Infantilizing people

One of the extraordinary features of the last decade is the extent to which people have accepted as necessary or even desirable the most appalling crimes done by the government. Arbitrary arrest, indefinite detention, torture, sending people secretly to authoritarian countries to be tortured, warrantless wiretaps and other invasions of privacy, have now become seen as ‘normal’.

How was this achieved? By political leaders inflating the threat of terrorism in the US, making people terrified, and then acting as if those same leaders alone can protect us provided we give them all the power they ask for to do so. In effect, we have seen the steady infantilizing of people, not unlike a father who terrifies a small child by telling ghost stories so that the child looks up to him even more for protection.

One of the symptoms of this strategy is that one frequently hears the statement by US political leaders, especially Bush and Cheney, that they are taking this or that action to ‘protect the American people’. As a consequence of the drumming of this message, ordinary citizens often say in interviews that they expect the president to ‘protect’ them and that this is his main job.

I find this kind of language to be extremely distasteful due to its highly patronizing and condescending nature. It baffles me that so many people say that they are grateful to president Bush for ‘protecting’ them from another terrorist attack. It seems to me that this is sign of an infantile disorder, where people feel the need for a father figure to keep them safe from real and imagined threats.

During the campaign, one of the refreshing things about Obama was that he seemed to treat the American people like they were adults, and this was especially so in his speech about race delivered in the wake of the Jeremiah Wright episode. But now Obama seems to have picked up on the Bush-Cheney disease, saying in an interview on ABC’s This Week (Sunday, January 11, 2009) that “My number one priority every single day that I wake up is how do I make sure that the American people safe.”

Obama should stop not lose sleep over my safety. I do not need or want him to ‘protect’ me or to ‘keep me safe’. I just want him to run a lawful, constitutionally based government and adopt policies that improve the welfare of people, especially those who need it the most.

Let me be clear. I am not saying that the government should not be in the position of providing public security. One of the most important roles of a government is to ensure that people have services that protect them from violence against their person and from crime and fire and flood and other calamities, and that they can call upon those services as needed. The leaders of a nation also have a duty to defend the nation from hostile actions by nations that seek to conquer any or all parts of it.

I am also not opposed to some supposedly ‘anti-terrorist’ measures like taking off your shoes and not carrying liquids through airport checkpoints. I think that some of these things are excessive and annoying and promote fear and anxiety (which may actually be their main purpose) but they are not gross violations of civil liberties or constitutional rights, which are the things I am most concerned about.

But those are not the kinds of things that Bush-Cheney (and now I fear Obama) seem to mean when they say they must have the tools to ‘protect the American people’. What they are doing is trying to conflate two separate things – the normal expectation that people have that they should be safe from everyday crime, with the heightened fear that they will be at the receiving end of a major catastrophe at the hands of mass murderers,

These political leaders are implying that if they are not allowed to be able to use torture and all the other things I listed above, then the next thing you know, al Qaeda or similar groups are going to detonate a nuclear weapon in downtown Cleveland

No one has suggested that these murderous groups have the remotest intention of taking over the US. No other country, however strong, has the remotest chance of ever subjugating the US or has expressed any intention of doing so. It would be insane to even try. If there is a threat to US dominance of the world at all it will come from within, because of economic collapse due to corruption and looting by its own elites and the financial sector, to expensive and unnecessary wars, and the neglect of basic infrastructure and services.

Bush-Cheney exploited the fears of a terrorist attack to gain compliance for acts that violate the laws and constitutional safeguards and basic human rights, on the basis that such violations are needed to ‘protect’ us from some shadowy external threat. What they were saying is that beyond the normal levels of protection that people enjoy and that can be provided within the parameters of laws while still preserving long-accepted standards of civil liberties, there is another level of protection that can only be achieved by violating those rights for some people, purely on the basis of suspicion. What the government is doing is similar to the protection racket run by mobsters.

I do not need or want this extra level of protection, whether it is from Bush, Cheney, or Obama. The national security state, which is what we have now, is an evil thing that must be dismantled. I would rather take my chances with a terrorist attack than see the systematic dismantling of the long-standing, hard won protections of habeas corpus, the right to a speedy and fair trial, freedom from torture or the fear of torture both here or abroad, freedom from arbitrary arrest and indefinite detention, and freedom from the invasion of privacy.

I do not believe that we can be totally protected from internal or external terrorist threats and we pay far too high a price in seeking to do so. We should resist being infantilized by political leaders who are seeking to increase their own authoritarian powers by promoting such fears. We must realize that there are some threats that we have to learn to live with if we are not to see the complete abandonment of the civil liberties and freedoms we have long taken for granted.

POST SCRIPT: Jon Stewart looks at this protection racket

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Obama and Russia, Cuba, and the neoconservatives

Jim Lobe reviews some articles and the book They Knew They Were Right: The Rise of the Neocons by Jacob Heilbrunn who speculates on what the neoconservatives, those instigators and cheerleaders for the disastrous policies of Bush-Cheney regime, will try to do now:

It speculates on the internal splits that the neo-cons are going through as a result of the political campaign and Obama’s victory, and the possibility (I would say probability) that at least one major faction — headed by people like Robert Kagan, David Brooks and even David Frum — will seek to forge an alliance with liberal interventionists, presumably led by Secretary of State-designate Hillary Clinton (although Susan Rice also fits the bill), in the new administration, much as they succeeded in doing during the Clinton administration with respect to Balkans policy. As I’ve written before, the two movements have similar historical origins (inspired in major part by the “lessons” — “never again” — they drew from Munich and the Holocaust) and tend to see foreign policy in highly moralistic terms in which the U.S. and Israel are “exceptionally” good. While I don’t agree with everything in Heilbrunn’s analysis, it offers a good point of departure for watching the neo-cons as the Age of Obama gets underway.

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What to expect from the Obama administration on domestic issues

On the eve of Barack Obama’s inauguration, I want to muse on what we might see in the coming years.

There has been considerable hand-wringing amongst some liberal supporters of Obama about the people he has selected so far for his administration, since many of them are warmed over Clintonites and other establishment types. But I have not been really surprised. As I have said repeatedly, Obama is a cautious and centrist politician. He is definitely not a progressive, even though some progressives read into his words and campaign more than what he actually said he stood for. The willingness of so many people across the political spectrum to think that Obama represents them is probably a measure of how fed up they are with Bush. Obama is seen as not-Bush and that is enough for them.
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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.
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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.

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.
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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.. [Read more…]

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.