Archive for September, 2011

Ten years is a long time.

I was in my dorm room at university, in Washington DC. Doing a kickboxing video, if you can believe it. My cell phone rang. My dad, phoning on a Tuesday morning, was out of the ordinary to say the least.

“Are you ok”

“Yeah, why?”

“Turn on the TV”

Image: Scott Bauer for USDA

So off went the workout video, and on came the news. I remember seeing the footage everyone saw that day – the plane hitting the tower behind the poleaxed newscaster. I don’t remember how I ended the conversation with my dad, only that he said he’d tell my mom I was ok.

I don’t know the order in which things happened next. I remember packing a bag, intending to get out of town, knowing friends who were getting out of the city, but the traffic was too much, and I didn’t really have anywhere to go.

I remember going to the top of my building and seeing the smoke coming from the Pentagon, and the rest of the city seeming quiet, despite the traffic. Was the city locked down in some way? I remember a friend calling her friends who worked at the Pentagon. I remember being invited into someone’s room for a glass of wine, because what could we do? I remember all of us trying to do the grown up thing, and not really knowing what that was.

I remember thinking, knowing, that it would lead to some kind of war, and that I really wished it wouldn’t.

In the following days and weeks I remember being alarmed at the military on the streets – tanks, people in fatigues with really big guns. I remember the university sending counselors around to talk to us.

Four years later, I found myself in a pub in Dublin the day of the London bombings in July. I had left London the day before.

I forget these memories, until I go looking for them. How I felt that something had dropped out from under me, and how I just continued life as normal anyway.

10 years is a long time.

Like any anniversary, we can look back and see what’s changed. In the years since 9/11 I graduated university and started a career. I moved to Canada, then to England. I made a film. I began and ended an important relationship. I lost my grandparents. I have seen my friends and cousins marry and have children. I have seen my siblings get older and wiser. I have seen the economy collapse and natural disasters take out cities in developed countries. I have seen Waiting for Godot with Patrick Stewart and Ian McKellan.

There is a lot of life to be seen in ten years.

That is a lot of life that people had taken from them, people who did not see themselves as soldiers in a war, people who were not fighting. People who had no choice.

So what do we do? We think about the things we deliberately forget to think about the rest of the time. And we ask why. And we are angry and sad and hopeless and our heart breaks a little. And we decide to keep going, because we’re still alive, and it’s not fair, and that’s how it is.

further reading

“Formal or informal Saudi complicity, whether from sympathy or to buy internal peace, are real Acts of War.”

Steve Marlowe examines post 9/11 America, and just how much democratic freedom has been given up.

How do you distinguish a crime from an act of war?

In this article Noam Chomsky discusses the responsibilities of public intellectuals in the context of the killing of Osama bin Laden, and extra-judicial killings and morally bankrupt international political machinations of the American government and others throughout history.

Reviewing the reactions of various governments to groups of intellectuals (put briefly, people with privilege, access, and knowledge that gives them influence) who either support or condemn various government actions, he notes that it is the intellectual supporters who tend to be lauded by their own politicians, and the critics who tend to be embraced by that state’s enemies.

The article is a good if intensely troubling read, and Chomsky makes abundantly clear the need for people to notice and speak out against the kinds of atrocities the American government enabled or flat out perpetrated in Latin America and elsewhere. His observation about the nomenclature of US military vehicles, weapons, and missions (Apache, Blackhawk, Operation Geronimo) is particularly chilling (“We might react differently if the Luftwaffe were to call its fighter planes “Jew” and “Gypsy”).

Bringing this obligation (clearly his own) to the international response to 9/11, Chomsky questions the U.S. action, and observes that the U.S. appears to have played easily into bin Laden’s ploy, a disconcerting prospect suggesting a cold and ruthless insight into American and European politics. Chomsky quotes Eric Margolis noting that “[bin Laden] repeatedly asserted that the only way to drive the U.S. from the Muslim world and defeat its satraps was by drawing Americans into a series of small but expensive wars that would ultimately bankrupt them.”

Chomsky’s proposed alternative initially brought me up short. He presumes here that 9/11 was responded to as an act of war, rather than a criminal act, and that the terribly named ‘Operation Geronimo’ had kill, not capture, as the intended goal. My initial response to this statement was aversion:

the “crime against humanity,” as it was rightly called, could have been approached as a crime, with an international operation to apprehend the likely suspects. That was recognized in the immediate aftermath of the attack, but no such idea was even considered by decision-makers in government. It seems no thought was given to the Taliban’s tentative offer—how serious an offer, we cannot know—to present the al Qaeda leaders for a judicial proceeding.

Image: Wally Gobetz

It is tempting to say that overseeing an organization that masterminded an elaborate plot resulting in the death of 3000 US civilians, not to mention other mass-murders elsewhere over the last 20 years, is an act of war which goes beyond mere criminality, and that negotiating with morally reprehensible groups like the Taliban is impossible and offensive.

But when we consider that Slobodan Milošević was brought to trial and prosecuted for crimes against humanity and genocide in Crotia, Bosnia, and Kosovo, the trial and execution of Saddam Hussein, and the Nuremberg Trials, it’s clear that sheer scale is immaterial, and that in recent history, we have determined that a criminal justice procedure is possible and necessary for even the most egregious actions.

To prosecute and punish crimes of this magnitude under the auspices of a judicial system without treating all war as a crime, we must assume that in any conflict there is a clearly wrong antagonist and clearly correct opposing force, and that there is a legal and humane way to engage in war with such an opponent.

Moreover, to operate in with such a system, if we cannot or do not bother to prove objectively that we are correct in our assessment of guilt, and that we have followed the rules of engagement where our enemy has attacked the innocent and defenceless, what is there left to separate our ideas from theirs?

So what differentiates bin Laden’s actions, and his death by US forces, from the obscene genocidal and homicidal political and military figures taken to The Hague?

Do you see anything other than the nationality of the victims?

In response to 9/11, the US declared a war. Not just against Iraq and Afghanistan (where they were joined by the UK and subsequently NATO forces), but against Terror (where they were also joined by NATO). A war against militant organizations and those governments that supported them.

The CIA provides this definition of terrorism from Title 22 of the US Code, Section 2656f(d):
• The term “terrorism” means premeditated, politically motivated violence perpetrated against noncombatant targets by subnational groups or clandestine agents.
• The term “international terrorism” means terrorism involving the territory or the citizens of more than one country.
• The term “terrorist group” means any group that practices, or has significant subgroups that practice, international terrorism.

Over the course of this war, people have been brought to trial, or imprisoned without trial and tortured.

Bin Laden was not captured or brought to trial. He was killed and buried at sea. And, to be clear, I don’t think there is doubt in anyone’s mind that he deserved to die, probably in a more painful and prolonged way than he did, nor that were he to face trial, he would be found guilty and sentenced accordingly.

Image: FBI

The point, mes amis, is that there wasn’t a trial. It is the judicial process that separates the criminal militants and genocidal despots from the American and NATO governments seeking retribution for and an end to murderous actions against their citizens, however certain the outcome of a trial.

Why? Because no one sane systematically kills large groups of people without believing they have a good reason to do so. American and NATO forces are killing people, systematically, and to be justified by their own standards they must be able to prove the justice of each one of those deaths.

According to Amnesty International “CIA Director Leon Panetta said on 3 May that US forces had full authority to kill Osama bin Laden but that they were to capture him if he had surrendered. The White House has said that Osama Bin Laden was unarmed but resisted capture”.

To capture and prosecute bin Laden (and then kill him, per American law), would have allowed the US and NATO forces to maintain the moral high ground. I don’t know that we will ever be able to discover if he was shot in cold blood, or was indeed ‘resisting capture’ unto death, but it does make the American moral position a little less clear, and in any situation where people are dying, the moral justification is precious, and precious little at that.

There are far worse, and far more unjust things, that have happened over the course of this ongoing conflict, than the murder of a confirmed mass murdering militant: the lack of due process for suspects who are imprisoned for months and years without a fair trial, because there is insufficient evidence, which anywhere else would result in freedom, and the ‘collateral damage’ that always attends military action.

Surely any act involving the killing or displacement of anyone, as would happen in any armed conflict, can be seen as a crime. How important, then, is the ability to defend every action as both necessary and just.

Could things have been done better? Can things be done better?

Important questions to ask, if we are to defend murders, however much they may seem inherently justified, with righteous self-defence.

The Teenage Wasteland

“It’s not my community, so why should I live by their rules?”

This pithy comment (or something very like it) was made on an episode of World’s Strictest Parents last night. The speaker, one of the two usual characters for the show, was an intelligent teen with a penchant for gothic style and an argumentative relationship with his mum (putatively remedied by the time with the titular strict parents from foreign parts).

His comment, in conjunction with a recent documentary aired on BBC4 The Great Estate: The Rise and Fall of the Council House, struck me as particularly enlightening in respect of the recent riots in London.

In the documentary (which I worked on and which I recently saw a re-airing of), one of the conclusions presenter Michael Collins draws regarding the state of government housing is that the housing devolved from family communities in which generations of the same family were given preference of residence to encourage a sense of belonging and community, to under-budget, short-term, needs based housing deliberately preventing a sense of long term investment in the community.

The simple teen anti-establishment trope stated above is writ large in the ‘anti-social behaviour’ seen in the riots, where large groups of un- or under-employed teens suddenly decided to act out, like a character on WSP, to prove that they didn’t need to follow ‘their’ rules.

That’s essentially the meaning of ‘anti-social behaviour’, isn’t it? Someone, or some group, decides (in this case clearly on a whim), that they aren’t part of this ‘society’ and therefore have no reason to uphold its basic tenets.

Image: George Rex

So how do you explain to kids that stealing, setting buses and buildings on fire, and running over passers by, are the wrong thing to do, and that they are members of a community with an obligation to it, like everyone around them?

I don’t think we can send them all to an Orthodox Jewish community in Tel Aviv. Though to be frank, that might be cheaper and more effective that sending them all to jail.

There’s been mention of making these kids perform some kind of reparative labour in the neighbourhoods where they caused so much damage – maybe a kibbutz would do the trick?