Saturday, 20 June 2015

War, Murder and the American Way

 By Robert C. Koehler                  Common Dreams                     June 20, 2015
He sat with them for an hour in prayer. Then he pulled his gun out and started shooting. And today our national numbness is wrapped in a Confederate flag. The young man who killed nine members of Charleston’s Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night was an old-school racist. “I have to do it,” Dylann Storm Roof is said to have explained. “You’re taking over our country. And you have to go.” Roof’s roommate told
ABC News the next day that he was “big into segregation and other stuff” and “he wanted to start a civil war.” And this is America, where we have the freedom to manifest our lethal fantasies.

 “In a pattern that has become achingly familiar to him and the nation,” the
New York Times reported, “Mr. Obama on Thursday strode down to the White House to issue a statement of mourning and grief as he called on the country to unify in the face of tragedy.” Indeed, it’s the fourteenth time, according to The Guardian, he has done this since he’s been in office. It’s the fourteenth time he has said words like: “I am confident that the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love across Charleston today from all races, from all faiths, from all places of worship indicates the degree to which those old vestiges of hatred can be overcome.”

America, America, land of the mass murderer. Mass murders have increased fourteenfold in the United States since the 1960s, sociologist Peter Turchin wrote two and a half years ago, after the Sandy Hook killings. In his essay, called “
Canaries in a Coal Mine,” Turchin made a disturbing comparison: Mass murderers kill the same way soldiers do, without personal hatred for their victims but to right some large social wrong. He called it the “principle of social substitutability” — substituting a particular group of people for a general wrong.

“On the battlefield,” Turchin wrote, “you are supposed to try to kill a person whom you’ve never met before. You are not trying to kill this particular person, you are shooting because he is wearing the enemy uniform. . . . Enemy soldiers are socially substitutable.”

“That is to say,”
I noted at the time, “the definition and practice of war and the definition and practice of mass murder have eerie congruencies. Might this not be the source of the social poison? We divide and slice the human race; some people become the enemy, not in a personal but merely an abstract sense — ‘them’ — and we lavish a staggering amount of our wealth and creativity on devising ways to kill them. When we call it war, it’s as familiar and wholesome as apple pie. When we call it mass murder, it’s not so nice.”

When I hear Obama laud “the outpouring of unity and strength and fellowship and love” in the wake of the Charleston murders, I feel only despair: despair as deep as a knife wound. War, not love, is structured into the nation’s economic and social fabric. We invest trillions of dollars into its perpetuation, across Central Asia and the Middle East and wherever else the strategists and planners see evil, which is to say, opportunity.

Every murderer believes the violence he is wielding is “good violence.” Think Timothy McVeigh, whose fertilizer bomb killed 168 people at the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City in 1995. He called his victims “collateral damage,” co-opting the official language of the Gulf War in which he served. Mass murderers mimic and find their inspiration in the official wars we wage as a nation. Take away the massive public relations machinery that surrounds these wars and the deaths they cause are just as cruel, just as wrong. The abstract “enemy” dead, in every case, turn out to be human beings, who deserved to live.

And every war and every mass murder spreads fear and hatred — and inspiration — in their aftermath. We can’t go to war without spawning imitators. The next day,
USA Today reported, the vigils at two South Carolina churches, in Charleston and Greenville, were disrupted by bomb threats and the churches had to be evacuated. So did Charleston’s county building. “At some point,” Obama said, “we as a country will have to reckon with the fact that this type of mass violence does not happen in other advanced countries. It doesn’t happen in other places with this kind of frequency — and it is in our power to do something about it.”

Until we begin demilitarizing our relationship with the world, such words uttered by presidents are as empty as the words Dylann Roof uttered in prayer at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Wednesday night. [Abridged]

On guns and race, America is a nation shackled to its past

 Jonathan Freedland               Guardian/UK              19 June 2015

TV host Jon Stewart and Barack Obama are men of a similar age with, on some days, a similar role. Sometimes it falls to both of them to help their fellow Americans digest what’s happening around them, to make sense of it. Yesterday it was the murder by a white supremacist of nine black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina.

They did something unusual, dispensing with his usual gag-packed opening to deliver a
joke-free monologue. Obama, by contrast, did something that has become all too usual, delivering what is now a rhetorical genre of its own: the presidential post-massacre speech. “I’ve had to make statements like this too many times,” he said. By one count, it was the 14th time he had had to speak in such a way after such a mass shooting.

Stewart’s emphasis was on America’s enduring struggle over race. Obama chose to focus on the country’s equally stubborn problem with guns. But what was striking was that on both questions– both the presenter and the president struck the same tone. They matched each other in weary resignation.

You can see why both men – nearing the end of their terms of office – have given up hope that change is on its way. When it comes to both race and guns, there have been episodes so shocking that people assumed action was bound to follow. And yet the brutality, especially police brutality, shown towards black Americans – those doing nothing more threatening than walking or
breathing or swimming or praying – goes on.

When in 2012 a 20-year-old man walked into Sandy Hook elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut,
killing 20 children and six adults, many assumed this would finally expose the limits of American indulgence of gun rights. Obama proposed a raft of gun control measures. They seemed to be making progress until the Rifle Association got busy, pressuring wavering senators facing tough re-election battles, and the effort was crushed.

Race and guns are the birth defects of the American republic. A rule written in the age of the musket, designed to protect an infant republic from the return of King George’s redcoats, still holds – allowing a
21-year-old bent on provoking a race war easy, legal access to a weapon that lets him commit what, in a different context, would be called an act of terror.

The result is paralysis and a desperate fatalism. The paradoxes are obvious. America, the land of restless innovation, is shackled to its past. The United States sees its own wounds and cannot heal them, its hands tied by a constitution that in almost every other respect is a manifesto for liberation.

This is obviously a catastrophe for Americans, and not only because of the damage guns and racism inflict both separately and when they collide, as they did so devastatingly in Charleston. It also feeds a corrosive cynicism. Americans are already sceptical of their democracy, which can seem more like a dynastic plutocracy, bankrolled by unseen corporate giants. But when they see a US president apparently impotent in the face of the gun menace, what are they meant to think of their own power to change things for the better?

Americans like to tell themselves anything is possible, that their destiny is in their own hands. Politicians describe the country as “this great experiment in self-government”, insisting they can make America anew if they want to. Yet the persistence of arms and racism and armed racism suggests that the people are, in important ways, powerless: a nation still ruled by its ancestors. 

All this matters beyond America too. US influence in the world does not rest solely on its wealth and military might. It also requires America to be admired. As Bill Clinton said five years after the Iraq invasion: “
People the world over have always been more impressed by the power of our example than by the example of our power.”

Every one of these mass killings, or police shootings of innocent black men and women, undermines that example. It makes America look like a basket case, a country that seems to think it’s normal for
a toddler to find a gun in his mother’s purse and accidentally shoot himself dead, a country that saw 12,600 of its people shot dead last year and believes itself incapable of doing anything about it. To change will mean looking to the rest of the world, and recognising that, as Obama said, most “advanced countries” do not have this problem. [Abridged] 

Religious Persecution

by Ian Harris                           Otago Daily Times                                 June 12, 2015

Religious persecution is prevalent in two-thirds of the world’s countries. In most, Christians are the main targets.

Religion doesn’t do power well. When allied with the coercive power of the state, too often it becomes repressive. That was true of Christianity in Europe till secularisation clipped its wings, and it is true today of Hindu-fuelled nationalism in parts of India, Buddhist-fuelled nationalism in Myanmar and Sri Lanka, and doubly true of a militant version of Islam in much of the Muslim world.

The result is persecution of minority faiths on a scale most New Zealanders would find hard to credit. It is happening in two-thirds of the world’s countries. Christians are everywhere the main targets. And Islamic extremists are by far the worst offenders. Indeed, it is just 100 years ago that the rulers of Ottoman Turkey launched the first mass purge of a religious and ethnic minority of the 20th century. The purge became a massacre, the massacre a genocide – the term was coined to describe this atrocity.

Their unsuspecting prey was the three million Armenian Christians living in the east of the country. Over the next seven years around 1.5 million were executed or died of starvation, drowning, disease, and exhaustion in forced marches across the desert. Scores of thousands fled to sanctuary abroad. Most historians accept that this was a state-sanctioned campaign to exterminate a whole race, though Turkey remains in denial to this day. It also had a religious motivation, targeting Greek and Assyrian Christians as well.

Today the plague of persecution is again virulent. In too many countries, and in varying degrees, minorities live under constant threat of harassment or oppression solely because of their faith. Where the minority is ethnic as well as religious, as with the Karen Christians and Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar, it is doubly disadvantaged.

In the Middle East, anyone who stands apart from the dominant political, racial or religious power can come under pressure – Baha’i, Jews, Yezidis, Christians, Muslims outside the regional mainstream. Pressures range all the way from petty curbs on meeting or building to the torching of churches and homes, forced conversions, confiscation of property, torture, rape, imprisonment and murder.
In the vanguard of current campaigns of religious cleansing are Muslim extremists who repudiate the tolerance of the golden age of Islam 1100 years ago. In recent months Boko Haram has kidnapped and forced the conversion and marriage of Christian girls in Nigeria. In Kenya, al-Shabab cold-bloodedly murdered 148 mainly Christian university students. In Libya, militias affiliated with Islamic State beheaded or shot 21 Coptic Christians from Egypt and 30 Ethiopian Christians.
For people claiming to draw their inspiration from “Allah, the Merciful, the Compassionate”, these fanatics are a sickening distortion of what at its best is a noble faith, and do it immense disservice. The Grand Mufti of Saudi Arabia acknowledged this by denouncing IS as “enemy number one of Islam”.

For most of the past 1800 years there has been a benign, generally tolerated Christian presence in Turkey, Syria, Iran and Iraq. During the past century the number of Christians has plummeted. Their proportion in Turkey’s population has dropped from around 32 per cent to 0.15, Syria’s from 40 to 10, Iran’s from 15 to 2, Iraq’s from 35 to 5. Many have fled to pursue their faith in freedom elsewhere.

Meanwhile Muslims in the secular West are quick to take advantage of every freedom those societies offer, and rightly so. As the Universal Declaration of Human Rights affirms: “Everyone has the right to freedom of thought, conscience and religion; this right includes freedom to change his religion or belief; and freedom, either alone or in community with others, and in public or private, to manifest his religion or belief in teaching, practice, worship and observance.”

Some Muslim states reject this as a western concept of freedom, so in 1990 a conference in Cairo drew up an alternative, making all human rights subject to Islamic law. Freedom to change one’s religion disappeared. Saudi Arabia allows no churches and bans the Bible outright. The last church in Afghanistan was demolished in 2010.

Egypt and Pakistan had a hand in drafting the Human Rights Declaration, and wrote religious freedom into their constitutions. Today they often negate it in practice. Pakistan has a draconian blasphemy law which is used – and abused – to oppress. A Christian woman who touched the Qur’an “with unclean hands” was jailed for 25 years.

Words of Jesus, for Muslims one of Muhammad’s great precursors, come to mind: “By their fruits you shall know them.” What do the fruits tell us about the state of Islam today?

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Stop using language to strip refugees of their humanity

 Thomas Keneally                        Sydney Morning Herald                     June 11, 2015

Technology cannot always change who we are. Each of us remains a peculiar kind of gifted animal and angel. Since our brain volume increased and our voice boxes evolved, we have been the kings of language. There is a wonderful theory that language began with young mothers putting their babies down because, through lack of fur, they had no capacity to carry them continuously, and thus language began as a mode of reassurance to the baby that having been put down it would be picked up again. A form of "motherese" might have been the first language. In any case I am grateful for a wonderful life being a sort of valet or gardener of language.

But like many other and better writers, I have made stories of love and animosity towards the despised people of the earth, about those who are ignored, and about people stuck on racial, religious and cultural faultlines. As an Australian redneck I'd always been engrossed in the question of why there was so much hate in Europe, and why it's still found there, all crammed into such a small space. Since my father was an Australian soldier in North Africa, and regularly sent me home what I saw as souvenirs – German corporal's stripes, Nazi pistol holsters and Very pistols and other items – I was always enthralled by the way European hatred emerged in World War II, stoked by the demagogue Hitler and by others.

 Let me rush to say that writers do not use this sort of material because we're noble people – many of us are terrible to live with, and my wife is willing to be interviewed on the matter after this! We write about race and other divisions because they are full of high drama. I have been fascinated by racial division ever since, as a little kid in a country town in the White Australia of the early 1940s, I saw Aboriginals from the local Greenhill settlement walk past our gate in Kempsey. It was not a moral fascination. But I could tell in a primitive way of my own that these were a people bewildered by loss of land, loss of validity as a people, by loss of culture; and also that having had misery imposed on them, they were being blamed for being unable to escape it.  

What a tribute it will be to our community if, with support of all parties, we acknowledge that ancient culture, and those towering millennia of occupation of Australia before settlement, in our constitution, as proposed by the Prime Minister and Opposition Leader. That will bring about the employment of language, of the ultimate "motherese", to make peace with ourselves.  

I cannot hope in obvious futility and because of my love of language, which is still my wonderful daily power tool that never needs recharging, that I might see the departure from our national discourse of some of the more outrageous and wilful mis-usages of English language with which, in both major parties, the Australian polity is afflicted. I am not the first to mention it – Paul Keating's former adviser Don Watson, now a fine writer, wrote a bestseller on the use of what he called "weasel words". But there is a further twist. Our leaders are not only so often misusers of language, but also deniers of our access to its better angels, its more humane colorations.

An example of what I think of as misuse: I know a young writer, Mark Isaacs, who was working on Nauru at a time when inmates were looking forward to a visit by the Labor government Immigration Minister, Chris Bowen. Knowing the desperate hopes that were harboured by fellow human beings in the tents and huts of Nauru, he was disheartened when he overheard an aide to the minister refer to the people they had come to deal with as "the undesirables".

Now, the refugee problem is inconvenient for the world, though western governments sometimes help create it by our foreign policies and tyrants account for the rest. The refugee problem is a puzzle for the world, a test of policy and compassion. And there is the undeniable further problem of the criminality, brutality and, indeed, the poverty of the people smugglers, and the terrible perils of drowning for those who believe we are a beacon they must reach. But I ask, does any group of humans who have committed no crime deserve to be verballed as opening gambit on the enormous world refugee problem by the representative of a party, admittedly not the Minister, which has always declared its solidarity with the rest of us? Why do we have to kill them with words even before we confront them? What are we trying to justify?

Recently, an Australian journalist took a camera crew aboard an Italian search aircraft looking for survivors among the vessels plying between North Africa and the Italian island of Lampedusa. There, by the way, and elsewhere in Italy, 40 times the number of vessels that have landed on our north coast have come ashore, and even before the turn-back-the-boats policy, were high by comparison with Australia.

Back to the Australian journalist in Lampedusa: he asked a member of the aircrew about the exhaustion of looking through sectors of sea for boats and survivors. He said it was a wearisome search: an honest answer. And then the Italian crewmember said, "One has always to remember -- they are human beings down there." This is a scene not permitted to occur in an Australian context. An Australian journalist would be unable to get aboard an Australian search plane. He would be unable to ask our defence forces what they think, even though we know that they possess the same honourable impulses as the Italian crewmember.

 I cherish the fact that I have an inherited right to say this without fear of arrest, facing no greater sanction than being considered dewy-eyed. I do not say I have an answer, though I will sketch out a possible one derived from wise sources. I just know that what we are doing is not the answer, and that using language to position our more baleful instincts is not the answer. 

We have reacted to a genuine world crisis with verbal meanness and subsequent cruelty. The Italians have reacted with a reckless and, according to many, ill-advised humanity that may in the end cause of us all to look at the disease instead of persecuting the symptoms – and among the symptoms, the children that we continue to imprison with the approval of our major parties.

I wish devoutly that instead of pressing the English language into its more brutal gears and scapegoating victims, instead of enlisting our support in policies that are cruel and win the applause overseas only of the extreme right wing, we too could address ourselves not to international denial but to an international solution. This solution would involve more countries gathered together in goodwill – because the goodwill has to start somewhere. Let us forget the ridiculous proposition of writing everyone off as economic refugees. Let us lead a world crusade to enable, through the co-operation of all liberal democracies, accredited refugees to be absorbed into our populations. Fanciful? No, this was the position taken by our government after World War II when a forgotten Australian, Sir Robert Jackson, logistical genius and UN official, persuaded the entire world to resettle, according to reasonable shares, the 8 million displaced persons of Europe. It was the only policy that worked then. Let us not forget the conditions that create genuine refugees will continue to drive people onto the roads, across the borders and the seas, and cruelty will not stem that tide.

When Ben Chifley, our prime minister, took 170,000 displaced persons from the camps of Europe, a decision he made without convening a single focus group, the Age newspaper ran a 1947 poll on what immigrants Australians wanted. People said they wanted, above all, people from the British Isles, and if necessary, other northern Europeans. Germans were to be preferred to Jews. The Greeks and Italians, it was believed, would not make good citizens. If Chifley had read that poll and been rendered as impotent as modern politicians are by such indicators, what a narrow and shrunken little place Australia would be now!

Remember too Malcolm Fraser was PM in the days when Vietnamese asylum seeker boats landed in great numbers in Northern Australia. He processed these people humanely. There was no long-term mandatory detention involved. The newcomers were not depicted as sinister invaders. Then, after the Tiananmen Square massacre, Bob Hawke announced that all 43,000 Chinese students then in Australia would be offered residency and could stay here if they wished. Language was not misused and neither were human souls.

So let's use mandatory detention only for health, identity and security checks that do not take years, but weeks. Let's have accommodation centres – not prisons. And for God's own sweet sake, let's release all children from mandatory detention. Let's have an independent commission to decide on asylum seeker policy to stop politicians using it to improve their vote.

History warns us to be suspicious of politicians of any party, who try to concentrate our passion upon a small minority, and depict them as a bigger threat than they are. When we see this kind of trick played upon us, instead of succumbing to the race frenzy we all potentially carry inside us, we should ask, "Who is benefitting from this? Are our taxes validly being spent upon it? And who is being harmed in the name of getting a better percentage of the vote?" We should be suspicious of frenzy too, as Oskar Schindler was suspicious of Nazi ideology, because it means that leaders may be distracting us from some more important issue – like a conjurer who makes us concentrate on his right hand as he performs the trick with his left.

Citizens have always to ask questions about public hysteria over race and minorities and culture – over matters of "them" and "us". Because, again, my lifelong experience of Australia is that the "them" can quickly become the "us". And our freedoms are not set in stone. We know that liberties that go unguarded will be abolished for governmental convenience.

This is an edited abstract of a speech given at a graduation ceremony at University of NSW on Wednesday night, where Tom Keneally was given an honorary doctorate.

Islamic State: how the US fuelled the rise of Isis in Syria and Iraq

 Seumas Milne                            Guardian/UK                       3 June 2015 

The war on terror, that campaign without end launched 14 years ago by George Bush, is tying itself up in ever more grotesque contortions. On Monday the trial in London of a Swedish man, Bherlin Gildo, accused of terrorism in Syria, collapsed after it became clear British intelligence had been arming the same rebel groups the defendant was charged with supporting. The prosecution abandoned the case. Reports were cited that MI6 had cooperated with the CIA on a “rat line” of arms transfers from Libyan stockpiles to the Syrian rebels in 2012 after the fall of the Gaddafi regime. But it’s only the latest of a string of such cases.

Terrorism is now squarely in the eye of the beholder. And nowhere is that more so than in the Middle East, where today’s terrorists are tomorrow’s fighters against tyranny – and allies are enemies – often at the bewildering whim of a western policymaker’s conference call.

For the past year, US British and other western forces have been back in Iraq, supposedly in the cause of destroying the hyper-sectarian terror group
Islamic State (formerly known as al-Qaida in Iraq). This was after Isis overran huge chunks of Iraqi and Syrian territory and proclaimed a self-styled Islamic caliphate. The campaign isn’t going well. Last month, Isis rolled into the Iraqi city of Ramadi, while on the other side of the now nonexistent border its forces conquered the Syrian town of Palmyra.

A revealing light on how we got here has now been shone by
a recently declassified secret US intelligence report, written in August 2012, which uncannily predicts – and effectively welcomes – the prospect of a “Salafist principality” in eastern Syria and an al-Qaida-controlled Islamic state in Syria and Iraq. The Pentagon report goes on, “this is exactly what the supporting powers to the opposition want, in order to isolate the Syrian regime, which is considered the strategic depth of the Shia expansion (Iraq and Iran)”.

Which is
pretty well exactly what happened two years later. The report isn’t a policy document. It’s heavily redacted and there are ambiguities in the language. But the implications are clear enough. A year into the Syrian rebellion, the US and its allies weren’t only supporting and arming an opposition they knew to be dominated by extreme sectarian groups; they were prepared to countenance the creation of some sort of “Islamic state” – despite the “grave danger” to Iraq’s unity – as a Sunni buffer to weaken Syria.

That doesn’t mean the US created Isis, of course, though some of its Gulf allies certainly played a role in it – as the US vice-president, Joe Biden, acknowledged last year. But there was no al-Qaida in
Iraq until the US and Britain invaded. And the US has certainly exploited the existence of Isis against other forces in the region as part of a wider drive to maintain western control.

The calculus changed when Isis started beheading westerners and posting atrocities online, and the Gulf states are now backing other groups in the Syrian war, such as the Nusra Front. But this US and western habit of playing with jihadi groups, which then come back to bite them, goes back at least to the 1980s war against the Soviet Union in Afghanistan, which fostered the original al-Qaida under CIA tutelage.

It was recalibrated during the occupation of Iraq, when
US forces led by General Petraeus sponsored an El Salvador-style dirty war of sectarian death squads to weaken the Iraqi resistance. And it was reprised in 2011 in the Nato-orchestrated war in Libya, where Isis last week took control of Gaddafi’s home town of Sirte.

In reality, US and western policy in the conflagration that is now the Middle East is in the classic mould of imperial divide-and-rule. American forces bomb one set of rebels while backing another in Syria, and mount what are effectively joint military operations with Iran against Isis in Iraq while supporting Saudi Arabia’s military campaign against Iranian-backed Houthi forces in Yemen. However confused US policy may often be, a weak, partitioned Iraq and Syria fit such an approach perfectly.

What’s clear is that Isis and its monstrosities won’t be defeated by the same powers that brought it to Iraq and Syria in the first place, or whose open and covert war-making has fostered it in the years since. Endless western military interventions in the Middle East have brought only destruction and division. It’s the people of the region who can cure this disease – not those who incubated the virus. [Abridged]