Monday, February 22, 2010

Kairos: "Muslim" Doesn't Mean "Terrorist"!

We all need to spend more time talking to our nanas. At least if we're in search of moral authority.

Inside the American bubble: Illinois high school swimming championships
(Image: Sports Illustrated)

I was standing around in my "Loyola Academy Swimming and Diving" shirt after the Illinois State sectional meet at Glenbrook North HS on Saturday. A little old lady, also wearing maroon, came up to me and introduced herself as the grandmother of one of the swimmers. We started to congratulate each other on the great showing by all the Ramblers in general, and by our two respective kids in particular.

I mentioned that I had bumped into a lot of people with her last name, and that launched a whole discussion of roots. (Hers: Italy, Germany . . . Mine: Ireland, Holland . . . .) Before long, each of us had rattled off a substantial part of our family tree. We then progressed to figuring out all the people we knew in common.

We talked for a long time, but we were really just passing the time. Eventually, the swimmers appeared and it was time to get in the car and go home. Before parting, my new friend turned to me one more time and said, "Yes, I tell everyone: I'm Sicilian -- but that doesn't mean I'm Mafia -- and German -- but that doesn't mean I'm a Nazi." And then she added: "And being Muslim doesn't mean someone's a terrorist! That's what I tell people!"

What a big thing she did in that tiny moment! How many moments like that are we given in this life?

Related posts

MOUNTAIN VIEW, CA -- Angle Computer (NASDAQ: AGL) today announced the launch of their new iPhobe offering.

The iPhobe is a humanoid robot that spouts anti-Islamic rhetoric and encourages fear and hatred in an unprecedented variety of ways.

(See Like your iPhone? You'll LOVE the new iPhobe!)

In 2013 America, we have been conditioned to feel anything associated with Middle Eastern and/or Muslim men should trigger feelings of suspicion, fear, and hatred. And when those cues are triggered, all of our objectivity and healthy skepticism goes out the window.

(See Orwell and the Uses of Hate)

We all wish to be judged by our good intentions. But the way people know us is through our actions. So ... what do people in the Muslim world know about us here in the United States?

(See They'll Know Us By Our Actions)

Sunday, February 21, 2010

Drones, 1984, and Foucault's Panopticon

Are drones such a menace because of their weapons? Or because of their surveillance? Or is it even bigger? Ask Foucault . . . .

More: "Why focus on drone attacks?"
For those of us who have been focused on the boots on the ground in Afghanistan, data published by the New York Times yesterday added a whole new dimension: it published statistics on drone sorties and strikes in Afghanistan in 2009.

The article is an important counterpoint to the headline-grabbing drone strikes by the CIA in Pakistan, and is worth reading online. What you miss by looking at the online version of the story, however, is the graphs of month-by-month activity, which show several striking trends. Strikes by missiles and bombs from drones were up sharply in the first half of the year; the second half of the year, by and large, showed a slight tapering off. (This was consistent with the overall trend in attacks by aircraft and drones.) At the same time, the number of drone sorties -- that is, missions of all types, including "just surveillance" -- showed a very steady upward trend month by month throughout the year. As the article reports:

"Predators and Reapers [are] now supplying more than 400 hours of video a day to troops in Afghanistan . . . Some of the Reapers will soon carry 10 cameras instead of just one, and 30 by 2011, adding to the profusion of video."

Up until now, when I have thought about drones, I have thought about the ethics of drones as a weapon in general, including the specific problem of whether drone strikes constitute extrajudicial executions under the Geneva Conventions.

I have always also had a nagging sense that there is something wrong with the surveillance aspects of drones, as well. But I didn't become so focused on it until confronted with the numbers.

Science fiction? 15 Ways George Orwell Was Right . . .
There is perhaps no more powerful portrayal of the problem of extreme surveillance than George Orwell's novel 1984. One of my strongest memories of 1984 was the efforts that Winston had to make simply to find a place in his own apartment where he could escape the observation of Big Brother. Perhaps it was because I, like so many other people, encountered the book as a teenager, when privacy suddenly becomes simultaneously so important as well as so hard to come by, that I remember this so clearly.

While popular culture makes frequent explicit references to "Orwellian" situations that involve doublethink, Newspeak, the Thought Police, and the other ideological nightmares of 1984, I wonder if the real nightmare isn't simply the constant surveillance. I, for one, have always thought that lack of privacy is not an absolute evil, but can only be evaluated in the context of what happens as a result of loss of privacy. I'm beginning to rethink that view.

The French philospher Michel Foucault, in his groundbreaking work Discipline and Punish, reviewed the history of society's efforts to isolate and control elements that caused it problems. Ultimately, Foucault zeroed in on the efforts of Jeremy Bentham and the Utilitarians to apply analysis and scientific thinking to prisons. The result was the panopticon.

Jeremy Bentham's "panopticon" (drafted by Willey Reveley)
The panopticon was a prison design that reversed the old paradigm, in which prisoners were stored away, "out of sight, out of mind," and instead arrayed them in a way in which they could be observed as efficiently as possible by the fewest number of managers.

Presidio Modelo prison, Cuba (2005),
followed the panopticon design.
Foucault understood this to be symptomatic of the much larger project of societal rule. To Foucault, prior to the physical and bodily aspects of control and manipulation, there are aspects that have to do with seeing, knowing, naming, and categorizing.

At the end of the day, is surveillance bad if no harm comes of it? Or is it even possible to separate the two? Consider this quote from the New York Times article. Speaking of Stephen P. Mueller, top air commander in Afghanistan, the article stated:
He said the strikes typically came when troops were caught in firefights or the drones came across people who appeared to be planting homemade bombs, the biggest source of allied casualties. The counterinsurgency strategy "isn't about going out and finding those," he said. "But when we do find them, we obviously do what's necessary."

(MORE: please see also Foucault and Drones: "Surveiller et Punir" Indeed!)

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Saturday, February 20, 2010

Holocaust Museum: "Those Nazi Bastards!"

The mantra of the museum is "Think about what you saw." I couldn't STOP thinking about it . . . .

When I was in Washington D.C. this week for a screening of "The Response," I spent a morning at the United States Holocaust Museum. The experience washed over me in waves, as layers of experience were peeled away and new ones exposed.

Strangely, whenever I see old footage of Germany in the '20s and '30s, I think of being a small child. When I was very young, I used to wake up early in the morning and go turn on the TV and watch Biography. I was imprinted with old newsreel footage of Weimar Germany and the coming of Hitler; seeing those images always transports me back to the safety of my childhood living room.

The next thing that happens is that I experience a glimmer of recognition of the German lifestyle, and remember my own upbringing in the Lutheran church, with its strong German roots. This reminds me of the intellectual problem that I have always struggled with, "How was it possible that this cultured middle class culture -- so much like ours -- could have . . . ?" (I call that a "Danny Goldhagen moment.")

Then that gives way to the feeling of despair, stimulated by one or the other of the particularly brutal concentration camp images.

There is an easy resolution of these feelings. It is to condemn these events to the never-to-be-repeated past and say, "Those Nazi bastards!"

This trip was a little different, however, because "The Response" and Guantanamo were in the front of my mind.

"Think about what you saw . . . . "

On Tuesday, over and over I saw images that were not just similar to but hauntingly identical to ones we are seeing today. For instance, one of the images that is a centerpiece of the Holocaust Museum's depiction of the reliance on brutality and intimidation during the Holocaust is this one:

All I could think of was the repeated use of similar tactics by the U.S. military against prisoners in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Guantanamo:

The U.S. military makes deliberate use of dogs to terrorize and psychologically break down detainees. How many of us make the connection between this and the Nazi love of arousing fear?

Another way of arousing fear that the Holocaust Museum emphasizes: before someone is actually killed, they are forced to cringe in uncertainty and fear as much as possible: "What does this mean? Where are they taking us? They're going to kill us, aren't they?" The murders of the Holocaust were multiplied by the sadism inherent in the days and months and years that people spent wondering "Am I about to be killed?"

Compare this with the following account of Guantanamo by Andy Worthington:

[Detainees] were absolutely terrified the first few weeks in Cuba. Shafiq Rasul explained, "During the whole time that we were in Guantanamo, we were at a high level of fear. When we first got there the level was sky-high. At the beginning we were terrifed that we might be killed at any minute. The guards would say to us, 'we could kill you at any time.' They would say, 'the world doesn't know you're here, nobody knows you're here, all they know is that you're missing and we could kill you and no one would know.'" . . . [I]n many Arab countries orange jumpsuits were "a sign that someone is about to be put to death." (Andy Worthington, The Guantanamo Files, p. 131-2)

Unfortunately, the similarities go on and on. Think about what I saw? I can't STOP thinking about it . . . .

Related posts

As Sankari explained, when people everywhere unite to fight back against the illegitimate prosecution and persecution of Muslims, they are making an important contribution to the leading edge of resistance against the racist and political repression that affects the African-American community as well as all people of color, with harsh treatment dealt out to undocumented people, LGBT people, women, Muslims, and people involved in the labor, peace, and solidarity movements; and when Muslims join in the broad movement against racist and political repression that affects all these groups, they are contributing to the resistance against prosecution and persecution of Muslims.

(See GUANTANAMO: "Is that who we are?" )

My most prominent memory of my first viewing of the Guantanamo film, The Response, is of one of the stars of the film -- Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek fame -- participating in a panel after the screening. I was blown away when she said, "I did this because our civil liberties in our country have been gravely damaged and we all need to contribute to repairing them."

(See Understanding What Guantanamo Means)

I wonder if, years from now, we will be thinking back to today and feeling surprise at how little we thought about some of the developments in our world, and in our country, and how we talked about them even less. Someday will I have to explain to my kids, or to my kids' kids, why it was that "people just weren't talking about it" . . . ?

(See Why Weren't People Talking About It? )

Friday, February 19, 2010

Guantanamo: "The Response" and Obama's State Department

Guantanamo is still open. People are starting to ask pointed questions. So far, the Administration doesn't have answers.

The French Embassy's cultural center in Washington, D.C. screened "The Response" Tuesday, February 16, for a crowd of about 220 - including many representatives of the military, legal, government, and media community. Screenings of "The Response" are supposed to stimulate engaged discussion, and this one succeeded.

French cultural center, Washington, DC

Most strikingly, audience members politely but firmly and repeatedly asking the question, "What is the Obama Administration doing to assure that more due process is used in handling of detainees?" The Administration's representative didn't have an answer. He was able to point to court decisions that require that more due process be provided to specific detainees. But it remains to be seen what the Obama Administration itself thinks the process should be.

As filmmaker Sig Libowitz stressed, "Although the film depicts a review process (the Combatant Status Review Tribunal or "CSRT") that dates from several years ago, it is important to remember that every one of the detainees remaining at Guantanamo is being held as a result of this process." Key aspects of the process are that the detainee does not have an attorney and is not allowed to see all of the evidence against him.

Panel participant Anthony P. Ricci, deputy to the Special Envoy for the Closure of the Guantanamo Bay Detention Facility of the U.S. State Department, spoke at length in answer to pointed questions from the floor, including,"Even after Guantanamo is closed and the detainees are in some new location [such as Thomson, in Illinois], what will be different in the process they are subjected to?" and "With the change from the Bush administration to the Obama administration, what is the difference in the process that is used to deal with detainees?"

It's important to stress that the film succeeds in stimulating this kind of discussion precisely because it takes pains to lay the issues out fairly and factually. One of the panel participants was Rob Kirsch, co-leader of the Boumediene v. Bush pro-bono legal team and senior partner at WilmerHale LLP. He told the audience that much of the dialog in the film's courtroom scene was taken verbatim from the proceedings involving his own clients, and that it made a chill run down his spine to see it re-enacted. Similarly, Tony Ricci commented that he, himself, had served in Iraq and participated in deliberations similar to those depicted in the film, and that the film's deliberation scene accurately conveyed the various threads in those discussions.

If the film is realistic in showing multiple sides of the issues, the panelists were similarly realistic in admitting why it is hard to deal with detainee issues. In particular, there continues to be great uncertainty among experts about the exact categorization that should apply to accused terrorists. On the one hand, it appears that experts tend to agree with the proposition that, "There is no such thing as someone who does not have a status under the Geneva conventions." On the other, there is unease about how to deal with conduct that goes beyond what we traditionally understand to be "criminal," and yet clearly doesn't fit established notions of "soldiers" that are state-based actors. A key participant in this aspect of the discussion was panel participant Rear Admiral John D. Hutson (ret.) former Judge Advocate General of the U.S. Navy and currently Dean and President, Franklin Pierce Law Center. As audience member and journalist Jamie McIntyre stated in his blog, "The movie’s biggest virtue: It plays it right down the middle and leaves it for you to decide what the U.S. response should be to an enemy who doesn’t play by our rules, and doesn’t want the war to ever end."

Nonetheless, the panelists were all in agreement that imperfections of current legal theory do not outweigh the need for fair treatment in real time for people who are currently detained. The consensus seemed to be, "Detainees must either be tried or be released." And if they are to be tried? "Try them as civilians."

Related posts

Even if the current Obama administration approach of releases were to succeed in bringing about the release of everyone at Guantanamo, it would not have begun to address the wrong that has been committed.

(See US to its Humans Rights Violations Victims: "Shut up and take what you're given!" )

His exact words were: “It’s not sustainable . . . . The notion that we’re going to keep 100 individuals in no man’s land in perpetuity [makes no sense] . . . . . All of us should reflect on why exactly are we doing this? Why are we doing this?”

(See Does Obama Think We're Stupid? )

My most prominent memory of my first viewing of the Guantanamo film, The Response, is of one of the stars of the film -- Kate Mulgrew of Star Trek fame -- participating in a panel after the screening. I was blown away when she said, "I did this because our civil liberties in our country have been gravely damaged and we all need to contribute to repairing them."

(See Understanding What Guantanamo Means)

Sunday, February 7, 2010

DU: Will we ever be able to say "We're done here" ?

"The Hurt Locker" was one of the most exciting films of the year -- compelling to watch -- and it is no surprise that it is an Oscar contender.

The hero of the film is a demolitions expert in Baghdad whose heavy suit and helmet makes him look like a spaceman. Audiences love to watch the soldier dismantle the bomb -- i.e. to see him risk being blown to bits any second.

But the hero's real character is that of a cowboy. He is independent, fearless, a "wild man." He is not afraid of anyone. He does what he wants.

In other words, the perfect American hero.

The recurring theme of the movie is "We're done here." The tension of each encounter with a bomb is followed by the moment when the hero successfully defuses the bomb, and then announces "We're done here."

The deeper theme of the movie is psychological: the solder is addicted to the excitement. He is unable to go on with a normal life. He keeps going back, again and again, to Iraq, to defuse more bombs. (HE is NEVER "done".)

For a while people argued over whether the film is good or bad . . . realistic or a fantasy . . . pro-American or anti-American . . . . Eventually people got over it and just recognized "The Hurt Locker" for what it is: good, clean American fun and Oscar material.

It is interesting to contrast the "hurt" in "The Hurt Locker" -- immediate destruction by explosive -- with another kind of hurt that remains in Iraq and other areas where the US has gone to war. Hundreds of thousands of pounds of "depleted uranium" (DU) have been aerosolized and dispersed by being used in armor piercing munitions. DU emits alpha radiation and does not decay for hundreds of thousands of years, and in its aerosolized form is subject to uptake by many parts of the human body. It will be years, decades, or more, before the health consequences can be fully understood.

DU: the Agent Orange of America's desert wars. The gift that keeps on giving . . . .

It's a peculiarly American condition: we find it hard to focus on anything beyond "right now" and the very immediate future. The excitement of the moment comes with a surge of adrenaline, and it is addictive. Does it occur to us to worry about the long term? Do we think about invisible radiation, taking effect over years and decades, when spectacular explosions seem so much more worthy of our attention and imagination? After all, there will always be someone ELSE to worry about the mess we leave behind . . . .

More on health consequences of DU . . . .

Related posts

After that summer, Kazashi and I stayed in touch as much as we could. But I was in the U.S., and he was in Japan, and before I knew it many years had gone by without either of us hearing from the other. It wasn't until about 2005 or so, when I was fooling around with Google one day, that I said, "Gee, I bet you could even track down someone like Kazashi with this thing!"

(See Obama in Japan: How About a Pivot Toward Peacemaking? )

In preparation for the World Nuclear Victims Forum in Hiroshima, I've compiled links to many of my posts about nuclear issues.

(See Nov 21-23, 2015 in Hiroshima: World Nuclear Victims Forum -- I'll Be There )