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Updated: 4 hours 39 min ago

Our Ever-Deadlier Police State

7 hours 38 min ago

Editor’s note: New Haven, Conn., was hit by four days of protests last week after police gunfire wounded an African American woman while officers were investigating a robbery. In Charlotte, N.C., last Monday there were a number of protest rallies stemming from release of a video of police fatally shooting an African American man who had brandished a pistol at a restaurant. Amid ongoing public anger over police shootings of black Americans, Truthdig reposts an Oct. 22, 2017, column here in which Chris Hedges analyzes the issue and its causes. Hedges will return with a new column next week.

None of the reforms, increased training, diversity programs, community outreach and gimmicks such as body cameras have blunted America’s deadly police assault, especially against poor people of color. Police forces in the United States—which, according to The Washington Post, have fatally shot 782 people this year [2017]—are unaccountable, militarized monstrosities that spread fear and terror in poor communities. By comparison, police in England and Wales killed 62 people in the 27 years between the start of 1990 and the end of 2016.

Police officers have become rogue predators in impoverished communities. Under U.S. forfeiture laws, police indiscriminately seize money, real estate, automobiles and other assets. In many cities, traffic, parking and other fines are little more than legalized extortion that funds local government and turns jails into debtor prisons.

Because of a failed court system, millions of young men and women are railroaded into prison, many for nonviolent offenses. SWAT teams with military weapons burst into homes often under warrants for nonviolent offenses, sometimes shooting those inside. Trigger-happy cops pump multiple rounds into the backs of unarmed men and women and are rarely charged with murder. And for poor Americans, basic constitutional rights, including due process, were effectively abolished decades ago.

Jonathan Simon’s “Governing Through Crime” and Michelle Alexander’s “The New Jim Crow” point out that what is defined and targeted as criminal activity by the police and the courts is largely determined by racial inequality and class, and most importantly by the potential of targeted groups to cause social and political unrest. Criminal policy, as sociologist Alex S. Vitale writes in his new book, “The End of Policing,” “is structured around the use of punishment to manage the ‘dangerous classes,’ masquerading as a system of justice.”

The criminal justice system, at the same time, refuses to hold Wall Street banks, corporations and oligarchs accountable for crimes that have caused incalculable damage to the global economy and the ecosystem. None of the bankers who committed massive acts of fraud and were responsible for the financial collapse in 2008 have gone to prison even though their crimes resulted in widespread unemployment, millions of evictions and foreclosures, homelessness, bankruptcies and the looting of the U.S. Treasury to bail out financial speculators at taxpayer expense. We live in a two-tiered legal system, one in which poor people are harassed, arrested and jailed for absurd infractions, such as selling loose cigarettes—which led to Eric Garner being choked to death by a New York City policeman in 2014—while crimes of appalling magnitude that wiped out 40 percent of the world’s wealth are dealt with through tepid administrative controls, symbolic fines and civil enforcement.

The grotesque distortions of the judicial system and the aggressive war on the poor by the police will get worse under President Trump and [the now replaced] Attorney General Jeff Sessions. There has been a rollback of President Barack Obama’s 2015 restrictions on the 1033 Program, a 1989 congressional action that allows the transfer of military weaponry, including grenade launchers, armored personnel carriers and .50-caliber machine guns, from the federal government to local police forces. Since 1997, the Department of Defense has turned over a staggering $5.1 billion in military hardware to police departments.

The Trump administration also is resurrecting private prisons in the federal prison system, accelerating the so-called war on drugs, stacking the courts with right-wing “law and order” judges and preaching the divisive politics of punishment and retribution. Police unions enthusiastically embrace these actions, seeing in them a return to the Wild West mentality that characterized the brutality of police departments in the 1960s and 1970s, when radicals, especially black radicals, were murdered with impunity at the hands of law enforcement. The Praetorian Guard of the elites, as in all totalitarian systems, will soon be beyond the reach of the law. As Vitale writes in his book, “Our entire criminal justice system has become a gigantic revenge factory.”

The arguments—including the racist one about “superpredators”—used to justify the expansion of police power have no credibility, as the gun violence in south Chicago, abject failure of the war on drugs and vast expansion of the prison system over the last 40 years illustrate. The problem is not ultimately in policing techniques and procedures; it is in the increasing reliance on the police as a form of social control to buttress a system of corporate capitalism that has turned the working poor into modern-day serfs and abandoned whole segments of the society. Government no longer makes any attempt to ameliorate racial and economic inequality. Instead, it criminalizes poverty. It has turned the poor into one more cash crop for the rich.

“By conceptualizing the problem of policing as one of inadequate training and professionalization, reformers fail to directly address how the very nature of policing and the legal system served to maintain and exacerbate racial inequality,” Vitale writes. “By calling for colorblind ‘law and order’ they strengthen a system that puts people of color at a structural disadvantage. At the root, they fail to appreciate that the basic nature of the police, since its earliest origins, is to be a tool for managing inequality and maintaining the status quo. Police reforms that fail to directly address this reality are doomed to reproduce it. … Well-trained police following proper procedures are still going to be arresting people for mostly low-level offenses, and the burden of that will continue to fall primarily on communities of color because that is how the system is designed to operate—not because of the biases or misunderstandings of officers.”

In a recent interview, Vitale told me, “We’ve been waging a war on drugs for 40 years by putting people in prison for ever longer sentences. Yet drugs are cheaper, easier to get, and at a higher quality than they’ve ever been. Any high school student in America can get any kind of drugs they want. Yet we persist in this idea that the way to respond to the problem of drugs, and many other social problems, is through arrest, courts, punishments, prisons. This is what Trump is playing to. This idea that the only appropriate role for the state is one of coercion and threats—whether it’s in the foreign policy sphere or in the domestic sphere.”

Police forces, as Vitale writes in his book, were not formed to ensure public safety or prevent crime. They were created by the property classes to maintain economic and political dominance and exert control over slaves, the poor, dissidents and labor unions that challenged the wealthy’s hold on power and ability to amass personal fortunes. Many of America’s policing techniques, including widespread surveillance, were pioneered and perfected in colonies of the U.S. and then brought back to police departments in the homeland. Blacks in the South had to be controlled, and labor unions and radical socialists in the industrial Northeast and Midwest had to be broken.

The fundamental role of the police has never changed. Paul Butler in his book “Chokehold: Policing Black Men” and James Forman Jr. in his book “Locking Up Our Own: Crime and Punishment in Black America” echo Vitale’s point that the war on drugs “has never been about public health or public safety. It’s been about providing a cover for aggressive and invasive policing that targets almost exclusively people of color.”

“People often point to the London Metropolitan Police, who were formed in the 1820s by Sir Robert Peel,” Vitale said. “They are held up as this liberal ideal of a dispassionate, politically neutral police with the support of the citizenry. But this really misreads the history. Peel is sent to manage the British occupation of Ireland. He’s confronted with a dilemma. Historically, peasant uprisings, rural outrages were dealt with by either the local militia or the British military. In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, in the need for soldiers in other parts of the British Empire, he is having more and more difficulty managing these disorders. In addition, when he does call out the militia, they often open fire on the crowd and kill lots of people, creating martyrs and inflaming further unrest. He said, ‘I need a force that can manage these outrages without inflaming passions further.’ He developed the Peace Preservation Force, which was the first attempt to create a hybrid military-civilian force that can try to win over the population by embedding itself in the local communities, taking on some crime control functions, but its primary purpose was always to manage the occupation. He then exports that model to London as the industrial working classes are flooding the city, dealing with poverty, cycles of boom and bust in the economy, and that becomes [its] primary mission.”

“The creation of the very first state police force in the United States was the Pennsylvania State Police in 1905,” Vitale said. “For the same reasons. It was modeled similarly on U.S. occupation forces in the Philippines. There was a back and forth with personnel and ideas. What happened was local police were unable to manage the coal strikes and iron strikes. … They needed a force that was more adherent to the interest of capital. … Interestingly, for these small-town police forces in a coal mining town there was sometimes sympathy. They wouldn’t open fire on the strikers. So, the state police force was created to be that strong arm for the law. Again, the direct connection between colonialism and the domestic management of workers. … It’s a two-way exchange. As we’re developing ideas throughout our own colonial undertakings, bringing those ideas home, and then refining them and shipping them back to our partners around the world who are often despotic regimes with close economic relationships to the United States. There’s a very sad history here of the U.S. exporting basically models of policing that morphs into death squads and horrible human rights abuses.”

The almost exclusive alliance on militarized police to deal with profound inequality and social problems is turning poor neighborhoods in cities such as Chicago into miniature failed states, ones where destitute young men and women join a gang for security and income and engage in battles with other gangs and the police. The “broken windows” policy shifts the burden for poverty onto the poor. It criminalizes minor infractions, arguing that disorder produces crime and upending decades of research about the causes of crime.

“As poverty deepens and housing prices rise, government support for affordable housing has evaporated, leaving in its wake a combination of homeless shelters and aggressive broken-windows-oriented policing,” Vitale writes. “As mental health facilities close, police become the first responders to calls for assistance with mental health crises. As youth are left without adequate schools, jobs, or recreational facilities, they form gangs for mutual protection or participate in the black markets of stolen goods, drugs, and sex to survive and are ruthlessly criminalized. Modern policing is largely a war on the poor that does little to make people safer or communities stronger, and even when it does, this is accomplished through the most coercive forms of state power that destroy the lives of millions.”

The accelerated assault on the poor and the growing omnipotence of the police signal our transformation into an authoritarian state in which the rich and the powerful are not subject to the rule of law. The Trump administration will promote none of the conditions that could ameliorate this crisis—affordable housing; well-paying jobs; safe and nurturing schools that do not charge tuition; better mental health facilities; efficient public transportation; the rebuilding of the nation’s infrastructure; demilitarized police forces in which most officers do not carry weapons; universal, government-funded health care; an end to the predatory loans and unethical practices of big banks; and reparations to African-Americans and an end to racial segregation. Trump and most of those he has appointed to positions of power disdain the poor as a dead weight on society. They blame stricken populations for their own misery. They seek to subjugate the poor, especially those of color, through police violence, ever harsher forms of punishment and an expansion of the prison system.

“We need an effective system of crime prevention and control in our communities, but that is not what the current system is,” Alexander writes in “The New Jim Crow.” “The system is better designed to create crime, and a perpetual class of people labeled criminal. … Saying mass incarceration is an abysmal failure makes sense, though only if one assumes that the criminal justice system is designed to prevent and control crime. But if mass incarceration is understood as a system of social control—specifically, racial control—then the system is a fantastic success.”

Click here to see Chris Hedges interview writer Alex S. Vitale.

Comedian Headed for Landslide Victory in Ukraine Election

15 hours 8 min ago

KIEV, Ukraine—A comedian whose only political experience consists of playing a president on TV cruised toward a huge landslide victory in Ukraine’s presidential election Sunday in what was seen as a reaction against the country’s entrenched corruption and low standard of living.

Results from 25% of polling stations showed sitcom star Volodymyr Zelenskiy receiving three times as many votes as President Petro Poroshenko — 73% to 24% — a crushing rebuke to Poroshenko’s five years in office.

Even before results started trickling in, Poroshenko accepted defeat based on exit polls, saying: “I am leaving office, but I want to firmly underline that I am not leaving politics.”

Zelenskiy, for his part, promised wide changes at the top echelons of government and said his No. 1 task would be securing the release of about 170 Ukrainian military members taken prisoner in the east or in Russia.

Ukraine has been plagued by rampant graft, a sickly economy and a grinding, five-year war with Russian-backed separatists in the eastern part of the country that has killed over 13,000 people.

After his apparent election, Zelenskiy said he would engage Russia to try to end the conflict. He also said, without giving details, that “we will make a very powerful information war” in order to stop the fighting.

He also suggested, in a remark that could grate on Russia, that his victory could be a model for other former Soviet states that want to move forward from ossified politics: “To all the countries of the former Soviet Union — look at us, everything is possible.”

Although the early results were a small fraction of the vote, the U.S. Embassy in Ukraine congratulated Zelenskiy, as did NATO secretary-general Jens Stoltenberg.

Zelenskiy, 41, became famous nationwide for his comic portrayal in a Ukrainian TV series of a high school teacher who becomes president after a video rant against corruption goes viral. In a case of life imitating television, Zelenskiy denounced graft as a real candidate.

Although Zelenskiy was criticized for a vague campaign platform and never holding public office, voters appeared to cast aside those concerns in favor of a thorough sweep of Ukraine’s political leadership.

“I have grown up under the old politicians and only have seen empty promises, lies and corruption,” said Lyudmila Potrebko, a 22-year-old computer programmer who voted for Zelenskiy. “It’s time to change that.”

Poroshenko was a billionaire candy magnate and former foreign minister before he took office in 2014 after huge street protests drove his Russia-friendly predecessor to flee the country. Although he instituted some reforms, critics said he had not done nearly enough to curb corruption.

Poroshenko positioned himself as a president who could stand up to Russia and said Zelenskiy would be easy prey for Moscow.

Although the Kremlin despises Poroshenko, Zelenskiy’s apparent victory was greeted noncommittally in Russia.

“We do not yet associate hopes with the winner,” Konstantin Kosachev, head of the foreign affairs committee in the upper house of the Russian Parliament, was quoted as saying by state news agency Tass.

Millions of people living in the rebel-controlled east and in Russia-annexed Crimea were unable to vote. Russia seized Crimea in 2014, and fighting in the east erupted that same year.

Poroshenko campaigned on the same promise he made when he was elected in 2014: to lead the nation of 42 million into the European Union and NATO. Zelenskiy pledged likewise to keep Ukraine on a Westward course but said the country should only join NATO if voters give their approval in a referendum.

Poroshenko’s five years in office saw the creation of a new Ukrainian Orthodox Church independent of Moscow’s church, a schism he championed. Also, Ukraine reached a visa-free deal with the EU that led to the exodus of millions of skilled workers for better living conditions elsewhere in Europe.

“Poroshenko has done a lot of good things for the country — creating its own church, getting the visa-free deal and taking Ukraine away from the empire,” said 44-year-old businessman Volodymyr Andreichenko, who voted for him.

But Poroshenko’s message fell flat with many voters struggling to survive on meager wages and pay soaring utility bills.

“We have grown poor under Poroshenko and have to save to buy food and clothing,” said 55-year-old sales clerk Irina Fakhova. “We have had enough of them getting mired in corruption and filling their pockets and treating us as fools.”

Zelenskiy’s image has been shadowed by his admission that he had commercial interests in Russia through a holding company, and by his business ties to self-exiled Ukrainian billionaire businessman Ihor Kolomoyskyi. Kolomoyskyi owns the TV station that aired the actor’s sitcom, “Servant of the People,” and his other comedy shows.

Accuracy at Heart of Census Question Before Supreme Court

16 hours 43 min ago

WASHINGTON—Justice Elena Kagan’s father was 3 years old when the census taker came to the family’s apartment on Ocean Parkway in Brooklyn, New York, on April 10, 1930.

Robert Kagan was initially wrongly listed as an “alien,” though he was a native-born New Yorker. The entry about his citizenship status appears to have been crossed out on the census form.

Vast changes in America and technology have dramatically altered the way the census is conducted. But the accuracy of the once-a-decade population count is at the heart of the Supreme Court case over the Trump administration’s effort to add a citizenship question to the 2020 census.

The justices are hearing arguments in the case on Tuesday, with a decision due by late June that will allow for printing forms in time for the count in April 2020.

The fight over the census question is the latest over immigration-related issues between Democratic-led states and advocates for immigrants, on one side, and the administration, on the other. The Supreme Court last year upheld President Donald Trump’s ban on visitors to the U.S. from several mostly Muslim countries. The court also has temporarily blocked administration plans to make it harder for people to claim asylum and is considering an administration appeal that would allow Trump to end protections for immigrants who were brought to this country as children.

The citizenship question has not been asked on the census form sent to every American household since 1950, and the administration’s desire to add it is now rife with political implications and partisan division.

Federal judges in California , Maryland and New York have blocked the administration from going forward with a citizenship question after crediting the analysis of Census Bureau experts who found that a question would damage the overall accuracy of the census and cause millions of Hispanics and immigrants to go uncounted. That in turn would cost several states seats in the U.S. House and billions of dollars in federal dollars that are determined by census results.

The three judges have rejected the administration’s arguments that asking about citizenship won’t harm accuracy and that the information is needed to help enforce provisions of the federal Voting Rights Act.

The Census Bureau’s consistent view since the 1960 census has been that asking everyone about citizenship “would produce a less accurate population count,” five former agency directors who served in Democratic and Republic administrations wrote in a Supreme Court brief.

No population count is perfect, and census designers strive to create a questionnaire that is clear and easy to answer.

In older censuses, a government worker known as an enumerator would visit households and record information. In modern times, people fill in their own forms on paper or electronically.

But the potential for errant answers is ever-present, said Debbie Soren, the treasurer of the Illinois chapter of the Jewish Genealogical Society.

“Sometimes people didn’t always want to be forthcoming, including in their ages, for whatever reason. Sometimes there might be a language barrier. Or the person reporting the information might not be the best one to report it,” Soren said.

It seems likely that the census taker himself was responsible for the confusion in Robert Kagan’s citizenship status. Dozens of families who lived near the Kagans have similar crossed-out entries in the citizenship column.

While Kagan’s father was born in the United States, her grandfather, Irving Kagan, was a Russian immigrant who had submitted his paperwork to become an American citizen, the 1930 census shows. By 1940, Irving Kagan was a citizen. The old census forms, through 1940, can be searched on The 1950 census will become public in 2022.

If past census reports leave a wide berth for error, they still hold a wealth of information, said Sharon DeBartolo Carmack of Salt Lake City, the author of “You Can Write Your Family History.”

Before 1960, the census often asked where people were born and, if abroad, whether they were U.S. citizens. “It’s wonderful to us as researchers, even though we don’t like the politics, don’t like the motivation,” Carmack said.

Kagan is among seven of the nine justices whose ancestors told census takers they were immigrants who had become American citizens. They came from England, Germany, Ireland, Italy and Russia, like so many others seeking a better life.

The fathers of Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Samuel Alito were immigrants from Russia and Italy, respectively.

In the 1910 census, Patrick Kavanaugh, the great-grandfather of Justice Brett Kavanaugh, was living in New Haven, Connecticut, an iron worker who had become a citizen after leaving Ireland in the 1870s.

By 1900, the English-born great-grandmother of Chief Justice John Roberts and the German-born great-grandfather of Justice Stephen Breyer also were U.S. citizens.

Two of Justice Neil Gorsuch’s great-great grandfathers, Alex Tiehen and Hugh O’Grady, lived in Nebraska, according to the 1900 census. Tiehen came from Germany in 1845 and O’Grady emigrated from Ireland two years later. By the turn of the last century, both reported they were U.S. citizens.

There are two justices with very different paths to American citizenship. Justice Clarence Thomas is the descendant of slaves and Justice Sonia Sotomayor’s Puerto Rican ancestors became American citizens under a 1917 federal law. Spain ceded the territory to the United States after the Spanish-American War.

The case is Department of Commerce v. New York, 18-966.

More Than 200 Die in Sri Lanka Hotel, Church Bombings

Sun, 2019-04-21 22:56

COLOMBO, Sri Lanka—More than 200 people were killed and hundreds more wounded in eight bomb blasts that rocked churches and luxury hotels in or near Sri Lanka’s capital on Easter Sunday — the deadliest violence the South Asian island country has seen since a bloody civil war ended a decade ago.

Defense Minister Ruwan Wijewardena described the bombings as a terrorist attack by religious extremists and said seven suspects had been arrested, though there was no immediate claim of responsibility. Wijewardena said most of the blasts were believed to have been suicide attacks.

The explosions collapsed ceilings and blew out windows, killing worshippers and hotel guests. People were seen carrying the wounded out of blood-spattered pews. Witnesses described powerful explosions, followed by scenes of smoke, blood, broken glass, alarms going off and victims screaming in terror.

“People were being dragged out,” Bhanuka Harischandra of Colombo, a 24-year-old founder of a tech marketing company who was going to the city’s Shangri-La Hotel for a meeting when it was bombed. “People didn’t know what was going on. It was panic mode.”

He added: “There was blood everywhere.”

The three bombed hotels and one of the churches, St. Anthony’s Shrine, are frequented by foreign tourists. Sri Lanka’s Foreign Ministry said the bodies of at least 27 foreigners were recovered, and the dead included people from Britain, the U.S., India, Portugal and Turkey. China’s Communist Party newspaper said two Chinese were killed.

Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe said he feared the violence could trigger instability in Sri Lanka, a country of about 21 million people, and he vowed the government will “vest all necessary powers with the defense forces” to take action against those responsible for the massacre. The government imposed a nationwide curfew from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m.

The Archbishop of Colombo, Cardinal Malcolm Ranjith, called on Sri Lanka’s government to “mercilessly” punish those responsible “because only animals can behave like that.”

Police spokesman Ruwan Gunasekara said 207 people were killed and 450 wounded.

The scale of the bloodshed recalled the worst days of the nation’s 26-year civil war, in which the Tamil Tigers, a rebel group from the ethnic Tamil minority, sought independence from Sri Lanka, a Buddhist-majority country. During the war, the Tigers and other rebels carried out a multitude of bombings. The Tamils are Hindu, Muslim and Christian.

Sri Lanka is about 70 percent Buddhist, with the rest of the population Muslim, Hindu or Christian. While there have been scattered incidents of anti-Christian harassment in recent years, there has been nothing on the scale of what happened Sunday.

There is also no history of violent Muslim militants in Sri Lanka. However, tensions have been running high more recently between hard-line Buddhist monks and Muslims.

Two Muslim groups in Sri Lanka condemned the church attacks, as did countries around the world, and Pope Francis expressed condolences at the end of his traditional Easter Sunday blessing in Rome.

“I want to express my loving closeness to the Christian community, targeted while they were gathered in prayer, and all the victims of such cruel violence,” Francis said.

The first six blasts took place nearly simultaneously in the morning at St. Anthony’s Shrine, a Catholic church in Colombo, and three hotels in the city. The two other explosions occurred after a lull of a few hours at St. Sebastian Catholic church in Negombo, a majority Catholic town north of Colombo, and at the Protestant Zion church in the eastern town of Batticaloa.

Three police officers were killed while conducting a search at a suspected safe house in Dematagoda, on the outskirts of Colombo. The occupants of the safe house apparently detonated explosives to prevent arrest, Wijewardena said.

Local TV showed damage at the Cinnamon Grand, Shangri-La and Kingsbury hotels. The Shangri-La’s second-floor restaurant was gutted, with the ceiling and windows blown out. Loose wires hung and tables were overturned in the blackened space. From outside the police cordon, three bodies could be seen covered in white sheets.

Foreign tourists hurriedly took to their cellphones to text family and loved ones around the world that they were OK.

One group was on a 15-day tour of the tropical island nation, seeing such sites as huge Buddhist monuments, tea plantations, jungle eco-lodges and sandy beaches. The tour was supposed to end in Colombo, but tour operators said the group may skip the capital in light of the attacks. The tour started last week in Negombo, where one of the blasts struck.

“Having experienced the open and welcoming Sri Lanka during my last week traveling through the country, I had a sense that the country was turning the corner, and in particular those in the tourism industry were hopeful for the future,” said Peter Kelson, a technology manager from Sydney.

“Apart from the tragedy of the immediate victims of the bombings, I worry that these terrible events will set the country back significantly.”

Sri Lankan security forces defeated the Tamil Tiger rebels in 2009. The United Nations initially estimated the death toll from the civil war at 100,000, but a U.N. expert panel later said some 45,000 ethnic Tamils may have been killed in the last months of the fighting alone. Both sides were accused of grave human rights violations.

Sri Lanka, a small island nation at the southern tip of India, has a long history with Christianity. Christian tradition holds that St. Thomas the Apostle visited Sri Lanka and southern India in the decades after the death of Christ. The majority of the island’s Christians are Roman Catholic.


Associated Press writers Sheila Norman-Culp and Gregory Katz in London; Jon Gambrell in Dubai, United Arab Emirates; Vladimir Isachenkov in Moscow; Nicole Winfield at the Vatican; Adam Schreck in Bangkok; and Emily Schmall in New Delhi contributed to this report.

Hopes for Two-State Solution Dim in Wake of Israeli Election

Sun, 2019-04-21 22:35

JERUSALEM—Is the two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict dead?

After Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu coasted to another victory in this month’s Israeli election, it sure seems that way.

On the campaign trail, Netanyahu ruled out Palestinian statehood and for the first time, pledged to begin annexing Jewish settlements in the West Bank. His expected coalition partners, a collection of religious and nationalist parties, also reject Palestinian independence.

Even his chief rivals, led by a trio of respected former military chiefs and a charismatic former TV anchorman, barely mentioned the Palestinian issue on the campaign trail and presented a vision of “separation” that falls far short of Palestinian territorial demands.

The two Jewish parties that dared to talk openly about peace with the Palestinians captured just 10 seats in the 120-seat parliament, and opinion polls indicate dwindling support for a two-state solution among Jewish Israelis.

“The majority of the people in the state of Israel no longer see a two-state solution as an option,” said Oded Revivi, the chief foreign envoy for the Yesha settler council, himself an opponent of Palestinian independence. “If we are looking for peace in this region, we will have to look for a different plan from the two-state solution.”

For the past 25 years, the international community has supported the establishment of a Palestinian state on the West Bank, east Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip — lands captured by Israel in the 1967 Mideast war — as the best way to ensure peace in the region.

The logic is clear. With the number of Arabs living on lands controlled by Israel roughly equal to Jews, and the Arab population growing faster, two-state proponents say a partition of the land is the only way to guarantee Israel’s future as a democracy with a strong Jewish majority. The alternative, they say, is either a binational state in which a democratic Israel loses its Jewish character or an apartheid-like entity in which Jews have more rights than Arabs.

After decades of fruitless negotiations, each side blames the other for failure.

Israel says the Palestinians have rejected generous peace offers and promoted violence and incitement. The Palestinians say the Israeli offers have not been serious and point to Israel’s ever-expanding settlements in the West Bank and east Jerusalem, now home to nearly 700,000 Israelis.

The ground further shifted after the Hamas militant group took over the Gaza Strip in 2007 and left the Palestinians divided between two governments, with one side — Hamas — opposed to peace with Israel. This ongoing rift is a major obstacle to negotiations with Israel, and has also left many Palestinians disillusioned with their leaders.

Since taking office a decade ago, Netanyahu has largely ignored the Palestinian issue, managing the conflict without offering a solution for how two peoples will live together in the future.

After clashing with the international community for most of that time, he has found a welcome friend in President Donald Trump, whose Mideast team has shown no indication of supporting Palestinian independence.

Tamar Hermann, an expert on Israeli public opinion at the Israel Democracy Institute, said the election results do not necessarily mean that Israelis have given up on peace. Instead, she said the issue just isn’t on people’s minds.

“Most Israelis would say the status quo is preferable to all other options, because Israelis do not pay any price for it,” she said. “They don’t feel the outcome of the occupation. … Why change it?”

While the two-state prospects seem dim, its proponents still cling to the belief that the sides will ultimately come around, simply because there is no better choice.

“Either Israel decides to be an apartheid state with a minority that is governing a majority of Palestinians, or Israel has to realize that there is no other solution but two states,” Palestinian Prime Minister Mohammed Shtayyeh told The Associated Press. “Unfortunately the Israeli prime minister is politically blind about these two facts.”

Shtayyeh noted the two-state solution continues to enjoy wide international backing. Peace, he insisted, is just a matter of “will” by Israel’s leaders.

Dan Shapiro, who served as President Barack Obama’s ambassador to Israel, said the two-state solution “is certainly getting harder” after the Israeli election but is not dead.

Getting there would require leadership changes on both sides, he said, pointing to the historic peace agreement between Israel and Egypt 40 years ago, reached by two leaders who were sworn enemies just two years earlier.

“We know what’s possible when the right leadership is in place,” he said. “So that puts us supporters of it in a mode of trying to keep it alive and viable for the future.”

That may be a tall task as the Israeli election results appear to reflect a deeper shift in public opinion.

According to the Israel Democracy Institute, which conducts monthly surveys of public opinion, support for the two-state solution among Jewish Israelis has plummeted from 69% in 2008, the year before Netanyahu took office, to 47% last year. Just 32% of Israelis between the ages of 18-34 supported a two-state solution in 2018. The institute typically surveys 600 people, with a margin of error of just over 4 percentage points.

Attitudes are changing on the Palestinian side as well. Khalil Shikaki, a prominent Palestinian pollster, said 31% of Palestinians seek a single binational state with full equality, a slight increase from a decade ago. His poll surveyed 1,200 people and had a margin of error of 3 percentage points.

Although there was no breakdown by age group, Shikaki said the young are “clinging less to the two-state solution because they lost faith in the Palestinian Authority’s ability to provide a democratic state” and because the expanding settlements have created a new reality on the ground.

Amr Marouf, a 27-year-old restaurant manager in the city of Ramallah, said he maintains his official residence in a village located in the 60% of the West Bank that Israel controls, just in case Israel annexes the territory. That way, he believes, he can gain Israeli citizenship.

“I think the one state solution is the only viable solution,” he said. “We can be in Israel and ask for equal rights. Otherwise, we will live under military occupation forever.”

Netanyahu is expected to form his new coalition government by the end of May, and he will come under heavy pressure from his partners to keep his promise to annex Israel’s West Bank settlements.

Such a step could extinguish any hopes of establishing a viable Palestinian state, particularly if the U.S. supports it. American officials, who have repeatedly sided with Israel, have said nothing against Netanyahu’s plan.

There is also the Trump administration’s long-delayed peace plan, which officials have signaled could finally be released this summer. U.S. officials have said little about the plan, but have indicated it will go heavy on economic assistance to the Palestinians while falling far short of an independent state along the 1967 lines.

Shtayyeh said such a plan would be a nonstarter.

“This is a financial blackmail, which we reject,” he said.


Associated Press writer Mohammed Daraghmeh in Ramallah, West Bank, contributed to this report.

Police: ‘New Breed’ of Terrorists in Northern Ireland

Sun, 2019-04-21 03:21

LONDON — Police in Northern Ireland arrested two teenagers Saturday in connection with the fatal shooting of a young journalist during rioting in the city of Londonderry and warned of a “new breed” of terrorists threatening the peace.

The men, aged 18 and 19, were detained under anti-terrorism legislation and taken to Belfast for questioning, the Police Service of Northern Ireland said. The men have not been identified or charged.

Authorities believe one man pulled the trigger during the chaotic rioting that began Thursday night but had organizational support.

Lyra McKee, 29, a rising star of investigative journalism, was shot and killed, police say probably by a stray bullet aimed at police, during the rioting. Police said the New IRA dissident group was most likely responsible and called it a “terrorist act.”

The use of a firearm apparently aimed at police marks a dangerous escalation in sporadic violence that continues to plague Northern Ireland 21 years after the Good Friday peace agreement was signed. The New IRA group rejects the peace agreement.

Chief detective Jason Murphy warned Saturday that the situation on the ground has become more dangerous, even though community attitudes have changed since the peace agreement and the use of violence is viewed as abhorrent by the vast majority.

“What we are seeing is a new breed of terrorist coming through the ranks and that for me is a very worrying situation,” he said.

The riot followed a pattern familiar to those who lived through the worst years of violence in Northern Ireland. Police arrived in the city’s Creggan neighborhood to search for weapons and dissidents. They were barraged with gasoline bombs and other flying objects, then someone wearing a black mask appeared, fired some shots and fled.

No police were struck by the bullets, but McKee — who had been trying to film the riot on her phone — was hit. The journalist was rushed to a nearby hospital in a police car but still died.

Police on Friday night released closed-circuit TV footage showing the man suspected of firing the shots that killed McKee and appealed for help from the public in identifying him.

The killing was condemned by all the major political parties as well as the prime ministers of Britain and Ireland.

The European Union’s chief Brexit negotiator, Michel Barnier, said the killing was “a reminder of how fragile peace still is in Northern Ireland” and called for work to preserve the Good Friday peace agreement.

Some politicians believe uncertainty over Britain’s impending departure from the EU and the possible re-introduction of a “hard border” between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland are stoking tensions in the region.

The victim was mourned by friends and the wider community. She rose to prominence in 2014 with a moving blog post — “Letter to my 14 year old self” — describing the struggle of growing up gay in Belfast, the capital of Northern Ireland. She also had recently signed a contract to write two books.

Shortly before her death, McKee tweeted a photo of the rioting with the words: “Derry tonight. Absolute madness.”

Her partner, Sara Canning, told a vigil Friday that McKee’s amazing potential had been snuffed out. Canning said the senseless murder “has left me without the love of my life, the woman I was planning to grow old with.”

Catholic priest Joseph Gormley, who administered the last rites to McKee, told the BBC that the rioting was “clearly orchestrated” by a “small group of people who want to play political games with our lives.”

He said he and other community leaders had tried to talk to the dissidents without success.

The New IRA is a small group that rejects the 1998 Good Friday agreement that marked the Irish Republican Army’s embrace of a political solution to the long-running violence known as “The Troubles” that had claimed more than 3,700 lives.

The group is also blamed for a Londonderry car bombing in January and has been linked to several other killings in the past decade.

American History for Truthdiggers: Vietnam, a U.S. Tragedy

Sun, 2019-04-21 03:00

Editor’s note: The past is prologue. The stories we tell about ourselves and our forebears inform the sort of country we think we are and help determine public policy. As our current president promises to “make America great again,” this moment is an appropriate time to reconsider our past, look back at various eras of United States history and re-evaluate America’s origins. When, exactly, were we “great”?

Below is the 29th installment of the “American History for Truthdiggers” series, a pull-no-punches appraisal of our shared, if flawed, past. The author of the series, Danny Sjursen, who retired recently as a major in the U.S. Army, served military tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and taught the nation’s checkered, often inspiring past when he was an assistant professor of history at West Point. His war experiences, his scholarship, his skill as a writer and his patriotism illuminate these Truthdig posts.

Part 29 of “American History for Truthdiggers.”

See: Part 1; Part 2; Part 3; Part 4; Part 5; Part 6; Part 7; Part 8; Part 9; Part 10; Part 11; Part 12; Part 13; Part 14; Part 15; Part 16; Part 17; Part 18; Part 19; Part 20; Part 21; Part 22; Part 23; Part 24; Part 25; Part 26; Part 27; Part 28.

* * *

It is the war that never dies. Vietnam, the very word shrouded with extraordinary meaning in the American lexicon. For some it represents failure; for others guilt; for still more, anger that the war could have and should have been won. Americans are still arguing about this war, once the nation’s longest. For those who lived through it—the last war the U.S. fought partly with draftees—it was almost impossible not to take sides; to be pro-war or anti-war became a social and political identity unto itself. This tribal split even reached into the ranks of military veterans, as some joined antiwar movements and others remained vociferously sure that the war needed to be fought through to victory. Indeed, today, even the active-duty U.S. military officer corps is rent over assessment of the Vietnam legacy.

Regarding America’s role in the Vietnam War, the myth-making began long before North Vietnamese tanks overran U.S.-backed South Vietnam in April 1975. Indeed, myths and exaggerations pervade the entire collective memory of this brutal war. Some believe that the politicians and antiwar protesters sold out the U.S. military. That a “liberal” press was complicit in this treason as well. Neither was the case. Others claim that with more military force, more bombing and more patriotic backing, the U.S. military would have marched away as the victor. This, too, is patently false. Without destroying North Vietnam in a genocidal fury and thereby risking world war with China and the Soviet Union, it is unlikely the U.S. Army and Marine Corps could have forced the communists to capitulate. The communists actually led a coalition of nationalists fighting a civil war that was ultimately about independence. Such wars are quite difficult to “win,” in any traditional sense. Then there’s the common belief that all veterans were treated terribly upon their return. While some indeed were abused, the historical record demonstrates that the scale and pervasiveness of the mistreatment have been exaggerated.

Each of these myths carries political baggage and serves some political purpose. So divided was Vietnam-era American life that one’s stance on the war framed almost all social and political thinking. For some it still does. People on opposite sides of the debate also often draw conclusions and “lessons learned” from the Vietnam War and apply them to contemporary U.S. military and foreign policy. This has proved dangerous and disruptive. Starkly applicable “lessons” from the past rarely translate into coherent contemporary policy. Still, today, with the U.S. military again ensconced in seemingly never-ending armed conflict, the truth about America’s tragic foray into Vietnam is more vital than ever.

A careful study of the informational sources and the works of the most respected historians of the conflict demonstrates some important truths: that the United States lost the Vietnam War both politically and militarily. That the U.S. may have been on the “wrong” side and acted far more like a European colonial power than most Americans are apt to admit. That the U.S. engaged in wanton destruction of a rather poor society in its fruitless quest for “victory” over the communists. That global communism itself was no monolith and that although Hanoi gladly accepted support from Russia and China, this remained very much a Vietnamese war. That the press, protesters and skeptics had not sold out their country, but, rather, were on the right side of history. The Vietnam War, in sum, should never have been fought—the distant country was never a vital national security threat to the United States; American intervention was, ultimately, a national crime and tragedy.

A Long Backstory

The Vietnam War, in its entirety, lasted 30 years, from 1945 to 1975. Though the U.S. was always somewhat involved, the American combat actions were only one part of a prolonged Vietnamese civil war and struggle for independence. The war never revolved around the United States. The American military meddled, struggled and gratuitously killed Vietnamese for over a decade, but the outcome was always destined to be decided among the native population itself. When it did intervene, the U.S. was rarely a source of stability. Indeed, America merely took over where imperial France had left off, and it set back Vietnamese sovereignty. As such, the U.S. role was shady and nefarious from the first.

During the Second World War, the Japanese “liberated” Vietnam from French colonial rule and proceeded to rule as Asian imperialists themselves. In response, Ho Chi Minh led a nationalist guerrilla independence movement that—from the American perspective—was tainted by his communist ideology. But Ho was always a nationalist first and a communist second. His men endured heavy losses against the Japanese occupiers in the hope of gaining independence for Vietnam at the end of World War II. One can understand the aspiration: After all, the U.S. and Britain had seemed to promise as much in 1941 in the Atlantic Charter, in which they vowed to “respect the right of all peoples to choose the form of government under which they will live.”

World war quickly turned into Cold War, and the U.S., once (notionally) opposed to European imperialism, quickly performed an about-face and backed the British, French and Dutch attempts to regain their empires in Asia. This was particularly unfortunate for Ho and his nationalist-communist alliance. He would have to wait and fight longer to gain independence for his nation. At the end of World War II, his hopes had been high. When the Japanese evacuated in 1945, Ho’s revolutionists held a celebration with a million people on the streets and read a declaration of independence that included (verbatim) sections from the U.S. Declaration of Independence and the French Declaration of the Rights of Man. Ho would soon find that such principles applied only to white Westerners.

Still, as the U.S. was switching over to a pro-imperial policy, Ho desperately wrote eight letters to President Harry Truman begging for American support based on the superpower’s own promises in the Atlantic Charter. Truman ignored him. Thus, the Vietnamese waged a guerrilla war against the French army from 1946 to 1954. By 1954, though not yet committed on the ground, the U.S.—obsessed with stifling world communism—was footing 80 percent of France’s bill for the war. France lost anyway, and at a peace conference in Geneva the French agreed to evacuate its army so long as South Vietnam was temporarily split from the north; the nation was to be divided until national elections were soon held. The elections never came because the U.S. called them off, choosing instead a Vietnam divided by economic and political ideology. When the two-year deadline to hold elections arrived in 1956, a U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff memo explained they could not occur because “a settlement based on free elections would be attended by almost certain loss [for the opponents of communism].” So the “arsenal of democracy” would stifle that very condition in Vietnam.

The U.S. would essentially create a new state in the south, and it backed an unpopular Catholic (most Vietnamese were Buddhists) supporter of the large landlords (most Vietnamese were peasants) named Ngo Dinh Diem, who had only recently been living in New Jersey. Diem was corrupt, authoritarian and adverse to social and economic reform. By 1960, the National Liberation Front (NLF) formed in the south and, with North Vietnamese support, waged a new guerrilla war against Diem’s regime. Early reports from U.S. government analysts saw, even then, just why the NLF movement flourished and the Diem regime floundered. One analyst, Douglas Pike, traveled to Vietnam and observed that “[t]he Communists have brought to the villages of South Vietnam significant social change and have done so largely by means of the communication process.” The later Pentagon Papers—a comprehensive study of U.S. involvement in Vietnam conducted by the Department of Defense—said of this early phase of the war that “[o]nly the Vietcong [guerrillas] had any real support of influence on a broad base in the countryside.”

Meanwhile, back in Saigon, the South Vietnamese capital, Buddhist monks began setting themselves aflame in the streets, committing suicide in protest of Diem’s corruption and authoritarianism. Diem responded by having troops raid Buddhist pagodas and temples and killed nine protesters demonstrating on behalf of the Buddhists. This was the government that the United States would soon go to war for, the government for which more than 58,000 American soldiers would give their lives.

The ‘Best and the Brightest’ Blunder: Kennedy’s Vietnam

After the departure of the French, U.S. President Dwight Eisenhower offered economic aid and a limited contingent of U.S. military advisers (685 in 1960), but he avoided any major American escalation. His successor, John F. Kennedy, on the other hand, as a firm believer in the modernization schemes and philosophies of contemporary intellectuals, would commit more American resources to Vietnam. By October 1963, just before Kennedy’s assassination, there were 16,000 U.S. “advisers” in the country. The very next month, Kennedy’s government tacitly supported a South Vietnamese military coup that left Diem dead and the country even more disorganized and demoralized. Later, defenders of Kennedy would claim that by late 1963 JFK had changed his mind and was about to pull the American troops out. This is unlikely.

Actually, the militarization of the Vietnam War fit rather neatly with Kennedy’s overall view of communism and his subsequent foreign and defense policy. Communism had to be stopped, now and everywhere—even in remote Vietnam. The U.S. military was, for the most part, on board. Kennedy’s chief military adviser, Gen. Maxwell Taylor, took to calling Vietnam a “laboratory” for U.S. Army development in the counter-commie fight. In addition, Kennedy would stifle suggestions—made by some of his more liberal advisers—to enter into negotiations with North Vietnam and set the stage for the promised (by treaty!) elections. Afraid he would look weak on communism, the president ensured that the election plan was stillborn.

Before he dropped the feckless and unpopular Diem, Kennedy had long known that the South Vietnamese government was corrupt. In response to the Senate majority leader’s suggestion that Saigon use American aid for social reform, the president simply said, “Diem is Diem and the best we’ve got.” By the time Kennedy was killed in Dallas, Americans had begun dying in modest but significant numbers in Vietnam. By December 1963, some 100 military men had lost their lives during “advisory” tours. Nonetheless, Kennedy had persisted, ignoring important dissenting counsel he received from key advisers and agencies. The CIA warned that to save Saigon the U.S. would need to commit at least 200,000 troops; this proved to be a low estimate. The CIA, admittedly, had been wrong before, and Kennedy ignored it.

In the years since the murder of Kennedy, many of his defenders have pointed to a few late-stage actions to argue that had the president lived, he would have pulled the U.S. out of the quagmire. Their Exhibit A is a speech Kennedy gave in September 1963 in which he declared, “Unless a greater effort is made by the government of South Vietnam, I don’t think the war can be won out there.” He then ordered the removal of some 1,000 U.S. troops. Kennedy myth makers tend to ignore much evidence to the contrary, however. They omit, for example, that Kennedy had added in the speech that he did not “agree with those who say we should withdraw. That would be a great mistake. … This is a very important struggle.” The defenders also fail to mention that most of the withdrawn troops were from an engineer battalion that had completed its work and was already scheduled to leave. Those troops were also to soon be replaced by others after Christmas.

Kennedy’s closest advisers have also weighed in and given us probably the best indication of the president’s thinking at the time. For example, he told close friend Charles Bartlett in 1963 that although “[w]e don’t have a prayer of staying in Vietnam … I can’t give up a piece of territory like that to the communists and then get the people to reelect me.” Furthermore, Kennedy’s own secretary of state, Dean Rusk, added later that he “had hundreds of talks with John F. Kennedy about Vietnam, and never once did he say anything [about withdrawal].” We’ll never know for sure if JFK would have de-escalated the war had he lived to win re-election in 1964, but it seems unlikely. Military escalation and counterinsurgency were entrenched in Kennedy’s Cold Warrior ideology, and he remained a prisoner of the worn-out playbook of stopping communism wherever it reared its ugly head. Here, as in several other policy areas, Kennedy emerges as more politician than statesman.

LBJ’s War: Escalation and Stalemate

Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson inherited a stalemated war and Kennedy’s legacy on Vietnam when an assassin’s bullets put him in the Oval Office in November of 1963. As a consequence, he could not and would not reverse the foreign policy course of his martyred predecessor. Besides, Johnson, like Kennedy, was a Democrat stricken with the self-compulsion to look “tough” against communism. Besides, LBJ held much the same binary worldview as Kennedy and Truman. Just after the assassination, LBJ told Henry Cabot Lodge Jr., the U.S. ambassador to South Vietnam, “I am not going to lose Vietnam. I am not going to be the president who saw Southeast Asia go the way China went [in 1949].” With Johnson afraid to look weak, the conflict became “LBJ’s War.”

Still, despite the breakdown of the South Vietnamese army and government, LBJ was at first cautious about escalating the U.S. military role. Unlike Kennedy, LBJ loved domestic policy and was more interested in promoting his Great Society liberal social legislation than in pursuing a big war in Southeast Asia. This tension defined Johnson’s administration. Nevertheless, in the end he underestimated the will of the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong, who continued to fight and escalate. It seemed they would never give in unless pummeled by American military might. Tragically for all, as Johnson would discover, even a massive application of U.S. force would not work.

Unlike Truman’s war in Korea, LBJ’s war would be fought almost unilaterally by the United States. There was no grand coalition this time. Australia and South Korea sent troops, but Asian allies other than South Korea did not (the Philippines wouldn’t even allow the U.S. Air Force to bomb from its bases there). NATO allies sat out the war. LBJ would ultimately escalate and Americanize the war based on lies and omissions. After two incidents in which Vietnamese naval vessels allegedly attacked U.S. ships (it seems the second incident never happened) in the Gulf of Tonkin, LBJ pushed through a resolution—but not a declaration of war—in Congress authorizing American military reinforcement and an enlarged combat role. It passed 416-0 in the House and 88-2 in the Senate. This demonstrated the power of the Cold War consensus of the time. A nation would, with a spirit of unity, blunder into a war.

Then, in 1965, after his landslide presidential victory as an incumbent in 1964, Johnson hedged. He approved a sustained bombing campaign and sent in 100,000 more U.S. troops but refused either a general mobilization (which conservatives wanted) or a negotiated withdrawal (which the left demanded). LBJ also lacked a legitimate stable partner. The generals running South Vietnam were corrupt and unpopular—what State Department Asia expert William Bundy called “absolutely the bottom of the barrel.” The bombing, additionally, made the U.S. appear a bully and, inevitably, inflicted heavy civilian casualties. In a span of just two years, 1965-67, American planes would drop more bombs than the combined U.S. total in both theaters of the Second World War. Furthermore, enough toxic defoliant, Agent Orange, was dropped on the countryside to destroy half of the south’s total timberlands. It is estimated that in all the years of American intervention some 415,000 civilians were killed and one-third of all South Vietnamese became refugees.

Johnson’s incremental strategy pleased no one, and although by avoiding national mobilization he mitigated the war’s political impact, his escalation exponentially increased casualties borne by the U.S. Army, a hybrid of draftees and professional soldiers. Escalation led to further escalation, and the U.S. became progressively mired in Vietnam. By 1967 there were half a million American troops on the ground, the U.S. government had spent $25 billion and, in that year alone, 9,000 Americans were killed. It is true that American troops “won” most tactical engagements, but the heavy losses suffered by the North Vietnamese and the Viet Cong were far from fatal to the communist cause. With a growing, young and nationalistic population, North Vietnam could count on 200,000 young men coming of age, annually! Besides, Ho was receiving arms and cash from both the Soviet Union and China (Vietnam’s historic enemy).

By 1967, the war was on track to become America’s longest and most unpopular. It depleted the government’s coffers, caused deficits and inflation, transferred resources to the growing military-industrial complex and escalated the arms race. The war’s length and brutality also unnerved European allies and tarnished the United States’ standing in the so-called Third World (the developing regions). And Johnson knew all this. He later wrote that he “knew from the start that I was bound to be crucified either way I moved. If I left the woman I really loved—the Great Society—in order to get involved with that bitch of a war on the other side of the world, then I would lose everything at home. All my programs. All my hopes to feed the hungry and shelter the homeless. All my dreams to provide education and medical care to the browns and the blacks and the lame and the poor.”

In an effort to save the Great Society, Johnson would equivocate and hide the extent of U.S. military involvement from the American people in the early years. He would also conceal the dissent growing among even the Kennedy Cabinet appointees who were most loyal to him, including Defense Secretary Robert McNamara. As early as December 1965, McNamara told Johnson he didn’t believe public support for the war would persist long enough to achieve victory. The president asked, “Then, no matter what we do in the military field there is no sure victory?” McNamara replied, “That’s right. We have been too optimistic.” Two years later, McNamara was so distraught that he was found pacing his office and weeping. Johnson too agonized over the war, wept when he signed condolence letters, checked casualty figures in the operations room at 4 in the morning and sneaked away to pray at a local Catholic church (he was a Protestant).

Still Johnson persisted, and—contrary to later myths—in this he had the broad support of most Americans until well into 1968. Furthermore, by keeping Kennedy’s defense officials and policies in place, he would show those communists just how tough he, and America, was. At one point he even told Ambassador Lodge to “[g]o back and tell those generals in Saigon that Lyndon Johnson intends to stand by our word [and win]!” Johnson ignored conflicting evidence and even realized that Vietnam—what he called a “little piss-ant country”—wasn’t itself of great strategic value. He would fight on and escalate because he was insecure in foreign policy matters and a firm believer in the “domino theory” and, frankly, was not substantially challenged at first by the people. As for the military, most senior officers demanded more, not less, American involvement.

The U.S. Army that fought the Vietnamese—unlike that which had won World War II—was unrepresentative of the American people. Draft exemptions and deferrals ensured that about 80 percent of U.S. soldiers came from poor or working-class backgrounds. More were African Americans relative to the percentage of black Americans in the population as a whole. This was true particularly in the combat units (as disproportionate casualty statistics revealed early on). America’s troopers were also younger than in previous wars, the average combat soldier just 19 years old as opposed to 27 in Korea and World War II. While some units and leaders adapted to the counterinsurgent nature of this war, many brought conventional tactics and training to the fight. Famously, one Army major explained after obliterating the village of Ben Tre, “We had to destroy the village to save it.” Gen. Curtis LeMay, the chief of the Air Force, urged that the U.S. “bomb North Vietnam back to the ‘Stone Age.’ ” And so the brutal war slogged on.

By late 1967, the senior U.S. commander, Gen. William Westmoreland, made ever more optimistic predictions and was paraded around back home by Johnson to “sell” the war. Yet even LBJ had questions and doubts. Westmoreland claimed victory was near but also kept requesting more troops and regularly underestimated the numerical strength of the enemy. In mid-1967, after yet another troop request, Johnson replied, “Where does it all end? When we add divisions, can’t the enemy add divisions? If so, where does it all end?” It was a fair question, and LBJ should have gone with such skeptical instincts. Still, as 1967 turned to ’68, Westmoreland was telling the domestic press that there was “light at the end of the tunnel,” and that he was “absolutely certain that whereas in 1965 the enemy was winning, today he is certainly losing.”

Then, in January 1968, despite all the proclamations of imminent victory, the Viet Cong and North Vietnamese unleashed a nationwide offensive, attacking Saigon, nearly every other major city and most U.S. military bases. Though taken by surprise, the U.S. actually won a strictly military victory, but it suffered a political and strategic defeat. In March, James Reston of The New York Times summarized the situation well: “The main crisis is not in Vietnam itself, or in the cities, but in the feeling that the political system for dealing with these things has broken down.” And so it had. Despite the tactical successes and the high casualties inflicted on the enemy in what came to be known as the Tet Offensive, the South Vietnamese government was as corrupt and illegitimate as ever and victory was nowhere in sight. It certainly wasn’t “around the corner.”

It was clear that the Johnson administration and the generals had been lying or equivocating all along. The famous CBS anchorman Walter Cronkite was so appalled by the Tet Offensive that he exclaimed, “What the hell is going on? I thought we were winning. …” He then journeyed to Vietnam and returned to pronounce on air that “[i]t seems more certain than ever that the bloody experience of Vietnam is to end in a stalemate.” And so it would, but not for a long while, and not without many more deaths.

The war would now become far more unpopular and shatter the Democratic Party. On March 31, Johnson announced a limited escalation to the American people but denied the larger military requests and shocked the nation with the following words: “There is division in the American home now. … I do not believe I should devote an hour of my time to any personal partisan course. … Accordingly, I shall not seek, and will not accept, the nomination of my party for president.” LBJ was emotionally exhausted and resigned himself to opening peace negotiations. Furthermore, his speech was important because it marked the president’s first admission that his policy of continued escalation had failed. Ultimately, antiwar candidates like Eugene McCarthy and (latecomer to the opposition) Bobby Kennedy would battle each other in a tough Democratic primary campaign, at least until June 4, 1968, when Kennedy, like his older brother, was assassinated. At the ensuing Democratic National Convention in Chicago—while police rioted against the gathered protesters and beat many senseless—a relative moderate, Vice President Hubert Humphrey, emerged as the nominee, despite not having competed in any primaries. The left-wing contingent of the party was demoralized.

Cynical Denouement: Nixon’s Vietnam

Humphrey and the Democrats would ultimately lose in the 1968 presidential election, to none other than Richard Nixon and his cynical brand of conservative politicking. Nixon was helped into office by actions that approached the level of treason. During the campaign, Johnson was concurrently trying to negotiate a cease-fire and potential peace between North Vietnam and South Vietnam. The key was getting the south to agree to talk with National Liberation Front representatives. Nixon, however, knew that good news in Vietnam wouldn’t bode well for his political stakes. Thus, he and his future national security adviser, Henry Kissinger, appear to have arranged for a prominent woman at the peace conference to promise the South Vietnamese that they would get a better deal should Nixon be elected. The South Vietnamese pulled out and the deal fell apart. LBJ even confronted Nixon at the time, who subsequently lied about the trickery.

Nixon claimed throughout the campaign to have a “secret plan” to end the war. Soon after he was elected, he even proposed, in private, his infamous “madman theory,” telling an aide that he “wanted the North Vietnamese to believe I’ve reached the point where I might do anything to stop the war. We’ll slip the word to them that … you know Nixon is obsessed about communists. We can’t restrain him when he’s angry—and he has his hand on the nuclear button—and Ho Chi Minh himself will be in Paris in two days begging for peace.” This, of course, hardly transpired.

In reality, Nixon would prolong the war not through escalation, per se, but by “Vietnamizing” the war: training and more heavily using Vietnamese troops while savagely bombing the north and south. Nixon was a cunning dealer. He knew that the growing antiwar movement would taper off if fewer Americans and more South Vietnamese were dying in the war. What he really desired was what he called “peace with honor,” to save American face by delaying the defeat of South Vietnam. In fact, it is unclear he ever truly believed the U.S. could “win.” Nixon, just like Johnson, personalized the conflict, stating that he “will not be the first President of the United States to lose a war.” So in the short term he would extend the ground war into Cambodia and Laos, and he secretly (and illegally) bombed both countries for years. So the south held on, just barely, as U.S. troop numbers declined and the monthly draft calls fell back at home. Thus, Nixon divided and stifled the antiwar movement and gained time and space to bomb his way to “peace with honor.” South Vietnam’s President Nguyen Van Thieu was furious, sensing (correctly) that the cynical Nixon would ultimately abandon him—though the U.S. president denied it all the while.

By the time Nixon came into office in 1969 the U.S. Army in Vietnam was demoralized and nearing a breaking point. Until 1969, most units had fought with great courage and maintained discipline. Still, as it became clearer the U.S. would Vietnamize and not really win the war, some units broke down. No trooper wanted to be the last man to die in Vietnam. Small units started “coasting” and avoiding danger, some enlisted men increasingly refused to follow orders, and in 1,000 incidents in 1969-72, soldiers attempted to kill, or “frag,” unpopular and aggressive officers. Racial conflicts tore through the ranks. So did drug abuse; by 1971 it was estimated that 40,000 of the 250,000 American men in Vietnam were heroin addicts. Seven out of every hundred soldiers deserted, and double that number went AWOL (absent without leave).

As discipline slowly diminished, American brutality only escalated. In one highly publicized and polarizing incident, Lt. William Calley ordered his platoon to murder hundreds of civilians (including babies) in the village of My Lai. Though Calley was convicted of murder and sentenced to life in prison, his sentence upset many pro-war advocates. Under pressure, Nixon changed Calley’s sentence to house arrest and the former officer was ultimately released without serving a day of his original prison sentence. A popular song at the time, “The Battle Hymn of Lt. Calley,” actually lauded this war criminal. Such was the tribal division of American society during the war.

By 1972, the gradual withdrawal was such that only 95,000 American troops remained in Vietnam. Thus, when the North Vietnamese took the offensive that spring it was the Vietnamese who did most of the dying. However, the assault was checked with massive American bombing. Nixon exclaimed, “The bastards have never been bombed like they’re going to be bombed this time.” Approximately 100,000 North Vietnamese troops were killed, and South Vietnam survived, for the moment. However, with U.S. troops filtering out it was clear Nixon’s policies had only delayed the inevitable.

That Christmas, Nixon ratcheted up the bombing even more in an attempt to gain concessions from the North Vietnamese at the Paris peace talks. Thousands died as a result, but in the end Nixon and Kissinger ended up accepting a peace that was remarkably similar to that which had long been on offer. The “Christmas bombing” hadn’t been necessary or changed the terms of peace. In fact, in exchange for the release of Americans held captive, Nixon agreed to quite a concession of his own—to allow North Vietnam’s soldiers to stay in South Vietnam after the cease-fire. This probably doomed the Saigon regime, and, indeed, in April 1975—a bit more than two years after a peace treaty had been signed—North Vietnamese tanks overran the capital. By then, Nixon had resigned in the Watergate scandal. The war was over. It took 30 years and the defeat of two imperial foreign powers, but Vietnam was independent and united.

What then can be said about Nixon’s handling of the Vietnam War? Later pro-war apologists claim that it was Nixon’s heavy bombing of the north that forced its leaders to sign the peace treaty (one that generally was ignored by the Vietnamese contending in the war but did offer political cover to the Americans for their pullout). This is ahistorical. Nixon’s expansion of the war into Cambodia and Laos and terror bombing of both of these countries and North Vietnam accomplished nothing besides a temporary survival of the South Vietnamese regime. It was Nixon, not the North Vietnamese, who ultimately gave the greatest concession; it was Nixon who gave in to the most important and controversial demand of the communists—that North Vietnamese troops be allowed to remain on the ground in parts of South Vietnam. Vietnamization and all the bombing prolonged a doomed war and delayed the inevitable. During Nixon’s term in office, the U.S. lost 20,553 servicemen killed and the Vietnamese suffered hundreds of thousands of deaths. These soldiers and civilians, many of them women and children, did not have to die. Nixon’s insecurity and obsession with saving face and not “losing Vietnam” costs hundreds of thousands their lives. Imagine if the president had accepted the eventual peace terms several years earlier. Many lives surely would have been saved and the war’s outcome would likely have been precisely the same. Nixon’s war was a waste.

War in the Streets: Bringing ‘Nam’ Home

The antiwar protests at home stabbed the American soldiers in the back and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory in Vietnam—such is the pervasive myth perpetuated by pro-war apologists. For this powerful group, which includes many current and former military officers, it was privileged college students and un-American hippies who sold out their country. It simply isn’t true. Public support for the war actually remained rather strong until after the Tet Offensive of 1968. Furthermore, while the antiwar protests did eventually swell and put pressure on Johnson and Nixon, they were far from the decisive force of conservative imaginations. The war went on just as before. Lastly, the protesters represented a genuine, principled grassroots movement and were not, by and large, the tools of the Soviet Union or international communism. With hindsight, in fact, the antiwar movement was ultimately right about the immoral and unwinnable nature of the American war in Vietnam. The protesters have, in a sense, been vindicated from a historical standpoint but pilloried in our collective memories.

Prior to 1968, most of the press and media establishment supported Johnson and his war policies. Even television news programs aired mostly friendly coverage until Tet. And, though privileged college students have often been blamed for “stabbing the troops in the back,” most campuses were actually rather quiet until the late 1960s. Indeed, between 1965 and 1968 only 2 percent to 3 percent of students considered themselves activists and fewer than 20 percent had participated in a protest. It’s important to remember that the conflict, in general, was far more popular than is often thought. Nearly all major public institutions, such as unions, businesses, Congress, the media and the churches, either supported the war or stayed silent.

Nonetheless, opposition to the war did slowly grow and eventually reached a fever pitch during the Nixon years. In October 1967, a Catholic priest named Philip Berrigan broke into a Baltimore draft office and doused draft cards with blood. Young Americans also sought out creative ways to avoid the draft and service in Vietnam: getting married, having children, prolonging stays in college, joining the National Guard and faking illness or injury. The system of deferments ensured that the average soldier in Vietnam would be poorer and blacker than society at large. This scandalous state of affairs was obvious at the time and constituted a national disgrace.

Recognizing the link between racism at home and militarism abroad, and horrified by the high casualty rates among poor black soldiers, many key leaders of the civil rights movement eventually turned against the war. John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC) publicly denounced the war in 1966. Stokely Carmichael (later known as Kwame Ture), a SNCC leader and later a Black Panther encouraged students to burn their draft cards. Heavyweight champion Mohammed Ali refused to be inducted into the Army and as a result his boxing title was stripped from him. He asked, “Why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while the so-called Negro people in Louisville were treated like dogs?” Then, in 1967, Martin Luther King Jr., probably the most famous and respected civil rights leader, declared that “we are fighting an immoral war” and that his own country was “the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today.”

Although support for the war remained strong throughout most of his term, LBJ regarded this movement with an obsession bordering on paranoia. He became convinced that Soviet communists were behind the grassroots movement and, in an (illegal) program known as CHAOS, ordered the CIA—in defiance of its charter—to spy on protesters. FBI agents also infiltrated and attempted to disrupt the antiwar movement. When they found little evidence of communist collusion, LBJ leaked information saying the opposite to right-wing congressmen in an attempt to discredit the protesters. What’s more, the CIA knew that what it was doing was illegal and unethical. Director Richard Helms wrote an internal memorandum explaining that “[t]his is an area not within the charter of the Agency, so I need to emphasize how extremely sensitive [this is]. Should anyone learn of its existence, it would prove most embarrassing.”

Nonetheless, there was a powerful student-led antiwar movement brewing, if slowly. Groups such as the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) organized protests and marches on the Capitol and Pentagon. Their numbers would eventually swell into the hundreds of thousands, dividing the nation. Violence often occurred. When Nixon invaded Cambodia, 100,000 marched on Washington and college campuses exploded, with many schools forced to end the term early due to the chaos. Then, in Ohio and Mississippi overly aggressive police or National Guardsmen opened fire and killed peaceful student protesters and bystanders. America, it appeared, was being ripped apart.

Nonetheless, as powerful as the antiwar camp eventually became, the conservative backlash against the demonstrators and “hippies” was just as strong. Nixon actively fomented this backlash in his speeches. And it worked. A Newsweek poll after four students were shot dead at Ohio’s Kent State University found that 58 percent of respondents supported the National Guard over the students, despite the fact that the students who were killed had not provoked the guardsmen. Furthermore, even in 1970, 50 percent of respondents supported Nixon’s invasion of Cambodia while just 39 percent opposed. The protesters may have been loud and attention-grabbing, but what Nixon termed a conservative “silent majority” remained strong to the war’s end. These voters would, in the aftermath of Vietnam, become a new bedrock in a resurgent Republican Party.

Some pro-war Americans proved willing to take violent action. In New York City, some 200 construction workers attacked a few hundred demonstrators (who were commemorating the victims of Kent State). Wielding fists and hard-hat helmets, they beat the peaceful activists. The workers then marched on City Hall, brought along a mob of supporters and raised an American flag. Seventy protesters were bloodied; yet there were only six arrests. The very next day, the leader of that local construction union traveled to the White House and presented Nixon with an honorary hard hat. The president accepted it as “a symbol, along with our great flag, for freedom and patriotism to our beloved country.” Mob violence now had presidential sanction.

* * *

The notion that a treasonous antiwar movement led by the Soviet Union had pulled the carpet out from under a successful military effort is just one of many later Vietnam myths. Another, particularly powerful among veterans and later military historians, is the “better war” thesis: the suggestion that “new” counterinsurgency tactics implemented by Gen. Westmoreland’s successor, Gen. Creighton Abrams, would have, given more time and support, won the war. Such revisionism is nonsense. Others claim that an outright invasion of the north and increased (perhaps nuclear) bombing would have earned the U.S. military a victory, if only those crummy politicians and protesters had allowed such actions.

Neither theory is persuasive. Hawks have always overestimated the value of air power and bombing as a means of conflict resolution. Furthermore, given the iron will and commitment of the North Vietnamese and Viet Cong, it seems that nothing short of sheer obliteration and genocide would have won the war. The real problem was with the corrupt South Vietnamese government. Too few Vietnamese supported or felt any loyalty to the Saigon regime. Every year, one-third of South Vietnamese soldiers would desert. Saigon also ceded the popular policy of social and political reform to the communists, who thus gained power and prestige both north and south of the border. The U.S. could never seal the 1,000 miles of border from insurgent infiltration without sending over a million troops to fight in a nation that was, ultimately, peripheral to U.S. interests.

Later right-wing politicians continued to insist that, as President Ronald Reagan declared, the Vietnam War was a “noble cause” and should have been won. However, what’s more likely is that Vietnam demonstrated the limits of American military power abroad. It also established the inherent difficulty of defining “victory” in a nuclear age—especially in waging a counterinsurgency. The “better war” thesis also denies agency to the Vietnamese in what was at root their civil war. The war ended as it did because the communist-nationalist alliance simply had more legitimacy and fortitude, and won over more Vietnamese supporters. There was little, essentially, that U.S. military power could do—besides kill by the millions—to alter this salient reality. What Vietnamese called the “American War” was actually only one phase in a 30-year independence struggle. Seen this way, the U.S. hardly had a chance of achieving its goals.

Vietnam, like most anti-colonial insurgencies, presented enormous challenges to a foreign army. Consider the strategic geography: South Vietnam had a long, porous border that was never adequately sealed. The Viet Cong boasted safe havens in North Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. The north was able to almost continuously provide direct military support to its troops and guerrilla fighters in the south, and supplies from the Soviet Union and China just kept rolling in. The U.S. also faced a tough, historically nationalistic population, one that hated foreign occupation even more than it hated the corrupt regimes in Saigon. The combination of the long border, safe havens, foreign support and the lack of a legitimate allied host would undoubtedly have been impossible to overcome unless Washington was willing to exterminate the North Vietnamese as a people and risk global nuclear world war.

Taken as a whole, the defeat in Vietnam was a failure of imagination, to imagine a non-monolithic communism, to imagine alternative responses to the domino theory and military intervention. Trapped in a straitjacket of Cold War dogma, U.S. policymakers forgot that the alliance of the historical enemies Vietnam and China was only one of convenience. Perhaps there was no military possibility of checking a dedicated anti-colonial nationalist movement. Nevertheless, as American troops remain mired in nearly two decades of war in the Greater Middle East, it seems that the conservative revisionist school of thinking on Vietnam may have won out. If there are lessons left behind by the tragic conflict in Vietnam, it is unclear that Washington, and the American people, has learned any of them.

* * *

To learn more about this topic, consider the following scholarly works:
• H.W. Brands, “The Devil We Knew: Americans and the Cold War” (1993).
• Gregory A. Daddis, “Withdrawal: Reassessing America’s Final Years in Vietnam” (2017).
• Gary Gerstle, “American Crucible: Race and Nation in the 20th Century” (2001).
• Jill Lepore, “These Truths: A History of the United States” (2018).
• James T. Patterson, “Grand Expectations: The United States, 1945-1974” (1996).
• Howard Zinn, “The Twentieth Century” (1980).

Danny Sjursen, a regular contributor to Truthdig, is a retired U.S. Army officer and former history instructor at West Point. He served tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan. He has written a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghost Riders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge.” He lives in Lawrence, Kan. Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet and check out his podcast, “Fortress on a Hill,” co-hosted with fellow vet Chris “Henri” Henrikson.

United Methodists Edge Toward Breakup Over LGBT Policies

Sun, 2019-04-21 00:19

NEW YORK — There’s at least one area of agreement among conservative, centrist and liberal leaders in the United Methodist Church: America’s largest mainline Protestant denomination is on a path toward likely breakup over differences on same-sex marriage and ordination of LGBT pastors.

The differences have simmered for years, and came to a head in February at a conference in St. Louis where delegates voted 438-384 for a proposal called the Traditional Plan, which strengthens bans on LGBT-inclusive practices. A majority of U.S.-based delegates opposed that plan and favored LGBT-friendly options, but they were outvoted by U.S. conservatives teamed with most of the delegates from Methodist strongholds in Africa and the Philippines.

Many believe the vote will prompt an exodus from the church by liberal congregations that are already expressing their dissatisfaction over the move.

Some churches have raised rainbow flags in a show of LGBT solidarity. Some pastors have vowed to defy the strict rules and continue to allow gay weddings in Methodist churches. Churches are withholding dues payments to the main office in protest, and the UMC’s receipts were down 20 percent in March, according to financial reports posted online.

“It’s time for some kind of separation, some kind of amicable divorce,” said James Howell, pastor of Myers Park United Methodist Church in Charlotte, North Carolina, who posted a video assailing the proposal for its “real meanness.”

The UMC’s nine-member Judicial Council convenes a four-day meeting in Evanston, Ill., on Tuesday to consider legal challenges to the Traditional Plan. If the plan is upheld, it would take effect for U.S. churches on Jan. 1. If parts of it are struck down, that would likely trigger new debate at the UMC’s next general conference in May 2020.

The UMC’s largest church — the 22,000-member Church of the Resurrection with four locations in the Kansas City area — is among those applying financial pressure. Its lead pastor, Adam Hamilton, says his church is temporarily withholding half of the $2.5 million that it normally would have paid to the UMC’s head office at this stage of the year.

“We’ll ultimately pay it,” Hamilton said. “But we want to show that this is the impact if our churches leave.”

Hamilton is among the opponents of the Traditional Plan leading an initiative dubbed UMC-Next that seeks the best path forward for those who share their views. Clergy and activists in the alliance have met in Texas and Georgia, and a bigger meeting is planned for May 20-22 at Hamilton’s megachurch.

Hamilton, in a telephone interview, said two main options are under consideration.

Under one scenario, many centrists and liberals would leave en masse to form a new denomination — a potentially complex endeavor given likely disputes over the dissolution process.

Under the other option, opponents of the Traditional Plan would stay in the UMC and resist from within, insisting on LGBT-inclusive policies and eventually convincing the conservatives that they should be the faction that leaves under what’s envisioned as a financially smooth “gracious exit.”

“There’s a sense that some conservatives have been wanting to leave for a long time,” Hamilton said. “They’re tired of fighting about it.”

Formed in a merger in 1968, the United Methodist Church claims about 12.6 million members worldwide, including nearly 7 million in the United States.

While other mainline Protestant denominations have embraced gay-friendly practices, the UMC still bans them, though acts of defiance by pro-LGBT clergy have multiplied. Many have performed same-sex weddings; others have come out as gay or lesbian from the pulpit.

Enforcement of the bans has been inconsistent; the Traditional Plan aspires to beef up discipline against those engaged in defiance.

Traditional Plan supporter Mark Tooley, who heads a conservative Christian think tank, predicts that the UMC will split into three denominations — one for centrists, another oriented toward liberal activists and a third representing the global alliance of U.S. conservatives and their allies overseas.

“It’s a question of how long it takes for that to unfold — and of who and how many go into each denomination,” Tooley said. “A lot of churches will be irreparably harmed as they divide.”

Scott Jones, bishop of the UMC’s Houston-based Texas conference, says churchgoers in his region are divided in their views, but a majority supports the Traditional Plan’s concepts.

“I have urged all of us to love each other, listen to each other and respect each other, even if we disagree,” said Jones, who holds out hope that the UMC’s disparate factions can preserve some form of unity.

Ann Craig of Newburgh, New York — a lesbian activist who has advocated for greater LGBT inclusion in the UMC — thinks a breakup can be avoided, though she’s unsure what lies ahead.

“We expect something new to happen, but what that change should be or will be has not jelled yet,” she said. “I don’t think we’re going to break up — it’s so cumbersome to figure out a way to divorce.”

The crisis is being followed closely at Methodist-affiliated theology schools based at universities with LGBT-inclusive policies. There are 13 UMC-connected theology schools around the country.

“There’s a lot of turmoil and distress,” said Mary Elizabeth Moore, dean of Boston University School of Theology. “We’re trying to find a future that will be less destructive than where we are now.”

Egypt Votes on Referendum Extending El-Sissi’s Rule to 2030

Sat, 2019-04-20 22:46

CAIRO — Egyptians voted Saturday on constitutional amendments that would allow President Abdel-Fattah el-Sissi to stay in power until 2030 and broaden the military’s role — changes blasted by critics as another major step toward authoritarian rule.

The referendum came amid an unprecedented crackdown on dissent in recent years. El-Sissi’s government has arrested thousands of people, most of them Islamists but also prominent secular activists, and rolled back freedoms won in a 2011 pro-democracy uprising.

Polls opened at 9 a.m. (0700 GMT). Voting will stretch over a period of three days to allow maximum turnout.

Outside a polling center near the Giza Pyramids, around two dozen people, mostly elderly women, lined up waiting to cast their votes. Heavy police and army security was reported at polling stations throughout the capital city.

Haja Khadija, a 63-year-old housewife, said she came for the “security and stability” of the country. “We love el-Sissi. He did lots of things. He raised our pensions.”

Casting his ballot on Saturday, Prime Minister Mustafa Madbouly urged voters to turn out in high numbers. He said that voting will reflect “the atmosphere of stability and democracy that we are witnessing now.”

State-run TV said el-Sissi voted in Cairo’s Heliopolis district, near the presidential palace. El-Sissi, who has repeatedly said he won’t stay in office any longer than the people want him to, hasn’t commented on the amendments.

Opposition voices have largely been shut out amid the rush to hold the referendum. Pro-government media have led a campaign for weeks calling a “Yes” vote a patriotic duty.

Since early April, the Egyptian capital has been awash with large posters and banners encouraging people to vote in favor of the changes. Most of the posters were apparently funded by pro-government parties, businessmen and lawmakers.

Parliament, packed with el-Sissi supporters, overwhelmingly approved the amendments on Tuesday, with only 22 no votes and one abstention from 554 lawmakers in attendance. The national electoral commission announced the following day that voting would begin on Saturday.

The proposed changes are seen by critics as another step toward authoritarianism. The referendum comes eight years after a pro-democracy uprising ended autocrat Hosni Mubarak’s three-decade rule, and nearly six years after el-Sissi led a popular military overthrow of the country’s first freely elected but divisive Islamist president, Mohammed Morsi.

Two international advocacy groups — Human Rights Watch and the International Commission of Jurists — on Saturday urged the Egyptian government to withdraw the amendments.

“Egypt’s autocracy is shifting into overdrive to re-establish the ‘President-for-Life’ model, beloved by dictators in the region and despised by their citizens,” said Michael Page, deputy Middle East and North Africa director at Human Rights Watch. “But it’s a model that recent experience in Egypt and neighboring countries has demonstrated is not built to last.”

The Civil Democratic Movement, a coalition of liberal and left-leaning parties, urged people to participate in the referendum by voting “No.”

The coalition said it used social media to spread its message, noting that it was banned from hanging banners in the streets to call on voters to reject the amendments.

The amendments extend a president’s term in office from four to six years and allow for a maximum of two terms. But they also include an article specific to el-Sissi that extends his current second four-year term to six years and allows him to run for another six-year term in 2024 — potentially extending his rule until 2030.

Novelist Omar Knawy voted “No” in the referendum. He said he is opposes most of the changes, especially those that would enable el-Sissi to stay in power beyond his current second four-year term. He also opposes articles that declare the military the “guardian and protector” of the Egyptian state, democracy and the constitution.

“The article related to the military gives it the right to interfere (in politics) at any time, and I am against such article,” he told The Associated Press.

El-Sissi was elected president in 2014, and re-elected last year after all potentially serious challengers were either jailed or pressured to exit the race.

The amendments also allow the president to appoint top judges and bypass judiciary oversight in vetting draft legislation, while also granting military courts wider jurisdiction in trying civilians.

In the last three years, over 15,000 civilians, including children, have been referred to military prosecution in Egypt, according to Human Rights Watch.

The amendments also introduce one or more vice presidents, revive the senate and enshrine a 25% quota for women in parliament’s lower, legislative chamber. All three had been dropped from Egypt’s constitution after the 2011 revolution.

Yellow Vest Anger Burns in France, Fueled by Notre Dame Fire

Sat, 2019-04-20 22:30

PARIS — French yellow vest protesters set fires along a march route through Paris on Saturday to drive home their message to a government they see as out of touch with the problems of the poor: that rebuilding the fire-ravaged Notre Dame Cathedral isn’t the only problem France needs to solve.

Like the high-visibility vests the protesters wear, the scattered small fires in Paris appeared to be a collective plea to the government to “look at me — I need help too!”

Police fired water cannon and sprayed tear gas to try to control radical elements on the margins of the largely peaceful march, one of several actions around Paris and other French cities.

The protesters were marking the 23rd straight weekend of yellow vest actions against economic inequality and President Emmanuel Macron’s government, which they see as favoring the wealthy and big business at the expense of ordinary workers. Protesters see themselves as standing up for beleaguered French workers, students and retirees who have been battered by high unemployment, high taxes and shrinking purchasing power.

Associated Press reporters saw a car, motorbikes and barricades set ablaze around the Place de la Republique plaza in eastern Paris. The smell of tear gas fired by police mixed with the smoke, choking the air.

Paris firefighters — who struggled earlier this week to prevent the 12th-century Notre Dame from collapsing — quickly responded to extinguish the flames at Saturday’s protest.

One masked protester dressed in black jumped on a Mercedes parked along the march route, smashing its front and back windshields.

Paris police headquarters said authorities detained 137 people by early afternoon and carried out spot checks on more than 14,000 people trying to enter the capital for Saturday’s protests.

The tensions focused on a march of several thousand people that started at the Finance Ministry in eastern Paris to demand lower taxes on workers and retirees and higher taxes on the rich.

Another group of about 200 people tried to march to the president’s Elysee Palace in central Paris, but riot police blocked them at the neo-classical Madeleine Church.

Yet another group tried to demonstrate yellow vest mourning over the Notre Dame blaze while also keeping up the pressure on Macron. They wanted to march to Notre Dame itself, but were banned by police, who set up a large security perimeter around the area.

One protester carried a huge wooden cross resembling those carried in Good Friday processions as he walked on a nearby Paris embankment.

Many protesters were deeply saddened by the fire at a national monument . But at the same time they are angry at the $1 billion in donations for Notre Dame renovations that poured in from French tycoons while their own economic demands remain largely unmet and they struggle to make ends meet.

“I think what happened at Notre Dame is a great tragedy but humans should be more important than stones. And if humans had a little bit more money, they too could help finance the reconstruction work at Notre Dame. I find this disgusting,” said protester Jose Fraile.

Some 60,000 police officers were mobilized for Saturday’s protests across France. The movement is largely peaceful but extremists have attacked treasured monuments, shops and banks and clashed with police.

The heavy police presence meant subway stations and roads around Paris were closed Saturday, thwarting tourists trying to enjoy the French capital on a warm spring day.

“Paris is very difficult right now,” said Paul Harlow, of Kansas City, Missouri, as he looked sadly at the damaged Notre Dame.

He and his wife Susan were in Paris only for a few days and didn’t make it in time to see the cathedral. On Saturday, their efforts to visit museums were derailed by closed subways and barricaded roads.

“I don’t think we’ll be back,” he said.

Other visitors showed solidarity with the yellow vest cause.

“I am not interested in joining them, but I can understand what they’re angry about,” said Antonio Costes, a retiree from the Paris suburb of Montreuil who came Saturday to see the damage to Notre Dame. “There is a lot of injustice.”

Macron had been scheduled to lay out his responses to yellow vest concerns on Monday night — but canceled the speech because the Notre Dame fire broke out. He’s now expected to do so next Thursday.

Some yellow vest critics accuse Macron of trying to exploit the fire for political gain. One protester carried a sign targeting Macron that read: “Pyromaniac – we are going to carbonize you.”

Another huge sign read: “Victor Hugo thanks all the generous donors ready to save Notre Dame and proposes that they do the same thing with Les Miserables,” referring to the famed author’s novels about the cathedral and the struggles of France’s poor.

Some prominent yellow vest figures who had stopped protesting said they were returning to the streets Saturday out of an even greater sense of being overlooked since the Notre Dame tragedy.

Anti-rich messages have flourished on social media in recent days as yellow vest protesters exhorted wealthy donors to be more generous with France’s working class.


Chris den Hond, Francisco Seco and Deborah Gouffran in Paris contributed to this report.

The Trickster King and the Erudite Literalist

Sat, 2019-04-20 19:00

“The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship from Pantheon”
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“The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship”

A book by Alex Beam

A tribunal of the literary gods could not have selected two more mismatched friends than Edmund Wilson and Vladimir Nabokov.

Born in 1895 in Red Bank, N.J., Wilson—called Bunny by his friends, a nickname he did not care for, given to him by his mother—was the most celebrated critic and literary journalist of his time. A dyed-in-the-wool lefty who “scolded himself for his bourgeois lifestyle,” he was an editor and writer for The New Republic and later a writer for The New Yorker.

Nabokov, born in 1895 in St. Petersburg, Russia, was the greatest of post-World War II American novelists—in Gore Vidal’s lovely phrase, “the black swan of American letters.” His family fled St. Petersburg after the Bolsheviks seized power. He despised the Russian Revolution.

They met in 1940. Wilson, charmed by the émigré, helped Nabokov find teaching jobs and championed his work with editors. For years, their friendship was deep and harmonious. “Edmund was always in a state of joy when Vladimir appeared,” recalled Wilson’s third wife, novelist Mary McCarthy. “They had a ball together.”

But, “In many ways,” writes Alex Beam in “The Feud: Vladimir Nabokov, Edmund Wilson, and the End of a Beautiful Friendship,” his rich and delightful account of the friendship and falling-out of the two literary giants, they “proved to be two entirely different and contradictory people, Wilson the erudite literalist and Nabokov … the fantasist, the trickster king. The opposites attracted, and then they didn’t.”

Click here to read long excerpts from “The Feud” at Google Books.

Beam, a columnist for The Boston Globe and author of “A Great Idea at the Time,” about the Great Books phenomenon of the 1960s, takes the right attitude toward the feud of “The Feud”: “… Wilson and Nabokov had ended a quarter-century-long friendship because of a disagreement over how to translate [Alexander] Pushkin’s novel and verse Eugene Onegin.” Upon the reason for their break: “It was the silliest thing I had ever heard.”

The relationship began swimmingly when Wilson procured a Guggenheim fellowship for Nabokov. Nabokov wrote him, “Thanks, dear friend. … I have noticed that whenever you are involved in any of my affairs, they are always successful.” Their love for Russian literature inspired a collaboration on a translation of Pushkin’s story, “Mozart and Salieri,” published in 1941. A beaming Nabokov, with uncharacteristic modesty, told Wilson, “You have played Mozart to my Salieri.”

The seeds of their disruption, though, lay in their politics. Wilson “never fully surrendered his admiration for Lenin, for which Nabokov attacked him on first acquaintance.” Nabokov approved of parts of Wilson’s epic, “To the Finland Station,” “but could not stomach Wilson’s treacly depiction of Vladimir Ilyich Lenin.”

“Not even the magic of your style,” he wrote, “has made me like him.”

A more personal problem might have been Wilson’s envy of his friend’s fabulous facility with his adopted language (though Nabokov claimed that the first language he ever heard was English, “read to him from children’s books in early childhood”). When “Bend Sinister,” Nabokov’s novel about life in a totalitarian regime, was published in 1947, Wilson wrote to him with eye-opening condescension: “You aren’t good at this kind of subject, which involves questions of politics and social change, because you are totally uninterested in these matters and have never taken the trouble to understand them.” (There was something to this criticism—“My books,” Nabokov once boasted, “are blessed by a total lack of social significance.”)

But Wilson’s aversion to Nabokov’s fiction ran deeper as “… Wilson never reviewed a book by Nabokov during the first quarter century of their friendship.”

Things came to a boil in 1955 with the publication of “Lolita,” the novel Nabokov would become world famous for. He “was eager for Wilson to like it. ‘I consider this novel to be my best thing in English,’ he wrote to Wilson, ‘and though the theme and situation are decidedly sensuous, its art is pure and it’s fun riotous.” But Wilson was appalled. “Nasty subjects may make fine books, but I don’t feel you have got away with this,” he wrote of the story of the European émigré Humbert Humbert’s love of the 12-year-old American nymphet. “It isn’t merely that the characters and the situation are repulsive in themselves, but that, presented on this scale, they seem quite unreal.”

An English critic, like many, found “Lolita” to be“sheer unrestrained pornography.” Nabokov certainly expected a judgment more sophisticated from his friend, America’s leading arbiter of taste.

This was just a warmup compared with the brawl that was coming when Nabokov attempted a translation and commentary of “Eugene Onegin.” The translation was just over 250 pages; the commentary 930 plus 107 pages of index. Wilson’s negative reaction was far from isolated. Doubleday editor Jason Epstein recalled it as “… the work of a mad man. … It’s an impossible book, you can’t read it.”

Wilson’s review in July 1965—more than a year after publication—was, writes Beam with admirable flourish, “a classic of its genre, the genre being an over long, spiteful, stochastically accurate, generally useless but unfailingly amusing hatchet job. …”

Nabokov’s book—or more accurately, books, as it was published in four volumes—and Wilson’s attack spurred a lively commentary in the literary world, joined by a slew of poets, critics and translators. To paraphrase Churchill, never in the course of literary history has so much been written about a work read by so few.

Oddly enough, the nasty back-and-forth did not completely end their relationship, though they would never be close friends again. And the feud would continue from the grave. Three months after his death in June 1972, Wilson’s final book, “A Window on Russia,” was published. In it, he found even more things to quibble about regarding his former friend’s translation. “My own attempts to tease Nabokov,” Wilson wrote, a tad disingenuously, “were not recognized as such but received in a virulent spirit.”

Nabokov died five years later, making no attempt to have the final word.

Beam writes with a mischievous and sometimes malicious wit worthy of his subjects, and a sound literary judgment. I take issue, however, with one of his opinions: “Told from such a distance in time, this becomes a story of unequal combat. Nabokov is very much alive in his work, perhaps less on the night table than on college syllabus, but nonetheless he remains known to millions.”

“Not so Wilson. … Once hailed as ‘dean of American letters,’ possessed with what biographer Leon Edel called ‘a certain Johnsonian celebrity,’ Wilson is largely unknown today.”

I disagree. Regarding “Johnsonian celebrity,” one might ask whether Dr. Johnson’s fame, such as it is today, derives from his actual works, which few have read, or from those who read about him through Boswell. Wilson’s influence, like Johnson’s, was probably always far greater than his actual readership; in any event, I’ll bet that students boning up on literary modernism still start with “Axel’s Castle,” or “To the Finland Station” for the origins of communism, or “Patriotic Gore” for Civil War-era literature.

More than 40 years after his death, what English language critic has come along to take his place? Possibly his closest equal today would be Clive James, the Australian-born writer who, in “The Metropolitan Critic,” paid Wilson this homage: “It is this feeling of watching a man proving himself equal to an incontestably important task—explaining the world to America and explaining America to itself—which provides the constant excitement of Wilson’s work.”

The vision expressed in “Axel’s Castle: A Study in the Imaginative Literature of 1870–1930” (1934) is very much with us today—we still see Dickens, James, Yeats, Proust, Eliot, Joyce, Fitzgerald and Hemingway largely through his lens. As Clive James put it, Wilson’s essays on late 19th and early 20th century writers “stand as permanent criticism.”

He did have some gaps as a critic—huge, baffling, yawning gaps. By drawing a blank on Kafka, he shut himself off from one of the most important currents in literature after 1930. He could never connect emotionally or intellectually with anything Spanish, which meant he had nothing to say about Miguel de Unamuno, Federico Garcia Lorca or José Ortega y Gasset. It was another great English language critic, V.S. Pritchett, who wrote the book, “A Spanish Temper” (1954), that Wilson should have written.

Wilson never even finished reading “Don Quixote.“The most important wave in literature in the second half of the 20th century, the one from South America that gave us, among many others, Jorge Luis Borges and Gabriel Garcia Marquez, missed Wilson altogether.

Still, “The Feud” points out Wilson’s greatest failing as a critic and the most bitter irony of his career. Whether because of a flaw in his critical eye or a failing of temperament, he was blind to the greatness of a novelist he not only knew intimately but helped establish, his friend Vladimir Nabokov.

The Destruction of the Palestinians Will Be Israel’s Undoing

Sat, 2019-04-20 06:38

The Israel-Palestine conflict is at the heart of politics not only in the Middle East, but in the United States. As the Israeli government led by Benjamin Netanyahu moves further toward the hard right with the support of U.S. President Donald Trump, the plight of Palestinians is reaching a new level of urgency. Journalist and filmmaker Mariam Shahin, the daughter of Palestinians, has dedicated much of her life’s work to documenting Palestinians’ stories through film as well as in her book “Palestine: A Guide” (Interlink Books, 2006). Truthdig Editor in Chief Robert Scheer describes Shahin’s films as poignant portrayals of “the forgotten people of every intrusion, every war.”

“What I loved about your work,” Scheer tells Shahin in the latest installment of “Scheer Intelligence,” “is you capture … the ordinary person living in a place like Gaza. How they eat, how they survive. Male, female, children. These are not people who invented the situation. These are not people who have agency of any significance.”

While the situation in the Palestinian territories looks increasingly dire, Shahin has found reasons for hope. “I think as the world increasingly becomes more polarized, there’s more people willing to listen to Palestinians,” the journalist tells the Truthdig editor in chief.

“We have an enormous number of, for example, film festivals, which also show documentaries like the ones I make and many others across Europe, across Asia, across South America, in Africa and in the United States—in the land where some of the biggest opponents of a Palestinian identity and entity govern,” she continues.

Shahin believes that the future of the two peoples will depend on complex peace work, work in which, according to her, the onus should be placed on Israelis as they hold more power. The journalist, however, concedes that the only solution left going forward given current socio-political conditions is what’s known as the “One State Solution.” She insists that the work she carries out is in the interest of Israelis and Palestinians alike, given that establishing lasting peace between the two would solve the great majority of Israel’s current troubles.

“Because when the world around [Israel], those who are hostile to [them], recognize that [Israel is] actually a democracy and a state which treats citizens and neighbors as equals, then half [the] problem is over,” asserts Shahin.

Listen to the full discussion about Israelis’ and Palestinians’ potential future and how it affects American politics. You can also read a transcript of the interview below the media player and find past episodes of “Scheer Intelligence” here.

Robert Scheer: Hi. This is Robert Scheer with another edition of “Sheer Intelligence,” where the intelligence comes from my guests. In this case, journalist and author Mariam Shahin, who is, I say, a Palestinian, yet you were born in Berlin, I guess. Your father, as with many Palestinians and many Jewish people, lived in the diaspora because of events in their home country. A highly educated man, a cancer researcher and so forth. Yet you visited Palestine and what you have managed to do in your work, I should say you’re a very famous journalist. Your work has appeared in everything from CBS to Al Jazeera. You’ve made, I don’t know what, some huge amount of documentaries, I think 80 or something. You’ve studied at Harvard and all sorts of places. But what I loved about your work in preparation for this and as I was familiar with some of it before, is you capture, dare I say it, the ordinary person living in a place like Gaza. How they eat, how they survive. Male, female, children. These are not people who invented the situation. These are not people who have agency of any significance.

These are the forgotten people of every intrusion, every war. The reason I find your work so powerful is that this is the third rail issue. It’s very difficult to have a rational discussion about Israel, Palestine and so forth. Stereotypes dominate. The group that is lost are the Palestinians and the people in Gaza. First of all, there are plenty of people denying they are even a people or if they’ve got problems, it’s the result of something else. It has nothing to do and somehow, particularly for people who are very sympathetic to Israel, they are an inconvenience. Right? This new state was going to be created, I’m not going to visit the whole history. Somehow … Oh, it wasn’t a vacant land. There were these people. They had a rich, long history and somehow that always gets in the way.

But one point I want to begin with because I had some experience, I actually was in Gaza at the end of the Six-Day War. What has always bothered me that the Palestinians are somehow the only group that are held accountable in the Six-Day War. Not the Egyptians, not the Jordanians, not really the Syrians; all of whom have had their separate peace, not only with Israel but in the eyes of the world powers and so forth. The Palestinians, who are actually even then an occupied people or had the Egyptians controlled Gaza, Syria controlled the Golan Heights, Jordan controlled the West Bank.

When I was there reporting on it, I kept thinking, “Wait a minute. The Palestinians didn’t have an air force, they didn’t have guns, they didn’t have anything. Why …”, and I’ve felt this to this day, “Why are they the ones who’ve paid the price?” Quite apart from anything else you think about the situation. So let me begin there with you.

You have captured the forgotten people, the people in Gaza, the people in the West Bank and so forth. Tell us about that and the difficulty of doing that kind of journalism, getting that out there.

Mariam Shahin: Well, I think Palestinians, specifically those living under occupation and those who live in the diaspora, have frequently been or mostly been objectified by the Western media. Not so much by the third world media, but certainly by the Western media and turned into either poor victims or terrorists. That’s very, very problematic because in my experience, granted that I’m a Palestinian, but my many, many visits to both the West Bank and Gaza and the Palestinian communities within Israel, it’s very clear to me that they’re actually victims of war who have, over generations now, found survival mechanisms. Despite efforts to create conditions of de-development, meaning where there were roads in Gaza, today there are none. Where there were hospitals, they are largely dysfunctional because of the lack of electricity. Where there were schools, there are largely functioning on threads because of a lack of electricity, a lack of water and because of constant bombardment over the last 12 years at least.

We can see that the tenacity of both the individuals and the communities, led by very tenacious men and women, are not just surviving, they are even thriving because I think it is safe to say that before 1948, the Palestinians in historic Palestine were communities of merchants, of farmers, of traders, of a certain degree of intellectual class. But they were not fighters. They were not people who had to fight up to then for their own existence, either in existence of daily survival or their existence as a people, as an entity, as a nation. As people who have the same rights as everybody else.

I think war and pressure and prejudice came both from the state of Israel and frequently also from Arab states and from the west. Created a character which was very vibrant with the spirit of survival and resistance. Resistance to this enormous effort to negate them, both as individuals and as a people. That I find the most interesting.

Moving from that premise, what I do very often in my films is I try to profile people who are making a difference, who are acting on that instinctive survival. A communal instinctive survival, of a way to make things better for themselves and for others. Women have been certainly at the forefront of this, because at various times in the last 60 years, a large percentage of the male population has been incarcerated. This, again, inadvertently created strength within the community. Every time they take a blow, whether it’s a military blow or a political blow, something new is born. A new form of resistance to that eradication.

Now sometimes that eradication is a physical eradication and sometimes it’s a political, economic social one. It works on many levels. The characters I found, the people I found, as a storyteller, of course, they become characters to me. But the people I found are real and they’re really quite fabulous.

RS: People always object when you draw parallels between people. But what hit me about being a witness to a part of the Six-Day War and so forth, were what you just said about the Palestinians, of course, is what drove the idea of a Jewish state. There are people who denied that there was a Jewish people until they, so many of them were exterminated. At that time, in the Six-Day War, I recall this vividly. The people who represent, who led Israel, the dominant Labor party, were people that I felt very comfortable with. They were on the left, they were socialists. I remember Moshe Dayan. He actually knew Arabic. I remember being with him. He said, very clearly he told me when I interviewed him. He said, “If you come back and we’re still occupying here, it will destroy Israel.” Whether he believed that or not, I don’t know. But the Labor Party people claimed at that time that they were not occupiers. That they understood the risk of being an occupier. What it would do to your national character.

This has always been the fear of people who oppose imperial adventures. It’s going to turn you into a monster. Yet now, we are at a time when the whole Labor Party people are considered, what, traitors or irrelevant or something. You have an out and out jingoism, Netanyahu for example, and he’s not even the worst of the bunch, if he’s defeated in the current election, probably end up being replaced by somebody even more [inaudible 00:10:28]. They’re talking about annexation, they’re abandoning the idea of two states. Two states for two people was the slogan before. Now they’ve already announced an annexing the Golan Heights and Trump supports that. They’re talking about annexing the West Bank and so forth.

The question I want to put to that is, how did this get to be such a third rail issue that we can’t even discuss it logically. If you dare say something critical of Israel under Netanyahu’s, the big victor of Trump’s selection. Recognized shifting the embassy. He supports everything the right wingers do. He’s actually accused of anti-Semitism, you know. On the other hand, what I can’t understand about all this is, the demonization. What your journalism and I wonder what reception you find for your journalism, it goes against that narrative of the innocent Israelis, victims of the Holocaust who have tried only to have a home and they are threatened by these fanatical terrorist Arabs.

Your films [inaudible 00:11:43], which do get something of a hearing, but primarily, now on Al Jazeera which is challenged as whether its real news or not. So just tell me a little bit about your work as a journalist. Because clearly your intention of your journalism is to record accurately. Your product wreaks of a pursuit of truth, of accuracy. Yet, because it’s different than the commonly accepted narrative, it’s probably difficult to get a venue for it.

MS: Well, I think historically that’s correct. Palestinians had difficulty being heard and difficulty in the west being recognized as equal partners, or as people who deserve a fair hearing. But I think that’s actually changing. I think as the world increasingly becomes more polarized, there’s more people willing to listen to Palestinians. We have an enormous number of, for example, film festivals which also show documentaries like the ones I make and many others across Europe, across Asia, across South America. In Africa; and in the United States. In the land where some of the biggest opponents of a Palestinian identity and entity govern.

Only last week, you had what’s probably the second biggest film festival in Israel, in Haifa. It was a Palestinian film festival. I actually think things are changing. I think things are changing even from the time that I was younger and I began, because we were … and I continued to be, I think, relatively soft-spoken. My attempts also to really convince the other, and this case being the Israeli Zionist Jewish entity, that making real peace with the Palestinians, recognizing the Palestinians as equals and treating Palestinians as such, whether they’re citizens of the state of Israel, or whether they’re in the West Bank and Gaza is actually a good thing for the Jews. Frankly. I mean, this is … Because I’m always asked that by Israelis. “Is what you’re doing good for the Jews?” I always say, “I think it’s very good, because if you are able to make peace with Palestinians and live in harmony, 90% of your problems will be over. Because when the world around you, those who are hostile to you, recognize that you are actually a Democracy and a state which treats citizens and neighbors as equals, then half your problem is over.

That’s the premise from which we’re moving. In the past, you mentioned and I recognize that in my 25-year history with Israel. There wasn’t a call for annihilation. There was a call for sidelining, for maybe expelling. For killing, but not en masse. Today, there is a mentality, a right-wing mentality which has gripped many, many societies across the world or all shades and religions. That includes Israel. There are calls to kill an entire people. There’s no reprimand. There’s nothing. This is really scary.

One the one hand, you have a move to the right. On the other hand, you have a greater number of people who are saying, “Stop. This is not OK. We’re in the 21st century. We can’t go back. Going back is not an option.”

RS: Let me push this a little bit, because it seems the Labor Party, the peace movement in Israel, Peace Now and so forth, are quite weak.

MS: They’re persecuted. The Peace movement in Israel is persecuted.

RS: Yeah. I for instance, read [inaudible 00:16:51] in English regularly, but it represents a very small percentage. The voices of jingoism and so forth. You’re right about this right-wing Jingoisticmovement in the world. One perfect example is the one government that seems to have benefited from interference in the US election was Israel. By interference, I’m not talking about anything necessarily illegal, even surreptitious. I mean, Netanyahu came to the U.S. Congress and attacked a sitting American president over a major agreement with Iran to control nuclear weapons. He clearly supported Donald Trump. Donald Trump, as president, whatever you think of him, has been very supportive of a certain right-wing view of Israel. He has favored moving the embassy. He doesn’t talk about a two-state solution. He now talks about annexation of not only the Golan Heights, but the West Bank. I don’t know if he wants Gaza just somehow push that off into the sea.

So, you have a very odd circumstance where we have a lot of discussion about Russia’s influence here. They have got nothing. They have sanctions, nothing. As a journalist, I find it quite amazing that there’s no question raised with Pelosi, with Schumer, with any of the leading Democrats. What is going on? You attack Trump for everything. How come you don’t attack him for giving Netanyahu a blank check to do what he wants? It must be frustrating to an observer like yourself, no?

MS: Yes, it is. But I also, we follow American politics and we’re looking very closely at what the different Democrats who are running to lead the Democratic Party are saying about the conflict. The main conflict in the Arab world, which is between Israelis and Palestinians. But there are a few who are actually critical of Israel. Those include Bernie Sanders, certainly, I think even Beto, Beto O’Rourke has come out, criticizing Netanyahu, Netanyahu government. I mean, we’re taking note. Previously, I’m sorry, nobody was criticizing Israel at all and the fact that you have two candidates now running who are actually opening their mouth, one of them who happens to be Jewish, is very rewarding, in a sense that things have changed, perhaps because of Trump. Because perhaps he went too far to the right, that now some people, at least, are publicly pushing back.

RS: OK. First of all, let me take a break and then I’m going to push back on you on one thing.


RS: We’ll be right back with this edition of Scheer Intelligence. I’ve been talking to Mariam Shahin, a very well-known journalist, filmmaker, author, whose work for major news organizations and does a really powerful series for Al Jazeera. We’ll be right back.

RS: We’re back with Mariam Shahin, Palestinian journalist and we’re talking about the ordinary folks of Gaza. But before we  lose the thread here, one thing that’s used to say, “You can’t have peace and justify a hard line,” is that the people of Gaza have been represented by hardliners, the Hamas movement, who attack even the Palestinian Liberation Organization for, as being too [inaudible]. They are an impediment. One of the contradictions while we’re doing this interview, right now this week, Egypt has moved into Gaza to help negotiations. Israel has made a deal with Hamas, one of the many they make over the years, has actually a historical record that Israel preferred Hamas originally and supported its creation of the PLO and so forth.

The irony is, that you can always find unattractive characters who are leaders on the other side in anything. In this case, the argument of some really even progressive Jewish organizations, we’d love to have peace, but we can’t find anybody to negotiate with. So really what has happened to these peace efforts?

MS: Well, I think it’s erroneous. I haven’t heard anybody from the Israeli peace movement actually say that, to be honest. I think there are still Israelis who are part of a peace effort. There were Israeli observers in downtown Hebron who basically documented settler violence against Palestinians. There’s an organization called Checkpoint Watch, which is manned predominantly by retirees, but they stand at checkpoints and they try to monitor and sometimes interfere in behavior of soldiers toward Palestinians.

Not everything has stopped and those who actually want to be involved are involved. There’s an association for bereaved parents, where both Palestinian and Israeli parents who have lost children or loved ones bond together and they hold discussions and they organize events.

RS: People listening to this, they’re going to say, “Scheer. You didn’t ask the really difficult question.” Can … I know you have a group, Hamas. They control Gaza, OK. Now maybe, with Arafat, maybe you could make the argument that he could have accepted peace. You know, after all, he was the partner in [inaudible 00:23:15] and so forth. Could you have peace with Hamas? Is it possible? Who speaks for the Palestinians?

Now, the irony in that, is that Israel actually, from time to time seems more favorable. The hard line in Israel, which is the government, to Hamas, than it does to the PLO. But really, you’re somebody who goes back and forth, who covers this and so, give me the reality check, because I’m just blowing smoke here. I’m based on headlines or whatever. You’re there. You deal with these people.

Is Gaza run by religious fanatics? There seems to be seething discontent. Will there be a Palestinian leadership that people could negotiate with? To what degree is this all confused by Israeli actions? Let’s end this on your assessment of the prospect for peace and normalcy in this contentious region.

MS: That’s a big one. I think the first thing that has to happen, who represents the Palestinian people? The people in occupied Palestine have to vote. This is number one. Both in Gaza and in the West Bank. There hasn’t been an election since 2006. That’s 12 years. It’s time for a vote. That’s number one.

Certainly, Israel is a major interferent if that word exists, in internal affairs, by the sheer fact that there’s constant raiding, there’s constant bombing in Gaza and killing. There’s constant raiding, killing and incarceration in the West Bank on a daily basis. As long as this continues, no democracy among the Palestinians and the Israeli military assault almost on a daily basis to varying degrees, we can’t have peace.

Two things have to happen. The Palestinians have to hold elections. Hamas is a political organization. OK? They want power like all politician parties want power and they’ve proved in the past that they can very much hold discussions with Israel. And the Israelis know that. But it’s not convenient. It’s more convenient to say, “This is my enemy.” It’s more difficult to make peace than to make war. That’s what we’re seeing now.

I think at the end of the day, of course it’s possible for Palestinians and Israelis to live together, but a lot has to be done. Above everything, there was to be a will. That will can be expressed at the ballot box. You see? When you vote for the peacemakers, when somebody comes with a program and says, “This is what we have to do” and the people say, “OK. I’ll sign on for that,” then we have hope. I don’t think it’s a hopeless situation, but it’s an extremely hard situation. Especially for the Palestinians. Because they’re the ones being killed. There are a few Israelis being killed also, but it’s basically the Palestinians who are being killed and it is apartheid. That’s what it is.

I think we all realize that. And the Israelis know that.

RS: So, let me conclude this with a notion about the swing of history.

You have a region here basically dominated by two forces in history that seem to be played out in most of the world. One is religion. Which for much of the world, seems to be increasingly irrelevant, or interpreted in benign, non-threatening ways. Even very large Muslim populations and Indonesia generally, manage to … I shouldn’t say even and certainly the Catholic Church which used to fight the Protestant church. A lot of that is played out and so forth. Yet here in this relatively small geographical area, religion is like it was described in the Biblical era and so forth.

One question is this hold of religion in this region. The other is the hold of nationalism. Increasingly, we live in a one world economy and people travel freely and nationalism seems to be on the decline. Well, people can evoke it when they want to go to war, but you yourself are very cosmopolitan, sophisticated person who has lived a lot of … I’m not putting you down for that. This is true of many people who go from the United States and live in Israel and come back and so forth. I guess that’s what I would like to conclude.

Here we have a part of the world that seems to be in the grip of these two forces that have lost their power, their energy and much of the rest of the world, nationalism and religion. Makes the region the most threatening, unstable, unsatisfying, destructive area in the world right now. Is that not the sad conclusion?

MS: I think a return to religion is actually almost a global movement in fundamentalisms. I mean, we look at Brazil. We look at India. We look at Eastern Europe, where national identity using religion, because I think nationalisms use religion to enforce whatever agenda they have. I think it’s on the rise everywhere. I think what has happened over the last 15 years, outside Palestine and the rest of the Arab world is an attempt to shed the forces of dictators. These efforts have, in many cases, not in all … Tunisia being a wonderful exception, have … Religious movements have hijacked these attempts. I think we need to differentiate between those who use religion as a means to gain power and use nationalisms and those who want genuine change and better living conditions for the people in their country, which was the case in, certainly again I say Tunisia, which is the only successful attempt to bring about that change.

Unfortunately, everybody had a role to play in that, including the Israelis. But the entire west, all of Europe, the Russians, the Americans, the Iranians, the Turks; everybody joined the Kabal. It’s been horrific.

RS: All right. Well that’s a depressing note to end on, but I will remind you, you did say earlier in this interview, you thought that we would get peace in the middle east, right?

MS: It has to play itself out, yes.

RS: Yeah. But as a filmmaker, when you photographed these children, when you describe … that’s the great strength. We haven’t talked enough about your art and your journalism, but when you capture these people … Like Sandy Tolan, who’s your friend who did in his book, “Children of the Stone” and “The Lemon Tree,” the humanity. That’s what drives me crazy about this issue. The Gaza Strip that I visited a half century ago and Israel I visited a half century ago, I did not see the big distinction between Arab and Jew, between Israeli and Palestinian on a human level. I felt comfortable with both. OK?

Again, there was so much in common of a culture, of a location, of a desert community, what have you. I mean, so much. And in fact, the original hope of the Kibbutz movement in Israel was normalcy. Tilling the land and so forth.

Do you think we could get to a one-state solution? Not a two-state, a one-state solution where it would be two different people living peacefully under the same roof?

MS: I think a one-state solution in Palestine and Israel is now the only realistic solution. I think the two people will have to work very hard at making it work. The more powerful of the two, ultimately has the greater responsibility. I think the future lies in mature, political action.

RS: Well, OK. I got it back to some optimism, so we can end it there. I want to thank you again, Mariam Shahin. You can Google her name and you can get her terrific work, just to mention a few. I mean, well first of all, she’s the author of “Palestine: A Guide, Unheard Voices, Women on Sanctions and War in Iraq.” She’s written for everyone, from the Christian Science Monitor, The Nation, The Global Male of Canada, The Guardian, et cetera. Check out her work. Go to Al Jazeera. She’s produced nearly 80 documentaries. We haven’t done her great journalistic work justice on this podcast. I wanted to tap into your deep insight on the region, so I’ll thank you again for taking this time.

Our engineers have been Kat Yore and Mario Diaz at KCRW. Our producer is Josh Scheer and here at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, the wizard engineer Sebastian Grubar has held it all together once again and we want to thank him and thank the University of Southern California for helping us here.

We’ll see you next week.


Parents Who Starved and Shackled Children Get Life Sentence

Sat, 2019-04-20 05:55

RIVERSIDE, Calif.—The eldest son and daughter of a couple who starved and shackled 12 of their children spoke publicly for the first time Friday, alternately condemning and forgiving their parents before a judge sentenced the pair to up to life in prison.

Since being freed from their prison-like home more than a year ago, the two adult children of David and Louise Turpin described how they had gained control of lives and, despite receiving little education at home, were now enrolled in college and learning simple things, including how to ride a bike, swim and prepare a meal. They are still thin from years of malnutrition.

“I cannot describe in words what we went through growing up,” said the oldest son, now 27. “Sometimes I still have nightmares of things that have happened, such as my siblings being chained up or getting beaten. But that is the past and this is now. I love my parents and have forgiven them for a lot of the things that they did to us.”

The hearing put an end to a shocking case that had gone unnoticed until a 17-year-old girl escaped from the home in January 2018 and called 911. Investigators discovered a house of horrors hidden behind a veneer of suburban normalcy.

The children — ages 2 to 29 — had been chained to beds, forced to live in squalor, fed only once a day, allowed to shower only once a year and deprived of toys and games. They slept during the day and were active a few hours at night.

As her children spoke from a lectern, 50-year-old Louise Turpin sobbed and dabbed her eyes with tissues.

“I’m sorry for everything I’ve done to hurt my children,” she said. “I love my children so much.”

Her husband, who was shaking and could not initially read from a written statement, let his lawyer speak for him until he regained his composure. He did not apologize for the abuse but wished his children well with their educations and future careers and hoped they would visit him. He then began sobbing.

Jack Osborn, a lawyer representing the seven adult Turpin children, said they understand the consequences of their parents’ actions and are working hard toward forgiving them. Some plan to talk with their parents eventually, but others want no contact with them for 10 years.

The one who called police was a hero for liberating her siblings, Osborn said.

“Maybe but for that we wouldn’t be here today,” he said.

The sentence of life with no chance of parole for 25 years was no surprise. It had been agreed to when the couple pleaded guilty in February to 14 counts each that included torture, cruelty and false imprisonment.

The courtroom fell hushed as the oldest daughter, now 30, entered the courtroom. Her eyes were already red from crying when she began to speak in the voice of a little girl.

“My parents took my whole life from me, but now I’m taking my life back,” she said, as her mother’s lower lip quivered trying to hold back the tears. “Life may have been bad but it made me strong. I fought to become the person I am. I saw my dad change my mom. They almost changed me, but I realized what was happening. I immediately did what I could to not become like them.”

There was no explanation from the parents or lawyers about why the abuse occurred, but a letter from one of the children read by an attorney hinted at a home life that veered from birthday celebrations and trips to Disneyland and Las Vegas to severe punishment and disarray.

“Through the years, things became more and more overwhelming, but they kept trusting in God,” the girl wrote. “I remember our mother sitting in her recliner and crying, saying she don’t know what to do.”

She said her parents did not know the children were malnourished because they thought the children inherited a gene from their mother, who was small.

From the outside, the home in a middle-class section of Perris, a small city about 60 miles (96 kilometers) southeast of Los Angeles, appeared to be neatly kept, and neighbors rarely saw the kids outside, but nothing triggered suspicion.

But when deputies arrived, they were shocked to find a 22-year-old son chained to a bed and two girls who had just been set free from shackles. All but one of the 13 children were severely underweight and had not bathed for months. The house was filled with the stench of human waste.

The children said they were beaten, caged and shackled if they did not obey their parents. Investigators concluded that the couple’s youngest child, a toddler, was the only one who was not abused.

David Turpin, 57, had been an engineer for Lockheed Martin and Northrop Grumman. Louise Turpin was listed as a housewife in a 2011 bankruptcy filing.

The teenage daughter who escaped jumped from a window. After a lifetime in isolation, the 17-year-old did not know her address, the month of the year or what the word “medication” meant.

But she knew enough to punch 911 into a barely workable cellphone and began describing years of abuse to a police dispatcher.

Although the couple filed paperwork with the state to homeschool their children, learning was limited. The oldest daughter only completed third grade.

Referring to the restraints, the oldest daughter’s statement said her mother “didn’t want to use rope or chain but she was afraid her children were taking in too much sugar and caffeine.”

Life got more difficult after her mother’s parents died in 2016.

Her parents tried their best, “and they wanted to give us a good life,” she said. “They believed everything they did was to protect us.”


Associated Press writers Amanda Lee Myers and Michael R. Blood in Los Angeles contributed to this report.

‘Black Is Beautiful’: Identity, Pride and the Photography of Kwame Brathwaite

Sat, 2019-04-20 05:43

On an evening in the early 1950s on the corner of 125th and 7th Avenue in Harlem, two teenage brothers named Elombe Brath and Kwame Brathwaite stood in the crowd to hear Carlos Cooks speak about Pan-Africanism and the legacy of Marcus Garvey. Cooks’ message of black pride and a vibrant history dating to the beginnings of mankind was part of a tradition of corner speakers rooted in radicalism dating to Garvey himself and peers like Hubert H. Harrison, A. Philip Randolph, Chandler Owen and W.A. Domingo. Cooks’ words stayed with the brothers, none more than one elegant truth: “Black Is Beautiful.”

A few years later, Kwame and Elombe went on to co-found the African Jazz Arts Society and Studios (AJASS), a collective of artists, playwrights, designers and dancers, giving African Americans a way to share and celebrate their culture unmolested by a monolithically white racist society. From AJASS they launched Naturally ’62, a fashion event celebrating black women and the African American aesthetic. Out of it came “Black Is Beautiful,” a mantra for a generation.

Black Is Beautiful: The Photography of Kwame Brathwaite,” at Los Angeles’ Skirball Cultural Center through Sept. 1, covers the photographer’s early years documenting jazz concerts and cultural events organized by him and his brother.

“He didn’t just propel the Black Is Beautiful movement forward with his iconic imagery, he created a template on how to bring a community together around an anthem of positivity and inspire an entire generation to love themselves during a period of segregation, when the world was telling them not to,” is how Skirball managing curator Bethany Montagano sums up the show. “He used his photography as a vehicle for social change and that definitely comes out in the exhibition. But the exhibition is also a road map on how to do it.”

Kwame and Elombe started AJASS mainly because they loved jazz. “They couldn’t get Miles [Davis], but they could get all the people who played with Miles. They brought Paul Chambers,” says curator Kwame Brathwaite Jr., who speaks regularly with his 81-year-old father at his home in New York City. “It was a place where you could have African Americans enjoy jazz in their neighborhoods rather than deal with the club barriers and things going on downtown and in Manhattan.”

When a local photographer came by selling images from their shows, Kwame became captivated and decided he would teach himself photography. On display are over 40 black-and-white images, some as large as 5 feet square, of everyday people as well as jazz legends like Max Roach, Abbey Lincoln and Dizzy Gillespie, or Art Blakey taking five with a smoke and a drink, as well as the women of Grandassa Agency, a modeling firm that featured black women—some professional models, others off the street—representing a variety of body shapes and skin tones.

Named for Grandassaland, Cooks’ description of an ancient Africa before continental drift, the Grandassa models, Naturally ’62 and especially the phrase “Black Is Beautiful” resonated beyond Harlem and into mainstream culture. The “Naturally” shows continued on a regular basis over the years, capturing the styles of the times and taking to heart Cooks’ own heckle of some smart-looking female passersby, “Your hair has more intelligence than you. In two weeks, your hair is willing to go back to Africa and you’ll still be jivin’ on the corner.”

“Hooking jazz photography with the social action and activism, then he was able to put women on the frontlines,” Montagano says, laying out Brathwaite’s guide to implementing change. “The teachings of Marcus Garvey recognize equity between men and women. Something that’s very distinctive about Kwame Brathwaite’s work is that women and men have equity. And this is also some of the first positive imagery of African American women, where their hair is worn naturally, they don’t wear makeup. That’s a huge disruption in photography at the time.”

An original Grandassa model known as Black Rose was a stylist who wound up teaching how to style and care for natural hair, rather than getting it straightened as so many did in the 1950s and early ’60s. Brathwaite showed an uncanny prescience in understanding the power of photography to shape people’s worldview. Seeing African Americans denigrated by a monolithic white society and media, he used his camera to refocus how they saw themselves.

“They were trying to convey a message to the Garveys, their own following, through this thing that they called edutainment,” says Brathwaite Jr. of his father’s agenda. “It was specifically to make sure ideas of pride and unity came across when they were doing these shows.”

Not in the exhibit are works that came later, shots of Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye, as well as The Jackson Five on their 1974 trip to Africa, and Muhammad Ali, a longtime friend of Brathwaite, in the Congo that same year in the days leading up to his “Rumble in the Jungle with George Foreman. The Champ sits alone, pensive, in the quiet after a meeting with the press.

“It’s by far one of the most poignant moments of him dealing with whatever he was dealing with in his life, but this kind of peaceful, quiet, muted Ali, which is rare to see cause he’s always on when cameras are around,” observes Brathwaite Jr. Even as his father became known among celebrities in the ’60s and ’70s, he continued to photograph everyday people, placing the famous on equal footing with Harlemites celebrating at the Garvey Day parade.

“He didn’t take a violent approach, he didn’t take a hateful approach, he took an approach about bringing everybody back to self-love. And I think that’s what makes it so dynamic,” concludes Montagano, referencing the new monograph on Brathwaite’s work by Aperture available May 1. “Kwame and the story behind his photography and the way he was able to bring his community together offers a template to young people on how they do it in a way that’s accessible and positive. The scholarship and the fact that this provides such a great model for anyone viewing this today when faced with this struggle are two of the most important parts of this exhibition.”

House Escalates Trump Inquiry With Subpoena for Full Mueller Report

Sat, 2019-04-20 00:08

WASHINGTON—The chairman of the House Judiciary Committee issued a subpoena Friday for special counsel Robert Mueller’s report as Congress escalates its investigation of President Donald Trump.

“It now falls to Congress to determine the full scope of that alleged misconduct and to decide what steps we must take going forward,” said Rep. Jerrold Nadler, D-N.Y. He expects the Justice Department to comply by May 1.

While Mueller declined to prosecute Trump on obstruction of justice, he did not exonerate the president, all but leaving the question to Congress.

Mueller’s report provides fresh evidence of Trump’s interference in the Russia investigation and challenges lawmakers to respond. The risks for both parties are clear if they duck the responsibility or prolong an inquiry that, rather than coming to a close, may be just beginning.

“My committee needs and is entitled to the full version of the report and the underlying evidence consistent with past practice,” Nadler said in a statement.

But the committee’s top Republican, Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, said the subpoena was “wildly overbroad” and that Trump already declined to assert executive privilege in a move of “unprecedented openness.” Collins said Nadler was rushing the process for political gain.

“This is politically convenient,” Collins said, allowing the chairman “to grandstand and rail against the attorney general for not cooperating on an impossible timeline.”

Attorney General William Barr sent Congress a redacted version of the report, blacking out several types of material, including classified information, material pertaining to ongoing investigations and grand jury evidence.

Nadler said he is open to working with the department “to reach a reasonable accommodation for access to these materials, however I cannot accept any proposal which leaves most of Congress in the dark, as they grapple with their duties of legislation, oversight and constitutional accountability.”

The materials are due the day Barr is scheduled to testify before a Senate committee and one day before Barr is set to appear before Nadler’s committee. Nadler also has summoned Mueller to testify.

Republicans are eager to move beyond what Trump calls the “witch hunt” that has overshadowed the party and the presidency. While Democrats say Mueller’s findings are far more serious than initially indicated in Barr’s four-page summary last month, they’ve been hesitant to pursue the ultimate step, impeachment proceedings, despite pressure from the left flank of the party to begin efforts to try to remove the president from office.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, traveling Thursday on a congressional trip to Ireland, said in a joint statement with Senate Democratic Leader Chuck Schumer that Mueller’s report revealed more than was known about the obstruction question.

“As we continue to review the report, one thing is clear: Attorney General Barr presented a conclusion that the president did not obstruct justice while Mueller’s report appears to undercut that finding,” they said.

Later, in a letter to House Democrats, Pelosi vowed: “Congress will not be silent.”

It’s unlikely that the full Mueller report or the public testimony will untangle the dilemma that Democrats face. Mueller laid out multiple episodes in which Trump directed others to influence or curtail the Russia investigation after the special counsel’s appointment in May 2017, and Trump made clear that he viewed the probe as a potential mortal blow — “the end of my presidency.”

Rep. Adam Schiff, the chairman of the House Intelligence Committee, said the acts described in the report “whether they are criminal or not, are deeply alarming in the president of the United States. And it’s clear that special counsel Mueller wanted the Congress to consider the repercussions and the consequences.”

Schiff, D-Calif., said that “if the special counsel, as he made clear, had found evidence exonerating the president, he would have said so. He did not. He left that issue to the Congress of the United States.”

Republicans sought to portray Democrats as unwilling to let go of the idea that Trump colluded with Russia to swing the election. “What you’re seeing is unprecedented desperation from the left,” tweeted Rep. Mark Meadows, R-N.C., a top Trump ally. “There was no collusion. It’s over.”

Other Republicans were more measured. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who is one of the few members of Congress mentioned in the report, told reporters in Kentucky, “It’s too early to start commenting on portions of it.”

McConnell was among several people the report said former White House Counsel Don McGahn had reached out to on behalf of the president when Trump was trying to stop then Attorney General Jeff Sessions from recusing himself at the start of the Russia probe.

In all, the report revealed 10 areas of potential obstruction, from Trump’s firing of FBI Director James Comey to his attempts to thwart Mueller’s investigation. In many cases, the additional details show a president restrained only by aides and others around him.

Rep. Jamie Raskin, D-Md., a member of the Judiciary Committee, said his reading of the report shows that Trump “almost certainly obstructed justice” and it was only his staff that intervened to prevent certain actions.


Associated Press reporters Mary Clare Jalonick, Padmananda Rama, Jennifer Peltz in New York and Dylan Lovan in LaGrange, Kentucky contributed to this report.


For complete coverage of the Mueller report, go to

Once-Counterculture 420 Marijuana Holiday Goes Mainstream

Fri, 2019-04-19 23:13

LOS ANGELES—Potheads have for decades celebrated their love of marijuana on April 20, but the once counter-culture celebration that was all about getting stoned now is so mainstream Corporate America is starting to embrace it.

No, Hallmark doesn’t yet have a card to mark “420.” But many other businesses inside and outside the multibillion-dollar cannabis industry are using April 20, or 4/20, to roll out marketing and social media messaging aimed at connecting with consumers driving the booming market.

On Saturday, Lyft is offering a $4.20 credit on a single ride in Colorado and in select cities in the U.S. and Canada. Carl’s Jr. is using a Denver restaurant to market a hamburger infused with CBD, a non-intoxicating molecule found in cannabis that many believe is beneficial to their health.

On 420 last year, Totino’s, a maker of frozen pizza snacks, tweeted an image of a microwave and an oven with the message: “To be blunt, pizza rolls are better when baked.”

“I think brands that associate themselves with cannabis kind of get that contact high. In other words, they’re just considered to be cooler by association,” said Kit Yarrow, consumer psychologist at Golden Gate University. “As pot becomes more legal, more discussed, more interesting to people, more widely used, then 420 becomes more mainstream as well.”

Marijuana normalization has snowballed since 2012, when Colorado and Washington were the first states to legalize recreational use. Eight more followed, including California, Oregon and Michigan. Medical marijuana is legal in two-thirds of the states, with conservative-leaning Utah and Oklahoma among recent additions.

Meantime, the CBD market has exploded. CBD oil can be found in candies, coffee and other food, drinks and dietary supplements, along with perfume, lotions, creams and soap. Proponents say CBD helps with pain, anxiety and inflammation, though limited scientific research supports those claims.

U.S. retail sales of cannabis products jumped to $10.5 billion last year, a threefold increase from 2017, according to data from Arcview Group, a cannabis investment and market research firm. The figures do not include retail sales of hemp-derived CBD products.

Ben & Jerry’s was one of the earliest big brands to foster a connection with the marijuana culture through marketing. The Vermont-based ice cream company features Cherry Garcia and Phish Food, honoring late Grateful Dead member Jerry Garcia and the band Phish. Both bands are favorites of the marijuana-smoking crowd.

To mark 420 in recent years, Ben & Jerry’s debuted taco and burrito inspired ice cream sandwiches. This year the company partnered with a San Francisco Bay Area cannabis retailer to give customers who place delivery orders on Friday and Saturday a free pint of Half Baked, a combination of cookie dough and fudge brownie.

“We have a lot of fun, never being overt, but really playing into the moment of 420,” said Jay Curley, the company’s global head of integrated marketing.

Last year, Ben & Jerry’s also turned more serious, asking consumers to call on lawmakers to expunge prior marijuana convictions and press for pardons or amnesty for anyone arrested for smoking pot. This year the company is using the holiday to call for criminal justice reform.

“We’re actually using this as an opportunity not to tell a stoner joke like we have in the past, but to raise what we see as a much more serious issue around justice,” Curley said.

Those in the marijuana marketplace also are ramping up advertising around 420. Much of the marketing about cannabis or related products takes the form of online ads, emails, text messages and social media. Shops typically offer discounts. Some host parties with food and entertainment. The larger 420 events can draw thousands of people.

Verano Holdings, whose businesses include cannabis shops, sponsors street festivals in Chicago and Tulsa, Oklahoma, where attendees can learn about marijuana products, listen to music and grab a bite. The company expects this Saturday’s festival in Chicago, going on its third year, will draw more than 4,000 people. Last year, it drew 1,500, said Tim Tennant, Verano’s chief marketing officer.

In San Francisco’s Golden Gate Park, Hippie Hill will again be the site of a 420 celebration. Last year, more than 15,000 attended the event, which has transformed from a small informal gathering into a full-blown festival of corporate sponsors and commercial booths selling smoking devices, T-shirts and food.

Roger Volodarsky, whose Los Angeles-based Puffco makes portable vaporizers, has celebrated 420 since he was a teenager. Back then, he said, “420 was the day that you splurged on yourself and got high in interesting ways. It was the day that you made a gravity bong and coughed your brains out.”

Volodarksy likes that some Main Street brands are getting into the industry and the holiday.

“What’s important to me about these ad campaigns is they’re speaking to people who aren’t users and they’re normalizing the space to people who aren’t users,” he said.

Even as popularity grows, some companies will stay away from 420 as a marketing tool, said Allen Adamson, co-founder of Metaforce, a marketing consulting company.

“If you’re talking about a big brand that needs to appeal to everybody and is very risk-averse, then probably not,” he said. “I don’t think you’ll see large financial institutions doing it.”

Biden Expected to Launch Presidential Campaign Next Week

Fri, 2019-04-19 22:40

WASHINGTON—Former Vice President Joe Biden is expected to join the crowded 2020 Democratic presidential race next week.

The decision answers one of the most significant outstanding questions of the early presidential primary season, which has already seen announcements from 18 high-profile Democrats. Biden, 76, would be the oldest and most experienced politician in the race.

His plans were confirmed by three people with knowledge, who insisted on anonymity because they were not authorized to speak publicly. The announcement is expected as early as Wednesday and would cap months of deliberation over his political future.

The specific launch date and location is unclear. Biden is likely to quickly make visits to early-voting states.

One person said Biden’s advisers are also considering an early event in Charlottesville, Virginia, the site of a deadly clash between white supremacists and counterprotesters in 2017. The location would be intended to draw a contrast between Biden and President Donald Trump, who initially said there were some “very fine people on both sides” of the violent confrontation.

Biden has been particularly outspoken against the rise of white supremacy in the Trump era.

One of the most recognizable names in U.S. politics, Biden served as Barack Obama’s two-term vice president after nearly four decades as a Delaware senator. His high-profile, working-class background and connection to the Obama years would help him enter the race as a front-runner, although he faces questions about his age and whether his more moderate record fits with a party that has become more liberal.

With a record in elected office that stretches half a century, Biden faces multiple challenges.

Last month he struggled to respond to claims he touched 2014 Nevada lieutenant governor nominee Lucy Flores’ shoulders and kissed the back of her head before a campaign event. A few other women have made similar claims, though none has alleged sexual misconduct.

The incident is just a taste of the harsh vetting from both parties expected for Biden, who has run for president twice before but never from such a strong political starting point.

His first White House bid in 1988 ended after a plagiarism scandal. And in recent weeks, he was repeatedly forced to explain his 1991 decision, as Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, to allow Anita Hill to face questions about her allegations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, then a nominee for the Supreme Court.

Biden has since apologized for his role in the hearing. But in the #MeToo era, it’s another example of why critics believe he may struggle to catch on with the Democratic primary voters of 2020.

On paper at least, however, he may be well positioned to take on Trump in a general election.

The Republican president’s allies have privately warned that Biden might be the biggest threat to Trump’s re-election given Biden’s potential appeal among the white working class in the Midwest, the same region that allowed Trump to win the presidency.


Associated Press writers Steve Peoples and Jonathan Lemire in New York contributed to this report.

Anti-Vaxxers Are Just as Bad as Climate Deniers

Fri, 2019-04-19 18:30

There have been at least 555 confirmed cases of the highly contagious measles virus since January alone, prompting officials from the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to call this sudden eruption the worst outbreak of the disease in nearly 20 years. The story about measles spreading across the U.S. is unfolding alongside a parallel and troubling trend of increased measles infection rates globally. The World Health Organization issued a report at the same time as the CDC, finding that measles cases worldwide have surged by nearly four times the average number in the first three months of the year.

But the national and global trends spin a tale of two separate realities. An irrational fear of vaccines among well-educated and largely white Americans has fueled an utterly preventable and dangerous disease that had been considered “eliminated” by scientists. Reuters explained that “[a] growing and vocal fringe of parents in the United States oppose measles vaccines believing, contrary to scientific evidence, that ingredients in the vaccines can cause autism or other disorders.” Michelle M. Mello, a professor of law at Stanford Law School and a professor of health research and policy at the Stanford University School of Medicine explained to me in an interview that while there have been pockets of low vaccination rates in minority communities—like Somali Americans in Minnesota or Orthodox Jews in New York City—“On a national level, overwhelmingly, the demographic is educated, relatively affluent white families” that are choosing not to vaccinate their children. The epicenters of measles outbreaks are in liberal states such as California, New York, Oregon and Washington.

Meanwhile, as an example of how the rest of the world struggles with a dangerous infectious disease, the East African island of Madagascar is experiencing its worst measles outbreak in history. More than 115,000 cases of the virus have been confirmed in a country of 25 million, and at least 1,200 people have so far died. The dead are mostly children under the age of 15. Less than 60% of that nation’s residents are vaccinated, but not because of a fear that vaccines cause autism. Instead they face a more traditional obstacle: poverty.

In Madagascar, mass malnutrition has helped the virus spread faster among young people with compromised immune systems. According to Associated Press, although the measles vaccine is free, “Simply reaching a clinic for help can be a challenge. Many people in Madagascar cannot afford to see a doctor or buy medicine, and health centers often are understaffed or have poorly qualified workers.”

It is a monumental ode to human stupidity that the wealthiest nation in the world teeters on the edge of a dangerous measles epidemic at the same time that poor nations are struggling to vaccinate their residents. It is worth contrasting the first-world problems of misinformed American parents who are literally organizing “measles parties” for their children with poverty-stricken families in nations like Madagascar.

Measles is not a disease to be taken as lightly as the so-called “anti-vaxxers” would have you believe. Mello explained, “This is not a disease where your [unvaccinated] kid has to share saliva or snot with another kid to get infected. You just have to be in a room where another person with measles has passed through in the last couple of hours to have a 90% chance of infection.” Although mortality rates from measles are low in a nation like the U.S., there can be long-lasting damage to health, including severe hearing loss. Yet there are hordes of American parents who are more terrified of vaccines than they are of measles.

There has been much hand-wringing in the U.S. about how best to approach the fiercely defended views of the anti-vaxxer crowd. Study after study conducted by reputable scientists and published in peer-reviewed journals confirm the same thing: Vaccines do not cause autism. Worse, an examination of how best to convince parents about the safety of vaccines had a depressing conclusion that “existing strategies to correct vaccine misinformation are ineffective and often backfire, resulting in the unintended opposite effect, reinforcing ill-founded beliefs about vaccination and reducing intentions to vaccinate.” In other words, anti-vaxxers are fact-resistant and, when presented with reality, dig their heels in even harder to maintain their fantasy.

If any of this sounds familiar, there is an analogy to be made between anti-vaxxers and climate-change deniers. Both groups place faith in a gut-level sense of their rightful position on an issue that has far-reaching existential implications. And both groups refuse to acknowledge the vast body of sound scientific literature proving them wrong. But on the issue of climate there is an encouraging trend showing that a significant percentage of Americans who once believed global warming wasn’t real are now accepting the science. One report found that about a fifth of those who had recently seen the light did so because they personally felt the impacts of climate change.

Where vaccination rates are concerned, we see the opposite trend. Federal officials released data late last year showing that the percentage of unvaccinated toddlers in the U.S. increased four-fold in the last 17 years. It is no wonder we are seeing outbreaks of a disease like measles. Mello explained that “In order for us to stop the spread and slow it to the rate where the outbreak actually extinguishes itself in relatively short order, we need about 95% of the population to receive the [measles] vaccine.” She issued a dire warning that “If it goes any lower than that, the very high rate of spread will cause the outbreak to take on a wildfire aspect.” Just as some have suggested that “climate-change deniers are a danger to our security,” there is a strong case to be made that anti-vaxxers are a threat to our collective health.

Perhaps it is a testament to the effectiveness of vaccines in the U.S. that has fueled the ignorance of just how necessary they are. We had more or less eliminated measles from the U.S. and have had similar levels of success in eradicating other infectious diseases through vaccinations. We no longer live in a world where a parent’s worst nightmare is their child contracting smallpox. But as vaccination rates drop, diseases are returning. The question is: Do we really need to wait for hardcore anti-vaxxers to come around once they see the fatal impacts of their choices?

Just as combating climate change requires strong policy solutions and laws to stop runaway warming, laws are needed to maintain the herd immunity our society relies on. The state of California passed a mandatory vaccination law banning parents from refusing vaccines based on their personal beliefs. While this has encouragingly led to increased vaccination rates, the rate of medical exemptions has also increased, suggesting that some physicians and parents are taking advantage of a loophole. More recently, New York City officials have taken even stricter measures—requiring mandatory vaccinations and barring unvaccinated people who have been exposed to the disease from being in public places.

There are, of course, limits to the analogy of climate change denialism and the beliefs of anti-vaxxers. But there is also a terrifying link. As our planet warms, scientists predict that infectious diseases like measles are more easily transmitted. In other words, two waves of ignorance could be colliding at this very moment to produce the kind of mayhem we have not seen in our lifetimes. At a time when we have so much information at our fingertips, could humanity’s downfall really be marked by such incomprehension and thick-headedness?

Five Critical Takeaways From the Mueller Report

Fri, 2019-04-19 07:42

After nearly two years of waiting, we have a redacted version of the report of special counsel Robert Mueller. A searchable copy can be found and examine here.

The report is 448 pages long and is divided into two volumes. Volume I, in the words of the report, “describes the factual results of the Special Counsel’s investigation of Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and its interactions with the Trump Campaign.” If you are concerned about allegations of conspiracy, cooperation or “collusion” (more on that misnomer ahead) between the campaign and persons associated with the Russian government, this is where you will find Mueller’s reasoning.

Volume II “addresses the President’s actions towards the FBI’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 presidential election and related matters, and his actions towards the Special Counsel’s investigation.” If you are interested in learning whether the 45th president of the United States obstructed justice in connection with the Russian investigation, this is where you should focus your attention.

Volume II discusses 11 alleged instances of possible obstruction, covering, among other subjects, the firing of former FBI Director James Comey in May 2017, and the president’s directive in June 2017 to then-White House counsel Donald McGhan to fire Mueller—an order McGhan refused to carry out, fearing another “Saturday Night Massacre.”

Each volume is preceded by a detailed executive summary. The report also includes four appendixes, lettered A through D, that total 53 pages. Appendix C contains Trump’s answers to the written interrogatories sent to him by the special counsel’s office, which Trump’s legal team provided last November.

On the whole, the report is moderately redacted. However, key segments of the report are entirely blacked out, including details about Mueller’s decision not to cite members of the Trump campaign for conspiracy. Consider, for example, page 28 of volume I:

Screen shot of The Washingtonian’s coverage.

Although it will take time to digest the entire redacted report, here are five critical takeaways:

  1. Do Not Trust Anything Attorney General William Barr Has Said About the Report. Read the Report Yourself.

If you want to understand the Mueller report, the last thing you should do is rely on Barr’s attempts to summarize Mueller’s findings. You can read analyses like mine or any number of others written by experts in criminal and constitutional law that will be published in the coming days, but there is no substitute for the hard slog of studying the report yourself.

Barr’s press conference Thursday morning, staged ahead of the report’s release, contained his most misleading statements to date. Crossing the line from spinning to outright lying, he remarked five times during the brief televised event that Mueller had concluded “There was no evidence of Trump campaign ‘collusion’ with the Russian government’s hacking [of the DNC’s emails].”

As elaborated below, that is not what the report says.

On obstruction, Barr falsely claimed that the White House had “fully cooperated” with the Mueller probe. It didn’t. The report makes crystal clear, among other things, that Trump refused to be interviewed by the special counsel.

Barr also remarked at his press conference that the president was “frustrated and angered” by the probe, implying that anger and frustration could provide the president with a legal defense to obstruction charges.

Not so.

The crime of obstruction of justice requires the corrupt intent to impede an official proceeding. Anger and frustration have no bearing on corrupt intent.

At the press conference, as in his previous letters to Congress, Barr acted more like the president’s personal attorney than the highest-ranking member of the Justice Department.

  1. Mueller Did Not Find There Was No Evidence of Conspiracy. Nor Did He Make Any Finding on the Misnomer of Collusion.

The report did not conclude, as Trump, Barr, and, sadly, even some Mueller skeptics on the left have claimed, that there was no evidence of conspiracy or collusion.

Rather, the report states, “[W]hile the investigation identified numerous links between individuals with ties to the Russian government and individuals associated with the Trump Campaign, the evidence was not sufficient to support criminal charges.”

This does not mean that the probe failed to uncover any evidence of conspiracy. It means that the evidence fell short of the exacting criminal-law standard of proof beyond a reasonable doubt.

To quote directly from the text:

“The report describes actions and events that the Special Counsel’s Office found to be supported by the evidence collected in our investigation. In some instances, the report points out the absence of evidence or conflicts in the evidence about a particular fact or event. In other instances, when substantial, credible evidence enabled the Office to reach a conclusion with confidence, the report states that the investigation established that certain actions or events occurred. A statement that the investigation did not establish particular facts does not mean there was no evidence of those facts.” [Emphasis added.]

As for collusion, Mueller and his colleagues wrote:

“In evaluating whether evidence about collective action of multiple individuals constituted a crime, we applied the framework of conspiracy law, not the concept of ‘collusion.’ In so doing, the Office recognized that the word ‘collud[ e ]’ was used in communications with the Acting Attorney General confirming certain aspects of the investigation’s scope and that the term has frequently been invoked in public reporting about the investigation. But collusion is not a specific offense or theory of liability found in the United States Code, nor is it a term of art in federal criminal law. For those reasons, the Office’s focus in analyzing questions of joint criminal liability was on conspiracy as defined in federal law.”

  1. Mueller Declined to Make a Formal Finding on Obstruction Because of the Justice Department’s Policy Against Indicting a Sitting President. Nonetheless, He Concluded the President Could Not be Exonerated of Obstruction.

While it is true that Mueller did not make a traditional prosecutorial judgment about obstruction of justice, it is not true, as Barr implied in his March 24 letter to Congress, that Mueller demurred on obstruction because of the “difficult issues of law and fact” he was called on to examine. He demurred because of Justice Department policy against indicting a sitting president.

As the report states:

“[A] traditional prosecution or declination decision entails a binary determination to initiate or decline a prosecution, but we determined not to make a traditional prosecutorial judgment. The Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) has issued an opinion finding that ‘the indictment or criminal prosecution of a sitting President would impermissibly undermine the capacity of the executive branch to perform its constitutionally assigned functions in violation of “the constitutional separation of powers.” ’ Given the role of the Special Counsel as an attorney in the Department of Justice and the framework of the Special Counsel regulations … this Office accepted OLC’s legal conclusion for the purpose of exercising prosecutorial jurisdiction.” [Footnote and legal citations omitted.]

Notwithstanding Justice Department policy, the report makes it abundantly clear that the special counsel’s office would have cleared Trump of obstruction if the evidence had allowed it to do so. But it didn’t.

Quoting again from the report:

“[I]f we had confidence after a thorough investigation of the facts that the President clearly did not commit obstruction of justice, we would so state. Based on the facts and the applicable legal standards, however, we are unable to reach that judgment. … Accordingly, while this report does not conclude that the President committed a crime, it also does not exonerate him.”

  1. Trump Did Not Cooperate Fully With the Special Counsel.

If the president had wanted to cooperate fully with the Mueller probe, he would have consented to an in-person interview with Mueller or members of his team. He refused. As a result, any claim of full cooperation is totally devoid of merit.

“Beginning in December 2017,” Appendix C notes, the special counsel’s office “sought for more than a year to interview the President on topics relevant to both Russian-election interference and obstruction-of-justice. We advised counsel that the President was a ‘subject’ of the investigation … [and] [ a]n interview with the President is vital to our investigation. … We additionally stated that ‘it is in the interest of the Presidency and the public for an interview to take place’ and offered numerous accommodations to aid the President’s preparation and avoid surprise.”

Instead of an interview, Trump agreed only to answer a set of written interrogatories limited to alleged Russian election interference. He declined to answer any questions on obstruction.

The responses drafted by Trump’s attorneys are an exemplar of lawyerly evasion. They consist almost exclusively of the president’s professed lack of “independent recollection” about such key events as the Trump Tower meeting of June 2016, between Russian operatives and members of the Trump campaign, including Donald Jr., Paul Manafort and Jared Kushner.

Given the flimsy answers, Mueller again sought to interview Trump, but to no avail. The special counsel’s office considered issuing a subpoena to force Trump to testify in person, but ultimately decided not to, both to avoid a protracted legal battle and because the office believed—correctly or not—that it had conducted an otherwise thorough investigation.

  1. Mueller Did Not Request Barr to Draw His Own Conclusions on Obstruction. That Decision Should be Left to Congress by Means of an Impeachment Investigation.

There is not even the slightest hint in the report that Mueller wanted Barr to make the final call on obstruction, as Barr suggested in his March 24 letter.

To the contrary, the report implies that such determination should be made by Congress: “With respect to whether the President can be found to have obstructed justice…, we concluded that Congress has authority to prohibit a President’s corrupt use of his authority in order to protect the integrity of the administration of justice.”

The Mueller report doesn’t mention impeachment, but it ends with a citation to the landmark case of United States v. Nixon, which led to a former president’s resignation in the face of certain impeachment and removal from office. In that case, decided in 1974, the Supreme Court announced a principle in no uncertain terms that Mueller undoubtedly wanted Trump to hear loudly and plainly: “[n]o [person] in this country is so high that he is above the law.”


Who are the Real Terrorists in the Mideast?

Fri, 2019-04-19 04:24

Back when I still wore the uniform of a U.S. Army officer, and well before many of my former brothers in arms labeled me a traitor, I taught freshman (“plebe”) history at West Point. I loved asking my cadets provocative questions, the sort of queries they never heard in high school Advanced Placement U.S. history courses. Consider just one. At the end of the class on World War II, I always asked: “What is the moral difference between flying three planes into the Twin Towers and Pentagon—killing 3,000 civilians—and using hundreds of U.S. planes to firebomb Tokyo on March 9, 1945—killing some 90,000 civilians?” Suffice it to say that most cadets didn’t like this question at all.

Nevertheless, let’s break that debate query down. The standard retorts of cadets ran something like this: “Well, Japan attacked us first,” or “It’s different—the U.S. had officially declared war on Japan!” Fair points, both. Still, an honest analysis complicates the standard American apologetics. Osama bin Laden and company would argue that actually, the U.S. had attacked (the Muslim world) first. After all, U.S.-imposed sanctions on Iraq caused the death of an estimated 500,000 Iraqi children from 1991 to 2003. Former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright admitted as much on camera, callously declaring that “we think the price is worth it.” Indeed, bin Laden pointed to the Iraqi sanctions regime as one of his three core motives for attacking the U.S. homeland. Furthermore, I’d remind my cadets, bin Laden did publicly declare jihad on America on Aug. 23, 1996, more than five years before the 9/11 attacks.

Now, I’m no fan of al-Qaida or bin Laden, or of any attacker of civilians. I grew up in a Staten Island neighborhood in New York where the avenues are named for dead firemen. I took 9/11 personally. Still, intellectual honesty demands a fair analysis of complex ethical issues in warfare—my profession of choice. Critical thinkers must be able to hold two seemingly opposing thoughts in their heads at the same time; in this case, that the 9/11 attacks were criminal and that American firebombings of Japanese women and children were lawless. One of the architects of that deliberate bombing—former Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara—has admitted as much.

I got to thinking about Americans’ peculiar definitions of terrorism recently when President Trump took an unprecedented step and designated a military unit of a sovereign nation—the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)—as a foreign terrorist organization. In another bit of (to me, comical) theater, Iran quickly responded by labeling U.S. Central Command (CENTCOM)—the headquarters commanding all U.S. troops in the Greater Middle East—as terrorist. One can’t help but wonder if Iran has a point! Either way, it seems that a comparison of the two military commands is in order.

The IRGC certainly dabbles in proxy wars and meddles in the region (so does Uncle Sam, by the way). It provides limited aid to the Houthi side in the Yemeni Civil War and, in the past, lent support to Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in Palestine. The latter two groups have, though not recently, engaged in suicide attacks on Israeli civilians. Furthermore, from 2004 to 2011, the IRGC aided Iraqi Shiite militias with the homemade bomb expertise these groups later applied to kill some 600 American troops. None of this activity is particularly appealing to a former U.S. military officer.

Then again, American troops were, at the time, militarily occupying Iraq in violation of the spirit of a slew of international strictures and, soon after the conquest of Iraq, senior U.S. policymakers reportedly seriously considered regime change in Iran—joking that “boys go to Baghdad, real men go to Tehran!” Washington, then, might not act so different from Tehran if Iran had just conquered Mexico and then threatened to overthrow the U.S. government. What’s more, though Tehran exerts influence in its own region, the “terrorist” label seems unwarranted. After all, the IRGC has never attacked the U.S. homeland; in fact, no Iranian on a visa has ever committed an act of terrorism in America, and no citizen of Iran has struck on U.S. soil since at least 1975.

In the interest of fairness, let us examine just a few of the recent CENTCOM-directed or -enabled actions that an objective observer might label “terrorist.” Under Donald Trump’s relaxed bombing standards, U.S. airstrikes in Afghanistan have increased fivefold, and civilian deaths from those strikes rose 87% between 2017 and 2018 alone, to 463. Furthermore, since the regional anti-Islamic State bombing campaign began in 2014, the U.S. military admits to 1,139 civilians killed—though human rights organizations estimate the true number is likely between 7,000 and 16,000 deaths. Purposeful or not, those many thousands of people are still dead. After all, the Irish Republican Army didn’t mean to kill civilians in Britain or Northern Ireland, but back then, the U.S. State Department still labeled them terrorists when they inevitably did!

What’s more, though CENTCOM may not drop the bombs, the U.S. provides much of the intelligence, munitions and Air Force in-flight refueling that enables the Saudi terror bombing of Yemen. The sordid scorecard for that little war reads as follows: tens of thousands of civilians killed by Saudi airstrikes, 85,000 children starved to death as a result of the Saudi blockade, and the outbreak of the worst cholera outbreak in world history. And, lest we forget, Saudi Arabia could not have pulled this off quite as deftly without ample CENTCOM support!

Turn the clock back a bit farther and matters look worse. The CENTCOM-directed invasion and occupation of Iraq in 2003 unleashed chaos, violence, looting and, eventually, civil war. As a result, at least 183,000 civilians were ultimately killed. According to the Geneva Conventions, an occupying power (read: the U.S.) has legal responsibility for local security, safety and basic services in the aftermath of war. At that, CENTCOM undoubtedly failed. So is Tehran right? Is CENTCOM a terrorist organization? Maybe, maybe not—but Iran does have a point.

Comparisons aside, the very counterproductivity of the “foreign terrorist organization” announcement is staggering. This unnecessary—and purely symbolic—designation will only serve to rally Iranian moderates and liberals around their flag and the IRGC that those citizens largely detest. It seems the U.S. government will never learn. Escalation begets escalation; violence begets violence.

Washington is playing a dangerous game in the Persian Gulf. War with Iran is both unnecessary and ill-advised. But war is exactly what this administration’s obsessive Iranophobes—national security adviser John Bolton and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo—have long desired. The whole mess raises ever more questions as to whether Trump has any coherent foreign policy. One minute he tweets his plans to de-escalate in Syria and Afghanistan; the next he’s threatening war with Iran and even Venezuela! Nevertheless, Trump’s latest symbolic escalation may just usher in the war he, or at least his key advisers—including Assistant President of the United States, Israel’s Benjamin Netanyahu—apparently want. If war does break out, it’s unclear which side will more aptly carry the title “terrorist.”

Here again, a caveat seems necessary. I’m no fan of the IRGC or their elite Quds Force. The explosively formed penetrator (EFP) bombs that the Quds Force allegedly provided to Iraq’s Mahdi Army affected my life personally. In Baghdad, on the night of Jan. 25, 2007, an EFP turned my platoon’s lead Humvee into Swiss cheese, killing two of my soldiers, including a dear friend—my oldest son’s namesake, Sgt. Alexander Fuller. God, how I used to hate those bombs and that militia.

Still, time has passed and deeper reflection ensued. My platoon was part of an occupation force; nationalist resistance was understandable. I’ll never laud the Mahdi Army or their IRGC backers. But my own command, CENTCOM, was and is far from innocent.

In sum, as we compare the two military organizations, one must conclude, ultimately, that CENTCOM is at least as terrorist as the IRGC. Maybe more.

No doubt many critics will label this assessment “treasonous.” I call it “ethically consistent.”

Let history be the judge.

Danny Sjursen is a retired U.S. Army major and regular contributor to Truthdig. His work has also appeared in Harper’s, the Los Angeles Times, The Nation, Tom Dispatch, The Huffington Post and The Hill. He served combat tours with reconnaissance units in Iraq and Afghanistan and later taught history at his alma mater, West Point. He is the author of a memoir and critical analysis of the Iraq War, “Ghostriders of Baghdad: Soldiers, Civilians, and the Myth of the Surge. He co-hosts the progressive veterans’ podcast “Fortress on a Hill.” Follow him on Twitter at @SkepticalVet.

Copyright 2019 Danny Sjursen


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