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2/26/2015

John Donvan Intelligence Squared 

Intelligence Squared U.S. is an Oxford-style debate series covering a range of relevant controversial topics, from science refuting God to “too big to fail” big banks. The series recently celebrated its 100th debate, and Utne Reader editorial intern Soli Salgado had an opportunity to talk with moderator John Donvan beforehand about how the topics develop, the challenges of moderating, and preserving the integrity of the ancient art of debate.

Utne Reader: How has previous reporting for ABC News helped you as a moderator?

John Donvan: I had 30 years of ABC and did virtually every beat there was: I was a foreign correspondent for 13 years, came back and worked as a general assignment reporter, then as the White House correspondent. In the course of all that, at some point or other I covered every printed story there ever was, sometimes three times over, and that really gave me a broad range: from economy to religion to poverty to race science to medicine to health to politics and international conflicts. We haven’t really had a debate where I haven’t covered the issue in some fashion or other. We just had a debate on genetically modified food, and I did a broadcast on that in 1999. The debate before that was on assisted suicide, and I had done a one-hour documentary on that in 1994. It’s like a perfect repurposing of my entire body of knowledge gained from my career as an ABC reporter.

What non-reportorial experience has come into play for you in this job?
I’m very interested in acting and performance. I went to the Acting Conservatory at the Studio Theater in Washington. I’ve done a lot of improv, classical, live storytelling, Shakespeare, and comedy—all gave me instincts that allow me to be live in front of people and in the moment. It really became important when I started moderating because there’s no script in the debate. It’s much closer to improv in that I have to be reacting all the time and paying attention to keep it on course. That matter of performing and being really aware of a live audience has been a perfect complement to the more intellectual side of journalism.

Describe what you expect from the 100th debate.
It’s on the notion of whether America is in decline or not. The idea of the 100th is that it’s big and sweeping and looking at both the past and present and this administration at this time. There’s an electric feeling in the room. To me it’s amazing that we get 500 people to come watch a debate in New York City when there’s so much else going on. You revive this ancient yet timeless format of an artistic style of debate and bring it to New York at a time when everything is so polarized. So at the 100th debate we’ll talk about that achievement and have a big party afterwards and a rapper come on stage rapping about our previous accomplishments.  

How are the guests chosen and invited? Are you a part of that process?
I’m in Washington, so I come up for meetings from time to time. But the process within the organization is very democratic—it’s a small organization with a few people—and everybody on the staff throws in ideas that usually begin with topics that are just interesting and relevant within themselves, but without knowing there’s actually a debate there, that there’s a dichotomy of views with legitimate arguments on both sides. So we start with a broad discussion about topics. “We should do something about ‘healthcare,’ and then it becomes, ‘What’s relevant about it? What’s being debated?’ Some are framed as verdicts on situations, others are framed as a policy choice that needs to be seen.

We’ll put out a lot of lines to people in their fields, or sometimes we go to interdisciplinaries and might call a philosopher to ask his opinion on science or religion. We try to get a sense of whether there’s a strong debate with credible arguments on both sides, and then whether there are people willing to argue both sides. We have a producer or two full-time reaching out to potential debaters, seeing what they would say and if there’s a coherence: if they can get on stage, but also being able to talk and being in a competition. Not everybody can.

We ask for ideas and get emails all the time, and we take that very seriously. But they really come from all over, from conversations. I’ve asked people at dinner parties for ideas for debates that are now in the hopper.

Is there a rehearsal, or are you surprised by what the debaters say in the moment?
I don’t know what they’re going to say in the body of the debate. They’ll come with prepared remarks, but we strongly discourage debaters to come in with a script for opening remarks. We have some sense from conversations beforehand through the booking process about their arguments, so we can know if there’s a head-to-head or not. But all of the debaters write. They’ve almost always published on these topics, and I read a lot, if not most, of those. Usually to figure out their rhythm as speakers, I’ll watch them on YouTube. But on the night of the debate, I literally don’t know what they’re going to say. And sometimes they don’t say what we expected them to argue, or their arguments come from a different angle, which is fine, so long as they’re not just talking past each other.

That’s where the improv comes into play; it’s so unscripted, we don’t know where it’s going to go. Every time I go up I’m worried there’s going to be a trainwreck, and so far we haven’t had one.

What’s the hardest part of moderating?
I figured out that the hardest part is the easiest part: the art of interruption. It is the key to moderating, and getting over the inhibition, I think any of us have, to interrupt somebody when they’re trying to say something meaningful. It seems impertinent and it seems rude. But I learned that if I didn’t interrupt people, they would just move way, way off topic quickly. They’d also spend an enormous amount of time elaborating on the same point, giving an example of why they were right and then another example, and another... It’s a combination of the art of listening closely and the art of interruption. I tell them before going on stage that I’ll do that, and most are pretty good about it.

You seem to moderate so fairly and straightforward, yet after most presidential debates, there’s controversy and criticism from the public regarding the moderator. Why do you think that is? Is it just the different style of debates?
The presidential debates are set up to be for moderator failure. The candidates come in with no true intention to debate one another, and there are so many rules set out to avoid them falling on their faces, that the moderator really has a difficult time.

The trick is getting involved without making it about yourself. It’s not about you: it’s about the debaters and the debate. But you also have to get in to keep them on course. And the presidential debates are not set up to be debates. They’re alternating press conferences. The guys come in with their talking points, and very rarely do they respond to one another’s points. They just talk past each other. And the moderator who does not interrupt quickly is sitting on two press conferences going on.

I see my mission is to protect the integrity of the debate. So if somebody dodges a question, I will jump on him—not because I’m on the other guy’s side, but because I’m on the debate’s side. If somebody ignores a really good point landed by their opponent and tries to change the subject, I will intervene because the audience wants to hear what the response is. The presidential debates are not set up to do that. That’s not what the parties want, and the parties control what the debates are about. It’s very frustrating to watch those things.

Read Donvan’s Washington Post article regarding the structure of modern presidential debates.

Oftentimes you see that audience members changed their minds on certain issues, when you compare how they voted at the beginning of the debate to how they voted at the end. Do you think that’s something special to Intelligence Squared in its format, or is any well-structured debates capable of the same thing?
I don’t think that’s just us. I think any really, really good debate can do the same thing.

The social contribution that a debate really makes is that by definition the audience is forced to listen to a point of view that may oppose their own, and they’re also forced to listen (for the first time, probably) to a well-articulated dissection of the weaknesses of the views they already hold. They may go in wanting to root for their side, and they may leave still rooting for their side, but they’ll very likely have been exposed to arguments against their side or for the other side that they never really had to sit and pay total attention to. If the debate works well, and the debaters are really engaging in an intellectual Ping-Pong match, with real intellectual integrity, really listening to each other in real intellectual combat—that sucks people in, in such a way that maybe they do end up acknowledging the flaws in the arguments they favored or strengths in the other guy’s. Doesn’t mean you have to switch sides. That’s particularly relevant today when there’s no middle space anymore. People for the most part have retreated to their chambers in terms of ideas they’re going to hear. This little show we put on—it’s a show, but it’s got value and integrity. It’s really an experience.

I always go to the lobby afterward because I love that moment of the debate when people spill out on the streets and sidewalks on 67th Street arguing with each other. They’re really alive with it. Who knew that the fusty old model of the Oxford style debate would be so relevant and alive and engaging and entertaining? It’s because they’re seeing a real debate. I’ve come to the conclusion that there’s a hunger for it, for debating civilly. We’re actually pulling it off, and it’s not boring. It’s a tough conversation. I’m not saying it’s Kumbaya. But it’s not done by screaming, rather by being as smart as they can be.

Have you ever had any difficulty remaining impartial?
I came up in the tradition of ABC News, which is not so much the ruling tradition in journalism anymore. It was always in the vein of “try to keep your personal views out of it.” That’s where my training was and that part comes naturally. I’m really careful in not having the audience members feel what I’m thinking or that I’m trying to steer the debate in any way, because that would really kill the integrity of it. I’ve found it’s been easy to pretend to be impartial.

What have been the most memorable debates you’ve moderated?
I like the cultural topics that are more about the human condition and less about what the government should be doing. We’ve done whether there’s life after death, whether religion is a force of good or evil, the state of men in society. We’ve done whether college football is a good or bad thing for the university and the players. Nobody’s really debating these topics. Whereas all the policy issues, you can hear debates on them all the time. You’ll hear lots of panel discussions on life after death, for example, but to actually hear actual evidence mounting on both sides, it’s an interesting thing.

The most difficult one we’ve done was a few years ago on whether or not the U.N. should recognize Palestine. The debate was between two opponents who were both Jewish, and it became very bitter and very personal to the two of them. They began to berate each other, each calling the other a traitor. They each took the charge so personally that they began to scream at each other. For the first and only time, I left my position at the podium and I walked around to the front of the stage, and with my back to the audience I faced them and raised my hands, quite consciously hoping to invoke Moses parting the Red Sea, and asked them to please be silent. They finally stopped, and I told them that what they were doing was essentially opposite to the goal of our debate and that they need to pull it back. And they did, though that was probably the roughest moment.

What would you like our Utne readers to know about Intelligence Squared if they haven’t heard about it before? There’s a lot of overlap between the intellectual aspiration of the Utne readers and Intelligence Squared. There’s open-mindedness and curiosity, a thirst to know, and desire to be entertained. These are entertaining. When you hear the word “debate” it doesn’t sound like it’s going to be fun evening, but it is. People come on dates and romance each other at the event. It’s a lot more fun from an intellectual point of view than it sounds like.

We have an app that has everything, for iPhones and Androids. Look for IQ2US in the search. You’ll have access to all the debates we’ve ever done as podcasts, and we post a bunch of the articles and research related to the debates, most by the debaters themselves. There’s also an opinion poll and information on upcoming debates.



2/20/2015

Soldier holding gun

War movies since World War II tend to follow the same reductive formula, presenting Americans as the winners even in conflicts that ended in failure.

Reprinted with permission by TomDispatch.

In the age of the all-volunteer military and an endless stream of war zone losses and ties, it can be hard to keep Homeland enthusiasm up for perpetual war. After all, you don't get a 9/11 every year to refresh those images of the barbarians at the airport departure gates. In the meantime, Americans are clearly finding it difficult to remain emotionally roiled up about our confusing wars in Syria and Iraq, the sputtering one in Afghanistan, and various raids, drone attacks, and minor conflicts elsewhere.

Fortunately, we have just the ticket, one that has been punched again and again for close to a century: Hollywood war movies (to which the Pentagon is always eager to lend a helping hand). American Sniper, which started out with the celebratory tagline “the most lethal sniper in U.S. history” and now has the tagline “the most successful war movie of all time,” is just the latest in a long line of films that have kept Americans on their war game. Think of them as war porn, meant to leave us perpetually hyped up. Now, grab some popcorn and settle back to enjoy the show.

There’s Only One War Movie

Wandering around YouTube recently, I stumbled across some good old government-issue propaganda.  It was a video clearly meant to stir American emotions and prepare us for a long struggle against a determined, brutal, and barbaric enemy whose way of life is a challenge to the most basic American values. Here's some of what I learned: our enemy is engaged in a crusade against the West; wants to establish a world government and make all of us bow down before it; fights fanatically, beheads prisoners, and is willing to sacrifice the lives of its followers in inhuman suicide attacks.  Though its weapons are modern, its thinking and beliefs are 2,000 years out of date and inscrutable to us.

Of course, you knew there was a trick coming, right? This little U.S. government-produced film wasn’t about the militants of the Islamic State. Made by the U.S. Navy in 1943, its subject was “Our Enemy the Japanese.” Substitute “radical Islam” for “emperor worship,” though, and it still makes a certain propagandistic sense. While the basics may be largely the same (us versus them, good versus evil), modern times do demand something slicker than the video equivalent of an old newsreel. The age of the Internet, with its short attention spans and heightened expectations of cheap thrills, calls for a higher class of war porn, but as with that 1943 film, it remains remarkable how familiar what’s being produced remains.

Like propaganda films and sexual pornography, Hollywood movies about America at war have changed remarkably little over the years. Here's the basic formula, from John Wayne in the World War II-era Sands of Iwo Jima to today's American Sniper:

• American soldiers are good, the enemy bad. Nearly every war movie is going to have a scene in which Americans label the enemy as “savages,” “barbarians,” or “bloodthirsty fanatics,” typically following a “sneak attack” or a suicide bombing. Our country’s goal is to liberate; the enemy's, to conquer. Such a framework prepares us to accept things that wouldn’t otherwise pass muster. Racism naturally gets a bye; as they once were “Japs” (not Japanese), they are now “hajjis” and “ragheads” (not Muslims or Iraqis). It’s beyond question that the ends justify just about any means we might use, from the nuclear obliteration of two cities of almost no military significance to the grimmest sort of torture. In this way, the war film long ago became a moral free-fire zone for its American characters.

• American soldiers believe in God and Country, in “something bigger than themselves,” in something “worth dying for,” but without ever becoming blindly attached to it. The enemy, on the other hand, is blindly devoted to a religion, political faith, or dictator, and it goes without saying (though it’s said) that his God—whether an emperor, Communism, or Allah—is evil. As one critic put it back in 2007 with just a tad of hyperbole, “In every movie Hollywood makes, every time an Arab utters the word Allah … something blows up.”

• War films spend no significant time on why those savages might be so intent on going after us. The purpose of American killing, however, is nearly always clearly defined. It's to “save American lives,” those over there and those who won’t die because we don't have to fight them over here. Saving such lives explains American war: in Kathryn Bigelow’s The Hurt Locker, for example, the main character defuses roadside bombs to make Iraq safer for other American soldiers. In the recent World War II-themed Fury, Brad Pitt similarly mows down ranks of Germans to save his comrades. Even torture is justified, as in Zero Dark Thirty, in the cause of saving our lives from their nightmarish schemes. In American Sniper, shooter Chris Kyle focuses on the many American lives he’s saved by shooting Iraqis; his PTSD is, in fact, caused by his having “failed” to have saved even more. Hey, when an American kills in war, he's the one who suffers the most, not that mutilated kid or his grieving mother — I got nightmares, man! I still see their faces!

• Our soldiers are human beings with emotionally engaging backstories, sweet gals waiting at home, and promising lives ahead of them that might be cut tragically short by an enemy from the gates of hell. The bad guys lack such backstories. They are anonymous fanatics with neither a past worth mentioning nor a future worth imagining. This is usually pretty blunt stuff. Kyle’s nemesis in American Sniper, for instance, wears all black. Thanks to that, you know he’s an insta-villain without the need for further information. And speaking of lack of a backstory, he improbably appears in the film both in the Sunni city of Fallujah and in Sadr City, a Shia neighborhood in Baghdad, apparently so super-bad that his desire to kill Americans overcomes even Iraq's mad sectarianism.

• It is fashionable for our soldiers, having a kind of depth the enemy lacks, to express some regrets, a dollop of introspection, before (or after) they kill. In American Sniper, while back in the U.S. on leave, the protagonist expresses doubts about what he calls his “work.” (No such thoughts are in the book on which the film is based.) Of course, he then goes back to Iraq for three more tours and over two more hours of screen time to amass his 160 “confirmed kills.”

• Another staple of such films is the training montage. Can a young recruit make it? Often he is the Fat Kid who trims down to his killing weight, or the Skinny Kid who muscles up, or the Quiet Kid who emerges bloodthirsty. (This has been a trope of sexual porn films, too: the geeky looking guy, mocked by beautiful women, who turns out to be a superstar in bed.) The link, up front or implied, between sexuality, manhood, and war is a staple of the form. As part of the curious PTSD recovery plan he develops, for example, Kyle volunteers to teach a paraplegic vet in a wheelchair to snipe. After his first decent shot rings home, the man shouts, “I feel like I got my balls back!”

• Our soldiers, anguished souls that they are, have no responsibility for what they do once they’ve been thrown into our wars.  No baby-killers need apply in support of America's post-Vietnam, guilt-free mantra, “Hate the war, love the warrior.” In the film First Blood, for example, John Rambo is a Vietnam veteran who returns home a broken man. He finds his war buddy dead from Agent Orange-induced cancer and is persecuted by the very Americans whose freedom he believed he had fought for. Because he was screwed over in The 'Nam, the film gives him a free pass for his homicidal acts, including a two-hour murderous rampage through a Washington State town. The audience is meant to see Rambo as a noble, sympathetic character. He returns for more personal redemption in later films to rescue American prisoners of war left behind in Southeast Asia.

• For war films, ambiguity is a dirty word. Americans always win, even when they lose in an era in which, out in the world, the losses are piling up. And a win is a win, even when its essence is one-sided bullying as in Heartbreak Ridge, the only movie to come out of the ludicrous invasion of Grenada. And a loss is still a win in Black Hawk Down, set amid the disaster of Somalia, which ends with scenes of tired warriors who did the right thing. Argo—consider it honorary war porn—reduces the debacle of years of U.S. meddling in Iran to a high-fiving hostage rescue. All it takes these days to turn a loss into a win is to zoom in tight enough to ignore defeat. In American Sniper, the disastrous occupation of Iraq is shoved offstage so that more Iraqis can die in Kyle’s sniper scope. In Lone Survivor, a small American “victory” is somehow dredged out of hopeless Afghanistan because an Afghan man takes a break from being droned to save the life of a SEAL.

In sum: gritty, brave, selfless men, stoic women waiting at home, noble wounded warriors, just causes, and the necessity of saving American lives. Against such a lineup, the savage enemy is a crew of sitting ducks who deserve to die. Everything else is just music, narration, and special effects. War pornos, like their oversexed cousins, are all the same movie.

Young soldier 

War films are not about reality, but they do create realities of their own that encourage young people to join our volunteer military in pursuit of a glorious emotional fantasy of America at war.

A Fantasy That Can Change Reality

But it's just a movie, right? Your favorite shoot-em-up makes no claims to being a documentary. We all know one American can't gun down 50 bad guys and walk away unscathed, in the same way he can't bed 50 partners without getting an STD. It's just entertainment. So what?

So what do you, or the typical 18-year-old considering military service, actually know about war on entering that movie theater? Don’t underestimate the degree to which such films can help create broad perceptions of what war’s all about and what kind of people fight it. Those lurid on-screen images, updated and reused so repetitively for so many decades, do help create a self-reinforcing, common understanding of what happens “over there,” particularly since what we are shown mirrors what most of us want to believe anyway.

No form of porn is about reality, of course, but that doesn’t mean it can’t create realities all its own. War films have the ability to bring home emotionally a glorious fantasy of America at war, no matter how grim or gritty any of these films may look. War porn can make a young man willing to die before he’s 20. Take my word for it: as a diplomat in Iraq I met young people in uniform suffering from the effects of all this. Such films also make it easier for politicians to sweet talk the public into supporting conflict after conflict, even as sons and daughters continue to return home damaged or dead and despite the country’s near-complete record of geopolitical failures since September 2001. Funny thing: American Sniper was nominated for an Academy Award for best picture as Washington went back to war in Iraq in what you'd have thought would be an unpopular struggle.

Learning From the Exceptions

You can see a lot of war porn and stop with just your toes in the water, thinking you've gone swimming. But eventually you should go into the deep water of the “exceptions,” because only there can you confront the real monsters.

There are indeed exceptions to war porn, but don’t fool yourself, size matters. How many people have seen American Sniper, The Hurt Locker, or Zero Dark Thirty? By comparison, how many saw the anti-war Iraq War film Battle for Haditha, a lightly fictionalized, deeply unsettling drama about an American massacre of innocent men, women, and children in retaliation for a roadside bomb blast?

Timing matters, too, when it comes to the few mainstream exceptions. John Wayne’s The Green Berets, a pro-Vietnam War film, came out in 1968 as that conflict was nearing its bloody peak and resistance at home was growing. (The Green Berets gets a porn bonus star, as the grizzled Wayne persuades a lefty journalist to alter his negative views on the war.) Platoon, with its message of waste and absurdity, had to wait until 1986, more than a decade after the war ended.

In propaganda terms, think of this as controlling the narrative. One version of events dominates all others and creates a reality others can only scramble to refute. The exceptions do, however, reveal much about what we don’t normally see of the true nature of American war. They are uncomfortable for any of us to watch, as well as for military recruiters, parents sending a child off to war, and politicians trolling for public support for the next crusade.

War is not a two-hour-and-12-minute hard-on. War is what happens when the rules break down and, as fear displaces reason, nothing too terrible is a surprise. The real secret of war for those who experience it isn't the visceral knowledge that people can be filthy and horrible, but that you, too, can be filthy and horrible. You don't see much of that on the big screen.

Soldier in the desert

The true nature of American war rarely surfaces in mainstream war films: that war is what happens when the rules break down.

The Long Con

Of course, there are elements of “nothing new” here. The Romans undoubtedly had their version of war porn that involved mocking the Gauls as sub-humans. Yet in 21st-century America, where wars are undeclared and Washington dependent on volunteers for its new foreign legion, the need to keep the public engaged and filled with fear over our enemies is perhaps more acute than ever.

So here’s a question: If the core propaganda messages the U.S. government promoted during World War II are nearly identical to those pushed out today about the Islamic State, and if Hollywood’s war films, themselves a particularly high-class form of propaganda, have promoted the same false images of Americans in conflict from 1941 to the present day, what does that tell us? Is it that our varied enemies across nearly three-quarters of a century of conflict are always unbelievably alike, or is it that when America needs a villain, it always goes to the same script?


Peter Van Buren blew the whistle on State Department waste and mismanagement during the Iraqi reconstruction in his first book, We Meant Well: How I Helped Lose the Battle for the Hearts and Minds of the Iraqi People. A TomDispatch regular, he writes about current events at his blog, We Meant Well. His latest book is Ghosts of Tom Joad: A Story of the #99Percent.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Peter Van Buren

Top photo by Fotolia/guerrieroale

Middle photo by Fotolia/Syda Productions

Bottom photo by Fotolia/Oleg_Zabielin



2/6/2015

Lone-Wolf Terrorist

Lone-wolf terrorism does represent a genuine risk, but it's an exceedingly rare and minimal one.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

The shadow of a new threat seems to be darkening the national security landscape: the lone-wolf terrorist.

“The lone wolf is the new nightmare,” wrote Washington Post columnist Charles Krauthammer recently, and the conservative pundit wasn’t alone in thinking so. “I really see [lone wolves] as being a bigger threat than al-Qaeda, or the Islamic State, or the al-Qaeda franchises,” Scott Stewart, vice president of tactical analysis at the global intelligence and advisory firm Stratfor, told VICE News. Similarly, in the aftermath of the Paris terrorist attacks, appearing on “Meet the Press,” Attorney General Eric Holder said, “The thing that I think keeps me up most at night [is] this concern about the lone wolf who goes undetected.”

You could multiply such statements many times over. There’s only one problem with the rising crescendo of alarm about lone wolves: most of it simply isn’t true. There’s nothing new about the “threat” and the concept is notoriously unreliable, as well as selectively used. (These days, “lone wolf” has largely become a stand-in for “Islamic terrorist,” though the category itself is not bound to any specific ideological type.) Worst of all, its recent highlighting paves the way for the heightening of abusive and counterproductive police and national security practices, including the infiltration of minority and activist communities and elaborate sting operations that ensnare the vulnerable. In addition, the categorization of such solitary individuals as terrorists supposedly driven by ideology — left or right, secular or religious — often obscures multiple other factors that may actually cause them to engage in violence.

Like all violent crime, individual terrorism represents a genuine risk, just an exceedingly rare and minimal one. It’s not the sort of thing that the government should be able to build whole new, intrusive surveillance programs on or use as an excuse for sending in agents to infiltrate communities. National programs now being set up to combat lone-wolf terrorism have a way of wildly exaggerating its prevalence and dangers — and in the end are only likely to exacerbate the problem. For Americans to concede more of their civil liberties in return for “security” against lone wolves wouldn’t be a trade; it would be fraud.

Anatomy of the Wolf

The “literature” on both terrorism and the lone wolf should be approached with a healthy degree of skepticism. To this day, there is little consensus on what exactly terrorism is; the same is true of the lone-wolf variety.

In the media and in recent academic studies, what separates the lone-wolf terrorist from the phenomenon in general is the perpetrator. Lone wolves are, by definition, solitary individuals, almost always men, often with mental health problems, who lash out violently against civilian targets. At least in some fashion, they are spurred on by belief. Researcher Michael Becker defines it this way: “Ideologically driven violence, or attempted violence, perpetrated by an individual who plans and executes an attack in the absence of collaboration with other individuals or groups.” Although you wouldn’t know it at the moment in America, the motivation for such attacks can run the gamut from religiously inspired anti-abortion beliefs to white supremacy, from animal rights to an al-Qaeda-inspired worldview.

According to the literature, lone wolves are unique in the annals of terrorism because of the solitariness with which they plan and carry out their acts. They lack peer or group pressure and their crimes are conceived and executed without assistance. In this way, they bear a strong resemblance to the individual school shooters and rampage killers that Americans are already so used to.

One practical reason many such individuals act alone, according to researchers, is fear of detection. In “Laws for the Lone Wolf,” white supremacist Tom Metzger wrote: “The less any outsider knows, the safer and more successful you will be. Keep your mouth shut and your ears open. Never truly admit to anything.” (Before 9/11, lone-wolf terrorism in America was overwhelmingly a right-wing affair.)

This isn’t to say that individuals who commit political violence don’t talk to anyone before they attack. Recent research into 119 lone-actor terrorists in the United States and Europe, who were either convicted of such a crime or died during it, finds that they often expressed their extremist beliefs, grievances, and sometimes their violent intentions to others — mostly friends and family or online communities. The good news should be that family, friends, and colleagues might be able to help prevent those close to them from engaging in political violence if, as a society, we were to adopt strategies that built trust of law enforcement in the public, particularly affected communities, rather than fear and suspicion. (But given the record these last years, don’t hold your breath.)

On the other hand, the methods that the police and national security state seem to be exploring to deal with the issue — like trying to determine what kinds of individuals will join terrorist groups or profiling lone wolves — won’t work. The reasons individuals join terrorist groups are notoriously complex, and the same holds true for politically violent people who act alone. After reviewing those 119 lone-wolf cases, for example, the researchers concluded, “There was no uniform profile of lone-actor terrorists.” Even if a “profile” were to emerge, they added, it would be essentially worthless: “[T]he use of such a profile would be unwarranted because many more people who do not engage in lone-actor terrorism would share these characteristics, while others might not but would still engage in lone-actor terrorism.”

As a group, such solitary terrorists differ from society at large in one crucial way: almost one out of three had been diagnosed with a mental illness or personality disorder before engaging in political violence. Another study concentrating on 98 U.S. perpetrators found that approximately 40% had recognizable mental health problems. The comparable figure for the general population: 1.5%.

Given such high rates of psychological disturbance, there’s a chance individual attacks could be prevented if at-risk people got the mental health care they needed before they took a violent turn.

Mental Illness

A study found that 40 percent of U.S. solitary terrorists had recognizable mental health problems, but in general, there is no uniform profile of lone-wolf terrorists.

Fact vs. Fiction

Fortunately, what makes lone wolves so difficult to detect beforehand renders them more impotent when they strike.

Because such individuals don’t have a larger network of financing and training, and may be disturbed as well, they are likely to have a far less sophisticated skill set when it comes to arming themselves or planning attacks. Terrorism researcher Ramon Spaaij of Australia’s Victoria University created a database of 88 identified lone wolves who perpetrated attacks between 1968 and 2010 in 15 countries. What he found should dispel some of the fear now being associated with lone-wolf terrorism and so the increasingly elaborate and overzealous government planning around it.

Spaaij identified 198 total attacks by those 88 solo actors — just 1.8% of the 11,235 recorded terrorist incidents worldwide. Since lone wolves generally don’t have the know-how to construct bombs (as the Unabomber did), they usually rely on firearms and attack soft, populated targets, which law enforcement responds to quickly. Therefore, Spaaij found that the average lethality rate was .062 deaths per attack while group-based terrorists averaged 1.6 people per attack.

Inside the United States, 136 people died due to individual terrorist attacks between 1940 and 2012 — each death undoubtedly a tragedy, but still a microscopic total compared to the 14,000 murders the FBI has reported in each of the last five years. In other words, you shouldn’t be losing sleep over lone-wolf attacks. As an American, the chance that you’ll die in any kind of terrorist violence is infinitesimal to begin with. In fact, you’re four more times likely to die from being struck by lightning. If anything, the present elevation of the lone-wolf terrorist to existential threat status in Washington creates the kind of fear and government overreach that the perpetrators of such attacks want to provoke.

If individual terrorists are the “new nightmare,” it’s only because we allow them to be.

Lone Wolf ≠ Muslim

During the December hostage crisis at a café in Sydney, Australia, orchestrated by Man Haron Monis, an Iranian immigrant, former CIA Deputy Director Michael Morell had this dire prediction: “[W]e’re going to see this kind of attack here,” he told “CBS This Morning.” “It shouldn’t surprise people when this happens here sometime over the next year or so, guaranteed.”

This was typical of the recent rhetorical escalation by officials and former officials in the national security state when it comes to this kind of terror. But Morell’s prediction was no prediction at all. Such attacks do occur here. One had, for instance, been solved a little more than a month earlier. Eric Matthew Frein was apprehended the day before Halloween through an intensive search in the Pocono Mountains of Pennsylvania after shooting two state troopers outside a police barracks with a sniper rifle in September. Officer Corporal Bryon K. Dickson II died, while Trooper Alex T. Douglass was wounded. Frein, whom authorities initially called an “anti-government survivalist,” was eventually charged with two terrorism counts after he told police that the shootings were a way to “wake people up.” They also found a letter he had written to his parents stating that he wanted to “ignite a fire” because only “another revolution can get us back the liberties we once had.”

Individual violence like this, whether labeled as terrorism or not, is nothing new. It’s been dealt with for decades without the kind of panic, fear-mongering, and measures being instituted today. After all, according to Spaaij, between 1968 and 2010, 45% of all individual terrorist attacks recorded in 15 countries occurred in the United States.

However, as Spaaij and his research partner Mark Hamm discovered, these figures are distinctly bloated. The reason is simple: included in them are numerous examples of “individual” terrorist acts inspired by al-Qaeda-style ideology that actually resulted from law enforcement-instigated or -aided plots. Spaaij and Hamm found that at least 15 of these had occurred between 2001 and 2013. In them, a “lone” perpetrator would actually be involved with, and often directed or encouraged by, a government informant or undercover agent. This adds up to about 25% of post-9/11 cases of lone wolfism in the U.S., though the label is hardly accurate under the circumstances. These are essentially government stings, which not only inflate the number of individual terrorism incidents in the U.S., but disproportionately focus law enforcement attention on American Muslim communities.

An egregious example was the case of Rezwan Ferdaus, a 26-year-old Massachusetts man and American Muslim. The FBI busted him in 2011 for conspiring with undercover agents to build crude explosive-laden drones out of remote-controlled planes to fly into the Pentagon and the Capitol Building. In reality, this was a government-concocted plot, and Ferdaus was no lone wolf. (He was incapable of thinking this up or carrying it off on his own.) The FBI ignored clear signs that their target wasn’t a terrorist, but a mentally ill man, deteriorating rapidly. Nevertheless, he was repeatedly termed a lone wolf by law enforcement and the media. Charged with providing material support to terrorists, in 2012, he was sentenced to 17 years in prison.

By contrast, when the apparent lone wolf isn’t a Muslim or other minority, he rarely finds the fear-inducing terrorist label pinned on him by the government, the media, or security experts. Take James von Brunn, a white supremacist who murdered a security guard at the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum. According to the Department of Homeland Security, the act had no connection to terrorism, although it was ideologically motivated, as one FBI official acknowledged.

Or Francis Grady, who tried to burn down a Planned Parenthood clinic in Grand Chute, Wisconsin, in 2012, because, as he told a U.S. district court judge, “They’re killing babies there.” Grady was not charged with a terrorism offence either. When asked why, Assistant United States Attorney William Roach said that Grady had tried to burn down an unoccupied room in an empty building.

Compare those reactions to the case of Zale Thompson, a disturbed African-American man who attacked four New York City police officers in October with a hatchet. Only a day after the attack, Police Commissioner Bill Bratton said, “I’m very comfortable this was a terrorist attack, certainly.” The apparent evidence: Thompson was a recent convert to Islam who had visited websites affiliated with terrorist groups like al-Qaeda and ISIS.

As Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, “Terrorism is simultaneously the single most meaningless and manipulated word in the American political lexicon.” The same can be said of its lone-wolf version. Not surprisingly, it has by now become essentially synonymous with being Muslim and little else, which stigmatizes American Muslims and makes their communities targets for abusive law enforcement techniques, including FBI-style sting operations and massive, intrusive surveillance. Typically, one terrorism researcher defined lone wolves as “individuals pursuing Islamist terrorist goals alone.” In reality, Muslims have no more of a monopoly on lone-wolf terrorism than they do on terrorism more generally.

American Muslim

Fear of lone-wolf violence places a disproportionate amount of law enforcement attention, which includes stings and intrusive surveillance, on Muslim communities in the U.S.

Counterproductive Responses

At the moment, the response to the lone-wolf hullabaloo, like so much else in recent years, is inching us further down the path toward an American police state. One government response, now being re-emphasized, comes (of course!) with its own acronym: countering violent extremism, or CVE.

The program, announced in 2011, aims to partner with communities — almost exclusively Muslim ones in practice — in the name of terrorism prevention. One of the ways communities are to do this is by creating safe spaces where individuals can discuss politics and religion without fear of lurking government agents. Yet members of these same communities will then be encouraged to report back to authorities about what was said and by whom in an effort to identify those at-risk of becoming violent extremists, whether alone or in concert with others. American Muslim communities have already experienced government stings and infiltration by informants, and tasking community members to report back to authorities doesn’t seem much different than directly putting agents in their midst.

If CVE’s goal is to build the capacity within communities to prevent violence and terrorism, lone or otherwise, then agencies like Health and Human Services and the Department of Education should be leading the way. They could provide social and mental health services and educational resources — to all communities instead of singling particular ones out based on religion, race, or ethnicity. Instead, not surprisingly, the White House has put the Department of Homeland Security, the Department of Justice, and the FBI in charge of executing its CVE programs, while emphasizing the coordinating role of local U.S. Attorneys’ Offices. American Muslim communities are rightly leery of this arrangement, particularly in light of the way these outfits have recently focused on religious beliefs as a basis for suspicion and, at least in the FBI’s case, have manufactured terror plots by preying on the sick and the vulnerable.

Other proposed solutions to the “lone-wolf” problem are even more indiscriminate.

In a recent book, former RAND Corporation analyst Jeffrey Simon offers an inventory of possible technological strategies for identifying the wolf in sheep’s clothing before he attacks. These are typical of our moment and include the widespread use of Internet-enabled smart surveillance cameras, as well as the active, suspicionless monitoring of Internet and social media usage. Another increasingly popular approach he suggests is the expansion of biometric collection, meaning the government would assemble biological traits unique to each individual, such as facial dimensions and DNA, without any evidence of wrongdoing.

It should be noted that such an approach — and it’s typical of the direction the national security state and law enforcement have taken in these years — would represent a fundamental assault on a free society. Such “countermeasures” should send a shiver down your spine. Simon seems to recognize this, writing, “Privacy issues will have to be addressed, including the willingness of the public to have their facial expressions, eye movements, heart rates, breathing patterns, and other characteristics captured by sophisticated sensors wherever they go in order for a decision to be made by others concerning what they might be intending to do.”

The dangers to Americans in allowing government agencies to collect such intimate information in order to discover whether any of them are possible lone wolves should be obvious in terms of the destruction of privacy, among other things. The result would be both an Orwellian world and a hopeless one in safety terms. It’s already clear that none of these expensive and advanced technological “solutions” will work. Totally innocent conduct (“false positives”) will overwhelm the truly menacing. Some of these approaches, like surveillance cameras, may help finger a perpetrator after the crime, while others, such as trying to identify who will engage in terrorism by his body language, will only further contribute to the security theater the government has staged since 9/11.

Nevertheless, the ineffectiveness of an intrusive security state won’t stop its adherents from pushing for more power and methods of control that are ever more intrusive. “We have to put... aside... all the bleeding-heart, politically correct people who say we can't be emphasizing one community over the other," VICE quoted Congressman Peter King as saying in a radio appearance. The threat, he added, is “coming from the Muslim community and it shows that the [New York Police Department] and [former police commissioner] Ray Kelly were right for so many years when they were really saturating areas where they thought the threat was coming from."

The once-secret NYPD suspicionless surveillance program King is referring to — it stretched from Connecticut to Pennsylvania — never produced a single terrorism lead, much less a conviction. It was “successful” at only one thing: making American Muslim communities in the greater metropolitan area feel as if they were under siege and destroying trusting relations between them and the police.

As King demonstrates, the people who pledge to protect our lives and our liberties are often the same ones who cry wolf. With shepherds like these guarding the flock, wolves may be beside the point.


Matthew Harwood is senior writer/editor of the ACLU and holds an M.Litt. in International Security Studies from the University of St. Andrews in Scotland. His work has appeared at Al Jazeera America, the American Conservative, the Guardian, Guernica, Salon, War is Boring, and the Washington Monthly. He is also a TomDispatch regular.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Matthew Harwood

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1/23/2015

Imperial Power

More invasion of our privacy and further militarization have become a way of life in Washington.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

When it comes to the national security state, our capital has become a thought-free zone. The airlessness of the place, the unwillingness of leading players in the corridors of power to explore new ways of approaching crucial problems is right there in plain sight, yet remarkably unnoticed. Consider this the Tao of Washington.

Last week, based on a heavily redacted 231-page document released by the government in response to a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, Charlie Savage, a superb reporter for the New York Times, revealed that the FBI has become a “significant player” in the world of warrantless surveillance, previously the bailiwick of the National Security Agency. The headline on his piece was: “FBI is broadening surveillance role, report shows.”

Here’s my question: In the last 13 years, can you remember a single headline related to the national security state that went “FBI [or fill in your agency of choice] is narrowing surveillance role [or fill in your role of choice], report shows”? Of course not, because when any crisis, problem, snafu or set of uncomfortable feelings, fears, or acts arises, including those by tiny groups of disturbed people or what are now called “lone wolf” terrorists, there is only one imaginable response: more money, more infrastructure, more private contractors, more surveillance, more weaponry, and more war. On a range of subjects, our post-9/11 experience should have taught us that this — whatever it is we’re doing — is no solution to anything, but no such luck.

More tax dollars consumed, more intrusions in our lives, the further militarization of the country, the dispatching of some part of the U.S. military to yet another country, the enshrining of war or war-like actions as the option of choice — this, by now, is a way of life. These days, the only headlines out of Washington that should surprise us would have “narrowing” or “less,” not “broadening” or “more,” in them.

Thinking outside the box may seldom have been a prominent characteristic of Washington, but when it comes to innovative responses to problems, our political system seems particularly airless right now. Isn’t it strange, for instance, that being secretary of state these days means piling up bragging rights to mileage by constantly, frenetically circumnavigating the globe? The State Department website now boasts that John Kerry has traveled 682,000 miles during his time in office, just as it once boasted of Hillary Clinton’s record-breaking 956,733 miles, and yet, like the secretary of defense or the chairman of the Joint Chiefs or the CIA director or the national security advisor or the president himself, when it comes to rethinking failing policies, none of them ever seem to venture into unknown territory or entertain thoughts that might lead in unsettling directions. No piling up of the mileage there.

In a sense, there are only two operative words in twenty-first-century Washington: more and war. In this context, there really is just one well-policed party of thought in town. It matters not a whit that, under the ministrations of that “party,” the Pentagon and the rest of the national security state have grown to monstrous proportions, even though American war and security policies don’t have a significant success to their name.

Four Words That Rule Washington (and Two Words That Don’t)

Here then are four key words — security, safety, intelligence, and war — essential to present-day Washington. Add in two others, peace and bases, that for very different reasons are missing in action. Now, put together both the chatter and the silences around those six words and you can begin to grasp why our nation’s capital is such a dead zone in terms of new ideas or ways of acting in our world.

Let’s start with two words so commonplace that no serious player would bother to question them: security (as in “national”) and safety (as in “American”). On those two words alone, the new Washington has been funded and expanded endlessly in the post-9/11 era. They are the soil in which has grown just about every action that put the state intrusively in our lives, sidelined the citizenry, and emboldened a spirit of impunity in the national security bureaucracy, a sense that no one will ever be held accountable for any action, including kidnapping, torture, murder, the destruction of evidence, assassination, and perjury. Both words have an implied “from” after them, as in “from terrorism.”

And yet it has been estimated that an American’s annual fatality risk from terrorism is only one in 3.5 million. When it comes to your security and safety, in other words, don’t focus on local lone wolf jihadists; just put your car in the garage and leave it there. After all, your odds on losing your life in a traffic accident in any year are about one in 8,000.

Put another way, Americans have learned how to live with, on average, approximately 38,000 traffic deaths a year in the post-9/11 era without blinking, without investing trillions of dollars in a network of agencies to protect them from vehicles, without recruiting hundreds of thousands of private contractors to help make them safe and secure from cars, trucks, and buses. And yet when it comes to the deaths of tiny numbers of Americans, nothing is too much for our safety and security. More astonishing yet, almost all of this investment has visibly led not to the diminution of terrorism, but to its growth, to ever more terrorists and terror organizations and ever greater insecurity. This, in turn, has spurred the growth of the national security state yet more, even though it has shown little evidence of offering us significant protection.

Car Accident

Keep your car off the road if you think terrorism is a real danger.

Imagine that the government suddenly decided to build high-tech shark fences off every American beach to protect bathers from another kind of headline-inducing predator which strikes even more rarely than terrorists. Imagine as well that an enormous bureaucracy was created to construct and oversee the maintenance of those fences and the launching of armed patrols to take out the global shark population. And imagine as well that the result was a rise in the threat of shark attacks off those coasts, as well as endless claims from the officials in that bureaucracy that they were doing a completely bang-up job. Wouldn’t their word be doubted? Wouldn’t the whole program be reconsidered? Wouldn’t there be a debate in this country about what it means to be safe and secure, and about where our tax dollars were going?

Life itself is a danger zone. It’s not possible to live in total safety and security. So any system that aims to offer that, even for one phenomenon, and then feeds off the very opposite, should be open to question. Certainly, sacrificing things that have long been considered important to American life for protection from the rare and random chance that you might be injured or die is a decision that should be rethought from time to time. In this case, however, it seems that we can no longer imagine what life without a looming national security state might be like.

Now, here’s another word closely associated with the last two: intelligence. Consider it sacrosanct, representing as it does the religion of the national security state. There is only one rule when it comes to intelligence: you can’t have too much of it. Hence, our 17 ever-expanding, intertwined “intelligence” agencies, a vast, still proliferating apparatus for conducting covert ops and gathering information on everyone from presidents and chancellors to peasants in the rural backlands of the planet in every form in which anyone could possibly communicate or simply express themselves or even engage in public play.

This vast world of information overload has, in turn, been plunged into a world of secrecy in which, if it weren’t for leakers and whistleblowers, we would never have any intelligence that they didn’t want us to have. Over these last years, this system has proven intrusive in ways that even the totalitarian states of the previous century couldn’t have imagined, as well as abusive in ways degrading almost beyond imagination. It has also collected more information about all of us than can even be grasped; and yet, as far as we can tell, it has also been eternally a step behind in delivering actionable information to the government on just about any subject you want to mention.

However, whether what it does works or not, is legal or not, is useful or not, doesn't matter in Washington. There, the American intelligence community is unassailable. It emerges from every imbroglio, including the recent one over torture, stronger, not weaker. Its leadership, having made howling mistakes from 9/11 on, is never held accountable for any of them and is always promoted and honored. Oversight of what it does is on the wane. The visibly Orwellian nature of American intelligence is now widely accepted, at least in Washington, as a necessity of our age, of our need for... you guessed it... safety and security.

As a result, its bureaucratic expansion, secret wars, global kill lists, and other activities are largely beyond challenge. In response, for instance, to the disaster of 9/11, a new post, the director of national intelligence, was created to better coordinate the “U.S. intelligence community.” The director's “office,” which started with a staff of 11, now has an estimated 1,750 employees, the sort of growth that can be seen just about everywhere in the intelligence world.

We no longer have the slightest idea what life might be like if, instead of 17 significant intelligence outfits, we had just two of them, or even one. Or whether an intelligence agency operating purely on open-source information might not offer a more useful view of how our world works to American leaders than the vast, secretive, privatized crew of the present moment. We have no idea what our world would be like if the president no longer had his private army, the CIA (not to mention his second private army, the Joint Special Operations Command). None of this could possibly be brought up in the halls of power in Washington.

And here’s another word that’s had its way in the capital in these years: war (and related terms like intervention, counterinsurgency, surge, and raid). It has become the option of choice in situation after situation, while the Pentagon has reached monumental proportions and its elite operatives have become a massive secret military within the military. In any crisis, even essentially civilian ones such as the Ebola outbreak in Western Africa, that military is invariably called upon to ride to the rescue.

You could, in fact, think of these last 13 years in Washington as a sweeping, all-encompassing experiment in modern warfare. The denizens of that city now live in an eternal “wartime,” while from Pakistan to Libya across the Greater Middle East and now much of Africa, U.S. military personnel are eternally engaged in a range of wars, war-like activities, and preparations for future conflicts, while the skies are filled with U.S. planes and drones. At a moment when war seems to be the only go-to option (other than sanctions) in the U.S. foreign policy tool box and a high official can even talk about declaring war on scattered deranged individuals, the results of this military-first global strategy should be considered definitively in. Since 9/11, it has led to a series of well-publicized failures of the first order without a single genuine success, not one instance where anything like a goal Washington set was actually met. Yet a military-first policy remains the unquestioned, unchallenged option of choice and the military budget is largely sacrosanct even for a budget-cutting Congress.

Here, on the other hand, is a word you won’t see in Washington: peace. Once, it was part of the American political lexicon; now, it’s essentially been banished. You’d have to be a wuss to use it.

And here’s another word that’s essentially forbidden: bases. Since World War II, the U.S. has garrisoned the planet in a way achieved by no other imperial power. In the twenty-first century, when even the largest powers have only a few or no military bases outside their national territories, the U.S. still has hundreds scattered around the world. Included in the tally should be the 11 floating towns, loaded with air power — we call them aircraft carriers — that regularly cruise the high seas.

Aircraft Carrier

The aircraft carrier: a constant reminder of American military power throughout the seas.

The Greater Middle East is packed to the seams with U.S. military bases and drone bases have been spreading rapidly as well. This is a living reality in much of the world. In the U.S., it goes essentially unnoticed and almost completely unmentioned. It's so fundamental to Washington’s military-first policies that, while taken for granted, it is beyond discussion or even public acknowledgement. The very idea of beginning to dismantle this empire of bases, which would automatically change Washington’s military stance in relation to the rest of the planet, is similarly beyond consideration, discussion, or thought.

Who knows what it would mean to abolish the CIA, slash the defense budget, scale down American intelligence, dismantle that empire of bases, or return peace to its first-option status? We know nothing about this because we haven’t seen any of it tried, or even seriously discussed, in twenty-first-century Washington.

Decades of the Living Dead

In the title of his prophetic pre-9/11 book Blowback, Chalmers Johnson brought that term of CIA tradecraft out of the closet. He focused on the way covert Agency operations in distant lands carried the seeds of future retaliation on this country. Because those operations were so secret, though, ordinary Americans were incapable of making the connection between what we did and what hit us. Today, in a world filled with blowback, the connections between Washington’s acts and what follows are no longer in the shadows but regularly in plain sight. Yet they are seldom acknowledged, particularly by policymakers in Washington.

In the wake of the 2014 midterm elections, the capital is said to be a big government town being taken over by smaller government types — not, however, if you’re talking about the national security state. With the rarest of exceptions, the “small government” folks, aka Republicans, have never seen an oppressive state power they wouldn’t bow down before and champion. Hence, whatever the situation at hand — Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Ukraine, surveillance — Republican war hawks, now in control of Congress, will invariably demand more.

Nor should you imagine, as the 2016 campaign revs up, that any of this is likely to change in the years to come. If we end up with the much-ballyhooed dynastic contest between Hillary and Jeb (or, if you prefer, Hillary and that eternal presidential wannabe Mitt), here’s what you should already know: whichever candidate steps into the Oval Office in January 2017 will bring along a whole host of suitably retread personalities toting a jostling crowd of retread ideas.

Some of the people the new president will nominate for office or appoint as advisors will be familiar faces, since that's the way of the world in Washington. Naturally, they will carry with them the most familiar of Washington mindsets. Just recall January 2009, when the hope candidate entered the White House bringing with him those economic retreads from the reign of the man from Hope, Larry Summers and Robert Rubin; in foreign and war policy, there was the ur-Clintonista Hillary, Bush military appointee General David Petraeus, and the director of the CIA under George H.W. Bush and secretary of defense under his son, the former cold warrior Robert Gates. Others who weren’t household names or faces from previous administrations might as well have been. In foreign, war, and economic policy, it was a cast of characters eminently suitable for (as I wrote at the time) a political zombie movie.

Similarly, none of the retreads Hillary, Jeb, or Mitt would bring with them will have a new idea or entertain a thought that wanders off the Washington reservation. And that essentially guarantees one thing: Republican or Democrat, it’ll be dead air to 2020 — and if either a Bush or a Clinton is then reelected, until 2025, by which time the U.S. would have been led by those two families for 28 of the last 36 years. Washington is, in this sense, the land of the walking policy dead and war, safety, security, and intelligence (that is, failure and disaster) are ours to the horizon.


Tom Engelhardt is a co-founder of the American Empire Project and the author of The United States of Fear as well as a history of the Cold War, The End of Victory Culture. He runs the Nation Institute's TomDispatch.com. His new book is Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World (Haymarket Books).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Tom Engelhardt

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1/15/2015

Global War On Terror

There are some things you should know before joining the U.S. military and the Global War on Terror.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Dear Aspiring Ranger,

You’ve probably just graduated from high school and you’ve undoubtedly already signed an Option 40 contract guaranteeing you a shot at the Ranger indoctrination program (R.I.P.). If you make it through R.I.P. you’ll surely be sent off to fight in the Global War on Terror. You’ll be part of what I often heard called “the tip of the spear.”

The war you’re heading into has been going on for a remarkably long time. Imagine this: you were five years old when I was first deployed to Afghanistan in 2002. Now I’m graying a bit, losing a little up top, and I have a family. Believe me, it goes faster than you expect.

Once you get to a certain age, you can’t help thinking about the decisions you made (or that, in a sense, were made for you) when you were younger. I do that and someday you will, too. Reflecting on my own years in the 75th Ranger regiment, at a moment when the war you’ll find yourself immersed in was just beginning, I’ve tried to jot down a few of the things they don’t tell you at the recruiting office or in the pro-military Hollywood movies that may have influenced your decision to join. Maybe my experience will give you a perspective you haven’t considered.

I imagine you’re entering the military for the same reason just about everyone volunteers: it felt like your only option. Maybe it was money, or a judge, or a need for a rite of passage, or the end of athletic stardom. Maybe you still believe that the U.S. is fighting for freedom and democracy around the world and in existential danger from “the terrorists.” Maybe it seems like the only reasonable thing to do: defend our country against terrorism.

The media has been a powerful propaganda tool when it comes to promoting that image, despite the fact that, as a civilian, you were more likely to be killed by a toddler than a terrorist. I trust you don’t want regrets when you’re older and that you commendably want to do something meaningful with your life. I’m sure you hope to be the best at something. That’s why you signed up to be a Ranger.

Make no mistake: whatever the news may say about the changing cast of characters the U.S. is fighting and the changing motivations behind the changing names of our military “operations” around the world, you and I will have fought in the same war. It’s hard to believe that you will be taking us into the 14th year of the Global War on Terror (whatever they may be calling it now). I wonder which one of the 668 U.S. military bases worldwide you’ll be sent to.

In its basics, our global war is less complicated to understand than you might think, despite the difficult-to-keep-track-of enemies you will be sent after — whether al-Qaeda (“central,” al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula, in the Magreb, etc.), or the Taliban, or al-Shabab in Somalia, or ISIS (aka ISIL, or the Islamic State), or Iran, or the al-Nusra Front, or Bashar al-Assad’s regime in Syria. Admittedly, it’s a little hard to keep a reasonable scorecard. Are the Shia or the Sunnis our allies? Is it Islam we’re at war with? Are we against ISIS or the Assad regime or both of them?

Just who these groups are matters, but there’s an underlying point that it’s been too easy to overlook in recent years: ever since this country’s first Afghan War in the 1980s (that spurred the formation of the original al-Qaeda), our foreign and military policies have played a crucial role in creating those you will be sent to fight. Once you are in one of the three battalions of the 75th Ranger Regiment, the chain-of-command will do its best to reduce global politics and the long-term good of the planet to the smallest of matters and replace them with the largest of tasks: boot polishing, perfectly made beds, tight shot groupings at the firing range, and your bonds with the Rangers to your right and left.

In such circumstances, it’s difficult — I know that well — but not impossible to keep in mind that your actions in the military involve far more than whatever’s in front of you or in your gun sights at any given moment. Our military operations around the world — and soon that will mean you — have produced all kinds of blowback. Thought about a certain way, I was being sent out in 2002 to respond to the blowback created by the first Afghan War and you’re about to be sent out to deal with the blowback created by my version of the second one.

I’m writing this letter in the hope that offering you a little of my own story might help frame the bigger picture for you.

Let me start with my first day “on the job.” I remember dropping my canvas duffle bag at the foot of my bunk in Charlie Company, and almost immediately being called into my platoon sergeant's office. I sprinted down a well-buffed hallway, shadowed by the platoon’s “mascot”: a Grim-Reaper-style figure with the battalion’s red and black scroll beneath it. It hovered like something you’d see in a haunted house on the cinder block wall adjoining the sergeant’s office. It seemed to be watching me as I snapped to attention in his doorway, beads of sweat on my forehead. “At ease... Why are you here, Fanning? Why do you think you should be a Ranger?” All this he said with an air of suspicion.

Shaken, after being screamed out of a bus with all my gear, across an expansive lawn in front of the company’s barracks, and up three flights of stairs to my new home, I responded hesitantly, “Umm, I want to help prevent another 9/11, First Sergeant.” It must have sounded almost like a question.

“There is only one answer to what I just asked you, son. That is: you want to feel the warm red blood of your enemy run down your knife blade.”

Taking in his military awards, the multiple tall stacks of manila folders on his desk, and the photos of what turned out to be his platoon in Afghanistan, I said in a loud voice that rang remarkably hollowly, at least to me, “Roger, First Sergeant!”

He dropped his head and started filling out a form. “We’re done here,” he said without even bothering to look up again.

The platoon sergeant’s answer had a distinct hint of lust in it but, surrounded by all those folders, he also looked to me like a bureaucrat. Surely such a question deserved something more than the few impersonal and sociopathic seconds I spent in that doorway.

Nonetheless, I spun around and ran back to my bunk to unpack, not just my gear but also his disturbing answer to his own question and my sheepish, “Roger, First Sergeant!” reply. Until that moment, I hadn’t thought of killing in such an intimate way. I had indeed signed on with the idea of preventing another 9/11. Killing was still an abstract idea to me, something I didn’t look forward to. He undoubtedly knew this. So what was he doing?

As you head into your new life, let me try to unpack his answer and my experience as a Ranger for you.

Let’s start that unpacking process with racism: That was the first and one of the last times I heard the word “enemy” in battalion. The usual word in my unit was “Hajji.” Now, Hajji is a word of honor among Muslims, referring to someone who has successfully completed a pilgrimage to the Holy Site of Mecca in Saudi Arabia. In the U.S. military, however, it was a slur that implied something so much bigger.

The soldiers in my unit just assumed that the mission of the small band of people who took down the Twin Towers and put a hole in the Pentagon could be applied to any religious person among the more than 1.6 billion Muslims on this planet. The platoon sergeant would soon help usher me into group-blame mode with that “enemy.” I was to be taught instrumental aggression. The pain caused by 9/11 was to be tied to the everyday group dynamics of our unit. This is how they would get me to fight effectively. I was about to be cut off from my previous life and psychological manipulation of a radical sort would be involved. This is something you should prepare yourself for.

When you start hearing the same type of language from your chain-of-command in its attempt to dehumanize the people you are off to fight, remember that 93% of all Muslims condemned the attacks on 9/11. And those who sympathized claimed they feared a U.S. occupation and cited political not religious reasons for their support.

But, to be blunt, as George W. Bush said early on (and then never repeated), the war on terror was indeed imagined in the highest of places as a “crusade.” When I was in the Rangers, that was a given. The formula was simple enough: al-Qaeda and the Taliban represented all of Islam, which was our enemy. Now, in that group-blame game, ISIS, with its mini-terror state in Iraq and Syria, has taken over the role. Be clear again that nearly all Muslims reject its tactics. Even Sunnis in the region where ISIS is operating are increasingly rejecting the group. And it is those Sunnis who may indeed take down ISIS when the time is right.

If you want to be true to yourself, don’t be swept up in the racism of the moment. Your job should be to end war, not perpetuate it. Never forget that.

Praying Girl

If you get shipped off to the Middle East, keep in mind that 93% of Muslims denounced the 9/11 attacks.

The second stop in that unpacking process should be poverty: After a few months, I was finally shipped off to Afghanistan. We landed in the middle of the night. As the doors on our C-5 opened, the smell of dust, clay, and old fruit rolled into the belly of that transport plane. I was expecting the bullets to start whizzing by me as I left it, but we were at Bagram Air Base, a largely secure place in 2002.

Jump ahead two weeks and a three-hour helicopter ride and we were at our forward operating base. The morning after we arrived I noticed an Afghan woman pounding at the hard yellow dirt with a shovel, trying to dig up a gaunt little shrub just outside the stone walls of the base. Through the eye-slit of her burqa I could just catch a hint of her aged face. My unit took off from that base, marching along a road, hoping (I suspect) to stir up a little trouble. We were presenting ourselves as bait, but there were no bites.

When we returned a few hours later, that woman was still digging and gathering firewood, undoubtedly to cook her family’s dinner that night. We had our grenade launchers, our M242 machine guns that fired 200 rounds a minute, our night-vision goggles, and plenty of food — all vacuum-sealed and all of it tasting the same. We were so much better equipped to deal with the mountains of Afghanistan than that woman — or so it seemed to us then. But it was, of course, her country, not ours, and its poverty, like that of so many places you may find yourself in, will, I assure you, be unlike anything you have ever seen. You will be part of the most technologically advanced military on Earth and you will be greeted by the poorest of the poor. Your weaponry in such an impoverished society will feel obscene on many levels. Personally, I felt like a bully much of my time in Afghanistan.

Now, it’s the moment to unpack “the enemy”: Most of my time in Afghanistan was quiet and calm. Yes, rockets occasionally landed in our bases, but most of the Taliban had surrendered by the time I entered the country. I didn’t know it then, but as Anand Gopal has reported in his groundbreaking book, No Good Men Among the Living, our war on terror warriors weren’t satisfied with reports of the unconditional surrender of the Taliban. So units like mine were sent out looking for “the enemy.” Our job was to draw the Taliban — or anyone really — back into the fight.

Believe me, it was ugly. We were often enough targeting innocent people based on bad intelligence and in some cases even seizing Afghans who had actually pledged allegiance to the U.S. mission. For many former Taliban members, it became an obvious choice: fight or starve, take up arms again or be randomly seized and possibly killed anyway. Eventually the Taliban did regroup and today they are resurgent. I know now that if our country’s leadership had truly had peace on its mind, it could have all been over in Afghanistan in early 2002.

If you are shipped off to Iraq for our latest war there, remember that the Sunni population you will be targeting is reacting to a U.S.-backed Shia regime in Baghdad that’s done them dirty for years. ISIS exists to a significant degree because the largely secular members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath party were labeled the enemy as they tried to surrender after the U.S. invasion of 2003. Many of them had the urge to be reincorporated into a functioning society, but no such luck; and then, of course, the key official the Bush administration sent to Baghdad simply disbanded Saddam Hussein’s army and tossed its 400,000 troops out onto the streets at a time of mass unemployment.

It was a remarkable formula for creating resistance in another country where surrender wasn’t good enough. The Americans of that moment wanted to control Iraq (and its oil reserves). To this end, in 2006, they backed the Shia autocrat Nouri al-Maliki for prime minister in a situation where Shia militias were increasingly intent on ethnically cleansing the Sunni population of the Iraqi capital.

Given the reign of terror that followed, it’s hardly surprising to find former Baathist army officers in key positions in ISIS and the Sunnis choosing that grim outfit as the lesser of the two evils in its world. Again, the enemy you are being shipped off to fight is, at least in part, a product of your chain-of-command’s meddling in a sovereign country. And remember that, whatever its grim acts, this enemy presents no existential threat to American security, at least so says Vice President Joe Biden. Let that sink in for a while and then ask yourself whether you really can take your marching orders seriously.

Next, in that unpacking process, consider noncombatants: When unidentified Afghans would shoot at our tents with old Russian rocket launchers, we would guesstimate where the rockets had come from and then call in air strikes. You’re talking 500-pound bombs. And so civilians would die. Believe me, that’s really what’s at the heart of our ongoing war. Any American like you heading into a war zone in any of these years was likely to witness what we call “collateral damage.” That’s dead civilians.

The number of non-combatants killed since 9/11 across the Greater Middle East in our ongoing war has been breathtaking and horrifying. Be prepared, when you fight, to take out more civilians than actual gun-toting or bomb-wielding “militants.” At the least, an estimated 174,000 civilians died violent deaths as a result of U.S. wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan between 2001 and April 2014. In Iraq, over 70% of those who died are estimated to have been civilians. So get ready to contend with needless deaths and think about all those who have lost friends and family members in these wars, and themselves are now scarred for life. A lot of people who once would never have thought about fighting any type of war or attacking Americans now entertain the idea. In other words, you will be perpetuating war, handing it off to the future.

Finally, there’s freedom and democracy to unpack, if we’re really going to empty that duffel bag: Here’s an interesting fact that you might consider, if spreading freedom and democracy around the world was on your mind. Though records are incomplete on the subject, the police have killed something like 5,000 people in this country since 9/11 — more, in other words, than the number of American soldiers killed by “insurgents” in the same period. In those same years, outfits like the Rangers and the rest of the U.S. military have killed countless numbers of people worldwide, targeting the poorest people on the planet. And are there fewer terrorists around? Does all this really make a lot of sense to you?

When I signed up for the military, I was hoping to make a better world. Instead I helped make it more dangerous. I had recently graduated from college. I was also hoping that, in volunteering, I would get some of my student loans paid for. Like you, I was looking for practical help, but also for meaning. I wanted to do right by my family and my country. Looking back, it’s clear enough to me that my lack of knowledge about the actual mission we were undertaking betrayed me — and you and us.

I’m writing to you especially because I just want you to know that it’s not too late to change your mind. I did. I became a war resister after my second deployment in Afghanistan for all the reasons I mention above. I finally unpacked, so to speak. Leaving the military was one of the most difficult but rewarding experiences of my life. My own goal is to take what I learned in the military and bring it to high school and college students as a kind of counter-recruiter. There’s so much work to be done, given the 10,000 military recruiters in the U.S. working with an almost $700 million advertising budget. After all, kids do need to hear both sides.

I hope this letter is a jumping off point for you. And if, by any chance, you haven’t signed that Option 40 contract yet, you don’t have to. You can be an effective counter-recruiter without being an ex-military guy. Young people across this country desperately need your energy, your desire to be the best, your pursuit of meaning. Don’t waste it in Iraq or Afghanistan or Yemen or Somalia or anywhere else the Global War on Terror is likely to send you.

As we used to say in the Rangers…

Lead the Way,

Rory Fanning


Rory Fanning, a TomDispatch regular, walked across the United States for the Pat Tillman Foundation in 2008-2009, following two deployments to Afghanistan with the 2nd Army Ranger Battalion. Fanning became a conscientious objector after his second tour. He is the author of Worth Fighting For: An Army Ranger’s Journey Out of the Military and Across America (Haymarket, 2014).

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2015 Rory Fanning

Top photo by Fotolia/guerrieroale

Bottom photo by Fotolia/aisman77



12/26/2014

Iraq and Afghanistan protestors

These anti-war protestors marching through the streets of Minneapolis probably won't be praised by politicians anytime soon.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

Go to war and every politician will thank you, and they’ll continue to do so — with monuments and statues, war museums and military cemeteries — long after you’re dead. But who thanks those who refused to fight, even in wars that most people later realized were tragic mistakes? Consider the 2003 invasion of Iraq, now widely recognized as igniting an ongoing disaster. America’s politicians still praise Iraq War veterans to the skies, but what senator has a kind word to say about the hundreds of thousands of protesters who marched and demonstrated before the invasion was even launched to try to stop our soldiers from risking their lives in the first place?

What brings all this to mind is an apparently heartening exception to the rule of celebrating war-makers and ignoring peacemakers. A European rather than an American example, it turns out to be not quite as simple as it first appears. Let me explain.

December 25th will be the 100th anniversary of the famous Christmas Truce of the First World War. You probably know the story: after five months of unparalleled industrial-scale slaughter, fighting on the Western Front came to a spontaneous halt. British and German soldiers stopped shooting at each other and emerged into the no-man’s-land between their muddy trenches in France and Belgium to exchange food and gifts.

That story — burnished in recent years by books, songsmusic videos, a feature film, and an opera — is largely true. On Christmas Day, troops did indeed trade cigarettes, helmets, canned food, coat buttons, and souvenirs. They sang carols, barbecued a pig, posed for photographs together, and exchanged German beer for British rum. In several spots, men from the rival armies played soccer together. The ground was pocked with shell craters and proper balls were scarce, so the teams made use of tin cans or sandbags stuffed with straw instead. Officers up to the rank of colonel emerged from the trenches to greet their counterparts on the other side, and they, too, were photographed together. (Refusing to join the party, however, was 25-year-old Adolf Hitler, at the front with his German army unit. He thought the truce shocking and dishonorable.)

Unlike most unexpected outbreaks of peace, the anniversary of this one is being celebrated with extraordinary officially sanctioned fanfare. The British Council, funded in part by the government and invariably headed by a peer or knight, has helped distribute an “education pack” about the Truce to every primary and secondary school in the United Kingdom. It includes photos, eyewitness accounts, lesson plans, test questions, student worksheets, and vocabulary phrases in various languages, including “Meet us halfway,” “What are your trenches like?,” and “Can I take your picture?” The British post office has even issued a set of stamps commemorating the Christmas Truce.

An exhibit of documents, maps, uniforms, and other Truce-related memorabilia has been on display at city hall in Armentières, France. A commemorative youth soccer tournament with teams from Britain, Belgium, France, Austria, and Germany is taking place in Belgium this month. The local mayor and the British and German ambassadors were recently on hand for a soccer game at a newly dedicated “Flanders Peace Field.”

Volunteers from several countries will spend three days and two nights in freshly dug trenches reenacting the Truce. Professional actors, complete with period uniforms, carol-singing, and a soccer match, have already done the same in an elaborate video advertisement for a British supermarket chain. One of the judges for a children’s competition to design a Truce memorial is none other than Prince William, Duke of Cambridge.

What Won’t Be Commemorated

Given the rarity of peace celebrations of any sort, what’s made the Christmas Truce safe for royalty, mayors, and diplomats? Three things, I believe. First, this event — remarkable, spontaneous, and genuinely moving as it was — did not represent a challenge to the sovereignty of war. It was sanctioned by officers on the spot; it was short-lived (the full fury of shelling and machine gunning resumed within a day or two, and poison gas and flamethrowers soon added to the horror); and it was never repeated. It’s safe to celebrate because it threatened nothing. That supermarket video, for instance, advertises a commemorative chocolate bar whose sales proceeds go to the national veterans organization, the Royal British Legion.

Second, commemorating anything, even peace instead of war, is good business. Belgium alone expects two million visitors to former battle sites during the war’s four-and-a-half-year centenary period, and has now added one or two peace sites as visitor destinations. The country is putting $41 million in public funds into museums, exhibits, publicity, and other tourism infrastructure, beyond private investment in new hotel rooms, restaurants, and the like.

Finally, the Christmas Truce is tailor-made to be celebrated by professional soccer, now a huge industry. Top pro players earn $60 million or more a year. Two Spanish teams are each worth more than $3 billion. The former manager of Britain’s Manchester United team, Sir Alex Ferguson, even teaches at the Harvard Business School. Five of the world’s 10 most valuable teams, however, are in Britain, which helps account for that country’s special enthusiasm for these commemorations. The Duke of Cambridge is the official patron of the sport’s British governing body, the Football Association, the equivalent of our NFL. It has joined with the continent-wide Union of European Football Associations in promoting the Christmas Truce soccer tournament and other anniversary hoopla. That packet of material going to more than 30,000 British schools is titled “Football Remembers.”

While such sponsorship represents only a tiny percentage of the public relations budgets of these organizations, they have surely calculated that associating soccer with schoolchildren, Christmas, and a good-news historical event can’t hurt business. All industries keep a close eye on their public image, and soccer especially so at the moment, since in many parts of Europe audiences for it are declining as a barrage of other activities competes for people’s leisure time and spending.

For nearly four years, as we reach the centenary mark for one First World War milestone after another, there will be commemorations galore across Europe. But here’s one thing you can bank on: the Duke of Cambridge and other high dignitaries won’t be caught dead endorsing the anniversaries of far more subversive peace-related events to come.

Christmas Truce memorial

This Christmas Truce memorial in Belgium recognizes one of the few unexpected outbreaks of peace.

For example, although soldiers from both sides on the Western Front mixed on that first Christmas of the war, the most extensive fraternization happened later in Russia. In early 1917, under the stress of catastrophic war losses, creaky, top-heavy imperial Russia finally collapsed and Tsar Nicholas II and his family were placed under house arrest. More than 300 years of rule by the Romanov dynasty was over.

The impact rippled through the Russian army. An American correspondent at the front watched through binoculars as Russian and German enlisted men met in no-man’s-land. Lack of a common language was no barrier: the Germans thrust their bayonets into the earth; the Russians blew across their open palms to show that the Tsar had been swept away. After November of that year, when the Bolsheviks — committed to ending the war — seized power, fraternization only increased. You can find many photographs of Russian and German soldiers posing together or even, in one case, dancing in couples in the snow. Generals on both sides were appalled.

And here are some people who won't be celebrated in “education packs” sent to schools, although they were crucial in helping bring the war to an end: deserters. An alarmed British military attaché in Russia estimated that at least a million Russian soldiers deserted their ill-fed, badly equipped army, most simply walking home to their villages. This lay behind the agreement that halted fighting on the Eastern Front long before it ended in the West.

In the final weeks of the war in the West, the German army began melting away, too. The desertions came not from the front lines but from the rear, where hundreds of thousands of soldiers either disappeared or evaded orders to go to the front. By early autumn 1918, the Berlin police chief estimated that more than 40,000 deserters were hiding in the German capital. No wonder the high command began peace negotiations.

Don’t hold your breath either waiting for official celebrations of the war’s mutinies. Nothing threatened the French army more than the most stunning of these, which broke out in the spring of 1917 following a massive attack hyped as the decisive blow that would win the war. Over several days, 30,000 French soldiers were killed and 100,000 wounded, all to gain a few meaningless miles of blood-soaked ground.

In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of troops refused to advance further. One group even hijacked a train and tried to drive it to Paris, although most soldiers simply stayed in their camps or trenches and made clear that they would not take part in additional suicidal attacks. This “collective indiscipline,” as the generals euphemistically called it, was hushed up, but it paralyzed the army. French commanders dared launch no more major assaults that year. To this day, the subject remains so touchy that some archival documents on the mutinies remain closed to researchers until the 100th anniversary in 2017.

Parades for Whom?

From Bavaria to New Zealand, town squares across the world are adorned with memorials to local men “fallen” in 1914-1918, and statues and plaques honoring the war’s leading generals can be found from Edinburgh Castle to Pershing Square in Los Angeles. But virtually nothing similar celebrates those who served the cause of peace. The Polish-German revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg, who argued against the suppression of free speech both in the Kaiser’s Germany and in Soviet Russia, spent more than two years in a German prison for her opposition to the war. The eloquent British philosopher Bertrand Russell did six months’ time in a London jail for the same reason. The American labor leader Eugene V. Debs, imprisoned for urging resistance to the draft, was still in a federal penitentiary in Atlanta in 1920, two years after the war ended, when he received nearly a million votes as the Socialist Party candidate for president.

The French socialist Jean Jaurès spoke out passionately against the war he saw coming in 1914 and, due to this, was assassinated by a French militarist just four days before the fighting began. (The assassin was found innocent because his was labeled a “crime of passion.”) Against the opposition of their own governments, the pioneer social worker Jane Addams and other women helped organize a women’s peace conference in Holland in 1915 with delegates from both warring and neutral countries. And in every nation that took part in that terrible war, young men of military age — thousands of them — either went to jail or were shot for refusing to fight.

Jump half a century forward, and you’ll see exactly the same pattern of remembrance. Next year marks the 50th anniversary of the arrival of the first official U.S. combat troops in Vietnam, and already a duel is shaping up between the thankers and those who want to honor the antiwar movement that helped end that senseless tragedy.

The Pentagon has already launched a $15 million official commemorative program whose purpose (does this sound familiar?) is “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War... for their service and sacrifice.” Meanwhile, more than 1,000 people, many of us veterans of the U.S. military, the anti-war movement, or both, have signed a petition insisting that “no commemoration of the war in Vietnam can exclude the many thousands of veterans who opposed it, as well as the draft refusals of many thousands of young Americans, some at the cost of imprisonment or exile.”

A recent New York Times article covered the controversy. It mentioned that the Pentagon had been forced to make changes at its commemoration website after Nick Turse, writing at TomDispatch.com, pointed out, among other things, how grossly that site understated civilian deaths in the notorious My Lai massacre.

Perhaps when the next anniversary of the Iraq War comes around, it’s time to break with a tradition that makes ever less sense in our world. Next time, why not have parades to celebrate those who tried to prevent that grim, still ongoing conflict from starting? Of course, there’s an even better way to honor and thank veterans of the struggle for peace: don’t start more wars.


Adam Hochschild’s most recent book, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914-1918, won the Dayton Literary Peace Prize and was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. During the Vietnam era, he was a U.S. Army Reservist and a founder of the Reservists Committee to Stop the War.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2014 Adam Hochschild

Top photo by Fibonacci Blue, licensed under Creative Commons

Bottom photo by ThruTheseLines, licensed under Creative Commons



12/19/2014

The White House

One of the biggest misconceptions about American torture is that it ended when George W. Bush left office.

Reprinted with permission from TomDispatch.

It’s the political story of the week in Washington. At long last, after the endless stalling and foot-shuffling, the arguments about redaction and CIA computer hacking, the claims that its release might stoke others out there in the Muslim world to violence and “throw the C.I.A. to the wolves,” the report — you know which one — is out. Or at least, the redacted executive summary of it is available to be read and, as Senator Mark Udall said before its release, “When this report is declassified, people will abhor what they read. They’re gonna be disgusted. They’re gonna be appalled. They’re gonna be shocked at what we did.”

So now we can finally consider the partial release of the long-awaited report from the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence about the gruesome CIA interrogation methods used during the Bush administration’s “Global War on Terror.” But here’s one important thing to keep in mind: this report addresses only the past practices of a single agency. Its narrow focus encourages us to believe that, whatever the CIA may have once done, that whole sorry torture chapter is now behind us.

In other words, the moment we get to read it, it’s already time to turn the page. So be shocked, be disgusted, be appalled, but don’t be fooled. The Senate torture report, so many years and obstacles in the making, should only be the starting point for a discussion, not the final word on U.S. torture. Here’s why.

Mainstream coverage of American torture in general, and of this new report in particular, rests on three false assumptions:

1. The most important question is whether torture “worked.”

2. U.S. torture ended when George W. Bush left office.

3. The only kind of torture that really “counts” happens in foreign war zones.

Let’s look at each of these in order.

False Assumption #1: The only question is “Did it work?”

Maybe torture “worked” on occasion. Probably it didn’t. But it doesn’t matter because torture is illegal under U.S. and international law, and it’s a moral abomination.

The Senate report’s first finding — and the one that much of a highly predictable debate will focus on — is that the CIA’s “enhanced interrogation techniques” were “ineffective” in identifying the perpetrators of 9/11, producing actionable intelligence, or preventing terrorist attacks. In response, the rhetoric is already flying. The Republicans (except for Senator John McCain) are jumping up and down shouting “It did work! It did!” The president’s own CIA director, John Brennan, has issued his denunciation of the report. While acknowledging that “the Agency made mistakes,” he, too, insisted that torture “worked.” (A couple of days later, he backtracked, suggesting instead that the answer to this question was actually “unknowable.”) Other former officials of the Agency are chiming in big time.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether the CIA’s methods — including waterboarding (which McCain calls “mock execution” and “an exquisite form of torture”); inflicting week-long sleep deprivation; repeated beatings; hanging people by their wrists for days, bombarding them with unbearable sound and light or keeping them in total darkness; threatening to sexually abuse their mothers or harm their children; or, in possibly five cases, shoving a tube up someone’s rectum and filling it with water (supposedly for “rectal rehydration”) — were effective. It doesn’t matter whether these methods led the Navy Seals to Osama bin Laden. It doesn’t matter whether these methods prevented an al-Qaeda attack on the Library Tower in Los Angeles. It doesn’t matter whether they saved American (and only American!) lives. In fact, for those who read the report, the Senate committee is remarkably convincing on a subject about which we already have much information: torture notoriously does not produce useful information. It produces a tangled mess of truths, half-truths, lies, wild invention and confabulation, psychotic ravings, and desperate attempts to say whatever the victim thinks the torturers want to hear.

But none of this matters. Nor does it matter how frightened we are. The situation isn’t complicated. We are not allowed to torture people, because we have passed laws against it and signed treaties saying we won’t do it. The U.N. Convention Against Torture, which the U.S. signed in 1994, makes it very clear that being afraid of an attack is no excuse for torture. In Article 2, the Convention states, “No exceptional circumstances whatsoever, whether a state of war or a threat of war, internal political instability, or any other public emergency, may be invoked as a justification of torture.” People will always make excuses, but there is no legitimate excuse for torture.

What’s at stake here is the kind of country we want to be: Are we a courageous nation ruled by laws or a nation of cowards?

False Assumption #2: Torture ended when George W. Bush left office

In his statement on the day the report was released, President Obama tried once again to shove American torture into a box labeled Bad Things We Used to Do. “Rather than another reason to refight old arguments,” he said, “I hope that today’s report can help us leave these techniques where they belong: in the past.”

In fact, institutionalized state torture is not a thing of the past. It has continued under President Obama. Here are some examples:

• Twice a day in the U.S. prison at Guantánamo, guards forcibly remove hunger strikers from their cells, strap them to a chair, and “feed” them through a tube jammed up the nose and down into the stomach. Here’s how one victim remembered that experience:

“I will never forget the first time they passed the feeding tube up my nose. I can’t describe how painful it is to be force-fed this way. As it was thrust in, it made me feel like throwing up. I wanted to vomit, but I couldn’t. There was agony in my chest, throat, and stomach. I had never experienced such pain before. I would not wish this cruel punishment upon anyone.”

Force-feeding is no humanitarian act; it is a punishment for nonviolent resistance. It often begins with what officials call “cell extraction” — as if prisoners were teeth to be pulled out of a jaw. Here’s what happens, according to Yemini prisoner Moath al-Alwi, who has been at Guantánamo since 2002:

“When I choose to remain in my cell in an act of peaceful protest against the force-feeding, the prison authorities send in a Forced Cell Extraction team: six guards in full riot gear. Those guards are deliberately brutal to punish me for my protest. They pile up on top of me to the point that I feel like my back is about to break. They then carry me out and strap me into the restraint chair, which we hunger strikers call the torture chair.”

Guards use the “torture chair” to restrain the prisoner, says al-Alwi, but also to make the procedure even more painful:

“A new twist to this routine involves the guards restraining me to the chair with my arms cuffed behind my back. The chest strap is then tightened, trapping my arms between my torso and the chair’s backrest. This is done despite the fact that the torture chair features built-in arm restraints. It is extremely painful to remain in this position.”

At present, a Navy nurse faces possible dishonorable discharge for refusing to participate in these force feedings, because he believes they are a form of torture.

Guantanamo Bay Naval Base

According to prisoners at Guantánamo, hunger strikers are forcibly removed from their cells, strapped to a chair and forced-fed twice a day.

Why are detainees on hunger strike in the first place? They are using the only nonviolent means available to them to protest their indefinite and illegal detention, which the U.N. Committee Against Torture says is in itself a violation of U.S. duties under the U.N. Convention Against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman, and Degrading Treatment.

• It wasn’t until this December 10th that the U.S. military finally released its last detainees from the notorious Detention Facility in Parwan on Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. In September 2014, the United States “quietly released” 14 Pakistanis it had held there for some years — none of whom was ever accused of any crime. We know nothing about the treatment of those who remained at Bagram, but we do know that, like the detainees at Guantánamo, the men being held there used hunger strikes as their only nonviolent means of resisting their indefinite detention and solitary confinement.

• In what appears to be a direct contravention of a 2009 presidential executive order to the CIA to shut down all its “black sites,” or secret interrogation centers around the world, the Agency seems still to be operating at least one of them. Or at least it was two years later when journalist Jeremy Scahill reported on a secret underground prison in Mogadishu, Somalia, run by the CIA, ostensibly in cooperation with the Somali government’s National Security Agency. There, according to Scahill, “U.S. intelligence personnel pay the salaries of intelligence agents and also directly interrogate prisoners.”

Have these intelligence agents used “enhanced interrogation techniques”? We don’t know. What we do know, however, was that the place was dark, filthy, and infested with bedbugs and mosquitoes. We know that prisoners held there had been kidnapped, hooded, and transported by plane in a style familiar to anyone who has followed the CIA’s methods over the last dozen years.

If that site is still open, either the CIA is operating it with the Obama administration’s knowledge and consent or it is defying the president of the United States. In either case, there was and possibly still is a serious breach of executive power going on.

• During his confirmation hearings, Obama’s first CIA director, Leon Panetta, told members of Congress that “if the approved techniques were ‘not sufficient’ to get a detainee to divulge details he was suspected of knowing about an imminent attack, he would ask for ‘additional authority’ to use other methods.”

• President Obama’s 2009 executive order ending CIA torture still left open a little-discussed torture window. It continued to allow for “extraordinary rendition,” the capture of terror suspects abroad and their shipping to other countries for detention and interrogation. The U.S. record on this practice since 9/11 has been a grim history of torture at one remove. True, the order says that no one should be sent to a country in which he or she is likely to be tortured, but the U.S. definition of “likely” differs significantly from that of the U.N. Convention Against Torture. Article 3 of the Convention says no one may be sent to another country if there are “substantial grounds for believing that he would be in danger of being subjected to torture.” The United States insists on a more lenient standard: prohibiting rendition if it is “more likely than not” that torture will take place. In practice, this means relying on the word of the receiving country that no harm will be done (wink, wink).

• The U.S. Army Field Manual on Human Intelligence Collector Operations prohibits many forms of torture. However, a classified “annex” still permits sleep deprivation and sensory deprivation. The U.N. Committee Against Torture flagged this — among many other concerns — in its recent report on U.S. compliance with the Convention Against Torture.

• No high civilian officials or military commanders and other personnel were ever prosecuted for the torture they ordered or oversaw, nor of course were the actual CIA torturers. Instead they’re writing their memoirs and painting pictures of themselves bathing. If their political power makes it impossible to try them here, perhaps the outrage of the international community can at least make Dick Cheney and George W. Bush outcasts like other discredited former rulers along the lines of Serbia’s Slobodan Milosovic or Tunisia's Zein el-Abidine Ben Ali.

Or maybe the United States could actually follow the U.N. Committee Against Torture’s recommendation and finally sign up for the International Criminal Court.

False Assumption #3: Torture only counts when it happens in foreign wars

This is not true either. Sometimes, torture happens right here in the United States in police stations, immigrant detention centers, and the American jails and prisons that hold 2.3 million people.

When the United Nations Committee Against Torture released its report in November on U.S. compliance with the U.N. Convention against Torture, among the failures the Committee noted were torture and abuse practices in U.S. prisons and immigrant detention facilities. The frequent brutality of U.S. police forces and their rapid militarization also alarmed the Committee.

Specifically, the Committee pointed to the extensive use of solitary confinement for periods of time longer than two weeks — the point at which many people start exhibiting signs of psychosis, including having hallucinations, hearing voices, and experiencing paranoia. In my state, California, there are people who have been kept from all human contact for more than 15 years. We are beginning to recognize that the 50,000 to 80,000 people being held in solitary confinement in this country are actually being tortured every day. Furthermore, as the U.N. report emphasizes, some of these people haven’t even been convicted of a crime; they’re either being held in pre-trial detention or in immigrant detention centers.

U.S. prisoners also experience high levels of institutionally sanctioned rape and sexual violence. In fact, prison rape is so common, it’s a regular plot device on television police procedurals. Want to keep a “perp” from asking for a lawyer? Threaten to send him to Rikers Island, where who knows what can happen to a pretty guy like him.

The Report Is Out. Now What?

Make no mistake. Getting even this partial and redacted report into public view is a real victory for everyone who hopes to end state torture. But it’s just the beginning, not the end of the fight. There’s still much work to do.

As a start, someone needs to rein in a CIA whose leadership, past and present, seems remarkably committed to the effectiveness of torture practices. We need reports like the one the Senate produced about the whole alphabet soup of agencies involved in the “war on terror.” We need a full accounting, and full accountability, including prosecutions of those responsible, or perhaps even official pardons that would at least establish that crimes were committed. We need to end torture in our own jails and prisons.

The Senate torture report could be the opening we need to really make American torture a thing of the past. Let’s not waste it!


Rebecca Gordon is the author of Mainstreaming Torture: Ethical Approaches in the Post-9/11 United States. She teaches in the philosophy department at the University of San Francisco. She is a member of the War Times/Tiempo de Guerras collective. You can contact her through the Mainstreaming Torture website.

Follow TomDispatch on Twitter and join us on Facebook. Check out the newest Dispatch Book, Rebecca Solnit's Men Explain Things to Me, and Tom Engelhardt's latest book, Shadow Government: Surveillance, Secret Wars, and a Global Security State in a Single-Superpower World.

Copyright 2014 Rebecca Gordon

Top photo by Fotolia/Konstantin L

Bottom photo by jtfgtmo, licensed under Creative Commons








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