Treating Prisoners as Well as Farm Animals

The legislature in the Commonwealth of Massachusetts is now considering passing Bill S.2232. Officially entitled, “An Act to ensure continued humane animal care in Massachusetts,” this commendable bill is designed to prevent cruelty and ill-treatment to farm animals. Here are some key excerpts:

The purpose of this section, subject to exceptions, is to prohibit the confinement of farm animals in a manner that does not allow them to turn around freely, lie down, stand up, and fully extend their limbs.

(b) Notwithstanding any other provision of law, a person is guilty of unlawful confinement of a covered farm animal if the person is a farm owner or operator who knowingly tethers or confines any covered animal, on a farm, for all or the majority of any day, in a manner that prevents such animal from:

(1) Lying down, standing up, and fully extending his or her limbs; and

(2) Turning around freely.

[snip]

(d) For the purposes of this section:

[snip]

(3) “Enclosure” means any cage, crate, or other structure (including what is commonly described as a “gestation crate” for pigs; or a “veal crate” for calves used to confine a covered animal).
[snip]

(6)”Fully extending his or her limbs” means fully extending all limbs without touching the side of an enclosure
(7) “Person” means any individual, firm, partnership, joint venture, association, limited liability company, corporation, estate, trust, receiver, or syndicate.
[snip]

(9) “Turning around freely” means turning in a complete circle without any impediment, including a tether, and without touching the side of an enclosure.
[snip]
(e) Any person who violates any of the provisions of this chapter is guilty of a misdemeanor, and upon conviction thereof shall be punished by a fine not to exceed one thousand dollars ($1,000).

This simple, yet precise bill raises the standards for the ethical treatment of animals that will, eventually, be slaughtered for food. Thus, while it is clear that the animals in question will most likely meet their demise intentionally, according to this bill, they should be treated humanely.

Perhaps I should say, “better-than-humanely” or “animal-humanely,” since as we know some tens of thousands of human beings, if not more, are currently confined and shackled in small cells, which certainly impede their ability to “fully extend their limbs without touching the side of an enclosure,” or to “turn around freely without any impediment, including a tether.” As we know, even when we choose to ignore it, our well-deserved sympathy for farm animals or house pets, or many other animals, often does not extend—even as a matter of federal policy—to human beings considered undesirable: imprisoned Black men and women, undocumented migrants or children, and mostly Muslim men who were casualties of American fear in the endless War on Terror—namely those who have been or still reside in Guantanamo.

Some significant portion of these prisoners are in solitary confinement in US prisons. The numbers, as the organization Solitary Watch (SW) states, are difficult to determine. Official numbers do not appear to include those who are undocumented and in “detention facilities”—including thousands of child migrants. None of these prisoners are likely to be granted the same range of unshackled movement, or even the same level of “animal-humane” treatment from their captors or guards. As a recent story by Katie Pavlich demonstrated, child migrants are expected to live inside caged facilities while the US government considers how to process them. The photos obtained on townhall.com show multiple children stuffed into chain-link cages with hardly any room to turn around “without impediment.” The slideshow at a CBS news website shows similar crowding and cages.

There are too many stories are out there about the subhuman treatment of pregnant prisoners who give birth while chained, with prison officials by their side. While there is a federal prison policy, passed in 2007, that prohibits shackling pregnant women, there are only a few similar prohibitions against state prison facilities, pertaining only to about 20 states. To its infinite credit, Massachusetts is among the most recent of states to pass such a policy. S.2063 was passed earlier this year, although its standards are lower than the humane animal care bill under consideration.

While S.2232, the humane-animal care bill, mandates unconditional freedom of movement for farm animals, Massachusetts’ prohibition against tethering pregnant prisoners onlymandates “the opportunity for a minimum of 1 hour of ambulatory movement each day.” Also, unlike a similar bill passed in California, the Massachusetts bill does not pertain to undocumented women. Plenty of other states have no such restrictions, as seen in this horrific recounting from the documentary Checkpoint Nation, of Maria, a woman who was taunted by an ICE official by her side in Tucson, Arizona, while giving birth.

Similarly, the stories of men locked up in tiny cubicles for years at a time proliferate without limit. Listen to these comments by Anthony Graves, wrongly convicted and sentenced to death row. Graves spent 18 years imprisoned, 16 of them in solitary confinement. He has also likened his 8 x 10 cell to a cage fit for animals, prompting prison officials to taunt him like an animal. In similarly dehumanizing fashion, Khalif Brauder was held in solitary confinement, without adequate nutrition, in Rikers as a teenager for fraudulent reasons. Mahmud Abouhalima is imprisoned in a Supermax prison where he has been shackled and forced to live for years in a cage no bigger than 8 feet wide. Yet others tell of being imprisoned in cells that are even smaller, as in these answers to the question of how large a prison cell.

There are countless stories of men who have been beaten and tortured so badly their spines have been broken.

But every single story that is published about these sub-human standards of treatment—in light of S.2232, perhaps we should call them “sub-animalistic” standards—is met with contempt or indifference. Others cheer that these men and women (and children) are being met with appropriate, well-deserved or justifiable treatment. And this Old Testament attitude persists despite the countless—yes, countless—cases of wrongful convictions or, in our post-9/11 legal world, the normalization of the complete absence of proof.

Back in 1997, political philosophers Robert Goodin, Carole Pateman and Roy Pateman published a scholarly article entitled, “Simian Sovereignty.” In it, they argued that simians—apes, orangutans, chimps and others of that species closely resembled human beings, and thus should be able to live and co-exist side by side with human beings. Goodin et al. cited several philosophers from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries who argued for the close resemblance between human beings and simians. For example, they cite Lord Monboddo, as being “optimistic” that “the Orang Outang is, if not in the beginning, at least in one of the first stages of society, and in the progress towards a more civilized state.”

The premise of Goodin et al’s article was that simians most closely resemble human beings and therefore deserve to be treated in a superior fashion (as presumably human beings are). When I first read their article in 1997, I was rather skeptical of the comparison, because I wasn’t convinced of their premise. Today, I am still rather skeptical of the comparison, but for obverse reasons: the superior standards that they argue be extended to simians have not yet been extended to many who are supposed to fit into the category of”human”— particularly those who are undesirable, vilified or marginalized.

We are accustomed to thinking of human beings as autonomous, of being individuated, of—through long periods of Kantian story-telling—according them a certain level of respect, of ascribing them a certain dignified status, and by extension, a certain level of protection. In the Kantian story, humans exist between angels and animals, with their intellectual faculties rescuing them from the status of the latter. Their faculties are utilized to govern and restrain their material sides and impulses. Kant’s story continues to be a predominant linchpin in organizing our understanding of the world. In French philosopher Jacques Derrida’s posthumously published book, The Animal That I therefore Am, he points to Adorno’s stance that an idealist insults man by referring to the animal in him. It is certainly true that for many centuries to be understood as merely an animal was an insult. It was a condemnation of all that was unreflective, irrational, morally uncontrolled by one’s intellectual faculty.

There is a documented history that demonstrates how sympathy for animals is elicited much more prolifically and easily than is sympathy for others who suffer similar conditions to caged animals. We see it in this story, from 1994, about how orphaned mountain lion cubs elicited two and 1/3 times more donations ($21,000) than did the children ($9,000) orphaned after their mother was attacked by the cubs’ mother. Today, all 50 states have felony penalties for cruelty to animals.

Notably, in February 2006, a 38-year old man in Columbus, Ohio, was arrested for dog fighting, after officials found twenty-six wounded pit bulls confined in wooden crates. As the chief deputy sheriff reported then: “These dogs were kept in these things with no windows…It is still a phenomenon to me that people enjoy watching these animals suffer like this. It’s just so brutal.” I point to a case that is nearly 8 years old, because the sympathy (rightfully) expressed for the dogs—caged in crates with no windows–is still withheld from men and women and children  who are imprisoned in similar conditions: in Supermax prisons or in Guantanamo Bay or in immigration detention facilities.

We seem to have arrived at a moment when the term “animal” no longer refers as accurately to the non-human animal. If anything, as we have seen over the last few decades, non-human animals are seen to resemble human animals more and more: dolphins can think and sing and feel; chimpanzees can communicate. Octopi have been discovered to wield and implement tools. These facts shatter the foundation of Karl Marx’s celebration of the singularity of human potential.

Yet, there seems to be an inverse disparity between our unadulterated love for animals and our shame and moral outrage in the face of mistreatment and cruelty and the relative lack of concern for human beings facing similar conditions. What are we to make of the seeming fact that certain human beings will not be recognized as having the same kind of protections afforded to animals? How do we understand both their status and their continued misery—a misery that continues and hears fewer objections, less outrage?

The strongest argument in favor of cruel treatment to prisoners is that they have been convicted of heinous actions, and as such, they merit such treatment. But that argument is easily undermined in the face of the fact that so many prisoners who are caged have never seen the inside of a courtroom for their supposed crimes. Most detainees in immigration facilities or in Guantanamo have neither been tried nor convicted, as we well know.

A more cynical reading would suggest that S.2232, pending in the Massachusetts legislature, only offers super-humane treatment to animals that will eventually be slaughtered and eaten, and as such, is not a real fix. But shouldn’t treatment of human beings who are vilified approximate the treatment of farm animals?  It is not too cynical to say that if we had a federal, uniform standard of treatment for imprisoned men, women and children matching the standards of S.2232, that would mark some level of progress in a world in which the US government professes to believe in human rights.

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A version of this piece was published on truth-out.org today.

Is Violence Cultural?

 

As the #YesAllWomen hashtag trended over the weekend, I tweeted out a few of my own. In response to one of my tweets [about having been menaced on 3 separate campuses by male students who were antagonized by the low grades or critical evaluations that I gave], a friendly tweep asked whether my experiences could be ascribed to a culture of violence. It was an important question, and I didn’t respond as 140 characters seemed to be rather limiting. I want to think through one part of that question here. But I want to note: my comments are not a reflection on my friendly interlocutor; rather, I’m trying to explore my concern about the phrase.

I’m always surprised when the words ‘violence’ and ‘culture’ are placed in close proximity. Much like the phrase “social construction of race,” the notion of a “culture of violence” seems to create an artificial stopping point at what should be the beginning of an analysis. These days, the phrase ‘social construction of race’ indicates a moment in the political development of theories of race rather than some meaningful insight in itself. Similarly, the notion of a ‘culture of violence’ is often the description given to explain the pro-gun discourse that marks the US in international lights, or the massacres that seem to be occurring with increasing frequency in the United States. The most recent one to come to public attention was the one that a young man, Elliot Rodgers, carried out a few days ago. The phrase ‘culture of violence,’ seems to be immediately problematic in several ways. First, it obscures the specificity of various kinds of violence (a shooting in cold blood versus a woman who shoots at an ex-lover in self-defense; a serial massacre by a young man versus a military massacre of a village). I’m not suggesting that they are all horrific or heinous. Rather, I want to suggest that the level and quality of (dis)approval in each case is affected by the conditions and institutions which supported that action. The second, closely related, way in which the discussion of a ‘culture of violence’ is problematic is that it elides state-led policies that endorse certain kinds of violent actions—based on who is committing the violence and who the violence is committed against—rather than on the action in question.

Examples of the second would include executive policies such as a memo that authorized the use of drones to kill people who are suspected of terrorism (or having a governmental body vote in favor of a federal judgeship for the lawyer who co-authored that memo); or the actions of federal judges who exculpate police officers who shoot young black men while sentencing a political protestor to prison for elbowing a policeman for a boob grab, or a range of bills that unanimously approve the pre-emptive policing, or potential detention, or profiling and entrapment thousands of people who loosely fall into the same group as the 19 men who flew into the World Trade Center in 2001.

You get my point.

‘Culture,’ like ‘social construction,’ seems to sidestep an assumption that certain traits are permanently embedded, without confessing to that assumption. It seems that culture is most often used in 4 different ways:

1. As a marker of identity: Indian culture, Russian culture, Irish culture, etc.

2. As a comparative descriptor, such as when praising a group of people affiliated with a certain society as having superlative values: French culture, Western culture, progressive culture.

3. To ascribe ‘primitive’ or ‘regressive’ traits to a group of people who are united on the basis of some practices or beliefs or (mutual) recognition of identity: Muslim/Islamic culture, Black culture, Masculine culture, etc.

4. To describe a set of (negative) practices that people abide by or embrace (wittingly or not), and therefore become part of that group: A culture of: consumerism, rape, terrorism, narcissism, violence.

Over a decade ago, at the first philosophy conference I attended after receiving my doctorate, my excitement melted into despair as I heard the keynote speaker, a white feminist philosopher of some renown, painstakingly describe how Palestinians and other Muslim cultures were more prone to a ‘culture of terrorism’ than those in Western societies. It seemed to link violence to a population while avoiding references to biology, ontology, or nature. [Uma Narayan, Talal Asad and Edward Said have challenged such a link in their considerable writings, but to judge from its frequent invocation, it still seems to remain an easy go-to place.] And in forging this link, the keynote speaker indicated that these actions were compulsive, driven by the culture to which said people belong.

This kind of deployment of ‘culture’ is striking for its complete bifurcation from a discussion of historical, (geo)political, economic, social, legal structures: what is the history of Palestine (or Iraq, Afghanistan, Kashmir, etc)? What are the material, geopolitical, social circumstances in which certain men and women engage in certain specific practices? What are the legal structures that punish certain men and women for acts of violence while retaining a blind eye towards others? How do we construe violence or terrorism, when lone individuals or groups associated with non-state entities who blow up cafes become the prime figures of terrorism (and if they survive, will most certainly face punishment at the hands of government or military forces)–while other figures–surrounded by government security personnel as they instruct others to deploy drones against certain persons in Yemen selected by a computer algorithm–are hailed as heroes and voted repeatedly back into positions of power? All this, while those who provide legal validation for such practices are elevated to the nation’s highest courts (the most recent example being, of course, David Barron)?

Such a disarticulation from a discussion of underlying structures entrenches the belief that these practices are inherent – perhaps uniquely so — to the group with whom they are associated. So, to talk of a ‘culture of violence’ suggests that there is a set of violent practices that constitute the fabric of a society, bringing that very society together as a unit, which that society (or some part at least) doesn’t necessarily question, criticize, or challenge.

That may not be the intent of using this phrase, since—in none of the above 4 senses is culture used as a factual descriptor (even when that is the intent of the speaker) but more as a rhetorical descriptor. It is always possible to falsify a statement about culture that presumes that most if not all of its people ascribe to a certain belief. Hindus are not all vegetarian; Not all feminists believe that the hijab is oppressive; Not all Muslims (women or men) believe that the hijab must be worn. The French don’t all believe in republicanism. All of these groups have internal debates about various issues, and it may be impossible without (even with) extensive surveys, to discover which part of the group practices/believes in the belief under question, and whether that part of the group constitutes a majority.

My concern with the above deployment of term ‘culture’, is that the speaker obscures the very structures that s/he claims to take into account by locating violence/narcissism/entitlement/rape in a generic culture. It is true that the phrase ‘culture’ can accurately connote a set of embedded attitudes regarding violence, rape, narcissism or consumerism. But—especially when ascribing these attitudes to a group that is already the subject of criticism—s/he connotes that the actions of these populations are driven by their culture. By ascribing certain events to a ‘culture of violence,’ I wonder if it prevents us from having a more insightful conversation about the specific elements that drive a certain event.

Let me be clear: I do NOT want to exculpate men (or women) who benefit from patriarchy, white supremacy, or other systems validating hierarchies or endorsing oppression against groups on the basis of race, gender or nationality. These are systems—grounded through laws, economic policies, geopolitical history, and social policies of rewards and benefits–which can engender acceptance about the privileges that accrue to some persons on the basis of being – say — male or white (often without regard to class), or to being middle- or upper-class white women. And while it’s possible to talk of a set of beliefs that seem to be shared by those who benefit from patriarchy or white supremacy, I think it’s much more effective and important to prioritize a focus on systems rather than culture.

A useful followup to this rumination might be to problematize the discussion of “privilege”—as in in white privilege, male privilege, etc. That will be for a future post.

Children murdered, homes foreclosed: How the government makes “mistakes” with impunity

Anyone who’s been at the mercy of the DMV, the IRS, or a health insurance company knows that bureaucracies make mistakes. Most people are accustomed to bureaucracies making mistakes. And even presidential administrations and U.S. Armed Forces make mistakes.

Yet when considering U.S. national security policies, raising the question of mistakes that cost lives is chalked up as a minor issue: “We have to expect collateral damage in wars/drones/bombs/armed conflict.”

If we know that organizations make mistakes, then it’s not that hard to see that organizations without external oversight and accountability will be empowered to make mistakes with impunity.

Not rectifying mistakes, not allowing oversight, refusing to be accountable to an external judicial body is considered by many an abuse of power. But abuse can only be claimed when a state promises to be accountable. If the state claims that it can’t be accountable, can’t be reviewed for mistakes, can’t rectify mistakes because such practices would be dangerous (the reason isn’t really important here), then at most levels, it’s hard to name the state’s attitude as abuse.

Moreover, as journalist Margaret Kimberley points out, the Obama Adminstration has claimed the right to kill American citizens without charge or trial. That’s not an abuse of power. It’s a complete usurpation of power. There is no space by which to claim the Administration should have acted differently by its own lights.

Wouldn’t it be more accurate to call this, not the abuse of, but the monopoly of power?

In 2005, Rahina Ibrahim was “cuffed, detained, and denied a flight” to Hawaii to deliver a conference paper about sustainable housing. She was allowed to return home to Malaysia, but because her name was on a U.S. government no-fly list, Ibrahim’s visa was subsequently revoked; she was prevented from returning to the U.S., thus effectively ending her doctoral studies at Stanford.  She eventually finished her dissertation in Malaysia, and sued the US government to have her name removed from the no-fly list. But the courts initially ruled that she had no legal standing to sue the US to change its policies because she is a non-citizen, and the US’s efforts to fight terrorism could not be challenged by a foreign national.

Ibrahim persisted, and at least in the most recent round, won.  Despite the US’s best efforts to the contrary, Ibrahim is the first to successfully force the US government to remove her name from the list. U.S. District Court William Alsup’s ruling points out that the US government had erred: an FBI agent confessed to having filled out the No-Fly list form for Rahina Ibrahim in exactly the opposite way as he should have. Alsup had suspected as early as December 2009 that Ibrahim had been the victim of a “monumental” government error.

Murtaza Hussain, in an excellent assessment, points out that Attorney General Eric Holder abused the state-secrets privilege in the Ibrahim case. In an affidavit from April 2013, Holder invoked the state secrets privilege as the reason that the Department of Justice could not turn over the records regarding why her name was put on the no-fly list. Referring to the 2009 State Secrets Policyy established under a young Obama Administration, Holder promised that he would not claim the state-secrets privilege to hide wrongdoing, incompetence, inefficiency, or embarrassment. Nor would he invoke it to “prevent or delay the release of information the release of which would not reasonably be expected to cause significant harm to national security.”

Clearly, Holder lied. The reason we know that Holder lied is because of what was revealed in Judge Alsup’s decision.  In this specific instance, we have clear evidence that the Obama Administration abused its power—on the view that the abuse of power is constituted when an government has promised to behave within certain procedural bounds and legal limits, but has stepped beyond them.

As journalists Kevin Gosztola and Marcy Wheeler demonstrate, the Obama Administration is completely indifferent to its own state-secrets policy, except as a subterfuge. They have invoked it time and time again, for horrendous ends. As Shahid Buttar, head of the Bill of Rights Defense Committee, communicated to Gosztola back in 2012 about the invocation of state secrets privilege:

 

the ability of the FBI to “stand above the law” and not answer to any authority when they outright lie or make deliberate misrepresentations about what kind of operations they are or are not conducting. Also, it makes it possible for the Executive Branch to enjoy extraordinary immunity from punishment when incredible abuses of power are committed and cases on torture, warrantless wiretapping or spying are brought forward in court.

State secrets privilege is but one of multiple excuses that the Obama Administration, like the Bush Administration before it, has used to expand its own power without any accompanying review or oversight of it. Whether the continued renewal of FISA (which candidate Obama voted in favor of in 2008), the NDAA 2012, NDAA 2013, or a myriad of other laws, under the Obama Administration has endorsed the unchecked expansions of power claimed by the FBI, the CIA (often in collusion with the NYPD, the DOJ. Countless foreigners have been rendered from Somalia, Sweden, and elsewhere, and interrogated without defense lawyers; numerous men have been placed in solitary confinement in prisons around the country, still unaware of the charges against them, with sketchy trials at best. Some of these men have been rendered stateless with the help of the British Home Office, such that their kidnappings could not be contested. Muslim communities all over the United States–in Southern California, Oregon, Minnesota, NY, Pennsylvania, New Jersey—have been subject to spying and entrapment.

Let’s not forget Terror Tuesdays and the Disposition Matrix, where Obama Administration officials gather to determine which alleged terrorist to execute next—without evidence, without oversight, with impunity.

It’s also been recently discovered that the FBI—the agency whose agent made a mistake in placing Rahina Ibrahim on the no-fly list–holds the power to delay the citizenship applications of Muslims—a policy enacted under the Bush Administration but still in effect today.

Mistakes, shmistakes.

The targeting of Abdulrahman Al-Awlaki, the 16year-old U.S.-born son of Anwar Al-Awlaki was a mistake.

Putting post-surgery, wheelchair-bound, Stanford doctoral student Rahina Ibrahim’s name on a federal No-Fly list in 2005 was a mistake.

Hundreds of thousands of people were subject to housing foreclosures due to mistakes.

The Obama mortgage settlement allows for a threshold error rate for mistaken foreclosures.

Killing scores of civilians by drones is a mistake.

Incarcerating innocent (but not guilty) men without charges or trials is a mistake.

Holder’s behavior and that of many of his colleagues in the Obama Administration, such as DNI James Clapper, indicates that they have no problems with mistakes, or with lying about government practices, evading demands for evidence, or concealing violations with law.  This may make them corrupt—on the view that there should be a higher standard of behavior from government officials, one that conforms to consistency and accountability.

To the extent that the Obama Administration has conceded to calls for oversight, it has facilitated pseudo-review boards, as when Obama appointed the DNI Clapper to review the NSA’s protocols. Even the name of the group, “Director of National Intelligence Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies,” indicated no interest in external oversight.

On the view that lying, evading and concealing are the (counter)part and parcel of the Obama Administration’s approach to national security—the other part being that any and all strategies will be utilized without regard to accountability or oversight–because these are necessary actions to protect the public at all costs, then Holder’s and Clapper’s actions don’t reveal an abuse of power, but rather the precise and intended application of power.

 

If the Administration promises to behave within certain procedural bounds–along with the proviso that it will be the sole arbitrator on when and how to proceed to execute its power, whom it will delegate its power, and who will be subject to its power—then we should not name that the abuse of power, but the ultimate monopoly—indeed, the ultimate expression of power–and laud the Administration for resolutely carrying out its own promises and marvel at its own rare consistency!

In fact, as many have pointed out, the Obama Presidency is following in the footsteps of the Bush Administration. It might be more accurate to say that the current Administration is carving out even bigger footsteps for itself, what with its impressive record number of drone murders, solitary-confinement based incarcerations, domestic and global surveillance, deportations of migrants, and its pointed indifference to looting bankers. By claiming the right to wield power without apology in all areas of national security domestic and foreign, and on behalf of Wall Street, the Obama Administration is claiming the status of the Leviathan, as the sovereign authority in Thomas Hobbes’ 16th century treatise on politics is named.

The Leviathan claims both to be the actor and author of the collective will: once people have handed over their consent to the sovereign (demonstrated by abrogating each individual’s rights to kill), then the Leviathan claims that power in the name of the people completely. The Leviathan can do no wrong and admits to no wrong. What’s more, unless a person can find a stronger protector, they have no choice to but to submit to the Leviathan’s authority.

So, the Obama Administration—by refusing to admit that its policies are fraught with mistakes, by refusing to concede that its mistakes have hurt innocents needlessly, by refusing to correct those mistakes in the name of state security—and by resisting all attempts to make it accountable by resorting to incarceration (John Kiriakou), mock trials (e.g., Chelsea Manning) or no trials (Barrett Brown), rescinding passports (Edward Snowden), coercing other sovereign states to incarcerate challengers to its power (Yemen/Abdulelah Haider Shaye), and killing citizens and foreigners alike without review or impunity (whether by drones, financial starvation), it claims to be the ultimate sovereign authority—without challenge, dissent, or resistance. It makes the same claim as the Leviathan.

At some level, the question that needs to be addressed is not whether the Obama Administration is interested in holding itself accountable—it clearly does not—but whether we are interested.

If US citizens are interested in the accountability from an Administration that considers itself to be not only above the law, but is unilaterally creating law and (by extension) determining others’ criminality through its own (often secret) standards, then we have to decide how to wrest back power from an absolutist state. By an absolutist state, I mean an Administration that considers dissent, scrutiny, and criticism from any lowly individual unforgivable, while insisting that its own mistakes (real and contrived) are necessary to its self-awarded status as the ruler of the world.

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This piece was originally published at Salon.com.

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…

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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.

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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.

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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.

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This should not be who we are.

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

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

Why our best students are totally oblivious

Why our best students are totally oblivious:

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

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

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

Not a single student recognized the other three names.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Marathon Bombings and the Lockdown of Boston: Was it really a Vindication of the Surveillance State?

 By Falguni A. Sheth and Robert E. Prasch

 

The sub-text of the official state view and media coverage coming out of Boston over the last week carried a crucial message to the American public: it was a vindication of the Counter-Terrorism Surveillance State and its massive expenditures and the associated erosion of American constitutional liberties.

To that end, the several days since the bombing of the Boston Marathon showcased a mesmerizing display of reality television mediated by the unquestioning officiousness of the fourth estate.   On vivid display was “proof through performance,” a validation, that the laws passed and massive expenditures incurred over the last decade were essential to the state’s  “protection of the public.”

Multiple banners flashed across the scene with short exciting spins about the status of the manhunt for the bombing suspects; they were accompanied by endlessly repeated images of Boston and Watertown police, SWAT teams and FBI officers, all carrying a dazzling array of complicated weapons, bordered by police cars.  There wasn’t a civilian in sight, since they all appeared to have accepted the ‘command’ (which was in fact a request) to stay inside. These images alternated with breathless images of reporters ‘at the scene,’ filibustering inanely, occasionally offering proud announcements about how they were asked to ‘move back’ as the focus of the police search for the suspects shifted. It was as if they were children proudly reporting how they were asked by their teacher to help clean the blackboards.

The past decade has seen Presidents, politicians — conservatives and liberals alike — champion pre-emptive policing laws such as the USA PATRIOT Act, FISA, NDAA 2012 and 2013, to TSA security practices and searches, to “See Something, Say Something” practices—all in service to fighting the War on Terror.  As a cable-news talking head cooed Friday morning: “There are cameras and social media everywhere. There is nowhere to hide!” That statement seemed indisputable: store cameras, street cameras, private cellphone cameras and videos could be integrated to give an astonishingly wide record of the tens of thousands of people who were at last Monday’s event.  Yet, the most important truth of that day seemed to be lost in the gush of self-congratulation: the explosion of the bombs confirmed that a massive extension of the surveillance-state did NOT protect people in Boston.

Remarkably, this message of the paramilitarized surveillance state was in no way challenged merely because it was inaccurate. By the time Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick ended the “shelter in place” request, the second suspect had still not been found. Suddenly, the Boston public was supposed to believe that they were magically safer after the lock-down ended than before.   But lest one come to conclude that this suggested a failure of the militant and closely watchful surveillance state—Rachel Maddow, Erin Burnett, and other cable news heads happily rushed to its vindication—by triumphantly exclaiming the insightful fruits of the years-long “See Something, Say Something” campaign by the DHS.

The rough description that the media had in common was this: A guy walked out to his boat to smoke a cigarette, saw something moving, and lifted the tarp—only to find the injured suspect. At which point, he retreated and called the police!  Would the boat-owner have acted differently prior to the “See Something, Say Something” campaign?  Never mind.

Indeed, the vaunted magic of (decades-old) infrared technology, increased surveillance, and the absence of restraints on law enforcement, of this massive martial state could be all be justified through the lens of the state itself, a breathless and supine media, and an ostensibly cowering but now relieved public. Yeah! The War on Terror is so successful! See?

But the show did not end there.  As Erin Burnett crowed: “They took him alive! This proves that there is justice in America! Innocent til proven guilty.” Despite its nonsensical meaning, this oblique message was reiterated by the President, who cautioned us against a “rush to judgment”—certainly about groups of people. Apparently, “[t]hat’s why we have courts.”  Hmmm. That’s going to be news to some folks still languishing in Cuba.

Not to be outdone by an illusory call for order by a President who has supported multiple renewals of FISA and pressured the Senate into the approving an expansion of executive power to arrest and detain any suspected terrorist (US citizen or foreign national) anywhere in the world (in NDAA 2012 and 2013), Sen. Lindsay Graham insisted that we were seeing proof that the homeland was the battlefield. And indeed, it’s hard to disagree with him—even if one is critical.  Moreover, according to Graham and Sen. McCain, even a 19 year old naturalized citizen (vaguely fingered as Chechnyan and Muslim) CAN and should be treated as an enemy combatant.

What further cements this view of the Homeland as a Battlefield– is the public, collective, and casual insistence that a 19 year old should not be read his Miranda rights—because an asserted “public safety exception” can be invoked in view of the fact that other IED’s or pressure-cooker bombs might have been set.  With this, we are halfway to Alan Dershowitz’ favored fantasy: next, let’s torture him–because we ‘know’ a bomb might be set somewhere by him that threatens to hurt Americans. However—shockingly–even Dershowitz refuses to be fear-mongered, arguing instead that that the only logical outcome was a civilian trial, insisting that “It’s not even clear under the federal terrorism statute that this qualifies as an act of terrorism.”

Moreover, there was nearly no element of the recently reinforced surveillance state that contributed to the capture or killing these two suspects.  As an example, let’s assume every detail of the attack is the same except that it occurred in 1977 (to pick a random date prior to our ubiquitous Counter-Terrorism surveillance state; remember how we used to have “bad guys” before September 11?). If the “bad guys” had put together such a plan in 1977, would events have unfolded any differently?  Would there have been a lot of photography at the finish line of such a prominent public event?  Yes, although in the pre-digital age, it would have taken a little longer to gather and sort through the pictures.  Hence, this aspect of this past week’s outcome can’t be ascribed to the massive expenditures and “federalization” of “homeland security,” but rather to a change in consumer electronics.

Would the two brothers have been flushed out by the police response to a nearby and unrelated robbery that led to the tragic shooting of a MIT police officer, the carjacking and ensuing chase that ended with the shootout in Watertown?  It is hard to credit this sequence of events, which were initiated by a mere coincidence, to the success of the modern surveillance state.  Would the initial shootout in Watertown, the escape of one of the brothers, and the eventual spotting of blood on the side of a boat and the calling in of that observation have unfolded in more or less the same way in 1977?  Probably.

Where is the added value?  In what way have the massive expenditures, intrusive surveillance practices, and stripping away of our liberties been vindicated by the events of this past week?  In fact, no one can truthfully say “Aha!  This is where these new practices have made a difference!  Thank goodness George W. Bush and Barack Obama have so little regard for the American Constitution or everything would have really gone badly at that particular point in these events.”

What we witnessed was a tragic — but sadly – too familiar sequence of events.  In a nation of over 340 million, we have a few demented or damaged souls with real or imagined grievances that cause them to wish to harm people whom they do not know.  We also have good, brave, and competent local and state police forces that are able and willing to solve these crimes.  It was true back in 1977—and long before–and remains true today.

So what in fact did change? We now have a “War on Terror” that permeates every public news event and action. The immediate leap to the familiar “Terrorists In Our Midst” narrative is facilitated and amplified by a bovine mainstream media amped up by endless alerts issued by a Department of Homeland Security and two Presidential Administrations about insane foreigners here, there, and everywhere. In other words, what’s changed is the presence of a fear-mongering narrative of the War on Terror, along with the billions in expenditures that are used to justify it, that reframe a centuries old story about crime.

The events of the past week in Boston do not vindicate the rise of the Homeland Security bureaucracy and certainly do not vindicate the stripping of our liberties, the shutting down of a major city, or the instantiation of a police state. But they certainly affirm the future as it was perceived by George Orwell.

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This article has been republished on Salon.com.

 

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.

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

Revised 6:59 am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the clause is just as interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Central Park 5: Over Again

Revised (4:35 pm).

Last week, I attended a screening of Ken Burns’ documentary on the Central Park 5, which is based on a book by the same name, written by his daughter, Sarah, a former lawyer. It is a remarkable piece of investigative story-telling. It illuminates the banal—and horrifying–ways that five black teens were railroaded into falsely confessing to having participated in the rape of a Central Park jogger on April 19, 1989.  I draw upon Sarah Burns’ book to compensate for my faulty memory regarding some names and other details from the documentary.  Janell Ross has a marvelous, detailed article which overlaps with this piece in several ways; I should note that I found Ross’ article as I finished the penultimate draft of this essay.

Korey Wise, Raymond Santana, Jr., Kevin Richardson, Yusuf Salaam, and Antron McCray were 5 among the 15-25 teens who gathered in Central Park on that fateful night.  Most of them did not know each other until well after their police interrogations.  Two of the teens had gone home; Korey Wise was not on the list of suspects that the police were looking for that night. Yet, when the police searching for Yusuf Salaam encountered him, they urged Wise to go to the station anyway (sadly, he cooperated, and consequently served the most time in prison).

From there, their night unraveled. These young black and Puerto Rican teens were railroaded into spoken, written, and even videotaped confessions of a crime they knew nothing about. But how could the five of them confess—individually and not knowing each other—to such a crime? That is the question that occurs to all who watch the documentary. It is also a question that will occur to anyone who has considered the relation of torture to confessions over the last decade.

That is one of the many brilliant insights of this documentary: to illustrate vividly how such obviously counter-intuitive and ultimately self-destructive actions could be undertaken by 5 youth.  At the point of their videotaped confessions, many of them had been in custody for 24, 27 hours—without sleep, without food, but under plenty of duress and fear.  They were all minors—under 16, and some as young as 14.  Some were under the watchful presence of parents who urged them to say what the police wanted, so that they could finally “go home” as they had been promised by numerous policemen. Ross offers an illuminating recounting of how such confessions were extracted. An important point to note here: if these—false–confessions were obtained in circumstances considerably less forceful than the overt torture that was initially conducted under the direction of the highest echelons of the Bush Administration, imagine the excrement that passes for “valuable information” garnered under torture—um–“Enhanced Interrogation Techniques.”  As Marcy Wheeler points out, the same information gathered under EIT has been deployed to involve the U.S. in a war in Iraq under false pretenses, resulting in the “unnecessary deaths of 4,000 Americans and to say nothing of hundreds of thousands of Iraqis.”

Someone at the screening referred to the tragedy that destroyed the lives of these five young men as the result of “a perfect storm.” On this understanding, these young men spent 7 to 13 years in prison due to the unique confluence of public anger; the pressure on law enforcement to find and arrest someone; the pressure placed on the 5 black male teens to confess to a crime that occurred before they had entered the park; and the need to convict someone in order to assuage the public’s fears, fears that were fanned and amplified by local and national newspapers reportage–if we can call it that.

To describe the situation as ‘a perfect storm’ is to point to that moment as a singular or idiosyncratic event.  It is a refusal to see the glaringly obvious: this was not all that unusual or unique.  It was a profoundly racist response to a single event that snowballed in response to public racial anxiety and safety fears about a city that was then thought to be one of the most dangerous in the country. It occurred because newspapers, law enforcement, prosecutors, and defense attorneys refused to do their jobs with integrity, conscience, or diligence. These same reporters, cops, and lawyers may have been obstinate, indifferent, or indolent due to the racial character and the class of the suspects—and the contrasting attributes of the victim (a white female investment banker, who exemplified the aspirations of women and their families around the US in the world before bank fraud became a household phrase). Or they have just been continually rewarded with excessive discretion that allowed for an unctuous indifference—something along the following lines of thought: “They’re poor black teens. Who’s going to give a rat’s ass whether they get locked up or not? And hey, in the meantime, we get to be heroes for finding them!”

It is difficult to remember that these events happened over a decade before September 11, 2001. Well before “terrorism” and “torture” became household phrases. Well before “national security” laws allowed prosecutors to withhold evidence from defendants and their lawyers. Well before torture was used to cruelly and systematically dehumanize Muslim men.  Before Omar Khadr—who was only 16 years old—was locked up in Guantanamo. Before 16 year old Muslim men found in proximity to “terrorist cells” in Pakistan, Yemen, and elsewhere, as “military age males” were deemed military combatants and hence, legitimate targets of drone strikes. Before Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi was droned to death as he ate dinner with friends in the open air—for the crime of having an irresponsible father. Before Mohamed Mohamud and many other young men were entrapped into plotting “terrorist” actions.

The resonances, the similarities, between the events related to the “Central Park 5,” and those related to the War on Terror are striking.

As Jim Dwyer, a long-time NYT reporter whose comments frame Burns’ documentary, pointed out: reporters, police enforcement, defense lawyers and prosecutors did not do their jobs. There were inconsistencies throughout the case—between the evidence found and not found (like the absence of these young men’s DNA on any of the victim’s clothing; the 18-inch wide path through which the victim’s body was dragged—too narrow for 6, let alone 26 people to have walked; the implausibly long distance between where the group of men were known to be from the location when the rape actually occurred, etc.).

We could apply Dwyer’s words to the numerous cases being aggressively tried by the Department of Justice: from Adnan Latif’s wrongful imprisonment  to those of Omar Khadr, Tarek Mehanna, Syed Fahad Hashmi, Jose Padilla, Rezwan Ferdaus.  In each instance we see the determined lack of interest on the part of federal courts in making evidence public, in allowing defense attorneys to press prosecutors about inconsistencies (hell—to press about access to evidence); we see the zealous interest in federal prosecutors like Preet Bharara, Carmen Ortiz, or others who fight on behalf Attorney General Eric Holder’s office, to insist that more scrupulous evidence need not be made available—not to the public, not to journalists who actually want to investigate, not to defense lawyers. We see successful entrapments—like that of Korey Wise (who was in the wrong place at the wrong time and was packed off to prison for over a decade) —  of Mohamed Mohamud, and numerous others.

After the Central Park 5 mens’ verdicts were overturned after the actual rapist confessed and his confession was affirmed by DNA testing, these five falsely framed, convinted and imprisoned men sued the NYPD in 2003. The NYPD has spent the last decade fighting the lawsuit, and has gone after Burns and his team in order to stop the film and confiscate the unused outtakes, claiming that Burns is not a journalist and therefore is not entitled to keep his research and sources confidential. The federal court has agreed—on the grounds that Burns advocated for the families.

In a parallel gesture, the federal courts today side with the Obama Administration in prosecuting whistleblowers to the hilt—an attempt to shield the US government from accountability for its extensive and documented wrongdoing. Similarly, the lawsuit filed by Chris Hedges and other journalists against provisions giving unprecedented authority to POTUS to detain and intercept anyone anywhere for engaging or associating with ‘terrorists,’ has a chilling effect on journalistic work, as Naomi Wolf argues. Jailed Yemeni journalist Abdulelah Haydr Shaye knows all too well the power of POTUS to punish those who embarrass his drone program by revealed horrific murders.

Another parallel: The young black men in the Central Park 5 were put in extreme and dangerous prisons like Riker’s Island; whereas Mehanna, Hashmi, Padilla and others have been sentenced to anywhere from 15 or more years in supermax prisons, known for their solitary confinement and inhumane conditions. As Jeff Kaye notes, some, like Fahad Hashmi

 …accepted a plea bargain on the single charge of conspiracy to provide “material support” to “a foreign terrorist organization. (Three other charges were dropped.) But lacking any actual links to terrorism, or any history of violence whatsoever, evidence points to governmental animus against Hashmi for his outspoken public criticism of denial of Muslim civil rights and constitutional protections in the post-9/11 period. which are known for their lack of due process, weak charges, and and even weaker evidence.

Others like Omar Khadr, as Andy Worthington notes, was picked up and interrogated at Guantanamo when he was 16. Below, Kevin Gosztola draws on Worthington’s detailed examination of Khadr, who “was put on trial for the “war crime” of allegedly throwing a hand grenade that killed a US Delta Force soldier.” His lawyer said, “There is no evidence that he violated the law of war,” if he threw the grenade. Whoever threw the grenade was “attacking a lawful military target with a lawful weapon,” Worthington added. Khadr was sentenced to forty years in prison but could only serve eight because of a pre-trial plea deal for fighting back.”

Khadr was a child shamelessly exploited, pressured, tortured, and confined by various political authorities for shameless political gain, much like the 5 teenagers discussed here.

The evidence against the NYPD and the DA’s office is damning: The NYPD tricked—lied to–these young men and pressured them to confess.  Elizabeth Lederer, one of the Assistant District Attorneys on the case, seems to have known even before the trial that the evidence could not convict these young men.  As Burns’ documentary showed, Lederer seems to have known of the inconsistencies; the haunted look on her face after having convicted these men appears to confirm her bad faith.

Speaking of bad faith, late last night, a white paper was leaked by the Department of Justice, in which they insist that the United States doesn’t need proof of Americans as Senior Al-Qaeda members in order to put a hit on them. Contrary to Attorney Eric Holder’s insistence that no U.S. citizens would ever be targeted by the U.S. government, in fact, a mere suspicion without evidence is sufficient to target someone for the Obama Administration’s kill list.

Then, as now, newspapers knew that they could sell, sell, sell by playing to the centuries-old public anxiety and fears. In 1989, the fears focused on the sexuality of black men, of black crime.

As Sarah Burns puts it, “News outlets competed to see who could be most outraged by the attack and who could make the boys look most guilty. The Daily News and Post headlines screamed the loudest. In the week following the attack, each paper conspicuously displayed the story on its front page six out of seven days. Never did those articles question whether the suspects had committed the crime, or use the word alleged in reference to them” (69).

Sound familiar? Today, the fear focuses on the ‘Muslim threat,’ the “culture of terrorism,” the practice of “suicide bombing,” the tendency of young men to initiate terrorist plots.  It wasn’t a perfect storm. Then, as now, it is a perfect scapegoating. A perfect targeting. A perfect witchhunt. Perfect. Perfect in that it repeats and anticipates the racial targeting of men (and women), while intimating that ‘no one is to blame,’ and that while race is a factor, it is not the primary factor in this event.  What Burns’ documentary illustrates is the way that a confluence of actors participated in assuaging the public pressure on themselves to “solve” the rape case—not by injecting some common sense into the discussion, or by challenging the hoopla, or by appealing to the norms or rules of due process or appealing to the notion of “innocence until proven guilty.”

S. Burns writes: “Beyond the fact that these mainstream outlets assumed the guilt of the Central Park suspects without any sense of journalistic skepticism, the media coverage also employed blatantly racist language and imagery. Animal references abounded. When referring to the suspects, the words wolfpack and wilding were used hundreds of times and came to be emblems of the case, a shorthand that nearly everyone used and that still elicits memories of the Central Park Jogger’s rape in many minds.” (69)

For the last decade, mainstream media, including the New York Times, have happily, profitably demonized young Muslim men under the guise of providing “public information.”

Then, as S. Burns points out, Donald Trump—without ever mentioning the Central Park case–went so far as paying $85,000 for full-page ads in multiple New York daily papers calling for the return of the death penalty and demanding the executions of the “roving bands of wild criminals.” (73)

Today, Pamela Gellar and her ilk advertise throughout metro and subway stations across NYC and Washington, DC about “War on Civilized Man.”

This, then, is why I refuse to accept the idea of a “perfect storm,” namely that what happened to these young teens is 1) random; 2) racially neutral; 3) an isolated event; 4) the confluence of unfortunate circumstances that exacerbated a terrible situation. We are seeing a replay of the same confluence again. Does any of this sound familiar?

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

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

Update I & II (below).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

To that end, Obama asserted that

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

and

Obama wants to encourage internal reporting of wrongdoing.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

After all, would you rather have Romney?

Statelessness, Renditions and Making Examples of Muslims: The Case of Mahdi Hashi

The world found nothing sacred in the abstract nakedness of being human.

–Hannah Arendt (1951)

When President Obama famously signed the executive order to end torture, he did not also sign an order to end the practice of renditions that had also become popular during the Bush Era.  I suppose it is one of the many consistencies of the current Administration on which we can rely: drones, kill lists, renditions.

Perhaps that explains why we have a report of the mysterious appearance of 3 men of Somali descent in a Federal court in NY Friday morning, where they were charged with material support and arms violations in conjunction with Al-Shabaab, an Islamic group deemed a terrorist organization by the US.  A Swedish interpreter was also present.

The men are Mohamed Yusuf, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mahdi Hashi. Of Mohamed Yusuf, I can find nothing. Ali Yasin Ahmed appears to be a Swedish resident, if not a national, who owned a travel agency in Sweden and was charged with not keeping financial records. Apparently, he sent over US $1.5m to Somalia while in Sweden.*

Hashi, 23, has been missing from his home in Somalia for over three months. Hashi was a British citizen. Hashi’s father reports that in the UK, Hashi and several others had been hounded to become informants for British intelligent agents.  Hashi refused, before moving to Somalia some time later, where he got married and had a child.

A little over 4 months ago, Hashi was informed by mail that the UK had stripped him of his citizenship for his association “with terrorist activities.” He was given 4 weeks to challenge the decision. But according to his family, he disappeared before he could challenge the British government’s decision.  Disappeared that is, until his appearance in Brooklyn last Friday morning.

As Jeremy Scahill tweeted:

Oh, you thought Obama ended renditions?

Not quite.

The FBI asserts that the 3 men were apprehended “on their way to Yemen.” According to the Bureau of Investigative Journalism,

Mahdi Hashi passed through Djibouti on a number of previous occasions when visiting relatives in Somalia. It’s not known whether he made his own way to the small nation on this occasion, or was forcibly abducted and transferred to jail there.

The double-standards and arbitrary prosecutions of individuals is but par for the course for Department of Justice. But it is also interesting to ask why POTUS didn’t just kill Hashi instead of kidnapping him? It is especially interesting, given that US showed no particular interest in awarding trials to Osama bin Laden, Anwar Al-Awlaki—or his 16 year old son, Abdulrahman—before summarily killing them.

So, why suddenly render these three Somalis to the US and have them appear publicly in a NY Federal Court? If they were “accidentally” killed, there might be a small roar of protest, but the US government has stood tall in the face of much worse uproars.  Most likely, it is useful to make a public example of them to ordinary Muslim migrants who are interested in sending money to relatives or for charitable purposes, in the face of dubious restrictions.  It has been a standard practice for the Obama Administration to prosecute Muslims for charitable donations, as the family of Dr. Shakir Hamoodi and members of the Holy Land Foundation will attest.

Al-Shabaab is an Islamic militant organization that is challenging the UN-backed (Ethiopian) transitional government. It is deemed by the US government to to be a terrorist organization, and affiliated with Al-Qaeda–although this seems to be more of an aspirational association. It is also an organization toward which the Somali diaspora is sympathetic—likely because it is one of the chief organizations that distributes money for various charitable purposes in the civil-strife ridden country.

However, you will recall that the US is much less sympathetic to Somali migrants to who violate material support statutes—even for charitable purposes—than to banks who callously and openly flaunt the same statutes. Nima Ali Yusuf, a 26 year old woman who had fled Somalia as a child, was sentenced to 8 years in prison for sending $1450 for charitable purposes through Al-Shabaab. But to hear of her actions from the US Attorney General’s office, you would have thought she was a potential suicide bomber. HSBC, by contrast, agreed to “forfeit $1.26 billion and enter into ‘a deferred prosecution agreement’” for a much worse charge of money laundering and the “financing of drug cartels and groups with ties.” No criminal charges, no jail time for HSBC bankers.  The sum forfeited seems huge, but in fact it is substantially less than one month’s profits.

It is also notable that the UK stripped Hashi of citizenship, thereby rendering him stateless—immediately before he was kidnapped off the streets of Mogadishu.  So, a first world sovereign nation purposely stripped one of their citizens of complete protection and left him vulnerable to the exigencies of a first world imperial—outlaw–sovereign nation. Yes, outlaw nation: it is a nation that has a history of violating international law by constructing extrajurisdictional prisons, formulating new extrajudicial categories such as enemy aliens (lawful and unlawful) and rendering men whom they suspect of terrorism (often wrongly—remember Maher Arar? Khalid Al-Masri?) to CIA black sites and torturing them.

Did the UK know that the US wanted to render him? Is that why they stripped him of his citizenship?  It is more than likely that the UK and the US are yet again in collusion to kidnap, render, and otherwise ignore the rights of individuals whom they deem a threat to the state, or whom they want to make a “public” example.

Spare me the argument that Somalia is not a sovereign nation, which is why it wasn’t illegal to render Hashi, Yusuf, and Ahmed. Hashi was stripped of his British citizenship right before the US swooped in to render him.  As Asim Qureshi of CagePrisoners suggested on Twitter,

We believe that since the problems the UK gov has had with deportations and extraditions, it has been easier for them to remove the citizenship of individuals thus allowing them to be victims of rendition by 3rd party countries.

In light of this latest rendering, why does anyone think that Julian Assange–who has taken refuge in a stiflingly small apartment maintained by the Ecuadorian Embassy for the last 6 months and has avoided extradition by the UK to Sweden for questioning on rape charges–is paranoid to assume that it is the UK’s intention to extradite him to  the United States for torture, solitary confinement, and persecution along the lines now being meted out to Bradley Manning?

The main differences between Julian Assange and Bradley Manning are that Assange has a worldly set of resources, networks, and–now–a newly established press organization through which money for his legal defense can be channeled. Assange was able to use the first two to avoid the undoubtedly contrived extradition to Sweden by having Ecuador grant him political asylum—a necessity, since Australia does not appear to be actively intervening on his behalf against 2 outlaw first-world sovereign nations.

The main differences between Julian Assange and Mahdi Hashi include the former as well. But they also include the fact that Australia—as of yet—has not completely abrogated its sovereign responsibility over Assange, who still remains an Australian citizen. By contrast, the UK abandoned its responsibility in the sneakiest, underhanded way: by sending a letter to Hashi—somehow coincidentally timed such that he was kidnapped—rendered–with no notice given to his family–within a few days of having his citizenship rescinded.

Hashi had no time—and it is doubtful, the legal and financial capacity—to appeal to Ecuador for asylum from Somalia. Instead, he was granted the rewards of statelessness: vulnerability to the exigencies of international barbarism. Kidnapped with nary a sovereign nation to appeal to for defense on his behalf.

Although I can’t find anything about the citizenship status of Ahmed, he appears to have been a Swedish resident, if not citizen. Will Sweden intervene on Ali Yassin Ahmed’s behalf? Or will they also leave him in a similar barbaric statelessness?

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*Patrick Fahlander, BA Thesis on Swedish Perceptions of Al-Shabab (Malmo University, 2010).

Then They Came For Me: The Futility of the Neimoller Argument

First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out–
Because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me–and there was no one left to speak for me.
 

 

Apparently, Martin Niemoller, a German theologian and pastor, was an initial supporter of the Nazi party. He did not say the above words until after well after he had been released from a German concentration camp, the second of two where he was incarcerated from 1938-45. He finally saw the light…well after his harassment by the German state. His poem can be summed up hence: we should care about the fate of others, because our fates hang in the balance.

Even though he was eventually targeted by the Nazis, Niemoller is hardly a paragon of virtue, as a quick browse of his wikipage will attest: he was apparently anti-Semitic, and cared mostly to protect his parish of Christians who were mistaken as Jews—rather than to protect Jews themselves. Yet, his argument is trotted out at every cocktail hour and dinner in liberal neighborhoods in America. This utilitarian argument is unfurled to make a plea for why Americans should care about the galloping abridgment of rights that has been occurring since well before September 11, 2001.

But it is not a compelling argument. It is especially unpersuasive for those who have never wondered whether they will live an entire lifetime without having their bodily cavities invaded by some policewoman’s already dirty latex glove.

Indeed, it is a specious argument, especially in view of the following examples:

In November of this year, 26 year old Rezwan Ferdaus was convicted of plotting to attack the Pentagon and Capitol building by making IED detonators. Ferdaus, like Tarek Mehanna before him, and Fahad Hashmi before him, and Mohamed Osman Mohamud before him, and myriad young Muslim men before them, were arrested for “terrorist” plots. They were arrested on very little evidence—in many cases—on hearsay of FBI agents or other unsavory witnesses. Many of them were incarcerated without charges for years, deprived of access to lawyers, family, other people (because they were held in solitary confinement). Many of them were notoriously entrapped by FBI agents. And a number of them—to finally escape the excruciating wait of being held in solitary confinement on trumped-up pretences that they had violated some prison rule—finally pled guilty. i.e., without trials, without public evidence, to charges of plotting to launch terror plots.

It is a repeated phenomenon—occurring all over the US. The most recent surveillance and entrapment projects were lead by the NYPD with the full support and approval of the FBI.

In 2005, 2 female Queens teenagers, unknown to each other, were arrested on suspicion of terrorism. Their crime? Tashnuba Hayder and Adamah Bah were separately reporting to the INS at 26 Federal Plaza in Manhattan. Passing each other, they noticed that they were Muslim (one was in hijab, the other in a niqab), likely greeted each other with “Salaam Aleikum” (we don’t actually know the phrase they used). This aroused the suspicion of the immigration agents who later reported them to the FBI, which proceeded some time later to arrest and interrogate them without their families or lawyers for 7 weeks. Both were released after protest by friends and teachers. However, 16 year old Hayder’s release came at a price: she was required to agree to be deported to Bangladesh. You can barely find the details of their ordeals on-line (I have written about them in detail elsewhere).

Today, thousands of Muslim men and women in the United States must watch their words carefully, be careful about context when expressing political dissent, and be wary of others in religious places of worship—lest they be undercover FBI agents. The danger of being entrapped or arrested is so rampant that Constitutional lawyers give advice to Muslim mothers warning them to keep an eye on their sons so as to avoid the claws of the FBI.

How many white men and women today must be careful about what they say when expressing political dissent? The laws that have been passed in the decade since 9/11 don’t name Muslims. And yet, we know that the populations being watched and targeted are not young white men and women from wealthy suburban families. The US is not targeting Germany or Sweden or France with drone strikes in order to catch terrorists. Young white men with assault rifles are not the subjects of anti-terrorist pre-emptive policing or of FBI surveillance–despite the fact that they are more likely to terrorize six year olds in leafy New England suburbs, young adults in movie theatres in Colorado, or town meetings with US congresswomen in Tuczon, Arizona.

In light of the intent and application of 9-11 laws, the Neimoller argument is a selfish and useless argument. It is used futilely to convince some comfortable, protected segment of the American populace to care about the repeal of rights because it could happen to them one day. Because—god forbid, someday, somewhere, someone who is white—or at least bourgeois (e.g. owning an espresso-machine, luxury car, iPad, Kindle, iPhone and 3 MacBooks, who splurges on ski trips to Aspen and considers Northface shells a wintertime necessity)—might be incarcerated, detained, tortured, have their private phone and email conversations with their extramarital lovers monitored. Or have their bank accounts and charitable contributions monitored to assess whether they’ve contributed to terrorist organizations.

Anti-privacy laws, search laws, pre-emptive policing laws are not being directed against young white American college students. The violations of material support statutes are not being prosecuted against HSBC in the same way that they are being prosecuted against Somali migrants.

The reason to care about the repeal of rights and the production of oppressive laws is because they punish, humiliate, target, dehumanize some other segment of the population: whistleblowers, Muslim men and women, political dissenters, children killed by “accidental” drone strikes, children deliberately targeted and killed by drone strikes, men and women who are rendered to far away places for torture on behalf of the United States government. Not because they might, remotely—somewhere, someday—be used to punish you.

If there are white or non-white wealthy Americans out there who watch the news and are aware of what’s happening to dark black and brown people, to Muslim, Arabs, Syrians, Palestinians, poor women, innocent black and brown children—and they aren’t ALREADY convinced that there is a serious rights abridgement taking place—making the argument that they should care because it could ONE day happen to them is a waste of breath.

They don’t care. If they are not interested in political and legal solidarity, they will not be moved by the pragmatic “we are all in this together fabrication.” Because they are not in it “with us.” The odds are overwhelmingly against their lives being upended (or simply ended) by counter-terrorism laws. Not because they are more innocent. They are no more or less innocent than a Muslim, Arab, Black, South Asian, Latino family—of crime, of violating sanctions, of crime, of terrorism, of illicit activity.

They are not in it “with us” because they are more visibly and folklorically “American.” They are more white. More conservative. More comfortable—economically. They are aware of these aforementioned attributes, and reasonably sure that they will rarely be lumped in “with us” by the American government. And so, they are more at ease with the extralegal rollback of rights, because their activities will not be held against them.

The legal framework of the War on Terror is designed neither to threaten comfortably ensconced Whites or Blacks, nor many quiet upper-class brown folks who take pains to be visibly obedient. It is designed to apply to those who are on the borders, on the margins of society—racially, residentially, economically, or socially. Or for those who might be “comfortable” at some level, but who are teetering close to that edge.

Or for those who are politically uncomfortable or angry with the reprehensible actions of the US government. This is how Syed Hashmi and Tarek Mehanna and Reswan Ferdhaus attracted the attention of the FBI.

Wait, you say. There are plenty of white men (and some white women) who’ve been trapped in the Legal War on Terror: John Walker Lindh, whistleblowers Bradley Manning, Julian Assange, John Kiriakous, Thomas Drake. Lynn Stewart.

The reason we know their names, the reason that their situations are so much more broadly publicized is because the American media and public find their situations to be so fascinating: The idea that counter-terrorism laws could be applied to men or women who are white–strikes the mainstream media (MSM) as a fascinating novelty. As importantly, the notable exceptions of white men such as Manning, Assange, Kiriakou allow MSM and the comfortable American public to assure themselves that the war on Terror isn’t racist. It confirms for them that counter-terrorism laws are being applied “equally” against all potential threats—Muslims or whites. It’s just disproportionately catching Muslims, because…well, you know.

Utilitarianism—supporting something because it’s useful or has strategically positive consequences—is a popular framework in our neoliberal era. We constantly make calculations based on this: the lesser of 2 evils, the more incremental of 2 evils, the Alan Dershowitz straw man question (what if torture of 1 person saved 100 people?). Or my favorite: 2 potential Supreme Court Seats that will go to the anti-abortion conservatives so I should vote for Obama because thousands of Pakistanis and Yemenis will die of drone strikes regardless of whether Romney or Obama wins. And besides most poor black and brown women in the US will never have access to abortion anyway regardless of the next 2 SC justices.”

In other words, it reinforces the whole white privilege thing: I have mine. Others won’t get theirs. Let me just get mine.

At heart, utilitarianism is an economic calculus that works for savings accounts and bank corporations. It is a useless framework to argue in defense of preserving and defending the rights of vulnerable and marginal groups.

The only argument that should be used in favor of caring about privacy rights, rights against torture, pre-emptive search and seizure, rights that protect dissenting speech, access to lawyers, and due process, is for their own sake. I know that this is a strange idea in our brave new world. But why we can’t just care about rights because they’re rights? Constitutional and human rights should be vocally defended, amply utilized. The defense of rights should be carefully kept away from specious arguments about “national security,” and from utilitarian arguments about the pragmatic usefulness of defending rights for other people.

Persecuted peoples should be uncompromisingly defended on the indubitable, unconditional, grounds of their humanity.

And rights should be directly defended for their own sake. They are not like exotic delicacies from faraway countries: they’re don’t have to be rare. They shouldn’t have to be carefully hoarded.*
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*The last two paragraphs of this post have been revised/updated.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn and the Advantages of Not Being Female, Muslim, or Black*

What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.

–Bernard Henri-Levy on the unjust treatment of his friend Dominique Strauss-Kahn

Monday evening, in Manhattan, a private settlement was reached between Dominique Strauss-Kahn, the former head of the International Monetary Fund and one-time French presidential hopeful, and Nafitassou Diallo, a Guinean migrant and part of the housekeeping staff at the NY Sofitel hotel where DSK stayed. There is no word on the amount of the settlement, which marked an acrid public debate about how badly DSK was treated, even though Diallo had charged DSK with sexual assault in March 2011.

In a lame attempt to dilute the gravity of the charges DSK admitted that he had made an “error” and had engaged in a “moral failure,” while avoiding an admission of sexual assault.  By contrast, Diallo had her credibility questioned repeatedly and her words recorded and distorted.

While the French newspapers are dutifully reporting the settlement, their tone is in stark contrast to the outrage and shock that the French media and intelligentsia expressed at the horrific treatment received by one of the foremost political elites of Europe. Strauss-Kahn was a player “extraordinaire”: Charming, elegant, eloquent, and capable of holding his own among the world’s power players. Why, my fellow philosopher Bernard Henri-Levy asked, would DSK be treated so badly when the charges were clearly fabricated?

What I do know is that nothing in the world can justify a man being thus thrown to the dogs.

What I know is that nothing, no suspicion whatever (for let’s remind ourselves that, as I write these lines, we are dealing only with suspicions!), permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.

What I know as well is that nothing, no earthly law, should also allow another woman, his wife, admirable in her love and courage, to be exposed to the slime of a public opinion drunk on salacious gossip and driven by who knows what obscure vengeance.

And what I know even more is that the Strauss-Kahn I know, who has been my friend for 20 years and who will remain my friend, bears no resemblance to this monster, this caveman, this insatiable and malevolent beast now being described nearly everywhere.

Poor DSK. The treatment he received was horrible. Here is how they mistreated him: they publicly apprehended DSK at New York’s JFK airport, forced him to do a “perp” walk in front of a gaggle of reporters, required him to stay in a NYC prison over the weekend until he was publicly arraigned at a Manhattan criminal court. He was…treated…as suspects were often treated in the pre-9/11 days: as a suspect who would eventually receive his day in court. And eventually the charges against him were dropped, proving further to the French that he was unjustly treated.

Perhaps the treatment of DSK should be compared to that treatment to that meted to Jose Padilla, deemed an enemy combatant in the early years of the war on terror, as described by the ACLU yesterday, as his mother brings a human rights case at an International human rights tribunal to protest her son’s treatment:

In 2002, President Bush declared Padilla an “enemy combatant” and ordered him to be placed in military custody. U.S. officials seized Padilla from a civilian jail in New York and secretly transported him to the Naval Consolidated Brig in Charleston, S.C., where they held him for 43 months without charge. Interrogators subjected Padilla to torture and other egregious forms of abuse, including forcing him into stress positions for hours on end, punching him, depriving him of sleep and threatening him with further torture, “extraordinary rendition” and death.

Doesn’t quite seem parallel. Perhaps DSK’s treatment resonates with that of Syrian-Canadian Maher Arar, who was intercepted at JFK on his way back from a family trip to Tunis, and rendered “off-site” for torture. For no apparent reason besides being Middle Eastern:

We went into the basement, and they opened a door, and I looked in. I could not believe what I saw. I asked how long I would be kept in this place. He did not answer, but put me in and closed the door. It was like a grave. It had no light. It was three feet wide. It was six feet deep. It was seven feet high. It had a metal door, with a small opening in the door, which did not let in light because there was a piece of metal on the outside for sliding things into the cell.There was a small opening in the ceiling, about one foot by two feet with iron bars. Over that was another ceiling, so only a little light came through this.

There were cats and rats up there, and from time to time the cats peed through the opening into the cell. There were two blankets, two dishes and two bottles. One bottle was for water and the other one was used for urinating during the night. Nothing else. No light.

I spent 10 months, and 10 days inside that grave.

The next day I was taken upstairs again. The beating started that day and was very intense for a week, and then less intense for another week. That second and the third days were the worst.  I could hear other prisoners being tortured, and screaming and screaming. Interrogations are carried out in different rooms…

The cable is a black electrical cable, about two inches thick. They hit me with it everywhere on my body.  They mostly aimed for my palms, but sometimes missed and hit my wrists — they were sore and red for three weeks. They also struck me on my hips, and lower back. Interrogators constantly threatened me with the metal chair, tire and electric shocks. The tire is used to restrain prisoners while they torture them with beating on the sole of their feet. I guess I was lucky, because they put me in the tire, but only as a threat.

I was not beaten while in tire. They used the cable on the second and third day, and after that mostly beat me with their hands, hitting me in the stomach and on the back of my neck, and slapping me on the face.  Where they hit me with the cables, my skin turned blue for two or three weeks, but there was no bleeding. At the end of the day, they told me tomorrow would be worse. So I could not sleep.  Then on the third day, the interrogation lasted about 18 hours. They beat me from time to time and make me wait in the waiting room for one to two hours before resuming the interrogation.

Maher Arar was finally released and allowed to return to Canada over 1 year and 10 months later. He has never been given an explanation for his treatment. Nor an apology from the U.S. government. Nor a visa to enter the U.S.

BHL’s words, in the epigraph above, echo as I reread this description of Maher Arar.  But apparently it can be justified–in the same breath as acknowledging that it is immoral. Two days ago, I had an exchange on Twitter about precisely this, even as my interlocutor agreed that torture was immoral.

But I don’t hear my dear colleague BHL exclaiming outrage about the latter cases. Why are earth-shattering screams of outrage only provoked when white elites such as DSK are thought to be badly treated? Why do we hear only mind-numbing silence when Jose Padilla, Maher Arar, Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna—dark, Muslim, non-elite men–are held, detained indefinitely without charges, put in solitary confinement for months and years, beaten with cables, and tortured otherwise? Why do we hear only smug justifications when the US kills US citizens and Muslims such as Anwar Al-Awlaki and, two weeks later, murders his 16 year-old US citizen son, Abdulrahman?  Where are BHL’s protests when African American woman are sentenced to a life in prison for a drug crime that they did not commit? Why do we hear little outcry from BHL and his colleagues when Muslim women in the UK are charged with terrorism for possessing an “Al-Qaeda magazine”?

Perhaps part of the answer can be found here:

“He was arrested just hours before the meeting during which he would face a more orthodox German chancellor to plead the cause of a country, Greece, that he believed could be brought back to order without being brought to its knees. His defeat would also be that of this great cause. It would be a disaster for this entire part of Europe and of the world, because the IMF, under his leadership and for the first time in its history, did not intend to sell out to the superior interests of Finance. And that would really be a dreadful sign.”

The horror then is that someone of such prestige, such wealth, such importance, was having his honor questioned by…a…gasp …“chambermaid” with whom “he had a quick tumble.”  There are virtually no references in the French context to the race of the “chambermaid,” or to that of the former head of the IMF.  But that is not surprising in a nation that still has no official statistics on race, nearly half a century after moving away from its colonial past: This is the French’s version of anti-racism, similar to the American liberal view of “colorblindness.” That is to say, if we don’t name it, then we can pretend it doesn’t exist…or that it will just go away.

As interesting, story after story came out about DSK’s “exploits,” (as if such a casual term could possibly describe what was slowly emerging as a history of sexual assault)—all of which were summarily dismissed by…French elites, prosecutors, philosophers. The regressive attitude toward sexual assault could be seen in the description of the tumble with the chambermaid, and in some of the following stories that soon came to light:

Tristane Banon, DSK’s step-daughter accused of DSK of having attacked her years before, describing him as a rutting chimpanzee. To bring out this accusation when she did suggests that it was hardly a spontaneous act of the imagination. But even then, DSK’s staunch defender BHL stopped at little: accusing DSK’s step-goddaughter of pulling out all an “eight-year” old accusation of attempted rape because of a “golden” opportunity. And what kind of opportunity was this, one might wonder? To accuse one’s family member of rape in public, after years?

And there were other accusations as well—certainly not legal accusations, but rumors of DSK’s sexually coercive exploits, which had floated about France for years. We can be skeptical of them, but it becomes more and more difficult to cast them off when the rumors and incidences and alleged victims multiply.

There are several lessons to be learned here:

1)    the sexuality of working-class, poor, and migrant women of color will always be under more suspicion than the coercive tendencies of the upper-class men who are accused of assaulting them.

2)    When those accusations are corroborated through the stories of other women, the falsely reviled sexual assault victim will rarely, if ever, receive an apology from those who cast aspersions on her to begin with. At least, I think so. Right, Bernie?

3)    The outrage and shock over the simple procedural treatment of upper-class men accused of sexual crimes will be loud and shrill–even in the face of plausible evidence.

4)  The horrendous treatment of Muslim men and women, of Black men and women, will be casually accepted worldwide–even in the face of no evidence whatsoever. And it will be augmented by near silence or smug righteousness.

I can only take a bit of comfort as a settlement was reached between DSK and Diallo, that some tiny little justice was served, even in the face of enormous, unconscionable, gaping injustices for other men and women of color in the US and around the world.

Yet, we can rest assured that upper-class elite white men, like their predecessors, will always be excused from being accountable for crimes they may have committed, while men and women of color and their communities will—for the foreseeable future–have to pay for crimes that they will never commit.

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*Corrected Title. This post has been updated and revised.