Legality and morality

In this last post (I think) on the attack on the Gaza flotilla, I want to respond to a comment to a previous post in which Eric wondered why I was not paying more attention to the question of the legality of what happened with the blockade, the flotilla, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara, saying “I would think that the questions should start with legality, and if the laws don’t accurately reflect morals, maybe then they should shift to morality as we address the shortcomings in the law. But laws don’t originate in a vacuum. Moral questions often have many wrong answers and no right one, or vice versa. Legal questions may be (are) open to interpretation, but they (theoretically) have a right answer and a wrong one.”

Eric is right that legality may be easier to judge than morality, but this is true only when it comes to everyday life because there we have a commonly accepted legal framework and agreed-upon legal institutions to adjudicate cases, and the contesting parties agree to abide by the verdict and suffer any consequences.

But when it comes to actions by governments, the reverse is true and questions of morality are often far easier to determine than those of legality. The reason that you never get very far arguing on the basis of legality when criticizing governments is because they consider themselves to be supra-legal entities accountable to no one. It is only an impartial and international judicial hearing that can resolve issues involving governments, but both Israel and the US have ruled out even an impartial inquiry, let alone a trial before (say) the International Court of Justice. The US has even said that the ‘inquiry’ led by Israel would not allow the Israeli commandos to be questioned, making an even greater mockery of the process.

Furthermore, governments have the ability to make the law seem to justify anything that they do. Humorist Art Buchwald once wrote that the problem with the legal system is not incompetent lawyers but that we have too many competent lawyers.

A competent, first-class lawyer can tie a case up in knots, not only for the jury but for the judge as well. If you have two competent lawyers on opposite sides, a trial that should take three days could easily last six months. And there isn’t a thing anyone can do about it.

Peter Casey discusses the implications of this when it comes to high profile issues like the Gaza flotilla and how it is always possible to find people willing to argue legal points to a stand-off and then claim that the resulting inconclusiveness justifies the action.

What Buchwald was on to is the practice of “polishing the turd,” an indispensable art of the legal advocate. When two accomplished turd-polishers are pitted against one another, the jury – or the public – will not know what to believe. Further, when dealt a hand of bad facts by his client, an experienced and creative defense counsel will ply this skill by converting obvious and incriminating facts into an impossible puzzle of uncertainty.

In its many trials in the court of public opinion, Israel and its supporters have become adept at polishing turds. The process begins with asking and answering the question, “Did the law allow us to do this?” If the answer is “yes,” as it always will be, its critics are terrified of leaving that claim un-rebutted. And so, like moths to a flame, they respond. Once they do, the defenders of Israel’s actions are on safe ground. They don’t need to prove ironclad, irrefutable legal justification. All they need to do is persuade the target audiences that the law, the facts, or both are so complicated that anyone, especially in the heat of battle, could have made a mistake.

Take the case of the US government torturing people. Has consensus been reached that it is illegal? No, that ‘debate’ still goes on because Bush-Cheney could find lawyers like John Yoo and Alan Dershowitz to argue that torture is perfectly legal and then have that discussion drag on endlessly and inconclusively until people get sick of it and stop paying attention. In the same way, Obama has now got lawyers to say that it is perfectly legal for him to order the murder of anyone, even American citizens, anywhere in the world.

All governments claim that what they do is legal. It is precisely because governments have this sense that the law is whatever they say it is that lures them into ever more extreme actions which results in moral judgments being easier to make.

I am sure that the US could argue that invading Vietnam and killing half a million of Vietnamese and destroying that country was legal. Reagan would have argued that his invasion of the tiny nation of Grenada was legal. I am sure that Stalin felt that his orders to send people to the gulags where they died in huge numbers was legal. Slavery in the US was perfectly legal. It was even enshrined in the ultimate legal document of a country, its constitution. I am sure that Hitler’s lawyers argued that murdering Jews was perfectly legal according to German laws. I could go on and on with the list of all the appalling things that governments have done while arguing that they were legal.

But can anyone doubt that all these things were deeply immoral?

Frankly, I don’t give a damn if any of those actions were legal. They were horrific, morally repugnant, and deserve unreserved condemnation. It is for this reason that I come down especially hard on governments that act badly because the people harmed by them have no recourse except to appeal to world opinion or have a more powerful entity take their side. But that latter path is unlikely and even when successful can lead to wars, which often make things even worse. But in the case of the US, and also Israel as long as the US is its patron, even that option is ruled out for the people at the receiving end of their actions because no one has the power to force them to do the right thing. That is why they can, and do, act with impunity in world affairs, like rogue states.

In this particular case, I think the siege that Israel has imposed on Gaza (which began long before the 2008 assault) is morally reprehensible. Israel is slowly but steadily starving the population of 1.5 million by allowing only one-fourth of the supplies it used to receive in 2007, even though even that amount was insufficient to adequately meet basic needs. In addition, the massive military assault in 2008 that destroyed a huge amount of its infrastructure such as fresh water supplies, electricity, and medical facilities means that Gaza requires even more supplies than normal in order to repair and replenish what was lost.

The Israeli siege is designed to collectively punish the entire population of Gaza, irrespective of whether they are aged or infants or sick, for electing Hamas as their government, by deliberately restricting food and other essential supplies to keep them in a state of semi-starvation and deprived of the essentials of life. This partial list of items that Israel has prevented from reaching Gazans, that includes flour, sugar, milk, diapers, toys, sweets, spices, toilet paper, diapers and baby wipes, feminine hygiene products, etc., has to be read to be believed to appreciate the sheer meanness, pettiness, and cruelty of the siege policy. The list reveals a deeply immoral mindset on the part of the Israeli government and makes abundantly clear that this policy was deliberately designed to humiliate Gazans and make their lives miserable by denying them the most basic of everyday items that we take for granted.

The policy decision to starve the Gazans was made at the highest levels in Israel and articulated in 2006 by Dov Weisglass, an adviser to Ehud Olmert, the then Prime Minister, who said: “The idea is to put the Palestinians on a diet, but not to make them die of hunger.”

Is the use of such starvation tactics to punish a civilian population legal? Do we need to even have such a discussion? I don’t give a damn if it is legal or not. To me this is obviously a moral crime of the highest magnitude.

All this is taking place on top of the state of apartheid that Israel has imposed in the rest of the occupied territories, and its attempts to marginalize the Arabs who still live in Israel. Egypt is also part of this shameful blockade of Gaza and it is widely believed that it does so because it is a client state of the US, the second largest recipient of US aid (mostly military) after Israel, and helping Israel enforce the blockade on Gaza is part of the deal. Egypt has also become Israel’s client state by proxy through the US.

The US is the most powerful country in the world and is Israel’s protector and they feel that they are unaccountable to no one. Countries like North Korea and Iran may appear to be reckless and thumbing their nose at world opinion but they know that there are some lines they cannot cross because more powerful governments are able to do them serious harm. No such restraint exists with the US, or with Israel as long as the US unhesitatingly supports it. The only counterweight to lawless behavior by them is worldwide outrage.

That is why I support the efforts to end the siege of Gaza by those courageous people who went unarmed as part of the flotilla to dramatize the monstrous injustice that is being perpetrated. Was what they were doing illegal? Again, I don’t give a damn. I see the people in the flotilla as worthy successors to Gandhi and his followers who picked up salt (an acknowledged and deliberate illegal act) to dramatize the injustices they faced from the British. I see them, to pick something closer to home, as successors to the unarmed civil rights marchers in Selma, Alabama in 1965 who were brutally beaten by the police on what has come to be known in the civil rights movement as Bloody Sunday. I see them as successors to the unarmed civil rights demonstrators who sat at lunch counters and in the front of buses and were attacked by Bull Connor’s police force using attack dogs and fire hoses in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963.

I do not get deeply into the weeds of legal issues when it comes to governments because they will not agree on the legal principles to be used or submit themselves to courts and verdicts. They will instead use those interminable discussions to deflect attention away from the blatant immorality of their actions. What I do in such cases is comparative analyses, asking “what if…” questions, by switching the roles of parties. The role reversals do not always match up perfectly, but usually they are close enough that they reveal when people are taking a stand on a tribal basis (by twisting legal interpretations to make their own tribe appear to be in the right) and when they are doing so on the basis of some moral and legal principle applied even-handedly.

When, as was the case with the Gaza flotilla, large numbers of ordinary people from all over the world, with no particular ideological or religious or tribal allegiances, are willing to risk their personal safety to take action against a wrong that does not affect them personally but whose injustice they feel deeply, you know that you have an immoral policy on your hands.

Israel’s siege of Gaza and its apartheid policies in the West Bank are deeply immoral and any discussion of their legality should be seen for what it is, a side issue and a distraction.

The resistance on the Mavi Marmara

I had hoped to move on to other topics today but several commenters have raised some questions that I will respond to today and tomorrow. One is why some of the people in the Mavi Marmara resisted when those in the other boats, such as the Rachel Corrie, did not and were taken captive without violence. Thus, it is implied, the people who tried to repel the boarders were responsible for the ugly turn of events.

One of the people on the Mavi Marmara who did offer resistance was a former US marine named Ken O’Keefe whose first-person testimony as to what happened and why he did it is worth reading in full. Here is a part of it:

I remember being asked during the TJP Human Shield Action to Iraq if I was a pacifist, I responded with a quote from Gandhi by saying I am not a passive anything. To the contrary I believe in action, and I also believe in self-defence, 100 per cent, without reservation. I would be incapable of standing by while a tyrant murders my family, and the attack on the Mavi Marmara was like an attack on my Palestinian family. I am proud to have stood shoulder to shoulder with those who refused to let a rogue Israeli military exert their will without a fight.

And yes, we fought.

When I was asked, in the event of an Israeli attack on the Mavi Marmara, would I use the camera, or would I defend the ship? I enthusiastically committed to defence of the ship. Although I am also a huge supporter of non-violence, in fact I believe non-violence must always be the first option. Nonetheless I joined the defence of the Mavi Mamara understanding that violence could be used against us and that we may very well be compelled to use violence in self defence.

I said this straight to Israeli agents, probably of Mossad or Shin Bet, and I say it again now, on the morning of the attack I was directly involved in the disarming of two Israeli Commandos. This was a forcible, non-negotiable, separation of weapons from commandos who had already murdered two brothers that I had seen that day. One brother with a bullet entering dead center in his forehead, in what appeared to be an execution.

I knew the commandos were murdering when I removed a 9mm pistol from one of them. I had that gun in my hands and as an ex-US Marine with training in the use of guns it was completely within my power to use that gun on the commando who may have been the murderer of one of my brothers. But that is not what I, nor any other defender of the ship did. I took that weapon away, removed the bullets, proper lead bullets, separated them from the weapon and hid the gun. I did this in the hopes that we would repel the attack and submit this weapon as evidence in a criminal trial against Israeli authorities for mass murder. I also helped to physically separate one commando from his assault rifle, which another brother apparently threw into the sea.

I and hundreds of others know the truth that makes a mockery of the brave and moral Israeli military. We had in our full possession, three completely disarmed and helpless commandos. These boys were at our mercy, they were out of reach of their fellow murderers, inside the ship and surrounded by 100 or more men. I looked into the eyes of all three of these boys and I can tell you they had the fear of God in them. They looked at us as if we were them, and I have no doubt they did not believe there was any way they would survive that day. They looked like frightened children in the face of an abusive father.

But they did not face an enemy as ruthless as they. Instead the woman provided basic first aid, and ultimately they were released, battered and bruised for sure, but alive. Able to live another day. Able to feel the sun over head and the embrace of loved ones. Unlike those they murdered. Despite mourning the loss of our brothers, feeling rage towards these boys, we let them go.

Unarmed resistance was undoubtedly ill-advised in the face of heavily armed commandos. As the cliché goes, you don’t take a knife to a gunfight. But to blame the people on the boat for the violence is like asking why some people resist being robbed even when confronted with an armed assailant. The strong sense of injustice felt by victims of a crime, coupled with the instinct to defend oneself and protect one’s property is strong and can overcome the desire for self-preservation. No one would accept a defense that an assailant should be exonerated from the charge of murder because he was forced to kill because the victim defended himself or herself from attack.

In response to the suggestion that Israel’s deadly reaction was justified because they were provoked by this attempt to break the siege of Gaza, I will quote Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous Letter from Birmingham Jail written in response to those white clergymen concerned that the actions of the civil rights movement were provoking violence. In it he said, “In your statement you assert that our actions, even though peaceful, must be condemned because they precipitate violence. But is this a logical assertion? Isn’t this like condemning a robbed man because his possession of money precipitated the evil act of robbery? … Society must protect the robbed and punish the robber.”

What some seem to be arguing is that people must immediately agree to any Israeli demand, whatever it is and whenever and wherever it occurs, otherwise they are deemed responsible for any ensuing violence. Why does Israel or the US have this unique privilege of expecting immediate and unconditional surrender? Right now Iran and North Korea have every right to feel they are under threat of attack because of the relentless belligerent language emanating from Washington. They have every right to suspect that the CIA is funding and fomenting internal resistance and opposition to their governments. Does this give them the right to board any boats in international waters beyond their maritime boundary and search them simply because they have suspicions that they might contain material to be delivered to their opponents? Should the people in such boats immediately capitulate to those demands and agree to have their boats taken for search and inspection and confiscation of the goods? If the people resisted and were killed, would we claim that the Iranians and North Koreans were justified in killing them?

Robert Fisk draws another parallel, comparing Israel’s actions with those of the Somali pirates now threatening all shipping off the coast of their country, and the determined effort of Israeli propaganda to paint all the aid activists as militant jihadis.

In the next post, I will examine the issues of legality and morality.

POST SCRIPT: A song for atheists

Steve Martin composed a song for us atheists because he felt sorry that we don’t have one. (Performed with the Steep Canyon Rangers at the 2010 New Orleans Jazz Festival.)

When an American is not really an American

A truly astonishing feature of the non-reaction by the US government to the killing of an American by Israeli forces on the aid flotilla is how willing some people are to abandon their fellow citizens if the alternative is criticizing Israel’s actions. The latest example is the Republican Senate head John Cornyn defending the killing of Furkan Dogan.

Recall the situation when two unarmed Americans were detained by North Korea for crossing the border into their country or the efforts currently underway to get the release of three unarmed Americans who were arrested by Iran for crossing their border. Can you imagine the US reaction if any one of those people had been killed by the governments in the process of capture, despite the fact that they had committed an illegal act in crossing the border without permission? Would it have mattered at all if the North Koreans or Iranians had said they had been killed while resisting capture?

John Cole explains why the US seems so unconcerned by the death of one of their own, especially someone who was killed in such a brutal fashion as with four bullets to the head and one to the chest, which suggests an execution-style killing. He says that we now have two classes of people: “real Americans” and “not really Americans”.

What people don’t realize is just how nuanced America has become about citizenship.

When we decide if someone is a real American, worthy of all aspects of citizenship and defense by the government, we look at the totality of the situation. We look at what kind of citizen you are, what you believed in, what you were doing at the time you were shot four times in the head at close range by a foreign army as they stormed a ship in international waters, and a variety of other factors.

Not only was [Dogan] not an American, but we should tinker with the Constitution so this never happens again. Now had his parents emigrated to a more American country when he was two, like, for example, Israel, then this story would be a lot different. But as it was, it is clear that he was not sufficiently American for our government to get upset about his death.

Second, you have to look at what Dogan believed in to establish his American credentials. He was against the Israeli blockade, and as we all know, there is nothing more un-American than opposing Israeli policy. Had he been doing something more real American, like delivering bibles to Iran or proselytizing in Yemen, then we could be outraged over his death. As it was, he had it coming.

Stephen Kinzer poses this question that starkly illustrates how isolated the US and Israel are in their view of the world:

Quick, name the rogue state in the Middle East. Hints: It has an active nuclear-weapons program but conducts it in secret; its security organs regularly kill perceived enemies of the state, both at home and abroad; its political process has been hijacked by religious fundamentalists who believe they are doing God’s will; its violent recklessness destabilizes the world’s most volatile region; and it seems as deaf to reason as it is impervious to pressure. Also: Its name begins with “I”.

How you answer this riddle depends in part on where you sit. From an American perspective, the obvious answer is Iran. Iran seems alone and friendless, a pariah in the world, and deservedly so given its long list of sins. In Washington’s view, Iran poses one of the major threats to global security.

Many people in the world, however, see Iran quite differently: as just another struggling country with valuable resources, no more or less threatening than any other, ruled by a regime that, while thuggish, wins grudging admiration for standing up to powerful bullies. They are angrier at Israel, which they see as violent, repressive and contemptuous of international law, but nonetheless endlessly coddled by the United States.

Kinzer says that there is so little to differentiate Israel from Iran that what is needed is for the US to treat both in identical fashion. Of course, that will never happen as long as the US government is subservient to Israeli interests. As Alexander Cockburn writes, the willingness of the American government and Congress and major media to sacrifice their own to appease Israel and its loyalists in the US has reached laughable levels.

As the TV networks here give unlimited airtime to its apologists, the message rolls out that Israel is permitted every illegal act in the lexicon of international law, from acts of violence against a civilian population (the people of Gaza, starved under permanent blockade) to piracy on the high seas and the lethal attacks by Israeli commandos on the relief flotilla. The guiding purpose in this tsunami of drivel is that the viewers should be brainwashed into thinking Israel somehow has the right and the duty to act at will as the mad-dog of the planet.

The public White House response to Israel’s international piracy was comical in its wimpishness. “The United States deeply regrets the loss of life and injuries sustained and is currently working to understand the circumstances surrounding this tragedy,” deputy White House press secretary Bill Burton demurely declared in Chicago.

A friend of mine gave a good parody of the servile posture of the US government and press: “I think,” he wrote to me, “that matters are close to the point where if Hillary Clinton and a group of senior American officials were meeting the Israeli leaders for negotiations, and Netanyahu expressed his displeasure at the American positions by pulling out a gun and shooting her dead, then having the entire American delegation beaten to death by his security guards, there would probably be a small item buried in the next days’ American newspapers that due to conflict with the Israelis, Obama had decided to nominate a new Secretary of State.”

Black humor, no doubt. But it does raise the question of exactly what Israel can do to the US and still not face any repercussions.

POST SCRIPT: Five minutes with A. C. Grayling

The BBC has a series where they have rapid-fire five-minute conversations with people about the topics they are associated with. I found this one with philosopher A. C. Grayling to be terrific and only partly because his attitude to life seems almost identical to mine.

He looks like exactly the kind of person I would love to talk with over a cup of coffee.

More eyewitness reports emerge of attack on Gaza aid flotilla

Now that some of the people kidnapped and detained by Israel after its raid on the aid flotilla are being released, they are speaking out and horrifying stories are being told. Of course, we know that what people say immediately after a traumatic event can often be unreliable which is why what is needed is an impartial investigation to get at the truth of the claims and counterclaims. But since the US and Israel have taken the absurd position that Israel should conduct the inquiry, we can forget about getting the truth from that source and have to depend on other sources.

The London Independent has tried to piece together the sequence of events and provides the most detailed report that I have seen so far. It is chilling.

But one thing is fast becoming clear – many of the dead were shot multiple times at point-blank range. One was a journalist taking photographs. “A man was shot… between the eyebrows, which indicates that it was not an attack that took place from self-defence,” Hassan Ghani, a passenger, said in an account posted on YouTube. “The soldier had time to set up the shot.” Mattias Gardell, a Swedish activist, told the TT news bureau: “The Israelis committed premeditated murder… Two people were killed by shots in the forehead, one was shot in the back of the head and one in the chest.”

A report from the London Guardian describes how the passengers were treated, in particular recounting a ghastly story that Israeli commandos pointed a gun at a one-year old child in order to coerce the ship’s captain.

An Algerian activist, who giving only a first name of Sabrina, accused Israeli commandos of taking a one-year-old child hostage.

“They point a gun to his head in front of his Turkish parents to force the captain of our ship to stop sailing,” she said.

An Algerian, Izzeddine Zahrour, said the Israeli authorities “deprived us of food, water and sleep, and we weren’t allowed to use the toilet”.

“It was an ugly kidnapping, and subsequently bad treatment in Israeli jail,” he said. “They handcuffed us, pushed us around and humiliated us.”

Other reporters on board the ships also describe what happened that disputes Israel’s version of events. Tellingly, all the journalists on board had their video confiscated by the Israelis. This BBC report describes the experience of a British citizen on the boat, and this Gulf News report provides more details

Max Blumenthal provides evidence that rather than the killings being the result of a bungled operation in which the Israelis were taken by surprise at the resistance they received, the Israeli Defense Forces detailed its violent strategy in advance as part of its domestic political agenda.

Statements by senior Israeli military commanders made in the Hebrew media days before the massacre revealed that the raid was planned over a week in advance by the Israeli military and was personally approved by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Minister of Defense Ehud Barak. The elite Israeli commando unit known as Unit 13 was tasked with carrying out the mission and its role was known by the Israeli public well before the raid took place. Details of the plan show that the use of deadly force was authorized and calculated. The massacre of activists should not have been unexpected.

Why didn’t Israel’s leaders choose to deal with the flotilla in a more judicious fashion? Were they that stupid, or just crazy? From the details of the plan it appears that Netanyahu and his cohorts had envisioned Entebbe Part Deux, a daring anti-terror raid that would lift the sinking morale of the Israeli public while intimidating Iran and the Arab world. Though Israel may be more isolated than ever as a result of the massacre, the Netanyahu administration is reaping considerable political benefits at home.

We see once again that whenever the US or Israel gets caught doing something outrageous and morally indefensible, the discussion in the US immediately shifts to questions about legality (i.e., was the order to waterboard and otherwise torture prisoners legal? Is holding prisoners indefinitely without access to family or lawyers legal? And so on.) and attention is deflected away from the moral outrage. But this seems to work just one way. If international law can be used in their favor, it is seized upon. If it goes against, it is ignored. And when a country perceived as an ‘enemy’ of the US or Israel (say North Korea or Iran) does something, the illegality is simply taken for granted and moral outrage is heaped on the country.

Former US Ambassador Edward Peck, who was one of the people on board the ship attacked by Israel, talks about this phenomenon:

I just got off a radio interview. One of the things that distresses me is the extent to which Israel has been successful in, for example, getting Americans to ask questions as to why the passengers on that big Turkish ship attacked the Israeli soldiers.

I said, wait a minute, wait a minute, they were defending the ship against people who were attacking it. You’ve got it backwards. There are civilians, men and woman, on a Turkish-flagged vessel, in international waters. And here comes a group of heavily armed — forget the paintball story — heavily armed guys who are going to take over the ship by force and then take it to Israel, where the passengers don’t want to go. And so they pick up deck chairs and other things to fight off these heavily armed — and by the way, masked — commandos, and somehow they become the attackers. So, that depresses me a little bit.

Leaving aside the horrible bloodshed and all, it becomes a war of words. Americans are reading what comes out of Tel Aviv, which is carried in the American press… So, all of a sudden, the people on the Turkish ship are described as terrorist, Israel-hating, Hamas supporters, murderers and killers.

Peck also says that after being forcibly taken to Israel he was told he was going to be deported because he entered that country illegally! This is the Orwellian world that we enter when we accept Israel’s version of events and of what is legal and illegal. As Anthony Dimaggio says in his discussion of the legal issues, “Media outlets are more than happy to obfuscate international law in order to absolve Israel of criticism.” Former British ambassador Craig Murray also weighs in on the legal question.

Next: When is an American not really an American?

POST SCRIPT: Glenn Greenwald smacks down Eliot Spitzer

I have written before that Eliot Spitzer is one of those people whom I am sorry that his personal life removed from politics. But in this interview with Glenn Greenwald, he shows that like all other reflexively pro-Israel apologists, he is perfectly willing to check his principles at the door and use his reasoning skills in defense of Israel’s actions. But Glenn Greenwald has the facts and arguments on his side.

Update on the Gaza aid flotilla attack

More news about what happened on the aid boats that were attacked by Israel is emerging even though, as Stephen Zunes describes, Israel tries to prevent the release of any information that they have not filtered:

The Israelis confiscated all of the passengers’ cameras, laptops, cell phones, and other personal devices. The world, therefore, can only see some carefully edited versions from cameramen that accompanied the Israeli commandos. What won’t be seen, for example, will be the accounts of eyewitnesses of commandos with stun guns assaulting passengers who nonviolently formed a ring around the ship’s bridge, the savage beatings of elderly pacifists as they lay on the ground, and other acts of excessive violence.

An Al-Jazeera reporter who was on board one of the ships gives an eyewitness account of what happened during the assault, and of his detention. Other reporters are still being held, as are their laptops, cameras and cell-phones and those of their passengers.

Here is another harrowing account by a survivor. More stories will inevitably start to come out and the rest of the world will see and hear them in great detail, even if people in the US and Israel hear mainly the Israeli version of events. And because of this ignorance, when the next attack on Americans comes as a result of some person seeking revenge, people will be puzzled and wonder “Why do they hate us? It must be because of our liberal values.”

Glenn Greenwald has a must-read update on the attack on the flotilla (with important links to the news dribbling out about what happened on the boats) that says that one of the nine dead was a 19-year old American who had four bullets to the head and one to the chest. The US response? “State Department spokesman Philip J. Crowley said the U.S. has made no decision on a response to Dogan’s death.” Of course. Since he, like Rachel Corrie and the sailors on the USS Liberty, was killed by Israeli forces, his death obviously doesn’t count since clearly Israel is the one country in the world that has been given the green light by the US to kill Americans.

As Justin Raimondo says:

The reason for this peculiar passivity is because, contra Hillary, protecting the welfare of American citizens is not considered a fundamental responsibility of our government insofar as it means protecting their welfare against the government of Israel. In any conflict between American and Israeli interests, Washington’s instinctive response is to uphold the latter and ignore the former.

An American is killed as heavily armed soldiers of a foreign nation board a ship in international waters, firing live ammunition at the passengers as they rappel onto the deck. Among those passengers: a former US ambassador, a former US colonel and Pentagon official, several members of the European parliament, a member of the Israeli Knesset, and members of parliament from several Arab countries.

This was no “accident.” The Israeli government knew precisely what it was doing, it knew there were Americans on those ships, and chose to go in guns blazing: it was the equivalent of spitting in Uncle Sam’s face.
After all, how dare those Americans try to freeze the building of settlements in what is “Greater Israel”? How dare Obama tell us what we can and cannot do?! We’ll show them! Let’s kill a few. Don’t worry – they won’t retaliate. We own them: and they know it.

In view of the Obama administration’s shameful crawling, one can hardly disagree.

Greenwald also has a scathing attack on the tribal mindset that permeates the thinking of so many people that causes them to abandon commitment to any principles as soon as ‘my’ side is criticized. He lists many Democratic politicians, usually progressive on many issues, who are prisoners of this tribal mindset and vice president Joe Biden has to be added to that list since he too speaks approvingly of the attack on the flotilla. Robert Scheer talks about his own experience at the receiving end of this tribal thinking when he dared to criticize Israel’s actions in the past.

Greenwald has a great quote by Noam Chomsky where he elaborates on how oppressor countries create a narrative in which they are the victims in order to justify their actions.

In one of his many speeches, to U.S. troops in Vietnam, [Lyndon] Johnson said plaintively, “There are three billion people in the world and we have only two hundred million of them. We are outnumbered fifteen to one. If might did make right they would sweep over the United States and take what we have. We have what they want.” That is a constant refrain of imperialism. You have your jackboot on someone’s neck and they’re about to destroy you.

The same is true with any form of oppression. And it’s psychologically understandable. If you’re crushing and destroying someone, you have to have a reason for it, and it can’t be, “I’m a murderous monster.” It has to be self-defense. “I’m protecting myself against them. Look what they’re doing to me.” Oppression gets psychologically inverted; the oppressor is the victim who is defending himself.

Journalist Jeremy Scahill effectively debunks the pro-Israeli propaganda advanced by the former mayor of New York Ed Koch who, as usual, tries to divert the discussion into all manner of side issues.

Raimondo makes the comparison that should obviously occur to anyone: “Imagine if Iran had done this. Washington would have reverberated with the sound of thunder emanating from the White House, and the attack fleet would already be steaming toward the Gulf, taking up position. That the culprit was Israel, however, puts a whole different face on the matter, at least as far as our government is concerned: they’re content to let the Israelis “investigate,” and let the matter drop.”

One wonders is there is any action at all that Israel can take that would elicit criticisms from its supporters in the US.

POST SCRIPT: The Daily Show‘s view

Jon Stewart tries to salvage some grim humor from the tragedy of the flotilla and the plight of Gazans.

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The pro-Israel propaganda machine swings into action

Ran HaCohen describes the propaganda effort in the Israeli press to get Israelis to line up behind the government after the flotilla disaster, just the way the US press gets Americans to line up behind theirs whenever any outrageous act by them is revealed. But this strategy only works with people who will reflexively side with you on a tribal basis whatever the facts, and are merely looking for justifications for doing so. Everyone else will see it for what it is, lies.

But as Patrick Cockburn writes, such efforts carry a serious downside:

The problem is that nobody believes Israeli propaganda as much as Israelis. Pro-Palestinian activists often lament the fluency and mendacity of Israeli spokesmen on the airwaves and the pervasive influence of Israel’s supporters abroad. But, in reality, these PR campaigns are Israel’s greatest weakness, because they distort Israelis’ sense of reality. Defeats and failures are portrayed as victories and successes.

When you feed your supporters lies to make them feel good about themselves and get them to rally to your side, you are merely setting yourself and them up for even greater failure in the future, because you will not learn from the past. After all, if you are always right, why change anything?

America’s reflexively pro-Israel apologists have swung into full gear to make sure that people realize that when it comes to Israel, any criticism of any action constitutes betrayal. One such apologist is Jeffrey Goldberg of the Atlantic who seems to be feel that our sympathies should lie, not with the dead and wounded in the raid, but with the Israeli people because they feel bad about the way they botched things.

There’s real pain in Israel today, pain at the humiliation of the flotilla raid, pain on behalf of the injured soldiers, and pain that the geniuses who run this country could not figure out a way to out-smart a bunch of Turkish Islamists and their useful idiot fellow travelers. And no, there is no particular pain felt for the dead on the boat; the video of those peace-seeking peace activists beating on the paintball commandos with metal bars pretty much canceled out whatever feelings of sympathy Israelis might have otherwise felt.

Yes, I am sure that the shame and humiliation felt by people in Israel because the world sees their government and their military as bunglers is much harder to bear than the grief of the relatives of the dead and wounded. Note the contrasting of the phrase ‘paintball commandos’ with ‘metal bars’, again to suggest that Israel is always the underdog, always fighting pluckily against a vastly more powerful enemy. For the record, you can see a photograph (courtesy of the IDF or Israel Defense Forces) of all the alleged weapons that were found on the ships.

The Irish Times reports that “[Israeli] Ministers said in a statement they regretted the loss of life in the raid, but blamed activists who they said assaulted soldiers who boarded the ship for any fatalities.” So the Israeli government has the audacity to argue that people repelling armed boarders in international waters with whatever lay at hand are to blame for the violence. If the roles had been reversed and heavily armed Palestinians had boarded an Israeli passenger ship, then any resistance put up by the unarmed people, even if ill-advised and futile, would have been hailed as courageous and heroic (like the passengers on flight 93 on 9/11 who tried to take on the hijackers), and there would have been total condemnation of the killers.

It is curious how the ‘paintball guns’ killed and wounded so many people while the ‘metal bars’ yielded not a single death on the Israeli side. I am surprised that the Israeli government did not suggest that maybe those devious and dastardly aid activists killed each other just to make Israel look bad, because Goldberg would have dutifully believed that too.

Even more extreme than Goldberg is Jennifer Rubin writing for Commentary for whom even Obama’s groveling to Israel is seen as insufficient. Rubin is very clear about what she expects from all of us:

There is a single question that every individual, group, and nation must answer. To borrow from the most pro-Israel president since Harry Truman: if you are not with Israel, you are against her. And if you do not oppose with every fiber of your being and every instrument at your disposal that which intends the Jewish state harm, you are enabling her destroyers.

Note that what you are supposed to side with is not justice or peace or human rights or other quaint concepts, but Israel. Even when the troops of that country, like pirates, board boats in international waters and murder unarmed aid workers (and please, let’s not hear any more of this nonsense that kitchen knives and wooden sticks constitutes arms when facing heavily armed commandos), you have to agree with whatever Israel says. Rubin might be surprised at the number of American Jews, especially among the young, who by her standard are ‘against Israel’ and ‘enabling her destroyers’.

One reason is that the leading institutions of American Jewry have refused to foster—indeed, have actively opposed—a Zionism that challenges Israel’s behavior in the West Bank and Gaza Strip and toward its own Arab citizens. For several decades, the Jewish establishment has asked American Jews to check their liberalism at Zionism’s door, and now, to their horror, they are finding that many young Jews have checked their Zionism instead.

Morally, American Zionism is in a downward spiral. If the leaders of groups like AIPAC and the Conference of Presidents of Major American Jewish Organizations do not change course, they will wake up one day to find a younger, Orthodox-dominated, Zionist leadership whose naked hostility to Arabs and Palestinians scares even them, and a mass of secular American Jews who range from apathetic to appalled.

People like Rubin are living in the past when critics of Israel’s policies in the US could be muted because people feared being labeled anti-Semitic. That accusation has been so cheapened by repeated use against even mild criticism that no one cares anymore if they are labeled as such. It is seen for what it is, a rhetorical intimidation tactic.

Commenting on Rubin’s ultimatum to everyone to get with the program and support Israel or else irrespective of what that country does, satirist Tbogg says, “This must be what it is like to be trapped in an arranged marriage to a serial killer.”

POST SCRIPT: Another aid ship on the way to Gaza

The Irish Times also reports that another aid ship is on the way to Gaza, with some high-profile passengers on board.

The Rachel Corrie, which has five Irish nationals and five Malaysians aboard, is due to arrive in Gazan waters over the coming days, a spokeswoman for the Irish Palestine Solidarity Campaign said. It became separated from the main aid flotilla after being delayed for 48 hours in Malta due to logistical reasons, and is currently off the coast of Libya.

Nobel laureate Maireád Corrigan-Maguire, former UN assistant secretary general Denis Halliday, film maker Fiona Thompson and husband and wife Derek and Jenny Graham are the Irish nationals on board the Rachel Corrie.

Speaking from the ship today, Mr Graham said the vessel was carrying educational materials, construction materials, medical equipment and some toys. “Everything aboard has been inspected in Ireland,” he said. “We would hope to have safe passage through.”

Some of you may remember Rachel Corrie. She is the young American woman who was run over and killed in 2003 by an Israel Defense Forces bulldozer when she was trying to prevent the demolition of Palestinian homes by the Israeli government.

rachelcorrie.jpg

More on the attack on the Gaza aid flotilla

I have discussed in the past (see here and here) that all governments know the value right after a major event of controlling the message and getting their version of the story out first, especially if it is false.

The least effective way to do this is to actually own the media or practice overt censorship because then everyone sees propaganda for what it is. The most effective, as in the US, is have the aid of sycophantic major media that will self-censor and bias their reporting towards the point of view that puts their own country and government in the best light.
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The latest atrocity by Israel

There is nothing that I can add to Glenn Greenwald’s description of Israel’s descent into becoming a brutal nation that ignores international law and just plain human decency, as it continues its strangling of the people of Gaza with their blockade. This blockade, imposed after the deadly assault on Gaza in December 2008, destroyed a lot of its infrastructure such as water and power supplies and hospitals, and the aid flotilla was trying to both ameliorate the awful conditions as well as draw attention to the plight of Gazans.

Of course the US government and Congress and major media in the US, enablers of Israel’s out-of-control belligerence, will downplay this appalling crime by giving huge amounts of coverage to the Israel government’s justifications for its appalling actions which will consist of claiming that they are the true victims. Watch how Obama and Clinton will dance around this issue, just after expressing anger at North Korea and threatening punishment for the sinking of a South Korea warship Cheonan that killed 46 sailors.

As Greenwald says, “Just ponder what we’d be hearing if Iran had raided a humanitarian ship in international waters and killed 15 or so civilians aboard.”

Recall how these same groups downplayed, covered up, and sent down the memory hole even the 1967 Israeli attack on an American warship the USS Liberty that killed 34 US servicemen and reduced that state-of-the-art intelligence gathering ship to scrap. This 2005 report, prepared on behalf of the survivors of the attack, gives with footnotes the details of what happened. Note that the Liberty was not equipped for fighting and so could not defend itself.

On June 8, 1967 while patrolling in international waters[2] in the Eastern Mediterranean Sea, USS Liberty (AGTR-5) was savagely attacked without warning or justification by air and naval forces of the state of Israel.[3]

Of a crew of 294 officers and men[4] (including three civilians)[5], the ship suffered thirty four (34) killed in action and one hundred seventy three (173) wounded in action.[6] The ship itself, a Forty Million ($40,000,000) Dollar state of the art signals intelligence (SIGINT) platform, was so badly damaged that it never sailed on an operational mission again and was sold in 1970 for $101,666.66 as scrap[7] .

Israel acknowledged the following facts without qualification:
a. USS Liberty was an American ship, hence a neutral vis-à-vis the June 1967 war between Israel and its Arab neighbors.[8]
b. USS Liberty remained in international waters at all times on June 8, 1967[9] .
c. The attacking Israeli forces never made a positive identification of the nationality of USS Liberty before unleashing deadly force in their attack on the ship.[10]

At approximately 0600 hours (all times local) on the morning of June 8, 1967 an Israeli maritime reconnaissance aircraft observer reported seeing “a US Navy cargo type ship,” just outside the coverage of the Israeli coastal radar defense net, bearing the hull markings “GTR-5″.[11] This report, made to Israeli naval HQ, was also forwarded immediately to the Israeli navy intelligence directorate.[12]

Throughout the remainder of the day prior to the attack, Israeli reconnaissance aircraft regularly flew out to USS Liberty’s position and orbited the ship before returning to their bases in Israel. A total of no fewer than eight (8) such flights were made.[13]

At approximately 1050 hours, the naval observer from the early morning reconnaissance flight arrived at Israeli air force HQ and sat down with the air-naval liaison officer there. The two officers consulted Janes’ Fighting Ships and learned that the ship reported earlier in the day was USS Liberty, a United States Navy technical research ship.[14]

From 0900 hours on June 8, 1967, until the time of the attack five hours later, USS Liberty maintained a speed of approximately five knots and a generally westerly-northwesterly course.[15]

At 1400 hours, while approximately 17 miles off the Gaza coast, USS Liberty’s crew observed three surface radar contacts closing with their position at high speed. A few moments later, the bridge radar crew observed high speed aircraft passing over the surface returns on the same heading.[16]

Within a few short moments, and without any warning, Israeli fighter aircraft launched a rocket attack on USS Liberty. The aircraft made repeated firing passes, attacking USS Liberty with rockets and their internal cannons. After the first flight of fighter aircraft had exhausted their ordnance, subsequent flights of Israeli fighter aircraft continued to prosecute the attack with rockets, cannon fire, and napalm. [17]

During the air attack, USS Liberty’s crew had difficulty contacting Sixth Fleet to request assistance due to intense communications jamming[18]

The initial targets on the ship were the command bridge, communications antennas, and the four .50 caliber machine guns, placed on the ship to repel boarders.[19]

After the Israeli fighter aircraft completed their attacks, three Israeli torpedo boats arrived and began a surface attack about 35 minutes after the start of the air attack. The torpedo boats launched a total of five torpedoes, one of which struck the side of USS Liberty, opposite the ship’s research spaces. [20] Twenty-six Americans in addition to the eight who had been killed in the earlier air attacks, were killed as a result of this explosion.

Following their torpedo attack, the torpedo boats moved up and down the length of the ship (both the port and starboard sides), continuing their attack, raking the ship with cannon and machine gun fire.[21] In Malta, crewmen were later assigned the task of counting all of the holes in the ship that were the size of a man’s hand or larger. They found a total of 861 such holes, in addition to “thousands” of .50 caliber machine gun holes.

Survivors report that the torpedo boat crews swept the decks of USS Liberty with continuous machine gun fire, targeting communications equipment and any crewmembers who ventured above decks.[22]

Damage control firefighters, who had already risked their lives merely by appearing on deck, had to abandon their efforts because their fire hoses had been shredded by machine gun fire.[23]

Survivors also report that the torpedo boat crews fired on the inflated life boats launched by the crew after the captain gave the order “prepare to abandon ship.”[24] This order had to be rescinded because the crew was unable to stand on the main deck without being fired upon and the life rafts were destroyed as they were launched.[25]

The defenseless crew, initially unable to report their plight or summon assistance and with only themselves to rely upon, fought heroically to save themselves and their ship. In recognition of their effort in this single action, they were ultimately awarded collectively one Medal of Honor, two Navy Crosses, eleven Silver Stars, twenty Bronze Stars (with “V” device), nine Navy Commendation Medals, and two hundred and four Purple Hearts. In addition, the ship was awarded the Presidential Unit Citation.

Many countries have been retaliated against and even invaded by the US for far less provocation, but this attack, so brazen and outrageous, did not provoke any serious reaction.

If such a deadly and unprovoked attack by Israel on a US ship did not result in any repercussions, should we be surprised that Israel takes the view that it can do anything it likes to anyone anywhere and that the US will support it?

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-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.
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