This is my latest column for the print version of CounterPunch, published last month.
I flew into Washington the day the government shut down. I had come back to America to scatter my mother's ashes in the sea. It was her last request: to put her to rest in the Atlantic Ocean, off Myrtle Beach, where she had spent some happy times more than half a century ago.
I made my way to Tennessee, where her ashes were waiting in a black plastic box on the mantlepiece in our family home. All along the line, facilities and services were shutting down from a dispute over a corporate boondoggle -- "Obamacare" -- based on a conservative Republican template drawn up to enrich the rapacious insurance-healthcare complex, whose heavy, grinding gears had harrowed both my sick and aged parents to their graves, one inch from bankruptcy. But now, in the bizarre and ugly weirdness of our failing United States, this plan -- once the farthest feather on the rightest right-wing -- had become a commie monstrosity to be resisted at all costs.
While bullshit ruled the public world, private life -- and private death -- went on. My brother and I, the family's last remnants, set out on the 600-mile journey through the old Confederacy to carry out our filial duties. Beer, whisky, Coca-Cola, BC Powder and beef jerky carried us through Marietta, Atlanta, Lithonia, Augusta, Red Bank, Columbia and finally down the dark, moonless ribbon of Highway 501 to the coast.
Near midnight, we reached the sprawling, garish tourist trap that had grown up where that stunning young woman and her handsome soldier husband had once stolen away from his Army base for quiet seaside weekends. We found the town had been besieged, occupied, overwhelmed by swarms of growling, roaring hogs: it was Biker Week in Myrtle Beach! Up and down and around the streets they rolled, gunning their engines in bravura displays, hour after hour after hour. A motley mix of part-time hobbyists -- pudgy accountants and middle managers, hauling their soft bulk on wide, well-appointed suburban machinery -- and hard-core, black-leathered, tattooed lifers, leaning back on bad-ass Harleys.
Not quite the dignified setting she might have imagined for this last act, but what the hell. "It is what it is," my brother said, as he always says, and we set off for the beach. It was nearly empty in the post-midnight hour. The deep white sand was indirectly lit from the hotels behind, but the sea itself was black, fused with the black sky. The whitecaps seemed to emerge from utter darkness and disappear into it again. The rhythmic roar of the invisible waves filled the air. Only days before, I'd finished a reading novel about the Zen master, Hakuin, and now it suddenly struck me: this is what he was talking about – this is the sound of one hand clapping.
Such exalted thoughts vanished in the bleary morning after. The day of the scattering was at hand. The public world, where normally I spent hours greedily scarfing the news, had shriveled to nothing more than a few headlines glimpsed in a box on the street. The shutdown was still going on, and apocalyptic default was imminent; the entrails of polls were being examined to assess the all-important political ramifications. The Peace Prizer had kidnapped somebody in Libya; one of his hit squads had been chased out of Somalia. The never-ending, all-devouring, pointless, heartless psycho circus rolled on.
We drove down to nearby Murrell's Inlet, where our rented boat awaited. The two-lane road was lined with bars, roadhouses, restaurants, all of them crammed to overflowing with bikers. Cops were out to direct traffic through the metal morass. We finally found the rental place. They brought the boat around. We went three miles out to sea, as the law requires. We did what we came to do. Then we headed back to Tennessee, to clear out and close up the house for good.
In the inevitable self-centeredness of grief, I couldn't help but see it all as the emblem of something larger, the end of an era. My mother was born in the depths of Depression, to a sharecropper who'd been born in the 19th century. She worked the tobacco fields, helped in the hog-killing, wore flour-sack dresses until she was 10. Public schooling, electrification and government work lifted her family up. She got out of the holler -- though not far enough to suit her -- and lived the long, post-war, middle-class life that is now ending, in blood, absurdity and degradation, all around us.
The American Dream, I guess. But we know now its seeming solidity was built on sand -- or ashes. Built on the death and suffering of countless, faceless "others" around the world, and in our own streets. Built on the poisonous myth of "exceptionalism,” the cargo cult of “the market,” and the tragic denial of our commonality.
It didn't have to be that way -- but it is what it is. Her life rose and fell with this historic arc, like a wave going back into the dark. She is free now, drifting on the open sea; where are we?
Just a reminder: this is the true nature of the bipartisan, militarized "security state" now headed by the progressive Nobel Peace Prize Laureate. When you support the Laureate -- however "savvily" and "critically" -- when you support the system -- hoping to "reform" it from within -- this is what you are supporting. From the Guardian:
The last time I saw my mother, Momina Bibi, was the evening before Eid al-Adha. She was preparing my children's clothing and showing them how to make sewaiyaan, a traditional sweet made of milk. … The next day, 24 October 2012, she was dead, killed by a US drone that rained fire down upon her as she tended her garden.
Nobody has ever told me why my mother was targeted that day. The media reported that the attack was on a car, but there is no road alongside my mother's house. Several reported the attack was on a house. But the missiles hit a nearby field, not a house. All reported that five militants were killed. Only one person was killed – a 67-year-old grandmother of nine.
My three children – 13-year-old Zubair, nine-year-old Nabila and five-year-old Asma – were playing nearby when their grandmother was killed. All of them were injured and rushed to hospitals. Were these children the "militants" the news reports spoke of? Or perhaps, it was my brother's children? They, too, were there. They are aged three, seven, 12, 14, 15 and 17 years old. The eldest four had just returned from a day at school, not long before the missile struck. ...
We want to understand why a 67-year-old grandmother posed a threat to one of the most powerful countries in the world. We want to understand how nine children, some playing in the field, some just returned from school, could possibly have threatened the safety of those living a continent and an ocean away.
Most importantly, we want to understand why President Obama, when asked whom drones are killing, says they are killing terrorists. My mother was not a terrorist. My children are not terrorists. Nobody in our family is a terrorist.
My mother was a midwife, the only midwife in our village. She delivered hundreds of babies in our community. Now families have no one to help them. And my father? He is a retired school principal. He spent his life educating children, something that my community needs far more than bombs. Bombs create only hatred in the hearts of people. And that hatred and anger breeds more terrorism. But education – education can help a country prosper.
I, too, am a teacher. I was teaching in my local primary school on the day my mother was killed. I came home to find not the joys of Eid, but my children in the hospital and a coffin containing only pieces of my mother.
Our family has not been the same since that drone strike. Our home has turned into hell. The small children scream in the night and cannot sleep. They cry until dawn …
Drone strikes are not like other battles where innocent people are accidentally killed. Drone strikes target people before they kill them. The United States decides to kill someone, a person they only know from a video. A person who is not given a chance to say – I am not a terrorist. The US chose to kill my mother.
No, Barack Obama didn't physically push the button on this particular murder. That was done by some video-game jockey sitting in a padded chair somewhere, very safe, very protected. But the murder was a direct result of the decisions made by the "Commander-in-Chief" to set up a framework of state murder -- sorry, "extrajudicial assassination" -- sorry, "protection for the security of the American people" -- that allows any number of lower-level agents and officers to carry out these high-tech mob hits on their own authority, for their own reasons. (Though no doubt these decisions are processed through a complex and sophisticated "decision matrix" made up of multifarious determining factors -- like, "Dark-skinned bodies in an open field; could be terrorists; what the hell, rub 'em out.")
Of course, the Commander-Laureate does, like Stalin, personally sign off on death lists on a regular basis, giving the direct order for a rub-out. But as heinous as the White House death squad is, the murder program is actually far more widespread than that, with faceless bureaucrats -- military and civilian (if indeed these distinctions still have any real meaning in our militarised and paramilitarized security state) -- making the call to kill as they see fit. We have no idea who these people are, or how or why they make their choices to kill, or who they will target next.
This is the system we have now. This is what you must deal with -- not the hallucinatory fantasy where a good guy "progressive" battles heroically against the bad guy "teabaggers," and needs our help to keep him on the good path toward "reform." It's not a comic book, it's not a civics book, it's a not a movie with a happy ending. It's a brutal, murderous, lawless, dangerous, out-of-control engine of destruction, encompassing the entire political establishment and all those who support it, politically and financially.
1. Clancy Lives! Take heart, you fans of slam-bang super-spy adventure stories! Tom Clancy is not dead; he lives on in the pages of the Washington Post, channeled through the airport-thriller prose of Barton Gellman -- one of the small coterie of media custodians doling out dollops from the huge archive of secret NSA documents obtained by whistleblower Edward Snowden.
Drawing on that archive of what should be shocking, empire-undermining revelations, Gellman and his co-authors last week penned a story that is, in almost every respect, a glorification of state-ordered murder: a rousing tale of secret ops in exotic lands, awesome high-tech spy gear, flying missiles, deadly explosions, and dogged agents doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. No doubt Hollywood is already on the horn: it's boffo box office!
The story describes how the NSA's determined leg-work helped Barack Obama shred the sovereignty of a US ally in order to kill a man -- in the usual cowardly fashion, by long-distance, remote-control missile -- without the slightest pretense of judicial process. It's really cool! Just watch our boys in action:
In the search for targets, the NSA has draped a surveillance blanket over dozens of square miles of northwest Pakistan. In Ghul’s case, the agency deployed an arsenal of cyber-espionage tools, secretly seizing control of laptops, siphoning audio files and other messages, and tracking radio transmissions to determine where Ghul might “bed down.” …
“NSA threw the kitchen sink at the FATA,” said a former U.S. intelligence official with experience in Afghanistan and Pakistan, referring to the Federally Administered Tribal Areas, the region in northwest Pakistan where al-Qaeda’s leadership is based. … Surveillance operations that required placing a device or sensor near an al-Qaeda compound were handled by the CIA’s Information Operations Center, which specializes in high-tech devices and “close-in” surveillance work. “But if you wanted huge coverage of the FATA, NSA had 10 times the manpower, 20 times the budget and 100 times the brainpower,” the former intelligence official said.
I mean, get a load of these guys: 100 times the brainpower of ordinary mortals! Didn't I say they were super-spies?
The target was Hassan Ghul, an al-Qaeda operative who was once in American custody but was released after giving his captors the tip that eventually led them to Osama bin Laden. (He was also tortured after giving the information -- because, hey, why not? Even super-powerful brains need to let off steam once in a while, right?) Returned to his native Pakistan, Ghul evidently became a bad Injun again in eyes of the imperium, so, after snooping on his wife, they found out where he was and ordered some joystick jockey with his butt parked in a comfy chair somewhere to push a button and kill him.
There is not a single word in the entire story to suggest, even remotely, that there is anything wrong with the government of the United States running high-tech death squads and blanketing the globe with a level of invasive surveillance far beyond the dreams of Stalin or the Stasi. There is not even a single comment from some token 'serious' person objecting to the policy on realpolitik grounds: i.e., that such actions create more terrorists (as the Pakistani schoolgirl Malala Yousafzai told Obama to his face), engender hatred for the US, destabilize volatile regions, etc. etc. There is not a shred of even this very tepid, 'loyal opposition' type of tidbit that usually crops up in the 15th or 25th paragraph of such stories. But there was, of course, plenty of room for quotes like this:
“Ours is a noble cause,” NSA Director Keith B. Alexander said during a public event last month. “Our job is to defend this nation and to protect our civil liberties and privacy.”
Makes you want to puddle up with patriotic pride, don’t it? These noble, noble guardians of ours: peeping through our digital windows, rifling through our in-boxes, listening to our personal conversations, reading our private thoughts, tracking our purchases (underwear, fishing gear, sex toys, books, movies, tampons, anything, everything), recording our dreams, our interests, our beliefs, our desires, skulking in the shadows, pushing buttons to kill people … yes, noble is certainly the first word that comes to mind. 2. Habituation Blues It was once thought that the Snowden trove -- which details the astonishingly pervasive and penetrative reach of America's security apparatchiks into every nook and cranny of our private lives -- might prove to be a stinging blow to our imperial overlords, rousing an angry populace to begin taking back some of the liberties that have been systematically stripped from them by the bipartisan elite. But instead of a powerful tsunami of truth -- a relentless flood of revelations, coming at the overlords from every direction, keeping them off-balance -- we have seen only a slow drip-feed of polite, lawyer-scrubbed pieces from a small portion of the trove, carefully filtered by a tiny circle of responsible journalists at a handful of respectable institutions to ensure, as the custodians constantly assure us, that the revelations will "do no harm" to the security apparat's vital mission.
The perverse result of this process has been to slowly habituate the public to the idea of ubiquitous surveillance. The drawn-out spacing of the stories -- and the small circle of well-known venues from which they come -- has given the apparatchiks and their leaders plenty of time to prepare and launch counter-attacks, to confuse and diffuse the issues with barrages of carefully-wrought bullshit, and to mobilize their own allies in the compliant media to attack the high-profile producers of the stories -- such as the angry assaults in recent days by Britain's right-wing papers, accusing the Guardian of treason, etc., and, once again, diverting attention from the dark and heavy substance of the revelations to the juicier froth of a media cat-fight.
And so, as we have seen time and again over the years, an outbreak of "dissident" revelations is slowly being turned into a means of habituating people to the horrors they expose -- such as the widespread use of torture, which became a widely accepted practice during the last decade. Remember the first Abu Ghraib stories, when even U.S. senators were shell-shocked as they came out of briefings on the horrors, and there was serious talk of criminal prosecutions shaking -- perhaps breaking -- the Bush administration? Outraged editorials rang across the land: "This is not what we are!" But most of the Abu Ghraib material was kept from the public, both by the government and by our respectable, carefully-filtering media outlets. We were told, by our masters and our media, that the facts and images were "too disturbing" for public viewing; and their exposure would threaten our soldiers and agents with retaliation by outraged Muslims.
Within months, many of those same outraged papers were endorsing Bush for re-election. And even in "liberal" bastions, like the New York Times, torture had become a matter not for outright, automatic condemnation and rejection – as it would be in any civilized society -- but instead was presented as an issue requiring “serious” debate. (Debate! About torture!). And so we had a series of serious players weighing in on the pros and cons of "strenuous interrogation" -- with the emphasis largely on whether it was effective or not. This became the respectable, savvy “liberal” perspective on the question: not that torture was an unspeakable, untouchable evil, but that, hey, it doesn’t really work, you get too much garbage data, so it’s not really a useful tool for our noble security forces.
And we all know what happened in the end: the initially shocked and outraged bipartisan elite agreed that no one should ever be prosecuted for these brazen war crimes (aside from a few bits of low-ranking trailer trash, of course), and that those who approved and perpetrated these acts should be protected, honored, and enriched by our society. By the time the smoke cleared, large percentages of the public voiced their support for the torture of imperial captives and the stripping of rights (constitutional rights, human rights) from anyone arbitrarily designated as a "terrorist" by our leaders.
The same thing happened -- in a much quicker, more telescoped form -- in 2012 when the New York Times revealed the details of Barack Obama's formal, official death squad program, run directly out of the White House in weekly meetings. Indeed, this entire "revelation" was stage-managed by the White House itself, which "leaked" the details and provided "top administrative figures" to paint the scene of thoughtful, even prayerful leaders doing the grim but noble work of keeping us safe. Of course, snippets about the White House murder program had been made public before, going back to 2001. (I wrote my first column on the subject in November 2001, based on laudatory stories about Bush's self-proclaimed license to kill in the Washington Post.) And of course, Bush himself openly boasted of the assassination program on national television in his State-of-the-Union address in 2003. So the NYT story was more of a culmination of the habituation process.
Still, many people -- perhaps most people -- had never stitched together the horrendous reality behind these scattered snippets over the years; but the NYT story made it crystal clear, front and center. This time there was not even the brief spasm of outrage that followed the Abu Ghraib revelations. A nation that had already accustomed itself to systematic torture, to "indefinite detention" of captives in concentration camps, indeed to what was described at the Nuremberg Trials as the "supreme international crime" -- aggressive war -- was no longer a nation that would be troubled by news of a White House death squad. It was just part of the "new normal." And it goes without saying that these revelations did not prevent any serious and respectable liberal and "progressive" figure from endorsing Obama's re-election months later.
Yet the Snowden revelations had the potential, at least, to cut through the murk of moral deadness that now envelops America. This is because, unlike distant wars and "black ops" and brutality against swarthy, meaningless foreigners with funny names, the NSA's surveillance programs are also aimed at them, at real people, Americans! For once, they could see a direct impact of overweening empire on their own sweet lives. (Aside from the innumerable indirect impacts which have degraded national life for decades.) There was a chance -- a chance -- that this might have galvanized a critical mass across the ideological spectrum to some kind of substantial pushback, And the series of confused, panicky, self-contradictory lies that government officials and their sycophants told when the Snowden story first hit gave some indication that, for a moment at least, our noble (and Nobelled) overlords were on the back foot.
But then -- well, not much happened. Stories based on the NSA documents appeared at intervals -- often rather lengthy intervals --- and always from the same sources, in the same dry, dense, Establishment style, interspersed with relentless counterblasts from the power structure -- and, always, mixed in with the million other bright, shiny things that pop and flash and draw the eye on the hyperactive screens that ‘mediate’ reality for us. (And what if you were one of the billions of people on earth who -- perish the thought! -- didn't read the Guardian, the Times and the Post?) So the Snowden-based stories rumbled away on the sidelines, the momentum was lost, the power structure got its bootheels back firmly on the ground.
3. The Rain it Raineth Every Day
"Fine word, legitimate." Edmund, King Lear
But what a minute, you say! Hold on just a rootin' tootin' minute there, Mister Cynical Blog Guy! What about the debate? What about the fierce debate -- in the press, on TV, even in the halls of legislatures around the world -- that the finely filtered NSA stories have already brought about? After all, provoking debate was the point, wasn't it? Over and over, custodians of NSA trove such as Gellman and Glenn Greenwald have told us that this has been the raison d’etre behind publishing the stories. Not to "harm" the security apparatus in any way, but to spark a debate over surveillance policies. For according to the serious and the savvy, debate is an inherent good in itself.
Snowden himself underscored this point in his interview with the New York Times last week. In fact, in one extraordinary passage, he says point-blank that he believes the lack of debate is more egregious than the actual liberty-stripping, KGB wet-dream abuses being perpetrated by the security apparat:
[Snowden] added that he had been more concerned that Americans had not been told about the N.S.A.’s reach than he was about any specific surveillance operation.
“So long as there’s broad support amongst a people, it can be argued there’s a level of legitimacy even to the most invasive and morally wrong program, as it was an informed and willing decision,” he said. “However, programs that are implemented in secret, out of public oversight, lack that legitimacy, and that’s a problem. It also represents a dangerous normalization of ‘governing in the dark,’ where decisions with enormous public impact occur without any public input.”
Even “the most morally wrong program” can have a “level of legitimacy” if it has “broad support amongst a people.” Well, if I may quote Mel Brooks quoting old Joe Schrank, I can hardly believe my hearing aid. Snowden apparently put his life and liberty at risk just to see if the American people supported blanket surveillance of themselves and the world. And if they do – well, that gives the whole sinister shebang “a level of legitimacy.” So if the polls eventually show that most people are down with the invasive-pervasive spy program – because, after all, “if you’ve done nothing wrong, you’ve got nothing to hide” – then it’s all A-OK. Because there would have been a debate, you see, and that’s the main thing. That’s what gives even morally wrong programs their legitimacy. As long as, say, invasive surveillance, torture, aggressive war and hit squads have been given a sufficient modicum of ‘public input,’ of ‘transparency,’ then that’s all that matters. It would be too radical, too harmful, if one were to condemn such practices out of hand as sickening acts of depravity and state terror.
My word, we don’t want that kind of thing, do we? What we want – as our custodians have repeatedly declared – is to have our carefully vetted revelations provoke a debate that will lead to reform.
But "reform" of what? Reform of the very system that has produced these egregious abuses and capital crimes in the first place. 'Reform' which accepts the premises of imperial power, but simply wishes for a more tasteful, “transparent” application of them, with more “oversight” from the power structure. Such "reform" -- which, as Arthur Silber notes, buys into the basic premises of authoritarianism -- can never be anything other than cosmetic. The result will be what we have already seen with murder, torture and mass surveillance: a "legitimization" of state crimes, and their retrospective justification and entrenchment. For example, witness Candidate Obama's vote to "legitimize" the Bush Regime's unlawful surveillance programs (and to indemnify the powerful corporations suborned in these unconstitutional crimes) in 2008. And his zealous post-election assurances to the security apparat that they will never, ever face justice for their brutality, their murders and their abominable constitutional abuses.
Without making false equivalences, let us momentarily indulge in an assay of alternative history to put these remarkable assertions in some context. Entertain for conjecture this passage from some fictional Berlin newspaper in, say, 1943:
“A spokesman for the Berlin Herald said the paper is publishing the revelations of government whistleblower Dietrich Schmidt because it wants to 'spark a debate' about the Hitler administration’s systematic murder of Jews in the occupied territories. The spokesman said that the Herald is carefully screening the documents they've seen detailing the mass killings.
'We would never simply dump the entire trove of documents on the general public,' said the spokesman. 'That could do a lot of harm to people in the national security apparatus. No, what we are doing is simply what journalists always do: select and edit material that we think the public has a right to know, without doing undue harm to the nation and those who serve it. There has been almost no debate on the policy of killing the Jews of Europe, and we think such a debate would be healthy. If the government believes it's a good idea, then let them make their case to the public, let's all weigh the pros and cons and have a serious discussion of these policies. Perhaps then we can get some real reform and more oversight of the mass murder program. That would give the operations a level of legitimacy they now lack and reduce the administration’s unfortunate propensity for ‘governing in the dark.’”
Of course Snowden and the custodians of his archive would vehemently reject any compromise, any “debate” or “reform” concerning Nazi-style genocide. The example is meant to set a moral question in the starkest relief. But let us be clear: we are talking about moral compromise here. What is at issue is not the level of “legitimacy” that might or might not be produced by a broader “debate” or “reform” of the system. What is at issue is the actual moral content of actual policies being perpetrated by the government: the killing of human beings on the arbitrary order of the state, outside even the slightest pretense of judicial process; invasive surveillance, overturning even the slightest pretense of the integrity, autonomy and individual liberty of citizens; and all that falls between these two poles – such indefinite detention, black ops, and torture. (Obama’s early PR moves to ban some forms of torture by some government agencies have hardly ended government brutality in this regard, as – to take just one known example from this vast, secret world -- the truly horrendous force-feeding of captives in the Guantanamo Bay concentration camp has recently shown.)
Yet we are to believe that an imperial, militaristic system which produces such crimes and abuses as naturally and inevitably as storm-clouds make rain can be “reformed” by a “debate” within the power structure itself.
But again, let’s not be cynical. For surely, the carefully circumscribed NSA revelations will doubtless produce a modicum of reform – perhaps along the lines of the Church Committee reforms of the 1970s, when truly horrendous abuses of invasive government surveillance produced … the secret FISA court, which for decades has secretly approved secret government surveillance with a reliable diligence that would shame a rubber stamp. I’ll bet the “debate” provoked by the Snowden documents might possibly, eventually, expand the number of corporate-bought senators and representatives who sit on the committees overseeing, in secret, the government’s all-pervasive spy programs. Why, we might even get a new secret court to preside over the existing secret court that secretly approves the apparat’s operations. And maybe even a few more Hollywood movies out of it, like Zero Dark Thirty and The Fifth Estate. Now won’t that be something?
Meanwhile, we can divert ourselves with death-squad porn like the piece Gellman and the Post have wrought from the Snowden archive, complete with state-approved leaks from insiders and “former top intelligence officials” eager to turn Snowden’s dissident gold into self-serving imperial dross.
Here is my most recent column for the print version of CounterPunch, which was published last month.
As we all know, the use of chemical weapons is the most heinous crime that can be committed by a brutal, aggressive government: a brazen act of state terror, an offense against all humanity. Those who perpetrate such actions put themselves beyond the pale; indeed, they rank themselves with Hitler himself, as a succession of America’s highest officials has pointed out in recent weeks.
And that’s why the details of the infamous chemical attack in the Middle East resonate with stark moral horror. Especially chilling are the reports of some of the soldiers who actually took part in the chemical attacks, coming forward to offer evidence after the regime they served denied its obvious crime. As one regime soldier noted, the chemical weapon involved in the attack “burns bodies; it melts the flesh all the way down to the bone. I saw the burned bodies of women and children. Anyone within a radius of 150 meters is done for.”
A document produced by the regime’s own military said the chemical weapon “proved to be an effective and versatile munition. We used it for screening missions and as a potent psychological weapon against the insurgents … We [were] using [chemical weapons] to flush them out and high explosives to take them out.” Another soldier involved in these chemical weapons attacks said: "There is no way you can use [it] without forming a deadly chemical cloud that kills everything within a tenth of a mile in all directions from where it hits. Obviously, the effect of such deadly clouds weren't just psychological in nature."
But of course, chemical weapons were only part of this attack on the rebel position – an attack absolutely replete with war crimes violations. Before assaulting the civilian quadrants with a barrage of chemical weapons, the regime cut off the city’s water and power supplies and food deliveries. One of the first moves in the attack was the destruction of medical centers; indeed, 20 doctors were killed, along with their patients – innocent women and children – in a savage blitz before the chemical weapons were unleashed. But why would even a regime full of rogue barbarians attack a hospital? It’s simple, one of the regime’s “information warfare specialists” told the New York Times: hospitals can be used as “propaganda centers” by rebels trying to stir up sympathy for their cause.
Meanwhile, the BBC managed to penetrate the rebel-held areas and report on the results of the combined attack of chemical and conventional weapons:
“There are more and more dead bodies on the street, and the stench is unbearable … There are dead women and children lying on the streets. People are getting weaker from hunger. Many are dying from their injuries because there is no medical help left in the city whatsoever. Some families have started burying their dead in their gardens.”
By the end of the attack, vast areas lay in ruins. More than 36,000 homes were destroyed, along with 60 schools and 65 mosques and religious centers. Medical workers estimated the civilian death count at between 4,000 and 6,000, which, the Guardian noted, was “a proportionally higher death rate than in Coventry and London during the Blitz.”
As both President Barack Obama and Secretary of State John Kerry have said so eloquently, those responsible for such a crime must be punished. To look away from such an atrocity, to fail to hold those responsible to account would be, as these eminent statesmen tell us, a crime in itself, tantamount to ignoring the Holocaust or the massacres in Rwanda …
But of course the crimes enumerated above did not take place in Syria in August of 2013. They were part of America’s Guernica-like destruction of the Iraqi city of Fallujah in 2004: one of the most egregious – and most sustained – war crimes since the Second World War. The widespread use of chemical weapons in the decimation of Fallujah – including the flesh-eating horror of white phosphorous, the future-maiming deployment of depleted uranium and other chemicals, which have led to an epidemic of birth defects in the region – is well-documented and, after years of outright lies and evasions, now cheerfully admitted by the United States government. Using these chemical weapons – along with good old-fashioned mass-murdering conventional munitions just like mother used to make – the United States government slaughtered thousands upon thousands of innocent people in its berserker outburst against Fallujah.
It goes without saying that the “international community” did not rise up in righteous indignation at this use of chemical weapons to slaughter far more civilians than even the Obama Administration’s wild exaggerations are claiming in Syria. It goes without saying that the drone-bombing Peace Laureate and his lantern-jawed patrician at Foggy Bottom have signally failed to criticize – much less prosecute! – the perpetrators of the Fallujah war crime, or make the slightest change in the system of military aggression that produced it. Instead they have expanded and entrenched this system at every turn, extending it far beyond the wildest dreams of Bush and Cheney.
Whatever his manifest crimes (and alleged exacerbations), Bashar Assad will remain a hapless piker next to these pious virtuosos of mass-murdering violence.
As the days and weeks go crawling by, bringing now and then another little drib, another little drab of revelations from the storehouse of secrets that Edward Snowden pried loose from the National Security Agency, the story turns slowly but surely from one of scandal and outrage bidding fair to trouble the well-cushioned bottoms on the seat of power to a dimmed, drained subject of "debate" amongst powerful insiders.
Indeed, we are now told by the dolers of the dribs that "debate" was the sole purpose of the exercise in the first place. Snowden was driven into permanent exile, his life and liberty put at constant risk, solely to provoke a "debate" in the national power structure, a conversation among the cognoscenti of political and media elites that will lead, eventually, to the holy grail of "reform." Naturally, this debate -- and the revelations themselves -- must be kept within careful parameters; nothing that might actually damage the "national security" operations of the brutal, bristling, maniacally militarized, quasi-Stasi, Gorgon-staring imperial state is to be allowed into the "conversation" our betters are now having among themselves on how best to bring a modicum of restraint and oversight to the NSA's all-pervading surveillance. (For more on this, see 'Oligarchs Approve the NSA Debate.')
"Thanks for a country where nobody's allowed to mind his own business."
But put this aside for now. And put aside the fact that this slow drip-feed of carefully curated stories has come to seem more like an inoculation than a revelation, inurring people to the shock with small doses which, over time, simply fade into the background noise, become part of the new normal -- while allowing the Security Apparat itself plenty of time to develop antibodies -- defenses, diversions -- to diffuse the impact of what could have been a powerful, multi-sided shock to the system.
Put all that aside, and let us grant, for a moment, the premise that the "debate" provoked by the Snowden revelations will indeed lead not to the usual application of skin-deep PR cosmetics but to a true "reform" of NSA practices: a more careful delineation of the scope of the agency's activities, and more rigorous oversight by a few select members of Congress, who will, in this case, for the first time in many decades, actually carry out their responsibilities.
In other words, let us grant that every dream of the debate-provokers comes true and the NSA is genuinely "reformed." The question then follows: so what?
As Arthur Silber points out in a powerful new essay, the NSA is only one small cog in a vast machinery of repression that already, right now, possesses -- and exercises -- an overwhelming level of control over the liberties and lives of every US citizen (not to mention the billions of meaningless non-entities and pieces of drone fodder who live beyond the sacred bounds of the Homeland). What's more, a preponderance of this repressive machinery is already "transparent" -- openly acknowledged, even advertised by the ruling elite in many cases.
What's more, almost all of this machinery is "legal" in one way or another. As Silber noted years ago, when a very similar "debate" was being carried out by "serious" people seeking "reform" after another set of revelations about government spying emerged:
With regard to FISA and issues of liberty and privacy in general, let me now ask you a few questions. How long do you think it would take you to identify, read, and understand every provision in every statute, regulation and other authorization that gives surveillance powers to the government? Furthermore: Would you know each and every place to look, or how to determine what those places were? Additionally: With a staff of 20, or 50, could it be done, even if you were provided with limitless time and limitless funds?
I submit to you, without qualification or reservation, that you could not do it. No one could. Consider that most legislators in Washington aren't even aware of much of what's in the bills they so eagerly vote on. Consider the prohibitive length and complexity of legislation that comes before Congress. That's true of what is going on now. If you tried to track down every piece of legislation, every regulation, every administrative agency ruling, and every other pronouncement still in effect that allows the government to surveil and otherwise keep track of you, me, the guy down the street, the woman next door and the man in the moon, based on alleged concern with and the need to protect us all from the ravages of drugs, "illicit" sex, any and all other suspected criminal activity and, natch, terrorism, how on God's green earth would you do it? You couldn't.
As he concludes today:
Certainly with regard to surveillance, the State has already granted itself entirely comprehensive, indeed omnipotent, powers. I guarantee you that, buried in the hideous bowels of all the laws, regulations, agency rulings, etc. and so on unto the ends of time, that give the State surveillance powers, the State has the power to spy on anything, anywhere, anytime, for any reason it manufactures, or for no reason at all.
Yes, do you remember that controversial FISA bill noted above? Remember the fierce "debate" after the New York Times revealed the extent of the Bush Administration's warrantless surveillance programs? Remember the "reform" this debate led to, when crusading presidential candidate Sen. Barack Obama (breaking his solemn word) voted for a "reform" bill in 2008 that greatly expanded the reach of the surveillance system -- in effect, legalizing Bush's illegalities -- while absolving the telecom corporations of their illegal acquiescence to these crimes? Remember all that? How did that turn out, all that "debate" and "reform" and working within the system? Did it curtail in any way, did it slow to any degree, the relentless expansion of our Stasi-like security apparatus?
Are we really to believe that getting a "debate" going among these same people, and/or the same types of people (products and beneficiaries of our militarized, super-profitable, ego-inflating 'national security' system), will actually produce a different result?
As Silber says, the NSA revelations do have value, shining a light on a pernicious corner of the Security Apparat's sinister operation. But he goes on to note:
To focus on the NSA as if that agency is the only or even a major source of the problem is entirely wrong. The NSA is only one source of the rot that is spread across numerous agencies and programs, the rot that has infected our government at every level (federal, state, county, municipal, etc.) and in countless ways. But the unique and restricted focus on the NSA is also an enormous boon to the State; it is largely the result of our culture's idiotic and myopic focus on the "hot" story of the moment, devoid of history, of context, of everything that should inform our understanding of the issues involved. It creates and supports the view that, if only we "fix" the NSA, then a significant part of the problem will be solved. But that is flatly untrue. As I already noted, you could eliminate the NSA entirely this very minute, and it wouldn't make a damned bit of difference. But the heightened focus on the NSA, while ignoring all the other agencies and programs involved in similar and even identical activities, leads directly to the "solution" that will make the State writhe in ecstasy. Congress will have some hearings, and they will provide for some "oversight" and "accountability," and most people, including most of the State's critics, will herald the great triumph of "the people" and "democracy." Meanwhile, the State will continue doing exactly what it was doing before.
2. "Thanks for the American dream, To vulgarize and to falsify until the bare lies shine through."
Silber's latest post gives a chilling example of just how meaningless even a genuine "reform" of the NSA would be. He sets down what could almost be a dystopian horror story from some adventure mag of the 1950s: the tale of an America under the boot of a tyrannical elite that lavishes its obedient insiders with perks and protection while abandoning the rest of the rabble to ravages of fate:
Imagine that there is a special class of American citizens. This special class is made up of individuals from private business, in fields such as agriculture, finance, the internet, academia, and utility companies. These people have certain responsibilities and, in exchange, they are granted certain privileges. These people are dedicated to providing information that, in their view, might be related in some way to possible threats to "national security." They are encouraged to report all such information they may come across, including information about their fellow employees. Imagine that there are tens of thousands of such "special" people, spread across the entire United States. ...
For their diligent work, members of the special class are given advance "secret" warnings about terrorist threats, before the general public learns of them (and sometimes even before elected officials). These special individuals receive "almost daily updates" on threats "emanating from both domestic sources and overseas." These special people enjoy being "special." They "are happy to be in the know." In the event that communications networks are seriously disrupted, this special class will be able to get phone calls and internet messages through when most people can't.
These special individuals also have specified roles when martial law is declared. That's what the State has communicated to them: when martial law is declared, not if. These people will be "expected to share all [their] resources," and to protect any parts of the "critical infrastructure" to which they have access. In return, they will have "the ability to travel in restricted areas and to get people out."
When martial law is declared, these special individuals are granted one further power. They will be expected "to protect [their] portion of the infrastructure." If necessary, the State expects them to use deadly force to do so. Because these are very special people, the State has told them that, should they use deadly force, they will not be prosecuted.
Imagine all that. Would such a state of affairs trouble you? Do you think it would be a cause for concern that the State employed an army of "private" Americans to be its spies in businesses of every kind, perhaps including the business where you work? Would it bother you that the State has deputized tens of thousands of otherwise "ordinary" Americans to be murderers when martial law is declared -- murderers who are given an advance blank check for their killings?
But you don't need to imagine any of this. All of this is true, and this program came into existence in 1996. The program is called InfraGard, and I wrote it about more than five years ago. As of February 2012, InfraGard had more than 45,000 members; roughly 7,000 new members join each year. There are at least 86 chapters spread across the United States.
Please note the following, as it is of special importance. Information about InfraGard has been easily available for years. ... The government isn't trying to keep InfraGard a secret. To the contrary, the State is enormously pleased with this program. It is more than happy to make its operations known -- and many Americans are very happy to join it. Most other Americans appear not to care about InfraGard at all -- for it is almost never talked or written about. You should find that profoundly disturbing. The State maintains a private army of tens of thousands of spies -- spies who are deputized to kill other people, possibly including you -- and no one seems to give a damn.
Here we come to the crux of the matter. The power of unlimited surveillance, as hideous and repulsive and inhuman as it is, still pales next to the greater power which our elites have granted to themselves: to kill -- without warning, without warrant, without trial, without mercy -- anyone they choose to kill. I have written about this astonishing situation reality many times (my first column on the subject appeared in November 2001), as has Silber, for years (and again, eloquently, in his latest piece).
But let's set it out clearly again: the American government has already reserved the right to kill anyone on the planet, including American citizens, at the arbitrary order of the President -- or any one of the many people he has deputized to make such decisions on their own. We live -- literally, entirely -- at the pleasure of the state, which can kill us at any time it likes, for whatever reason it decides is sufficient.
This was "secret" during the Bush Administration, although it was deliberately made known through government leaks to mainstream media outlets. Under Obama, of course, the death squad operation has been openly acknowledged, with his own national security advisor cheerfully discussing it under oath before Congress. This "transparency" -- which, after all, is the goal of every "reformer" of the system -- came after the White House leaked details of the program for a very favorable story in the New York Times, which portrayed the president and his death squad henchmen as deeply moral men struggling mightily through dark nights of the soul before parking their asses on a couple of couches every Tuesday and going through lists of people to be murdered, like Stalin and Beria in the Kremlin.
This arbitrary power to murder is the central political reality of our time; it is the bedrock, the foundation, of the American state as it actually exists today. The NSA surveillance program is merely an outgrowth -- a natural product -- of this system. Even if by some miracle, you could nip this single bud, the tree will continue to bring forth an abundance of poisonous fruit.
"Thanks for the last and greatest betrayal of the last and greatest of human dreams."
1. As I've said many times before, anyone who wants trenchant insights into the realities of the Middle East -- including its ever-fraught interactions with the Potomac Imperium -- should be reading "the Angry Arab," As'ad AbuKhalil. Just today, AbuKhalil provides two telling examples of the Imperium's arrogance, indifference and -- in the case of John Kerry -- murderous ignorance in its ham-handed and iron-fisted attempts to bend the region and its peoples to the Domination Agenda of our American elites.
First, AbuKhalil passes along a report from a correspondent on the latest manifestation of our noble Nobel Peace Prize Laureate's attempts to foster democracy and freedom in Bahrain. As you might recall, the noble laureate's noble allies, the democratic, freedom-loving, head-chopping, woman-hating Saudi royals, sent troops into Bahrain in 2011 to help that nation's royal ruler -- a fellow sectarian -- put down an outbreak of Arab Spring fever and violently crush a popular movement that was seeking, well, more freedom and democracy and opportunity.
Once this uppityness had been squelched -- in the usual ham-handed, iron-fisted fashion -- the United States brokered a "national dialogue" between opposition leaders and the regime, which many promises of "reform" coming from the latter. It goes without saying that there has been precious little "reform" produced by this process, which has dragged on month after month. It has however produced the inevitable radicalization among some opposition groups who, seeing the continuing ineffectiveness of "working within the system" have turned increasingly to violent protest.
(Of course, one of the main features of US foreign policy in our Age of Terror has been its remarkable ability to foment radical extremism and violent retaliation to the machinations of the Imperium and its satraps. One might be even be tempted to call this a feature, not a bug, of the Terror War system, producing as it does copious amounts of fear and chaos to "justify" an ever-increasing -- and ever-more profitable -- aggrandizement of elite power.)
This week, the Laureate's friends in Bahrain arrested one of the leading opposition figures taking part in the "national dialogue," Khalil Al Marzooq. The charges were specious, to say the least. As the Washington Post reports, Al Marzooq was charged with "inciting terrorism" for the heinous crime of waving the flag of a militant group -- in order to outline the difference between their violence and the peaceful approach of his party, Al-Wefaq. As the Post notes, Al Marzooq called on the crowd attending his speech to "persist with your nonviolence."
This then is the "terrorist" that Bahrain's leaders have arrested. In response -- as you might expect, if you were an ordinary person with common sense -- Al-Wefaq and other opposition parties have withdrawn from the "national dialogue" in protest at this repression. How can you have a good-faith dialogue when one side is arresting the very people it is meant to be in dialogue with? You can't, of course.
So who is to blame for stopping the "dialogue," and what needs to be done to restart it? Well, if you were an ordinary person with common sense, the answer to these questions would be obvious. The Bahraini regime broke off the dialogue by arresting Al Marzooq on trumped-up charges; the way to resume the dialogue is to release him from prison.
But this has not been the response of the most enlightened and progressive Administration ever to grace the greensward of the White House. No, this is the response of Barack Obama (or rather, one of his mouthpieces): the Administration is "disappointed that opposition groups have suspended their involvement in the national dialogue" and urges them to sit back down with the regime that is arresting them. And in return … well, nothing.
AbuKhalil posts the long, surreal exchange between increasingly incredulous reporters and the Obama mouthpiece who adamantly refuses to express even the slightest tincture of disappointment with the Bahraini regime for arresting a non-violent opposition leader for advocating non-violence. Over and over, the reporters give her the opportunity to be "even-handed," to claim the vaunted "center ground" that is the holy grail of Washington PR imagery. But she will have none of it. All she will say is that the Administration will "raise the case" with its pals in Bahrain.
But the reporters spot a flaw in this empty phraseology: "It's important to know whether you're going to call on the Bahrainis to release this guy, or whether you think that this arrest was justified. … You could just go and say, 'Hey, good job, well done, we think that was a really good move.'"
But the mouthpiece will not be drawn. "I'm not going to preview that with you."
AbuKhalil's Bahraini correspondent sums it up well:
"The US strategy for dealing with Bahrain is quite clear: the goal is to keep the situation under control. So long as the opposition is taking part in some dialogue, it is under control. Withdrawing means that they are back on the streets. … Basically, as a people, we are not allowed to resist, in any way - whether it is by protesting, or boycotting a sham dialogue that is not even with the regime because of an arrest."
Yes, that is pretty much the point of the Imperium's policies across the board: "You are not allowed to resist." Even non-violently. Even in the name of freedom. "You are not allowed to resist."
2. But for a chilling glimpse of the mindset of these Masters of the Universe, the dominance junkies who direct the affairs of the world's most armed and dangerous state, AbuKhalil points us to an overlooked remark buried deep beneath the slabs of dross dumped by John Kerry during a press appearance this week in Paris.
Kerry is asked by a French questioner about the risk to religious minorities -- particularly Christians -- from the American-backed rebels in Syria. The questioner notes that "two bishops of Aleppo … were kidnapped today [by a sectarian rebel group]" and "Maaoula, an all-Christian city without any strategic interest, has been invaded by Islamist rebels." The questioner then provides a striking larger context to the question, saying that "one of the main results, unfortunately, of seven years of American and English occupation of Iraq is the decimation and exile of most Christians in Iraq." Given all this, Kerry is asked what "strategic plan" the United States has for protecting religious minorities from the wrath of sectarian extremists it is now supporting in Syria.
Kerry unlimbers his lantern jaw to deny the undeniable historical fact that the American-led invasion of Iraq led directly to the near-total destruction of Iraq's Christian community. This is simply a plain, easily proven piece of objective data. There was a substantial Christian community before the war; there is not one now. Many Christians were killed by sectarian violence; many, many more have fled. But Kerry was long ago lost to truth and honor in his decades-long climb up the greasy pole, where he now wriggles, grease-smeared, regurgitating imperial spin. He replies: "I don’t agree with your premise that the Christian – what has happened to the Christians is the consequence of what happened by the events in Iraq."
This is as asinine and ignorant as declaring that the sun did not rise in the east this morning, or that, in fact, two and two do not make four. But this is the kind of witless drivel that our most honored and august leaders are forced to spew out when they are out on the circuit, peddling the lies of empire.
But Kerry is trying to make a larger point. He then launches what is in effect a defense of the Terror War in general, whose 'justification,' as we noted, is the threat of radical Islam (which, as noted, the Terror War itself foments with marvellous potency). The threat is not just to Christians in Syria, says Kerry -- burying in a blizzard of generality the specific question about specific people in a specific place; all religious minorities are being threatened by the rise of radical Islam, he says, with a shout-out to Afghanistan, where the noble Nobelist and his righteous forces are still fighting the good fight.
Kerry then goes on to say: "It is not just the Christians who have been impacted. It is the Druze, it is the Ismaili, it is all of the minorities. And the irony is the Alawi themselves are a minority doing this to these other people for control, for Assad’s control."
Here Kerry speaks precisely in the language used by the most radical Sunni extremists in the Syrian civil war -- extremists who are murdering people simply because they are Alawites, who continually call for the eradication of the Alawite 'infidels.' Here, Kerry identifies every Alawite in Syria as a brutal persecutor of religious minorities -- they are all evil, all supporting the evil Assad, all of them are "doing it" to other religious minorities, "for Assad's control"
What is the difference in this statement and that of some slobbering anti-Semite who points to some action by the Israeli government and condemns all Jews as evil? The violent extremists in Syria equate all Alawites with the regime, thereby justifying violence against them. And Kerry here aligns himself completely with this mindset.
It is of course a brazen, vicious, demonstrable lie to say that all Alawites are persecuting other religious minorities "for Assad's control." It is just as false as saying all Jews support the actions of the Israeli government -- or indeed, that all Christians supported the invasion of Iraq, because the regime that launched the regime was led and dominated by Christians. It's just as demonstrably false as denying that two plus two equals for, or that the American invasion of Iraq did not lead directly to the decimation of that country's Christian population.
But such is the quality of mind required to reach the top rungs of the Imperium: brutal, witless, dishonest, ignorant, lacking all nuance, all common sense, all human feeling. A mind that mindlessly disgorges murderous tropes and blatant nonsense in order to obscure, frantically, at any cost, the cynical intentions and the monstrous effects of the Imperium's Domination Machine.
Here is my latest, slightly expanded column for the print version of CounterPunch, which came out last month.
A former colleague of mine died recently, although I didn't know he had been my colleague until I read his obituary in the New York Times last month -- six months after his obscure and unmarked death in the small East Tennessee town where I'd worked as a reporter.
Charles Varnadore and I worked together for five years at Oak Ridge National Laboratory, part of the vast research complex that midwifed the atom bomb. Curiously enough, my grandfather had helped build Oak Ridge. A sharecropper turned carpenter, my grandfather Lon been recruited, like thousands of other workers and artisans, to construct the "secret city" in the midst of World War II. He wasn't allowed to tell his family what he was doing; he would just get on the train in the rural deeps outside Nashville and be gone for weeks at a time. Varnadore's grandfather had worked there too, and his father as well.
But I never met Varnadore during my time at ORNL. It wasn't that kind of place. It was like a huge, sprawling college campus -- a heavily militarized campus, with machine-gun-toting guards, iron gates, walls topped with barbed wire. The kind of campus where people went only where they were authorized to go, subject always to the arbitrary dictates of security. (It was a prevision of 21st century America, but we didn't know that then.)
So there wasn't much mixing and mingling. Varnadore was a technician, working in the analytic chemistry division. I had no idea where that was. I was working -- after a fashion -- as an editor in an unusual enclave of leftish researchers dealing with issues like energy conservation and the still somewhat recherché matter of global warming. My services weren’t much needed by these very articulate scientists, most of whom had been war protestors and civil rights campaigners. I spent much of my time hiding out in one cubby-hole or another, reading books: the entire corpus of George Eliot, the complete works of Colette, the Alexandria Quartet, Gore Vidal by the yard, Tillich, Buber, Arendt, Celan -- whatever treasure I fetched up from the magical milk-crates of McKay's Used Books in nearby Knoxville.
Varnadore took his work more seriously -- and that was his downfall. After years elsewhere in the Oak Ridge system, his first job at ORNL was analyzing soil samples from decommissioned nuclear plants. But, as the New York Times reports, he soon found the samples weren't being maintained properly, making them conveniently useless in measuring the amount of radiation left behind by the closed plants. He duly reported the situation to the bosses, along with a number of other concerns about the mishandling of dangerous materials, which left even office workers exposed to radiation hazards.
Now in our ultra-modern, super-savvy 21st-century world, we all know what happens to whistleblowers. But Varnadore probably thought he was still living in the kind of country he'd been told about in Civics class. He thought the federal government would want to know about these dangerous glitches, and correct them.
You can guess what happened next. No remedies -- but plenty of punishment for the ‘troublemaker.’ Varnadore -- who was recovering from cancer -- was shuttled from one assignment to another, then finally parked in a room full of radioactive and chemical waste. When a company medical tech flagged the risk, he was moved again: to a room where poisonous mercury was left lying in pools. After years of exemplary performance reviews, he suddenly began getting negative evaluations.
He sought whistleblower protection under federal law -- garnering an appearance on the national news -- and took his concerns to the Labor Department. An administrative judge ruled in his favor, saying that ORNL had tried to shut Varnadore up by "intentionally [putting] him under stress with full knowledge that he was a cancer patient recovering from extensive surgery." The judge sent the case on to Bill Clinton's labor secretary, the liberal lion Robert Reich, to levy damages against the facility's corporate overseer, Martin Marietta.
Now all those of a dissident hue know Mr. Reich well. Today you can read his earnest pleas for hard-hit working folk and his jeremiads against elitist economics in any number of progressive media venues. So you can imagine what this stalwart champion of the people did next.
That's right: he flushed the whistleblower down the toilet. Reich dismissed Varnadore's claims and had the judge's ruling reversed. The corporate overseer got away clean, and the truth-teller, after years of lonely battle, working within the system like citizens are told to do, was crushed. But that’s no surprise: a little taste of state power can bend even the most liberal of lions to the agenda of elite domination.
Broken, and near broke, Varnadore soon took early retirement. But the arc of immoral power is long, and it bends toward destruction; the state wasn’t through squashing this inconvenient gadfly. Two years after leaving ORNL, Varnadore was imprisoned for selling some of his guns at flea markets, as men in those rural climes have done since the days of the flintlock. Even though by this time Washington was ruled by George Bush’s gun nuts, with Attorney General John Ashcroft himself boldly defending the rights of any terrorist with ready cash to buy weapons at gun shows and baby showers, for some reason the full weight of the law fell on the ageing, ailing retiree from the Appalachian foothills. He served 27 months of hard time, struggled on for awhile, and finally died this spring, his death unnoted until his former lawyer alerted the NYT this month. So much for truthtelling.
Bush, of course, started a war that killed a million people. He’s a whimsical painter now. Reich’s boss Clinton killed half a million children with his Iraqi sanctions; he’s now the beloved “Big Dawg” of our savvy liberalistas.
As often noted here, one of the very best analysts of the Middle East writing today is the acerbic and astute As'ad AbuKhalil, the "Angry Arab." Below he offers up a critique of Noam Chomsky's recent take on the situation in Syria, and finds it marred by false analogies:
I don't know who Chomsky talks to learn about the Syrian non-revolution and I don't know what he is relying on to follow-up developments on Syria but he seems to me woefully ill-informed. I am quite displeased with his analysis here. The worst part is when he draws an analogy to the Vietcong. Vietcong? The Syrian rebels are reactionary and conservative and anti-revolutionary forces (and I am talking about the armed bands of the Free Syrian Army which the US considers "moderate" and not about the obvious right-wing reactionaries of the Jihadi groups) and can't be compared to communist liberation movements. To Chomsky I say: the Syrian rebels are the Contras of Syria, and not the Sandinistas of Syria. And also, it is not a coincidence that Prince Bandar, who had helped fund the Contras--as Chomsky remembers--is the same man who is now organizing all funding and arming for the Syrian rebels. I don't want to invoke analogies too much because I detest the Asad regime much more than I dislike the Sandinistas, especially Ortega. So I am on board in considering the Asad regime also a counter-revolutionary regime and his regime is not revolutionary like the Sandinistas when they came to power. But the Syrian rebels (supported and armed by the likes of Saudi Arabia, Qatar, UAE, Jordan, US, France, Germany, UK among other non-progressive forces) have to be considered for what they are: counter-revolutionary forces who are responsible for the GCC hijacking of a potential revolution in Syria….
Of course, historical analogies are always dicey -- witness Kerry and Obama's witless evocations of Hitler, and the neocon warhawks' endless cries of "Munich" in any and every situation where the Imperium refrains from (or, in most cases, merely delays) the mass, indiscriminate slaughter of human beings. However, used judiciously, and informed by historical knowledge and nuance, they can be of some use in helping put current situations in a broader context.
In the case of Syria, I think the most useful historical analogy might be Afghanistan in late 70s and 80s. Then, as now, you have an unsavory and often brutal one-party state committed to secularism and modernity beset by an insurgency led by retrograde religious fundamentalists armed and financed by Saudi Arabia and the United States. In both cases, the secular government is backed by the Kremlin.
(On a side note, the Soviets didn't actually send troops into Afghanistan -- at the request of the sitting government --until the US/Saudi-backed holy war (along with inter-party feuding on the government side) had reduced the country to a state of violent chaos -- which, as Zbigniew Brzezinski tells us, was the plan all along: to destroy Afghanistan's secular society, kill off its imperfect but impressive strides toward social equality and progress, and bait the Soviet Union into a quagmire by creating an armed global jihad movement. This American-Saudi golem of global jihad has long since escaped the control of its creators, of course, and gone rampaging around the world -- although, as we see now in Syria and saw in Libya, sometimes the golem and its fashioners are happily reunited and work together toward the same ends.)
The Kremlin won't be sending in troops to rescue an ally this time, of course, but if American-Saudi efforts to bring down the Syrian government are successful, the result will likely be a good deal like what we saw in Afghanistan: the ultimate triumph of violent extremism, after years of vicious sectarian conflict and warlordism. But our own gilded warlords and their scurrying sycophants won't care about that; it will just be yet another boiling pot of danger and instability to keep the money and power flowing to their system of fear-based rule.
II. Many people are rightly pointing to an analysis of the Syrian situation by William Polk, which I ran across while writing the above. While Polk is very much a man of the Establishment, he has put together a dispassionate, informative overview of the situation that, in the end, makes a compelling case for the immediate idiocy and long-term tragedy of Western intervention in the Syrian civil war. Polk gathers up what is known for certain about the gas attack (very little), what is not known for certain (almost everything), and what has been reported (almost all of it specious, speculative, and spin-ridden when it is not brazenly false). He also provides a cogent encapsulation of the hydra-headed Syrian opposition, and lays out the arguments on who would actually benefit from launching a chemical attack in this situation.
But beyond this, Polk also points to the very specific, physical realities underlying the outbreak of the uprising, which goes back to bedrock realities that have bedevilled human communities from the beginning of time: drought, hunger, the basic need for food, water, shelter, sustenance. These basic issues have a modern twist, however, having been exacerbated by the effects of climate change, which is even now sending destructive if largely hidden shockwaves through human civilization, long before any worst-case dystopian scenarios of sunken cities and parched continents become a reality.
As Polk points out, Syria has been struggling with a drought of Biblical proportions since the middle of the last decade. The results have been devastating:
In some areas, all agriculture ceased. In others crop failures reached 75%. And generally as much as 85% of livestock died of thirst or hunger. Hundreds of thousands of Syria’s farmers gave up, abandoned their farms and fled to the cities and towns in search of almost non-existent jobs and severely short food supplies. Outside observers including UN experts estimated that between 2 and 3 million of Syria’s 10 million rural inhabitants were reduced to “extreme poverty.”
The domestic Syrian refugees immediately found that they had to compete not only with one another for scarce food, water and jobs, but also with the already existing foreign refugee population. Syria already was a refuge for quarter of a million Palestinians and about a hundred thousand people who had fled the war and occupation of Iraq. Formerly prosperous farmers were lucky to get jobs as hawkers or street sweepers. And in the desperation of the times, hostilities erupted among groups that were competing just to survive.
Here we see physical realities like drought and climate change are compounded by the political realities of war and aggression, as Syria continues to bear the burden of the American invasion of Iraq and the Israeli displacement of Palestinians. The effect of power politics was also evident in a decision made in Washington that worsened the situation and sent it spiraling toward the flashpoint of conflict and repression. As Polk notes:
The senior UN Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) representative in Syria turned to the USAID program for help. Terming the situation “a perfect storm,” in November 2008, he warned that Syria faced “social destruction.” He noted that the Syrian Minister of Agriculture had “stated publicly that [the] economic and social fallout from the drought was ‘beyond our capacity as a country to deal with.’” But, his appeal fell on deaf ears: the USAID director commented that “we question whether limited USG resources should be directed toward this appeal at this time.” (reported on November 26, 2008 in cable 08DAMASCUS847_a to Washington and “leaked” to Wikileaks ).
Syria's suffering people were not to be helped, because their government was now on the outs with the Potomac Imperium. Just a few years before, Washington was happy to "render" innocent people like Maher Arar to be tortured in Syrian prisons as part of the great GWOT jihad. (See "The Inhuman Stain: Saying Yes to State Terror" and this follow-up.) But by 2008, Syria was once again a "pariah" state, chiefly due to its alliance with Iran. So a chance for a true "humanitarian intervention" in Syria -- one that might have helped stave off social breakdown and the horrific violence that has followed -- was thrown away.
Left to its own devices, the cack-handed Asad regime then bungled and brutalized its way into an uprising that was very quickly hijacked by outside forces, as AbuKhalil noted above. Polk writes:
Lured by the high price of wheat on the world market, it sold its reserves. In 2006, according to the US Department of Agriculture, it sold 1,500,000 metric tons or twice as much as in the previous year. The next year it had little left to export; in 2008 and for the rest of the drought years it had to import enough wheat to keep its citizens alive.
So tens of thousands of frightened, angry, hungry and impoverished former farmers flooded constituted a “tinder” that was ready to catch fire. The spark was struck on March 15, 2011 when a relatively small group gathered in the town of Daraa to protest against government failure to help them. Instead of meeting with the protestors and at least hearing their complaints, the government cracked down on them as subversives. The Assads, who had ruled the country since 1971, were not known for political openness or popular sensitivity. And their action backfired. Riots broke out all over the country, As they did, the Assads attempted to quell them with military force. They failed to do so and, as outside help – money from the Gulf states and Muslim “freedom fighters” from the rest of the world – poured into the country, the government lost control over 30% of the country’s rural areas and perhaps half of its population. By the spring of 2013, according to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR), upwards of 100,000 people had been killed in the fighting, perhaps 2 million have lost their homes and upwards of 2 million have fled abroad. Additionally, vast amounts of infrastructure, virtually whole cities like Aleppo, have been destroyed.
In his conclusion, Polk also draws an analogy between the current situation in Syria and the Saudi-American intervention in Afghanistan 30 years ago. After noting the near-inevitability of "mission creep" involved in Obama's plan to kill Syrians, Polk asks the question: "What could we possibly gain from an attack on Syria?" His answer is grim:
Even if he wanted to, could Assad meet our demands? He could, of course, abdicate, but this would probably not stop the war both because his likely successor would be someone in the inner circle of his regime and because the rebels form no cohesive group. The likely result would be something like what happened after the fall of the Taliban in Afghanistan, a vicious civil war among competing factions.
No one, of course, can know what would happen then. My hunch is that Syria, like Afghanistan, would be torn apart not only into large chunks such as the Kurds in the northeast but even neighborhood by neighborhood as in the Iraqi cities. Muslims would take revenge on Alawis and Christians who would be fighting for their lives. More millions would be driven out of their homes. Food would be desperately short, and disease probably rampant. If we are worried about a haven for terrorists or drug traffickers, Syria would be hard to beat. And if we are concerned about a sinkhole for American treasure, Syria would compete well with Iraq and Afghanistan. It would probably be difficult or even impossible to avoid “boots on the ground” there. So we are talking about casualties, wounded people, and perhaps wastage of another several trillion dollars which we don’t have to spend and which, if we had, we need to use in our own country for better heath, education, creation of jobs and rebuilding of our infrastructure.
We need to remind ourselves what Afghanistan did – bankrupting the Soviet Union - and what Iraq cost us -- about 4,500 American dead, over 100,000 wounded, many of whom will never recover, and perhaps $6 trillion. Can we afford to repeat those mistakes?
Of course we can't afford to repeat those 'mistakes' (a rather demur term for what in the latter case was a brazen, conscious, deliberate crime); we couldn't afford them in the first place. But that doesn't mean such actions will not be repeated. In fact, it is almost certain they will be. Obama has already proclaimed his right to kill Syrians no matter what Congress says when it returns next week. Congress actually voted against Obama's killing of Libyans, but it didn't make the slightest difference. In any case, it almost certain that Congress will approve the killing of Syrians; indeed, many powerful figures in both parties are eager to kill even more Syrians than Obama is proposing to kill at the moment. So barring some unforeseen turn, the killing will come -- and the tragedy in Syria will be darkened with new blood.