The cruel and unusual punitiveness of American society is a frequent topic on these page. (The most recent piece is here.) No nation on earth puts as many of its people in jail -- both in real numbers and as a percentage of the population. And few if any have "justice" systems so savagely targeted at racial minorities. For the past 30 years -- concurrent with the organized effort by the monied, militarized elite to destroy any and all restraints on their predatory appetites -- the United States has waged an unrelenting war on its black population, and on other minority and marginalized groups as well.
Punitive incarceration has been turned into a lucrative resource for private profit (and public corruption), and a political tool by which ambitious poltroons in both major parties establish their "toughness," their fitness for power in an aggressive empire. The size and the harshness of the America's domestic gulag have very little to do with the actual level of dangerous crime; they are instead tied far more closely to the agenda of money and power than any reality.
With approximately 2.3 million people in prison or jail, the United States incarcerates more people than any other country in the world—by far. Our per capita rate is six times greater than Canada's, eight times greater than France's, and twelve times greater than Japan's. Here, at least, we are an undisputed world leader; we have a 40 percent lead on our closest competitors—Russia and Belarus.
...For one group in particular, however, these figures have concrete and deep-rooted implications—African-Americans, especially young black men, and especially poor young black men. African-Americans are 13 percent of the general population, but over 50 percent of the prison population. Blacks are incarcerated at a rate eight times higher than that of whites—a disparity that dwarfs other racial disparities. (Black–white disparities in unemployment, for example, are 2–1; in nonmarital childbirth, 3–1; in infant mortality, 2–1; and in net worth, 1–5).
In the 1950s, when segregation was still legal, African-Americans comprised 30 percent of the prison population. Sixty years later, African-Americans and Latinos make up 70 percent of the incarcerated population, and that population has skyrocketed. The disparities are greatest where race and class intersect—nearly 60 percent of all young black men born between 1965 and 1969 who dropped out of high school went to prison at least once on a felony conviction before they turned thirty-five. And the incarceration rate for this group—black male high school dropouts—is nearly fifty times the national average.
These disparities in turn have extraordinary ripple effects. For an entire cohort of young black men in America's inner cities, incarceration has become the more-likely-than-not norm, not the unthinkable exception. And in part because prisons today offer inmates little or nothing in the way of job training, education, or counseling regarding their return to society, ex-offenders' prospects for employment, housing, and marriage upon release drop precipitously from their already low levels before incarceration.
That in turn makes it far more likely that these ex-offenders will return to criminal behavior—and then to prison. Meanwhile, the incarceration of so many young men means more single-parent households, and more children whose fathers are in prison. Children with parents in prison are in turn seven times more likely to be imprisoned at some point in their lives than other children. As Brown professor Glenn Loury puts it in Race, Incarceration, and American Values, we are "creating a racially defined pariah class in the middle of our great cities."
...Until 1975, the United States' criminal justice system was roughly in line with much of Europe's. For fifty years preceding 1975, the US incarceration rate consistently hovered around 100 inmates per 100,000; criminologists made careers out of theorizing that the incarceration rate would never change. Around 1975, however, they were proved wrong, as the United States became radically more punitive. In thirty-five years, the incarceration rate ballooned to over 700 per 100,000, far outstripping all other countries.
This growth is not attributable to increased offending rates, but to increased punitiveness. Being "tough on crime" became a political mandate. State and federal legislatures imposed mandatory minimum sentences; abolished or radically restricted parole; and adopted "three strikes" laws that exact life imprisonment for a third offense, even when the offense is as minor as stealing a slice of pizza. Comparing the ratio of convictions to "index crimes" such as murder, rape, and burglary between 1975 and 1999 reveals that, holding crime constant, the United States became five times more punitive. Harvard sociologist Bruce Western estimates that the increase in incarceration rates since 1975 can take credit for only about 10 percent of the drop in crime over the same period.
Much of the extraordinary growth in the prison and jail population is attributable to a dramatic increase in prosecution and imprisonment for drug offenses. President Reagan declared a "war on drugs" in 1982, and the states eagerly followed suit. From 1980 to 1997, Loury tells us, the number of people incarcerated for drug offenses increased by 1,100 percent. Drug convictions alone account for more than 80 percent of the total increase in the federal prison population from 1985 to 1995. In 2008, four of five drug arrests were for possession, and only one in five was for distribution; fully half of all drug arrests were for marijuana offenses.
African-Americans have borne the brunt of this war. From 1985 to 1991, the number of white drug offenders in state prisons increased by 110 percent; the number of black drug offenders grew by 465 percent. The average time served by African-Americans for drug crimes grew by 62 percent between 1994 and 2003, while white drug offenders served 17 percent more time. Though 14 percent of monthly drug users are black, roughly equal to their proportion of the general population, they are arrested and imprisoned at vastly disproportionate rates: 37 percent of those arrested for drug offenses are black as well as 56 percent of those in state prisons for drug offenses. Blacks serve almost as much time in prison for drug offenses (average of 58.7 months) as whites do for violent crimes (average of 61.7 months)
...If white male babies faced anything like such prospects, the politics of crime would look very different. We would almost certainly see this as an urgent national calamity, and demand a collective investment of public resources to forestall so many going to prison. Politicians would insist that we reduce criminal penalties, decriminalize nonviolent drug offenses, and promote alternatives to incarceration.
...The war on drugs has by most accounts been a failure, and we are all paying the bill. In 2008, 1.7 million people were arrested for drug crimes. Since 1989, more people have been incarcerated for drug offenses than for all violent crimes combined. Yet much like Prohibition, the war on drugs has not ended or even significantly diminished drug use. It has made drugs more expensive, and fostered a multibillion-dollar criminal industry in drug delivery and sales. Drugs have become more concentrated and deadly; twice as many people die from drugs today than before the war on drugs was declared. If anything, the war on drugs has probably increased the incidence of crime; about half of property crime, robberies, and burglaries are attributable to the inflated cost of drugs caused by criminalizing them.
Cole also outlines some of the fitful steps being taken at reforming this monstrous system -- most of them being driven by the financial crisis, as states find they can no longer maintain vast hordes of their own citizens behind bars. And a few officials are dimly beginning to ponder the broader social (and economic -- always economic!) consequences of consigning generation after generation of American citizens to lives of incarceration, poverty, hopelessness and injustice. But as Cole concludes:
Our addiction to punishment should be troubling not only because it is costly and often counterproductive, but because its race and class disparities are morally unacceptable. The most promising arguments for reform, therefore, must appeal simultaneously to considerations of pragmatism and principle. The very fact that the US record is so much worse than that of the rest of the world should tell us that we are doing something wrong, and the sheer waste of public dollars and human lives should impel us toward reform. But as the authors of these three books make clear, we will not understand the problem fully until we candidly confront the fact that our criminal justice system would not be tolerable to the majority if its impact were felt more broadly by the general population, and not concentrated on the most deprived among us.
I've been writing about the case of Maher Arar since December 2003. He is the innocent Canadian man who was seized by U.S officials on his way back to Canada and then, at the order of the Justice Department, "renditioned" to Syria, where it was known that the authorities would torture the alleged "terrorist." They did, brutally. He was finally released, and his innocence was confirmed by the Canadian government, which paid him some $9 million for its part in his ordeal. – The United States, on the other hand, made no apologies, no restitution; instead, the government has resolutely blocked any attempt by Arar to seek justice in American courts.
Now the Second Circuit Court of Appeals has dismissed his case, ruling instead that the Executive Branch can capture and torture innocent people as they please, with no legal remedy for the victim, as long as they evoke, however spuriously, the sacred doctrine of "national security." Indeed, it is entirely accurate to say that "national security," as determined solely by the president and his designated minions, is now the actual constituion of the United States, the principle by which the state is shaped and governed. Scott Horton at Harper's has the details.
Below is the first piece I wrote on the Arar case. It should be noted that all the draconian authoritarian powers discussed in this article – almost six years and two presidential elections later – are still in force, and still being rigorously defended by the Obama Administration.
There is a horrible scandal eating away the heart of the American body politic. Among the many corrupted currents loosed upon the nation by the Bush Regime, this scandal is perhaps the worst, for it abets all the others and breeds new pestilence, new perversions at every turn.
Last month, Maher Arar of Canada detailed his ordeal at the hands of Attorney General John Ashcroft's shadowy security "organs." On his way back home from a family holiday in Tunis, the Syrian-born Arar -- 16 years a Canadian citizen -- was seized at a New York airport. Jailed and interrogated without charges, on unspecified allegations of unspecified connections to unspecified terrorist groups, he was then summarily deported, without a hearing, to Syria. When he told the Homeland Chekists he would be tortured there -- his family was marked down as dissidents by Syria's Baathist regime -- the Chekists replied that their organ "was not the body that deals with the Geneva Conventions regarding torture." They shackled him and flew him to the American-friendly regime in Jordan; from there he was bundled across the border to Damascus.
But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.
For 10 months and 10 days, Arar was held in a dank cell in Syria: a "grave," he called it, a three-by-six unlighted hole filled with cat and rat piss falling down from the grating overhead. He was beaten over and over, often with electrical cable, for weeks on end, kept awake for days, made to witness and hear even more exquisite tortures applied to other prisoners. He was forced to sign false confessions. Ashcroft's Baathist comrades had a pre-set storyline they wanted filled in: that Arar had gone to Afghanistan, attended terrorist training camps, was plotting mayhem -- the usual template. Arar, who had spent years working as a computer consultant for a Boston-based high-tech firm, had done none of those things. Yet he was whipped, broken and tortured into submission.
But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.
Arar's case is not extraordinary. In the past two years, the Bushist organs have "rendered" thousands of detainees, without charges, hearings or the need to produce any evidence whatsoever, into the hands of regimes which the U.S. government itself denounces for the widespread use of torture. Apparatchiks of the organs make no secret of the practice -- or of their knowledge that the "rendered" will indeed be beaten, burned, drugged, raped, even killed. "I do it with my eyes open," one renderer told the Washington Post. Detainees -- including lifelong American residents -- have been snatched from the homes, businesses, schools, from streets and airports, and sent to torture pits like Syria, Morocco, Egypt, Jordan -- even the stateless chaos of Somalia, where Ashcroft simply dumped more than 30 Somali-Americans last year, without charges, without evidence, without counsel, and with no visible means of support, as the London Times reports.
But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.
Of course, the American organs needn't rely exclusively on foreigners for torture anymore. Under the enlightened leadership of Ashcroft, Bush, Donald Rumsfeld and other upstanding Christian statesmen, America has now established its own centers for what the organs call "operational flexibility." These include bases in Bagram, Afghanistan and Diego Garcia, the Indian Ocean island that was forcibly depopulated in the 1960s to make way for a U.S. military installation. Here, the CIA runs secret interrogation units that are even more restricted than the American concentration camp on Guantanamo Bay. Detainees -- again, held without charges or evidentiary requirements -- are "softened up" by beatings at the hands of military police and Special Forces troops before being subjected to "stress and duress" techniques: sleep deprivation (officially condemned as a torture method by the U.S. government), physical and psychological disorientation, withholding of medical treatment, etc. When beatings and "duress" don't work, detainees are then "packaged" -- hooded, gagged, bound to stretchers with duct tape -- and "rendered" into less dainty hands elsewhere.
But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.
Not content with capture and torture, the organs have been given presidential authority to carry out raids and kill "suspected terrorists" (including Americans) on their own volition -- without oversight, without charges, without evidence -- anywhere in the world, including on American soil. In addition to this general license to kill, Bush has claimed the power to designate anyone he pleases "an enemy combatant" and have them "rendered" into the hands of the organs or simply killed at his express order -- without charges, without evidence, with no judicial or legislative oversight whatsoever. The life of every American citizen -- indeed, every person on earth -- is now at the disposal of his arbitrary whim. Never in history has an individual claimed such universal power -- and had the force to back it up.
But this is not the scandal we were speaking of.
All of the above facts -- each of them manifest violations of international law and/or the U.S. Constitution -- have been cheerfully attested to, for years now, by the organs' own appartchiks, in the Post, the NY Times, Newsweek, the Guardian, the Economist and other high-profile, mainstream publications. The stories appear -- then they disappear. There is no reaction. No outcry in Congress or the courts -- the supposed guardians of the people's rights -- beyond a few wan calls for more formality in the concentration camp processing or judicial "warrants" for torture. And among the great mass of "the people" itself, there is -- nothing. Silence. Inattention. Acquiescence. State terrorism -- lawless seizure, filthy torture, official murder -- is simply accepted, a part of "normal life," as in Nazi Germany or Stalin's empire, where "decent people" with "nothing to hide" approved and applauded the work of the "organs" in "defending national security."
This is the scandal, this is the nation's festering shame.This acquiescence to state terror will breed -- and attract -- a thousand evils for every one it supposedly prevents.
Arthur Silber writes of the gang-rape case in Richmond, California. You are unlikely to find such passion, eloquence and meaning in any other story about this case, and its implications. I won't excerpt Silber's essay here, because I think you should read the entire piece. I will only print his conclusion:
But, many people will say, this is monstrous. We must teach these children that such behavior is deeply wrong, and that they must change. To all such people, I reply: Then change yourselves. Change your values, and change the way you think and act. Children will see those changes, and their own behavior will alter accordingly in time.
Change yourselves. Start today. Start right now.
Again, I urge you to read the entire piece, and see the careful, powerful arguments that lead to this conclusion.
To be good – many people think that they’ll achieve it by doing no harm – and that’s a lie, and you said yourself in the past that it was a lie. That leads to stagnation, to mediocrity. Just slap something on it when you see a blank canvas staring at you with a sort of imbecility.
You don’t know how paralysing it is, that stare from a blank canvas that says to the painter you can’t do anything. The canvas has an idiotic stare, and mesmerises some painters so that they turn into idiots themselves.
Many painters are afraid of the blank canvas, but the blank canvas is afraid of the truly passionate painter who dares – and who has once broken the spell of ‘you can’t.’
Life itself likewise always turns towards one an infinitely meaningless, discouraging, dispiriting blank side on which there is nothing, any more than on a blank canvas.
But however meaningless and vain, however dead life appears, the man of faith, of energy, of warmth, and who knows something, doesn’t let himself be fobbed off like that. He steps in and does something, and hangs onto that, in short, breaks, ‘violates’ – they say.
Let them talk, those cold theologians.
The text is from a letter to his brother, Theo, written in 1884, and quoted in the London Review of Books by Julian Bell, in a review of a new English edition of Van Gogh's complete letters.
Ted Rall takes up a theme I've been sounding here (and elsewhere) since November 2001: The president of the United States now claims the right and power to arbitrarily designate anyone on earth an "enemy" and have them seized without charges, held indefinitely without trial -- or simply killed outright. As we've often reported here, George W. Bush asserted these dread powers by executive order -- and as Rall notes, Barack Obama has not only not rescinded them, he has made energetic use of them, particularly in his death-by-drone assassination program in Pakistan.
As Rall notes:
Simply put, no one man--not even a nice, articulate, charismatic one--ought to claim the right to suspend a person's constitutional rights. Not in America. Certainly no one man--not even a young, handsome, likeable one--should be able to have anyone he wants whacked. Even in dictatorships, the right of life and death is reserved for judges and juries operating under a system purportedly designed to support impartiality and a search for the truth.
But that's not the case here in the United States. In 2002 Scott Silliman, director of the Center on Law, Ethics and National Security at Duke University asked: "Could you put a Hellfire missile into a car in Washington, D.C., under [the Bush] theory? The answer is yes, you could."
Nothing much has changed since then. Obama has eliminated the use of the phrase "enemy combatant," but The New York Times reported that the change is merely meant to "symbolically separate the new administration from Bush detention policies." The words may have changed, but Obama attorney general Eric Holder's definition of who can and cannot be held, said the Times, is "not significantly different from the one used by the Bush administration."
These days, Obama has ramped up the assassination of political opponents of the U.S. and the U.S.-aligned authoritarian regime in Pakistan, deploying more Predator drone plane attacks than Bush. But that's just for now. Obama could still personally order a government agency to murder you.
Rall's conclusion is also one that we've drawn here time and again: No one seems to give a damn that their own liberties and lives are now forfeit to the whims and agendas of unaccountable leaders wielding vast, almost unimaginable technologies of repression and violence. A truly extraordinary -- or as Rall puts it, perhaps more accurately, "weird" -- situation.
I have often admired Jane Mayer's reportage. She has helped expose several elements of "the dark side" of America's worldwide Terror War. Her latest article in the New Yorker outlines the CIA's use of "Predator" drones to kill people by remote control in Pakistan. As the magazine notes, the Obama Administration is relying on these covert drone killers more and more, as it escalates America's military attacks in Pakistan -- ostensibly a sovereign nation allied to the United States.
Mayer's article relates a chilling story of suburban killers -- many of them stateside, firing their missiles from comfortable cubicles before heading home for dinner with the family -- operating in a secret program outside all traditional lines of legality and accountability. (Even the extremely low levels of legality and accountability that weakly adhere to the business of wholesale slaughter and destruction known as war.) For example, part of the program has been "outsourced" to private companies, who are killing people -- including hundreds of innocent civilians -- for profit, with American tax money.
The New Yorker's website has now published an interview with Mayer expanding on the original story. It too is chilling -- but not only for the further details of this state murder program. What is equally disturbing is the bloodless consideration of this bloody enterprise, based on the assumption that there is nothing essentially wrong with such an assassination program (with its inevitable "collateral damage"), as long it is more transparent, with the "legal, ethical and political boundaries" of the death squads clearly drawn.
The very first question gives us a glimpse into the bizarre, depraved moral universe of the American establishment:
How has the use of Predator drones by the United States changed the situation in Pakistan?
Well, there’s good news and bad news. According to the C.I.A., they’ve killed more than half of the twenty most wanted Al Qaeda terrorist suspects. The bad news is that they’ve inflamed anti-American sentiment, because they’ve also killed hundreds of civilians.
What is astonishing about this is that the interview doesn't end there, in a roar of outrage from Mayer and her interviewer: "They've killed hundreds of civilians!" Hundreds of Pakistani civilians, men, women and children with no involvement whatsoever in war or terrorism; just ordinary people living their lives as best they can -- just like your neighbor, just like your mother, just like you...or just like the people killed on September 11, whose deaths are used as an eternal justification for war and bloodshed on a global scale by the American state.
But these drone-murdered Pakistanis -- these human beings, these fathers and mothers, these grandparents, these toddlers, these brothers and sisters -- their lives are just statistics to be coldly weighed in the calibrations of imperial policy. The "bad news" about their deaths is not that they were murdered, not that these utterly defenseless men, women and children were blown to shreds without warning, without the slightest chance of escape, by flying robots controlled by unseen hands a world away; no, the "bad news" is that these that these killing might possibly hamper America's "counterinsurgency program":
How does the continued collateral damage from Predator drones square with General Stanley McChrystal’s order to the military to lay off the air strikes in Afghanistan and avoid civilian deaths?
Well, you could argue it either way. There is less collateral damage from a drone strike than there is from an F-16. According to intelligence officials, drones are more surgical in the way they kill—they usually use Hellfire missiles and do less damage than a fighter jet might.
At the same time, the fact that they kill civilians at all raises the same problem that McChrystal is trying to combat, which is that they incite people on the ground against the United States. When you’re trying to win a battle of hearts and minds, trying to win over civilian populations against terrorists, it can be counterproductive.
It can be counterproductive. When you kill hundreds of innocent people, it can be counterproductive. "Say, boys, how's my campaign shaping up these days?" "Well, Mr. Mayor, we're getting some negative feedback in the polls about your habit of machine-gunning people to death on the street every week. We've talked to some of our top PR people, and they say this kind of thing can be counterproductive."
And of course, this little passage also highlights the absurd hero-worship of our major "liberal" media toward the military chieftains who are increasingly dominating American policy, with increasing openness. Once again, as with the simpering hagiography offered up by the New York Times recently, we see the saintly image of noble Stanley McChrystal trying his darndest to avoid civilian casualties -- as he calls for 40,000 more troops (or "warfighters" as the Pentagon likes to call soldiers these days) to pour into the occupied land, spreading through the countryside and cities with bristling ordnance, backed always with close air support to provide "force protection."
McChrystal's command also provided the personnel for Task Force 6-26, an elite unit of 1,000 special-ops forces that engaged in harsh interrogation of detainees in Camp Nama as far back as 2003. The interrogations were so harsh that five Army officers were convicted on charges of abuse. (McChrystal himself was not implicated in the excesses, but the unit's slogan, which set the tone for its practices, was "If you don't make them bleed, they can't prosecute for it.")
McChrystal was not "implicated" in the "excesses" because in the American system, power and authority entail no responsibility; the buck always stops lower down the line, with a few "bad apples" or designated fall guys. The obscene spectacles of the Bush torture regimen -- and Barack Obama's frenzied efforts to shield the torture architects (and practitioners) from the slightest accountability -- give ample proof of this essential element of the system.
And yet here too, Mayer expresses the staggering blindness that afflicts the establishment media. Here she is explaining one of the problems of the CIA drone program: its lack of transparency, which she contrasts with the Pentagon system:
Well, the problem with this program is that it’s invisible; I would guess there must be all kinds of legal safeguards, and lawyers at the C.I.A. are discussing who we can kill and who we can’t, but none of that is available to the American people. It’s quite a contrast with the armed forces, because the use of lethal force in the military is a transparent process. There are after-action reports, and there’s a very obvious chain of command. We know where the responsibility runs, straight on up to the top of the government. This system keeps checks on abuses of power. There is no such transparency at the C.I.A.
One doesn't know whether to laugh or cry at this. When is the last time that responsibility for military depredations -- such as the systematic abuses in the American Terror War Gulag (with Abu Ghraib as just one small example) -- has run "straight on up to the top of the government"? The schizophrenia that afflicts our great and good and bestest and brightest is painfully evident here: Mayer herself, in her reports on the Gulag abuse, has shown, in great detail, that they were not aberrations by "bad apples" but were imposed from the very top of the chain of command.
Yet here she is blatantly contradicting her own reportage, the indisputable facts that she herself has uncovered. But such are the inevitable, wrenching cognitive dissonances that arise when you accept the basic assumptions of the militarist system -- which you must do, to some extent, to get a seat at the "serious" table in America's media-political establishment. She is probably not even aware that she is doing it; she is simply following the standard template for "process stories," which require stark contrasts between the protagonists, who are usually cast in good guy-bad guy mold. In this case, the protagonists are the two state apparatuses -- the Pentagon and the CIA -- who wield the power of faceless, remote-control death over innocent, undefended human beings. In this "process," it is the unregulated CIA killers who are the bad guys, and so the Pentagon must be recast as a stickler for accountability all the way up the line, despite the mountain of evidence against this ludicrous interpretation -- evidence which, we must emphasize again, Mayer herself has been instrumental in compiling.
"Process stories" -- reports on the inner workings of the power structure, almost always told from the point of view of interested insiders pushing factional agendas -- have become one of the chief staples of mainstream journalism in recent years. While they occasionally yield nuggets of useful information, they are, in essence, little more than scraps of court gossip, mixed with the poisonous whispers of conniving courtiers and scheming ministers and generals -- "packs and sects of great ones, that ebb and flow by the moon." It is surely no coincidence that these stories have come to dominate our journalism more and more as the imperial nature of the Permanent War State becomes more open and entrenched.
This blindness, this "institutional capture" of a journalist who comes to identify completely with the aims and ethos of her imperial sources, is perhaps best illustrated in this exchange:
Are people in Pakistan scared to move around because of the drones?
According to some recent studies, terrorists are scampering around only at night and accusing each other of being spies and informing on one another. So it’s had the desired effect in unraveling terror cells.
Note that the interviewer asked about the effect these terror strikes from the sky are having on the people in Pakistan. Have their daily lives been maimed and constricted by the American terror? A reasonable question, you would think, and an issue that should certainly be a factor in any "serious" examination of American policy in the region.
But Mayer answers in the language of the state terrorists themselves. Ignoring the plight of ordinary civilians in the ever-expanding number of areas in Pakistan now under the dread edict of American drones, Mayers reiterates the triumphalist propaganda of her sources, talking only of the drones' effects on the accused terrorists that have been targeted. The ordinary, innocent human beings being killed, hounded and terrorized by these imperial operations are, as always, invisible.
(Yet even a cursory glance at the headlines in the past week gives the bitter lie to this propaganda; reading the daily reports of deadly bombings at the very heart of Pakistan's security apparatus, we can see just how effective the drone attacks have been at "unraveling terror cells" in that country. What the American attacks in Pakistan have actually done, of course, is the opposite: they have expanded, embittered and emboldened opposition to an Islamabad government allied with foreign forces that rain death on innocent people out of the clear blue sky.)
But we should not leave the impression that the interview evinces no human compassion at all. Toward the end, the interviewer and Mayer focus on one set of victims who are genuinely suffering from the drone program: the brave suburban warriors sitting on their well-wadded behinds in cozy offices and well-appointed command centers as they push a button and blow up a house, a street, a village:
You mention in your piece that drone pilots, who work from an office, suffer from combat stress.
Someone sitting at C.I.A. headquarters in Langley, Virginia, can view and home in on a target on the other side of the world with tremendous precision, even at night, and destroy it. Peter Singer, who wrote a book on robotic warfare, said that cubicle warriors experience the same stress as regular warriors in a real war. Detached killing still takes a tremendous emotional toll inside our borders.
Oh yes, may the Lord protect and preserve all of our detached killers from the tremendous emotional toll inflicted upon them by their noble work!
Again, the point here is that a truly serious and sophisticated analysis of the situation would have stopped at the very beginning: "We are killing hundreds of innocent civilians, with robots, in a country we're not at war with -- one of our allies, in fact. What in the name of all that's holy – and all that's human – is driving our nation to commit these monstrous crimes, and how can we stop it?" That would be the issue under discussion. A truly serious and sophisticated analysis would not accept the hideous assertions and assumptions of state terrorists at face value, would not concern itself with the "process" by which imperial factions fight it out for the honor of perpetrating these atrocities – and would certainly not offer as its conclusion the earnest hope that the authors of these war crimes will find some way of doing them better:
What would the outlines of a more transparent drone program look like?
Michael Walzer, the political philosopher, has noted that when the United States goes about killing people, we usually know who they can kill and where the battlefield is. International lawyers are calling for a public revelation of who is on this list, where can we go after them, and how many people can we take out with them. They want to know the legal, ethical, and political boundaries of the program.
International lawyers want to know just how many people we can "take out" when we launch missile attacks in civilian areas. Our political philosophers want to know the ethical boundaries of assassinating someone who is suspected of being part of a group that our government currently does not like or find useful for its purposes. This program of systematic extrajudicial murder and mass slaughter of innocent civilians – often by private contractors whose profits depend on war and death –"raises interesting legal questions," Mayer says.
Such are the depraved parameters within which our most "serious" and "sophisticated" – indeed, our most "liberal" and "progressive" -- political analysis now takes place.
Just as I was finishing this piece, I ran across Arthur Silber's latest essay, which explicates the implications of these depraved parameters far more thoroughly than I have done. You should read his entire post – and the links – but I think a few extended excerpts here will help will underscore some of the points I was trying to make.
Silber's piece was sparked by the resignation of Matthew Hoh, a former combat officer in Iraq who had become of the top U.S. civilian officials in Afghanistan. Hoh resigned his post as a matter of principle, he said, because he could no longer see any good purpose in America's military involvement in what is "essentially a far-off civil war," as the Washington Post puts it.
Hoh's "principled" action has won widespread acclaim among critics of the Afghan adventure. But as Silber notes, the "principles" behind Hoh's actions include a whole-hearted approval of – and keen participation in – the very policies of imperialism and war crime that have led to the murderous war in Afghanistan, and are certain to spawn other such depredations:
And [the issue of] Iraq returns us to Matthew Hoh, and why his resignation is ultimately meaningless. In fact, it is much worse than that. To underscore the very limited nature of Hoh's protest, consider the conclusion of the Washington Post story:
If the United States is to remain in Afghanistan, Hoh said, he would advise a reduction in combat forces.
He also would suggest providing more support for Pakistan, better U.S. communication and propaganda skills to match those of al-Qaeda, and more pressure on Afghan President Hamid Karzai to clean up government corruption -- all options being discussed in White House deliberations.
"We want to have some kind of governance there, and we have some obligation for it not to be a bloodbath," Hoh said. "But you have to draw the line somewhere, and say this is their problem to solve."
In this passage, you see how even Hoh supports the overall purposes of U.S. foreign policy. He refers to "combat forces," but this is deceptive terminology, which I analyzed in detail when the same device was used in connection with Iraq. And Hoh urges "more support for Pakistan," and "more pressure" on Karzai -- that is, he recommends continued and even greater involvement in countries that should not concern us because they do not threaten us, but he suggests we alter the emphasis and particular form of our involvement. This is tinkering around the edges, and it does nothing to address the actual problem.
But the worst is this passage earlier in the story:
"I'm not some peacenik, pot-smoking hippie who wants everyone to be in love," Hoh said. Although he said his time in Zabul was the "second-best job I've ever had," his dominant experience is from the Marines, where many of his closest friends still serve.
"There are plenty of dudes who need to be killed," he said of al-Qaeda and the Taliban. "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys."
The critical facts are few in number, and remarkably easy to understand: Iraq never threatened the U.S. in any serious manner. Our leaders knew Iraq did not threaten us. Despite what should have been the only fact that mattered, the U.S. invaded and occupied, and still occupies, a nation that never threatened us and had never attacked us. Under the applicable principles of international law and the Nuremberg Principles, the U.S. thus committed a monstrous, unforgivable series of war crimes. Those who support and continue the occupation of Iraq are war criminals -- not because I say so, but because the same principles that the U.S. applies to every other nation, but never to the U.S. itself, necessitate that judgment and no other.
While it may be true that some "dudes" threatened Hoh's life and the lives of those with whom he served, Hoh could never have been threatened in that manner but for the fact that he was in Iraq as part of a criminal war of aggression. In other words, he had no right to be in Iraq in the first place. And if he had not been, he would never have been in a position to "whack a bunch of guys."
Here Silber cuts to the absolute crux of the matter – in Iraq, in Afghanistan, and in those Langley offices where "cubicle warriors" are suffering so much emotional turmoil from their "whack jobs" on hundreds of innocent civilians: We have no right to be doing these things in the first place.
And someone who stands foursquare behind an abominable war crime like the invasion of Iraq has no "principles," as this term is commonly understood. As Silber puts it:
The significance of Hoh's own judgment of his actions in Iraq, and his own failure to acknowledge the true nature of the U.S. presence there, lies in the fact that it undercuts his protest about U.S. strategy in Afghanistan on the most fundamental level. Hoh offers no principled opposition to wars of aggression: he approves of a criminal war in Iraq, but opposes it in Afghanistan. And he opposes it in Afghanistan not because it's a crime and morally abhorrent -- which it is -- but because it's not "working." It's "ineffective." This perfectly mirrors the typical liberal criticism of the Iraq crime: that it was executed "incompetently." Opposition of this kind finally reduces to no opposition at all, except on specifics. Such opposition is futile, inconsistent and contradictory, and ultimately worthless. It fails to challenge U.S. policy on the critical, more fundamental level -- and it invites a future catastrophe on an equal or, which is horrifying to contemplate, an even greater scale.
Hoh doesn't like the war crime in Afghanistan because it doesn't seem to be working out too well – not because it's wrong. Mayer doesn't like the CIA Predator program of targeted assassination and massive "collateral damage" because it's too unregulated, too opaque, and we need to find ways to make it work better – more like the Pentagon program of targeted assassination and massive "collateral damage."
But hey, isn't it good that a high American official has refused to take further part in the Af-Pak Terror War? Of course it is – relatively speaking. As Silber notes:
I view Hoh's resignation as a positive development in only one very limited sense. If a sufficient number of U.S. personnel resigned, for reasons similar to Hoh's or even for no reason at all, if they simply resigned, the U.S. would be unable to continue its current policy. But that will not happen, not in the numbers required.
Silber then notes that war critics who applaud Hoh's action have missed a critical point that makes hollow any claim of deeply held principle behind his resignation: his enthusiasm for "whacking" people in a country that American forces invaded in a savage and lawless act of aggression:
For me, the worst omission on [Glenn] Greenwald's part is his failure to comment on this statement from Hoh: "I was never more happy than when our Iraq team whacked a bunch of guys." I urge you to consider again the arguments as to why the U.S. invasion and continuing occupation of Iraq constitute an ongoing series of monstrous war crimes, and how Hoh's actions are only one part of an incomprehensibly awful larger criminal project. But Hoh "was never more happy" than when he "whacked a bunch of guys" -- "guys" that neither Hoh nor any other U.S. soldier should ever have been in a position to kill. And Greenwald finds none of this worthy of even momentary interest.
Yet in that single statement of Hoh's, and in all the assumptions that underlie it and all the policies to which it necessarily leads and to which it will lead again as long as those policies remain unaltered, lies a world of endless horror -- a world of agony, dismemberment, maiming, torture, of countless personal tragedies and lives forever changed and ended, and of growing instability and threats that are increased by U.S. actions. As long as the forces that drive U.S. policy are ignored or denied, as long as we do not engage this argument on those terms that are most crucial -- and as long as we will not identify the nature of U.S. actions for what they are, and in these instances, they are war crimes -- these horrors will continue without end.
How's that "extraordinary achievement" of "the surge" going over in Iraq? Iraqi academic Sami Ramadani -- who fled persecution by Saddam's regime and also opposed the America war of aggression against his country -- has this report, in the wake of the latest round of carnage in the civil war set off by the American invasion:
There is no doubt that the situation has improved for US forces, while British troops were airlifted from the fires of Iraq to be thrown into the flames of Afghanistan. The US plan for Iraq has so far succeeded in reducing its own casualties by pushing more of the Iraqi forces into the battle against the "insurgency" – better known in Iraq as the "honourable patriotic resistance" to distinguish it from the hated al-Qaida-style terrorists attacks.
But try to tell Iraqis who are not part of the ruling circles that their situation has improved since the occupation and they will remind you not only of the countless dead and injured but also of the million-plus orphans and widows, the 2 million who fled the country, and the 2 million internal refugees, most of whom live in dreadful squalor.
They will tell you about the sewage covering the streets of many towns and cities, the lack of clean water, fuel and electricity, and the ever deteriorating health and education services. They will tell you about the more than 50% unemployment, the kidnapping of children, the fear of women to move freely, and the rapid rise in drug abuse and prostitution. They will describe the horrific methods of torture inflicted on the tens of thousands of prisoners in Iraqi and American jails. ... Iraqis will also instantly refer you to the corrupt rulers who came to Iraq "on the backs of US tanks". They will tell you of the division of ministries and senior posts among the various sectarian and ethnically identified political allies of the US....
While Iraq and its people continue to suffer, with most of the western media ignoring their plight, President Obama is still pursuing President Bush's goal in Iraq – to have a government in Baghdad that is closely allied to the US. This is incompatible with bringing about a stable, peaceful and democratic Iraq. What US strategists have yet to learn is that the Iraqi people will not freely accept a pro-US regime in Baghdad and that the "exit strategy" will inevitably result in long-term occupation, and bring only more bloodshed and destruction.
But what does Ramadani know? He's just an Iraqi. The bipartisan best and brightest back in Washington will no doubt find a way to make it work. They always do, don't they?
Recently, I wrote of "the 'counterinsurgency doctrine' so beloved by the Pentagon and eagerly embraced by Barack Obama." A reader took me to task for this inflammatory remark, saying:
That 'eagerly embraced' statement is certainly hard to square with the Pentagon's annoyance and Cheney's charge of dithering. Its inaccuracy suggests either deliberate inaccuracy or judgment clouded by emotion, but either way it isn't good.
To which, this brief reply:
I realize that historical memory has always been a rare commodity in the United States, but one shudders to see that the onset of this chronic amnesia is now down to the merest months. Was it not just six months ago, in May 2009, that Obama made a great show of firing the commander in Afghanistan, General David McKiernan, and replacing him with a much-lauded "expert" in counterinsurgency, Gen. Stanley McChrystal -- a close associate of the much-lauded "architect" of counterinsurgency in Iraq, General David Petraeus -- the Bush-appointed officer whom Obama has retained as the top dog in the central fronts of the Terror War? Was not McChrystal championed by Robert Gates -- the Bush-appointed factotum whom Obama has retained as the top dog in the Pentagon war machine?
The fact that Obama has not yet signed off on McChrystal's latest plan does not mean that he is not now, before our very eyes, promulgating the Pentagon's time-honored bleed-build-rinse-repeat philosophy of occupation warfare. He has already launched one major Petraeus-style "surge" in Afghanistan this year; the current controversy about the McChrystal plan is confined to how many more troops to send, and how far the vastly stupid and dangerous American war in Pakistan should be escalated. Obama has already explicitly ruled out withdrawing from Afghanistan; that's "not an option," as his mouthpiece put it just a few weeks ago. So what's left? Only some form of continued "counterinsurgency."
And so what if the Pentagon is "annoyed" with Obama, or if Dick Cheney is critical of the faction that ousted his faction from power? Do you think that factions in regimes of every stripe don't have very fierce and nasty internal battles, even when they embrace the same general philosophy? Ever read any history of the inner workings of Nazi regime, or the Bolsheviks, or the Roman Empire -- or Lincoln's cabinet?
Of course, one can always base one's conclusions on headlines in the NY Times: "Pentagon Annoyed at Not Immediately Getting Its Own Way!" or even -- gasp! -- "Cheney Slams Obama!" If these "Dog Bites Man, Sun Rises in the East" kind of stories inform your worldview, then more power to you. Personally, I don't get much out of them. [For a brilliant dissection of the kind of threadbare vacuity that lies behind most "expert" analyses in the Times, see Arthur Silber's latest: The Empty Establishment: No One's Home in an Intellectual Wasteland.]
As for the particular criticisms on offer, I have to say that sniffy insinuations of "deliberate inaccuracy" are very far off the mark. Not that I've never been inaccurate, of course, if led astray by some erroneous source material, or by my own lack of insight or understanding in considering a particular situation. But I have never knowingly distorted or falsified a fact in order to support an argument or assertion. And in any case, as noted above, it is no way inaccurate to say that Barack Obama has eagerly embraced the "COIN" doctrine of Petraeus, which has been so blindly feted by the bipartisan elite of our political and media establishments – even though it is merely a regurgitation of similarly debased, and unsuccessful, COIN operations in times past.
And as for judgments "clouded with emotion," let me say, in all candor, that I honestly don't give one good goddamn whether someone thinks my writing on this issue is "clouded by emotion" or not. I mean, Jesus Herbert Walker Christ, we are talking about arms and legs and heads being ripped from the bodies of women and children -- actual human beings, being slaughtered in our names, day after day. And for what purpose? Every ill and evil that the war purports to address is actually made worse by our violent occupation. Eight years down, and the Taliban is stronger, Pakistan is far more unstable, thousands more civilians have been killed, religious extremism in the region is stronger than ever, the opium trade is more virulent and more devastating, brutal warlords rule with impunity … the list goes on and on. And all we are being offered by our new "progressive" administration is more of the same.
So yes, when I write about this atrocious and obscene situation, there is a bit of "emotion" in it. And I guess you're right: such a thing "isn't good" -- if what you want is to be taken "seriously" by the oh-so-serious, in that world where portentous headlines form the thrice-chewed cud of "conventional wisdom," But I don't give a damn about that, not in the slightest. I write about these things for one reason only: to bear witness, to put down for the record that I saw the evil being committed in my name, and that I spoke out against it, as fully and honestly as I knew how. That's it. That's all I want to do. For whatever reason, I feel compelled to give this testimony -- and it really doesn't matter to me what anyone else makes of it. If they find it useful in some way, I'm very glad; if they don't, so what?
I'm not saying there aren't many other worthy and effective approaches to confronting the horrific reality of our day -- including, yes, writing dispassionate analyses, or striving to couch your dissent in a form that might get a hearing amongst the cud-chewers who control our national discourse. I've done both in my day. I may do so again. But that's not what I'm doing here.
In any event, to believe that emotion does not infuse, direct and shape all of our judgments is, I think, deeply ignorant – historically, philosophically and biochemically. We know that consciousness arises from the unimaginably vast, unimaginably intricate interactions of physical and mental states. There is no airless, emotionless compartment somewhere inside your mind where you can go to hammer out pure, Platonic, disembodied essences of thought.
The most important question in this regard is not whether or not something is written with emotion, because this is unavoidable. The real question is whether or not that emotion is an informed one – if it is backed by facts, if it has been subjected to a self-aware analysis, and is not simply a regurgitation of conventional wisdom, shaped by emotions and motives which have been left to lie unconscious and unexplored.
I hope to God that I never write about atrocity, murder, corruption and brutality without a judgment deep-dyed with emotion for the vast suffering they cause. I hope my soul never becomes deadened to these horrors.
A few quick takes on the Long, Long War of Empire.
COIN Machine Out of Change Nick Turse examines the effectiveness of the "counterinsurgency doctrine" so beloved by the Pentagon and eagerly embraced by Barack Obama. Turse begins with the stellar success of American COIN operations in the Philippines – still going strong after more than 100 years. It certainly bodes well for Barack's big adventure in Bactria and environs, doesn't it?
Pumping (Blood and) Iron
Another venerable tradition of our militarist state is "rolling out the product" – i.e., playing the "free press" like a pump organ to sing the siren song of war. David Bromwich admires the masterclass in this pernicious process put on by the New York Times in a recent five-day blitz to push a "counterinsurgency" escalation on the Af-Pak front.
The Bush-minted, Petraeus-stamped COIN in Iraq is now regarded by some poor fools (i.e., 97 percent of the political and media establishments) as an "extraordinary achievement," to use Obama's preferred term for the "surge." That's not true, of course; the "surge" was actually a partially successful intervention on the part of one faction in the multi-sided civil war set off by the American military aggression.
(Much as the American military aggression in Cambodia destroyed that society and led directly to the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge – who were, in any case, later backed by the Americans when Vietnam launched a "humanitarian intervention" to kick them out. Yes, it's very confusing, isn't it, these questions of when an invasion is "humanitarian" or not, and under what circumstances you should support genocidal berserkers. Such a tricky business; that's why we leave it to our wise leaders, like Nixon, Bush and Obama, to figure it all out for us.)
In any case, the armed extremist factions that America empowered are now putting their stamp on the "democracy" in Iraq. And here's what your tax dollars – and the blood of your compatriots (not to mention the blood of more than a million innocent Iraqis; but then, who does mention them?) – has paid for: Iraqi Campus Is Under Gang’s Sway. This is from the NY Times -- which, when not obliged to do its civic duty as a pipeline for war propaganda, can sometimes actually dig up a few useful facts:
Mustansiriya University, one of Iraq’s most prestigious universities, was temporarily closed this month by the prime minister in an effort to rid it of a shadowy student gang accused of murdering, torturing and raping fellow students, and killing professors and administrators....
Mustansiriya... is under the sway of an armed group of violent Shiite students in engineering, literature, law and other disciplines; faculty members; and campus security guards. Abed Thiab al-Ajili, Iraq’s minister of higher education, and administrators and professors at the university said in interviews that it was commonly believed that violence continued there because of ties between some of the officials in Mr. Maliki’s Shiite party, Dawa, and the Students League through university administrators who shielded the group from prosecution....
The Students League, they said, controls campus activities and security, as well as aspects of grading, admissions and even which courses professors teach. ... The Students League has also asserted control by sharing money with some school administrators through bid-rigging of campus contracts and various other illegal means, said a university administrator whom the group had threatened to kill.
An extraordinary achievement, or what? Unfortunately, America's empowered poobah doesn't seem quite empowered enough to get the country ready for the ballyhooed elections in January, after which we're promised that American forces can finally begin some serious withdrawing of their occupation forces down to an as-yet unspecified level of troops who will remain behind as, uh, occupation forces (albeit with a more PC description). Why, we hear tell that Maliki and the gang might even have to postpone the elections – which will doubtless "force" the occupiers to delay any meaningful pull-out, in order to provide "continuing stability in a time of political turmoil" or some such.
Still marking time, laying in some firewood, getting my back wheels aligned. Reading strange testaments, sitting in a French cafe, listening to music from the days of troubled sleep. When the rain lets up, I'll take my cane from the coat-rack and slip out the door. Till then.
Lingering illness and pressing business have kept me away from blogging for the past few days, but I shall return to the fray -- untanned, unrested, and, like Ethelred, unready -- as soon as possible.
Meanwhile, I urge you to the check out a remarkable compendium that Arthur Silber has put together at his site, drawing together several essays from over the years that touch upon some of the deepest wellsprings of our various bedevilments, both public and private. In a world more just, humane and sane, this collection would be published in book form, to stand as an honored and much-consulted volume on many a shelf. But to paraphrase that great humanitarian, Donald Rumsfeld, you don't get to live in the world you want; you've got to live in the world you have. So this assemblage of links will have to do for now. Give it a look at this URL [my link function is not working at the moment]: http://powerofnarrative.blogspot.com/2009/10/meaningful-connections.html.