Our Own Suicide 9/13/17

Begging for war  –  by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

“There are no good options,” Brian Williams said the other night on MSNBC, launching a discussion about North Korea with the implication that war — maybe nuclear war — is the only solution to the problem it represents.

We’ve been cradling our own suicide for seven decades. The baby’s eyes open¼

And Williams was right, though not in a way that he understood. When war — forceful domination, victory through threat, carnage and, if necessary, annihilation — is the ultimate limit of one’s consciousness, there are no good options. Even the peace negotiated in the context of war is bound to be temporary and grudging and therefore a bad option — sort of like the “peace” achieved at the end of the Korean War, after which both sides still, as Reuters reports, “have thousands of rockets and artillery pieces aimed at each other across the world’s most heavily armed border.”

Only beyond the context of war are there any options at all. Only beyond the context of war does humanity have any hope of avoiding suicide. And contrary to the consensus viewpoint of mainstream politicians and reporters, this is not completely unexplored territory.

Because Donald Trump is president, reaching for this trans-war consciousness is as crucial as it has ever been.

Maybe the best place to begin is by noting that there are some 22,000 nuclear weapons on the planet. This fact is almost never part of the news about North Korea, which has, as of this week, when it detonated an alleged hydrogen bomb, conducted six nuclear tests. The fact that Kim Jong-un’s tiny, unpredictable country is a member of the nuclear club is disconcerting, but the fact that there’s a “nuclear club” at all — and that its members are spending as much as a trillion dollars a decade to modernize their nuclear weapons — is even more disconcerting. And the fact that the modernization process is happening so quietly, without controversy or public debate (or even awareness) exacerbates the horror exponentially.

North Korea may be “begging for war,” as U.N. Ambassador Nikki Haley exclaimed, but it’s not alone in doing so. None of the planet’s nuclear-armed nations have abided by the 1970 Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons, which explicitly calls for complete nuclear disarmament. How easy this has been to ignore.

As Simon Tisdall wrote recently in The Guardian: “. . . the past and present leaders of the U.S., Russia, China, France and the UK, whose governments signed but have not fulfilled the terms of the 1970 nuclear non-proliferation treaty, have to some degree brought the North Korea crisis on themselves. Kim Jong-un’s recklessness and bad faith is a product of their own.”

Preparing for war produces, at best, obedience, which usually comes with hidden resentments. Because North Korea has displayed defiance rather than obedience, the mainstream media have portrayed the country and its leader as, essentially, evil cartoon characters: a crazy country that doesn’t know its place and is therefore begging for war.

To reach beyond war, to reach toward the future and create the possibility that it will arrive — to create sensible options — first of all requires dealing with one’s enemy with respect and understanding. In the case of North Korea, this means revisiting the Korean War, in which some 3 million North Koreans died and, as Anna Fifield pointed out recently in the Washington Post, “the U.S. Air Force leveled the North, to the extent that American generals complained there was nothing left to bomb.”

“Ever since,” she writes, “North Korea has existed in a state of insecurity, with the totalitarian regime telling the population that the United States is out to destroy them — again.

“It is in this context that, following the collapse of its nuclear-armed benefactor, the Soviet Union, the Kim regime has sought weapons of its own.”

She points out that this is not irrational behavior — certainly not for a small, isolated country in the crosshairs of the United States. On a planet with no good options, North Korea’s capacity to produce a little mutually assured destruction may be its best bet to curtail invasion. Indeed, no nuclear-armed nation has ever been invaded.

With that understanding in place, John Delury, a professor at the Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies in Seoul, has some further advice to offer:

“Now is the time,” he wrote in the Washington Post in April, “to jump-start a diplomatic initiative that reopens channels, lowers tensions and caps North Korea’s capabilities where they are. Then, working closely with the new government in Seoul and others, the United States should support a long-term strategy that integrates North Korea into regional stability and prosperity. . . .

“By simply inflicting economic pain, threatening military strikes and keeping tensions high, the United States is playing into the worst tendencies of the North Korean system. Kim’s nuclear intentions will harden and North Korea’s capabilities will only grow. It’s time to reverse course.”

The time is now: to stop pretending that war will keep us safe, to stop cradling humanity’s capacity to commit suicide.

And the United States is not Donald Trump. Our collective consciousness is bigger than that of a bully. That means we have the capacity to understand that the threat posed by North Korea is a reminder that nuclear disarmament for the whole planet is long overdue. There are no good nuclear weapons.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Our History Won’t Be Pretty 8/30/17

Facing History In the Age of Trump – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

Tempting as it is to isolate Donald Trump as the worst president in history (and “worst” is putting it mildly . . . more like the most narcissistically infantile, the most Nazi-friendly), doing so achieves nothing beyond a fleeting sense of satisfaction.

Yeah, he’s scary. His supporters are scary. But he comes in a context.

Whether or not he’s impeached, or removed from office via the 25th Amendment, his effect on the country won’t go away. Trump can’t be undone, any more than an act of terror — or war — can be undone.

But maybe Trump can be addressed beyond a sense of outrage. Maybe he can foment, in spite of himself, not simply change, but national transformation. Realizing this, and seizing hold of the moment he has created, may be a far more effective way of dealing with his unhinged presidency than merely exuding endless shock.

This, of course, is how the mainstream media is dealing with the situation. Journalism has never been so yellow. Extra! Extra! Trump tweets a whopper! Read all about it!

The assumption quietly lurking behind such reporting is that the national interest is best served by containing the president’s outbursts and normalizing him: keeping him on script, making sure he utters nothing but clichés for the next forty months, and business proceeds as usual again.

But business is finding a way to proceed as usual anyway. The generals and the military-industrialists have their war in Afghanistan back, for instance. Trump may be a blowhard and a white supremacist — he may be an international laughingstock — but he’s no match for the dark forces that actually run the country.

What Trump does offer, however, is a means of disconnecting actual values from the sacred bullshit at the foundation of American “greatness.” This country is a paradox in progress. It was founded on a certain, modest belief in human equality; it was also founded on slavery, genocide and the exploitation of resources, human and otherwise. And sometimes Trump blurts out an obvious truth about this — with the audacity of a bratty kid who doesn’t know any better. It’s the basis of his popularity, such as it is.

Let’s revisit, for a moment, his post-Charlottesville rant. As he defended white supremacists and the statues of Confederate generals, he also tossed this bone out there:

“George Washington was a slave owner. . . . So will George Washington now lose his status? Are we going to take down — excuse me — are we going to take down statues to George Washington? How about Thomas Jefferson? What do you think of Thomas Jefferson? You like him? Good. Are we going to take down the statue? ‘Cause he was a major slave owner. Are we going to take down his statue? So you know what? It’s fine. You are changing history; you’re changing culture.”

Taking down the statues of the Confederacy — these symbols of the moral righteousness of owning human chattel, which were put up during the height of the Jim Crow era to reinforce the new form that white dominance was taking — is long overdue, and Trump’s defense of them smacks of a bully’s cowardice. Nonetheless, his equating Washington and Jefferson with the likes of Stonewall Jackson and Robert E. Lee pokes at a serious national wound.

The typical mainstream rebuttal is to point out that the Founding Fathers are revered not because they owned slaves but because they gave us the Constitution and the nation. It’s as though the whole slave thing has been dealt with — but of course it hasn’t. What Trump did was violate the political correctness that locked into place half a century ago, shutting down the civil rights movement with an apologetic shrug: Slavery was wrong but everyone is equal now. Let’s move on, OK?

This is the default point of a Washington Post article on Trump’s remarks, in which numerous historians point out the differences between the Founding Fathers and the leaders of the Confederacy. In the process, however, the article stirs up some deep questions that it fails to address.

For instance, uh . . . “Twelve United States presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, owned slaves,” we’re told.

“Washington became a slave owner at age 11. More than 300 slaves lived on his Mount Vernon estate, and he owned 123 of them. Jefferson owned about 175 slaves when he wrote that ‘all men are created equal’ in his draft of the Declaration of Independence. Historians say one of his slaves, Sally Hemings, bore six children by him.

“But that does not mean they should be equated with people who worked to destroy the union they helped to create . . .”

No, perhaps not. But it does mean something. At the very least, it means this is a country founded on a remarkably contradictory notion of equality — an equality subservient to ownership and wealth, you might say. These are the devil’s own temptations, right, President Jefferson?

The consequences of this are not miniscule. At the very least, should we not be asking how these consequences still manifest themselves in our imperfect society? What institutions does this fact call into question? What about the presidency itself?

Eight presidents, including Washington and Jefferson, owned slaves while they were in office. The others were: James Madison, James Monroe, Andrew Jackson, John Tyler, James Polk and Zachary Taylor. Four others owned slaves at one point in their lives, but not while they were president. They were: Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Andrew Johnson and — oh, the irony — Ulysses S. Grant.

Trump has torn open this reality. He hasn’t done so in moral outrage but in obeisance to such power. He has revealed how far back in time his baseball-hat slogan — “Make America Great Again” — really goes. And he fits, a little too neatly, into the country’s historic racism and narcissistic sense of exceptionalism.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Long, Leisurely, Merciless 8/16/17

Why Does North Korea Hate Us?  – by Robert C. Koehler

“The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless . . .”

Robert Koehler

And so we return to the Korean War, when North Korea was carpet-bombed to the edge of existence. The American media doesn’t have a memory that stretches quite so far back, at least not under present circumstances. One commentator at MSNBC recently explained, for instance, that the tiny pariah nation “has been preparing for war for 63 years!”

That would be since, uh, 1954, the year after the war ended. But the war wasn’t mentioned. It never is. Doing so would disrupt the consensus attitude that Kim Jong-Un is a nuclear-armed crazy and that North Korea’s hatred of the United States is just . . . hatred, dark and bitter, the kind of rancor you’d expect from a communist dictatorship and certified member of the Axis of Evil.

And now Donald Trump is taunting the crazy guy, disrupting the U.S.-maintained normalcy of global relations and putting this country at risk. And that’s almost always the focus: not the use of nuclear weapons per se, but the possibility that a North Korean nuke could reach the United States, as though American lives and “national security” mattered more than, or were separate from, the safety of the whole planet.

Indeed, the concept of national security justifies pretty much every action, however destructive and horrifically consequential in the long term. The concept justifies armed small-mindedness, which equals militarism. Apparently protecting national security also means forgetting the Korean War, or never facing the reality of what we did to North Korea from 1950 to 1953.

But as Trump plays war in his own special way, the time to explore this media memory void is now.

I return to my opening quote, which is from a two-year-old story in the Washington Post: “The bombing was long, leisurely and merciless, even by the assessment of America’s own leaders. ‘Over a period of three years or so, we killed off — what — 20 percent of the population,’ Air Force Gen. Curtis LeMay, head of the Strategic Air Command during the Korean War, told the Office of Air Force History in 1984. Dean Rusk, a supporter of the war and later secretary of state, said the United States bombed ‘everything that moved in North Korea, every brick standing on top of another.’ After running low on urban targets, U.S. bombers destroyed hydroelectric and irrigation dams in the later stages of the war, flooding farmland and destroying crops.”

Specifically, “the U.S. dropped 635,000 tons of explosives on North Korea, including 32,557 tons of napalm, an incendiary liquid that can clear forested areas and cause devastating burns to human skin,” Tom O’Connor wrote recently in Newsweek. This is more bomb tonnage than the U.S. dropped in the Pacific Theater during World War II.

He quoted historian Bruce Cumings: “Most Americans are completely unaware that we destroyed more cities in the North then we did in Japan or Germany during World War II.”

And so we start to open the wound of this war, in which possibly as many as 3 million North Koreans died, a number that would have been even higher had Gen. Douglas MacArthur gotten his way. He proposed nuclear holocaust in the name of national security, figuring he could end the war in ten days.

“Between 30 and 50 atomic bombs would have more than done the job,” he said in an interview shortly after the end of the war. “Dropped under cover of darkness, they would have destroyed the enemy’s air force on the ground, wiped out his maintenance and his airmen.”

“For the Americans, strategic bombing made perfect sense, giving advantage to American technological prowess against the enemy’s numerical superiority,” historian Charles K. Armstrong wrote for the Asia Pacific Journal. “. . . But for the North Koreans, living in fear of B-29 attacks for nearly three years, including the possibility of atomic bombs, the American air war left a deep and lasting impression. The (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea) government never forgot the lesson of North Korea’s vulnerability to American air attack, and for half a century after the Armistice continued to strengthen anti-aircraft defenses, build underground installations, and eventually develop nuclear weapons to ensure that North Korea would not find itself in such a position again. The long-term psychological effect of the war on the whole of North Korean society cannot be overestimated.”

Why is this reality not part of the current news? In what way is American safety furthered by such willful ignorance?

Cumings, writing recently in The Nation, noted that he participated in a forum about North Korea in Seoul last fall with Strobe Talbott, deputy secretary of state in the Bill Clinton administration. At one point, Cumings brought up Robert McNamara’s comment in the documentary The Fog of War, regarding Vietnam, that “we never put ourselves in the shoes of the enemy and attempted to see the world as they did.” Shouldn’t this apply to our negotiations with North Korea?

“Talbott,” Cumings wrote, “then blurted, ‘It’s a grotesque regime!’ There you have it: It’s our number-one problem, but so grotesque that there’s no point trying to understand Pyongyang’s point of view (or even that it might have some valid concerns).”

And so we remain caged in military thinking and the need to win, rather than understand. But as long as we feel no need to understand North Korea, we don’t have to bother trying to understand ourselves. Or face what we have done.

–end–

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Clueless on the Edge 8/16/17

Terrorism for profit  – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

Donald Trump stands cluelessly at the edge of history, exemplifying everything wrong with the past, oh, 10,000 years or so.

The necessity for fundamental change in humanity’s global organization is not only profound, but urgent.

Trump’s latest outburst about North Korea’s nukes — threatening that country “with fire, fury, and frankly power the likes of which the world has never seen before” — creates a comic book Armageddon scenario in the media, except, of course, his power to launch a nuclear war on impulse is real.

What this makes clear to me is that no one should have the authority — the power — to declare any war whatsoever. The fact that this is still possible, so many decades into human awareness of war’s utter insanity, reveals the paradox that civilization remains economically tied to its own destruction.

Another icon of this paradox is Erik Prince, immensely wealthy mercenary, notorious founder of the terror organization Blackwater, who had cozy ties to the Bush administration back when the 21st century’s endless wars were just getting underway and now, with another unelected Republican in the White House, has recently made a grab at the business opportunity still represented by these wars:

Let’s privatize the quagmire!

Sixteen years on, the war in Afghanistan is the longest in American history, and presently in a state of “stalemate,” according to the mainstream consensus that unquestioningly justifies this country’s ongoing militarism. For instance: “The U.S. can’t win but can’t afford to lose,” USA Today opined in a recent editorial about Afghanistan, inanely demanding that Trump “at least should decide what to do next” and setting the stage for Prince’s business plan, which is to restructure and privatize the war.

In an op-ed a few days ago in that same publication, Prince wrote: “The option to simply abandon Afghanistan is enticing but in the long run would be a foreign policy disaster. The Kabul government would collapse. Afghanistan would be a rallying cry for global jihadists.”

And suddenly there it was, the American paradox in full splendor: Oh yeah, we’re fighting terrorists. We have to keep killing people, keep pouring trillions of dollars into our wars, because bad people are out there threatening us because they hate our freedoms. And the guy reminding us of this is the founder of Blackwater, private contractor in Iraq, whose mercenaries were responsible for one of the most shocking acts of lethal aggression — a.k.a., terrorism — of the early years of that war.

Blackwater contractors were accused of “firing wildly into cars stalled in midafternoon traffic at Nisour Square on Sept. 16, 2007, pouring machine-gun bullets and grenades into crowds, including women clutching only purses and children holding their hands in the air,” as the Washington Post reminded us recently.

This act of carnage, in which 17 Iraqis were killed and 20 more injured, typifies what you might call American terrorism. It may, at some quasi-conscious level be religiously motivated. Indeed, Jeremy Scahill, reporting in 2009 for The Nation on the lawsuit filed on behalf of Iraqis harmed in the Nisour Square massacre, wrote that, according to a former Blackwater employee who testified in U.S. federal court during the trial:

“Prince ‘views himself as a Christian crusader tasked with eliminating Muslims and the Islamic faith from the globe,’ and . . . Prince’s companies ‘encouraged and rewarded the destruction of Iraqi life.’ . . .

Furthermore, Scahill wrote,

“Mr. Prince’s executives would openly speak about going over to Iraq to ‘lay hajiis out on cardboard.’ Going to Iraq to shoot and kill Iraqis was viewed as a sport or game. Mr. Prince’s employees openly and consistently used racist and derogatory terms for Iraqis and other Arabs, such as ‘ragheads’ or ‘hajiis.’”

This all fits quite horrifically into the definition of jihadism, or terrorism, but because it’s American, it brings something extra to the table as well. This is terrorism for profit. And it’s been going on for a long time, in a realm far bigger than that occupied by Erik Prince’s business interests. You could call it colonialism, or the domination complex. The world is ours. This is the “greatness” Trump sold to enough Americans to squeeze into the Oval Office.

Not only does he have no patience with a military stalemate in Afghanistan — “we aren’t winning, we’re losing” — but he can’t stand the fact that the shattered country’s mineral wealth isn’t in our hands.

At a recent, well-publicized meeting with his generals, Trump “lamented that China is making money off of Afghanistan’s estimated $1 trillion in rare minerals while American troops are fighting the war,” according to NBC News. “Trump expressed frustration that his advisers tasked with figuring out how the U.S. can help American businesses get rights to those minerals were moving too slowly, one official said. . . .

“The focus on the minerals was reminiscent of Trump’s comments early into his presidency when he lamented that the U.S. didn’t take Iraq’s oil when the majority of forces departed the country in 2011.”

Trump leads a political system that’s still grounded in the colonial era. His reckless arrogance is its global face. He stares at the audacity of nuclear-armed North Korea and threatens to blow it to kingdom come, imagining that there will be profit to reap in the aftermath.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Opening Gitmo 8/2/17

Opening Gitmo to the world  – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

To read Witnesses of the Unseen: Seven Years in Guantanamo is to run your mind along the contours of hell.

The next step, if you’re an American, is to embrace it. Claim it. This is who we are: We are the proprietors of a cluster of human cages and a Kafkaesque maze of legal insanity. This torture center is still open. Men (“forever prisoners”) are still being held there, their imprisonment purporting to keep us safe.

The book, by Lakhdar Boumediene and Mustafa Ait Idir — two Algerian men arrested in Bosnia in 2011 and wrongly accused of being terrorists — allows us to imagine ourselves at Guantanamo, this outpost of the Endless War.

“‘Take him outside,’ the interrogator told them. They led me up a flight of eight or nine concrete steps to a long gravel drive. It was pitch black out, and completely quiet. There was no one around. One of the soldiers grabbed my left arm, and another took my right. And then they started running.

“I tried to keep up, but my legs were shackled together. First, my flip-flops fell off, and after a few barefoot strides, my legs fell out from under me. The soldiers didn’t even slow down. They kept a firm grip on my arms while my legs bounced and scraped along the ground, gravel biting into them. When the run finally ended, the soldiers brought me back to the interrogation room, bloody and bedraggled.”

This is one fragment, one story of the seven years these two innocent men endured: these two fathers who were pulled away from their wives and children, yanked from their lives, stuffed into cages, interrogated endlessly and pointlessly, humiliated, force-fed (in Lakhdar’s case) . . . and finally, finally, ordered by a U.S. judge to be freed, when their case, Boumediene v. Bush, was at long last heard in a real court and the lack of evidence against them became appallingly clear.

The book is the story of the courage it takes to survive.

And it’s a story that can only be told because of the work of the Boston legal firm WilmerHale, which spent more than 17,000 pro bono hours litigating the case, “work that would have cost paying clients more than $35 million.”

Lakhdar and Mustafa were freed in 2008 and began rebuilding their lives. They eventually decided they wanted to tell their story — to an American audience. Daniel Norland, who was a lawyer at WilmerHale when the case was making its way through the court process (but was not part of the litigation team) and his sister, Kathleen List, who speaks fluent Arabic, conducted more than 100 hours of interviews with the two men, which were shaped into Witnesses of the Unseen.

In October 2011, the two men, who were living and working in Sarajevo, were among six Algerians who wound up being arrested by Bosnian authorities and charged with plotting to blow up the American embassy in Sarajevo. They were held for three months, then released. There was no evidence to back up the accusation.

But this turns out to be the beginning of their story, not the end of it. The men were released not back to their own lives but to an authority more powerful than the Bosnian judicial system: They were released to the Americans, who had begun rounding up Muslims . . . uh, terrorists. Evidence, or lack thereof, didn’t matter. These men were shipped to a new military prison, built at the Guantanamo Bay Naval Base in Cuba — an offshore prison, in other words, unencumbered by the U.S. Constitution. The detainees there allegedly had zero rights. That was the whole point.

Much of what Lakhdar and Mustafa describe is the efficiency of the U.S. military in dehumanizing its prisoners. The beatings and physical pain inflicted by guards, interrogators and even medical personnel were only part of it. The men also endured sexual humiliation, endless mocking of their religion — “I heard . . . that a soldier went into someone’s cell and flushed his Qur’an down the toilet” — and the cruel, teasing “misplacement” or censorship of letters from the prisoners’ loved ones.

Several years into his imprisonment, Lakhdar went on a hunger strike, which meant he was subjected to force-feeding, which the U.N. Human Rights Commission has called a form of torture:

“The soldier brought out an apparatus with a long yellow tube and started measuring out the length of tube he needed. He stopped when he got to a marking somewhere between 45 and 50 inches. That was the amount of tube he was going to insert through my nostril. . . .

“It’s almost impossible to explain what a feeding tube feels like to someone who hasn’t experienced it. I felt like I was choking, and being strangled, and yet somehow still able to breathe, all at the same time.

“The soldier taped the tube in place. I could see the Ensure trickling through the tube, one droplet at a time. It felt cold as it reached my stomach. I later learned that a full feeding normally takes fifteen to twenty minutes, but that first time they went exceptionally slowly. I sat in the clinic, chained to the chair, a tube protruding down my throat, for the rest of the afternoon and all through the night.”

It took no less than a Supreme Court ruling to start ending this nightmare.

In early 2007, a U.S. Circuit Court judge had refused to hear Boumediene v. Bush on the grounds that Guantanamo prisoners had no Constitutional rights. But the Supreme Court agreed to hear an appeal, and in June 2008 ruled that Guantanamo counted as part of the U.S. and, as Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote, the government couldn’t “switch the Constitution on and off at will.”

Thus the case went back to the Circuit Court and a real hearing got underway, leading to one of the most appalling revelations in the book: “Our lawyers had told us, in the days leading up to our trial, about a recent bizarre development in our case: the government had dropped its allegation that we had plotted to blow up the U.S. Embassy in Sarajevo. Just like in Bosnia seven years before, authorities were eager to toss around bomb-plot allegations right up until a court required them to provide evidence.

“Instead, our lawyers told us, the government now said that the reason it considered us ‘enemy combatants’ was that it had evidence — classified evidence that I wasn’t allowed to see — that we had made a plan to fly to Afghanistan and join Al Qaeda’s fight against American forces there. This was the first time I had ever heard this allegation. No one — no police officer, no Bosnian official, no American interrogator — had ever asked me a single question about it.

“And it was a ludicrous allegation. . . .”

And the judge ruled in their favor and they eventually were set free, to reclaim their lives, to see their children for the first time in seven years — and to give their story to the world.

But as long as Gitmo remains open and the Endless War continues — and no one is held accountable — there is no ending to this story, just an open wound.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Dancing with Fear 8/2/17

Dancing with fear – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

I knew there was a war on against cancer and, oh yeah, drugs, illiteracy, poverty, crime and, of course, terror, and that many arenas — sports, religion, business and politics, to name a few — are often portrayed as war without the body bags. But I was still surprised to read recently in the New York Times that we’ve opened up a fat front:

“It is a scene being repeated across the country as schools deploy the blood-pumping video game Dance Dance Revolution as the latest weapon,” the Gray Lady informed us, “in the nation’s battle against the epidemic of childhood obesity.”

Enough already! If I were an overweight kid, would I want Braveheart in my face? My impatience here reaches into the language center of the American brain, or at least the media brain. When chubby 9-year-olds are inspiring the language of Guadalcanal and 9/11, maybe as a nation it’s time to rethink our rhetorical default settings. Maybe it’s time to stop regarding every challenge, danger, obstacle, mystery and fear we encounter as a military operation, to be won or lost. We should at least be aware we have a choice in the matter.

Metaphors are the very essence of that light bulb (metaphor) we think of as understanding. When it goes off, it means — boing-g-g! — we’ve linked the unknown with the known, created order out of the tumult of love or the daily commute or those blood-test results. Metaphors do not equal reality, but good ones illuminate it. The wrong metaphor about what’s going on, however, makes us stupid. Witness George Bush’s war on terror, a flailing spasm of high-tech counterterror that seems as rational as . . . oh, calling for an air strike to take out obesity.

Ever since 9/11, I’ve been driven by an urgency to understand why we as a nation accepted Bush’s war of revenge so enthusiastically and felt so little empathy toward the innocent, sitting-duck populations we were about to carpet bomb. A big part of the reason, I believe, is that the military response — which means defining an enemy and immediately suspending all human feelings toward it — is embedded in our language. I also believe such language has outlived its usefulness in almost every way it’s applied and that a new, more complex way of thinking has begun to emerge.

Consider: A 2005 University of Florida study on doctor-patient communication, published in the Journal of Clinical Oncology, concluded that, “Well-meaning doctors seeking to explain treatment to cancer patients by comparing it to an all-out war might be wise to skip the military metaphors,” according to the university’s Web site.

“The life-is-a-journey comparison is a quieter metaphor and has the depth, richness and seriousness to apply to the cancer experience,” said Dr. Gary M. Reisfield, one of the researchers. “The road may not be as long as one hoped, and important destinations may be bypassed, but there’s no winning, losing or failing.”

Or how about the militarization of religion? Rev. Peter Paulsen, writing at medialit.org, noted: “We no longer accept racist references in speech, much less in worship. . . . But many Western — and some Eastern — religions still describe our relationship to God in military terms. We talk of ‘battling’ the devil, and ‘conquering’ sin. We loudly sing ‘Onward, Christian Soldiers’ or ‘Lord, God of Hosts, Mighty in Battle.’

“Despite the controversy that changing this language might provoke,” he wrote, “all people of faith need to reexamine whether the ‘peace that passes all understanding’ can be effectively communicated — in today’s nuclear age — by traditional metaphors of war.”

Or the militarization of business? Dennis W. Organ, in an essay on the Business Horizons Web site, lamented that classical management theory is permeated with military terms — “chain of command,” “rank and file,” “market strategy” — that serve mainly to obscure marketplace realities.

Even though he was dubious that the alternative business-model metaphors he suggested — “the organism, the computer, the jazz ensemble” — would grab people’s imaginations, I think he’s on to something. Such concepts are far more complex than the “us vs. them” reductionism of the military metaphor and challenge us to embrace a larger understanding of reality.

Similarly, David C. Smith, in an essay called “De-Militarizing Language” published at peacemagazine.org, asked: “Suppose instead of thinking about argument in terms of war, we were to think of argument as a pleasing, graceful dance. How would such a metaphor cause us to conceptualize argument in a different way?”

Those who can’t or won’t change their thinking will eye these alternatives as further intrusions of political correctness on their happiness: the smiley-face suppression of natural aggression so that everyone gets along in false harmony. I say imagine dancing with what we fear instead of trying to kill it.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Boycott of Sanity 7/19/17

Nukes and the global schism – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

The United States boycotted the U.N. negotiations to ban — everywhere across Planet Earth — nuclear weapons. So did eight other countries. Guess which ones?

The international debate over this historic treaty, which became reality a week ago by a margin of 122 to 1, revealed how deeply split the nations of the world are — not by borders or language or religion or political ideology or control of wealth, but by possession of nuclear weapons and the accompanying belief in their absolute necessity for national security, despite the absolute insecurity they inflict on the whole planet.

Armed equals scared. (And scared equals profitable.)

The nine nations in question, of course, are the nuclear-armed ones: the U.S., Russia, China, Great Britain, France, India, Pakistan, Israel and . . . what was that other one? Oh yeah, North Korea. Bizarrely, these countries and their short-sighted “interests” are all on the same side, even though each one’s possession of nuclear weapons justifies the others’ possession of nuclear weapons.

None of these countries took part in the discussion of the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons, even to oppose it, seeming to indicate that a nuke-free world isn’t anywhere in their vision.

As Robert Dodge of Physicians for Social Responsibility wrote: “They have remained oblivious and hostage themselves to this mythological deterrence argument that has been the principal driver of the arms race since its inception, including the current new arms race initiated by the United States with a proposal to spend $1 trillion in the next three decades to rebuild our nuclear arsenals.”

Among the nations — the rest of the planet — that did participate in the creation of the treaty, the single vote against it was cast by the Netherlands, which, coincidentally, has stored U.S. nuclear weapons on its territory since the Cold War era, to the befuddlement even of its own leaders. (“I think they are an absolutely pointless part of a tradition in military thinking,” former Prime Minister Ruud Lubbers has said.)

The treaty reads, in part: “. . .each State Party that owns, possesses or controls nuclear weapons or other nuclear explosive devices shall immediately remove them from operational status and destroy them, as soon as possible . . .”

This is serious. I have no doubt that something historic has happened: A wish, a hope, a determination the size of humanity itself has found international language. “Prolonged applause broke out as the president of the negotiating conference, Costa Rican ambassador Elayne Whyte Gomez, gaveled through the landmark accord,” according to the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists. “‘We have managed to sow the first seeds of a world free of nuclear weapons,’ she said.”

But nonetheless, I feel a sense of cynicism and hopelessness activated as well. Does this treaty sow any real seeds, that is to say, does it put nuclear disarmament into motion in the real world, or are her words just another pretty metaphor? And are metaphors all we get?

Nikki Haley, the Trump administration’s U.N. ambassador, said last March, according to CNN, as she announced that the U.S. would boycott the talks, that as a mom and daughter, “There is nothing I want more for my family than a world with no nuclear weapons.”

How nice.

“But,” she said, “we have to be realistic.”

In years gone by, the diplomat’s finger would then have pointed to the Russians (or the Soviets) or the Chinese. But Haley said: “Is there anyone that believes that North Korea would agree to a ban on nuclear weapons?”

So this is the “realism” that is presently justifying America’s grip on its nearly 7,000 nuclear weapons, along with its trillion-dollar ‘modernization’ program: tiny North Korea, our enemy du jour, which, as we all know, just tested a ballistic missile and is portrayed in the U.S. media as a wildly irrational little nation with a world-conquest agenda and no legitimate concern about its own security. So, sorry Mom, sorry kids, we have no choice.

The point being, any enemy will do. The realism Haley was summoning was economic and political in nature far more than it had anything to do with real national security — which would have to acknowledge the legitimacy of a planetary concern about nuclear war and honor previous treaty commitments to work toward disarmament. Mutually Assured Destruction is not realism; it’s a suicidal standoff, with the certainty that eventually something’s going to give.

How can the realism manifest in the Treaty on the Prohibition of Nuclear Weapons penetrate the consciousness of the nuclear-armed nine? A change of mind or heart — a jettisoning of the fear that these insanely destructive weapons are crucial to national security — is, presumably, the only way global nuclear disarmament will happen. I don’t believe it can happen by force or coercion.

I therefore pay homage to South Africa, which played a crucial role in the treaty’s passage, as the Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists reports, and happens to be the only country on Earth that once possessed nuclear weapons and no longer does. It dismantled its nukes just as it went through its extraordinary transition, in the early ‘90s, from a nation of institutionalized racism to one of full rights for all. Is that the change of national consciousness that’s necessary?

“Working hand in hand with civil society, (we) took an extraordinary step (today) to save humanity from the frightful specter of nuclear weapons,” said South Africa’s U.N. ambassador, Nozipho Mxakato-Diseko.

And then we have the realism of Setsuko Thurlow, a survivor of the Hiroshima bombing on August 6, 1945. Recounting the aftermath of this horror recently, which she experienced as a young girl, she said of the people she saw: “Their hair was standing on end — I don’t know why — and their eyes were swollen shut from the burns. Some peoples’ eyeballs were hanging out of the sockets. Some were holding their own eyes in their hands. Nobody was running. Nobody was yelling. It was totally silent, totally still. All you could hear were the whispers for ‘water, water.’”

After the treaty’s passage last week, she spoke with an awareness I can only hope defines the future for all of us: “I have been waiting for this day for seven decades and I am overjoyed that it has finally arrived. This is the beginning of the end of nuclear weapons.”

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

From Top Down 7/12/17

Skewing democracy white – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

Every real problem this country — and this planet — face is replaced by a fantasy problem, which all the powers of government then pretend to address. Meet Donald Trump, master of the street con, trickster extraordinaire.

How many cabinet positions and high-level government posts have been filled by someone whose life work and raison d’etre make him or her the least qualified person imaginable for the job? Names burst from the news: Scott Pruitt, Betsy DeVos, Rick Perry, Jeff Sessions . . .

And now there’s Kris Kobach, who brings an ironic twist to the con, in that he’s actually a perfect fit for the position he has recently been given by Trump: vice chairman of the Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, a.k.a., the voter fraud commission, whose mandate is to stanch the flow of illegal people swarming into America’s polling places by the millions and, ahem, voting. Good God, they almost threw the election to Hillary last year.

Kobach, Kansas secretary of state, is the guy who developed Crosscheck, a voter-tracking system that is ingenious in its inanity: It finds people on the list of registered voters in participating states who have the same names, like . . . oh, James Brown (actual example) . . . and declares that they are one person voting multiple times. And they are then subject to removal from the voter roll, even (eyeball roll is appropriate here) if their middle names differ. This is such an obviously inept process it’s hard to believe anyone on the planet takes it seriously. But it’s part of hardcore Republican governance.

It’s almost as though, in an eerie way, Trump Republicans really do believe that illegal voters are invading the system — if not technically illegal, then morally illegal, in that voting against Trump proposals or Republican ideas in general (the wall, the elimination of Medicaid) is a sign that that you’re not a real American. And this is especially true if you belong to a racial minority.

The mission of Kobach’s commission is to ensure that Republican America holds strong, even as the party itself sinks ever more deeply into minority status.

The New York Times editorial board defined the “real goal” of the Commission on Election Integrity thus: “to make voting harder for millions of Americans, on the understanding that Republicans win more elections when fewer people vote.”

Investigative reporter Greg Palast, who has long been sounding the warning about Crosscheck, put it a bit more bluntly: “This country is violently divided, but in the end, there simply aren’t enough white guys to elect Trump nor a Republican Senate. The only way they could win was to eliminate the votes of non-white guys—and they did so by tossing Black provisional ballots into the dumpster, ID laws that turn away students — the list goes on. It’s a web of complex obstacles to voting by citizens of color topped by that lying spider, Crosscheck.”

American quasi-democracy has a long, long history of what one might call protective racism, and it hasn’t gone away. What requires protection is the status quo of power. And nothing is more inconvenient to the status quo than real democracy, with regular people having a say in the creation of their social structure. That means the politically powerful are always vulnerable, especially if they focus on serving their own interests, not their constituents’. You can see the problem with that.

The Crosscheck program, as well as the presidential claim that the problem with America’s democracy is that too many people are voting, are examples of contemporary — deeply coded — racial politics. According to Palast, Crosscheck’s list of suspect voters in the 2016 election “was so racially biased that fully one in six registered African-Americans were tagged in the Crosscheck states that include the swing states of Michigan, Ohio, North Carolina, Arizona and more.”

Forget about the Russians. Election tampering is a game played by Republicans. And it’s hardly limited to Crosscheck. Another highly effective vote suppression measure is the recent spate of strict voter ID laws, which, according to a study by researchers at the University of California San Diego, “skew democracy in favor of whites and those on the political right.”

This is because “the lack of proper identification” — that is, a government-issued photo ID — “is not evenly distributed across the population. Studies show that a lack of identification is particularly acute among the minority population, the poor, and the young,” according to the study.

Furthermore, existing laws are not applied evenly. Instead, “poll workers disproportionately ask minorities for identification.” And, the study notes, “these laws are passed almost exclusively by Republicans and . . . they tend to emerge in states with larger black populations.”

Other tricks and games meant to suppress minority voting include fewer polling locations, shorter hours for voting, repeal of same-day voter registration and the disenfranchisement of felons and (in three states) ex-felons, which is one of many shattering consequences of the country’s expanded prison-industrial complex.

“The effects of voter ID laws that we see here are eerily similar to the impact of measures like poll taxes, literacy tests, residency requirements, and at-large elections which were used by the white majority decades and centuries ago to help deny blacks many basic rights,” the study concludes.

The fraud is committed by those who govern, not those who vote. It comes from the top down.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Double Toil & Trouble 7/5/17

The fire burns, the cauldron bubbles  – by Robert C. Koehler

Bob Koehler

America serves up its news in a cauldron from hell, or so it sometimes seems. The fragments are all simmering in the same juice: bombs and drones and travel bans, slashed health care, police shootings, the Confederate flag.

Double, double, toil and trouble . . .

Suddenly I’m thinking about the statues of Confederate generals taken down in New Orleans, the Confederate flag yanked from the state capital in Charleston, S.C. . . . and the secret flag the authorities can’t touch. Ray Tensing was wearing such a flag — a Confederate flag T-shirt — on July 19, 2015, while he was on duty as a University of Cincinnati police officer. That afternoon, he pulled over Samuel DuBose because of a missing front license plate. Less than two minutes into the stop, DuBose — a dad, a musician, an unarmed black man — had been shot and killed.

This is so commonplace that, while it may be news, it’s hardly surprising. Tensing was fired from his job. He went to trial for murder, twice. Both ended in hung juries. OK, that’s not surprising either. Cops are almost never convicted in such shootings. But what I can’t get out of my mind is the T-shirt. It’s what places this story fragment within the American news cauldron: the quiet hatred of it, the implicit sense of dominance, the armed racism. Tensing wasn’t a “loner” with an agenda. He was an officer of the law; he served the public. Yet he was secretly honoring the same agenda (the same god?) as Dylann Roof, the young man who killed nine African-Americans two years ago at the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, S.C.

This is the crossing of a line. Official public action — armed action, no less — is still permeated with poison.

Fire burn and cauldron bubble.

“As Senate Republicans rolled out the Better Care Reconciliation Act,” Rolling Stone reported, “. . . the halls outside the office of Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell were starting to get a little crowded. Sixty disability rights activists from grassroots group ADAPT, many of whom were using wheelchairs, staged a ‘die-in’ to protest steep Medicaid cuts in the bill. They were arrested and removed by Capitol Police, with witnesses saying that some protesters were dropped by police officers dragging them from their chairs.”

A vote on the bill, as we all know by now, has been postponed because of the controversy it has generated across the country, the die-ins that have been held at senators’ offices, and the Congressional Budget Office determination that the legislation would wind up causing, ultimately, 22 million people to lose their health insurance, which translates into thousands of people dying prematurely. What T-shirts were the 13 (Republican, male, white) senators who wrote this bill wearing?

Maybe their T-shirts bore dollar signs rather than Confederate flags, but the connection resonates. Public policy emerges from what we believe to be right, perhaps without the least reflection or awareness. And there is a consensus of fear, scapegoating and dehumanization that has always dominated a portion of American policy as well as individual behavior. Some people’s lives just don’t matter. Or they’re in the way.

With the current president, reckless individualism and public policy merge, sometimes shockingly, as with, for instance, Trump’s anti-Muslim travel ban, which the Supreme Court partially removed from the oblivion two lower courts had assigned it.

According to The Guardian: “The nation’s highest court said the 90-day ban on visitors from Iran, Libya, Somalia, Sudan, Syria and Yemen, along with a 120-day suspension of the US refugee resettlement program, could be enforced against those who lack a ‘credible claim of a bona fide relationship with a person or entity in the United States.’”

So the chaos at airports will continue, and families from these “bad” countries can be split apart. Somehow I don’t see this as a separate, isolated piece of news but part of the big picture of what President Trump might call American greatness, which is to say, American dominance. And of course many of the people who would attempt to enter the United States from these countries are refugees of the wars we are waging or facilitating there, which are making their homes unlivable.

“The enemies may rotate, but the wars only continue and spread like so many metastasizing cancer cells,” Rebecca Gordon wrote recently.

“Even as the number of our wars expands, however, they seem to grow less real to us here in the United States. So it becomes ever more important that we, in whose name those wars are being pursued, make the effort to grasp their grim reality. It’s important to remind ourselves that war is the worst possible way of settling human disagreements, focused as it is upon injuring human flesh (and ravaging the basics of human life) until one side can no longer withstand the pain. Worse yet, as those almost 16 years since 9/11 show, our wars have caused endless pain and settled no disagreements at all.”

We condemn, we bring to trial, the armed hatred and racism of individuals, but far too rarely do we ever bring the whole system, or a serious segment of it, to trial. That’s because it takes a movement to do so. The civil rights movement and the movements that followed — antiwar, women’s rights, environmentalism — did that, and we changed as a nation. But not enough.

It will take another movement of ordinary people to continue this evolution. I know it’s underway: I feel the courage, for instance, of the disabled die-in participants. We’re at a new beginning.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

 

Pulsates with Paradox 6/28/17

Uprooting the N-Word  by Robert C. Koehler

Bob Koehler

The word, inappropriately uttered, has the news value of a bullet fired off at the mall. One word. It’s the ticking time bomb of American history. It pulsates with paradox.

I want to take a moment to honor at least that: the paradox. How come its meaning changes depending on who says it? Some Americans can say that word with a sort of joyous irony, indeed, find a triumphant sense of empowerment in its use, while others can’t say it even in solidarity without risking an avalanche of censure?

The short answer: Racism is the American fault line. It doesn’t take much to set it trembling. Just ask Bill Maher, who, several weeks ago pushed the politically incorrect button and uttered the phrase “house nigger” on live TV. He meant it, of course, ironically, but no matter. He was quickly called out for shockingly poor taste and has since apologized, but only with a side order of consternation: Why? Why is this still such a big deal? Isn’t Jim Crow dead?

My intention here is to move the controversy beyond Bill Maher, to ask: Is there a way to talk about the n-word free of the history that created it? Is there a zone of trust and candor we can enter uncontaminated by that history? Is there, to put it bluntly, a way for white Americans to “cross the line” — in the words of the rapper Ice Cube — and speak believably to black Americans on the issue of race and racism, and earn the privilege of saying the n-word as a soulmate, not a racist?

Ice Cube was one of the guests on “Real Time with Bill Maher” who addressed the issue of the n-word with Maher a week after the controversy. His take on it was astute:

“It’s a word that has been used against us,” he said. “It’s like a knife, man. And you can use it as a weapon, or you can use it as a tool. It’s been used as a weapon against us by white people, and we’re not gonna let that happen again by nobody, because it’s not cool. Now, I know you heard [it], it’s in the lexicon and everybody’s talkin’, but that’s our word now. That’s our word now. And you can’t have it back.

“. . . when I hear my homies say it, it don’t feel like venom. When I hear a white person say it, it feels like that knife stabbin’ me, even if they don’t mean it.”

As a white person — technically and unavoidably so, despite my contempt for the arrogance, privilege and ignorance that comes with this concept — I find these words humbling and unnerving, almost to the point of: How dare I try to address this issue? Any assumption I make that I know what I’m talking about could simply stir the venom and make things worse.

But Ice Cube also said: “I accept your apology. But I still think we need to get to the root of the psyche.”

The definition of “psyche” is the human soul, and the word in question — the explosive n-word — certainly destroys any chance of keeping the search for its root at a superficial level.

So let’s talk about race. I grew up, came of age, in the ’50s and ’60s. Whatever else this time period is, it was the last gasp of what I would call the Golden Age of Racism, when “whiteness” was so normal it was almost unnoticed and racist language — racist certainty — was everywhere, a part of everyday life. Eenie, meenie, miney, moe. Catch a . . .”

The word that came next was not “tiger.”

Nice ladies expressed their gratitude by saying “that’s very white of you” and the story of Europeans’ discovery and conquest of Planet Earth was the entire context in which history was taught to boys and girls. In the textbooks of my boyhood (and well beyond), a given piece of the planet didn’t actually, seriously exist until “the first white man” set foot on it. And so on.

And of course segregation was everywhere, both physically and culturally. I grew up in Dearborn, Mich., a suburb west of Detroit. The city is now home to one of the largest Arab populations outside of the Middle East, but when I lived there it was famously “all white,” with a mayor, Orville Hubbard, often described as the George Wallace of the North, who was dedicated to keeping it that way. In 1963, when I was in high school, Dearborn briefly made national news when a race riot broke out because black movers were helping a couple move into a house and neighbors thought it was the blacks who were moving in. Hundreds of people surrounded the house for two days. The local paper later ran this headline over the story: “Crowds Damage Home and Car in False Negro Scare.”

All this was just a fragment of the horror of Jim Crow, post-slavery, 1950s America. But it’s a part of the context — social, cultural, political — of white supremacy, which, when one becomes aware of it, begins to feel like a psychological cage: an absolute wrong that one wants no part of. My sense is that Maher, in appropriating the non-racist use of the n-word — attempting to use it gangsta-style, beyond the edge of political correctness — was banging the bars of that cage, declaring his freedom from small-mindedness and the illusion of supremacy.

Yeah, I get it. But using the n-word for your liberation when you or your forebears were not personally wounded by it — corralled into the status of subhuman by it — is just too easy, if only because the wrong of Eurocentric racism, five centuries in the making, remains unhealed and, indeed, ongoing: embedded in our wars, our prisons and our economy.

The razor’s edge of the n-word still cuts. “It’s a word that has been used against us. It’s like a knife, man.”

It stands as evidence that this country is still wounded at the depth of its soul.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Brutal Detention 6/21/17

When the detainee is American . . .  by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

The corpses pile up like sandbags along the planet’s geopolitical borders.

“Perhaps his condition deteriorated and the authorities decided it was better to release him in a coma than as a corpse.”

So said an expert on North Korea recently, quoted in the New York Times following the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, six days after he had been released in a comatose state from a North Korean prison. He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor a year and a half ago because he had taken a propaganda poster off the wall in his hotel. He had been with a tour group.

Oh Lord. The shocking wrongness and horror of this young man’s death — the absurdity of his arrest, the razor slash of his tears — is all over the news. Of course. Who couldn’t identify — with him, with his parents? He had been dehumanized. He had a future, but it got pulled away from him by uniformed lunatics, or so the news presents this tragedy: in the context of America and its enemies.

And there’s no enemy out there with less legitimacy than North Korea. Any time the country and its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, show up in the news, they look, you might say, like evil cartoon characters. But they possess, as the Times story informed us, “nuclear arms and missiles capable of striking the United States.”

And this is the context of the news and the limit, apparently, of the consciousness of the U.S. media. But the arrest, abuse and death of Otto Warmbier took place in a context more complex than good vs. evil. It’s still a horrific tragedy, a wrong that should never have occurred, but the devaluing of human life isn’t simply a game played by the so-called bad guys.

International politics is mostly a game of “interests” and war. It’s a game of winning and losing, and human beings be damned. And the fact that the United States plays this game as aggressively as anyone, at home and abroad, belittles the death of American citizens who wind up innocently caught in the game themselves.

The day the young man died, for instance, a 15-year-old lawsuit on behalf of another group of wrongful-arrest victims wound up being dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, the Center for Constitutional Rights had brought the suit against a number of officials in the George W. Bush administration — including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and, ironically, Robert Mueller, former FBI director who is currently heading up the Trump-Russia investigation — on behalf of several hundred South Asian and Arab non-citizens who were rounded up and jailed after 9/11.

“Based solely on their race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status,” according to the CCR, “hundreds of men were detained as ‘terrorism suspects’ and held in brutal detention conditions for the many months it took the FBI and CIA to clear them of any connection to terrorism. They were then deported. . . .

“Our clients were held in a specially-created Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit . . . in solitary confinement. They were purposefully deprived of sleep, denied contact with the outside world, beaten and verbally abused, and denied the ability to practice their religion.”

That kept us safe.

And people outside our borders had even less security and fewer rights. Some years ago the New York Times ran a rare account of one man’s experience as a Gitmo detainee and U.S. torture victim. Lakhdar Boumediene, who in 2001 was living in Bosnia with his wife and daughters and working for the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates, was accused of being a terrorist and arrested one morning, shortly after the 9/11 attack, when he showed up for work in Sarajevo. He wound up imprisoned at Guantanamo for seven years. In 2009, a federal district judge, after reviewing the U.S. case against Boumediene and four others arrested with him, found them innocent and ordered them released.

During his imprisonment, he wrote, “my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as ‘undeliverable,’ and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.”

Regarding his treatment at Gitmo: “I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.

“I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.”

The more you read about American torture practices, the worse it gets. The mostly classified 6,000-page Senate report on this topic, released in 2014, contains almost unbearable data about CIA “enhanced interrogation” methodology, including “rectal rehydration,” threats against the detainees’ children and parents, quasi-drowning, mock executions and “revved power drills” held near their heads. And many detainees died and many remain imprisoned without cause.

Reading about all this in the context of North Korea’s imprisonment and apparent murder of Otto Warmbier doesn’t lessen the hell he went through as a victim of “hostage diplomacy,” but it does, I think, change one’s sense of who the enemy is.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Not the Disease 5/24/17

Hostage to the rules of espionage – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

“Trump emphasized the need to work together to end the conflict in Syria” . . . and “emphasized his desire to build a better relationship between the United States and Russia.”

Welcome to the last paragraph of a Washington Post story the other day, a loose fragment of news, a homeless child, a cynical trigger. This is the story in which we learn that “President Trump revealed highly classified information to the Russian foreign minister and ambassador in a White House meeting last week” and the let’s-be-friends comment was part of the official White House statement about the meeting, the point of which was to dismiss the Post’s allegations as false.

And indeed, the statement comes wrapped in cynicism, as though our proto-fascist, race-baiting, bomb-happy president carries the world’s hope for peace in his heart. Nonetheless, I feel the need to rescue this paragraph from the rest of the Post’s story, which details the latest manifestation of Russiagate in Trumpville.

The president, apparently in a moment of reckless, “off-script” conversation with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov and Ambassador Sergey Kislyak, allegedly tossed some classified data — which came to us via an ally (Israel, according to the New York Times) and so was supposed to be handled with ultra-secrecy — into the evening’s festivities: “I get great intel,” he said to the Russians, an unnamed official who was present told the Post. “I have people brief me on great intel every day.”

And another Trumpboast dominates the news for several days. The story amounted to this, as the Post explains: “Under the rules of espionage, governments — and even individual agencies — are given significant control over whether and how the information they gather is disseminated, even after it has been shared. Violating that practice undercuts trust considered essential to sharing secrets.”

So, OK, the president was boasting like a college sophomore after his fourth beer and, in the process, he violated “the rules of espionage.” That’s the story. For several days, it came blasting at us with the intensity of a firehose. It was reported with the urgency of Armageddon, which is how every Trump story is reported. And then it passes and we move on to the next one.

My point is that there’s a lot more urgency here than there is news. The story is about the rules of the national and global security state — which, please be clear, is not the same thing as national and global security. The story does not penetrate into the world of secrets those rules guard, or address the crucial need to resolve the planet’s hemorrhaging military conflicts. Rather, it stays on the surface of the matter, yammering that a rule has been violated. And the rule is presented as objective reality.

And suddenly I find myself careening backwards in time: The Bush administration has launched its war on terror and is preparing to invade Iraq and the mainstream coverage of this is sheer public relations for the invasion, completely dismissing the global opposition that has erupted across the planet. Fifteen years later, nothing has changed. The war and its subsequent ebb and flow of surges, the rise of terrorism, the collapse of the Middle East, the global flood of refugees — all of this is covered with a shrug, in a contextual void. And the planners and supporters of the invasion — the war-on-terrorists — remain securely in power, alarmed, apparently, about only one recent occurrence: the election of Donald Trump.

In the Post story, the only window on the larger reality in which we live is in that last paragraph, when a White House statement talks about “building a better relationship” between the United States and Russia. Such a statement has potentially world-changing consequences . . . except, alas, it’s not reported as news.

I’m not saying I believe Trump has the will or intelligence to advance the cause of global peace — or even much of an interest in anything beyond his own ego — but I am saying, if the media want to hold him accountable, they should do so in relation to the cause of peace, not the rules of espionage.

But, of course, neither George Bush nor Barack Obama — nor any American president — have ever been held accountable to the cause of peace, which is a remarkable fact to contemplate.

Another memory comes to mind. In the summer of 2004, I got a fundraising call from a member of the John Kerry presidential campaign; when I pushed him on where Kerry stood on the occupation of Iraq — needing to hear some indication he was against it — the caller eventually hung up on me in frustration. I was so troubled by this I called Kerry’s central campaign headquarters, where a spokesman expounded a point of view that I called at the time “Wolfowitz lite.”

“The antiwar voice, the soul of John Kerry’s support and a prime source of his funding . . . is totally shut out of this campaign,” I wrote.

And this voice is still shut out, but as a consolation prize we get to be spectators in our own democracy. As Chris Hedges writes:

“Forget the firing of James Comey. Forget the paralysis in Congress. Forget the idiocy of a press that covers our descent into tyranny as if it were a sports contest between corporate Republicans and corporate Democrats or a reality show starring our maniacal president and the idiots that surround him. Forget the noise. The crisis we face is not embodied in the public images of the politicians that run our dysfunctional government. The crisis we face is the result of a four-decade-long, slow-motion corporate coup that has rendered the citizen impotent. . . . Trump is the symptom, not the disease.”

So far the media have shown little curiosity beyond the symptom. I fear it’s because their benefactor is the disease.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Civilian Casualties Acceptable 4/19/17

How many civilians can we kill? – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

“The wooden carts that residents use to carry vegetables and other wares in the once busy market area instead ferried out cadavers recovered from the rubble last week.”

And so . . . another “precision” bomb strike in America’s war against terror. This was the scene in Mosul earlier this month, as reported by the Washington Post. Likely more than 200 civilians died, buried in the rubble of several buildings, which had been jammed with terrified residents of Iraq’s second largest city who were seeking shelter from the war. Many of them — including women, children — may have died slowly, buried beneath the rubble, as rescue operations took a week to mobilize.

Words fail me. So I borrow some from Air Force Brigadier Gen. Matthew Isler, who told U.S. News and World Report in the wake of the Mosul strike: “The density of the local fighting for those ground forces has changed. What has not changed is our support, our diligence in making sure we are taking the appropriate levels to make sure we are avoiding any harm to innocent civilians.”

The article, which addresses the controversy that President Trump has “relaxed” the rules of engagement in the war against ISIS, causing an increase in civilian casualties, goes on to note: “Isler specifically said the risk calculus — the number of civilian casualties acceptable to war planners, at times including the president, when considering missions — has not changed.”

The tremor I feel in these words goes deeper than another Trump controversy: “the number of civilian casualties acceptable to war planners . . .”

Even if these words were more than just PR blather and had a core of moral integrity, they stop me in my tracks. Of course, there’s nothing surprising here. This is how war works, especially today, when battlefields are coterminous with civilian living and working space. Innocent people are unavoidably taken out along with the “enemy.” This is the collateral damage that comes with every decision to wage war.

But still, how is it possible for human life to be measured and weighed in the same moral framework as abstract strategic calculation? This is the question that pulses like a heartbeat in these cold words — almost as though the soul of war itself lays suddenly exposed. Take away the bland terminology of public relations-speak and the general is saying something on the order of: Killing a high-ranking ISIS guy is worth the lives of no more than two children, max, and if we take out more it’s not our fault. The terrorists are using civilians as human shields. Or whatever.

Another hidden assumption in the U.S. News and World Report story is that “war planners,” whoever they are, have no public accountability about their choices — except in a strategic sense: Did we win? They have no moral accountability.

Why is that? This is the quintessence of spectator democracy: The American public watches war, waged in its name, on TV, at a remove that is virtually equal to its remove from the sporting events it consumes. The entirety of the public’s interest in war, at least from the perspective of the mainstream media, is limited to whether we’re winning or losing, with the “greatness” Trump has promised to reclaim for America all about copping a quick, unambiguous victory from ISIS and, more generically, from the Muslim world.

In other words, war itself — morality be damned — is embedded in the national and global infrastructure: It’s just the way things are.

“Meanwhile,” as Barbara Ehrenreich writes in her excellent book, Blood Rites, “war has dug itself into economic systems, where it offers a livelihood to millions, rather than to just a handful of craftsmen and professional soldiers. It has lodged in our souls as a kind of religion, a quick tonic for political malaise and a bracing antidote to the moral torpor of consumerist, market-driven cultures.”

But there’s more to it than this. The morality of war is indeed a serious matter, embedded as war may be into our economic and political systems. Viet Cong body counts, for instance, were an enduring part of the Vietnam War — an indication of our prowess and success — until the war utterly unraveled in defeat and two-plus decades of “Vietnam Syndrome”: the public’s disgust with the war machine. The war profiteers, military industrialists and neocons eventually succeeded in rebuilding a national war mentality, but it required eliminating the draft so that most Americans were not personally affected by it; and all the blood and gore were removed from the PR of war, exemplified by Gen. Tommy Franks’ famous utterance, as the invasion of Afghanistan was underway: “We don’t do body counts.”

So maybe war — with its unquestioned, trillion-dollar annual drain from the U.S. budget — remains “a kind of religion,” but only if the public at large can be kept at a distance from its stench and realness. “The number of civilian casualties” that are acceptable must be left to the war planners, not thrown open to public discussion.

And what discussion there is must be in the pretend language of the war planners, concerning acceptable levels of collateral damage, not cadavers in vegetable carts.

What I’m trying to say is that the public truly lacks the will to wage war and has already begun abandoning it as a religion. Disengaging from it economically is more complicated and probably cannot begin until the media begin reporting on war with raw honesty, from the point of view of its victims, not its planners.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Pursuit of Perpetual War 4/5/17

Caligula with orange hair  – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

So maybe this is how the U.S. demilitarizes, or the American public at least returns to the consciousness of the late ‘60s, when protests rocked the streets and people demanded an end to the savagery in Vietnam:

Donald Trump, the Fool in the Tarot deck, the harbinger of change, removes the political correctness and public relations sensitivity from U.S. foreign policy and goes naked about conquering the world. Suddenly the U.S. president is Julius Caesar (or maybe Caligula) with orange hair, hugging fellow tyrants, ramping up the military budget, decapitating social spending, bombing Fourth World civilians without restriction and making America great in the only way he can imagine: “fighting to win.”

And Trump is so blatant he awakes the snoozing American conscience. And the awareness and the anger stirred into being become a movement, and the movement isn’t mere protest over Trump’s behavior but a deep and profound cry for atonement for the colonial conquest, the genocide and slavery, out of which this nation created itself, and a demand that we begin acknowledging it rather than feigning ignorance of it — because the face of ignorance is the face of Trump — and in this acknowledgement we begin to undo the armed insanity of its contemporary manifestation.

“We have been trying for years — many years — to get a broad-based consensus among social justice and environmental groups that the bloated military budget was affecting all of their work,” CodePink co-founder Medea Benjamin said in an interview with Common Dreams. Suddenly, with Trump in office, “it seems like people are getting it.”

And thus on April 4, the fiftieth anniversary of Martin Luther King’s soul-stirring speech at Riverside Church, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break the Silence,” CodePink and a coalition of organizations launched the #No54BillionforWar campaign, referencing the military-spending increase in Trump’s proposed budget. This blatant cash grab would simultaneously strip spending from crucial social and environmental programs and further bloat the Pentagon’s budget, which already consumes 48 percent of U.S. discretionary spending in pursuit of perpetual war.

“Our environmental and human needs are desperate and urgent,” reads the campaign’s website. “We need to transform our economy, our politics, our policies and our priorities to reflect that reality. That means reversing the flow of our tax dollars, away from war and militarism, and towards funding human and environmental needs, and demanding support for that reversal from all our political leaders at the local, state and national levels.”

Let us imagine, just for a moment, this and other movements blossoming across the country and across the planet, pulling in the young and the wounded and the aware, who begin committing their lives to the evolution of nations beyond militarism and violent confrontation. Let us imagine a presidential candidate — one running in the 2020 election — emerging from these movements, who articulates a vision of this country beyond militarism so compellingly, and garners so much backing, that she or he cannot be ignored by the media or mockingly dismissed by establishment insiders.

Let us imagine the collapse of the military-industrial status quo, which, at least in its current form, began entrenching itself in the U.S. political and social structure both economically and psychologically since World War II.

Of course, it’s the money part that will be hardest to undo, but the Trump phenomenon certainly begins waking the nation up psychologically.

Consider, for instance, the media shockwaves he generated recently when he fawned so lovingly over Egypt’s dictatorial president, Abdel Fattah el-Sisi, as though, good God, this repressive tyrant is a friend and ally. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman decried the White House visit as “another morning in Trump’s America,” inspiring Glenn Greenwald to note:

“Krugman believes — or at least wants his Democratic followers to believe — that supporting and praising savage despotism in Egypt is a new development that only happens in ‘Trump’s America.’”

However, he goes on, “the U.S. has been supporting, funding, and arming the Sisi tyranny for years under the Obama administration. In March 2015, as Sisi’s human rights abuses intensified, Obama personally told the Egyptian tyrant in a call the good news that he was lifting a ban ‘on the delivery of F-16 aircraft, Harpoon missiles, and M1A1 tank kits’ and — in the words of the White House — ‘also advised President al-Sisi that he will continue to request an annual $1.3 billion in military assistance for Egypt.’

“What Trump is violating is not any Washington principles or ethics but Washington propaganda tactics.”

Yeah, that’s Trump, beloved violator of protocol and military-industrial discretion, even as he plays the same game that’s always been played. He’s our self-proclaimed Caesar, attempting to bring back the days when military glory spoke for itself, when the enemy was the enemy and killing him didn’t have to be cloaked in the language of political correctness.

Or as the New York Times, guardian of the military-industrial consensus, put it: “Two months after the inauguration of President Trump, indications are mounting that the United States military is deepening its involvement in a string of complex wars in the Middle East that lack clear endgames.”

A decade and a half into the War on Terror, the Paper of Record has noticed a “lack of clear endgames” in our Middle East carnage, which of course it initially supported to the hilt! Could it be that Donald Trump is undoing the crucial alliance between the militarized economy and its mainstream media purveyors? Could it be that the future has woken up?

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Killing is Bad 3/29/17

The mosque that disappeared  – by Robert C. Koehler

Robert Koehler

We committed a quiet little war crime the other day. Forty-plus people are dead, taken out with Hellfire missiles while they were praying.

Or maybe not. Maybe they were just insurgents. The women and children, if there were any, were . . . come on, you know the lingo, collateral damage. The Pentagon is going to “look into” allegations that what happened last March 16 in the village of al-Jinah in northern Syria was something more serious than a terrorist takeout operation, which, if you read the official commentary, seems like the geopolitical equivalent of rodent control.

The target was “assessed to be a meeting place for al-Qaeda, and we took the strike,” a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command explained. The strike involved two Reaper (as in Grim Reaper) drones and their payload of Hellfire missiles, plus a 500-pound bomb.

The target, at least according to human rights organizations and civilians on the ground, was a mosque during prayer hour.

“U.S. officials said the strikes . . . had killed ‘dozens’ of militants at a meeting of the terrorist group,” according to the Washington Post. “But local activists and a monitoring group reported that at least 46 people died, and more were trapped under rubble, when the attack struck a mosque during a religious gathering. . . . Photos from the area showed rescue workers pulling mangled bodies from a mound of rubble.”

One local resident told AgenceFrance-Presse: “I saw 15 bodies and lots of body parts in the debris when I arrived. We couldn’t even recognize some of the bodies.”

During the 30 seconds of attention the story garnered, the controversy was whether it was a mosque that was hit or a building across the street from a mosque. The Pentagon even declassified a photo of the bombing aftermath, showing that a small building near the ghastly bomb crater was still standing. However, according to The Intercept: “Activists and first responders say the building that was targeted was a part of the mosque complex — and that the charred rubble shown in the photo was where 300 people were praying when the bombs began to hit.”

Anyway, the news cycle moved on. My initial thought, as I read about the bombing, which was not described as a massacre or slaughter in the mainstream headlines, but remained an “incident,” is that the media have a default agreement on morality: Killing’s OK as long as it’s emotionless, coldly rational and strategic (even if mistakenly so). This is the American way. Coldly strategic murder can be reported in such a way that it fits into the global infrastructure of safety and the control of evil.

But killing is bad if there’s passion involved. Passion is easily linked to “extremism” and wrongthink. The man killed this month by police at Paris’ Orly Airport, for instance, had cried, “I am here to die for Allah — there will be deaths.”

This fits neatly into the moral certainty of the Western world. Compare this to military PR talk, also reported in The Intercept: “The area,” according to a U.S. Navy spokesperson, “was extensively surveilled prior to the strike in order to minimize civilian casualties.”

In both cases, the perpetrators foresaw dead bodies left in the wake of their action. Nevertheless, the American military machine carefully avoided the public’s, or the media’s, moral disapproval. And geopolitics remains a game of good vs. evil: as morally complex as 10-year-old boys playing cowboys and Indians.

What I had not foreseen was how quickly the story would disappear from the news cycle. It simply couldn’t compete with the Trump cacophony of tweets and lies and whatever else passes for the news that America consumes. This adds a whole new dimension of media indifference to the actual cost of war, but I guess no nation could wage endless war if its official media made a big deal out of every mosque or hospital it (mistakenly) bombed, or put human faces on all its collateral damage.

I write this with sarcasm and irony, but what I feel is a troubled despair too deep to fathom. Global humanity, led by the United States of America, the planet’s primo superpower, is devolving into a state of perpetual war. It has caged itself into unending self-hatred.

“The way in which U.S. militarism is taken for granted,” Maya Schenwar writes at Truthout, “mirrors the ways in which other forms of mass violence are deemed inevitable — policing, deportation, the genocide and erasure of Indigenous peoples, the exploitative market-driven health care system, the vastly inequitable education system and disastrous environmental policies. The generally accepted logic tells us that these things will remain with us: The best we can hope for, according to this narrative, is modest reform amid monstrous violence.

“We have to choose,” she says, “life-giving priorities over violent ones. We have to stop granting legitimacy to all forms of state violence.”

Yes, yes, but how? The necessity of war has not been challenged at official levels of power in this country in more than four decades. The corporate media grants legitimacy to state violence more by what it doesn’t say than by what it does. Bombed mosques simply disappear from the news and, voila, they never happened. Liars had a global forum to promote the invasion of Iraq, while those who questioned it had to loose their outrage from street corners. “Collateral damage” is a linguistic blur, a magician’s cape, hiding mass murder.

And Donald Trump is under the control of the militarized far right as well as his own clueless immaturity. Of course his new budget, released, as Schenwar points out, on the anniversary of the My Lai Massacre, ups the military allotment by $54 billion and gouges social spending. As we protest and write letters to Congress and express our shock and awe at what is happening, let us keep in mind that Trump merely puts a face on America’s out-of-control militarism. He didn’t create it.

For the protests against his budget cuts to be effective, for the roiling turmoil to matter, a new country must be in formation.

Robert Koehler, syndicated by PeaceVoice, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

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