In a review of Rosa Brooks’ new book, How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything, Harold Evans writes: Is Rosa Brooks psychic? Her book had gone to press before the killings of July 2016 broke upon us. Did she have a crystal ball to yield an image of the ambush in Dallas in which, from a sniper’s vantage point, a veteran of the Afghan war in body armor machine-gunned 12 policemen, killing five? Or of the military bomb squad robot that ended the terror without the police risking more lives? Or of the ambush in Baton Rouge by a veteran who shot three policemen to death? Or of another loner in Orlando, Fla., who was able to walk into a gun shop to buy what Army Special Ops calls a “Black Mamba”? That’s a Sig Sauer MCX assault rifle capable of firing 24 bullets in nine seconds, advertised by its makers as “an innovative weapon system built around a battle-proven core.” Forty-nine people died innovatively in the battle-proven core of the Pulse nightclub.
All these elements of the infiltration of military weapons and methods into American life are within the broad compass of Brooks’s perceptive book, “How Everything Became War and the Military Became Everything.” She has seen the paradoxical effects of the inflation of metaphor on law and institutions: how the police have become more like the military, and how soldiers, in nation-building efforts, have become more like police (and farmers); how police forces have bought hundreds of armored cars from the Pentagon for “the war on terror”; how “the war on drugs” has incarcerated more than one million Americans; how large cities now have SWAT (special weapons and tactics) teams. And she has seen how a quiet word in a drone command center can end the life of a young terror suspect thousands of miles away.
In impressive and often fascinating detail, she documents that the boundaries between war and peace have grown so hazy as to undermine hard-won global gains in human rights and the rule of law. [Continue reading…]
Rafia Zakaria writes: By the year 1871, British officials stationed in India had learned to ride elephants. This was in fact exactly what Sir Henry Durand, Lieutenant Governor of Punjab, was doing when he fell to his death. In the sad record of the event, Sir Henry is described riding in a howdah atop an elephant while traveling through the North-West Frontier Province, ‘which was in his charge’. The elephant, which belonged to an Indian chief, was led through a covered gateway that was ‘too low for it to pass through’. As a result, Durand the younger writes: ‘My father, a man of great height, was forced backward and thrown out across a low wall, which so injured his spine that he died the same day.’
The unceremonious death of Durand the elder, the ‘man of great height’, can well be a study of the British in India at the time. They had quashed a mutiny in 1857, and conquered both the fertile province of Punjab and the southern province of Sindh. Yet they remained curiously vulnerable to surprises on the wild edge of the northwestern corner of their empire. Mortimer Durand, then in his 20s, would attempt to tame the frontier which had taken his father. It was Mortimer, and not the elephant-riding Sir Henry, who would be the architect, and namesake, of a border that remains a frontline for battles between superpowers to this day.
Durand the son arrived in India not long after his father’s death. He was searching not simply for accolades as a diplomat and colonial administrator, but also for a connection with his much adored but distant, and now late, father. Durand left his mark on the land, literally carving a border where there was none. [Continue reading…]
If you happen to be a potential American war criminal, you’ve had a few banner weeks. On May 9th, Defense Secretary Ashton Carter presented former Secretary of State and National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger with the Department of Defense Distinguished Public Service Award, that institution’s “highest honorary award for private citizens.” In bestowing it on the 92-year-old who is evidently still consulting for the Pentagon, he offered this praise: “While his contributions are far from complete, we are now beginning to appreciate what his service has provided our country, how it has changed the way we think about strategy, and how he has helped provide greater security for our citizens and people around the world.”
Certainly people “around the world” will remember the “greater security” offered by the man who, relaying an order from President Richard Nixon for a “massive” secret bombing campaign in Cambodia, used a line that may almost be the definition of a war crime: “Anything that flies on anything that moves.” The result: half a million tons of bombs dropped on that country between 1969 and 1973 and at least 100,000 dead civilians. And that’s just to start down the well-cratered road to the millions of dead he undoubtedly has some responsibility for. Public service indeed.
Meanwhile, speaking of American crimes in the Vietnam era, former Nebraska Senator Bob Kerrey, who ran for president of the U.S. and then became the president of the New School in New York City, was just appointed to “lead” Fulbright University Vietnam, the first private American-backed school there. Its opening was announced by President Obama on his recent visit to that country. Only one small problem: we already know of some children who won’t be able to apply for admission. I’m thinking of the progeny-who-never-were of the 13 children killed by a team of U.S. SEALs under Kerrey’s command and on his orders in South Vietnam in 1969 (along with a pregnant woman, and an elderly couple whose three grandchildren were stabbed to death by the raiders) — all of whom were reported at the time as dead Vietcong guerillas.
It seems that if you are a distinguished citizen of the most exceptional country on the planet, even war crimes have their rewards. Consider, for instance, the millions of dollars that were paid for memoirs by top Bush administration officials responsible for creating an American offshore torture regime at CIA “black sites” around the world. Must-reads all! With that in mind, turn to TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon, author most recently of American Nuremberg: The U.S. Officials Who Should Stand Trial for Post-9/11 War Crimes, to consider what “justice” for such figures might look like in a different and better world. Tom Engelhardt
Crimes of the War on Terror
Should George Bush, Dick Cheney, and others be jailed?
By Rebecca Gordon
“The cold was terrible but the screams were worse,” Sara Mendez told the BBC. “The screams of those who were being tortured were the first thing you heard and they made you shiver. That’s why there was a radio blasting day and night.”
In the 1970s, Mendez was a young Uruguayan teacher with leftist leanings. In 1973, when the military seized power in her country (a few months before General Augusto Pinochet’s more famous coup in Chile), Mendez fled to Argentina. She lived there in safety until that country suffered its own coup in 1976. That July, a joint Uruguayan-Argentine military commando group kidnapped her in Buenos Aires and deposited her at Automotores Orletti, a former auto repair shop that would become infamous as a torture site and paramilitary command center. There she was indeed tortured, and there, too, her torturers stole her 20-day-old baby, Simón, giving him to a policeman’s family to raise.
Robert Kolker writes: The trouble with modern interrogation technique… is that, despite its scientific pose, it has almost no science to back it up. Reid and Inbau [authors of Criminal Interrogation and Confessions, which in 1962 set the mold for police interrogations in America] claimed, for instance, that a well-trained investigator could catch suspects lying with 85 percent accuracy; their manual instructs detectives to conduct an initial, nonaccusatory “behavioral analysis interview,” in which they should look for physical tells like fidgeting and broken eye contact. But when German forensic psychologist Günter Köhnken actually studied the matter in 1987, he found that trained police officers were no better than the average person at detecting lies. Several subsequent studies have cast doubt on the notion that there are any clear-cut behavioral tells. (Truth tellers often fidget more than liars.) In fact, the more confident police officers are about their judgments, the more likely they are to be wrong.
But the scientific case against police interrogations really began to mount in the early 1990s, when the first DNA-based exonerations started rolling in. According to the Innocence Project, a group dedicated to freeing the wrongfully imprisoned, about a third of the 337 people who’ve had their convictions overturned by DNA evidence confessed or incriminated themselves falsely. These and other exonerations furnished scientists with dozens of known false-confession cases to study, giving rise to a veritable subfield of social psychology and the behavioral sciences. (At least one confession elicited by John Reid himself — in a 1955 murder case — turned out to be inaccurate; the real killer confessed 23 years later.)
Researchers have even broken down these false confession cases into categories. There are “voluntary” false confessions, like the many presumably unstable people who claimed credit for the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in order to get attention. Then there are “compliant,” or “coerced,” false confessions, in which people are so ground down by an intense interrogation that, out of desperation and naïveté, they think that confessing will be better for them in the long run. The third category, “persuaded,” or “internalized,” false confessions, may be the most poignant. Here, the interrogator’s Reid-style theming is so relentless, the deployment of lies so persuasive, that suspects — often young and impressionable or mentally impaired — end up believing they did it, however fleetingly. [Continue reading…]
Arun Kundnani writes: When opinion polls find that most Muslims think Westerners are selfish, immoral and violent, we have no idea of the real causes. And so we assume such opinions must be an expression of their culture rather than our politics.
Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have exploited these reactions with their appeals to Islamophobia. But most liberals also assume that religious extremism is the root cause of terrorism. President Obama, for example, has spoken of “a violent, radical, fanatical, nihilistic interpretation of Islam by a faction — a tiny faction — within the Muslim community that is our enemy, and that has to be defeated.”
Based on this assumption, think-tanks, intelligence agencies and academic departments linked to the national security apparatus have spent millions of dollars since 9/11 conducting research on radicalization. They hoped to find a correlation between having extremist religious ideas, however defined, and involvement in terrorism.
In fact, no such correlation exists, as empirical evidence demonstrates — witness the European Islamic State volunteers who arrive in Syria with copies of “Islam for Dummies” or the alleged leader of the November 2015 Paris attacks, Abdelhamid Abaaoud, who was reported to have drunk whisky and smoked cannabis. But this has not stopped national security agencies, such as the FBI, from using radicalization models that assume devout religious beliefs are an indicator of potential terrorism.
The process of radicalization is easily understood if we imagine how we would respond to a foreign government dropping 22,000 bombs on us. Large numbers of patriots would be volunteering to fight the perpetrators. And nationalist and religious ideologies would compete with each other to lead that movement and give its adherents a sense of purpose.
Similarly, the Islamic State does not primarily recruit through theological arguments but through a militarized identity politics. It says there is a global war between the West and Islam, a heroic struggle, with truth and justice on one side and lies, depravity and corruption on the other. It shows images of innocents victimized and battles gloriously waged. In other words, it recruits in the same way that any other armed group recruits, including the U.S. military.
That means that when we also deploy our own militarized identity politics to narrate our response to terrorism, we inadvertently reinforce the Islamic State’s message to its potential recruits. When British Prime Minister David Cameron talks about a “generational struggle” between Western values and Islamic extremism, he is assisting the militants’ own propaganda. When French President François Hollande talks of “a war which will be pitiless,” he is doing the same.
What is distinctive about the Islamic State’s message is that it also offers a utopian and apocalyptic vision of an alternative society in the making. The reality of that alternative is, of course, oppression of women, enslavement of minorities and hatred of freedom.
But the message works, to some extent, because it claims to be an answer to real problems of poverty, authoritarian regimes and Western aggression. Significantly, it thrives in environments where other radical alternatives to a discredited status quo have been suppressed by government repression. What’s corrupting the Islamic State’s volunteers is not ideology but by the end of ideology: they have grown up in an era with no alternatives to capitalist globalization. The organization has gained support, in part, because the Arab revolutions of 2011 were defeated, in many cases by regimes allied with and funded by the U.S.
After 14 years of the “war on terror,” we are no closer to achieving peace. The fault does not lie with any one administration but with the assumption that war can defeat terrorism. The lesson of the Islamic State is that war creates terrorism. [Continue reading…]
The Atlantic reports: The grisly attacks in France and Lebanon last week have fixed attention on the violence perpetrated by ISIS. But a study published this week indicates that the world’s deadliest terrorist organization actually operates thousands of miles south of Paris and Beirut, in Nigeria.
The 2015 Global Terrorism Index, published by the Institute for Economics & Peace, found that Boko Haram, the Nigerian jihadist group, was responsible for 6,644 deaths in 2014, compared with 6,073 at the hands of ISIS. Boko Haram, which was founded in 2002 as an Islamist movement against Western education and morphed into an armed insurgency in 2009, has rapidly expanded its scope and ambitions over the past two years, achieving international notoriety in the spring of 2014 by kidnapping more than 200 schoolgirls. Much like ISIS, the organization controls territory in Nigeria (although it has lost some of it over the past year) and has declared a caliphate in that territory. The group is also international; although based in northeastern Nigeria, it has launched attacks in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger. In the latest incident, Boko Haram is the suspected author of an attack in the Nigerian city of Yola that has left more than 30 people dead. [Continue reading…]
Mark Edmundson writes: Among the puzzling questions of world history and national identity, a few stand out. How, one might ask, did the Vikings, once the roving terrors of the world, manage to become equable Nordic socialists with lessons to teach us in the arts of decency and fairness? And how did the tough, soldierly Romans, conquerors of the world, manage to evolve into the charming, pleasure-loving Italians, with their gifts for good food, good wine, and civic instability?
Soon, a similarly unexpected question may be asked about Americans. How did a people who settled a continent, created enormous wealth, and fought and (mostly) won war after war devolve into a nation of such tremulous souls? And how did it happen so quickly? Where once there was the generation of the Second World War, ready to leave home and fight fascists on the far sides of the world, we now have a nation that at times seems composed largely of field mice, prone to quiver when they detect an unfriendly shadow. As a people, we seem to value security and prosperity above all. When someone threatens either, or seems about to, we become (in this order) confused, then terrified, and then very angry.
Those who dislike us around the world (and of course there are more than a few) tend to see us as a powerful, imperial beast, brutally pursuing our own ends across the globe. We are strong and violent, and when we want something, we assert ourselves with overwhelming force. But is that really the case?
What appear to the outside world as instances of bullying, and what appear to us as expressions of strength, may reveal themselves, on closer examination, to be actions driven by fear. We are a people obsessed with security. Our imagination of what counts as a threat to our security is hyperactive and becoming more so all the time. Two years into World War II, it took the fierce attack on Pearl Harbor to persuade Americans that it was finally time to fight. Once persuaded, they did. Now it takes only the least incitement to make us feel threatened. When even the most shadowy forces and conditions imperil what we call “our security,” we assault them with the furor of the easily scared. [Continue reading…]
Rebecca Gordon’s piece today triggered a little repressed memory of mine of a trip I took in 2003. Arriving at the airport, I turned my suitcase over to the ticket agent, only to be told that it had been singled out for special inspection. I was already running TomDispatch and I couldn’t help wondering, somewhat nervously, if my activities had preceded me to the airport. I was directed to another spot in the terminal where I lifted the suitcase onto a table in front of a Transportation Security Administration agent. She promptly unzipped the bag, flipped it open, and front and center, face up atop my folded clothes, was a book that had “Unabomber” in big letters in its title. It felt as if a jolt of electricity had shot through my body and my eyes were bugging out of my head at my obvious stupidity. As if to confirm that feeling, the agent looked stunned, too. We were both silent for a too-long moment, contemplating the reckless passenger who had a book about the Unabomber conspicuously displayed in his bag. Then she said, “How is it?”
It was the last question I expected to hear and I stumbled far too quickly to respond with something like: “I don’t know. I haven’t read it yet. A newspaper asked me to review it.” (All true, but in translation it clearly meant: “Hey, I know this looks terrible, but I’m a reputable book reviewer, not your basic terror-lovin’ sorta guy.”) Not much else was said, but believe me, my bag and backpack were inspected with a thoroughness that had to be seen to be believed. A second agent was even called in to lend a hand. In the end, the bag was cleared for departure and, chastened, I headed for the security line, already unfastening my belt.
And there’s a little p.s. to this episode. Not so long after, I set out on another trip, this time carrying Tariq Ali’s book, Clash of Fundamentalisms: Crusades, Jihads, and Modernity, with me. As I was packing, I noticed that its cover featured George Bush’s face superimposed on Osama bin Laden’s. It was a striking image and in a split second I was slipping the jacket off the book to leave at home. If I got singled out again, I had no intention of letting an agent find a cloned bin Laden-Bush image among my possessions.
In this way, microscopic act by microscopic act, whoever we are, whatever we think we think, we can’t help but absorb the limits, the directives, the intentions that our ascendant national security state wants to impose on us. In all sorts of devious ways, without serious thought, in acts that hardly register, we make their agendas, their surveillance, their searches our own; we turn their taste in reading and thinking and expressing themselves into ours. Someday, there’s a great book to be written on all the hidden triumphs of that ever-more powerful shadow state that has embedded its version of the American way of life inside our own. In the meantime, check out TomDispatch regular Rebecca Gordon’s account of how we create our own no-fly lists and become our own no-fliers in the unfriendly skies of twenty-first-century America. Tom Engelhardt
The no-fly follies
How to censor yourself before the government even has the chance
By Rebecca Gordon
It was August 2002. My partner Jan Adams and I were just beginning our annual pilgrimage to Massachusetts to visit my father and stepmother. At the check-in line at San Francisco International Airport, we handed over our driver’s licenses and waited for the airline ticket agent to find our flight and reservation. Suddenly, she got a funny look on her face. “There’s something wrong with the computer,” she said. “I need to talk to my supervisor.”
So began a day of confusion and fear, followed by several years of indignation, frustration, and litigation, as we struggled to find out why — as the agent’s supervisor soon informed us with a similarly strange look on her face — we’d both “turned up on the FBI’s no-fly list.” Her eyes grew wide as she looked us over. “I don’t understand it,” she said. “You don’t fit the profile.”
She was right, of course. A pair of middle-aged, middle-class, white lesbians did not fit the profile of the “Arab terrorists” she expected the no-fly list to contain. What she didn’t know was that our suitcases held hundreds of copies of War Times/Tiempo de guerras, a free, bilingual antiwar tabloid we’d helped start. Could aging pacifists have fit the danger-to-America profile?
Jason Burke writes: Fourteen years ago, in the immediate aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, a series of misconceptions about Osama bin Laden and al-Qaida became widely accepted. Some focused on the person of Bin Laden himself – his wealth, health and history. The group that he led, until then relatively marginal with no real support base and only a few hundred members, was portrayed as a sprawling global terrorist organisation, with obedient “operatives” and “sleeper cells” on every continent, and an ability to mobilise, radicalise and attack far beyond its real capacities. Historic incidents with no connection to the group or its leader were suddenly recast as “al-Qaida operations”. Any incident, anywhere in the world, could become an al-Qaida attack.
This had an impact on the western reaction to the events of 11 September 2001. The threat posed by al-Qaida was described in apocalyptic terms, and a response of an equally massive scale was seen as necessary. The group’s ideological motivations were ignored, while the individual agency of its leaders was emphasised. If they were killed, the logic went, the problem would disappear. Al-Qaida’s links with other terrorist or extremist organisations were distorted, often by political leaders who hoped for domestic gain and international support. So too were supposed links – all imaginary – to the governments of several states. One result was the “global war on terror”, a monumentally misconceived strategy that is in part to blame for the spread of radical Islamic militancy over the past decade.
Despite the lessons learned over the years, and the very different approach of political leaders in the US and Europe, there is a danger that at least some of those mistakes will be repeated with Islamic State. Already there are parallels. The emergence of Isis in 2013 prompted reactions that resemble those in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks and that, despite the generally sensible analysis of the administration of Barack Obama, risk influencing policy. Isis, despite no real evidence, has, like al-Qaida, been linked to plans to acquire weapons of mass destruction, as well as, ludicrously, to send Ebola-infected “operatives” against its enemies. Media in the US reported a network of Isis “sleeper cells” in the “homeland”, and “sleeper agents” in Europe, exactly as they had with al-Qaida in 2002. These claims were, at best, a gross misrepresentation of how either organisation operates and how individuals are radicalised. The atmosphere in Europe following the attacks in Paris of January 2015, only indirectly connected with Isis, also recalled that of a decade earlier, with US commentators making the same hysterical claims of “no-go zones” in European cities where Islamic law had supposedly been imposed. [Continue reading…]