Patriot games

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It seems that the people of the United States of America only deign to learn of foreign countries – their geography, history, cultures and peoples – when America’s rulers (or their surrogates in other countries) wage war against these nations such as against Korea, Vietnam, Iraq , Panama, Yugoslavia, Palestine, Nicaragua and now Afghanistan. And the suffering people, many of whose problems are created by U.S. involvement in the first place, are forgotten once again soon after their devastation is complete. For all the talk of globalism, there is a grand sense of superiority and smugness that prevails across the country, promoted by the leaders and the media. The roots of this dangerous ignorance can be traced to an abysmal poverty of the study of history, from primary school on. It is further aided and abetted by an entertainment/news industry, which either willfully distorts history or else prettifies it in favor of the U.S. This has resulted in producing leaders like Bush and ordinary citizens who wear the flag and call for the “nuking of enemies”. The widespread belief that prevails outside the United States is that Americans are a people who spread their culture worldwide yet seem to know so little of the world themselves.

Consider the many letters to the Hartford Courant (October 30,31) from readers taking issue with the paper for printing a photograph (October 29) on the front page of an utterly inconsolable Afghan father grieving over his infant child killed, allegedly, by U.S. bombs dropped near Kabul. The newspaper’s own Reader Representative filed a petulant column the very next day titled, “Whose side are you on, Courant?”, implying that the newspaper, by showing the picture of a dead child in full color ( another of the collateral damages statistics of this ” U.S. War on Terrorism” ) was somehow siding with the “enemy” and being “unpatriotic”. The constant refrain from most of the mass media in the U.S. has been that the Taliban’s claims of the number of civilian deaths from the relentless and heavy bombing campaign cannot be believed. It is assumed, of course, that the Taliban can only lie while the Pentagon only disseminates the truth. Unfortunately, much of recent history does not bear out the latter, whether in Afghanistan (where reports from Western humanitarian groups criticize U.S. attempts to minimize the devastation) or in Yugoslavia, Iraq, Panama(to name just three other U.S wars in just over a decade). Showing interviews with Osama bin Laden or images of the daily destruction wrought on Afghanistan by U.S bombing are taboo and officially decried. It is regarded almost the same as giving aid and comfort to the “enemy”. But the daily Pentagon briefings, the strident assertions of Secretary Rumsfeld and President Bush on the inherent “goodness” of America fighting an intractable “evil” (the Taliban) and the jingoistic TV news highlighted by “America’s war against terror” replete with U.S flags, is enthusiastically embraced in a frightening display of unquestioning conformity. The various freedoms enshrined in what remains of the Bill of Rights are fast disappearing. Editorial writers across the country are finally waking up to the Bush government’s hysterical attack on freedoms. The Hartford Courant (www.ctnow.com) commented (November 18) on the President’s executive order establishing secret military tribunals to prosecute suspected terrorists, “This is how dictatorships operate…Loss of freedom often starts with seemingly reasonable steps taken during emergencies.”

But the media’s complicity with the government in formulating the news is illustrated in several news stories, such as the constant refrain on Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction. This is nothing but a preparation of the public for yet another massive bombing campaign on that country. There will be no disturbing reminders of the illegality or immorality of such acts, or of the continuing deaths of innocent civilians due to U.S. maintained sanctions on Iraq. Yet another example concerns the U.S. destruction of Sudan’s al-Shifa pharmaceutical plant in 1998 in the missile attacks ordered by President Clinton on Osama bin Laden’s “chemical weapons factory” as revenge for the terrorist attacks on U.S embassies in East Africa. The plant was merely producing essential drugs for much of sub-Saharan Africa. How many more innocent civilians died as a result of this American “error” than in the destruction of the U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania ? Where has been the media follow-up to this act of terrorism? In the U.S. war on Afghanistan, Bush, like his predecessors, has repeatedly claimed that the “good” (USA) is fighting forces of “evil” (Taliban and al-Qaeda). This message has been dunned into American heads so much so that unthinking people are actually parroting his words like popular TV commercials, and believing him. A worse nightmare cannot be envisaged for this country or the world. The pristine and immaculate wars that the U.S is depicted to wage against all manner of evil (godless communism to terrorism) has led a significantly large, brain-washed population to finding comfort in the likes of (white) male comic book or movie heroes (Superman, Stallone or Schwarznegger) who are “utterly incorruptible”, “naturally humane”, “cloyingly moral” and nearly invincible – meting out just desserts to forces of pure evil (Osama or Saddam) in a supine, pusillanimous world. The entertainment industry has decided to end its mourning period and get back to business. Schwarznegger’s movie, “Collateral Damage” (the connection to U.S. wars will probably escape many) is to be released early next year. “Behind Enemy Lines”, an unauthorized rescue mission, is hitting the screens in a few weeks. A primed public ready to extract vengeance, even if vicariously, has been renting videos that invoke terrorism more than other genres (like “Die Hard”) since September 11. Even Terry Lawson, the entertainment correspondent for the Knight-Ridder group was disgusted enough with the “sanctimonious twit” Bill O’Reilly of Fox TV and the “more American than anyone he interviews” Geraldo Rivera of CNBC to comment (November 18), “Rallying around the flag is one thing. Packaging yourself in it is quite another.” After softening-up the viewing public with “precisely guided smart bombs” (that could not distinguish Red Cross food warehouses or U.N mine clearing centers from Taliban positions), the U.S death-machine got down to business with cluster bombs and 15,000 pound “Daisy Cutters” ( last used in the Vietnam war to kill people on a scale just below tactical nuclear weapons) . The Pentagon had no concern of any adverse reaction from a “patriotic” public driven to heights of frenzy. After all, it would seem like just another violent video game. The flag-waving, thoroughly aroused home crowd was ready to accept (demand) that war is (be) hell for the cruel and atavistic Taliban and the people of Afghanistan. The enemy had been sufficiently demonized, ridiculed and held in loathing and contempt. Disposing it off now, like a fly on the wall (even if using a sledge-hammer) was not only easy but acceptable with nary a twinge to one’s despite all the images of civilian deaths and injuries, orphaned children and starving refugees (no thanks to al-Jazeera). The wars ravages could still be ascribed to the ” irredeemably evil” Taliban, the internecine “tribal” warfare or, in a crunch, “collateral damage” from “errant bombs” (sorry about that). At all costs, a beguiling illusion of the USA acting always in the most considerate and humane manner was to be maintained unchallenged in the media. If ever “just” wars have to be fought (as determined increasingly by the U.S), the American military was giving a master class to the rest of the uncultured world. Falsehoods repeated often enough ring true to a public which gets its main dose of “reality” from TV images. All that is needed is for the minions of the government to claim, without proof, that the country is fighting a just and moral war, and the mindless multitudes will go into a frightening frenzy of flag waving patriotic fervor, extending Bush’s “You are either with us or with the terrorists” to its logical conclusion, “Love it or leave it (America, that is)”. The unabashed hate-filled jingoism would bring a smile to the face of Goebbels. News of the war on television has become fervent expressions of patriotism and bellicose propaganda since Bush’s speech to Congress on September 20 in which he called for a “war against terrorism”. The new heroes are military personnel, police, politicians and firefighters. The news is read to the backdrop of flag-draped slogans such as, “America fights back”, and the viewers are left in little doubt as to the unscrupulousness and inscrutability of the devious, faceless enemy with fleeting Pentagon provided images of “smart” bombs hitting the enemy’s bases (no people there, just weapons). All this celebration does not even attempt to masquerade its unabashed bias. The mainstream print media has also joined the Pentagon in its war on Afghanistan, promoting an image of a united and defiant nation waging a just war against pure evil. “Massive Probe Exposes Pockets of Terrorist Support Throughout U.S” was the headline in Sunday’s Hartford Courant (November 18). While the long article asserted that “the largest criminal investigation in U.S. history had exposed the outlines of at least half-dozen centers of terrorist support on U.S. soil operating before the September 11 suicide attacks”, the rest of the piece had nothing of substance or any details (the FBI would not reveal them), just hyperbolic language with obtuse quotes from anonymous FBI officials.

The U.S. of A is not only the greatest country that ever was but it can never do any wrong. From classrooms to offices, homes to restaurants, shops to playing fields, clothes to vehicles, one cannot escape Red, White and Blue (even if made in China) and the endless intonations to the almighty to bless America (can there be any better choice?). There is not a place that does not display a flag of some size, and larger the better. Convenience store owners, especially from South Asia, who fear being confused with “terrorists” from the Middle East (as though the entire Middle East and South Asian regions were one homogenous country with people who looked similar- not that that would make it right, of course) play it safe and show the flag for fear of racist attacks. Professional sports, college and school athletes display the flag on their clothes and headwear. Spectators lustily join in singing the national anthem and school children are exhorted to pledge allegiance to the flag repeatedly and sing “America the Beautiful” and “God Bless America” as often. Until the uninformed, misinformed and little interested masses are driven to examine both the real nature of the U.S government and its true interests, one should not be surprised by this reflexive defense of the motives and actions of the U.S. plutocracy. Consider the frightening hostility directed at the author Susan Sontag, and talk-show host Bill Maher for suggesting that “We (the U.S) have been the cowards; lobbing cruise missiles from 2000 miles away (both at Afghanistan and Iraq), that’s cowardly. Staying in the airplane (like the hijacking terrorists did) when it hits the building – say what you want about it, it’s not cowardly.” Some advertisers on Maher’s program pulled the plug on their sponsorship. Two newspapers, The Daily Courier from Oregon and the Texas City Sun sacked opinion writers Ron Gutting and Dan Guthrie for what was described by the papers’ owners as writing “irresponsible and inappropriate” articles. They happened to criticize President Bush for “hiding” in the immediate aftermath of the hijacked planes hitting the World Trade Center Towers and the Pentagon, and acting “cowardly” even as he called the terrorists “cowards.” One wonders whether Oliver Stone and Robert Altman will ever get to direct another film for saying (Time, October 29), “nobody would have thought to commit an atrocity like that (the attacks on New York and Washington) unless they’d seen it in a movie” and, ” the attacks reflected a revolt against order [of the conglomerates] that have control of the world.” Another exception is a reader of Time magazine (October 29) who wrote, “I heard a woman say she is going to buy an expensive couch because it’s the only way she knows how to help the country. I believe the U.S has become a nation of idiots. Gas masks won’t help, nor will flying that American flag you bought. We must concentrate on peace, love and equality.” More commonly seen are sentiments like Ron Powers (an African-American Vietnam war veteran) who said (N.Y Times, November 14), “If I was Commander-in-Chief, we’d have nuked them in hours, turned Afghanistan into a sand puddle.” Like a drug addict needing another hit, the U.S. military-industrial government is addicted to war for the simple reason that it redirects even more of the public money in the way of the corporations and its representatives in Washington for the replenishment of the thousands of bombs and missiles expended, and for the development of even more expensive, high-tech weaponry.

The shock of September 11 has engineered an intolerance to views that are critical of the motives and actions of the Bush government in its war against terrorism, even on what are considered safe havens for free speech – college campuses. Over 100 peace activists who marched in Hartford on October 25 with anti-war messages like “Justice Not Vengeance”, “An Eye for an Eye only makes Everyone Blind”, were met by the police who roughed up many and arrested eighteen on bogus charges, like “incitement to riot”. Punitive bails that were grossly unfair, ranging from $ 10,000 to $ 50,000, were imposed on the arrested people, mostly students. Trustees of the City University of New York were asked to consider disciplinary action against faculty for suggesting (at a teach-in) that it was the continuation of U.S. misdeeds around the world that provided the breeding grounds for terrorism. An irate faculty member at Central Connecticut State University (New Britain) shot off a letter to State officials complaining of “anti-American and anti-Israeli” student murals in the Art Department that he claimed portrayed America “as the personification of all evils that trouble the globe.” He was criticizing student projects that were meant to depicttheir feelings to the events of September 11 and its aftermath.

The Bush government is using the excuse of fighting global terrorism to severely constrict fundamental civil liberties as evidenced by the swift passage of the USA-Patriot Act and the sweeping scope of the military tribunals set-up by executive order to ostensibly prosecute foreign “terrorists” using less than stringent rules of evidence. Attempts are being made by the U.S government to dust off and revive the Sedition Laws from the Civil War era to go after “suspects”. Over one thousand people with Muslim names have been held in prison for questioning since September 11 with no specific charges against them (or links to terrorism) other than violations of immigration rules or other minor offences. Attorney General Ashcroft’s appeal to citizens to be “vigilant” and report anything they deem to be “suspicious” to law enforcement agencies has led nearly 500,000 calls to the FBI nation-wide since September 11. A front-page article in The Hartford Courant (November 18) titled, “The Price of Vigilance” stated, “Some people have picked up the phone and turned in neighbors, customers or total strangers for little reason than they looked Arabic” (sic). (How does one distinguish “Arabic” from others by appearance? What sort of hateful racial-stereotyping has been set in motion by this government?). The report detailed the nightmarish experience (still continuing) of a poor Palestinian, Samir Khalf, from Gaza who had legally come to the U.S but was apparently without work authorization as a gas station attendant in Greenwich, Conn. Mr. Khalaf was turned in to the FBI by hospital officials where he went to get help for chest pains. He came to the U.S. to help his family back in Gaza where, thanks to the Israeli repression and blockade, unemployment has reached 75 percent. Mr. Khalaf is still locked-up in the Hartford Correctional Center, despite a judge’s order (October 8) that he be allowed to return to his wife and five children, because the INS fears “letting somebody go who someday turns out to have ties to terrorists-so they are intent on keeping these people in detention forever”. George Orwell’s “1984” is finally here. People with “Middle Eastern” names (as though Muslim names were only typical in Middle Eastern countries) have been harassed at work or by the police, removed off airline flights, and 5000 people on student, tourist or business visas are slated for questioning by the FBI. Not to be left behind, the British government of Prime Minister Blair, increasingly behaving like America’s lap dog, has followed suit with an anti-terrorism crime and security bill that can detain suspected foreigners indefinitely without trial.

Even the very legitimacy of the U.S war on Afghanistan is questionable. The right of self defence that the Bush government has invoked is limited, under international law, to “cases of armed attack that are generally beyond doubt”. An act of terrorism is rarely “beyond doubt”, and the U.S has refused to provide the conclusive proof linking al-Qaeda and the Taliban (who are guilty of protecting Osama bin Laden) to the attacks in New York and Washington. There is no right in international law to retaliate to deter “future attacks”. The U.S government has said it is illegal for India to attack terrorist camps in Pakistan that are training grounds for militants trying to wrench the Indian-part of Kashmir from India and join it with the Pakistan-controlled section. The U.S. also held that it would oppose any action by the government of Yugoslavia (under the former leader Slobodan Milosevic) attacking Kosovo Liberation Army bases in northern Albania (before the U.S/NATO war on Yugolsavia, itself patently illegal). Prof. Louis Henkin, a distinguished U.S scholar of international law, has written that “a state that has been the victim of an act of terrorism will have to pursue other remedies…”(other than unjustifiable and blind-rage retaliation). The Bush government deliberately chose not do that. It did not seek the U.N. Security Council sanction before the bombing campaign on Afghanistan or respond to the Taliban overtures to extradite Osama bin Laden to a third country if given proof of his involvement in the terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. International law requires attempts to seek peaceful resolutions to conflicts and disputes, not the unilateral resort to force. Instead, we have seen the U.S. bomb a devastated country with abandon, killing “terrorists” and their “supporters” and hundreds of innocent, long-suffering Afghani people as well. Thousands more will perish if the desperately needed food, clothing and shelter does not get to them before the onset of severe winter weather. The U.S. itself has funded and armed right-wing reactionaries around the world, from Nicaragua (contras) to Afghanistan (mujahideen), including the very group they are fighting now, the Taliban. President Reagan even posed for a photograph with armed holy warriors from Afghanistan (since implicated in atrocities as part of the Northern Alliance) who were fighting the Soviet troops in the 1980’s, calling them “the moral equivalents of America’s founding fathers.” The air-dropping of food packets (colored yellow like the cluster bombs that were dropped in the same region) on Afghanistan by the U.S was a cheap and cruel publicity gimmick to convince its own people, and the rest of the world, of the noble aims of the Bush government, that its war was against the Taliban and not against the people of Afghanistan. But all the experienced relief organizations stated that this effort was as useless as it was futile. The food (packets marked with the U.S flag contained peanut butter and strawberry jam, plastic cutlery and illustrated user instructions in English; air-dropped airline meals) would never get to those who really need it. And those who distinguished it from the cluster bombs still ran the risk of being blown up by land mines that are strewn all over the country from the war with the former Soviet Union. Afghanistan has more land mines than any other of the devastated war-zones of the world, like Cambodia and Angola. What can one say about the arrogance and cultural ineptitude of the U.S. government which attempts to use the abject misery of the Afghani people to boost its own image! Imagine Afghanistan (in the long away future) air-dropping food packages on a beleagured and impoverished U.S population with instructions in Arabic and with the Afghan flag on the package. What would the reactions of the starving Americans be? As one letter writer suspected, “[They] might think it was some form of biological warfare” (Time, Nov.5). Another letter writer in the same issue speculated, with good reason, that the U.S food drops on Afghanistan are “merely perpetuating the image that Americans are trying to convert Afghans to our way of life – or that we are so arrogant we really don’t care what they want.” And whatever happened to President Bush’s publicity ploy exhorting American school children across the country to donate $ 1 each for the children of Afghanistan. Is anybody counting, and monitoring the use of, this money as it accumulates in the White House? Is the news media following-up on it? How can one expect them to, when they are busy showing the rout of the Taliban and the clean victory of the U.S. forces. They hardly cover, except negatively, the demonstrations across the country opposing the bombing of Afghanistan and questioning the real motives of the Bush administration in inflicting death, injury and destruction on innocent people. Exceptions to the spineless, robotic, in-step Congress are very few, like Congresswoman Barbara Lee from Oakland, Calif., who, opposed yet another war on an impoverished nation. For this, she is either ignored, called a “loony” or excoriated for being “unpatriotic”. There is a fascism creeping across this land. The future is certainly very uncertain and scary, not so much for the fear of terrorists from the al-Qaeda network but for a police-state operating under cover, the likes of which we haven’t seen since the Cointelpro days of the FBI during the Vietnam War and the Black Panther struggle, and for the media complicity in dismantling democracy. Former Secretary of Labor, Robert Reich, commented on the Bush administration’s curtailment of fundamental rights in its decision to try suspected terrorists in secret military tribunals and interview thousands of men arrived from the Middle East since January 2000 (N.Y Times, November 17), ” I’m surprised there hasn’t been more of an outcry. The president is, by emergency decree getting rid of rights that we assumed that anyone within our borders would have. We can find ourselves in a police state step by step without realizing that we have made these compromises along the way.”

Dr. Sadanand Nanjundiah is a Physics Professor at Central Connecticut State University.

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