This one goes out to John and Oksana and the many thousands now reclaiming the streets of Moscow: a song not meant for one realm only, but for those in every age grappling with the brute and fearful forces of power.
It was somewhere here that Mandelshtam came walking A gray and greasy Pravda in his hands Where Stalin decreed an end to execution Now that all was fair and cheerful in the land.
How may we die? he asked, but knew the answer: The secret shot, the night-blow to the skull Your Dante torn from you by confiscation The stone gaze of the great Assyrian bull
Kievskaya, Savyolovskaya Marking off the stations of the cross Kurskaya, Lyubyanka The gates swing open and the world is lost
We all know how to die, how should we live then? He had this answer too, in a few clean lines: Warm bread, sharp knife, some string to tie your bundles When they make you drink down exile's bitter wine
This wisdom was not his, it was much older From the Roman poet trapped on the Black Sea shore Where a decree forged like a horseshoe out of iron Had cast him down and chained him to the floor
Smolenskaya, Belorusskaya, Marking off the stations of the cross Taganskaya, Rimskaya The gates swing open and the world is lost
It was somewhere here that Mandelshtam was walking Pacing out the rhythm of a poem To be handed down from one Rome to another Like an ancient, broken, ever-golden coin
Barrikadnaya, Arbatskaya Marking off the stations of the cross Kitai-gorod, Oxotny Ryad, The gates swing open and the world is lost
(WASHINGTON) -- President Strom Thurmond announced today that his thinking on race relations has "evolved," saying that he now favors equal rights for Negroes.
The president, a long-time supporter of segregation who broke with the Democratic Party over the issue and won the White House as a Dixiecrat in 1948, said his views had changed in part because of prodding by friends and family, and by his admiration for the "sacrifice and service" of Negro soldiers fighting in Korea.
"I had hesitated on racial equality in part because I thought that separate-but-equal laws would be sufficient," Mr. Thurmond said. "I was sensitive to the fact that for a lot of people, separation of the races was something that invokes very powerful traditions and religious beliefs."
The president made it clear that he was simply stating his personal view on race relations, and that he would respect the decisions of individual states on the issue. In most states, various levels of racial segregation are enforced by law. Particularly in the South, including Thurmond's native South Carolina, Negroes are not allowed to marry whites, live in white neighborhoods, attend school with whites, swim in public pools, eat in restaurants or stay in hotels frequented by whites, sit in the front of public buses, or drink out of water fountains used by whites, among many other legal strictures.
President Thurmond's statement, given in an interview with Edward R. Murrow on CBS, will have no effect on these measures. Many states have recently acted to strengthen their segregation laws.
Some civil rights activists lauded Thurmond's new thinking, calling it a powerful symbolic gesture that will boost the struggle for racial equality.
"I've been very critical of the president and his policies in many, many areas," said Thurgood Marshall, chief counsel for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. "But one must give credit where credit is due. Although it has no force of law, this statement will perhaps speak to hearts and minds in the years to come and help us move forward as a nation."
Others were more skeptical. "This statement changes nothing on the ground, nothing in the daily lives of our people," said T.R. Howard, chairman of the Regional Council of Negro Leadership. "The president does not recognize equality under the law as a constitutional right for all Americans, everywhere. So what is the point? He is happy to leave it up to the states: the same states that have passed and are passing law after law to keep Negroes in their place -- the lower place. We have had enough of fine words and empty gestures. Yet I fear this gesture will allow the president to buy political support at the expense of genuine action, and the injustice will go on."
We've been remiss here not to draw more attention to the incisive work being done by the legendary Vast Left in his series of "American Extremists" comics. VL's ability to distill the political poisons abroad in the land -- especially the "progressive" worship of the warmongering, Wall Street-coddling, liberty-choking, whistleblower-whipping, death squad honcho in the White House -- into the brief dialogues of his talking heads is truly remarkable. Day after day, the pointed insights come, puncturing the afflatus-gorged bubbles of the powerful -- and their treacly sycophants. He is a veritable Socrates of satire. If you are not already a regular reader, scoot on over there to sample the choice morsels on offer.
it’s quiet now And the silence is alone except for the thunderous rumbling of things unknown distant drums very present but for the piercing of scream and the whispers of things sharp sounds and then suddenly hushed to moans beyond sadness – terror beyond fear -- Marilyn Monroe, Fragments
‘There was something wrong in our ends as well as in our beginnings, in what we are after as well as in what is after us.’ -- Lincoln Steffens
The Fifties, when they are thought of at all, are generally regarded in the popular imagination as little more than a dim precursor to the full-blown extravaganza of the Sixties -- gray flannel suit discarded for tie-dyed threads, Ozzie and Harriet off to the orgy. There are grains of truth to this conception, of course. Certainly, mainstream culture in the Fifties tried to maintain -- and impose -- an impossibly constricted image of "normality." But beneath the placid picture spread by television, advertising and other cultural and commercial redoubts, the Fifties were seething with crosscurrents and complexities that were no less turbulent and transformative than those of the Sixties. (And of course many of those Sixties tourbillions were simply continuances of currents that began or gathered force in the Fifties: the Civil Rights movement, the youth counterculture, etc.)
It's true that chopping the unceasing flow of time and reality into decades -- then giving these arbitrary slices a distinctive character -- is an exercise of somewhat limited value. Especially as our slicing is based solely on the Western calendar; lay down another grid on the quicksilver flow, and what we would call, for example, the years 1954 to 1964 or 1897 to 1907, etc., would then be its own rigidly defined "decade," set apart for us to analyze and characterize. But it is also true that whatever 10-year delineation you wish to make will generally see a new generation coming into prominence, new technologies, cultural changes and so on (along with the vast array of continuities which also characterize human behavior going back to the start of our history).
So the "decade" prism is not wholly useless as a instrument for looking at the past to find some illumination of the present, of what we are, how we got here. Arbitrary as it is, the decade is one of the "distant mirrors" we can use to deepen our understanding of reality -- and, perhaps, to help us escape the tyranny of the Now, which screams its urgent demands into our ears, leading us so often into ignorant, unconsidered actions and reactions.
In any case, although the decade of the Sixties has hung over the collective consciousness like a heavy cloud for almost half a century, I often think the Fifties are a more accurate mirror for our times. Some of the parallels are striking: pointless wars; covert op and regime change operations; unrestrained surveillance of the population; hysterical fears of a bestial, implacable Enemy striking us from without and infecting us from within; a frantic, panicky religiosity obsessed with sexuality, among many others. Think of how Norman Rosten (in a quote from the article excerpted below) described the era: a time of "cowardice on a national scale," when "strong citizens fell before the rhetoric of pygmies." Can anything better describe America in the 21st century?
There is also a degree of deadening conformity in the land now that recalls those gray flannel days. Not so much in lifestyle (although there has been an astonishing amount of "backlash" and regression to more rigid gender roles and family structures in last two decades), but decidedly so in politics. For despite the frenzy and mouth-foaming fury of our political debates today, beneath the surface there is a remarkable consensus. Both parties support empire, militarism, corporatism, exceptionalism, oligarchy, executive tyranny, torture and the shielding of torturers, indefinite detention, extrajudicial killing, regime change (covert, overt, by proxy), special ops, black ops, rendition, the drug war, the terror war, undeclared war, war crimes, the relentless expansion of the "National Security" apparatus, the militarization of police powers, slashing the social safety net, serving the needs of Wall Street and the One Percent, and so on and on and on.
There is no disagreement whatsoever on any of the basic tenets of the current system, no attempt or desire within either party to make any kind of deep or serious changes in the increasingly corrupt, imbalanced and now almost totally dysfunctional structures of power. Neither party holds out any kind of alternative vision or ideal or aspiration, other than that what we have now should go on and on, and that their particular faction should be in control. There are of course some differences around the edges, mostly to do with cultural and social mores. (But even here, the differences are not always as sharp as many believe. To take one small example, Barack Obama -- who, as we recall, campaigned with anti-gay preachers and invited the anti-gay, pro-rich "megachurch" maven Rick Warren to give the invocation at his inauguration-- is still burdening schoolchildren with the same kind of mendacious "abstinence education" programs beloved by George W. Bush and the panicky sex-obsessives on the Right.) But it is safe to say that, in many areas -- the relation between labor and capital, for example -- the politics of the Fifties sometimes saw more profound and considered alternatives in the direction and structure of the national system being put forth by the main parties than we see today. (Not there weren't also many areas of convergence and consensus. For example, both parties at that time fully supported "confiscatory" tax rates on the rich -- a policy which somehow did not prevent one of the greatest economic expansions in history during that era.)
These thoughts about the Fifties and its continuing significance were prompted by a recent article in the London Review of Books: a thoughtful essay by Jacqueline Rose on some of the deeper (and wider) meanings represented by the quintessential star of that decade: Marilyn Monroe. The piece is marked by unexpected angles and resonances that throw light on the present while helping deepen our understanding of the past. Below are just a few excerpts, but the full piece -- all 10,000 words of it -- is worth reading. Rose writes:
.... It is something of a truism for psychoanalysis that one member of a family can carry the unconscious secrets of a whole family, can fall sick, as it were, on their behalf. My question is: for whom or what in 1950s and early 1960s America was Marilyn Monroe carrying the can? This is not, I should stress, the same as asking: what or even who killed her? Or: did she commit suicide? These are questions that I see as a diversion and to which in any case I strongly believe we can offer no definitive reply. I am interested, rather, in what she, unknowingly, but also crucially for my argument knowingly, is enacting on behalf of postwar America. ‘Perhaps,’ Cecil Beaton wrote, ‘she was born just the postwar day we had need of her.’ He could be talking of the First World War: Monroe was born in 1926, an infancy scarred by the Depression along with everything else. But ‘postwar’ can also refer here to the Second World War, which comes to its end exactly as her star begins to rise. This is a moment when patriotism, to cite Weatherby, was ‘an excuse not to think’. He is alluding to McCarthyism and the Cold War. When another radical journalist, I.F. Stone, listened to Eisenhower’s inaugural address, what he heard behind its rhetoric of freedom was the drumbeat of war (although Eisenhower was reluctant to send troops to the region, the build-up to Vietnam would start on his watch). ... One of Eisenhower’s first moves as president was to appoint Charles Erwin Wilson, the head of General Motors, as secretary of defense. He is the man who said: ‘What is good for General Motors is good for the country and what is good for the country is good for General Motors.’ ‘No administration,’ Stone commented, ‘ever started with a bigger, more revealing or more resounding pratfall.’
[Shades of Obama's first appointments: Larry Summers and the Goldman Sachs gang in charge of economic policy, Bush holdover Robert Gates in charge of the war machine, etc.]
To say that Monroe was attuned to this is again an understatement. In 1950, a mere starlet with a walk-on part in Joseph Mankiewicz’s All about Eve, she took the autobiography of Lincoln Steffens, the original muck-raking journalist, onto the set. All about Eve is another of her films about the lengths to which an actress will go to make it. Steffens is famous for having taken the lid off city hall corruption (‘Hell with the Lid Lifted’ was the title of a famous dispatch from Pittsburgh). His heroes were beggars, prostitutes and thieves. …
Like Monroe, Steffens detested ignorance above all else. He preferred the honesty of crooks to that of good, ignorant men who ‘sincerely believe things are as they seem and truthfully repeat to you the current lies that make everything look all right’. The malaise went to the very heart of the nation: ‘There was something wrong in our ends as well as in our beginnings,’ he wrote, ‘in what we are after as well as in what is after us.’ He was writing in the 1930s but already for Steffens, the power of the moneyed oligarchy meant that democracy in America was effectively dead. He was one of the first American writers to expose the political dangers of a credit-driven economy: ‘There is indeed such a thing in America as sovereignty, a throne, which, as in Europe, had slipped from under the kings and the president and away from the people too. It was the unidentified seat of actual power, which, in the final analysis, was the absolute control of credit.’ When Weatherby interviewed the playwright Clifford Odets, in the throes of despair about what he saw as the collapse of political hope, Odets asked ‘What’s the problem?’ and then answered his own question: ‘In America – I won’t talk about the rest of the world – the problem is: “Are peace and plenty possible together with the democratic growth to use them?”’ Can you have democracy and growth or does a moneyed economy by definition wrest control from the people? Let’s just say that this problem has not gone away.
…According to Ben Hecht, Monroe said that Steffens’s autobiography excited her ‘more than any other book I had read’. She was excited by it at the exact moment when the world, for very different reasons, was about to be excited by her, when she was on the verge of gaining access to one of the citadels of American power. Mankiewicz spotted Monroe reading Steffens on his set, and warned her not to go around raving about him in case she was branded a radical; Fox removed his name when she put him first on a list (for a publicity stunt) of the ten greatest men in the world. She told Hecht that she carried on reading it in secret, hiding the second volume under her bed. ..
….In a black notebook dated around 1955, Monroe tells herself to ‘know reality (or things as they are … and to have as few illusions as possible – Train my will now.’ It would not be going too far to say that Monroe surrounded herself with people who saw it as their task to rip the cover off national self-deceit. Looking back, her friend the writer Norman Rosten defined the 1950s as a time of ‘cowardice on a national scale’, when ‘strong citizens fell before the rhetoric of pygmies.’ …
Writing of what McCarthyism had done to the spirit of freedom, I.F. Stone cites these lines from Pasternak:
The great majority of us are required to live a life of constant, systematic duplicity. Your health is bound to be affected if, day after day, you say the opposite of what you feel, if you grovel before what you dislike and rejoice at what brings you nothing but misfortune. Our nervous system isn’t just a fiction, it’s a part of our physical body and our soul exists in space and is inside us, like the teeth in our mouth. It can’t be forever violated with impunity.
There was a ‘numbness’ in the national air, Stone wrote. ‘It’s like you scream,’ Monroe’s character, Roslyn, says in The Misfits, ‘and there’s nothing coming out of your mouth, and everybody’s going around: “Hello, how are you, what a nice day” … and you’re dying.’
[Again, are these not apt descriptions of the numbness and duplicity of our day?]
…American culture, Miller wrote in his memoir Timebends, had ‘prised man’s sexuality from his social ideals and made one the contradiction of the other’ (he abandoned a play on the topic because he couldn’t bear the thought of the spiritual catastrophe it foretold). ‘We had come together,’ he wrote of himself and Monroe, ‘at a time when America was in yet another of her reactionary phases and social consciousness was a dying memory … As usual, America was denying its pain, and remembering was out.’ This is the frame of their marriage, the frame of her life. In this context, Hollywood escapism takes on a whole new gloss. Political hope fades and the unconscious of the nation goes into national receivership, with one woman above all others – hence, I would suggest, the frenzy she provokes – being asked to foot the bill, to make good the loss. …
What is being asked of Monroe? ‘Sex,’ Steffens said, ‘was the thing.’ Monroe’s desire to be educated, Trilling suggested, robbed us of a ‘prized illusion’: ‘that enough sexual possibility is enough everything’. Why should a woman with such sexual advantages want anything else? Precisely because she had been so poor, because there was a mental pain in her that no adulator could quite evade (as Trilling put it, the pain balanced out the ledger of her unique biological gift), Monroe pushed want to the very edge of wanting, to a form of wanting that seems to want nothing but itself. What thwarted dreams were poured into this woman’s body? You don’t have to be a Freudian to know that such idealisation punishes as much as it sets you free. …
Seen in this light, Monroe’s suffering becomes the tale America does not want to tell of itself: ‘America was denying its pain, remembering was out’ (anticipating Tony Judt, Miller sees a nation’s refusal to remember and its reactionary politics as deeply linked). Only in Don’t Bother to Knock (1952) and Niagara (1953) was Monroe given the chance to play a part that would expose the darker side of America, the pain it wanted to forget – for me, they are two of her best roles. Both turn on the Second World War. In the first, she is a woman driven to murderous hallucinations by the loss of her lover shot down in a plane; in the second, she is a woman who tries to pass her husband off as war-traumatised so his murder by her lover can be staged as suicide. As if in these early films, America could without inhibition offload onto a crazy and/or murderous woman’s sexuality the violence it couldn’t reckon with in itself. At the end of Niagara, the woman is strangled by her husband, who has managed to survive the attempted murder by killing her lover. But I count no fewer than five earlier images where she is lying prone, asleep or in a faint, splayed out, to all intents and purposes already dead (one stage instruction describes her as lying in ‘angelic peace’). It is as if the woman whose sexuality is meant to redeem the horrors of history – the woman who is being asked to repair a nation emerging from a war it already wants to forget – owes her nation a death. America was denying its own pain. Who paid the price? This is the classic role of the femme fatale who is always made to answer for the desire that she provokes.
... In The Misfits, Roslyn, the character played by Monroe, speaks the truth (although ‘speaks’ isn’t quite the right word) in a brute world of mustang hunters, lost men – the misfits of postwar America. Only she can see that their violence is not the antidote to the nation’s poison, but its restaging in the desert to which they wrongly believe they have escaped. She offers them two hundred dollars to set the mustangs free, and when Gay asks her to give him a reason to stop what he has been doing, she is enraged: ‘A reason! You! Sensitive fella? So full of feelings? So sad about your wife, and crying to me about the bombs you dropped and the people you killed … You could blow up the whole world, and all you’d ever feel is sorry for yourself!’ Then as they are tying up the trapped mustangs, she runs off and shouts at them from a distance:
Man! Big man! You’re only living when you can watch something die! Kill everything, that’s all you want! Why don’t you just kill yourselves and be happy?
In the screenplay she screams these lines from forty yards away (Miller’s directions are precise), then runs back towards them and speaks directly into Gay’s face:
You. With your god’s country. Freedom! I hate you! You know everything except what it feels like to be alive.
A few months back, I reposted here an article that I wrote 10 years ago, before the invasion of Iraq: a fictional scenario of how the Terror War would play out on the ground of the target nations -- and in the minds of those sent to wage these campaigns. I was reminded of that piece by a story in the latest Rolling Stone.
The RS story, by Michael Hastings, depicts the drone mentality now consuming the US military-security apparatus, a process which makes the endless slaughter of the endless Terror War cheaper, easier, quieter. I didn't anticipate the development in my proleptic piece; the first reported "kill" by American drones, in Yemen, had taken place just a few weeks before my article appeared in the Moscow Times.
(One of the victims of this historic first drawing of blood was an American citizen, by the way. Thus from the very beginning, the drone war -- presented as noble shield to defend American citizens from harm -- has been killing American citizens, along with the hundreds and hundreds and hundreds and hundreds of innocent men and women around the world being murdered without warning -- and without any chance to defend themselves or take shelter -- by cowards sitting in padded seats behind computer consoles thousands of miles away, following orders from the even greater cowards who strut around the Pentagon, CIA headquarters and the White House.)
But what brought my earlier piece to mind was a brief mention of the "military slang" now being used to designate the victims of the drones. Below are a few snippets from my 2002 post, a fictional email by an occupation soldier to a friend:
Yo, Ed! I’m looking out the window of Watchtower 19 in Force Zone Seven. They’re loading up the dead wagon. Three friendlies, two uncardeds, the usual collateral – and one bug. We zapped the market before the bug got his hard-on – another one of those Czech AK-47 knock-offs that our friendly neighborhood warlord keeps bringing in. He says he doesn’t know how the bugs get hold of them – they drop down from heaven, I guess …
… I’d just come off night patrol in Deep-City Zone, hardcore bugland, backing up some Special Ops doing a Guantanamo run on terrorperp suspects. Banging down doors, barrel in the face of some shrieking bug-woman in her black bag, children scuttling in the dark like rats, the perp calling down an airstrike from Allah on our heads. You know the drill. You know the jangle. Not even the new meds can keep you blanked out completely. So there’s always the overstep somewhere. Woman’s cheekbone cracking from a backhand, some kid stomped or booted out of the way. Some perp putting his hand in one of those damned dresses they wear, going for who knows what – Koran? Mosquito bite? Scimitar? Czech special? – and you open up. More shrieking, more screaming – and then the splatter on the wall.
In the new Rolling Stone story, Hastings tells us how America's brave drone warriors view their victims:
For a new generation of young guns, the experience of piloting a drone is not unlike the video games they grew up on. Unlike traditional pilots, who physically fly their payloads to a target, drone operators kill at the touch of a button, without ever leaving their base – a remove that only serves to further desensitize the taking of human life. (The military slang for a man killed by a drone strike is "bug splat," since viewing the body through a grainy-green video image gives the sense of an insect being crushed.)
"Bugs" being "splattered." This is what Barack Obama -- who has expanded the drone death squads beyond the imaginings of George W. Bush -- and all of his brave button pushers and joystick riders think of the defenseless human beings they are killing (including 174 children by last count).
This has been the attitude underlying the Terror War since its beginnings. When I wrote my piece with its "bug" imagery, I was only reflecting what was already obvious and pervasive, both in the military-security war machine and in much of the general public. Anyone designated by those in power as an "enemy" -- for any reason, known or unknown, or for no reason at all -- is considered a subhuman, an insect, whose destruction is meaningless, without moral content, like swatting a fly on the wall. (As, for example, in this 2008 piece about a figure much lauded by progressives at the time: "Crushing the Ants.")
There is not only a tolerance for this official program of state murder; there is an absolute enthusiasm for it. Our rulers heartily enjoy ordering people to be killed. (And to be tortured, as we noted here last week.) It makes them feel good. It makes them feel "hard," in every sense of the word. As Hastings notes:
From the moment Obama took office, according to Washington insiders, the new commander in chief evinced a "love" of drones. "The drone program is something the executive branch is paying a lot of attention to," says Ken Gude, vice president of the Center for American Progress. "These weapons systems have become central to Obama." In the early days of the administration, then-chief of staff Rahm Emanuel would routinely arrive at the White House and demand, "Who did we get today?"
Here are some examples of what Rahm and his then-boss, the Nobel Peace Prize Laureate, were "getting" with their flying deaths squads:
But for every "high-value" target killed by drones, there's a civilian or other innocent victim who has paid the price. The first major success of drones – the 2002 strike that took out the leader of Al Qaeda in Yemen – also resulted in the death of a U.S. citizen. More recently, a drone strike by U.S. forces in Afghanistan in 2010 targeted the wrong individual – killing a well-known human rights advocate named Zabet Amanullah who actually supported the U.S.-backed government. The U.S. military, it turned out, had tracked the wrong cellphone for months, mistaking Amanullah for a senior Taliban leader. A year earlier, a drone strike killed Baitullah Mehsud, the head of the Pakistani Taliban, while he was visiting his father-in-law; his wife was vaporized along with him. But the U.S. had already tried four times to assassinate Mehsud with drones, killing dozens of civilians in the failed attempts. One of the missed strikes, according to a human rights group, killed 35 people, including nine civilians, with reports that flying shrapnel killed an eight-year-old boy while he was sleeping. Another blown strike, in June 2009, took out 45 civilians, according to credible press reports.
And of course there is this, the follow-up to the "extrajudicial killing" of U.S. citizen Anwar al-Awlaki. After killing al-Awlaki -- without ever charging him with a single crime -- the Obama administration then murdered his 16-year-old son (as we noted here last year). Hastings writes:
In the days following the killing, Nasser and his wife received a call from Anwar's 16-year-old son, Abdulrahman al-Awlaki, who had run away from home a few weeks earlier to try to find his now-deceased father in Yemen. "He called us and gave us his condolences," Nasser recalls. "We told him to come back, and he promised he would. We really pressed him, me and his grandmother."
The teenage boy never made it home. Two weeks after that final conversation, his grandparents got another phone call from a relative. Abdulrahman had been killed in a drone strike in the southern part of Yemen, his family's tribal homeland. The boy, who had no known role in Al Qaeda or any other terrorist operation, appears to have been another victim of Obama's drone war: Abdulrahman had been accompanying a cousin when a drone obliterated him and seven others. The suspected target of the killing – a member of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula – is reportedly still alive; it's unclear whether he was even there when the strike took place.
The news devastated the family. "My wife weeps every day and every morning for her grandson," says Nasser, a former high-ranking member of the Yemenite government. "He was a nice, gentle boy who liked to swim a lot. This is a boy who did nothing against America or against anything else. A boy. He is a citizen of the United States, and there are no reasons to kill him except that he is Anwar's son."
The boy was probably killed in a "signature strike," where bold and brave CIA analysts sit back in their chairs and observe people going about their business in a foreign country far away. If their activities look "suspicious" according to some arbitrary, secret criteria, then they can be slaughtered instantly by a drone missile -- even if the attackers have no idea whatsoever who the targets are or what they are actually doing. Plotting terrorism, or praying? Organizing jihad, or holding a wedding? Building bombs, or having lunch? The attackers don't know -- and can't know. They simply put down their Cheetohs and fire the missile. Who cares? It's just "bug splatter."
And the fact is, no one does care. As Hastings notes, this hideous program of murder and terror has been fully embraced by the political elite and by society at large. And our rulers are now bringing it back home with a vengeance, putting more and more Americans under the unsleeping eye of government drones watching their every move, looking for the "signature" of "suspicious" behaviour. Hastings notes:
In the end, it appears, the administration has little reason to worry about any backlash from its decision to kill an American citizen – one who had not even been charged with a crime. A recent poll shows that most Democrats overwhelmingly support the drone program, and Congress passed a law in February that calls for the Federal Aviation Administration to "accelerate the integration of unmanned aerial systems" in the skies over America. Drones, which are already used to fight wildfires out West and keep an eye on the Mexican border, may soon be used to spy on U.S. citizens at home: Police in Miami and Houston have reportedly tested them for domestic use, and their counterparts in New York are also eager to deploy them.
History affords few if any examples of a free people -- in such a powerful country, under no existential threat, undergoing no invasion, no armed insurrection, no natural disaster or epidemic or societal collapse -- giving up their own freedoms so meekly, so mutely. Most Americans like to boast of their love of freedom, their rock-ribbed independence and their fiercely-held moral principles: yet they are happy to see the government claim -- and use -- the power to murder innocent people whenever it pleases while imposing an ever-spreading police state regimen on their lives and liberties. Sheep doped with Rohypnol would put up a stronger fight than these doughty patriots.
Hasting's story should be read in full. In its straightforward marshalling of facts and refusal to simply parrot the spin of the powerful (something we used to call "journalism," kids; ask your grandparents about it, they might remember), it lays out the hideous reality of our times. I am tempted to call it an important story -- but I know that it will sink with scarcely a ripple into the abyss of our toxic self-regard. A few will read it and be horrified; the rest will stay riveted on the oh-so-exciting and oh-so-important race to see who will get to perpetuate this vile and murderous system for the next four years.
It's always amusing to hear people say that the United States is "not an empire." The substance of this "argument" (if we may so dignify such a completely unfounded assertion) seems to be that America can't be an empire because its agents don't swan around in white suits, pith helmets and jodhpurs while exercising direct and open colonial rule over its subjects. In other words, it doesn't look enough like vaguely remembered movie scenes about the British Raj in its heyday.
The fact that the British Raj was only one particular manifestation which imperial rule has taken down through the millennia cuts no ice in our Age of Amnesia, of course. "We seen that movie one time and we know dang well what empires look like, and what we got now don't look like that, so there." But even if one's idea of empire is limited in this fashion, there are still many points of similarity. For example, in the Raj, the British did not plant vast settler colonies and new cities filled with their own people (as, say, the Russian Empire was wont to do). Instead, a relative handful of British officials and soldiers controlled the lives of millions of people, who were exploited for the benefit of the imperial elite -- either directly, in the extraction of mineral resources and/or as sources of cheap labor, or indirectly, in situations where the domination of their lives and liberties and territory served some greater strategic aim of the imperial overlords. The parallels to the modern American way are too obvious, and too numerous, to detail here.
Then again, it's true that you don't see too many pith helmets amongst the soldiers, mercenaries, diplomats, bureacrats, contractors, spies, special oppers, death squadders and drone jockeys who now cover the earth on behalf of the never-ever-imperial American Empire. So maybe our amnesiacs are on to something. Maybe the Raj is not the most historically resonant model for our modern conglomeration of domination. Maybe we should look to that other empire that people have vaguely heard of, the one where they wore togas and stuff.
While there was certainly plenty of direct rule going on during the Roman Empire, there were also innumerable client kingdoms, nominally independent in their own affairs, although "allied" to Rome and forced to order their affairs in line with the imperial system. Naturally, there were many occasions when these "allies" got uppity and had to feel the iron hand of chastisement, or else had to have their recalcitrant rulers replaced with more amenable retainers.
But the main thing for those in the long shadow of Rome -- whether under direct rule or military occupation or in a condition of "independent" clientage -- was, as noted, that they adhere to the imperial system, the Roman ordering of the world, in ways both large and small. Whether this inconvenienced the locals was of no matter; Rome's word was law, and thus rulers and peoples thousands of miles away from the arrogant city on the Italian peninsula were forced to twist and distort their own lives.
It is this model that sprang to mind when reading a small story in the Independent a few weeks ago. Buried in the travel section, it gave British readers a warning about yet another inconvenience coming up for air travellers. In many situation, they are now being forced to submit (a most apt word) their "personal data" to the United States Department of Homeland Security -- even if they are not travelling to the United States, or even crossing U.S. airspace.
The U.S. government -- yes, yes, the liberal progressive administration of the progressive liberal peace laureate -- has arbitrarily chosen a number of foreign airports to which no one can fly without submitting their personal data to the imperial bureaucracy in Washington. This includes -- incredibly -- British citizens flying to ... Canada, which shares a head of state with Britain. Other airports under the imperial travel diktat are in Mexico and the Caribbean. As the Independent reports:
One million British travellers planning to fly to Canada, the Caribbean and Mexico this year face the risk of being turned away at the airport – at the insistence of the US Department of Homeland Security.
New rules require British Airways and other airlines flying to certain airports outside America to submit passengers' personal data to US authorities. The information is checked against a "No Fly" list containing tens of thousands of names. Even if the flight plan steers well clear of US territory, travellers whom the Americans regard as suspicious will be denied boarding....
For several years, every US-bound passenger has had to provide Advance Passenger Information (API) before departure. Washington has extended the obligation to air routes that over-fly US airspace, such as Heathrow to Mexico City or Gatwick to Havana.
Now the US is demanding passengers' full names, dates of birth and gender from airlines, at least 72 hour before departure from the UK to Canada. The initial requirement is for flights to Toronto, Ottawa, Montreal and the Nova Scotia capital, Halifax – 150 miles from the nearest US territory. A similar stipulation is expected soon for the main airports in western Canada, Vancouver and Calgary.
Any passenger who refuses to comply will be denied boarding. Those who do supply details may find their trip could be abruptly cancelled by the Department of Homeland Security, which says it will "ake boarding pass determinations up until the time a flight leaves the gate ... If a passenger successfully obtains a boarding pass, his/her name is not on the No Fly list." In other words, travellers cannot find out whether they will be accepted on board until they reach the airport.
Airlines are already scrambling to obey the edict, and the UK government has, naturally, remained mum on this restriction of its citizens' liberties. The new Obama security net will also tighten the screws a little tighter on that perennial stone in the imperial sandal, Cuba -- now in its sixth decade of sanctions for its non-adherence to the imperial system. (And please, no protests that Cuba is being punished because of its tyrannical regime; Washington makes hot, sweet love with tyrannical regimes every day of the year without so much as a quiver of moral concern over their repressed peoples. The Potomac poobahs judge a nation not by the content of its character but by its degree of acquiescence.)
What is perhaps most surprising about the story is that the newspaper actually found some people who seemed surprised by the story:
The US will have full details of all British visitors to Cuba, including business travellers, which could potentially be used to identify people suspected of breaking America's draconian sanctions against the Castro regime.
Neil Taylor, a tour operator who pioneered tourism to Cuba, said: "Imagine if the Chinese were to ask for such data on all passengers to Taiwan, and similarly if the Saudis were to ask about flights to Israel – would the US government understand?
"One also has to wonder how an American traveller in Europe would react if he were denied boarding on a flight from London to Rome because the German government had not received sufficient data from him."
Tony Wheeler, founder of Lonely Planet travel guides, said "This extension of the rule to include flights that never enter US airspace is scarcely credible. What on earth right does the US have to ask for passenger information if you're flying London-Havana?"
What right indeed? What right does the United States have to punish businesses in foreign countries who do business with another foreign country, as in the case of the ever-spreading sanctions on yet another state outside the imperial system, Iran? (And again: the same caveat offered above on Cuba applies here as well.) What right does it have to fire drone missiles into sovereign nations and kill their citizens? What right does it have to assassinate its own citizens and imprison them indefinitely without charges, trial or due process? What right does it have to invade and destroy entire nations which have not attacked or threatened the United States?
Rights don't enter into it. Power doesn't need rights; it "creates its own reality," its own rights. The right of British citizens to fly unfettered to Canada and Cuba is in itself a minor matter (and rather darkly ironic, given Britain's own imperial history and its much-reduced but still persistent continuance); but it is a reflection of larger reality -- the power-created reality -- of the very real American Empire.
Below is a brief instructional video delineating some possible approaches to the relentless series of challenges presented by the psychobiological, sociocultural, and political-historical elements of the turbulent, multivalent process known as -- in the highly technical nomenclature of the Mississippi Delta school of analytical philosophy -- life its own self.
I. The ordeal of Fatima Bouchar, detailed by Ian Cobain in the Guardian, exemplifies the vile essence of the 'Terror War' being conducted by United States and its abject satellite, Great Britain, against large swathes of the world's population (including, increasingly, their own people). It is a case of brutal torture against an innocent, defenseless pregnant woman, whose only "crime" was to be married to a man who belonged to an organization which had long been supported by the US and UK -- until the geopolitics of oil made the group expendable. It is a tale of cowardice and cruelty, of hypocrisy and corruption, of deliberate atrocity that exacerbates the extremism it purports to combat. It is the emblem of an evil system ordered, countenanced, championed and protected at the very highest levels of the two governments -- a system that is very much still in operation today.
Bouchar was married to Abdel Hakim Belhaj, a member of a group seeking to overthrow Moamar Gadafy in Libya. For 10 years, members of the group had been given asylum in Britain and other countries. According to credible reports, they were being supported by British intelligence in their efforts to oust the Libyan dictator. Then Gadafy began negotiating his deal with George W. Bush and Tony Blair to open up Libyan oil fields to the West. Suddenly, his enemies became enemies of the West; as in Afghanistan, stalwart "freedom fighters" were transformed into "terrorists" overnight, when the agenda of the West's corporate overlords demanded it. (The same process would be reversed in 2011, after Gadafy had proved less servile than expected.)
At that point, Bouchar and her husband suddenly became bargaining chips in the backroom deal being greased in Washington, London and Tripoli. As proved by secret files and messages unearthed in Libya after Gadafy's fall, Bouchar and Belhaj were offered to Gadafy as a gift from the British, a sweetener to pave the way for his first meeting with Tony Blair -- and for the oil deals that swiftly followed.
Here is what happened to the couple in 2004 when they were detained in Thailand -- site of one of America's innumerable secret prisons -- as they tried to fly to the "friendly" confines of the UK. They were kidnapped by American agents at the behest of British intelligence. As Cobain writes:
Just when Fatima Bouchar thought it couldn't get any worse, the Americans forced her to lie on a stretcher and began wrapping tape around her feet. They moved upwards, she says, along her legs, winding the tape around and around, binding her to the stretcher. They taped her stomach, her arms and then her chest. She was bound tight, unable to move.
Bouchar says there were three Americans: two tall, thin men and an equally tall woman. Mostly they were silent. She never saw their faces: they dressed in black and always wore black balaclavas. Bouchar was terrified. They didn't stop at her chest – she says they also wound the tape around her head, covering her eyes. Then they put a hood and earmuffs on her. She was unable to move, to hear or to see. "My left eye was closed when the tape was applied," she says, speaking about her ordeal for the first time. "But my right eye was open, and it stayed open throughout the journey. It was agony." The journey would last around 17 hours. ...
Belhaj says he was blindfolded, hooded, forced to wear ear defenders, and hung from hooks in his cell wall for what seemed to be hours. He says he was severely beaten. The ear defenders were removed only for him to be blasted with loud music, he says, or when he was interrogated by his US captors.
Bouchar says that when she was dragged away from her husband she feared he was going to be killed. "I thought: 'This is it.' I thought I would never see my husband again ... They took me into a cell, and they chained my left wrist to the wall and both my ankles to the floor. I could sit down but I couldn't move. There was a camera in the room, and every time I tried to move they rushed in. But there was no real communication. I wasn't questioned." Bouchar found it difficult to comprehend how she could be treated in this way: she was four-and-a-half months pregnant. "They knew I was pregnant," she says. "It was obvious." She says she was given water while chained up, but no food whatsoever. She was chained to the wall for five days. At the end of this period she was taped to the stretcher and put aboard the aircraft, unaware of where she was going or whether her husband was on board. At one point the aircraft landed, remained on the ground for a short period and then took off again. Only when it landed a second time did she hear a man grunting with pain, and realise her husband was nearby. ...
Two weeks after the couple were rendered to Libya, Tony Blair paid his first visit to the country, embracing Gaddafi and declaring that Libya had recognised "a common cause, with us, in the fight against al-Qaida extremism and terrorism". At the same time, in London, the Anglo-Dutch oil giant Shell announced that it had signed a £110 million deal for gas exploration rights off the Libyan coast. ...
Shortly after Obama's inauguration, both he and Leon Panetta, the new Director of the CIA, explicitly stated that "rendition" was not being ended. As the Los Angeles Times reported: "Under executive orders issued by Obama recently, the CIA still has authority to carry out what are known as renditions, secret abductions and transfers of prisoners to countries that cooperate with the United States." ...
After Panetta was questioned by a Senate panel, the New York Times wrote that he had "left open the possibility that the agency could seek permission to use interrogation methods more aggressive than the limited menu that President Obama authorized under new rules ... Mr. Panetta also said the agency would continue the Bush administration practice of 'rendition' — picking terrorism suspects off the street and sending them to a third country."
Here, at least, is a promise that Obama has kept.
II. But why do these tortures go on? (As noted in that previous post, Obama has in no way "ended torture" by American officials; even the official guidelines he has openly approved allow techniques that are torture in every sense of the word.) What is the point of these atrocities? In the vast majority of cases, "terrorist suspects" are the smallest of small fry, even in the eyes of their captors; they are tortured merely to extract some crumb of information from them, some tidbit that might somehow fit into the "mosaic" -- the conceptual tool used by our intelligence services to weave gigantic, world-threatening conspiracies which can only be thwarted by ever more vast expenditures and arbitrary power for our intelligence services. As is well known, this interrogation strategy produces mountains of useless crap, which our intelligence "experts" then mold into whatever shape our politicians (and their paymasters) require. It is worse than useless; it is demonstrably counterproductive. It does not enhance "national security." It doesn't even do anything in particular to advance the agendas of our corporate and political overlords, because it throws up too much dust and chaos to be of practical use in plotting their future moves.
So why does it happen? Why are innocent pregnant women wrapped in tape, why are children abducted, why are innocent people strung up in "stress positions," why are captives beaten, bombarded with brain-scrambling noise, stripped naked and sexually humiliated, drugged, deprived of sleep, threatened with murder -- and sometimes murdered in fact? Why is this being done by official representatives of the governments of the United States and the United Kingdom?
Why? Because -- and let us be absolutely clear about this -- because these people want to torture others. They like it, they enjoy it. There is clearly a zest, a psychosexual rush at work. Like child abusers, they enjoy their full, unchallengeable physical power over the bodies of their defenseless victims. They get off on it. They are the moral equivalent of pedophiles, and in any remotely healthy society, they would be treated as such.
And of course we are not talking solely of those doing the hands-on torture. Their bosses are of exactly the same ilk. I refer here to our great and good, our high and mighty, the minsters of state, the cabinet members, the military chieftains, the lords and legislators, the prime ministers, the presidents. All of them are eager participants in this extreme perversity. They love the fact that they can order human beings to be tortured -- to be beaten, trussed up, stripped and probed, drugged, driven crazy. They love how tough it makes them feel. They love how powerful it makes them feel. There should be no mistake about this. Torture is being carried out because our leaders want it to be, because they like it. There are no reluctant torturers -- neither at highest levels nor among the factotums actually doing the deed.
There are no reluctant torturers. This point is important to remember. No one is forced to carry out torture. This is one of the great absolving myths that societies tell themselves when, at some point, their filthy crimes are belched forth and cannot be denied. (This generally happens when their government collapses, either from military defeat or internal rot.) For example, almost no German soldier was ever punished or prosecuted for refusing to take part in Nazi atrocities. The historical record is filled with instances where individual German soldiers or officers refused to join an "aktion" against civilians. They were not court-martialed, imprisoned or killed; they were simply left out of the operation, assigned other duties or transferred to other units. The idea that the soldiers who carried out atrocities did so on pain of death from their tyrannical overlords is just a myth. They did it because they actively wanted to do it -- or saw no reason not to do it.
Now it is also a fact that very few of those who participated in these atrocities would have done so if their leaders had not created the structure and circumstances for the atrocities to occur. The same is true of the Anglo-American torture system in operation today. Over the past 10 years, US and UK soldiers and operatives have been formed into death squads carrying out secret killings in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere around the world. They've kidnapped unarmed people (or often just bought them, like slaves, from profiteering locals), and sent them to secret prisons in the American gulag or to torture chambers in cooperative countries -- including, at various times, Gadafy's Libya and Assad's Syria. They have murdered, beaten, sexually abused and psychologically tortured thousands upon thousands of people, very few of whom ever posed even the slightest threat to the United States or Great Britain.
But again, very few of the low-ranking perpetrators of these atrocities would have carried them out if the bipartisan leadership of their countries -- the world's most "advanced" democracies, the self-proclaimed defenders of law, decency, freedom and human rights -- had not very deliberately created the circumstances and the structure for the commission of these crimes. This does not absolve the individual perpetrator from the responsibility for his or her own actions, of course. They were not forced to do something against their conscience. They were not even conscripted into service; they entered it freely. But once presented with the atrocity-bearing situation created by their leaders, they either embraced or accepted the opportunity, with varying degrees of eagerness or indifference. The taint runs throughout the whole system.
III. This is the reality of our age. What Americans and Britons once refused to do to Adolf Hitler's minions -- torture, abuse, and deprive them of legal rights -- they now do routinely, continually and without shame to people whom they know to be either completely innocent or -- even in the torturers' own estimation -- to be peripheral, unimportant and unthreatening. They are torturing people because they want to do it, because they like to do it.
And the entire political class of both Britain and the United States acquiesce in this. They accept it. They do not denounce the perpetrators and orchestrators and orderers of torture as evil. They do not condemn them and shun them as they would child abusers and murderers. They thunder and bluster over small straws of difference and policy nuances, but they swallow whole the steaming, blood-soaked viscera of Terror War torture. Instead, they prosecute officials and soldiers who try to tell the truth about torture and other atrocities of the Terror War, as Jesselyn Raddack reports here. War crime is now completely normalized in American politics and American society. It's what we do. It's what we are. And we don't care.
Yet everywhere you look -- even in the oh-so-fervent, "we're the good guys," liberal progressive humanitarian blogosphere -- you will see incessant, obsessive coverage of all the minute ins and outs of the political circus: the primaries, the polls, the money, the momentum, the players. Every day -- every hour -- they read the tea leaves and poke through the entrails, hoping to divine what needs to be done so that "our side" wins. Our torturers. Our renditioners. Our abusers of innocent pregnant women. Our beaters and batterers and chainers and killers. We want our man, not their man, to commit the atrocities.
This obscene dynamic is now the essence of the American political process. It is rotten to the core, rotten at the top, rotten to the roots. As we've noted here many, many times before, Henry David Thoreau gave the only possible response that anyone who aspires to a measure of honor can give to the obscenity that engulfs us:
"How does it become a man to behave toward this American government to-day? I answer that he cannot without disgrace be associated with it."
In two brief posts over the past week, Scott Horton at Harper's gives us a harrowing sketch of the entrenchment and ever-spreading expansion of the Torture Matrix that now sits enthroned at the very heart of the American state. This entrenchment and expansion has been carried out -- enthusiastically, energetically, relentlessly -- by the current president of the United States: a progressive Democrat and recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.
Horton notes the uncovering of the Zelikow Memo, written by one of the chief factotums of the Bush Administration, Philip Zelikow. While serving as a State Department lawyer in 2006, Zelikow wrote a legal brief that demolished the written-to-order "torture memos" by White House lawyers, which sanctioned the widespread use of torture techniques that were -- and still are -- clearly war crimes. As Horton points out, the Zelikow did not even address the most brutal tortures instigated by the Bush administration, but confined itself to the so-called 'torture lite' methods (many of which are still in use today). Yet even here, Zelikow clearly demonstrated "that the use of these techniques would constitute prosecutable felonies — war crimes." The existence of the Zelikow memo proves that there was indeed official recognition throughout the highest reaches of government that war crimes were being committed at the order of the White House and the intelligence agencies. Horton goes on:
In order for a prosecution to succeed, a prosecutor would have to show that the accused understood that what he was doing was a crime. In United States v. Altstoetter, a case in which government lawyers were prosecuted for their role in, among other things, providing a legal pretext for the torture and mistreatment of prisoners, the court fashioned a similar rule, saying that the law requires “proof before conviction that the accused knew or should have known that in matters of international concern he was guilty of participation in a nationally organized system of injustice and persecution shocking to the moral sense of mankind, and that he knew or should have known that he would be subject to punishment if caught.”
The Zelikow memo satisfies both of these elements—it makes clear that the techniques the Justice Department endorsed constituted criminal conduct, and it applied the “shock the conscience” test of American constitutional law to help reach that conclusion. It could therefore be introduced as Exhibit A by prosecutors bringing future charges.
Horton also provides a succinct background to the other "torture memos" that Bush attorneys wrote in support of the criminal operation -- a perpetrators' paper trail that is actually much more extensive than is usually known.
This memo has been in the possession of the Obama Administration since its first day in office. It was in the possession of the special prosecutor that Obama's Justice Department appointed to look into the torture system -- a special prosecutor who found that there was nothing to prosecute. Horton writes:
Spencer Ackerman, whose persistence is to be credited for the publication of Zelikow’s memo, astutely pressed its author to answer this question: Why, in light of Zelikow’s findings, did the special prosecutor appointed by Eric Holder to investigate the legality of CIA interrogation techniques fail to bring charges?
“I don’t know why Mr. Durham came to the conclusions he did,” Zelikow says, referring to the Justice Department special prosecutor for the CIA torture inquiry, John Durham. “I’m not impugning them, I just literally don’t know why, because he never published any details about either the factual analysis or legal analysis that led to those conclusions.”
To reiterate: one of the chief insiders of the right-wing Republican Bush White House believes that the war crimes ordered by the Bush White House deserve prosecution. The chief insiders of the progressive Democratic Obama White House believe these war crimes should not be prosecuted.
Then again, why should Barack Obama want to prosecute torture -- when he is successfully arguing for it to be applied not only to the American population at large? In another post, Horton writes of Obama's great success at the Supreme Court: the ruling that allows all Americans to be strip-searched when taken into custody for even the most minor infractions. The purpose of this, as Horton points out, is clearly to humiliate and "break" the citizen -- who is, you might recall, entirely innocent in the eyes of the law at that point. In fact, as Horton notes, the U.S. military itself recognizes the strip search as a torture technique that American pilots might face if captured by heinous rogue states. Horton:
...the Supreme Court has decided on the claim of Albert Florence, a man apprehended for the well-known offense of traveling in an automobile while being black. Florence was hustled off to jail over a couple of bench warrants involving minor fines that had in fact been paid—evidence of which he produced to unimpressed police officers. He was then twice subjected to humiliating strip searches involving the inspection of body cavities. Florence sued, arguing that this process violated his rights.
There is very little doubt under the law about the right of prison authorities to subject a person convicted or suspected of a serious crime to conduct a strip search before introducing someone to the general prison population. But does the right to conduct a strip search outweigh the right to dignity and bodily integrity of a person who committed no crime whatsoever, who is apprehended based on a false suspicion that he hadn’t discharged a petty fine—for walking a dog without a leash, say, or turning a car from the wrong lane? Yes. In a 5–4 decision, the Court backed the position advocated by President Obama’s Justice Department, upholding the power of jailers against the interests of innocent citizens. As Justice Anthony Kennedy reasons in his majority opinion (in terms that would be familiar to anyone who has lived in a police state), who is to say that innocent citizens are really innocent? “[P]eople detained for minor offenses,” he writes, “can turn out to be the most devious and dangerous criminals.” ....
The decision reflects the elevation of the prison industry’s interest in maintaining order in its facilities above the interests of individuals. And it does so by systematically misunderstanding the reasons behind strip searches. Kennedy insists that they are all done for the aim of fostering order, and he backs up this position with exemplary bits of pretzel logic. For instance, he suggests that a person stopped for failing to yield at an intersection may well have heroin taped to his scrotum, and may attempt to bring it into the prison to which he is taken. In advancing such rationales, the Court ignores the darker truth about strip searches: they are employed for the conscious humiliation and psychological preparation of prisoners, as part of a practice designed to break them down and render them submissive.
Just as the Florence decision was being prepared, the Department of Defense released a previously classified training manual used to prepare American pilots for resistance to foreign governments that might use illegal and immoral techniques to render them cooperative. Key in this manual are the precise practices highlighted in Florence. Body-cavity searches are performed, it explains, to make the prisoner “feel uncomfortable and degraded.” Forced nudity and invasion of the body make the prisoner feel helpless, by removing all items that provide the prisoner with psychological support. In other words, the strip search is an essential step in efforts to destroy an individual’s sense of self-confidence, well-being, and even his or her identity. The value of this tool has been recognized by authoritarian governments around the world, and now, thanks to the Roberts Court, it will belong to the standard jailhouse repertoire in the United States.
To reiterate: the Obama Administration vigorously defended the introduction of this authoritarian practice into every place of incarceration in the United States. The fact that this draconian stricture will fall most heavily on African-Americans cut no ice with the historic, epoch-shaking first minority president in American history. (But why should it? By almost every measure -- employment, housing, wealth, poverty programs, community support, voting rights, civil rights, etc. -- African-Americans have been sent reeling backwards by the policies of the Obama Administration.)
Obama has adamantly refused to prosecute clear, credible and copious allegations of war crimes by his predecessor. He is now applying acknowledged torture techniques to the general American population. And as William Blum reminds us in his latest "Anti-Empire Report," Obama is still carrying out torture on a massive, systematic scale in the gulag he commands -- despite the pervasive progressive myth that he has formally ended "torture" in the American system. Blum:
...the executive order concerning torture, issued January 22, 2009 — "Executive Order 13491 — Ensuring Lawful Interrogations" — leaves loopholes, such as being applicable only "in any armed conflict". Thus, torture by Americans outside environments of "armed conflict", which is where much torture in the world happens anyway, is not prohibited. And what about torture in a "counter-terrorism" environment?
One of Mr. Obama's orders required the CIA to use only the interrogation methods outlined in a revised Army Field Manual. However, using the Army Field Manual as a guide to prisoner treatment and interrogation still allows solitary confinement, perceptual or sensory deprivation, sleep deprivation, the induction of fear and hopelessness, mind-altering drugs, environmental manipulation such as temperature and perhaps noise, and possibly stress positions and sensory overload. ...
Just as no one in the Bush and Obama administrations has been punished in any way for war crimes in Iraq, Afghanistan and the other countries they waged illegal war against, no one has been punished for torture. And, it could be added, no American bankster has been punished for their indispensable role in the world-wide financial torture. What a marvelously forgiving land is America. This, however, does not apply to Julian Assange and Bradley Manning. ...
I'd like at this point to remind my dear readers of the words of the "Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment", which was drafted by the United Nations in 1984, came into force in 1987, and ratified by the United States in 1994. Article 2, section 2 of the Convention states: "No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture."
Such marvelously clear, unequivocal, and principled language, to set a single standard for a world that makes it increasingly difficult for one to feel proud of humanity. We cannot slide back.
No exceptions whatsoever -- not even an eternal "War on Terror." This is indeed clear language -- and it is indisputably the law of the land, as the constitutional law professor in the White House well knows. But this no longer means anything. As we noted here a couple of years ago, in an excerpt from a "conversation during Civil War":
"But in days past, I was a lawyer. Yes, a lawyer, can you believe it? It seems … ridiculous now, doesn't it? An orderly system meant to govern human society, to establish justice, to advance the progress and enlightenment of the human race. Yet that system, that civil cosmos – to which I was so passionately committed – embraced and protected the most wretched evils, entrenched the powerful in their unjust privilege, oppressed the poor and weak most relentlessly and wickedly, yet at every step – at every step – sang hosannas to itself as some kind of divinity. The "Law" – oh, what a hush of reverence surrounded that word, how deeply that reverence and respect penetrated the heart. Well, my heart, anyway. But in these last few years we have seen – in intense, concentrated, microscopic view – the truth about the law, a truth which too often escaped us in the slow unrolling of peacetime. The truth that there is no law, no Platonic Form out there to which we give paltry representation. There is only power: power in conflict with power, power seeking to drive out power, to establish its dominance, maintain its privilege. Power…acquiesces to law – sometimes – but it never, never bows to it. Power goes along with the law when it is convenient to do so, when it is not too restrictive, when it demands little more than the occasional sacrifice – for the powerful are certainly not above throwing one of their own to the mob when circumstances require. But when it comes to the crisis, power shreds the law like a filthy rag and has its own way. And then you see that the law is nothing but a rag, to be torn and patched and fitted to power's aims. The worst atrocities I have seen or heard of in this war have been committed wholly and completely under the law. This thing I held in such reverence was, is, nothing but a scrap soaked with blood and shit."
Or, pertaining more directly to the case at hand, and undergirding some of Blum's points, including his insights on rendition, is a piece I wrote in 2011:
There is of course a myth that Barack Obama has "ended" the practice of torture. This is not even remotely true. For one thing, as we have often noted here, the Army Field Manual that Obama has adopted as his interrogation standard permits many practices that any rational person would consider torture. For another, we have no way of verifying what techniques are actually being used by the government's innumerable "security" and intelligence agencies, by the covert units of the military -- and by other entities whose very existence is still unknown. These agencies are almost entirely self-policed; they investigate themselves, they report on themselves to the toothless Congressional "oversight" committees; we simply have to take these organizations -- whose entire raison d'etre is deceit, deception, lawlessness and subterfuge -- at their word. And of course, we have no way of knowing what is being done in the torture chambers of foreign lands where the United States often "outsources" its captives, including American citizens.
Finally, even if the comforting bedtime story of Obama's ban of torture techniques in interrogation were true, there remains his ardent championing of the right to seize anyone on earth -- without a warrant, without producing any evidence whatsoever of wrongdoing -- and hold them indefinitely, often for years on end, in a legal limbo, with no inherent rights whatsoever, beyond whatever narrowly constricted, ever-changing, legally baseless and often farcical "hearings" and tribunals the captors deign to allow them. Incarceration under these conditions is itself an horrendous act of torture, no matter what else might happen to the captive. Yet Obama has actively, avidly applied this torture, and has gone to court numerous times to defend this torture, and to expand the use of this torture ...
....Murder, cowardice, torture, dishonor: these are fruits -- and the distinguishing characteristics -- of the militarized society. What Americans once would not do even to Nazis with the blood of millions on their hands, they now do routinely to weak and wretched captives seized on little or no evidence of wrongdoing at all. We are deep in the darkness, and hurtling deeper, headlong, all the time.
Not that anyone cares, but the United States committed itself to yet another war on Sunday -- yes, April Fool's Day -- as the ever-bellicose Hillary Clinton teamed up with the extremist tyrants in Saudi Arabia and other international humanitarians to supply moolah and military materiel to the rebels in Syria.
The self-proclaimed "Friends of Syria" group has now undertaken to pay the salaries of the "Free Syrian Army" and supply the rebel forces, led largely by Islamist factions -- although Western leaders and their parrot-like media still pretend (at least in public) that the armed uprising is aimed at establishing a groovy secular showcase of pluralistic democracy. The fact that sectarian Sunni factions have seized control of the initially unarmed (and largely secular) protests and are now set on a course of "ethnic cleansing" of the Alawite minority, from which much of the regime's ruling class is drawn is, of course, ignored or downplayed by the ubiquitous cheerleaders for Permanent War in our militarist media-political class. To be sure, Alawites are not the only targets; all other "minorities" -- i.e., anyone, including fellow Sunnis, who do not agree with the sectarians' narrow notions -- are also in the cross-hairs of the sectarians as well.
Just before Hillary and the other April Fools played their deadly prank -- a move absolutely guaranteed to lead to more violence and bloodshed -- one of the leading lights of the initial peaceful protests spoke out against the militarization of the resistance to the odious state regime. As AFP reports:
Fadwa Suleiman, an actress who became an icon of Syria's revolution, is furious that her country's peaceful protest movement has been drawn into armed conflict with the regime.She said she is saddened to see that "the revolution is not going in the right direction, that it is becoming armed, that the opposition which wanted to resist peacefully is playing the game of the regime and that the country is heading for sectarian war".
…Suleiman became a high-profile member of the opposition movement last November when she appeared in footage from the rebel city of Homs that was broadcast on the Al-Jazeera television news network.
The 39-year-old actress, well known in her homeland for her work in theatre, films and television, belongs to the same Alawite religious minority as President Bashar al-Assad. She says that a major reason for her participation in the protests was to do her bit to stop any slide into a sectarian war between factions of the Sunni Muslim majority, Alawites or Christians.
…And that is why she is furious that those "who are arming the Syrian street are willing to do anything to take power in the same way that Bashar Al-Aaasad is ready to do anything to stay in power."
But Ms Suleiman will mourn in vain for the peaceful revolution that was lost. The rampant militarization of the conflict suits our imperial managers (and their various satraps, clients and dependents around the world) very well. Secretary Clinton and her boss, the war-waging Peace Laureate -- along with the crocodile tear-shedders in Congress, aching to "liberate" the Syrian people by inflicting mass death upon them -- are not very interested in the relative merits or demerits of the forces involved in the Syrian conflict. They don't care if the rebels are "playing the game of the regime" by helping foment sectarian war. They don't care if more and more innocent people, on both sides, are being killed and dispossessed and tormented by the war. They don't care if the repressive Asad family regime is replaced by a repressive sectarian regime or, as in Libya, by a gaggle of warring factions, as a result of the war.
All they care about, in the end, is the war itself -- or rather, war itself. Wherever they find incipient conflict, they are eager to exacerbate it, sustain it -- and feed upon it. We have seen this over and over in the past decades, from the Iran-Iraq War, to Guatemala, to El Salvador, to Nicaragua, to Kosovo, to Somalia, to Yemen, to the Philippines, to Afghanistan (in 1980 and 2001, both cases being an intervention on one side of an ongoing civil war), to Pakistan, to Libya and now to Syria. Almost invariably, the policies adopted by the imperial managers (of both parties) make the conflicts worse, fomenting extremist resistance and ever-more violent repression: a deadly cycle that benefits no one -- except the "masters of war."
For as Paul Craig Roberts notes, our Potomac Poobahs now preside over a new kind of empire. It doesn't conquer and settle territories, doesn't seek fame and glory -- hell, it doesn't even win most of the wars it fights. But it gets the job done: and the job is "extracting resources" from its own subjects to fill the coffers and expand the perks of the rulers. As Roberts writes:
[In a new book, historian Timothy Parsons] wonders whether America’s empire is really an empire as the Americans don’t seem to get any extractive benefits from it. After eight years of war and attempted occupation of Iraq, all Washington has for its efforts is several trillion dollars of additional debt and no Iraqi oil. After ten years of trillion dollar struggle against the Taliban in Afghanistan, Washington has nothing to show for it except possibly some part of the drug trade that can be used to fund covert CIA operations.
America’s wars are very expensive. Bush and Obama have doubled the national debt, and the American people have no benefits from it. No riches, no bread and circuses flow to Americans from Washington’s wars. So what is it all about?
The answer is that Washington’s empire extracts resources from the American people for the benefit of the few powerful interest groups that rule America … The US Constitution has been extracted in the interests of the Security State, and Americans’ incomes have been redirected to the pockets of the 1 percent. ...
In the New Empire success at war no longer matters. The extraction takes place by being at war. Huge sums of American taxpayers’ money have flowed into the American armaments industries and huge amounts of power into Homeland Security. The American empire works by stripping Americans of wealth and liberty.
This is why the wars cannot end, or if one does end another starts … This truth doesn’t mean that the objects of American military aggression have escaped without cost. Large numbers of Muslims have been bombed and murdered and their economies and infrastructure ruined, but not in order to extract resources from them.
It is ironic that under the New Empire the citizens of the empire are extracted of their wealth and liberty in order to extract lives from the targeted foreign populations.
And yet another iteration of this sinister process is gearing up in Syria. It has nothing to do with the murderously repressive nature of the Syrian regime. America's chief ally in the Syrian intervention is Saudi Arabia -- a theocratic-autocratic regime that is, by every measure, far, far more repressive than Syria. The Saudi royals ruthlessly -- and violently -- suppress any peaceful protest against their stifling, draconian rule. They have sent troops and weapons and money to murderously repress peaceful protests in neighbouring Bahrain. Yet Secretary Clinton stood proudly with these murderous repressive tyrants this weekend as she outlined their joint plan to ensure the death and suffering of more people in Syria.
Supplying -- much less paying the salaries! -- of an army on one side in a conflict is generally regarded as an act of war. At least, this was the line taken by the United States government when it was dealing with its own armed uprising awhile back and continually threatened massive retaliation against any nation intervening on the side of the rebels. (A story well told in Amanda Foreman's A World on Fire.)
So mark April Fool's Day 2012 in your calendar as the day the United States officially and openly initiated its latest war. Will it succeed in driving the Assad family from its authoritarian perch in Damascus? Will it liberate the Syrian people into a new life of liberty and prosperity? Will it enthrone radical extremists "willing to do anything to take power" and open the door to sectarian slaughter (as in Iraq)? Who cares? The intervention will set cash registers ringing, and that, my fellow subjects, is, as always, the bottom line.
This week brings another excellent article from Andy Worthington outlining the continuing atrocity of injustice that is the essence of America's "Terror War" gulag. This time, he details the plight of several forgotten captives from Afghanistan condemned to an apparently eternal limbo in the apparently eternal gulag camp at Guantanamo -- despite the fact that great high warlords of the Potomac Empire have actually dropped the (highly specious) charges against some of the men.
Meanwhile, Worthington notes, Washington has been working hard on a deal that would release five top Taliban figures from Guantanamo -- men who in some cases have been credibly accused of atrocities themselves -- as part of a wider effort to negotiate some kind of face-saving exit from the "graveyard of empires." These initiatives have been put on hold for the moment, after the "unfortunate incident" where 17 innocent Afghan civilians were gunned down in cold blood by an American soldier (or, according to some eyewitness accounts, by a group of American soldiers). Once the ritual of pious posturing on both sides is over, the backroom hardball will no doubt begin again. But the innocent small fry in the Guantanamo gulag will remain in darkness.
Worthington writes (see original for links):
What is also of interest, however, as an example of the many distortions engendered by Guantánamo, is the fact that there are 12 other Afghans at Guantánamo — none of whom is regarded as being as significant as the men mentioned above — but who will continue to be held, possibly forever, even if successful negotiations involving their more-significant compatriots resume.
This, sad to say, is a disgrace, as the reasons for the continued detention of the 12 men … are far from compelling. It is clear that, if they had been held in Bagram instead of having been transferred to Guantánamo, they would have been released by now. They include three men who … have lost their habeas corpus petitions — although none of the three can seriously be regarded as a threat.
… The first of the three, Shawali Khan, whose habeas petition was denied in September 2010, was a shopkeeper who seems, quite clearly, to have been falsely portrayed as an insurgent by an informant who received payment for doing so. To add further shame to the ruling, the right-wing judges of the D.C. Circuit Court refused his appeal last September, apparently consigning him to Guantánamo forever.
Next up was Obaydullah (aka Obaidullah), who faces allegations that he “stored and concealed anti-tank mines, other explosive devices, and related equipment”; that he “concealed on his person a notebook describing how to wire and detonate explosive devices”; and that he “knew or intended” that his “material support and resources were to be used in preparation for and in carrying out a terrorist attack.” Despite there being no actual evidence against him, he lost his habeas petition in October 2010.
The third man, Karim Bostan, a preacher and a shopkeeper, was seized on a bus that traveled regularly between Afghanistan and Pakistan, and was reported to have been “apprehended because he matched the description of an al-Qaeda bomb cell leader and had a [satellite] phone,” which he had apparently been asked to hold by a fellow passenger, Abdullah Wazir (who was released from Guantánamo in December 2007). Other allegations were made by Obaydullah, who said in Guantánamo that he had made false allegations (and had also falsely incriminated Bostan) while he was being severely abused by U.S. soldiers in Khost and Bagram. Despite that, Bostan’s habeas petition was denied in October 2011.
Those are not the only insignificant prisoners still held. Another poor man, Abdul Ghani, who scavenged for scrap metal, was put forward for a trial by military commission under George W. Bush in 2008. The authorities claimed that he had played a part in attacks and planned attacks as part of the insurgency against U.S. forces, although his lawyers have disputed his supposed involvement. The charges against him were dropped before Bush left office and have not been reinstated, but he remains held, with no end to his detention in sight.
Similar — and still held — is Mohammed Kamin, accused of spying and planting mines, who was put forward for a trial by military commission in March 2008, although that also never materialized; the charges against him were dropped in December 2009.
Regarding those abandoned Afghan prisoners, the most significant development recently was that the case of one of them, Obaydullah, was discussed in an article in the New York Times, in which Charlie Savage realized, as mentioned above,
It is an accident of timing that Mr. Obaydullah is at Guantánamo. One American official who was formerly involved in decisions about Afghanistan detainees said that such a “run of the mill” suspect would not have been moved to Cuba had he been captured a few years later; he probably would have been turned over to the Afghan justice system, or released if village elders took responsibility for him.
Despite that, the Justice Department is still maintaining that he “was plainly a member of an al-Qaeda bomb cell” and is determined to continue holding him, possibly forever. What that gains the United States, at a cost of nearly $800,000 a year, is unclear, unless it is simply to save face. Certainly, anyone with knowledge of the detention situation in Afghanistan and Guantánamo would agree with the U.S. official mentioned above, who explained that, had he been seized at a later date, Obaydullah would have been held in Bagram, and would, by now, have been a free man. Moreover, it is clear that this also applies to most of the other “run of the mill” Afghan prisoners still held.
Apologists for the current manager of this evil system will say, "Oh, Obama tried to close Guantanamo, but those mean old Republicans wouldn't let him." The truth, of course, is that Obama completely and wholeheartedly embraced the gulag system set up by Bush, extending its reach in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and defending it ferociously against all legal challenges. His plan called only for the transfer of Guantanamo's illegally held captives to other facilities, while shutting down the Cuban camp as a meaningless PR gesture.
To the degree that he actually was "thwarted" in this empty plan by the Republicans (and the many Democrats who joined them in opposing it), this was precisely because he wanted to retain and strengthen the gulag principles established by Bush. He wanted to keep these prisoners -- and many others -- in the limbo of "indefinite detention," and perpetuate the arbitrary power to plunge countless others into the system. Thus in many ways, the opponents were correct: if you are going to continue the system of indefinite detention, why not just leave them where they are? Closing one gulag hole doesn't mean anything if you are simply going to transfer prisoners -- many of whom had literally been sold into captivity -- to another hole.
There were several other alternatives; Obama chose -- presumably deliberately -- the one most likely to be blocked. But the Guantanamo captives are military prisoners, held by the military, under military rules. Obama is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces; he could have declared that the system itself was unjust and freed every prisoner who could not be tried for an actual crime in an actual court. (There would have been very few if any of these, of course, as the systematic use of torture, over the course of a long, illegal detention, would have tainted almost all the "evidence" that could be used in court, and rightly so.) Any captive legitimately considered an actual military prisoner under the actual laws of war could have been placed in any one of the hundreds upon hundreds of military bases around the world.
All of this could have been done within the bounds of the existing imperial system itself. It would not have required any kind of unimaginable radical break. It would not have required Obama to be some kind of utopian hero of progressive ideals. It would not have required him to end the Terror War, or stop drone bombing innocent people around the world, or quell the relentless, inexorable spread of the militarized security state into every facet of life. He could have gone on doing all the things that he and his morally lobotomized champions believe make him look "tough." It simply would have been one action that he could have taken within the existing political system which would have mitigated, to some degree, a vast, evil injustice that serves no "security" purpose whatsoever but has demonstrably worsened the security of people all over the world by supplying an endless grist of atrocity to feed the mills of anger that produce violent radicalization.
Of course, Obama would have to have been an entirely different person to pursue even this small degree of mitigation. So it was never going to happen; after all, a man willing to kill his own citizens outside any pretense of the law certainly doesn't care what happens to some unimportant foreigners languishing in his gulag. But the fact remains that it was -- and is -- entirely within his power to resolve these injustices, even within the existing system and the existing political context -- if he wanted to. The story endlessly repeated by his partisans -- that only Republican intransigence prevents him from doing anything about it -- is just a lie.