It is American independence day, so lets celebrate:
A Harvard Kennedy School study has confirmed what we all already suspected; that when it comes to torture we are more likely to call it torture when others do it, and something obfuscatory when we do it. The conclusion of the report was pretty well clear:
The New York Times called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture in just 2 of 143 articles (1.4%). The Los Angeles Times did so in 4.8% of articles (3 of 63). The Wall Street Journal characterized the practice as torture in just 1 of 63 articles (1.6%). USA Today never called waterboarding torture or implied it was torture. In addition, the newspapers are much more likely to call waterboarding torture if a country other than the United States is the perpetrator.
Indeed, we do not torture. And in fact, that fact is so explicitly clear that even when there is copious evidence that we have tortured our courts and justices are only to pleased to remind us that in fact we have not. In a case carefully followed by Harper Magazine’s Scott Horton it has become clear that the courts and the political administration will do anything and contort any and all language and judicial precedents to avoid confronting what is a clear case of torture and an innocent man.
An Al-Jazeera report is here:
By the way, give your support to the Center for Constitutional Rights if you must support something. These are indeed some of the bravest and most dedicated individuals fighting our ‘real’ war – the one to protect our liberties and our rights most of which have been taken from us under the pretext of these ‘fake’ wars and cowardly occupations.
As Scott Horton concludes in a piece about the case of the Canadian citizen Maher Arar who was renditioned and tortured by a client state in the Middle East:
Throughout this litigation, the Justice Department has attempted to hide behind Canada, insinuating that the case, if allowed to proceed, would embarrass an important ally. But our neighbor to the north offers an instructive example of how a democratic state, conscious of its duties and obligations, deals with embarrassing allegations of torture. Canada has made full disclosure of its missteps, publishing a white paper as thick as two Manhattan telephone directories, issuing a full apology to Maher Arar, and making a payment of roughly $10 million to him in compensation for the damages suffered. Most significantly, even as the Obama Administration was attempting to close the door on the matter, Canadian law-enforcement authorities announced the opening of a criminal probe designed to identify and prosecute the government actors responsible for Arar’s rendition to torture.
The Arar case is thus far from over. Arar is still waiting for an apology from the United States, and he still has his right to compensation. The Obama Administration owes both Arar and the American public a full accounting of what transpired in this case, and it owes Arar a considerable sum of money. The unnamed Justice Department political cowboys who sent Arar to be tortured in Syria need to spend some time in the spotlight, and they need to atone for their misconduct in the way the law demands. This end is called justice, and it’s what the Department of Justice has been working feverishly to subvert.
Yes, a very happy July 4th. What is it that we are celebrating again? Oh, right, liberty.
On a related note (patience please….), I came across a new David Foster Wallace book in a Washington D.C store. Well, its more about David Foster Wallace than by him. It is a series of interviews with journalist David Lipsky and my first impression was to be irritated by Lipsky’s contant interruption of Wallace’s thoughts – that is the downside of a books based on ‘interview’ or ‘a road trip’ as Lipsky calls it. Regardless, if you can get past Lipsky’s insecurities and inaninities you can read Wallace’s insights such as:
The narrative patterns to which literate Americans are most regularly exposed are televised. And, even on a charitable account, television is a pretty low type of narrative art. It’s a narrative art that strives not to change or enlighten or broaden or reorient—not necessarily even to “entertain”—but merely and always to engage, toappeal to. Its one end—openly acknowledged—is to ensure continued watching. And (I claim) the metastatic efficiency with which it’s done so has, as cost, inevitable and dire consequences for the level of people’s tastes in narrative art. For the very expectations of readers in virtue of which narrative art is art.
Television’s greatest appeal is that it is engaging without being at all demanding.
Which, by the way, also seems to be the appeal most photojournalism is seeking these days; entertaining without being demanding. With such productions as Sebastian Junger/Tim Hetherington’s video Restropo vying for our attention and proclaiming an unfolding of a new era of….something (why are we always so desperate to proclaim new eras!) we are moving into a world where the narrow, provincial and the entertaining is being passed off as journalism and ‘the new’. By the way, just because its at Sundance does not mean its interesting, or important or even insightful. However, I will write a more extended criticism of this film and others of its ilk in a longer, more considered post that I am working on at the moment.
However, as we continue to dig our heads into our navels by concentrating on converting the footsoldiers of our imperial occupations and devastations into martyrs and ‘innocent victims’, the real situation remains beyond our courage to confront or intelligence to do anything about. Perhaps this is why a whole host of such ’embedded’ movies and photo documentaries are finding a strong audience – its just easier to repaint the entire situation as ‘us’ the victims of an ‘evil’ we do not know or understand. But this has been a classic American penchant for decades and we are only getting better at it.
I suppose movie/multi-media becomes the ideal medium for this obfuscation – its easier to just confuse and offer sollace through a medium that does not encourage thought or introspection. Or, as Wallace points out (from the New York Review Of Books Blog):
I think one of the insidious lessons about TV is the meta-lesson that you’re dumb. This is all you can do. This is easy, and you’re the sort of person who really just wants to sit in a chair and have it easy.
What is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq can’t be found in our little ‘films’ but has to be carefully examined, researched and understood. It will come only by extricating ourselves from the ‘patriotic’ and ‘nationalist’ fetters that seems to block our minds at the moment and see that the spiral of Afghanistan does not offer solace or heroism.
If you want to step away from the glitz and glamour where our Afghan war is being re-packaged as a ‘boys adventure’ and our soldiers of war tranformed into ‘boys and girls’, you can do well by starting by listening to Tariq Ali in a London Review of Books talked called Obama’s War:
You see, since the surge began, the big publicity machines going into operation—another victory, yes, we’ve captured this, we are now going to attack Kandahar… In fact, disaster stories. Total and complete disaster stories. And you read side-by-side with these big propaganda stories smaller, quite shocking stories, of which many more happen, if you read the vernacular press in Pakistan (because that reports them). But occasionally they find a way into the mainstream press in the United States and Britain and other parts of Europe.
Let’s just see one story. The US Special Black Ops Squad targets a house because they think insurgents are in the house. They don’t explain why they think that, but they say they’re pretty sure. They attack the house and kill everyone in it. In that house is a family, a large joined family. Everyone is killed. Women, children, a pregnant woman—this happened in February—are killed. Realising what they’ve done… but the story is already going out: “We had a targeted attack on an insurgent house and it was successful.” Then, a London Times journalist who’s there, embedded with the troops, finds out what really happens. That it was a completely innocent family that was killed, that they went back in, the marines on these special operations, and with knives took the bullets out of everyone there, especially the women and children, so that no one would know American bullets had been used to kill them and to cover up the whole story. Now this is a tiny cover up. But there have been big cover ups since.
Not the least of which are ’embedded’ films that awe us with their ‘access’ and their ‘nail biting’ excitement while carefully eliding the very fundamental illegality, immorality and hideousness of our actions and presence in the region itself. They continue to distract us from facing our misjudgments and our missteps. They prevent us from realizing that our wars have crippled our government, undermined our civil rights, destroyed our sense of our values, reduced to ‘fear ridden’ children, unleashed a broad security apparatus based on fear-mongering, convinced us of ‘bogeymen’ on our doorsteps and ensured that an easy reach of violence is our ‘best’ and ‘only’ solution to complex issues. The wars may be killing the other, but it is eating away at us, and our judicial, political, legal systems as well. But you will not hear about this at Sundance. Or such ideas as which Tariq Ali constantly points out:
And what has made them supportive of the insurgents and [enabled] large numbers of kids joining the insurgency is how the NATO armies have operated. Look, it’s not just the killings, it’s not just the massacre of innocents, which happens regularly; it is the whole tone and tenor of this occupation. That the way Western soldiers, Western journalists, Western administrators, Western NGOs live is in such sharp contrast with the ordinary people of the country, that it excites anger and makes people feel this is not the way we are ever going to get anything.
What we are in the world is cleansed and offered back to us in nicely packaged stories of brave soldiers, the difficulties of war, their fear and worries, their families and their suffering. All of this is true, regrettable but basically tangential to the fact that we are in these wars by choice, that we have policies and collaborations in place that ensure that these conflicts continue indefinitely, and that a tremendous amount of destruction of life and society is taking place under the boots and guns of our ‘boys and girls’, that ‘innocent’ reference hiding what they are actually sent to do in Afghanistan and Iraq and in fact actually do when they are there. Even the otherwise measured William Dalrymple had to chime in with a piece in The New Statesman called Why the Taliban Is Winning In Afghanistan quietly pointing out how ‘we’ look to the ‘other’:
As Predator drones took off and landed incessantly at the nearby airfield, the elders related how the previous year government troops had turned up to destroy the opium harvest. The troops promised the villagers full compensation, and were allowed to burn the crops; but the money never turned up. Before the planting season, the villagers again went to Jalalabad and asked the government if they could be provided with assistance to grow other crops. Promises were made; again nothing was delivered. They planted poppy, informing the local authorities that if they again tried to burn the crop, the village would have no option but to resist. When the troops turned up, about the same time as we were arriving at nearby Jegdalek, the villagers were waiting for them, and had called in the local Taliban to assist. In the fighting that followed, nine policemen were killed, six vehicles destroyed and ten police hostages taken.
After the jirga was over, one of the tribal elders came over and we chatted for a while over a glass of green tea. “Last month,” he said, “some American officers called us to a hotel in Jalalabad for a meeting. One of them asked me, ‘Why do you hate us?’ I replied, ‘Because you blow down our doors, enter our houses, pull our women by the hair and kick our children. We cannot accept this. We will fight back, and we will break your teeth, and when your teeth are broken you will leave, just as the British left before you. It is just a matter of time.'”
By the way, I am not a big fan of these ‘sweeping’ historical narratives of ‘they have never been conquered’ or ‘much as the British lost in the 18th century…’ or ‘graveyard of Empires’ and other such simplistic linear narratives. But it makes for a good read and Dalrymple is good at pulling out the ‘historical’ angles on this situation. He does narrow it down to a fundamental:
The reality of our present Afghan entanglement is that we took sides in a complex civil war, which has been running since the 1970s, siding with the north against the south, town against country, secularism against Islam, and the Tajiks against the Pashtuns. We have installed a government, and trained up an army, both of which in many ways have discriminated against the Pashtun majority, and whose top-down, highly centralised constitution allows for remarkably little federalism or regional representation. However much western liberals may dislike the Taliban – and they have very good reason for doing so – the truth remains that they are in many ways the authentic voice of rural Pashtun conservatism, whose views and wishes are ignored by the government in Kabul and who are still largely excluded from power. It is hardly surprising that the Pashtuns are determined to resist the regime and that the insurgency is widely supported, especially in the Pashtun heartlands of the south and east.
Conflating what is today a Pushtun Nationalist uprising with ‘the Taliban’ helps distract us from what we are facing. Just as movies from ’embedded’ locations obfuscate and hide the unfolding tragedy that is the world of the Afghan. We are not innocent. These are not ‘victims’. What may be worse is that we are using ‘our boys and girls’ as shields to veil our own cowardice, our own sense of impotence and our own quiet realization that what has happened, and is happening in Afghanistan and Iraq is wrong, immoral and unjust.
But instead of confronting this head on, a task that will take courage, determination, intelligence and commitment, we prefer to turn to the ‘softer’ side of this situation, the easy, the pious, the pitying, the packaged sense of ‘sorrow’ at the loss or suffering of another and preferably much like ‘us’. Our soldiers, the injured, the maimed, the dead, have become vessels into which we pour of confusion, our fear of the blood on our hands, and our realization of our pusillanimous acceptance of our own degradation. And there isn’t a photographer, photojournalist, post-photography media maven who has had the temerity to speak out for the ‘others’ we are so gleefully and indifferently killing or help kill.
There is no honor in a dishonorable war, which will only end dishonorably and bring nothing but dishonor to those who designed it, executed it and performed it.
Speaking on ‘innocent victims’, or not, there is an interesting documentary on Pakistan that is interesting to watch. A bit convention as it attempts to understand the dynamics of the country through the lives of 5 seemingly disparate Pakistanis, it nevertheless has moments of insight. Called Without Shepheards you can see a trailer here:
Its best moments are with the singer/writer Arieb whose performances are of course spectacular. Imran Khan is also one of the subjects. leaving us much to wonder about him and the future of the country.
Finally, there was an interesting essay in Guernica magazine on how reconciliation programs are another form of torture for the victims. This is a controversial position and frankly I have always been a strong advocate of reconciliation programs. I recently argued that it the absence of such forums was perhaps one of the reasons for the continued fears, suspicions and hatred between Indians and Pakistanis. The unresolved questions of the partition, and the ‘communities of suffering’ that it created underpin our divisions and doubts. But Jean Hatzfeld had argued that in fact reconciliation is the preferred method for the perpetrators and not for the victims. In his books Life Laid Bare: The Survivors in Rwanda Speak and The Antelope’s Strategy: Living In Rwanda After The Genocide and Machete Season: The Killers In Rwanda Speak Hatzfeld examined this moment in Africa’s history from all perspective.
Now, Susie Linfield has penned an essay in Guernica called Living With The Enemy, that questions the value of reconciliation programs. She argues:
“Reconciliation” has become a darling of political theorists, journalists, and human-rights activists, especially as it pertains to the rebuilding of postwar and post-genocidal nations. Nowhere is this more so than in the case of Rwanda. Numerous books and articles on the topic—some, though not all, inspired by Christian teachings—pour forth. It can plausibly be argued, of course, that in Rwanda—and in other places, like Sierra Leone and the Balkans, where victims and perpetrators must live more or less together—reconciliation is a political necessity. Reconciliation has a moral resonance, too; certainly it is far better than endless, corpse-strewn cycles of revanchism and revenge. Yet there is sometimes a disturbing glibness when outsiders tout the wonders of reconciliation, as if they are leading the barbarians from darkness into light. Even worse, the phenomenological realities—the human truths—of the victims’ experiences are often ignored or, at best, treated as pathologies that should be “worked through” until the promised land of forgiveness is reached. This is not just a mistake but a dangerous one; for it is doubtful that any sustainable peace, and any sustainable politics, can be built without a better, which is to say a tragic, understanding of those truths.
Hatzfeld’s writings had pushed me to doubt my earlier stance on this question. Now Linfield’s essay reminds me of those doubts and pushes for a reconsideration. Or at least a contemplation on this question. As Bangladesh prepares for war crimes tribunals, as I hold in my hand Antjie Krog’s remarkable and lovely book Country Of My Skull: Guilt, Sorrow And The Limits Of Forgiveness In The New South Africa, I am can’t help but feel that indeed, the execution and performance of ‘justice’ may outweigh the value of ‘reconciliation’. It seems that certainly the victims would prefer that. I feel that the victims deserve that. It is certainly the lesson that Hatzfeld stresses.
By the way, Linfield’s piece also has a short review of the Israeli photograph Jonathan Torgovnik’s project in Rwanda called Intended Consequences which documents the challenges of the women raped during the genocidal campaigns and the lives of the children born as a consequence.
Linfield points out, while reviewing the photographs and the testimonies that Torgovnik gathered:
The wonderful thing—if there is any wonderful thing—that emerges from these photographs and interviews is the stubborn singularity of each woman. Despite their shared history of horror—and despite the génocidaires’ attempt to kill their human-ness—each has defiantly remained an individual. And each struggles, in her own way, with how she and her children might face the future. (“Be friendly. Love one another,” advises Josephine, somewhat miraculously.) Yet in another, decidedly un-wonderful sense, all these women are the sisters of Améry. In their incomprehension, their shame, their scars, their losses, their dislocation, their impotent fury, their bleak loneliness, their irretrievable lack of trust… The worlds of the Rwandan peasant and of the Viennese intellectual are not, it turns out, far apart: whoever was tortured, stays tortured.
Just another Sunday morning, July 4th 2010, issue to think about.
Finally, onto Kashmir and the return of the pandit familes. A slow but it seems an inevitable one. I had written about the Kashmiri Pandits and their cautious attempts to reclaim their rightful place in the valley of Kashmir as part of my India project work. The essay called Lost Paths To The Shared Or Historical Elisions That Divide I tried to highlight the struggle of the Pandits who were making a slow return to the town of Baramullah in the valley. Today I learn that on June 18th thousands of Kashmiri Pandits were able to make their way to the temple of Mata Kheer Bhavani in Tullamula, 20 Kilometers from Shrinagar for the sacred day of Zyeshtha Ashthami. And that it was an ‘official’ ceremony attended by local Kashmiri leaders as well. I am not sure how permanent or positive all this is, but anything that suggests attempts to reach across the false and artificial sectarian divide in Kashmir is just plain good news.