such as M.K. Gandhi ever had a sympathetic ear from the authorities to whom they were appealing.

Yet the use of hunger strikes by the above groups is fundamentally different from hunger strikes conducted by prisoners. Even though groups such as Black prisoners in Soledad State Prison in 1970 or those in Walpole State Prison in 1980 were hardly ‘sympathetic,’ their acts were publicly compelling. I would suggest that it is because prisoners are among the most reviled of populations that a hunger strike by them is such a compelling act.

It is not hard be exposed to the sheer loathing of a group who has been been caged: the image—real or imagined—of a person caged, treated like a wild animal, is an effective way to pre-empt sympathy. For many, it raises questions about the moral and intellectual status of the prisoner. They must be guilty or behaviorally unpredictable, or savage, or cruel, or ready to hurt, maim, or rape you. These are the (intended) associations of imprisoning someone—regardless of whether the punishment was meted out procedurally. The imprisoned are reduced to terrifying, dangerous creatures. We saw this in the pictures of Abu Ghraib abuse scandal, as well as in the descriptions of prisoners that came from top officials. As Major General Geoffrey Miller, in charge of Guantanamo prison in 2004, was reported to have said of the detainees:

… [T]hey are like dogs and if you allow them to believe at any point that they are more than a dog then you’ve lost control of them.

The commanding element of a hunger strike as a form of protest is precisely that it doesn’t harm others physically. That absence of harm to others is part of the hunger strike’s command to pay attention: it is the antithesis of how a vilified population would be predicted to act in protest or outrage. Instead, the hunger strike is an act of harm to oneself. It involves deprivation to oneself—of nourishment. It involves a re-orientation of oneself: towards death.

There is the another arresting element of a hunger strike conducted by a prisoner: it is plainly the last resort of a being who has nothing else with which to bargain: no other tool, no other leverage, no other allies who can advocate effectively or successfully for those who are striking. The prisoner who engages in an hunger strike uses the only means left at his disposal–his life–which ostensibly is the only leverage that he can have control over. In that imagined spectacle—communicated only through lawyers and journalists–the hunger strike reintroduces us to the humanity of a person who is—at least physically—hurting no one else but himself. It brings up associations of martyrdom, suffering, moral decisions—uniquely human associations. A third and most powerful element of the hunger strike is the insistence that this one aspect of someone’s existence—one’s humanity, one’s ‘aliveness’—will not be ceded to any other authority.

That might be why, historically, there have continually been moral prohibitions against suicide, whether through religious teachings or state policies: ending one’s life is the one thing that—in ordinary circumstances–others’ authority cannot physically compel you to refrain from. This explains why, in prisons, the relevant authorities make every effort to deny a person the ultimate decision that is available to free people—the decision to live or die.

As Jonathan Hafetz said in a recent Guardian article,

A hunger strike provides detainees with a way to reassert some measure of control over their own lives. By refusing to eat, they force the world to recognize their existence and humanity and to confront the reality of their continued imprisonment. Legal rulings can be rationalized or ignored in a way that a dying prisoner cannot.

But in fact, even that control is wrested away: Notice that I didn’t refer to one’s “aliveness” as the only leverage which one does have control over. It used to be that the purpose of the state—as understood through Hobbesian or Lockean social contract theory—was to monopolize the power to kill: In return for ceding the right to kill in self-defense, you would be guaranteed protection by the state. Part of that protection included managing and controlling the freedom of others who were a danger to you–those who broke the law—hence, arrests, charges, trials. But alongside the discarding of procedure, the state is increasingly trying to monopolize the control of one’s life (aliveness), that is, to seize the only remaining leverage that a prisoner might have—the ability to control his aliveness.

In the current moment, as the Guantanamo prisoners strike, the state is trying to misappropriate this final degree of leverage from the Guantanamo prisoners—even though they may not—yet—be successful. That is increasingly the definition of imprisonment: to have not merely your physical and political freedom wrenched away, but to have your freedom to decide whether to live–or die—eliminated. We see the elimination of the control over one’s life in supermax prisons, solitary confinement, psychiatric wards. ‘By control over one’s life,’ I don’t mean one’s ability to move or make quotidian decisions—about food, destination, associations, prayer, or speech—although those too—but over one’s actual alive-ness, for lack of a better distinguishing term.

On Tuesday, Kevin Gosztola reported on some of the abuses of Guantanamo detainees, 86 of whom have been authorized for release under the Obama Administration. His report came from Clive Smith, an attorney for Shaker Amer. Smith filed a report to an American court that detailed his conversation with his client, a British citizen, by phone. Amer has been detained without charges since the prison’s opening 11 years ago–but cleared for release twice during that time. He is a liaison between guards and prisoners, and has been an advocate for the other prisoners. Amer charges that he and other prisoners are beaten by the guards, subjected to forced cell extractions, deprived of sleep—among other forms of torture–and run the risk of having their backs broken, limbs broken. As well, they must endure the impositions of medical professionals who are trying to disrupt the hunger strike. It is a form of torture: the forced feeding through tubes that are painfully inserted through prisoners’ noses; the refusal to listen.

“Good! They deserve it,” some will say—even though these prisoners haven’t been charged or tried or have ever had any evidence shown of their guilt. And that is one of the main reasons that the news about the hunger strikes in Guantanamo are gaining in momentum. As of now, the US government brazenly refuses to listen to or release even the half (86) of those detainees whose innocence has been—at least tacitly–confirmed through their clearance for release. But the increasing attention might force it to change its position: There are reports of protests by activists in Sana’a and Kuwait City agitating for the release of the men who have been subject to unimaginable tortures for the last 11 years—and are now facing death.

The (imagined) spectacle, the panic of the military guards, and the forced feeding of 11 detainees, should make us all wonder about the casual acceptance of the dehumanization of these prisoners. This dehumanization began with their initial capture and continues with their uncharged, indefinite, infinite detention, and coming to a head now: with their continued torture, beatings, and maltreatment—all for crimes that the Executive Branch assumes but has no evidence to support. But even more, it should impel us to forcefully reject the horrific policies conducted by this administration: by protest, by legal means, by public vocal outrage.

New York’s Finest Islamophobes

Here’s another piece I wrote today, published over at Salon. It’s based on a new report published today about NYPD surveillance of Muslims in New York.

New York’s finest Islamophobes

A new report sheds light on NYPD’s secret surveillance of Muslim communities. And what it reveals about liberals

Imagine living in a small American community, innocently minding your own business, while constantly worrying that your government is monitoring how you meet with others in your community, speak about your faith, express political views, and dress — for hints that you are a terrorist. As seen by a report released today, such harassment and violations of civil liberties are constant facts of life for American Muslims today.

The new report, Mapping Muslims, analyzes the effects of the New York Police Department (NYPD)’s infiltration into every facet of Muslim communities, from mosques, local shops, college organizations and more. The report — released by the Muslim American Civil Liberties Coalition (MACLC), the Creating Law Enforcement Accountability & Responsibility (CLEAR) project and the Asian American Legal Defense Fund (AALDEF) – interviewed 57 Muslims, mostly living in New York City. The interviewees included high school and college students, community organizers, lawyers, teachers, shopkeepers and others





The submissive, indifferent Democrats

I know I haven’t posted anything in a while, but I do have a piece out today. Click through to read the whole thing.

The submissive, indifferent Democrats

Important questions on targeted killings were raised this week, and more remain. Progressives were nowhere

If you noticed that there was a lot of news this week in the senate, but hardly any mention of Democrats, you weren’t alone. By mid-afternoon Thursday, after a 12-hour filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul, John Brennan was confirmed to be the next CIA director by a vote of 63-34. The “nay” votes were clearly short of a successful challenge to Brennan’s confirmation (whose nomination to the same office was undermined 4 years ago).

Much of Paul’s protest centered on the White House’s refusal to answer where they stood on targeted killings. Although he broke no records, Paul’s filibuster met with telling widespread negative reactions on the parts of liberals and progressives. Democrats were virtually invisible, with one or two notable (and weak) exceptions, during Paul’s time on the floor

The Onion’s Hipster Misogyny

Another piece I wrote. The rest is over at Salon….

The Onion’s hipster Misogyny

Being ironic, self-aware, and knowing something is offensive doesn’t make it funny — or OK

I turned off the Oscars a short while after MC Seth MacFarlane’s “We Saw Your Boob” routine. The skit was framed by a stern-looking William Shatner playing Star Trek’s Captain Kirk, returned from the future. He was chastising MacFarlane for the trashy routine that Kirk predicted he would soon be doing. There was very little funny about it, and a quick pan of the audience revealed a bunch of famous women not laughing—including Charlize Theron—who nevertheless “classed up” the trashy routine by following up with a ballroom style dance with Channing Tatum.  I’m not sure how Theron felt about it, given her subsequent participation, but I’m assuming my response was somewhat shared by many of the straight-faced actors in the audience.

That was bad enough. This morning, I woke up to the news that The Onion decided to take up MacFarlane’s “humorous sexism” prompt and notch it up to ironic racist misogyny with a tweet on its official account about 9 year old Quvenzhané Wallis, the heart of the film Beasts of the Southern Wild. (rest is here)…

Response to the Responses to Liberal Racial Hypocrisy

Happily, my article over at Salon has generated a lot of conversation.  I wanted to respond to the comments, but came up against technical obstacles, so I’ve decided to post my response here.

According to some of the comments, some readers have misread my point. I am not comparing the murder of Trayvon Martin to the assassination of Osama Bin Laden or Anwar Al-Awlaki—at all. Ever.  However, the deaths of 16 year old Trayvon Martin and 16 year old Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, both of whom were US citizens, are devastating, heinous, and reprehensible. Again, as Jemima Pierre at Black Agenda Report points out: Trayvon Martin was killed based on a perceived threat by a lone individual.  Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki was also killed based on perceived threat—by the US government, under the auspices of national security.  He was killed by a drone 2 weeks AFTER his father, Anwar—also a US citizen–was droned to death. The US government has shuffled its explanations for Abdulrahman’s death, at first claiming that he was 21 years old, then claiming that he was standing next to another member of Al-Qaeda, and at another point, refusing to confirm that he was killed.  I mentioned the two teens’ names as one example of a larger argument about the double-standards of liberals under a Democratic President—and the lack of outrage –with regard to the ethics of the project of American Empire.

Even with ‘proof’—given the shoddy system of due process that is afforded to African Americans and other vulnerable populations–we must reconsider state-led executions, whether of Black Americans or foreign nationals. It is no better when government policy dictates the murders of foreign nationals or American citizens or teenagers–than when a lone racist individual kills an African American teen–or adult.  Indeed, it is exponentially devastating to condone such acts when they are part of government policy—as there is no recourse to law, to appeals, to evidence. Such actions, on the part of the state, implicate all of us.

Some were offended by the comparison that I made between racism domestically and racist policies administered under the auspices of the global War on Terror by the current Administration.  It is hardly an original argument: Cynthia McKinney, (several articles by) Glen Ford, Bruce Dixon, Jemima Pierre, Cornel West, and others have made this point. In their days, Dr. Martin Luther King, W.E.B. DuBois, and many others made comparisons between racism domestically and international racism/empire.

Many commenters found my argument unbelievable because I cited too few liberals. Yet, I cited 5 liberals—2 politicians, a blogger who self-identifies as ‘liberal,’ and 2 MSNBC commentators, in the space of that article.  In addition, at the end of the article, I cite an article about a study by Michael Tesler, a political scientist at Brown University. Tesler found that racially progressive liberals were significantly inclined to change their minds and approve targeted killings when they found out that President Obama supported the policy. I’m not sure how many liberals I must cite to be convincing, if one refuses to consider the argument. According to a very recent Washington Post/ABC News poll, 77% of liberal Democrats supported the policy of targeted killings. That seems like a fairly high number. 83% of Americans in general supported the President’s drone policy.

In the article, I was drawing attention to the much larger acceptance of state-led killings—by liberals—under a Democratic Administration than under a Republican Administration. But the other part of my concern is that these policies are being conducted under the project of American Empire against Muslims. As Deepa Kumar wrote in an excellent article published last July in The Nation, Islamophobia has been a long-standing bipartisan project, beginning well before 9/11.  I’m also concerned about the dual functions of the US Homeland: to guard its borders, and to police internal and external populations.  The war on terror, with its ubiquitous, elusive enemy guarantees a perpetual war.

Hannah Arendt, a German Jewish refugee, philosopher and political critic, pointed out in her book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, that the point of Empire was to create unity at home.  Part of this unity includes the positing of presumptive divergences between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ Americans, ‘good’ and ‘bad’ foreigners, and ‘good’ Americans and ‘bad’ foreigners.  Witness Sen. Dianne Feinstein’s suggestion that Anwar Al-Awlaki was a “so-called American.”  Al-Awlaki Sr’s moral disposition has little do with his legal citizenship or legal treatment.  Feinstein’s insinuations entrench the assumption that Americans are upstanding; but she has yet to reconcile this assumption with our judicial system. Al-Awlaki was American; and like other Americans, if he is suspected of committing a crime, then he should be charged and tried. If he is as compelling a danger as the state insists, then presumably proof can–and must–be provided to show why it is necessary to execute him.

Finally, politicians, regardless of their political affiliations, must be treated with wariness and skepticism. That is part of the larger point in my article. The increasing jingoism of the last decade has found its counterpart in the internal policing, harassment, and exploitation of darker populations—through anti-immigration laws, among others. As an example of how closely these purposes are linked, consider the example of Kris Kobach. Kobach is the architect of racial profiling laws that are currently directed towards migrants in several states. He initially devised that approach to racial profiling as a counterterrorism strategy, when he was a young attorney working under Attorney General John Ashcroft.

Liberal Racial Hypocrisy

Today, Salon has published an article of mine. I’m thrilled to publish it there. Article starts below. Click below to read the rest of it. And I hope to get another piece up here early next week.

Liberal Racial Hypocrisy:

Killing people of color just for being a suspected threat is a total outrage for liberals. Well, sometimes

Since the reelection of President Obama, liberals have made some bold admissions. Commentators like Touré Neblett of MSNBC’s The Cycle have enthusiastically and repeatedly defended the president’s authority to launch drones against anyone, including American citizens, if he suspects that they are “trying to kill us.”

At no point in his several defenses did Touré reconcile his position with once-popular Constitutional precepts that every person should be presumed innocent until proven guilty, and know the charges and evidence against him, and have the right to a fair trial. Neither did he explain why ordinary Americans should suspend their longstanding skepticism of politicians in power or withdraw the demand that the president and Congress be accountable for their actions, especially the taking of someone’s life…

The Department of Homeland Security Wants YOU to Help Keep America Safe

I’ve been posting less frequently in the last few weeks, in part because I’ve returned to my other work commitments on a full-time basis. It leaves me less time to write during the week. For the next few months, I still hope to post twice a week.

This week, I’ve been writing a piece for Salon, which will appear in tomorrow’s edition on their site. I’ll link to it from this site once it appears.. As part of that piece, I link to this video from the Department of Homeland Security, which carefully instructs Americans how to participate activity and responsibly in catching terrorists.  It is around 10 minutes, but it is SO worth your time and indignance to watch.

Notice, among other things, the self-conscious race reversals between (good) by-standers and (evil) perpetrators. And in each case, it is not merely a suspect–it is someone who absolutely needs to be prevented from the inevitable terrorist act that s/he is about to commit.  America’s–the Homeland–safety depends on you, good people. If you see something–don’t doubt yourself. Don’t hesitate. And above all, don’t move away too far from the perpetrator–even if it means he can hear you make the call to the police.

GiTMO: 11 Years of Pre-Emptive Policing, Indefinite Detention, and Human Rights Violations

As many of you already are aware, today is the 11th anniversary of Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility. My thoughts on this topic are all over this site. There is little more that I can say without trivializing this unspeakable horror. It is shocking that we still have to work to induce outrage among our friends and family.

Here I have aggregated some clear-eyed testimonies by former Guantanamo Detainees, by a Guantanamo Guard, and related articles. 166 detainees still remain in Guantanamo. 157 have not been charged. 86 have been cleared for release. Again one wonders what the good reasons are that still keep them there.

Also, former Guantanamo guard Brandon Neely tweeted the following today. They are words by which the past two Administrations should be inspired.

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-An Op-Doc in today’s NYT by director Laura Poitras on Adnan Latif (Yemeni national, now deceased). It’s about 9 minutes long, but you simply must watch it. And make everyone who thinks indefinite detention and pre-emptive policing good ideas watch it.

-Here is a link to an article by Jason Leopold on Truthout about new details on the death of Adnan Latif. The suspicions surrounding Latif’s “self-induced” death do not diminish after reading it:

David Hicks (Australian national, finally released):

-And a moving interview with David Hicks and provocative reflections by Jason Leopold.

-Journalist Sami Al-Hajj (Sudanese national; released after 6 years) describes his time in Guantanamo to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman.

-An extremeley detailed Wikipedia entry about situation facing current Gtmo detainee Abu Zubaydah, despite the fact that the Department of Justice has recanted all Bush Administration terror claims against him:

-A report by Jason Leopold about the recanting of evidence against Zubaydah:

-It is worth clicking on the link Brandon Neely’s tweet to see Jody Zubaydah, the sister-in-law of GitMo detainee “Hani” Abu Zubaydah (more on him below). Hesham Zubaydah, to whom Jody is married, was incarcerated for 2 years based on his then-wife’s false allegations and the US government’s suspicions of his brother.

-In Washington, DC this morning, the New America Foundation sponsored a panel on Indefinite Detention, featuring ex-Guantanamo Chief prosecutor Morris Davis, Andy Worthington, and others. I’ll add a link to that panel if it becomes available.

-Brandon Neely was a US soldier and guard at GiTMO from its inception in 2002 until 2005. His testimony about being a guard is harrowing and thoughtful.

I’ll continue to add relevant links as I find them.

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