Saturday, April 27, 2013

The Scar that has not Healed

Author's note: The following is a speech I delivered this past week at a luncheon on the University of Oregon campus. It was supposed to outline my thesis research concerning the use of torture by American personnel in Iraq. While it does not delve into the actual thesis material at any great length, this speech does make a broader, and I believe, more important polemical point concerning the placement of torture in the historical timeframe -- a timeframe which has not yet closed.

        Last month was the 10th anniversary of the U.S. invasion of Iraq, a day which passed quietly in the U.S. for the most part. For the majority of newspapers, the anniversary was granted a footnote lost between the inner-pages, vying for the reader’s attention amidst a sea of advertisements and extraneous print. And when covered at any appreciable length, the War was generally framed along the lines of the presumptuous question “what went wrong?” posed as if a war in Iraq had ever been "our" right to wage in the first place.

        The 10th anniversary of the invasion did not pass quietly in Iraq, however. On the eve of the anniversary dozens of people died in a series of car bomb attacks that swept across Baghdad, bathing the city in terror and plumes of acrid smoke. Contrary to dog-eared statements about building democracy, fighting terrorism, or saving the world from weapons of mass destruction, the U.S. had entered an Iraq whose society had been torn apart by decades of war and misrule, and left it in much the same state. In any case, no one could honestly claim “mission accomplished.”

        In my essay “Into the Abyss” I attempted to understand the Iraq War from the angle of American torture. The torture of thousands of Iraqis by Americans was a definitive part of the War, functioning in many ways as an allegory for the War itself. It was on bad intelligence secured through torture that the U.S. government first obtained the material with which it manufactured the war’s pretext. Later, after official lies proved hollow, American forces were encouraged to torture Iraqis in a desperate move to crush a nascent insurgency – an insurgency which had for the most part been created as a direct result of American policy blunders and which was entirely misunderstood by officials.

        Instead of acknowledging their mistakes the American occupiers clung to the fictions which had brought them into Iraq. Torture played an important role in validating this process of self-delusion and national murder. Almost invariably, the answer to whatever question was sought through torture was presupposed, a tendency which is, in fact, characteristic of the practice. After all, why would anyone torture somebody unless they assumed that person was guilty; and why would anyone stop torturing someone unless they liked the information told to them – that is to say, heard what they wanted to hear, what they already thought they knew.

        Thus the thousands of Iraqis languishing in prisons, piles of contradictory reports and cumbersome intelligence apparatus signified not omniscience but great ignorance. The intelligence apparatus was huge precisely because the U.S. did not at all understand Iraq and, consequently, was grasping for intelligence any way it could. What existed was a spectacle of omnipotence, foresight and exceptionality in their absence; a bloated system of imprisonment and torture whose monstrous size was proportionate to the ignorance which sustained it. Under the shadow of occupation the fact that the CIA did not have a single trained corps of interrogators before 9/11 went unnoticed. Also unnoticed was the reality that under pressure for intelligence the military pushed soldiers through interrogation training camps, some of which lasted only a week or two.

        And while American torture can be seen as a microcosm of the Iraq War, it may also be seen as merely the pinnacle of decades-long American policies in the Middle East, putting these policies into brutal, sharp relief. In the 1980s the U.S. smiled benignly on Saddam Hussein, bearing him gifts of logistical support, big guns and chemical weapons as he engaged in an eight-year bloodletting with Iran. After deliberately fanning the flames of the Iran-Iraq War – the longest conventional war of the 20th century – the U.S. attitude towards Iraq suddenly cooled. Next came the Second Gulf War when the U.S. drove Iraqis forces out of Kuwait, in the process sowing Iraq with depleted uranium shells. These seeds of death predictably caused cancer rates in Iraq to swell to ghastly levels.

        Then came the U.S.-led sanctions of the 1990s which were imposed because of fears of WMD. These sanctions, which a former UN Humanitarian Coordinator in Iraq called “genocide,” directly resulted in the preventable deaths of over 500,000 Iraqi children. Presumably these 500,000 children were in cahoots with the so-called “terrorists” and madmen whom the American government claimed to be combating.

        In short, even before the U.S. decided to wage its latest war on the Iraqi people their country was in tatters, a withered shadow of its former self. Cancer rates were through the roof, children had no paper for school and the water-borne disease was endemic. Far from being a bastion of terrorism or WMD, the Iraq was an enfeebled and broken country, having been subjected to one of the most punitive sanctions regimes in the history of mankind.

        Thus in many ways, torture was the completion of a slow but practiced process of national murder. With contemporary history as its backdrop, torture can be seen as a physical and direct enactment of what had been occurring in Iraq through less apparent means during the past decades.

        Perhaps the most astounding truth of this experience, however, is the fact that these crimes against humanity were generally not committed by coldblooded individuals but people who are not all that different from you or me. To dismiss these atrocities as either the actions of a few “bad apples” or blame them wholly on top officials is to make the same error. In both cases the problem is blamed on a cloistered set of individuals who are deemed absolutely evil. The danger inherent in this line of thinking is several-fold.

        First, it perpetuates the notion of "absolutely evil” individuals, buttressing the idea that the world can be cleanly demarcated between wholly just people who are on “crusade” against an “Axis of Evil.” This is, of course, precisely the same simplistic way of thinking which led to the American invasion of Iraq in the first place. So when some critics of the Bush administration paint Bush and his colleagues as wholly wicked people they ironically employ the same stale logic as the war salesmen in the White House.

        And when images from Abu Ghraib are viewed from the comfort of a lazy boy sofa it is easy to divorce the crime from its environment. Deaths of comrades, sleepless nights and the corrupting influence of the power found in a gun are skillfully left out of the picture. Projecting blame on a small coterie of “bad apples” allows the beholder to take up the position of the righteous observer. The fact that atrocity is intrinsic to war and that the observer on the lazy boy may very well have endorsed the present war is left untouched. In other words, in heaping all the blame on a few people overseas the crime is reduced to an abstraction and one’s own guilt as a supporter of the war remains unacknowledged. For what could be a greater act of torture than the slow poisoning, starvation and occupation of an entire society?

        In closing, I would like to emphasize that the past is not even the past yet. Obama came to office promising to shut down Guantanamo, yet the illegal human warehouse is still running. In a spectacular act of courage many prisoners are engaging in a peaceful hunger strike at the prisons. Their protests have been met with forced feedings, an excruciating procedure which is also a recognized act of torture. Unfortunately, power often does not comprehend the language of peaceful protest, it being too often accustomed to the language of violence. Lastly, the trend towards secrecy and use of illegal powers has increased considerably under Obama. With a touch of the button the government can prosecutes drone wars against the people of Yemen, Pakistan and elsewhere.
        And a trend towards the over-classification of documents, in violation of federal law, has continued. The prosecution of Bradley Manning for delivering documents to WikiLeaks is thus an interesting case, seeing as the information he gave to WikiLeaks was probably supposed to be in the public record in the first place. He may very well be jailed for releasing document which the government illegally classified.
        History is generally inconvenient and all-too-quickly forgotten. War criminals of yesterday become the heroes of today, their faces benevolently smiling upon us from the pages of their ghostwritten memoirs. Some even found their own libraries.
        But if we are to be more than disengaged, semi-sentient vegetables then we must remember. The very act of remembering is a form of resistance, an adamant refusal to yield to the sedate blandishments and hypnotic drivel spoon-fed to us on a daily basis. Above all, it is an act of solidarity with the victims: an affirmation of their existence, an existence which those in power would rather have us forget.





Saturday, April 13, 2013

The Bloodstained Legacy of Margaret Thatcher

This week former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher died. Media coverage of her death is noteworthy, as it is emblematic of the profound disconnect that pervades most political debate.

Even in life Thatcher was already immortalized, taken up as the patron saint of conservatives -- their "Iron Lady." After her passing even liberal commentators paid homage to her determined and what one might call roguish spirit that has come to inflame the popular imagination. One columnist even went so far as to wryly bestow upon her the title "perfect" inadvertent "feminist," explaining that while Thatcher vehemently denounced feminist politics she proved that a woman could play politics, a game that has generally been the purview of old white men.

In short, most coverage was either seeping with praise for the former prime minister or expressed mild amusement over the outpouring of such effusive admiration. Little to no substance concerning the practical effects of her policies found its way into the conversation. Warm feelings needed to be maintained, doting hagiographies sold and reality suspended.

Such benign coverage of Thatcher would be perfectly acceptable if it was simply meant to acknowledge her life and death as a private individual. What makes these sanguine or, when most honest, benign appraisals of her political legacy dangerous, however, is their contribution to the mythology of Margaret Thatcher. These substance-less memorials do not so much remember the life of a human being but of a god, adding to the narrative of a mythical leader who forges reality by their own will and oracular abilities.

The myth of the divinely-inspired politician is a dangerously deceptive one. It encourages passivity and obedience, the surrender of one's common sense for a warm and fuzzy understanding of politics which substitutes entertaining anecdotes for history, as well as soothing campaign slogans for substance. The creation of these simple narratives also serve to whitewash the past. Idiotic wars, criminal wrongs and disastrous mistakes are erased from memory.

Stripped of their human foibles these politicians become public icons, symbols devoid of meaning which can be freely manipulated by future politicians until they themselves fool the public into making them the latest icon for veneration.

While I do not intend for this post to throw muck on the grave of Thatcher, I do think that public officials owe it to the world to be held publicly accountable for their actions. Even more importantly, I simply cannot stomach the deification of another political leader, a practice which makes their partisans all too prone to the manipulative strategies of politicians of all shapes and sizes. Airy praise of a public leader's "iron" will, controversial tactics, or charisma in place of meaningful discussion over the effects of their policies simply adds to this false aura of divinity.

And the legacy of Thatcher is anything but rosy. During her time in office she was a vocal proponent of deindustrializing Britain, a painful process which led to the crippling of workers' unions and the loss of countless jobs. In place of producing quality consumer goods the manufacturing capacity of Great Britain was retooled towards an emphasis on weapons production. Instead of producing useful goods the Thatcher government decided to manufacture death.

Yet to sustain this boom in weapons manufacturing new markets needed to be secured and old ones exploited with renewed avidity. British weapons were purchased by some of the most tyrannical governments in the world such as the Suharto government in Indonesia, a regime whose human rights record was one of the worst of the twentieth century. It is estimated that the Suharto government oversaw the murder of between one-half to one million Indonesians, many of whom were simply ordinary people caught up in an indiscriminate wave of terror.

The economics of the illegal arms trade which Thatcher tirelessly pursued are sickening. Poor countries like Indonesia coughed up the money to pay for these weapons by exploiting their own people. Once their citizens' pockets were emptied to pay for these implements of violence the governments used these very same weapons to kill them. In other words, helpless people were forced to finance their own executions so that the coffers of British corporations could be filled.

Margaret Thatcher and her son Mark had significant personal stakes in this dirty, bloody and thoroughly immoral business. As journalist John Pilger has noted, Mark Thatcher acted as an interlocutor for arranging many of these sales. Paid by commission, he made many millions of dollars -- the dollars of poor people, one must add -- by connecting governments to arms producers.

The fact that Prime Minister Thatcher's son was involved in this trade is disturbing for another reason, mainly that he was involved in government activities at all. His active presence in the halls of officialdom reveals the practice of nepotism under Thatcher, a macabre brand of favoritism that was as heinous as it was lucrative.
There are many people who would like these details about the Thatcher administration, i.e., the policies and the facts, to be swept under the rug. Some will say that all politician's make "mistakes" and other will say that it is no good to throw mud on the names of the dead.
It is true that all politicians make "mistakes" and this is precisely why the facts must be remembered -- so that these same people are not turned into gods. Otherwise, the danger of past politicians becoming emotive symbols for engraining passive allegiance to another party or public figure becomes all too real.
To understand this danger one need only think of how the military now bastardizes quotes by the pacifist Martin Luther King Jr. -- the first major public figure to denounce the Vietnam War -- in order to lend a fa├žade of legitimacy to its illegal wars overseas.
Saying that people should not throw mud on the names of the dead is also baseless when such accusations of mudslinging are made against people who simply cite the policies made by past public figures, whose positions are naturally meant to be subjected to public scrutiny. To claim that people should, in effect, forget the past is a frightening admonition. In any case, it betrays much about the legacy of a public figure if in order to honor their legacy you must first forget it.
At the end of the day Margaret Thatcher was a politician, probably no more moral or immoral than any other. Yet her life does teach us volumes about the nature of power, hubris and fame's wafer-thin patina.
I hope that Thatcher rests in peace just as I hope that the world may be at peace. To resign oneself to the absence of peace until death is as dangerous as placing one's hope for peace in the empty platitudes of politicians. Let us then not place are hopes in "iron" fictions that rust but instead choose to demand peace in the present. 

Saturday, April 6, 2013

How and Why People Commit Murder

"Here, perhaps, is the purpose for history, somewhere between the record and death and its constant reinterpretation. Only a history of mass killing can unite the numbers and the memories. Without history, the memories become private, which today means national; and the numbers become public, which is to say an instrument in the international competition for martyrdom.... Such reasoning allows a nationalist to hug himself with one arm and strike his neighbor with the other."
        - Timothy Snyder, from Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, p. 402

What allows people to kill one another?

This frank, unadorned question has occupied humankind through the ages, provoking both disgust and fascination, terror and excitement. It is one which all schools and sciences have attempted to understand on their own terms; a question which is at the center of comprehending and destroying the human condition.

Perhaps we can address this question by first asking another. Have you ever read Camus' The Stranger? The novel's protagonist Meursault is a pied-noir, or Algerian citizen of European heritage, who murders an Arab person. Caught and sentenced to death, he eventually comes to terms with his mortality, stolidly refusing to yield to despair by allowing himself to be consumed by the meaningless grandeur of existence.

Camus' work has long been appraised a classic and, in fact, the paragon of secular existentialism, which boldly proclaims that existence precedes essence. There is no transcendent truth or divine purpose. People must forge their own reality and set of values by which to live, superimposing a personal understanding of existence on life's cumulative chaos and conquering the leviathan of despair.

The problem with this outlook is its implicit acceptance of life as a series of competing fictions. Questions concerning life's meaning are not so must elucidated, or even struggled with, as they are circumvented altogether. Lingering and, as Camus himself recognized, searing doubts about one's constructed worldview are deemed an unnatural and regressive tendency. Even while noting the crushing reality of these doubts -- what Camus called "despair" -- the idea that these doubts may indeed allude to some greater existential purpose or need (like every other sensation) is never entertained.

Indeed, denial of these unnatural but universally-held doubts may be the only aspect of the existentialist worldview that Camus asserts must be shared. One can make up the other details as they so please, but they can never acknowledge the ever-palpable sensation of doubt, even as it suppurates and festers.

What makes this ideology dangerous is its separation of the subject from their environment and, by consequence, its investiture of a god-like status within each participant through which they may order their own world. The writings of Camus and many other great authors appeal to contradictory desires and senses. Algeria is portrayed in lush yet terse prose, evoking a landscape of multiple contours which immediately please the senses. We can relate to the sights and sounds, the daily grind and numbing worries of Meursault's world.

At the same time, Meursault is granted supernatural powers that are not noticed by even many close readers. Though his world is one of aesthetic complexity conveyed in pleasing language, he is granted the decidedly unnatural ability to dictate the rules of his universe, standing apart and directing it from a vantage-point of near-supernatural power.  No character's personality is quite as rich and developed as his own. The person he kills is not even granted the honor of a name -- all we know is that he was an "Arab."

The idea that a person can stand apart from their environment and construct it according to their own whims is a dangerous one. When the reader remembers that a human being was murdered because of Meursault's assumptions of personal privilege, epistemic power and belief in his possession of a god-like ability to construct his own universe, this truth becomes clearer, though it is one which Camus ironically seems to have not recognized (even though his main character killed a man, or "Arab").

People are not clairvoyant -- they do not sit outside their world and objectively peruse it -- but, rather, are in the middle of this messy process we call existence. The danger that resides in presuming the right to organize one's universe according to supposedly objectively-constructed principles, i.e. principles seen as personally constructed outside the natural process, is all too real.

People easily become pawns, subject to the beholder's assignment of judgment or placement in the world. After all, if one's assumes the ability to craft their own world then this naturally involves dictating the roles of other people, at least in reference to one's own person. Since the intellects of all people are finite and fallible it is impossible for the beholder to ascertain the inordinate complexity and individuality of even a single other person, not to mention themselves.

Plainly spoken, the problem of believing that one can objectively structure one's own world, or infuse essence into it after the fact of existence, is that other people are inevitably turned into mere objects. Their personhood cannot be conceived because it is beyond the intellectual capacity of any mere human. Yet by believing in their ability to create their own reality Meursault and company assume this god-like ability. If they may construct their world then it naturally revolves around them; how could it be otherwise? Other people are deemed tertiary rather than integral to their world, and, in some cases, expendable.

The fact that Meursault manages to conquer his doubts, or despair, should not be a cause for rejoicing but profound sadness. And the fact that he shows no remorse for murdering a fellow human being, a person whom Camus perfunctorily assigns the title "Arab," is equally disturbing. In both cases reality is denied: real needs signified by a physical sensation are repressed instead of addressed, and the life of another person is senselessly cut short. If anything, it would seem that these two developments bode ill for Camus' existentialism, though somehow these details remain conspicuously and alarming overlooked.
The assertion of one's fictions, or constructed understanding and terms of existence, provides a powerful framework within which murder can easily become justifiable, even reasonable. For if there is anything that greases the way for killing it is the assignment of otherness to people beyond one's self. In order to kill someone else it is often necessary that the killer first distinguish themselves from the potential victim by painting them as fundamentally different from themselves.
Oftentimes, the symbols and titles used to separate the potential killer from their victim are attendant to their own perverted worldview. In all cases, these titles and barriers to the acknowledgement of shared humanity are cosmetic, distracting from the eternal truth that all people possess humanity as well as intrinsic value (as opposed to essence after existence).
Thus Camus does not assign a name to the murdered victim, merely labeling him an "Arab." The term "Arab" operates on multiple levels. At one level the person's personhood is degraded by the omission of their name but on another level he is denigrated with the label used, it being racial and consequently denoting a clear set of power relations between him and Meursault, in which he is the lesser being.
It is highly doubtful that Camus understood the racist overtones of this omission and racial labeling. The constructed worldview which he held, amongst numerous other progeny and inheritors of European colonialism, was that race does exist and in it lie certain notable differences. When one reads Camus' other works such as The Plague, his "Arab" characters remain just as anonymous and forgettable. After Meursault kills the "Arab" he does not experience regret because he acted according to a prescribed though plastically perverse logic form of logic which clearly grants him power over the anonymous "Arab."
Camus' subscription to the equally synthetic and destructive idea of nationalism, or support of an allegedly shared goal by a random group of people who reside within manmade borders, is equally telling. It is this uncritical nationalism which allowed him to support the French war effort against native Algerians who sought independence from the onerous yoke of French imperialism during the Franco-Algerian War (1954-62). Again, the good guys and the bad guys are determined by their use of symbols and constructed identities -- the flag, skin color and residence -- erecting barriers to the acknowledgement of their shared humanity.
In Timothy Snyder's masterful history of the genocides and ethnic cleansings that preceded, and occurred during and after WWII, he emphasizes the manipulation of notions of difference that greased the way for mass murder. While millions of Jews, Belarusians, Poles, Ukrainians, Soviet soldiers and others died because of the ethnic, political or religious identities, it is a grievous error to see these people as Jews, Belarusians, Poles, Ukrainians or Soviet Soldiers.
These ethnic, national, political and religious identities are the ways in which their murderers saw them, often differing from the ways in which the victims identified themselves. In fact, it is by these facile labels that Hitler, Stalin and other murderers perceived the victims, stripping them of all human attributes.
To say that the person killed was a Jew or Pole is to accept the Nazi and Soviet narratives -- the narrative of the killers.
Most people who died during this period did not see themselves primarily as a Jew, Pole, etc. but as a mother, father, doctor, author, student, lover, and so on. To reduce them simply to an ethnic, religious or political moniker is to take for granted a simplistic narrative of predestined destruction -- the Nazi and Soviet narratives. One version saw these people as expendable so that a German empire could be consolidated and the other saw them as fodder for the building of socialism.
In both cases, these people and their destruction were perceived as existing outside of history. The builders or forgers of this new world would complete this dirty but necessary work, and then history could resume itself. To state this differently, the murderers saw themselves as entitled to create a new world order with themselves at the center. They alone were privileged with the ability to objectively envision and construct this new order, and with irrepressible self-assurance this is what they attempted to do.
It is one of the tragedies of victimhood that the victim often ends up taking the name assigned to them by the killer. Unless they take up this label their claims to victimhood are often denied or rendered unrecognizable, seeing as the dominant narrative is almost always that of the powerful aggressor. This is one of the legacies of power -- the murderer can dictate the terms of the account even after their passing.

The tragedy of the Holocaust and WWII is not that people who were "Jews," "Poles", "Belarusians," or "Soviets" died. The tragedy of the Holocaust and WWII is that people died.
In Dostoevsky's novel Crime and Punishment, the main character Rodion Raskolnikov murders an elderly pawnbroker only to be crippled by guilt and remorse. No matter how hard he tries, he cannot extinguish feelings of self-loathing and psychological torment. Unlike Camus' Meursault, however, Raskolnikov eventually acknowledges his crime and the reality of his profound torment, repenting of his grisly deed and coming to terms with his iniquity.
In one novel, the main character murders a man and succumbs to the psychosis of his grisly deed; in the other, the protagonist acknowledges the reality of moral compunction and comes to reconcile himself to the existence of transcendent truth. One character entertains the pretension of being able to construct reality; the other recognizes his fallibility -- his humanity.