Syrian political dissident: The Western left ‘simply do not see us’

In an interview* late last year, Yassin Al Haj Saleh, one of Syria’s leading political dissidents, was asked: What do you think the Western left could best do to express its solidarity with the Syrian revolution?

He responded:

I am afraid that it is too late for the leftists in the West to express any solidarity with the Syrians in their extremely hard struggle. What I always found astonishing in this regard is that mainstream Western leftists know almost nothing about Syria, its society, its regime, its people, its political economy, its contemporary history. Rarely have I found a useful piece of information or a genuinely creative idea in their analyses. My impression about this curious situation is that they simply do not see us; it is not about us at all. Syria is only an additional occasion for their old anti-imperialist tirades, never the living subject of the debate. So they do not really need to know about us.

David Bromwich, a professor of English Literature at Yale and stalwart of the American antiwar left, exemplifies the trend which Saleh describes.

For him, Syria is a nest of bloodthirsty Islamists fighting a religious war at the behest of foreign powers. The opponents of Assad that Western governments hoped would be the instruments of regime change are a ragtag mob entrusted with a fantasy. The only thing we really need to know about Syria, apparently, is that we should stay out.

Perhaps like Patrick Cockburn, Bromwich welcomes Russia’s direct intervention in the war. He seems to believe that Russia, by virtue of its closer proximity, has a genuine interest in the fate of Syria, yet the fate of Syrians is another question.

In an exercise in textual criticism, Bromwich’s current concern is Washington and the media’s resuscitation of the term moderate — a term around which, he says, the West has long contrived its fantasies.

The fact that the professor makes a living from analyzing language might explain why he has more interest in the words used by New York Times reporters than he has in the lives of Syrians.

But as a leftist, how did he forget what it means to be a humanitarian? How can he show so little interest in the lives of the Syrian people?

In his latest commentary, the refugee crisis doesn’t get a single mention.

Turkey is now warning that Russia and Iran’s escalating intervention in the war may lead to millions more refugees fleeing the country.

In that event, don’t expect Russia to assume any responsibility.

On September 9, while the refugee crisis in Europe dominated the Western media, Russia’s state-funded reported:

The head of the Federal Migration Service, Konstantin Romodanovsky, told TASS on Wednesday that Russia is ready to accept refugees from Syria on condition that they violate no laws.

He added that Russian authorities were studying asylum applications from Syrian citizens and rendered help to these people, but noted that “historically European countries are more appropriate as refuge for Syrians than the Russian Federation.”

The report offered no explanation of what makes European countries more appropriate. Maybe it’s simply the fact that they have more liberal immigration policies than Russia.

After Samar Kriker sought refuge in Russia, having been rescued in the Mediterranean by a Russia-bound tanker, he was then confined in a detention center cell for 23 hours a day. After his asylum application was rejected, he was expected to be deported back to Damascus.

For those whose cause is resistance to American imperialism, stories such as that might look like mere distractions, promulgated to stir unreasoned sentiment. If we keep our gaze high enough, there will be no risk of seeing the people below.

*Charles Davis’ article, “Anti-imperialism 2.0: Selective sympathies, dubious friends,” drew my attention to this interview.


Refugees — the real antiwar activists

For those of us living in countries where our daily lives are not impacted by the effects of war, there’s not much sacrifice involved in opposing war.

It was different during the Vietnam war. At that time, those who refused to fight might end up going to prison or fleeing the country.

Nowadays, it’s easier to declare one’s opposition to war than it is to go on a gluten-free diet.

For millions of refugees, however, this isn’t so much a moral or political question; it’s a question of life or death.

(Click the speaker icon, bottom right, to hear the simple message from this Syrian boy in Budapest.)

From the impoverished mindset of an anti-immigrant bigot like Peter Bucklitsch — a UKIP member and parliamentary candidate in Britain’s 2015 election — refugees are greedy people seeking “the good life” and their suffering is the result of their unwillingness to patiently wait in line.

This perspective mirrors a commonly-held view of the separation between the rich and the poor: that the poor, driven by envy, want to deprive the rich of the profits of their hard work.

What this separation actually represents is the psychological insulation provided by wealth: that it diminishes the individual’s capacity to empathize.

If the refugee is the archetypal outsider — the person who now belongs nowhere — perhaps the reason the images of Aylan Kurdi have had a wide impact after so many other images of human misery inside Syria have seemed easy to ignore, was because this innocent child, neatly dressed and still wearing his tiny shoes, looked like he could have belonged to anyone.

We didn’t see him as other; we saw him as ours.

And this signals what marks our world cleaved as it is by so many conflicting identities: a lack of solidarity.

The call to respond to the refugee crisis, is not just a call to take pity on those whose lives have been torn apart by war, but also to recognize that our lives are just as fragile as theirs.


Just stop the war — easier said than done.

Aylan Kurdi’s family were originally from Kobane. Even though Kurdish fighters with U.S. air support were able to militarily reclaim the city from ISIS, it has since been left in ruins.

Turkey’s effort to prevent a Kurdish state emerge in northern Syria is likely to mean that Kobane has little prospect of reconstruction.

The Assad regime, propped up by Iran, Hezbollah, and Russia, will continue fighting for its survival for as long as it retains outside support.

And thus the tide of refugees will continue to flow.

The lack of response from the wealthiest Arab states is worth noting, but it doesn’t absolve Europe from the need to craft a coherent policy for confronting a collective crisis.

As Dr Françoise Sivignon and Janice Hughes underline:

Seeking asylum is not a crime. Migrants are not a security risk. They have not come to occupy Europe or to get medical care. They are simply, desperately, seeking a dignified life. In fact, migration drives economic prosperity and social and cultural diversity. It is an asset not a threat.

Likewise, the U.S., given its instrumental role in destabilizing the Middle East, and given its history as a nation of immigrants, should play a leading role in providing refuge for those who have fled from the wide-ranging effects of America’s wars.

For that to happen, pro-immigrant voices in the U.S. need to become louder than the anti-immigrant and xenophobic currents that exert an over-sized influence on America’s dealings with the rest of the world.


American generals and admirals lobbying for Israel against Iran deal

Given the uncritical admiration many Americans have for men in military uniforms, it wasn’t surprising to see the White House’s effort to promote the Iran deal enlisting support from three dozen retired senior military officers who released an open letter earlier this month.

Gen. James “Hoss” Cartwright, U.S. Marine Corps, who served as the eighth Vice Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff until his retirement in 2011, and his colleagues, called the agreement “the most effective means currently available to prevent Iran from obtaining nuclear weapons.”

The voices of those in uniform can be trusted to put America first — at least that’s supposed to be the value of getting political support from a bunch of former generals.

But given the degree to which the Iran deal has been turned into a partisan issue, and given the Republican tilt of the military, it’s not surprising that another letter would follow, this time carrying the signatures of nearly 200 retired generals and admirals who oppose the deal. Shameless in making hyperbolic assertions, this letter claims that Iran has been waging war against the United States for the last 36 years!

And whereas the concern of the former letter was focused squarely on U.S. national security interests, the preeminent security concern of the larger group of former generals and admirals is not that of their own nation, but that of Israel.

“Removing sanctions on Iran and releasing billions of dollars to its regime over the next ten years is inimical to the security of Israel and the Middle East,” the letter states.

In Washington DC, the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs (JINSA) is an organization whose mission is the promotion of “a strong U.S. security relationship with Israel.”

To that end, JINSA spares no expense in trying to persuade retired American generals and admirals that Israel’s security interests should remain uppermost in their minds and thus it instituted an annual Generals and Admirals Program to Israel.

A few years ago, Jason Vest reported:

The bulk of JINSA’s modest annual budget is spent on taking a bevy of retired US generals and admirals to Israel, where JINSA facilitates meetings between Israeli officials and the still-influential US flag officers, who, upon their return to the States, happily write op-eds and sign letters and advertisements championing the Likudnik line.

Naturally, when it comes to opposition to the Iran deal JINSA is manning the front lines.

But here’s what’s noteworthy about the latest exercise in letter writing designed to put Israel’s interests first when crafting U.S. foreign policy: a large majority of JINSA’s advisory board members who are retired generals and admirals, did not sign the letter opposing the Iran deal.

The board includes 36 such figures and yet only eight of them were signators.

It’s hard to say how many of the non-signers made an active choice not to sign. Even so, JINSA’s leaders would surely have expected more solid support on this issue.

What this lack of solidarity most likely illustrates is that the divide between those who support or oppose the Iran deal has virtually nothing to do with objective assessments about the national security interests of the U.S., Israel or any other nation.

The opponents to this deal are in fact opponents of any deal with Iran.

And the suggestion that standing with Israel necessitates standing against the deal, is an equation that can be seen as false not only among the deal’s strongest advocates but probably even many of JINSA’s own advisory board members.


Sheldon Adelson and the wave of TV ads opposing the Iran deal

A recent headline at The Intercept seems to have been crafted to deceive its readers:

Wave of TV Ads Opposing Iran Deal Organized By Saudi Arabian Lobbyist

Parse those words very carefully, avoid the grammatical trap of assuming that a Saudi Arabian lobbyist would be Saudi Arabian, and you might grasp that the ads, though organized by the said lobbyist, may or may not have any connection to Saudi Arabia.

But most people don’t dissect headlines with such lawyerly exactness and thus wouldn’t hesitate in jumping to this conclusion:

Saudis Financing TV Ads Opposing Nuke Deal with Iran

That headline appears above a report appearing at the Macedonian International News Agency which is simply The Intercept report re-published without attribution.

So what’s the deception?

The ads in question are being run by a group called the American Security Initiative whose president is former Republican Senator Norm Coleman.

Coleman now works for the major lobbying law firm Hogan Lovells, where he provides legal services for the Royal Embassy of Saudi Arabia and legal services for other existing firm clients.

On that basis — and not much else — The Intercept’s Lee Fang has constructed a report that will lead many readers to believe the Saudis are behind the ad campaign, even though that conclusion is never spelled out. The report doesn’t make its conclusion explicit — even though it’s strongly inferred in the headline — presumably because it’s a claim for which there is no direct evidence.

But maybe it’s true. Maybe the Saudis are sinking millions of dollars into this ad campaign. It’s possible.

Yet there already is a much more plausible source for the funding for the American Security Initiative: the casino boss who bankrolls Benjamin Netanyahu, Sheldon Adelson.

The reason for believing it’s Adelson’s money rather than the Saudis’ isn’t simply because the tycoon’s opposition to the Iran deal is well-known. It’s because his financial links to the American Security Initiative have already been reported.

In Washington this March, Adelson co-chaired a fundraising event where Coleman made a pitch for the American Security Initiative.

Coleman is a close ally of Adelson — both are board members of the Republican Jewish Coalition.

The primary goal of the Coalition right now is to kill the Iran deal.

Following the March fundraiser and Coleman’s pitch for the American Security Initiative, the Daily Beast reported: “A GOP source said Adelson is expected to help fund the new security group, but Coleman declined to comment.”

So why is The Intercept now pointing at the Saudis when Adelson’s already been fingered?


A clash of civilizations on a train to Paris?

Following an attack in which a gunman, Ayoub El Khazzani, was successfully tackled and disarmed by three Americans, Spencer Stone, Alek Skarlatos and Anthony Sadler, a Briton, Chris Norman, and a Frenchman who chose to remain anonymous, Time’s Mark Thompson writes:

Friday’s fight on the high-speed Amsterdam-to-Paris train can be viewed a miniature version of the clash of civilizations that some fear may now be unfolding. If so, Sadler, Skarlatos and Stone stepped up to the plate. “He seemed like he was ready to fight to the end,” Stone said of Khazzani. “So were we.”

Among the lessons Thompson draws is this:

If Islamic militants are determined to launch lone wolf attacks that threaten everyone in the West, everyone in the West is on the front lines. The solution isn’t to put undercover soldiers wherever the public gathers, or to arm every civilian. Instead, it simply requires donning a new mindset. Ever since the 9/11 attacks, airline passengers have no longer been willing to give strangers the benefit of the doubt if they appear threatening. Such an attitude will become more common, in more places, so long as such attacks persist. Importantly, as Friday’s outcome shows, attackers are not invincible. “Basically, in times of crisis…do something,” Sadler, 22, said.

No doubt the men who thwarted this attack, deserve all the praise they have received.

The wheels of French bureaucracy move impressively swiftly when it comes to dishing out medals. And politicians and government representatives have been just as swift in snatching photo opportunities.

Anyone witnessing the news conference for the three Americans could be forgiven for thinking that the grinning women next to Stone was his mom — it wasn’t, it was U.S. Ambassador Jane Hartley.

As for Thompson’s conclusion that we’re now all on the front lines of a clash of civilizations, that seems to me like the worst way of spinning what happened.

When the young Americans took action, they weren’t just being heroic — they were also very lucky not to get cut down in a hail of bullets.

As Americans, having grown up in a society that commonly prizes action more than deliberation, at that moment they arguably had a cultural advantage. The military experience that Stone and Skarlatos possessed must also have been a great asset.

But whether in a time of crisis people do something or not, will have as much to do with circumstances as it may with any mindset they have previously cultivated.

Just like any other animal, we’re hard-wired for fight or flight, yet the so-called fight-flight response is somewhat of a misnomer. The choices are actually three: fight, flight, or freeze.

The freeze response is almost a will to become invisible — a goal that many animals can effectively accomplish simply by remaining motionless.

People can have the same instinctive response yet will be at a distinct disadvantage compared with a rabbit that can hide in long grass.

How each passenger on the train responded to an immediate threat must to some extent have been the result of proximity, but when it comes to the question of what constitutes the best mindset, I would argue vehemently against those who believe we should now all be primed to tackle lone wolf terrorists.

Indeed, the mindset of most relevance here is one that has nothing to do with how we view the threat of terrorism.

The mindset that makes people in the modern world individually and collectively most vulnerable is one that has become almost universal: the desire to remain inside a private bubble within a public space.

Thanks to the ubiquity of mobile devices everyone now has the means to be physically present and mentally absent.

It’s quite likely that a significant number of passengers on the train to Paris were oblivious to what was unfolding as they remained entranced by their own soundtrack on life.

When Justin Valdez was murdered on a Muni train in San Francisco two years ago, his death could have easily been prevented had the passengers around him simply been paying attention.

The Muni camera revealed a gunman raising and lower his pistol several times — even using the gun to wipe his nose — yet no one saw what he was doing until it was too late.

“These weren’t concealed movements – the gun is very clear,” said District Attorney George Gascón. “These people are in very close proximity with him, and nobody sees this. They’re just so engrossed, texting and reading and whatnot. They’re completely oblivious of their surroundings.”

The scene is emblematic of the world in which we now live and the least of our fears should be the relatively small risk we face from terrorists or random gun violence.

Our real fear should be that we are creating societies in which we regard most strangers as people who can be ignored — people who don’t matter.

Such a society is one that is losing its humanity and losing its sense that life, if not shared here and now, is really no life at all.


Buzzfeed editor finds HuffPost Arabi too inclusive

If Buzzfeed’s Tom Gara is to be believed, there’s reason to fear that Huffington Post’s new Arabic site is aligned with the Muslim Brotherhood.

Particularly disturbing (to some readers) is that a site generally known for being progressive, would provide space for the criticism of selfie culture, “a mainstay of the Huffington Post’s English-language sites”.

Unlike Gara, I have no problem with conservative Islamists or anyone else taking issue with selfie culture. Frankly, the idea that it needs defending seems to me quite perverse — especially when it results in arguments like the following.

Casey Miller, for instance, values selfies because she thinks they help maintain “intimate friendship” with long-distance friends without the “commitment of Skype.” (Those, I guess, would be the friendships one hopes to sustain without having to sacrifice time. Why spend 10 minutes talking, instead of 10 seconds taking and sending a selfie?)

Research — and common sense — does however suggest that selfies offer weak bonds. As Time reported in 2013:

“Increased frequency of sharing photographs of the self, regardless of the type of target sharing the photographs, is related to a decrease in intimacy,” concludes the joint study conducted by the University of Birmingham, the University of Edinburgh, and Heriot-Watt University. In other words, people who constantly share photos of themselves generally tend to have more shallow personal relationships.

As Galen Guengerich astutely observes, “the selfie chronicles a counter-Copernican revolution.”

Nicholas Sabloff, the Huffington Post’s executive international editor, sidestepping this particular debate on mobile device-shaped culture, told BuzzFeed News that regarding the anti-selfie post written by an Algerian columnist, “The views on the blog do not reflect HuffPost’s global editorial viewpoint, nor the viewpoint of our HuffPost Arabi editors.”

But that didn’t stop Buzzfeed disingenuously claiming in its headline that Arabi “takes a stand” against selfies.

Gara seems to be especially suspicious of Arabi’s editor-in-chief, Anas Fouda, who previously worked for Al Jazeera and its rival, Al Arabiya.

In signing up with the Huffington Post, he appears to have taken inspiration for the Arabic site from founder Arianna Huffington herself.

The first time the two met and discussed the concept of Huffington Post Arabi, “she spoke to me of the wisdom that is in our region, a region that was once the cradle of civilization and religion,” Fouda wrote in his editor’s note marking the launch of Huffington Post Arabi.

That note, like much of the content on the new site, then took an unexpected twist. “I in turn believe in the positivity of looking for a way out,” he wrote, “and that the inherent wisdom that stems from our history and religious heritage are necessary weapons in this time of #WorldWar3.”

This time of #WorldWar3?

Wow, an “unexpected twist” — but only for those who neglected to read the opening of Fouda’s piece. Which is to say, rather than taking an unexpected twist, his commentary came full circle and ended where it began:

It took several years before people started to realize that Europe’s war of 1914 to 1918 was both big and influential enough to be worthy of being called a “World War.” So they gave it that grand name, and added “First” two decades later when they fought a second war that was not any less vicious or influential.

People fight wars first and come up with names that suit their grandeur and influence later. Years from now, historians will look at what happened in our region and perhaps won’t find a more appropriate name than #WorldWar3, especially since the world will never return to what it once was.

In this region, half of the world is fighting a proxy war against the other half. America, Russia, Israel, international military alliances, old monarchies and dictatorships are all fighting here to preserve or expand their areas of influence. At the same time, armed sectarian, religious, or ethnic groups — ones that have no face other than that of rage — fight to abolish all that is old, to create a new map, and perhaps a new world order.

When newly appointed at Buzzfeed after leaving the Wall Street Journal, Gara said in an interview:

if you’re running a news organization on the assumption people are dumb and deserve to be fed trash, not only are you kind of evil, but you’re missing out on the much bigger opportunity of assuming people want to read great stuff and know what’s really going on in the world.

Arianna Huffington offers Gara the excuse that his post might be a reflection of the August news slump.

That might be true, but equally so, this seems to me like a case of dishing out trash on the assumption that people are dumb.


Turkey launches massive attack against ISIS’s most effective opponent, the PKK

In a feature article published on Friday under the provocative headline, “America’s Marxist Allies Against ISIS,” the Wall Street Journal reported:

The PKK [Kurdistan Workers’ Party] and its Syrian affiliate have emerged as Washington’s most effective battlefield partners against Islamic State, also known as ISIS, even though the U.S. and its allies have for decades listed the PKK as a terrorist group.

That partnership first emerged last summer when the U.S. launched an operation to save Yazidis besieged on Sinjar Mountain in northern Iraq — victims of ISIS ethnic cleansing and who were led to safety by YPG Kurdish fighters.

U.S. war planners have been coordinating with the Syrian affiliate — the People’s Defense Units, or YPG — on air and ground operations through a joint command center in northern Iraq. And in two new centers in Syria’s Kobani and Jazeera regions, YPG commanders are in direct contact with U.S. commanders, senior Syrian Kurdish officials said.

“There’s no reason to pretend anymore,” said a senior Kurdish official from Kobani. “We’re working together, and it’s working.”

The report also said:

U.S. defense officials said coordination with YPG units, including some inside Syria, has improved the ability of coalition aircraft to strike Islamic State positions and avoid civilian casualties. U.S. Defense Secretary Ash Carter during a visit to the region this week said YPG forces in Syria are “extremely effective on the ground.”

While not all of the PKK affiliates are classified by the U.S. as terrorist organizations, the presence or absence of such a designation highlights the political nature of the State Department’s classification system.

The PKK says its affiliates — Syria’s YPG and groups called the PJAK in Iran and the HPG in Iraq — are separate but closely linked. PKK fighters and some analysts say they are one and the same.

As Turkish military forces remained spectators during the ISIS assault on Kobane last year, it was clear that the Turkish government likewise sees no meaningful distinction between between the PKK affiliates and views all of them as terrorists.

Perhaps this explains why Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdogan, who now operates like a born-again neoconservative, has decided that Turkish participation in the fight against ISIS justifies launching hundreds of bombing strikes on the PKK. As Dick Cheney might have said, they’re all terrorists.

But as David Graeber points on, Turkey has now provided ISIS with the one major element in its arsenal that it previously lacked:

Brett McGurk, the deputy special presidential envoy for the coalition to counter ISIS, claims:


Turkey agrees to allow the U.S. to use its air bases at Incirlik and Diyarbakir for strikes against ISIS — a “game changer” a senior Obama administration official says — Turkey then starts bombing the PKK and the U.S. responds by confirming Turkey’s right to defend itself while affirming the PKK’s status as a terrorist organization.

The Wall Street Journal reported:

U.S. officials said the base deal shouldn’t affect U.S. air support to Kurdish fighters in Syria and may help increase collaboration with the YPG because jets and drones will be closer to the battlefield.

So if these fighters are shooting at ISIS in Syria, the U.S. may provide them with air support, but if they return to camps in Iraq and get bombed by the Turks, the Obama administration will raise no objections. Is that how it works?

An administration official suggested that it’s difficult for the U.S. to be clear about the affiliations of the fighters for whom it’s providing air support.

“These guys don’t exactly wear patches identifying what groups they’re fighting for,” the official said, “but they are fighting the right guys.”

In fact, patches showing YPG and YPJ affiliation can commonly be seen.

The affiliations that are hardest to decipher right now are those of the Americans.


Watch out! Millions of angry, impulsive Americans with guns

Another day, another shooting.

While it’s hard to construct a profile of the typical American shooter who engages in random killing, there are a few generalizations that can be made with reasonable confidence:

1. The shooter will be male,
2. his weapon(s) will much more often than not have been acquired legally, and
3. he’ll probably be white.

Whether a demographically disproportionate number of homicidal, gun-wielding Americans are white, I have no idea. But the latest shooting — this time the gunman, at 59-years-old, was probably above average age — illustrates the fundamental problem with the idea that carrying a gun is the best way to defend yourself against another gun owner who’s on the rampage: By the time you’ve figured out who the crazy guy is, it’s too late. Why? Because the crazy guy looks just like the regular guy.

The gun lobby would have everyone believe that guns are really only dangerous if they get in the wrong hands and thus when gun ownership turns deadly we are encouraged to overlook the central fact: guns are designed to kill.

There are lots of things that can be deadly — cars, alcohol, cigarettes, passenger aircraft, and so forth — but when these become instruments of fatality, they are not performing the function for which they were designed.

But when a gun owner goes on the rampage, unless his weapon malfunctions, each time he kills or injures someone, his gun and its ammunition were functioning exactly in accordance with specifications.

Although guns can be used to pop holes in paper targets or shatter bottles, what they’re really meant to do is rip flesh apart and end lives. This is machine tooled, high precision, state of the art, carnage.

Lisa Wade writes:

While it seems that much of the discourse around curbing gun violence focuses on the need to keep guns out of the hands of the mentally ill, these two issues — gun violence and mental illness — “intersect only at their edges.” These are the words of Jeffrey Swanson and his colleagues in their new article examining the personality characteristics of American gun owners.

To think otherwise, they argue, is to fall prey to the narrative of gun rights advocates, who want us to think that “controlling people with serious mental illness instead of controlling firearms is the key policy answer.” Since the majority of people with mental illnesses are never violent, this is unlikely to be an effective strategy while, at the same time, further stigmatizing people with mental illness.

What is a good strategy, then, short of the unlikely event that we take America’s guns away?

Swanson and colleagues argue that a better policy would be to look for signs of impulsive, angry, and aggressive behavior and limit gun rights based on that. Evidence of such behavior, they believe, “conveys inherent risk of aggressive or violent acts” substantial enough to justify limiting gun ownership.

By Wade’s estimate, based on an unspecified national data set, there are several million American gun owners who pose a risk.

Political realism may dictate that America’s gun owners can’t be deprived of their cherished weapons, but civil libertarians would just as surely guarantee that no screening process would ever be put in place (if such a process could even be devised) that would keep guns out of the hands of impulsive, angry, and aggressive Americans.

The remedy, it seems to me, will have to come from the other end by making legally available weapons less deadly and by holding gun manufacturers legally responsible for the effects of their products.

No other industry enjoys impunity from product liability yet in 2005, Congress, under pressure from the NRA, conspired with the gun makers to protect their profits at the expense of American lives.

The authors of the 2005 Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act have blood on their hands. Each time the families of victims of yet another mass shooting attempt to sue the gun makers, this law provides them with protection.

The Washington Post reported in 2013 on those stymied efforts.

Marc Bern, a New York trial lawyer representing family members of Aurora victims, said the gun law severely limited his clients’ options. He is pursuing a case against the movie theater company, although some of his clients had expressed interest in trying to pursue companies that provided guns or ammunition to the shooter.

“We looked at the gun industry, but they were able to insulate themselves with this law,” Bern said. “It is absolutely outrageous that the gun industry is not accountable when virtually every other industry in this country is accountable.”

President Obama bemoans the fact that the U.S. does not have “sufficient, common-sense gun safety laws — even in the face of repeated mass killings,” and the chances of new legislation being crafted during what remains of is term are slim.

He could, however, push for the repeal of the 2005 law.


Ladbroke Grove to Ramadi — from London gang-life to ISIS

In a speech he gave on Monday, Britain’s prime minister, David Cameron, outlined his government’s five-year strategy for tackling extremism. He noted:

For all our successes as [a] multi-racial, multi-faith democracy, we have to confront a tragic truth that there are people born and raised in this country who don’t really identify with Britain – and who feel little or no attachment to other people here. Indeed, there is a danger in some of our communities that you can go your whole life and have little to do with people from other faiths and backgrounds.

So when groups like ISIL seek to rally our young people to their poisonous cause, it can offer them a sense of belonging that they can lack here at home, leaving them more susceptible to radicalisation and even violence against other British people to whom they feel no real allegiance.

In Britain or any other democracy where there are citizens who lack a sense of belonging, to view this as a condition conducive to the growth of extremism is to underestimate the significance of the problem.

This isn’t just a security problem — it is a failure of democracy.

Where there is a commonly held sense that everyone’s life matters and that equality trumps privilege, there is little risk that individuals will lack the feeling of belonging.

But those who feel they don’t belong, commonly experience a state which fails to represent their interests and a society in which they are treated like outsiders. They often live in neighborhoods where agents of the state (police and other security services) are experienced as intrusive forces which thus commonly meet resistance.

By Cameron’s reckoning, the handful of individuals who end up joining ISIS, never became sufficiently anchored in British culture, but as Tam Hussein describes it in a fascinating essay from which I quote below, these are young people who are culturally adrift in a different way — products just as much of Western mass culture as they are of an extremist ideology.

At Syria Comment, Hussein tells the story of Fatlum Shalaku who came from a Kosovo Albanian family, grew up in London and earlier this year, two weeks after cancelling a holiday in Spain, went instead to Iraq where he died as a suicide bomber during ISIS’s assault on Ramadi.

Hussein grew up in the same part of London — Ladbroke Grove — where Shalaku, “Jihadi John,” and several other ISIS recruits came from. He says:

It is clear that neither foreign policy nor ideology are solely responsible for motivating European youth to go on Jihad. My essay argues that the reason many of these men went to Syria and join specifically ISIS is due to the subtle interplay between religion, foreign policy and gang culture and modernism.

A term that crops up repeatedly in this detailed report is roadman, for which the Urban Dictionary offers this definition:

British word for a young male (14-21). Typically wears a 5-Panel cap and doesn’t give a fuck. Always out with his mates who are normally roadmen as well. Academic knowledge is usually low but street credibility and knowledge is above average.

Hussein writes:

These young men, in typical post-modern style comfortably mixed iconic images of Jihadica with Call of Duty. Sitting in an Italian cafe, Ali, a student who grew up in and around Ladbroke Grove told me even more bluntly what he thought the problem was; “There’s more to it, you have a high percentage of Roadmans who don’t know anything about the faith and they discover Anwar Awlaki on Youtube and it’s a disaster. On top of that everything they watch from Lord of the Rings to 300, to Saving Private Ryan to Black Hawk Down everything about the Western culture celebrates heroism and self sacrifice. Some of their fathers also fought in Afghanistan, they have a fighting mentality because of the streets and once you put religion into it; which says helping the weak and oppressed is good, you got a Jihadi Roadman. It’s so predictable. Notice that most of these Roadmans joined ISIS; the rest with any sense of the faith didn’t.”

Fatlum’s friend Mohammed Nasser was a case in point; going through his twitter feed you notice that Grand Theft Auto Five is mentioned in the same breath as martyrdom, even though GTA is probably the most antithetical to the Islamic moral ethic. On his twitter feed. He flitted from talking about his friends, to messaging Pro-ISIS disseminators like Shamiwitness and talking to the brother of Iftekhar Jaman, the Portsmouth ISIS Jihadi. The connections they were making, the culture they were creating was one particular to their generation. They had their own terminology, they wore their Salafi-Jihadism on their robes, blended it with rebellious Roadmannism, garnished it with a bit of Anwar Awlaki, Quran, Sunnah and a bit of thug life. They could yearn desperately for forgiveness and paradise, and in their youthful ardour want a sense of belonging and adventure. West-side hyperbole turned into “the land of the Muslims have to be defended.” The new generation Jihadi Roadmans short circuited the Salafi-jihadi tradition for just Team Muslim-no matter what; the response was not un-similar to the American patriot who cried Team America: no matter what. These men no doubt sincere in intention had become a law unto themselves and could wreak havoc and go against well established Islamic principles. These men joined ISIS. [All the links in this passage have been added by me for the benefit of readers. PW]

Read Tam Hussein’s complete essay here.


A DUI, the Second Amendment, and jihad

Borrowing a trademarked slogan from “Hijabman,” Mohammod Youssuf Abdulazeez wrote as his senior quote in the 2008 Red Bank High School yearbook: “My name causes national security alerts. What does yours do?”

No doubt he chose this statement at that time because he shared the same sense of frustration experienced by millions of ordinary Muslims, viewed with suspicion in post-9/11 America. And no doubt there are now many Islamophobic Americans who see those words as prophetic rather than ironic.

Indeed, the discovery of a short-lived blog attributed to Abdulazeez, writing on religious themes, will reinforce the assumption that the shooting rampage that the 24-year-old gunman went on in Chattanooga yesterday, was inspired by Islam.

Yet if Abdulazeez was an Islamic extremist, it’s strange that he would have selected the parable of the blind men and the elephant for one of the two entries on his blog.

Choosing a story that illustrates why no one has a monopoly on truth — a story shared by Sufis, Hindus, Buddhists and Jains — Abdulazeez wanted to disavow the narrow-mindedness of fellow Muslims:

As Muslims, we often do this. We have a certain understanding of Islam and keep a tunnel vision of what we think Islam is. What we know is Islam and everything else is not. And we don’t have appreciation for other points of view and accept the fact that we may be missing some important parts of the religion.

This appeal for tolerance doesn’t sound like the kind of message that would be expressed by anyone with an affinity for ISIS or any other extremist group.

Since Abdulazeez’s deadly motives will likely never be known, we can do no more than speculate about what was running through his mind yesterday.

The fact that in April he’d been stopped while apparently driving under the influence of marijuana, further undermines the notion that he was some kind of religious zealot.

Perhaps he dreaded an upcoming court appearance and ensuing parental rebukes for bringing shame upon his family.

A neighbor told the New York Times that Abdulazeez and his sisters were well behaved and polite, with strict parents and a structured lifestyle. Maybe in those circumstances, dying in a hail of bullets seemed preferable to living with a criminal record.

While the media focuses on questions about this case that will most likely never be answered, the elephant in the room — just as it was after the Charleston massacre — is gun control. (A national campaign against the Confederate flag turned out to be a very effective way of dodging that political bullet after the last mass shooting.)

The reason the contents of the mind of an Abdulazeez or a Dylann Roof suddenly become objects of national fascination, actually has nothing to do with anything of intrinsic interest about the cognitive functions of killers.

It is simply because these particular aberrant thoughts could find expression through the barrel of a gun — thoughts that could be translated into violence just as easily as attending, for instance, the Camp Jordan Arena gun show in Chattanooga last weekend.

The “right of the people to keep and bear Arms” is what allowed Abdulazeez and Roof to gun down their victims, and yet this constitutional anachronism continues to be held as sacrosanct.

It is as though the gun was an indispensable extension of the American spirit, when in reality this passion for firearms is nothing more than the most graphic manifestation of American narrow-mindedness.

A country that spends billions of dollars on national security and fights an endless war on terrorism, yet is still reluctant to erect effective barriers to mass killing.

That’s plain dumb!


Michael Oren’s passion for re-writing history

Ron Kampeas writes: It’s a compelling hero-takes-the-fall narrative: Valiant little country takes the lead in rescuing a battered people and gets snubbed when it’s time for kudos.

It’s the picture Michael Oren, the former Israeli ambassador to the U.S., paints of Israel’s 2010 Haiti rescue operation in “Ally,” his book excoriating President Barack Obama’s treatment of Israel. Haiti’s devastating 7.0 magnitude earthquake, which struck outside the capital, Port-au-Prince, and killed hundreds of thousands (though the official death toll is disputed) comes at a pivotal moment in the book, when Oren believes the U.S.-Israel relationship is on a downward trajectory.

There’s a problem, though: Except for the part about the uncommon valor of Israeli rescuers, none of it appears to be based on anything that actually happened.

The passage appears on pages 132-133, in a section punningly headlined “Tremors” and that describes tensions over Israeli-Palestinian peace, “as the White House and the Prime Minister’s Office pitched toward collision”:

“My foreboding only deepened on January 15, when Obama issued an official statement on Haiti. ‘Help continues to flow in, not just from the United States but from Brazil, Mexico, Canada, France, Colombia, and the Dominican Republic,’ the president declared. Omitted from the list was Israel, the first state to arrive in Haiti and the first to reach the disaster fully prepared. I heard the president’s words and felt like I had been kicked in the chest.”

• Israel was not “the first state to arrive in Haiti.” Israel arrived on the evening of Jan. 15. According to this CNN timeline, the United States, Iceland, Canada, Spain, China, Argentina, Cuba and Brazil had rescue teams in place by Jan. 13 and 14. The Dominican Republic was first. (I’m also not sure what Oren means about Israel being the first to reach the disaster “fully prepared.” According to the CNN timeline, an Argentine field hospital had treated 800 people by Jan. 13.)

• Obama delivered his remarks between 1:08 and 1:14 PM on Friday, Jan. 15. The Israeli rescue teams arrived on Jan. 15 – in the evening, according to Walla News. And, according to multiple news sources, including JTA, the Israeli army’s field hospital was not set up set up before Saturday morning, Jan. 16.

So why would Oren have “felt kicked in the chest”? Israelis did not rescue or treat a single Haitian until after Obama delivered his remarks; there was no Israeli team in place when he spoke; what would have led Obama to cite Israel that Friday afternoon? [Continue reading…]

Without questioning the good intentions and noble efforts of individual Israeli relief workers, there’s little question that the Israeli government and media viewed the tragedy in Haiti as a wonderful PR opportunity.

“Haiti’s disaster is good for the Jews,” declared a site run by Israel’s popular Hebrew daily, Maariv.

Every disaster needs a hero, the report said, and the heroes in Haiti are the Israelis. And as I wrote at the time:

The message that Israel is saving Haiti was likewise captured in an editorial cartoon in Yediot Aharonot which shows American soldiers digging for earthquake survivors. A voice from beneath the rubble calls out, “Would you mind checking to see if the Israelis are available?”

Bnei Akiva, the largest religious Zionist youth movement in the world, in partnership with Latet, an Israeli humanitarian aid organization, launched a Haiti appeal saying: “We are not only helping Haitians with their tragedy, but uniting the Jewish world and demonstrating the Jewish values of the State of Israel. We believe that it is a Jewish duty to help the people of Haiti. As the representative of the Jewish people, the State of Israel is leading the relief effort.”

An Associated Press article I linked to yesterday describing the exodus of Haitians fleeing from the ruins of Port-au-Prince, strangely was subsequently replaced by a report describing the rescue of a 22-year-old man by an Israeli search team 10 days after the earthquake leveled much of the capital.

In Haaretz, Bradley Burston writes:

Over the past week, the work of the Israeli medical team has become a kind of Rorschach for how people view Israel and Israelis. Most of the comment, it must be said, is supportive. Even on the part of those who cast the humanitarian misery in Gaza in contrast.

But for a shocking number of others, the bottom line is simple: Israel, and Israelis, can do no right.

In its most extreme form, there are those who have accused Israel of using the Haiti catastrophe as a new reservoir for harvesting organs.

But even many of those who shun blood libels, have seized on the Haiti mission to bash Israel, revealing in many cases a hatred – and a bigotry – that borders on the visceral.

Would Burston lump me in with the anti-Israel commentators? Maybe.

Do I think the Israeli doctors, nurses and rescue teams now working in Haiti are all toiling away purely in the service of Israel’s international image? I doubt it. I would expect that for most of these individuals, their response is like that of most of the other foreigners now providing relief to Haitians: it is above all a human response to human suffering.

Is there such a thing as an Israeli response or a Jewish response or an American response to human suffering? If so, it is laced with vanity.

To say this is what we do because this is who we are is to preen oneself in front of a mirror of self-praise. It is undignified. It spies a reward in someone else’s loss.

In this mirror, Israel now sees an image of itself as a big-hearted nation admired around the world for its humanitarian efforts in Haiti. But the self-satisfaction will be short-lived. Before long this glimmer of goodwill will once again be overshadowed by the enduring reality that in the minds of most Israelis the suffering of others seems just as likely to provoke callous indifference as it does an open heart.

The big Israeli heart shrivels at the sight of a Palestinian.

Maybe Oren felt kicked in the chest when heard Obama’s words because he’d been busy sending out press releases to all and sundry hailing the imminent arrival of Israelis in Haiti, imagining that the whole world would be in awe at the mere fact that they had been sent.


In America, infamy is as easy to acquire as a gun

In post 9/11 America, terrorism has been used to justify wars, drone strikes, torture, secret detention, kidnapping, extrajudicial killing, mass surveillance, and the unfettered expansion of the national security state.

In recent days, numerous commentators, many of whom have surely previously been disturbed by the way the fear of terrorism has been used to manipulate this country’s political system and global outlook, are nevertheless now arguing that in America today the term “terrorist” is not being used broadly enough.

Since the white male Charleston killer, Dylann Roof, is unlikely to be branded a terrorist by public officials or in most of the media, Anthea Butler suggests:

the go-to explanation for his alleged actions will be mental illness. He will be humanized and called sick, a victim of mistreatment or inadequate mental health resources.

Nevertheless, Butler writes:

The Charleston shooting is a result of an ingrained culture of racism and a history of terrorism in America. It should be covered as such. On Friday, Department of Justice spokeswoman Emily Pierce acknowledged that the Charleston shooting “was undoubtedly designed to strike fear and terror into this community” (though terrorism is not among the nine murder charges brought against Roof, so far). And now that Roof has admitted to killing those people to start a “race war,” we should be calling him what he is: a terrorist.

Then what?

Ship him off to Guantánamo?

Terrorist is a politically charged and legally dubious term precisely because it gets used to shut down debate and curtail analysis. It is used to justify sidestepping due process and ignoring human rights.

The terrorist is the ghoul of modern America — the term functions more as an instrument of exorcism rather than illumination.

In America and elsewhere in the West, fear of terrorism dovetails with the inclinations to treat skin color as a mark of foreignness, and the tendency to view the foreign as threatening.

Calling Dylann Roof a white American terrorist, isn’t going to diminish the levels of racism, Islamophobia, and xenophobia across this country.

Calling Roof a terrorist, merely elevates his infamy, grants him the attention he obviously craves and turns attention away from the flawed legal system that allowed a worm of hatred inside his mind to be transformed into an act of deadly violence.

In America, infamy is no harder to obtain than a gun.

I recognize that there is a common sentiment which justifiably perceives an undercurrent of racism in the way in which people get labelled terrorists — that it’s a term that sticks much more easily to non-whites and especially to Muslims — but I don’t think this indicates we lack a sufficiently expansive definition and application of the term.

On the contrary, we would be better off not using the term at all, rather than trying to make its application more racially inclusive.

Jared Keller argues:

by not calling Roof’s atrocity terrorism, we gloss over the past — and present — of white America’s war of terror against its black citizens.

To my mind, that assertion, much as it contains an element of truth, is also indicative of the cultural stranglehold with which the war-on-terrorism narrative continues to grip America, fourteen years after 9/11.

The only way in which we can sense the gravity of a mass killing is by calling it terrorism, because it goes without saying — supposedly — that nothing is more serious than terrorism.

The real problem here is not the failure to call Roof a terrorist, but rather a failure to acknowledge that America faces many issues that are actually much more serious than terrorism:

Racism, inequality, environmental degradation, an unsustainable economic system, and foundationally a societal breakdown that results from individual interests being placed above collective welfare.

In a mind-your-own-business society, the mass murderers always seemingly come out of nowhere. No one sees them coming, because no one was paying enough attention. A live-and-let-live philosophy easily shifts into a live-and-let-kill reality.

In a word, we live in a country where people do not care for each other enough.

We do not live in a country where the number of terrorists is being undercounted.

After the shooting, President Obama said: “At some point, we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries.”

But why wasn’t that point reached long ago? The signs of this ugly form of American exceptionalism has been evident for decades.

Most Americans don’t own a gun and yet gun owners are more likely to think of themselves as “a typical American” (72% vs. 62%). Indeed, gun owners are more likely to say they “often feel proud to be American” (64% vs. 51%).

The most vocal among the 24% of Americans who own a gun are using their weapons to intimidate the whole population. Through their arrogance, ignorance and selfishness, they seem to imagine they have a stronger claim on what it means to be an American than everyone else.

After the Charleston shootings, National Rifle Association board member Charles Cotton blamed the deaths on one of the dead, Clementa Pinckney, who as a state senator had voted against a law allowing gun owners to carry concealed weapons without permits.

“Eight of his church members who might be alive if he had expressly allowed members to carry handguns in church are dead,” Cotton wrote. “Innocent people died because of his position on a political issue.”

Gun owners like Cotton, regard guns as the protectors of freedom, and see gun control laws as threats to their own freedom. In practice, they prize their weapons more highly that the lives of the tens of thousands of Americans who get killed each year by firearms.

As Gary Younge writes:

America does not have a monopoly on racism. But what makes its racism so lethal is the ease with which people can acquire guns. While the new conversation around race will mean the political response to the fact of this attack will be different, the stale conversation around gun control means the legislative response to the nature of this attack will remain the same. Nothing will happen.

After Adam Lanza shot 20 primary school children and six adults in Sandy Hook, Connecticut, in 2012 before turning his gun on himself, nothing happened. Seven children and teens are shot dead every day in America and nothing happens.

So these nine victims will join those who perished before them – a sacrifice to the blood-soaked pedestal erected around the constitution’s second amendment that gun lobbyists say guarantees the right of individuals to bear arms.

At some point, America as a nation needs to challenge its superstitious reverence for a piece of paper, and demonstrate that it is no longer willing to see the lives of so many of its citizen’s needlessly wasted.


Obama’s humble approach to drone warfare

Following the death of Nasser al-Wuhayshi, the leader of Al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula who was killed by a drone strike in Yemen a few days ago, a spokesman for the group made a surprise announcement:

Although there remain several candidates for his replacement, our first choice is a senior fellow from the Brookings Institution who for obvious reasons will henceforth only be referred to by his nom de guerre, al-Moderation.

Much as al-Wuhayshi’s loss is regrettable, it opens up new opportunities for fresh blood, allowing younger, more liberally-minded members of AQAP to now explore non-violent avenues to achieve our objectives.

Hard to imagine that drone strikes might have this effect? No doubt, but what’s equally lacking in credibility is the kind of claim that predictably followed the latest strike.

With a triumphalist tone, the spokesman for the National Security Council, Ned Price, said al-Wuhayshi’s death was a “major blow” to the militant group. He said it “removes from the battlefield an experienced terrorist leader and brings us closer to degrading and ultimately defeating these groups.”


In an effort to perpetuate the grandiose spirit with which Obama began his drone warfare campaign, Price said: “The president has been clear that terrorists who threaten the United States will not find safe haven in any corner of the globe.”

Yet in Yemen, that corner of the globe where Obama’s drone campaign has largely been focused, the assessment of the former U.S. ambassador, Stephen Seche, is that: “If you’re looking for logic here, you’re not going to find much.”

Why? Because as the U.S. launches occasional drone strikes against AQAP, it is also offering logistical support to Saudi Arabia in its attacks against the group’s principal opponents, the Houthi rebels.

With the promotion of Qasim al-Raymi, the group apparently had no trouble in choosing a new leader.

Orlando Crowcroft writes:

“I think if you were going to guess who would replace al-Wuhayshi, this would [be] the guy. It makes a lot of sense,” said Adam Baron, a visiting fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations.

Although the loss of four key figures in as many months is a blow for AQAP, the group is having a great deal of success in Yemen in the wake of Saudi Arabia’s war against the Houthi rebels. That conflict has largely affected the north and west of the country, allowing al-Qaeda to seize huge swathes of the east, its traditional Sunni tribal heartland.

“It is a great time for AQAP […] when you look at the situation on the ground. As long as the war continues, as long as Yemen continues inching further and further into the abyss of being a failed state, AQAP and other groups will continue to capitalise,” said Baron.

“Celebrating the death of al-Wuhayshi as if it means the death of AQAP is a very flawed way to look at this.”

If the Al Qaeda central leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, was ever to come into the sights of an American drone operator, the wisest response would be to hold fire, and yet the simplistic assumption behind President Obama’s strategy of eliminating so-called high value targets, is that terrorist groups suffer potentially crippling blows whenever their leaders are eliminated — an assumption that is nothing more than an exercise in wishful thinking.

When it comes to the leadership of terrorist organizations, more often than not, it tends to be a case of better the devil you know than the devil you don’t.

As much as politicians and pundits would prefer terrorists to be seen as extraterrestrial beings, they do in reality exhibit many traits common to their fellow men, one of which is that aging quite often has the effect of curtailing aggression. And even if aging doesn’t lead to moderation, it almost always diminishes the capacities of adaptation.

Even so, over the last decade and a half, a constant refrain from America’s military leaders has been that they struggle against highly adaptable foes. No one seems to recognize that this adaptability is not simply a challenge; it is also an effect of U.S. counter-terrorism strategy.

If Obama’s own mysterious strategy extends further than crossing dates off the calendar as he looks forward to leaving office, it is perhaps one of conflict maintenance — to keep the war on terrorism on a slow simmer. Not too hot, nor too cool, but just hot enough to ensure that national security has its required prominence during the 2016 presidential campaign and that whoever enters the White House in January, 2017, will be able to continue with business as usual in America’s ongoing wars.

If 9/11 was the product of a failure of imagination, so is the war on terrorism.

And if for Obama, drone warfare once looked like a magic bullet whose power derived from its precision, it now represents the impotence of a strategy leading nowhere.


Snowden’s files and the files Snowden took: Is Glenn Greenwald playing dumb?

An article in Britain’s Sunday Times this weekend, claimed: “Russia and China have cracked the top-secret cache of files stolen by the fugitive US whistleblower Edward Snowden, forcing MI6 to pull agents out of live operations in hostile countries, according to senior officials in Downing Street, the Home Office and the security services.”

Glenn Greenwald writes:

The government accusers behind this story have a big obstacle to overcome: namely, Snowden has said unequivocally that when he left Hong Kong, he took no files with him, having given them to the journalists with whom he worked, and then destroying his copy precisely so that it wouldn’t be vulnerable as he traveled. How, then, could Russia have obtained Snowden’s files as the story claims — “his documents were encrypted but they weren’t completely secure ” — if he did not even have physical possession of them?

The only way this smear works is if they claim Snowden lied, and that he did in fact have files with him after he left Hong Kong.

In fact, the article says nothing about how the files were allegedly obtained by Russian and China, while Greenwald claims the only way they could have been accessed would be directly from Snowden.

Yet in 2013, Greenwald told the Daily Beast that Snowden “has taken extreme precautions to make sure many different people around the world have these archives to insure the stories will inevitably be published.”

So aside from Snowden himself (who if taken at his word, no longer possesses the files) there many different people (we don’t know how many or who they all are) who also have or had the files.

Are we to assume that each and every one of them is an unfailing master of digital security and these files could never have been obtained by a third party?

In a world where a data security company like Kaspersky can get hacked, I wouldn’t put it outside the realms of possibility that by some means or other, Russia and/or China might have gained access to the files Snowden took.

There are, however, several reasons to question this report — not because it came from anonymous sources, or necessitates believing the Snowden has lied — but because had these sources been able to substantiate their claims with credible evidence, they would most likely have turned to a better newspaper.


Spot the difference: Being or not being subject to mass surveillance

On Sunday night, at the stroke of midnight, will a shroud of fear be lifted from freedom-loving Americans?

Let’s assume that a last minute deal isn’t reached in Congress and the surveillance powers of the Patriot Act are indeed allowed to expire.

This might not amount to the kind of statutory protection of privacy that critics of the NSA have hoped for, and yet physically pulling the plug on the actual mechanisms of mass surveillance will highlight the difference between living in a world where all our information gets sucked into data warehouses and a world in which it remains a tad more secure under a blanket in the Cloud — or wherever else we’ve chosen to keep it hidden.

Of course, a lot of people won’t believe the plug got pulled — certainly not at a moment when they believe the Federal government is about to impose martial law in Texas — and so the reported suspension of surveillance will more likely reinforce their paranoia.

But for those who believe that a measure of freedom lost has been reclaimed — at least for now — how will that freedom be enjoyed?

That’s where I draw a blank.

I’ve seen the polls in which some people say that NSA surveillance has changed how they use email and made them inclined to censor themselves and yet I’ve always been baffled by these reactions.

Most NSA critics who have studied the issue are acutely aware that mass surveillance is virtually useless for gathering information about terrorism, so how exactly might it accumulate useful information about you or me?

From Sunday to Monday, we will cross over from a world in which we are watched but unseen, into a world in which we will remain unseen. If that seems like a profound transition, I’d say your fixation on personal freedom has become a distraction from much more serious issues that truly shape our world.

There are plenty of good reasons to be opposed to mass surveillance — including the principle that no democratic government should claim the right to spy on its own citizens. But we have less reason to be concerned about intrusions on our privacy than that over-funded intelligence agencies have exploited public fear and manipulated Congress in order to create programs of negligible value.

If mass surveillance is about to quietly die, maybe the lesson that can be drawn is that the threat it supposedly posed and the need it supposedly met, were both wildly overstated.

The NSA’s appetite to gather information has always exceeded its capacity to use it, but the same cannot be said for Google or Facebook. The NSA never was and never could become more than a flea on the back of a digital infrastructure that primarily serves Silicon Valley.

Most of the information that is being gathered about each and every one of us is not being swept up in secret but dished out freely down what we have come to regard as lifelines connecting us to the world.

Rather than being subject to unwanted surveillance, we are far more subject to networks of dependence which affect what we want, what we expect, and how we live.

Big Brother is less inclined to breath down our neck than hold our hand. And if the grip feels too tight it’s because we’re afraid of letting go.


Seymour Hersh dodges questions about why his articles no longer appear in the New Yorker

Seymour Hersh’s blockbuster articles used to appear in the New Yorker. Indeed, by his own account he was once apparently the star writer contributing to the magazine. “There was a point with the New Yorker where I thought they should rename the fucking magazine the Seymour Hersh Weekly,” Hersh told Isaac Chotiner in an interview for Slate.

Why the New Yorker no longer publishes Hersh’s major articles is a question for which Hersh offers no clear answer.

“I am the one that decided to publish it wherever the hell I please,” he says, implying that his latest report on the killing of Osama bin Laden had not been declined by anyone.

Dylan Byers reports, however:

Sources with knowledge of the matter said Monday that Hersh began pitching the magazine on the story years ago and that The New Yorker declined it on the grounds that it didn’t hold up to scrutiny. The New Yorker similarly declined Hersh’s 2013 article, also published in the London Review of Books, alleging that the Obama administration “cherry-picked intelligence” from the chemical attack in Syria in order to make the case for attacking President Bashar Assad.

Hersh would like people to believe that he’s the victim of some kind of conspiracy — that his work is too hot to handle for any American publisher and thus he has to turn to more courageous publications such as the London Review of Books.

But when pressed on the issue, it becomes clear that just as much as he wants to posture as an outspoken maverick, he nevertheless seems to have difficulty giving straight answers to straight questions:

Chotiner: If people here are turning down stories because of certain politics — you yourself said it was easier in Europe — that is a story that should be written.

Hersh: Now you said the first intelligent thing you have said. If you had asked whether he [David Remnick, editor of the New Yorker] didn’t run this because he is in love with Obama and all that stuff that people think, no … It is a very good question. Although we have huge disagreements. My children and I have huge disagreements. I have a huge disagreement with my dog. We have a lot of disagreements and there are times when he will call me and I will not answer the call. Oh fuck hold on. He always has said to me he welcomes any information and it was I who said fuck it.

Chotiner: OK but you have talked about the New Yorker’s Americana and said my question was a good one, so is there something to it?

Hersh: I think it is a great question.

Chotiner: So what do you think of it?

Hersh: I just told you what I think. In the case of the Bin Laden story, he is open for anything. It was I who made the decision.

Chotiner: I feel like you are telling me two different things. One is that you get less pressure in Europe, and the other is that this story would have been fine at the New Yorker.

Hersh: So fine, I am glad you are confused. Write whichever one makes you happy.


Seymour Hersh’s 10,000-word bin Laden story — told four years ago in 640 words by Larry Johnson

When Seymour Hersh releases each of his blockbuster reports, what supposedly makes his claims authoritative is, more than anything else, the mere fact that they come from Seymour Hersh.

The reader is meant to trust the word of retired intelligence officials, consultants, and other unnamed experts, because Hersh trusts them. And we are meant to trust Hersh because of his stature as a veteran investigative journalist.

We are being invited to join a circle of confidence. Which is to say, we are being hooked by a confidence trick. Hersh is the confidant of (mostly) anonymous sources of inside information of inestimable quality, and we then become confidants of Hersh when he lets us in on the secrets.

To say this is not to imply that everything Hersh reports should be doubted, but simply to note that his egotistical investment in his own work — the fact that Hersh’s stories invariably end up being in part stories about Hersh — inevitably clouds the picture.

As a result, ensuing debate about the credibility of Hersh’s reports tends to devolve into polarized contests of allegiance. Each side sees the other as having been duped — either duped by a conspiracy theorist (Hersh) or duped by government officials and the mainstream media.


A week after Osama bin Laden was killed, Larry Johnson wrote a blog post that reads like an outline draft of Hersh’s latest report. Johnson is a retired senior intelligence official who claims to be knowledgeable about the initial intelligence about bin Laden’s presence in Abbottabad. Maybe he was the “major U.S. source” on whom Hersh relied.

On May 9, 2011, Johnson wrote:

I’ve learned some things from friends who are still active that dramatically alter the picture the White House is desperately trying to paint. Here is what really happened. The U.S. Government learned of Bin Laden’s whereabouts last August when a person walked into a U.S. Embassy and claimed that Pakistan’s intelligence service (ISI) had Bin Laden under control in Abottabad, Pakistan. Naturally the CIA personnel who received this information were skeptical. That’s why the CIA set up a safehouse in Abottabad in September 2010 as reported yesterday in the Washington Post.

The claim that we found Bin Laden because of a courier and the use of enhanced interrogation is simply a cover story. It appears to be an effective cover story because it has many Bush supporters pressing the case that enhanced interrogation worked. The Obama operatives in the White House are quite content to let the Bushies share in this part of the “credit.” Why? It keeps most folks from looking at the claims that don’t add up.

Anyway, the intel collection at the safe house escalated and the CIA began pressing Pakistan’s ISI to come clean on Osama.

As Pakistan’s Dawn notes in an editorial, the Pakistani version of events — the Abbottabad Commission report — has yet to be officially released.

Buried after initial promises that it would be made public, one version of the report has already seen the light of day via a leaked copy to Al Jazeera. That version alone contains a deep, systematic, even fundamental critique of the manner in which the ISI operates.

Surely, it is morally and legally indefensible of the state to hide from the public the only systematic inquiry into the events surrounding perhaps the most humiliating incident in decades here. National security will not be undermined by the publication of a report; national security was undermined by the presence of Osama bin Laden on Pakistani soil.


Time to #BoycottBudLight

First up (to be completely honest): I’m not in a position to boycott Bud Light or any other Anheuser-Busch product.

It’s easy enough to identify pissy beer from the brand without needing to taste it — I’m confident I’ll be able to continue through the rest of my life without ever drinking a single Budweiser. That said, if there is a movement to #BoycottBudLight sprouting up among current drinkers, I applaud all those who support it.

The New York Times reports: A new label on some bottles of Bud Light, one of the brands owned by the beer giant Anheuser-Busch InBev, is falling flat among women, a demographic group the industry has been desperately courting in hopes of jump-starting flagging sales of suds.

In a continuation of its “Up for Whatever” campaign, a wide blue band low on the label says, “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night.”

Protests quickly erupted in social media, criticizing what was perceived as perhaps not the best marketing language in the midst of public outcry over date rape on college campuses.

“As a woman, as a mother of a girl and a boy, I find this message very disturbing and dangerous,” someone using the name Danielle Sawada posted on Bud Light’s Facebook page. “I have been a Bud Light drinker for quite a while, but until this campaign ends, you do not have my dollars.”

Alexander Lambrecht, vice president for the Bud Light brand at Anheuser-Busch, says:

“It’s clear that this message missed the mark, and we regret it. We would never condone disrespectful or irresponsible behavior.”

With all due respect, that’s bullshit.

Anheuser-Busch is trawling a market that’s a bit lacking in discrimination, but even so, I seriously doubt that the advertising campaigns dreamed up their agency, BBDO, are being created by a group of idiots.

Rather than treat the corporate response as an admission of an honest mistake, it should in my opinion be viewed as a smokescreen — not so much a reaction to the campaign, but instead an integral component in the campaign strategy.

The watery beer behind the label has been on the market for over 30 years. Creating some buzz around an old brand has to get increasingly difficult — especially when the age at which young people start drinking is the period in life when they have least interest in imitating their overweight parents.

A campaign built around the hashtag #UpForWhatever is clearly aimed at breaking boundaries — not staying in well-worn tracks.

The outrage provoked by this campaign, far from being fallout from “missing the mark,” may in fact be the mark itself — free publicity on Twitter and across the media.

Arguably, the only way of having a big impact through social media is by stoking controversy. After all, outrage is the currency of the realm.

And in this case, expressing consternation gets turned into an equal opportunity exercise whose participants include executives not only at Anheuser-Busch but also BBDO.

The agency’s Director of Digital Strategy, Lucy Leiderman, tweeted: “Oh no. Bud Light’s new tagline: “The perfect beer for removing ‘no’ from your vocabulary for the night”… ” but then removed the tweet.

Was this just a bit of damage control on behalf of the agency? Maybe, but perhaps Leiderman can be given the benefit of the doubt.

Prior to her arrival at BBDO, she wrote quite astutely about the dangers of removing “no” from ones vocabulary, addressing her warning directly at advertising creatives:

Marketers everywhere are singing the siren song of increasingly outrageous social campaigns. Decision makers are seeing signs that the end of the traditional is nigh. More and more, the creative space has become a world of “yes.” And that’s a problem.

But it isn’t just a problem that results in outrageous advertising. By its very nature advertising is always coercive and always designed to precipitate choices that might otherwise not be made.

Every ad wants you to say “yes.”

As Bud Light lights up Twitter, Anheuser-Busch and BBDO are getting exactly what they want. The only way of making the backlash truly instructive will be if it moves beyond the digital sphere and consumers in significant numbers actually stop buying the beer.

Still, even if to my surprise, the #UpForWhatever campaign turned out to become a very expensive mistake, I don’t anticipate the kind of seismic shift that I would really hope for in American culture.

In the larger scheme of things, this is a somewhat trivial example of a trend that permeates almost every strand of public discourse.

Language, through its relentless abuse, gets stripped of meaning. As meaning ebbs away, there is a frenzy in which everyone is turning up the volume, trying to make themselves heard even when much of the time they have nothing of true value to say.

Advertising is inherently emotive. It is designed to provoke feelings — not thought.

It’s not by chance that BBDO would choose the hook of a generational phrase — whatever — in an effort to fuel mindless consumption, cloaked as free spirit.

Whatever signals a vocabulary already severely depleted as advertisers try and knock out its last line of defense.