Monday, September 29, 2014

The US campaign to defeat dictators and other brutal regimes.

The war against ISIS is gathering force in Iraq and inside Syria. Once again our government has mounted its white steed and is riding into the fray to battle for civilization and human rights.
Since the end of the Cold War we have become militant proponents of democracy. Wherever you look our president, whoever that happens to be at the moment, is the vigorously denouncing the brutality of various dictators. We went to war to topple Saddam Hussein. We went to war against Qaddafi in Libya; we are now engaged and have been in trying to topple al-Assad in Syria. The campaign against ISIS is presented to us as a campaign against brutal militants. In each case we are fighting cruelty, inhumanity. We present ourselves to ourselves and to the world as the champions of nonviolent political institutions, of democracy where everybody has equal legal rights and equal protections. We are pure, when compared to all these dictators.
Sad to say that this propaganda. The events in Ferguson have brought to the fore the constant and uninterrupted brutalization of communities of color and the outright war of police against young men of color and, more generally, against all young men. An article in the Tampa Bay Times a few weeks ago asserted that "every 28 hours an unarmed black person is shot by a cop." A Los Angeles website, Laist reports the research done by the Los Angeles Youth Justice Coalition.”They found that police killed 589 people in the line of duty between January 1, 2000 and August 31, 2014. That's about 43 people each year or one person every eight days.” The majority of them were young black men.
One in three black men is imprisoned in the course of their life. According to some figures, about half of black men are under supervision of parole authorities. With a sharp increase of persons imprisoned, state governments have farmed out prisons to private companies. They manage to turn a profit by keeping prisoners under utterly inhumane conditions. Often lights, toilets,water do not function. Sick prisoners have no access to health care. Prison guards fail to protect prisoners against the assaults by others.
Once again men of color are the prime victims.
These are terrible facts. If we added up all the young black men brutalized by police and by the prison system we might well find that our government is as brutal as the dictators we have opposed in the last 10 or so years.
But the precise numbers are not important. What matters is that we are systematically being fed a view of the world designed to conceal the enormous failures of our so-called democratic system. According to the official story, the US is the country that is democratic at home, where all are equal, and we come to the aid of many abroad. A columnist for the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer, observed recently that American media are fascinated with World War II stories because our role in that war was decent. The many other wars in which we took the side of dictators for the sake of procuring raw materials for our corporations do not yield plots for movies, tv series or fodder for pundits. They have been forgotten.
Day in day out our attention is drawn to the brutalities of other dictators or other governments. It takes the month-long demonstrations not only in this country but all around the world in response to the killing of Michael Brown, to lift a corner of the shroud that covers the murderous activities of our own police forces, and of the federal government that supports those police forces with more lethal weapons and equipment.
The good news is that more and more Americans are waking up to this gross malfunction of our government spite of all the propaganda. This morning's paper reports an opinion poll in which almost 2/3 of persons asked allowed as how black people do not receive just treatment from our judicial system. The truth is slowly leaking out.
But before we, the citizens, and the government take actions, nothing will change.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Why vote?

The election season is becoming more intense. Maybe this is a good time to ask yourself: when you go to vote, what are you doing? Why vote?
Everyone knows the official story that we learn in school: In a democracy the people have the power. When they vote, citizens select the person whom they will allow to wield that power on their behalf for a limited period of time.
But it does not take much thought to see that description for the sheer propaganda it is. When you are called into the taxman's office to go over your income tax returns, when you get a parking ticket, or when your complaints about potholes are ignored by the people in City Hall, you experience your reality that you have no power at all against the various representatives of the government.
When the police kill citizens as in Ferguson, MO (and many other places) and courts absolve the Zimmerman's of this world, where is the citizen power? When responsible adults are paid less than $ 9.00 an hour, where is their power?
The reality is that most Americans feel quite unable to affect the role that the government plays in their lives. That sense of powerlessness is so intense that most citizens do not bother to vote. “What's the use?” they say.
They are right: voting is an exercise in futility. Once your candidate has come into office, you will hear from them periodically when they ask you for money. If you feel strongly about something and sit down to write them a letter, the odds are that you will receive a form letter that has only the faintest, if any, connection with the concern your letter expressed.
Why vote?
By sheer accident this morning's paper provides one answer.
The City Council of Fergsuon, MO established a citizen's review board for the police and made various other moves to placate the voters in the town. Two thirds of the citizens of Ferguson are African-Americans. The police force of 53 officers has three black members. The City Council is all white. To judge by pictures of demonstrations after the killing of Michael Brown, many whites as well as blacks objected to Ferguson police conduct.
The City Council is elected. Their re-election depends on staying on the good side of the voters. By itself that does not explain this effort of the City Council to placate voters. There have been nightly, often violent demonstrations in Ferguson. The case focussed national attention on this previously unknown suburb of St. Louis. Being elected, the city councillors could not ignore a national outbreak of hostility to them, their town and its police force.
Elected officials often turn a blind eye to the wishes of their constituents. But if there are major demonstrations for an extended period, if their actions become the topic for a national conversation, elected officials cannot ignore the criticisms.
If Ferguson, MO were governed by a military dictatorship, demonstration would not need to be attended to. The suppression of popular opposition would only be much more violent than it was in fact. But when officials are elected, they are more responsive to public pressure.
So voting matters. It is important that some of our government officials are elected and voters if they get sufficiently upset can kick them out of office. At the same time, the experience of the last few weeks shows that voting alone accomplishes very little. It takes many brave people out in the streets again and again for an extended period to remind elected officials that they are not gods or judges with life-time tenure, but that they are supposed to represent the people.
So go and vote but be prepared to demonstrate actively and patiently.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Fighting Terrorist with Bombs?

The US has been intermittently bombing Iraq since the 1991 First Iraq War. We have just resumed bombing once again.
If you do something for 25 years and it still has not solved your problem is it not time to ask whether a different tactic might be more promising?
If at first you don't succeed, try, try, try again” makes little sense. One should learn from failures, not repeat them endlessly. Moreover, we need to think about the immense damage our bombing of Iraq has done.
We feel entitled to wage war in the Middle East because of the almost 3000 people killed 13 years ago on 9/11. But we have killed easily a hundred times as many innocent civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan. We have been chillingly callous about the damages we have done in Afghanistan and Iraq, in Pakistan and elsewhere. (Libya also needs to be mentioned here.)
We see the result of our bloody policies in the ISIS. That army has been strengthened by thousands streaming to its ranks from everywhere. We have ravaged that part of the world and made many, many enemies.
If we killed them all, would that solve the problem of terrorist threats? No one, who thinks at all, believes that. We would only be hated by that many more people who would be willing to fight us anywhere, with any weapons they could find or invent.
A “war” on terrorism is a really stupid idea. Terrorists hate us. Making war on them only makes them hate us more.
The only way to reduce the terrorist threat is reduce the world-wide animosity against us. Dropping bombs, sending American soldiers, is not the most promising way to improve our reputation as good and valuable neighbors in the world.
ISIS appears to be dangerous and brutal. Perhaps a short term, immediate military reaction is needed. But such military responses are no more than a stop gap measures, that are really undesirable and should only be considered as a last resort.
But the Obama White House seems to have no other ideas about blunting the terrorist threat over the long haul.
Here are some things the US needs to do.
1. Stop being so incredibly arrogant.
Our Secretaries of State, Hillary Clinton and now John Kerry, travel around the globe telling people to govern themselves democratically. “Be like us”they tell them. How would we feel if government leaders of other countries offered advice to us on how to deal with racist police in Ferguson and elsewhere, or with the massive failures of the VA? Exactly. That's how others feel about us.
More generally, we continuously tell others what to do. When is the last time that we have gone to another people and asked them a question, or asked for information or for their opinions. We act as if we could not learn from anyone.
2. Stop being ignorant.
Americans travel around the world speaking English. They expect everyone to speak our tongue. We make little effort to learn the languages of others. That does not win us many friends.
The public debate leading up to the attack on Iraq was shamefully ill-informed. Parading our ignorance we nevertheless insist that we are the leading country on the globe. That is not likely to raise our popularity.
3. Pick our friends thoughtfully.
Israelis and Palestinians have been at war with each other since the 1920s, long before there was a State of Israel. Theirs is a bitter and intractable conflict. But it is not our fight. There is no reason for the US government to act as if Israel was the 51st state of the union. If we want to work towards more amicable relations with the peoples of the Mid-East we need to distance ourselves from Israel.
During the Iran-Iraq war between 1980 and 1988, we sometimes sided with and supported Iraq and then turned abut to support Iran. The nations in the Mid-East learned that we were not to be trusted.
In Syria we have opposed the government of Bashar al-Assad—until two days ago when we decided his bomb his enemies, ISIS. Suddenly we are supporting Bashar al-Assad. Our policy shifts unpredictably. That does not make us good allies.
There are many other ways in which we have attracted a great deal of enmity in the Mid-East.
If we are to reduce the terrorist threat, we need to change our ways and persuade our enemies that we have changed. We need to prove ourselves to be good neighbors instead of arrogant, ill-informed, bullies.
Both of those will be very difficult and take time, but nothing else will do.

Monday, September 8, 2014

How to Resist Violence

If anyone is in doubt whether it is ever defensible, current events offer only too much evidence that violence should be avoided at all costs. The devastation in Gaza, the brutality on all sides in the Syrian civil war, the continued fratricide among Muslim factions in Iraq coming after more than 10 years of a war to pacify that country, the murderous militias in Nigeria, in Libya and elsewhere should make any reasonable person conclude that violence should be avoided at all costs.
This sentiment is only reinforced by the memories of World War I, whose beginning 100 years ago we commemorate today, or by the so-called Gulf of Tonkin incident, 50 years ago, where then president Lyndon Johnson made up a story of a naval attack on an American vessel. Lyndon Johnson used that lie to persuade Congress to escalate military action in Vietnam which ended only after to almost 60,000 American soldiers died there.
At this point, defenders of violence will ask whether we do not have the right to defend ourselves when attacked. What of armed men invading our house, or rapists and murderers attacking the innocent? It seems obvious to most people that we have the right to defend our lives and those of our loved ones. They claim that this readiness to maim and kill other human beings is part of human nature. That is who we are. There is nothing to argue about.
In 1914 the German armies invaded Belgium and France while telling their own people that Germany had been attacked. World War I was supposedly a war of national self-defense. 50 years later Lyndon Johnson persuaded Congress that we needed to defend our security in Vietnam. Today American hawks urge the current president to begin harsher military actions against Sunni insurgents because, they say, ISIS is a danger to our security, here in the US.
More often than not, the right to self-defense is invoked by the aggressor. It is most often used to conceal naked violence. The overwhelming share of violence in the world is blatantly evil and not to be justified.
Violence needs to be resisted. How do we resist violence? I do not carry a loaded gun, I don't even own one. I have serious doubts about the wisdom of going around armed and ready to kill someone. Is that all I can or should do?
But violence, while most spectacularly destructive when it uses weapons, whether primitive or technologically sophisticated, is not limited to people shooting at each other. Human beings are violent to each other and do tremendous damage to each other without threatening each others' bodily integrity. We inflict serious harm on others without guns and rockets, or knives, or rocks.
Children are injured by parental neglect, by fathers or mothers who simply disappear, or may remain in person but pay no attention to their children. Parents unload on their children the pain inflicted on them during their childhood. Children grow up to injure each other. Bullying in schools is widespread. Even more common are cliques that exclude. Children by and large are not taught to be thoughtful of one another or to be kind.
Some people think that the violence children experience is a good preparation for adult life when they will experience oppression at work, bosses that are insulting, and employers that exploit them, authorities that disrespect them. The violence that is ubiquitous in childhood just continues. The adults who have a say in our work life, or authorities that provide assistance, or experts who give advice about everything from cars and houses to how to save our marriages, are as likely as not to patronize us, to belittle our intelligence or good will. Everywhere we encounter persons who perpetuate the violence done to them as children by now visiting it on others, adults and children.
These thoughts came to mind recently when I attended a demonstration to express dismay over the destruction wrought in Gaza by Israeli bombs and guns. I realized suddenly that many people not only disapprove of blatant acts of violence but they take sides: the Israelis, some say, are simply defending their homeland and thus can do anything that puts an end to attacks by Hamas. On the other side are the people who regard Israelis as the reincarnation of German fascism. Whatever Palestinians do is thought to be correct. All members Hamas are heroes. Each party in the conflict, while, on the one hand, deploring the suffering of civilians, on the other hand, are cheering on their side. By their wholehearted approval, they encourage the fighting, the blind sending off of rockets and mortar rounds, of bombs out of the sky and drones. By taking sides, by encouraging the fighters of one side or another, Americans participate in the violence and perpetuate it.
The men or women behind the guns are not the only violent ones. Violent are the persons who send them onto the battlefield. Violent are the persons who support them, cheer them on and tell them that their cause is just.
No cause that kills large numbers of innocent bystanders is a just cause.
Instead of inventing nonexistent rights, such as the right to defend oneself, we should look into our own hearts and scrutinize our feelings and recognize the violence, the anger, the deep-seated suspicion that motivates so much of our behavior. We must acknowledge that in taking sides, we are involved in the big fights in the world and thus are, implicit in the death and destruction they perpetuate.
There is a clear difference between deploring the violence and destruction in Gaza, for instance, and taking sides by blaming one party and seeing the other party as heroes. It is hypocritical to weep over the children killed in Gaza and then support the Israeli government. It is equally hypocritical to weep over the children killed in Gaza and present Hamas as heroes defending the underdog victims.
If you take sides, you take upon yourself the guilt for children dying in Gaza.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

The Decision to Go to War

How does one decide to start a war?
The reasons we are given for bombing Iraq are of two sorts: there are humanitarian considerations to protect civilians against an armed force that appears to be particularly brutal. There is also the goal of protecting Americans connected with the embassy in Erbil as well as American soldiers sent over recently in order to train units of the Iraqi military. In the background is the hope that dropping bombs today will promote peace tomorrow.
A little thought makes clear that neither of these reasons are complete. We do not drop bombs wherever civilian populations are threatened with death and destruction. No one suggested that we bomb the Israeli military in its recent massive destruction of Gaza that caused many civilian casualties. Nor have we considered dropping bombs in Nigeria to protect civilians against Boko Haram. Very brutal militias have been active in other parts of Africa but no one suggested that we send planes and drones to protect civilians. We have not, as far as I know, weighed the advantages and disadvantages of dropping bombs on violent criminal drug gangs in Mexico. The threat to civilians alone does not suffice for us to call out drones and fighter planes.
What is the prospect of promoting peace by bombing ISIS?
In Europe, when Adolf Hitler began to re-arm Germany in 1933, it might well have been the better part of valor for the allies to insist that Germany continue to conform to the Treaty of Versailles that had ended World War I and which demanded that Germany not rebuild its military. Even if, at the time, it had required some military action, that might well have saved millions of lives and billions of dollars and millions and millions of survivors who never quite recovered from the years of suffering through World War II.
At times preemptive military strikes seem advisable.
Is this one of those situations? That is extremely hard to tell for several reasons. There are some parts of the world where we understand why people act and why they fight. Conflicts in Europe are understandable for us because we share a culture. We think more or less the same way about conflicts, about violence.
In Vietnam, on the other hand, we dealt with people whose view of their lives and of the world is very different from ours. The same was most likely true in Korea. And it is certainly true in the Middle East. Most of us do not really understand how the world looks like to people in Iraq. Loosing those wars may well have been connected with our ignorance of the cultures we were fighting against.
The President has the advantage of advice from people who know the Middle East. But does he truly understand the events there?
Do we have a ghost of a chance of being able to bring peace to the Mid-East all by ourselves? A number of experts warn against going it alone and, instead, urge the President to work closely with Iran, and with Saudi Arabia, to build coalitions against the ISIS militias.
The reasons given for the current bombing campaign in Iraq are unconvincing. Neither the desire to protect civilians nor to bring peace to the region seem convincing reasons for resuming bombing Iraq.
Could there be other reasons we do not know about?
In this situation a terrible suspicion springs up: For all we know, men and women in Iraq are being killed in order to improve the Democrats' electoral prospects this fall. The Republican Party could have a field day if the President did not “act decisively” in the current crisis.
Is the President “bombing for votes?”
If that were true, could we live with ourselves? Could he?