May 2, 2013 § 11 Comments
Ken Livingstone, the former Mayor of London, has stirred up controversy with his claim, on Iran’s Press TV, that behind the Boston bombings lay anger about Western foreign policy and its attitudes to Islam:
There was such ignorance in the Bush White House about Islam and about the history of so many disputes that exist in the Middle East. People get angry. They lash out. It’s the whole squalid intervention that has disfigured the record of the Western democracies. I think this fuels the anger of the young men, who as we saw in Boston went out, and, out of anger and demand for revenge, claimed lives in the West.
Livingstone may have expressed his argument in a particularly crass fashion, but it is the kind of explanation that many have proffered over the past few weeks. Ever since Tamerlan Tsarnaev was shot dead and his brother Dzhokar captured, there has been a frantic search through their back history to discover the motivations of the alleged bombers and the reasons for their homicidal act. Their Chechen family origins, their attraction to Islam, their radicalization through jihadist sites – all have become part of the narrative of why the brothers could commit such horror. « Read the rest of this entry »
April 6, 2012 § 2 Comments
Imagine being held in solitary confinement, not for a day, not for a year, but for forty years. Imagine entering a cell, four paces long, three paces wide, when Richard Nixon was in the White House and still being confined to that cell, as Barack Obama gears up for re-election. Imagine being confined to that cell for every minute of those forty years apart from time out to shower and a walk around an outdoor cage three times a week, weather permitting. That has been the fate of Albert Woodfox and Herman Wallace, two of the so-called ‘Angola 3’, whose story was retold this week in a fine BBC Radio 4 Crossing Continents programme. It is a story not simply of injustice wrought upon three men, but of the inhumanity that lies at the heart of America’s prison and justice systems.
Woodfox and Wallace were convicted in 1969 of armed robbery and sentenced to 55 and 50 years of hard labour respectively. They were incarcerated in the notorious Louisiana State Pen, the largest and some say the bloodiest prison in America, for years infamous for its brutal forced labour and the depth of the sexual violence inmates had to endure. It was in Angola that Woodfox and Wallace met Robert King, who had been convicted of murder, a charge of which he, too, has always protested his innocence.
Louisiana State Pen is nicknamed ‘Angola’ because was built on the site of a plantation that had been worked mainly by Angolan slaves. It is still, King says, ‘run like a plantation’. « Read the rest of this entry »
March 21, 2012 § 10 Comments
In 1963 Bob Dylan wrote ‘The Lonesome Death of Hattie Carroll’, the story of the murder of a 51-year-old barmaid by the wealthy young tobacco farmer William Devereux ‘Billy’ Zantzinger, who eventually received a six month sentence for the killing. That sentence was handed down on the same day that Martin Luther King delivered his I Have a Dream speech in Washington, at the end of the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom. Dylan was one of the marchers. Returning home to New York, he sat in an all-night coffee shop on Seventh Avenue and wrote his song. Influenced, as Dylan observed in his autobiography, by Brecht and Weil, the song (which came out the following year in The Times They Are A Changin’ album) is an excoriating assault not just on racism, but on the collusion of the authorities, the law and liberal opinion:
In the courtroom of honor, the judge pounded his gavel
To show that all’s equal and that the courts are on the level
And that the strings in the books ain’t pulled and persuaded
And that even the nobles get properly handled
Once that the cops have chased after and caught ‘em
And that ladder of law has no top and no bottom
Stared at the person who killed for no reason
Who just happened to be feelin’ that way without warnin’
And he spoke through his cloak, most deep and distinguished
And handed out strongly, for penalty and repentance
William Zanzinger with a six-month sentence.
Ah, but you who philosophize disgrace and criticize all fears
Bury the rag deep in your face
For now’s the time for your tears.
February 15, 2012 § 1 Comment
By next Monday William Hague and Phillip Hammond could be behind bars. In December, the Court of Appeal ruled that the foreign and defence secretaries had by February 20th to produce before the court a Pakistani rice merchant, Yunus Rahmatullah; if they did not, then the court would ‘be moved to commit you to prison for your contempt in not obeying the said writ’.
Hague and Hammond will not, of course, be sent down. But the Rahmatullah case does reveal, yet again, the lawlessness of the war on terror. The story begins in February 2004, when Rahmatullah and Amanatullah Ali, a fellow merchant, disappeared on a business trip to Iran. They were held incommunicado for nearly a year before their families learned that they had been seized by British forces in Iraq and then turned over to the Americans who had renditioned them to Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan. There they have been held for the past eight years beyond the rule of law and in conditions far worse than those at Guantánamo Bay. No charges have been filed against them, and both the British and American governments have refused to provide any hearing or account for their continued detention.
January 27, 2012 § 2 Comments
John Kiriakou, a former CIA officer, was charged this week with espionage for disclosing to journalists classified information about the capture and torture of Abu Zubaydah, a suspected al-Qaeda member. Before Barack Obama entered the White House in January 2009, just three Americans had ever been prosecuted by their government for espionage for leaking stories to journalists. Kiriakou Is the sixth person to face such charges under Obama. In less than four years under Obama, in other words, twice as many people have been charged with espionage for leaking information to journalists as in the previous two centuries under all the presidents put together. Whatever the Obama presidency will be remembered for, it will not be for its sympathies towards civil liberties.
Obama strode into the White House promising to roll back George W Bush’s egregious attacks on liberties in the name of the war on terror. Three years on Guantanamo still stand. Last month Obama signed off on the National Defense Authorization Act which allows for indefinite military detention. He has maintained the policy of extraordinary rendition and of secret prisons, and intensified the use of drones and the programme of assassinations, including of US citizens. Obama has also endorsed the right of the government to strip citizens of legal protections based on its sole discretion. He has extended the scope of the Patriot Act allowing for warrantless searches of everything from business documents to library records. « Read the rest of this entry »
September 9, 2011 § 3 Comments
A recent poll by the Pew Trust showed that virtually every American can remember where they were on the morning of 11 September 2001. Most recognize the profound changes that 9/11 has wrought to the nation. But America is divided down the middle on the question of whether the USA brought the attack upon itself. Forty-three percent of those polled thought that 9/11 was caused by US ‘wrongdoing’; 45% disagreed. Perhaps no set of statistics better expresses the confusions and ambiguities that still surround 9/11, the chasm between an acknowledgement of the significance of the event and the uncertainties about what it signifies. The Pew poll figures are particularly striking given the fear and suspicion of Muslims revealed in other polls and by the furore over the so-called ‘Ground Zero mosque’.
Such ambiguity and unclarity is perhaps inevitable given that we still live in the shadow of the attack on the Twin Tower and continue to feel the reverberations, both of the event and of the West’s response to it. But the uncertainty also derives from the way that the very nature of the narratives we weave around historical events has changed. During the Cold War, the faultlines that divided the world were broadly ideological. Today, as the philosopher Tzvetan Todorov observes in his book The Fear of Barbarians, the world is structured not so much by ideology as by emotion, and in particular the emotions of fear and resentment. Anti-Western sentiment results from a sense of ‘humiliation, real or imaginary’ which has bred a sense of resentment, particularly within Muslim communities, towards Europe and the United States, which are ‘held responsible for private misery and public powerlessness.’ And in the West, public attitudes and political policy have been shaped by fear of terrorism, of immigration and of the ‘other’, and resentment about the loss of power and prestige abroad, and of the supposed erosion of ‘Western’ culture at home. The result has been a series of narratives about 9/11 that have combined a yearning for certainty with a profound sense of ambiguity. « Read the rest of this entry »
May 17, 2011 § 9 Comments
The sight of IMF chief Dominique Strauss-Kahn, a man so rich that he wears $7000 dollar suits, a man so powerful that he could make or break countries with a single policy, being forced to sit in a New York courtroom, handcuffed, unshaven, disheveled and mute has inevitably unleashed a torrent of comment on both sides of the Atlantic.
There has, of course, been a large element of schadenfreude in the response, malicious glee at seeing a powerful figure cut down to size. Anglo-American commentators especially have relished the fall of a haughty, Gallic champagne socialist seemingly unable to keep his pants up. There has also been, in some circles, a rush to convict DSK before a shred of evidence has been laid before a court.
There has also, however, been genuine shock and, particularly in France, bewilderment, even outrage, at the treatment meted out to DSK. ‘Nothing’, the French philosopher, and leading public intellectual, Bernard-Henri Levy wrote, ‘permits the entire world to revel in the spectacle, this morning, of this handcuffed figure, his features blurred by 30 hours of detention and questioning, but still proud.’ « Read the rest of this entry »