NOTE: I started writing this post a little before Christmas, intending to post it on the day itself. Life got in the way, as it so often does, and I wasn’t able to finish it on time. Given the directions in which our country continues to move, though, I’ve decided not to wait until next year. So, here it is, slightly modified, but better late (I hope) than never…
I got an early Christmas gift on December 15th
I’d been up past midnight, drafting a post on how Adolph Hitler’s propagandists sought – pretty successfully – to twist Christmas into a celebration of Nazi ideology. I was hoping to imply (subtly, I thought) a parallel to today’s political realities. I had planned to quote extensively from Joe Perry’s Smithsonian piece of the year before, The Nazis Fought the Original War on Christmas. His article described the efforts of Nazi propagandists to appropriate traditional Christmas imagery as symbols of “Aryan” nationalism and superiority:
As the Nazi party grew in size and scope, committed propagandists worked to further “Nazify” Christmas…they hoped to channel the main tenets of National Socialism through the popular holiday. A vast state apparatus (centered in the Nazi Ministry for Propaganda and Enlightenment) ensured that a Nazified holiday dominated public space and celebration in the Third Reich…
In the morning, though, I opened the New York Times to find, on the cover page of the Sunday Review, Amy Sullivan’s article, America’s New Religion: Fox Evangelicalism, looking at Trump’s very own merry war on Christmas. Any need I might have felt for subtlety vanished. “Countless media images of invariably blond-haired, blue-eyed German families gathered around the Christmas tree helped normalize ideologies of racial purity,” Sullivan wrote. “The front cover of a 1935 mail order Christmas catalog, which pictured a fair-haired mother wrapping Christmas presents, included a sticker assuring customers that “the department store has been taken over by an Aryan!” The message was clear: only “Aryans” were invited to in the celebration – no Jews (or immigrants) need apply. Any parallels with Trump’s America are, of course, only partial. As Sullivan points out, the Nazis sought to suppress actual religious references, and to appropriate Christmas imagery. Trump and the American hard right, by contrast, have laid claim to the Christmas holiday and its symbols, and use them to demonize others – particularly immigrants, along with anyone holding religious beliefs other than Christianity. The right is also quite comfortable with the commercial side of Christmas – so long as the dolls are white and non-ethnic. NOTE: Despite the right wing’s agonizing over the “attack on Christmas,” it is already an official national holiday in the United States. In fact, Christmas is the only national holiday of a religious nature, unlike the holy days of any other religious group. Sullivan describes herself as “a progressive evangelical and journalist, covering religion,” but one who was slow to realize the full impact of Trump’s election. “I’m as guilty as any of not noticing what was happening,” she says. “We kept asking how white conservative evangelicals could support Mr. Trump, who luxuriates in divisive rhetoric and manages only the barest veneer of religiosity. But that was never the issue. Fox evangelicals don’t back Mr. Trump despite their beliefs, but because of them.” Sullivan quotes televangelist Billy Graham’s son, Franklin, saying that “God intervened in our election and put Donald Trump in the Oval Office for a great purpose,” and our leader has happily taken up the cross: “We’re saying ‘Merry Christmas’ again,” Trump has proclaimed: “Christmas is back, better and bigger than ever before.” A year earlier than Sullivan’s piece, also in the Times, Liam Stack had written that the War on Christmas, “has turned things like holiday greetings and decorations into potentially divisive political statements. People who believe Christmas is under attack point to inclusive phrases like ‘Happy Holidays’ as (liberal) insults to Christianity.” “For over a decade,” Stack says, “these debates have taken place mainly on conservative talk radio and cable programs, But this year they also burst onto a much grander stage: the presidential election,” with Trump promising that someday “We are going to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” Stack points out that the “suppression” of Christmas in America was actually instituted by the 17th century Puritans. In a 2012 New York Times Op-Ed, Rachel N. Schnepper described the Puritan’s attitude toward Christmas: On their first Christmas in the New World, the Pilgrims at Plymouth Colony celebrated the holiday not at all. Instead they worked in the fields…The Puritans in the Massachusetts Bay Colony went one step further and actually outlawed the celebration of Christmas. From 1659 to 1681, anyone caught celebrating Christmas in the colony would be fined five shillings… The Puritan War on Christmas lasted up to 1870, when Christmas became a legally recognized federal holiday. Until then, men and women were expected to go to work, stores were expected to remain open, and many churches did not even hold religious services. Stack also argues that the idea that Christmas is under attack took off when Fox News commentators – Bill O’Reilly in particular – hyped a sensationally titled book by radio host John Gibson, “The War on Christmas.” While Gibson now claims that his book was really only about efforts to ban symbols like Santa Claus and Christmas trees from schools, his subtitle gives it away: “How the liberal Plot to Ban the Sacred Christian Holiday is worse than you thought.” Meanwhile, The American Family Association, in Mississippi, publishes an annual hit list of companies that “censor Christmas.” In addition to Barnes and Noble, Best Buy, and Victoria’s Secret, Stack notes, the list includes Starbucks – because its Christmas coffee cup designs show winter weather scenes, rather than Christmas imagery. And how should we be celebrating the real meaning of Christmas? Here’s one answer, from a company called “Pew Pew Tactical:” “This time of year is great for spending time with family…tis the season of gift giving, and what better gift to give than the sweet, sweet joy of supporting the 2nd Amendment? That’s right, after breaking every gun sale record on Black Friday, manufacturers and retailers are back with even more deals and sales.” Right, we should celebrate peace on earth by buying more guns…
Note: Trump as Christmas Tree ornament image from
New York Times, in conjunction with Amy Sullivan article.
I.C.E. encourages ratting out your neighbors
Did you know that you may be living in a “Constitution-Free Zone?” Me neither, at least until recently. It’s the area, within 100 miles of any United States border, in which Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) officers can pull your car over – without a warrant or probable cause – to check whether you or any of your passengers might be undocumented immigrants. A hundred miles might not seem like much, but it turns out that roughly eighty percent of the entire U.S. population live in that zone. It includes, for example, the entire state of Massachusetts (where I live) as well as Maine, Vermont, and New Hampshire.
That’s bad enough, but a hotline recently set up by ICE aims to recruit citizens to turn in their neighbors as well. The hotline has received hundreds of tips from Americans accusing “acquaintances, neighbors, or even their own family members” of being in the country illegally. That’s the word from the opinion/news site Splinter, which recently reported on a trove of ICE documents it was able to access online.
Authors Daniel Rivero and Brendan O’Connor report that the new “outreach” program from ICE is called VOICE, standing for “Victims of Immigration Crime Engagement,” and its supposed purpose is to “provide proactive, timely, adequate, and professional services to victims of crimes committed by removable aliens.” However, Splinter’s research didn’t find any information about what those services might be – other than removing said aliens.
VOICE’s website says, “With honor and integrity, we will support victims of crimes committed by criminal aliens through access to information and resources.” Those resources include a toll-free hotline “to answer questions from victims,” and those questions may evidently include the current status of an allegedly undocumented person. The program promises “a victim-centered approach to acknowledge and support immigration crime victims and their families.”
On the website’s home page, ICE repeatedly uses the terms “crimes,” “victims,” “criminal aliens,” and “criminal activity by aliens,” without further definition. Yet it also inserts a starred note stating that “This is not a hotline to report crime – to do that you have to call a different ICE number. It does NOT explain that entering the country without authorization is a misdemeanor and not a criminal offense unless the person has previously been deported for illegal entry.
“The men and women comprising the VOICE Office will be guided by a singular, straightforward mission – to ensure victims and their families have access to releasable information about a perpetrator and to offer assistance explaining the immigration removal process. ICE wants to ensure those victimized by criminal aliens feel heard, seen and supported.”
The implication – presumably intended – is that any offense committed by an undocumented immigrant is a crime, and that all such offenses are somehow worse or more serious than the same offense committed by anyone else. There’s no reason that local law enforcement and judges are not perfectly able to deal with misdemeanors committed by immigrants – just as they do with misdemeanors by anyone else. But if ICE gets there first, it doesn’t have to deal with those messy issues of constitutional rights. It can skip right past those annoying first amendment guarantees and go straight to the real point of all this: branding undocumented immigrants as threats to our safety, and the rest of us as their helpless victims.
However, as the result of a misstep by someone at ICE, Splinter was able to access a spreadsheet that “appears to have been partially redacted” but still included personal information about allegedly undocumented persons that could identify and locate them for ICE.
As the Splinter story points out, though, “On many of the calls, the only violation the informant offers…is that the people exist.” An example: “Caller wanted to report his next door neighbor. Caller claims his next door neighbors are from South America. Caller claims two boys reside there with an adult male…”
“Caller,” however, offered zero evidence that any of the family members are undocumented or have committed any offense other than being there. “Together,” the Splinter article notes, “the logs are a grim running diary of a country where people eagerly report their fellow residents to the authorities, or seek to bring the power of the immigration police to bear on family disputes. On May 25, 2017, one man called to say that his stepson was violating a restraining order by parking his car near his house. He didn’t want his wife to know that he was trying to get her son deported.”
“Caller stated the illegal alien (step-son) is a drug addict, unemployed, homeless and living in his car…Caller stated the subject is a danger to society and wants to know why he was not taken into ICE custody. Caller stated the subject recently missing his court hearing…and is now in probation violation…Caller stated he does not want his wife to know and prefers not to be reached at his cell number that he shares with her.”
Another caller wanted to report that her mother-in-law and sister-in-law had overstayed their tourist visas to get legal status, and yet another wanted to turn in his ex-wife for overstaying her visa. Other complaints likewise focused on family strife:
- Caller requested to report her mother-in law and sister-in law. Caller stated these individuals came to the U.S. as tourists and stayed in the U.S. in order to get legal status.
- Caller stated the undocumented individual is destroying her family and is committing adultery.
- Caller requested to report his ex wife that is undocumented as overstayed on her visa.
- Caller requested to report the illegal alien because the illegal alien will not let her see her granddaughter.
One caller went so far as to provide the date and location of an upcoming divorce hearing at which the accused undocumented immigrant was scheduled to appear.
The Splinter authors say that three days before they went to press they notified ICE about having discovered the article – presumably, though they don’t say so, hoping for a response. They didn’t get one, and the information remained on the ICE site until a few hours after publication of Splinter’s leak, when, according to the magazine, “all the public records that the agency has ever released went offline.”
NOTE: After I’d finished the above piece, my wife (also a blogger) came in to let me know that she’d come across a competing article on NPR: “People Are Reporting Criminal (Space) Aliens To New ICE Hotline. It gave us a few laughs – let’s hope it’s giving the folks over at ICE heartburn.
Both Sides Now…
Artists protest Trump’s “Big Beautiful Wall”
So, what’s up with this border wall thing? Trump promised, right? And Mexico was going to pay for it? You probably haven’t heard much about the Mexico part of the deal lately.
Meantime, the President hasn’t been able to find time in his golf schedule to do anything about it, but it looks like Congress might be ready to step up to the plate. Republicans on the House Homeland Security Committee pushed through a bill including $10 billion to build the wall, $5 billion to update border entry points, and give the Border Patrol and Customs & Border Protection an additional 5,000 agents.
The bill, if it passes, would also allocate $35 million to enable states to use Border Control “assets” for border security.
Democrats have suggested that it might be a better (and way more humane) idea to use that money to help out the survivors of Hurricanes Irma and Maria.
This while Trump is promising to drastically slash taxes. Which vital domestic programs is he proposing to cut in order to free up money for his wall?
In the meantime, some folks on both sides of the border have picked up paint brushes and are using them to express their own feelings about all this. The first and third images images are from The Sun . The boy looking over the wall is from National Public Radio (credited to “JR”). There are many other examples of the creative work being done to mock or make light of Trump’s big beautiful wall. Check them out online, and take a look at some of the “solutions” that a group of architects have come up with. There’s an example below:
The pain in my soul is unbearable…
The Las Vegas gunman brought 23 guns into the Mandalay Bay Hotel. At least one of the rifles shown in news photos was reported to be an AR-15, the modernized American version of the Russian AK47 rapid-fire assault rifle, famed for its reliability and used by many military and recreational shooters today.
The firearm was the invention of Mikhail Kalashnikov who, through most of his life, argued that he had developed the weapon to protect his country, and couldn’t be blamed if it was used for other purposes.
Before his death, though, Kalashnikov wrote to the head of the Russian Orthodox Church that “If my assault rifle took people’s lives, it means that I, Mikhail Kalashnikov, son of a farmer and Orthodox Christian, am responsible for people’s deaths. The pain in my soul is unbearable.”
But corporations don’t feel pain, and I doubt if any of the executives or shareholders of America’s gun manufacturers would acknowledge any degree of responsibility for yesterday’s events – or for any of the mass shootings that have made headlines in recent years. For years they have argued that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” True enough, but our unregulated and unrestrained firearms industry – bolstered and protected by the lobbyists of the National Rifle Association (Well-paid Executive VP Wayne Lapiere at right) – helps them to do it a hell of a lot faster and more efficiently.
Charting America’s gun crisis
According to the publication, “The attack at a country music festival in Las Vegas that left at least 58 people dead is the deadliest mass shooting in modern U.S. history – but there were six other mass shootings in America this past week alone.” The article is headlined: “1,516 mass shootings in 1,735 days.” That’s a little under five years, so we’re talking about roughly 350 mass killing each year.
“No other developed nation comes close to the rate of gun violence in America. Americans own an estimated 265 million guns, more than one gun for every adult. And they are more likely than anywhere else in the so-called developed world to use them to kill or injure their family, friends, and other fellow citizens. Data compiled by the Gun Violence Archive reveals a shocking human toll: there is a mass shooting – defined as four or more people shot in one incident, not including the shooter – every nine out of ten days on average.”
Looking just at the one week leading up to the Vegas shootings:
- On the same day as Las Vegas, three people were killed in Lawrence, Kansas, and two wounded;
- On the day before Las Vegas, one person was killed and three wounded in Memphis, Tennessee;
- Two days before that, one person was killed and three wounded in New Orleans;
- Two days before that, two were killed and two wounded in Baltimore, as well as one killed and three wounded in Philadelphia, and four more in Memphis;
- Two days before that, one killed and eight wounded in Antioch, Tennessee, as well as one killed and three wounded in Mays Landing, New Jersey, four wounded in Baltimore, and another four wounded in Syracuse, New York.
- And, skipping over ten more incidents in less that two weeks, way back on September 10th, nine were killed and three wounded in Mays Landing, New Jersey, four wounded in Baltimore, and four wounded in Syracuse, New York.
I’d suggest that everybody reading this go to the Guardian site and scroll slowly through the list. It makes an impact that just hearing the numbers may not. Also check out Tom McCarthy’s Guardian piece on this issue.
Has he crossed the line?
How far will we let him go?
“In high school, I woke one Saturday and spotted an odd shape on my bedroom window. Peering closer, I realized what it was: a swastika. Someone had scrawled thick white swastikas in soap over most of the windows of our house and on my brother’s lime green Plymouth Barracuda…The swastikas were easy to wash away. But they were seared into my memory.”
That’s the opening of a recent piece by the Boston Globe’s former education editor, Linda K. Wertheimer. She writes that, at the time, she and the rest of her Jewish family felt that no one else in their community would care. She contrasts the incident, though, with the recent community-wide response of indignation when the same symbol was scrawled in one of the bathroom in their community’s high school.
This is a time for indignation.
The lime green Barracuda (at least for those of us who can remember that era) seems to put those fears in the distant past. Just a few weeks later, though, the sense of optimism she expresses in her column seems almost quaint. Wertheimer’s piece was written less than a month before this week’s outbreak of right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia – followed immediately by President Trump’s fawning attempt to equate the attackers with their victims.
Criticism of Trump’s remarks – even within the political and business establishments – has been moderately encouraging, but is it enough to matter? Are we seeing the beginning of an end to our slide into fascism, or is this just the beginning of something worse?
NOTE: Regarding the possibility of the rise of an American fascism: I did give brief thought to including one of the Trump/swastika graphics that are going around the web (including one created by Former Mexican President Vicente Fox that shows a Time Magazine cover with a swastika and the words “American Nazi” superimposed over the President’s forehead.) In the interest of journalistic integrity and good taste, and with some reluctance, I have refrained, but you can check it out for yourself.
Also, if you haven’t already seen it, check out Vicente Fox’s response to Trump on the border wall plan.
And with Trump, expect the worst…
In a recent post, I wrote about the case of a British submarine that launched a missile intended to land in the ocean off Africa. It headed for the coast of Florida instead. Fortunately, it was “only” a test missile, or you might not be reading this now. The incident barely made it into most U.S. newspapers, and the British press pretty much treated it as a joke. It was, nonetheless, a scary reminder that policies of “mutually assured destruction” only guarantee that the “other side” will suffer just as much as we do from a nuclear miscalculation
It was a reminder of how much we all have at stake.
Author Tony Schwartz has expressed “deep remorse” over having helped to write Donald Trump’s “autobiography,” The Art of the Deal. He says it should have been titled The Sociopath. Since I’d been referring to Trump as a psychopath, I thought I needed to look up the difference between the two – turns out there’s not all that much difference, so whatever…
The bottom line is – as one might guess – that we should expect Trump to act in the future pretty much as he has behaved in the past, with the same lack of insight, understanding, honesty, compassion, responsibility, consistency…to mention just a few of the qualities Trump doesn’t display.
Now we have to add basic common sense and discretion to that list, after learning that the President – in a meeting from which the U.S. press had been excluded, and no U.S. transcript was made, essentially handed over sensitive intelligence information to the Soviet Union. (And, as I’m writing this, I hear on the radio that Vladimir Putin is offering to hand over transcripts of that meeting to us. Evidently we’re expected to trust the USSR more than Trump.
We are terrifyingly dependent on the competence and character of our national leaders, especially those who are walking around with the codes that could launch a nuclear war. The arrogant and unpredictable men who now head the world’s two dominant nuclear powers don’t meet that standard.
For a couple of months now, my wife and I have have had yard signs out in front of our house expressing support for immigrants, and for Black Lives Matter. The first sign below was one we had seen all over our son’s neighborhood in Washington, DC, but we hadn’t seen them in Boston yet, so I went looking for a source.
When I mentioned this at a neighborhood meeting to view the recent ACLU “Trump Resistance Training,” a number of people expressed interest in doing the same. So I volunteered to pull together some information on how to get yard signs and posters relating to the refugee crisis. Here’s some of what I found:
We’re Glad You’re Our Neighbor
This design was created by Immanuel Mennonite Church, in Harrisonburg, Virginia. You can download the 18 X 24 inch poster, free, from Welcome Your Neighbors. If you don’t have access to a large-format color printer, Staples and similar places can do these (not cheap). Better yet, you may know someone who can do it at their office or institution. Worst case, print it in whatever size and color your printer can manage. NOTE: The poster as shown here is in Spanish, English, and Arabic. It is also available with the English center panel, plus a wide range of other languages in the top & bottom panels. You can also order the poster as a weatherproof yard sign with metal stand and it’s even available on T-shirts.
Refugees Are Welcome Here…
Everyone is Welcome Here
I don’t have anything else helpful to say, but thought I would include a few images I came across from another country dealing with similar issues, Australia, whose policies are, if anything, harsher than our own. I guess, if nothing else, oppression can produce good graphics.
The “No Way” poster on the left below, in case it’s not clear, is an anti-immigrant poster issued by the Australian government, which is arguably even more anti-immigrant than our own. The “Welcome” poster beside it is a response. In case the print below is to small to read, the banner at the bottom reads, “The current Australian Government does not speak for all of its citizens.”
For Immigrants/Refugees in the United States:
Working Internationally or Primarily Outside the U.S.
UNHCR (United Nations Refugee Agency)
Don’t worry, it’s only a test…
How many of you are old enough to remember “duck and cover?” Or maybe you’ll remember it better as “get under the desk, put your head down, and kiss your ass goodbye.”
We laughed and joked about it, but we were scared, too, and our fear was not irrational. Nukes were new, and very frightening, and it wasn’t all that long since our parents’ war, WWII. But that was “over there,” and they didn’t seem to want to talk about it much. In the absence of any media capable of conveying the reality of Coventry, Dresden, Hiroshima, we really had no sense of what modern warfare – even without nukes – had been like. But now the “Ruskies” had nuclear weapons too, and we had to come to grips with the reality that Hiroshima and Nagasaki could be us. We had to, but we really never quite succeeded.
Though we were repeatedly told that our nuclear tests were necessary to our security, they mainly seemed intended to demonstrate that “ours are bigger than theirs.” That was supposed to make us feel better. I didn’t feel better, I felt terrified. All the time, though, we and the Soviets and other powers were increasing our stockpiles. So we pledged allegiance, said our prayers, ducked and covered, and had nightmares.
In the years since then – though the threat has only increased year after year – we’ve slowly been conditioned to put it out of our minds and get on with our lives. There were so many other issues that seemed more pressing. We came to accept – if not really believe – that the so-called “balance of power” would keep us safe…for now…maybe. But balance was never really the goal. It was dominance, and if détente depends on predictability, dominance depends on its opposite.
Unpredictability has always been a favored tactic of wife beaters, child abusers and schoolyard bullies. As both they and their victims know, it’s a tactic that only works if their violence is unleashed from time to time. For Donald Trump unpredictability isn’t a tactic, it’s the product of a mind that can’t think beyond 140 characters at a time, and now he’s walking around followed by a military aide with the attaché case containing the nuclear launch codes. They call it the “football.” Isn’t that cute? It almost makes me glad that – for now, anyway – he’s buddies with Putin. Almost.
To be honest, I haven’t been giving much thought to this issue for a long time. There’s plenty else to worry about. But a long time ago, when I was in college, I canvassed around eastern Massachusetts against the proliferation of nuclear weapons. I stood in doorways trying to explain what an attack would mean for the folks I was talking with, showing them maps of impact zones. I’d mostly get a respectful hearing, but then people would want to know what they were supposed to do about it. I didn’t have any better answers then than I do now.
Coincidentally, an article in the latest issue of Boston Magazine, (“How Much of Boston Would Be Destroyed in the Impending Nuclear War?”) provided me with a nuclear impact map very similar to the one I was carrying around back then, though of course updated to reflect today’s far more frightening realities.Here’s a piece of it, at left. Take a look right near the bottom, along the edge of the gray “impact zone.” See a little blue spot. That’s Jamaica Pond. My house is a block away.
Of course, when it comes to nukes, we could be in as much danger from our friends as from our enemies. Any efforts I might have made to ignore the ongoing threat came to a sudden end a few days ago, when we got the news that our bosom ally, Britain, came within a hair of hitting the U.S.A. with a Trident II missile last June – and tried to keep mum about it.
The Trident, built in Britain by U.S. company, Lockheed Martin, is the principle armament of the Vanguard-class submarine. Each sub can carry 16 Trident missiles and each missile can carry eight nuclear warheads to targets thousands of miles away. Though they’re supposed to be extremely reliable, this one, which was meant to land in the ocean off Africa, somehow headed for Florida instead. (As if Florida didn’t have enough problems from global warming.)
But it was only a test, we’re told, so no need to worry. Besides, both British and U.S. missiles tests are under the “control” of our very own Naval Ordnance Test Unit at Port Canaveral, which informs us that these “Demonstration and Shakedown Operations” are meant to “evaluate and demonstrate the readiness of a strategic weapon system and crew before operational deployment.”
Apparently, British Prime Minister Theresa May, who took power not long after the incident, didn’t want the Brits to worry either, so she didn’t disclose it until six months later – and only after she had delivered an address to Parliament in June, requesting the equivalent of $49 billion to fund a new generation of Trident-armed subs.
Meanwhile the British have at least one “operational” and fully armed Vanguard nuclear sub patrolling the seas at all times.
Unfortunately, I’m too old and stiff now to get under my desk.
from the Donald?
So Trump wants to whack a 10% tax on imports, to protect American workers, and 20% on imports from Mexico, to pay for his great wall. At various times, as his primary opponent Ted Cruz pointed out, he has floated rates as high as 45%. The actual rates over the past few years – just so you know – have been in the very low single digits.
Well, I’m an American worker (though my wife might contest that) so I thought it might be time for a reality check. How would these increases affect ME? I decided to start as local as you can get – right next to my skin – so I stripped off and looked at the tags in my clothes. Here we go – top to bottom and outside-in.
- Wool winter hat – Nepal (Summer cap – Bangladesh)
- Down vest – (Uniqlo, a Japanese company but no, they’re made in China)
- Gloves – China
- Winter jacket – Sri Lanka
- Raincoat – Bangladesh
- My very masculine blue all-cotton Covington work shirt – Bangladesh
- My red fleece shirt, for when it gets a bit colder – Sri Lanka
- My t-shirt (Hanes) – Vietnam
- My boxers (Fruit of the Loom) – but the looms are in Vietnam
- My all-American LLBean blue jeans – Mexico
- The briefs I wear to bed (Hanes again) – El Salvador
- My Rockport shoes (also LLBean) – no, not made in Rockport, Maine, where the company is. They’re from Vietnam.
- My heavy LLBean boots for snowy days in Boston – Vietnam
- My even heavier Merrill’s (REI) for the backcountry – China
I almost forgot about my suits, since I hardly ever wear them, but I have two, both made in China. The shirts that go with them were made in El Salvador, Honduras, Nicaragua, Hong Kong, Vietnam, and Korea.
Was anything I wear made in the USA? YES! – my socks!
I’d love to support U.S. manufacturers but, like most middle-class American families, we live on a budget, and modestly priced clothing made in the United States doesn’t seem to exist any more. I’m not sure it’s available even at higher prices. I can pretty well guarantee that if you go into Walmart or Target intending to outfit your kids with affordable US-made back to school clothes, you’ll leave with an empty shopping cart (except for the aforementioned socks, which I highly recommend.)
So, what would a 10 or 20% increase on clothing mean for my family? It wouldn’t bankrupt us, by a long shot, but we’d certainly be inclined to try to buy less and make our things last longer – which would mean that stores would sell less and hire fewer staff, importers would import less, and so on.
For many families, though, it would mean significantly less to spend on food, clothing, rent, cars, healthcare, school supplies, and other necessities, many of which will also cost 10-20% more. And if that causes them to cut back on their purchases, it will affect the bottom lines of the companies who import, distribute and market all that stuff – and everybody who works for them in marketing and sales, – and the people who clean the stores after hours, and the people who drive the delivery trucks and…well, you get the picture. We live on what other people spend, and other people live on what we spend.
All of this, of course, will also almost certainly encourage other countries to impose punitive tariffs on our products in retaliation. Stuff’s all connected.
“OK,” you might say, “That’s a great summation of the problem, but what can we do to fix it?” It’s a good question, and I’ll try to get back to you on that. Right now I have to get my clothes back on in time for the next demonstration.
Mitchell & Jessen showed “blatant
disregard” for ethics…
I’m watching Donald Trump’s presidential inauguration as I write this, and of course wondering and fearing what his presidency will mean for those of us concerned with issues of prisoner abuse and torture.
As the Washington Post reported yesterday, “the CIA’s own medical and psychological personnel expressed deep concern about an arrangement that put two outside contractors in charge of subjecting detainees to brutal measures including waterboarding, then also evaluating whether those methods were working or causing lasting harm.”
This is only the latest revelation from the ongoing lawsuit charging that contract psychologists James Mitchell (at left, above) and Bruce Jessen were largely responsible for developing and promoting the torture methods used against prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere. The suit, described in my prior post, was brought by the American Civil Liberties Union on behalf of former prisoners Suleiman Abdullah Salim and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud, as well as the family of Gul Rahman, who died under torture.
ACLU attorney, Dror Ladin, described the newly released documents as exposing “deep, deep concerns that even people within the CIA who are participating in the torture program have about Mitchell and Jessen’s ethics.” One memo said “We value their input, but they should not be in charge of anything!” Despite such internal opinions, the pair were awarded contracts paying them more than $71 million dollars.
Though Donald Trump’s nominee to direct the CIA, Mike Pompeo, has said in Congressional hearings that he would “absolutely not” authorize the use of waterboarding or similar methods, and that Trump would not order him to do so, both men have made statements to the contrary during the campaign. Trump, in fact, has promised to authorize methods that are “far worse” than waterboarding.
I guess we have no choice but to wait and see…and hope.
It was like doomsday…
It’s impossible for a part-time blogger to keep up with breaking news, and I generally don’t try. I started this post two days ago, when the humanitarian situation in Aleppo was already disastrous; now it’s beyond any words I can come up with. Here are a couple of quick quotes from dispatches over the past few hours:
From The Guardian: “By bus, by car, by walking, even crawling, we just want to get out. We have given up on our homes, our belongings, everything. Now we only want to get out…each bus can only take 50, and there are tens of thousands of us…It was so cold…people were slipping, falling into puddles, losing their luggage, even their families, it was like doomsday.”
From the BBC: “Thousands of cold and hungry civilians remain stranded in the rebel-held east of the city…Unicef says sick and wounded children are among the evacuees…hundreds of other vulnerable children, including orphans, remain trapped…the children are so hungry they are crying, they are freezing. Most of them are scared of a brutal end to the ceasefire. They are afraid that they will not be able to get out.”
Okay, right, those quotes could come out of any war, but this one is happening on our watch, and it’s on television.
Anyway, here’s the post I had started to write:
The least we can do is to pay attention…
It’s hard to read the news dispatches coming out of Syria, so I have to admit I sometimes just don’t…at least not in detail. I skim, and I think it can’t get any worse, and then it does. But I can’t remove myself completely, so I skim some more. But sometimes I’m stopped short by something that I can’t skim over.
A couple of days ago, it was a paragraph halfway through one of Anne Barnard’s reports from Syria for the New York Times. She was interviewing Hisham al-Skeif, a member of the rebel governing council, frustrated that international officials were talking to rebel leaders, but “no one appeared to be talking directly to the trapped civilians.”1
“We are about 1,000, including our families,” he said. “If the regime enters we will be slaughtered. Of course everybody is negotiating with those who are armed, but we are not armed. The armed can defend themselves, but we can’t.”2
If only we were armed…I’ve caught myself entertaining that fantasy myself – when I’ve heard about crimes in the neighborhood, for example, but I know it’s a fantasy. Such an appealing one, though – that if we only had bigger guns, or more guns, or tanks, or warplanes, we’d be safe. I can easily imagine myself in that father’s position and my heart breaks for him, but a gun in his hands will be no match for barrel bombs and napalm – or for the new Russian-supplied rocket which has been described as “one step down from a nuclear weapon.”
Addressing the United Nations, our ambassador, Samantha Power, asked: “Are you truly incapable of change? Is there no act of barbarism against civilians, no execution of a child that gets under your skin”?
Globe writer Thanassis Cambanis responded, “U.S. Ambassador Power is right to ask about shame. Ultimately, a great share of it will belong to her [our] government.”
For a time, the international community was a meaningful forum with a conscience, and it created new doctrines like the “responsibility to protect,” which held that any state that wantonly murders its citizens forsakes its sovereignty. New norms took root: War crimes still occurred but invited wider and wider condemnation…
We opposed torture and war crimes elsewhere because they’re dead wrong, but also because we don’t want out own citizens subjected to them. Today…we don’t stand against the leveling of Aleppo because we reserve the right not to be judged for similar crimes.
U.S. general says “It’s not our job”
According to Military.com, “The top U.S. general for Syria and Iraq said Wednesday the U.S. will do nothing militarily or on a humanitarian basis to hinder the Russian and Syrian regime onslaught against Aleppo or ease the plight of civilians seeking to flee. Army Lt. Gen. Stephen Townsend said it’s not his job under current mandates to do anything about Aleppo, and nobody at the White House or in the Pentagon has told him otherwise.”I’ve watched Aleppo on TV; it’s horrible,” Townsend said, “but Aleppo is not in our charter here…I’m not responsible for what’s going on in Aleppo…I can’t really comment on the withdrawal, or the end is near, or any of that.”
Also according to the Globe, Lama Fakih, deputy Middle East director at Human Rights Watch, said civilians in eastern Aleppo ‘‘who had a glimmer of hope that the attacks would stop and that aid would finally reach them are instead trapped in a new brutal air and ground attack.’’
I don’t have any answers. Public and governmental pressure on Assad’s Soviet backers hasn’t accomplished anything so far. And the Trump administration will certainly not criticize Putin, let alone take any steps to stop the slaughter.
Reading the outstanding on-the-ground coverage of this disaster by The Times, the Globe, and others reminded me again of how much we owe to reporters like Barnard, who risk their lives helping us confront realities we’d probably rather avoid. The very least we can do is to pay attention.
Banner photo from UK Independent
Ohers, in order, Boston Globe, Guardian, BBC (cartoon unknown source)
1 A version of this story was also published by the Boston Globe under the headline, Syrian government moves closer to completely controlling Aleppo.
2 See also her subsequent article, Syrian government’s siege of Aleppo is almost over.
It’s a naturally occurring disease,
folks, not a left wing plot
Many on the so-called “alt-right” (and on the traditional right as well) want to blame today’s immigrants for bringing in “foreign” diseases, and Barack Obama for bringing in the immigrants. The disease accusation is one that’s been leveled at every wave of immigrants throughout our history. One of those disease threats is Chagas.
Chagas is a parasitic disease carried by a large and particularly nasty looking bug called Vinchuga (sometimes Vinchuca): scientific name: Triatoma infestans. It’s currently endemic in Latin America, especially in rural areas – my wife and I first learned about it when traveling in Bolivia – and has more recently been found in the United States, especially in the southwest.
Its habits are nasty, too. It bites its victims at night, while they are sleeping, and its saliva contains the Chagas parasite. The disease is particularly insidious, often causing few symptoms for many years, while the organisms multiply throughout the victim’s system. We were told by our Bolivian friends that the bug was not found in the United States. That was probably not true even then, but it’s definitely not true now. Chagas is expanding its range in the U.S. Southwest, and working its way north.
Some of those looking for reasons to oppose immigration have blamed immigrants and asylum seekers for bringing in the disease – and President Obama for bringing in the immigrants. That makes no sense: Chagas is not contagious from person to person, nor does the bug hang around on its victims like a flea. Some immigrants may have the disease, but there is no way that they can spread it others. The only “immigrants” to blame are the bugs themselves, expanding their range, almost certainly because of global climate warming – something conservatives may have a hard time accepting, but that’s what the science says.
Here’s just one of the fake news bulletins about Chagas from fantasy nightmare land. I’m not including the name of the site or any links as I usually do, since I’m not interested in helping these folks boost their hit count. (Note: the highlights were in the original, not added by me.).
“Obama’s legacy includes more than the recklessly irresponsible if not deliberate importation of Ebola and enterovirus D-68 into the USA. Let’s not forget Chagas disease: Barack Obama has brought 60,000 children from these countries into the U.S. in this year. Obama not only brought them in, almost certainly helping to coordinate their transport up through Mexico…He quickly distributed the potential vectors to all 50 states and even the US Virgin islands before they could be deported…Chagas disease – thanks Barack!”
Another site features a video showing someone in a grinning Obama mask wandering through a downtown neighborhood putting up posters that say “Halt flights from hot zones now! SECURE THE BORDER!” and a third site, headed “OBOLA,” warns that “Dogs are Dying After Eating THIS Bug That is Now Found in 28 States.” [I don’t know if dogs eat Vinchugas, though I doubt it, but they get infected by being bitten.]
For the record, although the Right seems to be suggesting that Chagas has been a government secret until now, it’s been known about and publicly discussed for years. It was first described by Brazilian physician/epidemiologist, Carlos Chagas in 1909 and came to be seen as a major threat to public health in the 1960’s. More recently, The New York Times, Atlantic Magazine, and Science Magazine all carried articles about it in 2011 and 2012, which was when I started more seriously looking into it. (See also this later NYTimes article on “the new plague of poverty” which looks at several tropical diseases now endemic in the U.S.)
Though long thought to be a problem only in South and Central America, environmental writer Jennie Erin Smith writes that “Texas, along with much of the rest of the Southwest, has been an endemic Chagas region since people began looking. Local transmission has been documented since 1955…Still, the idea of Chagas as a foreign illness persisted for half a century.” Her article this month in The New Yorker’s “Elements” blog discusses the increasing spread of the Vinchuga bug in the U.S. Southwest, focusing on an outbreak of Chagas at Lackland Air Force Base, in San Antonio, Texas, among both soldiers and the dogs at the DOD’s canine school at the base. See also the outstanding coverage of this outbreak by the Dallas Morning News.
Immigrants didn’t cause the problem;
neither did Barack Obama,
…and insects are not the only parasites
responsible for the chagas crisis.
An article in The Atlantic a year ago noted: “After dropping $2 million on a Wu-Tang Clan album, the pharmaceutical entrepreneur Martin Shkreli has found a new project: making an essential treatment unaffordable for poor immigrants from Latin America…He’s now the CEO of KaloBios Pharmaceuticals, which recently announced its plans to submit benznidazole, a treatment for Chagas disease…for Food and Drug Administration approval next year.”
In Latin America, a course of treatment currently costs from $60 to $100. U.S. patients can apply to the Center for Disease Control to receive it free. If approved by the FDA, Shkreli initially planned to price the same course of treatment at almost $100,000. Shortly after that, however, Shkreli was arrested for securities fraud and KaloBios went bankrupt. After emerging from bankruptcy since then, the company has announced that it still plans to acquire the drug, but will institute “a reasonable and transparent pricing policy.” What that will be remains to be seen.
Meanwhile, according to the Wall Street Journal, Shkreli “has sold his remaining stake in KaloBios Pharmaceuticals Inc., severing his ties with the company he once led, as the small drugmaker seeks to distance itself from its former chief executive,” Poor guy, he only got $5.9 million for what WSJ estimated was “a stake worth about $4.4 million” two months earlier.
For those interested in this issue,
the links below may also be of interest:
A while back, we heard about a new approach to fighting Chagas, especially in housing with adobe or unpainted wood walls. It uses an insecticide-containing paint and has apparently been very effective. As far as I know, it has not been adopted anywhere in the U.S. That may be because the inventor, Spanish Chemist Pilar Mateo, has declined to partner with a large drug company because, she says: “I didn’t want profit motives dictating how this important tool was brought to the world.” That’s a refreshing, but also depressing, contrast to Mr. Shkreli and the American pharmaceutical industry.
Well, Saturday, December 10th, is International Human Rights Day, this year, commemorating the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights in 1948. You probably didn’t know that. It’s generally pretty much ignored in the United States. After all, we take our human rights for granted.
Anyway, don’t miss this important and moving recent New York Times series analyzing the experiences of several victims of “enhanced interrogation techniques” in U.S. prisons during our so-called “war on terror.” Their stories put human faces to what, for many, may have been an abstract debate. (Note: I referenced this series in my recent post, U.S. Elects Torturer in Chief, on the election of Donald Trump.)
Exploring the impact
of our resort to torture
CLICK ON THE TITLES BELOW TO READ THE FULL ARTICLES:
How U.S. Torture Left
a Legacy of Damaged Minds
“Government lawyers and intelligence officials…knew that the methods inflicted on terrorism suspects would be painful, shocking and far beyond what the country had ever accepted. But none of it, they concluded, would cause long lasting psychological harm. Fifteen years later, it is clear they were wrong…Beatings, sleep deprivation, menacing and other brutal tactics have led to persistent mental health problems among detainees held in secret C.I.A. prisons and at Guantánamo.”
After Torture, Ex-Detainee is
StillCaptive of ‘The Darkness’
As the Times article makes quite clear, Suleiman Abdullah Salim was probably seized by mistake. That made no difference at Guantánamo: “The Americans routinely hauled him from his cell to a room where, he said, they hanged him from chains, once for two days. They wrapped a collar around his neck and pulled it to slam him against a wall, he said. And they shaved his head, laid him on a plastic tarp and poured gallons of ice water on him, inducing a feeling of drowning. ‘A guy says to me, ‘Here the rain doesn’t finish,’ Mr. Salim recalled.” He later attempted to commit suicide.
Secret Documents Show
a Tortured Prisoner’s Descent
Among the prisoners profiled in the Times series, Ramzi bin al-Shibh may possibly have been a legitimate subject of capture and interrogation. According to the Times account, anyway, he was an “admitted and unapologetic co-conspirator” in the 9/11 bombings.” Or maybe not. The tortures inflicted on him in our secret prisons in Romania and elsewhere (which, of course, are classified) may well have contributed to the delusions he displayed after his arrival at Guantánamo. His GTMO doctors noted:
“Mr. bin al-Shibh says he is unable to sleep ‘because of problems he had in the past at another facility. He begins to complain that the guards are sending smells, noises and subtle vibrations into his cell to torment him…Military psychiatrists find that he has ‘adjustment disorder with depressed mood’, which means he has developed marked sadness and hopelessness in response to recent stress…They fill out a form for ‘suspected detainee maltreatment.’ They cross off the word ‘suspected’ and write in ‘alleged.”
Where Even Nightmares Are Classified:
Psychiatric Care at Guantánamo
“Doctors felt pressed to cross ethical boundaries” this article notes, but many if not most mental health professionals at GTMO did so anyway, despite their training. “Psychiatrists, psychologists, nurses and technicians received little training for the assignment…Doctors felt pushed to cross ethical boundaries, and were warned that their actions, at an institution roiled by detainees’ organized resistance, could have political and national security implications.”
Lawsuite Aims to Hold 2 Contractors
Accountable for C.I.A. Torture
I discussed the legal case against psychologists James E. Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, for their roles in designing and carrying out the “enhanced interrogation” program, in my earlier post A day in court for victims of CIA torture. The Times article looks at the case in the current context: “Legal experts say the incoming administration of Donald J. Trump could force the case’s dismissal on national security grounds…Mr Trump has endorsed the effectiveness of torture and said he would bring back waterboarding.”
Memories of a Secret C.I.A. Prison
Khaled al-Sharif, who was also mentioned in my prior post, was held for two years in a secret C.I.A. prison, after being accused of having ties to Al Qaeda. In this video interview, he describes “what happened there, and how the experience continues to affect him.” He also tells his story through a series of graphic drawings of the tortures he experienced.
It’s Going to be a Scary Four Years…
This blog, and most of my work over the past several years, has dealt with the issue of torture: why, where, and when it happens; who’s responsible for it; who are its victims. My documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture, tells the stories of several torture survivors who have managed to make it to the United States, and some of the people – social workers, psychiatrists, physicians, and ordinary, caring citizens – who are devoting a good chunk of their lives to helping survivors recover from their trauma and make new lives here in the United States.
Right now, I wonder what those survivors are thinking.
Many of these men, women – and yes, children – have spent years in refugee camps abroad, waiting for admission to whatever country will welcome them. For one of the people interviewed in my film, a woman whose children had been murdered in front of her, it was nine years. Those who make it to the United States think they are the lucky ones. They don’t expect to have it easy, but they expect to be safe.
And now they’re treated to the spectacle of the new president of their country of refuge calling for some of them to be thrown out, and promising to build walls to keep others from coming in. He’s also announced that “Torture works, OK folks? and waterboarding is your minor form, but we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Trump was reportedly considering nominating Jose Rodriguez – one of the architects of the Bush administration’s torture program – to run the CIA. Instead, we’re getting Mike Pompeo (at right), who has called our prison at Guantánamo “a goldmine of intelligence,” where detainees “are treated exceptionally well.”
It’s going to be a very scary four years.
Below are links to a few sources of information
about refugees and the refugee resettlement process:
This is a quick post to help spread the word about an initiative I’ve just learned about. One of the physicians I interviewed during production of my documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture, has asked me to help spread the word about this powerful statement of concern from a growing number of healthcare professionals and others.
From America’s Healers:
Framed as “a letter to our patients in the Trump era,” from America’s healers, the statement reflects the alarm felt by many of us following the Trump election, and our worries about what a right wing victory will mean for healthcare and mental health workers and – more importantly – the patients and clients who depend on them for care.
In this new and uncertain time in American history, we healthcare professionals feel a special responsibility….For our patients, poverty, violence, and marginalization are not mere abstractions but instead harsh realities. As a result, we feel compelled to act and advocate against any threat to our patients’ well-being. The policies proposed by the incoming administration under President-elect Donald Trump may pose just such a threat.
Among the eight beliefs affirmed by the statement, the final one is, “that torture and human rights violations have no place in American society…we stand firm in opposing all forms of torture or ‘enhanced interrogations’ no matter the setting or supposed justification.”Should any readers question whether this is a serious concern in the event of a Trump presidency, recall his statement during the Presidential debates: “I’d bring back waterboarding,” he said on February 7th, “and I’d bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.”
NOTE: I had to go out for a few hours before finishing this post. In that time, more than 500 additional people had signed on. The total as of midnight, November 17th stood at more than four thousand names.
Take a look at the statement, and if you’re in any way involved in healthcare, mental health work, or social services, please consider adding your signature and voice.
So…we are about to inaugurate a president who has openly and repeatedly announced that “we’re going to have to do things that are unthinkable. Torture works, OK, folks? But we should go much stronger than waterboarding.”
Even Republican Senator John McCain, a Vietnam veteran and war hero, had to take issue with that one. Torture’s “not the American way,” he said. McCain himself was tortured during the five years he was held in a North Vietnamese prison, but to Trump,“He’s not a war hero…I like people who weren’t captured.”
But, “torture’s not the American way?” That’s not exactly – or even approximately – true. American use of waterboarding was documented at least as far back as our war in the Philippines, around 1901. But we only have to look a few years back, to the George W. Bush administration, for the seeds of our current ethical morass. Bush and his coterie did their best to make torture acceptable, but Donald Trump apparently aims to make it an American value.
In responding to Trump’s “torture works” comments, the first question would have to be, “works for what?” Virtually all reputable research indicates that torture rarely if ever yields worthwhile intelligence. To take just one example, Factcheck.org’s post, Trump on Torture, summarizes a recent article by researcher, Shane O’Mara, Torturing the Brain, which analyzes the “folk psychology…motivating enhanced and coercive interrogation techniques.”
“Solid scientific evidence of how repeated and extreme stress and pain affect memory and executive functions,” he writes, “suggests that these techniques are unlikely to do anything other than the opposite of that intended by coercive or ‘enhanced’ interrogation.” The use of so-called “enhanced interrogation” techniques, O’Mara writes “appears motivated by a folk psychology that is demonstrably incorrect.” (An abstract of O’Mara’s article is available online.)
The recent report by New York Times writers Matt Apuzzo, Sheri Fink and James Rizen, How U.S. Torture Left a Legacy of Damaged Minds, makes clear how very little the “enhanced interrogation” techniques inflicted on our prisoners at Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, and elsewhere really had to do with intelligence gathering – and how very little intelligence they yielded. But maybe Trump has at least done us the favor of cutting through the bullshit over what torture is really about – he rarely makes any pretense that it has anything to do with intelligence gathering. And Trump makes no pretense at all that he has any concerns about humanitarian issues, international law, or world opinion either.
(NY Times photo: Lutfi bin Ali. by Mohamed Ben Soud.)
In a recent Nation Article, Sasha Abramsky asks what exactly Trump means by “much stronger” torture: “He never defines exactly what sorts of state-sponsored torture he is advocating, exactly what actions he seeks to make the courts, the military, and the general public complicit in. If history is any guide, however, when a powerful state embarks down this road of torture, things get ugly very quickly.” Abramsky concludes her piece by saying, “You’ll find the American people aren’t nearly as perverted as you take them to be.” I hope she’s right, but that remains to be proved.
What Trump’s talk of torture does do is to give displaced and disenfranchised working and middle class citizens – which is most of us – a false narrative about who is to blame for their loss of control over their lives, someone to blame for shuttered factories, deteriorating neighborhoods, chaotic schools, and the repo man. If we torture our prisoners in Guantánamo, we’re showing that we can’t be pushed around, that the losses of our young men and women in senseless wars overseas made sense after all. We’re showing that we’re still tough, still standing tall.
UPDATE: While I was in the middle of working on this post, The Intercept reported that Trump may appoint Jose Rodriguez as head of the CIA. Rodriguez was director of the National Clandestine Service under Bush II, and shared responsibility for for human rights abuses including the establishment of CIA “black sites,” where detainees were tortured. He’s most remembered, though, for having been responsible for the destruction of 92 videotapes documenting the torture by waterboarding (183 times) of Khalid Sheikh Mohammad. According to a declassified CIA email, Rodriguez thought that if the tapes were revealed to the public, the response would be “devastating.”
Related reading (extra credit…)
The Strategic Costs of Torture: How “Enhanced Interrogation” Hurt America, by Douglas Johnson, Alberto Mora, and Averill Schmidt, in Foreign Affairs (September-October, 2016). The authors are associated with Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights.
This is an interesting and authoritative perspective on how the use and acceptance of torture has damaged America’s sense of what it stands for, and its world reputation. The authors note that, while Congressional Democrats argued that U.S. use of torture during the “war on terror” had not produced unique or reliable intelligence, Republicans claimed the opposite. Both sides, they noted, “share one key assumption: that whether the torture was good or bad depends on whether or not it ‘worked.'”
Instead, the researchers found, “Washington’s use of torture greatly damaged national security. It incited extremism in the Middle East, hindered cooperation with U.S. allies, exposed American officials to legal repercussions, undermined U.S. diplomacy, and offered a convenient justification for other governments to commit human rights abuses…In the words of John Hutson, a retired U.S. navy rear admiral: ‘Torture is the technique of choice of the lazy, stupid, and pseudo-tough.’ We can – we must – do better.”
“Leaving aside the very real human and legal consequences of torture, a truly comprehensive assessment would also explore…how it shaped the trajectory of the so-called war on terror, altered the relationship between the United States and its allies, and affected Washington’s pursuit of other key goals, such as the promotion of democracy and human rights abroad.” (From “The Strategic Costs of Torture”)
“Torture is the technique of choice of the
lazy, stupid, and pseudo-tough”
Doug Johnson, now the Director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard’s Kennedy School, was formerly the Director of the Center for Victims of Torture, in Minnesota, one of the sites featured in my film, Refuge. An interview with Johnson opens that film.
Also now at the Carr Center, Alberto Mora was a State Department Foreign Service Officer, and General Counsel to the USIA in the first Bush administration. During Bush II, as General Counsel of the Navy, he opposed the use of “harsh interrogation” at Guantánamo. Averell Schmidt is a fellow at the Carr Center, researching the costs and consequences of U.S. use of torture following 9/11.
I’ve just come home from watching a movie from my past – maybe yours too – 1984’s The Times of Harvey Milk, by Rob Epstein. For those who don’t remember, or who weren’t born yet, the documentary tells the story of San Francisco’s first openly gay political leader and of his rise from community activist to become a city supervisor (councilor). But it’s also the story of his murder, along with Mayor George Moscone, by a disappointed office-seeker with a gun. Their attacker, Dan White, apparently intended to shoot several other officials as well.(1)
Then I came home, to pick up where I left off with this post on gun violence:
Maura Healey, the attorney general of my liberal state, Massachusetts, took a lot of flak recently for asking Congress to authorize the Centers for Disease Control to study the causes of gun deaths in the same way it studies deaths from auto accidents. She was joined in her appeal by the attorneys general of a dozen other states plus the District of Columbia.(2) They’re calling for repeal of the gun industry-sponsored 1996 amendment that blocks the CDC from using funds “to advocate or promote gun control.” Even former Republican congressman Jay Dickey, the bill’s original sponsor, has acknowledged that the amendment was a mistake – and Dickey was a life member of the NRA.
In any case, it makes no sense that merely studying gun deaths would automatically lead to changes or restrictions that a majority of gun owners would object to. Even if such a study concluded – as many hope and expect it would – that some form of gun regulation would be a good idea, any proposals to change current laws would still be subject to public discussion, undoubtedly fierce debate, and the need for legislative action.
“As the chief civil or criminal law enforcement officers of our respective states,” Healey wrote, “we are charged with keeping our communities safe, and wee that is ravaging our families and communities.” Her statement to the Boston Globe pointed out that more than 33,000 people die from guns every year in the United States, roughly the same number as from car accid need better evidence-based strategies to combat the epidemic of gun violencents. Cars and drivers, of course, are already subject to regulations designed to promote public safety. Guns and their users are mostly not. If Harvey Milk’s assassin had been armed with a modern assault weapon he could have wiped out the entire San Francisco Board of Supervisors and a great many others as well.
Healey had already attracted the attention and hostility of gun makers when she initiated an investigation into problems with the safety of guns made by Remington and Glock, both of which have sued to block her probe. Far worse, from their point of view, was her announcement of a state ban on sales of guns that are essentially identical, except for minor changes, to weapons already prohibited in Massachusetts.
Massachusetts’ 350 gun dealers immediately took advantage of the controversy, extending their hours and, in at least one case, announcing “Today is your LAST DAY to purchase a semi-automatic weapon in Massachusetts!”
The National Rifle Association’s response was predictable, accusing Healy of “overstepping her boundaries.” The headline on the organization’s website read “Massachusetts: Attorney General Healey Attacks Your Second Amendment Rights!”
Just for the record, I was a Junior NRA member in my teen years, and participated in shooting competitions with moderate success. I don’t hate guns and I don’t hate hunters or other reasonable gun owners (and, yes, I do still have my NRA medals, and my Boy Scout merit badge sash too.)
I do very much hate the climate of paranoia and hate that the NRA promotes.
In a Globe op-ed, Healey wrote, “Here in Massachusetts, 10,000 assault weapons were sold just in the last year – each one nearly identical to the rifle used to gun down 49 innocent people in Orlando. In the week after the Pulse nightclub massacre, sales of weapons strikingly similar to the Sig Sauer MCX used at Pulse jumped as high as 450 percent over the previous week – just in Massachusetts.”
“There are myriad issues underlying each of these tragedies,” Healey wrote, “fear, racism, mistrust, hate. These are critical issues that we, as a country, have an obligation to honestly and forthrightly address…But there’s one issue that can be addressed right now — the proliferation of guns, particularly assault weapons.” She pointed out that 10,000 assault-style rifles had been sold in Massachusetts in just the prior year. These weapons, she said, are “in the same category as weapons chosen by killers in Newtown, Aurora, and San Bernardino. These are not weapons of self defense. They are weapons used to commit mass murder. And they have no business being in civilian hands.”
No legislation with any hope of passing in the United States is going to prevent Americans from owning guns for hunting, target shooting, and home protection. Yet polling has also shown that most Americans – from 55% to 92% depending on the specific questions – are OK with the kinds of regulations, including those proposed by AG Healey, that are currently being discussed.
Healey has taken a courageous stance – one which few public officials have been willing to risk. It will be an uphill battle, yet change is possible. I recall, several decades ago, listening to a couple of radio talk-show hosts railing about the infringement on liberty that would result from requiring car makers to provide seat belts. A little later, when our son was young, my wife and I were kind of shocked to hear other parents complaining about the requirement for infant car seats.
Today we buckle up without much thinking about it, and so do our kids, and the quest for better and safer car seats has fueled an entire industry. You could say our freedom has been “infringed,” but most of us don’t feel that way, and we’re all safer and better off for it.
As Healey pointed out, more people in this country die from guns than from auto accidents.
What are we waiting for?
(1) For more information on Harvey Milk and his times, check out Randy Shilts’ book on the case, The Mayor of Castro Street. Sean Penn also starred in the film Milk “based on the true story,” but I’d suggest you stick with the documentary.
(2) California, Connecticut, Delaware, Hawaii, Illinois, Maryland, New York, Oregon, Rhode Island, Vermont, Virginia, and Washington
Resources on Torture & War Crimes…
for survivors and those who work with them
When I first started working on this issue, there were not all that many organizations working with torture survivors, or on issues related to torture — and at least a couple of those have since gone out of business. I’m glad to say that that seems to have changed. Even so, we’re not anywhere near to keeping up with the need.
In any case, here’s a list of some organizations and resources on the issue. Some have been around quite a while, though a few are fairly new. At the bottom of the page are links to some earlier lists I’ve published.
Reclaiming Hope, Dignity and Respect
This 2015 report from the Center for Victims of Torture documents the organization’s work with Syrians and Iraqis fleeing the conflicts in their countries and currently living in Jordan. At the time of publication, CVT reported that there were “nearly 630,000 registered Syrian refugees in Jordan, and increasing numbers of Iraqis.” The Center’s psychosocial counselors, physical therapists and social workers work with refugees and torture survivors in other areas of the Middle East and Africa as well.
“Interviewees rarely report being tortured to elicit information. Rather, the torture survivors believe that perpetrators wanted to intimidate and create pervasive fear…” Survivors reported “nightmares, trouble sleeping, constant paranoia, difficulty with concentration…fear of loud noises and planes, withdrawal and isolation.” Among the most important obstacles to recovery is their inability to work and provide for themselves, attend school and, maybe most critically, the long wait – typically a year or more – to find out when they might be referred for resettlement, after an application process that may itself take several years.
In addition to its international activities, the Center for Victims of Torture operates, in Minneapolis, the largest and longest-established treatment centers for torture survivors in the United States. (It’s one of the groups featured in my documentary, REFUGE.
Redress Torture Survivors Handbook
One of the immigrant survivors of torture that I interviewed for my documentary film, Refuge: Caring for Survivors of Torture told me about meeting, and unknowingly befriending, one of the men responsible for torturing him and his family in their home country. The Torture Survivors’ Handbook, from the London-based organization Redress goes beyond the standard “welcome refugees” format to explore a range of such issues that may confront torture survivors, as well as the service providers who work with them. It’s primarily aimed at survivors and their supporters in the UK, though it could serve as a model for those working on the issue in other countries. In addition to issues likely to be covered in any such manual, it looks at such politically sensitive issues as: what if you have been tortured by someone from the very country in which you are seeking refuge?
NOTE: This and most publications on the Redress site are available in multiple languages. Some are difficult to access because they are in PDF format rather than web pages so, if you know the title, it may be easiest to just enter it in your search engine, e.g., for this one: “redress torture survivors handbook.”
Reprieve is another Britain-based legal services organization that focuses not just on the issue of torture, but on the death penalty, capital punishment, drone warfare, and secret prisons. Reprieve’s website states: “We provide free legal and investigative support to some of the world’s most vulnerable people: British, European, and other nationals facing execution, and those victimized by states’ abusive counter-terror policies – rendition, torture, extrajudicial imprisonment and killing…our lawyers and investigators are supported by a community of people from around the world.”
The Association for the Prevention of Torture says its work “is built on the insight that torture and forms of ill-treatment happen behind closed doors, out of public view. We therefore promote transparency in all places where people are deprived of liberty.” APT maintains a regularly-updated database on torture in 105 countries – most recent update: July 20, 2016.
Honoring torture survivors
and those who stand with them…
In 1987 the United Nations recognized this day, June 26th, as an International Day in Support of Victims of Torture. We’re a year short of the 30th anniversary of that declaration and, as a nation, we have made substantial advances toward the goal the day represents.
One of those is verbal: we try to think and speak about people who have been tortured as survivors, not victims, emphasizing their resilience, and their futures, not just their pasts. That’s what I experienced myself while interviewing torture survivors and the people who work with them for my documentary, REFUGE: Caring for Survivors of Torture.
The men, women, and children who have been able to make it to the United States are remarkable, and we are lucky to have them as new citizens. But they are a tiny fraction of the millions of people throughout the world who are subjected to torture and violence every day, most of whom don’t have the personal or financial resources to escape.
There are a number of terrific organizations around the U.S. working directly with torture survivors, but it’s a regrettably small number – fewer than 40 the last time I checked – and most struggle for the finances to keep going. I’ve listed below the contact information for five of those that I worked with when making REFUGE. The sixth lost its local government funding and folded not long after we filmed there.
A longer list is available on the Refuge Media Project website. All of these groups could use your support. (Note: it’s been a while since I’ve been able to update this list, so please let me know if you spot any errors.)
Organizations Featured in the Documentary
- Asylum Network, Physicians for Human Rights Cambridge, Massachusetts. PHR’s Asylum Network mobilizes physicians and mental health professionals to conduct evaluations of asylum seekers in order to document the forensic evidence of torture and abuse.
- Atlanta Asylum Network, Institute of Human Rights Emory University, Atlanta, Georgia. A student-founded organization of health professionals and student case managers who volunteer their time to assist survivors of torture seeking asylum in the United States.
- Center for Victims of Torture Minneapolis, Minnesota. CVT works to heal the wounds of torture on individuals, their families and their communities, and offers training to health care providers, educators and others. The Center also advocates for the investigation and abolition of torture worldwide.
- Harvard Program in Refugee Trauma Cambridge, Massachusetts. HPRT is a multi-disciplinary program that has been pioneering the health and mental health care of traumatized refugees and civilians in areas of conflict and natural disasters for over two decades.
- Torture Abolition and Survivors Support Coalition International Washington, DC. TASSC is a network of torture survivors who advocate and lobby to end torture and demand government accountability in the United States and abroad.
CIA torture victims finally have their day in
court, but Gul Rahmann didn’t survive to see it…
I first started writing about renegade psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen, and the refusal of the American Psychological Association to censure them for their involvement in torture, quite a few years ago (see links at the end of this post.) I eventually burned out on the issue, since it seemed that neither the psychology profession, or the rest of the country for that matter, were interested in confronting the issue of U.S. complicity in torture. But maybe things have changed.
Mitchell and Jessen have so far escaped criminal prosecution for designing and helping to carry out the CIA’s torture program, but will now at least have to face a civil lawsuit (Salim v. Mitchell) brought by three of the program’s victims. The American Civil Liberties Union is representing Suleiman Abdullah Salim (see his video interview below) and Mohamed Ahmed Ben Soud in the action, as well as the estate and family of Gul Rahman.
Rahman himself died – he essentially froze to death under CIA torture in 2002, “having been stripped naked from the waist down and shackled in a cell in which the temperature dipped to approximately 36 degrees Fahrenheit.”
Amy Goodman recently interviewed ACLU attorney Dror Ladin about the case, along with former intelligence officer Steven Kleinman, who had known Mitchell and Jessen from SERE training. SERE stands for Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape, and was a program developed to train U.S. military to resist torture in the event they were captured and interrogated. Mitchell and Jessen essentially “reverse engineered” what they had learned from SERE to craft tortures to be used on prisoners of the U.S. Despite the pretense that these techniques were meant to extract critical information, they were continued long after there was any real pretense that there was information to obtain.
According to Jenna McLaughlin’s column in The Intercept last week, Federal judge Justin L. Quackenbush has refused the two psychologists’ request to throw out the suit, calling the case made by the plaintiffs “thorough, to say the least.” He noted that the suit alleges “not only aiding and abetting, but participation and complicity in the administration of this enhanced interrogation program.”
ACLU staff attorney Steven Watt called the judge’s ruling unprecedented. “This is the first step toward accountability,” he told The Intercept, pointing out that in past lawsuits seeking accountability for U.S. torture, “the government has invoked its special state-secrets privileges to purportedly protect national security.”
[Jane Mayer’s short, 2010, New Yorker piece about the case is worth reading as a reminder of just how tightly information about the CIA torture program – including the participation of Mitchell and Jessen – has been controlled until very recently. See also this piece by Adam Goldman & Kathy Gannon.]
“There were some abuses that occurred…”
Jessica Schulberg, in Huffington Post, notes that although the pair’s attorneys are arguing that they “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program,” the promo material for Mitchell’s forthcoming book calls him “the creator of the CIA’s controversial Enhanced Interrogation Program,” offering “a dramatic firsthand account of the design implementation, flaws and aftermath of the program.”
While Mitchell and Jessen’s lawyers argued that their clients should not be held responsible, claiming that they did not personally participate in the victims’ capture, imprisonment, or interrogation, ACLU attorney Dror Ladin pointed out that not only did the two design and supervise the torture program, but they were well paid to do so. The pair’s company reportedly made in the vicinity of $81 million dollars under their CIA contract, but Mitchell argues that the money “was not income provided to me…That was a multi-year commercial contract that was provided to a company [Mitchell Jessen & Associates] that employed many people… I wasn’t living hand to mouth, but it wasn’t $81 million.” However, he reportedly earned “as much as $1,800 a day.” Whatever they were paid, given the fact that their “expertise” led to hardly any “actionable intelligence,” they were overpaid.
Mitchell and Jessen initially developed and taught “Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape,” or SERE techniques for training U.S. troops to withstand brutal interrogation in the event of capture, but eventually found it more profitable to go over to the “dark side,” using their expertise to advise U.S. interrogators on the use of torture techniques against Afghan and Iraqi detainees. The documentary film, Doctors of the Dark Side, dramatizes some of the techniques used at Abu Ghraib and GITMO under the guidance of Mitchell and Jessen (trailer available on the film’s website.)
In this context, it’s interesting to take a look at some of Mitchell’s prior statements, for example from this 2014 interview with Vice News: “The whole point of the waterboard was to induce fear and panic…you have to start the session with the waterboarding, but the questioning happens the next time you come in the room…The closer you get to it the next time, the more you struggle to get out of it and find an escape.” Mitchell acknowledges that “there were some abuses that occurred.” (NOTE: you can watch 25 minutes of Vice’s interview with Mitchell at the end of this post.)
As Huffington Post reporter, Jessica Schulberg, noted recently, attorneys for Mitchell and Jessen argue that the two psychologists (the autocorrect in my aging brain keeps wanting to type ‘psychopaths’) “did not create or establish the CIA enhanced interrogation program.” Yet pre-publication promos for a new book by Mitchell call him the program’s “creator,” and brag that the book offers “a dramatic firsthand account of the program’s design and implementation.”
Mitchell’s forthcoming opus is entitled Enhanced Interrogation: Inside the Minds and Motives of the Islamic Terrorists Trying to Destroy America – ironic since, as we now know, very few of the prisoners interrogated and tortured were in fact terrorists, or even combatants. Schulberg speculates that the ACLU might demand a copy of the book as part of pre-trial discovery, since it would no doubt give us a revealing look “inside the minds and motives” of Mitchell and Jessen themselves. As of May 2nd, however, the publisher told Huffington Post that the book’s release date has been postponed. They “declined to provide a future publication date.” Surprise…
Schulberg also notes that, in addition to their roughly $81 million CIA contract, the agency also gave the two psychologists “a multimillion-dollar indemnity deal covering potential legal fees,” which should substantially cushion the pain should they end up losing in court.
NOTE: At the end of this post I’ve included Vice News’ extended (25 minute) interview with Mitchell, in which he attempts to justify his work for the CIA.
American Psychological Association: Pay Any Price?
Mitchell (though not Jessen) belonged to the American Psychological Association, the professional group representing most psychologists in the United States. Roy Eidelson is also an APA member, but a critic of the organization’s positions condoning torture. He is one of the founders of the Coalition for an Ethical Psychology. Eidelson has written extensively and persuasively about the APA’s complicity in the abuses committed at Abu Ghraib, Guantánmo, and elsewhere, and its failure to discipline members involved in interrogations that included torture. Many of the allegations he and others have made against the organization over the years were definitively confirmed in 2014 when, as he and colleague Trudy Bond write, “the publication of James Risen’s, Pay Any Price: Greed, Power, and Endless War, based on previously unavailable sources, put the American Psychological Association on the hot seat. The Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter alleged that, after 9/11, the APA’s leadership colluded with the Bush administration to craft ethics policies permitting psychologists to participate in coercive and abusive ‘war on terror’ detention and interrogation operations.”
“By the end of April,” Eidelson and Bond note, “the heat under the APA was turned up another notch by the release and detailed analysis of several previously confidential emails obtained by Risen…Several emails involving one individual in particular – psychologist Kirk Hubbard – go a long way toward undermining the APA’s indignant protestations of innocence.”
“In 2003, Hubbard was a chief officer at the Operational Assessment Division of the CIA. In late 2001, he had introduced psychologists James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen to the CIA. Shortly thereafter, Mitchell and Jessen reportedly went to work devising and administering the CIA’s brutal black site detainee torture regime… In 2005, Hubbard left the CIA to take a job consulting for his colleagues at Mitchell Jessen & Associates…After he resigned from the APA in 2006, Hubbard publicly acknowledged that he strongly supported the abusive “enhanced interrogation techniques” deemed lawful by the Bush administration.”
Doing Special Things to Special People
Eidelson and Bond go on: “For most of us, this is probably not the kind of profile that would instill confidence when looking for someone to provide guidance about psychological ethics. But a review of the newly released emails shows that the APA considered Hubbard – with his connections to the CIA and to Mitchell and Jessen – to be a highly valued adviser.
“Following a July 2003 invitation-only “science of deception” workshop hosted by the APA and funded by the CIA, APA science policy director Geoff Mumford wanted feedback from the participants. Hubbard wrote to Mumford to say, ‘You won’t get any feedback from Mitchell or Jessen. They are doing special things to special people in special places, and generally are not available.”
Kevin Cullen is a Boston Globe columnist. He was part of the “Spotlight” team that won a Pulitzer Prize for their investigation of sexual predation by Catholic priests. Late in 2014 he interviewed former CIA agent Glenn Carle. Carle was aggressive, Cullen wrote, “He didn’t play patty-cake, but neither did he torture…He, like most CIA interrogators, knows that beyond being illegal and immoral, torture doesn’t work…Carle says James Mitchell and Bruce Jessen…were quacks, pushing unproven theories.”
Everybody [in the CIA] knew these guys were frauds. They had never done intelligence work. They had never done interrogations…Our government paid them $81 million and they gave the agency the cover the White House thought it needed.
A fish rots from the head down. Some people say we were winging it. The agency [CIA] does not wing it. You cannot even sneeze in the field without authorization. The authorization for this came from the White House. None of this would have happened had not an infinitesimally small number of neo-cons decided they had to be tough guys after 9/11.
“Carle grew ill,” Cullen says, “when he saw Dick Cheney…go on TV and dismiss the Senate report on torture while almost boasting he hadn’t even read it…Like other career CIA officers, Carle points to Cheney as epitomizing what went wrong:”
People can be Disappeared. So can the Truth…
While Mitchell and Jessen are of course free to publish their version of events, there’s a growing risk that the actual facts might be “disappeared.” Adam Klasfeld’s recent Courthouse News Service report warned that “Less than two years after the release of the Senate ‘torture report, ’the National Archives has alarmed dozens of human-rights and press advocates by refusing to call the report a ‘federal record’ requiring preservation.
“The Constitution Project and 30 other human-rights and media organizations said that they were “disturbed” by reports from two senators over the fate of the document. The Senate Select Committee on Intelligence released a heavily redacted summary of its report on the CIA’s rendition, detention and interrogation (RDI) program in late 2014, but the full, 6,700-page study remains entirely classified…As a result, even President Barack Obama’s executive branch cannot read the full report, and the National Archives and Records Administration [NARA]has stonewalled questions about whether it qualifies as a federal record…”In a four-page letter, the organizations reminded Ferriero that the CIA has destroyed “crucial video records of the torture program” more than a decade ago, “without NARA’s knowledge or authorization.”
TO BE CONTINUED . . .
SOME RESOURCES ON THESE CASES, AND THE ISSUES THEY RAISE:
Doing Harm: Health Professionals’ Central Role in the CIA Torture Program, Physicians for Human Rights, 2014.
Emails Reveal American Psychological Association’s Role in CIA Torture, Slate.com, 2015.
Out of the Darkness: How two psychologists teamed up with the CIA to devise a torture program and experiment on human beings, American Civil Liberties Association
RELATED BLOG POSTS FROM THE REFUGE MEDIA PROJECT:
Psychologists and Torture 7/14/2010 – The Center for Justice & Accountability, Harvard’s Human Rights Clinic & Northwestern University’s Justice Center call for action, but the APA – not so much.
A Soldier who Refused to Torture 9/17/2010 – a young trooper commits suicide after being disciplined for refusing to participate in interrogations in Iraq; the Army describes her death as being from a “non-hostile weapons discharge.”
Taking Action: When Healers Harm 6/20/2011 – a campaign by the Center for Constitutional Rights “to hold physicians and other health professionals accountable for participation in ‘enhanced interrogation.”
Denied Re-enlistment for Speaking Out 9/18/2011 – a soldier forced to resign from the Army Reserve, without pension, after speaking out about his experiences at Guantánamo.
Can Torture Remain Secret in a Democracy? 10/27/2014 – controversy over the Obama administration’s decision not to release the Abu Ghraib and Bagram torture photos.
The Ongoing Case of the Guantánamo Nurse 9/18/2015 – a navy nurse loses his security clearance and may lose his pension after refusing to force-feed prisoners.
What’s a War Crime? Who Decides? 3/6/2016 – The former commander of the U.S. prison at Guantánamo refuses a subpoena to testify on the torture of two French citizens – and other news from GITMO.
FOOTNOTE: I have been for many years a board member of the Ignacio-Martín Baró Fund for Mental Health & Human Rights, most of whose founders are psychologists (though I am not – I am primarily a filmmaker and writer.) The Fund is named in honor of one of the six Jesuit priests murdered by U.S. trained Salvadoran troops in 1989. For at least ten years the Fund and its supporters have confronted the American Psychological Association’s tacit approval of the involvement of psychologists in torture and other cruel and unusual treatment in U.S. detention facilities. As a recent MBF statement noted: “Finally the Martín-Baró Fund and other grassroots groups can declare at least partial victory. Last year, a membership referendum campaign led by activists both within and outside the American Psychological Association resulted in a new, clear policy barring psychologists from working in U.S. detention centers that violate the Constitution or international law unless they are working directly for the detainees themselves or for third-party human rights groups representing the interests of detainees”
VICE interview with James Mitchell…