Guns, Violence and Entitlement

The national focus on the most recent school shooting in Parkland, Florida has pointed to an ever-increasing agreement on the best policy action: Take away guns. Now. Indeed, 20 years after Columbine, there have been 122 murders of children and school employees, and the number of school shootings has mounted to 208. The outrage surrounding this massacre is completely warranted, as is the response to ban assault rifles and to regulate weapons in the United States. The reasons have been well-rehearsed and are plentiful: we can’t control who uses them; they are used irresponsibly; they are not necessary for a well-functioning society—in fact they are antithetical to a well-functioning society, etc.

The unceasing shock can be heard in a Broward county commissioner’s remarks about the Parkland shooting: “This is not a community where you would expect…not that you would expect it anywhere.” He was quick to point out that Parkland was a close-knit community, that the Douglas High School was an “A” school (presumably that is a very good thing), and that it was “safe,” etc. In other words, horrific events like that are not supposed to happen “here.” I’m left with the question: where are they supposed to happen?

Are they supposed to happen in poor communities with sub-standard schools? Are they supposed to happen in Black or Latino communities? Is that why we don’t see the same level of concern and horror? Are the deaths of civilians and children at the hands of U.S. firepower supposed to happen in Yemen and Pakistan and Somalia? Is that why we don’t see the same level of concern and horror?

Taking away guns is an effective measure. I agree absolutely. It is also a provisional measure that will not get to the heart of a more deep-seated, burning issue: the anger, the violence, the entitled rage behind many of these events. I want us to consider how much we take violence for granted as a part of our daily psyche—but as something to be deployed against those we don’t value, or fear, or despise. Such violence might be effectively seen as emerging from a culture of entitlement: to hurt, injure, damage those who we see either as a) threats or b) less deserving of life or c) both.

I don’t know why Cruz did what he did. Some argue that it was because he was mentally ill. Perhaps. Violence is not restricted to likes of young men like Nikolas Cruz. Whereas Cruz is depicted as ill, when Nidal Malik Hasan, a U.S. soldier and psychiatrist who shot other soldiers at Ft. Hood Army Base, he was seen as a terrorist. In both instances, they felt entitled to do shoot in order to kill people: there were no threats upon their lives, or at least no discernible ‘cause,” if that is even a relevant concept.

It is a violence that is taken up vigorously by our police forces, our Army, our Navy, our Marine Corps, and is deployed against so many different segments of the world’s population. “Legitimate” injury is always connected to a “just dessert.”

He got shot in the back by a police officer? “Why didn’t he just stop running”?

The police hauled her into custody and she died: “Why didn’t she put out that cigarette?”

He’s been detained in a military prison without charges and tortured for 17 years? “He got what was coming.”

Some trace this violence to the entitled anger of white men. Certainly, that is part of the issue. But it is not just the anger of white men that we need to worry about; we need to worry about the collective, entitled violence embraced by a population that has mostly dealt with its fears, desires, greed, and conflicts through war, incarceration, torture, bombings against populations around the globe. These are collectively, institutionally, socially approved formulations and enactments of violence.

“Good” philosophers are supposed to make distinctions, to insist on comparing like kinds, to refuse to compare “oranges” with “apples.” And yet, by attending to precise distinctions that are based on some skewed sense of the lowest common denominator (“gun violence” is not sexual violence”), by framing events in isolation, then we depoliticize the features that these events have in common: violence, the sense of entitlement to impose violence on certain groups, while decrying similar forms of violence on other groups.

I am a bad philosopher.

War, whether fought on the ground, or remotely: through drones and missiles, seems to be taken as a routine inevitability. “Sure…we have wars. We need to protect ourselves from the enemy, from terrorists, from the people of other nations who breed those terrorists.” [1] We hardly question these [unless we mark ourselves as pacifist, hippy, peacenik types] since, after all, we need a military and police force—don’t we? To protect ourselves? “Our” property? “Our (whose?) children and women?”

Still, we refuse to grapple with that larger issue of violence: the one that is met with muted cries of outrage at best when the U.S. invades Afghanistan and Iraq on the grounds of dubious charges of WMD’s. We have refused to grapple with the larger issue of injustice and violence when the US drones children and civilians who are part of wedding celebrations in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia ad elsewhere.

We’re only now beginning to confront the issue of sexual violence when it affects beautiful wealthy white women on the screen—but many—white women AND white men– were blissfully oblivious to the sexual and physical violence imposed on Black women under slavery, and post-slavery. In contemporary times, UN peacekeepers are only now being called out for raping and violating children and women around the world: Haiti, the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, and elsewhere. And yet, when such actions take place in organizational/institutional contexts, some of those who should know better find ways to justify the barbarism of the “civilizers” as being difficult to maintain primitive locations.

It’s not just the violence enacted through weaponry and warfare and rape that we need to worry about. We condone violence against rapists, sexual offenders, murderers. And even though this attitude is now attributed to Trump and his white supremacist/nationalist bedfellows (since we have forgotten that this policy position has been decades old), many of us approved violence against those who refused to stay away from U.S. borders.

By insisting that school shootings are about freely accessible guns, without connecting the issue of gun violence to the larger acceptance of violence deployed around the world, we are shortchanging our ability to find other effective solutions. We need to understand violence in its systematicity. —The violence of the lone shooter is not unconnected to the remorseless droning, shooting, or rape of civilians. The violence deployed against beautiful, wealthy white women is not unconnected to the rapes and sexual exploitation of Black and brown human beings—under slavery, under Jim Crow, under the post-Civil Rights era, under the guise of UN Peacekeeping or NGO’s like Oxfam trying to civilize “barbaric” regions.

Many folks on social media point to Australia’s reduction of the gun violence problem to zero after having decided in 1992 to confiscate all guns. Other nations have done the same. But most of them aren’t nations that have lead the world into global wars time and time again. The U.S has been one of those nations. Does this mean that I think that eliminating guns won’t have a productive effect on the reducing some part of the violence in this country? No. I emphatically agree with the predictions that extreme gun regulation will have an impact in reducing deaths. As Emma Gonzalez also pointed out: Nikolas Cruz would not have been able to kill so many people with just a knife.

It is absolutely important to end easy access to most guns, and all assault weapons. But ending access won’t eliminate the underlying, systemic problem. It may just make it easier to ignore.

 

[1] It irritates me to no end to have the term ‘terrorist’ appropriated casually in order to redeploy it towards anyone else. The term needs to be questioned and deleted, not incorporated casually into household use—even if it is for the purpose of highlighting the evils of white shooters, or our president, or the NRA. The more casually the term is deployed, the more we normalize it as a term to be deployed against anyone we want to vilify, without having to argue for it.

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.

________________________________________

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

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.

________________________________________________________

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…

_______________________________________

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

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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.

 

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

This piece is in Salon, under various headlines:

Where does the hate come from?

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

By

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

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

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

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

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

Click through to read the rest….

Obama is Channeling Bush Fever in Iran

Hi folks. Thanks for checking in. Regular readers will notice that I’ve been writing rather sporadically over the last few months. It’s not for lack of interest, but the day job is keeping me intensely busy, and will do so–I predict, until the end of April. I plan to finish a couple more in the next week or two. One will be about the hunger strikers in Guantanamo. I just need some time to treat the topic with the complexity it deserves.

In the meantime, here’s a piece that appeared today on Salon.com.

Obama is channeling Bush fever in Iran

Ten years after the Iraq debacle, are we — mind-bogglingly — headed to war with Iran? The signals suggest yes

A gold star if you can guess who made the following four statements without clicking on the links. Hint: Two were by an aggressive, hawkish, Republican, one of which was famously said over 10 years ago. Two others are by the more erudite, constitutionally savvy, liberal, moderate, current president. You remember him: He’s the one  Hillary Clinton taunted in 2008 as not being tough enough to answer the phone at 3 a.m. At this point, it’s safe to say that we no longer need to worry about that.

1) “I have made the position of the United States of America clear: Iran must not get a nuclear weapon. This is not a danger that can be contained. As President, I have said to the world that all options are on the table for achieving our objectives. America will do what we must to prevent a nuclear-armed Iran.”

2) “One thing is certain. The United States should never allow Iran to threaten the world with a nuclear bomb.”

Click through here to keep reading:

On the Regulation of Firearms

Robert Prasch thoughtfully unpacks the firearm regulation debate.

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

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

A Definition and a Few Facts

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

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

The Three Components of the Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What Can We Do?

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

Greater Monitoring and Regulation of People

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

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

Securing Places Where the Public Congregates

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

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

Regulating the Qualities of Legally-Owned Weapons

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

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

The Counter-Arguments

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

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

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

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

Violence is Not Power: Meditations on Obama’s Second Term

Revised 1/7/12, 3:25 pm.

Pervasive violence is the ever-louder siren of the U.S. state’s impotence. It is the beacon of this nation’s inability to garner respect by adhering to Constitutional principles. At the risk of being obvious, I have in mind principles such as the freedom to dissent; to challenge the state, to be free of undue invasions of privacy; to have a trial framed by charges, evidence, and clear, fair procedures. These are the principles which would—could–challenge the US’s increasing quest for violence as the means of political control at home and abroad. This quest, paradoxically, revitalizes loyalty among its people even as it drains the existential serenity of those elsewhere in the world.

By violence, I include overt violence, such as the kidnapping and rendition of black and brown men to the U.S; the drones directed towards South Asia, East Africa, and the Philippines; the detention and incarceration of men without charges, lawyers, fresh air. Solitary confinement.

By violence, I include psychic violence, such as warrantless wiretapping and surveillance of US citizens, residents and foreigners (sic); the silent spying on mosque-goers, protestors; the deportation of migrants by the millions; the separation of parents from their children by the hundreds of thousands; the fear of arrest by men and women who give money to charities and legal defense funds of groups deemed often ex post terrorist organizations; the deliberate withholding of justice for poor homeowners scammed by mortgage companies.

By violence, I include the existential violence enveloped in the fear that being Muslim, Black, or Latino marks you as a magnet for police attention. As a magnet for kidnapping. A magnet for arrest and endless incarceration without appeal. For drones. Bullets. Deportations. Among other kinds of invasions and violations.

Sociologist Max Weber talks about the state “as the rule of men over men based on the means of legitimate, that is, allegedly legitimately violence of the state.”

All modern states were founded on violence. On conquest and genocide and slavery.  That history was elided, concealed through the abiding fiction of the social contract. The logic of the social contract was that men agreed to give up violence in order to abide by principles of respect and reciprocity. What we call rights and duties. A social contract.  And even that Social Contract is founded on violence. It is a racial contract, one where the rights and duties of certain men were based on the eclipse of the rights of others: African men, women, and children. White women.

But social contracts—despite their origins– can be useful. Like the Constitution, they can make clear what our expectations are of each other.  They can change, evolve, adjust—but their chief basis is the reciprocity of respect and freedom.

This is why there is something so earth-shatteringly irrevocable when a state based on a social contract, on a Constitution such as ours, declares a—continual–emergency by citing the threat of cultural, racial minorities and political minorities—of Muslims qua terrorists. Of Black men qua drug dealers. Of Latinos qua undocumented migrants. Of all who are political dissidents or whistleblowers who publicize the nefarious actions of elites.

What is it that propels people to endorse their government’s shift from representing them to overseeing them like an abusive parent? Since when do Americans seek comfort in a parent who oversees every move, micromanages every action, punishes every step that it construes as a misstep, who locks their child in the closet for howling in pain? Since when do we endorse political leaders who embrace beatings and torture as implements of security?

The ingenuity of the transition from political representation to state-incurred violence is that it is always—always—done with an array of equipment that makes that violence seem technical, impersonal, clinical.  This is why it seems so natural to move from a society where we elect politicians to represent us with constraints–to one where we license them to expand their powers immeasurably while correspondingly narrowing ours.

As the formidable Miz Arendt point out:

Violence—as distinct from power, force or strength, always needs implements…the revolution of technology, a revolution in tool-making, was especially marked in warfare.

Crises of the Republic, Part I, On Violence

She refers to physical violence and its dependence on technology. Technology such as atomic weapons, missiles, long-range high power assault rifles —and now, drones, cybersurveillance, wireless interception of phone and email communications.  It is technology that becomes increasingly sophisticated in distancing the soldier, the pilot, the government IT specialist, from his targets. Less sophisticated is the distance in distinguishing the target from the bystanders.

Beyond the R & D advances of the US Armed Forces, we can add a range of old-school equipment to that list: torture rooms, undercover CIA operations, prisons in far away places, military bases in Djibouti. These are “necessary” equipment for the purposes of cinching security, to “nip danger in the bud.”

To Arendt’s point, I would add that physical and psychic violence intimately depend upon their own technologies. In particular, three kinds of technologies go hand in hand with violence:

Technologies of law, eager politicians, and enthusiastic citizens.

Technologies of law, as we have witnessed abundantly, include those that instigated the upside-downness of our legal world with categories like pre-emptive policing, (legal and illegal) enemy combatants, and terrorists.

They include the USA PATRIOT Act and the Military Commisions Act of 2006. But we shouldn’t forget the long, continual series of laws that have helped cement and entrench this world of violence.

More recent technologies of violence include the Whistleblower Protection Enhancement Act (which legitimizesafter the fact–John Kiriakou’s criminality perfectly). FISA with its absence of oversight provisions and its latest 5-year renewal, and not 3 as proposed by Sen. Leahy. The NDAA 2013 which, like last year’s version, again legitimates the President’s and US Military’s authority to arrest and indefinitely detain anyone—anyone—that they suspect of terrorism. This year’s version prohibits the closure of Guantanamo Bay’s extra-judicial prison.

Another little remembered technology of violence: H.R. 347, which criminalizes protestors by making it illegal for them to stand near a public building or Secret Service officers with a sign or with “threatening intent.”

But of course, legal technologies of violence aren’t just limited to laws.  They also include US court decisions—and the Supreme Court’s refusal to hear appeals–that criminalize members of charities—or people who give money to them. They include judges’ insistence that they can’t challenge the illegality of drone strikes. Etc. Etc.

Technologies of eager politicians can be found in seemingly liberal upholders of the Constitution. A most recent example would be Senator Dianne Feinstein, who insists that we must give as much information to the NSA as possible in order to catch the terrorists who are in our midst. She simultaneously insists that the NSA knows who to surveil or not surveil, and that its reasons are too dangerous classified for the rest of us to know.

Such technologies of violence can be located in POTUS and his Administration, who demand the authority to assassinate, kill children with drones, arrest and detain, to surveil at whim. Or to collaborate with bankers to ensure that bailout money goes to the perpetrators of fraud, and not its victims.

This technology is replete with smiles, fine suits and coiffures, and the assurance that they are working in the interests and safety of their citizens. It comes with the additional ingredient of insisting that human rights violations in China must be addressed. That the genocidal intentions of Iran and Palestine must be addressed. And condemning the dictatorial powers of the Venezualan and Ecuadorian Presidents. Um, right.

Perhaps the most efficient technology is that of enthusiastic citizens who vote and vote and vote again for politicians who openly assure them that they only want the best for their “constituents.” It is a dangerous technology, this technology of willing self-described liberal citizens who claim to revere the principles of freedom, privacy, and known laws, while insisting that POTUS is constrained by his Congress, his staff, his difficult legacy as the first Black President.

This technology is accompanied by an all-too-easy amnesia (or is it dissociation?).  As Thomas Harrington writes,

…[W]hen a Democrat gets elected to office, it seems that this calculus suddenly changes…[w]hen I confront people whom I know voted for Obama and his party with this desultory and undeniably accurate bill of particulars, they act as if it had little or nothing to do with them and their vote.

In fact, then, the most effective technology of violence under a Democratic Presidency is the denial of facts. It is the willful amnesia that one of “their own,”—a liberal, a community activist, a constitutional law professor, a person of color (and his racially diverse Administration), a cosmopolitan—has taken the lead in violating the sanctity of human beings: through death, destruction of foreign lands, punishing journalists, torturing whistleblowers, kidnapping young men, and killing children. All the while, using secrecy, disposition matrices, surveillance—and–immunity laws—to breed the fear of God into us if we dare dissent.

The second most effective violence is the insistence that destroying and marginalizing one’s own people is better when it comes from a liberal.  As Ethnic Studies Professor Dylan Rodrigues presciently wrote back in 2008—in the aftermath of the Barack Obama’s first victory (the piece is worth reading in its entirety):

To be clear: the political work of liberation from racist state violence—and everything it sanctions and endorses, from premature death to poverty—becomes more complex, contradictory, and difficult now. The dreadful genius of the multiculturalist Obama moment is that it installs a “new” representative figure of the United States that, in turn, opens “new” possibilities for history’s slaves, savages, and colonized to more fully identify with the same nation-building project that requires the neutralization, domestication, and strategic elimination of declared aliens, enemies, and criminals. In this sense, I am less anxious about the future of the “Obama administration” (whose policy blueprint is and will be relatively unsurprising) than I am about the speed and effectiveness with which it has rallied the sentimentality and political investment (often in terms of actual dollar contributions and voluntary labor) of the purported U.S. “Left.

As we witness the nomination and selective framing of Drone collateral death denier and Torture endorser John Brennan by the POTUS for the Director of the CIA–can there be any doubt of how apt Prof. Rodrigues’ words are?

The state’s struggle is not one for political power (defined as that which represents the flourishing of its people)—but for control—to decide the dividing line between flourishing and emaciation, between success and immiseration, between bodily sanctity and bodily violation and destruction, between political freedom and abject fear.  Between life and death.  That struggle for control is a voracious hunger. It is the hunger to monopolize violence—to insist that violence belongs to the state—as an efficient, effective—and legal means to manage its people.

And yet, this Administration’s most effective legacy is the dissemination of fear. Dissemination of evisceration. Of bodily violations. Of the destruction of countless innocent lives.

Liberals who embraced this second term have enabled the continuation of an empire under multicultural leadership—one which continues, expands, and intensifies the war on people—especially on brown and black and Muslim peoples—through an array of technologies, which are so clean, precise, and beyond refute for so many liberals—those who helped perpetuate this war by re-electing the very people who continued it under the mantle of Freedom and Democracy.

Looking forward, not back.

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.

Shrien Dewani, Julian Assange, and British Justice

 
 
“…[V]iolence… threatens [the law] not by the ends that it may pursue but by its mere existence outside the law.  The same may be…suggested, if one reflects how often the figure of the “great” criminal, however, repellent his ends may have been, has aroused the secret admiration of the public.”
Walter Benjamin, The Critique of Violence
 
 

In December 2010, we saw the British justice system take action in two separate events related to crimes against Swedish women.  In the first Shrien Dewani, a British citizen of Indian descent, was accused of soliciting, paying for, and coordinating the horrific murder of his Swedish bride of two weeks, Anni Dewani, while on their honeymoon in South Africa the November prior. Anni Dewani was kidnapped at gunpoint, and was later found naked, beaten, and dead from a bullet through the neck after a dinner trip to the Gugulethu township in Cape Town.   Three men, including the driver of the limo, have been charged. Two have already begun long prison terms. One of them had his sentence reduced after implicating Dewani, a multimillionaire.  Detained in England at the request of the South African government, Dewani was released after his family put up £250,000 bail several days later.  He was tagged with an electronic ankle bracelet, subjected to curfews, his movements restricted, and required to report to the police daily.

At almost the same time, Julian Assange was also detained in England at the request of another government. He was (and is still) wanted for questioning in Sweden in the course of an investigation into possible sexual misconduct.  Since, even 18 months later, charges have still not been filed, we cannot be certain of the offense, but early indications were that he could be charged with continuing to have sex with one woman despite a broken condom,* and having failed to answer a police summons to be tested for STD’s; this crime is punishable by up to two years in prison.  He is also being investigated for a second crime, namely of having “sex by surprise” with another woman; this charge, if he were to be arrested and convicted, would carry a fine of 5,000 kronor, or $715.  While the circumstances surrounding these events are murky; at least one of the possible victims told the Swedish newspaper Aftonbladet in an interview that, “It is quite wrong that we were afraid of him. He is not violent, and I do not feel threatened by him.”  She elaborated that, “The responsibility for what happened to me and the other girl lies with a man who had attitude problems with women.” Assange was initially denied bail, but at a later hearing was allowed £200,000 bail, with the additional requirement of  £40,000 in two separate sureties of  £20,000 each.  Released after nine days in jail, he faced an extradition hearing.  Like Dewani, he had to wear an electronic bracelet that monitored his movement.  His movements were restricted in house arrest fashion; he had curfews, and, had to report to the police daily.

All of this, of course, until his stay of execution ran out in June 2012. Assange then sought refuge in the Ecuadorian Embassy in the UK, and requested political asylum. As of today, we know the upshot: The Brits threatened to invade the Ecuadorian Embassy. The Ecuadorian Embassy decided to give Assange asylum. The Brits refuse to give Assange safe passage to Ecuador, and remain outside the Ecuadorian Embassy ready to arrest him should he step outside.

It is rather interesting that Assange and Dewani had nearly identical conditions surrounding their detention.  Certainly, sexual abuse and murder are each serious charges; neither Dewani nor Assange should be exculpated without a proper judicial process.  However, there is a bizarre contrast in the treatment accorded to each when comparing the substance of the crimes in question. Dewani’s appear to be about coordinating and paying for the vicious murder of his own wife; still, he was almost immediately able to qualify for bail. Moreover, despite the vigorous protests of the South African national prosecutors office — an office that has already gained convictions in the case — he was released pending an extradition hearing. In March 2012, despite promises on the part of the South African prosecutor in charge of Dewani’s hearing, he was granted a stay by the London’s High Court. Why? Because “High Court judge Sir John Thomas said it would be unjust and oppressive to send Dewani back to South Africa in his present condition.” That is to say, Dewani was heard telling family that he would kill himself if extradited. As we all know, threats to self-inflicted harm are a fairly popular way to persuade the judge not to send you somewhere you don’t want to go: like to jail, to stand trial, or to be extradited to South Africa.**

As of today, Dewani is still in England, while two of his accomplices have been convicted, and sentenced to 18 and 25 years in prison, respectively, and the trial of one other accomplice in South Africa goes on.

I am thrilled by the UK’s zeal in wanting to protect the sexual rights of women. Seriously, it is a delight to know that the UK, like the US, and of course like that bastion of women’s rights, Sweden, has the interests of women at heart. But I wish that they could apply consistent, or even proportional standards to suspects like Dewani—as they do to Julian Assange. But as we know, perhaps all isn’t as it seems; this situation reminds me human rights activists like Former First Lady Laura Bush, who pointed out her deep concern for the rights of women in Afghanistan—coincidentally around the same time as Hubby Bush’s decision to invade Afghanistan.

Whatever Assange’s crimes, unlike the US and the UK, they do not appear to include premeditated violence. It is not irrelevant that Assange is being sought after for some of the most daring non-violent ‘crimes’ that the world has seen since Daniel Ellsberg released the Pentagon Papers: exposing the reckless and remorseless criminal actions of the United States and allied governments as they collectively pursue their “War on Terror.”  Its name aside, this war is not being conducted against a noun.  It includes real violence towards real people in real countries, with terrible effects on civilian populations; unsavory engagements with odious dictators; and sundry violations of long-standing agreements in favor of human rights and against arbitrary search, seizure, and torture.

Let’s consider the argument that Moe Tkacik made about the relevance of the suspicions about Assange to his position as Wikileaks courier. She points out that Assange is accused by two women for trying the sleazy trick of pulling off his condom in the middle of sex—and pretending it was an accident. As she argued shortly before she left the Washington City Paper:

The question of whether Assange is an incorrigible douchebag (and also, a liar) would only decisively matter if he was asking (or more likely knowing what we know, presumptuously expecting) us to take his word for it that Muammar Gaddafi doesn’t travel anywhere without his Bedouin tents and voluptuous Ukrainian nurse or the Arab Gulf states are privately rooting for the us to start shooting missiles at Iran, etc. etc. But trusting the judgment of those who impart information is actually the precise opposite of the point of Wikileaks; the organization he founded is by design merely a high-profile courier; what impact would have on your credit card bills if it turned out that your letter carrier was into child porn?\
 
Which is why all the media deconstruction of Assange’s seemingly well-cultivated mystique seems so suspiciously irrelevant to begin with: wouldn’t a ludicrously secretive network of ultra-sophisticated hackers be structurally impervious to any character assassination attempts on its weird-looking white-haired mascot? (Her links)
 

The actual threat posed by Julian Assange and his organization, Wikileaks, is the audacity of truth.  It is not the non-consensual (and as far as we know, non-violent) sexual acts presumably committed against two women that is source of the great criminality of Assange.  From the perspective of those who rule over us, Assange’s offense is exacerbated by the—not-so-secret—admiration of an international public, of billions of civilians across the globe who have watched in frustration as the flexing of sovereign and unchecked muscles have resulted in the widescale and often fatal bullying of innocents — women and men alike– with no repercussions, no contrition, and ultimately, no self-awareness of the fact that in the hands of Presidents Bush and Obama the rule of law has been transformed into the illusion of law: We—the US, Great Britain, France, and others in the Global North—will decide what law is, what crime is, what violence is, and you—citizens of the world will accept it, all of it, and like it.  Until, that is, great criminals like Julian Assange come along and remind us that there is a power greater than the violence of the state—a power to resist and challenge the pure acts of hooliganism, plunder, and plutocracy that the United States government and its allies defend as righteous acts of “spreading democracy.”

Does that mean that we should condone sexual deception? Not at all. Still:

  1. Assange is wanted for questioning in Sweden.
  2. Assange has still not been charged.
  3. It’s not clear that sexual deception, however vicious, is equivalent to sexual assault. Perhaps Sweden could accuse him of negligence or some equivalent charge. But let’s preserve the respect for victims of acquaintance rape and other forms of rape by recognizing the distinction between coercion and sexual assholishness. We might be able to construct a framework for the latter in its relationship to coercion. Still, as of yet, we don’t have a strong one, so let’s not elevate it to the complex category of rape.

Why is it that Dewani, A British citizen accused of plotting to murder his wife is receiving more lenient treatment than a man who has not yet been charged with rape?  If in fact Assange is only wanted by the Swedish authorities for questioning, they could have found some way to accommodate the very real concerns that Assange, once in Sweden, could be rushed to the United States to face an unfair trial. It’s too late for that. But perhaps, now that Ecuador has stood up to the British government, the UK might find some way to show its “honorable” intentions–by negotiating for an independent third-country investigator for Assange. And by insisting that Dewani be extradited to South Africa for the–substantive–charges that he faces.

Perhaps—even though Assange may be the great criminal, and Dewani may be a heinous criminal, too much of the world is aware of the United States and the British governments as the real—and systemic—threats to the safety of men and women around the world. Until the UK can show that it can play fair, those  perceptions will continue.

**************

*Or not wearing a condom.

**The last three sentences were accidentally omitted from an earlier version of this column.

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Update: Here is the judgement of the London High Court in the dispute between Assange and the Swedish Prosecution Authority, July 12, 2011. Notice especially paragraphs 149-153: The decision has been taken not to charge him at this stage. As the High Court admits, had the same set of facts occurred in England or Wales, he would have already been charged. Still, the extradition order is not yet in order to prosecute him, but to interrogate him further.

Race, Murder, and Mayhem in America: Considering the Links

Glenn Greenwald is right to be skeptical of any direct causal links between the horrific events such as the Sikh Temple Massacre or the Joplin Mosque and US foreign policy. As he pointed out yesterday,

there are usually a diverse array of complex motives (psychological, emotional, ideological, religious) that drive individuals to engage in violence of this sort, and an equally diverse list of complex causes (legislative, political, cultural) as to why our society fosters and enables it.

And to be fair, most white men who have grown up in the shadow of 9-11 do not shoot up theaters and temples or burn down mosques. But I want to try to be clearer about the links that I’m trying to argue for:

Dylan Rodrigues, a scholar in Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside and author of a great book on Black Radicals in prison, has argued that we need to pay attention to the parallels between the massive numbers of Black and Latino men who are in prison, and our tendencies to incarcerate Muslim men in Guantanamo, or Abu Ghraib. These parallels can alert us to a certain carceral mentality that is mirrored in a country’s international and domestic policies. A number of philosophers and sociologists have argued along similar lines, including Michel Foucault, Angela Davis, and Loiç Wacquant.

Similarly, in my last post and a number of others, that is what I’ve tried to argue that we need to consider: when Dharun Ravi sets up a camera to spy on his gay roommate’s trysts, or Wade Michael Page shoots up a Sikh temple, when US soldiers rape Iraqi women, urinate on dead bodies, and shoot civilians in cold blood in Iraq, we need to move beyond the level of shock and start thinking about the larger political and legal and cultural mentalities in which these events happen.

In particular, we live in a country in which the federal office that oversees the strict regulation of immigrants, visitors, and—yes—citizens, guards the homefront through border security, pre-emptive policing of people’s social, political and financial activity, their emails and phone calls, i.e., “counterterrorism.” That office, ceremoniously renamed the Department of Homeland Security six months after September 11, 2001, is an ostentatious chest-beating symbol of waging a war on “threats to national security.”

In the name of Homeland Security—a hallowed reference to Nazi Germany’s urge to purify their own “heimat”–we have seen the prevalence of United States’ domestic and foreign policies: state-led surveillance of its own people, of the decision to harass foreigners until they leave, i.e., “self-deportation,” of Muslim communities, to incarcerate Muslim men without habeas corpus or a serious legal defense, to outlaw political protest, to give the U.S. president full authority to assassinate and incarcerate “terrorists,” and to the fact of state-led mass destruction in the form of drones, rockets, bombs, chemical warfare and guns?

Why then, talk about white supremactists as if they are loners or part of private gangs? Shouldn’t we remember the US’ emphasis on the Homeland when we watch these shootings and mosque-burnings? When we see images of war and strife in the Middle East? Is it such a strange leap to think of US domestic and foreign policy as part of white supremacist, racial contract, as political philosopher Charles Mills argues (read his book for more on this; it’s clearly written, even for non-philosophers)?

As Greenwald says:

A country which venerates its military above all other institutions, which demands that its soldiers be spoken of only with religious-like worship, and which continuously indoctrinates its population to believe that endless violence against numerous countries is necessary and just — all by instilling intense fear of the minorities who are the target of that endless violence — will be a country filled with citizens convinced of the virtues and nobility of aggression. (the links are in his original piece).

He’s right. I think there’s something else going on as well. At the risk of stating the ridiculously obvious, we live in a country (and still at a time) that has a very difficult time with race politics: And it’s not merely about racial antagonisms having to do with Muslims or Sikhs or Hindus or Sri Lankans or Pakistanis or South Asians and Arabs generally. It has to do with racial hostilities that are legislated against Latinos and Blacks (and by this term, I include all folks who are the victim of anti-black racism, not just African Americans)—and Americans turning a blind eye to these hostilities that are waged against black and brown folks, while expecting white men to act out the scripts of entitlement: declaring and waging war, AND deploying black and brown and working-class whites to war. Americans cheer when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts within the confines of state-led policies and laws—and are shocked when whites, blacks, and browns act out their scripts outside of those institutions and laws.

Again, Charles Mills calls this the epistemology of ignorance, that is when whites and elites are completely baffled by—and claim NOT to understand– the very same world that they (through slavery, Jim Crow, mass incarceration, mass criminalization through anti-terror and drug laws)—produced. Mills coined this term, the epistemology of ignorance, hand in hand with the racial contract back in 1997. Can you imagine the furor he caused then?

I agree with Mills—mostly.

As importantly it has to do with the very difficult time we have in calling our political leaders to account whether they are white or non-white; but at the present moment, we are having an especially difficult time calling our current President, who is black, into account—especially for those of us who are politically progressive and constructively race-conscious. The tensions that lie in this political dilemma—during this election year—are enormous. But it doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s racially destructive policies: like deporting 400,000 migrants a year; like tearing apart families through forced deportation; destroying childhoods through indefinite detention and deportation of their parents without judicial review.

So, taking a page out of Mills’ book, I would suggest that another term that better describes what’s happening today: the epistemology of indifference. White and elites understand perfectly well the world that they have produced. And those liberals AND progressives who vote for them—despite this knowledge—are guilty of the epistemology of indifference: they know and they don’t care. At least, they don’t care enough to reject the false choices handed to them by the Democratic Party.

It doesn’t make us racially or politically progressive to turn a blind eye to the President’s imperially expansive policies. It makes us callous, indifferent, and frankly, part of the problem. Calling him to account doesn’t necessarily make one a racist, unless you are calling him to account because he is black. Similarly, not calling him to account because he’s black is also problematic.

Race in America is an enormously tricky terrain to navigate carefully, justly, ethically. But it needs to be addressed alongside our policies of violence, of invasion, of mass murders in the name of a Secure Homeland, and in ways that don’t celebrate OR vilify single individuals. Rather, we need to clearly, firmly, effectively call those politicians and appointees to account: by voting with our feet to find leaders who share their moral principles, and reject officially sanctioned mass-murders and wars, instead of promoting them as solutions to the racial fears and xenophobia of Americans.

Mosques, Temples, and Theaters: We Need to Change the Script

Yesterday, less than 48 hours after the shootings in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, a mosque in Joplin, Missouri was burned to the ground. It was the second time that someone had tried to burn the mosque down in a month, and the third time that the mosque has had a fire on its property.  A suspect hasn’t been found.    The FBI suspects arson. The mosque is completely gone. It was burned during the month of Ramadan. Gee. The third fire on its property, and the second in less than a month. The third time. Arson? Really, you think?

I only happened to come across this news as I was perusing some comments regarding the Sikh Temple shooting. There has been virtually no reporting on it. Let me look into my political crystal ball:  A mosque gets burned to the ground, after two previous attempts: The perpetrator will be a white, angry young man, possibly part of a crowd of young angry white men.  I will predict a “white supremacist organization.”

Am I a genius? Maybe.  After all, some of us in the South Asian community understood well before the media confirmed it: the shooting at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin was the work of a white supremacist whose name, Wade Michael Page, would only be released hours later And some of us in the progressive pundosphere anticipated well before most details came out about the Aurora, Colorado shootings by James Holmes, that he would be characterized as a quiet, loner type. And at least some of us understood in the hours after the shooting at the United States Army Base in Fort Hood, Texas, that the shooter, because he wasn’t white and because he was remotely “Arab”—and even though he was a soldier and an Army psychiatrist–that his actions would be characterized as those of a “terrorist.”

Why did we know? It’s not that we were psychic or we had a direct line to God. Rather, we have become accustomed to the scripts that American law enforcement, the FBI, and the media run in the aftermath of (too) many mass shootings:

A group of Sikhs shot by a white man? A white supremacist. A group of (mostly) white Americans shot by a white man in the Midwest? In a theater? A loner. In a high school by two white boys/men? Troubled loners. By a man of East Asian origin on a college campus? A deranged loner. An Army base shot up by a Palestinian-American (US Army psychiatrist)? A terrorist (by definition deranged and ideologically zealous). A black man is repeatedly run over by two white boys in a truck? So strange; racism is gone. We have a black president. A black boy gets shot by a white man? Random and probably deserved. Black men on death row for crimes they didn’t commit? Justice prevails. So say the governors who allow them to be executed, and so follow our media.

These scripts are pulled out so neatly, one marvels at the level of organization that allow them to be read out so easily. And yet, like most scripts, they are edited to provide a clear, easy-to-follow narrative that appeals to the audience’s most intimately held beliefs. Those beliefs are drawn out, and impressed again to memorize what our irrational sides fear: those white guys are loners; those young white/Asian men are troubled and deranged loners. Those brown men are terrorists. Those black men are hoodlums and gangmembers.

The Oak Creek Police held a press conference after the shooting at the Sikh temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, where they declared that the shooting was an act of domestic terrorism. How did they define an act of domestic terrorism, a reporter asked. The Chief of Police declared that it was an act of terrorism done within the confines of the country, by a person who was not from another country. In fact, domestic terrorism does not exclude acts committed by foreign nationals according to Sec. 802 of the USA PATRIOT Act, one of the first and overarching bills that was passed to combat terrorism after September 11, 2001.

Though his definition was incorrect, his answer was illuminating—because it reflected the fiction that Americans have been trained, through these repeating scripts, to believe: most evil against Americans is committed by foreign (and usually Muslim) men, and most Americans are white.

But part of the newsworthiness of the shooting was that another massacre (and so soon after Aurora) was occurring, but this time against “foreigners.” And so the media became obsessively focused on the non-Muslim brownness of the victims. Perhaps a bit far-fetched.  But how else can we explain the obsessive focus on the “Sikh-ness” of the victims? Or the questions about whether Sikhs as a group have enemies (Didn’t the victims of Aurora, Colorado have enemies?) Or whether “anti-Semitic” acts have been committed against Sikhs in the past? Yes. This was asked by a Fox News broadcaster.

When the Aurora, Colorado movie theater shooting happened the week before, there was no discussion of the “whiteness” or the “Americanness” the victims, even though every one who died was white and American.  In fact, the focus was on how “normal,” how kind, how loving, how smart they were in their roles as children, soldiers, parents, and students. Aren’t the temple-goers also “normal,” kind, and loving? They are a religious people, like so many Americans. Many of them are Americans, like the victims in Aurora, Colorado.

James Holmes, the shooter in Aurora, was also white and American. And so media turned to its usual, Ted Kaczynski script: genius, troubled, loner.  In the case of Oak, Creek, the shooter was white, but since the victims were brown, the shooter had to have been a white supremacist. According to Chauncey DeVega, even white supremacists were hoping he wasn’t one of them.

And now that a mosque has been burned to the ground, we barely hear anything about it. That’s part of the script, too: A mosque? Muslims? Not that interesting. After all, how can Muslims be peace-loving? Don’t they want to kill Americans? They attacked America.

Like most scripts, these are fictional.  But unlike most movies and novels, the FBI and the media outlets that draw on these scripts claim to be reporting the truth. And to move from novelistic narratives to more accurate, documentarian narratives, it is necessary to confront the ideological truths that underlie the mass epidemic of violence that America is confronting. Yes, better gun control can help to manage the violence. Page’s gun was the same type used in Aurora, and in the shooting of Arizona Congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords last year. It was a 9 mm semiautomatic, and it was legal. And it would have been legal even under President Clinton’s 1994 Assault Weapon ban. But the Joplin mosque was burned down. I doubt that banning matches will solve the problem at hand.

Other truths must also be confronted. In large part, the shooters and arsonists who are behind many, if not most of these events in America, are white men.  In large part, these men have either come of age in the shadow of September 11. They have watched the media, heard Department of Homeland Security officials, and followed as mostly white male (and some female) politicians have given the anxious go ahead to wage an enormous war against Muslims abroad (Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan) or at home (in the form of the War on Terror).  Several of them have served in a military that follows the orders of two U.S. Presidential administrations by training their men to shoot, invade, drop rockets from helicopters, and drones controlled remotely from Syracuse, NY and other air force bases in the United States.

These white men have learned their lessons well, whether in the military or from hours of media news: the frustrations of a scared (white) America can be dealt with waging a war using guns, bombs, chemicals, and drones.  They have learned that it is ok to kill those who you believe to be behind threats to your comfort. They have internalized the message that those you fear can be addressed without words, without dialogue, but with violence, with power, with coercion. They have learned that some religions are automatically evil and that those who adhere to those religions must be destroyed.  And these white men reflect an ideology of violence that has permeated America in the name of the War on Terror. Sadly, that ideology, perpetuated by our white men and women in power, carried out by American soldiers, and endorsed by a lapdog media, isn’t fading away. It’s becoming bigger, stronger, and more murderous.

These men are not mad or crazy.  They are the well-trained students of American foreign and domestic policies. They have learned well the United States’ message: that violence and mayhem are the answer.  We need to change the scripts, and confront the fallout of a decade of the War on Terror—and other excuses for state-led violence quickly, before the chickens come home to roost.

Holmes, Guns, and Terrorism: We Need to Ask Different Questions

The last 72 hours have been an important exercise in understanding how a public tragedy is framed, or taken as a call (against) arms.  The mid-night movie theater tragedy in Aurora, Colorado has led to a renewed call for gun regulation, a regulation of movie violence, and anxiety about loners, as if addressing these problems would have pre-empted the Aurora massacre. I worry that we jump to certain policy conclusions. Those policies may be excellent on many grounds, but often they are exploited during tragedies like the Aurora massacre, a tragedy that is quickly being sculpted to fit the foregone conclusion instead of being analyzed to see if there are deeper answers—or even better questions to ask.

Let me be clear: I think the stricter regulation of guns is urgently needed.  But I’m not convinced by the Brady Organization’s insistence that an earlier and effective regulation of guns would have prevented some version of this tragedy from happening. I do think that the massacre in Aurora is an important lightning rod by which to raise the issue of regulating, outlawing, banning guns from easy access by an American public.  Yet, James Holmes, the young man who was witnessed by many as he shot 71 victims in an Aurora, Colorado cinema, would probably have found a way around the regulations. Described as a “brilliant science student,” by some media reports, he had no prior criminal record, attracted no prior attention from law enforcement officials, whether for speeding tickets or parking tickets.  He’d never had a run-in with college officials at UC Riverside, where he had done his undergraduate work, nor at CU-Denver, where he had formerly been a Ph.D. student in the neuroscience program—at least as far as I’ve heard.

Even if Holmes had been deterred by stiff anti-gun regulation, he might have skirted it by buying guns illegally, or by using some other weapon—explosive or chemical—to carry out his plans. We don’t have enough information yet to know what he intended.  We know that his plan was fairly long in the making, with records of his gun purchases dating back to the end of May 2012.  If he was capable of that kind of foresight, then he could certainly have concocted a home-made version of napalm or other chemical weapons that could have led to widespread destructive damage. In fact, as I write this, Colorado police have succeeded in disarming the booby-traps that Holmes set in his apartment, and have reported that some of them consisted of various chemicals that would explode when mixed. Holmes ordered and received some of his ingredients through the mail as early as four months ago. Clearly, he was capable of long-range planning that could have circumvented gun laws.

Holmes’ actions resembled those of Malik Nadal Hassan, the Army psychiatrist who killed 13 on the Fort Hood U.S. Army Base back in 2010.  Yet, with the exception of an astute piece by Salon’s David Sirota, few have noted that Holmes’ actions were “terrorist” in nature.  As Sirota points out, Holmes is merely described as “a white American male.” That short description, it seems, is sufficient to identify his actions as those of a deranged loner. By contrast, Malik Nadal Hassan, because he was Muslim, was immediately described as a “terrorist” even prior to any evidence.  Ironically, only today, the FBI released a report indicating that FBI personnel “failed” to anticipate Hassan’s actions, even though they had intercepted his emails months before the attack, 20 of which were addressed to Anwar al-Awlaki, who was killed by the US in September 2011.

Hassan’s emails apparently alternated between political ramblings, including whether it was permissible to kill innocents for a valuable target, and pleadings with al-Awlaki to find him a wife.  In retrospect, it seems, those emails were read as being insufficient to identify Hassan as being a potential terrorist, and thus the report accuses the FBI of mistakes, although in a mealy-mouthed fashion, the same report exculpates all individual members of the FBI. The only conclusion I can draw from this is that even the FBI is unsure of how to define or anticipate a terrorist action.

To read mainstream media on various cases, Holmes’ profile is not appealing enough to be classified as a “terrorist,” although it does seem to fit the general profile of North American mass murderers: such as the Tucson attack on former US Congresswoman Gabby Giffords and others (Jared Lee Loughner;, AZ, 2011); Columbine (Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris; Colorado, 1999); Virginia Tech (Seung-Hui Cho, Blacksburg, 2007); Dawson College (Kimveer Gill; Montreal 2006); the École Polytechnique Massacre (Marc Lépine; Montreal 1989) among others:  young, white, partially-white, or Asian, middle- to upper-class North American male.  And yet, the massacres committed by these men, if we eclipsed their names and ethnic origins, are much more extreme acts than those for which many young men have been detained indefinitely or convicted: men like Syed Fahad Hashmi, Tarek Mehanna, Hysen Sherifi, Omar Aly Hassan, Zihad Yaghi.

Holmes may have been geeky, quiet and a “loner.” But many of us, especially those who are writers, artists, intellectuals, scholars, were—or still are–geeky, quiet, and loners.  To identify someone as a loner merely means that we don’t understand his inner life. It doesn’t render that person mentally ill or eligible to be the next mass murderer.  In fact, many gregarious, socially outgoing individuals are capable of directing mass murder as well: just look at Bashir Assad, Saddam Hussein, Muammar Ghaddafi, George W. Bush, and of course, many others in the current Administration. Massacres can be engaged from distances as high up as 12,000 feet or as far away as 12,000 miles.

Did Holmes understand himself as Banes, the evil character in the Batman movie who shoots up the NY Stock Exchange? Perhaps. Is this cause for regulating the violent character of movies?  But aren’t many morality tales in the form of religious literature or movies violent at some level? Easily, I can think of Cain and Abel, the Kauravas and Pandyas in the Mahabharata, James Bond, Lara Croft, The Hunger Games… Aren’t we all moved by ideas at some level? Ideas about safety, security, evil, good, patriotism, terrorism, god, piety, virtue?

What is difficult to analyze is why morality tales induce some to take up arms, or deploy chemical warfare, or stab others. And for me, the question remains as to why certain innocent deaths are mourned not at all, especially when conducted at the behest of the state, and why only certain criminals are called to justice while others are glorified and urged to create more mayhem. I mourn the senseless deaths of those in Aurora, as I mourn the senseless end of the lives of many others—whether by shootings, aerial bombardment, chemical warfare, or indefinite detention. Stronger regulation of guns may be one important aspect of limiting the deaths of random civilians—not only for the general public but for the state as well. But given his adroit skills with chemicals and booby-traps, I suspect that gun regulation would not have stopped James Holmes.  We need to ask more probing questions that reflect some awareness about the larger implications of state violence in the last decade.

James Holmes was 12 years old when 9-11 happened. We don’t know how he understood the events of 9-11, but we can probably guess accurately that if he watched TV, or played electronic games, or read online media sites, then like many others who came of age in the last twelve years, he was intimately familiar with images of state violence on a daily basis.  He was probably also familiar with the roar of approval at the images of bombs, drones, chemical warfare that were deployed against many halfway around the world. What I write here does not exculpate Holmes in any way. I am trying to understand, beyond easy policy prescriptions and outside of immediate charges of “craziness” and sociopathic tendencies, what the world looks like to someone in their early twenties, someone who had no history of violence. I am also trying to understand, beyond corporate media exploitation of massacres and other local violence—exploitation that extracts sorrow and grief even when these expressions of empathy are offered generously—why we can’t mourn others who have been the victims of senseless attacks by our state when we are capable of empathy for many whom we don’t know.  What does a world in which violence is ready-to-hand, a click away, do to our young?

Dylan Rodrigues, the chair of Ethnic Studies at UC Riverside, gave an insightful talk years ago, when he pointed to the “carceral mentality” of the United States. He was discussing the forceful impulses of imperial powers to incarcerate men in Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo, and pointed to these incarcerations as mirrors of the United States’ impulse to imprison African Americans in the United States. The impulse to incarcerate others “abroad,” was normalized because we had become accustomed to the ubiquity of prisons, and to criminalization and imprisonment as a solution to deal with “others” who make us uncomfortable—I would say—by their presence but also by their questioning of our ethics.

Can we say something similar about the normalization of violence?  Many school shooting sprees and other forms of massacres have occurred in North America alone in the last three decades. The question that seems to be avoided is why so many young middle- and upper-class white and Asian men turn to violence.  What are they thinking? What do they see? Chalking these up to acts of lunacy ignores the systemic character of these acts. The charge of lunacy blithely insists that such acts of violence are singular, occasional deviations from “normalcy.” But what is normalcy in our society, where 1 in 3 Black men can “expect” to go to prison in their lifetimes? When 1 in 5 women have reportedadmitted—that they were raped? When 17,000 people are murdered annually in the US (nearly 66% by firearms)?

Clearly, in terms of policies, gun control is an important element of trying to manage the easy access to deadly weapons. But it must be part of a broader view.  We need frank investigations into the massacre at Aurora—with questions that resist easy policy subscriptions.  We need the courage to face what we might find–that terrorists come in all colors and personalities and may not be detectable through a system of ever-increasing surveillance. We might have to admit that the war on terror is backfiring. We need to step up our criticism of the US Administration, and its role in glorifying violence through the wars that it wages, and facilitating violence in places that we aren’t ready to look: among whites, among non-Muslims, among the privileged. These possibilities, as terrifying as they are, might be more effective places to challenge violence.