Wednesday, November 02, 2011 2:59 PM
Many Americans, especially young Americans—those who came of age in the last three decades—have trouble associating terrorism with anything separate from those who carry out attacks in the name of Islam. This, writes Philip Jenkins in The American Conservative, is a product of a short national memory, one that forgets or dismisses the history of terrorism:
It’s remarkable to see how readily modern audiences credit suggestions about the novelty of international terrorism or its association with Islamist groups. Particularly startling is how thoroughly Americans have forgotten their own terrorist crisis of the mid-1970s.
Jenkins reminds readers of Abu Nidal—“as infamous in the 1970s and 1980s as Osama bin Laden has been in recent times”—who specialized in simultaneous attacks meant to keep his enemies discombobulated. With that in mind, one need look no further than the concurrent attacks on 9/11 and the confusion and speculation that followed to see Jenkins’ point that Nidal “wrote the playbook for al-Qaeda.” Far from carrying out attacks in the name of any religion, Nidal, Jenkins writes, “usually served Iraq’s secularist Ba’ath regime, which persecuted Islamists.”
Along with Nidal there have been terrorist organizations that run the gamut, “from Western anarchists and nihilists, from the Catholic IRA and Latin American urban guerrillas, from Communists and fascists, from Zionist Jews and Sri Lankan Hindus” and those who owe “much to the Marxist tradition—to Lenin, Guevara, and Mao—and next to nothing to Muslims.” And most of the tactics used today can be traced back to organizations having nothing to do with Islam. “Think for instance,” Jenkins writes,
of those unspeakable al-Qaeda videos depicting the ritualized execution of hostages in Iraq and elsewhere. To quote Olivier Roy, one of the most respected European scholars of Islamist terrorism, these videos are “a one-to-one re-enactment of the execution of Aldo Moro by the Red Brigades [in Italy in 1978], with the organization’s banner and logo in the background, the hostage hand-cuffed and blind-folded, the mock trial with the reading of the sentence and the execution.”
Pointing to one race, color, or creed as exclusively holding the reigns of terror forgets the long history of modern terrorist tactics, fed by every type of human imaginable. Jenkins’ essay is a humbling read for anyone who has forgotten this history, or who never knew it, and one that reminds us just how short our memories can be.
Source: The American Conservative
Image by mattlemmon, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, November 01, 2011 3:16 PM
As I write this, the FBI has yet to confirm that Abdisalan Hussein Ali, a 22 year-old man born in Somalia and raised in Minneapolis, Minnesota, was one of two suicide bombers who killed at least 10 people in Mogadishu on October 29. According to a piece in the New York Times published a day later and an update posted by Minneapolis Star Tribune reporter Allie Shah the morning of November 1, however, circumstantial evidence is mounting to suggest a connection between Abdisalan Hussein and the bombing, which is linked to Somalia’s Shabab rebels.
Regardless how the story turns out (the FBI says it will have DNA tests completed insude two weeks), Abdisalan Hussein did disappear in 2008 and, according to the Times, was “known by the F.B.I. to be one of an estimated 30 Americans who have joined the Shabab, at least 20 of whom came from the Somali community in Minneapolis.” What’s more, Allie Shah reports, “to date, the FBI has confirmed that two suicide bombers in Somalia came from Minnesota,” which has the largest Somali population in the U.S. (over 60,000 according to the latest estimates).
The first of those bombers, Shirwa Ahmed of Minneapolis, drove an SUV packed with explosives into an intelligence office in Bossaso, a port city in the Somali state of Puntland, killing at least five people in October, 2008. Believed by the FBI to be the first U.S. citizen to carry out a suicide bombing on foreign soil, Shirwa Ahmed is the subject of a must-read story from Virginia Quarterly Review, which is excerpted in the May-June 2010 issue of Utne Reader.
Author Nicholas Shmidle tracks Shirwa Ahmed’s tragic trajectory from refugee to Minnesota high school student to terrorist recruit and, in the process, helps the reader understand the challenges and temptations that face Somali-born men struggling both to assimilate and stay connected to their war torn homeland. (As the Times points out, “many Somali-Americans have returned, not to fight, but to help rebuild the country, including the current prime minister and his predecessor.”)
“Paul Gill, a lecturer and terrorism expert a that University College in Dublin, believes that group psychology oftentimes provides a better template for understanding terrorism recruitment than religion does,” Shmidle writes. “When it comes to suicide bombers, ‘the group becomes the primary source of sustenance. It becomes more about group in-love than about hating America or hating the West,’ Gill told me. ‘It’s much like joining the marines or becoming a member of a football club: It’s hard to back out once you’re in.’ ”
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Thursday, September 15, 2011 4:32 PM
As we were reminded ad nauseam on every media platform for a week, the mass murders committed on 9/11 continue to have an incalculable impact on foreign relations, world economics, and the broader culture. It’s a certainty the same will be true for decades to come. And while you may feel as though the event and aftermath has been covered from every conceivable angle (including pieces on how the attacks affected professional athletics and may have led to America’s latest recession), a just released, essential collection of essays go beyond the strained headlines and over-boiled melodrama.
The book, Transforming Terror: Remembering the Soul of the World (University of California Press), functions neither as a political autopsy nor an emotional anthology. Instead, it examines the tragedy from a philosophical distance that, while far from dispassionate, forces readers to consider the unintentional causes and subconscious effects of violence, both individual and collective.
The eight chapters, written by over 100 visionary thinkers who span generations and transcend borders ethnic (Federico García Lorca, Reza Baraheni), religious (Deepak Chopra, Rabbi Arthur Waskow), and political (Chris Hedges, Henry Kissinger), are strategically broken into two parts. The first takes a “Deeper Look” at the origins of fear and consequences of grief while convincingly establishing the editors’ broad definition of terrorism, which includes acts of aggression against any unarmed civilian, no matter the perpetrator. The ruminations in the second section, “Paths to Transformation,” demand unedited honesty, empathy for all, and raw self-reflection, all essential in the quest of equal peace and meaningful justice.
Given last week’s media blitz, no one could be blamed for wanting to take a deep breath and little down time before diving into such a collection. Keep it on your reading list, though, as the latest anniversary fades and the popular narrative around 9/11 further simplifies the complicated causes and horrific effects. Both historical distillation and timeless psychological treatise, Transforming Terror rivets and moves because it dares to recognize 9/11 not just as a painful tragedy, but an unwelcome opportunity.
Image by Bennett 4 Senate, licensed under Creative Commons.
Tuesday, June 28, 2011 11:51 AM
I watch a lot of environmental documentary films, and it’s usually quite clear whose “side” the filmmaker is on—the same one as me, of course. In one sense, this is perfectly understandable: Powerful people and institutions that trash the environment are more likely to use lobbyists, front groups, and PR wizards, not earnest documentaries, to spread their views. Big Coal, Big Oil, and Big Timber take their agenda straight to the halls of power, not to art houses and film fests.
The unfortunate result is that environmental documentary genre can be ripe for groupthink and complacency, and occasionally I find myself refreshed to see a doc that forces viewers to challenge their own preconceptions and opinions. If a Tree Falls, currently playing in theaters, is one such film. It follows the case of Daniel McGowan, a former Earth Liberation Front (ELF) member who is serving a seven-year sentence on federal terrorism charges for his role in two arsons, one at a logging firm and another at a facility that activists falsely believed was growing genetically engineered trees. No one was injured or killed in the arsons, yet the government pursued this “eco-terrorism” case as vigorously as it goes after Islamic militant cells that have openly stated their murderous intentions.
McGowan gets plenty of screen time, and he comes off as an amiable and articulate nonviolent activist caught up in the draconian anti-terrorism laws of post-9/11 America. But filmmaker Marshall Curry also talks to the owner of the burned-down logging company, the law enforcers who nabbed McGowan, and McGowan’s hard-bitten Irish cop father, who shares few of his son’s radical views. Curry also interviews green activists who became government informants against their peers in order to save their own skins. The end product is a well-rounded portrait that humanizes McGowan without excusing his more extreme actions or painting him as a flawless hero. The notable thing is that the film also humanizes his fellow activists, his parents, and his legal foes, acknowledging that conflicting opinions and emotions come with this complicated territory. Not everything is as clear-cut as the wilderness that McGowan is so committed to saving.
The British environmental magazine The Ecologist has an interview with Marshall Curry that explains a bit about how this remarkable and moving film came together. For starters, he basically happened across his subject: Curry’s wife works at the office where McGowan was arrested.
As Curry tells The Ecologist, “I actually didn’t know anything about the ELF beside very cursory things I’d seen on TV. My wife runs a domestic violence organization in Brooklyn and came home from work one day and told me that four federal agents had walked in to her office and arrested one of her employees. It was Daniel McGowan—I knew him a bit, he was the opposite of someone who’d be facing life in prison for domestic terrorism would look or act like. I was interested and decided to jump in.”
Curry’s fair-mindedness ultimately does a great service to his film, to judge from the reactions he’s gotten. He says, “When you work on something in an edit room with just a couple of other people, you never know how it is going to be received. It was really important to us that it reflect the complexities of the case. We’ve been happy to see that the prosecutor, the detective, and the police captain—they’ve all seen it and feel like it’s an important and accurate story. Similarly, Daniel’s family and the spokesman for the ELF say the same thing.”
Watch the trailer for If a Tree Falls here:
Source: The Ecologist
Monday, May 02, 2011 1:21 PM
The news of Osama bin Laden’s death came as a surprise to most people around the world. And while there are still many questions to be answered, we have found interesting takes from those we turn to at times like these. Here are just a few.
UPDATED: 5/6/11: Al Qaeda has confirmed the death of bin Laden, according to National Post, and “vowed revenge on the United States and its allies, including Pakistan.” Not too surprising . . . Here is just a little bit more taken from an Islamist Internet forum: “It will remain, with permission from God Almighty, a curse that hunts the Americans and their collaborators and chase them outside and inside their country.”
UPDATED: 5/5/11: Tom Engelhardt of TomDispatchlooks at bin Laden’s legacy: a changed America, not a changed Middle East.
It was our misfortune and Osama bin Laden’s good luck that Washington’s dreams were not those of a global policeman intent on bringing a criminal operation to justice, but of an imperial power whose leaders wanted to lock the oil heartlands of the planet into a Pax Americana for decades to come. So if you’re writing bin Laden's obituary right now, describe him as a wizard who used the 9/11 attacks to magnify his meager powers many times over.
After all, while he only had the ability to launch major operations every couple of years, Washington -- with almost unlimited amounts of money, weapons, and troops at its command -- was capable of launching operations every day. In a sense, after 9/11, Bin Laden commanded Washington by taking possession of its deepest fears and desires, the way a bot takes over a computer, and turning them to his own ends.
UPDATED: 5/5/11: Steve Chapman, writing for Reason, has this to say:
Responding to attacks or perceived threats with irresistible force is America's strength—as the Taliban, Saddam Hussein, and bin Laden learned. Our weakness is what comes after: reconstructing defeated countries as stable, democratic states.
It's a much tougher undertaking, requiring far more money, knowledge, and patience than Americans can muster. We rouse ourselves to ambitious tasks when adversaries challenge us. But as soon as we've taken one down, we lose interest.
UPDATED: 5/4/11: Christopher Hayes at The Nation looks at how the term “bad guys” worked itself into our national conversation following 9/11. Using the term, Hayes argues, is a rejection of mature thought and an acceptance of a childlike view of the world. He hopes the death of bin Laden will allow us to “return to the world as our adult eyes see it, shot through with suffering and complexity.”
We can feel compassion for the thousands of innocents who died by bin Laden’s hand as well as our own, caught in the wrong place at the wrong time in places like Bagram and Baghdad. We can remember that just because there is evil in the world that we are fighting—and bin Laden was a mass murderer and war criminal—that does not mean we are purely righteous.
UPDATED: 5/3/11: Chris Good at The Atlantic examines the politics of the language used to talk about Bin Laden and the post-9/11 “war on terror.” He notes:
During his time in office, Obama has sought to do away with Bush-era terminology. His Department of Homeland Security stopped using the phrase “Global War on Terror,” which President Bush coined after 9/11, and replaced them with the term “Countering Violent Extremism.” For this, Obama and Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano took some criticism.
When he announced bin Laden’s death Sunday night, Obama made no mention of “radical,” “extremism,” “war,” or “Islam,” except to note that: “…we must also reaffirm that the United States is not—and never will be—at war with Islam….” House Republicans, by contrast, used all those words Monday afternoon as they reacted to the news in a press conference at the Capitol.
UPDATED: 5/3/11: Jessa Crispin of Bookslut fame looks to an old comic strip to give her comfort from her annoyance toward the responses to bin Laden’s death.
Yesterday, after waking up to the news of bin Laden’s death, I started reading Get Your War On again from the beginning. The comic now exists as an online archive and a two-volume collection. I still marvel at it, a little. When I’m worked up and angry about politics, I turn into a sputtering child. In arguments with my Fox News-watching family members, my side of things degrade into, “Yeah, well, what do you know?” Rees managed to articulate righteous anger and despair, and reading his work is still weirdly comforting.
UPDATED, 5/3/11: Associate Editor Peter Gabel and Founding Editor Rabbi Michael Lerner give Tikkun’s spiritual response to the assassination. First Gabel writes:
Never should the killing of a human being be an occasion for such celebration — even in circumstances that involve actual self-defense against mortal danger. Not only does such a raucous display of pleasure in response to the killing of another disrespect the sacredness of every human life; it also inherently undermines the moral character and worthiness of those responsible for the death itself.
Lerner follows with a short statement addressing what the Jewish tradition says about killing murderous foes.
[W]hen we do the Seder on Passover and recite the plagues that were used against the Egyptians to get them to free the Jews, we put our finger in the cup of wine, symbolic of our joy, and dip out a drop of wine for each plague — this symbolizes that our cup of joy cannot be full if our own liberation requires the death of those who were part of the oppressor society….
The task of spiritual progressives at this moment is to reaffirm a different consciousness — to remind ourselves that we are inextricably bound to each other and to everyone on the planet.
Adam Weinstein at Mother Jones notices similarities in the responses coming from bin Laden’s supporters and President Obama’s detractors:
“I will wait for the Mujahideen to confirm this, and will not believe until I see a picture of his dead body,” wrote one jihadi sympathizer on Islamic Awakening (IA)—one of several such forums provided to Mother Jones by Aaron Y. Zelin, a researcher at Brandeis University who tracks online militant activities on the website Jihadology.net.
This sentiment, and many others by Islamists, were echoed by conservative detractors of the president. “Obama can claim what ever he wants but his word is no good,” wrote one commenter on the right-wing site Free Republic. “Without proof that Osama is dead and staying dead, I don’t have to believe anything he says.”
Paul Waldman at The American Prospect wonders “Can Bin Laden’s Death Make Us Dial Back the Crazy?”
We may not know for a time what effect Bin Laden’s killing has on Al Qaeda as an organization (or a movement, or however it could be described these days). But we can at least hope that this event can help us be a little more sane about terrorism.
David Sirota (who has a piece in the most recent issue of Utne Reader) writing for Salon thinks that all the celebrations and chants of “USA! USA!” following the news of bin Laden’s death actually give him his most “enduring victory”:
This is bin Laden’s lamentable victory: He has changed America’s psyche from one that saw violence as a regrettable-if-sometimes-necessary act into one that finds orgasmic euphoria in news of bloodshed. In other words, he’s helped drag us down into his sick nihilism by making us like too many other bellicose societies in history—the ones that aggressively cheer on killing, as long as it is the Bad Guy that is being killed.
How many ways can you say Osama Bin Laden is dead? Not many, to judge from the selection of newspaper front pages posted on Jim Romenesko’s media blog at Poynter.org—although the East Coast tabloids eagerly worked the dancing-on-his-grave angle.
The Twitterverse was there first, reports Poynter’s Al Tompkins.
If Republicans are strangely dispassionate and Democrats openly gleeful about the news, what do the Libertarians think? In a press release, Libertarian Party Chairman Mark Hinkle says they’re glad to hear about bin Laden’s death—but eager to also see the “termination” of “the Department of Homeland Security, the TSA, the PATRIOT Act, warrantless wiretaps, the ‘state secrets’ doctrine, and other violations of Americans’ civil and economic rights.”
In “With Bin Laden Gone, Is the Jihadi Revolution Dead?” Mark Juergensmeyer, writing for Religion Dispatches, extends credit for undermining the jihadi insurrection beyond the U.S. forces that killed bin Laden.
The imagined war of the Bush era may indeed be over. And the jihadi insurrection associated with bin Laden and his al Qaeda organization may also be dead. But I suspect that the real perpetrators of their deaths may not have been the elite American military cadre some hours ago in Pakistan, but the legion of cell-phone toting protestors earlier this year in Tahrir Square. They have helped to complete the erosion of legitimacy that has undermined the jihadi activists in recent years within the Muslim world….
[T]he jihadi warriors may again have their day. For the moment, however, bin Laden is dead, and Tahrir Square has challenged both the strategic value and the moral legitimacy of the jihadi stance. The legion of young Muslim activists around the world have received a new standard for challenging the old order, and a new form of protest, one that discredits terrorism as the easy and ineffective path and chooses the tough and profitable road of nonviolence.
Fast Company offers an early analysis of the Obama administration’s global PR war:
[A]ll we’re left with is old images of Bin Laden, and the image of a stern, dignified President Obama. The latter presents a far more dignified, far less political image than any of the high-profile captures that have attended the War on Terror, inaugurated under George W. Bush. There is nothing there for Bin Laden’s cohort to twist and remix for their purposes. There is no whiff of American savagery, and no whiff of personal vendetta. Simply justice.
Source: Mother Jones, The American Prospect, Poynter, Religion Dispatches, Fast Company
Image by hodgers, licensed under Creative Commons.
Wednesday, December 22, 2010 12:26 PM
Many Republican politicians continue to cling to a science-defying denial of climate change. Meanwhile, writes Earth Island Journal, “Some of the most recognizable militants in the Islamic world … have recently made statements linking peace and stability with healthy ecosystems.”
We’re talking about people like Hezbollah guerilla leader Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah and terrorist majordomo Osama bin Laden. In October, writes Earth Island Journal, Nasrallah “took time out from his diatribes against the United States and Israel to deliver an environmentally themed stump speech.”
Reuters reported from the scene:
“The climate threat today,” the bespectacled cleric told his listeners, “is among the biggest threats faced by mankind in (terms of) its peace, security, stability and existence.”
Civic sense is not a strong point in Lebanon and it is not clear whether even Nasrallah can induce greener behavior on his compatriots, many of whom blithely toss litter from their cars.
But it was a striking theme for the leader of a militant Islamist armed movement, backed by Syria and Iran, and viewed by the United States as a terrorist organization.
Bin Laden, for his part, chimed in a week later, criticizing the official response to widespread flooding in Pakistan and linking the disaster to global warming. “The huge climate change is affecting our (Islamic) nation and is causing great catastrophes throughout the Islamic world,” bin Laden said, according to Reuters.
For greens trying to attract allies to their battle against climate change, these endorsements are a mixed blessing: On one hand, they signal a growing acceptance of current climate science even in unexpected quarters. On the other, do we want the wrong people on the right side of this issue? Doesn’t it make it a wee bit easier for climate-change deniers to paint greens as anti-American terrorist sympathizers?
Earth Island Journal speculates on where this could lead:
With enemies like these, maybe it’s time to update the tired post-9/11 sound bite: If the U.S. gives up on tackling global climate change … the terrorists win?
Sources: Earth Island Journal, Reuters
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Friday, December 03, 2010 6:29 PM
Three months after 9/11, 20 men deemed dangerous to America landed at the Guantánamo Bay Naval Base. In the nine-years since, nearly 800 detainees—often arrested without probable cause and held without being tried or even charged—have been jailed on the Cuban island. Some have been released, some have been tried, and some have committed suicide. And Carol Rosenberg, a reporter for the Miami Herald, has covered it all.
“Carol’s daily accounts are what you need to read to understand Guantánamo 101,” Karen Greenberg, executive director of New York University’s Center on Law and Security tells David Glenn, who wrote a profile about Rosenberg for Columbia Journalism Review that was published in November. “She’s still the only person who can contextualize what’s going on. Carol’s has been the consistent presence.”
She’s also a dogged daily reporter (an increasingly rare breed), who pushes back at the military’s efforts to limit information; files sharp, 1,000 word stories chronicling everything from the most mundane regulations to the most colorful detainees; and is completely uninterested in punditry. She isn’t even peddling a book. Instead, Rosenberg sleeps in the uncomfortable media tents at the Naval Base and cultivates her expanding list of sources, proving that institutional cooperation and feel good stories are not only unnecessary, but a waste of time.
“Reporters’ movements on the base are heavily stage-managed and during waking hours they’re almost never out of earshot of a public-affairs staff member,” Glenn writes. “Rosenberg has done much of her work here by gaining the trust of attorneys, guards, medical workers, and other personnel—and then finding way to communicate with them from Florida.”
Her scoops include a story about the Pentagon’s decision to create a joint task force to conduct interrogations at Guantánamo and a piece introducing Salim Hamdan, who, according to Glenn, “was one of the first detainees slated for trial before the Bush administration’s early military tribunals.”
It comes as no surprise, then, that Rosenberg’s tenure at the base has been threatened. In 2009, she was accused of unprofessional conduct and in May she was temporarily excised—along with three Canadian reporters—for allegedly violating a protective order. A few months later, she was given a First Amendment Award by the Society of Professional journalists.
“She’s a hard-ass. She’s tough as nails,” MSNBC contributor Bob Franken tells CJR. “But she doesn’t cut corners. The military sometimes seemed like they only wanted us to offer light color commentary and root for the home team, and Carol never played that game.”
Source: Columbia Journalism Review
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Monday, September 27, 2010 3:57 PM
When the FBI raided the homes of antiwar activists in Minneapolis and Chicago last week, the ensuing public reaction was notable for its stereophonic quality: The loudest cries of skepticism and outrage came from both left and right. Apparently, coffeehouse radicals and Tea Party supporters can agree that government agents breaking down doors at 7 a.m. to seize notes, computers and other potential tools of “terrorism” from a bunch of peace and justice activists seems like a serious case of state overreach.
“Government goons,” the Conservative Heritage Times called the door-kickers, while a lawyer for one of the accused told Antiwar.com, “This case is really scary.”
Of course, it’s impossible to shout “travesty of justice” with absolute righteousness until we find out exactly what the government’s case is, which will come after a grand jury assesses the evidence and decides whether to indict anyone. FBI officials have only said they’re seeking information related to support of “foreign terrorist organizations,” including the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia and the Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine.
But it’s worth noting that the FBI conducted similar raids on the eve on the 2008 Republican National Convention in St. Paul, only to downgrade the initial charges of “conspiracy to riot in furtherance of terrorism” against the “RNC 8,” as they’ve become known, and to dismiss three cases entirely. (The remaining five go on trial October 25.) And earlier this week, the FBI’s Inspector General criticized the FBI for some of its conduct in raids and surveillance of peace groups after the September 11 attacks, points out Twin Cities Indymedia.
In this clip by the video muckrakers at Minnesota’s Uptake, watch alleged terrorist—and unapologetic antiwar activist—Mick Kelly explain why he thinks the FBI came after him:
Sources: Conservative Heritage Times, Antiwar.com, The Atlantic, Twin Cities Indymedia, The Uptake
Thursday, May 06, 2010 10:08 AM
“He should be hanged by the neck until he is dead.” Those were the words of Indian Judge M.L. Tahaliyani, delivering a judgment against Mohammed Ajmal Amir Kasab for his role in the 2008 Mumbai attacks.
“Branded a ‘killing machine’ and ‘cruelty incarnate’ by the prosecution,” reports Dawn, a Pakistani daily, “Kasab was the only gunman caught alive in the 60-hour assault by 10 militants on hotels, a railway station, a restaurant and Jewish center.”
If the attacks seem distant—overrun by two years of natural disasters, attempted terrorist attacks in the United States, and a steady rhythm of suicide attacks in places like Iraq and Afghanistan—you really ought to spend some time with reporter Jason Motlagh’s exhaustive and riveting reconstruction of the Mumbai attacks, published online at Virginia Quarterly Review.
Motlagh won a National Magazine Award for Sixty Hours of Terror. The four-part series is a rare experiment in long-form, narrative, online-only journalism—the kind of experiment that has earned VQR its own shelf of awards.
“I think we’ve proven that we can undertake this kind of ambitious reporting successfully and shown that there’s an audience out there for it,” VQR editor Ted Genoways told the Los Angeles Times in an article about the Mumbai piece. “We need to find a few altruistic supporters of journalism who see this kind of work as important, whether it’s profit-generating or not. I’m optimistic that such people are out there.”
You are out there, right?
Sources: Virginia Quarterly Review, Dawn
Image by Jason Motlagh.
Friday, April 09, 2010 1:25 PM
The film documentary William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe is about a remarkable man’s life and career: Kunstler, a defense lawyer, fought on the legal front lines of key civil rights and antiwar court cases in the ’60s and ’70s. The movie, directed by his daughters Emily and Sarah Kunstler, chronicles his unlikely trajectory from low-key family man to wild-haired radical, representing the Chicago Seven after the foment of the 1968 Democratic Convention. It also follows him as he takes on other less noble causes including that of avowed terrorist El-Sayyid Nosair, who was convicted in the 1993 World Trade Center bombing and the murder of Israeli politician Rabbi Meir Kahane. (See a full article about the film in the May-June Utne Reader.)
The movie manages to be several things at once. It is an ode to a father’s life, yet it dares to question his motives. It is a documentary, but also a biography of a firebrand lawyer and a family memoir. And it traces several pivotal episodes in U.S. social history without feeling like a lecture.
I spoke with Emily Kunstler in March in a phone conversation that Sarah Kunstler later joined—Sarah having been delayed by a court appearance as, yes, a defense attorney. They discussed their unusual childhood, their deeply ingrained sense of social justice, and their cinematic portrait of their dad:
Your father was at the epicenter of some of the biggest cultural moments in modern U.S. history. When did you begin to get a sense of his importance and fame?
“Well, I don’t think we understood it in a larger context until much later, but when we were kids we certainly had an understanding of how he felt about himself. You know, we remember going around the corner with him to buy all of the major newspapers so we could bring them home to see if he was in them. (laughs) Or turning on the family television in the kitchen to watch him on the local news. So we knew something was different—but you know, when you’re a kid, it’s your only experience. You have no basis for comparison. It just sort of felt normal.
“Also, when he would walk us to school in the morning, you know, which was five blocks from our home, it would take us half an hour to get there because every 10 feet someone would stop him. As kids it was more of a frustration.” (laughs)
You say in the film that “when he spoke about his past, he was like a hero from legend.” Did you and your sister also believe for a time that he was a hero? And when did doubt begin to creep in?
“Well, the stories of the work that he did during the civil rights movement or the antiwar movement were our bedtime stories. And I think like most young children, you have this sense that your parents are all good and can do no harm. And it’s this real moment, I think, in adolescence when you realize that your parent is a human being.
“But I think that experience was a little bit exacerbated for Sarah and I because our father lived so much in the public eye. It wasn’t just something that was happening privately in our home. You know, when he started taking cases that got a lot of negative public attention was when Sarah and I started to question the choices that he was making, because of the impact those choices were having on our family. I mean, particularly the cases that made our lives the most difficult were the Central Park jogger case, which was a big case here in New York and in part nationally. It was when race relations were really polarized and a group of five adolescents, black kids, were accused of brutally raping a white woman in Central Park. And it played on a lot of the fears and cultural stereotypes of that particular time. So our father ended up defending one of these young men, and it just—no one really understood why he made that choice. No one was really supporting him during that period. But for him, he really saw that case as a throwback to the rape trials in the South; he saw the Central Park Five as the new Scottsboro boys.
“It turns out in the end that his position was vindicated—they were all exonerated, actually, after my father passed away, sadly. But I think for him it wasn’t really about innocence, it was about standing up for the unpopular, and protecting the rights of someone who had been vilified in the media and convicted before they ever saw the inside of a courtroom. So that trial was difficult for us, and maybe even more so than that was his defense of El Sayyid Nosair, because we had protesters in front of our house for over four months. Coming and going as a kid, with that experience, was pretty heavy. You know, we had our windows shot out, my father received bullets in the mail, he had death threats regularly. We couldn’t walk to school by ourselves; we were escorted.
“The most important thing for a kid, I think, for a young adolescent, was to feel that they are safe in their own home. And we certainly didn’t have that during that period.”
At that point in your lives, did you ever wish your father had a low-key, uncontroversial profession?
“I think definitely. I don’t know how specifically we thought about it. We were definitely raised with a belief in right to counsel. We thought that everybody deserved a lawyer. We really felt that. I mean, we believed in innocent until proven guilty. We had an unusual education from a young age about the inner workings of the criminal justice system. But we didn’t know why our dad had to be that lawyer—especially when it made our family so uncomfortable. And he was an established attorney—I’m sure he could have found something else quite easily. (laughs) So yeah, it was less like a political difference that we had with him at that young age. It was more just not understanding why he would make choices that would put the family at risk.”
You say in the film that your father became “radicalized” by the Chicago Seven trial. Why did this event radicalize him?
“It was one of the first trials where politics were really brought into the courtroom. I think before that trial it was really the lawyer who would dictate how the trial would run, would impose their theory of the case. This trial flipped it on its head—our father teamed up with his clients, and they really directed the show, and he allowed them to put their politics on trial. So it was a revolutionary period in general, but it was also this sort of revolutionary concept in the courtroom, to try a case this way.
“He was in his 50s, and he completely embraced the hippie movement, the antiwar movement, and I think probably began to feel like himself for the first time during that period.”
Was it the way that trial played out, with Bobby Seale being bound and gagged in the courtroom, that radicalized him?
“Oh, yeah. It was that—it was the binding and gagging of Bobby Seale, it was utterly shocking to him. More than that, it was the assassination of Fred Hampton. I think that he really—he had seen the government participate in great harm in the past, but I think that moment really brought it home for him, to see that the government would really stop at nothing. I mean, he saw how they were trying to do it inside a courtroom, but to have that happen in the middle of the trial, in Chicago, was pretty heavy.”
“I mean, there’s the clip in our film of our father saying, ‘I killed him. I killed him. All of the white people of America killed Fred Hampton, because we stood by, racists all of us.’ I think he really felt that. He really felt like we’re all responsible for the world that we live in, and that if we’re not working to improve the situation we are complicit in it.”
When Sarah confronted your father on local television, what was the pretext of that interview? Did he know that she was going to confront him?
“You know, I don’t remember exactly how it happened. I think they asked him to be on a television show, and he just brought us with him to the show. And they thought it sounded like a fun idea. (laughs) So I think it was kind of casual the way that it all came together. I certainly didn’t know that she would confront him. But it’s not as if he didn’t encourage us to question him, and to question the world we lived in. We did all the time. He loved when we would show any interest in the work that he was doing, whether it was positive or negative. It wasn’t as if that was an unusual moment, but it certainly was unusual in the sense that it was broadcast to millions. (laughs) I think she was referring specifically to the Nosair case when she asked him that question, and you know, probably what she wanted to say was a lot stronger, but that was what she was able to ask. I believe she asked if he ever wanted to get out of a case once he committed himself to it.
“She also in that clip says that she’ll never become a lawyer.”
I was going to bring that up. So what happened?
“Well, I think we all say a lot of things when we’re 15 that maybe don’t remain true into adulthood. But we were raised with a sense of the importance of having a deep commitment to social justice, and the value of that, and the value of that work. We didn’t know how that would manifest in our own lives, but we knew that whatever paths we took, that would be our focus.
“So Sarah saw that a great way to be an advocate is within the legal system, and we also saw that a great way to be an advocate is through making movies. Sarah and I for the past 10 years have been making documentaries, short films, about injustice in the American criminal justice system.
“So, essentially, our father taught us how to use the media—our father taught us the importance of being a good storyteller, whether it’s with a video camera or inside a courtroom.”
Had Sarah previously confronted your father in private with the sort of questions that she raised in the televised interview?
“I think we would more ask questions about the cases he was taking and didn’t necessarily—I can’t remember a time. But I didn’t remember that happening until I saw the footage. So it’s hard to say. But we always gave him a hard time. I do remember that. I remember more a general theme than the specific moments.”
There are some moments when interview subjects are clearly a bit unnerved a bit that they are speaking to the daughters of someone they’re criticizing. Did you face difficulty in getting some of these subjects on camera and convincing them that you were making an even-handed film?
“Everyone who participated in the film did so enthusiastically, even if they had reservations. I mean, there were people who refused to participate, period, and that was more of a difficulty. We realized early on that we couldn’t disguise who we were. We had this idea that we wanted to make this film with this sort of journalistic balance, you know, have this even split between the positive and the negative and have the audience decide for themselves. And then people started saying no to us. I mean, being our father’s daughters was sort of a blessing and a curse in this process, because it gave us tremendous access to a lot of people who wouldn’t have spoken to us otherwise, but it also closed some doors. So we thought, well, maybe we can send in our producer, who can do the interview, because people give interviews to other people, just not us. (laughs) But then we realized that it was important that people were speaking to us, that this was our journey and the most important criticisms and questions were going to come from us.”
Did you learn new things about your father, or reach new understandings about him, in the process of making the film?
“Definitely. Well, first of all we got to build an adult relationship with him, which is something that we wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do otherwise. And I don’t think we’ll ever agree with every choice he made, but we definitely have a greater understanding of his motivation. I think toward the end of his life, when he was taking the cases that we were most critical of, he’d gotten to a point in his career where he really had absolutely no trust in the government and in the court system—at all. I mean, he had seen his friends assassinated, he had suffered many defeats. And some victories, but you know, he felt that basically the system just chewed people up and spit them out, and that the role for him to play was to stand up next to people who were either brutalized or ignored and make people pay attention to them in a different way, in the hopes that their rights would be protected.
“He really saw his unpopular clients as sort of canaries in the coal mine. He thought that rights were most likely to be violated when people were vilified, and that where their rights were violated everybody else’s rights could be violated, and that it would set a legal precedent for that to happen and continue to happen.”
Even when he took on questionable clients, it seems that it was still mainly about principle, not money. Is that your perception?
“Oh, it was never about money. Maybe it was about fame. A combination of fame and principle, I think. There were some cases that he took for money. When we were interviewing Jimmy Breslin—Jimmy Breslin’s been around in New York, covering a lot of our father’s work for years, so we asked him about the mafia cases, because Sarah and I were a little obsessed with those for a while. And he got really frustrated with us, because we were so interested in these mafia cases, but that’s what bought us sneakers, that’s what put food on the table—Larry Davis wasn’t paying. (laughs) He was a provider, and he did have to take some cases that paid. But none of his political work and most of his criminal work did not pay. Our family was primarily supported by his speaking engagements.”
There are a lot of important historical moments in your film—the Freedom Riders, the Chicago conspiracy trial, Attica, Wounded Knee—that I’m afraid have fallen off the radar for a lot of Americans, or never made it onto their radar in the first place. Do you have some hope that your film provides a window into this history?
“We really hope so. It’s one of the reasons that we’re doing such a big educational push with the film, because the stories that you mentioned are not typically taught in public high schools across the country. And if they are mentioned, they spend like an hour here or a day there and it’s not really part of the history. So we’ve been working to put together together some educational companion material and are really trying to get the film in any way we can in the hands of high schools, colleges, and law schools across the country.”
Frankly, it educated me a bit to be reminded of these episodes in history.
“It helps to see it all together and to draw connections between those movements. At the very least our father’s life is a great storytelling vehicle for these major moments in American social history of the last 60 years. He moved in and out of these worlds.”
What do you think your dad’s reaction would be to your film?
“I mean, he was his own favorite subject, so I think in that sense he would be happy about any film that focused on him. But I think that he would love that we made the choice to commit four years of our lives to getting to know him better and understanding him—and in a sense sort of bringing him back to life, and bringing his story to generations of people that have never heard of him. So I think he’d be thrilled. I think he would have loved to be at all of our Q&As across the country.
“His favorite thing was talking to young people, and inspiring young people, and really motivating people to make choices in their own lives, to take personal risks to stand up for what they believe in. So hopefully this movie will continue to do that for him.”
You’re doing Q&As across the country?
“Yeah. We’ve been in over 35 film festivals; we opened theatrically in over 25 cities. So in the last year there’s been a lot of travel with the film."
What were some of the common themes at the Q&A sessions?
“It brought some of the most interesting people out of the woodwork. We’ve had former FBI agents come to screenings. We’ve had clients of our father’s, long-lost relatives—it’s been really a mix. It’s interesting, because our father, although he toward the end of his life was deeply suspicious of the government, he always had faith in the jury system. He always had faith in people, in humanity, and he really felt if you exposed people to a truth that they could change their mind, they could evolve and come to a different conclusion. So we hope that our film can reach people on a similar level, that people can come to it—I mean, our father is someone who provoked extreme feelings in everybody. People liked him or they hated him. And we hope that this film will help people get a nuanced view, and maybe have their own transformation in their thinking.
“We’ve experienced this with audience members. People have really been grateful that we were able to tell such a balanced film from such a personal perspective. I think the greatest fear is that being his daughters, we wouldn’t be able to do that. But Sarah and I felt like it almost gave us the power to do that, because if we can be critical and we can raise questions, then we can raise questions that other people can’t. And in doing that we give the audience permission to have their own questions and to see shades of gray—to not have to see things in these broad strokes.”
[At this point Sarah Kunstler joins the conversation.]
Sarah, what type of law do you practice?
Sarah: “I practice primarily criminal law in federal court in Manhattan.”
When did you decide it was OK to become a lawyer? On television as a girl, you said you’d never become one.
Sarah: “I think at that point, for Emily and I, we just wanted to be nothing like our dad. We wanted to forge paths that were completely independent of his. So saying we weren’t going to be lawyers, we were going to be people who act, was like ‘We’re going to have independence from you and do our own thing.’ But at the same time we learned social responsibility from our parents. We were imbued with a sense that we still have that it’s our responsibility to go out into the world and fight for justice and make change, and I think that somewhere along the way I figured out that being a lawyer was a way to do that. I mean, I could do it on my own, separately from him. I don’t know exactly when I decided—it was definitely long after he had died. I know that I applied to law school around the time that Emily and I made a film about a racist drug bust in Tulia, Texas.
“Our first film exposed a racist drug bust that imprisoned over 20 percent of the black population of this town in the Texas panhandle. ... How a town that tiny needed 46 drug dealers is beyond me. But it ended up that the basis for their arrest was the work of one undercover officer whose story and credibility kind of unraveled.
“They initially received sentences of 99 to 300 years in prison—Gov. Rick Perry eventually overturned all the convictions. Emily and I made a documentary about it that helped expose the injustice. It was simultaneously kind of the beginning of our film career and part of my decision to go to law school and be a lawyer. To me, the two things are linked—they’re both different forms of advocacy. They’re different ways of telling a story and bringing a truth either to an audience or to a jury, and trying to right a wrong. It led me to pursue social justice work as both a filmmaker and a lawyer.”
Emily, you say in the film that you and Sarah have “always been a team.” Did making this film and digging deeper you’re your shared family history bring you closer?
Emily: “Oh, definitely. I think Sarah and I have never been as close as we are now. It’s a very difficult and painful process in any artistic endeavor—and having gone through that with my sister was a really wonderful experience. I mean, it’s not always peaceful here. There’s screaming, there’s yelling, we’re very emotional like our father was, but at the end of the day we always end friends, and it’s very important for us not to sustain conflict. And you know, it’s great, because who can you trust more than your sister who’s been your co-conspirator since birth? So we really had complete trust in the other one throughout this process.”
It’s clear from the film that you were already playing with film and media as kids. Did either of you have early inklings that you wanted to be a filmmaker?
Sarah: “You know, we didn’t remember making those videos until we were amassing material to make the film. But when I look at that, what I see is two little girls engaging their father in the way they see him engaging with the world—and also making fun of it. I think more than anything else it kind of shows our awareness of The William Kunstler, and a kind of humor at who that person was.”
Emily: “In addition to the stuff that’s in the film, we always had recording devices, we always had cameras, we were always interested in documenting things. There’s one photograph in the film where we each have like three voice recorders and a camera, so I think it’s definitely something that we were interested in. So I definitely can see a common thread of interest from that period. And all of his major press conferences he did on the front stoop of our house. So we saw how important it was to communicate a message to the outside world, and what kind of power that gave you. I think we definitely took that to heart, and you can see that in the work we do today.”
William Kunstler: Disturbing the Universe will be shown on the PBS documentary series POV starting June 22, and it is available on DVD from New Video. www.disturbingtheuniverse.com.
Image by Jesse Ferguson.
Wednesday, February 17, 2010 2:59 PM
Every month, social psychologist Arie Kruglanski sends a research report to the Department of Homeland Security from his National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism (better known, mercifully, as START). In a Miller-McCune interview with Kruglanski, he talks about what he’s learned about suicide attackers and the people who support them. “Many people think of terrorists, especially suicide bombers, as not quite human,” says Tom Jacobs in his first question to Kruglanski, “presumably because they’ve set aside that basic human motivation of self-preservation. But your research suggests their motivations are quite recognizably human.” Here’s some of what Kruglanski had to say...
On the “quite recognizably human” motivations of suicide attackers:
Personal significance is a motivation that has been recognized by psychological theorists as a major driving force of human behavior. Terrorists feel that through suicide, their lives will achieve tremendous significance. They will become heroes, martyrs. In many cases, their decision is a response to a great loss of significance, which can occur through humiliation, discrimination, or personal problems that have nothing to do with the conflict in which their group is engaged.
On America’s martyrs:
Even in our country, we venerate our heroes.—our soldiers who are willing to put themselves in harm’s way for the sake of ideals we hold dear.
More on significance as a motivator:
According to terror management theory, we are alone among all species in that we are aware of our impending demise. As a consequence, we have this nightmare of ending up as an insignificant speck of dust in an uncaring universe.
Source: Miller-McCune (article not yet available online)
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Image by Jeff Severns Guntzel.
Friday, November 07, 2008 12:26 PM
For the on-the-go woman, tired of toting a facemask around in her purse, a team of intrepid inventors created the an anti-chemical warfare bra. According to the patent, “Each of the cup sections has a filter device, an inner portion positionable adjacent to the inner area of the user's chest, and an outer portion positionable adjacent to the outer area of the user's chest.” So in the event of a chemical attack, women could just take their clothes off.
The patent was issued in August of 2007, and rescued from obscurity by Improbable Research. I’m still trying to figure out why we haven’t seen this item mass marketed, yet.
Friday, August 22, 2008 1:57 PM
Last week’s New York Times detailed the tragic case of Hiu Lui Ng, a New Yorker of 17 years who died a grisly death after his cancer and fractured spine went insistently undiagnosed at a detainment center in Rhode Island. This week, the paper followed up with a similar story of a detainee who crossed paths and cells with Ng; Marino De Los Santos lived to tell his tale (and file a lawsuit). The July issue of KoreAm recounts the cases of two women—one who died in custody, the other still ailing there—and their thwarted attempts to receive proper care. And in an extensive investigation back in May, the Washington Post weaved the narratives of several detainees—many who died, some who survived abysmal care—into a withering dissection of an Immigration and Customs Enforcement bureaucracy fatally unequipped to meet the post-9/11 demands hastily placed upon it.
In the past five years, the Post found, 83 detainees have died in custody or soon after being released. Thirty of those deaths, according to analysis and expert reviews arranged by the Post, may have been caused by the actions, or inaction, of medical staff. “The detainees have less access to lawyers than convicted murderers in maximum-security prisons and some have fewer comforts than al-Qaeda terrorism suspects held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba,” the Post’s Dana Priest and Amy Goldstein wrote.
I’ve often wondered at the unwitting and anodyne adoption of the word “detainee” in the years since September 11, 2001—its easy migration from referring to “terrorists out to kill us” to aspiring immigrants and asylum seekers swept up in the bowels of a frightened, misguided bureaucratic reflex. “Detainee,” it seems, is meant to delineate someone outside the criminal justice system per se, someone whose case awaits judicial review. “It’s not like we’re throwing folks, in prison, see; they’re going to detainment centers.” The words roll of the tongue and the conscience.
But as the dismal state of medical affairs at the publicly and privately run “detainment” facilities shows, it’s time to start calling things by their right names. Perhaps if people “detained” because of paperwork glitches (which played a crucial role in Ng’s situation) or people denied proper medical care because of software errors (see Yusif Osman’s case in the Washington Post) were reported as being sent to “death houses” or “disease centers,” our linguistic faculties might be triggered into focus, and with them our moral compass.
Friday, July 25, 2008 4:30 PM
With its complex moral dilemmas and dystopian vision, The Dark Knight is an unlikely summer blockbuster and unquestionably dour as a superhero movie—but it’s still performing ridiculously well at the box office and with critics.
Some of the commentary is inevitably political, framing the film as an overt 9/11 allegory. Andrew Klavan takes things a step further in the Wall Street Journal, making a favorable comparison between the latest iteration of Batman and the Bush administration’s absolutist approaches to geopolitics, applauding the Caped Crusader for demonstrating the same decisive, nuance-free heroism that Bush supposedly does.
What Klavan seems to be missing is that The Dark Knight portrays Batman as a deeply conflicted and flawed antihero; the film excels at illustrating the moral ambiguities inherent in fighting crime or governing a populace.
On his blog, Andrew Sullivan provides an articulate rebuttal to Klavan, ultimately focusing on the failures of Bush’s cowboy swagger, use of torture, and with-us-or-against-us version of diplomacy. Sullivan concludes that those who can’t or won’t do nuance are missing the point—perhaps deliberately.
Image adapted from a photo by Yosi:), licensed by Creative Commons.
Monday, February 11, 2008 4:57 PM
Let’s start with some background: Last October, the police raided a Maori village in a nationwide action targeting Maori militants and environmental activists suspected of training in military-style camps and plotting terrorist acts. Maori groups called the raids, during which police allegedly shot tires and held at least one family at gun point, overblown responses to benign survival-training activities. The government moved to charge 12 people—indigenous Maoris and whites—under the Terrorism Suppression Act, but the effort faltered when the solicitor-general said the post-9/11 law was “incomprehensible.” In the end, the Associated Press reported in December, the authorities settled on charges of illegal possession and use of firearms.
The arrests upset the normally quiet island nation, breaking along one of New Zealand’s most unsettling fault lines: the treatment of the country’s 540,000 Maoris. (Maoris make up 15 percent of the population but more than half of the country’s prisoners.) Large demonstrations were held to protest the arrests and the anti-terror law, the radical environmentalist Earth First! Journal reported. Then, last month, the government acknowledged that it had received a formal letter of inquiry about the incident from the United Nations.
Denis O’Reilly, a columnist on Maori youth issues for the New Zealand Edge, places the blame for the incident on New Zealand’s misguided adoption of foreign strategies. Through the use of imported labels like “terrorist” and the equation of groups of disaffected Maori youth with American street gangs, the domestic discourse has conflated its local problems with various international boogie-men. Instead, O’Reilly argues, New Zealanders should deal with their country on its own terms:
We import models, concepts, and words from abroad and then seek to apply them here. In the same way as some of our early NZ town planners and architects [...] fail to take into account that we are in the Southern rather than the Northern Hemisphere and we end up living facing the wrong way for the natural elements that surround us.
O’Reilly wonders what the outcome would have been if the government looked to its own shores for a homegrown response: What if the prime minister had approached the accused through indigenous communication channels like members of the tribal police liaison instead of sending in the cops?
Image of 2007 demonstration in Auckland, New Zealand, by InfonewsNZ, licensed under Creative Commons.
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