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


Anti-Arab Racism in the USA: Where it Comes from & What it Means for Politics Today

Anti-Arab RacismThe University of Illinois at Urbana–Champaign has come under intense criticism after Chancellor Phyllis Wise decided to un-hire professor Steven Salaita. Salaita, an outspoken critic of Israeli terror, was denied the teaching position after complaints arose about Tweets he posted condemning the Israeli massacres in Gaza (“Operation Protective Edge”). The primary argument given to justify this removal was that Salaita’s Tweets violated University standards of “civility” or as the Chancellor stated “What we cannot and will not tolerate at the University of Illinois are personal and disrespectful words or actions that demean and abuse either viewpoints themselves or those who express them.”

John K. Wilson of the Academe Blog described this justification as “ridiculous”, noting “Respect is not a fundamental value of any university, and being ‘disrespectful’ is not an academic crime.” Moreover, a petition has now surfaced urging Salaita’s reinstatement. Underlying this entire affair is a deep history of complicity between seats of power and domestic institutions (colleges for example) which purportedly exist to challenge such displays of authority. Steven Salaita’s Anti-Arab Racism in the USA unveils how profoundly racist doctrines of American exceptionalism, colonialism, and white supremacy have permeated US discourse about Arabs (both domestically and internationally). The endemic culture of racism directed at Arab communities, Salaita argues, is but the latest iteration in a long history of racism that has its roots in the European genocide of North America’s indigenous population and the subsequent crimes against humanity carried out through the enslavement of Africans. “Modern American racism developed as a result of the imagery of Indians and Africans promulgated by White settlers,” observes Salaita. “Indeed, the covenantal Messianism with which early American settlers invested their identity invents and reinvents itself based on deeply encoded notions of racial superiority.” In this sense, Salaita’s text views anti-Arab racism as derivative of a larger discourse of racism that targets multiple ethnic groups in distinct ways.

One area of particular focus is what Salaita calls “imperative patriotism.” Under imperative patriotism statements are made that represent “a stable fixed identity rooted in a physical and cultural Whiteness for which many immigrants do not qualify.” Exclusivist doctrines of this kind are often voiced in xenophobic remarks such as “If you don’t like America, go back to where you came from” or equally ludicrous comments concerning Arabs who threaten the American “way of life.” Salaita samples a range of media, from the “liberal” and “progressive” to the “neoconservative” end of the spectrum, and they all parrot, in one way or another, these reductionist tropes. For example, Salaita critiques Michael Moore’s critically acclaimed documentary Fahrenheit 9/11. Particularly, Salaita criticizes the Eurocentric character of the film, noting “one would think that only middle-class Whites are inconvenienced by [the passage of the Patriot Act].” Moore, Salaita continues, “could have profiled thousands of Arabs or Muslims who have been detained on undisclosed ‘secret evidence,’ denied access to legal representation, and held for months in solitary confinement.”

Apart from these illustrations of “progressive” contributions to anti-Arab racism, Salaita thoroughly analyzes the pernicious role of neoconservative lobbies in influencing the quality of instruction within institutions of higher education. Here Salaita writes with a prescience and clarity that perfectly anticipates the treatment he eventually received at the hands of Chancellor Wise and her associates at the University of Illinois.  Years before Salaita was denied employment for the crime of incivilty the US House of Representatives passed a bill with the explicit goal of undermining any effort to educate the American public on the extraordinary oppression Palestinians have been forced to live under: House bill HR-3077. This remarkable piece of legislation was unanimously passed by the House Subcommittee on Select Education in order to “create a federal tribunal to monitor criticism of Israel on American college campuses.” Furthermore, any professor who violated its totalitarian strictures would be “subject to investigation.”

On October 21, 2003 “the bill was passed by the full House,” with the objective to “set up a seven-member advisory board that has the ability to recommend cutting federal funding to universities harboring academics accused of endangering Israel’s interests.” The undemocratic removal of professor Salaita is merely an affirmation of this insidious principle that was articulated in perhaps its most virulent form in 2003. Tragically, such treatment is not new for Salaita, as he has been ostracized and marginalized for most of his academic career. He opens the book with a recollection of how he was subjected to cruel racism in his grade school years. “The foreign kid never wins crack fights in American schools,” he solemnly remarks. In one childhood memory Salaita recalls how “a first grade teacher once referred to the warang dawali (grape leaves) [his] mother had packed [him] as ‘little pieces of doo-doo’ in front of a crowd of laughing children.”

Unlike  Salaita, who was made to endure the scornful words of the colonial administrators at the University of Illinois, these teachers were not censured for their lack of “civility.” In fact, Salaita could not “remember a single instance, from kindergarten to twelfth grade, when a teacher intervened to stop others from insulting [him],” and “it was teachers who articulated racism with a cruelty unsurpassed by students.” It is within this cultural environment that deeply reductionist narratives about Arabs are allowed to flourish, creating an acute sense of foreboding among many Arab students in the University setting. Consequently, “most Arabs in American universities exist in contradictory and problematic spaces: for an Arab academic (in, say, the humanities), the simple act of raising one’s voice can be controversial.” As a result, the dominant function of the University conforms with that desired by anti-Arab racists which “isn’t to foster critical thinking … but to enhance the image of the United States at home and abroad and to work with policymakers to transform students into good citizens.”

Crucially, this intersection between American imperial policies abroad and state-capitalist policies at home brings into sharp focus the ideological underpinnings of anti-Arab racism. Included in this ideological makeup are Christian evangelicals eager to bring about the apocalypse (what Salaita refers to as the “dispensationalist” camp), Zionists (of the Christian and Jewish variety), and state terrorists from the Bush administration. The anti-Arab racism fomented by the Bush regime was graphically displayed after the gruesome revelations of US torture carried out in Abu Ghraib prison. In this crime against humanity the American intelligentsia participated in a “racism of denial” whereby the relentless cruelty and savagery of US soldiers was written off as an aberration—the “bad apples” argument—rather than an illustration of the fundamentally racist character of the Iraq war.

While Rush Limbaugh compared the images of torture to “anything you’d see Madonna or Britney Spears do on stage,” commentator Tammy Bruce indifferently remarked “I consider the vast majority of what happened at Abu Ghraib to be hazing—nothing more, nothing less.” Meanwhile, Lieutenant Colonel Gordon Cucullu intoned “until [Iraqis] begin to wise up to the fact that they are thwarting those who are fighting to liberate them, I worry less about the Arab Street losing its ‘good will’ than I would fret about a recurring Ice Age.” Cucullu was plausibly articulating a worldview held by many within the US military which was thoroughly immersed in anti-Arab literature like Rafael Patai’s The Arab Mind, “a viciously racist work of pseudoscience.”

In this book Arabs are described “in explicit detail as lazy, sexually obsessed, incurably hostile, and irrationally dedicated to an honor-bound culture.” Writing on the circulation of this book within the US military Guardian reporter Brian Whittaker observed “according to one professor at a US military college, The Arab Mind is ‘probably the single most popular and widely read book on the Arabs in the US military,'” and “it is even used as a textbook for officers at the JFK special warfare school in Fort Bragg.” It was within this military culture, shot through with racism, that Abu Ghraib guard Lynndie England, in that infamous photograph, held “a leash attached to the neck of a naked Iraqi man, who was lying on the floor in obvious pain.” Though “universally overlooked” in the corporate press, University of Toronto scholar Sherene Razack decoded the “visual symbolism” of this atrocity, a symbolism which revealed a “racial relationship.” Salaita recreates the scene: “The brown, bearded man is naked before his White captor. He is subdued on a leash, a device usually reserved for animals, and made to lie on the floor, although the White captor seems to be trying to pull him onto all fours, thus to force the man to emulate a dog and complete the act of dehumanization.” It was this image—the “juxtaposition of England and the prisoner”—that Salaita identified as the “perfect metonym for the invasion of Iraq, in total, in which the uncivilized brown people were to be subdued for their own good by their enlightened (and benighted) Western liberators.”

Aside from this review of media complicity in crimes against humanity, perhaps the most surprising element of Salaita’s examination of this ideological campaign is his incredibly nuanced analysis of Zionism. “Surprising” because of how sharply it conflicts with unsubstantiated allegations of anti-Semitism directed at him, mainly by University of Illinois professor Cary Nelson. In a section titled Is Zionism Racism? Salaita states “it is unfair to say ‘Zionism is racism,’ a blanket statement that leaves no room for group or individual nuance.” He continues “I wish to be clear that I object to this statement not on moral grounds but in the interests of intellectual probity, for I believe that the majority of worldviews that arise from Zionism are infused with anti-Arab racism, or directly purvey it.”

Careful and nuanced analysis of this kind illustrates how absurdly authoritarian it is to un-hire a professor based solely on 140 character Tweets (Tweets which, despite the hysterical propaganda about their contents, accurately captured the savagery of the Israeli military bombardment of Gaza). Quite apart from advancing anti-Semitic views, Salaita is a victim of those who propagate the doctrine of “the new anti-Semitism.” The new anti-Semitism slanders anyone who criticizes the policies of Israel as incurable racists who are unable to overcome their seething hatred for Jewish people. Embedded in this construct of the new anti-Semitism is “an ulterior motive”, namely to “increase financial and philosophical support for Israel, thus tying it even more closely to Zionism.”

Instead of portraying the fight against anti-Jewish hatred as inherently antagonistic to the fight for Palestinian self-determination, Salaita sees both of these struggles, when sincere, as complimentary. Indeed, he acknowledges that the history of persecution carried out against Jews is but one part of a larger edifice of white supremacy that today is routinely imposed on Arabs. Referencing a 1994 essay by Ronald Stockton on “negative ethnic imagery” Salaita astutely notes “anti-Arab racism is derived from the same attitudes that produced American anti-Semitism.” This is an “ironic” fact because “one way Americans now marginalize Arabs is by labeling them anti-Semitic when they articulate their (legitimate) political sensibilities.”

Very much in the tradition of post-colonial scholars like Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, and Rashid Khalidi, Steven Salaita’s profoundly complex and cogently argued study of anti-Arab racism powerfully captures the prevailing sociocultural norms of the society he inhabits. Furthermore, he offers viable and potentially transformative ways forward to combat this soul-deadening phenomenon that has afflicted far too many in America’s internal and external domains of control. On “Arab violence” Salaita proclaims “you either promulgate the assumption that Arabs are irrationally violent, or you simultaneously examine the context in which that violence arises. There is no other option intellectually: you are either a thoroughgoing racist or you take your responsibilities as a citizen and commentator seriously.” Unless these elementary truths are absorbed—in television studios, editor board rooms, University classrooms, and among the American public at large—the toxic myths and stereotypes that currently saturate “educated” discourse will spread unimpeded. While Academic Proconsuls like Phyllis Wise work vigorously to turn this ominous prospect into an unalterable reality, conscientious scholars like professor Steven Salaita are essential if this outcome is to be avoided.


Voices From the Other Side: An Oral History of Terrorism Against Cuba

9780745330402Few global conflicts illustrate the vindictive character of US power as dramatically as Washington’s ongoing war against the people of Cuba. The latest episode in this war was unveiled in an AP report detailing a USAID program designed to destabilize Cuban society. Using a social media website named ZunZuneo, the program’s stated objective was to “renegotiate the balance of power between the state and society,” by organizing “smart mobs” willing to overthrow the revolutionary government of Fidel and Raul Castro. This transformation would be made possible through the dissemination of propaganda aimed at discrediting the government. Apart from exposing the geopolitical goals of a purportedly “humanitarian” organization, this story has served as a fascinating case study into the historical amnesia that prevails in some of the most respected sectors of American intellectual culture. Responding to the mild, tactical criticisms made against ZunZuneo, the editorial board of the Washington Post published a statement praising the operation as necessary to undermine Raul Castro, a leader “who [insists] on a level of political control that has gone out of style everywhere except Havana and Pyongyang.” ZunZuneo was, according to the board, simply another strategy in “the Obama administration’s efforts to relieve the Cuban nightmare.”

Conspicuously absent from this statement, and others that mirror it in ideological commitment, is the long history of state-sponsored terrorism directed at Cuba traceable to power centers in Washington. Understanding this record of terror is crucial in developing a more honest and coherent picture of US-Cuba relations. Keith Bolender’s examination of this violent history and its devastating effects on the people of Cuba Voices From the Other Side stands out as a dramatic example of the moral and intellectual courage required to divorce ourselves from the myths propagated by outlets like the Washington Post. Far from a phenomenon unique to the 20th century or Cold War politics, US hostility towards Cuban independence can trace its origins back to the 19th century when the island was a colony of Spain. In 1832 Secretary of State John Quincy Adams wrote that “Cuba, forcibly disjoined from its own unnatural connection with Spain, and incapable of self-support, can gravitate only towards the North American Union.” This myth–that the Cuban people are “incapable of self-support”–is a defining feature of US policy towards Cuba that has been embraced by virtually every American President from Kennedy to Obama. It was this myth that allowed the US to fulfill Adam’s desire to subjugate Cuba to American power after the Spanish-American war (often falsely portrayed as the “liberation of Cuba”) and legitimize this annexation through a series of deceptive amendments and treaties, none of which granted Cubans any meaningful degree of independence. Take for example the Teller Amendment of 1898 which declared that the US did not impose its military might on Cuba to seize its territory or economically exploit its people. Instead the US intervened to “leave control of the island to its own people”, words that carry a predictability which should only elicit uncontrollable laughter, at least when they are not being uttered in the presence of more disciplined audiences as when President Obama recently justified Bush’s invasion of Iraq as a war that left this target of first world savagery to “its own people.”

Luis Posada Carriles, 82, walks with his lawyers after leaving the court in El Paso, Texas
Luis Posada

Doubtless, similar sentiments were articulated by President Eisenhower and Kennedy when they laid the groundwork for what Bolender accurately describes as the principal threat in Cuba’s multi-decade war on terror, a war on terror that radically differs from Bush’s “war on terror” in that it doesn’t entail the unleashing of horrific amounts of state-terror against civilians in other countries. While conventional narratives restrict examples of US force in Cuba to the Bay of Pigs failure, the historical record tells a far more gruesome story. Since the initiation of the US assault on the Cuban revolution in 1960 “the personal toll has been calculated at 3,478 dead and 2,099 injured.” Furthermore, “the [Cuban] government has documented approximately 800 terrorist acts inside Cuba since 1960”, the majority of them organized in Miami, often with the cooperation (if not direct participation) of the CIA. Alpha 66, Omega 7 and Commandos F4 are some of the more prominent terrorist organizations responsible for these atrocities. Tactics used to destabilize Cuban society ranged from the bombing of hotels, ammunition ships, civilian airliners, department stores, and movie theaters, machine gunning defenseless neighborhoods, the murder of literacy activists, chemical warfare, psychological warfare and even biological terrorism. Perhaps the most significant aspect of Bolender’s study is that it is not satisfied with mere statistics about these US-backed atrocities. Embedded in this defense of historical memory are several deeply touching and humanizing portraits of the victims of these attacks, how they have dealt with the loss of loved ones and endured in the face of overwhelming odds. Take for instance the story of Jorge De La Nuez and his mother Niuvis. On October 6, 1976 Jorge’s father was murdered on Cubana Airlines Flight 455 after a bombing orchestrated by Luis Posada Carilles, a terrorist who currently resides in Miami, sent Jorge Sr. and the 72 other passengers aboard plunging to their deaths in a ball of fire. Jorge Sr. was the head of a delegation of shrimp fisherman. On the day of his death he was planning to make a surprise visit to his wife as it was their wedding anniversary. Jorge Jr.’s childhood recollection of the moment he discovered his father was murdered is enough to make one tremble with rage:

“So I got home and went upstairs, at the top of the stairs I saw my mother, and she was crying. It was a shock, a hit, to see her crying. I thought ‘why would she be crying?’ My dad is home and she should be happy. When I got to her she grabbed me and gave me a hug, she hugged me hard. She gave me a kiss. She said ‘oh my son’ and I replied ‘what’s the matter mom?’ She said once again ‘oh my son, something terrible has happened.’ And I start screaming ‘What happened to my dad? Why are you crying? You have to be happy.’ My mother told me my dad was not coming back. I thought, well he is not coming home today, when is he coming home? But she said my dad had been in an accident. She said my father would not be coming home ever.”

This stomach-turning story and others like it lend Bolender’s study a unique quality that separates it from traditional academic work on US power which may satisfy all the demands of empirical research and analytical rigor but, for various reasons, fail make the suffering of the victims truly palpable. By doing this, Bolender sheds much-needed light on the severe moral costs attached to criminal policies and how we should position ourselves when evaluating the US role in these atrocities. For instance, Bolender’s description of how Dengue 2, a deadly mosquito borne disease, was introduced in Cuba as a form of biological terrorism finds meaning in a mother’s distress dealing with the loss of one child to the disease only to confront what at the time appeared to be the imminent death of her older child by the same plague. Ariel Alonso Perez, a leading authority on biological terrorism, states “there have been a minimum of 23 events of biological terrorism against Cuba,” a record that has resulted in “more than 100 dead children.” Although there isn’t 100% certainty that the CIA was responsible for this outbreak, strong reasons exist to suspect the agency was behind it, like the fact that “the United States conducted various research projects into biological warfare, including Dengue fever in 1959 at Fort Derrick in Maryland,” or that “Pentagon officials suggested a chemical and bacterial program to contaminate Cuba’s food supplies, and part of the sabotage criteria under Operation Mongoose was to induce failures in food crops.” In 1984 Eduardo Arocena, a Miami-based Cuban terrorist and member of Omega 7, confessed that he was sent on a mission to Cuba in 1980 to introduce “some germs” to the country.

While the imposition of terror through bombing and biological warfare stimulated disorder throughout Cuba, no other attack directly affected as many Cubans as the psychological terror behind what was called Operation Peter Pan. Under this covert operation, run by the CIA and the State Department with the decisive participation of Father Bryan O. Walsh, the Catholic Church in Miami and the Headmaster of Ruston Academy in Havana James Baker, thousands of I-20 student visa applications were illegally processed leading to what Bolender describes as “the exodus of more than 14,000 children from November 1960 to October 1962.” Underpinning this criminal operation was the mass circulation of black propaganda alleging that Fidel Castro and his comrades were plotting to “transfer parental authority to the state.” The foundational source of this psychological operation was a manufactured document called La Patria Potestad or the Act of Parental Authority. Unless Cuban parents sent their children out of the country, prominent members of the clergy argued, “they’d be subject to 15 years in jail, or simply made to disappear.” Also enlisted to take part in this propaganda coup was a radio program called Radio Swan. Radio Swan was created by the CIA in 1960 and was behind the first example of Peter Pan propaganda. In October of 1960 the following message was sent across the airwaves in Cuba:

“Cuban mothers don’t let your son be taken away from you. The new government law is to take your children away at five years old and give them back to you when he is 18 years. And by then he will already be a monster. Attention mothers, go to church, and follow instructions from the clergy.”

Bolender interviews the children, now adults, who were victimized by this psychological operation. Two of the victims are unambiguous in describing the operation as an act of psychological terrorism. Marina Ochoa, a Cuban native who lost her brother at the age of 10 to the operation, stated “there is the instillation of fear, the targets are civilian, there is a purpose to disrupt government functions, and the act is designed to achieve political aims. What else do we need to call it an act of terrorism?” Incidentally, we can ask the same question about the Obama administration’s “Cuban Twitter” program as it also meets this standard criteria only with a human cost that is , thankfully, much less devastating. As late as the 1980s, decades after the program was initiated, the US State Department rejected a request from the UN High Commissioner for Refugees “to help reunite Cuban children with their parents.” Other examples of US defiance of the international community include the refusal to lift the economic embargo against Cuba despite overwhelming opposition (in October 2013 the UN vote on the embargo was 188 to 2 with the US and Israel voting in favor of maintaining the blockade) and the imprisonment of the Cuban Five.

The Cuban Five

In September of 2001 the Cuban Five–Gerardo Hernandez, Rene Gonzalez, Ramon Labanino, Antonio Guererro and Fernando Gonzalez–were sentenced to four life sentences and 75 years for “conspiracy to commit espionage, being unregistered agents for a foreign power and holding false documents.” In a revealing precursor to the Obama administration’s unprecedented war on whistleblowers the Cuban Five were actually punished for infiltrating and blowing the whistle on Miami-based terrorist organizations. When the Cuban Ministry of the Interior provided a FBI delegation with “detailed accounts of actions and plans, recording of phone conversations, videos, samples of explosive substances and other information their agents had gathered from infiltration work in Miami,” the FBI responded by using the material to reveal the identities of the Cuban agents and arrest them. Much like the response to Chelsea Manning’s release of the Collateral Murder video, this incident is a glaring indication of just how low a priority preventing terrorism is to the power elite especially if that terrorism is directed towards official enemies. The real criminals under this imperial logic are those who expose this gangsterism. Despite the fact that the case of the Cuban Five holds the ignoble distinction of being “the only judicial proceeding in United States history condemned by the Work Group of Arbitrary Detention of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights”–the Commission described the sentences as “not impartial” and “excessively severe”–when the case was presented to the Supreme Court in June of 2009 they “refused to hear the case.” Reflecting on the absurdity of the imprisonment of the Cuban Five, the wife of Rene Gonzalez, Olga Salanueva, noted “We had no choice but to prevent these [terrorist] acts by sending men for the sake of our country and family … We couldn’t invade Florida, like America did to Afghanistan.”

It’s worth mentioning that these crimes make up a mere fraction of the catalog of murder, torture, lies and exploitation featured in this incredibly penetrating and moving look at the world from the other side of the Godfather’s gun. Simply recommending or sharing a copy of this text with a friend or colleague constitutes a form of humanitarian intervention that regularly escapes some of the most educated members of privileged society who are more concerned with bringing the right weapon to a “flame war” than seriously examining the historical roots of popular discontent with US policies abroad. None of the lessons imparted in this book can be absorbed through articles which praise attacks on sovereignty as worthy or “applause” or a sign of the “imagination” and “ingenuity” needed to put Cubans in their place. Propaganda of this kind encourages thuggish behavior under the assumption that the Castros and their supporters are, in the words of Johnathan Mahler, “not gentle socialists.”  Works like Voices from the Other Side dares us, as citizens of the empire, to outgrow the sanitized, polite, and not coincidentally, psychologically comfortable discourse preoccupied with data retention and defending US “interests.” Bolender compels us to view the world through new eyes, through the lens of the Other. Those interested in waging this authentic war on terror will no doubt consider Bolender’s book, in many ways, unprecedented both in its attention to detail and moral maturity. For these reasons, Voices from the Other Side is a towering achievement in the highest tradition of dissident literature.


Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War, & the Roots of Terror

Hatred and discrimination against marginalized communities is a standard feature of imperial societies. From the history of institutionalized oppression endured by Black people under the US criminal “justice” system to the tide of racism faced by Latinos through unjust immigration laws (re: Arizona), those without institutional power are recognized primarily as threats to be contained, silenced, or liquidated. Among these maligned communities are Muslims. Routinely stereotyped as either “terrorists” or “terrorist sympathizers”, Muslims have been made the focus of a climate of fear has been forged by corporate and State power. This demonization has reached an ugly peak since the attacks on 9/11. Muslims are separated into moral categories of “good” and “bad”, “good” Muslims being those who accept the objectives of US domination and “bad” Muslims being those who resist.

Columbia University professor Mahmood Mamdani deconstructs this political characterization of religious identity in great detail in his study Good Muslims, Bad Muslims. Illustrating how the American mainstream has accepted a racially charged language of “culture talk”, Mamdani casts aside doctrinally convenient explanations of “their” terror in favor of examining the precipitating causes of global violence. Mamdani’s central thesis can be summarized most accurately by a memorable line in W.H. Auden’s September 1939: “Those to whom evil is done, do evil in return.” The “evil” done by the US is described in graphic detail in this book. President Ronald Reagan backed a homicidal terrorist campaign in South Africa, Mozambique, and Angola. In South Africa Reagan partnered with racist white nationalists in a policy of “constructive engagement”. The purpose of constructive engagement, according to Mamdani, was to “bring South Africa out of political isolation so as to better tap its military potential in the war against militant–and pro-Soviet–nationalism”.

One of the ways Reagan brought South Africa out of “political isolation” was to support South African aggression in Angola and tacitly embrace the apartheid regime’s alliance with the Mozambique terrorist organization Renamo. This crucial history is particularly poignant as President Obama hails Nelson Mandela as an inspiration while the compliant press politely keeps this record of US complicity in South African criminality, the criminality Mandela suffered under, in the margins. In addition to US depradations on the African continent, Mamdani also explores how the CIA supported drug traffickers from Central America to Afghanistan. In an effort to terminate the Sandinista government in Nicaragua, the Reagan administration embraced the Contra forces, a brutal terrorist group that murdered Nicaraguan civilians and trafficked drugs into the US, undoubtedly with Washington’s support. In fact, Mamdani cites a February 1982 Memorandum of Understanding from CIA Director William Casey to US Attorney General William French Smith. Remarkably, this MOU “exempted the CIA from reporting drug trafficking by its assets who were not formally CIA employees, such as ‘pilots who ferried supplies to the contras, as well as contra officials and others.'”

Participation of this kind in drug trafficking was mirrored in Afghanistan where the CIA was funding the mujahideen, a guerilla group deeply involved in the manufacture and distribution of heroin. During these same years in the 1980s “60% of US demand” for heroin came from Afghanistan’s poppy fields and “the number of drug related deaths in New York City rose by 77 percent.” Along with this US-backed terror in Central America and Central Asia, Mamdani explores the historical partnership between Israel and the US. While the US supplies military and legal support, the Israeli power elite commits massive war crimes with impunity, confiscates Palestinian territory, and sustains this colonial arrangement through doctrines of ethnic and religious supremacy. For example, Mamdani presciently describes the annexation wall, then under construction, that now snakes through Palestinian territory as  a construct that “will turn the Occupied Territories into a series of halfway houses between apartheid-style Bantustans and Nazi-style concentration camps.” Similar language is used in reference to the imposition of US sanctions on Iraq under the Clinton administration which he condemned as “nothing short of an officially sanctioned genocide, primarily of children, most under five.”

It is against this backdrop of US sponsored terrorism that Mamdani sees the utter absurdity of the US asserting moral superiority in situations global violence, especially those which deal with Muslims. He notes “to the extent that ‘culture’ becomes a code word for describing certain peoples by ascribing to them a set of unchanging attributes, it functions as a latterday counterpart to race talk.” Mamdani’s study bears sharp similarities to the work of Karim H. Karim, with his concept of “cognitive scripts”, and Edward Said in this respect. Eviscerating the empty “culture talk” of intellectuals like Samuel Huntington–a proponent of the Manichaean  and racist idea that there is a “clash of civilizations” between medieval, barbaric, pre-modern Islam and the modern, enlightened, and rational “West”–Mamdani urges his readers to “think of culture in terms that are both historical and non-territorial. Otherwise, one is harnessing cultural resources for very specific national and imperial political projects.”

More broadly, Mamdani examines American foreign policy as an avenue into understanding how the process of “othering” occurs in the US, the process of manipulating, slandering, or denying the identity of those power systems deem unacceptable or inimical to its aims. This is of particular significance as the US is engulfed in protests over the exoneration of George Zimmerman, the admitted killer of Trayvon Martin. Much like the corporate imagery of Muslims, the prevailing image of young Black men in the eyes of power–“criminal”, “thug”, “delinquent”, etc.–is one that invites hostility, the kind of hostility that motivates racists, vigilantes, and even Presidents to hunt down innocent people and murder them with such cruelty. The Malcolm X Grassroots Movement published a study that states a Black person in America is extrajudicially killed every 28 hours. It is for these reasons that Mamdani’s work is an indispensable contribution to the liberation of consciousness within the empire. Whether or not we meaningfully honor his contribution for what it’s worth will depend on not only how we think about these episodes of structural violence but, more importantly, in how we respond in terms of direct action to the injustices which horrify us with disturbing regularity.

President Obama responded to the verdict in the George Zimmerman trial by counseling Americans that “we are a nation of laws, and a jury has spoken”. Putting aside the uncontroversial fact that President Obama is a serial violator of international law, the substance of this statement can be understood more clearly through one of Mamdani’s incisive observations: “If to live by the rule of law is to belong to a common political community, then does not the selective application of the rule of law confirm a determination to relegate an entire section of humanity as conscripts of a civilization fit for collective punishment?” The exoneration of George Zimmerman is a dramatic example of the “selective application of the rule of law,” and young Black men like Trayvon Martin (and myself) have been reduced to “conscripts of a civilization fit for collective punishment.” The same can be said of the Nicaraguan civilians murdered by the Contra forces, Angolans, Afghans, and Palestinians who continue to languish under arguably the world’s most sadistic occupation in the Gaza Strip. If there is any realization about this extensive study that should resonate with readers more than others it’s that we should not be asking if those being systematically killed under the boot of an oppressive force are “good” or “bad”. This is largely of secondary importance. The fundamental question is do we accept the assumed inviolability and moral “goodness” of the oppressive power doing the killing. Rejecting this assumption about the goodness of power–the State’s monopoly on the use of force and violence– marks the beginning of a genuinely moral debate uncontaminated by the clichés of “culture talk”, a debate that is sorely needed in the wake of recent events.