Sunday, March 29, 2015

Muslim vs. White Mass Murderers

In the early months of 2015, there have been two separate mass murders inside France that have generated headlines worldwide for their brutality and disregard for human life. In early January, brothers Cherif and Said Kouachi entered the Paris offices of the satirical newspaper Charlie Hebdo and gunned down 11 employees, and shot dead one police officer on their way out. Last week, in an act of mass murder with more than 12 times the number of victims, 27-year-old pilot Andreas Lubitz intentionally guided the plane he was flying straight into the French Alps and killed all 150 people on board. Yet it is only the former murderous act that has been described by politicians and portrayed in the media as an existential threat and an example of terrorism.

The coverage of the Kouachi brothers downplayed their humanity by describing them as calculating, rational, indifferent killing machines. A New York Times article, titled "From Amateur to Ruthless Jihadist in France," describes "two jihadists in black, sheathed in body armor" who "gave a global audience a ruthless demonstration in terrorism." The "hardened killer(s)" were said to walk "with military precision," and "nonchalantly" take a phone call.

The article explains how French security services were unable to prevent the attacks: "The brothers appeared so nonthreatening that surveillance was dropped in the middle of last year." Yet they had a long history of being monitored by French authorities, evidenced by the "thousands of pages of legal documents obtained by The New York Times, including minutes of interrogations, summaries of phone taps, intercepted jailhouse letters."

It is seen as a failure of the security services, who presumably should not have let the brothers out of their surveillance dragnet. Their "steadily deepening radicalism .. occurred virtually under the noses of French authorities, who twice had Cherif in their grasp."

There is no blame attributed to the French socioeconomic system, which relegates most of France's Arab population to a permanent underclass of unemployment and poverty. As racial minorities in a country that holds few opportunities for people with their background, the brothers worked dead-end jobs like delivering pizzas and fish mongering. They were not able to get jobs at French investment banks or in the fashion industry. Certainly this must have produced adverse mental health effects. 

There is no discussion of whether destitution and marginalization contributed to the Kouachi brothers' decision to use violence against people who, to them, apparently represented a source of their humiliation. 

Neither is there blame on French foreign policy, which has been complicit in arming and funding Al Qaeda for many years in Libya, Syria and other countries. France's support for violent extremism abroad and its potential to create blowback at home is likewise disregarded in media analysis.

The murderous Germanwings pilot received a very different portrait in The New York Times. The title of a profile on Lubitz reads like a eulogy: "Andreas Lubitz, Who Loved to Fly, Ended Up on a Mysterious and Deadly Course."

He has a name and a passion. And unlike the "ruthless jihadists," who chose their path as criminals, Lubitz "ended up on a mysterious course" as if he was a passenger on the journey, rather than the instigator who drove 149 people intentionally to their death.

In describing the "mystery" behind Lubitz, the Times says that "the focus has turned to what had driven him to such an act - and to whether the airline industry and regulators do enough to screen pilots for psychological problems." As was the case with Newton elementary school killer Adam Lanza, the problem is understood as one of "missed chances," in the workplace or by social services, not the police and security officials.

CNN wrote that Lanza "was an isolated young man with deteriorating mental health and a fascination for mass violence whose problems were not ignored but misunderstood and mistreated." Lubitz had reportedly been treated by psychotherapists for "suicidal tendencies" and possibly suffered from depression.

For white young men like Lubitz and Lanza, the problem was a failure of society - parents, teachers, employers, government regulators - to recognize and treat mental health problems. Implicitly they are people deserving help, not security threats deserving surveillance and monitoring. The mental health of the killers is understood to be a cause - if not the primary cause - behind their actions. They were victimized by their mental health, whereas the Kouachi brothers were rational actors responsible for their actions. 

Near the bottom of the New York Times article, a surviving Charlie Hebdo journalist is quoted as saying that one of the brothers told her "We don't kill women." One of the brothers also reportedly told a salesman "We don't shoot civilians." They clearly did kill civilians, but unlike either Lubitz or Lanza, they did spare lives rather than kill indiscriminately. Yet only the Kouachis are described as "hardened killers."

Why such different treatments of the massacres and the killers responsible for them? Simply put, the massacre by the Kouachi brothers can be attributed to "Islamic extremism" while the massacre by Lubitz cannot. Surely the passengers who "shrieked in terror" would not have considered themselves any less terrorized than employees of Charlie Hebdo witnessing the masked attackers with Kalashnikovs.

The Paris attacks were described by CNNBBCNew York TimesNBC, and virtually every major Western news outlet as terrorism. But the Germanwings plane crash has not been called terrorism at all. USA Today reported that the FBI "has found no connection of anyone aboard to terrorism." CNN reported that Lubitz "was not known to be on any terrorism list, and his religion was not immediately known."

In other words, it was not immediately know whether Lubitz was a Muslim, and, by extension, whether he was a terrorist. This connection between religion and terrorism, used in the same sentence in the CNN article, demonstrates how terrorism in common usage is understood to be about who a person is rather than what he does. Two Muslim brothers of North African heritage are terrorists when then murder 12 people, while a white German is not a terrorist when he murders 149.

Terrorism is perceived as the most heinous type of crime. Terrorists are thought to be irredeemable, subhuman creatures who do not even qualify as legitimate members of society with rights. But there is no commonly accepted definition of a terrorist, so any terrorist label is completely arbitrary. Unsurprisingly, there is a racial and cultural bias for using such a label.

Media portrayals of mass murderers are a representation of the society's attitudes towards the subjects they cover. That Muslims and Arabs engender an irrational fear is nothing new. As Edward Said explains in Orientalism, this has a long history.


"For Europe, Islam was a lasting trauma. Until the end of the seventeenth century the ‘Ottoman peril’ lurked alongside Europe to represent for the whole of Christian civilization a constant danger, and in time European civilization incorporated that peril and its lore, its great events, figures, virtues and vices, as something woven into the fabric of life,” Said writes.


This danger still manifests itself in the disproportionate reaction of Western nations and its people to crimes that can be attributed to Islam and Arabs. Even if, as is the case with the Kouachi brothers, they were born and raised in France, never having stepped foot in their parents' native country of Algeria. But "Frenchness" is still widely understood to be the exclusive domain of the country's Catholic population. 


As Joseph Massad notes in The Electronic Intifada, French colonialists killed millions of people in Vietnam, Algeria and Madagascar, practicing inhuman forms of savagery and torture in the process. In this context, the Kouachi brothers and their accomplice should be compared.

"Despite the horrific magnitude of the three men's deeds, their crimes remain numerically modest and pale in comparison to with the far more cruel French Catholic and 'laic' monstrosities that have reached genocidal proportions across the globe," Massad writes. "Had the Kouachi brothers and Coulibaly lived, however, they would have still needed many more lessons in cruelty and violent intolerance before they could become fully assimilated into true Catholic and laic Frenchness."

After the Charlie Hebdo shooting, more than a million people marched in Paris with 40 heads of state "in the most striking show of solidarity in the West against the threat of Islamic extremism since the Sept. 11 attacks," according to the New York Times.

The marchers, "people of all races, ages and political stripes swarmed central Paris beneath a bright blue sky, calling for peace and an end to violent extremism." This in the same city where six months earlier French authorities banned marches demanding an end to Israel's massacres in Gaza, where nearly 2,200 people were killed by drone strikes, tank and naval shelling, artillery fire, and F16 bombings.

In an farcical piece of irony, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who ordered and presided over the military assault was standing in the first row of world leaders demonstrating their "unity in outrage" during the staged march.

The framing of the Charlie Hebdo narrative as an assault by Islam against Western civilization misrepresents the violence as uniquely Islamic and uniquely evil. Any comparison of the media coverage of mass murderers must recognize that race and ethnicity drive the way those crimes are understood and portrayed. To American and European whites, Islam has always been perceived as a force that needs to be subdued and controlled, usually through violence. It is no surprise that crimes by "Islamists" are depicted by Western media through this lens, in ways that equivalent or more serious crimes by whites are not.

Sunday, March 15, 2015

The Misrepresentation of Israeli Aggression as Self-Defense

Last July, shortly after the outbreak of war in Gaza, President Barack Obama declared that "Israel has the right to defend itself against what I consider to be inexcusable attacks from Hamas." To demonstrate the general moral applicability of this position, he said that "no country can accept rocket [sic] fired indiscriminately at citizens." Obama's claims provided ideological cover for Israel to carry out wholesale slaughter over the next six weeks in which nearly 2,200 Palestinians were killed.

Obama also conveniently turned reality on its head by ignoring the fact that it was Israel that was responsible for nearly three times as many cease fire violations as Hamas since December 2012. Israel's violations of the 2012 cease fire caused the deaths of 18 people, while Palestinian violations caused none. Since the end of the 51-day war in August 2014, Israel predictably has gone on violating the most recent cease fire even more brazenly and with complete impunity.

The latest cease fire agreement stipulated that Hamas and other groups in Gaza would stop rocket attacks, while Israel would stop all military action. As with past truces, Hamas has observed the conditions. On the rare occasions that individuals or groups have fired rockets from Gaza, Hamas has arrested them. (See also here and here.)

Israel, on the other hand, has failed to live up to its end of the bargain. This is consistent with past practice. Israel has continued its illegal siege on the Gaza strip, while indiscriminately harassing and shooting at the local population. Fishermen and farmers, who are trying to subsist amid dire economic conditions, have born the brunt of the aggression.

The Palestinian Centre for Human Rights documented 18 instances of Israeli soldiers firing on Palestinian fishermen operating within internationally recognized Palestinian waters in September 2014 alone.

By December, Humanity for Palestine reported 94 total cease fire violations since the August truce. In addition to the many attacks on fishermen, Israeli border guards targeted "protesters;" "fired sporadically at Palestinian homes and agricultural property with machine guns and 'flashbang' grenades;" and "seriously injured" a teenager who was shot near the Kerem Shalom crossing.

The first months of 2015 have seen more of the same. According to International Middle East Media Center (IMEMC):

  • On February 25, "Israeli forces opened fire at farmers in the central Gaza Strip." The previous day, farmers near Khan Younis had been fired on. Two days prior farmers near Rafah were fired on.
  • On February 27, Israeli forces "opened gunfire on Palestinian houses in the Central Gaza strip." 
  • On March 2, "Israeli gunboats again opened fire ... towards fishermen's boats in the Gaza strip." The Israeli forces reportedly "chased some fishing boats off the coast." 
  • On March 7, fisherman Tawfiq Abu Ryala, 34, was killed when he was shot in the abdomen by Israeli navy ships. Several attacks in previous days were reported in which Palestinian fishermen were injured. "All took place while the boats were in Palestinian territorial waters." 
  • On March 11, "several armored military vehicles and bulldozers carried out ... a limited invasion into an area east of the al-Maghazi refugee camp, in central Gaza, and bulldozed farmlands."
On March 13, Palestine News Network reported that "Israeli Soldiers Open Fire on Palestinian Lands and Farmers East of Khan Younis Again." The articles states that "witnesses reported that the Israeli soldiers in the borders towers opened their guns [sic] fire on the the [sic] shepherds and farmers near the security line east of Al Tuffah neighborhood east of Khan Younis." 

The vast majority of the rampant Israeli cease fire violations are not reported by the American and the Western press. When they are, the Israeli military is given the opportunity to provide self-serving rationalizations which serve as the authoritative account of what transpired.

When a fisherman was killed on March 7, a Reuters article cites an Israeli military spokesperson claiming that "four vessels had strayed from the fishing zone and that the Israeli army opened fire after the boats did not heed calls to halt." Of course, the fishermen is not able to tell his side of the story because the organization Reuters quotes killed him. 

There is no mention in the article of any of the multiple attacks on Palestinian fishermen that happen routinely in Gaza. In many similar shootings, surviving victims and witnesses can attest that fishermen are within the agreed-upon six-mile nautical limit, and certainly well within the 20-mile limit guaranteed by the Oslo accords. 

In a December article in the New York Times, Isabel Kershner writes that "Retaliating for a rocket fired into Israel on Friday, the Israeli military said it carried out an airstrike on a Hamas site in southern Gaza." She begins the sentence by stating it is Israel retaliating against Palestinian actions. Whoever fired the rocket presumably was not "retaliating" for the dozens of Israeli military cease fire violations over the previous months, but was implicitly initiating aggression.  

More importantly than this biased framing of the narrative, Kershner buries the lead at the bottom of the story: "Also on Friday, six Palestinians were wounded by Israeli gunfire near the border fence in northern Gaza." She obsequiously follows this statement with Israeli military rationalizations that "soldiers first fired into the air to try to disperse protesters approaching the fence then fired at the legs of some of them."

Someone who commits a violent action is obviously not a partial source for an honest account of the facts. Would a journalist report on a shooting by only repeating the side of the suspect who claims self-defense? 

Six months after repeated, documented Israeli breaches of the cease fire agreement - without any by Hamas - New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof claimed in an Op-Ed that "Hamas provokes Israel." He provides no evidence for this assertion. As the record clearly shows, Kristof has it backwards. 

If no country can accept rockets fired at its population, then surely neither can they accept M16s fired at them. Or tanks and bulldozers invading their land. But perhaps Obama was deliberate in choosing his words. He stated that no country can accept rockets "fired indiscriminately at citizens." (Italics mine.) 

Since Palestinians live under Israeli sovereignty but are denied citizenship, they are not technically covered by Obama's moral truism. But assuming what he says should apply to all people - even those who are politically subjugated by racist regimes - Obama's words would apply equally to Palestinians.

But when asked by a reporter whether Palestinians in Gaza have the right to defend themselves, an Obama administration spokesperson denied Palestinians this right. She did not explicitly say so, but by evading and refusing to respond to a simple yes or no question, she gave the equivalent of a direct denial. "I think - I'm not sure what you're getting at," she said. After the reporter restated his crystal-clear question, she replied "What are you specifically referring to? Is there a specific even or a specific occurrence?"

In the same way that omission of material facts may constitute fraud, refusing to answer a question about whether a person enjoys a right constitutes a direct refusal to recognize that right. 

Obama did not only pervert the issue of the right to self-defense by falsely pretending it was a moral truism that he clearly and demonstrably does not extend to Palestinians, he also misrepresents the applicability of self-defense to Israel in the first place. 

As Noura Erakat explained in her July 2014 article "No, Israel Does Not Have the Right to Self-Defense in International Law Against Occupied Palestinian Territory," Israel is "distorting/reinterpreting international law to justify its use of militarized force in order to protect its colonial authority." Obama willingly enables Israel's lawless actions by accepting their rewriting of international law to justify their aggression. 

What Obama is really saying when he talks about self-defense is that as the leader of one rogue nation, he supports the right of his rogue client state to violate the rule of law and make fraudulent claims that are neither morally nor legally justified. 

As John Quigley explains in The Six-Day War and Israeli Self-Defense, failing to challenge Israel's bogus claims of self-defense in the 1967 war - as the United States has done by providing a diplomatic shield, vetoing more than 40 U.N. Security Council resolutions condemning Israel - has had disastrous consequences for Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the system of international law in general.

"The flawed perception of the June 1967 war serves to perpetuate conflict in the Middle East. It also serves to promote the expansion of the concept of self-defense and thereby to erode the prohibition against the use of force," Quigley writes.

The United States government under the Obama administration continues to carry this even further. Undoubtedly the situation will only get worse in the future. Last month in Haaretz, Gideon Levy wrote that there will inevitably be another war in Gaza.

"Israel knows this war will break out, it also knows why - and it's galloping toward it blindfolded, as though it were a cyclical ritual, a periodical ceremony or a natural disaster that cannot be avoided. Here and there one even perceives enthusiasm," Levy writes

This will mean more death, more destruction, and more Palestinian lives destroyed as the world looks on and does nothing. Sadly Levy is right. When the next war comes and Israel succeeds in baiting Hamas to start firing rockets into Israel, all the talk will be about Israel's right to defend itself. Obama (or the next American President) will repeat the same charade. He will frame the narrative in terms of Israel's victimization and Israel's rights, while denying this treatment to the Palestinians. 

The media and the public will uncritically support the position of American and Israeli power. Thousands of Palestinians will be indiscriminately killed, but not because Israel is defending itself. Palestinians will be killed because the U.S. government refuses to protect them from a belligerent and aggressive regime, and refuses even to recognize their right to protect themselves.

Sunday, March 1, 2015

Two Different Approaches, Two Different Results in Fighting Ebola

In recent weeks the Ebola epidemic in West Africa has slowed from a peak of more than 1,000 new cases per week to 99 confirmed cases during the week of February 22, according to the World Health Organization. For two countries that have taken diametrically opposed approaches to combating the disease, the stark difference in the results achieved over the last five months has become evident.

The United States, which sent about 2,800 military troops to the region in October, has announced an end to its relief mission. Most soldiers have already returned. Pentagon Press Secretary Rear Admiral John Kirby declared the mission a "success." The criteria for this determination is unclear, as the troops did not treat a single patient, much less save a single life. 


President Barack Obama proclaimed the American response to the crisis "an example of American leadership." As is the case "whenever and wherever a disaster or disease strikes," according to Obama, "the world looks to us to lead." The President claimed that the troops contributed not only by their own efforts, but by serving as a "force multiplier" that inspired others.  


Obama says the "American values" displayed "matter to the world." They are an example of "what makes us exceptional." 


By virtue of American supremacy, apparently, these values are superior to those of people from any other nation.

When you look behind the President's and the Pentagon's rhetoric, it is difficult to find concrete measures of success. From the beginning, the capacity of American troops to make a difference in containing and eliminating a medical disease was questionable, to say the least. 


In October, the Daily Beast reported that soldiers would receive only four hours of training in preparation for their deployment to Africa. That is half of a regular work day for people with no medical background. When they arrived, they did not exactly hit the ground running. "The first 500 soldiers to arrive have been holing up in Liberian hotels and government facilities while the military builds longer-term infrastructure on the ground," wrote Tim Mak. 


The DoD declared on its Web site that "the Defense Department made critical contributions to the fight against the Ebola virus disease outbreak in West Africa. Chief among these were the deployment of men and women in uniform to Monrovia, Liberia, as part of Operation United Assistance." So, the chief contribution of the DoD was sending people in military uniforms to the site of the outbreak.


The DoD lists among its accomplishments training 1,539 health care workers & support staff (presumably non-technical and cursory); creating 10 Ebola treatment units (which you could count on your fingers); and constructing a 25-bed medical unit (for a country that has had 10,000 cases of Ebola).


USAID declares that "the United States has done more than any other country to help West Africa respond to the Ebola crisis." Like the DoD, they are short on quantitative measurements and long on vague business-speak. USAID says they "worked with UN and NGO partners," "partnered with the U.S. military," and "expanded the pipeline of medical equipment and critical supplies to the region." 


USAID and other government personnel have clearly helped facilitate the delivery of equipment and supplies, but claims that the U.S. has done more than any other country are dubious. 

By the end of April, all but 100 U.S. troops will have left West Africa. There will then be a transition to what Obama called the "civilian response." This appears equally as vague as the military response. 

The U.S. response did involve many people and several hundred millions of dollars, which is, indeed, more than most countries contributed. But an examination of the facts shows that the U.S. played mostly a supporting role, collaborating with other actors in the tangential aspects of the crisis. U.S. government employees were not directly involved in treating any patients. Their role was rather to help other health workers and officials on the front lines who actually did. To say this is an example of American leadership and exceptionalism seems like a vast embellishment.


The other country who has taken a very public role in the Ebola crisis is Cuba. Unlike the U.S., Cuba sent nearly 500 professional healthcare workers - doctors and nurses - to treat African patients who had contracted Ebola. These included doctors from the Henry Reeve Brigade, which has served over the last decade in response to the most high-profile disasters in the world, including in Haiti and Pakistan. In Haiti, the group was instrumental in detecting and treating cholera, which had been introduced by UN peace keepers. The disease sickened and killed thousands of Haitians. 


Before being deployed to West Africa, all the Cuban doctors and nurses completed an "intense training" of a minimum of two weeks, where they "prepared in the form of treating patients without exposing themselves to the deadly virus," according to CNN


After Cuba announced its plan to mobilize what Cubans call the "army of white robes," WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said that "human resources are clearly our most important need." 


"Money and materials are important, but those two things alone cannot stop Ebola virus transmission," she said. "We need most especially compassionate doctors and nurses" to work under "very demanding conditions."


Like their American counterparts, Cuban authorities also recently proclaimed success in fighting Ebola. They used a clear definition of what they meant.

"We have managed to save the lives of 260 people who were in a very very bad state, and through our treatment, they were cured and have gotten on with their lives," said Jorge Delgado, head of the medical brigade, at a conference in Geneva on Foreign Medical Teams involved in fighting the Ebola crisis. 


The work of the Henry Reeve Brigade was recognized by Norwegian Trade Unions who nominated the group for the Nobel Peace Prize "for saving lives and helping millions of suffering people around the world." 


The European Commission for humanitarian aid and crisis management last week also "recognized the role Cuba has played in fighting the Ebola epidemic." 


For more than 50 years, Cuba has carried out medical missions across the globe - beginning in Algeria after the revolution in 1961 and taking place in poor countries desperately needing medical care throughout Africa, Asia and Latin America. They have provided 1.2 billion consultations, 2.2 million births, 5 million operations and immunizations for 12 million children and pregnant women, according to Granma


"In their direct fight against death, the human quality of the members of the Henry Reeve brigade is strengthened, and for those in need around the world, they represent welcome assistance," writes Nuria Barbosa León. 


The mission of the DoD is one of military involvement worldwide. As Nick Turse reports in TomDispatch, U.S. military activity on the African continent is growing at an astounding rate. The military "averages about one and a half missions a day. This represents a 217% increase in operations, programs, and exercises since the command was established in 2008," Turse writes. He says the DoD is calling "Africa the battlefield of tomorrow, today." 


Turse writes that the U.S. military is quietly replicating its failed counterinsurgency strategy in Africa, under the guise of humanitarian activities. "If history is any guide, humanitarian efforts by AFRICOM (U.S. Africa Command) and Combined Joint Task Force-Horn of Africa will grow larger and ever more expensive, until they join the long list of projects that have become 'monuments of U.S. failure' around the world," he writes.


There are some enlightening pieces of information listed by the DoD as part of the "transition to Operation Onward Liberty." The DoD "will build partnership capacity with the Armed Forces of Liberia" and will "continue military to military engagement in ways that support Liberia's growth toward enduring peace and security."  


It is unclear what role the U.S. military will help their Liberian counterparts play, unless peace and security is considered from the perspective of multinational corporations who have their eyes on large oil reserves, rather than the perspective of the local population. 


The U.S. military, unsurprisingly, seems to be using the Ebola crisis as a pretext to expand its reach inside Africa, consistent with the pattern of the last seven years that Turse describes. The deployment of several thousand troops to West Africa can be understood as a P.R. stunt that is the public face of counterinsurgency.

U.S. troops are used as props. What may sound like a massive effort is little more than propaganda. The idea is to associate troops with humanitarianism, rather than death, destruction and torture. In reality, one doctor can save more lives than hundreds of soldiers. A true humanitarian mission would be conducted by civilian agencies and professionals who are trained and experienced specifically in medicine, construction and administration, not by soldiers trained to kill and pacify war zones. 

In Liberia, as in most of Africa, Washington's IMF and World Bank-imposed neoliberal policies have further savaged a continent devastated by 300 years of European colonialism. Any U.S. military involvement in Liberia and elsewhere is likely to reflect the economic goals of the U.S. government, which is primarily concerned with continuing the implementation of the Washington consensus.  

Karen Greenberg, director of the Center on National Security at Fordham Law, warned last fall about the dangers of using a "war on terror template" in response to a disease such as Ebola.

"Countering Ebola will require a whole new set of protections and priorities, which should emerge from the medical and public health communities. The now sadly underfunded National Institutes of Health and other such organizations have been looking at possible pandemic situations for years," Greenberg writes. "It is imperative that our officials heed the lessons of their research as they have failed to do many times over with their counterparts in public policy in the war on terror years."

This is the opposite of the strategy the Obama administration elected to take. It would be wise to question the alarming militarization of American foreign assistance. The continued expansion of the national security apparatus occurs at the direct expense of vital civilian agencies. The Cuban model is evidence of what is possible with an alternative approach.