Archive | April, 2013

Clarifying Boston Marathon Post

25 Apr

 

 

            I want to offer a brief clarification and an explanation.

 

            It should have been clear from my post that I regard the Boston Marathon massacre as a despicable crime, so horrifying that I lack the imagination to comprehend the sociopathic mentality that planned and executed such a monstrous event.  And beyond this, that I feel great empathy for the unspeakable human loss that brought such acute suffering on entirely innocent victims, their families and friends, and the wider community in Boston and elsewhere.

 

            Further, I had no intention whatsoever to connect any dots as to whether there was a causal linkage between what the U.S. or Israel have done in the world and what happened in Boston. My only effort was to suggest that in addition to grieving and bringing the perpetrators to justice, this could also become an occasion for collective self-scrutiny as a nation and as a people. Should this be seen as such a provocative assertion as to provoke a wave of hate mail? At a time when the U.S. Congress rejected even mild legislation requiring more extensive background checks for gun purchasers, it should be a no brainer that something has gone badly wrong on the home front. And the fact that the Tsarnaev brothers assembled such an arsenal of weaponry might at least have raised a few additional eyebrows!

 

            By way of explanation, because there was such a flood of comments on my post, I abandoned just this once, my recent blog policy of excluding those responses that seem hateful and insulting, and lack substance. My intention remains seeking a blog site that is hospitable only to discourse conducted in a spirit of civility. My departure in this context was that I felt there were significant substantive issues and strong emotions sometimes bound up with the invective, and that I should not try to pick and choose among the various comments to select those I deemed appropriate. It would be misleading, however tempting, to allow only those comments that supported my outlook, and even the most hostile disclosed one dimension of the national mood.

 

            I realize, of course, that my post can and will be read in different ways, but what I have tried to clarify is the nature of my intentions when it was written and now after the array of responses.

 

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A Commentary on the Marathon Murders

19 Apr

 

            The dominant reactions to the horrific bombings on April 15th, the day of the running of the Boston Marathon, as well as the celebration of Patriots Day, have been so far: compassion for the victims, a maximal resolve to track down the perpetrators, a pundit’s notebook that generally agrees that Americans have been protected against terrorist violence since 9/11 and that the best way to prevail against such sinister adversaries is to restore normalcy as quickly as possible. In this spirit, it is best to avoid dwelling on the gory details by darkly glamorizing the scene of mayhem with flowers and homage. It is better to move forward with calm resolve and a re-commitment to the revolutionary ideals that midwifed the birth of the American nation. Such responses are generally benevolent, especially when compared to the holy war fevers espoused by national leaders, the media, and a vengeful public after the 9/11 attacks that also embraced Islamophobic falsehoods. Maybe America has become more poised in relation to such extremist incidents, but maybe not. It is soon to tell, and the somewhat hysterical Boston dragnet for the remaining at large and alive suspect does suggest that the wounds of 9/11 are far from healed

 

            For one thing, the scale and drama of the Boston attack, while great, was not nearly as large or as symbolically resonant as the destruction of the World Trade Center and the shattering of the Pentagon. Also, although each life is sacred, the magnitude of tragedy is somewhat conveyed by numbers, and the Marathon incident has so far produced three deaths as compared to three thousand, that is, 1/1000th of 9/11. Also important, the neocon presidency of George W. Bush, was in 2001 prior to the attacks openly seeking a pretext to launch a regime-changing war against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq, and the 9/11 events, as interpreted and spun, provided just the supportive domestic climate needed for launching an aggressive war against the Baghdad regime. The Iraq War was undertaken despite the UN Security Council failure to lend its authority to such an American deadly geopolitical venture and in the face of the largest anti-war global demonstrations in human history. In 2001 the preferred American grand strategy, as blueprinted by the ideologues of the American Enterprise Institute and the Hoover Institution, was given a green light by the Bush/Cheney White House even in the face of the red lights posted both at the UN and in the streets of 600 or more cities around the world.

 

            Although there are many distressing continuities that emerge if the Obama presidency is appraised by comparison with the counter-terrorist agenda of his predecessors, there are also some key differences of situation and approach. Obama came to Washington as outspoken opponent of torture and of the Iraq War. He also arrived after the failed wars of Afghanistan and Iraq, which had devastated two countries, seemingly beyond foreseeable recovery, while adding nothing to American security, however measured. These unlawful wars wasted trillions expended over the several years during which many Americans were enduring the hardships and pain of the deepest economic recession since the 1930s. In other words, temporarily at least, the Beltway think tanks and the government are doing their best to manage global crises without embarking on further wars in a spirit of geopolitical intoxication that was hallmark of the unipolar moment that was invoked by Republicans to chide the Clinton presidency for its wimpish failure to pursue American strategic interests in the Middle East. Remember, as well, that this was the period of quick victorious wars that were also cheap when measured by casualties or resources. The Gulf War of 1991 and the NATO Kosovo War of 1999 were the poster children of this supposed revolution in warfare that enabled the United States and its allies to fight ‘zero casualty wars.’ At least it seems that for the present irresponsible and unlawful warfare are no longer the centerpiece of America’s foreign policy as had become the case in the first decade of the 21st century, although this is far from a certainty. The war drums are beating at this moment in relation to both North Korea and Iran, and as long as Tel Aviv has the compliant ear of the American political establishment those who wish for peace and justice in the world should not rest easy.

 

            Aside from the dangers and unacceptability of promiscuous wars, there are other serious deficiencies in how the United States sees itself in the world. We should be worried by the taboo at this moment of 24/7 self-congratulatory commentary imposed on any type of self-scrutiny by either the political leadership or the mainstream media. Unlike the aftermath of 9/11, there are a few hopeful signs of awakening to this one-eyed vision on the part of the citizenry. Listening to a PBS program hours after the Boston event, I was struck by the critical attitudes of several callers to the radio station: “it is horrible, but we in this country should not be too surprised, given our drone attacks that have killed women and children attending weddings and funerals in Afghanistan and Pakistan. Another caller asked “is this not a kind of retribution for torture inflicted by American security forces acting under the authority of the government, and verified for the world by pictures of the humiliation of Iraqi prisoners at Abu Ghraib?” And another asked, “in light of the authoritative reports of officially sanctioned torture as detailed in the 577 page report of a task force chaired by two former senators, one a Republican, the other a Democrat, and containing senior military and security officials, has not the time come to apply the law to the wrongdoers during the Bush presidency”? Can we not expect one among our politicians, other than the Tea Party darling Rand Paul, to have the courage to connect some of these dots? Should we not all be meditating on W.H. Auden’s haunting line: “Those to whom evil is done/do evil in return”?

 

            The American global domination project is bound to generate all kinds of resistance in the post-colonial world. In some respects the United States has been fortunate not to experience worse blowbacks, and these may yet happen, especially if there is no disposition to rethink US relations to others in the world, starting with the Middle East. Some of us naively hoped that Obama’s Cairo speech of 2009 was to be beginning of such a process of renewal, and although timid in many ways, it was yet possessed of a tonality candidly acknowledged that relations with the Islamic world needed a fundamental moves by the US Government for the sake of reconciliation, including the adoption of a far more balanced approach to the Palestine/Israel impasse. But as the months passed, what became evident, especially given the strong pushback by Israel and its belligerent leader, Bibi Netanyahu, were a series of disappointing reactions by Obama, which could be described as an accelerating back peddling in relation to opening political space in the Middle East.

 

            Now at the start of his second presidential term, it seems that Obama has given up altogether, succumbing to the Beltway ethos of Israel First. Obama has  acknowledged the constraints on his freedom of maneuver on these foreign policy issues, and seeks to confine his legacy ambitions to such domestic concerns as immigration, gun control, and health care. In so doing he is virtually abandoning the international agenda except to manage crisis diplomacy in ways that do not disturb the global status quo or weaken America’s global reach. Obama’s March trip to Israel, highlighted by his March 21st speech in Jerusalem, which was delivered as a love letter to the Israeli public rather than qualifying as a good faith effort to demonstrate his belief in a just peace. Such obsequious diplomacy was a disappointment even to those of us with low expectations in what the White House is willing to overcome the prolonged ordeal of the Palestinian people.

 

            Aside from the tensions of the moment, self-scrutiny and mid-course reflections on America’s global role is long overdue. Such a process is crucial both for the sake of the country’s own future security and also in consideration of the wellbeing of others. Such adjustments will eventually come about either as a result of a voluntary process of self-reflection or through the force of unpleasant events. How and when this process of reassessment occurs remains a mystery. Until it does, America’s military prowess and the abiding confidence of its leaders in hard power diplomacy makes the United States a menace to the world and to itself. Such an observation is as true if the more avowedly belligerent Mitt Romney rather than the seemingly dovish Barack Obama was in the White House. Such bipartisan support for maintaining the globe-girdling geopolitics runs deep in the body politic, and is accompanied by the refusal to admit the evidence of national decline. The signature irony is that the more American decline is met by a politics of denial, the more rapid and steep will be the decline, and the more abrupt and risky will be the necessary shrinking of the global leadership role so long played by the United States. We should be asking ourselves at this moment, “how many canaries will have to die before we awaken from our geopolitical fantasy of global domination?”

Divestment at UCSB

16 Apr

Moving Toward Divestment from Corporations Profiting from Israeli Militarism, Occupation, and Settlments

 

A few days ago I spoke to a student audience in support of a divestment resolution that was to be submitted for adoption at the University of California at Santa Barbara. The resolution was narrowly defeated the next day in the UCSB Student Senate, but this series of student initiated efforts to urge several campuses of the University of California to divest from corporations doing a profitable business selling military equipment to Israel represents an encouraging awakening on the part of American youth to the severe victimization of the Palestinian people by way of occupation, discrimination, refugee misery, and exile, a worsening set of circumstances that has lasted in its various forms for several decades, and shows no signs of ending anytime soon.

 

Ever since the nakba of 1948, either traditional diplomacy, nor the United Nations, nor armed struggle have been able to secure Palestinian rights, and as time has passed, Palestinian prospects are being steadily diminished by deliberate Israeli policies: establishment and expansion of unlawful settlements, ethnic cleansing of East Jerusalem, construction of a separation wall that the World Court found in 2004 was being unlawfully built on Palestinian territory, a network of Israeli only road, a dualistic system of laws that have an apartheid character, widespread abuse of Palestinian prisoners, systematic discrimination of the Palestinian minority living in pre-1967 Israel.

 

Israel has been consistently defiant in relation to relation to international law and the UN, and has refused to uphold Palestinian rights under international law. Given this set of circumstances that combine the failures of diplomacy to achieve a fair peaceful resolution of the conflict and the unwillingness of Israel to fulfill its obligations under international law, the only viable option consistent with the imperatives of global justice are a blend of continuing Palestinian resistance and a militant global solidarity campaign that is nonviolent, yet coercive.

 

The Palestinian struggle for self-determination has become the great international moral issue of our time, a successor to the struggle in South Africa a generation ago against its form of institutionalized racism, the original basis of the international crime of apartheid. It is notable that the Statute of the International Criminal Court designates apartheid as one type of Crime Against Humanity, and associates it with any structure of discrimination that is based on ethnicity or religion, and not necessarily a structure exhibiting the same characteristics as present in South Africa. Increasingly, independent inquiry has concluded that Israel’s occupation of Palestine is accurately considered to be a version of apartheid, and hence an ongoing Crime Against Humanity.

 

It is against this background that divestment initiatives and the wider BDS Campaign take on such importance at this time, especially here in America where the governing authorities turn a blind eye to Israel’s wrongdoing and yet continue to insist on their capacity to provide a trustworthy intermediary perspective that is alleged to be the only path to peace, a claim that goes back to the aftermath of the 1967 war, and more definitively linked to the brokered famous handshake on the White House lawn affirming the 1993 Oslo Framework as the authoritative foundation for the resolution of the conflict. It has turned out that Oslo has been a horrible failure from the perspective of achieving Palestinian rights and yet a huge success from the standpoint of the Israeli expansionist blueprint, which included the annexation of the most fertile and desirable land in the West Bank and the consolidation of unified control over the sacred city of Jerusalem.

 

Against this background, there is only a single way forward: the mobilization of transnational civil society to join the struggle mounted by the Palestinians for an end to occupation in a manner that produces a just solution, including respect for the rights of Palestinian refugees. If this solidarity surge happens on a sufficient scale it will weaken Israel internally and internationally, and hopefully, would lead to an altered political climate in Israel and the United States that would

at long last become receptive to an outcome consistent with international law and morality. Such a posture would be in contrast with what these two governments have for so long insisted upon– a ‘solution’ that translated Israel’s hard power dominance, including the ‘facts on the ground’ that it has steadily created, into arrangements falsely called ‘peace.’

 

After I presented this argument supporting the divestment resolution several important questions asked by members of a generally appreciative student audience:

–“some people object to this divestment effort as unfairly singling out Israel when there are so many other situations in the world where unlawful behavior and oppressive policies have resulted in more extreme forms of victimization than that experienced by the Palestinians. Why single out the Israelis for this kind of hostile maneuver?”

>there are several ways to respond: the American support of Israel is itself reason enough to justify the current level of attention. Despite Israel’s relative affluence American taxpayers foot the bill for $3 billion + per year, more than is given to the whole of Africa and Latin America, which amounts to $8.7 million per day; additional to the financial contribution is the extraordinary level of diplomatic support that privileges Israel above any other allied country, and extends to pushing policies that reflect Israeli priorities even when adverse to American national interests. This is the case with respect to Iran’s nuclear program. The most stabilizing move would be to propose a nuclear free zone for the entire Middle East, but the United States will not even mention such an option for fear of occasioning some kind of backlash orchestrated by an irate leadership in Tel Aviv.

>the world community as a whole, particularly the UN, undertook a major responsibility for the future of Palestine when it adopted GA Resolution 181 proposing the partition of historic Palestine, giving 55% for a Jewish homeland and 45% to the Palestinians; even since the Balfour Declaration in 1917, the wishes of the indigenous population of Palestine have been disregarded in favor of colonialist ambitions; Palestine remains the last and most unfortunate instance of an ongoing

example of settler colonialism, exemplified by the dispossession and subjugation of the indigenous population as a result of violent suppression. The settlers in this usage are all those that displace the indigenous population, depriving such people of their right of self-determination, and should not be confused with ‘settlers’ from Israel that establish enclaves of domination within occupied Palestine.

 

–“some persons have said that we should not push for divestment because it makes Jewish students on the campus uncomfortable. Is there some basis for taking such sensitivities into account?

>It is important not to allow Zionist propaganda to make us believe that being critical of Israel is tantamount to anti-semitism, and hostility to Jews as a religious and ethnic minority in this country and elsewhere. Because anti-semitism did produce such horrible historical abuses of Jews it is a cruel and opportunistic tactic to mislead public opinion in this manner. Not only Jews, but all of us must learn, that we are human  before we are Jews, or any other ethnicity. I am Jewish, but it is more important to privilege human interests, and to avoid the narrow partisanship of tribal loyalties. If we are to survive on this crowded planet we must learn, in the words of W.H. Auden, “to love another or die.” It would be odd if as citizens of the United States we were to refrain criticizing the government in Washington because we didn’t want to make Americans feel uncomfortable. At this stage, we have an obligation to make those who shield Israel from criticism to feel uncomfortable not because they are Jewish but because they are being complicit in the commission of crimes against a vulnerable people that have long endured unimaginable levels of abuse.

 

–“Is there any reason to believe that the Israeli government will change its policies as a result of the pressures mounted by divestment measures of this kind even if implemented, which seems highly unlikely?”

>The importance of this divestment campaign is partly symbolic and partly substantive. Such initiatives are only undertaken after a prolonged failure of traditional means of overcoming international situations of extreme injustice. As such, it sends a message of distress as well as seeks to discourage corporations from making profits from transactions relating to unlawful activities in Israel, especially relating to uses of force against the Palestinian civilian population. Beyond this, we never know whether a combination of factors produces such pressure that those responsible for policy recalculate their interests and make a drastic change that could not have been anticipated. This happened to the white leadership in South Africa, leading to the release of Nelson Mandela from prison after 27 years, and a reconciliation process that allowed the oppressed black majority to assume leadership of the country on the basis of a constitutionally mandated inclusive democracy. No one now expects an analogous transformation in Israel, but it will surely not come about without making the status quo increasingly unsustainable for the oppressor as it has long been for the oppressed.

Seeing in the Dark

11 Apr

Seeing in the Dark with Victoria Brittain

 

            As with the best of journalists, Victoria Brittain has spent a lifetime enabling us to see in the dark! Or more accurately, she has shined a bright light on those whose suffering has been hidden by being deliberately situated in one or another shadow land of governmental and societal abuse, whether local, national, or geopolitical in its animus. These patterns of abuse are hidden because whenever their visibility cannot be avoided, the liberal mythologizing of the decency of the modern democratic state suffers a staggering blow. In recent years this unwanted visibility has permanently tarnished the human rights credentials of the United States due to the spectacular exposés of the horrifying pictures of prisoner abuse at the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or various reports of grotesque treatment of Guantanomo detainees. As with Bradley Manning and Wikileaks, the U.S. Government should be embarrassed by its response: a preoccupation with these unwelcome leaks of its dirty secrets, while manifesting indifference to the substantive disclosures of its endorsement of torture and other crimes against humanity. But it is not, and that has become and remains a deep challenge to all of us who wish to live in a society of laws, not sadistic men, a society based on ethics and human rights, not cruelty and dehumanization. Once such secrets have been revealed, all of us are challenged not to avert our gaze, being reminded that upholding the rights and dignity of every person is the duty of government and the responsibility of all citizens, and when flagrant and intentional failures along these lines remain unchallenged, the credentials of decency are forever compromised.

 

            This is but a prelude to commenting briefly upon Victoria Brittain’s extraordinary recent book of humane disclosure, SHADOW LIVES: THE FORGOTTEN WOMEN OF THE WAR ON TERROR (London: Pluto, 2013; distributed in the United States by Palgrave Macmillan). Brittain is a journalist who not only sees in the dark, but what is even rarer among the restless practitioners of this profession, she stays around long enough to listen. Here she listens with empathy and insight to the words and experience of women whose male partners have been targeted in Britain and the United States by the rapacious masters of homeland security in the years since the 9/11 attacks. These women and their children, mainly living in Britain, are the forgotten and neglected ‘collateral damage’ of those who are detained year after year without charges or trials as terrorist suspects. As the book makes clear, Muslims as a distinct ethnic and religious group, have been deprived of rights available to others accused of political crime. She quotes an American lawyer, Linda Moreno, “After 9/11 the Constitution was suspended when it comes to Muslims, especially Palestinians.” (p.161) But it was not only the liberal governments that were at fault, it was also the media that stereotyped anyone accused of being a jihadist or somehow sympathetic with the aims and activities of those alleged to be guilty of acts of terrorism as unquestionably evil, and such a menace as to deserve ill-treatment. In Brittain’s words, “[t]he enormity of the injustice perpetrated over a decade and more has been airbrushed out of America’s and Britain’s mainstream consciousness.” She goes on to ask a question we need to ask ourselves with all due gravity—“How did we get so coarsened that this is virtually unremarked?” (p.23)

 

            The real story here is that of several women who try to live in the ruins created by the detention of their husbands, and seek to do whatever they can to bring normalcy to their family life, and raise their children as lovingly as possible in the process. It is a difficult life where the reverberations of Islamophobia are daily felt via the hostility of neighbors and the treatment experienced in schools and elsewhere. In other words, society, as well as government and the media, are complicit in the incidental, yet severe, punishments endured by these families of targeted individuals. Yet the picture is not entirely grim as these women are also courageous and determined not to be defeated, even as they struggle against depression and acute anxiety, as well as the loneliness associated with the loss of their loving partner and co-parent. And what is worse in some ways, are witnesses to the collapse of their men due to the mistreatment of prolonged prison experiences unalleviated by the reality of indictments and charges. These men are mainly held on the basis of secret evidence that is not even disclosed to their lawyers, and the majority seem entirely innocent, victims of post-9/11 panic politics nurtured by the nanny security state. When in Britain such detainees are released, it should not be confused with ‘freedom’ because the former prisoner is require to wear electronic tags, subject to curfews, daily reporting to local police, living with rigid restrictions on visits by friends, routine intrusions in family space by security personnel, even prohibitions on use of computers. In summing up the overall ordeal of these families, Brittain comments, “[f]or all of them, something worse than their very worst nightmares had come true.” (p.149) One of the daughters who had endured this reality asks plaintively, “[l]isten to my story, then decide if you will be able to live my life.” (p.67) It occasions no surprise that the several of the men attempt suicide or experience paranoid delusion and that the women become clinically depressed.

 

            There is for several of the women a kind of existential double jeopardy. They came to Britain or the United States as refugees to escape from deadly torments in Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Palestine, expecting at least the benefits of a liberal democracy, and instead were confronted by a far worse existence than what they had reluctantly left behind. Sometimes their memories were filled with happiness, as with one woman describing her earlier time in Afghanistan: “The life was not easy, but it was beautiful.” (p.154) These years of injustice were “intertwined with memories, ghosts and dreams of an Afghanistan or a Palestine—past or future. Those other shadow lives infused everything for them, if you came close enough to listen, and were, with their faith. Their secret lifeline of joy against bitterness and despair.” (p.164) Not only what was remembered, but also what was hoped for, believed in, a faith, often with overtones of the Koran, of a deliverance yet to come, however difficult the life of exile had become.

 

            Especially, the women from a Palestinian background were passionate about educating their children, sometimes doing the schooling at home to avoid the unpleasant atmosphere facing Muslim children in British society. Other children of imprisoned fathers received their education at local schools. Brittain is sensitive to their acute sense of their special circumstances: “One child spoke for several others when she said that now loyalty and duty to her absent father meant excelling at school and remembering to be happy.” (p.158) Remembering to be happy! Every child should be exempt from such a duty!

 

            Victoria Brittain has written a book that we need to read, ponder, discuss, and to the best of our ability, act upon. It is a captivating book of love and dedication, as well as of torments, and it is mainly the intimate renderings of these women doing the best they can under the most agonizing of condition that no decent society should allow to persist. What is made clear throughout is the degree to which the state-sanctioned cruelty to these individuals, including the terrorist suspects themselves, is a blend of panic, sadism, and anti-Muslim hatred, and cannot be convincingly explained away as regrettable but necessary measures to ensure the security of societies threatened by terrorism. In effect, Brittain condemns reliance on such disproportionate means in the alleged pursuit of the end of security, opportunistically sacrificing the few to promote the pseudo-contentment of the many. In his short Foreword, John Berger puts the essence of what makes SHADOW LIVES a mandatory reading experience: “What makes this book unforgettable and terrible is its demonstration of the extent of the human cruelty meted out by the (human) stupidity of those wielding power. Neither such cruelty nor such stupidity exist in the natural world without humankind.” (p.ix). In her Afterword, Marina Warner issues a similar injunction, although more directly: “..we need uncomfortable books like this one, to ask the tough questions.” (p.166) Indeed, we do!