24 and Zero Dark Thirty helped sell Americans on torture

A new Pew poll says Americans approve of CIA torture by 51%-29%, so bringing this out again:

Not just politicians, but also the media are responsible for selling Americans on torture. During the Bush years, there was the series 24, whose very premise – Jack Bauer only has 24 hours to stop the terrorists and save America – made the case that torture can be justified in an emergency. Last year, the film Zero Dark Thirty revived the argument by erroneously depicting torture as instrumental to finding (and killing) Osama Bin Laden. The order of events shown implies a connection between the torture of a detainee and what most Americans think is the most significant foreign policy achievement of the last decade. In other words, the plot exploits the jingoism of US audiences to convince them that while the CIA did some ugly things, it was all worth it in the end.

This kind of ideological manipulation is especially worrying in light of the filmmakers’ heavy collaboration with the CIA. The hacks behind Zero Dark Thirty got exclusive access to information about Bin Laden’s murder that was denied to the public. In return, the CIA got Oscar-nominated, chest-thumping propaganda. While some haveclaimed that the interrogation scenes are actually critical of torture, the camerawork and editing are careful to show us everything from the point of view of the CIA officers – not the detainee. For example, when he is stuffed into a box too small for his body, terrified and in pain, we don’t go in there with him. Our perspective stays outside. We’re invited to identify not with the tortured, but the torturers.

As Glenn Greenwald pointed out on MSNBC, “Americans know that torture is brutal – That’s why they think it works. They have supported torture because they believe that the people that we’re doing it to are primitive, violent, horrible savages who need to be treated brutally, because that’s the only way we can get information, and that’s the way we stay safe.”


A poem for Chelsea Manning on her birthday

US Army whistleblower Chelsea Manning turns 27 in prison today, serving 35 years for leaking proof of torture and other US war crimes in Afghanistan and Iraq. On the eve of her show trial in summer 2013, I wrote this poem for Chelsea (then known as Bradley).

As I explained in that post, I’d been reading a lot of Adorno: The title is a reference to his infamous dictum that “to write a poem after Auschwitz would be barbaric”, while the epigraph is a quote from a poignant passage in Dialectic of Enlightenment about the knowing resignation with which Americans accept their powerlessness in the capitalist economy.

We’ve let Chelsea down, and we’ll let her down every day of our lives until we honor her actions by our own courage to seek justice.

“No poems after Auschwitz”

KS 6/1/2013

It’s a free country

But freedom has rules:

You can say what you want about the Market

but if you don’t play ball

you’re not one of us.

We don’t leak the wrong footage

of the wrong Apache helicopters

swarming over Baghdad

picking off civilians like flies.

And on a rainy Tuesday in November

every four years

we pick Dear Leader

like free people do.

You’ll never change the world.

But to those who will try –

The risk you bear is


it’s terrifying


I am a failure, sagt der Amerikaner. – And that is that.

Every Senate Democrat just voted to fund Israel’s genocide in Gaza

I haven’t written since July 14 for two reasons: I can’t write about Israel’s ongoing assault on Gaza when others (see: Electronic Intifada and Mondoweiss) are doing it so well, but I can’t write about anything else while Palestinians are being slaughtered by a government that receives upwards of $3 billion a year in military aid from our own.

Yesterday President Obama made people mad with comments downplaying CIA torture and blaming Hamas for the astronomical civilian death toll in Gaza. I won’t link to them because I don’t really care what he said. I can’t believe we still have to convince people the Democrats are the worst of the worst.

More important than Obama’s speechifying are the actions of Congress, who (also yesterday) voted overwhelmingly to approve $225 million in additional funding to replenish Israel’s arsenal, depleted by a three-week-long offensive that has killed over 1600 Palestinians, at least 75% of whom are, according to the UN, civilians.

Let me repeat that: After the Obama administration single-handedly torpedoed a UN inquiry into Israeli war crimes, the Senate passed by unanimous consent (and the House voted 395-8) to rearm the Israeli military during an operation that its most tactlessly honest defenders admit is a genocide. This is a massacre that has prompted the governments of Brazil, Ecuador, Chile, Peru, and El Salvador to recall their ambassadors to Israel and the government of Bolivia to declare Israel a “terrorist state”.

What do those countries have in common? They all, to varying extents, have progressive governments willing to stand up to the US – a state sponsor and financier of terror if ever there was one. In taking a stand (however belated) against Israeli aggression, they stand in stark contrast to so-called progressives in the US government.

I’ve written a lot about issues on which Republicans and Democrats agree, but no issue makes a mockery of the “partisan polarization” narrative more than Israel-Palestine.

I recently argued that, should they run, candidates like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders (an “independent” whose independence from the Democrats is pretty tenuous) could pose a serious primary threat to Hillary Clinton, whose deeply conservative record is out of step with the Democratic Party’s “populist” base. On the issue of Israel-Palestine, a recent Gallup poll found that only 31% of self-identified Democrats think Israel’s actions in Gaza are “justified”.

Yet Sanders and Warren – along with every other member of Congress – voted not once but twice for symbolic resolutions endorsing Israel’s assault as “self-defense” and blaming the civilian death toll on Palestinians themselves. Both resolutions passed by unanimous consent: They were backed not just by mean old Republicans, not just by hawkish Democrats like neoliberal poster boy Cory Booker and Chuck “Bomb Iran” Schumer, but also by the party’s so-called left wing.

And now, leading House “progressives” like Barbara Lee and John Conyers joined their Senate counterparts (Ron Wyden and Al Franken, to name a couple others) to reaffirm yet again that, as Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz once put it, there “will never be daylight between the two parties” when it comes to unconditional support for Israeli militarism and apartheid.

The 8 members of Congress – 4 Democrats and 4 Republicans – who voted against the additional funds are, on the Democratic side, Representatives Keith Ellison, Zoe Lofgren, Jim Moran, and Beto O’Rourke, and on the Republican side, Justin AmashWalter Jones, Thomas Massie, and Mark Sanford.

They took a serious political risk going against the pro-Israel lobby and their respective party leaderships. I’ve linked to the Twitter accounts of each above – if you’re on Twitter, tweet them a “thank you!”, and if you aren’t, their Twitter bios include links to their websites where you can do so.

Here’s the thing, though: That this many members of Congress voted “no” in such a rabidly pro-Israel political climate as Washington is a testament to how undeniably horrific the reports and images from Gaza have been. People on the ground say this attack is beyond anything they’ve seen in their lifetimes.

But Israel’s draconian blockade of Gaza, also a point of bipartisan consensus, had already made it an open-air prison that the UN projected would be “unlivable” by 2020. Israel counts calories to determine how much food can reach its prisoners, blocking everything but the bare minimum needed for survival: Items banned since the siege began in 2007 include shoes, paper, coffee, tea, wood, cement, and iron.

Despite the withdrawal of its Jewish settler population in 2005, Israel continues to control Gaza’s water, electricity, borders, airspace, coastline, and population registry. It has to approve (and often doesn’t) every person, every molecule of food or raw material, that goes in or out. Even during “ceasefires”, the so-called Israeli Defense Forces conduct deadly raids and airstrikes with no accountability.

Gaza is surely unlivable today, after Israel has bombed 4 hospitals, 2 UN shelters, and its only power plant. More than a tenth of Gaza’s 1.8 million people are now housed in the same UN shelters that have become targets for Israeli bombardment, and 1.2 million Gazans lack access to clean water. 

As Americans, we are deeply complicit, and more and more of us are waking up to that reality. The politics of Israel-Palestine in the US are changing, as evidenced by the Gallup poll showing only 25% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 support “Operation Protective Edge”, compared to 55% of those 65 and up.

You can be on the right side of this 21st century struggle against colonialism, or you can sit idly by, congratulating yourself on how reasonable you sound talking about “both sides” and how hatred or religious divisions are the greatest obstacle to “peace”.

The greatest obstacle to peace in Israel-Palestine is apartheid, a racist system of segregation, discrimination, and expulsion. The greatest obstacle to peace is Zionism’s archaic project of an ethnically-exclusive state. The greatest obstacle to peace is the unconditional support of our government, including and especially its “progressive” darlings, for Israeli occupation and human rights abuses.

Empire rots from the inside out, and Congress will be the last domino to fall in the US-Israeli “special relationship”. Sooner or later, material support for Israeli terrorism will become a political dealbreaker. Make it sooner rather than later. Let your Congresspeople know: Enablers of mass murder and ethnic cleansing will lose your vote.

Whether or not you’re PEP – Progressive Except on Palestine – isn’t about ideological purity. It’s about whether you’re willing to stand up to evil when it really matters. Don’t call it evil if you don’t want to. Call it fascism, genocide – just don’t be silent. You’ll regret it.

No one’s really Ready for Hillary – except Wall Street and the war machine

To hear some people tell it, you’d think the Democrats had already nominated Hillary Clinton for president in 2016. But it’s 2014. This show has 3 seasons, and we’ve barely made it through the first episode.

The name of Clinton’s Super PAC – “Ready for Hillary” – suggests one of the main rhetorical bludgeons Democrats will use to enforce lockstep marching behind the former Senator: If you don’t want her to be president of the United States, you must not be “ready” to see a woman in the Oval Office.

But there are plenty of legitimate reasons why no one who calls themselves progressive or lefty should throw their support behind Clinton, a deeply conservative Democrat with the record – first as a Senator, then as Secretary of State – to prove it.

For one, she’s shown herself to be even more hawkish than Obama. While she was in Congress, Clinton vocally supported and voted for the US-led invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, and even criticized the Bush administration for being too soft on Iran.

In her time in the State Department during Obama’s first term, she personally pushed for the administration’s most aggressive and disastrous foreign policies, from the so-called surge in Afghanistan (which, according to the military, failed on all counts) and extrajudicial killings (which have killed close to a thousand civilians in Pakistan alone) to the bombing campaign against Libya (which ended in regime change and plunged both that country and northern Africa into greater turmoil) and the covert training and arming of militias in Syria (which was supposed to oust Iran’s regional ally Bashar Al-Assad, but succeeded only in triggering a catastrophic civil war).

And of course, throughout, Clinton remained steadfast in her support for Israel, never uttering a word or lifting a finger in defense of the victims of Israeli militarism and apartheid – to which the US government is financially and diplomatically indispensable. As a Senator, she was silent during Israel’s month-long assault on Gaza that killed some 1400 Palestinians (more than 700 of them civilians) in 2008-2009, and four years later declared her “110%” support for a bombing campaign that left 102 Palestinian civilians dead.

In the economic realm, things look just as grim. Despite going back on her support for the wildly unpopular NAFTA – championed by her husband – Clinton supported other “free trade” agreements under Bush and Obama (like those with South Korea and Colombia). As I’ve written before on this blog, “free trade” deals undermine local economies and protections for both workers and consumers while deepening inequality – both in the US and abroad.

She has touted the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the most expansive and radically anti-democratic pact to date, which will severely limit the ability of nations to regulate and hold accountable the multinational corporations that operate in them.

In particular, Wall Street would be delighted to see the presidency of a Senator who, in 2001, voted to make it more difficult to erase personal debts through bankruptcy – a bill mainly backed by banks and credit card companies. And after helping Clinton and her husband make over $100 million since leaving the White House, the financial services industry know they’d have an ally (and probably a few of their own) in the next administration.

And herein lies the problem for the Clinton campaign: How can you pass yourself off to primary voters as a friend of the 99% when, in a single week, you made $400,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs?

Clinton may well stick to her line that she and Bill were “dead broke” after his second term. But the Clintons’ wealth and how they got it are no secret, and any rival, especially in the Democratic primary, is sure to pounce on her Romneyesque attempts at relatability. What is the “populist” Democratic base going to conclude about Clinton’s loyalties?

What, indeed?

It’s true, we live in a country where laughing maniacally about bombing Iran doesn’t put an end to your presidential aspirations. But we also live in a country where young people under 30 (who overwhelmingly vote for Democrats) have a more favorable view of the word “socialism” than “capitalism”.

We live in a country where you can’t deport a record 2 million undocumented immigrants – a policy Clinton says she would escalate even further – without fierce resistance from leaders and activists in your base and a sizable drop-off in support from Latin@ voters.

And we live in a country where Herman Cain once led the polls in the Republican primary.

The story that the Democratic nomination is a foregone conclusion has some holes – and the party knows it. Already, Democrats in the media and blogosphere are urging progressives to give Clinton a political blank check and pooh-poohing the chances of Senator Bernie Sanders (a self-identified socialist) in a Democratic primary with a defensiveness that betrays the true uncertainty of a Clinton cakewalk.

They’re less knee-jerk in their dismissal of an Elizabeth Warren candidacy – a former strategist for Al Gore’s failed presidential bid openly states that Warren could win a primary against Clinton – but I think that openness comes, in part, from a place of perceived security: At this point, it looks like Warren isn’t running.

But that could change. The smart money is clearly still on the Anointed One, but politics isn’t about predictions – it’s about possibilities that, all too often, aren’t obvious until after they’ve been realized.

And lest we forget, running to Clinton’s left has worked before.

The fact is, there are very few concrete policy differences between Warren and Sanders, and the willingness of party insiders to take a hypothetical challenge from Warren seriously suggests to me that the independent Senator from Vermont has a better shot than it may appear.

After all, an all-time-high 42% of US voters identify as “independents”: Whether they’re progressives, libertarians, leftists, or anything else, Americans – and young Americans most of all – have seen unconditional support for leaders in both parties bear the fruit of 14 years of endless war and a neoliberalism whose bubble has burst for good.

Obi-Wan Kenobi said, “Your eyes can deceive you. Don’t trust them.” It may look like the cult of personality around Hillary Clinton would make her an even “more effective evil” than Obama. It may look like 2016 is too close for a reasonably progressive candidate to mount a serious challenge. But we live in interesting times. And below the surface, people and ideas are moving in conflicting directions all the time, movements that are only clear in hindsight.

Probably the most realistic goal is a few left-leaning cabinet appointments and a civil society more willing to hold Democrats’ feet to the fire. There’s no need and no justification for optimism. But if we take our pessimism seriously, and not as an excuse for inaction, maybe we can make things a little bit better.

Extrajudicial assassination: An Obama holiday tradition

This weekend, the Obama administration began an operation targeting “suspected Al-Qaeda militants” in Yemen, where three days of drone strikes have left at least 55 people dead. Days earlier, the Al-Qaeda network’s Arabian Peninsula affiliate (AQAP) had released a video of an unprecedented gathering of AQAP fighters, including its leader, Nasir Al-Wuhayshi, who vowed to fight back against Western “crusaders”.

George W. Bush, who launched one drone attack against Yemen (in 2002), once described the War on Terror as a “crusade”. But it’s Barack Obama – still the anti-Bush in the eyes of most Democrats, despite having bombed Yemen more than 80 times – who marked Easter Sunday by killing 30 people without charge or trial in south Yemen’s Abyan province.

Most of mainstream media reporting on the administration’s so-called targeted killing program simply parrots the claims of anonymous administration sources (or in this case, unnamed “high-level Yemeni government officials”). But can we really take their word for it? How do we know the dead were all “suspected Al-Qaeda militants”? And even if they were guilty of some punishable infraction, why couldn’t they be charged with a crime like any other criminal?

This seems like a good time to point out that:

  • The administration defines “militants” as “all military-age males in a strike zone”.
  • A Human Rights Watch report found roughly 70% of airstrike victims in Yemen were civilians.
  • Yemen is the primary theater for the Obama policy of signature strikes, which allow the administration to order an attack without knowing the identities of the targets, based on patterns of “suspicious behavior”.
  • According to a legal memo carefully prepared by the Justice Department and “leaked” in Feb. 2013, the administration doesn’t need a shred of evidence that someone is a threat to national security in order to assassinate them for being a threat to national security.

Government officials lie about the extrajudicial killing program all the time, and mainstream news outlets take their word for it – every time. When, on Dec. 12, 2013, a US drone strike hit a wedding convoy, killing at least 12 local tribespeople, US and Yemeni officials “leaked” the demonstrably untrue story that the strike had actually killed 12 militants, including Shawqi Ali Ahmad al-Badani, a mid-level AQAP operative.

The fact is that nothing drives terrorist recruitment like the Obama administration’s campaign of terror in Pakistan, Yemen, Afghanistan, Somalia, and Libya. As a “counterterrorism” policy, extrajudicial killing – whether by drones, conventional aircraft, or any other weapon – is as counterproductive as it is ethically repugnant. Nothing foments hatred of the United States more, nothing could make outbursts of violence against Americans more inevitable, than our government’s own unrestrained savagery.

Yet polls consistently show that a significant majority of self-identified liberal Democrats support the President’s drone program. Their racism is the subtle racism of indifference to the plight of others – the brown Muslim others whose lives take a backseat to partisan loyalty. 

Every election season, the liberal media and political class position the Democratic Party as a friend: a friend to women, to ethnic minorities, to labor, to queer folks, to the “middle class”. In 2012, the Democratic cheerleading-industrial complex defeated mean old Mitt Romney by demanding lockstep marching behind the President, as if three years of neoliberalism and war were less of a dealbreaker than some missing tax returns or an unfortunate incident with the family dog.

It was later revealed that, during that election, our friend joked to aides that he didn’t know he’d be “really good at killing people”. I don’t think there’s much to say about Obama personally without buying into his formidable cult of personality – only that comments like this betray a callousness we’re told to expect from evil Republicans, not from our friends.

But it was a Democrat who ordered the deaths of four unidentified people in Pakistan on Christmas Day, 2013, and it was a Democrat who massacred 30 people in Yemen on Easter. I think Charles Davis said it best: “If I had a friend like that, I probably wouldn’t be friends with them anymore.”

A couple of media interviews with me

I was on Iran’s Press TV this past week discussing US public opinion about the War on Terror – you can watch that clip here.

I also returned to the Progressive Radio Network with a couple of my SJP comrades to talk BDS and Israeli apartheid for a full hour – stream or download here (interview starts at around minute 7:45).

Guest Commentary: The Syrian War and America’s Moral Authority

It’s my pleasure to introduce the first of several guest commentaries The Red Fury will be running during my hiatus. In this post, author Navid Zarrinnal examines the proposal for Western military intervention in Syria, showing how the liberal case for war is deeply entrenched in the logic of empire.

– KS

A young Tunisian man, paralyzed by economic hardship, set himself on fire to protest the wretched condition in which he toiled, and in his martyrdom, he echoed the plight of millions of youth across the world, who, caught up in for-profit capitalism and a global recession suffer from unemployment, underemployment, or are forced to work what an anthropologist, David Graeber, calls “bullshit jobs.”[1] The courageous act of the young Tunisian man, Mohamad Bouazizi, became the catalyst for the Arab Spring. After his self-immolation, peoples in Tunisia and across the Arab world took to the streets to challenge the political-economic order that colonial geopolitics had left behind.

As the Arab Spring unfolded, I was enrolled at an American law school. In international law courses in particular, the struggle of Arab reformers and revolutionaries became a topic for discussion. Aside from me, my international human rights law class was an all white classroom. A few among my colleagues had a basic familiarity with the Arab world, but most knew almost nothing about it. Nonetheless, the proliferation of information around the Arab Spring had sparked some interest in every fellow classmate. Raised for class discussion was the proposed military intervention in Libya; students grappled with 1) Whether based on the rules of international law the U.S. has a legal basis to intervene in Libya; and 2) Assuming such a legal basis exists, should the U.S. militarily intervene in Libya?

Students seemed to agree that based on international legal rules, specifically Chapter VII of the U.N. Charter, there is a strong legal argument for intervention.[2] Moreover, the U.N. Security Council had already authorized member states “to take all necessary measures…to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya, including Benghazi, while excluding a foreign occupation force of any form on any part of Libyan territory.”[3] The more pressing question was—assuming that there indeed was a legal basis for military intervention—should the U.S. militarily intervene?

The response was overwhelmingly positive. Except from one student who took a conservative approach—that intervention will be too costly and “we” do not have the moral obligation to help everyone—the rest of my colleagues called for intervention. “We” cannot sit and watch as an evil dictator, Muammar Qaddafi, slaughters his own population, the pro-intervention students claimed, so “we” have the moral obligation to act and militarily intervene to stop him. Today, a similar way of thinking is being repeated with Syria. The Obama administration is now telling the American public that the U.S. has a moral obligation to stop Bashar al-Assad, based on the allegation that Assad has targeted his own population with chemical weapons.

What my colleagues failed to account for in the case of Libya, and what the Obama administration ignores in the case of Syria, is the utter absence of American moral authority to intervene. Concerning bloody conflicts and military interventions, the U.S. has not been a benign actor, and worse, it acts with a high degree of hypocrisy, something the Obama administration and the U.S. propaganda machinery—from NPR to Fox News— are careful not to point out.

Even if we accept the Obama administration’s allegation that Assad used chemical weapons, the U.S. should be one of the last states to assert the moral high ground for an intervention—from chemical weapons used against civilians during Iraq’s occupation, with their resulting birth defects [4], to an American-assisted Saddam who, with U.S. knowledge and aid, used chemical weapons against Iranian soldiers [5], to many other instances, the U.S. has used and aided other actors’ use of chemical weapons. John Kerry would have been more honest with the American public, then, if instead of saying that “the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity,”[6] he had said: “the killing of women and children and innocent bystanders by chemical weapons is a moral obscenity [except when we are the killers].”

The hypocrisy of the United States government and its not so benign motivation for intervention should be rather obvious and uncontroversial. Nonetheless, U.S. government and propaganda machinery do an excellent job to conceal the obvious. With the obvious out of sight, the American people— including my law school colleagues— fall into the trap of thinking that U.S. interventions in the Middle East and the Arab Spring are benign, for the good of the people.

Western imperialism, mistook for benign intervention, is a major cause for violence in the contemporary Middle East. Western imperialism did not merely inflict the Middle East with economic poverty and psychological insecurity, but also with a debilitating dichotomy between secularism and Islamism; a divisive political dichotomy, which is primarily the product of Western domination, with disastrous consequences for peace and unity in the Middle East in general and in Syria in particular. The secular/Islamist divide, which serves as the underlying ideological reason behind Syria’s civil war fueled by neoliberal economic reforms, is a colonial legacy and its violence is still being played out. And, add to that the legacy of American imperialism in Iraq: Al Qaeda-inspired Islamists who are now moving into Syria in their attempt to overthrow Assad’s government.[7]

The Obama administration then should give up the moral high ground and hold its head in humility while it contemplates the ill effects of past interventions. This, it will not do. But future generations will, insha’allah.

Navid Zarrinnal is a reluctant commentator on Western-Islamic relations and the contemporary Middle East. In his free time, he attempts to make sense of where he falls ideologically. You can connect with him via Facebook.