5/30/2013 12:22:21 PM
While President Obama’s May 23 speech
did not signal a major change in the War on Terror, in addressing concerns
about human rights for the first time, the speech demonstrated the antiwar
movement’s growing power.
This article originally appeared at Waging Nonviolence.
A presidential war speech often doubles as a gauge of the antiwar movement’s
weakness or strength. This was borne out again last week when President Obama
delivered what the administration billed as a major
address on the wars over which he is presiding. In his May 23 presentation
at the National Defense University,
the president proclaimed a fundamental shift in the wars since 9/11. In
reality, it was a carefully nuanced message that said as much about the growing
opposition to two aspects of his wars — drones and the remaining prisoners at Guantánamo Bay — as the prospect of an eventual end
to “endless war.”
For years the Obama administration did not see fit to comment publicly on
the growing drone fleet and its targeted killing program, which independent
research demonstrates has led to thousands
of deaths. But the anti-drones movement has grown over the past year, with
more nonviolent action, civil disobedience, networking, and even a 13-hour
filibuster by Sen. Rand Paul. This growing awareness and opposition has
increasingly compelled the United
States government to shed some light on this
policy and to begin a public relations campaign to win hearts and minds for the
emerging drones culture.
At the same time, the renewed public focus on Guantánamo — unexpectedly
sparked by an ongoing hunger strike
being carried out by over 100 inmates — has pushed the administration to again
grapple with President Obama’s as-yet-unmet 2008 commitment to close the facility.
As details have emerged about the practice of force-feeding and the strike has
stretched past the 100-day milestone, solidarity fasts and nonviolent actions
across the United States
have stoked this growing movement. It is not a coincidence that both of these
matters were key features of the president’s presentation.
These policies were embedded in the larger focus of the speech — a suggested
end to the multi-pronged war that the United States has been prosecuting
since 2001. In a sharp rhetorical divergence from both the Bush administration
and his own, President Obama laid out the conviction that this war, like all
wars, must end. But instead of truly finishing this conflict, he proposed
indefinitely carrying on military operations, especially drone attacks,
designed to concentrate on what he termed the reduced but continuing terrorist
It is no accident that President Obama floated a vision of terminating this
conflict. After a dozen years of combat, public support for unending war has
waned, and the antiwar movement has steadily percolated. But this termination
Obama alluded to is illusory.
Relying incessantly on drone strikes and other means to kill whomever the U.S. government
decides are terrorists and their “associated forces” is endless war by other
means. The president’s speech was less about a real shift and more about
indefinitely extended hostilities framed in a way that normalizes and
institutionalizes them. Winning and consolidating public support for this
strategy is crucial for its success, which is why the speech raised, and then
blithely knocked down, the critic’s arguments. Drone attacks, the president
insisted, are effective, legal and subject to accountability. Here he referred,
with no sheepish irony, to a presidential document he had signed just the day
before — a text that has not been made public so that the rest of us can assess
how much accountability there will, in fact, be.
While briefly acknowledging that drone attacks kills civilians (“for me and
those in my chain of command, those deaths will haunt us as long as we live”),
the president claimed that this is the least lethal option and that, in effect,
U.S. lives are ultimately more important than non-U.S. ones. He conceded in
passing that drone attacks risk creating new enemies and that the secrecy in
which they are shrouded could lead to authoritarian abuse by policymakers. But
as with most of these concerns, he briskly waved them away. “Doing nothing is
not an option,” he said at one point with simple finality.
He is right, of course — doing nothing is not an option. But “targeted
killing” or “doing nothing” are not our only alternatives. There are many more
effective and enduring solutions, but taking them on would require giving up
one’s faith in the power of dominating force and the narrow, dualistic view of
the world in which that faith is rooted.
For example, a RAND corporation study
that analyzed hundreds of terrorist groups found that 43 percent of them
“reached a peaceful political accommodation with their government.” In another
of Chicago professor
Robert Pape examined
every suicide bombing from 1980 to 2004 and concluded that 95 percent of which
were motivated by a desire to compel the withdrawal of military forces from
land the attackers saw as their homeland.
On May 23 the president said,
is at a crossroads. We must define the nature and scope of this struggle, or
else it will define us.” He is speaking operationally — we have a choice of
tactics — but a deeper meaning lurks here. We stand at a crossroads, but it
does not simply represent a choice between the weapons we will wield. There is
a qualitative choice between fundamentally different paths: controlling the
world through fear, surveillance and the illusion of superiority, or risking
another course of nonviolent options and peacebuilding.
This is ultimately less about convincing policymakers directly than it is
about building movements that illuminate the options that exist. This is the
point that I made in 2009 in reflecting on
President Obama being awarded the Nobel peace prize. This is why
presidential speeches are a barometer of the movement. When movements are
strong, it is more likely that just and peaceful alternatives will be
entertained — and can even make their way into a president’s vision. For
example, John Kennedy’s sudden decision in 1963 to back the Partial Test Ban
Treaty was influenced by the peace movement, while Lyndon Johnson’s swung his
support behind the landmark voting right’s bill in 1965 after the Civil Rights
movement’s march from Selma to Montgomery.
These are high stakes. We are being asked to sign on to an increasingly
militarized world that, like the wars in Iraq
will likely result in a tsunami of unintended consequences. But we have another
choice: nonviolent alternatives. In this regard we have no better example than
Medea Benjamin who sought
to engage the president on both Guantánamo and drones during his May 23
Not only did Benjamin raise salient facts left out of or muted in the
president’s presentation, such as the fact that as commander-in-chief he does
not have to wait for congressional action to close Guantánamo or that one of
his drones strikes had killed a 16-year-old U.S. citizen. Then, only a few
hours later, she was part of a national strategy conference call plotting
nonviolent action in support of the Guantánamo hunger strikers. They began to
organize a June civil disobedience action featuring people in orange jumpsuits
and black hoods representing the 86 prisoners who have been cleared for release
but are still being held, a delegation to Guantánamo and an effort to meet with
the president about closing Guantánamo immediately.
Nonviolent actions, campaigns and movements open space and possibilities
that previously seemed far-fetched and unlikely. The president’s speech may
represent a tactical change, but the real turning point will come as a result
of the growing momentum of a movement that dramatically pools its people-power
for both clear skies and human rights.
Image by the U.S. Navy, licensed
4/18/2013 10:57:24 AM
From right-wing think tanks to Homeland
Security to the “drone lobby,” a lot’s riding on the constant threat of global terrorism. Here’s how it all started.
This article originally
appeared at TomDispatch.
The communist enemy, with the “world’s
fourth largest military,” has been trundlingmissiles around and threatening the United States
with nuclear obliteration. Guam, Hawaii, Washington: all, it claims, are targetable. The coverage in
the media has been hair-raising. The U.S. is rushing an untested missile defense system to Guam,
deploying missile-interceptor ships off the South Korean coast, sending “nuclear capable” B-2 Stealth bombers thousands of
miles on mock bombing runs, pressuring China, and conducting large-scale war games with its South Korean ally.
Only one small problem: there is as yet little evidence that the enemy with a few nuclear weapons
facing off (rhetorically at least) against an American arsenal of 4,650 of them has the ability to miniaturize and mount even one on a missile, no
less deliver it accurately, nor does it have a missile capable of reaching
Hawaii or Washington, and I wouldn't count on Guam either.
It also happens to be a desperate country, one possibly without enough fuel to fly a modern air force, whose
people, on average, are inches shorter than their southern neighbors thanks to
decades of intermittent famine and malnutrition, and who are ruled by a bizarre
three-generational family cult. If that other communist, Karl Marx, hadn’t once
famously written that history repeats itself “first as tragedy, then as farce,”
we would have had to invent the phrase for this very moment.
In the previous century, there were two devastating
global wars, which left significant parts of the planet in ruins. There was
also a "cold war" between two superpowers locked in a system of mutual
assured destruction (aptly acronymed as MAD) whose nuclear arsenals were
capable of destroying the planet many times over. Had you woken up any morning
in the years between December
7, 1941, and December 26, 1991, and been told that the leading
international candidate for America's Public Enemy Number One was Kim Jong-un’s
ramshackle, comic-opera regime in North Korea, you might have gotten down on
your hands and knees and sent thanks to pagan gods.
The same would be true for the other candidates for that
number one position since September 11, 2001: the original al-Qaeda (largely
decimated), al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula located in poverty-stricken areas
of poverty-stricken Yemen, the Taliban in poverty-stricken Afghanistan, unnamed
jihadis scattered across poverty-stricken areas of North Africa, or
Iran, another rickety regional power run by not particularly adept theocrats.
All these years, we’ve been launching wars and pursuing a
“global war on terror." We’ve poured money into national security as if
there were no tomorrow. From our police to our borders, we’ve up-armored everywhere. We constantly
hear about “threats” to us and to the “homeland.” And yet, when you knock on
the door marked “Enemy,” there’s seldom anyone home.
Few in this country have found this
striking. Few seem to notice any disjuncture between the enemy-ridden,
threatening, and deeply dangerous world we have been preparing ourselves for
(and fighting in) this last decade-plus and the world as it actually is, even
those who lived through significant parts of the last anxiety-producing, bloody
You know that feeling when you wake up and realize you’ve
had the same recurrent nightmare yet again? Sometimes, there’s an equivalent in
waking life, and here’s mine: every now and then, as I read about the next move
in the spreading war on terror, the next drone assassination, the next
ratcheting up of the surveillance game, the next expansion of the secrecy that
envelops our government, the next set of expensive actions taken to guard us --
all of this justified by the enormous threats and dangers that we face -- I
think to myself: Where’s the enemy? And then I wonder: Just what kind of a
dream is this that we’re dreaming?
A Door Marked “Enemy” and No One Home
Let’s admit it: enemies can have their uses. And let’s
admit as well that it’s in the interest of some in our country that we be seen
as surrounded by constant and imminent dangers on an enemy-filled planet. Let’s
also admit that the world is and always will be a dangerous place in all sorts
Still, in American terms, the bloodlettings, the
devastations of this new century and the last years of the previous one have
been remarkably minimal or distant; some of the worst, as in the multi-country
war over the Congo with its more than five million dead have passed us by entirely;
some, even when we launched them, have essentially been imperial frontier
conflicts, as in Iraq and Afghanistan, or interventions of little cost (to us)
as in Libya, or frontier patrolling operations as in Pakistan, Yemen, Somalia,
and Northern Africa. (It was no mistake that, when Washington
launched its special operations raid on Abbottabad,
get Osama bin Laden, it was given the code name “Geronimo” and the message from the SEAL team
recording his death was “Geronimo-E KIA” or “enemy killed in action.”)
And let’s admit as well that, in the wake of those wars
and operations, Americans now have more enemies, more angry, embittered people
who would like to do us harm than on September 10, 2001. Let’s accept that
somewhere out there are people who, as George W. Bush once liked to say, “hate us" and what we stand for. (I
leave just what we actually stand for to you, for the moment.)
So let’s consider those enemies briefly. Is there a major
state, for instance, that falls into this category, like any of the great
warring imperial European powers from the sixteenth century on, or Nazi Germany
and Imperial Japan in World War II, or the Soviet Union
of the Cold War era? Of course not.
There was admittedly a period when, in order to pump up
what we faced in the world, analogies to World War II and the Cold War were
rife. There was, for instance, George W. Bush’s famed rhetorical construct, the Axis of
Evil (Iraq, Iran, and North Korea), patterned by his
speechwriter on the German-Italian-Japanese “axis” of World War II. It was, of
course, a joke construct, if reality was your yardstick. Iraq and Iran were then enemies. (Only in
the wake of the U.S.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
have they become friends and allies.) And North Korea had nothing whatsoever
to do with either of them. Similarly, the American occupation of Iraq was once regularly compared to the
U.S. occupations of Germany and Japan, just as Saddam Hussein had long been presented as a modern Hitler.
In addition, al-Qaeda-style Islamists were regularly
referred to as Islamofascists, while certain military and neocon types
with a desire to turn the war on terror into a successor to the Cold War took
to calling it “the long war,” or even “World War IV.” But all of this was so wildly out of whack
that it simply faded away.
As for who’s behind that door marked “Enemy,” if you
opened it, what would you find? As a start, scattered hundreds or, as the years have
gone by, thousands of jihadis, mostly in the poorest backlands of the
planet and with little ability to do anything to the United States. Next, there were a
few minority insurgencies, including the Taliban and allied forces in Afghanistan and separate Sunni and Shia ones in Iraq. There
also have been tiny numbers of wannabe
Islamic terrorists in the U.S.
(once you take away the string of FBI
sting operations that have regularly turned hopeless slackers and lost
teenagers into the most dangerous of fantasy Muslim plotters). And then, of
course, there are those two relatively hapless regional powers, Iran and North Korea, whose bark far exceeds
their potential bite.
The Wizard of Oz on 9/11
in other words, is probably in less danger from external enemies than at any
moment in the last century. There is no other imperial power on the planet
capable of, or desirous of, taking on American power directly, including China. It’s
true that, on September 11, 2001, 19 hijackers with box cutters produced a
remarkable, apocalyptic, and devastating TV show in which almost 3,000 people died. When those giant towers in
downtown New York
collapsed, it certainly had the look of nuclear disaster (and in those first days, the
media was filled was nuclear-style references), but it wasn’t actually an
The enemy was still nearly nonexistent. The act cost
bin Laden only an estimated $400,000-$500,000, though it would lead to a series
of trillion-dollar wars. It was a nightmarish event that had a
malign Wizard of Oz quality to it: a tiny man producing giant
effects. It in no way endangered the state. In fact, it would actually
strengthen many of its powers. It put a hit on the economy, but a passing one.
It was a spectacular and spectacularly gruesome act of terror by a small,
murderous organization then capable of mounting a major operation somewhere on
Earth only once every couple of years. It was meant to spread fear, but nothing
When the towers came down and you could suddenly see to
the horizon, it was still, in historical terms, remarkably enemy-less. And yet
9/11 was experienced here as a Pearl Harbor
moment -- a sneak attack by a terrifying enemy meant to disable the country.
The next day, newspaper headlines were filled with variations on “A Pearl Harbor of the Twenty-First Century.”
If it was a repeat of December 7, 1941, however, it lacked an imperial Japan or
any other state to declare war on, although one of the weakest partial states
on the planet, the Taliban's Afghanistan, would end up filling the bill
adequately enough for Americans.
To put this in perspective, consider two obvious major
dangers in U.S.
life: suicide by gun and death by car. In 2010, more than 19,000 Americans killed themselves using guns. (In the same
year, there were “only” 11,000 homicides nationwide.) In 2011, 32,000 Americans
died in traffic accidents (the lowest figure in 60 years, though it was again on the rise in the first six months of 2012). In other
words, Americans accept without blinking the equivalent yearly of more than six
9/11s in suicides-by-gun and more than 10 when it comes to vehicular deaths.
Similarly, had the underwear bomber, to take one post-9/11 example of
terrorism, succeeded in downing Flight 253 and murdering its 290 passengers, it would have
been a horrific act of terror; but he and his compatriots would have had to
bring down 65 planes to reach the annual level of weaponized suicides and more
than 110 planes for vehicular deaths.
And yet no one has declared war on either the car or the
gun (or the companies that make them or the people who sell them). No one has
built a massive, nearly trillion-dollar car-and-gun-security-complex to deal
with them. In the case of guns, quite the opposite is true, as the post-Newtown
debate over gun control has made all too clear. On both scores, Americans have
decided to live with perfectly real dangers and the staggering carnage that
accompanies them, constraining them on occasion or sometimes not at all.
Despite the carnage of 9/11, terrorism has been a small-scale American danger in the years since, worse than
shark attacks, but not much else. Like a wizard, however, what Osama bin Laden
and his suicide bombers did that day was create an instant sense of an enemy so
big, so powerful, that Americans found “war” a reasonable response; big enough
for those who wanted an international police action against al-Qaeda to be
laughed out of the room; big enough to launch an invasion of revenge against
Iraq, a country unrelated to al-Qaeda; big enough, in fact, to essentially
declare war on the world. It took next to no time for top administration
officials to begin talking about targeting 60
countries, and as journalist Ron Suskind has reported, within six days of the attack, the CIA had
topped that figure, presenting President Bush with a “Worldwide Attack Matrix,”
a plan that targeted terrorists in 80 countries.
What’s remarkable is how little the disjuncture between
the scope and scale of the global war that was almost instantly launched and
the actual enemy at hand was ever noted here. You could certainly make a
reasonable argument that, in these years, Washington has largely fought no one -- and
lost. Everywhere it went, it created enemies who had, previously, hardly
existed and the process is ongoing. Had you been able to time-travel back to the Cold
War era to inform Americans that, in the future, our major enemies would be in
Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia, Mali, Libya, and so on, they would surely have
thought you mad (or lucky indeed).
Creating an Enemy-Industrial Complex
Without an enemy of commensurate size and threat, so much
that was done in Washington
in these years might have been unattainable. The vast national security building and spending spree -- stretching from the Virginia
suburbs of Washington, where the National Geospatial-Intelligence Agency
erected its new $1.8 billion headquarters, to Bluffdale, Utah, where the
National Security Agency is still constructing a $2 billion, one-million-square-foot data center for storing
the world’s intercepted communications -- would have been unlikely.
Without the fear of an enemy capable of doing anything,
money at ever escalating levels would never have poured into homeland security,
or the Pentagon, or a growing complex of crony corporations associated with our
weaponized safety. The exponential growth of the national security complex, as
well as of the powers of the executive branch when it comes to
national security matters, would have far been less likely.
Without 9/11 and the perpetual “wartime” that followed,
along with the heavily promoted threat of terrorists ready to strike and
potentially capable of wielding biological, chemical, or even nuclear weapons,
we would have no Department of Homeland Security nor the lucrative mini-homeland-security complex that surrounds it; the
17-outfit U.S. Intelligence Community with its massive $75 billion official budget would have been far less impressive;
our endless drone wars and the “drone lobby” that goes with them might never have
developed; and the U.S. military would not have an ever growing secret military, the Joint Special Operations Command,
gestating inside it -- effectively the president’s private army, air force, and
navy -- and already conducting largely secret operations across much of the
For all of this to happen, there had to be an
enemy-industrial complex as well, a network of crucial figures and institutions
ready to pump up the threat we faced and convince Americans that we were in a
world so dangerous that rights, liberty, and privacy were small things to
sacrifice for American safety. In short, any number of interests from Bush
administration figures eager to “sweep it all up” and do whatever they wanted in the world
to weapons makers, lobbyists, surveillance outfits, think tanks, military intellectuals, assorted pundits... well, the whole
national and homeland security racket and its various hangers-on had an
interest in beefing up the enemy. For them, it was important in the post-9/11
era that threats would never again lack a capital “T” or a hefty dollar sign.
And don’t forget a media that was ready to pound the
drums of war and emphasize what dangerous enemies lurked in our world with
remarkably few second thoughts. Post-9/11, major media outlets were generally
prepared to take the enemy-industrial complex’s word for it and play every new
terrorist incident as if it were potentially the end of the world. Increasingly
as the years went on, jobs, livelihoods, an expanding world of “security”
depended on the continuance of all this, depended, in short, on the injection
of regular doses of fear into the body politic.
That was the “favor” Osama bin Laden did for Washington’s national
security apparatus and the Bush administration on that fateful September
morning. He engraved an argument in the American brain that would live on
indelibly for years, possibly decades, calling for eternal vigilance at any
cost and on a previously unknown scale. As the Project for the New American
Century (PNAC), that neocon think-tank-cum-shadow-government, so fatefully put
it in "Rebuilding America's Defenses" a year before the 9/11 attacks:
“Further, the process of transformation [of the military], even if it brings
revolutionary change, is likely to be a long one, absent some catastrophic and
catalyzing event -- like a new Pearl Harbor.”
So when the new Pearl Harbor
arrived out of the blue, with many PNAC members (from Vice President Dick
Cheney on down) already in office, they naturally saw their chance. They
created an al-Qaeda on steroids and launched their “global war” to establish a Pax
Americana, in the Middle East and then perhaps globally. They were aware
that they lacked opponents of the stature of those of the previous century and,
in their documents, they made it clear that they were planning to
ensure no future great-power-style enemy or bloc of enemy-like nations would
For this, they needed an American public anxious,
frightened, and ready to pay. It was, in other words, in their interest to
manipulate us. And if that were all there were to it, our world would be a
grim, but simple enough place. As it happens, it’s not. Ruling elites, no
matter what power they have, don’t work that way. Before they manipulate us,
they almost invariably manipulate themselves.
I was convinced of this years ago by a friend who had
spent a lot of time reading early Cold War documents from the National Security
Council -- from, that is, a small group of powerful governmental figures
writing to and for each other in the utmost secrecy. As he told me then and
wrote in Washington’s China, the smart book he did on the
early U.S. response to the establishment of the People’s Republic of China,
what struck him in the documents was the crudely anti-communist language those
men used in private with each other. It was the sort of anti-communism you
might otherwise have assumed Washington’s
ruling elite would only have wielded to manipulate ordinary Americans with
fears of Communist subversion, the “enemy within,” and Soviet plans to take
over the world. (In fact, they and others like them would use just such
language to inject fear into the body politic in those early Cold War years,
that era of McCarthyism.)
They were indeed manipulative men, but before they
influenced other Americans they assumedly underwent something like a process of
collective auto-hypnotism in which they convinced one another of the dangers
they needed the American people to believe in. There is evidence that a similar
process took place in the aftermath of 9/11. From the flustered look on George
W. Bush’s face as his plane took him not toward but away from Washington on September 11, 2001, to the image of
Dick Cheney, in those early months, being chauffeured around Washington in an armored motorcade with
a “gas mask and a biochemical survival suit" in the backseat, you could
sense that the enemy loomed large and omnipresent for them. They were, that is,
genuinely scared, even if they were also ready to make use of that fear for
their own ends.
Or consider the issue of Saddam Hussein’s supposed
weapons of mass destruction, that excuse for the invasion of Iraq. Critics
of the invasion are generally quick to point out how that bogus issue was used
by the top officials of the Bush administration to gain public support for a
course that they had already chosen. After all, Cheney and his men cherry-picked the evidence to make their case, even formed their own secret intel outfit to give them what they
needed, and ignored facts at hand that brought their version of events into question.
They publicly claimed in an orchestrated way that Saddam had active nuclear and WMD
programs. They spoke in the most open ways of potential mushroom clouds from (nonexistent) Iraqi nuclear weapons
rising over American cities, or of those same cities being sprayed
with (nonexistent) chemical or biological weapons from (nonexistent) Iraqi
drones. They certainly had to know that some of this information was useful but
bogus. Still, they had clearly also convinced themselves that, on taking Iraq, they
would indeed find some Iraqi WMD to justify their claims.
In his soon-to-be-published book, Dirty Wars, Jeremy Scahill cites the conservative
journalist Rowan Scarborough on Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld’s growing
post-invasion irritation over the search for Iraqi WMD sites. “Each morning,”
wrote Scarborough, “the crisis action team had
to report that another location was a bust. Rumsfeld grew angrier and angrier.
One officer quoted him as saying, ‘They must be there!’ At one briefing, he
picked up the briefing slides and tossed them back at the briefers.”
In other words, those top officials hustling us into
their global war and their long-desired invasion of Iraq had also hustled themselves
into the same world with a similar set of fears. This may seem odd, but given
the workings of the human mind, its ability to comfortably hold potentially
contradictory thoughts most of the time without disturbing itself greatly, it’s
A similar phenomenon undoubtedly took place in the larger
national security establishment where self-interest combined easily enough with
fear. After all, in the post-9/11 era, they were promising us one thing:
something close to 100% “safety” when it came to one small danger in our world
-- terrorism. The fear that the next underwear bomber might get through surely
had the American public -- but also the American security state -- in its
grips. After all, who loses the most if another shoe bomber strikes, another
ambassador goes down, another 9/11 actually happens? Whose job, whose
world, will be at stake then?
They may indeed be a crew of Machiavellis, but they are
also acolytes in the cult of terror and global war. They live in the Cathedral
of the Enemy. They were the first believers and they will undoubtedly be the
last ones as well. They are invested in the importance of the enemy. It’s their
religion. They are, after all, the enemy-industrial complex and if we are in
their grip, so are they.
The comic strip character Pogo once famously declared: “We have met the enemy and he is us.”
How true. We just don’t know it yet.
Tom Engelhardt, co-founder of the
and author of
The United States of Fear
as well as a history of the
The End of Victory Culture
, runs the Nation Institute's
His latest book, co-authored with Nick Turse, is
Terminator Planet: The First History of Drone Warfare,
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy
Fighters, Secret Bases, and Cyberwarfare.
Copyright 2013 Tom Engelhardt
Image by ISAF Media,
licensed under Creative
4/9/2013 12:41:36 PM
Filmmaker Annie Leonard finds people want to be liberated from overconsumption.
Annie Leonard is one of the most articulate, effective champions of the commons today. Her webfilm The Story of Stuff has been seen more than 15 million times by viewers. She also adapted it into a book.
Drawing on her experience investigating and organizing on environmental health and justice issues in more than 40 countries, Leonard says she’s “made it her life’s calling to blow the whistle on important issues plaguing our world.”
This article originally appeared in On the Commons.
On the Commons recently asked Leonard a few questions about the commons.
How did you first learn about the commons?
I first learned about the commons as a kid using parks and libraries. I didn’t assign the label “commons” to them, but I understood early on that some things belong to all of us and these shared assets enhance our lives and rely on our care.
Like many other college students, my first introduction to the word “commons” was sadly in conjunction with the word “sheep” and “tragedy.” That lousy resource management class tainted the word for me for years, until I heard Ralph Nader address a group of college students. He asked them to yell out a list of everything they own. This being the pre-i-gadget 1980’s, the list included “Sony Walkman…boombox… books…bicycle…clothes…bank account.” When the lists started to peter out, Ralph asked about National Parks and public airwaves. A light went off in each of our heads, and a whole new list was shouted out: rivers, libraries, the Smithsonian, monuments. That’s when I realized that the commons isn’t an overgrazed pasture; it really is all that we share.
What do you see as the biggest obstacle to creating a commons-based society right now?
There are so many interrelated aspects of our current economic and social systems which undermine the commons. Some obstacles are structural, like government spending priorities that elevate military spending and oil company subsidies over maintenance of parks and libraries. Others are social, including the erosion in social fabric and community-based lifestyles. Actually, even those have structural drivers; for example, land use planning which eliminates sidewalks and requires long commutes to work contribute to breakdown of social commons by impeding social interactions. It’s all so interconnected!
A huge obstacle is the shift toward greater privatization and commodification of physical and social assets. Many things that used to be shared—from open spaces for recreation to support systems to help a neighbor in need—have been privatized and commodified; they’ve been moved out of the community into the market place. This triggers a downward spiral. Once things become privatized, or un-commoned, we no longer have access to them without paying a fee. We then have to work longer hours to pay for all these things which used to be freely available—everything from safe afterschool recreation for kids to clean water to swim in to someone to talk to when you’re feeling blue. And since we’re working longer hours and spending more time alone, we have less time to contribute to the commons to rebuild these assets: less volunteer hours, less beach-clean-up days, less time for civic engagement to advocate for policies that protect the commons, less time to invite a neighbor over for tea. And on it goes.
What is the greatest opportunity to strengthen and expand the commons right now?
In spite of real obstacles, we have a lot on our side as we advance a commons-based agenda. First, we have no choice. There’s a very real ecological imperative weighing down on us. Even if we wanted to continue this overconsumptive, hyper individualistic and vastly unequal way of living, we simply can’t. We have to learn to share more and waste less, to find joy and meaning in shared assets and experiences rather than in private accumulation, to work together for a better world, rather than to build bigger walls around those who can. And the good news is that these changes not only will enable us to continue to live on this planet, but they will result in a happier, healthier society overall.
There’s another shift emerging which offers some real opportunities for building support for the commons. People in the overconsuming parts of the world are getting fed up with the burden of trying to own everything individually. We used to own our stuff and increasingly our stuff owns us. We work extra hours to buy more stuff, we spend our weekends sorting our stuff. We’re constantly needing to upgrade, repair, untangle, recharge, even pay to store our stuff. It’s exhausting.
The shift I see emerging is from an acquisition focused relationship to stuff, to an access- focused relationship. In the acquisition framework, the more stuff we had, the better, as captured in the 1990s bumpersticker “He Who Dies with the Most Toys Wins.” Having spent a couple decades being slaves to our stuff, we are rethinking. Now it is “He Who dies with the Most Toys Wasted His Life Working to Buy Them and Lived in a Cluttered House When He Could have been Investing in Community with which to Share Toys.
Increasingly people want access to stuff, not all the burden that comes with ownership. Instead of owning a car and dealing with all that comes with it, we get one just when we want through city car share programs. Instead of hiring a plumber, we swap music lessons with one through skillsharing networks. Why buy something to own alone, when we can share it with others? Why signup for an even more crushing mortgage for a house with a big back yard, when we can instead share public parks? From coast to coast, there’s a resurgence of sharing, so much that it even has a fancy new name: collaborative consumption. I’m really excited about this. A whole new generation of people is realizing that access to shared stuff is easier on one’s budget and on the planet, then individual ownership. Now, that’s liberating.
Image: Annie Leonard by annainaustin, licensed under Creative Commons.
"Story of Change", Annie Leonard's "Story of Stuff" follow-up video.
3/26/2013 3:20:09 PM
After a decade of war, Iraq
is a cauldron of sectarian violence, state-sponsored terrorism, and humanitarian crisis. Now a U.S.
client under the autocratic and corrupt Maliki government, Iraq has little
chance to escape the vicious cycle of violence and injustice.
This article originally appeared at Tom Dispatch.
Back then, everybody was writing about Iraq,
but it’s surprising how few Americans, including reporters, paid much attention
to the suffering of Iraqis. Today, Iraq is in the news again. The
words, the memorials, the retrospectives are pouring out, and again the
suffering of Iraqis isn’t what’s on anyone’s mind. This was why I returned to
that country before the recent 10th anniversary of the Bush administration’s
invasion and why I feel compelled to write a few grim words about Iraqis today.
But let’s start with then. It’s April 8,
2004, to be exact, and I’m inside a makeshift medical center in the heart of
Fallujah while that predominantly Sunni city is under siege by American forces.
I’m alternating between scribbling brief observations in my notebook and taking
photographs of the wounded and dying women and children being brought into the
A woman suddenly arrives, slapping her
chest and face in grief, wailing hysterically as her husband carries in the
limp body of their little boy. Blood is trickling down one of his dangling
arms. In a few minutes, he’ll be dead. This sort of thing happens again and
over, I watch speeding cars hop the curb in front of this dirty clinic with
next to no medical resources and screech to a halt. Grief-stricken family
members pour out, carrying bloodied relatives -- women and children -- gunned
down by American snipers.
One of them, an 18-year-old girl has been
shot through the neck by what her family swears was an American sniper. All she
can manage are gurgling noises as doctors work frantically to save her from
bleeding to death. Her younger brother, an undersized child of 10 with a
gunshot wound in his head, his eyes glazed and staring into space, continually
vomits as doctors race to keep him alive. He later dies while being transported
to a hospital in Baghdad.
According to the Bush administration at the
time, the siege of Fallujah was carried out in the name of fighting something
called “terrorism” and yet, from the point of view of the Iraqis I was
observing at such close quarters, the terror was strictly American. In fact, it
was the Americans who first began the spiraling cycle of violence in Fallujah
troops from the 82nd Airborne Division killed 17 unarmed demonstrators on April
28th of the previous year outside a school they had occupied and turned into a
combat outpost. The protesters had simply wanted the school vacated by the
Americans, so their children could use it. But then, as now, those who respond
to government-sanctioned violence are regularly written off as “terrorists.”
Governments are rarely referred to in the same terms.
10 Years Later
Jump to March 2013 and that looming 10th
anniversary of the U.S.
invasion. For me, that’s meant two
books and too many news
articles to count since I first traveled to that country as the
world’s least “embedded” reporter to blog about a U.S. occupation already spiraling
out of control. Today, I work for the Human Rights Department of Al Jazeera
English, based out of Doha,
Qatar. And once
again, so many years later, I’ve returned
to the city where I saw all those bloodied and dying women and children. All
these years later, I’m back in Fallujah.
Today, not to put too fine a point on it, Iraq is a
failed state, teetering on the brink of another sectarian bloodbath, and beset
by chronic political deadlock and economic disaster. Its social fabric has been
all but shredded by nearly a decade of brutal occupation by the U.S. military
and now by the rule of an Iraqi government rife with sectarian infighting.
Every Friday, for 13 weeks now, hundreds of
thousands have demonstrated and prayed on the main highway linking Baghdad and Amman,
runs just past the outskirts of this city.
Sunnis in Fallujah and the rest of Iraq’s vast Anbar
Province are enraged at the government
of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki because his security forces, still heavily
staffed by members of various Shia militias, have
been killing or detaining their compatriots from this region, as
well as across much of Baghdad.
Fallujah’s residents now refer to that city as a “big prison,” just as they did
when it was surrounded and strictly controlled by the Americans.
Angry protesters have taken to the streets.
“We demand an end to checkpoints surrounding Fallujah. We demand they allow in
the press. We demand they end their unlawful home raids and detentions. We
demand an end to federalism and gangsters and secret prisons!” So Sheikh Khaled
Hamoud Al-Jumaili, a leader of the demonstrations, tells me just prior to one
of the daily protests. “Losing our history and dividing Iraqis is wrong, but
that, and kidnapping and conspiracies and displacing people, is what Maliki is
The sheikh went on to assure me that
millions of people in Anbar province had stopped demanding changes in the
Maliki government because, after years of waiting, no such demands were ever
met. “Now, we demand a change in the regime instead and a change in the
constitution,” he says. “We will not stop these demonstrations. This one we
have labeled ‘last chance Friday’ because it is the government’s last chance to
listen to us.”
“What comes next,” I ask him, “if they
don’t listen to you?”
“Maybe armed struggle comes next,” he
replies without pause.
Predictably, given how the cycle of
violence, corruption, injustice, and desperation has become part of daily life
in this country, that same day, a Sunni demonstrator was gunned down by Iraqi
security forces. Lieutenant General Mardhi al-Mahlawi, commander of the Iraqi
Army’s Anbar Operations Command, said the authorities would not hesitate to
deploy troops around the protest site again “if the protesters do not
cooperate.” The following day, the Maliki government warned that the area was
becoming “a haven for terrorists,” echoing the favorite term the Americans used
during their occupation of Fallujah.
In 2009, I was in Fallujah, riding
around in the armored BMW of Sheikh Aifan, the head of the
then-U.S.-backed Sunni militias known as the Sahwa forces. The Sheikh was an
opportunistic, extremely wealthy “construction contractor” and boasted that the
car we rode in had been custom built for him at a cost of nearly half a million
Two months ago, Sheikh Aifan was killed by
a suicide bomber, just one more victim of a relentless campaign by Sunni
insurgents targeting those who once collaborated with the Americans. Memories
are long these days and revenge remains on many minds. The key figures in the
Maliki regime know that if it falls, as is likely one day, they may meet fates
similar to Sheikh Aifan’s. It’s a convincing argument for hanging onto power.
way, the Iraq
of 2013 staggers onward in a climate of perpetual crisis toward a future where
the only givens are more chaos, more violence, and yet more uncertainty. Much
of this can be traced to Washington’s
long, brutal, and destructive occupation, beginning with the installation of
former CIA asset Ayad Allawi as interim prime minister. His hold on power
quickly faltered, however, after he was used by the Americans to launch their
second siege of Fallujah in November 2004, which resulted in the deaths of
thousands more Iraqis, and set the stage for an ongoing
health crisis in the city due to the types of weapons used by the
In 2006, after Allawi lost political clout,
then-U.S. ambassador to Iraq
neoconservative Zalmay Khalilzad tapped Maliki as Washington’s new prime minister. It was then
widely believed that he was the only politician whom both the U.S. and Iran could find acceptable. As one
Iraqi official sarcastically put it, Maliki was the product of an agreement
between “the Great Satan and the Axis of Evil.”
In the years since, Maliki has become a de
facto dictator. In Anbar Province and parts of Baghdad, he is now bitterly referred to as a
“Shia Saddam.” Pictures of his less-than-photogenic face in front of an Iraqi
flag hang above many of the countless checkpoints around the capital. When I
see his visage looming over us yet again as we sit in traffic, I comment to my
fixer, Ali, that his image is now everywhere, just as Saddam’s used to be.
“Yes, they’ve simply changed the view for us,” Ali replies, and we laugh.
Gallows humor has been a constant in Baghdad
since the invasion a decade ago.
It’s been much the same all over Iraq. The U.S. forces
that ousted Saddam Hussein’s regime immediately moved into his military bases
and palaces. Now that the U.S.
has left Iraq,
those same bases and palaces are manned and controlled by the Maliki
Saddam Hussein’s country was notoriously
corrupt. Yetlast year, Iraq ranked
169th out of 174 countries surveyed, according to Transparency International’s Corruption Perception Index.
It is effectively a failed state, with the Maliki regime incapable of
controlling vast swaths of the country, including the Kurdish north, despite
his willingness to use the same tactics once employed by Saddam Hussein and
after him the Americans: widespread violence, secret prisons, threats,
detentions, and torture.
Almost 10 years after U.S. troops entered a Baghdad
in flames and being looted, Iraq
remains one of the most dangerous places on Earth. There are daily bombings,
kidnappings, and assassinations. The sectarianism instilled and endlessly
stirred up by U.S. policy has become deeply, seemingly irrevocably embedded in
the political culture, which regularly threatens to tip over into the sort of
violence that typified 2006-2007, when upwards of 3,000 Iraqis were being
slaughtered every month.
The death toll of March 11th was one of the
worst of late and provides a snapshot of the increasing levels of violence
countrywide. Overall, 27 people were killed and many more injured in attacks
across the country. A suicide car bomb detonated in a town near Kirkuk, killing eight and
wounding 166 (65 of whom were students at a Kurdish secondary school for
girls). In Baghdad,
gunmen stormed a home where they murdered a man and woman. A shop owner was
shot dead and a policeman was killed in a drive-by shooting in Ghazaliya. A
civilian was killed in the Saidiya district, while a Sahwa member was gunned
down in Amil. Three government ministry employees in the city were also killed.
In addition, gunmen killed two policemen in
the town of Baaj,
a dead body turned up in Muqtadiyah, where a roadside bomb also wounded a
policeman. In the city of Baquba, northeast of Baghdad, gunmen killed a blacksmith, and in the northern
city of Mosul,
a political candidate and a soldier were both killed in separate incidents. A
local political leader in the town of Rutba in Anbar Province
was shot and died of his injuries, and the body of a young man whose skull was
crushed was found in Kirkuk
a day after he was kidnapped. Gunmen also killed a civilian in Abu Saida.
And these are only the incidents reported
in the media in a single day. Others regularly don’t make it into the news at
The next day, Awadh, the security chief for
Al Jazeera in Baghdad,
was in a dark mood when he arrived at work. “Yesterday, two people were
assassinated in my neighborhood,” he said. “Six were assassinated around Baghdad. I live in a
mixed neighborhood, and the threats of killing have returned. It feels like it
did just before the sectarian war of 2006. The militias are again working to
push people out of their homes if they are not Shia. Now, I worry everyday when
my daughter goes to school. I ask the taxi driver who takes her to drop her
close to the school, so that she is alright.” Then he paused a moment, held up
his arms and added, “And I pray.”
“This Is Our Life Now”
Iraqis who had enough money and connections
to leave the country have long since fled. Harb, another fixer and dear friend
who worked with me throughout much of my earlier reportage from Iraq, fled to Syria’s
with his family for security reasons. When the uprising in Syria turned violent and devolved into the
bloodbath it is today, he fled Damascus for Beirut. He is literally
running from war.
Recent Iraqi government estimates put the
total of “internally displaced persons” in Iraq at 1.1 million. Hundreds of
thousands of Iraqis remain in exile, but of course no one is counting. Even
those who stay often live as if they were refugees and act as if they are on
the run. Most of those I met on my most recent trip won’t even allow me to use
their real names when I interview them.
My first day in the field this time around,
I met with Isam, another fixer I’d worked with nine years ago. His son narrowly
escaped two kidnapping attempts, and he has had to change homes four times for
security reasons. Once he was strongly opposed to leaving Iraq because,
he always insisted, “this is my country, and these are my people.” Now, he is
desperate to find a way out. “There is no future here,” he told me.
“Sectarianism is everywhere and killing has come back to Baghdad.”
He takes me to interview refugees in his
neighborhood of al-Adhamiyah. Most of them fled their homes inmixed Sunni-Shia neighborhoods and towns
during the sectarian violence of 2006 and 2007. Inside his cobbled-together
brick house with a roof of tin sheeting held down with old tires, one refugee
echoes Isam’s words: “There is no future for us Iraqis,” he told me. “Day by
day our situation worsens, and now we expect a full sectarian war.”
Elsewhere, I interviewed 20-year-old Marwa
Ali, a mother of two. In a country where electric blackouts are a regular
event, water is often polluted, and waste of every sort litters neighborhoods,
the stench of garbage and raw sewage wafted through the door of her home while
flies buzzed about. “We have scorpions and snakes also,” she said while
watching me futilely swat at the swarm of insects that instantly surrounded me.
And she paused when she saw me looking at her children, a four-year-old son and
two-year-old daughter. “My children have no future,” she said. “Neither do I,
and neither does Iraq.”
Shortly afterward, I met with another
refugee, 55-year-old Haifa Abdul Majid. I held back tears when the first thing
she said was how grateful she was to have food. “We are finding some food and
can eat, and I thank God for this,” she told
me in front of her makeshift shelter. “This is the main thing. In
some countries, some people can’t even find food to eat.”
She, too, had fled sectarian violence, and
had lost loved ones and friends. While she acknowledged the hardship she was
experiencing and how difficult it was to live under such difficult
circumstances, she continued to express her gratitude that her situation wasn’t
worse. After all, she said, she wasn’t living in the desert. Finally, she
closed her eyes and shook her head. “We know we are in this bad situation
because of the American occupation,” she said wearily. “And now it is Iran having their revenge on us by using Maliki,
and getting back at Iraq for
the [1980-1988] war with Iran.
As for our future, if things stay like they are now, it will only keep getting
worse. The politicians only fight, and they take Iraq down into a hole. For 10 years
what have these politicians done? Nothing! Saddam was better than all of them.”
I asked her about her grandson. “Always I
wonder about him,” she replied. “I ask God to take me away before he grows up,
because I don’t want to see it. I’m an old woman now and I don’t care if I die,
but what about these young children?” She stopped speaking, looked off into the
distance, then stared at the ground. There was, for her, nothing else to say.
I heard the same fatalism even from Awadh,
Al Jazeera’s head of security. “Baghdad
is stressed,” he told me. “These days you can’t trust anyone. The situation on
the street is complicated, because militias are running everything. You don’t
know who is who. All the militias are preparing for more fighting, and all are
expecting the worst.”
As he said this, we passed under yet
another poster of an angry looking Maliki, speaking with a raised, clenched
fist. “Last year’s budget was $100 billion and we have no working sewage system
and garbage is everywhere,” he added. “Maliki is trying to be a dictator, and
is controlling all the money now.”
In the days that followed, my fixer Ali
pointed out new sidewalks, and newly planted trees and flowers, as well as the
new street lights the government has installed in Baghdad. “We called it first
the sidewalks government, because that was the only thing we could see that
they accomplished.” He laughed sardonically. “Then it was the flowers government,
and now it is the government of the street lamps, and the lamps sometimes don’t
Despite his brave face, kind heart, and
upbeat disposition, even Ali eventually shared his concerns with me. One
morning, when we met for work, I asked him about the latest news. “Same old,
same old,” he replied, “Kidnappings, killings, rapes. Same old, same old. This
is our life now, everyday.”
“The lack of hope for the future is our
biggest problem today,” he explained. He went on to say something that also
qualified eerily as another version of the “same old, same old.” I had heard
similar words from countless Iraqis back in the fall of 2003, as violence and
chaos first began to engulf the country. “All we want is to live in peace, and
have security, and have a normal life,” he said, “to be able to enjoy the
sweetness of life.” This time, however, there wasn’t even a trace of his usual
cheer, and not even a hint of gallows humor.
“All Iraq has had these last 10 years is
violence, chaos, and suffering. For 13 years before that we were starved and
deprived by [U.N. and U.S.]
sanctions. Before that, the Kuwait
War, and before that, the Iran
War. At least I experienced some of my childhood without knowing war. I’ve
achieved a job and have my family, but for my daughters, what will they have
here in this country? Will they ever get to live without war? I don’t think
For so many Iraqis like Ali, a decade after
invaded their country, this is the anniversary of nothing at all.
Dahr Jamail is a feature story staff writer and producer for the Human
Rights Department of Al Jazeera English. Currently based in Doha,
Qatar, Dahr has spent more
than a year in Iraq,
spread over a number of trips between 2003 and 2013. His reportage from Iraq,
, has won him several awards, including the
Martha Gellhorn Award for Investigative Journalism. He is the author of
the Green Zone: Dispatches from an Unembedded Journalist in Occupied Iraq
Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us
on Facebook. Check
out the newest Dispatch book, Nick Turse’s The
Changing Face of Empire: Special Ops, Drones, Proxy Fighters, Secret Bases, and
Copyright 2013 Dahr Jamail
Image by the U.S. Army,
licensed under Creative
3/22/2013 1:01:19 PM
Secretive, paranoid, and aggressive, our militarized, hyper-masculine political culture feeds violence abroad and in the home. As John Stuart Mill argued, the subjection of nations has everything to do with the subjection of women.
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
Picture this. A man, armored in tattoos, bursts into a
living room not his own. He confronts an enemy. He barks orders. He throws that
enemy into a chair. Then against a wall. He plants himself in the middle of the
room, feet widespread, fists clenched, muscles straining, face contorted in a
scream of rage. The tendons in his neck are taut with the intensity of his
terrifying performance. He chases the enemy to the next room, stopping escape
with a quick grab and thrust and body block that pins the enemy, bent back,
against a counter. He shouts more orders: his enemy can go with him to the
basement for a “private talk,” or be beaten to a pulp right here. Then he wraps
his fingers around the neck of his enemy and begins to choke her.
No, that invader isn’t an American soldier leading a
night raid on an Afghan village, nor is the enemy an anonymous Afghan
householder. This combat warrior is just a guy in Ohio named Shane. He’s doing what so many
men find exhilarating: disciplining his girlfriend with a heavy dose of the
violence we render harmless by calling it “domestic.”
It’s easy to figure out from a few basic facts that Shane
is a skilled predator. Why else does a 31-year-old man lavish attention on a
pretty 19-year-old with two children (ages four and two, the latter an equally
pretty and potentially targeted little female)? And what more vulnerable
girlfriend could he find than this one, named Maggie: a neglected young woman,
still a teenager, who for two years had been raising her kids on her own while
her husband fought a war in Afghanistan? That war had broken the family apart,
leaving Maggie with no financial support and more alone than ever.
But the way Shane assaulted Maggie, he might just as well
have been a night-raiding soldier terrorizing an Afghan civilian family in
pursuit of some dangerous Talib, real or imagined. For all we know, Maggie’s
estranged husband/soldier might have acted
in the same way in some Afghan living room and not only been paid but also
honored for it. The basic behavior is quite alike: an overwhelming display of
superior force. The tactics: shock and awe. The goal: to control the behavior,
the very life, of the designated target. The mind set: a sense of entitlement
when it comes to determining the fate of a subhuman creature. The dark side:
the fear and brutal rage of a scared loser who inflicts his miserable self on
As for that designated enemy, just as
American exceptionalism asserts the superiority of the United States over all
other countries and cultures on Earth, and even over the laws that govern
international relations, misogyny -- which seems to inform so much in the
United States these days, from military boot camp to the Oscars to full frontal political assaults on a woman’s right
to control her own body -- assures even the most pathetic guys like Shane of
their innate superiority over some “thing” usually addressed with multiple
Since 9/11, the further militarization of our already militarized culture has reached
new levels. Official America,
as embodied in our political system and national security state, now seems to
be thoroughly masculine, paranoid, quarrelsome, secretive, greedy, aggressive,
and violent. Readers familiar with “domestic violence” will recognize those
traits as equally descriptive of the average American wife beater: scared but
angry and aggressive, and feeling absolutely entitled to control something,
whether it’s just a woman, or a small country like Afghanistan.
Connecting the Dots
It was John Stuart Mill, writing in the nineteenth century, who
connected the dots between “domestic” and international violence. But he didn’t
use our absurdly gender-neutral, pale gray term “domestic violence.” He called
it “wife torture” or “atrocity,” and he recognized that torture
and atrocity are much the same, no matter where they take place -- whether
today in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Wardak Province, Afghanistan,
or a bedroom or basement in Ohio.
Arguing in 1869 against the subjection of women, Mill wrote that the Englishman’s habit of
household tyranny and “wife torture” established the pattern and practice for
his foreign policy. The tyrant at home becomes the tyrant at war. Home is the
training ground for the big games played overseas.
Mill believed that, in early times, strong men had used
force to enslave women and the majority of their fellow men. By the nineteenth
century, however, the “law of the strongest” seemed to him to have been
“abandoned” -- in England
at least -- “as the regulating principle of the world’s affairs.” Slavery had
been renounced. Only in the household did it continue to be practiced, though
wives were no longer openly enslaved but merely “subjected” to their husbands.
This subjection, Mill said, was the last vestige of the archaic “law of the
strongest,” and must inevitably fade away as reasonable men recognized its
barbarity and injustice. Of his own time, he wrote that “nobody professes” the
law of the strongest, and “as regards most of the relations between human
beings, nobody is permitted to practice it.”
Well, even a feminist may not be right about everything.
Times often change for the worse, and rarely has the law of the strongest been
more popular than it is in the United
States today. Routinely now we hear congressmen
declare that the U.S. is the
greatest nation in the world because it is the greatest military power in
history, just as presidents now regularly insist that the U.S. military is “the finest
fighting force in the history of the world.” Never mind that it rarely wins a
war. Few here question that primitive standard -- the law of the strongest --
as the measure of this America’s
The War Against Women
Mill, however, was right about the larger point: that
tyranny at home is the model for tyranny abroad. What he perhaps didn’t see was
the perfect reciprocity of the relationship that perpetuates the law of the
strongest both in the home and far away.
When tyranny and violence are practiced on a grand scale
in foreign lands, the practice also intensifies at home. As American militarism
went into overdrive after 9/11, it validated violence against women here, where
Republicans held up reauthorization of the Violence Against Women Act
(first passed in 1994), and celebrities who publicly assaulted their girlfriends faced no
consequences other than a deluge of sympathetic girl-fan tweets.
invasions abroad also validated violence within the U.S. military itself. An estimated
19,000 women soldiers were sexually assaulted in 2011; and an unknown number have been murdered by fellow soldiers who were, in many cases, their
husbands or boyfriends. A great deal of violence against women in the military,
from rape to murder, has been documented, only to be casually covered up by the chain of command.
Violence against civilian women here at home, on the
other hand, may not be reported or tallied at all, so the full extent of it
escapes notice. Men prefer to maintain the historical fiction that violence in
the home is a private matter, properly and legally concealed behind a
“curtain.” In this way is male impunity and tyranny maintained.
Women cling to a fiction of our own: that we are much
more “equal” than we are. Instead of confronting male violence, we still prefer
to lay the blame for it on individual women and girls who fall victim to it --
as if they had volunteered. But then, how to explain the dissonant fact that at
least one of every three female American soldiers is sexually
assaulted by a male “superior”? Surely that’s not what American women had in
mind when they signed up for the Marines or for Air Force flight training. In fact, lots of teenage girls
volunteer for the military precisely to escape violence and sexual abuse in
their childhood homes or streets.
Don’t get me wrong, military men are neither alone nor
out of the ordinary in terrorizing women. The broader American war against
women has intensified on many fronts here at home, right along with our wars
abroad. Those foreign wars have killed uncounted thousands of civilians, many
of them women and children, which could make the private battles of domestic
warriors like Shane here in the U.S. seem puny by comparison. But it would be a
mistake to underestimate the firepower of the Shanes of our American world. The
statistics tell us that a legal handgun has been the most popular means of dispatching a
wife, but when it comes to girlfriends, guys really get off on beating them to death.
Some 3,073 people were killed in the terrorist attacks on
the United States
on 9/11. Between that day and June 6, 2012, 6,488 U.S.
soldiers were killed in combat in Iraq
and Afghanistan, bringing
the death toll for America’s
war on terror at home and abroad to 9,561. During the same period, 11,766 women
were murdered in the United States by their husbands or
boyfriends, both military and civilian. The greater number of women killed here
at home is a measure of the scope and the furious intensity of the war against
women, a war that threatens to continue long after the misconceived war on
terror is history.
Getting the Picture
Think about Shane, standing there in a nondescript living
room in Ohio
screaming his head off like a little child who wants what he wants when he
wants it. Reportedly, he was trying to be a good guy and make a career as a
singer in a Christian rock band. But like the combat soldier in a foreign war
who is modeled after him, he uses violence to hold his life together and
accomplish his mission.
We know about Shane only because there happened to be a
photographer on the scene. Sara Naomi Lewkowicz had chosen to document the
story of Shane and his girlfriend Maggie out of sympathy for his situation as
an ex-con, recently released from prison yet not free of the stigma attached to
a man who had done time. Then, one night, there he was in the living room
throwing Maggie around, and Lewkowicz did what any good combat photographer
would do as a witness to history: she kept shooting. That action alone was a
kind of intervention and may have saved Maggie’s life.
In the midst of the violence, Lewkowicz also dared to
snatch from Shane’s pocket her own cell phone, which he had borrowed earlier.
It’s unclear whether she passed the phone to someone else or made the 911 call
herself. The police arrested Shane, and a smart policewoman told Maggie: “You
know, he’s not going to stop. They never stop. They usually stop when they kill
Maggie did the right thing. She gave the police a
statement. Shane is back in prison. And Lewkowicz’s remarkable photographs were posted online on February 27th at Time
magazine’s website feature Lightbox under the heading “Photographer
As Witness: A Portrait of Domestic Violence.”
The photos are remarkable because the photographer is
very good and the subject of her attention is so rarely caught on camera.
Unlike warfare covered in Iraq
by embedded combat photographers, wife torture takes place mostly behind closed
doors, unannounced and unrecorded. The first photographs of wife torture to
appear in the U.S.
were Donna Ferrato’s now iconic images of violence against women at home.
Like Lewkowicz, Ferrato came upon wife torture by chance;
she was documenting a marriage in 1980 when the happy husband chose to beat up
his wife. Yet so reluctant were photo editors to pull aside the curtain of
domestic privacy that even after Ferrato became a Life photographer in
1984, pursuing the same subject, nobody, including Life, wanted to
publish the shocking images she produced.
In 1986, six years after she witnessed that first
assault, some of her photographs of violence against women in the home were
published in the Philadelphia Inquirer, and brought her the 1987 Robert
F. Kennedy journalism award “for outstanding coverage of the problems of the
disadvantaged.” In 1991, Aperture, the publisher of distinguished photography
books, brought out Ferrato’s eye-opening body of work as Living with the Enemy (for which I wrote an introduction).
Since then, the photos have been widely reproduced. Timeused
a Ferrato image on its cover in 1994, when the murder of Nicole Brown Simpson
briefly drew attention to what the magazine called “the epidemic of domestic
abuse” and Lightbox featured a small retrospective of her domestic violence work on June 27, 2012.
Ferrato herself started a foundation, offering her work
to women’s groups across the country to exhibit at fundraisers for local
shelters and services. Those photo exhibitions also helped raise consciousness
and certainly contributed to smarter, less misogynistic police procedures of
the kind that put Shane back in jail.
Ferrato’s photos were incontrovertible evidence of the
violence in our homes, rarely acknowledged and never before so plainly seen.
Yet until February 27th, when with Ferrato’s help, Sara Naomi Lewkowicz’s
photos were posted on Lightbox only two months after they were taken,
Ferrato’s photos were all we had. We needed more. So there was every reason for
Lewkowicz’s work to be greeted with acclaim by photographers and women
Instead, in more than 1,700 comments posted at Lightbox,
photographer Lewkowicz was mainly castigated for things like not dropping her
camera and taking care to get Maggie’s distraught two-year-old daughter out of
the room or singlehandedly stopping the assault. (Need it be said that stopping
combat is not the job of combat photographers?)
Maggie, the victim of this felonious assault, was also
mercilessly denounced: for going out with Shane in the first place, for failing
to foresee his violence, for “cheating” on her already estranged husband fighting
and inexplicably for being a “perpetrator.” Reviewing the commentary for the Columbia
Journalism Review, Jina Moore concluded, “[T]here’s one thing all the critics seem to agree
on: The only adult in the house not responsible for the violence is the
man committing it.”
They Only Stop When They Kill You
Viewers of these photographs -- photos that accurately
reflect the daily violence so many women face -- seem to find it easy to
ignore, or even praise, the raging man behind it all. So, too, do so many find
it convenient to ignore the violence that America’s warriors abroad inflict
under orders on a mass scale upon women and children in war zones.
invasion and occupation of Iraq
had the effect of displacing millions from their homes within the country or driving them into exile in foreign lands. Rates of rape and
atrocity were staggering, as I learned firsthand when in 2008-2009 I spent time
in Syria, Jordan, and Lebanon talking with Iraqi refugees. In addition, those women who
remain in Iraq now live
under the rule of conservative Islamists, heavily influenced by Iran. Under the
former secular regime, Iraqi women were considered the most advanced in the
Arab world; today, they say they have been set back a century.
too, while Americans take credit for putting women back in the workplace and
girls in school, untold thousands of women and children have been displaced
internally, many to makeshift camps on the outskirts of Kabul where 17 children froze to death last January. The U.N. reported
2,754 civilian deaths and 4,805 civilian injuries as a result of the war in
2012, the majority of them women and children. In a country without a state
capable of counting bodies, these are undoubtedly significant undercounts. A
U.N. official said, “It is the tragic reality that most Afghan women and
girls were killed or injured while engaging in their everyday activities.”
Thousands of women in Afghan cities have been forced into survival sex, as were
Iraqi women who fled as refugees to Beirut and
That’s what male violence is meant to do to women. The
enemy. War itself is a kind of screaming tattooed man, standing in the middle
of a room -- or another country -- asserting the law of the strongest. It’s
like a reset button on history that almost invariably ensures women will find
themselves subjected to men in ever more terrible ways. It’s one more thing
that, to a certain kind of man, makes going to war, like good old-fashioned
wife torture, so exciting and so much fun.
Ann Jones, historian, journalist, photographer, and TomDispatch regular, chronicled violence against women in the
U.S. in several books, including the feminist classic Women Who Kill (1980) and Next Time, She’ll Be Dead (2000), before going to Afghanistan
in 2002 to work with women. She is the author of Kabul in Winter (2006) and War Is Not Over When It’s Over (2010).
Copyright 2013 Ann Jones
Image by CMY Kane, licensed under Creative Commons.
2/4/2013 12:54:16 PM
This post originally appeared at TomDispatch.
For more than half a
century, Noam Chomsky has been a relentless voice for justice, democracy, and
universal human rights. Having revolutionized modern linguistics in the 1950s,
Chomsky turned his attention to the Vietnam War in the following decade, and has
since authored dozens of books on activism, propaganda, and American foreign
and domestic policy. Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT
Department of Linguistics and Philosophy, where he has worked and taught since
1955. His latest book, Occupy, appeared
in May 2012. Chomsky was a named an Utne Visionary in 1995.
[This piece is adapted from “Uprisings,” a
chapter in Power Systems: Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New
Challenges to U.S. Empire, Noam Chomsky’s new interview book with David Barsamian (with thanks to
the publisher, Metropolitan Books). The questions are Barsamian’s, the answers
Does the United States
still have the same level of control over the energy resources of theMiddle East as it once had?
The major energy-producing countries are
still firmly under the control of the Western-backed dictatorships. So,
actually, the progress made by the Arab Spring is limited, but it’s not
insignificant. The Western-controlled dictatorial system is eroding. In fact,
it’s been eroding for some time. So, for example, if you go back 50 years, the
energy resources -- the main concern of U.S. planners -- have been mostly
nationalized. There are constantly attempts to reverse that, but they have not
Take the U.S.
invasion of Iraq,
for example. To everyone except a dedicated ideologue, it was pretty obvious
that we invaded Iraq not because of our love of democracy but because it’s
maybe the second- or third-largest source of oil in the world, and is right in
the middle of the major energy-producing region. You’re not supposed to say
this. It’s considered a conspiracy theory.
States was seriously defeated in Iraq by Iraqi
nationalism -- mostly by nonviolent resistance. The United States could kill the
insurgents, but they couldn’t deal with half a million people demonstrating in
the streets. Step by step, Iraq
was able to dismantle the controls put in place by the occupying forces. By
November 2007, it was becoming pretty clear that it was going to be very hard
to reach U.S.
goals. And at that point, interestingly, those goals were explicitly stated. So
in November 2007 the Bush II administration came out with an official
declaration about what any future arrangement with Iraq would have to be. It had two
major requirements: one, that the United States
must be free to carry out combat operations from its military bases, which it
will retain; and two, “encouraging the flow of foreign investments to Iraq,
especially American investments.” In January 2008, Bush made this clear in one
of his signing statements. A couple of months later, in the face of Iraqi
resistance, the United
States had to give that up. Control of Iraq is now
disappearing before their eyes.
Iraq was an attempt to reinstitute by force something
like the old system of control, but it was beaten back. In general, I think, U.S. policies
remain constant, going back to the Second World War. But the capacity to
implement them is declining.
Declining because of economic weakness?
Partly because the world is just becoming
more diverse. It has more diverse power centers. At the end of the Second World
War, the United States
was absolutely at the peak of its power. It had half the world’s wealth and
every one of its competitors was seriously damaged or destroyed. It had a
position of unimaginable security and developed plans to essentially run the
world -- not unrealistically at the time.
This was called “Grand Area” planning?
Yes. Right after the Second World War,
George Kennan, head of the U.S. State Department policy planning staff, and
others sketched out the details, and then they were implemented. What’s
happening now in the Middle East and North Africa, to an extent, and in South America substantially goes all the way back to the
late 1940s. The first major successful resistance to U.S. hegemony was in 1949. That’s
when an event took place, which, interestingly, is called “the loss of China.” It’s a
very interesting phrase, never challenged. There was a lot of discussion about
who is responsible for the loss of China. It became a huge domestic
issue. But it’s a very interesting phrase. You can only lose something if you
own it. It was just taken for granted: we possess China
-- and if they move toward independence, we’ve lost China. Later came concerns about
“the loss of Latin America,” “the loss of the Middle East,”
“the loss of” certain countries, all based on the premise that we own the world
and anything that weakens our control is a loss to us and we wonder how to
if you read, say, foreign policy journals or, in a farcical form, listen to the
Republican debates, they’re asking, “How do we prevent further losses?”
On the other hand, the capacity to preserve
control has sharply declined. By 1970, the world was already what was called
tripolar economically, with a U.S.-based North American industrial center, a
German-based European center, roughly comparable in size, and a Japan-based East
Asian center, which was then the most dynamic growth region in the world. Since
then, the global economic order has become much more diverse. So it’s harder to
carry out our policies, but the underlying principles have not changed much.
Take the Clinton doctrine. The Clinton
doctrine was that the United
States is entitled to resort to unilateral
force to ensure “uninhibited access to key markets, energy supplies, and
strategic resources.” That goes beyond anything that George W. Bush said. But
it was quiet and it wasn’t arrogant and abrasive, so it didn’t cause much of an
uproar. The belief in that entitlement continues right to the present. It’s
also part of the intellectual culture.
Right after the assassination of Osama bin
Laden, amid all the cheers and applause, there were a few critical comments
questioning the legality of the act. Centuries ago, there used to be something
called presumption of innocence. If you apprehend a suspect, he’s a suspect
until proven guilty. He should be brought to trial. It’s a core part of
American law. You can trace it back to Magna Carta. So there were a couple of
voices saying maybe we shouldn’t throw out the whole basis of Anglo-American
law. That led to a lot of very angry and infuriated reactions, but the most
interesting ones were, as usual, on the left liberal end of the spectrum.
Matthew Yglesias, a well-known and highly respected left liberal commentator,
wrote an article in which he ridiculed these views. He said they’re “amazingly
naive,” silly. Then he expressed the reason. He said that “one of the main
functions of the international institutional order is precisely to legitimate
the use of deadly military force by western powers.” Of course, he didn’t mean Norway. He
meant the United States.
So the principle on which the international system is based is that the United States
is entitled to use force at will. To talk about the United States violating
international law or something like that is amazingly naive, completely silly.
Incidentally, I was the target of those remarks, and I’m happy to confess my
guilt. I do think that Magna Carta and international law are worth paying some
I merely mention that to illustrate that in
the intellectual culture, even at what’s called the left liberal end of the
political spectrum, the core principles haven’t changed very much. But the
capacity to implement them has been sharply reduced. That’s why you get all
this talk about American decline. Take a look at the year-end issue of Foreign
Affairs, the main
establishment journal. Its big front-page cover asks, in bold face, “Is America
Over?” It’s a standard complaint of those who believe they should have
everything. If you believe you should have everything and anything gets away
from you, it’s a tragedy, the world is collapsing. So is America over? A
long time ago we “lost” China,
we’ve lost Southeast Asia, we’ve lost South America.
Maybe we’ll lose the Middle East and North
African countries. Is America
over? It’s a kind of paranoia, but it’s the paranoia of the superrich and the
superpowerful. If you don’t have everything, it’s a disaster.
The New York
Times describes the “defining policy quandary of the Arab Spring: how to square
contradictory American impulses that include support for democratic change, a
desire for stability, and wariness of Islamists who have become a potent
political force.” The Times identifies three U.S.
goals. What do you make of them?
Two of them are accurate. The United States
is in favor of stability. But you have to remember what stability means.
Stability means conformity to U.S.
orders. So, for example, one of the charges against Iran,
the big foreign policy threat, is that it is destabilizing Iraq and Afghanistan. How? By trying to
expand its influence into neighboring countries. On the other hand, we
“stabilize” countries when we invade them and destroy them.
I’ve occasionally quoted one of my favorite
illustrations of this, which is from a well-known, very good liberal foreign
policy analyst, James Chace, a former editor of Foreign Affairs. Writing about the overthrow of the
Salvador Allende regime and the imposition of the dictatorship of Augusto
Pinochet in 1973, he said that we had to “destabilize” Chile in the
interests of “stability.” That’s not perceived to be a contradiction -- and it
isn’t. We had to destroy the parliamentary system in order to gain stability,
meaning that they do what we say. So yes, we are in favor of stability in this
Concern about political Islam is just like
concern about any independent development. Anything that’s independent you have
to have concern about because it might undermine you. In fact, it’s a little
ironic, because traditionally the United States
have by and large strongly supported radical Islamic fundamentalism, not
political Islam, as a force to block secular nationalism, the real concern. So,
for example, Saudi Arabia
is the most extreme fundamentalist state in the world, a radical Islamic state.
It has a missionary zeal, is spreading radical Islam to Pakistan,
funding terror. But it’s the bastion of U.S. and British policy. They’ve
consistently supported it against the threat of secular nationalism from Gamal
Abdel Nasser’s Egypt and Abd
al-Karim Qasim’s Iraq,
among many others. But they don’t like political Islam because it might become
The first of the three points, our yearning
for democracy, that’s about on the level of Joseph Stalin talking about the
Russian commitment to freedom, democracy, and liberty for the world. It’s the
kind of statement you laugh about when you hear it from commissars or Iranian
clerics, but you nod politely and maybe even with awe when you hear it from
their Western counterparts.
If you look at the record, the yearning for
democracy is a bad joke. That’s even recognized by leading scholars, though
they don’t put it this way. One of the major scholars on so-called democracy
promotion is Thomas Carothers, who is pretty conservative and highly regarded
-- a neo-Reaganite, not a flaming liberal. He worked in Reagan’s State
Department and has several books reviewing the course of democracy promotion,
which he takes very seriously. He says, yes, this is a deep-seated American
ideal, but it has a funny history. The history is that every U.S.
administration is “schizophrenic.” They support democracy only if it conforms
to certain strategic and economic interests. He describes this as a strange
pathology, as if the United
States needed psychiatric treatment or
something. Of course, there’s another interpretation, but one that can’t come
to mind if you’re a well-educated, properly behaved intellectual.
Within several months of the toppling of [President Hosni] Mubarak in Egypt, he was
in the dock facing criminal charges and prosecution. It’s inconceivable that U.S. leaders will ever be held to account for
their crimes in Iraq
or beyond. Is that going to change anytime soon?
That’s basically the Yglesias principle:
the very foundation of the international order is that the United States
has the right to use violence at will. So how can you charge anybody?
And no one else has that right.
Of course not. Well, maybe our clients do.
If Israel invades Lebanon and
kills a thousand people and destroys half the country, okay, that’s all right.
It’s interesting. Barack Obama was a senator before he was president. He didn’t
do much as a senator, but he did a couple of things, including one he was
particularly proud of. In fact, if you looked at his website before the
primaries, he highlighted the fact that, during the Israeli invasion of Lebanon
in 2006, he cosponsored a Senate resolution demanding that the United States do
nothing to impede Israel’s military actions until they had achieved their
objectives and censuring Iran and Syria because they were supporting resistance
to Israel’s destruction of southern Lebanon, incidentally, for the fifth time
in 25 years. So they inherit the right. Other clients do, too.
But the rights really reside in Washington. That’s what
it means to own the world. It’s like the air you breathe. You can’t question
it. The main founder of contemporary IR [international relations] theory, Hans
Morgenthau, was really quite a decent person, one of the very few political
scientists and international affairs specialists to criticize the Vietnam War
on moral, not tactical, grounds. Very rare. He wrote a book called The Purpose
of American Politics. You already know what’s coming. Other countries don’t have purposes. The
purpose of America,
on the other hand, is “transcendent”: to bring freedom and justice to the rest
of the world. But he’s a good scholar, like Carothers. So he went through the
record. He said, when you study the record, it looks as if the United States
hasn’t lived up to its transcendent purpose. But then he says, to criticize our
transcendent purpose “is to fall into the error of atheism, which denies the
validity of religion on similar grounds” -- which is a good comparison. It’s a
deeply entrenched religious belief. It’s so deep that it’s going to be hard to
disentangle it. And if anyone questions that, it leads to near hysteria and
often to charges of anti-Americanism or “hating America” -- interesting concepts
that don’t exist in democratic societies, only in totalitarian societies and
here, where they’re just taken for granted.
Noam Chomsky is Institute Professor Emeritus in the MIT Department of
Linguistics and Philosophy. A
, he is the author
of numerous best-selling political works, including recently
Hopes and Prospects
Making the Future. This piece
is adapted from the chapter “Uprisings” in his newest book (with interviewer
David Barsamian), Power Systems:
Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S.
Empire (The American
Empire Project, Metropolitan Books).
Excerpted from Power Systems:
Conversations on Global Democratic Uprisings and the New Challenges to U.S.
Empire,published this month by Metropolitan Books,
an imprint of Henry Holt and Company, LLC. Copyright (c) 2013 by Noam Chomsky
and David Barsamian. All rights reserved.
Image of Egyptian protesters in Tahrir Square demanding a free Palestine by Gigi Ibrahim, licensed under Creative Commons.
1/18/2013 2:49:41 PM
This post originally appeared at ZNet.org.
When the Palestinian leadership won
their upgrade to non-member observer status at the United Nations in November,
plenty of sceptics on both sides of the divide questioned what practical
benefits would accrue to the Palestinians. The doubters have not been silenced
Palestinian Authority President
Mahmoud Abbas has done little to capitalise on his diplomatic success. There
have been vague threats to "isolate" Israel,
hesitant talk of "not ruling out" a referral to the International
Criminal Court, and a low-key declaration by the Palestinian Authority of the
new "state of Palestine".
At a time when Palestinians hoped for
a watershed moment in their struggle for national liberation, the Fatah and
Hamas leaderships look as mutually self-absorbed as ever. Last week they were
again directing their energies into a new round of reconciliation talks, this
time in Cairo,
rather than keeping the spotlight on Israeli intransigence.
So instead, it was left to a group of
250 ordinary Palestinians to show how the idea of a "state of Palestine" might be
given practical meaning. On Friday, they set up a tent encampment that they
intended to convert into a new Palestinian village called Bab al-Shams, or Gate
of the Sun.
On Sunday, in a sign of how disturbed
is by such acts of popular Palestinian resistance, Israeli prime minister
Benjamin Netanyahu had the occupants removed in a dawn raid -- despite the fact
that his own courts had issued a six-day injunction against the government’s
Intriguingly, the Palestinian
activists not only rejected their own leaders’ softly-softly approach but also
chose to mirror the tactics of the hardcore settlers.
First, they declared they were
creating “facts on the ground”, having understood, it seems, that this is the
only language Israel
speaks or understands. Then, they selected the most contentious spot imaginable
for Israel: the centre of
the so-called E-1 corridor, 13 square-kilometres of undeveloped land between
East Jerusalem and Israel's
strategic city-settlement of Maale Adumim in the West Bank.
For more than a decade, Israel has been planning to build its own
settlement in E-1, though on a vastly bigger scale, to finish the encirclement
of East Jerusalem, cutting off the future capital of a Palestinian state from
the West Bank.
had stayed Israel's
hand, understanding that completion in E-1 would signal to the world and the
Palestinians the end of a two-state solution. But following the UN vote,
Netanyahu announced plans to build an additional 4,000 settler homes there as
punishment for the Palestinians' impertinence.
The comparison between the Bab
al-Shams activists and the settlers should not be extended too far. One obvious
difference is that the Palestinians were building on their own land, whereas Israel is breaking international law in allowing
hundreds of thousands of settlers to move into the West
Another is that Israel’s
response towards the two groups was preordained to be different. This is
especially clear in relation to what Israel
itself calls the “illegal outposts” -- more than 100 micro-settlements, similar
to Bab al-Shams, set up by hardcore settlers since the mid-1990s, after Israel promised the US it would not authorise any new
Despite an obligation to dismantle
the outposts, successive Israeli governments have allowed them to flourish. In
practice, within days of the first caravans appearing on a West
Bank hilltop officials hook up the “outposts” to electricity and
water, build them access roads and redirect bus routes to include them. The
spread of the settlements and outposts has been leading inexorably to Israel’s de facto annexation of most of the West Bank.
In stark contrast, all access to Bab
al-Shams was blocked within hours of the tents going up and the next day
Netanyahu had the site declared a closed military zone. As soon as the Jewish
Sabbath was over, troops massed around the camp. Early on Sunday morning they
Netanyahu was clearly afraid to allow
any delay. Palestinians started using social media over the weekend to plan
mass rallies at road-blocks leading to the camp site.
However futile the activists' efforts
prove to be on this occasion, the encampment indicates that ordinary
Palestinians are better placed to find inventive ways to embarrass Israel than the
hidebound Palestinian leadership.
Senior PLO official Hanan Ashrawi
extolled the activists for their "highly creative and legitimate
nonviolent tool" to protect Palestinian land. But the failure of PA
officials, including Saeb Erekat, to make it to the site before it was cordoned
off by Israel
only heightened the impression of a leadership too slow and unimaginative to
respond to events.
By establishing Bab al-Shams, the
activists visibly demonstrated the apartheid nature of Israel’s rule
in the occupied territories. Although one brief encampment is unlikely by
itself to change the dynamics of the conflict, it does show Palestinians that
there are ways they themselves can take the struggle to Israel.
Following the Israeli raid, that
point was made eloquently by Mohammed Khatib, one of the organisers. “In
establishing Bab al-Shams, we declare that we have had enough of demanding our
rights from the occupier -- from now on we shall seize them ourselves.”
That, of course, is also Netanyahu’s
great fear. The scenario his officials are reported to be most concerned about
is that this kind of popular mode of struggle becomes infectious. If
Palestinians see popular non-violent resistance, unlike endless diplomacy,
helping to awaken the world to their plight, there may be more Bab al-Shamses
-- and other surprises for Israel
-- around the corner.
It was precisely such thinking that
attorney-general, Yehuda Weinstein, to justify Netanyahu's violation of the
injunction on the grounds that the camp would “bring protests and riots with
national and international implications”.
What Bab al-Shams shows is that
ordinary Palestinians can take the fight for the “state of Palestine” to Israel
-- and even turn Israel’s own methods against it.
Jonathan Cook won the Martha Gellhorn
Special Prize for Journalism. His latest books are “Israel
and the Clash of Civilisations: Iraq,
Iran and the Plan to Remake
the Middle East” (Pluto Press) and “Disappearing Palestine:
Experiments in Human Despair” (Zed Books). His new website is www.jonathan-cook.net.
Image of the wall dividing East Jerusalem by Trocaire, licensed
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