Ferguson And The Tale Of Two Wars

A nation at war–an indefinite, borderless one, conducted against a faceless enemy, with little legal or moral restraint, with an endless wallet to be dipped into–will find, sooner or later, that the same inchoateness, the same vagueness, the same productive lack of definition of that conflict, which permitted its waging to be conducted secretly without trammel, will also facilitate the seeping back of that war to within its own borders. Wars, if conducted long enough, come home. To stay. To search too long for enemies elsewhere is to make possible and easier their location closer to home.

There are two wars currently underway, conducted by the US. There is the war on terror, kicked off in 2001, with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands, a budget in the trillions, and a progress report card that would qualify for an F–thanks to the political, legal, and moral disasters it has left in its wake. Local states made unstable; hostile regimes made stronger; religious and sectarian strife reinvigorated; torture and killings without due process; and of course, curtailment of civil rights at home. And then, there is the war on drugs. Its kickoff date is a little uncertain but there is no mistaking its cost and failures: rampant, social-service destroying budgets, a racialized conflict written into legal stone, a grossly bloated drug enforcement apparatus, interference in the domestic policies of sovereign states, the incarceration and criminalization of thousands of young men, the list goes on.

The blowback from these never-ending wars is clearly visible in Ferguson, where a perfect storm rages in exquisite miniature: a hostile, militarized, aggressive police stalks the streets of a town with a significant African-American population, their fingers resting lightly on the trigger, convinced they are in hostile territory; a  confrontation with the locals–now not understood as members of a ‘community’ but as potential deadly criminals–quickly turns violent and murderous. Police all over the nation know the feeling; they are used to patrolling behind the lines on search and destroy missions. They’ve seen plenty of footage of kick-down-the-doors raids, of young men lying on the ground, waiting to be searched; they know what to do when someone talks back. A punch to the throat, a kick in the groin, and sometimes, when they don’t stop coming at you, a bullet to the head. Nothing is as important as making sure dimebags stay off the streets.

Then, when protests occur, they are met with disproportionate amounts of force and regulation and policing, with all the tools whose use has been perfected in the years of control that have followed the declarations of these wars. The language is that of peace at any costs, no matter the damage done to the values supposedly being protected. The peace of the graveyard–an orderly place–will do just fine.

All too often, it is imagined, because of the relentless hagiography of the Second World War, that war is an ennobling thing. But it isn’t. Those who conduct it lose themselves in the process; the fighting doesn’t remain directed outward.

If you stare long too into the abyss of war, it stares back at you.

Machine Gun Men: Not Your Grandfather’s Police

It was a common sight in New York City: soldiers, paramilitary or regular in origin, wearing battle fatigues and carrying assault rifles and machine guns, standing guard in various bustling points of urban interaction–train stations and bus terminals most commonly. Typically, these were deployed after some mysterious, unspecified warning would be made public by the Department of Homeland Security: threat levels had escalated to red or yellow or blue or orange (the precise spectral arrangement of this rainbow of danger always remained a little intractable to me.) As I would walk by these armed gentlemen, their guns locked and loaded–ok, perhaps not locked–looking suitably menacing to all and any evildoers, I would often wonder about the nature of the threat they were supposed to be guarding us from.

Did the Homeland Security folks imagine that an armed commando raid was going to be carried out in the heart of New York City, that a platoon of miscreants would alight from the 10:17 coming in from Hempstead, and open fire indiscriminately, scattering hand grenades as they went, and that our brave machine gun toting protectors would respond, responding with a spray of bullets their own, in these enclosed, hermetic spaces? That seemed unlikely, given the inevitable collateral damage that would result, and the known methodology of those who had thus far committed acts of terror in and against the US. (Unless, of course, you are counting the various gun-toting serial killers who go on periodic rampages in the US. But those folks aren’t terrorists, surely? Just misguided patriots.)

What did seem more likely, as I speculated about random searches in the New York subways, was that this kind of policing, complete with machine-guns and the soldiers was designed to accustom us to the presence of a militarized force as peacekeeper, protector and enforcer in our daily lives. It can search, and it can intimidate. You might engage in conversation with a beat cop, and you might even enter into a verbal dispute; you almost certainly will not do so with a black-clad figure with one hand perennially on the trigger of a high-powered munition.

We should keep these considerations in mind when we look at photographs of machine gun toting police in Ferguson, brought out to maintain ‘order’ in the wake of protests and unrest following the shooting of the unarmed Michael Brown. Under what circumstances are these guns to be deployed? Bear in mind machine-guns are classic anti-personnel weaponry, intended to set up killing fields of fire to stop an armed assault by heavily armed soldiers in its tracks. They are intended to pump hundreds and thousands of bullets quickly into a space of combat, rendering it deadly  to those caught in its crossfire. Did the police envisage a situation in which a group of protesters ransacking and damaging a store, or throwing rocks at the police, would need to be treated thus? If such a situation was not envisaged, then presumably, the machine-guns were there for show: to let us know the police have them, to intimidate and suppress, and to condition us to the increasing militarization of our law and order enforcement mechanisms.

But it won’t end there, of course. Just like shootings of unarmed men by the police are now passé so too can become the use of machine guns by the police. If they are always available, always at hand, it will not take too long before some policeman, used to the idea that he is this society’s bulwark against the forces of darkness–literally-will open fire, comfortable in the knowledge that only administrative leave awaits him.

When those killings will be protested, an even greater number of machine guns will be used to police them. And so it will go.

As I noted yesterday:

One can only speculate about the future contours of such a charged relationship. Perhaps the citizenry will be stunned and beaten down into cowering submission, or perhaps, someday, realizing the forces arrayed against them are only bored and amused by the conventional street protest and the filed judicial complaint, those famed gigantic arsenals of privately owned weaponry in America will be deployed to refuse and resist.

PS: At various points in writing this post, I committed a Freudian typing slip, one made easier by the location of letters on my keyboard: I persistently typed in ‘machine funs’ instead of ‘machine guns.’

The 9/11 Attacks: A Terrifying Spectacle, Viewed from Afar

On September 11th, 2001, I was in Sydney, Australia, working as a post-doctoral fellow at the University of New South Wales. I spent most of the day in my office, composing a long email to my girlfriend back in New York City, my former home for seven years, suggesting we break up. Our long-distance relationship was not working out; too much misery had been parceled out to the both of us; we hadn’t covered ourselves in glory; time to move on; and so on. I read and re-read and edited my email a few times, and then, as the close of the workday approached, saved a draft, and headed for home. I would read it once more at night before sending it off, hopefully bringing to a close an unnecessarily protracted series of disputations.

Once back in my neighborhood, I picked up some excellent takeaway Thai food from my local takeout joint–on Cleveland Street, Sydney’s home to amazing ethnic food–and a bottle of red wine. Time to eat. The pad thai was excellent, as was the rustic Shiraz, and soon, I was sated and drowsy.  I didn’t feel like editing and reading a long, dramatic email any more. I’d send it on the morrow once I was back at work. I watched a bit of television, and then headed to sleep.

A short while later, the phone rang. I picked it up, groggy and confused. An Australian friend from Melbourne was on the line.  He asked, ‘Are you watching the news?’ A little testily, I said no. He then continued, speaking quickly, in one breath, ‘I think you should; some hijackers have taken over a bunch of planes and crashed them into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.’ This all sounded a bit bizarre, so I put the phone down, walked over to my living room and switched on the television. A close-up shot of one of the towers was being shown, with smoke billowing out of its windows. The scale of the building and the close-up confused me; it looked like a minor conflagration, perhaps caused by a small plane flying into the tower. But what was that about hijackers and the Pentagon? Still confused, I walked back to my bedroom, thanked my Melbourne friend for calling, hung up, and returned to the living room to continue watching.

Over the next few minutes, I slowly became more cognizant of the scale of the disaster unfolding before my eyes; I think I might have viewed some video of the jets’ impact. I’m not sure. And then, suddenly, it happened; the South Tower collapsed. I stared at the screen, incredulous. Perhaps this was a Hollywood movie being shot in New York City, and this building collapse had been rigged up for that? Somehow, strangely, I had managed to have my very own ‘it sounded/looked just like the movies’ moment. I continued watching, now transfixed by the spectacle. Half an hour later, the North Tower collapsed. I continued staring at my tiny television screen, barely paying attention to the newscasters.

I stayed awake for a while, sending some emails to my friends in New York City, inquiring after their well-being; I sent one to my girlfriend, hoping she was ok, and asking her to call me as soon as possible. Finally, the late hour and the wine caught up with me.  Besides, I was getting tired of the endless speculation about motives and the identity of the hijackers. I went to bed.  I wished I was back ‘home’; curiously, I felt excluded, looking on from the outside.  Miraculously, I fell asleep, and as I did so, I dimly sensed the next day would be quite unlike the ones that had preceded it.

That is my 9/11 story. That’s where I was; that’s what I did.

I never sent that break-up email; it wasn’t quite the sort of thing you do after a disaster like that. But we broke up anyway. I would return to New York City soon. First in December 2001, for an interview with Brooklyn College, and then, in August 2002, to begin my new job and life in a changed city.

Stop and Frisk, Jersey City Style

This horrifying story of TSA overreach prompts my post today. It has nothing to do with the TSA but everything to do with the abuse of power.

Almost twenty-five years ago, while attending graduate school in Newark, I visited Jersey City to meet a good friend of mine. I was accompanied by two other friends of mine. They–J__ and R__–were Cuban-American and brothers; J__ was an undergraduate at my graduate school, and R__, his handyman brother. We arrived at my friend’s apartment building and found him not present. On asking around, we were told he might have gone to a nearby bar–on Monticello Avenue– for a drink.  We walked over, looked for him, didn’t find him and decided to walk back to our car and head home.

As we walked back in the fading light, a dozen or so men came running at us, shouting at us to stop and show IDs. Suddenly, we were surrounded; it’s no exaggeration to say that ‘we were jumped. I think I might have seen a badge or two flashed at us. Presumably, these were plainclothes cops. I had no idea why we were being so accosted. But my guess is that because Monticello Ave often featured drug sales, we were regarded as potential customers, returning from a deal.

I produced my college ID and driving license, hoping that the sight of the former would help. I was searched, quickly and roughly. Unfortunately, R__ carried no ID. As the cops shouted at him to produce one and pushed him,  J__ said, “He doesn’t have ID, let him be.’ The policeman rounded on J__ , told him to shut up, and said they would take R__ to the precinct for questioning. J__ protested again. Both brothers were then summarily shoved–perhaps handcuffed, I cannot remember–into the back of a car and driven off.  As they did so, I told them to sit tight, that I would come get them.

I stared at the receding car, stunned, by the turn of events. What had we done wrong?

I quickly ran to my friend’s apartment and checked to see if he had returned. M__ had.  I told him what had happened and asked him if he would accompany me to check in on J__ and R__. We drove to the nearest precinct and asked to see our friends We were told they had been taken to another station for fingerprinting. Fingerprinting? For what? Had they been arrested and charged with a crime? No one seemed to know.

We drove to the station we had been directed to. They were not there. When we inquired further, we were told they had left. I then asked how they could have left when they didn’t have a car, and when I had told them that I would pick them up. This query was met with a shrugged shoulder or two.

M__ and I left, and drove around on the surrounding streets, looking for the two brothers. There was no sign of them. We drove back to M__’s apartment building, hoping they might have somehow found their way back there. No luck. Finally, M__ and I gave up; he went home and I drove back to Elizabeth, New Jersey.

The next morning I received a call from J__; after their fingerprinting had been completed, the two brothers had been placed in separate cars, driven out to a dark, deserted stretches of highways–for R__it was the Belleville Turnpike–and dropped off with an admonition to never return to Jersey City.  They were left to walk home–to Arlington–from there.  It was the final twist of the blade, a little reminder of just who the bosses were.

Presumably, J__ and R__ were busted for ‘disturbing the peace.’ They were, however, never charged with any crime. I suppose the war on drugs made it all worthwhile.

Glenn Greenwald is Not the Story; The Surveillance Is

The New York Times has an article on Glenn Greenwald, who has broken two stories on the NSA surveillance programs that now occupy most thinking people’s attention, which is titled thus: ‘Activist Blogger Is At The Center Of A Debate‘ on its front page. (The article’s title reads ‘ Blogger, With Focus on Surveillance, Is at Center of a Debate’). That headline, and the content of the story, tells us a great deal about what is wrong with modern journalism  and why civil liberties outrages aren’t so outrageous any more.

Greenwald is most emphatically not at the ‘center’ of any debate. He is not the story; the surveillance program is. But surely, some background on the reporter who broke the story would let readers evaluate his credibility? I’m afraid this claim does not withstand closer scrutiny even though it smacks of a pleasing epistemic rectitude: ‘all we are doing is investigating the source of this story’. To focus on him  is a a straightforward misdirection of journalistic effort. The New York Times should be concentrating on uncovering more details about the surveillance programs in the Greenwald articles, but not about Greenwald himself.

(Incidentally, just for good measure, the New York Times article includes a couple of ad-hominem slams against Greenwald:

Gabriel Schoenfeld, a national security expert and senior fellow at the Hudson Institute who is often on the opposite ends of issues from Mr. Greenwald, called him, “a highly professional apologist for any kind of anti-Americanism no matter how extreme.”

Mr. Sullivan wrote in an e-mail: “I think he has little grip on what it actually means to govern a country or run a war. He’s a purist in a way that, in my view, constrains the sophistication of his work.”

There is praise for Greenwald too, but all of this is really besides the point.)

The correct thing for New York Times journalists to do at this point is to get to work on verifying the authenticity of the documents that Greenwald’s source has made public and to explain to their readers:  what their legal and political implications are; how these programs fit into the context of the surveillance that the previous administration kicked off; what the relevant sections of the Patriot Act are; whether the defenses made by administration officials stand up to scrutiny or not; and so on. The New York Times has done some of these things, but my point is that at this moment, those  ought to be its exclusive focus. There is a chance here for a serious journalist to expose the workings of a provably out-of-control government; anything else is a distraction at this stage.

This kind of missing-the-point is not restricted to the focus on Greenwald. Consider for instance, the stories on the Bradley Manning trial. As Matt Taibbi points out, most media outlets are obsessed by his personal background and are rather spectacularly missing the forest for the trees:

The CNN headline read as follows: “Hero or Traitor? Bradley Manning’s Trial to Start Monday.” NBC went with “Contrasting Portraits of Bradley Manning as Court-Martial Opens.”

Unsurprisingly, the citizenry marches on, its attention diverted.

The Spying Will Continue Until Morale Improves

The New York Times, picking up on a Guardian story by Glenn Greenwald, reports that:

The Obama administration is secretly carrying out a domestic surveillance program under which it is collecting business communications records involving Americans under a hotly debated section of the Patriot Act, according to a highly classified court order disclosed on Wednesday night.

The order, signed by Judge Roger Vinson of the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court in April, directs aVerizon Communications subsidiary, Verizon Business Network Services, to turn over “on an ongoing daily basis” to the National Security Agency all call logs “between the United States and abroad” or “wholly within the United States, including local telephone calls.”

This policy is a straightforward continuance of the Bush administration’s massive surveillance effort, similarly directed by the NSA in co-operation with telecommunications companies. The scope of the order indicates the data collection is indiscriminate: it is not directed, targeted or narrowly focused. (The court order does limit the data collection by time.) Rather, it is a broad sweep, a trawl to net the NSA’s desired catch. This is not surveillance to confirm a hypothesis; this is surveillance to try to frame one. This is not surveillance as an aid to detective work; this is surveillance as an integral component of that work. As Greenwald notes:

FISA court orders typically direct the production of records pertaining to a specific named target who is suspected of being an agent of a terrorist group or foreign state, or a finite set of individually named targets.

Especially interesting, I think, is the reaction to the story. By that I do not mean the reactions of politicians, journalists, and privacy advocates. Rather, if one is allowed to believe that comments on the New York Times story are at all reflective of the ‘word on the street’, then a couple of apologetic samples are depressingly interesting.

For instance, ‘pjd’ from Westford writes:

I’m surprised that no one has noted the dates in the order. The order was signed on 4/25/2013 which is ten days after the Boston Marathon bombing.

This response is emblematic of the ‘it’s justified because of the terrorists.’ Never mind that nothing about the Boston bombers seems to indicate any kind of widespread conspiracy that would justify such a massive surveillance effort.

And ‘Kurt’ from NY writes:

Ordinarily, this kind of data collection could be interpreted as overly broad and a threat to civil liberties….But, again, given just how disturbing it seems on its face, if a judge is willing to make such an order and Congress is aware of it, it would seem to suggest that there is legitimate need in response to specific threat. Which would also say that, given the security classification it has been given, for this matter to be public knowledge as it now is is possibly injurious to national security.

Here we have the standard ‘the government must have a reason even if they aren’t telling us, and that’s fine by me.’ The trust displayed here in a judicial and executive branch that have done nothing to justify it is touching.

And this statement by the Obama Administration is equally risible:

The information acquired does not include the content of any communications or the name of any subscriber.  It relates exclusively to metadata, such as a telephone number or the length of a call.

Why is this not even remotely comforting?

Glenn Greenwald on Civil Liberties and Their Willing Surrender

Today, at Brooklyn College, Glenn Greenwald delivered the 39th Samuel J. Konefsky Memorial Lecture. I was lucky enough to be in attendance and thoroughly enjoyed watching this top-notch muckraker and gadfly in action. I have often seen Greenwald speak on video but this was the first live presentation I have witnessed. It was everything it was promised to be: Greenwald was passionate, precise and polemical. The title of his talk was ‘Civil Liberties and Endless War in the Age of Obama’ and so, appropriately, Greenwald began by offering a definition of ‘civil liberties‘: a set of absolute, unconditional constraints on governmental and state power, ones defined and defended by the people. These should be so stark and clear that no abridgments should be possible or tolerated; those who suggest or support these show themselves to not possess a true understanding of the concept.

With this uncompromising bottom line clearly articulated, Greenwald then presented a tripartite analysis of why, despite the presence of the US Constitution and its Bill of Rights, the state of civil liberties in the US today appears to be quite as problematic as it is and why the US populace has so easily acquiesced to this denial of their constitutional privileges.

First, the US has been since 2001, in a state of ‘perpetual war’, against poorly defined enemies, with no geographic or temporal limitation. This war ensures the endless invocation of natural security as a reason for the attenuation and abuse of civil liberties, whether it be surveillance, indefinite detention without trial, or the assassination of American citizens without trial. The lessons of history have been learned well by the administrations that have held power in the US over the past dozen years: war provides refuge for roguish government behavior of all kinds, and nothing quite prepares a populace for the surrender of civil liberties like the threat of an enemy, one whose threat can only be repelled by increasing the powers a state commands.

Second, the surrender of civil liberties is made more palatable when their abuse by the state appears to be directed against a demonized minority. The gullible majority, convinced that these systematic corruptions of the Bill of Rights remain confined to just this hapless lot, and convinced that their liberties are being protected as a consequence, gladly sign on and form cheering squads, unaware that soon the baleful eye of the powers-that-be will be turned upon them. In the American context  Muslim-Americans have borne the brunt of the the post-911 ravishing of the Bill of Rights. There is little sympathy for them in most parts of the American polity, but the damage done to what is considered ‘normal’ is real enough. Our civil liberties were, and are, next.

Third, yesterday’s ‘extreme’ or ‘radical’ is today’s normal. When the Patriot Act was first passed, it provoked vigorous debate and contestation even in a country still traumatized by 9/11. Its renewals have provoked little debate and attention. We live in a post-Patriot Act US. Its draconian provisions are now the new normal. In this context, I’d like to note once again, the seemingly-useless but very-effective-in-getting-citizens-used-to-the-idea-of-random-searches subway searches in New York City.

Greenwald spoke on a great deal more, including, most importantly, how concerted, determined, political activism by the citizenry still remains, the only and best way to safeguard and preserve the Bill of Rights.

My brief notes above are merely a sampler; catch him at a speaking venue near you if you can.