Journalistic courage

(On January 8, 2009 Lasantha Wickramatunga, the outspoken editor of a Sri Lankan newspaper The Sunday Leader was brutally murdered on his way to work in the heart of the capital city Colombo. It was the work of a so-called ‘death squad’, those shadowy armed and violent groups that act with impunity in many countries.

Anyone who follows these things closely knows that the reason such ‘death squads’ can act so brazenly and are almost never captured and tried is because they are almost always a paramilitary arm of the government itself, often consisting of security forces out of uniform, and thus enjoy immunity. Their role is to intimidate and terrorize and eliminate all those whom the government dislikes. See this report on the murder and the events leading up to it to see how these death squads operate in Sri Lanka, but it is similar in many countries.

Wickramatunga knew that he was incurring the enmity of the government and that as a consequence his life was in danger. So he wrote an editorial before his death that was to be published in the event of his murder explaining why he was taking the risk of speaking out. It appeared on January 11, 2009. I am reproducing it in its entirety because it is an eloquent testimony to what true journalism is, and it also provides a window into the thinking and motivation of an extraordinarily courageous person.

His article shames us all about our own timidity to speak the truth, even though the risks we run are trivial in comparison to those he faced. It should especially shame our Washington beltway journalists, for whom the mere threat of not being invited to cocktail parties is enough to keep them from reporting anything even mildly embarrassing to the members of the pro-war, pro-business one party elite.

Explanatory notes: The ‘Mahinda’ he refers to is the president of Sri Lanka Mahinda Rajapakse, who is also the leader of the current governing party, the SLFP. The main opposition party is the UNP. LTTE refers to the Tamil Tigers, an ethnic group that has been fighting with successive governments for a separate state for nearly three decades.)

And Then They Came For Me
Lasantha Wickramatunga

No other profession calls on its practitioners to lay down their lives for their art save the armed forces and, in Sri Lanka, journalism. In the course of the past few years, the independent media have increasingly come under attack. Electronic and print-media institutions have been burnt, bombed, sealed and coerced. Countless journalists have been harassed, threatened and killed. It has been my honour to belong to all those categories and now especially the last.

I have been in the business of journalism a good long time. Indeed, 2009 will be The Sunday Leader’s 15th year. Many things have changed in Sri Lanka during that time, and it does not need me to tell you that the greater part of that change has been for the worse. We find ourselves in the midst of a civil war ruthlessly prosecuted by protagonists whose bloodlust knows no bounds. Terror, whether perpetrated by terrorists or the state, has become the order of the day. Indeed, murder has become the primary tool whereby the state seeks to control the organs of liberty. Today it is the journalists, tomorrow it will be the judges. For neither group have the risks ever been higher or the stakes lower.

Why then do we do it? I often wonder that. After all, I too am a husband, and the father of three wonderful children. I too have responsibilities and obligations that transcend my profession, be it the law or journalism. Is it worth the risk? Many people tell me it is not. Friends tell me to revert to the bar, and goodness knows it offers a better and safer livelihood. Others, including political leaders on both sides, have at various times sought to induce me to take to politics, going so far as to offer me ministries of my choice. Diplomats, recognising the risk journalists face in Sri Lanka, have offered me safe passage and the right of residence in their countries. Whatever else I may have been stuck for, I have not been stuck for choice.

But there is a calling that is yet above high office, fame, lucre and security. It is the call of conscience.

The Sunday Leader has been a controversial newspaper because we say it like we see it: whether it be a spade, a thief or a murderer, we call it by that name. We do not hide behind euphemism. The investigative articles we print are supported by documentary evidence thanks to the public-spiritedness of citizens who at great risk to themselves pass on this material to us. We have exposed scandal after scandal, and never once in these 15 years has anyone proved us wrong or successfully prosecuted us.

The free media serve as a mirror in which the public can see itself sans mascara and styling gel. From us you learn the state of your nation, and especially its management by the people you elected to give your children a better future. Sometimes the image you see in that mirror is not a pleasant one. But while you may grumble in the privacy of your armchair, the journalists who hold the mirror up to you do so publicly and at great risk to themselves. That is our calling, and we do not shirk it.

Every newspaper has its angle, and we do not hide the fact that we have ours. Our commitment is to see Sri Lanka as a transparent, secular, liberal democracy. Think about those words, for they each has profound meaning.

Transparent because government must be openly accountable to the people and never abuse their trust. Secular because in a multi-ethnic and multi-cultural society such as ours, secularism offers the only common ground by which we might all be united. Liberal because we recognise that all human beings are created different, and we need to accept others for what they are and not what we would like them to be. And democratic… Well, if you need me to explain why that is important, you’d best stop buying this paper.

The Sunday Leader has never sought safety by unquestioningly articulating the majority view. Let’s face it, that is the way to sell newspapers. On the contrary, as our opinion pieces over the years amply demonstrate, we often voice ideas that many people find distasteful. For example, we have consistently espoused the view that while separatist terrorism must be eradicated, it is more important to address the root causes of terrorism, and urged government to view Sri Lanka’s ethnic strife in the context of history and not through the telescope of terrorism. We have also agitated against state terrorism in the so-called war against terror, and made no secret of our horror that Sri Lanka is the only country in the world routinely to bomb its own citizens. For these views we have been labelled traitors, and if this be treachery, we wear that label proudly.

Many people suspect that The Sunday Leader has a political agenda: it does not. If we appear more critical of the government than of the opposition it is only because we believe that – pray excuse cricketing argot – there is no point in bowling to the fielding side. Remember that for the few years of our existence in which the UNP was in office, we proved to be the biggest thorn in its flesh, exposing excess and corruption wherever it occurred. Indeed, the steady stream of embarrassing exposes we published may well have served to precipitate the downfall of that government.

Neither should our distaste for the war be interpreted to mean that we support the Tigers. The LTTE are among the most ruthless and bloodthirsty organisations ever to have infested the planet. There is no gainsaying that it must be eradicated. But to do so by violating the rights of Tamil citizens, bombing and shooting them mercilessly, is not only wrong but shames the Sinhalese, whose claim to be custodians of the dhamma is forever called into question by this savagery, much of which is unknown to the public because of censorship.

What is more, a military occupation of the country’s north and east will require the Tamil people of those regions to live eternally as second-class citizens, deprived of all self respect. Do not imagine that you can placate them by showering “development” and “reconstruction” on them in the post-war era. The wounds of war will scar them forever, and you will also have an even more bitter and hateful Diaspora to contend with. A problem amenable to a political solution will thus become a festering wound that will yield strife for all eternity. If I seem angry and frustrated, it is only because most of my countrymen – and all of the government – cannot see this writing so plainly on the wall.

It is well known that I was on two occasions brutally assaulted, while on another my house was sprayed with machine-gun fire. Despite the government’s sanctimonious assurances, there was never a serious police inquiry into the perpetrators of these attacks, and the attackers were never apprehended. In all these cases, I have reason to believe the attacks were inspired by the government. When finally I am killed, it will be the government that kills me.

The irony in this is that, unknown to most of the public, Mahinda and I have been friends for more than a quarter century. Indeed, I suspect that I am one of the few people remaining who routinely addresses him by his first name and uses the familiar Sinhala address oya when talking to him. Although I do not attend the meetings he periodically holds for newspaper editors, hardly a month passes when we do not meet, privately or with a few close friends present, late at night at President’s House. There we swap yarns, discuss politics and joke about the good old days. A few remarks to him would therefore be in order here.

Mahinda, when you finally fought your way to the SLFP presidential nomination in 2005, nowhere were you welcomed more warmly than in this column. Indeed, we broke with a decade of tradition by referring to you throughout by your first name. So well known were your commitments to human rights and liberal values that we ushered you in like a breath of fresh air. Then, through an act of folly, you got yourself involved in the Helping Hambantota scandal. It was after a lot of soul-searching that we broke the story, at the same time urging you to return the money. By the time you did so several weeks later, a great blow had been struck to your reputation. It is one you are still trying to live down.

You have told me yourself that you were not greedy for the presidency. You did not have to hanker after it: it fell into your lap. You have told me that your sons are your greatest joy, and that you love spending time with them, leaving your brothers to operate the machinery of state. Now, it is clear to all who will see that that machinery has operated so well that my sons and daughter do not themselves have a father.

In the wake of my death I know you will make all the usual sanctimonious noises and call upon the police to hold a swift and thorough inquiry. But like all the inquiries you have ordered in the past, nothing will come of this one, too. For truth be told, we both know who will be behind my death, but dare not call his name. Not just my life, but yours too, depends on it.

Sadly, for all the dreams you had for our country in your younger days, in just three years you have reduced it to rubble. In the name of patriotism you have trampled on human rights, nurtured unbridled corruption and squandered public money like no other President before you. Indeed, your conduct has been like a small child suddenly let loose in a toyshop. That analogy is perhaps inapt because no child could have caused so much blood to be spilled on this land as you have, or trampled on the rights of its citizens as you do. Although you are now so drunk with power that you cannot see it, you will come to regret your sons having so rich an inheritance of blood. It can only bring tragedy. As for me, it is with a clear conscience that I go to meet my Maker. I wish, when your time finally comes, you could do the same. I wish.

As for me, I have the satisfaction of knowing that I walked tall and bowed to no man. And I have not travelled this journey alone. Fellow journalists in other branches of the media walked with me: most of them are now dead, imprisoned without trial or exiled in far-off lands. Others walk in the shadow of death that your Presidency has cast on the freedoms for which you once fought so hard. You will never be allowed to forget that my death took place under your watch. As anguished as I know you will be, I also know that you will have no choice but to protect my killers: you will see to it that the guilty one is never convicted. You have no choice. I feel sorry for you, and Shiranthi will have a long time to spend on her knees when next she goes for Confession for it is not just her owns sins which she must confess, but those of her extended family that keeps you in office.

As for the readers of The Sunday Leader, what can I say but Thank You for supporting our mission. We have espoused unpopular causes, stood up for those too feeble to stand up for themselves, locked horns with the high and mighty so swollen with power that they have forgotten their roots, exposed corruption and the waste of your hard-earned tax rupees, and made sure that whatever the propaganda of the day, you were allowed to hear a contrary view. For this I – and my family – have now paid the price that I have long known I will one day have to pay. I am – and have always been – ready for that. I have done nothing to prevent this outcome: no security, no precautions. I want my murderer to know that I am not a coward like he is, hiding behind human shields while condemning thousands of innocents to death. What am I among so many? It has long been written that my life would be taken, and by whom. All that remains to be written is when.

That The Sunday Leader will continue fighting the good fight, too, is written. For I did not fight this fight alone. Many more of us have to be – and will be – killed before The Leader is laid to rest. I hope my assassination will be seen not as a defeat of freedom but an inspiration for those who survive to step up their efforts. Indeed, I hope that it will help galvanise forces that will usher in a new era of human liberty in our beloved motherland. I also hope it will open the eyes of your President to the fact that however many are slaughtered in the name of patriotism, the human spirit will endure and flourish. Not all the Rajapakses combined can kill that.

People often ask me why I take such risks and tell me it is a matter of time before I am bumped off. Of course I know that: it is inevitable. But if we do not speak out now, there will be no one left to speak for those who cannot, whether they be ethnic minorities, the disadvantaged or the persecuted. An example that has inspired me throughout my career in journalism has been that of the German theologian, Martin Niemoller. In his youth he was an anti-Semite and an admirer of Hitler. As Nazism took hold in Germany, however, he saw Nazism for what it was: it was not just the Jews Hitler sought to extirpate, it was just about anyone with an alternate point of view. Niemoller spoke out, and for his trouble was incarcerated in the Sachsenhausen and Dachau concentration camps from 1937 to 1945, and very nearly executed. While incarcerated, Niemoller wrote a poem that, from the first time I read it in my teenage years, stuck hauntingly in my mind:

First they came for the Jews
and I did not speak out because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for the Communists
and I did not speak out because I was not a Communist.
Then they came for the trade unionists
and I did not speak out because I was not a trade unionist.
Then they came for me
and there was no one left to speak out for me.

If you remember nothing else, remember this: The Leader is there for you, be you Sinhalese, Tamil, Muslim, low-caste, homosexual, dissident or disabled. Its staff will fight on, unbowed and unafraid, with the courage to which you have become accustomed. Do not take that commitment for granted. Let there be no doubt that whatever sacrifices we journalists make, they are not made for our own glory or enrichment: they are made for you. Whether you deserve their sacrifice is another matter. As for me, God knows I tried.

Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

In yesterday’s post, I spoke about the unwritten rule that politicians, reporters, and commentators in the US are expected to follow when it comes to discussing the Israel-Palestine conflict.

A similar rule exists when it comes to discussion of the policies of the US government. Glenn Greenwald points out where this rule leads, where now ‘serious’ commentators dismiss the idea that people in the Bush-Cheney administration should be tried for war crimes because ‘they meant well’ and supposedly had ‘good reasons’ for committing awful acts, such as trying to ‘keep the country safe from terrorists’. He points out what happens if you carry that argument to its logical conclusion.

“[V]irtually every single war criminal in history can recite good reasons for undertaking “excessive” measures. Other than psychopaths who do it exclusively for sadistic entertainment, every torturer can point to actual fears, or genuine threats, or legitimate grievances that led them to sanction violence and brutality.

But people like Goldsmith, Drezner, Douthat, and The Los Angeles Times Editorial Page can only see a world in which they — Americans — are situated at the center. They cite the post-9/11 external threats which American leaders faced, the ostensible desire of Bush officials to protect the citizenry, and their desire to maximize national security as though those are unique and special motives, rather than what they are: the standard collection of excuses offered up by almost every single war criminal (my italics).

If ostensible self-protective motives are now considered mitigating factors in the commission of war crimes — or, worse, if they justify immunity from prosecution — then there is virtually no such thing any longer as a “war crime” that merits punishment. Every tyrant and every war criminal can avail themselves of this self-defense. But advocates of this view — “Oh, American officials only did it to protect us from The Terrorists” — can’t or won’t follow their premise to this logical conclusion because their oh-so-sophisticated and empathetic understanding that political leaders act with complex motives only extends to their own leaders, to Americans.

But the rest of the world’s war criminals — the non-Americans — have no such complexities. They are basically nothing more than Saturday morning cartoon villains who commit war crimes not for any rational or justifiable reason or due to some grave predicament, but rather, out of some warped, cackling pleasure or to satisfy their evil, palm-rubbing plot for world domination and conquest.

This is the self-absorbed mindset that allows the very same people who cheered for the attack on Iraq to, say, righteously condemn the Russian invasion of Georgia as a terrible act of criminal aggression. Russia’s four-week occupation of Georgia is a heinous war crime, while our six-year-and-counting occupation of Iraq is a liberation. Russia drops destructive, lethal bombs on civilian populations, but the U.S. drops Freedom Bombs. Russian leaders were motivated by a desire for domination even though they withdrew after a few weeks; Americans, as always, are motivated by a desire to spread love and goodness.

Jim Henley adds that “The United States government has always engaged in war crimes and human rights violations. What’s different this decade is that, under the leadership of a terrible president, our elites have become vociferous advocates of the goodness and rightness of war crimes and human rights violations.” (emphasis in original)

Matthew Yglesias says, “According to the perverse rules of our post-9/11 discourse, willingness to verbally endorse the idea of having other people torture strangers counts as a form of courageous “toughness” akin to, you know, actually doing something brave. And the rot has, I’m afraid, spread pretty far.”

There are occasions for comparing actions and trying to create some kind of moral calculus especially if one is looking at the unfolding of history and trying to point out how cycles of violence usually become more cruel. But if an act is a murder or an atrocity or a war crime, then it remains so irrespective of who commits it or whether other people also do it. Justifying or excusing or minimizing an evil by pointing the finger at another evil only leads to a continuing cycle of evil.

During the Israeli invasion of Lebanon in August 2006, I covered some of this ground before in a four-part series of posts (part 1, part 2, part 3, and part 4) describing how this kind of tribal thinking leads to never-ending violence and death and destruction, made even worse by smug feelings of self-righteousness by the perpetrators.

Part 3 is particularly relevant to today’s and yesterday’s posts. In re-reading what I had written in it, it was depressing to see that if you replace the words Lebanon with Gaza and Hezbollah with Hamas, that essay would apply with equal force to the events of today. Will we ever learn?

POST SCRIPT: Prosecutions for torture and war crimes

Lawyer Phillipe Sands, who directs the Centre for International Courts and Tribunals at the University of London and is author of the book Torture Team: Rumsfeld’s Memo and the Betryal of American Values, discusses with Terry Gross on NPR’s Fresh Air how war crimes are considered so evil that international treaties have declared that people who commit them should have no refuge. They are considered crimes against humanity, so that citizens of one country who committed those acts within their own country, can still be prosecuted by other countries.

So the fact that US authorities may choose to ignore the war crimes committed by its own citizens by not prosecuting them because they were done by ‘our’ people only increases the chances that prosecutors in other countries might open investigations. He says that many people in the Bush administration had better be very cautious about going abroad because they might be subject to arrest, the way Chilean dictator Augusto Pinochet was when he visited England.

Breaking the rule

My series of posts last week on the events in Gaza caused unease for some readers because of their strong criticisms of the actions of the Israeli government and military, such as the siege that had been going on for years and the massive assault that has been going on the past month.

The unease was expressed in one comment by HRK who said:

I’ve been a long-time reader of your blog, but I have to say, I’m somewhat confused by this latest series of posts. Although I understand – and to a large extent agree with – your basic idea that the Israeli policies are self-destructive, I don’t understand why you seem to be giving the Palestinians a free pass on this one. I know plenty of other sources don’t, but as that your basic stance seems to be that civilian deaths are an unnecessary evil, wouldn’t it be better to point out the lack of regard for it that both sides have shown in the past?

HRK was quite perceptive in sensing that there was something slightly out of kilter and I can understand his/her confusion. It arose because I had broken the rule regarding how one comments on particular issues like the Israel/Palestine conflict.

The rule in the US is that whenever the actions of the Israeli government are criticized, it must be immediately preceded or followed by equal or harsher criticism of the Palestinians. Otherwise one is deemed to be ‘not responsible’, or biased, or worse.

Moreover, the rule requires the opposite behavior when the parties are switched. Harsh criticism of Palestinian atrocities against Israelis need not be accompanied by a similar balancing act, such as pointing out equivalent or worse acts by Israel. In fact, attempting to do so immediately opens one up to criticism, the charge that one is ‘excusing’ the atrocity, or implying ‘moral equivalency’ between the two sides. (Read journalist Robert Fisk’s experiences with this.)

HRK’s confusion about what my stance was is an indication of how much this rule has been internalized, so that it is assumed to be the norm that everyone must follow. Anyone who violates the rule is immediately subject to having his or her motives questioned.

I do not choose to follow that rule and will criticize actions that need to be criticized on their own merits without worrying about what motives may be imputed to me. Anyone who has read my writings will know that I think that tribal allegiances based racial, ethnic, religious, and national identities are not only stupid but even evil, and that the resultiing wanton harming of civilians that is a consequence of these allegiances is also an evil, whether done by al Qaeda, the US, Israel, the Palestinians, the Sri Lankan government, the Tamil Tigers, or whoever. Life is precious and ordinary people have the right, wherever they live, to be free of the fear of being the victims of political power plays.

The implication that ‘moral equivalency’ is necessarily a bad thing is another symptom of how these kinds of rules are internalized. It seems to imply that ‘our’ side because of our very nature, by virtue of who we are is morally superior to ‘their’ side. Hence ‘our’ actions can never be evil by definition, but must be due to mistakes or accidents or unavoidable events. Meanwhile ‘their’ actions, even if identical to ‘ours’, are intentionally evil, carried out with cruel deliberation. So again, by definition, there can never be moral equivalency between acts committed by ‘us’ and ‘them’, even if the acts themselves are identical.

This kind of thinking is endemic and can be found in discussions of almost all conflicts, not just with Israel and Palestine. Uri Avnery tellingly describes how the dominant power uses its propaganda power to shape the narrative structure.

Nearly seventy ago, in the course of World War II, a heinous crime was committed in the city of Leningrad. For more than a thousand days, a gang of extremists called “the Red Army” held the millions of the town’s inhabitants hostage and provoked retaliation from the German Wehrmacht from inside the population centers. The Germans had no alternative but to bomb and shell the population and to impose a total blockade, which caused the death of hundreds of thousands.

Some time before that, a similar crime was committed in England. The Churchill gang hid among the population of London, misusing the millions of citizens as a human shield. The Germans were compelled to send their Luftwaffe and reluctantly reduce the city to ruins. They called it the Blitz.

This is the description that would now appear in the history books – if the Germans had won the war.

Absurd? No more than the daily descriptions in our media, which are being repeated ad nauseam: the Hamas terrorists use the inhabitants of Gaza as “hostages” and exploit the women and children as “human shields”, they leave us no alternative but to carry out massive bombardments, in which, to our deep sorrow, thousands of women, children and unarmed men are killed and injured.

IN THIS WAR, as in any modern war, propaganda plays a major role. The disparity between the forces, between the Israeli army – with its airplanes, gunships, drones, warships, artillery and tanks – and the few thousand lightly armed Hamas fighters, is one to a thousand, perhaps one to a million. In the political arena the gap between them is even wider. But in the propaganda war, the gap is almost infinite.

Almost all the Western media initially repeated the official Israeli propaganda line. They almost entirely ignored the Palestinian side of the story, not to mention the daily demonstrations of the Israeli peace camp. The rationale of the Israeli government (“The state must defend its citizens against the Qassam rockets”) has been accepted as the whole truth. The view from the other side, that the Qassams are a retaliation for the siege that starves the one and a half million inhabitants of the Gaza Strip, was not mentioned at all.

The kind of thinking decribed by Avnery illustrates the worst kind of tribalism, where we demand to be judged by the good intentions that we say lie behind our actions, while we judge ‘them’ by their actions alone and the intentions that we get to assign to them. To look at the actual acts and use the same standard of judgment for those committed by both sides is to commit the sin of moral equivalency.

The propaganda system can only work if we internalize the rules of discussion set by the dominant forces and follow them unthinkingly. It is encouraging that more and more people are breaking them.

Next: Breaking the rule in discussions about US policies

POST SCRIPT: Israel’s clout with the US

In this report that appeared in the Jerusalem Post (January 12, 2009), we see that not only can the Israeli prime minister order George W. Bush about, he feels free to brag publicly about doing so.

The Security Council resolution passed on Friday calling for an immediate cease-fire in Gaza was a source of embarrassment for US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who helped prepare it but ultimately was ordered to back down from voting for it and abstain, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Monday.

Rice did not end up voting for Resolution 1860, thanks to a phone conversation Olmert held with US President George Bush shortly before the vote, the prime minister told a meeting of local authority heads in Ashkelon as part of a visit to the South.

Upon receiving word that the US was planning to vote in favor of the resolution – viewed by Israel as impractical and failing to address its security concerns – Olmert demanded to get Bush on the phone, and refused to back down after being told that the president was delivering a lecture in Philadelphia. Bush interrupted his lecture to answer Olmert’s call, the premier said.

America could not vote in favor of such a resolution, Olmert told Bush. Soon afterwards, Rice abstained when votes were counted at the UN.

As John Cole says: “I am not sure what Israel has on us that they can extract billions of American taxpayer dollars every year and dictate our foreign policy, but it must be something pretty good. The craziest thing about this is the silence of the jingosphere. Had this been any other nation bossing around Bush’s Secretary of State, or, god forbid, France, can you imagine the wingnut Voltron that would have been formed in outrage? As it is, crickets.”

Juan Cole tries to understand why Israel’s prime minister would so openly boast about his power over the US president and US foreign policy.

The Year of Reason-2: Starting the process

When in social situations people hear that I am an atheist, they often ask why I don’t believe in a god. The answer is extremely simple and can be given in just one sentence: There is no sense in believing in something for which there is no evidence. But I have noticed that when people say, for example, that they belong to some religious sect like the Catholics or Judaism or Islam, no one asks them why they joined that sect or why they believe what members of that sect believes, though we would normally do that if people expressed a preference for anything else, say a film or book or a sports team.

I think this reticence to pose what would be a natural question is because religious people know that there is no real answer that they can give as to why they belong to their religious group. Their allegiance has no more substantive basis than those of fervent supporters of the Browns football team who are fans simply because they were born and live in the Cleveland area. To try to give an answer as to why they belong to a particular religious group is to expose the soft underbelly of religious beliefs, so believers protect other believers from this mutual embarrassment, thus allowing religion to persist (as Sigmund Freud says) as a kind of mass delusion. Freud adds, “No one, needless to say, who shares a delusion ever recognizes it as such.” (Civilization and its Discontents, Sigmund Freud, translated by James Strachey, 1961, p. 32.)

But there is no reason that we atheists should play by those rules. As part of the Year of Reason, we need to start poking holes in this mass delusion. I think that if someone asks us why we are atheists we should, after answering, immediately turn the question around and ask people why they believe in god.

What will people say in response to such a question? My guess is that they will first be surprised that such a question is asked at all, because the basis for religious belief is rarely unquestioned. (Thanks to Lucas for pointing out this typo.)

I also suspect none of them will say that they actually saw god or spoke with him/her/it. If they do say such an incredible thing, good follow up questions to ask them are what god looks like, whether it was a man or woman, whether god spoke in English, what tone of voice or accent he/she/it had, what the exact words were, whether anyone else was present to see this visitation and, if not, whether they called anyone else to come and witness this extraordinary event.

But you are highly unlikely to get such a response, unless you are speaking with Pat Robertson to whom god speaks once a year and tells him what is going to happen in the coming year. Since it is god speaking, you would expect 100% accuracy. But the record is, to put it most charitable, spotty which means that either god is losing his/her/its grip, pulling Pat’s leg, or that Pat is a fraud. (God’s statement about what is going to happen in 2009 is here. You can also see what god said about what would happen in 2008 and 2007 as well.)

Although every religious person says they believe in god and even claim to speak to him, only delusional people actually claim to have heard voices or had visions. As the TV character House tells a colleague in one episode about a teenage faith healer who says god speaks to him, “You talk to god, you’re religious. God talks to you, you’re psychotic.” (This is a terrific episode of House that reminded me of Marjoe. You can seen an extended clip of the episode here.)

The most likely reason people will give for saying they believe in god is the Argument From Personal Incredulity. This is a version of “I don’t understand how the complexity of the world and how life could come about without someone to plan and implement it. So there must be a god.” This argument is a lazy one. Collectively we know a huge amount about how the world came to be. There will always be some unanswered questions but there is no reason to think that they will not be answered in the future just the way that previously unanswered ones were.

Another lazy argument is the Argument From Wishful Thinking. This is from people who seek to find some meaning and purpose in life but are incapable of doing the work of constructing meaning and purpose for themselves, so resort to the option of buying one of the off-the-shelf meanings provided by religions, even though they do not make any sense. Take the central dogma of Christianity: “An omnipotent god loves the world and wants to save his creations from the sin he himself allowed them to commit, so he arranges for the brutal murder by crucifixion of his own son, who is also god, in addition to destroying vast numbers of people with natural disasters, wars, and diseases.” Only a person committed to self-delusion would subscribe to such a doctrine.

Another is the Argument From Vague Feelings. Here people will take some perfectly natural events that have some emotional punch and imbue them with immense spiritual or cosmic significance. So you will often hear something about the ‘miracle’ of childbirth or like Francis Collins’s experience of being overwhelmed by the sight of a frozen waterfall and seeing in these everyday things signs from god.

Sigmund Freud, trying to understand the appeal of religion even though he himself saw it as an illusion, reports on a religious colleague who told him that the source of his religion “consists in a peculiar feeling, which he himself is never without, which he finds confirmed by many others, and which he may suppose is present in millions of people. It is a feeling which he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded –as it were – ‘oceanic’.” Freud says that this vague feeling “is the source of religious energy which is seized upon by the various religious Churches and religious systems, directed by them into particular channels, and doubtless exhausted by them.” (Freud, p. 10, my italics)

Again, we see that belief caused by a purely internal emotional reaction is transformed in the mind of the believer into something objective and tangible, merely because other people also report similar feelings.

Those answers, weak as they are, are actually the ones that will be given by the more thoughtful people. The real reason that most people believe, but which they are unlikely to admit to, is because they are expected to believe. Social norms expect that one belong to some religious group.

So to usher in the year of reason, whenever someone speaks about their religion, let’s simply reflect the question back at them: “Why do you believe in a god?” Reason begins with asking questions about what one believes and why, and using evidence and logic as the bases of one’s beliefs.

I know that some readers of this blog are religious. I hope they will give the reasons for they believe in god in the comments.

POST SCRIPT: The Rapture is coming! No, really, this time I mean it!

Richard Bartholomew notes that the people who believe in that weird idea known as the Rapture seem to be getting impatient and are hoping that maybe this year will be when the ‘third time lucky’ superstition actually kicks in.

The Year of Reason-1: Understanding the reasons for irrational beliefs

(I was planning to start the new year with this post, but it got pre-empted by the posts on the horror that is being perpetrated on the people of Gaza.)

I think we should declare 2009 the Year of Reason.

This should be the year when we make a concerted effort to wipe out superstitious and irrational beliefs of all kinds. This category includes not only religious beliefs but also absurd and divisive and harmful ideas such as that the people who share one’s own nationality and ethnicity are somehow better than those who don’t, and thus deserve greater allegiance and consideration.

Familiarity breeds false rationality. For many people, irrational beliefs are what other people hold, not their own. Their own irrational beliefs seem reasonable because they acquired them at a very young age when they tended to believe what the adults in their lives told them and they have rarely been asked why they believe. The power of myths is that it never even occurs to people to question the validity of ideas that they have always had and which everyone around them seems to share..

As I wrote earlier, in his book The God Delusion (p. 178), Richard Dawkins quotes the anthropologist Pascal Boyer who once over dinner at a Cambridge University college recounted the beliefs of the Fang people of Cameroon who believed that “witches have an extra internal animal-like organ that flies away at night and ruins other people’s crops or poisons their blood. It is also said that these witches sometimes assemble for huge banquets, where they will devour their victims and plan future attacks. Many will tell you that a friend of a friend actually saw witches flying over the village at night, sitting on a banana leaf and throwing magical darts at various unsuspecting victims.”

Bayer says he was dumbfounded when a Cambridge theologian turned to him and said “This is what makes anthropology so fascinating and so difficult too. You have to explain how people can believe such nonsense.” (italics on original)

Dawkins points out that the theologian, as a mainstream Christian, did not see any irony at all in referring to the Fang people’s beliefs as nonsense even while he himself believed many or all of the following beliefs:

  • In the time of the ancestors, a man was born to a virgin mother with no biological father being involved.
  • The same fatherless man called out to a friend called Lazarus, who had been dead long enough to stink, and Lazarus came back to life.
  • The fatherless man himself came alive after being dead and buried three days.
  • Forty days later, the fatherless man went to the top of a hill and then disappeared bodily in to the sky.
  • If you murmur thoughts privately in your head, the fatherless man, and his ‘father’ (who is also himself) will hear your thoughts and may act upon them. He is simultaneously able to hear the thoughts of everybody else in the world.
  • If you do something bad, or something good, the same fatherless man sees all, even if nobody else does. You may be rewarded or punished accordingly, including after your death.
  • The fatherless man’s virgin mother never died but ‘ascended’ bodily into heaven.
  • Bread and wine, if blessed by a priest (who must have testicles), ‘become’ the body and blood of the fatherless man.

Similar nonsense is believed by Muslims, Hindus, Jews, Mormons, Scientologists, all of whom think that the beliefs held by people of other religions are not only wrong but even absurd, despite the fact that there is no difference at all in the evidentiary basis for all of them. All of them have exactly zero credible evidence in support and whose only basis for belief is that they are found in ancient texts of dubious authenticity.

It is telling that some Protestants, who believe almost all of the things in the above list, snigger at the absurdity of some Catholic beliefs such as that Mary remained a virgin all her life and did not die but ascended directly into heaven, or at the doctrine of transubstantiation. Does one need any more convincing evidence that this that religion breeds irrational thinking? (See my earlier post on why religions expect you to believe preposterous things.)

This reminds me of how during the 2008 presidential campaign people in the mainstream media snickered at Congressman Dennis Kucinich because of his statement that he once saw something that he called a UFO. I have written before about my own deep skepticism that there could be alien beings flying around near the Earth but I cannot understand how religious people can make fun of Kucinich. After all, while alien beings flitting around Earth is highly unlikely, at least it is compatible with all the laws of science, while religious people believe in an undetected and undetectable god and all manner of weird ideas for which there is not a shred of credible evidence and which violate all known physical laws. Kucinich at least claims that he actually saw something physical and did not think it was supernatural. Religious people believe in things they have neither seen nor heard but believe because have been simply told by others that they exist.

Bertrand Russell, who came from a wealthy aristocratic family, was not sent to school and had private tutors instead, which gave him plenty of time to reflect on things. As a result, from the age of fourteen to eighteen he successively rejected the ideas of free will, immortality, and belief in god. But he did not share this realization with anyone mainly for fear of ridicule. (My Religious Reminiscences, in The Basic Writings of Bertrand Russell, Robert E. Egner and Lester E. Denonn (eds.), Touchstone (1961), p. 31)

Russell was fortunate that he was not exposed to the coercive pressure that accompanies religious beliefs. Our entire social structure has been set up to brainwash children, through a mixture of bribes and fear, into believing in god at an early age, just like they are made to believe in Santa Claus, except that with god the fiction is continued into adulthood by parents and priests and their community, and deviation from such orthodoxy is frowned upon. Most children dislike being different. The peer pressure of other children will cause even those children who question their religious beliefs to keep quiet.

It is easier to believe something, however absurd, if everyone around you also believes it, or at least say they believe in it even if they harbor doubts. And since the question of why they believe is never posed, religious people can avoid the realization that their beliefs make no sense.

So let’s make a dent in this protective coat by posing to religious people the question “Why do you believe in god?”

POST SCRIPT: How Muslims/Arabs are stereotyped

Palestinian-American comic Dean Obeidallah from the Axis of Evil Comedy Tour (Thanks to Crooks and Liars). His last bit is particularly poignant given the recent removal of a Muslim family from an AirTran plane after passengers said they heard the family say things they thought were threatening.

Joy Behar had a nice interview with Obeidallah on The View.

On Gaza-5: The public reaction

The largely one-sided nature of the response in the US to the events in Gaza is seen by the fact that even university academics, who are supposed to have the knowledge and independence to speak their minds, become suddenly silent when Israel takes actions like what is currently happening in Gaza. Neve Gordon and Jeff Halper point out that even the bombing of a university in Gaza did not arouse indignation among US academics, who are quick on other occasions when academic rights are infringed upon and academic institutions attacked.

Not one of the nearly 450 presidents of American colleges and universities who prominently denounced an effort by British academics to boycott Israeli universities in September 2007 have raised their voice in opposition to Israel’s bombardment of the Islamic University of Gaza earlier this week. Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, who organized the petition, has been silent, as have his co-signatories from Princeton, Northwestern, and Cornell Universities, and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Most others who signed similar petitions, like the 11,000 professors from nearly 1,000 universities around the world, have also refrained from expressing their outrage at Israel’s attack on the leading university in Gaza. The artfully named Scholars for Peace in the Middle East, which organized the latter appeal, has said nothing about the assault.

Of course, Bollinger has already revealed that consistency and principles are of little concern to him. Some may recall how he gave a vicious tongue lashing to the democratically elected Iranian president Ahmadinejad while he was actually introducing him as a guest at his university, while fawningly and fulsomely praising the Pakistani dictator Pervez Musharraf on a similar occasion.

I do not expect Barack Obama to shift much from the standard practice of support for even the most appalling of right-wing Israeli policies. During the primaries Obama and Hillary Clinton seemed to be competing to see who could grovel more towards the Israel lobby groups and to right wing Israeli politicians, ignoring those who advocate a just solution to the Palestinian issue. Obama has tried to curry favor with hardline Israeli political groups and has also pandered quite shamelessly to AIPAC, even at one time calling for Jerusalem to be the ‘undivided capital’ of Israel, though he tried to walk that statement back a bit.

I do not expect him to do much about the atrocious treatment by Israel towards the people of Gaza, where the Israeli government has implemented a blockade that has caused immense hardships to everyone, or to pressure them to remove the settlements in the occupied territories, or to insist that they remove the wall being built that effectively annexes parts of the occupied territories and splits Palestinian communities. I do not expect him to go to that region and echo Ronald Reagan’s words to the Soviet Union in Berlin and to call upon the Israelis to “Tear down this wall!”, let alone call for the return to the pre-1967 borders called for by UN resolution 242 and others. The appearance of new organizations like J Street that challenge the impression that only groups like AIPAC represent the views of American Jews is an encouraging sign and one hopes that the Obama administration will talk to such groups more.

This series of maps by Siun shows how Israel has been steadily squeezing the Palestinians so that they end up living in Bantustan-like enclaves surrounded by the Israel military and have to pass through checkpoints to go from one enclave to another, similar to those created for blacks by the white South African regime during apartheid.

To take on the issues that would lead to justice for that region would require a level of political courage from Obama that he has not so far revealed. As Alexander Cockburn says:

It’s certainly true that the minute the new Obama administration made any move, however tentative, deemed “anti-Israel” by the massed legions of the Israel lobby – stretching from vice president Biden’s office, through Obama’s own Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel to about 98 per cent of the U.S. Congress, the major newspapers and TV networks, the think tanks in Washington, the big Democratic Party funders – political mayhem would break loose. The White House would see its prime political enterprise, the economic recovery program, immediately held hostage.

Hamas has been greatly strengthened by the current attack and the status of President Abbas reaffirmed as a spineless collaborator with Israel; Mubarak likewise; Syria and Turkey alienated from Western designs; Hezbollah and Iran vindicated by the world condemnation of Israel’s barbarous conduct. For months Israel besieged Gaza, starving its civilian inhabitants of essential supplies with no effective international reproach. It’s hard to take dramatic photographs of an empty medicine bottle, but easy to film a bombed out girl’s dorm or a Palestinian mother weeping over the bodies of her five dead daughters, featured on the front page of the Washington Post this week.

Palestinians are considered expendable people by the US elites, somewhat less than human, whose deaths and suffering do not count for as much. It is similar to the way the million Iraqi casualties of the US invasion or the millions of Vietnamese casualties were regarded during the US invasion of that country.

The invaluable Glen Greenwald puts his finger on the basic problem: the tribal ways of thinking that permeate our societies.

So many of these conflicts — one might say almost all of them — end up shaped by the same virtually universal deficiency: excessive tribalistic identification (i.e.: the group with which I was trained to identify is right and good and just and my group’s enemy is bad and wrong and violent), which causes people to view the world only from the perspective of their side, to believe that X is good when they do it and evil when it’s done to them. X can be torture, or the killing of civilians in order to “send a message” (i.e., Terrorism), or invading and occupying other people’s land, or using massive lethal force against defenseless populations, or seeing one’s own side as composed of real humans and the other side as sub-human, evil barbarians. (emphasis in original)

He quotes George Orwell who long ago pointed out that this kind of tribalism blinds people to their own glaring inconsistencies:

All nationalists have the power of not seeing resemblances between similar sets of facts. A British Tory will defend self-determination in Europe and oppose it in India with no feeling of inconsistency. Actions are held to be good or bad, not on their own merits, but according to who does them, and there is almost no kind of outrage — torture, the use of hostages, forced labour, mass deportations, imprisonment without trial, forgery, assassination, the bombing of civilians — which does not change its moral colour when it is committed by ‘our’ side … The nationalist not only does not disapprove of atrocities committed by his own side, but he has a remarkable capacity for not even hearing about them.

The results of this kind of tribal thinking that Greenwald and Orwell describe are on clear display in almost any conflict that is going on now, such as Gaza. This is why I argue that taking pride in, and having excessive allegiance to, one’s religion, race, ethnicity, region, and nationality are all evils that an enlightened person will not countenance.

POST SCRIPT: Getting wider news sources

Eric Garris of the absolutely invaluable website Antiwar.com provides some important information about a new application called Livestation that enables you to get live TV and radio stations from around the world, including BBC World Service and Al Jazeera (English). The download was easy and the quality is excellent.

Thanks to Livestation I can now see Al Jazeera live and see first hand what is going on there because it is the only major news organization that has reporters in Gaza. Al Jazeera was unable to gain access to US cable channels because the cable companies here would not agree to include them as an option, thus reinforcing the one-sided view of the conflict. This is another example of how the internet is allowing people to bypass the media filters and gain access to a broader news spectrum.

On Gaza-4: The US and UK government reactions

In response to the Israeli attack on Gaza, the US and UK governments and the mainstream media in those countries have been as usual almost unanimous in their support for the Israeli actions and in condemning the Palestinians.

Paul Craig Roberts comments on the underlying reasons why Gaza is being strangled and the hypocritical reactions of especially the US and UK governments.

Israel’s excuse for its violence is that from time to time the Palestinian resistance organization, Hamas, fires off rockets into Israel to protest the ghetto life that Israel imposes on Gazans. The rockets are ineffectual for the most part and seldom claim Israeli casualties. However, the real purpose for the Israeli attack is to destroy Hamas.

In 2006 the US insisted that the Palestinians in Gaza and the West Bank hold free elections. When free elections were held, Hamas won. This was unacceptable to the Americans and Israelis. In the West Bank, the Americans and Israelis imposed a puppet government, but Hamas held on in Gaza. After unheeded warnings to the Gazans to rid themselves of Hamas and accept a puppet government, Israel has decided to destroy the freely elected government with violence.

For the US and UK governments, Israel can do no wrong. Israel doesn’t have to stop withholding food, medicine, water, and energy, but Hamas must stop protesting by firing off rockets. In violation of international law, Israel can drive West Bank Palestinians off their lands and out of their villages and give the stolen properties to “settlers.” Israel can delay Palestinians in need of emergency medical care at checkpoints until their lives ebb away. Israeli snipers can get their jollies murdering Palestinian children.

The Great Moral Anglo-Americans couldn’t care less.

The fearful conditions in Gaza have existed for a long time. Chris McGreal in the UK newspaper The Guardian in 2005 reports on life under Israeli occupation:

In southern Gaza, the killings take place in a climate that amounts to a form of terror against the population. Random fire into Rafah and Khan Yunis has claimed hundreds of lives, including five children shot as they sat at their school desks. Many others have died when the snipers must have known who was in their sights – children playing football, sitting outside home, walking back from school. Almost always “investigations” amount to asking the soldier who pulled the trigger what happened – often they claim there was a gun battle when there was none – and presenting it as fact.

And now we hear of over 40 people being killed in separate attacks on two UN schools in a refugee camp where they had sought shelter from the bombardment. As of yesterday, over 200 children have been killed out of a total of about 600 deaths.

Columnist Mark Steel of the UK newspaper The Independent uses black humor to make some sharp points about the way that the US and British politicians and media have reacted to the latest events in Gaza.

When you read the statements from Israeli and US politicians, and try to match them with the pictures of devastation, there seems to be only one explanation. They must have one of those conditions, called something like “Visual Carnage Responsibility Back To Front Upside Down Massacre Disorder”.

For example, Condoleezza Rice, having observed that more than 300 Gazans were dead, said: “We are deeply concerned about the escalating violence. We strongly condemn the attacks on Israel and hold Hamas responsible.”

Someone should ask her to comment on teenage knife-crime, to see if she’d say: “I strongly condemn the people who’ve been stabbed, and until they abandon their practice of wandering around clutching their sides and bleeding, there is no hope for peace.”

The gap between the might of Israel’s F-16 bombers and Apache helicopters, and the Palestinians’ catapulty thing is so ridiculous that to try and portray the situation as between two equal sides requires the imagination of a children’s story writer.

The reporter on News at Ten said the rockets “may be ineffective, but they ARE symbolic.” So they might not have weapons but they have got symbolism, the canny brutes.

It’s no wonder the Israeli Air Force had to demolish a few housing estates, otherwise Hamas might have tried to mock Israel through a performance of expressive dance.

Or there’s the outrage that Hamas has been supported by Iran. Well that’s just breaking the rules. Because say what you will about the Israelis, they get no arms supplies or funding or political support from a country that’s more powerful than them, they just go their own way and make all their weapons in an arts and crafts workshop in Jerusalem.

But mostly the Israelis justify themselves with a disappointing lack of imagination, such as the line that they had to destroy an ambulance because Hamas cynically put their weapons inside ambulances.

They should be more creative, and say Hamas were planning to aim the flashing blue light at Israeli epileptics in an attempt to make them go into a fit, get dizzy and wander off into Syria where they would be captured.

But they prefer a direct approach, such as the statement from Ofer Schmerling, an Israeli Civil Defence official who said on al-Jazeera, “I shall play music and celebrate what the Israeli Air Force is doing.”

Maybe they could turn it into a huge national festival, with decorations and mince pies and shops playing “I Wish We Could Bomb Gaza Every Day”.

In a similar tone Dov Weisglas, Ariel Sharon’s chief of staff, referred to the siege of Gaza that preceded this bombing, a siege in which the Israelis prevented the population from receiving essential supplies of food, medicine, electricity and water, by saying, “We put them on a diet.”

That Weisglas, such a kidder.

Stephen M. Walt, co-author with John Mearsheimer of the book The Israel Lobby and U. S. Foreign Policy points out that there is almost complete unanimity in this country’s political leadership for providing unconditional support for any and all Israeli policies. He says that the perception that Americans in general support their government’s stance needs to be challenged:

The evidence suggests otherwise: although most Americans support Israel’s existence and have more sympathy for them than they have for the Palestinians, they are not demanding that U.S. leaders back Israel no matter what it does. But that’s what American politicians reflexively do, even though it encourages Israel to continue immoral and self-destructive policies (including the continued expansion of settlements) and contributes to Arab and Islamic anger at the United States.

Mearsheimer made similar arguments in a very funny appearance on The Colbert Report that yet managed to convey some of the crucial points at issue.

Although there had been criticisms of the US government’s almost unconditional support for Israel and against the Palestinians in the alternative media, it was the appearance in 2007 of the Mearsheimer and Walt book based on their 2006 article in the London Review of Books that took it more mainstream, since these two scholars were very much establishment figures of the ‘realist’ school of political scientists, hardly radicals. For those interested in what the book says, my earlier three part series of posts on their book (here, here, and here) provides an introduction.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show on the one-sided response in the US to events in Gaza

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On Gaza-3: The media reaction

The mainstream media in the US and UK follow the line of their respective governments, who in turn follow Israel’s lead and place almost the entire blame on the Palestinians. The power of this conformity can be seen in the kinds of things that Martin Peretz, for over three decades the owner and publisher of the ‘liberal’ magazine The New Republic, says. Eric Alterman profiles the vicious racism against Arabs that characterizes his writings.

I have gotten this far and not even gotten to the topic that usually comes up in discussions of Peretz of late, which is his obsessive and unapologetic hatred of Arabs, the evidence of which is visible nearly every day on Peretz’s “The Spine.” Here are just a few of the choice descriptions Peretz has had occasion to employ in his magazine about assorted Arabs, whether Palestinian, Iraqi, or of the generic variety: They are “violent, fratricidal, unreliable, primitive and crazed … barbarian”; they have created a “wretched society” and are “cruel, belligerent, intolerant, fearing”; they are “murderous and grotesque” and “can’t even run a post office”; their societies “have gone bonkers over jihad” and they are “feigning outrage when they protest what they call American (or Israeli) atrocities”; they “behave like lemmings,” and “are not shocked at all by what in truth must seem to them not atrocious at all”; and to top it all off, their rugs are not as “subtle” and are more “glimmery” than those of the Berbers.

Trust me, I could go on. As the blogger Glenn Greenwald has pointed out, Peretz’s blog is “basically a museum for every anti-Arab/Muslim stereotype and caricature that exists.” Nevertheless, as the Prospect’s Ezra Klein blogged, “Peretz is rarely held to account, largely because there’s an odd, tacit understanding that he’s a cartoonish character and everyone knows it.”

When it comes to Palestinians, it seems like you can say almost anything and not be taken to task. Take for example, Michael Goldfarb, editor of the Weekly Standard. He wrote about the current Israeli assault thus:

The fight against Islamic radicals always seems to come around to whether or not they can, in fact, be deterred, because it’s not clear that they are rational, at least not like us. But to wipe out a man’s entire family, it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t give his colleagues at least a moment’s pause.

Matthew Yglesias noted the significance of Goldfarb’s comments:

To be clear, he’s not saying that it’s sometimes okay to kill a bad guy’s innocent children as part of a military operation directed against the guy. He’s saying it’s better to kill his children than it would be to avoid killing them. (emphasis in original)

Glenn Greenwald points out that the logic used by people like Goldfarb is exactly the same as that used by those whom we label terrorists:

To the Terrorist, by definition, that innocent civilians and even children are killed isn’t a regrettable cost of taking military action. It’s not a cost at all. It’s a benefit. It has strategic value. Goldfarb explicitly says this: “to wipe out a man’s entire family, it’s hard to imagine that doesn’t give his colleagues at least a moment’s pause.”

That, of course, is the very same logic that leads Hamas to send suicide bombers to slaughter Israeli teenagers in pizza parlors and on buses and to shoot rockets into their homes. It’s the logic that leads Al Qaeda to fly civilian-filled airplanes into civilian-filled office buildings. And it’s the logic that leads infinitely weak and deranged people like Goldfarb and Peretz to find value in the killing of innocent Palestinians, including — one might say, at least in Goldfarb’s case: especially — children.

Can you imagine anyone saying anything like what Goldfarb and Peretz say about any other group and not be written off as a racist? And yet, they not taken to task and indeed continue to be media players. They get away with it because it seems like there is nothing you can say against the Palestinians that will lose you your mainstream media perch. But say something critical of Israel’s policies without a harsher criticism of Palestinians and you are quickly gone. The limit of ‘respectable’ criticism of Israel consists of doing the ‘both sides should show restraint and we should find a way to get the peace process back on track but Israel has the right to do anything in defend itself ‘ song-and-dance.

We are expected (rightly) to be horrified that Israeli people are subjected to rocket and suicide bomb attacks but to treat as unfortunate but not equally horrifying that the Palestinians have been under occupation for over four decades, with no autonomy, unable to enter or leave without Israeli approval, restricted in their movements internally by hundreds of checkpoints, subject to daily harassments and arrest and detention by security forces, their homes demolished by bulldozers, their land steadily encroached upon by settlers, their access to food, medicine, water, energy, and any and all other supplies restricted and controlled by a hostile power that does not hesitate to use that power as a weapon to impose collective punishment on them whenever it feels like it, and periodically subjected to massive military force that kills and injures huge numbers of people and destroys their basic infrastructure.

But Jane Hamsher suggests that there are encouraging signs that the situation is changing and a more honest, and thus more productive, debate over Israeli policies may be emerging in the US. Philip Weiss even goes to the extent of suggesting that this latest Gaza assault may result in the ending of the ability of the Israel lobby to control the terms of the discussion.

Greenwald elaborates how Peretz merely says more bluntly what others in both political parties say more delicately. He also points to this curious washing of hands that US political leaders indulge in, saying that the US should not intervene and that Israel’s security decisions should not be challenged.

What could be more absurd than that? Apparently, not only should we continue to feed Israel billions of dollars a year of American taxpayer money and massive amounts of weapons — thereby ensuring that the world, quite accurately, perceives their actions as American actions — but we should then take the position that they are free to do anything they want with it, no matter how extreme or destructive to our interests, and our only view on all of it should be that we blindly support whatever they do.

Greenwald also accurately captures why David Gregory is perfect to replace the late Tim Russert as the host of Meet the Press. Both practice the art of toothless journalism, all grandstanding bark and no bite, where they see their role as mainly enablers of policies preferred by the establishment, though of course they themselves do not see it that way. Read the list of questions Gregory asked Israeli Foreign Minister Tzipi Livni and marvel that he did not a challenge a single one of the dubious assumptions underlying this Israeli action and Israeli policies in general. The questions were all about procedure and tactics and even the urging of more harsh measures. Of course Gregory knows that this is the kind of ingratiating behavior that will gain him the favor of his bosses and enable him to be the media star that Russert was.

Justin Raimondo suggests that this latest assault on Gaza by Israel is to serve as a warning shot across the bow to the incoming Obama administration that they should not even think of veering away from unconditional support for any and all Israel’s actions.

Speaking of Obama, the real focal point of the Israeli assault isn’t Gaza – it’s Washington, D.C. The whole point of this exercise in futility – which will not create a single iota of security for Israel, will not topple Hamas, and will not prove any more successful than the second Lebanese war – is to set the terms by which the Israelis will deal with the incoming U.S. president. Before he even gets a chance to appoint his Middle East team, his special envoys and advisers, the Israelis will have sabotaged the peace effort they can clearly see coming – and put the Americans on notice that whatever “change” is in the air will have to be to Israel’s advantage. In short, the Gaza massacre is a preemptive strike against the prospect of American intervention on the Palestinians’ behalf, or, at least, a more evenhanded policy framework.

Richard Silverstein also suggests that this Israeli offensive is meant to put the new Obama administration on the defensive even before it begins.

The reflexive support for it by the US mainstream media and the congressional leadership of both parties will add to that pressure.

POST SCRIPT: The Real News

Fed up with the news you get in the mainstream media? Check out The Real News, which gets its feeds from all over the world, from a much wider spectrum of sources than what you normally see. What it lacks in glitzy production values, it more than makes up in providing alternative voices.

On Gaza-2: Countering the myths

Mustafa Barghouthi, Secretary General of the Palestinian National Initiative, in an article well-worth reading titled Palestine’s Guernica and the Myths of Israeli Victimhood painstakingly tries to refute all the reasons given by apologists for Israel’s actions to justify this latest assault on the Palestinians. Those myths, which the mainstream media and both democratic and Republican politicians in the US tend to repeat uncritically, consist of the following:

  1. Israelis have claimed to have ended the occupation of the Gaza Strip in 2005.
  2. Israel claims that Hamas violated the cease-fire and pulled out of it unilaterally.
  3. Israel claims to be pursuing peace with ‘peaceful Palestinians’.
  4. Israel is acting in self-defense.
  5. Israel claims to have struck military targets only.
  6. Israel claims that it is attacking Hamas and not the Palestinian people.
  7. Israel claims that Palestinians are the source of violence.

Like nearly all durable myths, they do contain factual elements but these are merely used as scaffolding to create a propaganda edifice designed to hide the truth. Interestingly, Barghouthi’s article was published on the allegedly ‘liberal’ Huffington Post website with an extraordinary disclaimer not usually given for other writers, in which they essentially disowned him. As Jeremy Sapienza comments;

HuffPo runs all kinds of commentary from all over the political spectrum (or at least its leftish side), but only those who dare speak against the sainted Israelis seem to require an editorial explanation that resembles an apology.

Justin Raimondo follows the money to the people from whom Arianna Huffington, the politically opportunistic creator of the site, gets her substantial support and argues that the website did this because its financial backers would not take kindly to anyone breaking the media consensus in the US that Israel is always the innocent party.

Jennifer Loewenstein makes the crucial point that is necessary in order to understand why every year or two ones sees these violent flare ups in that region. The reason is that Israel has no intention whatsoever of ever giving the Palestinians a viable nation of their own based upon agreed international frameworks. So they will regularly create these conflagrations in order for US and European public consumption, to argue that the elected leaders of the Palestinians should not and cannot be negotiated with.

In a recent talk given at Case, the noted scholar on the Israel/Palestine question Norman Finkelstein made the same point, that it should not surprise anyone that Israel regularly declares that some incident is an intolerable provocation and unleashes its massive military power (underwritten by the US taxpayers) on the hapless population. These regular assaults should not be seen as reactions to events. They are, in fact, standard policy.

Jonathan Hari provides evidence to support the view that Israel has no intention of allowing a viable Palestinian to be created:

The Israeli government did indeed withdraw from the Gaza Strip in 2005 – in order to be able to intensify control of the West Bank. Ariel Sharon’s senior adviser, Dov Weisglass, was unequivocal about this, explaining: “The disengagement [from Gaza] is actually formaldehyde. It supplies the amount of formaldehyde that is necessary so that there will not be a political process with the Palestinians… this whole package that is called the Palestinian state has been removed from our agenda indefinitely.”

Richard Silverstein over at Tikun Olam in a post titled Gaza: The Horror suggests that the Gazans are merely disposable pawns in Israeli politics.

It is an Israeli Shock and Awe (and you remember how that turned out). Ehud Barak has prepared a veritable 12 course feast of blood, gore, and mayhem for Gaza. It is Barak’s ultimate political play for the coming elections. If he wins, then he helps Labor maintain its ever-fainter role in Israeli national politics. If he fails, then he and Labor sink together.

Whatever the reason, what is happening in Gaza is an unspeakable atrocity, on top of the unspeakable atrocities that all the Palestinians have been experiencing in both the West Bank and Gaza over these many years.

POST SCRIPT: But can he get the Senate also under his thumb?

Now that Al Franken has been declared the winner of the Minnesota US Senate election, can we hope to see policy speeches set to rock music?

On Gaza-1: The horror

I had hoped to start my first new post for the new year on a positive note, to break away from what has almost become an obsession with political commentary, and get back to writing on all the other topics that this blog’s header promises.

But I have been horrified at the massive destruction that is being inflicted on the people of Gaza and feel compelled to add my own voice in protest. What is currently happening in Gaza can only be called an atrocity. I am not only talking about the air strikes and shelling that has been rained down upon the people of that area in the past weeks, I am also talking about the long standing embargo imposed by Israel that has highly restricted their food, medicine, electricity, water, and other supplies and which has had the effect of slowly destroying the people there. It is an appalling crime, provoking worldwide mass protests.

To understand the conditions in Gaza, one must realize that 1.5 million Palestinians are crammed into just 139 square miles. If Gaza were an independent country, it would have the third largest population density, after Monaco and Singapore. But whereas the other two countries are developed states that enjoy autonomy and have a high standard of living, Gaza is effectively an Israeli prison that controls their borders and has imposed a siege on it that has highly restricted even essential supplies.

Ellen Cantarow describes the appalling situation that existed even before the current massacre.

As Israel nails shut the coffin that is Gaza under a siege that has lasted nearly three years, steadily intensifying so that malnutrition rates rival those of sub-Saharan Africa, sewage runs raw in the streets and pollutes the ocean, homes are still being bulldozed to super-add collective punishment upon collective punishment; men, women and children are still being sniped at and killed; children are deafened by continuing sonic booms, the vast majority of them suffer from post-traumatic stress syndrome, and many of that majority have no ambition other than becoming “martyrs,” Israel in mid-December denied entry to Richard Falk, UN Human Rights Council Special Rapporteur on the occupied territories.

As Falk himself noted in his statement about Gaza to the UN (see “Gaza: Silence is not an Option” at The Heathlander and other Internet sites), the Secretary General of the UN, the President of the General Assembly, and the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights have all condemned Israel for its monstrous siege. “Karen AbyZayd,” stated Falk, “who heads the UN relief effort in Gaza, offered first-hand confirmation of the desperate urgency and unacceptable conditions facing the civilian population of Gaza. Although many leaders have commented on the cruelty and unlawfulness of the Gaza blockade imposed by Israel, such a flurry of denunciations by normally cautious UN officials has not occurred on a global level since the heyday of South African apartheid.”

The Israeli military has even rammed relief boats bringing much needed medical supplies, physicians, and other volunteers.

Johann Hari describes what life in Gaza is like:

To understand how frightening it is to be a Gazan this morning, you need to have stood in that small slab of concrete by the Mediterranean and smelled the claustrophobia. The Gaza Strip is smaller than the Isle of Wight but it is crammed with 1.5 million people who can never leave. They live out their lives on top of each other, jobless and hungry, in vast, sagging tower blocks. From the top floor, you can often see the borders of their world: the Mediterranean, and Israeli barbed wire. When bombs begin to fall – as they are doing now with more deadly force than at any time since 1967 – there is nowhere to hide.

All this was before the current horrifying assault on the defenseless people of Gaza. Even the New York Times, always a dependable and loyal apologist of Israel’s policies against the Palestinians, could not avoid reporting on the scale of the violence that is currently occurring.

There was a shocking quality to Saturday’s attacks, which began in broad daylight as police cadets were graduating, women were shopping at the outdoor market, and children were emerging from school.

The center of Gaza City was a scene of chaotic horror, with rubble everywhere, sirens wailing, and women shrieking as dozens of mutilated bodies were laid out on the pavement and in the lobby of Shifa Hospital so that family members could identify them. The dead included civilians, including several construction workers and at least two children in school uniforms.

By afternoon, shops were shuttered, funerals began and mourning tents were visible on nearly every major street of this densely populated city.

But even those reporters were pulling their punches. Philip Weiss quotes an eyewitness to the carnage:

People are going through the dead terrified of recognizing a family member among them. The streets are strewn with their bodies, their arms, legs, feet, some with shoes and some without. The city is in a state of alarm, panic and confusion…hospitals and morgues are backed up and some of the dead are still lying in the streets with their families gathered around them, kissing their faces, holding on to them. Outside the destroyed buildings old men are kneeling on the floor weeping. Their slim hopes of finding their sons still alive vanished after taking one look at what had become of their office buildings.

And even after the dead are identified, doctors are having a hard time gathering the right body parts in order to hand them over to their families. The hospital hallways look like a slaughterhouse. It’s truly worse than any horror movie you could ever imagine. The floor is filled with blood, the injured are propped up against the walls or laid down on the floor side by side with the dead. Doctors are working frantically…

I am not going to post the photos of the carnage. The words are gruesome enough. This is what is being done by the massively powerful Israeli military against a defenseless population and it is largely underwritten by the US. These are our tax dollars at work.

POST SCRIPT: Election winners and losers

James Wolcott writes a review in his own entertaining style, ending with:

[Sarah Palin is] America’s first and probably last prelapsarian drama queen, a brassy object of fascination whose unsheathing of presidential ambitions and personal entitlement will be breathtaking to behold in the years ahead, akin to watching Godzilla eat breakfast. Well, it beats listening to Joe Lieberman ooze. Aligning himself with the wrong team, having the effrontery to show up grinning on the stage at the Republican convention, Lieberman was the loser’s loser of the 2008 election—in the immortal words of Groucho Marx, Go, and never darken our towels again!

You should read the whole thing.