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Our Twisted Politics of Grief

2:32 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

9/11 Smoking WTC Tower

Our politicized grief over 9/11 continues to cost lives worldwide.

Darwin observed that conscience is what most distinguishes humans from other animals. If so, grief isn’t far behind. Realms of anguish are deeply personal—yet prone to expropriation for public use, especially in this era of media hyper-spin. Narratives often thresh personal sorrow into political hay. More than ever, with grief marketed as a civic commodity, the personal is the politicized.

The politicizing of grief exploded in the wake of 9/11. When so much pain, rage and fear set the U.S. cauldron to boil, national leaders promised their alchemy would bring unalloyed security. The fool’s gold standard included degrading civil liberties and pursuing a global war effort that promised to be ceaseless. From the political outset, some of the dead and bereaved were vastly important, others insignificant. Such routine assumptions have remained implicit and intact.

The “war on terror” was built on two tiers of grief. Momentous and meaningless. Ours and theirs. The domestic politics of grief settled in for a very long haul, while perpetual war required the leaders of both major parties to keep affirming and reinforcing the two tiers of grief.

For individuals, actual grief is intimate, often ineffable. Maybe no one can help, but expressions of caring and condolences can matter. So, too, can indifference. Or worse. The first years of the 21st century normalized U.S. warfare in countries where civilians kept dying and American callousness seemed to harden. From the USA, a pattern froze and showed no signs of thawing; denials continued to be reflexive, while expressions of regret were perfunctory or nonexistent.

Drones became a key weapon—and symbol—of the U.S. war trajectory. With a belated nod to American public opinion early in the century’s second decade, Washington’s interest in withdrawing troops from Afghanistan did not reflect official eagerness to stop killing there or elsewhere. It did reflect eagerness to bring U.S. warfare more into line with the latest contours of domestic politics. The allure of remote-control devices like drones—integral to modern “counterterrorism” ideas at the Pentagon and CIA—has been enmeshed in the politics of grief. So much better theirs than ours.

Many people in the United States don’t agree with a foreign policy that glories in use of drones, cruise missiles and the like, but such disagreement is in a distinct minority. (A New York Times/CBS poll in late April 2013 found Americans favoring U.S. overseas drone strikes by 70 to 20 percent.) With the “war on terror” a longtime fact of political life, even skeptics or unbelievers are often tethered to some concept of pragmatism that largely privatizes misgivings. In the context of political engagement—when a person’s internal condition is much less important than outward behavior—notions of realism are apt to encourage a willing suspension of disbelief. As a practical matter, we easily absorb the dominant U.S. politics of grief, further making it our politics of grief.

The amazing technology of “unmanned aerial vehicles” glided forward as a satellite-guided deus ex machina to help lift Uncle Sam out of a tight geopolitical spot—exerting awesome airpower in Afghanistan and beyond while slowing the arrival of flag-draped coffins back home. More airborne killing and less boot prints on the ground meant fewer U.S. casualties. All the better to limit future grief, as much as possible, to those who are not us.

However facile or ephemeral the tributes may be at times, American casualties of war and their grieving families receive some public affirmation from government officials and news media. The suffering had real meaning. They mattered and matter. That’s our grief. But at the other end of American weaponry, their grief is a world of difference.

In U.S. politics, American sorrow is profoundly important and revs up many rhetorical engines; the contrast with sorrow caused by the American military could hardly be greater. What is not ignored or dismissed as mere propaganda is just another unfortunate instance of good intentions gone awry. No harm intended, no foul. Yet consider these words from a Pakistani photographer, Noor Behram, describing the aftermath of a U.S. drone attack: “There are just pieces of flesh lying around after a strike. You can’t find bodies. So the locals pick up the flesh and curse America. They say that America is killing us inside our own country, inside our own homes, and only because we are Muslims.”

A memorable moment in the film Lincoln comes when the president says, “Things which are equal to the same thing are equal to each other.” A daring leap for a white American assessing race in 1865. Truly applying the same Euclidean theorem to grief would be just as daring now in U.S. politics. Let’s face it: in the American political culture of our day, all grief is not created equal. Not even close.

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We might say ’twas ever thus: countries and ethnic groups mourn their own while yawning or even rejoicing at the agonies of some “others.” And when grief weighs in on the U.S. political scale, the heaviness of our kind makes any other secondary at best. No wonder presidents have always been wary of red-white-and-blue coffins at Andrews Air Force Base. No wonder “Bring our troops home” is such an evergreen slogan of antiwar activism. If the only grief that matters much is American, then just getting Americans out of harm’s way is the ticket. The demand—like empathy for the war-torn grief of Americans—is vital. And grievously incomplete.

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Renouncing the “War on Terror”

2:44 pm in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

As a perpetual emotion machine — producing and guzzling its own political fuel — the “war on terror” continues to normalize itself as a thoroughly American way of life and death. Ongoing warfare has become a matter of default routine, pushed along by mainline media and the leadership of both parties in Washington. Without a clear and effective upsurge of opposition from the grassroots, Americans can expect to remain citizens of a war-driven country for the rest of their lives.

Across the United States, many thousands of peeling bumper stickers on the road say: “End this Endless War.” They got mass distribution from MoveOn.org back in 2007, when a Republican was in the White House. Now, a thorough search of the MoveOn website might leave the impression that endless war ended with the end of the George W. Bush presidency.

MoveOn is very big as online groups go, but it is symptomatic of a widespread problem among an array of left-leaning organizations that have made their peace with the warfare state. Such silence assists the Obama administration as it makes the “war on terror” even more resolutely bipartisan and further embedded in the nation’s political structures — while doing immense damage to our economy, siphoning off resources that should go to meet human needs, further militarizing society and undermining civil liberties.

Now, on Capitol Hill, the most overt attempt to call a halt to the “war on terror” is coming from Rep. Barbara Lee, whose bill H.R. 198 would revoke the Authorization for Use of Military Force that Congress approved three days after 9/11. Several months since it was introduced, H.R. 198 only has a dozen co-sponsors. (To send your representative and senators a message of support for Lee’s bill, click here.)

Evidently, in Congress, there is sparse support for repealing the September 2001 blanket authorization for war. Instead, there are growing calls for a larger blanket. Bipartisan Washington is warming to the idea that a new congressional resolution may be needed to give War on Terror 2.0 an expansive framework. Even for the law benders and breakers who manage the executive branch’s war machinery, the language of the September 2001 resolution doesn’t seem stretchable enough to cover the U.S. warfare of impunity that’s underway across the globe . . . with more on the drawing boards.

On Tuesday afternoon, when a Senate Judiciary subcommittee held a hearing on “targeted killing,” the proceedings underscored the great extent of bipartisan overlap for common killing ground. Republican super-hawk Sen. Lindsey Graham lauded President Obama for “targeting people in a very commander-in-chief-like way.” And what passed for senatorial criticism took as a given the need for continuing drone strikes. In the words of the subcommittee’s chairman, Sen. Dick Durbin, “More transparency is needed to maintain the support of the American people and the international community” for those attacks.

This is classic tinkering with war machinery. During the first several years of the Vietnam War, very few senators went beyond mild kibitzing about how the war could be better waged. In recent years, during President Obama’s escalation of the war in Afghanistan that tripled the U.S. troop levels in that country, senators like John Kerry (now secretary of state) kept offering their helpful hints for how to fine tune the war effort.

The “war on terror” is now engaged in various forms of military intervention in an estimated two-dozen countries, killing and maiming uncounted civilians while creating new enemies. It infuses foreign policy with unhinged messages hidden in plain sight, like a purloined letter proclaiming “What goes around won’t come around” and telling the world “Do as we say, not as we do.”

Political ripple effects from the Boston Marathon bombings have only begun. While public opinion hasn’t gotten carried away with fear, much of the news media — television in particular — is stoking the fires of fear but scarcely raising a single question that might challenge the basic assumptions of a forever “war on terror.”

After a city has been traumatized and a country has empathized, a constructive takeaway would be that it’s terribly wrong to set off bombs that kill and maim. But that outlook is a nonstarter the moment it might be applied to victims of U.S. drones and cruise missiles in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere. The message seems to be that Americans should never be bombed but must keep bombing.

The death of Richie Havens days ago is a loss and reminder. Each of us has only so many days ahead. We may as well live them with deeper meaning, for peace and social justice. To hear Havens performing the song “Lives in the Balance” written by another great musician, Jackson Browne, is to be awakened anew:

I want to know who the men in the shadows are
I want to hear somebody asking them why
They can be counted on to tell us who our enemies are
But they’re never the ones to fight or to die

And there are lives in the balance
There are people under fire
There are children at the cannons
And there is blood on the wire

Stopping Endless War and “the Evil That We Deplore”

11:29 am in Uncategorized by Norman Solomon

barbara lee

Rep. Barbara Lee

Congress waited six years to repeal the Tonkin Gulf Resolution after it opened the bloody floodgates for the Vietnam War in August 1964.

If that seems slow, consider the continuing failure of Congress to repeal the “war on terror” resolution — the Authorization for Use of Military Force — that sailed through, with just one dissenting vote, three days after 9/11.

Prior to casting the only “no” vote, Congresswoman Barbara Lee spoke on the House floor. “As we act,” she said, “let us not become the evil that we deplore.”

We have. That’s why, more than 11 years later, Lee’s prophetic one-minute speech is so painful to watch. The “war on terror” has inflicted carnage in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen and elsewhere as a matter of routine. Targets change, but the assumed prerogative to kill with impunity remains.

Now, Rep. Lee has introduced H.R. 198, a measure to repeal the Authorization for Use of Military Force. (This week, several thousand people have already used a RootsAction.org special webpage to email their Senators and House members about repealing that “authorization” for endless war.) Opposed to repeal, the Obama administration is pleased to keep claiming that the 137-month-old resolution justifies everything from on-the-ground troops in combat to drone strikes and kill lists to flagrant abrogation of civil liberties.

A steep uphill incline faces efforts to repeal the resolution that issued a blank political check for war in the early fall of 2001. Struggling to revoke it is a valuable undertaking. Yet even repeal would be unlikely to end the “war on terror.”

At the start of 1971, President Nixon felt compelled to sign a bill that included repeal of the Tonkin Gulf Resolution. By then, he had shifted his ostensible authority for continuing the war on Vietnam — asserting his prerogative as commander in chief. Leaders of the warfare state never lack for rationales when they want to keep making war.

In retrospect, the U.S. “war on terror” has turned out to be even more tenacious than the U.S. war that took several million lives in Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia during the 1960s and early 1970s.

Some key similarities resonate with current circumstances. Year after year, in Congress, support for the Vietnam War was bipartisan. Presidents Johnson and Nixon preached against unauthorized violence in America’s cities while inflicting massive violence in Southeast Asia. Both presidents were fond of proclaiming fervent wishes for peace.

But unlike the horrific war in Southeast Asia, the ongoing and open-ended “war on terror” is not confined by geography or, apparently, by calendar. The search for enemies to smite (and create) is availing itself of a bottomless pit, while bottom-feeding military contractors keep making a killing.

Beyond the worthy goal of repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force is a need for Congress to cut off appropriations for the “war on terror.” A prerequisite: repudiating the lethal mythology of righteous war unbounded by national borders or conceivable duration.

What may be even more difficult to rescind is the chronic disconnect between lofty oratory and policies digging the country deeper into endless war.

“We, the people, still believe that enduring security and lasting peace do not require perpetual war,” President Obama said in his 2013 inaugural address, after four years of doing more than any other president in U.S. history to normalize perpetual war as a bipartisan enterprise.

Repealing the Authorization for Use of Military Force will be very hard. Revoking the power to combine lovely rhetoric with pernicious militarism will be even more difficult.

Photo by Youth Radio under Creative Commons license