Archive for March, 2008

Green Zone Blackout

Sunday, March 30th, 2008

There are two kinds of censorship. There’s black-out censorship, of the sort you see in redacted documents, with words and sentences blacked out so you can’t read them. You might come across this form of censorship in government documents that make reference to secret information and also in letters from prison inmates. And then there’s blackout censorship, in which you’re kept in the dark without explanation.

Take the current news coverage of Iraq. There isn’t any. Last we heard two days ago a couple of people in the so-called Green Zone got killed, but they didn’t have names, and they still don’t.  (That report has since been revised without explanation to ”at least two,”  as of 4/1).  We saw smoke rising from the U.S. compound, but no reporter told us what was burning or even why they weren’t telling us what was burning. We know that there was an announcement to embassy personnel to stay under cover, but that was days ago.

There were some bombing raids in the south, we learned, and there’s about five minutes of film from Basra, which all the news media seem to be sharing. The websites for CBS, NBC, ABC, and CNN combined have less than a half-hour of video from Iraq, much of it two and three days old. You can’t tell how old a piece of film is, because the networks don’t date their video dispatches, allowing them to show clips over and over, as if they were news. The CNN site has something called “Hot Topics.” Iraq isn’t one of them. None of the networks is treating the renewed conflict as a top story, even though hundreds of people have been killed and the American compound has been under attack.

The Sunday interview shows had next to nothing on Iraq. Tim Russert asked the Director of Central Intelligence whether he knew in advance that the Iraq government was about to launch an offensive, but he didn’t insist on an answer and he didn’t get one. The main topic of conversation everywhere in today’s news was who’s ahead between Obama and Clinton.

All signs point to a total news blackout from Iraq, and it’s the most pernicious form of censorship. Not only are we not permitted to know what the reporters in Iraq are seeing, we’re also not allowed to hear why they’re not talking. I’m sure the silent journalists could recite a list of “security” reasons for their reticence, but they know what they’ve become–whores for a corrupt military regime–and they’re not expressing any reservations about that.

I wonder if al Sadr watches American TV. If so, he must be frustrated at the news coverage. He’d probably like to know how many people have to die to get the attention of the American media. He’s not alone there.

Soldiers and former soldiers watch TV and read newspapers. Put yourself in the place of a 24-year-old vet whose unit is still deployed. He’d like to know what’s happening to his friends, and he may be in touch by email with some of them, but there’s no big picture for him, no substantive reporting, and this has to be frustrating. I got my discharge almost 40 years ago, and I’m worried for my young comrades.

You hear less talk these days among journalists about freedom of the press and its role in maintaining the republic, and no wonder. Unable to report what they see, they must be experiencing a bit of cognitive dissonance. Hope they gag on it.

Tragic Flaws Exposed in “Bush’s War”

Wednesday, March 26th, 2008

“Bush’s War,” which aired on “Frontline” this week, was positively Shakespearean in its portrayal of the internecine struggles that gave rise to the nation’s current military adventures.

The cast of tragic characters–Bush, Cheney, Rice, Rumsfeld, Powell, Tenet–are the subject of fond but disapproving reflection on the part of a chorus of war-buffs. These sage observers didn’t tell us at the time, but today the likes of Woodward, Armitage, Kristol, Kagan, Perle, Gordon, Chalaby, and Bumiller, to name a few of the featured players, will admit candidly that the top people in our government really messed up.

No discussion in this two-night epic of the war boosters in the media who helped shape the nation’s aggressive policy. How did so many Americans come to believe that it would be acceptable to bomb people in foreign lands in “retaliation” for crimes they didn’t commit? If Bush sold them that idea, how did he do it? Did Dan Rather and Peter Jennings and Jim Lehrer help at all? How about “Frontline?”

There was no public discussion five years ago and there was none in this film of whether bombing people and rousting them from their homes at the point of a rifle might be morally wrong or legally wrong or strategically wrong. There was no consideration of how long an occupying force might sustain support for such atrocities among decent people. We presume that this is done by keeping the truth from the people, but if the media are performing that function, writer-producer Michael Kirk doesn’t tell us in this opus.

Another fact obscured by Kirk was the volume of dissent from the conventional view in the media and its systematic suppression by those same media. PBS doesn’t want us to know that there were reporters and analysts who accurately rendered the events of the time and who cautioned against an unfavorable outcome–like the journalists of the Knight-Ridder news syndicate and then-candidate for senate Barack Obama–and that these voices were mocked and shouted down by the mass media. And so we didn’t hear in this film from Kucinich or Feingold or Molly Ivins or my congressman John Larson, whose reasons for opposing the Iraq invasion all turned out to be sound.

Also absent were stories of soldiers. There were pictures of them on duty, and this gave a superficial impression of danger, but there was nothing about what they did. Veterans have stories that elucidate events in Iraq, but Kirk didn’t talk to any veterans.

Another subject Kirk avoided was law. We have laws prohibiting “Bush’s War,” and legal experts like Ralph Nader raised the issue of illegality at the time. The media refused, in advance of the invasion, to direct the people to look at their laws and their morals for guidance, and Kirk’s not about to go there now. The so-called war is no less illegal today, but “Frontline” didn’t want to confound us with sticky issues like law and ethics.

Most of the drama in this pathetic amusement was simulated. There were the usual psycho CIA types bragging about killing people with their bare hands, and that was mildly shocking. And there were lurid, bloody scenes of dead Arabs (no dead GI’s that I could see) and burned-out buildings, but it was the constant drumbeat behind it all that provided the drama. Good documentaries don’t need musical accompaniment.

I’m guessing fewer than one in ten stuck this dog out till the end. Four hours of unflattering stills of Bush and Rice under relentless percussion accompaniment and Ted-Baxter-style narration, all establishing that we now occupy diverse distant lands because Cheney and Rumsfeld are in love, but Rice and Rumsfeld don’t like each other: more boring than C-SPAN, and, like so much of what passes for news at PBS and NPR, empty and uninformative. Instead of truth, we got PBS’s rendition of a set of acceptable beliefs about Iraq.

Tibet Trumps Iraq

Monday, March 24th, 2008

For the esteemed newsmen of the embedded mass media of the USA to lecture the Chinese on human rights, they must turn their collective back on conditions in Iraq.

In Tibet, monks are roughed up by the police for the eager cameramen. In Iraq, dead bodies litter the streets, and the cameras stay away. In Tibet, there’s martial law, and hundreds have been killed or are in jail, as the reporters tell us. In Iraq, city streets are made impassable with concrete barriers, soldiers toss peoples’ houses in the middle of the night while holding their kids at gunpoint, a fourth of the population is homeless, tens of thousands are imprisoned, the dead are too numerous to count, and the reporters tell us next to nothing. Can we believe that the commercial media are really concerned about human rights in Tibet when they so assiduously avoid the subject in their coverage of Iraq?

Media critics estimate that Iraq today receives a fraction of the news coverage that it got a year ago. Thousands of American soldiers have died, and tens of thousands have permanent injuries, but the people don’t know that, because the soldiers’ stories are suppressed. Every Iraqi child knows what’s going on there–the schools are closed and it’s too dangerous for them to go out–but US news-consumers are denied access to real-life conditions by their “free press.”

When we bring this occupation home, as we must, I hope we will hold accountable the private war profiteers in the media who helped spark the violence, who made money on it while it was popular, and who turned the cameras away when the audience got offended. The purge of irresponsible commentators and other venal celebrities mustn’t stop with Don Imus.

Bankers’ Lifeline Attached to My Ankle?

Monday, March 17th, 2008

I’m trying to decide whether I’m in favor of putting up billions in public assets to rescue insolvent investment bankers. Not that I have a say. The Federal Reserve, a private bank, can, for all practical purposes, print dollars in any amount and give them to any banker on the orders of one man.

When the Fed prints money and hands it out, it lowers the value of my dollars. It’s like a tax on everything I own.  The people the Fed is rescuing are the owners and depositors of the bank, who, as you might expect, tend to be folks that have lots of money to put in banks. They loaned a lot of it out to people who can’t pay, and, without the newly printed dollars that degrade my meager purchasing power, they might lose a portion of their abundant supply of dollars.

I know I should be grateful for this opportunity to put my capital to work for the greater good, but, damn, I don’t want to do it. My feeling about bankers is that they’re not cutting us any slack, and so why should we give them any special breaks? As for people with lots of money, I’m feeling really cranky about them. They seem to be in charge of just about everything, and everything’s really messed up. We should trust these folks with more?

I guess you can see where I’m going with this. I’m inclined to let the bank go down and see what happens. In fact, I’m dangerously close to advocating the erection of a gallows for bankers and other billionaires. This goes a bit beyond mere taxation, but it’s just the sort of public policy we’ll all be talking about if the Fed keeps to its current course. 

Pollster Claims Surge in Support for Occupation

Monday, March 17th, 2008

I heard Andrew Kohut, who claims to be an assessor of public opinion, tell an NPR audience today that the trend is in favor of support for the occupation (which he calls “war”) both here and in Iraq. “The Surge,” as Kohut refers to the extension of soldiers’ deployments, seems to be working, at least in terms of public relations.

Kohut wasn’t asked what procedures are in place for polling people in Iraq, where Kohut claims there is widespread support for the occupation. It seems as if we should be suspicious of any survey findings from Iraq, where it’s too dangerous for door-to-door polling, and a fourth of the population has been displaced by violence. This report didn’t even raise the issue of reliability but took Kohut’s assertions as if they were objective facts. Kohut did acknowledge that most of the polling data were coming from Baghdad, but he didn’t suggest that this should in any way undermine confidence in the data, which he was using to justify the military occupation.

Kohut wasn’t asked about the importance of media censorship on domestic opinion. For example, he could have been asked whether the refusal of any major news organization to cover the Winter Soldier conference of this past weekend might have an effect on polling. He could have been asked how much Americans actually know about what’s happening Iraq, but he wasn’t.  He probably wouldn’t have given a coherent answer, because pollsters don’t sample people’s knowledge, only their opinions. To the pollster, uninformed opinion is no different from informed opinion.

Kohut’s agenda is to sell survey data, not to measure public opinion, and a responsible journalist would remind listeners of that every so often, but there are no responsible journalists in the public radio family. There are only famous voices, and they don’t dispense facts.

R. O. E.

Sunday, March 16th, 2008

Rules of engagement–ROE for short–don’t involve prenuptial etiquette but the use of deadly force against human beings. I watched a couple of dozen young Americans testify to their personal experiences with rules of engagement, and their testimony was compelling. These kids were given the power of life and death over defenseless people in places far, far from home, and it hurt them grievously.

These were veterans of the occupation of Iraq and Afghanistan. One after another, they recounted killings of unarmed people and acts of random violence against homes, places of worship, animals, children, and sometimes entire villages. They described brutal, occasionally lethal interrogations, and fruitless predawn searches of private homes, with families held at gunpoint by soldiers in full battle array. These were kids who joined the military to do something decent and honorable and who found themselves violating their own moral code. One posed for pictures with dead bodies. One tortured a prisoner. One shot a woman carrying a bag of groceries. Most stood silent while others did worse things.

The confessional for these outstanding young people is Winter Soldier, a four-day conference that ends tomorrow and features the personal testimony of survivors of America’s current armed conflicts. Organized by Iraq Veterans Against the War, Winter Soldier takes its name from a similar conference conducted in 1971 by Vietnam veterans to testify to crimes committed there. This conference, like the 1971 meeting, is meant to establish once and for all that the atrocities committed by American soldiers are not the acts of “a few bad apples” but have their origins in the rules of engagement established by the people at the top. In Iraq and Afghanistan, these rules change so often and so capriciously that they can’t honestly be referred to as rules at all. What these kids were part of, some until only a few short months ago, was a movement of heavily armed and exhaustively indoctrinated boys ranging about a hostile foreign land without rules. The result was mayhem, and the victims who survived will never be the same.

Some of the accounts came across as cool and surgical, others as moving and impassioned, and all were credible, many documented with slides and video. The crimes are too many and too varied to catalog here in a summary of so many hours of testimony. Marines seemed to predominate among the soldiers I saw, and it was wrenching to see these kids, hardened and trained to a keen edge, reduced to abject contrition by the moral issues that challenged them in the field and afterwards. These are exemplary young people who have committed frightening offenses on our orders and are suffering for it.

I didn’t see an officer, and I didn’t see a career NCO among those testifying. The soldiers in attendance were lower-ranking “grunts” mostly, the riflemen and drivers and forward observers who function as seasoned professionals before age 20. The people who gave the orders were conspicuous by their absence.

Also absent were the embedded mass media, who bear so much responsibility for the injury done to these brave kids. You can search the CNN site and the NPR site and the Boston Globe and you’ll find no mention of this historic conference. Although Iraq Veterans Against the War live-streamed the whole conference to an audience including active-duty military personnel around the world, the mass media declined to cover it. Even though the stories were heart-rending, related by soldiers who evoked strong parental feelings in me and tearful responses in the audience, the embedded mass media turned away. These were the most courageous of soldiers telling their stories, and they were spurned by journalists. It’s censorship of the most despicable kind and can only further compromise whatever last shreds of credibility the so-called free press can still muster.

Schwitzen mit Spitzer

Wednesday, March 12th, 2008

Brothers at the bar Charles Schumer, Michael Mukasey, and Eliot Spitzer, three New York lawyers with considerable influence over public policy, crossed paths this week when wiretaps of New York Governor Spitzer arranging for paid sex were made public. Mukasey is the attorney general, and the federal authorities who wiretapped Spitzer work for him. Schumer is the junior senator from New York, and Mukasey was confirmed as attorney general on his say-so. Schumer recommended confirmation despite Mukasey’s refusal to confront racketeers in the executive branch who corrupted federal prosecutors. During his confirmation hearings, Mukasey was asked why Democrats are more often the target of federal prosecutions than Republicans. Not because of anything improper, Mukasey protested, and Schumer and two-thirds of the Senate took him at his word. Now it appears that Democrat Spitzer was specifically targeted by subordinates of Republican Mukasey, who wouldn’t be in office but for Democrat Schumer.

If Schumer had been loyal to the rule of law instead of to his protege, he would long since have called for the removal of Mukasey’s boss, George Bush, whose involvement in the federal prosecutions racket is a matter of public record. Instead, Schumer used the corruption of the executive branch to advance his own position and that of his party. In an ironic twist, Spitzer was forced to resign under threat of impeachment. The state legislature gave him 48 hours. If Bush had received the same treatment a year ago, when we discovered the corruption of federal prosecutors, Spitzer would have been able to book his pricey trysts in private, and New Yorkers would have the governor they elected.

The Punishment Industry

Monday, March 3rd, 2008

Our legal system wasn’t designed to keep the prisons full to capacity, but it accomplishes this with amazing consistency. Today, one out of every 100 people in America is in a penal institution. If we build them, they will come. Jails are busy despite a steady reduction in crime rates over the past several years. Because of a gradual decline in the number of young adults–the age group that accounts for most of the offenses–crime is down. Even so, incarceration rates have been rising, to the point that prisons are now operated for profit by private businesses in many states. Prisons are a profitable business because there’s a steady stream of customers, and they can’t kick about the service.

Almost a third of the prison population is locked up because of drugs. These prisoners incurred their debt to society by violating a prohibition on the possession of drugs. Some were using drugs, and some were selling drugs, and most weren’t doing anything else illegal. Several big drug manufacturers made news recently because they peddled prescription medicines that they knew were deadly, and they didn’t say anything. You don’t go to prison for that, but if you’re in possession of pain killers and have no prescription for them, you can end up in jail for a year or more. What message goes out when we prosecute a drug peddler who hasn’t killed anyone but allow drug peddlers who have killed people to advertise their cures on television?

A look at incarceration rates might lead you to the conclusion that dark skin is associated with criminality. Alternatively, on the selfsame evidence, you might conclude that dark-skinned people are more often imprisoned because light-skinned people still decide who goes to prison. What with melanoma, the deterioration of the lower stratosphere, and the peculiarities of natural selection, light-skinned people will soon be outnumbered, and we can guess that light-skinned people will be the prison-fodder of the corrections industry of the future. How society benefits by imprisoning people of a particular color at a higher rate is a question to ponder. Seems as if such a situation might do more harm than good.

You would think after a couple of centuries of self-government we would have our prohibitions pretty much settled, but no. To keep the prison industry humming, our legislators invent new crimes every session, and they point to their creations with great pride. This year in my state it’s a multiple violent offense law that would jail you for life on conviction of your third act of violence. No doubt most of the people prosecuted under this law will deserve the sentence, but that doesn’t answer the question of social utility. Do the rest of us really gain anything by jailing a felon for life? Instead of finding ways to rid these misfits of their criminal tendencies we lock them up for life to prey on weaker prisoners, mostly drug offenders. Guards must turn away to maintain the illusion that they, and not their most violent charges, run our correctional institutions.

It’s not really corrections, of course. Studies of outcomes of delinquency prove that most convicts can be redeemed, but the presumption of our prison system is that rehabilitation isn’t worth the effort. You’d think that corrections staff would earn bonuses for ex-cons’ success on the outside, but they don’t. Prisons are a punishment industry, and both the suppliers and the customers know it. And what does society gain from the punishment of wrongdoers? Is it the prospect of punishment that keeps us from breaking laws? Probably not. Offenders don’t expect to get caught, much less punished. The rationale for punishment seems to be not so much deterrence as retribution. Victims of crime crave justice and need to know that the predator received a just punishment. It’s part of the social contract. Injury must be avenged, and it will be avenged, and if the state doesn’t take care of retributive justice, then the people will. It’s jail for offenders, or it’s mob rule for all.

Punishment certainly has its place, but high rates of imprisonment should be seen as a failure on the part of the law-abiding citizenry. Either we are creating anti-citizens at an alarming rate, or we are unjustly punishing millions of young people. Either way, it’s a huge social failure, and it’s sitting out there in front of us like a rotting carcass. Things haven’t always been this way, and the disastrous state of things–one percent in jail is a disaster–should tell us that the punishment industry is a failure.