John Twelve Hawks: “New surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison”
The continuing revelations by Edward Snowden have convinced many of us that we are living in a modern surveillance state. And the problem isn’t just the activities of the National Security Agency and Great Britain’s GCHQ. “Trickle Down Surveillance” has provided spy technology to small town police officers and developing world dictators. In addition, our activities are monitored for commercial reasons by a wide variety of international corporations (Amazon isn’t the “Everything Store,” it’s the “Find Out Everything About You” store).
Anyone who steps back for a minute and observes our modern digital world might conclude that we have destroyed our privacy in exchange for convenience and false security. That private world within our thoughts has been monitored, tabulated and quantified. Our tastes, our opinions, our needs and our desires have been packaged and sold as commodities. Those in power have pushed their need for control one step too far. They turned unique individuals into data files, and our most intimate actions have become algorithmic probabilities.
The destruction of personal privacy is not an ideological issue. Thoughtful women and men on every point of the political spectrum are beginning to realize that surveillance technology has shifted the balance of power between institutions and individuals. Without private thoughts and actions we can never truly be free.
Ten years ago, I believed that individuals could live off the grid, but because of “trickle-down surveillance,” it’s becoming impossible to escape surveillance in a rural area or in a developing country. Most of the people reading this essay have jobs that involve computers. We have cellphones, and we use the Internet. Like it or not, we’re living in a digital infrastructure.
Although I write dystopian fiction, I don’t believe in dystopian fantasies. Unless some future hacker genius creates a virus that wipes every database clean, it’s clear that destroying one small part of this Virtual Panopticon is not going to bring the walls down.
So what are we supposed to do? How can we avoid becoming just another bar-coded object tracked within a World of Things?
A place of refuge
A good first step is to find or create an occasional place of refuge where you can escape the electronic grid that surrounds us. It’s a place without phones or computers — without monitoring of any kind. Stepping back from the grid is especially important if you have small children. They need to discover the possibilities created by their own imaginations.
I realize that switching off one’s Twitter feed is highly difficult for some people. But walking alone down a forest path, smelling the wet earth, and watching branches sway in the wind is actually the first step in your act of resistance.
You can’t truly hear your own voice until the shouting around you disappears. New ideas and possibilities — our own ideas, our own possibilities — will occur only when we step away from the Virtual Panopticon.
At various times of my life I have turned away from our high-tech society. When I was younger I simply camped or explored the wilderness on my own. During the last few years, I’ve experienced more extreme periods of isolation in Nepal and Tibet (in both of these countries, people are more accepting of these kinds of actions).
The last time I stepped off the grid, I took photographs of myself before and after the experience. On the first day, my face showed the conventional “mask” we all create to protect our private Self. Thirty-one days later, I had grown a beard, but that was an insignificant change. I was smiling. My eyes were wide open and ready to see the beauty of our world.
One consequence of living — even for a short time — in a place of refuge is that when you return to your daily routine, you’ll be more aware of the ways that the Panopticon is watching you and predicting your behavior. This awareness gives you the motivation to gradually create a parallel life.
My Public Self uses a credit card to buy an airline ticket, walks through an airport and boards a plane. This Self pays income taxes, uses a smartphone, and doesn’t hide his face from the CCTV cameras that have appeared throughout New York and London.
Then there is my Private Self that gives a fake phone number to an inquisitive clerk, doesn’t post a photograph on Facebook, and uses a search engine that won’t remember searches. I’ve used a gift card (paid for with cash) to purchase Apple apps and my identity is not on the Apple Corp.’s database.
Finally there is a Secret Self that owns a throwaway cellphone purchased with cash and uses Internet software like Tor that enables online anonymity.
In the beginning, these actions to defend your privacy feel like a game. But deliberately concealing yourself from the Panopticon makes you feel less passive and more aware. There’s nothing flashy going on here, just small daily actions that continually undercut the constant attempt by governments and corporations to know who you are and what you’re doing.
The Shark Cage
The Internet is not a cyber-utopia offering freedom to anyone with a blog. It’s part of the world economy (other than Wikipedia, the vast majority of the top 100 websites are owned by large corporations).
We exist in a marketplace where our personal information is collected and sold. But the marketplace can protect our privacy if we make conscious choices. Companies selling computers and phones design their product first, then add firewalls and security software later. The growing awareness of the attack on privacy has prompted a small group of cryptographers to design communications devices that assume that both the Internet and the cellular network have been compromised.
Recently, a company has introduced the Blackphone — an Android-based smartphone that provides easy-to-use encryption for phone calls and text messaging (the same company is developing “a private and secure” email system called Dark Mail). By the time you read this, there may be better-designed phones and more secure email systems. The real news is that the market is beginning to respond to the public’s growing realization of how the surveillance state destroys freedom. More pro-privacy computers and communications devices will be created, and they will gradually become less expensive and easier to use.
Wealthy people and celebrities routinely hire specialists to create an electronic “shark cage” that protects their phone and online privacy. But privacy is no longer a rich man’s luxury. In the last few years, small companies like the Boston-based Abine Corp. are selling software that can control the personal information that companies and other people can see about consumers online.
In democratic countries with a digital infrastructure, the market will eventually offer us cheap and easy-to-use ways to step away from certain aspects of the Panopticon. All you need is enough cash to buy a prepaid debit card — and the desire to live an unmonitored life.
I own two smartphones (one purchased with cash), an iPad, two regular computers, and a “clean” notebook computer that’s unattached to any identity. There’s nothing wrong with technology itself. A license plate scanner attached to a computer has no ideology. The real issue is control. Who gives instructions to these new machines, and what are they used for? Who makes the rules for our society and our lives?
One positive aspect of the new technology is that it gives us the means to create parallel systems that exist alongside the dominant social and economic system. Examples can be found everywhere: organic farming, home solar power, and the do-it-yourself movement (DIY), which encourages people to “life hack” common problems and use open-source designs to make machines.
Using a parallel system allows us to makes a distinction between the surveillance state and those transactions that are not instantly part of a database. When we buy a locally grown tomato at the farmer’s market, use a peer-to-peer payment system that involves cryptocurrency, or rent a room in someone’s apartment while traveling, we’re engaged in a transaction that will not be tracked or quantified.
Participating in these parallel systems and creating a parallel life are both choices. And most people living in democratic countries still have these choices. But what should we do if the new surveillance states extend their power into every aspect of our lives?
When do you decide that you have had enough?
For several years I worked for an organization that sent its employees out to work in war zones all over the world. On a number of occasions, I walked through villages where everyone had been killed and the bodies were left to swell up and rot in the sun. Time disappeared during these moments, and I was conscious only of the stench and the buzzing sound that came from swarms of flies. Eventually, my Sikh driver would honk the horn of the truck filled with relief supplies. I would get back into the truck cab and continue up the road. But these experiences stayed in my memory. I wanted to know why humans acted with such deliberate cruelty. When should we turn away from evil? And when should we resist?
When I returned to America, I began to read books about the Holocaust that described how ordinary people were transformed into executioners while a smaller group risked their lives trying to save others. There’s a long shelf of books about individual rescuers like Oskar Schindler, but it was difficult to come up with a general theory as to why they stepped forward.
A friend recommended that I read about Stanley Milgram’s famous “obedience studies” in the early 1960s. The Yale University psychologist was trying to understand how authority could push individuals into performing cruel or unethical actions, so he conducted a series of experiments on the Yale campus.
Imagine that you were one of the people who answered a newspaper ad looking for paid participants in a “scientific experiment.” When you arrive at the basement laboratory, a man wearing a white lab coat tells you that you’re going to participate in a study of how memory is influenced by punishment. You fill out a questionnaire, then pick a piece of paper that gives you the role of “teacher” while the other participant is “the learner” (actually an actor hired by Milgram). The learner is taken to another room and an electrode is strapped to his wrist. Then the experimenter asks you to give the learner a set of word pairings to memorize.
If the learner in the next room answers correctly over an intercom, you’re supposed to praise him. But if the learner gives the wrong answer, you’re told to press a switch that gives a shock to the other person. At first, the learner answers correctly, and then he begins to make mistakes. Each time that happens, you’re told to press a switch with a higher voltage indicated on the control panel. You’re ordered to keep going even when the learner begins to scream.
After 19 different experiments with more than a thousand participants, Milgram described the obedience study to a group of 40 psychiatrists and asked them to estimate what percentage of teachers would reach the 450-volt level marked with an ominous XXX on the control panel. The psychiatrists decided that only 1 percent of the test group would go all the way. They were astonished to learn that two out of three “ordinary” men and women gave the maximum shock even when the learner in the other room had stopped responding.
Humans can be manipulated to obey. As information and communications technology creates a surveillance state, I’m worried that fear of terrorism will create a system where police officers and soldiers will obey the computer-generated decisions that appear on their optical head-mounted displays.
So what can stop this from happening? In 2006, a professor at Santa Clara University named Jerry Burger duplicated Milgram’s experiment using an experimental procedure where the “teachers” were pushed only toward a maximum 150-volt level. When he interviewed the participants afterward, Burger discovered that those who had stopped participating felt that they were responsible for giving the shocks, while those participants who obeyed had decided that the experimenter was responsible.
Milgram’s research shows us that anyone who identifies with authority can be manipulated to defend institutional goals. This sort of mindless obedience can be defeated only by one’s sense of identity.
Identity is not taste or fashion; it has nothing to do with what we’ve purchased in the past or want to buy in the future. Identity comes from making real choices that force you to decide what is true, fair and just.
One Man Standing in the Middle of a Street
The key image of our era is not an astronaut on the moon or a smirking billionaire holding a new smartphone. I’m continually inspired by the 1989 video of a man standing in front of a column of tanks one day after the Chinese military massacred the pro-democracy protesters who had gathered in Beijing’s Tiananmen Square.
When the lead tank tries to drive around this protester, he repeatedly steps into its path. The driver of the lead tank shouts at him. The column starts to move, but the lone protester stops them once again. I don’t know this hero’s name and I don’t know what happened to him, but I’m still inspired by his bravery. The Tank Man was acting like a free human being — making a conscious choice to resist authority.
Even if you spent most of your day using some kind of electronic device, you’re not a light-emitting diode or a computer chip. We should never consider ourselves a functional component of any new technological system. We are physical beings that have been given the privilege and the power to say no.
When your own moment arrives, it probably won’t involve a column of tanks, but you’ll know that there is no other alternative. You must confront authority or your true Self would no longer exist.
The new surveillance states have placed us in an invisible prison. If we wish to break free, we need only to step forward and open the door.
John Twelve Hawks’ new book is “Against Authority: Freedom and the Rise of the Surveillance States.” Follow him on Twitter ar @john12hawks.
The theme of Ayn Rand’sAtlas Shrugged, according to Ms. Rand herself, is “what happens to the world when the Prime Movers go on strike.” The prime movers are corporate executives – “the motor of the world” – and Rand imagines what would happen if they all just went away. To Rand this is nothing less than “a picture of the world with its motor cut off.”
Ouch. Paging Dr. Freud.
In Rand’s novel the great, throbbing “motor of the world” (it’s made of executives, remember?) retreats to an Atlantis-like idyll known as “Galt’s Gulch.” Without their ingenuity and drive the nation descends into chaos, leading many long pages later to their triumphant return and anointment as leaders of a new libertarian order.
Which gets us to the fraud charges now swirling around a venture called “Galt’s Gulch of Chile.” Its website is currently down, but it’s still being promoted as a real-world retreat for the world’s movers and shakers. “Yes, you read that right,” the organizer chirps cheerily. “Those who become one of GGC’s Founders will be paid back … within three years of the consummation of their Founders Club participation (please contact GGC for the fine print and T&Cs).”
In what should be an unsurprising outcome, it didn’t turn out very well. That news comes (via Metafilter and Gawker) from a blogger named Wendy McElroy, who writes that she bought some property in Galt’s Gulch with her husband and then learned that it never had legal rights to the property in the first place. A visit to Chile revealed that many of the area’s local vendors had also been defrauded by the Galtians.
As Gawker’s headline puts it, “Ayn Rand’s Capitalist Paradise Is Now a Greedy Land-Grabbing Shitstorm.”
It’s possible to feel genuinely sympathetic to the McElroys’ plight – and I do – and yet wonder why this outcome was the least bit surprising to any reader of Rand’s work. Atlas Shrugged actually celebrates fraud – at least against those whom Rand despises. These charges aren’t an aberration. They’re the inevitable outcome of Rand’s own philosophy.
Atlas Shrugged opens with a question – “Who is John Galt?” – and then takes forever to answer it, clocking in at a weighty and tendentious 1168 pages. One glance at its author’s pinned eyes, immortalized in the photo on the back cover of the hardbound Dutton edition, and the book’s interminable length becomes easier to understand. Ms. Rand is gazing slightly heavenward, as if locking eyes with some adored Übermensch. She sits poised as if preparing for flight, one hand nervously clenched in a half-fist, like Mighty Mouse on methedrine.
How misguided, how downright strange, is Atlas Shrugged? Rand insists that the most sexually desirable human beings on the planet are wealthy male CEOs, a conceit which conjures up images of Charles Koch as Austin Powers, performing a mating dance to the sounds of “Let’s Get It On” as a comely stranger reclines on a rotating sofa.
Do I make you Randian, baby? Do I?
But the auto-executive eroticism becomes considerably less amusing when one realizes that one of Rand’s heroes is a rapist:
He held her, pressing the length of his body against hers with a tense, purposeful insistence, his hand moving over her breasts as if he were learning a proprietor’s intimacy with her body, a shocking intimacy that needed no consent from her, no permission.
…She knew that fear was useless, that he would do what he wished, that the decision was his, that he left nothing possible to her except the thing she wanted most – to submit.
She wanted it, so it’s okay, right? Except she never said she wants it, and the rapist (“Francisco”) had already roughed her up in an earlier scene: “When she came home, she told her mother that she had cut her lip by falling against a rock.”
Then there’s Hank Rearden, the married man whose sex with the heroine leaves her bloodied and bruised the next morning. To wit: “She saw a bruise above her elbow, with dark beads that had been blood.” The morning-after sweet nothings rom Hank include “I wanted you as one wants a whore – for the same reason and purpose,” and “What I feel for you is contempt…”
Vile talk. But then, women are an inferior species in Rand’s world, a place where little girls need not dream of growing up to be President. “By the nature of her duties and daily activities,” writes Rand, “she would become the most unfeminine, sexless, metaphysically inappropriate, and rationally revolting figure of all: a matriarch.”
Rand’s creepy mise-en-scène is as ridden with criminality as it is with misogyny and sexual brutality. One of its cartoonish heroes is a pirate named Ragnar Danneskjöld, who’s celebrated for stealing from humanitarian relief ships bound for poverty-stricken lands and giving the money – I’m not making this up – to the rich.
“I’m after a man whom I want to destroy,” says Ragnar. “… Robin Hood …”
Danneskjöld is described as follows:
… the face had no expression; it had not changed once while speaking; it looked as if the man had lost the capacity to feel long ago, and what remained of him were only features that seemed implacable and dead. With a shudder of astonishment, Rearden found himself thinking that it was not the face of a man, but of an avenging angel.
It sounds more like the face of a psychopath.
Rand’s heroes aren’t just rapists, woman-beaters, and thieves. They’re also terrorists who freely blow up or burn properties for ideological reasons, or simply because things didn’t turn out as they might have liked. (Fun exercise: Imagine how conservatives would react to Rand’s storylines if all the protagonists were black. Or Muslim.)
Then there’s the fraud. It’s praiseworthy in Rand’s eyes – if it’s practiced by the right sort of people. Francisco, the rapist/hero, even boasts about defrauding investors from the “looters’” parasitical economy. In an ironic foreshadowing of Galt’s Gulch in Chile, he brags about building defective housing for Mexican workers as part of a government contract:
Well, those steel-frame houses are mainly cardboard, with a coating of good imitation shellac. They won’t stand another year. The plumbing pipes – as well as most of our mining equipment – were purchased from dealers whose main source of supply are the city dumps of Buenos Aires and Rio de Janeiro. I’d give those pipes another five months, and the electric system about six. The wonderful roads we graded up four thousand feet of rock for the People’s State of Mexico, will not last beyond a couple of winters: they’re cheap cement without foundation, and the bracing at the bad turns is just painted clapboard. Wait for one good mountain slide …
“Wait for one good mountain slide” – with those workers’ families inside, of course. Comedy gold, amirite?
Is it any wonder that a venture inspired by this book eventually defrauded its customers? And yet, despite the allegations against them, Gawker’s Adam Weinstein tells us that, “GGC developers will still sell you a 1,200-acre “Master Estate” for a mere $500,000. As long as you’re also willing to extend GGC developers a $2 million ‘Founders Club’ loan along with that $500,000, which they’ll totally pay back, they swear.”
Weinstein snarks, “That silence you hear? That’s the sound of Atlas shrugging.”
But hold the schadenfreude for a second. Every victim of criminal fraud deserves compassion, even when they admire a writer who idealizes greed. McElroy appears to be the kind of libertarian who, however misguided one may consider her economic views, can be found on the frontlines of many a good fight – for civil liberties and individual freedom, and against militarism.
McElroy says she still has faith in the project’s founder – Mr. “Yes, you read that right!” – and believes that other partners were responsible for the malfeasance. But one of the reasons the “Galt’s Gulch” crowd chose Chile is because of that country’s lax regulatory environment. Regulations exist for a reason. The Randians’ blind hatred of them, and of the democratic governments which establish them, flies in the face of reason. Would they object to the recent regulatory actions which resulted in Graco, the baby products corporation, recalling more than six million infant car seats? Would it change their minds if they knew that Graco’s improperly designed strollers resulted to the strangulation deaths of four babies in 2010?
But then, a hatred of regulation is part of Rand’s profound contempt for democracy itself, which can be seen in her description of “the woman in Roomette 9, Car No. 12 … a housewife who believed that she had the right to elect politicians, of whom she knew nothing, to control giant industries, of which she had no knowledge.”
Rand and her followers don’t think that a “housewife” has the right to elect politicians who regulate giant industries. The parents of those four strangled infants would probably disagree.
Hopefully the criminal justice system will bring justice to the McElroy household and to other fraud victims. These government agencies can be very effective at such tasks, although perhaps less so now that tax cuts for the wealthy have eaten into their operating budgets.
The truth is that we need government, in the form of police, legislatures – and yes, regulators- to protect us from the psychopathic lack of empathy which, along with the sadomasochistic sexuality, is such an integral part of the Randian ideal.
What sort of society would voluntarily surrender itself people like the sociopath Ragnar, the rapist Francisco, or the rough-trade cruiser Rearden? That would be an act of collective masochism.
And let’s get one thing straight: Ayn Rand isn’t a deep thinker. She’s a gelatinous mass of chaotic and violent drives, loosely wrapped in pseudo-Nietzschian babble. Her writings are intellectually shallow econo-porn, part Kraft-Ebbing and part Horatio Alger, possessing neither coherence nor philosophical depth. Rand writes that Galt’s Gulch represents “the mind on strike,” but it’s more like a work slowdown.
Atlas Shrugged’s long-awaited last line reads as follows:
“He raised his hand and over the desolate earth he traced in space the sign of the dollar.”
Some of those now-invisible air dollars belong to fraud victims like the McElroys, victims who went looking for “the motor of the world” and got the shaft instead.
Our libertarian friends seem to think that government produces an over-regimented, insect-like society comprised only of rulers and drones. But the only governments which have turned out that way are either corporation-run or practice a Communist model of “state capitalism.” Democracy has never produced the kind of regimentation which the average corporation now demands of its employees and customers.
It’s greed, not government, which subjugates us today. Nobody wants to be an insect, but Rand and her followers want to turn society into a hive filled with sociopathic bees. When that happens, as the investors in Chile learned, somebody’s bound to get stung.
By Niles Williamson
15 September 2014
New details have emerged of threats of prosecution made against the families of American journalists James Foley and Steven Sotloff, who were brutally beheaded on video by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS).
The gruesome murders of Foley and Sotloff have been seized upon as highly opportune events by the Obama administration, quite consciously and rapidly exploiting their deaths to justify expanding its war in the Middle East and operations targeting the regime of Syrian President Bashar al-Assad.
Under the pretense of fighting ISIS—which has benefited from funding and arms coming from the CIA and its allies in the region—the US Congress will vote on a bill this week that would approve $500 million for training and arming Syrian opposition forces.
Diane Foley, speaking in an interview last week, said that a member of the Obama administration’s National Security Council staff threatened the family with criminal prosecution for “material support” of terrorism on multiple occasions if they paid the ransom that was being demanded by ISIS for Foley’s release.
According to Philip Balboni, the chief executive of Foley’s employer GlobalPost, ISIS had demanded a ransom of approximately $132 million prior to his murder.
“We were told very clearly three times that it was illegal for us to try to ransom our son out and that we had the possibility of being prosecuted,” Foley’s mother told ABC News.
“I was surprised there was so little compassion. It just made me realize that these people talking to us had no idea what it was like to be the family of someone abducted… I’m sure [the U.S. official] didn’t mean it the way he said it, but we were between a rock and a hard place. We were told we could do nothing; meanwhile our son was being beaten and tortured every day,” she said.
“It was very upsetting because we were essentially told to trust that the way they were handling things would bring our son home.”
The Foley family was kept largely in the dark about what the American government was doing to rescue their son as he was being held captive by ISIS in Syria. US Special Forces allegedly made an attempt in early July to free Foley and other hostages being held by ISIS, but the military has said that the hostages were moved from the location where it was suspected they were being held captive.
Foley’s brother, Michael, told ABC News that he had been threatened by a State Department official with prosecution as well. The threats “slowed my parents down quite a bit,” he said. “They didn’t want to do anything that could get them in trouble. It slowed them down for months in raising money. Who knows what might have happened?”
Barak Barfi, a spokesman for the family of Steven Sotloff, told Yahoo News that the Sotloffs were told by a White House counterterrorism official in a meeting last May that they could face prosecution if they paid their son’s ransom. “The family felt completely and utterly helpless when they heard this,” Barfi said. “The Sotloffs felt there was nothing they could do to get Steve out.”
The Foley and Sotloff families’ decisions to come forward about the threats from the US government drew denials from multiple individuals within the Obama administration.
In an appearance on Fox News Sunday, White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough responded to the family’s claims by denying that anyone in the administration ever threatened Foley’s family. “We didn’t threaten anybody, but we made clear what the law is,” he said. “That’s our responsibility, to make sure we explain the law and uphold the law.”
Caitlin Hayden, spokesperson for the National Security Council, denied that the families were threatened but reiterated that “the US does not grant concessions to hostage takers. Doing so would only put more Americans at risk of being taken captive. That is what we convey publicly and what we convey privately.”
Other revelations by the family of Steven Sotloff about the circumstances that led to his death raise questions about the relationship of ISIS to elements that make up the so-called moderate rebels being funded and armed by the United States and its allies.
Last week the Sotloff family’s spokesman revealed that Steven had been sold to ISIS by a supposedly moderate rebel group at the Syrian border. “We believe these so-called moderate rebels that people want our administration to support—one of them sold him probably for something between 25,000 and 50,000 dollars and that was the reason he was captured,” Barfi said.
On Sunday the AFP news service reported that a ceasefire had been reached between moderate rebels and ISIS forces in Hajar al-Aswad, a suburb south of Damascus. An official from the US-backed Syrian National Coalition admitted that a temporary ceasefire had been reached between the supposedly moderate Free Syrian Army forces and ISIS in that area, but denied that a lasting deal had been reached.
The atheist libertarian lie: Ayn Rand, income inequality and the fantasy of the “free market”
Why atheists are disproportionately drawn to libertarianism is a question that many liberal atheists have trouble grasping. To believe that markets operate and exist in a state of nature is, in itself, to believe in the supernatural. The very thing atheists have spent their lives fleeing from.
According to the American Values Survey, a mere 7 percent of Americans identify as “consistently libertarian.” Compared to the general population, libertarians are significantly more likely to be white (94 percent), young (62 percent under 50) and male (68 percent). You know, almost identical to the demographic makeup of atheists – white (95 percent), young (65 percent under 50) and male (67 percent). So there’s your first clue.
Your second clue is that atheist libertarians are skeptical of government authority in the same way they’re skeptical of religion. In their mind, the state and the pope are interchangeable, which partly explains the libertarian atheist’s guttural gag reflex to what they perceive as government interference with the natural order of things, especially “free markets.”
Robert Reich says that one of the most deceptive ideas embraced by the Ayn Rand-inspired libertarian movement is that the free market is natural, and exists outside and beyond government. In other words, the “free market” is a constructed supernatural myth.
There is much to cover here, but a jumping-off point is the fact that corporations are a government construct, and that fact alone refutes any case for economic libertarianism. Corporations, which are designed to protect shareholders insofar as mitigating risk beyond the amount of their investment, are created and maintained only via government action. “Statutes, passed by the government, allow for the creation of corporations, and anyone wishing to form one must fill out the necessary government paperwork and utilize the apparatus of the state in numerous ways. Thus, the corporate entity is by definition a government-created obstruction to the free marketplace, so the entire concept should be appalling to libertarians,” says David Niose, an atheist and legal director of the American Humanist Association.
In the 18th century, Adam Smith, the granddaddy of American free-market capitalism, wrote his economic tome “The Wealth of Nations.” But his book has as much relevance to modern mega-corporation hyper-capitalism today as the Old Testament has to morality in the 21st century.
Reich says rules that define the playing field of today’s capitalism don’t exist in nature; they are human creations. Governments don’t “intrude” on free markets; governments organize and maintain them. Markets aren’t “free” of rules; the rules define them. “In reality, the ‘free market’ is a bunch of rules about 1) what can be owned and traded (the genome? slaves? nuclear materials? babies? votes?); 2) on what terms (equal access to the Internet? the right to organize unions? corporate monopolies? the length of patent protections?); 3) under what conditions (poisonous drugs? unsafe foods? deceptive Ponzi schemes? uninsured derivatives? dangerous workplaces?); 4) what’s private and what’s public (police? roads? clean air and clean water? healthcare? good schools? parks and playgrounds?); 5) how to pay for what (taxes, user fees, individual pricing?). And so on.”
Atheists are skeptics, but atheist libertarians evidently check their skepticism at the door when it comes to corporate power and the self-regulatory willingness of corporations to act in the interests of the common good. In the mind of an atheist libertarian, both religion and government is bad, but corporations are saintly. On what planet, where? Corporations exist for one purpose only: to derive maximum profit for their shareholders. “The corporation’s legally defined mandate is to pursue, relentlessly and without exception, its own self-interest, regardless of the often harmful consequences it might cause others,” writes Joel Bakan, author of “The Corporation: The Pathological Pursuit of Profit and Power.”
Corporations pollute, lie, steal, oppress, manipulate and deceive, all in the name of maximizing profit. Corporations have no interest for the common good. You really believe Big Tobacco wouldn’t sell cigarettes to 10-year-olds if government didn’t prohibit it? Do you really think Big Oil wouldn’t discharge more poisons and environmentally harmful waste into the atmosphere if government regulations didn’t restrict it? Do you really believe Wal-Mart wouldn’t pay its workers less than the current minimum wage if the federal government didn’t prohibit it? If you answered yes to any of the above, you may be an atheist libertarian in desperate need of Jesus.
That awkward pause that inevitably follows asking a libertarian how it is that unrestricted corporate power, particularly for Big Oil, helps solve our existential crisis, climate change, is always enjoyable. “Corporations will harm you, or even kill you, if it is profitable to do so and they can get away with it … recall the infamous case of the Ford Pinto, where in the 1970s the automaker did a cost-benefit analysis and decided not to remedy a defective gas tank design because doing so would be more expensive than simply allowing the inevitable deaths and injuries to occur and then paying the anticipated settlements,” warns Niose.
In the 1970s, consumer protection advocate Ralph Nader became famous for helping protect car owners from the unsafe practices of the auto industry. Corporate America, in turn, went out of its way in a coordinated effort, led by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Lewis Powell, to destroy Nader. The documentary “Unreasonable Man” demonstrates how corporate CEOs of America’s biggest corporations had Nader followed in an attempt to discredit and blackmail him. General Motors went so far as to send an attractive lady to his local supermarket in an effort to meet him, and seduce him. That’s how much corporate America was fearful of having to implement pesky and costly measures designed to protect the well-being of their customers.
Today America is facing its greatest moral crisis since the civil rights movement, and its greatest economic crisis since the Great Depression: income inequality. Now, income inequality doesn’t happen by accident. It happens by the political choices a country makes. Today America is the most income unequal among all developed nations, and we find ourselves here today not because of government regulation or interference, but a lack thereof. The past three decades have seen our political class become totally beholden to the armies of corporate lobbyists who fund the political campaigns of our elected officials. Today the bottom 99 percent of income earners has no influence on domestic policy whatsoever.
The unilateral control that Wall Street and mega-corporations have over economic policy is now extreme, and our corporate overlords have seen to the greatest transfer of wealth from the middle class to the rich in U.S. history, while corporations contribute their lowest share of total federal tax revenue ever. The destruction of labor; serf-level minimum wage; and the deregulation, monopolization and privatization of public assets have pushed us deeper into becoming a winner-takes-all society.
In effect, America virtually exists as a libertarian state, certainly when compared to liberal democracies found in Western Europe, Canada and Australia. In these countries, there’s a sense of “we are all in this together,” but here the romantic idealism of the rugged individual allows corporate influence of the political class to gut public safety nets, eradicate collective bargaining, strip regulatory control of our banks, water, skies and our food.
By every measure, Australians, Scandinavians, Canadians, Germans and the Dutch are happier and more economically secure. The U.N. World Development Fund, the U.N. World Happiness Index and the Social Progress Index contain the empirical evidence atheist libertarians should seek, and the results are conclusive: People are happier, healthier and more socially mobile where the size of the state is bigger, and taxes and regulations on corporations are greater. You know, the opposite of the libertarian dream that would turn America into a deeper nightmare.
CJ Werleman is the author of “Crucifying America” and “God Hates You. Hate Him Back.” You can follow him on Twitter: @cjwerleman
Cecily McMillan is an American activist who actively participated in Occupy Wall Street and who now advocates for prisoner rights in the United States. In March 2012, she was arrested as protesters tried to reoccupy Zuccotti Park in Manhattan. She was convicted of assaulting a New York City police officer and sentenced to 90 days in prison and probation for a subsequent five years. Cecily was released in July 2014 after serving 58 days at Rikers Island.
Lucy Parks is an Occupy Wall Street activist who has also acted as field coordinator for the ‘Justice for Cecily’ support team.
Manos Cizek is a media activist and independent filmmaker from Greece. He recently sat down with Cecily and Lucy for an exclusive ROAR interview about Occupy, Cecily’s experiences at Rikers Island, and the struggle for prison justice in the United States. Photo by Jenna Pope.
MANOS: How do you see the continuation of the Occupy movement in the context of prison justice and the combination of these two movements?
CECILY: I think that the Occupy movement still exists, not in the sense that it is on the ground, not in the sense that it is a tangible movement that is emerging, but it exists in the sense that we have started a class dialog, we have started a class commentary. Any time we’re talking about a corporatocracy, any time we’re talking about corporate control of our democracy, the lack of a middle class, the sinking of the working class into an underclass, that is the Occupy movement. And when you radar that into the prison justice movement, what you get is a move from human rights and racism into a class dialog.
So you can really contextualize the problem on the many layers that affect what prison justice is. Right now in New York it’s very difficult for us to get beyond the targeting of black and brown men. That is the strongest reality here. But there are many poor white people who are being targeted just the same in other prisons, in other jails, throughout the United States. In this sense it’s important to recognize that there is a human rights violation, that there is a corporate value to keeping people inside private prisons, that there is a racist marker on black and brown men in particular that sends them to these incarceration systems.
LUCY: I think it has been really good at uniting the dialogs of race and classism which is important because so much racism is tied up in class politics, and so much of the racist system we have is built to keep people of color poor—and then uniting them also with the poor white people and then bringing it back to Wall Street and the strong Occupy battle of the 99% against the banks. I think it draws a strong connection and is a way to make sure that the blame is put where it’s deserved, which is on the corporatocracy.
CECILY: The prison justice movement is also the first real shot at a true concept of “We are the 99%”, which is essentially what we need in order to build a true civil rights era-style social movement. What I mean is not that we’re going to necessarily work by the same model of the civil rights movement, but in order for such a movement to take hold in our country and make real changes, there need to be multiple arenas of accessibility from the bottom up.
So it really is the first point of merging the various people that are asking for change into a cross-race, cross-cultural, cross-class—and now we’re adding with our work at Rosie’s—cross-gender social movement. Which is what you have to have in order to have a social movement; it can’t be a minority of people because that’s a campaign. A movement allows for access to all.
MANOS: You’ve recently delivered a petition and sat down for a meeting with Commissioner Ponte, on August 25. Are you happy about the meeting, and what are you expecting to get out of it?
CECILY: That was huge. City council people, public advocates—everybody has been talking about how difficult it is to get a sit-down meeting with Commissioner Ponte. We were so surprised. We went there not expecting a full-on meeting. We went there expecting to wait him out until he showed up to take our petitions. To get a sit-down meeting is a win beyond anything we could imagine. But it just goes to show you that 25 people, who are recognized as people, who are recognized with the rights as citizens, that if they go across that bridge, if they make the move to stand by prisoners that are being held on Rikers, that is so terrifying; they were so ready to get us off that island that this is what they offered us!
LUCY: One thing that struck me about the petition delivery was that the police presence was incredible. I mean it was a petition delivery through very peaceful action, we had around 25 people which is not huge, but they still outnumbered us with police officers wearing riot gear and they set up barricades. And what that really shows is exactly how scared of us they are. We know that something we are doing is working and they feel threatened by it.
CECILY: And that’s I think where we have to get to right now in social movement building in our country. We need to start recognizing the tactics of the government and the tactics of the police as a marker of our power, when they show up in force and in mass like this. We need to expect it. We need to plan for it. And we need to go about campaigns in an actionable way; what are we going to do if they do X, Y and Z. I think right now, to a large degree, we’re still really caught up in spectacle.
MANOS: Cecily, what experience did you get out of your trial, and in what ways does that experience relate to the Chelsea Manning’s court support effort that you were a part of?
CECILY: Lucy is actually the mastermind of our court support effort. I was in support of Chelsea Manning, of course, but court support is a nuanced level of direct action. I’m advocating ultimately that from the moment you step onto the street to the moment you go to jail, to the moment that you go to court, that you as an activist must follow through with your convictions and not plead out.
Less than 5% of felony cases right now go to trial and when I was in Rikers I was the only person that I met my entire time there who had been to trial. And so we have a privilege beyond anybody else to stand trial, to expose the justice system for what it is, and the big lesson here is: if you choose to give up your cultural privilege, if you choose to not take the pathway of striving to become a part of the 1%, then, if you choose to stand by people of color and poor folks and people who have been marginalized, then you will be treated like one.
Your cultural privilege, your white privilege, your class privilege, will be removed from you and will not save you from jail. But nonetheless, you as a by-product of that privilege, you have the best fighting shot to expose the justice system for what it is: another arm of the corporatocracy. You must, as a point of your values, as a point of your commitment, as an organizer, go to trial and possibly go to jail.
LUCY: Chelsea Manning was on trial for something that she was able to make a conscious choice in doing, but then Cecily was on trial for something that happened to her. And then Chelsea Manning was also in military court and we were in Manhattan State court. One of the people in the support team had gone down to Texas to do court support for the Chelsea Manning trial. We had a sketch artist, actually, who had sketched the Chelsea Manning trial extensively, who came to do some sketches of this trial. So we drew some parallels, but not a whole lot in terms of court support, other than packing the courts and trying to get press attention and all of that. I think we drew more on the court support model from CeCe McDonald.
CECILY: I think ultimately what we’d like to utilize court support for is to constantly build more avenues into supporting the Left, standing up for our rights. It’s a low level of accessibility into a movement that allows people to see what they thought were secured and safe-guarded rights for every citizen; the right to a speedy trial, the right to a jury, the principle of innocence until proven guilty. It’s a way for people to see the cracks in our system firsthand, as they’re sitting there and they relate to the individual who is being tried.
LUCY: It’s a civics lesson.
CECILY: We also hope that this model will be transferrable to any single person in our movement who falls, and in that sense it has a sort of unifying effect right now inside a very fractured Left.
MANOS: Lucy, what are the difficulties you encountered upon coordinating the actions of Justice for Cecily’s support team? Did you find stronger support from within the United States or from abroad?
LUCY: The trial lasted a month, so I was going in at least 3 to 4 days a week, every week for a month. The entire court support team and half of us are students, the other half of us have real jobs. We always had someone outside the courtroom to greet people, give them flyers, talk to them about etiquette and I literally would have to sit down every night before the next day of court and draw out a master schedule of when everyone had to leave to go to class or work, who could be there when.
Some days we faced challenges of not having enough people in court, by the end we faced the challenge of having way too many people there. But really everyone was incredibly supportive and everyone banded together to help us in ways that I’ve never seen before. I do think that the support came more from the United States. We had a petition that got 200.000 signatures on it and then we also had a decent amount of international support. I know we had a lot of articles published in Latin America about the trial, a lot of articles in Vietnam actually about the trial, The Guardian did also a lot of the best coverage.
I think the main challenge we faced honestly was tiredness, burnout and lack of time.
CECILY: We had no sense of what we were really up against. I think to a degree all of us did still have an idea, did still want to believe that there was some sort of justice in the justice system. It was really shocking.
LUCY: Also everyone in the court support team was very young. I mean I’m 19, most folks were between 21 and 25, with a few folks who were 31 and 32, and a few folks who were also 19. We had a lot of naïvité and that worked against us in a lot of ways. But it also worked for us in some ways, in that I think when you don’t have an experience that tells you that what you’re doing is not gonna work, then you’re more likely to believe that it will work and then you’re more likely to be able to make it work.
CECILY: And when it doesn’t work, it breaks your heart in a way that allows you to see the system for what it is and say “Well, fuck you! You’re not going to get us down, we’re going to figure out another fucking way.” And so with the upcoming trial on September 15, as a result of the targeted arrest while I was awaiting trial, we will go forward with the same court support model again, but of course this time we are considering jury nullification.
LUCY: There was one juror actually who came to the press and admitted that he still believed Cecily was innocent at the end of jury deliberation, he just didn’t realize that it was OK for there to just be one person that thinks the defendant is innocent and thought that jury is supposed to be a unanimous decision, not a majority decision. And to quote him, he went with the ‘guilty’ verdict because he “didn’t want to fight a losing battle and also didn’t know that she was facing serious prison time.”
CECILY: He wasn’t fighting a losing battle. He believed I was innocent and had he just maintained that position, then it would have been held a mistrial. In a hung jury there would have been a chance for the trial to have been redone; at which juncture we would have had an opportunity to get in all of the evidence that had been edited out by the court. Now as we’re fighting the appeal we’re gonna have to go forward with the case with the same evidence that was presented. If we win the appeal’s case the probation will be gone and we will have an opportunity for a retrial.
MANOS: So you’re currently on probation for 5 years and you’re a felon, so you can’t vote for the next 7 years.
CECILY: Oh there’s so much more than that. I have 3 teacher certifications, most of my life I work with children. Before this, I was an Upper East Side nanny. Even in jail I was a suicide prevention aid to the adolescents in Rose M. Singer Center. I’ve always worked with children. I had always wanted to possibly become a foster parent. So I can’t work with children at all as a felon, in any public institution. I don’t think I can even work at McDonald’s, actually. We were looking at houses in Atlanta the other day, the other team member Paul and I, and so many of the housing requirements say “no felons, don’t even ask.”
Through my probation, I actually cannot have any contact with the police. If I have any contact with the police I have to report it. So, we now have to consider what actions, what marches I can go to; there are certain events that I can’t go to on the Left anymore, because if there is another felon there, part of our probation is that we cannot interact with other felons. I can’t move without notice and I can’t leave the state unless I give 45 days notice to the judge.
LUCY: It’s a new type of jail time, and also 5 years probation is so long. Usually, when they give that type of probation, what they’re trying to say is that they really want to send her back to jail. Because they didn’t get away with giving her the long sentence they wanted to the first time, and they’re trying to do that in a quieter way and a way in which they can assassinate her character even further.
CECILY: It’s a setup. I mean, everybody in Rose M. Singer Center said “5 years probation? That’s a setup.” I have to go in every month to do a hand scan which monitors if I have been using any drugs—I don’t—that’s good. The probation officer can show up at any point at my home, at my workplace, they can ask me to come by any time. I mean, if they would like to use me for some sort of radical Left GPS system, they can. They can make me quit a job if they don’t see it as a reputable job. If I’m not working, or not in school, I go back to jail. If I don’t have a residency that’s stable, I go back to jail.
MANOS: Are there any statistics on the amount of people that are dying in Rikers Prison?
CECILY: This is the most fucked up part. Judith, the woman who ended up dying as a by-product of medical neglect, the woman I had met while she was in Rikers, she had been throwing up blood violently for hours. The inmates rallied together: “bring her down into the infirmary!” She’s admitted to the hospital, put in critical care— two weeks later she’s dead. Her autopsy shows: death unknown. Every single one of her organs had shut down. Had been totally destroyed. Her womb collapsed. There was no reason that all of that would have enacted given the way that she had presented when she came to the jail.
Now, how do we know that? Her sister got into contact with me. How did her sister get into contact with me? She’s in Florida; her sister is also a Correctional Officer. She found out that her sister had died, when she sent her sister a letter and the letter had been returned: “Inmate no longer here.” So she went online and looked it up, and when she was looking up “Rikers Island”, after she had tried desperately to get a civil rights lawyer to look into it and had been denied several times, she was looking online at Rikers for information, stumbled upon my story, said “Could that be my Judith?”, contacted the New York Times, Michael Schwartz and Michael Winerip gave her my phone number, she called me and I told her what happened.
So if you can imagine all of those really lucky coincidences that lead her knowing what her sister’s life was like in her final days, how many people have that sort of luck? I’m terrified to know how many people actually do die in Rose M. Singer Center, when there’s a lack of inmate organization, when there’s a lack of resources, when there’s a lack of attention, when our country seems to be covering up the fact that women are even in prisons, except in a funny show like Orange Is the New Black. We’re gonna figure what those numbers are as we continue to investigate Rose M. Singer Center.
LUCY: And whatever numbers we find the real numbers will probably be higher.
CECILY: We’re terrified of the consequences.
MANOS: You were visited while in prison by Nadya, Masha and Peter, formerly of Pussy Riot, now having their NGO Zona Prava. How was that for you, and how is your current communication with them in the context of prison reform both in the United States but also around the world?
CECILY: I love them. It’s been one of the most alienating experiences to get out of jail and go back to a world where most of my friends do not have a lot of experience with the cultures that surround imprisonment. It’s been really hard to navigate what it is supposed to be to be a white woman speaking on these topics. Hanging out with Nadya and Masha and Peter for an entire day, we just went down to Battery Park and Peter made us chase a boat for a really long time. I mean, we’re just 24, 25 and 26 year old girls trying to do something right for this world, trying to make something more out of an experience that I think we all realize is really super commonplace for a lot of people in this world.
It’s been amazing to have them as comrades and in terms of the international piece, we are really looking forward to working on something sort of like “From Rikers to Russia” narrative that will start the international interconnectivity of discussing prisons as a human rights violation, particularly from a woman’s perspective, which we think hasn’t been done and will be more fruitful because women are socialized generally to be more community-building communal beings. Both of our teams are really committed to discourse and collaboration rather than competition and setting up an “us and them.” We’d like to make it a human “we” narrative. And I think that moving forward we are just all around delighted to work together.
LUCY: The other thing about Nadya, Masha and Peter is, they actually became a large part of the leniency campaign which is why Cecily is out of jail now, when they went and visited her at Rikers during the first weekend that she’d been in. They came and had breakfast with the support team in the morning and then I went over to Rikers with them, we talked about politics. Then they went in and visited Cecily and came out and were so amazed, that they then utilized all the resources that they had as a part of the petition campaign to get her out, and also as a part of the campaign we had of writing letters to the judge asking for that leniency. So, really, if they hadn’t been so wonderful in putting forward all their resources and energy on that, Cecily might still be at Rikers.
CECILY: We also have a running dialog with them about this concept that they referred to: “anti-fear”. In the sense that when there is terror, when there is police repression, when there is backlash, that’s not a marker of weakness on your behalf, that’s a marker of strength. When they fear you, if you can respond with anti-fear, you win. Because at the end of the day, all they have is their guns and all they have is their money. But if you present and you went out as a human being who’s willing to stand up against the money and against the guns and maintain your personhood, maintain your dignity, maintain your respect, maintain your personal narrative as somebody who’s just trying to be good for others, you win.
And yeah, the consequences grow greater and greater as you become more successful. But at the end of the day, what is living if this is the world that we’re living in?
MANOS: Talk to me about October’s Month of Resistance to Mass Incarceration.
LUCY: We’re working with an organization called the Stop Mass Incarceration Network, started by Cornel West and Carl Dix, who are both great folks and have been working on this for a few years, and who are now putting together this October Month. It’s becoming clearer and clearer that something big needs to happen around mass incarceration and police violence now, and in New York there are literally probably at least 100 different groups doing work around this. What we’re aiming to do in working with Stop Mass Incarceration Network in October, is to pull together those groups under a news heading of this Month of Resistance, to show how many people are doing work and to start coordinating so that it becomes a real movement.
I think Americans are becoming more and more aware—especially with books like The New Jim Crow—of the reality of the prison system. And then in October we also need to show how many people are doing work around the issue and get even more people involved, because there is the potential for an actual movement around this. We just need to pull together and we need to energize people. What we’re aiming to do is to create coalitions and do outreach and then build into something way bigger in the future.
CECILY: To mobilize people from all the various angles as well. Not only all the groups, but all the various angles. The Anti-Mass Incarceration Movement is a structural movement, because you can’t just target the prisons, you have to target the prosecutorial overreach, you have to target the appointment of judges by elected officials that are elected by money, you have to target the lack of resources that lead people into prisons out of classism and racism and oppression to begin with. You have to go at the back end; the lack of resources, the probation, the sort of statelessness that I was talking about. You have to address the statelessness of an entire class of people in our country in a way that requires, again, cross-class, cross-race, cross-culture and cross-gender coalitions.
Additionally, I think that it requires an inside-outside strategy; it requires radicalism outside of institutional projects but it also requires inside organization and actions in the prisons and outside support. I think it will be the first major step into uniting the 99%, in a way that we haven’t seen actualized yet—just verbalized. And one way we’re trying to get out this beforehand is by calling it what it is: this isn’t just racism, this isn’t just classism, this is political repression. When there is a government that specifically denies participation to an entire group of people and thus renders them stateless, thus renders them unable to participate as citizens to begin with, and then you put them in jail for that; that’s political repression. These are political prisoners.
And so I think that there lies within that narrative a possibility at mass political activation. We’re in it to win; to win massive structural changes that we want to see in our national government. We have a sense of revolution—our revolution is not violent, our revolution is to live the rest of our lives affecting movement after movement after movement until we unite more and more people that are not represented by this government, which is most of the people, to affect the government that will not only be more respectful towards the citizens here, but respectful of the world order that so many other countries are working avidly to create and that we continually undermine.
MANOS: What would be your ideal view of a correctional system? How would it function and feel? And if you could paint the picture with words, what would that be?
CECILY: No correctional system!
LUCY: Yeah, at least what I would like to see is eventually no jails, no prisons. It’s not effective at creating a better society. I think it would be a slow process to get there and I think that to build that society we have to address especially the huge class issues. And what I would like to see is more of a process of resort of justice, where if someone does something like steal something then it’s viewed as a community harm, and what you’d have to do is work to pay the person back. We need to address this in a way that actually builds a better, more productive society that is built on growth rather than punishment.
CECILY: To be honest the entire time that I was in the sentencee dorm—so that’s the women who have been sentenced at Rikers—I had by far the highest, most violent offense. The classes of women that I met there were generally one of four—I would say there’s only a handful of women who were there for something else: one being selling their bodies in order to feed themselves or their families, two was theft in some form or another in order to take care of themselves or their families, the third is addiction and the fourth is primarily mental health. And those four, to me it seems like those are not crimes, those are byproducts of our society that reflect a really violent form of poverty and a really violent form of alienation, which actually left these women no choice to do otherwise.
LUCY: Those aren’t crimes, those are modes of survival.
CECILY: Ultimately what I would like to see the prison justice systems replaced with, are rehabilitation systems. I think when somebody in our society commits a crime, it is because for whatever reason the society, as it is, is not functioning for them. It’s not working for them or they cannot see their place within it— they had not been given the avenues or the resources in order to participate in society—I mean, that was certainly true of my case; there was no avenue for us to address the government, so we started a social movement. We need to say why is this person not participating to the standards that we’ve set? Do we need to change the standards? Do we need to allow for more access to resources? Do they need therapy? Do they need food? Do they need more adequate housing? Like, there’s no sense of talking to people about why it is that they committed the crime that they committed. It’s just all of a sudden, you were a person and now you’re a number and numbers don’t have opinions or value.
LUCY: So basically, to sum it up, we want no jails, no prison. We want everyone to be fed, clothed, housed and taken care of, to the extent that we deserve to be as human beings.
CECILY: And that our country can afford! We spend more money on housing a prisoner—I think it’s something like five times as much in housing a prisoner per year—than we do on the average child at public schools. We are paying to put people in an inefficient system that just sends them back into crime. This system doesn’t benefit anybody. Except for maybe the private prison systems that are making a profit off of the people being there. It’s crazy. This is the 21st century!
MANOS: So equal access to resources seems to be part of the solution, but at the same time we have the private prison system that is part of the larger corporatocracy—and we should find a way around that as well.
CECILY: We’ll start with improving the conditions in jail right now, building those cross-class, cross-cultural, cross-race, cross-gender connections, building ever towards a common dialogue on human rights—for every person, regardless of where they are, deserves to be treated like a person—and what we perceive will erupt with the Prison Justice movement, as it begins to interconnect with the Student Debt movement, as it begins to interconnect with the Immigrant Rights movement. I think ultimately what we’re going to see is a social movement of some kind.
LUCY: Something pretty big.
CECILY: It’s coming, it’s bubbling. That’s clear. Ferguson has been valuable, in that it is seen as a marker of mobilized dissent coming and people are no longer content to be treated like Others and are responding in a way that says “No more!”, that says “We will not stand by anymore, we will not stand by, avert our eyes, keep our heads down and not look up and not stand up for our brothers and our sisters.” It’s coming. The duty that we have as American citizens, as our country terrorizes, rapes, harms, threatens and exploits so many other countries worldwide, ultimately we have to start a strong social movement here based on human rights, based on a cross-class dialogue.
We’re hoping that what has historically followed will continue to do so and we’d love to see obviously a series of mass uprisings throughout the world, to establish a new world order that is focused on organizing the people, for the people and by the people.
Transcribed by Manos Cizek, Maria Gioni, Ilios Poros, Anghelos Palioudakis and Lindsey Aliksanyan.
America’s deadliest export and the endless war on terror
This is an extract from America’s Deadliest Export: Democracy — The Truth About US Foreign Policy and Everything Else by William Blum (Zed Books, 2014). Zed Books have just reissued Blum’s three classic books, America’s Deadliest Export, Rogue State and Killing Hope in new updated editions.
A safer world for Americans… if they don’t leave home
Supporters of US foreign policy have been repeating the point ever since the attacks of September 11, 2001: US counterterrorism policy has worked. How do they know? Because there haven’t been any successful terrorist attacks in the United States in all the years since that infamous day.
True, but there weren’t any terrorist attacks in the United States in the six years before September 11, 2001 either, the last one being the Oklahoma City bombing of April 19, 1995. The absence of terrorist attacks in the US appears to be the norm, with or without a War on Terror.
More significantly, in the years since 9/11 the United States has been the target of terrorist attacks on scores of occasions, not even counting those in Iraq or Afghanistan — attacks on military, diplomatic, civilian, Christian, and other targets associated with the United States; in the Middle East, South Asia, and the Pacific; more than a dozen times in Pakistan alone. The attacks include the October 2002 bombings of two nightclubs in Bali, Indonesia, which killed more than 200 people, almost all of them Americans and citizens of their Australian and British war allies; the following year brought the heavy bombing of the US-managed Marriott Hotel in Jakarta, Indonesia, the site of diplomatic receptions and 4th of July celebrations held by the American embassy; and other horrendous attacks in later years on US allies in Madrid and London because of the war.
Land of the Free, Home of the War on Terror
David Hicks is a 31-year-old Australian who in a plea-bargain with a US military court served nine months in prison, largely in Australia. That was after five years at Guantánamo Bay, Cuba, without being charged with a crime, without a trial, without a conviction. Under the deal, Hicks agreed not to talk to reporters for one year (a terrible slap in the face of free speech), to forever waive any profit from telling his story (a slap – mon Dieu! – in the face of free enterprise), to submit to US interrogation and testify at future US trials or international tribunals (an open invitation to the US government to hound the young man for the rest of his life), to renounce any claims of mistreatment or unlawful detention (a requirement which would be unconstitutional in a civilian US court). ‘If the United States were not ashamed of its conduct, it wouldn’t hide behind a gag order,’ said Hicks’s attorney Ben Wizner of the American Civil Liberties Union.
Like so many other ‘terrorists’ held by the United States in recent years, Hicks had been ‘sold’ to the American military for a bounty offered by the US, a phenomenon repeated frequently in Afghanistan and Pakistan. US officials had to know that, once they offered payments to a very poor area to turn in bodies, almost anyone was fair game.
Other ‘terrorists’ have been turned in as reprisals for all sorts of personal hatreds and feuds. Many others — abroad and in the United States — have been incarcerated by the United States simply for working for, or merely contributing money to, charitable organizations with alleged or real ties to a ‘terrorist organization,’ as determined by a list kept by the State Department, a list conspicuously political.
It was recently disclosed that an Iraqi resident of Britain is being released from Guantánamo after four years. His crime? He refused to work as an informer for the CIA and MI5, the British security service. His business partner is still being held in Guantánamo, for the same crime.
Finally, there are those many other poor souls who have been picked up simply for being in the wrong place at the wrong time. ‘Most of these guys weren’t fighting. They were running,’ General Martin Lucenti, former deputy commander of Guantánamo, has pointed out.
Thousands of people have been thrown into hell on earth for no earthly reason. The world media have been overflowing with their individual tales of horror and sadness for years. Guantánamo’s former commander, General Jay Hood, said: ‘Sometimes we just didn’t get the right folks.’ Not that the torture they were put through would be justified if they were in fact ‘the right folks.’
Hicks was taken into custody in Afghanistan in 2001. He was a convert to Islam and like others from many countries had gone to Afghanistan for religious reasons, had wound up on the side of the Taliban in the civil war that had been going on since the early 1990s, and had received military training at a Taliban camp. The United States has insisted on calling such camps ‘terrorist training camps,’ or ‘anti-American terrorist training camps,’ or ‘al-Qaeda terrorist training camps.’ Almost every individual or group not in love with US foreign policy that Washington wants to stigmatize is charged with being associated with, or being a member of, al-Qaeda, as if there’s a precise and meaningful distinction between people retaliating against the atrocities of American imperialism while being a member of al-Qaeda and retaliating against the atrocities of American imperialism while not being a member of al-Qaeda; as if al-Qaeda gives out membership cards to fit into your wallet, and there are chapters of al-Qaeda that put out a weekly newsletter and hold a potluck on the first Monday of each month.
It should be noted that for nearly half a century much of southern Florida has been one big training camp for anti-Castro terrorists. None of their groups — which have carried out many hundreds of serious terrorist acts in the US as well as abroad, including bombing a passenger airplane in flight — is on the State Department list. Nor were the Contras of Nicaragua in the 1980s, heavily supported by the United States, about whom former CIA director Stansfield Turner testified: ‘I believe it is irrefutable that a number of the Contras’ actions have to be characterized as terrorism, as State-supported terrorism.’
The same applies to groups in Kosovo and Bosnia, with close ties to al-Qaeda, including Osama bin Laden, in the recent past, but which have allied themselves with Washington’s agenda in the former Yugoslavia since the 1990s. Now we learn of US support for a Pakistani group called Jundullah and led by a Taliban, which has taken responsibility for the kidnappings and deaths and of more than a dozen Iranian soldiers and officials in cross-border attacks. Do not hold your breath waiting for the name Jundullah to appear on the State Department list of terrorist organizations; nor any of the several other ethnic militias being supported by the CIA to carry out terrorist bombing and assassination attacks in Iran.
The same political selectivity applies to many of the groups which are on the list, particularly those opposed to American or Israeli policies.
Amid growing pressure from their home countries and international human rights advocates, scores of Guantánamo detainees have been quietly repatriated in recent years. Now a new analysis by lawyers who have represented detainees at this 21st century Devil’s Island says this policy undermines Washington’s own claims about the threat posed by many of the prison camp’s residents. The report, based on US government case files for Saudi detainees sent home over the past three years, shows inmates being systematically freed from custody within weeks of their return.
In half the cases studied, the detainees had been turned over to US forces by Pakistani police or troops in return for financial rewards. Many others were accused of terrorism connections in part because their Arab nicknames matched those found in a computer database of al-Qaeda members, documents show. In December, a survey by the Associated Press found that 84 percent of released detainees — 205 out of 245 individuals whose cases could be tracked — were set free after being released to the custody of their native countries.
‘There are certainly bad people in Guantánamo Bay, but there are also other cases where it’s hard to understand why the people are still there,’ said Anant Raut, co-author of the report, who has visited the detention camp three times. ‘We were struggling to find some rationality, something to comfort us that it wasn’t just random. But we didn’t find it.’
The report states that many of the US attempts to link the detainees to terrorist groups were based on evidence the authors describe as circumstantial and ‘highly questionable,’ such as the travel routes the detainees had followed in flying commercially from one Middle Eastern country to another. American officials have associated certain travel routes with al-Qaeda, when in fact, says the report, the routes ‘involve ordinary connecting flights in major international airports.’ With regard to accusations based on similar names, the report states: ‘This accusation appears to be based upon little more than similarities in the transliterations of a detainee’s name and a name found on one of the hard drives.’
Raut said he was most struck by the high percentage of Saudi detainees who had been captured and turned over by Pakistani forces. In effect, he said, for at least half the individuals in his report the United States ‘had no first-hand knowledge of their activities’ in Afghanistan before their capture and imprisonment.
When Michael Scheuer, the former CIA officer who headed the Agency’s Osama bin Laden unit, was told that the largest group in Guantánamo came from custody in Pakistan, he declared: ‘We absolutely got the wrong people.’ Never mind. They were all treated equally: all thrown into solitary confinement; shackled blindfolded, forced to undergo excruciating physical contortions for long periods, denied medicine; sensory deprivation and sleep deprivation were used, along with two dozen other methods of torture which American officials do not call torture. (If you tortured these officials, they might admit that it’s ‘torture lite.’)
‘The idea is to build an anti-terrorist global environment,’ a senior American defense official said in 2003, ‘so that in 20 to 30 years, terrorism will be like slave-trading, completely discredited.’
When will the dropping of bombs on innocent civilians by the United States, and invading and occupying their country, without their country attacking or threatening the US, become completely discredited? When will the use of depleted uranium and cluster bombs and CIA torture renditions become things that even men like George W. Bush, Dick Cheney, and Donald Rumsfeld will be too embarrassed to defend?
Australian/British journalist John Pilger has noted that in George Orwell’s 1984 ‘three slogans dominate society: war is peace, freedom is slavery and ignorance is strength. Today’s slogan, war on terrorism, also reverses meaning. The war is terrorism.’
Saved again, thank the Lord, saved again (August 18, 2006)
Our government has kept us in a perpetual state of fear — kept us in a continuous stampede of patriotic fervor – with the cry of grave national emergency. Always there has been some terrible evil at home or some monstrous foreign power that was going to gobble us up if we did not blindly rally behind it by furnishing the exorbitant funds demanded. Yet, in retrospect, these disasters seem never to have happened, seem never to have been quite real.
– General Douglas MacArthur, 1957
So now we’ve (choke) just been (gasp) saved from the simultaneous blowing up of as many as ten airplanes headed toward the United States from the UK. Wow, thank you Brits, thank you Homeland Security. And thanks for preventing the destruction of the Sears Tower in Chicago, saving lower Manhattan from a terrorist-unleashed flood, smashing the frightful Canadian ‘terror plot’ with seventeen arrested, ditto the three Toledo terrorists, and squashing the Los Angeles al-Qaeda plot to fly a hijacked airliner into a skyscraper.
The Los Angeles plot of 2002 was proudly announced by George W. in 2006. It has since been totally discredited. Declared one senior counterterrorism official: ‘There was no definitive plot. It never materialized or got past the thought stage.’
And the scare about ricin in the UK, which our own Mr Cheney used as part of the build-up for the invasion of Iraq, telling an audience on January 10, 2003: ‘The gravity of the threat we face was underscored in recent days when British police arrested … suspected terrorists in London and discovered a small quantity of ricin, one of the world’s deadliest poisons.’ It turned out there was not only no plot, there was no ricin. The Brits discovered almost immediately that the substance wasn’t ricin but kept that secret for more than two years.
From what is typical in terrorist scares, it is likely that the individuals arrested in the UK on August 10, 2006 were guilty of what George Orwell, in 1984, called ‘thoughtcrimes.’ That is to say, they haven’t actually done anything. At most, they’ve thought about doing something the government would label ‘terrorism.’ Perhaps not even very serious thoughts, perhaps just venting their anger at the exceptionally violent role played by the UK and the US in the Middle East and thinking out loud how nice it would be to throw some of that violence back in the face of Blair and Bush. And then, the fatal moment for them that ruins their lives forever: their angry words are heard by the wrong person, who reports them to the authorities. (In the Manhattan flood case the formidable, dangerous ‘terrorists’ made mention on an Internet chat room about blowing something up.)
Soon a government agent provocateur appears, infiltrates the group, and then actually encourages the individuals to think and talk further about terrorist acts, to develop real plans instead of youthful fantasizing, and even provides the individuals with some of the means for carrying out these terrorist acts, like explosive material and technical know-how, money and transportation, whatever is needed to advance the plot. It’s known as ‘entrapment,’ and it’s supposed to be illegal, it’s supposed to be a powerful defense for the accused, but the authorities get away with it all the time; and the accused get put away for a very long time.
And because of the role played by the agent provocateur, we may never know whether any of the accused, on their own, would have gone much further, if at all, like actually making a bomb, or, in the present case, even making transatlantic flight reservations, since many of the accused reportedly did not even have passports. Government infiltrating and monitoring is one thing; encouragement, pushing the plot forward, and scaring the public to make political capital from it are quite something else.
Prosecutors have said that the seven men in Miami charged with conspiring to blow up the Sears Tower in Chicago and FBI buildings in other cities had sworn allegiance to al-Qaeda. This came after meeting with a confidential government informant who was posing as a representative of the terrorist group. Did they swear or hold such allegiance, one must wonder, before meeting with the informant? ‘In essence,’ reported the Independent, ‘the entire case rests upon conversations between Narseal Batiste, the apparent ringleader of the group, with the informant, who was posing as a member of al-Qaeda but in fact belonged to the [FBI] South Florida Terrorist Task Force.’
Batiste told the informant that ‘he was organizing a mission to build an “Islamic army” in order to wage jihad.’ He provided a list of things he needed: boots, uniforms, machine guns, radios, vehicles, binoculars, bullet-proof vests, firearms, and $50,000 in cash. Oddly enough, one thing that was not asked for was any kind of explosive material. After sweeps of various locations in Miami, government agents found no explosives or weapons. ‘This group was more aspirational than operational,’ said the FBI’s deputy director, while one FBI agent described them as ‘social misfits.’ And, added the New York Times, investigators openly acknowledged that the suspects ‘had only the most preliminary discussions about an attack.’ Yet Cheney later hailed the arrests at a political fundraiser, calling the group a ‘very real threat.’
It was perhaps as great a threat as the suspects in the plot to unleash a catastrophic flood in lower Manhattan by destroying a huge underground wall that holds back the Hudson River. That was the story first released by the authorities; after a while it was replaced by the claim that the suspects were actually plotting something aimed at the subway tunnels that run under the river.16 Which is more reliable, one must wonder, information on Internet chat rooms or WMD tips provided by CIA Iraqi informers? Or information obtained, as in the current case in the UK, from Pakistani interrogators of the suspects, none of the interrogators being known to be ardent supporters of Amnesty International.
And the three men arrested in Toledo, Ohio, in February 2006 were accused of — are you ready? — plotting to recruit and train terrorists to attack US and allied troops overseas. For saving us from this horror we have a paid FBI witness to thank. He had been an informer with the FBI for four years, and most likely was paid for each new lead he brought in. In the Sears case, the FBI paid almost $56,000 to two confidential informants, and government officials also granted one of them immigration parole so he could remain in the country.
There must be millions of people in the United States and elsewhere who have thoughts about ‘terrorist acts.’ I might well be one of them when I read about a gathering of Bush, Cheney, and assorted neocons that’s going to take place. Given the daily horror of Iraq, Afghanistan, Lebanon, and Palestine in recent times, little of which would occur if not for the government of the United States of America and its allies, the numbers of people having such thoughts must be multiplying rapidly. If I had been at an American or British airport as the latest scare story unfolded, waiting in an interminable line, having my flight canceled, or being told I can’t have any carry-on luggage, I may have found it irresistible at some point to declare loudly to my fellow suffering passengers: ‘Y’know, folks, this security crap is only gonna get worse and worse as long as the United States and Britain continue to invade, bomb, overthrow, occupy, and torture the world!’ How long would it be before I was pulled out of line and thrown into some kind of custody?
If General MacArthur were alive today, would he dare to publicly express the thoughts cited above?
Policymakers and security experts, reports the Associated Press, say that ‘Law enforcers are now willing to act swiftly against al-Qaeda sympathizers, even if it means grabbing wannabe terrorists whose plots may be only pipe dreams.’ The capture of dangerous would-be terrorists has been a growth industry in the United States ever since the events of September 11, 2001. Do you remember the ‘shoe bomber’? Richard Reid was his name and he was aboard an American Airlines flight from Paris to Miami on December 22, 2001; he tried to detonate explosives hidden in his shoes, didn’t succeed, and was overpowered by attendants and passengers. It’s because of him that we have to take our shoes off at the airport.
There was also ‘the underwear bomber,’ Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab, referred to above, who tried to set off plastic explosives sewn into his underwear while aboard a Northwest Airlines flight as the plane approached Detroit airport in 2009. But he failed to detonate them properly, producing only some popping noises and a flame; another passenger jumped him and restrained him as others put out the fire. It’s because of Mr Abdulmutallab that we now virtually have to take our underwear off at airports.
And the reason we have strict rules about carrying liquids and gels aboard an airplane? We can thank some other young clowns in Europe in 2006 with pipe dreams about blowing up ten airliners with liquid explosives; they scarcely made it to step one. Since the ‘bomb made from liquids and gels’ story was foisted upon the public, several chemists and other experts have pointed out the technical near-impossibility of manufacturing such a bomb in a moving airplane, if for no other reason than the necessity of spending at least an hour or two in the airplane bathroom.
Then there was Faisal Shahzad, the ‘Times Square bomber,’ who on May 1, 2010 parked his car in the heart of New York City, tried to detonate various explosive devices in the car, but succeeded in producing only smoke. He then walked away from the car, after which he was arrested. It’s because of him that cars are no longer permitted in Times Square. (No, that’s a joke, but maybe not for long.)
The incompetence of these would-be bombers in being unable to detonate their explosives is remarkable. You’d think they could have easily gotten that critical and relatively simple part of the operation down pat beforehand. What I find even more remarkable is that neither of the two men aboard the airplanes thought of going into the bathroom, closing the door, and then trying to detonate the explosives. An 8-year-old child would have thought of that. Are we supposed to take the ‘threat’ posed by such men seriously?
‘The Department of Homeland Security would like to remind passengers that you may not take any liquids onto the plane. This includes ice cream, as the ice cream will melt and turn into a liquid.’ This was actually heard by one of my readers at Atlanta airport in 2012. He laughed out loud. He informs me that he didn’t know what was more bizarre, that such an announcement was made or that he was the only person that he could see who reacted to its absurdity.
Another example of the frightful terrorist threat was in October 2010 when we were told that two packages addressed to Chicago had been found aboard American cargo planes, one in Dubai, the other in England, containing what might, or might not, be an explosive device; which might, or might not, have exploded. Authorities said it was not known if the intent was to detonate the packages in flight or in Chicago.
Now get this. Terrorists, we are told, are shipping bombs in packages to the United States. They of course would want to make the packages as innocuous looking as can be, right? Nothing that would provoke any suspicion in the mind of an already very suspicious American security establishment, right? So what do we have? The packages were mailed from Yemen… and addressed to Jewish synagogues in Chicago… Well folks, nothing to see here, just keep moving.
A tale of two terrorists
Zacarias Moussaoui, the only person ever charged in the United States in connection with the September 11, 2001 attacks, testifying at his 2006 trial in Alexandria, Virginia: the sobbing September 11 survivors and family members who testified against him were ‘disgusting’… He and other Muslims want to ‘exterminate’ American Jews… executed Oklahoma City bomber Timothy McVeigh was ‘the greatest American.’ Moussaoui expressed his willingness to kill Americans ‘any time, anywhere’… ‘I wish it had happened not only on the 11th, but the 12th, 13th, 14th, 15th and 16th.’
Orlando Bosch, one of the masterminds behind the October 6, 1976 bombing of a Cuban passenger plane, blown out of the sky with seventy-three people on board, including the entire young Cuban fencing team, interviewed on April 8, 2006 by Juan Manuel Cao of Channel 41 in Miami:
Cao: Did you down that plane in 1976?
Bosch: If I tell you that I was involved, I will be inculpating myself … and if I tell you that I did not participate in that action, you would say that I am lying. I am therefore not going to answer one thing or the other.
Cao: In that action 73 persons were killed…
Bosch: No chico, in a war such as us Cubans who love liberty wage against the tyrant [Fidel Castro], you have to down planes, you have to sink ships, you have to be prepared to attack anything that is within your reach.
Cao: But don’t you feel a little bit for those who were killed there, for their families?
Bosch: Who was on board that plane? Four members of the Communist Party, five North Koreans, five Guyanese… Who was there? Our enemies.
Cao: And the fencers? The young people on board?
Bosch: I saw the young girls on television. There were six of them. After the end of the competition, the leader of the six dedicated their triumph to the tyrant. She gave a speech filled with praise for the tyrant. We had already agreed in Santo Domingo, that everyone who comes from Cuba to glorify the tyrant had to run the same risks as those men and women that fight alongside the tyranny.
Cao: If you ran into the family members who were killed in that plane, wouldn’t you think it difficult … ?
Bosch: No, because in the end those who were there had to know that they were cooperating with the tyranny in Cuba.
The difference between Zacarias Moussaoui and Orlando Bosch is that one of them was put on trial and sentenced to life in prison while the other walks around Miami a free man, free enough to be interviewed on television. In 1983 the City Commission of Miami declared a ‘Dr Orlando Bosch Day.’
Bosch had a partner in plotting the bombing of the Cuban airliner: Luis Posada, a Cuban-born citizen of Venezuela. He lives as a free man in the United States. His extradition has been requested by Venezuela for several crimes, including the downing of the airliner, part of the plotting having taken place in Venezuela. But the Bush and Obama administrations have refused to send him to Venezuela, for, despite his horrible crime, he’s an ally of the empire; Venezuela and Cuba are not. Nor will Washington try him in the US for the crime. However, the Convention for the Suppression of Unlawful Acts Against the Safety of Civil Aviation (1973), of which the United States is a signatory, gives Washington no discretion. Article 7 says that the state in which ‘the alleged offender is found shall, if it does not extradite him, be obliged, without exception whatsoever and whether or not the offense was committed in its territory, to submit the case to its competent authorities for the purpose of prosecution.’
Extradite or prosecute. The United States does neither.