Human Rights and Selective Amnesia: Gazans’ expulsion from humanity

In 1946, mostly due to the efforts of Eleanor Roosevelt, the spouse of the late president Franklin Delano Roosevelt, a committee was convened to draft what would become the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). As Mary Ann Glendon and Johann Morsink, individual authors of separate books on the UDHR, point out, the context for this document was hardly ideal: it was being developed in the midst of the increasing tensions of the Cold War, in the aftermath of the Holocaust and the British handoff of Palestine to form the new Jewish state, and in the midst of an emerging insistence on self-rule in South Asia, among other places. Passed in 1948, ratified by 48 nations initially, the UDHR is heralded as a guidebook for human rights, presumably obligating all 192 UN member nations to acknowledge, if not observe it. It is, by most accounts a “Western” document, crafted by philosophers among others. It evokes the ideals of liberalism and the sacrosanct rights thought to be afforded to the individual, as well as the Kantian notion of human dignity (as something that is beyond value, that does not have a market price). It expresses the unconditional protection that individuals are thought to have with regard to their lives, their health, their ability to marry who they wish (an idea that has taken on a new light in the last few years), to form community with whomever one chooses, to have the ability to determine oneself as one pleases.

The UDHR is a breathtaking document, a mix of unadulterated optimism and seductive naïveté. It is impossible to read without asking how such a framework would ever be enforced. Indeed, this is exactly what students in my courses ask (or more cynically, scoff at). Hannah Arendt, writing in the aftermath of the Holocaust, criticized a human rights framework because of this paradoxical nature:

 

The Rights of Man, supposedly inalienable, proved to be unenforceable—even in countries whose constitutions were based upon them—whenever people appeared who were no longer citizens of any sovereign state.[1]

 

The question of enforceability ironically reveals the point of the UDHR: these protections should be assumed to be universal, unconditional, unanimously observed. And yet, as Arendt implies—the loss of human rights is predicated on the increasing dehumanization and vulnerability of those same human beings. The loss of human rights is preceded by the loss of one’s home, the loss of recognition of one’s “distinct” and precious existence.

The question of human rights arises when a people is inexorably moved toward dehumanization: displaced, violated, removed from their land. But the removal of people from their community, their home, already signals “the loss of government protection,” as Arendt says, and the loss of status as beings worth protecting: political beings, legal human beings. This loss is succinctly clinched by philosopher Giorgio Agamben’s phrase “bare life”—the unique, sacred existence of a people rendered into a barely distinguished mass of existence.

The long-standing paradox of human rights is that the declaration to observe them is a hollow scream that follows their loss, which is the consequence of the loss (if there ever was) of government interest in valuing a people.

We see this loss in US government policies since 9/11, most recently inaugurated by the Bush Administration but continued and enhanced under the Obama Administration: solitary confinement in Supermax and Guantanamo Bay; the tortuous force-feeding of Guantanamo hunger strikers; the aggressive detention of undocumented migrants in the US; the aggressive deportation attempts of child refugees from Central America, the rendition of suspected terrorists in CIA black sites (and eventually to US prisons); the entrapment of Black and South Asian Muslim men in FBI stings.

Today’s most vivid example is the continued support of Israel’s assault on Gaza, and the US’s support of that assault. Even as pictures of severely injured and dismembered children proliferate on-line, the Washington Post publishes team editorials and op-eds insisting that Israel must “crush Hamas.” Israel justifies carpet-bombing Gaza and the death of hundreds of children by insisting that Hamas uses “human shields.” Even while confessing to being traumatized by pictures of dead civilians, Senator John Kerry repeated the White House line that Israel “has the right to defend itself.”

The latter is a stale and hollow canard, reiterated by American newspapers and politicians alike. It is especially hollow in the face of an obviously one-sided genocidal pummeling of a tiny region. Gaza is, let’s remember, one of the most densely populated regions in the world—where there are no exits or escape from the relentless bombing except into the sea.

As of last night, the sixth UN school was bombed by Israel despite 17 warnings as to the shelter’s location. The UN schools were supposed to be protected shelters—intended as refuges for Palestinians who feared their homes would be targeted by Israeli missiles, Yet, despite reports of massive numbers of injuries and casualties, no one in the Israeli government has seen fit to issue an apology. “Self-defense.”

Let us assume for even a moment that despite many first-hand accounts to the contrary, Israel is correct in that Hamas is using “human shields.” Shouldn’t this very possibility give Israel pause? If it were indeed a brinksmanship game, given that Israel has been—will be—barely scathed by Hamas’ rockets, shouldn’t it refrain from blanketing Gaza with missiles that are seen to be annihilating hospitals, children, doctors—all unanimously agreed to be innocent targets? (Never mind that Palestinian men, too, are innocent targets, even as few acknowledge that.) It may be relevant to mention here that Israel is familiar with practice of using Palestinians as human shields. Despite a 2005 Israeli Supreme Court ruling that banned the Israeli government from doing so, it was accused of the same practice as recently as last year.

Yet, the constant Israeli retort of “self-defense” obscures Palestinians’ entitlement to human rights as channeled into the UDHR, prioritizing a selective amnesia in the aftermath of the genocide of European Jews. This robotic line is hardly unique to Israel. It has been echoed in justifying the U.S.’s “war on terror.” Remember President George W. Bush’s insistence, in the aftermath of 9/11: “You’re with us or against us”? This is what the assemblage of a “national security” apparatus is—the totalizing, synchronized governmental rhetoric that surrounds us whichever way we turn: From the creation of the US Department of Homeland Security, to the expansion of the NSA (the National Security Agency), to the shift in name from INS (Immigration and Naturalization Service) to ICE (Immigration and Citizenship Enforcement), the modern Western discourse reminds us that “national security” takes priority above any other consideration. The message emanates from its paid lackeys and chicken hawks alike, from Senator Dianne Feinstein to NSA Director Keith Alexander and to DNI Director James Clapper to politicians looking forward to their next campaign (witness Elizabeth Warren’s page and the votes of “progressive politicians from Bernie Sanders to Patrick Leahy) to mercenaries looking for their next million. But “any other consideration” includes not just cost, labor, energy—but also the Lives of Other People (Just Not Ours).

In effect, this is the current post 9/11 global paradigm: F*ck the Lives of Other People (FLOP) in the name of national security. Pundits have called it the New Imperialism, but I think it’s much more apt and succinct to label it as National Security FLOP. This is not to say that NatSec FLOP is original, unique, or singular, but it heralds in a (relatively) new epoch, in which human rights have no currency (except when convenient to a government’s rhetorical ethos). Herein lies the brilliant rhetoric of “self-defense,” used all too often to launch an overwhelming, disproportionate attack on an already vulnerable group, invoking the human rights of those that are not in danger: Kill, but always insist that it’s in order to protect “our own”—even when the facts say otherwise.

The seduction of NatSec FLOP is contagious, especially when consumed in conjunction with the self-aggrandizing allure of hunting “TERRORISTS.” Indeed, both of these positions were enthusiastically adopted by nations whose agendas were conveniently enhanced and justified by riding the coat-tails of American muscularity: the UK, India, Turkey, Pakistan, to name a few.

This is the paradox of human rights that seems to be in play in current moment: the rights of certain individuals can only be secured through the promise to kill others in the name of human rights. This is the supposed trade-off promulgated by the United States, borrowed and appropriated by other nations as convenient: National Security versus Rights. For the US, the trade-off promises, at the domestic level, to be deceptively effective: Freedom v. Security (if you want to be safe, then agree to give up (“some of”) your rights—to privacy, to your public dissent, to your conscience, to the violation of your home, your person, your speech, your freedom. Except that most of us–especially Blacks, Latinos, Muslims, the poor–residing in the US were never offered that choice.

Internationally, National Security has become the defense, the Maginot line against which cries of human rights evaporate.

We see this with regard both to Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s response to condemnations of Israel’s bombing of Gaza hospitals, UN schools, private residences, and massive number of children dead: Israel has the “right to defend itself.”

Here’s the thing about self-defense: Self-defense means the deployment of sufficient force to block attacks or injury on one’s property, home, or person. It does not mean initiating and sustaining attacks that are disproportionately larger than any imaginable provocation. Self-defense does not mean continuously bombing innocent bystanders—not even accidentally—not one, not two, and certainly not thousands of them—children, women, men, doctors, safety personnel.

According to Norman Finkelstein, who recently wrote a piece on Human Rights Watch’s artful evasion in blaming Israel for its large-scale killings:

International law prohibits an occupying power from using force to suppress a struggle for self-determination, whereas it does not prohibit a people struggling for self-determination from using force.[…]The International Court of Justice (ICJ) stated in its 2004 advisory opinion that the Palestinian people’s “rights include the right to self-determination,” and that “Israel is bound to comply with its obligation to respect the right of the Palestinian people to self-determination.” Israel consequently has no legal right to use force to suppress the Palestinian self-determination struggle. Israel also cannot contend that, because this self-determination struggle unfolds within the framework of an occupation, it has the legal right, as the occupying power, to enforce the occupation so long as it endures.

It is difficult to reconcile Israel’s actions with its claims to self-defense, when it has complete control over Gaza’s borders. Self-defense is usually accepted as reasonable when one (person, community, region, nation) is unable to leave the region under attack. Self-defense does not mean blockading all possible openings to a densely packed region that has no other exits nor avenues to get out of the way of these rockets.

In the U.S., it is easy to be habituated to corporate media’s spin and ideology surrounding Israel’s actions toward Palestine, Gaza, and the West Bank: it is a fairly standard position that has had long-standing, even when contradicted by opposite realities. And certainly, it is no secret that the US and Israel share the close intimacy, from providing Israel’s funding, weaponry, and moral support, even in the face of heinous crimes.

Here is Arendt again:

What is unprecedented is not the loss of a home but the impossibility of finding a new one. Suddenly, there was no place on earth where migrants could go without the severest restrictions, no country where they would be assimilated, no territory where they could found a new community of their own…this moreoever had nothing to do with any material problem of overpopulation; it was a problem not of space but of political organization. Nobody had been aware that mankind, for so long a time considered under the image of a family of nation, had reached the stage where whoever was thrown out of one of these tightly organized closed communities found himself thrown out of the family of nations altogether.” (Arendt, 1951, 293–4)

 

Arendt here is referring to European minorities who had been displaced, survived the camps, been relocated into refugee camps. But it doesn’t take much to extend this discussion to Palestinians today.

Man, it turns out, can lose all so-called Rights of Man without losing his essential quality as man, his human dignity. Only the loss of a polity expels him from humanity. (Arendt 1951, 297)

 

How does one go about resurrecting the humanity of a people that has been completely, politically, legally, internationally, abandoned? The answer is obvious, but the solution can only occur when Israel, the US, and the rest of the West drops their convenient, selective, amnesia.

_______________________________

[1] Hannah Arendt, Origins of Totalitarianism (Harcourt, 1951). P. 293.

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.

P3170067.JPG

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.

P3170063.JPG

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

________________________________________________________

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

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

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

 

___________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loretta Lynch alleges Mahdi Hashi is a chemical weapons and countersurveillance expert!

One week ago, a little-noticed tweet announced that Mahdi Hashi, a British-Somali young man who disappeared from his home in Somalia in mid-2012 and suddenly appeared in a Brooklyn Federal Court last December on terrorism-related charges, had been on a hunger strike and hospitalized with jaundice and potential of liver damage.  Shortly before Hashi disappeared (and rendered, as it turns out), the British government stripped Hashi of his citizenship on the grounds that he was engaged in “Islamicist activities.” (See links below to read more about Hashi’s situation).

In a phone call, Arnaud Mafille, a caseworker at Cage Prisoners, indicated that Hashi’s strike is in protest of the extreme Special Administrative Measures (SAMs) imposed on him, including restricted contact with his family. According to Saghir Hussain, the lawyer for Hashi’s family,

“The information was provided by MH to his father over a short telephone conversation, which was interrupted by the authorities after “60 seconds or so.”

SAM’s often consist of extreme conditions, such as daily 23-hour solitary confinement, and with extremely restrictive contact or communication with anyone, including family members.  SAM’s have also been imposed upon Muslim prisoners for “infractions” such as praying in a language other than English, or even praying with an open mouth.  SAM’s have become de rigeur for most, if not all, men suspected of giving material support to organizations or individuals themselves suspected of terrorism. Laura Rovner and Jeanne Theoharris have written extensively about SAM’s here; Theoharis also describes the horrific details of SAM’s in relation to one of her former students, Fahad Hashmi.

Four days after news of Hashi’s hunger strike, CBS News reported that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into the files of Mahdi Hashi and two others who had been indicted alongside hime, Ali Yasin Ahmed, and Mohammed Yusuf’s files. The letter alleges that Hashi had substantial knowledge was chemical weapons expert and was helping Al-Qaeda build a chemical weapons factory. The story itself is a fascinating confirmation of the thesis that the press is the government’s helper. The document “alleges,” but the press believes the allegations unconditionally.

I can’t get the video to embed, so here’s the link:

http://www.cbsnews.com/8301-505263_162-57603620/court-document-references-al-qaeda-linked-chemical-weapons-program-in-somalia/

Notice the “critical” comments by CBS “This Morning” host, Charlie Rose, as he and Norah O’Donnell consult with CBS Senior Correspondent, former assistant CIA Direct, John Miller.

The last few weeks have been filled with reports about chemical weapons being used in Syria, but this morning a new filing in an obscure terrorism case is confirming something long feared: a chemical weapons program run by Al-Qaeda.

Miller, the canny investigative reporter that he is, notices that a new letter was “quietly dropped” into Mahdi Hashi’s, Ali Yasin Ahmed and Mohammed Yusuf’s files, which point to their expertise in helping Al-Qaeda develop a chemical weapons program!

The causal overdeterminations made in this short segment are fascinating: The letter, dated September 18, 2013, was written by US Attorney Loretta Lynch. According to Rose and Miller, it confirms the existence of a chemical weapons program by Al-Qaeda, which had been LONG FEARED.

In fact, the letter confirms nothing of the sort, except that this is what the US Government is claiming in order to restrict Hashi, Ahmed, and Yusuf from any access to the outside world, and perhaps other untold, more extreme, measures. Lynch’s letter also specifies that the SAM’s restrict their access to “each other” (presumably because they might conspire to…something(?). I suspect that Lynch’s phrase indicates that they also have no contact with anyone, i.e., they are each being held in solitary confinement, though I have found no explicit evidence of this yet.

Neither Rose, O’Donnell, nor Miller question the timing of the letter—nor do they explain the purpose of the letter–in making this causal connection.

Let’s consider the October and November superseding indictments of Hashi and his alleged co-terrorists, and Lynch’s letter. Up until today, all three had been indicted on fairly general charges: (1) a “conspiracy to give material support to terrorism,” which by most measures is an extremely weak charge, usually indicating little concrete evidence, if any, that can convincingly link a person to terrorist activity; (2) Material support to a foreign terrorist organization; and (3) Firearms.There is no mention of chemical weapons or counterterrorism intelligence expertise in initial indictment.

Now, the thrust of Lynch’s letter was to request separate appearances for all three defendants. Lynch does so presumably on the same grounds by which Special Administrative Measures were ordered for them (also mentioned in the letter), namely because

The Attorney General, in directing that such restrictions be implemented, previously found that “[b]ased upon information provided to me of [the defendants’] proclivity for terrorism . . . there is substantial risk that [the defendants’] communications or contacts with persons could result in death or serious bodily injury to persons, or substantial damage to property that would entail the risk of serious bodily injury to persons.

Indeed in the last part of the letter, Lynch states that separate appearances are requested because of the above grounds and

To minimize the potential for violations of the defendants’ SAMs during their appearance in Court and for the safety of the defendants themselves.

The safety of the defendants themselves?? From whom? Each other? From Al-Qaeda? They, like the rest of us, are already aware that these three are in prison..

Even a vegan can recognize red herring when they see one. Consider the timing of this letter. It is filed

-after ten months of silence in Hashi’s et al’s cases, and only five days after word of his hunger strike.

– fewer than 2 months after the news about chemical weapons attack in Syria, which tempted the Administration to launch a military attack in Syria.

-fewer than 4 months since Edward Snowden leaked documents confirming extensive NSA surveillance of all American citizens, non-citizens, foreigners—EVERYONE. Those revelations prompted renewed calls for transparency and accountability on the part of the Obama Administration, which has been reeling defensively and searching for new ways to make the case that the US MUST spy on everyone for the purposes of national security.

Claiming “Al-Qaeda!” will surely remind us of the need for spying. And sure enough, CBS News responded appropriately about the “confirmation” of a chemical weapons program developed through “commercial” and widely available ingredients.

Nor does CBS question why, after extremely vague charges filed despite months of interrogations, there are suddenly such specific allegations such as,

(2) the defendants have extensive weapons and combat training and were formerly members of an elite al-Shabaab suicide bombing unit.

and

(4) the defendants are dangerous and influential foreign al-Shabaab fighters who have previously employed operational tradecraft and counter surveillance techniques to avoid detection by law enforcement authorities.

One wonders how sophisticated Hashi could have been in avoiding detection by law enforcement authorities if he was scooped up as easily as he was.

I could be mistaken, but I believe this is the first time that allegations associating Hashi with chemical weapons or countersurveillance expertise have ever been made.

The rhetorical use of “expert” is fascinating given that the chemicals that are being used are most likely elementary. Household bleach thrown at a group of people can be a chemical weapons attack. It doesn’t have to be sarin gas (as Charlie Rose evokes in the segment in connection to the subway sarin attacks in Japan).

Are Hashi et al chemical weapons experts? Or are they new faces to map on convenient chemical weapons and countersurveillance accusations in support of the general War on Terror?

_______________

Other stories about Mahdi Hashi:

https://translationexercises.wordpress.com/tag/mahdi-hashi/

http://www.emptywheel.net/2013/01/04/the-disposition-of-informants-and-citizens/

http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/exclusive-how-mi5-blackmails-british-muslims-1688618.html

http://www.thebureauinvestigates.com/blog/2013/02/26/medieval-exile-the-21-britons-stripped-of-their-citizenship/

http://www.theguardian.com/world/2013/jul/14/obama-secret-kill-list-disposition-matrix

Edward Snowden: The Great Criminal

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

_______________________________________

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

___________________________________________________________

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

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.

__________________________________

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….

GiTMO Prisoners, Their Hunger Strikes, and Our Humanity

The Guantanamo Hunger Strike Should Remind Us of Prisoners’ Humanity

—and Reawaken Ours.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As Jonathan Hafetz said in a recent Guardian article,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Revised 6:59 am.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The rest of the clause is just as interesting.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Update (2/17/13) below:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 4.27.10 PM

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

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

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

Screen Shot 2013-02-06 at 4.29.59 PM

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

______________________

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

Central Park 5: Over Again

Revised (4:35 pm).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Progress: Cheering Feminists Who Kill

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 cheers for Feminist Progress.

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

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

Update I & II (below).

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

_________________________________________

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

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

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

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.

The Deaths of Innocents: How to Understand “Collateral Damage”

Today, TransEx guest blogger Robert Prasch weighs in on the moral debate over the ethics of  US-led drone strikes and “unintended” casualties. He offers a provocative analogy that sheds some insight on the rhetoric of collateral damage.

 

Robert E. Prasch

By Robert E. Prasch

The devastating massacre that took place a few short weeks ago in Newtown moved hearts across the world.  It also rekindled several debates, one of which had  to do with the contrast between the West’s – fully understandable — horror at the mass death of children in Newtown, and the striking absence of an emotional response to the deaths of children “mistakenly” killed in U.S.-directed drone strikes.  This debate has received a significant amount of attention in the blogosphere, and less attention in the overseas press.  It has not been taken up at all by the United States mainstream press.  Moreover, in contrast to gun control, no major political party is interested in curtailing the United States’ several drone wars, despite its highly dubious ethical and legal foundations.

This debate turns, then, on how we in the West perceive the violent deaths of these non-Western children.  Two possible answers emerge.  The first is to maintain that “their” children simply aren’t worth that much anyway.  Hence, their deaths are insufficient grounds for concern.  It is a racist perspective, but it is consistent.  The second answer agrees that the violent death of any child, anywhere, is an equally terrible tragedy, as Falguni Sheth and Glenn Greenwald have argued.  Yet, many holding this view also contend that while they would agree that a tragedy occurred in Newtown, a similar moral status should not be ascribed to the many children who are the “accidental” casualties—even when these are the routine and predictable consequence of drone strikes.  To this line of thinking, the perception that a tragedy has occurred must turn upon the context of the death of the child and the motivation behind the killing.  The mere fact that one or more children have died by violence is insufficient to establish that a tragedy has occurred.  Consequently, the name ‘Adam Lanza’ is reviled for being the perpetrator of the Newtown massacre, but to suggest anything even remotely like a similar condemnation of the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize Laureate is to associate oneself with a “lunatic fringe.”  Why is that?

The oft-repeated answer is that Adam Lanza intended to massacre children, whereas the approximately 200 children killed by President Barack Obama’s predator drone strikes were inadvertent.  In the military parlance that has been all-too-willingly adopted in this country, the latter were collateral damage (even when the term does not legally describe CIA-led drone strikes).  This answer suggests that the mere fact of a child’s death should have little relevance in our evaluation of the ethics of an action taken if killing a child was not the set priority of the person taking that action.  It just happened.  Bummer.

As an aside, I would, like to believe that even those who support the predator drone program might want the president to apologize, or at least offer condolences, to the families who have lost children in these strikes (Please do not tell me that he has not done so because the program is “secret.” Most people living outside the US know exactly which government is organizing and executing these attacks).

Let’s return to the ethical calculation implicit in the ascription of the deaths of 200 children to collateral damage:  To highlight the salient characteristics, I will draw upon an analogy:  the decision to use a pharmaceutical drug.  We have all been exposed to the advertising of drugs that – we are told — can cure one or more ailments.  We are also aware that each drug advertisement concludes with a list of warnings about known “side-effects.”  However, as a matter of simple biology, drugs do not have “side-effects.”  They only have “effects.”  Calling the positive outcomes “effects,” and the bad outcomes “side effects,” is simply a spin by the drug manufacturer’s marketing department that is designed to appeal to our hopes of a positive result.

In an organism as complex as the human body, the effects of a drug are probabilistic.  That is to say that, after an adequate number of clinical trials, researchers can acquire a defensible estimate that a given drug–let us call it N–will have the effects A, B, and C, with the probabilities x, y, and z.  Let us suppose that effect A, which occurs with probability x, is a highly desirable outcome.  Perhaps it can save a patient from death by heart disease.  However, as mature and informed adults, we also understand that if drug N is used often enough, by enough people, the undesirable effects B and C will occur with probabilities y and z.  This latter reality is the basis for the government-mandated warnings on TV (Obviously, any given person using N might be “lucky” and only experience A, or they might be “unlucky” and only experience B and C without the benefit of A occurring).

Every society and adult considering the use of N must weigh the benefit of A, subject to the probability of it occurring, against the risk-adjusted damage to society and ourselves that may be anticipated in the event that B and/or C occurs.  In some cases, such as curing a heart condition, we may calculate that the risk is worth taking.  But what if A is simply a cure for teenage acne?  We may decide that the risks outweigh the benefits, although we can be sure that teenagers, famously known for undervaluing risks, will protest.

Drawing upon the above, let us return to the matter of missiles launched by predator drones into someone else’s country.  Even if we assume (although we have little reason to do so) that such strikes support good outcomes, it’s still the case that – as with the drug described above – the destruction wreaked by these missiles cannot be nicely codified into intended targets (good) and collateral damage (bad).  On the contrary, they destroy everything and everyone around them upon detonation.  Period.  In a manner parallel to a drug company’s sales pitch, the U.S. government classifies some deaths as “good” if it exclusively kills “targeted terrorists” (how this term has come to encompass all military age males has been much discussed by others).  Anyone else killed, whether a group en route to a wedding party or children who happened to be nearby, are subject to a cover-up or labeled “collateral damage.”

The difficulty with this naïve classification is that we now – for better or worse — have observed an enormous number of missile strikes, so we have a good idea of the likely distribution of effects.  Even if we accept the government’s own classification which, as we know, is overwhelmingly biased against concluding that innocents died (again, assuming that the government has legitimate grounds to conduct these attacks), then we must acknowledge that those ordering further attacks have found the death rate of innocent persons and other people’s children to be within the zone of predictable but tolerable outcomes.  Why tolerable?  Because we have enough information to estimate the rate of innocent deaths to be expected per-missile-launched and the program is still continuing.  It follows that such a calculation has been made, if only implicitly, and the calculus – at least to those making the decision – has been found to be within an acceptable range.

I also want to highlight an important disanalogy with the pharmacological example given above.  If I decide to ingest drug N in the hopes of effect A, but end up suffering from results B and C, the decision and its consequences all accrue to me and those who care about me.  A most notable quality of the drone program is that its benefits (if any) accrue almost exclusively to Americans, while the associated costs and risks (which are known to be substantial) are being borne almost exclusively by “Foreign Others.”  Moreover, it is not a stretch to suppose that these latter persons may not wish to live every minute of every day worrying about the chances that someone very far away – oops! – mistook the “disposition” of themselves or their loved ones to be correlated with actual or potential hostility towards a faraway nation. (Also neglected by the Administration and the mainstream media is any consideration that the hostility of the communities being bombed may grow in tandem with the size and duration of this missile program).

In light of the above, American citizens have a right to know the explicit or implicit formula that validates the “costs” of killing a certain number of other people’s children per-missile-launched as weighed against the (presumptive) “benefits” of killing a certain number of persons who have exhibited a subset of the as-yet-still-secret “dispositions.”  The contours of this calculus are something that should be, at a minimum, the subject of a substantial public discussion and full accounting by the highest echelons of our government.  Are four persons of “bad disposition” worth the life of one innocent child?  Is the break-even number six?  Perhaps it is ten?   We are entitled to this answer and its underlying logic.

School Massacres and Collateral Damage: Why the Double Standards?

Revised Version.

Updated 12/29/12 (below).

One of the predominant responses to my piece–about the amplified coverage of children killed by a lone shooter in contrast to the barely-existent coverage of those killed by US-led drone and missile strikes—was that these events were not “comparable.”  I am informed by journalists with a superior moral compass to mine that this is because events like the Newtown, CT massacre are the result of a deliberate shooting of children, whereas others—like the December 2009 US-led missile strike in Yemen, which killed 21 children who were part of a wedding party–are accidental, unintentional, and part of the collateral damage of war. Therefore, it is wrong—even infantile–to compare the events.

Those who share this position include Brendan O’Neill, a London Telegraph blogger, who besides accusing me of infantilism, attributed a position to me that I never suggested (“An American professor says it’s dumb to feel emotional about Sandy Hook but not about drone strikes”). Several journalists agreed that the two are incomparable, including Rosamund Urwin, an Evening Standard columnist who responded to my interview on BBC’s Weekend Radio Program(me). (32:30)

Urwin, responding to my position that it is horrific to have children die regardless of whether they die at the hands of a shooter or as the consequence of a missile strike, said: “I don’t think it quite sits well as a comparison simply because what you’re talking about is somebody setting out to do something versus unintended consequences.”

Let’s unpack that misconception, shall we?

Over the last twelve years, there have been more than 320 drone strikes. Over 300 of those strikes were conducted under the auspices of the Obama Administration (the most recent 2 strikes in Yemen over Christmas not included). They have killed between 2600-3300 people, of which over 800 were civilians (these numbers require us to believe that 2600 people were terrorists). Around 176 were children.*

These are hardly “unintended” consequences. If 1 or 3—ok, 5–drone strikes are launched, and others besides the “intended” targets are killed, it is more plausible to believe that the consequences are “unintended.”  It is easier to believe the position of former US Air Force drone pilot, Brandon Bryant, that by droning, he and his colleagues “were saving lives.” In fact, Bryant and his fellow drone pilots knew what they were trained to do: they were trained to kill—to “target” human beings, who were supposedly “terrorists.”

This is the story Bryant lived by until he could no longer hide behind the falsity. One day, Bryant launched a strike towards a site in Afghanistan, even as he saw a child walking around a corner. He and his co-drone pilot tried to convince themselves that they had killed a dog. But a dog has 4 legs, whereas this small figure had 2.  Bryant may have unintentionally killed that child. But there were many others who died at his hands.  Whether they were terrorists or unwitting victims—he, and we, will never learn.

As to the Obama Administration and the US Air Force—it is their business to know how precise their tools are. They are completely familiar with the consequences of imprecise “targeted” killings. The murders of hundreds—perhaps thousands– may not have been the “purpose” of these US cruise missiles and drone strikes, but they were hardly “unintended.” When 180 (or more) children die because they happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time—through no fault other than that they had the chutzpah to be born to Pakistani, Afghan, Yemeni, Somali, Filipino parents who live in the same vicinity as “suspected” terrorists—this is hardly unintended. POTUS, his advisers, and the US Air Force, are well aware that the consequences of remote drone strikes is widespread “collateral damage.”

Indeed, that is the point of using the term “collateral damage”:  it allows the US government to sterilize and transform into a technical, impersonal statistic the macabre, bloody, material effects of an imperial war to “root out” terrorists indiscriminately.  What makes the obfuscation even more predictable and still as heinous is that the hunt for terrorists is conducted in parts of the world where, as Larry Summers, former Treasury Secretary and head of the National Economic Council understood, 3rd world residents are worth less than 1st world lives.

The “collateral damage” is much more widespread than the approximately 3000 who were killed through “targeted drone strikes.” The damage is reflected in the children who die in raids, women who are raped, families who are shot by US soldiers in Afghanistan. The damage is evidenced by the children who are fatherless, the women whose husbands and brothers and fathers are taken away–for “good cause”–since, as we know, according to the Obama Administration, all men over the age of 16 “are potential militants.”

As the Der Spiegel profile on Bryant describes:

Many Afghans sleep on the roof in the summer, because of the heat. “I saw them having sex with their wives. It’s two infrared spots becoming one,” he recalls.

[Bryant] observed people for weeks, including Taliban fighters hiding weapons, and people who were on lists because the military, the intelligence agencies or local informants knew something about them.

“I got to know them. Until someone higher up in the chain of command gave me the order to shoot.” He felt remorse because of the children, whose fathers he was taking away. “They were good daddies,” he says.

If the Obama Administration tells us that the unfortunate deaths of civilians and children are “accidental” and yet necessary in their hunt for terrorists/militants, then apparently we are supposed to accept these deaths as part of the “costs of war.”  Never mind that we haven’t declared war in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia, Philippines, or Mali even as the US is directing tens, even hundreds, of drone strikes towards people living in these countries.

Never mind that the mainstream American media is uninterested in covering the human impact of drone and missile strikes on the families whose relatives are maimed and killed by those drones. Never mind that we never learn the names of the children who died, unless someone like Julian Abagond spends hours trying to recover them.

Never mind that these strikes are uncompromisingly illegal according to international law—and being used in place of due process, where suspected “militants” or “terrorists” should be brought to a courtroom to see if there is enough evidence for an indictment, let alone a trial. Never mind that the “war” in question is informal, undeclared, and unilaterally pursued by a Democratic President (who was just re-elected for his remarkable human rights sensibilities, as evidenced through his multiple awards, such as the 2009 Nobel Peace Prize, and the 2008 and 2012 Time Person of the Year Award).

Remember, once upon a time, the most visible distinction between the two US political parties was that the Democrats were supposed to be the stronger observers and advocates of human rights and international law. Once upon a time.

It is an interesting spectacle to observe as mainstream journalists and US politicians become remarkably earnest and forgiving about excuses that come from governments and elites.  They insist that it is untoward, indeed impolite–the concept of unethical isn’t even on the table–to ask for 1) journalistic coverage of the casualties material consequences of US foreign policy and 2) governmental accountability when it comes to the deaths of civilians in the course of a unilateral attack on a population in the name of “security.” How shocking it is—shocking!—to suggest that after more than 300 drone strikes that have killed more than 3000 people, including many civilians and children, perhaps the U.S. is not completely unaware of the widespread death and havoc they are causing through the constant use of drones that “target” alleged terrorists.

On the other hand, Urwin suggests that “Western media” has a tendency to “fixate on people like them [Americans?].” She cites the case of Hurricane Sandy, which had passed through Haiti before waging a path of destruction in New Jersey, noting that media coverage of Sandy on Haiti was non-existent, whereas the focus on New Jersey dominated the media.

But if we abide by Urwin’s standard for media coverage—namely that even accidental deaths should be covered by Western media—then there is even less reason to exculpate American media from covering drone/missile strikes which resulted in hundreds—thousands– of “accidental” deaths.

Perhaps the unspoken assumption here is that I, like O’Neill and Urwin, should spend little to no time considering the immorality of deaths when caused by Western governments—because that would force us into a discussion of whether illegal drone strikes are ethical or even legitimate. It might force us into a discussion of American imperialism, and its ever-voracious appetite to invade, conquer, terroritorialize, and ‘civilize’ ‘backwards’ countries by exploiting the rhetorical goals of “national security,” “saving Afghan women,” “democratizing” other countries (some of which have a higher standard of due process than even the US). In the meantime, O’Neill and Urwin might have to explain the increasing hatred and contempt that Pakistanis, Yemenis, Afghans, Iraqis have for the US—proliferated by the continual invasion and destruction of their communities, children, spouses, fathers, uncles, brothers, lives, livelihoods, infrastructures, and knowing full well that the US has no intention or capacity to compensate them for the devastation of their lives.

When did the standard of accountability drop so low, such that—even after slavery and colonialism are supposedly atrocities of the past–Americans easily forgive their government when it wages an ever-expanding unilateral assault on countries that have never officially been declared enemies of the US–never even declared to be at war with them?

It is indeed a double ethical standard to insist that individuals who use assault rifles to shoot children are evil, heinous, mentally ill, and should be locked up, surveilled, tracked, and pre-emptively policed via an FBI database, while simultaneously exculpating the American government from addressing the “unintended” consequences of US foreign policy.

As we know, the Obama administration has killed–unaccidentally–multiple US citizens, some of them under the age of legal consent, as in the case of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi.  Al-Aulaqi was a 16 year old US citizen who was killed in a drone strike in Yemen. He was killed 2 weeks after a US-led drone strike killed his father, Anwar Al-Aulaqi, considered to the “no. 2” leader of Al-Qaeda in Yemen.

Shouldn’t the Obama Administration explain the circumstances that led to young Abdulrahman’s death? Some civil rights lawyers think so, strangely enough.  As Hina Shamsi and Vincent Warren, of the ACLU and the Center for Constitutional Rights, respectively, wrote several days ago:

In court, government officials provided no explanation at all. Their response boiled down to an assertion that the government has the authority to kill Americans without having to account to any court for its actions.

Is a US federal court is also misguided to agree that the US must show evidence for Abdulrahman’s death, even if, as one unnamed Obama official suggests, it was accidental?  Again as Shamsi and Warren argue:

 But the U.S. Constitution requires due process when life is at stake. The government cannot be permitted to deprive an American child of his life without any judicial review, even after the fact. More broadly, thousands of people have been killed by U.S. drones in a program that began in 2002 and has expanded dramatically under the Obama administration.

The Obama Administration disagrees that it should be accountable for any such activity—before or after the murder of Abdulrahman Al-Aulaqi. But perhaps if American media were to cover this consequence of US foreign policy as aggressively as they did the Newtown massacre, the Obama Administration might eventually feel compelled to give some answers.

As it stands now, it is acceptable to ask for accountability only from lone individuals who are not part of the US political elite. To the latter—whether Republican or Democrat—we give Peace Prizes, consultancies, and their own shows on MSNBC. No accountability needed, because the thousands of deaths by drones—as the President’s men and women tell us—are accidental. Nothing else need be said.

Forgive, forget, and address only those facts that serve power well and are convenient.

____________________________________________

*In Pakistan. The number of children who died in Yemeni and Somali drone strikes under Obama Administration: 28-36. No data on children killed in Philippines or Mali.

Update: Col. Morris Davis, former Guantanamo chief prosecutor, pointed out in response to this column that “collateral damage” legally excludes CIA drone strikes. Also, interestingly, “collateral damage” would include legitimate military targets in the U.S.:

Screen Shot 2012-12-29 at 1.46.02 PM

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

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

–Hannah Arendt (1951)

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

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

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

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

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

As Jeremy Scahill tweeted:

Oh, you thought Obama ended renditions?

Not quite.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

__________________________________________________

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