Confusing Righteous Indignation With Hatred: Dismantling Michael Eric Dyson’s Critique of Cornel West

Dr. West and I (Jan. 2012)
Dr. West and I (Jan. 2012)

“The righteous indignation of a Martin Luther King Jr. becomes a moment in political calculation and that makes my blood boil.”

–Dr. Cornel West

Arguably the most valuable aspect of democratic culture is the freedom afforded those who choose to dissent. Without constant, unimpeded criticism of the status quo societies collapse into paralysis or, in the direst of circumstances, one or another form of tyranny. Unfortunately, this ability to voice criticisms of power is not always taken advantage of. In fact, the temptation to succumb to ideological conformity is sometimes strongest in societies that purport to champion traditions of liberty. A textbook case of such conformity can be found in the two latest articles (here and here) by Georgetown professor Michael Eric Dyson in the establishment liberal journal The New Republic.

Responding to what he describes as Dr. Cornel West’s “rage against President Barack Obama”, Dyson condemns the former Princeton professor and public intellectual for his “callous disregard for plural visions of truth”, a malady that can be overcome only through “the prophet’s duty of pitiless self-inventory.” Undoubtedly, the desire to carry out a “pitiless self-inventory” is surely an essential characteristic needed to critically engage with the most pressing problems of the day, a characteristic Dyson ought to have in abundance, at least if he counts himself immune to the hypocrisies he now attributes to his erstwhile mentor.
dyson_westAmong the many crimes appended to Dr. West’s bill of indictment are his impassioned criticisms of Obama’s defenders, who he accuses of sacrificing elementary principles of justice for access to centers of privilege and power. “West’s attacks on me were a bleak forfeiture of 30 years of friendship,” intones Dyson. “It was the repudiation of a fond collegiality and intellectual companionship, of political comraderie and joined social struggle.” Putting aside the tone of West’s criticisms, which are of marginal significance compared to the substance of them, it’s worth investigating what kinds of critiques led to the end of this companionship. Dyson’s original TNR piece features three YouTube videos. In one 43 second video Dr. West, during an interview with Amy Goodman of Democracy Now! , describes Obama as a “Rockefeller Republican in Blackface.” Presumably, this was posted to illustrate Dr. West’s penchant for “verbal brutalities”, a term Dyson used to describe West’s “hateful language” in his subsequent article. The two other videos feature a BBC appearance of Dr. West urging Obama not to become “the friendly face of American empire,” and another appearance on C-SPAN (quoted above) where he decries the hypocrisy of Obama conducting his swearing-in ceremony with Dr. King’s Bible while perpetuating policies (drone strikes in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia for example) that radically depart from King’s emancipatory message.

Again, ignoring the tone of West’s critiques, it’s undeniable that there is a thread that connects them, namely a principled opposition to imperial power and corporate criminality. Notably, even in the Democracy Now! video, despite its brevity, West brings attention to Obama’s “imperial foreign policy at work.” Indeed, if Dyson were truly interested in writing a “sharp polemic” (his self-description) he would at least devote some attention to these hugely consequential topics of global importance. Why else would they reappear in Dr. West’s critiques with such frequency and clarity? Strangely, Dyson’s “self-inventory” yields no results. As the intrepid sportswriter and Nation contributor Dave Zirin observed shortly after the publication of Dyson’s first piece:

The word ‘Palestine’ or ‘Palestinian’ does not once make its way into Dyson’s piece. Neither does ‘Wall Street’ or ‘immigration.’ The word ‘drones’ only comes up in a quote attributed to West. We can debate how sincere West’s commitments are to these issues or whether they are a cover for his hurt feelings and heartbreak that Dyson posits is at the root of all the discord. But they should be reckoned with.

Likewise, author and investigative journalist Max Blumenthal, in a piece written for AlterNet, observed, “BDS might be sweeping American campuses, but Dyson has been largely silent on Israel’s endless occupation. Dyson carps about character assassination, but he is reticent on drone assassinations. Since Obama entered the Oval Office, Dyson has had much more to say about Nas than the NSA.”

Moreover, Dyson’s second article—one which he introduces as “a few lines to address the most salient responses,” to his original article—also devotes zero attention to drone warfare, Israeli criminality, NSA surveillance or imperial power quite generally. Briefly, Dyson addresses this oversight in his second article, arguing he would “leave the breadth and depth of West’s political activities to his advocates or biographers,” since he was more interested in “probing the vituperation that clouds West’s political stances no matter their variety or virtue.”

Discarding the fact that one doesn’t have to be an “advocate” or a “biographer” to expound on Dr. West’s or anyone else’s “political activities” (how one could host a political show on MSNBC with this standard is a mystery to me), that Dyson chooses not to inspect, in the least, the “variety and virtue” of West’s criticism of Obama only reinforces the reasonable suspicion that Dyson is either unwilling to denounce, or more insidiously, in complete agreement with these policies. Particularly glaring is this oversight since it was explicitly brought to his attention via Zirin’s critique, providing him ample opportunity to dispel any false assumptions.

Incidentally, what of the “vituperation” that “cloud’s” Dr. West’s criticism? Is that a crime? Uncontroversially, compared to words that would be uttered by the victims of Obama’s drone policies West would likely be counted too generous. Not only have approval ratings for Obama’s policies in Pakistan equaled those earned by President Bush, an impressive feat, but the New York Times recently reported that drone strikes in Yemen and Pakistan have “incited deep resentment toward the United States” (my emphasis). That this “deep resentment” may sometimes find its way to the Oval office and is sometimes directed at the man who, in the wake of the tragic killings of two western hostages in Pakistan, took “full responsibility” for drone policy is not only understandable but perfectly rational. Is it completely inconceivable that Dr. West may empathize with their outrage? Rather than criticize those who are filled with resentment over these criminal policies, Dyson ought to dedicate more time to trying to stop these policies that foster such righteous fury.
drones pewAnd this is where Dr. Dyson and Dr. West part ways. While Dyson falsely accuses West of having his judgment clouded by “vituperation”, his own judgment is, it seems, irreversibly clouded by infatuation, not with the individual that is President Obama, but the power and achievement that he embodies (a form of power that is, at bottom, very reactionary). Examples of this infatuation are as plentiful as they are cringe-inducing. Whether it’s Dyson’s impassioned MSNBC speech announcing his talent in “riding the Obama bandwagon hard” or his less comical, but equally troublesome, appeal to 2012 voters to “join me” in “helping [Obama].” As for sustained criticism? Dyson once “riled the White House” when he bravely denounced Obama as a “gifted leader whose palpable discomfort with discussing race made him a sometimes unreliable and distant narrator of black life.” With critics like this who needs commissars?

Graphic as these testimonials are, they are of secondary importance to what Dyson doesn’t say and what these silences imply. Historically, it has always been incredibly easy to tear down public figures, especially those as vocally anti-authoritarian as Dr. West, on the grounds that they are uncivil or too vigorous in their criticism. Take the example of Native American Studies professor and Palestinian solidarity activist Steven Salaita. After condemning Israeli atrocities in the Gaza Strip during the 51 day massacre last summer he was denied a teaching position at the University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign. Reacting to Salaita’s condemnation of Israeli crimes, university Chancellor Phyllis Wise declared that UIUC could not tolerate “personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them”, a justification the widely read Academe Blog deemed “ridiculous.” Fundamentally, Dyson’s dissatisfaction with Dr. West is of the same brand.

Without venturing into hagiography, which is always an unattractive trait for those genuinely committed to critical thought, it’s difficult to overstate the importance of Dr. West as a voice of dissent and social uplift, not only in the Black community but in the United States as a whole. From the numerous arrests that he has undergone in the spirit of grassroots civil disobedience, to his outreach to the younger generation, to his defense of political prisoners like Mumia Abu Jamal and Palestinians languishing in the open air prison of the Gaza Strip, no amount of “philosophical meditation on prophetic vocation, scholarly craft and writerly art” can diminish his contributions to our national discourse and the movements that spring from them, a combination that is helping to construct a more just society. Legendary German socialist Rosa Luxemburg famously remarked that “those who do not move, do not notice their chains.” It’s about time Dr. Dyson joined Dr. West and noticed his own.



No Compensation: Drone Killing of Western Hostages Reveals Glaring Double Standard on Civilian Deaths

CIA drone strikeNo one remotely interested in US foreign policy can ignore the fact that massive civilian death has become an integral part of US warfare. Often termed “collateral damage”, these deaths are explained as the inevitable outcome of US hi-tech weaponry which often cannot discriminate between legal targets and innocent bystanders. Nonetheless, we can gain valuable insight into the reigning moral culture of certain societies by examining how powerful actors who wield these weapons respond to these deaths. Are the deaths acknowledged with remorse and sympathy or are they simply written off as the consequence of being “in the wrong place at the wrong time”? Sometimes the news cycle offers us case studies to test this question.

Such a case study can be observed in the killing of two western hostages, Warren Weinstein and Giovanni Lo Porto. An American and an Italian, they were killed in a US drone strike targeting a “suspected Al Qaeda compound,” in Pakistan. As the Wall Street Journal reported “The incident also underscores the limits of U.S. intelligence and the risk of unintended consequences in executing a targeted killing program that human-rights groups say endangers civilians.” That drone strikes “endanger civilians” has been well documented for several years by reputable organizations like Reprieve and the Bureau of Investigative Journalism. Latest statistics reveal between 2,449 and 3,949 people have been killed in Pakistan since 2004. Of that figure between 421 and 960 were civilians (172-207 children killed). Yemen, Somalia, and Afghanistan are among the other countries targeted by drone strikes with the civilian death toll in Yemen between 65 and 96.

Unlike the tragic deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, none of these deaths elicited serious commentary within the US press beyond the predictable dismissal of unfortunate “collateral damage.” In fact, this indifference sometimes ventured into pure callousness. Take for example White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’ response to the extrajudicial killing of Denver born teenager Abdulrahman Awlaki, a killing Attorney General Eric Holder rationalized on the grounds that he was “not specifically targeted.” After being asked by a reporter why this strike was authorized, Gibbs coldly replied that Abdulrahman “should have had a more responsible father,” a reference to Anwar Awlaki who was killed weeks before his son met the same fate. Needless to say, Gibbs would be ridiculed as a mindless sociopath if he expressed a similar sentiment in response to the deaths of Weinstein and Lo Porto, who, like Abdulrahman Awlaki, were not implicated in any crime. So the question is where does this indifference come from and, more importantly, what measures can be instituted to overcome it. Scholarship has plenty to say in this regard. MIT professor John Tirman explores this in his exhaustive study of civilian deaths The Death of Others. “The very fundamental norm of nation building and national survival as enabled by violence against savages,” Tirman observes, “is enormously consequential for how the deaths of the savages will be viewed.”

Further into the text Tirman adds:

“Correlating beliefs in a just world with beliefs in American ‘values’ is an essential addendum to understanding indifference … It is a foundation of American culture and has been from the beginning, and it powerfully shapes the attitudes and behavior of Americans from childhood. In its sheer explanatory power for the ‘American experience,’ it really has no rivals. It is an account of the entire scope of European immigration, expansion, and subjugation of the indigenous tribes, class conflict, and finally, American globalism.”

Therefore, engaging with the roots of American indifference to the deaths of others entails far more than merely becoming more “sensitive” to civilian suffering but a much more fundamental reevaluation in our complicity in crimes against humanity and what we can do to terminate these crimes given our ability to influence state policy. Recent polling illustrates that such an engagement has been severely lacking. Global polls published by Pew Research reveal the US as an international outlier in their support for drone strikes. Opposition in other countries is not only held by majorities but overwhelming majorities. In Lo Porto’s native Italy only 18% of its citizens supported drone strikes. MSNBCNevertheless, US public opinion has remained relatively stable in the face of these enormous costs to civilian populations abroad. It was only after the deaths of these two western hostages that MSNBC raised the question if US drone policy should be changed. If one believes in an afterlife, there were no doubt hundreds of Yemeni, Pakistani, and Somalian ghosts asking themselves why this question could not be raised after their deaths. The huge role that pure racism plays in entrenching popular indifference to non-western victims of drone strikes cannot be ignored. In Tirman’s words, “because of the long history of racism in America, its powerful political effects over the whole of American history, and its insinuation into U.S. expansion, its plausibility as the base of indifference is apparent.”

Further insight how racism serves as “the base of indifference” can be deciphered in the rules of engagement surrounding the Obama administration’s drone policy. In all the commentary that has flooded newspapers and television programs about these tragic killings, not one person has thought to ask what right the US has to bomb Pakistan in the first place. Legal questions of this kind are inconceivable. Instead we are subjected to presidential platitudes about the unintended outcomes inherent in the “fog of war.” Incidentally, this question about the legality of drone strikes is alive and well outside of circles of US power. PakistaniNot only has the Pakistani High Court in Peshawar condemned drone strikes as an act of aggression but UN official Ben Emerson has raised many, albeit mild, criticisms of the Obama administration’s drone program, particularly what he described as “a violation of Pakistan’s sovereignty.” When Pakistani lawyer Shahzad Akbar attempted to enter the US to testify about drone strikes his entry was blocked. “Before I started drone investigations I never had an issue with US visa. In fact, I had a US diplomatic visa for two years,” Akbar remarked when interviewed by the UK Guardian. None of these valiant efforts to shed light on the US drone program influenced US policy makers or public opinion in the slightest regard nor were there any polls on MSNBC (as there have been since the killing of the two western hostages) asking viewers to go online and vote if drone policy should be rethought.

There’s plenty more that could be said about the illegality and blatant immorality of a program world-renowned political dissident Noam Chomsky has described as “the most extreme terrorist campaign of modern times”, but these insights should suffice in exposing the glaring double standard that drives media discourse about drones and, by association, the hideous policies that increase civilian casualties outside the gaze of public scrutiny. Perhaps if the people of Yemen, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Somalia could magically evolve into blonde haired, blue-eyed white people this conversation would have emerged earlier. It’s utterly disgraceful that it took the tragic deaths of two western aid workers for it to finally begin but that doesn’t diminish the significance of the fact that this conversation has begun and that’s a promising start for all genuinely concerned about human life both in the “west” and abroad.


The Deaths of Others: The Fate of Civilians in America’s Wars by John Tirman

The “Rift” That Never Was: How Hyping Obama-Netanyahu Gossip Preserves the Status Quo Against Iran & Palestine

Disrespect IV
Among the myriad tactics employed by the establishment right in the US, a category which increasingly includes Democrats and Republicans, a favorite is what can be called the repositioning of the political center. Under this logic radical, militarist policies are normalized as legitimate responses to “imminent” threats by “liberals” while “conservatives” lambaste presidential decisions, no matter how egregious, as being too “soft on terror.” One of the more recent applications of this framework could be detected during the US bombing of Iraq and Syria. When President Obama decided to commence an air war against the Islamic State, a clear violation of international law, the dominant theme within elite media was that this was behavior emblematic of a “reluctant warrior.” “The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do,” opined David Brooks in an embarrassingly effusive Op-Ed in the New York Times. “History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent.”

Arguments of this kind are extremely convenient in that they foreclose entirely peaceful alternatives while reducing the debate to how hard we should pummel the “enemy”, and not the much more consequential question of what legal or moral right we have to engage in such acts of aggression. Furthermore, this tactic obscures the consensus between both political factions that violence is justified, rendering critical analysis of this area of agreement more difficult. It therefore should come as no great surprise that this tactic has surfaced once again, this time in the context of the ongoing US-Israeli hostility to the Islamic Republic of Iran. Current debate has it that Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu is undermining President Obama’s Iran policy in his decision to deliver a speech before the US Congress promoting his more aggressive stance against Iran and its nuclear program. “White House officials remain furious with Netanyahu for failing to notify the administration about the address to Congress, a breach of diplomatic protocol,” reported John Hudson of Foreign Policy. New York Times columnist, and noted expert on everything Iranian, Roger Cohen echoed this sentiment, observing that the Israeli Prime Minister’s actions made Obama “furious, with cause,” adding, “He has been a firm supporter of Israel,” and “His patience with its leader is at an end” (my emphasis).

Exaggerations aside, Cohen’s assessment is worth further analysis in one crucial respect, namely his acknowledgement that Obama has been “a firm supporter of Israel”, an understatement when one takes a look at the diplomatic record. Numerous scholars, from Rashid Khalidi and Max Blumenthal to more mainstream commentators like Hillary Mann Leverett and Fawaz Gerges have been unambiguous in their acknowledgement that the Obama administration has been an uncritical advocate for Israeli militarism and diplomatic sabotage. Since November 2008, Israel has carried out three major military assaults against the Gaza Strip: Operation Cast Lead, Operation Pillar of Defense, and Operation Protective Edge. In all three cases Obama vigorously embraced the Israeli line that any display of Israeli terror, regardless of how many civilians it kills, falls under the rubric of “the right to self-defense.” During Operation Protective Edge the Obama administration went as far as blocking a UN inquiry into war crimes carried out in the Gaza Strip.

Writing on Obama’s policy with regard to Israel-Palestine, London School of Economics professor Fawaz Gerges stated “US politicians, including Obama, are trapped in a political culture that promotes conformity and groupthink on Israel and strongly discourages dissenting voices. After a promising start, the new president dared not to exert real pressure on Israel to stop the construction of settlements on the West Bank and to negotiate in good faith with the Palestinians.” While Gerges attributed this to a combination of Obama’s “timidity” and his being “trapped” by external forces beyond his control, other critics have been less generous. In his extensive review of US policy in Israel-Palestine Brokers of Deceit Columbia University professor Rashid Khalidi was unequivocal in his description of Obama as an unprincipled cheerleader for Israeli brutality:

“Crucially, since Barack Obama first stated his view on this topic, he has always accepted a constant, central element of Israel’s self-presentation: its victim status, to which it has always clung fiercely and aggressively. In his public statements he has always accepted as well a related proposition, dear in particular to the heart of Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli right wing, and its followers in the United States, but widely believed farther afield: that the state of Israel and the Israeli people, indeed the entire Jewish people, are in a state of perpetual existential danger.”

Incidentally, it is precisely this argument—that Israel is facing an existential threat from Iran—that Benjamin Netanyahu aims to invoke in his speech to Congress, a point conceded by Israeli ambassador Ron Dermer in an interview with The Atlantic’s Jeffrey Goldberg. Moreover, this is also the argument that various media organizations are laboring to portray as antagonistic (and not compatible) to Obama’s policies despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. So the Obama administration’s decision to sale 55 “bunker buster” bombs to Israel in 2011, a move widely interpreted as a preparation to attack Iran’s underground nuclear facilities, does little, if anything, to interfere with the perception that Obama is opposed to Netanyahu’s policies. In fact, in some vital respects Obama’s policy vis-à-vis Iran has gone considerably beyond his “neoconservative” predecessors. As Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett state in their authoritative study of US-Iran relations Going to Tehran “[the Obama administration] did nothing to rein in the anti-Iranian covert programs it inherited from its predecessor; indeed, leaked documents show that such programs (including ties to groups whose actions in Iran, had they been taken in Israel or many other countries, would be condemned as terrorism) intensified after Obama came in.”

More troubling, “the Obama administration used nuclear talks with Iran primarily as a way to set the stage for more coercive measures—tougher sanctions and, at some point, military strikes—and to bring international partners and the American public on board” (my emphasis). Another glaring illustration of just how supportive Obama is of the US-Israeli status quo in the region can be found in his decision to boycott a nuclear non-proliferation conference in Helsinki on the dubious pretext that the “political turmoil in the region and Iran’s defiant stance on non-proliferation,” made US participation impossible. When Israel’s attendance was requested the Obama administration denounced it as an act of “coercion.” Predictably, this blatant disregard for international law (as a signatory to the Non-Proliferation Treaty Iran has a legal right to enrich uranium) was misleadingly described in USA Today as indicative of “clashing visions of disarmament and non-proliferation efforts.” Perhaps this description is correct, if consciously escalating the threat of nuclear proliferation by shielding the one state with a nuclear monopoly in the Middle East (Israel) from any form of international scrutiny can be described as a “vision of disarmament and non-proliferation” (disarmament for “enemies” and proliferation for “allies”).
White House Statement
To the limited extent that there does exist any animosity between Prime Minister Netanyahu and President Obama it has virtually no impact on the substance of US-Israeli policy. In tactical terms, Obama’s resort to military force may be more calculated than Netanyahu’s but to read this as representative of a split between Obama’s position and the Israeli Prime Minister’s is to ignore these much larger areas of strategic and ideological overlap which, if left unchecked, will only add to the horrors currently enveloping the region. Much more significant, and thus underreported, is the growing divide between the US public and centers of power. Latest public opinion polls reveal a noticeable shift in American attitudes towards Israeli aggression. After Operation Protective Edge Gallup reported that 51% of Americans under 30 said that “Israel’s aggression in Gaza [was] unjustified.” Meanwhile, Pew reported “among 18-29 year olds, 29% blamed Israel for the current wave of violence, while 21% blamed Hamas.” These are the political transformations that would dominate headlines in a genuinely democratic society, not the highly personalized, gossipy squabbles between two war criminals, which may deserve lengthy analysis in the National Enquirer or the Globe but not anywhere where the fate of humanity should be a high priority.




Leverett, Flynt Lawrence., and Hillary Mann. Leverett. Going to Tehran: Why the United States Must Come to Terms with the Islamic Republic of Iran. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Khalidi, Rashid. Brokers of Deceit: How the US Has Undermined Peace in the Middle East. N.p.: n.p., n.d. Print.

Gerges, Fawaz A. Obama and the Middle East: The End of America’s Moment? New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011. Print.

A Question of Torture: CIA Interrogation, from the Cold War to the War on Terror

9780805080414_custom-f738395eec5b7662a84419a1012990e3e9b54ce5-s800-c15Since the highly publicized release of the US Senate Torture Report reactions have ranged from outrage, to shameless apologetics, to cold indifference. The New York Times, in an unusual display of adversarial journalism, decried the revelations as “a portrait of depravity that is hard to comprehend and even harder to stomach,” while the Washington Post declared “Torture is wrong, whether or not it has ever ‘worked.’” Both of these responses, while properly critical of state criminality, offer only a partial picture of the culture of power responsible for the atrocities detailed in the report. In order to grasp fully how the CIA constructed this global torture regime it’s necessary to explore the history of US policy, specifically when it comes to the treatment of “enemy” populations. Alfred McCoy’s A Question of Torture is essential reading in tracing this history, beginning with CIA experimentation with Soviet-inspired methods of “mind control” and culminating with the sensory deprivation, stress positions, and “rectal rehydration” (anal rape) of today’s agency. Contrary to myths that the barbaric actions of the CIA represented an assault on “American values”, McCoy demonstrates how torture has long been a key instrument of US policy throughout the Cold War period and in its aftermath. During the Vietnam War the US military enforced a national torture program drawing its tactics from a document called the Kubark Counterintelligence Interrogation handbook. Contained in this handbook were instructions for the implementation of “a revolutionary two-phase form of torture that relied on sensory deprivation and self-inflicted pain for an effect that, for the first time in the two millennia of this cruel science, was more psychological than physical.” Alongside this embrace of psychological torture was the Phoenix Program, a highly complex assassination program that led to the deaths of 40,994 Vietcong guerillas (Saigon government figures).

Shortly after the inception of these policies, they were replicated in Latin America, first in US-backed South American dictatorships (Brazil for example) and, eventually, in Central American terror states like Honduras. This continuity between US policy in Vietnam and policy in Central America during the 1980s could be perceived most clearly in the Human Resources Manual that the Honduran state drew from in their torture of “communist” subversives. Among the methods relied upon in this manual were sensory deprivation, with an emphasis on forms of solitary confinement, and manipulation of the environment. In one particularly gruesome instance of this paradigm in action, the Caballero unit, named after Honduran Sergeant Florencio Caballero, brutally tortured a “young Marxist” named Ines Murillo. While in Honduran custody Murillo was “stripped naked and subjected to electrical shocks for thirty five days.” Afterwards, she was “moved to a second, secret prison near Tegucigalpa where her questioners … ‘gave her raw dead birds and rats for dinner, threw freezing water on her naked body every half hour for extended periods, and made her stand for hours without sleep and without being allowed to urinate.”

Overshadowing all of these crimes, from those in Indochina to those in Central America, was a culture of impunity that shielded all responsible from even the slightest forms of legal accountability. In this respect, America followed the same path of its imperial predecessors in France and Britain. When colonial France was found to have committed heinous crimes against the Algerian resistance, crimes which included, among other things, the waterboarding of Algerians, a government organized inquiry (the Wuillaume Report) exonerated all high-ranking officials on the flimsy argument that the torture methods employed were “more psychological than physical and therefore [did] not constitute excessive cruelty.” Similarly, when it was exposed that British forces were engaged in torture in Northern Ireland—“five techniques” consisting of wall standing, sleep deprivation, starvation, subjection to noise, and hooding—a government-led investigation (The Compton Report) absolved the perpetrators arguing that the crimes were “necessary against terrorists because ‘information must be sought while it is still fresh … and thereby save members of the security forces and of the civil population.’”

It therefore should come as no surprise to any student of history that President Obama honored this disgraceful tradition when he responded to the Senate exposures of CIA torture by urging that we not “refight old arguments” by going after the culprits (a reasonable position if we internalize the worldview of a state terrorist). Aside from conforming to a societal pattern of callousness and disregard for human life, what MIT international relations scholar John Tirman calls “collective autism”, Obama’s statement evinces a deep-seated ignorance as it relates to the long-term psychological effects of torture. In historical terms, the psychological damage that can be inflicted on a human being via torture is well documented. In 1972 a selection of Danish medical professionals examined “Greek and Chilean refugees for ‘forensic medical evidence of the after-effects of torture,” and concluded “of the 200 victims examined … nearly 70 percent still had ‘mental symptoms at the time of examination.'” Symptoms included “nightmares, depression, panic attacks, and low energy”.

Contemporary cases of torture demonstrate a similar trend. The brutalization of Canadian national Maher Arar is a textbook example. In what’s euphemistically called “extraordinary rendition” Arar was kidnapped by US agents at JFK Airport in New York, “loaded onto a CIA-chartered Gulfstream III jet”, and transferred to a Syrian prison “where he remained for a year being beaten and whipped so savagely that he confessed to anything his tormentors suggested.” Two years after his release Arar reported that he “still [had] nightmares about being in Syria, being beaten, [and] being in jail.” Post-traumatic stress of this kind is a common experience for torture victims who are unable to casually dismiss these crimes against humanity as an “old argument.” For torture victims the “argument” is never truly “old.” It’s perpetually present.

Examining the enormous scope and level of coordination behind the Bush administration’s torture program it’s glaringly obvious that anything less than a criminal prosecution of top administration officials (Bush, Cheney, Rumsfeld, Rice), apologists in the legal profession (John Yoo, Bybee, Alberto Gonzalez), and high-ranking military figures (General Sanchez) will ensure that worse atrocities will be committed in the future. Achieving this will require an honest look at not only the criminality embedded in institutions of power but an equally honest look at the social norms and mores that enabled the US public to silently acquiesce to these monumental crimes. In the words of a recent Washington Post article, “A majority of Americans think that the harsh interrogation techniques used on terrorism suspects after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks were justified, even as about half of the public says the treatment amounted to torture …” Disengaging from this culture of indifference is a necessary prerequisite to overcoming this tradition of state sponsored terror. Only then can the American public help provide the psychological and moral closure, and significantly, legal justice, that the victims of these savage acts rightfully deserve.


Talking to the Enemy: Religion, Brotherhood, & the (Un)making of Terrorists

41KqfuJMVDL._SY344_BO1,204,203,200_Writing on the Obama administration’s military campaign against ISIS, New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman provided a stark illustration of the prevailing mindset within elite circles in times of war. “The rise of the Islamic State,” he intoned “is triggering some long overdue, brutally honest, soul-searching by Arabs and Muslims about how such a large, murderous Sunni death cult could have emerged in their midst.” Disregarding the by now uncontroversial fact that the rise of ISIS can be traced, in large part, to the criminality of the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, a war of aggression Friedman endorsed with near psychotic enthusiasm (see video below), this statement should raise fundamental questions about dominant portrayals of those we call “the enemy.” Scott Atran’s brilliant study Talking to the Enemy thoroughly deconstructs these media representations, offering an incredibly detailed and empirically grounded understanding of how sub-national terrorist groups are organized, the ideologies they subscribe to, and the goals they aspire to achieve. Quite apart from the simplistic “Sunni death cults” of the Thomas Friedman school of journalism, Atran draws from an extensive record anthropological field work, interviews, and surveys to show how terrorist atrocities (9/11, the 2002 and 2005 bombings in Bali, the 2004 Madrid Train bombings, etc.) are not centrally organized plots carried out after years of religious indoctrination in Pakistani or Indonesian madrassas.

Instead, these events are the end product of highly decentralized and self-organized groups motivated to reach a common goal. These goals are not religious in nature but extremely political. Take for example the 2004 Madrid Train bombings. This attack was organized by a Moroccan drug dealer by the name of Jamal Ahmidan, three Spanish collaborators (Emilio Trashorras, Carmen Toro, and Antonio Toro), and a large group of friends led by a Tunisian named Abdelmajid Serhane. As Atran notes, “there was no ingenious cell structure, no hierarchy, no recruitment, no brainwashing, no coherent organization, no Al Qaeda.” This amorphous character of sub-national terrorist operations plays an integral role in Atran’s study because it reveals how small group dynamics, what he calls “imagined kin”, are the principal drivers in the plotting and execution of terrorist attacks. In the case of the Madrid Train bombings Ahmidan’s and Abdelmajid’s social circles played soccer together.

Another major factor in the ideological backdrop that motivated the Madrid bombings was the 15th century conquest of Muslim Spain, a world historic event witnessed by Italian terrorist, and “founder” of the “New World” Christopher Columbus. “I saw the King of the Moors sally from the gates of said city … and kiss the royal hands of your Highnesses,” Columbus observed. Memories of this humiliating moment were revived centuries later in a video left in the wreckage of the apartment where the Madrid Train bombers blew themselves up. The video condemned the “Spanish crusade against the Muslims,” and “the tribunals of the Inquisition.”

Willingness to point out verifiable facts of this kind is rare in an intellectual culture eager to conflate mere explanation of potential motives behind horrific crimes with justification of those crimes but ignoring them virtually ensures that a discourse will not emerge to discourage future acts of violence, whether they be committed by subnational retail or wholesale state terrorists. For example, attributing sub-national terrorism to an innate, religiously fueled desire for martyrdom, completely divorced from any empirical analysis or investigation of how these plots come in to being, does nothing to illuminate the nature of this phenomenon. In fact, this frame of reasoning, when sincerely felt, can erect huge barriers to genuine understanding.

Such is the case with Sam Harris, a neuroscientist who, in Atran’s words, “insists that secular moderation toward religion and ecumenical tolerance only enable bizarre and belligerent beliefs to thrive and extremists to flourish with cruel and savage consequences for the world.” And Harris is by no means alone in his valiant stand against the purveyors of “ecumenical tolerance.” He is joined by esteemed biologist Richard Dawkins, who laments “suicide bombers do what they do because they really believe what they were taught in their religious schools.” Dawkins also ridicules the “mainstream religious instructors” who “[line children] up in madrassahs” so they can “rhythmically [nod] their innocent little heads up and down while they [learn] every word of the holy book like demented parrots.”

Perhaps this lurid portrait of religious indoctrination will set off alarm bells among racists at NSA headquarters or “mosque crawlers” in the NYPD’s surveillance unit, but among serious analysts it’s hardly worth responding to. Not only did “none of the nineteen 9/11 hijackers or thirty-odd Madrid train-bomb conspirators [attend] a madrassah” but statistical data from Indonesia and Pakistan—“the two countries with the greatest number of madrassas as well as jihadi groups”—reveal “less than 1 percent of the madrassas can be associated with jihadis.”

Far from idle, academic debate, recognizing these realities ought to play a significant role in how we conceptualize so-called “enemies” and, more importantly, how we respond when power systems portray massive state violence and terror as the only legitimate solution. In his highly anticipated speech before the UN, President Obama stated, in reference to ISIS, “the only language understood by killers like this is the language of force.” Compare Obama’s rhetoric to the approach of Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdogan. At a recent event held by the Council on Foreign Relations journalist Fareed Zakaria asked how the Turkish government managed to free 49 Turkish hostages who were being held by ISIS or as he put it “What did you give ISIS? Why did they give back your hostages?”

Erdogan’s answer was instructive: “When we say the word ‘operation,’ people only think of air strikes, bombs, aircraft, [and] weaponry. But an operation isn’t only that. Operations are political sometimes, or diplomatic, or civilian. And they involve discussions, contacts.” So alien is this perspective—that anyone could actually diplomatically deal with ISIS—that if a US Congress member or media personality were to go as far as suggesting a diplomatic solution they’d be immediately marginalized as irrelevant or, more insidiously, an ISIS sympathizer. Another possibility is a member from the commissar class would publish an Op-Ed in the Newspaper of Record, not to inquire whether or not such an approach is feasible, but to contemplate, in austere tones, whether or not the person who advocates such an outlandish position has a soul.

It’s therefore no surprise that Erdogan elicited harsh denunciations from the Captain of The Reluctant Warrior’s Cheer Squad. In addition to standing for “authoritarianism, press intimidation, crony capitalism and quiet support for Islamists, including ISIS”, as Thomas Friedman mournfully observed, he “won’t even let us use our base in Turkey to degrade ISIS from the air”, prompting the question “what’s in his soul?” Bombing countries without Congressional or UN authorization is perfectly fine. But disobeying the Godfather? This is the ultimate crime, if not the enigmatic behavior of a spiritless monster.

Apologetics of this kind is ugly but standard, as is the behavior President Obama, John Kerry, Samantha Power, and the rest of the “we-don’t-negotiate-with-terrorists” camp. Unless they are checked by popular dissent they will continue to operate under the doctrine that overwhelming military force must be used to terrorize the world into their image but much more informed analysts and scholars have long ago realized that such blind devotion to state violence endangers us all (Obama’s latest contribution to nuclear proliferation is a dramatic example of this). It is for these reasons that Scott Atran’s book should be required reading for those of us willing to confront these tribalistic taboos and a morally complacent intellectual culture that would like nothing more than to keep them intact.






The Reluctant Imperialist: Obama Gets A Boost From the Servants’ Quarters

HeadlinesSuppose some world leader who the US establishment considers “evil”—Vladimir Putin for example—held a closed door meeting with a group of prominent Russian journalists before his invasion of the Ukraine. And imagine in this meeting he informed this group of Russian journalists about his goals in this illegal invasion, which was then circulated in Russian newspapers as Vladimir Putin, The Reluctant Warrior Intervenes in the Ukraine. What would we think of such a display? Without carrying this thought experiment any further, we can safely assume that this would be condemned as an outrageous attack on principles of a “free press” and another sign of “Kremlin” authoritarianism. Well, this scenario doesn’t have to be imagined because it actually happened, but not in Russia or any other “enemy” state. It happened in the United States.

It has now been reported that the Obama administration held a closed door meeting with a group of high profile journalists prior to his speech on how he would “degrade and destroy” ISIS through aerial bombing. While many details of this secret meeting are unknown, the mere fact that this can occur in a purportedly free society should be alarming to anyone with a genuine concern for democracy and adversarial journalism. Furthermore, a thorough review of the reports published by the journalists in attendance at this meeting reveals commentary effusive in praise for Obama’s “caution”, “reluctance”, and “sensible” decision-making skills. None of these characterizations hold up under the most minimal level of scrutiny.

Take for example, New York Times columnist David Brooks. In an embarrassing exhibition of absolute subordination, (the kind of servility that would make Kim Il-sung blush) Brooks compares Obama to leaders from his Holy Book:

“The Bible is filled with reluctant leaders, people who did not choose power but were chosen for it — from David to Paul. The Bible makes it clear that leadership is unpredictable: That the most powerful people often don’t get to choose what they themselves will do. Circumstances thrust certain responsibilities upon them, and they have no choice but to take up their assignment. History is full of reluctant leaders, too. President Obama is the most recent.”

Since Brooks is white and he is defending the violence of a military superpower (and not a “terrorist” organization), he can be spared accusations of being indoctrinated into a “fundamentalist” ideology with an “end of days strategic vision.” One can imagine a different response in the US if he were brown and was making references to the Quran.

And this is only a sample. Other attendees made sure to add their voice to this chorus of apologetics. Washington Post journalist, Ruth Marcus—a reporter who Glenn Greenwald accurately described as someone who “exemplifies everything that’s horrible about the DC media”—observed “However you assess the blame for the menacing disaster that is the Islamic State, Obama’s plan is the most sensible one under the difficult circumstances.”

So “sensible” is the Obama administration’s strategy that he has sought neither Congressional nor UN authorization for his bombing campaign. Incidentally, the question of international law does not arise in a single article among the many attendees at this closed door meeting. This suggests a faith in executive power that, if not interrogated, can lead to disastrous consequences. The possibility that aerial bombing could escalate terrorism has been pointed out by a number of analysts yet this very real danger goes unacknowledged in these reports. In fact, the justification for the war is presumed to be so transparently beneficent that all criticism is confined to how efficacious, and not how legal, the assault will be.

This position was best summed up by New Yorker journalist Steve Coll, who stated rather straightforwardly “the question about President Obama’s resumption of war in Iraq is not whether it can be justified but where it will lead.” Eugene Robinson echoes this pragmatic stance in his article headlined What If This Doesn’t Work Against the Islamic State? Meanwhile, Daily Beast journalist Mike Tomasky goes beyond mere dismissal of any discussion about the justness of Obama’s war, and derides as “ridiculous” those who compare Obama’s use of military force to that of George W. Bush:

“So, another war in Iraq. On this superficial basis, some are saying that Barack Obama is somehow becoming George W. Bush, or that Bush is somehow vindicated. In a town where one frequently hears ridiculous things, I’ve rarely heard anything more ridiculous than this. What Obama laid out in his Oval Office address Wednesday is, within the context of war-waging, pretty much the polar opposite of what Bush did, the antithesis of shock and awe.”

Unmentioned in this criticism is the verifiable fact that the Obama administration is basing his decision to bomb Iraq on farcical legal doctrines concocted by George W. Bush’s lawyer (and author of the infamous Torture Memos) John Yoo. Tomasky’s remarks are designed to draw a sharp distinction between the “bellicose” foreign policies of Bush and the “reluctant” policies of Obama when, in actuality, such distinctions are tactical at best.

As FAIR reported in a recent article which thoroughly debunked this myth, “One clear message from corporate media has been that Barack Obama is unusually reticent about using military force.” David Ignatius of the Washington Post offers perhaps the most unambiguous example of this myth, describing Obama as a “reluctant warrior” whose “innate cautiousness” assures us that “he’ll fight this war sensibly, partnering with allies in the region in a way that doesn’t needlessly exacerbate the United States problems with the Muslim world.”
10494564_10152322484493093_2898375602888339896_nThat Obama’s “innate caution” can be seriously called into question by the fact that he has totally sidestepped the perfectly cautious action of seeking UN (or Congressional) authorization for his latest bombing campaign simply doesn’t occur to Ignatius nor does the fact that Obama greatly “exacerbated the United States problems with the Muslim world” when he resorted to diplomatic sabotage to prolong the civil war in Syria. But documentary evidence is of little relevance to these courtiers of power. What’s more important is that “it would not be tenable for the US and its allies to allow a group rejected by al-Qaeda as too extreme to control large swaths of territory in the heart of the Middle East,” and “our reluctant … president understands this.” (Jeffrey Goldberg in the Atlantic).

Indeed, “our reluctant president” does “understand this.” He also understands that when he wants to carry out blatantly illegal policies in order to secure American hegemony in the Middle East he can rely on the loyal reporters at the New York Times, the Washington Post, and the Atlantic to parrot the necessary myths to ensure the American public embraces them uncritically. Although there’s no proof that this was a coordinated attempt on the part of the commissar class to mold public opinion, the linguistic precision and ideological uniformity of the messaging certainly rivals the output of some of the most sophisticated propaganda agencies.  As journalist Matt Apuzzo stated in response to news of this meeting: “Let’s call it what it is: Using the power of the presidency to influence news coverage without the public ever knowing about it.” Unless these obvious truths are confronted and combated aggressively, the dangerous policies of the Obama administration will continue to inflict untold suffering on people across the world. An energetic and adversarial journalistic culture is needed to undermine these structures of domination, a culture without which all crimes will remain in the dark except as topics of discussion between “reluctant” imperialists and their servants behind closed doors.

UPDATE: In the hypothetical in the first paragraph I refer to Russian President Vladimir Putin meeting with a group of Russian journalists “before his invasion of the Ukraine.” This phrase—“invasion of the Ukraine”—is problematic because according to the Veteran Intelligence Professionals for Sanity “accusations of a major Russian ‘invasion’ of Ukraine appear not to be supported by reliable intelligence.” In simply referring to Putin’s “invasion”, but not this report or others like it which point out the “invasion” did not happen, I was swallowing propaganda.

Here is a link to the VIPS report:


Some Basic Points about Obama’s War against ISIS

NYTSince Obama’s latest speech on the upcoming US war against ISIS there has been a flood of commentary, some of it very cogent and some of it alarmist in the extreme. Based on reports from experienced investigative journalists and scholars, the US war against ISIS clearly runs the risk of inflaming the violence in the Middle East further and heightening the threat of terrorism. In order to grasp these realities an honest appraisal of the origins and development of this conflict must be made, admittedly an ambitious task in a media culture drowning in misinformation and deceptive insinuation. Below are just a few basic points that are worth bearing in mind as the Obama administration escalates this assault.

  1. The US is not bombing Iraq to “fix” anything but to sustain US regional hegemony.

A common criticism of the US attempt to bomb ISIS is that it will not “fix” the situation in Iraq and Syria. This argument is extremely misplaced for two reasons:

  1. The US, as the world’s leading military superpower, is primarily concerned with consolidating economic and political control over other countries, therefore “fixing” situations is only relevant insofar as it secures these goals. Additionally, US policy has absolutely no relation to human rights (see: Israeli occupation of Palestine). In fact, a study was carried out in 1979 by Ed Herman and Noam Chomsky which revealed a correlation between US aid and human rights abuses.
  1. There is a diplomatic record that reveals that the US, quite apart from playing a constructive role in negotiations, has actively worked to undermine a peaceful resolution to this conflict. Flyntt and Hillary Mann Leverett’s commentary is particularly instructive on this count. The US role in prolonging the Syrian Civil War has stimulated the rise of ISIS and other retail terrorist organizations that turned the civil war from a conflict internal to Syria to a grave regional security threat.
  1. Aerial Bombing Does not Reduce Terror But Encourages It

Numerous reports have been published showing that drone warfare (the Obama administration’s favorite mode of terror) accelerates the threat of terrorism. This is most clearly shown in the US drone campaign in Pakistan where, according to Fawaz Gerges’ Obama and the Middle East, terror has not only increased due to drone strikes but Obama has been informed that it has this effect. The fact that the Obama administration is able to casually disregard this well documented fact shows that the reduction of terrorism is not a strategic priority for US policy makers.

It also must be noted that bombing other countries without UN authorization is an act of military aggression and a serious war crime. Much of the legal discourse over this bombing has confined itself to whether or not Obama will seek Congressional authorization. International authorization matters as well. That this is omitted in conventional narratives suggests that many media commentators have become comfortable with the US status as a rogue state.

  1. The Idea that Certain States are Too “Evil” to Work with is Diplomatically Backwards and Politically Dangerous

In addition for being responsible for a great deal of the diplomatic sabotage as it relates to the Syrian Civil war—the US distorted the meaning of the Geneva I communiques so that Assad would be forced to step down—this moralistic stance flatly contradicts official US policy.

The US has a long and sordid history of backing brutal regimes from Saudi Arabia, to Israel, to Egypt and Bahrain. To suddenly feign outrage over human rights violations illustrates a level of hypocrisy that exceeds even regular levels of duplicity (an impressive feat).

For example, the US was perfectly willing to cooperate with Bashar Assad when they kidnapped Canadian national Maher Arar and sent him to Syria to be tortured. To embrace Assad when he commits acts of torture at the behest of the US but to shun him when his cooperation is vitally needed to deal with a regional crisis further reinforces the notion that the US is primarily concerned with sustaining regional hegemony.

As Murtaza Hussain has astutely pointed out in a recent article for The Intercept, the US must work with Iran, and other regional actors, if they have any serious hope of ameliorating this violence. Hussain observes, “Rather than reflexively satisfying an emotional need to ‘do something’ in the face of atrocities committed by ISIS against American citizens, a policy of coalition-building across ideological lines could potentially eliminate the group and perhaps begin to heal sectarian divisions in the region.”

Multilateral initiatives of this kind will not emerge without concerted public pressure to force Washington elites to abandon their unilateral and ultra-militaristic policies. Doing this will create the necessary space for peaceful alternatives to be pursued.

  1. ISIS is not a threat to the United States (crawl out from under your bed).CNN poll

In an incredible display “democratic” values, the servants of power in the free press have managed to induce the necessary amounts of fear and trauma among the American public to get them to support this latest bombing. CNN has published a poll showing approximately 70% of Americans see ISIS as a threat to the United States.

This conclusion is not supported by the judgment of the FBI which has declared that ISIS presents “no credible threat to the US.” Nevertheless, the hysteria of the corporate press and many members of Congress have drowned out this verifiable fact. It’s quite amazing that the unprecedented propaganda offensive that preceded the Iraq war did not motivate those who support this current assault to be more skeptical of these efforts to frighten the American public.

The role of political party tribalism also must not be discounted here. It is not uncommon for so-called liberal Democrats to support criminal wars because a Democrat is carrying out the crimes. The large support for drone strikes among liberals is a graphic example of this unsettling reality.

  1. Public Opinion in the Middle East is Solidly Opposed to US Influence
    Pew Research

The insularity of imperial culture is particularly pernicious in its ability to filter out the viewpoints and opinions of those who reside in the outer reaches of empire. Throughout all the reports on the US bombing of ISIS one would be hard pressed to find any reference to the most current public opinion polls in Middle East.

The Pew Research Global Attitudes Project is informative in this domain. Of the nine countries in Middle East and North Africa polled, all of them, with the exception of Israel, look at the US unfavorably. Similarly, all the countries polled oppose drone strikes (Israel being the exception  again for obvious reasons.)

It’s not known if the civil war in Iraq and Syria affected these numbers but they certainly merit attention as they serve as a vigorous refutation of Obama’s nauseating homages to American exceptionalism or as he put it in his latest speech: “the endless blessings” which obligate us to take on an “enduring burden.” Perhaps the people of the Middle East can conceive of another “enduring burden” recently recognized as the “greatest threat to world peace.” Another statistical irrelevancy.

There are many more dimensions of this conflict —the role of the Gulf States in supporting ISIS, the significance of the Turkish-Syrian border, etc. — that are worth exploring and will undoubtedly increase in complexity as the Obama administration deepens its involvement in the region. What’s most important is that we not lose sight of the Iraqis and Syrians who are sure to suffer the most if the lawless policies of the Obama administration are allowed to be carried out unimpeded.