Tag Archives: Warfare and Conflict

Seeing Light: The Blogger’s Delight

7 Jan

 

 

            While reflecting on my prior blog lamenting the challenges of sustaining civility amid tumult and controversy, I came to appreciate my own partial captivity in realms of darkness. The negativities I tried to discuss are the shadow land of my blog experience, which is more essentially lived in the sunshine of new and renewed friendship, solidarity, mutuality, and the new emotional and spiritual resonances of our era, what I would call, in the absence of greater precision, the emergence of ‘digital love.’

 

            What becomes possible, although there is no doubt that it produces its share of blood, sweat, and tears, are invisible communities of commitment to a better future for humanity, all of it. Such communities keep candles of hope flickering during an historical period of thickening darkness when even the will to species survival seems to be in doubt. Why else would the world choose to live with nuclear weapons? Why else would political leaders turn their backs on the alarming scientific consensus as to the growing hazards and harms associated with climate change? Why else would the 1% be allowed to indulge super-luxuries while more than a billion struggle daily with the ordeals of poverty?

 

            It is in this spirit that I write from an aspiring identity as ‘citizen pilgrim,’ not content with the way the world is organized or the way rewards and punishments are distributed, seeking of a better world as a bequest to the future. It is not sufficient to be a ‘world citizen,’ which to be sure takes an step away from the privileging of identities of nation, race, religion, and gender, an implied acknowledgements of the primacy of ‘the global interest’ and ‘the human interest,’ but still tied either to present security structures built around territorial claims or tied to some project of political unification that succumbs to the seductively misleading promises of  ‘world government.’

In contrast, the citizen pilgrim is more concerned with time than space, favoring the profound readjustments that would be needed if the human species is ever in the future to fulfill its spiritual potential as well as satisfy its material needs and take the sort of prudential steps necessary to stave off civilizational catastrophe.

 

            It is a grand thing to be dedicated to such a vision of impossible possibilities, the sole foundation of hope in our time that is not built on illusion. Yet such grandiosity is irresponsible unless coupled with a willingness to take present suffering seriously. It is this ethical imperative of the immediate and existential that has led me to do what I can to challenge oppression and side with the weak, marginal, and most vulnerable in their struggles for emancipation, rights, and justice. While all of us are entrapped in the downward spiral of world order, many are denied the minimal decencies of life on earth, while others are allowed to flourish, either benevolently through their works and prayers, or dishonorably by stealth and by making the most of systemic corruption.

 

            I have strayed from my original intention, which was to make amends for my lack of graciousness so evident in my tiresome complaints about the torments of blogging. I wanted mostly to thank all those whose warm words of encouragement and support have given me the confidence and stamina to persist during these two years, and more than confidence, feelings of gratification that in some small way enclaves of truth telling are being constructed in cyberspace while the rulers are sleeping, building sanctuaries for those of us who seek refuge from a corporatized media that plays with our minds to induce the wrong fears while stimulating our most destructive consumerist appetites.  Without doubt it is this experience of digital love, new to this century, that is allowing the light to get through even on the darkest of days!

 

            It is my belief that there are many flickering candles throughout the world that partake of the special energies of place, culture, and memory, expressive of an array of distinctive identities unconsciously conjoined by mainly unrealized and unappreciated affinities. I would like to believe that we are participants in the founding of a new world religion that dispenses with institutions, dogma, and metaphysics, affirming a semi-conscious network of spiritually resonant citizen pilgrims aroused to action by urgent end-time challenges.  Perhaps, just perhaps, ‘hope against hope’ (Nadezhda Mandelstam) is not yet an outmoded indulgence!    

Beyond Words: Poet’s Lament

5 Aug

Poetry at its finest stretches the expressiveness of language beyond its prior limits, not necessarily by its choice of words, but through the magical invocation of feelings embedded deeply within consciousness. Yes even poetry has its own frontiers that if crossed lead to a word-less terrain littered with corpses of atrocity, what Thomas Merton and James Douglass have soulfully identified for us as the realm of ‘the unspeakable,’ and then are brave enough to explore forbidden terrain. When we do not respect the unspeakable by our silence we domesticate the criminality of the horror that human beings are capable of inflicting on one another, and give way to the eventual emergence of normalcy as has happened with nuclear weapons detached from the happenings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

I came across an utterance by one of my heroes, the Jesuit priest/poet, Daniel Berrigan, while on trial for pouring blood on draft cards during the Vietnam War: “I was in danger of verbalizing my moral impulses out of existence.” These words appear at the start of a haunting poem by another one of my heroes, the recently dead poet, Adrienne Rich; the poem’s title is “The Burning of Paper Instead of Children” and I recommend it not only as a stunning poetic achievement but also as a text for meditation.

Such thoughts seem far from the recent controversies on this blog about

the competing justice and victimization claims of Israelis and Palestinians, and the sort of language that seems historically validated for some to discuss such matters of life and death, while being hateful to others. It made me appreciate anew that there are some rivers of divergence that are too wide to cross, and that the attempt, first generates anger and frustration, but eventually brings despair, even sadness. Of course, the blogosphere is a new kind of undefended public space that can be entered by anyone with good will or ill. To appoint myself as a kind of censor, given the capacity to exclude or include comments, was neither

congenial nor tenable as a role, and I have decided to give it up except in relation to hate speech or defamatory material, although even here I acknowledge that some degree of subjectivity will always be present, at least unconsciously.

I am of course aware that the Israel/Palestine conflict is almost impossible to approach in a spirit of moderation, and I realize that many of the hostile comments are directed at my particular understanding and way of presenting the issues. Indeed, my posts have been scrutinized by pro-Israeli zealots so as to find some turn of language or alleged opinion that can be used to discredit me in other settings, especially in relation to my role as Special Rapporteur for Occupied Palestine on behalf of the UN Human Rights Council. Unlike comments that can be excluded, the posts are in the public domain, source material for those who seek to mount a personal attack, and there are no rules of the game to ensure that allegations are at least fair and reasonable. I have tried my best not to be intimidated or hurt by such concerted efforts to harm my reputation and destroy my self-esteem, but have not always succeeded.

As the person who dares to continue to write a blog under such circumstances, I have tried to devise for myself a code of responsible behavior for my own benefit, and to establish an atmosphere of trust and respect. I have selected two main principles as guidelines: (1) sustain integrity, especially whenever the suffering of others is involved, especially if it is unpopular to complain about what is happening, or worse, to mount sharp criticism of the perpetrators; in effect, talk truth to power, acknowledging, as I do, in the process that for Gandhi a dedication to truthfulness should never be separated from a dedication to nonviolence. (2) Admit mistakes, and explain their occurrence as honestly and helpfully as possible. In addition, I would add a couple further principles to this informal code, which like the Japanese game of Go has never put its rules in the form of an authoritative written text: (3) use the blog space to challenge whenever possible the ‘politics of invisibility’ that shields from our awareness structures of suffering, abuse, and exploitation; I attempted to do this, for instance, by calling attention to the extraordinary Palestinian hunger strikes that were almost totally ignored by the mainstream media in North America while giving daily coverage to Chinese human rights activists who were enduring far less. (4) use the blog space from time to time to consider a complementary aspect of the way reality is so often obscured and twisted by media, government, special interests, a pattern I label ‘the politics of deflection,’ that is, diverting attention from the message to the messenger, or condemning the auspices under which allegations were made while ignoring their substance; this is happening all the time, perhaps most damagingly by convincing much of the public for decades that the menace of nuclear weaponry has to do mostly with its proliferation rather than with its possession, deployment, threat, and possible use; more controversially, to obscure the violence of energy geopolitics behind a protective screen of counter-terrorism as in fashioning a rationale for attacking Iraq in 2003.

The work of poetry is poetry, but there are times when poets do produce lines here and there that illuminate the human predicament in unforgettable ways. Of course, the recognition of such an illumination is highly personal, and should never be defended. For me the following lines from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Fragment of an Elegy had this kind of explosive impact upon my imagination:

Once poets resounded over the battlefield, what voice

can outshout the rattle of this metallic age

that is struggling on toward its careening future?

Although composed almost a hundred years ago, this image of triumphal militarism illuminates current conditions and obliquely addresses our worst fears. We need to be thankful for these poems that make the outer limits of the speakable more accessible, especially in dark times of torment, great risk, and confusion.

The American and Global Experience of 9/10, 9/11, 9/12 +10:

15 Sep


            There is unacknowledged freedom associated with any event inscribed in our individual and collective experience of profoundly disabling and disturbing public occurrences. For most older Americans what is most vividly remembered among such occurrences is likely to have been Pearl Harbor, the assassination of JFK, and the 9/11 attacks, each coming as a shock to a shared societal sense of exceeding the limits of what could be expected to happen.  I doubt that other societies would have a comparable hierarchy of recollections about these three rupture of expectations that have proved so significant for an understanding of American political identity over the course of the last fifty years. To make my point clearer, most Japanese would almost certainly single out Hiroshima, and possibly the more recent disaster that followed the 3/11/11 earthquake and tsunami that led to the Fukushima meltdown, and are likely to ignore the events that Americans have found so transformative. Germans, and many Europeans, are likely to be inclined to remember the fall of the Berlin Wall, and possibly the exposure of the Holocaust, while most citizens of former colonies are undoubtedly most moved by the day on which their national independence was finally achieved.

 

         Because American responses to such transformative events are likely to be global in their effect, there is a greater tendency to acknowledge some American preoccupations but not their interpretation. This diversity amid universality is probably truer for 9/11 than any other recent transformative event, not only because of the drama of the attacks and global visualization in real time, but as a result of the violence unleashed in response, what I identify here as the perspective of 9/12. Shifting ever so slightly the angle of perception greatly alters our sense of the significance of the event. Just as 9/12 places emphasis on the American response, the launching of ‘the global war on terror,’ the day before, 9/10 calls our attention to the mood of imperial complacency and global vulnerability to American power that preceded the attacks. This mood was completely oblivious to the legitimate grievances that pervaded the Arab populace associated with the appropriation of the region’s resources, the American support lent to cruel and oppressive tyrants, the lethal sanctions imposed on the people of Iraq for a decade, the deployment of massive numbers of American troops near to Muslim sacred sites, and the enabling over the course of many years of Israel’s oppressive dispossession and occupation of Palestinian lands. From this perspective, the crimes of 9/11 were widely understood as an outgrowth of the wrongs of 9/10 and led unreflectively to the crimes and strategic mistakes of 9/12.  Such a critical understanding does not diminish the criminality of attacks directed at civilians, a strategic pushback that violates the most fundamental constraints of law and morality.

 

           It is probably misleading to think of 9/11 as primarily a global historical event. Undoubtedly its interpretation is mainly a national experience more affected by 9/10 and 9/12 than by the attacks themselves. Such an observation reminds us that despite the hype about globalization that was so prominent during the dawn of the Information Age in the 1990s, it is our shared lives within a particular sovereign state that continues to dominate our political consciousness. Surely most Palestinians see 9/11 through an optic reflecting their ordeal as understood on 9/10, while most Israelis likely saw 9/11 as a long overdue enabling of the 9/12 response that led Americans to share Israel’s preexisting national preoccupation with terrorism.  A deeper encounter with 9/11 ten years later allows us to sense more clearly that most of us are still living in a world of sovereign states despite the borderless wonders of social networking and other globalizing phenomena of this historical period. Even Europe that seemed to go further toward establishing a state-transcending civilizational identity required only the stress of an economic recession to bring back its strong conviction that what mattered most was not being a European but rather being Italian, Spanish, Greek, or French.

 

            Of course, for Americans this is not so obvious. The United States is truly a global state, perhaps the first in history, with the capabilities and commitment to act anywhere on the planet if its vital interests are at stake. From this perspective, 9/11 was experienced by many Americans as a challenge that could be neither addressed territorially nor by retaliatory attacks on the enemy state that inflicted the harm.  The leaders at the time, but with wide national backing, insisted that future security meant limiting freedom at home while waging war abroad. It was this global projection of this American security response that made it natural for 9/12 to be the day that most stays in the mind of foreigners, perhaps not literally, but through their feelings of victimization that resulted from the American respnse by way of war rather than through reliance on the enforcement of law against those who commit crimes against humanity. This latter road not taken, and not even seriously considered, might have been the most radical peacemaking experiment in all of modern history. It was far too radical for either the leadership or the citizenry of not only America, but the constituted politics of all states.

 

            With this outlook of American geopolitical exceptionalism, globalization seems real. When Barrack Obama was elected the American president in November 2008, it was a global event, with people the world over often believing that his election was more important for their future than the outcome of their own national elections. When Lula went to a meeting in Europe of the G-20 while he was still President of Brazil he said that he prayed for Obama more than for himself. The American role in the world economy and security system is truly global, but does that mean that 9/11 was interpreted as a blow struck against the whole world as George W. Bush insisted at the time? Hardly. For parts of the world it meant new and increased violence in their homeland, drones attacking targets selected in the U.S., special forces and an array of mercenaries roaming covertly in search of terrorist suspects, and new wars.

 

 

           We are, of course, free to remember certain things and to forget others. This is normally not done consciously, but it will explain the incredible diversity of how 9/11 was observed on its tenth anniversary, itself a milestone that causes especially Americans to pause and reflect. For most Americans, this became an occasion for a renewal of remorse, lament, resolve, and anger, if not rage.

 

            The most innocent memories of 9/11 are those of loss, a recollectionthat is both personal and collective, associated with any human tragedy caused deliberately that has a negative impact on innocent civilian lives. Less innocent, and more relevant ten years later, is the complexity surrounding the response that is prompted by fear, revenge, counter-crusading passions, and geopolitical ambition. In these respects, 9/11 is both text and pretext, and gave way to the 9/12 furies that unleashed a global war on terror that has caused widespread destruction, questionable improvements in security, and a general weakening of the American claim to exercise global leadership.

Is The State a Monster? Pro and Contra Nietzsche

16 Jun images-3

In Part One of  Friederich Nietzsche’s Thus Spake Zarathustra there is a particularly provocative section entitled ‘Of the New Idol.’ Remembering that this pivotal writing of the great German thinker/philosopher, so often misinterpreted, was written in 1881, it is surprising how relevant and invigorating its strong language remains in 2011. In his Introduction to the Penguin edition of Zarathustra, R.J. Hollingdale, the distinguished Nietzsche scholar and translator writes, “[t]he book’s worst fault is excess.” But excess can also be constructive, making us think harder. The cultural historian, Norman O. Brown, once remarked during a lecture that “[i]n psychoanalysis only the exaggerations are valuable.” Why? It makes us consider even awkward realities beneath the surface that are usually outside the box of what is treated as ‘responsible debate’ according to establishment pundits who set themselves up to be the arbiters of convention at a given society, at a given time. The dynamics of denial, so well known to psychologists, are a particularly virulent mechanism by which we protect our comfort zone from intrusion by inconvenient truths.

 

            It should be understood that Zarathustra as a character in the treatise is presented as the prophetic voice of Nietzsche, the person who stands outside and in solitude so as to understand better what is taking place inside, a voice that is shrill with anger, impassioned by conviction, and dedicated to truth-telling, however heretical. It should be remembered that Nietzsche was experiencing a young German state that was seeking unity by promoting an intense cult of nationalism that would eventuate in self-destructive major wars twice in the 20th century. Also, Nietzsche’s pre-existentialist outlook emphasized the absence of metaphysical guidance in our life experience. We are on our own, and cannot validly rely on church or state to shape our own future. We cannot, without false conscience, escape the burdens of freedom and responsibility. Our lives unfold as if on a pathless journey unassisted by reliable signposts. In other words, it takes courage and strength to live life authentically. In this regard, subjection to the will of the state was, and remains, a prevalent and unacceptable form of escape from these burdens.

 

Such as escape is often glorified as ‘patriotism,’ underscoring the stark difference between the obedient subject and the conscience-stricken citizen. Most individuals in sovereign states are willing or unwilling subjects, few are willing to risk the travails of citizenship so conceived. The risings in Tunisia and Egypt, regardless of what will happens during the long morning after, can be understood as spontaneous, unexpected, and brace embrace of citizenship under most difficult conditions, risking a life-threatening punitive response by challenging the authority of the repressive regime in power.

 

            In “Of the New Idol” Nietzsche exclaims: “The state? What is that? Well then! Now open your ears, for now I shall speak to you of the death of peoples.” The passage goes on, “[t]he state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.” In this theatrical language Nietzsche is reminding us that for many the state becomes an idol to be unconditionally obeyed as if an infallible god, a forfeiture of freedom, a renunciation of citizenship in a humane political community, and a voluntary acceptance of subjugation of the spirit. Such a  ‘patriotic’ process has drastically diminished the quality of democratic life almost everywhere, and has given the state a green light to wage wars of choice, regardless of their bloody consequences.

 

            The coldness of the state, so far as human solidarity is concerned, is often most vividly revealed by extreme behavior: the Nazi death camps, the atomic bombs dropped on Japanese cities, the genocidal dispossession of indigenous peoples throughout the world, the cruelties of colonial rule, the long siege imposed on the people of Gaza, and on and on. The United States, claiming the mantle of leader of ‘the free world,’ remains ready to incinerate tens of millions of innocent civilians for the sake of regime survival for itself and allied governments. What could be colder? What could be more anti-human?

 

            Yet this kind of violence is always rationalized by reference to the evil of the other, which is supposed to contrast with the good of the state. Yet we find that the protected national population (composed of patriots) is not treated much better. The person of conscience who speaks in public against a war of aggression being waged by his own government can be charged with treason if the message is viewed as giving aid and comfort to ‘the enemy,’ and sentenced to death in many countries. The crime of treason is another symbolic expression of the coldness of the state, as are the tactics often exhibited in a civil war or in violent responses to insurgent challenges. Current events also manifest this icy coldness of the state: shooting unarmed demonstrators in the towns and cities of Syria and Libya, or along the borders of Israel.  This coldness that Nietzsche so resented is acutely present when those who press their grievances peacefully against the state are met with violence.

 

            And yet we must be careful. Nietzsche’s excess, however eye-opening, is still excel. History vindicates the case for limited government. We need protection to live moderate and satisfying lives, to avoid crippling feuds. Nietzsche, shouting to be heard, exaggerated in some ways that are not instructive. We must not deify the state, or renounce our responsibilities as citizens to speak truthfully, or free the government from its obligations at home and abroad to act within the law, but even most of those among us who try to be citizens in the proper sense would still not opt for the chaos of an ungoverned social order if given a free choice. Our task is to build a just and ethically accountable state, not to abandon the enterprise as futile.  It is not a middle ground that we seek that is content with more moderate forms of secular forms of idolatry. The struggle I support is what the French philosopher, Jacques Derrida, called for, I believe, when speaking of ‘the democracy to come.’

 

            We need to listen carefully to the words of Nietzsche, but not be seduced by them to indulge idolatry in its negative form. To remove the blindfold, and see the state as the coldest of monsters is a necessary wakeup call for which we should thank Nietzsche for, even now, 140 years after Zarathustra was published.  And yet we also need to resist the temptation to fall into a deeper sleep by adopting a posture of unrealizable and unacceptable negation of this strange political creature called the state. In the end, the state is not a monster, but a work in progress.     

 

 

Hazards and Hopes of Limitless Freedom of Expression

4 May images-2

             One of the glories of the Western Enlightenment, especially as embodied in the lifeblood of political democracies is freedom of expression, the right to give voice in public spaces to unpopular, tasteless, provocative, and even outrageous ideas, and especially those critical of the prevailing political order without fear of retaliation. In the United States particularly the right to express ideas and opinions are extended to symbolic acts such as burning the American flag as a way of dramatizing the repudiation of official policies, or more broadly, the right to challenge the symbolic ascendancy of nationalism and patriotism. The U.S. Supreme Court has generally takes a very broad view of freedom of expression but finds some outer limits. It indicated famously that it would validate laws prohibiting members of an audience from falsely shouting ‘fire!’ in a crowded theater. It explained that the likely result is panic and a stampede that can hurt of kill. Even at the height of the Cold War, with McCarthyism creating waves of conformity, the endorsement of Communist ideas were generally allowed, although loyalty oaths for certain types of employment were imposed and actual, and even suspected, Communist Party affiliations were punished both formally and informally. The dividing line in wartime and during periods of national tension is very thin as exemplified in the United States by past laws on seditious speech and required loyalty oaths, which when the crisis expires are often in retrospect disowned as mistakes.

 

The Rushdie Fatwa

 

            These issues are often more easily be balanced by delicate legal and politics acrobatics within national political space, but finding a comparable balance globally has become far more precarious, if it is possible at all. The exceedingly difficult nature of the problem became evident to many after Salmon Rushdie in 1988 published Satantic Verses to Western critical acclaim and widespread Eastern censure, climaxing in the issuance of a fatwa by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini on February 14, 1989 that declared it a duty of Muslims to kill Rushdie and to hold mortally accountable anyone anywhere who was associated with the publication of the book. Demonstrating that such words have deadly consequences, a Japanese translator, Hitoshi Igarishi was stabbed to death in 1991, as was an Italian translator of Satanic Verses. In addition, a Norwegian publisher of the book was violently attacked and barely survived. Rushdie himself went into hiding for about a decade with Britain effectively providing twenty-four hour police protection. In most countries with large Muslim populations the book was banned, with the notable exception of Turkey, and bookstores in the West that carried the book were threatened, and several were burned. Obviously, the fatwa had severe harmful effects on a variety of ‘innocent’ persons that carried far beyond Iran, the country of utterance by its supreme leader, that is, if innocence is assessed by Western liberal norms.

 

In 1998 Iran’s President Mohamed Khatami appeared to withdraw support for the fatwa, and seemed eager to bring to an end the anti-Rushdie worldwide campaign, but the fatwa remains formally in effect as it can only be withdrawn by the person who issued it, and Khomeini had died long before Khatami spoke out even assuming, which is highly unlikely, that the author of the fatwa might have been later inclined to back away from the harshness of the original condemnation. Had Khomeini been alive in 1998 he would have almost certainly reaffirmed the fatwa, and might likely have gone on to challenge Khatami’s qualifications to provide secular leadership for the country. With respect to the treatment of the Rushdie book there exists a definite clash of values and rights. In most countries in the West this publication was immediately treated as an important work of literature by a renowned author whose publication was initially not thought as posing any challenge to freedom of expression, while in many Islamic societies the book was immediately viewed as offensive to deeply held community and religious beliefs as to make its availability and distribution arguably unacceptable, and regarded by public authorities as such a grave threat to public order to lead several governments to ban its publication. This diversity about matters of cultural and religious propriety and the fixing of some limits on free expressions seems inevitable in a state-centric and multi-civilizational world that contains contradictory assessments of the balance between individual freedom and community values. This diversity is an accurate reflection of the world order that currently exists, and is incapable of being persuasively resolved by resort to claimed universal principle. Despite the worldwide rise of human rights, universal norms cannot resolve difficult controversies about rights and values, although almost everywhere except Iran the Khomeini fatwa was treated as a deeply troubling precedent. The fatwa claimed an unreviewable authority to mandate death by unreviewable decree to the author of a book and those who facilitated publication even though in their political space no law was broken or widely endorsed moral position was affronted. This fatwa was indeed a bridge too far!

 

How to prevent such abuses in the future is a daunting challenge. It is difficult to propose a better response than the ancient encouragement of comity among countries, but this reliance on reciprocal courtesy and respect among sovereign states can hardly be expected to exert much influence on those who act on the basis of genuinely held fundamentalist beliefs about good and evil. It is inevitable that there will at some point arise somewhere on the planet behavior that will give rise elsewhere to the formulation and implementation of efforts to punish or react to controversial ideas that are found offensive within and beyond territory.

 

The Danish Cartoon Controversy                                                     

 

            In many ways as insulting to Muslim sensibilities around the world as Satanic Verses, was the Danish newspaper’s publication in 2005 of twelve cartoons depicting the prophet Mohamed in a derogatory manner. In response, riots leading to several deaths took place in Asian countries. The Danish official defensive response to criticism after the event was to call attention to the existence of national penal laws that prohibited blasphemy or discriminatory statements. It was a curious gesture because at the same time the Danish prosecutor declared the inapplicability of these laws in this instance because the cartoons addressed matters of ‘public interest’ whose publication was thus entitled to special protection. Here, there was more at stake than the trouble caused overseas. The cartoons also caused intense discomfort to Muslim minorities living in Denmark and elsewhere in Europe. The publication and political debate that followed was properly regarded as confirming the reality of an Islamophobic climate of opinion taking shape in Europe. The Danish response was essentially premised on freedom of expression as insulating even deliberately insulting remarks and images associated with religions and their sanctified leadership. In this respect, Copenhagen was arguing that Islam was not being singled out. Every religion, including Christianity, it was said had been at various times attacked in a manner that could be construed as blasphemous. But what here of the predictable impact of the cartoons, causing violent reactions around the world and intensifying hostility to Muslims within Denmark? Is this not analogous to shouting fire in a crowded theater? That is, the publisher and editor of the Danish newspaper should have anticipated these harmful effects, although some observers have argued that the riots were not the foreseen, and were primarily caused by the cartoons. Seen in this manner, the ensuing violence was mainly the result of opportunistic and irresponsible mainstream religious figures in several Muslim countries seizing the inflamed moment by agitating mobs to bolster their own personal influence. Unlike Rushdie, who acted perfectly reasonably, given his British residence and citizenship, the Danish provocation should arguably have been avoided by self-censorship, and the violent responses in Asia were exaggerated reactions that also should never have happened. It is generally desirable to encourage free expression without the state administering the limits, but in that case it is up to the state to prevent riots and societal violence.

 

            The challenge is a difficult one. It could be argued that a stronger civic tradition on Rushdie’s part, but even more so in relation to Khomeini, would have produced self-censorship. Long after the event, Rushdie expressed surprise, and even a tinge of remorse, that his novel had become an occasion for such a violent and enraged backlash. Long after the fact he gave the impression on occasion that he might not have written such a book had he anticipated the consequences for himself and others. In contrast, the Danish newspaper was forewarned of inflammatory effects but went ahead without any hesitation. In effect, self-censorship does not currently protect against the harmful effects of incendiary forms of expression in the hostile and commercially driven, even hateful, environment that exists, and even promotes a culture war against or on behalf of the Muslim world.

 

Burning the Koran

 

            The case of Terry Jones, the fundamentalist pastor of a small Christian church in Gainesville, Florida called the Dove World Outreach Center, founded in 1996 and serving 50 families, is a dramatic illustration of the dilemmas posed by hateful and irresponsible speech, not by a supreme leader as with Khomeini but by an obscure religious figure who would have remained forever unknown except for his outrageous provocation. The actions of Rev. Jones illustrate the ethical and political challenge in its most vivid form. Jones proclaimed his intention to burn the Koran on the anniversary of September 11 in 2010, even proposing the establishment of an “International Burn a Koran Day.” He had earlier published a booklet entitled “Islam is of the Devil,” and in August 2009 two children from his church were sent home from a local school because of ‘inappropriate dress,’ T-shirts with “Islam is of the Devil” emblazoned in bright letters. The Florida community did what it could to rein Jones in by informal action, denying Jones a burn permit and seeking to cancel the mortgage outstanding on his church. When asked to explain the recent shrinkage in his church membership by 50% Jones cunningly replied, “I think mainly just because the things we’re involved in are just really too hot for your normal Christian and your normal person.” Prior to the burning last month, many urged Jones to refrain, including even General David Petraeus who correctly warned that such anti-Islamic acts would endanger the lives of American troops under his command. And indeed two American soldiers were killed in distant Afghanistan apparently to avenge the Koran burning. Of course, such an incident should be appreciated as a personal tragedy for those singled out, although the American military presence in Afghanistan was likely a contributing cause, and in its own way an unlawful and irresponsible provocation. Should the state step in and impose a punishment or forbid such speech? On what authority? Should the idea of hate speech be associated with hostility to a book (as distinct from a person) that is treated as sacred by more than a billion persons? Is its denigration an intolerable incitement to public disorder? Does the answer depend on the national or civilizational setting at a particular historical, or are we now living in such a globalized and networked world as to make geographic boundaries of acceptable expression meaningless?

 

The Manning Case

 

            This brings me, finally, to the sad and illuminating case of Bradley Manning, a young intelligence analyst serving in the military. While Terry Jones is a free man despite deliberately generating violent reactions to speech and symbolic deeds known to be deeply offensive to many people, Manning seemingly acted out of conscience and belief facilitating the release of thousands of documents that had been classified by the U.S. Government, Iraq and Afghanistan war logs, confidential State Department cables, and other classified materials. As with Daniel Ellsberg’s release of the Pentagon Papers almost 40 years earlier, the evident intention of Manning was to inform people about the realities of government policies that were producing death and destruction in foreign countries. It seems that Ellsberg, also a government security specialist with privileged access and status, wanted the American people to know some core truths about the planning and perpetration of the Vietnam War that were dramatically at variance with what the public was being told about the war by the government. With Manning his range of motivations is not fully known, but he seems also to have become deeply disenchanted with the unlawful and immoral manner with which the United States was using its military power around the world, and the extent to which it was hiding war crimes behind heavy curtains of unwarranted secrecy. Manning has not yet been prosecuted, but has been held in demeaning and cruel conditions for many months. Without alluding to any extenuating circumstances, President Obama has not only said in response to a question from a journalist in the face of protests by human rights groups and others about Manning’s treatment in military prison that it was “appropriate and meets our basic standards,” but also was later caught on tape prejudging the case by saying in a private conversation at a fundraising dinner that Manning “broke the law,” and should be prosecuted.

 

The Manning case is a further stain on the moral reputation of the United States. It exhibits a vindictiveness toward a citizen, and a low ranking member of the armed forces, who steps out of line, seeking to allow a wider public of a democratic society to know a series of ‘inconvenient truths.’ Perhaps, there is some justification for some secrecy in diplomatic communication, and thus for laws that punish improper disclosures, or leaks. But each case needs to be judged in relation to its specific context. This case has many extenuating circumstances, and calls for leniency and empathy, taking account of Manning’s motivation and the improprieties exposed, rather than the vindictive approach so far taken by American officialdom. Let us remember that high government officials often leak classified information for their own purposes, including the exertion of influence on the media treatment of controversial policy issues. They almost never suffer any adverse consequences, enjoying what amounts to de facto impunity. What is striking about the Ellsberg/Manning disclosures is the whistle blowing character of their actions, that is, essentially a contribution to public wellbeing. In Manning’s case the documents given to WikiLeaks, including a classified video of a military incident in Afghanistan (an Apache helicopter attack that killed two Reuters News employees and several civilians without any indication of a military target), as well as many documents confirming U.S. association with war crimes, government lawbreaking, and serious corruption. Such behavior deserves to be known by the American public and should never have been allowed to happen in the first place. Rather than condemning the disclosures, the behavior disclosed is what should have produced presidential anger and appropriate action.

 

In a healthy democratic society such behavior would be protected if the intentions of ‘unlawful’ were shown to be positive and reasonable, and no unwarranted harm could come to named individuals. According to reports, the documents released by WikiLeaks were carefully screened in advance to avoid targeting individuals. Complex modern societies are rendered more secure by the safety valve of whistle blowing, and at the very least, benign leadership should moderate the implementation of secrecy laws by an acknowledgement of the huge public benefits of and needs for governmental transparency. In this instance President Obama’s inappropriate assertion of Manning’s guilt prior to a criminal trial under the auspices of a military tribunal further highlights the degree to which statist interests outweigh both justice to an individual charged with serious crimes (remember that innocence until proven guilty by a court of law operating according to due process is a fundamental right) and disregards the interest of the citizenry in the greatest possible transparency on the part of their government. If due process prevails even a military tribunal should conclude that Obama’s statements have been sufficiently prejudicial, after all he is commander in chief whose views are not likely to be contradicted in a military venue venerating hierarchy and chains of command, to have the case against Manning thrown out. Such an outcome is also justified as a result of severe and sustained pre-trial abuse that cumulatively amounts to ‘torture,’ or what the Bush presidency chillingly called the techniques of ‘enhanced interrogation.’

 

            The German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, wrote in 1885: “The state is the coldest of all cold monsters. Coldly it lies, too; and this lie creeps from its mouth: ‘I, the state, am the people.’” [Thus Spake Zarathustra, ‘Of the New Idol’]

In the Manning case this coldness is exemplified, as is the lie that because the state is the people, the people have no needs to know beyond what the state is prepared to disclose, however incriminating the information. This coldness of the state is expressed by criminalizing truth telling, branding it as virtually a form of treason, whereas a humane political community would seek to learn from those in their midst who are brave and dedicated enough to reveal to their citizen comrades what is hidden because it should never have been allowed to take place.  To punish righteousness is the seminal sin of organized power that the Bible warns about over and over again, and yet the ears of the modern cold state remain are plugged on principle, with the help of laws that stifle those forms of freedom of expression needed to ensure a lawful government. The same state that will go to great lengths to claim virtue for itself because it tolerates criticism will spare no effort to punish those who dare to expose its criminality. This punitive reflex must be curbed if democracy is to flourish in the 21st century.

 

 

V..4…2011

 

 

 

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