Truthout Stories Fri, 24 Oct 2014 08:00:08 -0400 en-gb Official Sources May Be the Only Sources

New York Times investigative reporter James Risen is taking a stand. Despite being hounded by both the Bush and Obama administrations to reveal his sources, he has vowed to go to jail rather than abandon his pledge of confidentiality.

As fellow journalists and journalism advocacy groups rush to his side, many fear that the US Department of Justice within the self-proclaimed “most transparent administration in history” is preparing to deliver a body blow to the First Amendment’s promise of press freedom.

“This case is the closest we’ve come to the edge of the precipice, to reporter/source privilege being banned,” said Jesselyn Radack, director of national security and human rights for the Government Accountability Project, in a phone interview.

Risen, a Pulitzer Prize–winning reporter, has been ordered by the DoJ to testify in the prosecution of former CIA employee Jeffrey Sterling, who is accused of leaking information about a botched Clinton-era CIA mission to give Iran phony nuclear information—which ended up giving Iran real information on how to build a bomb. Risen wrote about the failed operation in his 2006 book State of War.

Risen was initially subpoenaed by the Bush administration in 2008, but the order expired as the reporter fought against it through the courts. To the surprise of many, the subpoena was renewed under President Obama in 2010—despite repeated calls to drop the pursuit.

“Risen informed the public about the dangerous stupidity of a CIA operation and seriously embarrassed the agency in the process,” said Norman Solomon, a longtime FAIR associate and co-founder of, an online advocacy group, in an email exchange. “Evidently a pair of unforgivable sins in the eyes of both the Bush and Obama administrations.”

If the government does uphold its subpoena and Risen is punished for taking his stand, journalists and free press advocates say that this would set a dangerous precedent for the interpretation of press freedom under the First Amendment.

“Functionally, a reporter will no longer be able to promise source confidentiality,” Radack explained. “This will impact people who want to disclose wrongdoing,” she said. “Whistleblowers disclosing fraud, waste, abuse and illegality will no longer go to the press.”

Robust investigative journalism has already suffered from budget cuts and waning interest in long-form journalism, and this “chilling effect” on sources will provide the “final nail in the coffin of the free press as we know it,” Radack added.

In 2011, a federal District Court ruled that Risen could not be compelled by the government to reveal his sources. “A criminal trial subpoena is not a free pass for the government to rifle through a reporter’s notebook,” wrote District Court Judge Leonie Brinkema, adding that Risen was protected by a limited “reporter’s privilege” under the First Amendment.

The government challenged that decision, and in 2013, the US Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, Virginia, reinstated the subpoena, arguing that the First Amendment did not protect Risen from being forced to testify against his source.

In June 2014, Risen’s legal battle reached an insurmountable barrier when the US Supreme Court refused to take up his case, affirming the lower court ruling. Now Risen will have to testify or face contempt of court charges, which can lead to either imprisonment or up to $1,000 a day in fines.

After the high court passed on the case, Risen’s attorney, Joel Kurtzberg, told the Committee to Protect Journalists (6/2/14) that he hopes the government won’t hold Risen in contempt “for doing nothing other than reporting the news and keeping his promise to his source.” He noted that the “ball is now in the government’s court.”

On August 14, a coalition of journalists, media advocacy groups and independent media outlets delivered over 100,000 signatures to the Department of Justice, calling on the Obama administration to drop its subpoena.

The petition—organized by Roots Action along with FAIR, the Center for Media and Democracy, Freedom of the Press Foundation, The Nation Institute and The Progressiveargues that “without confidentiality, journalism would be reduced to official stories—a situation antithetical to the First Amendment.”

On the day the petition was turned in, Risen was joined by a number of free press advocates, including Radack and Solomon, at a press conference at the National Press Club in Washington, DC. Speaking before the roomful of reporters, Risen said, “The real reason I’m doing this is for the future of journalism.”

“Freedom of the press is the most important freedom,” agreed Delphine Halgand, director of Reporters Without Borders’ Washington office, who also spoke at the press conference. “It is the freedom that allows us to verify the existence of all other freedoms.”

When asked about the Risen case at a closed-door meeting with a group of journalists, Attorney General Eric Holder (New York Times5/28/14) reportedly declared, “As long as I’m attorney general, no reporter who is doing his job is going to go to jail.”

Despite this pronouncement, the prosecution of whistleblowers has become a mainstay of Obama’s presidency (Extra!9/11; FAIR Media Advisory,8/27/13). During his time in office, the DoJ has pursued eight prosecutions of leakers under the Espionage Act, more than double the total number of such prosecutions since the law was enacted.

McClatchy News (6/20/13) also revealed the existence of a government employee “tattletale” program. By having government employees spying and reporting on each other, the Obama initiative, dubbed “Insider Threat,” aims to thwart future leakers.

According to the Reporters Without Borders’ annual Press Freedom Index (2/12/14), the US dropped 14 positions from 2013 to 2014, and now ranks 46th worldwide. The report notes:

In the US, the hunt for leaks and whistleblowers serves as a warning to those thinking of satisfying a public interest need for information about the imperial prerogatives assumed by the world’s leading power.

Advocates say to ensure the protection of journalists in this post-9/11 surveillance state, it is critical to pass a federal shield law that will protect reporters from being forced to disclose confidential information or sources in court. (Most states have some sort of law or protection in place.)

There is a shield bill currently making its way through Congress—S. 987, known as the Free Flow of Information Act—though there is concern that the legislation has too many loopholes that allow the government to claim broad “national security” exceptions and leave some whistleblowers 
without protection (Dissenter5/12/14).

In a recent interview with Times colleague Maureen Dowd (8/17/14), Risen referenced Obama’s “most transparent administration” claim.

“It’s hypocritical,” Risen said. “A lot of people...don’t want to believe that Obama wants to crack down on the press and whistleblowers. But he does. He’s the greatest enemy to press freedom in a generation.”

Among those who have come to Risen’s defense are 21 fellow Pulitzer Prize–winning reporters, who each signed the Roots Action petition and issued personal statements on his behalf.

Included in the testimonies is one from Risen’s New York Times colleague Barry Bearak, who wrote that Risen “is carrying the banner for every American journalist.”

“If he goes to jail,” Bearak continued, “a good bit of our nation’s freedom will be locked away with him.” 

 New York Times Has Benefitted From Leakers—but Not Vice Versa

As the Department of Justice doggedly pursues Pulitzer Prize–winner James Risen, the New York Times has been forced to enter the fray of the government’s so-called “war on information.”

The Times, like many mainstream publications, has openly acknowledged its practice of seeking government approval for sensitive stories (2/6/13), and often serves as a government mouthpiece by publishing sanctioned “leaks” of information.

And although the Times has benefitted enormously from actual leaks of government secrets that were vital for the public to know, it has historically maintained a cautious—if not skeptical—distance from those who risked their careers and liberty to reveal such truths.

Despite publishing the invaluable Pentagon Papers, which exposed government deceptions about the Vietnam War, the Times refused to provide leaker Daniel Ellsberg with any help in his criminal case. According to Ellsberg, then–executive editor Abe Rosenthal told the whistleblower that the paper had no policy for supporting a source who is being prosecuted for leaking information.

“The Times,” Ellsberg explained, “thinks of leakers, wrongly, as having clearly broken the law.”

The paper has given even less support to Chelsea Manning, despite having partnered with Wikileaks in July 2010 to release important revelations from the hundreds of thousands of classified war logs and State Department cables revealed by Manning.

In addition to disparaging her character and questioning her motives in a Bill Keller column (3/11/13), the Times treated Manning’s trial as a nonevent—not sending a single reporter, and only running one AP wire story (12/30/12) on it.

Later, New York Times public editor Margaret Sullivan (5/12/12) wrote that the paper had “missed the boat” by not covering Manning’s pretrial testimony.

The paper did run an editorial (1/1/14) supporting NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden; however, that was months after an earlier editorial (8/6/13) essentially calling for Snowden to be extradited for prosecution.

In a January 2013 column about the prosecution of Chelsea Manning, journalist Glenn Greenwald warned corporate media that they “might want to take a serious interest” in the case and “marshal opposition to what is being done to Bradley Manning.”

He continued: “If not out of concern for the injustices to which he is being subjected, then out of self-interest, to ensure that their reporters and their past and future whistleblowing sources cannot be similarly persecuted.”

It seems that time has come. 

News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 12:04:44 -0400
Noam Chomsky at United Nations: It Would Be Nice if the United States Lived up to International Law

After world-renowned scholar Noam Chomsky gave a major address on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict in the hall of the United Nations General Assembly last week, Amy Goodman interviewed the world-renowned linguist and dissident before an audience of 800 people. Chomsky spoke at an event sponsored by the United Nations Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. “One important action that the United States could take is to live up to its own laws. Of course it would be nice if it lived up to international law, but maybe that’s too much to ask,” Chomsky said.


AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!,, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman, as we return to MIT professor Noam Chomsky, world-renowned political dissident, linguist and author. Last week, he spoke before over 800 people in the hall of the United Nations General Assembly, before ambassadors and the public alike, on the issue of Israel and Palestine. After his speech, I conducted a public interview with Professor Chomsky.

AMY GOODMAN: What do you think is the most—the single most important action the United States can take? And what about its role over the years? What is its interest here?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, one important action that the United States could take is to live up to its own laws. Of course, it would be nice if it lived up to international law, but maybe that’s too much to ask, but live up to its own laws. And there are several. And here, incidentally, I have in mind advice to activists also, who I think ought to be organizing and educating in this direction. There are two crucial cases.

One of them is what’s called the Leahy Law. Patrick Leahy, Senator Leahy, introduced legislation called the Leahy Law, which bars sending weapons to any military units which are involved in consistent human rights violations. There isn’t the slightest doubt that the Israeli army is involved in massive human rights violations, which means that all dispatch of U.S. arms to Israel is in violation of U.S. law. I think that’s significant. The U.S. should be called upon by its own citizens to—and by others, to adhere to U.S. law, which also happens to conform to international law in this case, as Amnesty International, for example, for years has been calling for an arms embargo against Israel for this reason. These are all steps that can be taken.

The second is the tax-exempt status that is given to organizations in the United States which are directly involved in the occupation and in significant attacks on human and civil rights within Israel itself, like the Jewish National Fund. Take a look at its charter with the state of Israel, which commits it to acting for the benefit of people of Jewish race, religion and origin within Israel. One of the consequences of that is that by a complex array of laws and administrative practices, the fund pretty much administers about 90 percent of the land of the country, with real consequences for who can live places. They get tax-exempt status also for their activities in the West Bank, which are strictly criminal. I think that’s also straight in violation of U.S. law. Now, those are important things.

And I think the U.S. should be pressured, internationally and domestically, to abandon its virtually unique role—unilateral role in blocking a political settlement for the past 40 years, ever since the first veto in January 1976. That should be a major issue in the media, in convocations like this, in the United Nations, in domestic politics, in government politics and so on.

AMY GOODMAN: The role of the media, can you talk about that, and particularly in the United States? And do you think that the opinion in the United States, public opinion, is shifting on this issue?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, the role of the—the media are somewhat shifting from uniform support for virtually everything that Israel does to—and, of course, silence about the U.S. role—that’s not just in the case of Israel, that’s innumerable other cases, as well—but is slowly shifting. But nevertheless, about, say, Operation Protective Edge, one can read in news reporting, news reporting in The New York Times, major journal, a criticism of Hamas’s assault on Israel during Protective Edge. Hamas’s assault on Israel—not exactly what happened, but that’s what people are reading, and that’s the way it’s depicted. Israel is—over and over it’s pointed out, "Look, poor Israel is under attack. It has the right of self-defense." Everyone agrees to that. Actually, I agree, too. Everyone has a right of self-defense. But that’s not the question. The question is: Do you have a right of self-defense by force, by violence? The answer is no for anyone, whether it’s an individual or state, unless you have exhausted peaceful means. If you won’t even permit peaceful means, which is the case here, then you have no right of self-defense by violence. But try to find a word about that in the media. All you find is "self-defense." When President Obama rarely says anything about what’s happening, it’s usually, "If my daughters were being attacked by rockets, I would do anything to stop it." He’s referring not to the hundreds of Palestinian children who are being killed and slaughtered, but to the children in the Israeli town of Sderot, which is under attack by Qassam missiles. And remember that Israel knows exactly how to stop those missiles: namely, live up to a ceasefire for the first time, and then they would stop, as in the past, even when Israel didn’t live up to a ceasefire.

That framework—and, of course, the rest of the framework is the United States as an honest broker trying hard to bring the two recalcitrant sides together, doing its best in this noble endeavor—has nothing to do with the case. The U.S. is, as some of the U.S. negotiators have occasionally acknowledged, Israel’s lawyer. If there were serious negotiations going on, they would be led by some neutral party, maybe Brazil, which has some international respect, and they would bring together the two sides—on the one side, Israel and the United States; on the other side, the Palestinians. Now, those would be possible realistic negotiations. But the chances of anyone in the media either—I won’t even say pointing it out, even thinking about it, is minuscule. The indoctrination is so deep that really elementary facts like these—and they are elementary—are almost incomprehensible.

But to get back to your—the last point you mentioned, it’s very important. Opinion in the United States is shifting, not as fast as in most of the world, not as fast as in Europe. It’s not reaching the point where you could get a vote in Congress anything like the British Parliament a couple days ago, but it is changing, mostly among younger people, and changing substantially. I’ll just illustrate with personal experience; Amy has the same experience. Until pretty recently, when I gave talks on these topics, as I’ve been doing for 40 years, I literally had to have police protection, even at my own university, MIT. Police would insist on walking me back to my car because of threats they had picked up. Meetings were broken up, and so on. That’s all gone. Just a couple of days ago I had a talk on these topics at MIT. Meeting wasn’t broken up. No police protection. Maybe 500 or 600 students were there, all enthusiastic, engaged, committed, concerned, wanting to do something about it. That’s happening all over the country. All over the country, Palestinian solidarity is one of the biggest issues on campus—enormous change in the last few years.

That’s the way things tend to change. It often starts with younger people. Gradually it gets to the rest of the population. Efforts of the kind I mentioned, say, trying to get the United States government to live up to its own laws, those could be undertaken on a substantial scale, domestically and with support from international institutions. And that could lead to further changes. I think that the—for example, the two things that I mentioned would have a considerable appeal to much of the American public. Why should they be funding military units that are carrying out massive human rights violations? Why should they be permitting tax exemption? Meaning we pay for it—that’s what a tax exemption means. Why should we be paying, compelled to pay, for violations of fundamental human rights in another country, and even in occupied territories, where it’s criminal? I think that can appeal to the American population and can lead to the kinds of changes we’ve seen in other cases.

AMY GOODMAN: Final question, before we open it up to each of you: Your thoughts on the BDS movement, the boycott, divest, sanctions movement?

NOAM CHOMSKY: Well, BDS is a set of tactics, right? These are tactics that you employ when you think they’re going to be effective and in ways that you think will be effective. Tactics are not principles. They’re not actions that you undertake no matter what because you think they’re right. Tactics are undertaken, if you’re serious, because you think they’re going to help the victims. That’s how you adjust your tactics, not because I think they’re right in principle, but because I think they will be beneficial. That ought to be second nature to activists.

Also second nature should be a crucial distinction between proposing and advocating. I can propose now that we should all live in peace and love each other. I just proposed it. That’s not a serious proposal. It becomes a serious proposal when it becomes advocacy. It is given—I sketch out a path for getting from here to there. Then it becomes serious. Otherwise, it’s empty words. That’s crucial and related to this.

Well, when you take a look at the BDS movement, which is separate, incidentally, from BDS tactics—let me make that clear. So, when the European Union issued its directive or when the—that I mentioned, or when, say, the Gates Foundation withdraws investment in security operations that are being carried out, not only in the Occupied Territories, but elsewhere, that’s very important. But that’s not the BDS movement. That’s BDS tactics, actually, BD tactics, boycott, divestment tactics. That’s important. The BDS movement itself has been an impetus to these developments, and in many ways a positive one, but I think it has failed and should reflect on its, so far, unwillingness to face what are crucial questions for activists: What’s going to help the victims, and what’s going to harm them? What is a proposal, and what is real advocacy? You have to think that through, and it hasn’t been sufficiently done.

So, if you take a look at the principles of the BDS movement, there are three. They vary slightly in wording, but basically three. One is, actions should be directed against the occupation. That has been extremely successful, in many ways, and it makes sense. It also helps educate the Western populations who are being appealed to to participate, enables—it’s an opening to discuss, investigate and organize about the participation in the occupation. That’s very successful.

A second principle is that BDS actions should be continued until Israel allows the refugees to return. That has had no success, and to the extent that it’s been tried, it’s been negative. It just leads to a backlash. No basis has been laid for it among the population. It is simply interpreted as saying, "Oh, you want to destroy the state of Israel. We’re not going to destroy a state." You cannot undertake actions which you think are principled when in the real world they are going to have a harmful effect on the victims.

There’s a third category having to do with civil rights within Israel, and there are things that could be done here. One of the ones I mentioned, in fact—the tax-free status for U.S. organizations that are engaged in civil rights and human rights violations. And remember, a tax exemption means I pay for it. That’s what a tax exemption is. Well, that’s an action that could be undertaken. Others that have been undertaken have had backlashes which are harmful. And I won’t run through the record, but these are the kinds of questions that always have to be asked when you’re involved in serious activisms, if you care about the victims, not just feeling good, but caring about the victims. That’s critically important.

AMY GOODMAN: MIT professor, world-renowned linguist, dissident, Noam Chomsky, speaking last Tuesday in the hall of the United Nations General Assembly before 800 people in an event hosted by the U.N. Committee on the Exercise of the Inalienable Rights of the Palestinian People. If you’d like a copy of today’s show, you can go to our website at

We wish a very happy birthday to our video producer, Robby Karran. For all our New York viewers, Democracy Now! co-host Juan González will be one of the journalists questioning the New York gubernatorial candidates in tonight’s debate. The debate will be broadcast live at 8:00 p.m. on PBS stations across New York. I’ll be speaking in Vienna, Austria, Friday at an event hosted by ORF, Austria’s public broadcaster, then on Saturday speaking at the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria. Again, you can go to for more details.

News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 11:29:32 -0400
That Film About Money

What is the real value of a dollar?

You think that a dollar bill is money and that banks are where your cash is stored and safeguarded. Well, you’re wrong. Like, really wrong.

That Film About Money, Part I:

What do banks do with our deposits?

You think that banks are where your cash is stored and safeguard and that a dollar bill is money. Well, you’re wrong. Like, really wrong.

The Second Part of That Film About Money:

News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 11:11:41 -0400
Don't Ask the Pentagon Where Its Money Goes

2014 1023 pent st(Image: Jared Rodriguez / Truthout)President Barack Obama proudly signed the law that repealed the Pentagon’s Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy, freeing lesbian, gay, and bisexual Americans (although not trans people) to openly serve in the military four years ago.

But when it comes to budgeting, the concept lingers on. “Don’t ask us how we spend money,” the Pentagon basically says. “Because we can’t really tell you.”

Every taxpayer, business, and government agency in America is supposed to be able to pass a financial audit by the feds, every year. It’s the law, so we do our duty. There’s one exception: the Pentagon.

2014 1023 hole cDown the Hole, an OtherWords cartoon by Khalil Bendib

Year after year, the non-partisan Government Accountability Office (GAO) declares the Pentagon budget to be un-auditable. In 2013, for example, the GAO found that the Pentagon consistently fails to control its costs, measure its performance, or prevent and detect fraud, waste, and abuse.

Congress thankfully, did give the Pentagon a deadline to get itself in better financial shape — 25 years ago. Taxpayers are still waiting.

The Chief Financial Officers Act of 1990 requires every federal agency to pass a routine financial audit not once, not twice, but every year. All the other agencies do it.

What does the Pentagon deliver instead? Promises. The Defense Department always swears it will conduct an audit — and then requests five more years to do it.

How has Congress responded? By doubling the Pentagon’s budget between 2000 and 2010. Many members are now railing against “cuts” that will still keep military spending at stratospheric levels over the next decade.

How bad could things be? Well, the most recent scandals may help answer this question.

In Afghanistan, the Air Force bought the Afghan government 20 Italian transport planes for $486 million. When it found out the planes didn’t work, it crushed them into scrap metal, recouping just $32,000.

Other examples of disastrous post-9/11 spending abound. In his new book Pay Any Price, New York Times investigative journalist James Risen reported that more than $1 billion in funds intended for Iraq’s reconstruction may have wound up in a Lebanese bunker. Or not. US investigators couldn’t get to the bottom of that one.

Former Pentagon boss Robert M. Gates once described the US military as a semi-feudal system — “an amalgam of fiefdoms without centralized mechanisms to allocate resources, track expenditures, and measure results relative to the department’s overall priorities.”

Gates also complained that it was nearly impossible to get accurate information and answers to basic questions, such as “How much money did you spend?” and “How many people do you have?”

Congress, charged with oversight, is afraid of stepping on the Pentagon’s powerful toes. The House did, to its credit, pass an amendment to the National Defense Authorization Act a few months ago that would require the Pentagon to rank its departments in order of how auditable they are.

The amendment, however, lacks any penalties for recalcitrant divisions.

A bipartisan group led by Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Jan Schakowsky (D-IL), Michael Burgess (R-TX), and Dan Benishek (R-MI) wants to push the Pentagon further. Their Audit the Pentagon Act of 2014 (HR5126) calls for cutting any “un-auditable” Pentagon operation by one-half of 1 percent. It will be an uphill battle to get majority support for even that slap on the wrist, given how lawmakers have failed to get the Pentagon to carry through with the audit they first demanded more than 20 years ago.

I find this particularly amazing due to my own personal experience as the co-founder of a small and scrappy feminist peace group called CODEPINK. In 2008, the Internal Revenue Service singled us out for an audit. We underwent a tedious, energy-draining accounting of every dollar spent and complied with every bit of minutiae the IRS requested. It wasn’t fun, but it was our duty and we did it — and passed. And every year we’re prepared to do it again.

If CODEPINK can handle an audit, why can’t the Pentagon? It’s high time the Defense Department fulfilled its commitment to account for every taxpayer dollar in its $555-billion budget.

Opinion Thu, 23 Oct 2014 11:05:01 -0400
Jeremy Scahill: Blackwater Executives Remain Free as Guards Convicted for Killing 14 Iraqis in Massacre

A federal jury has returned guilty verdicts against four Blackwater operatives involved in the 2007 massacre at Baghdad's Nisoor Square. On Wednesday, the jury found one guard, Nicholas Slatten, guilty of first-degree murder, while three other guards were convicted of voluntary manslaughter: Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard. The jury is still deliberating on additional charges against the operatives, who faced a combined 33 counts. The operatives were tried for the deaths of 14 of the 17 Iraqi civilians who died when their Blackwater unit opened fire. We speak to Jeremy Scahill, author of the best-selling book Blackwater: The Rise of the World's Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent article published by The Intercept is "Blackwater Founder Remains Free & Rich While His Former Employees Go Down on Murder Charges."


NERMEEN SHAIKH: A federal jury has returned guilty verdicts against four Blackwater operatives involved in the 2007 massacre at Baghdad’s Nisoor Square. On Wednesday, the jury found one guard, Nicholas Slatten, guilty of first-degree murder, while three other guards were convicted of voluntary manslaughter—Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard. The jury is still deliberating on additional charges against the operatives, who faced a combined 33 counts. The operatives were tried for the deaths of 14 of the 17 Iraqi civilians who died when their Blackwater unit opened fire. Nisoor Square is the highest-profile deadly incident involving Blackwater or any private war contractor.

AMY GOODMAN: For more, Jeremy Scahill is still with us, co-founder of, author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent article published by The Intercept is headlined "Blackwater Founder Remains Free and Rich While His Former Employees Go Down on Murder Charges." Take it from there, Jeremy.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah, I mean, the point here is that these four individuals—and then there was another Blackwater operative who pleaded to lesser charges earlier in the process and then actually testified against his former colleagues at Blackwater—this is an extremely important verdict, because we’re talking about a mercenary industry, a war industry, that has largely operated in a Wild West atmosphere, where there’s absolutely no accountability. So, while we only have a handful of people being held accountable for what were very widespread crimes committed by Blackwater and other private military companies, this is a very important moment for the victims of Nisoor Square. And they’ve fought for many years in both civil courts and criminal courts to try to get justice for their loved ones who were killed.

But let’s be clear here. Blackwater was a part of an unlawful global war that was borderless in nature, launched by George W. Bush and Dick Cheney, with the support of Democrats in the U.S. Congress, and President Obama has continued to use mercenary forces. None of the people that unleashed these forces on the world, at the highest levels, are being held accountable. Dick Cheney’s not going to be held accountable. Donald Rumsfeld’s not going to be held accountable. Erik Prince, the billionaire owner of—founder of Blackwater, who has now started another mercenary firm targeting Africa, backed by Chinese capital, he’s not going to be held accountable for this. It’s just like at Abu Ghraib, where the low-level people who did the actual torture, they get held accountable.

AMY GOODMAN: And describe what they did, very quickly.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Blackwater or Abu Ghraib?

AMY GOODMAN: Describe what these four Blackwater guards did in Nisoor Square.

JEREMY SCAHILL: They were responding—they were a unit called Raven 23. They were the elite Praetorian Guard of the U.S. occupation. They were guarding Paul Bremer, who was the original sort of proconsul in Iraq, the "viceroy," as he liked to call himself. They were responding to an incident that had occurred on the opposite end of Baghdad from where their base was located. They roll out. They end up hitting a crowded intersection at Nisoor Square. What often would happen in Iraq is that mercenary contractors would start throwing frozen water bottles at cars, trying to force them off the street, and then eventually escalate up to shooting at vehicles. These guys basically tried to take over this traffic circle, the Blackwater guys, so that they could speed around and continue on to their destination.

A small white car with a young Iraqi medical student and his mother didn’t stop fast enough for the Blackwater convoy, and they decided to escalate it all the way up to assassinating those individuals. And I say "assassinating," because they shot to kill these people, and then they blew their car up. And then, that started this massive shooting spree that went on for—it was sustained for minutes. And at the end of it, 17 Iraqis were killed, including a nine-year-old boy named Ali Kinani, whose story we’ve told on the show before, and some 20 others were wounded in the attacks. And it was—you know, it became known as Baghdad’s "Bloody Sunday."

And Blackwater, you know, in the immediate aftermath of the shooting, said that they had been fired upon. They had their allies in the media. A senior producer at CNN was quick to get on TV and say, "Oh, no, no, this wasn’t a massacre. You know, this was a firefight, and Blackwater was shot at." Clearly, this jury saw what the Iraqi eyewitnesses have always contended, and that is that this was an unprovoked massacre of Iraqi civilians, none of whom were posing a threat, except not stopping fast enough for the mercenaries helping to occupy their country.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: Well, I want to ask you about Blackwater founder Erik Prince. He was on Fox News last month—

JEREMY SCAHILL: Of course he was.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: —responding to host Bill O’Reilly’s proposal to fight the Islamic State with mercenaries.

ERIK PRINCE: The U.S. military has mastered the most expensive way to wage war. They’ve proven that in Iraq and Afghanistan. They haven’t been that effective there. So, finding a cheap, sustainable way that you can keep presence into these areas, to keep pressure on Islamists, to keep—to support friends and be that long-term dwell is about the only way you’re going to do it. It’s as part of American history as apple pie.

NERMEEN SHAIKH: That was Erik Prince, founder of Blackwater. Could you talk about what he said there about fighting ISIS and what implications you think this verdict is likely to have on the way in which these mercenary armies operate, if any?

JEREMY SCAHILL: First of all, Erik Prince is a radical right-wing Christian supremacist who, from the very beginning of the so-called war on terror, viewed the role of Blackwater in the world as being neo-crusaders. And he is a radical anti-Muslim. And he hates the religion of Islam. And he—his company, basically, was allowed to operate in an atmosphere where they would kill Muslims for sport inside of Iraq.

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, what evidence do you have to say he hates Islam?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, first of all, the fact that Blackwater operatives were told—that there was a culture at the company where they called people "ragheads," where they used any manner of "sand monkeys," other things, slurs to describe the people in Iraq and Afghanistan that they were—you know, whose countries they were occupying. But also, there have been numerous court cases, whistleblowers within Blackwater, who have said that their pilots in their helicopters would drive around, and they literally would go, quote-unquote, "hunting" for people and that it didn’t matter whether they had anything to do with 9/11, they were all the enemy. And there was a tone set in the company, and I know this from people that were there and that would hear Erik Prince’s speeches. He would talk about the so-called war on terror in these epic historical terms of a battle of civilization, of the Christian world versus the Islamic world.

Also, if you look at the Prince family and their history, they’ve been very, very dedicated to funding radical right-wing religious causes in the United States. One of Erik Prince’s closest friends for much of his life was Chuck Colson, who was of course Nixon’s hatchet man during the Watergate scandal, the author of Nixon’s enemies list, who then went to prison, came out as this sort of evangelical Christian who spent much of his life then trying to fight the scourge of Islam within America’s prisons. I mean, Erik Prince is surrounded by very radical right-wing Christians. And, you know, the fact that he says, "Oh, we want to go and fight ISIS right now," first of all, they want to make money off of it; secondly, it plays into Erik Prince’s worldview that Islam is the enemy.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there, Jeremy Scahill, co-founder of, author of the best-selling book, Blackwater: The Rise of the World’s Most Powerful Mercenary Army. His most recent book, Dirty Wars: The World is a Battlefield, is out in paperback. We’ll link to your piece, "Blackwater Founder Remains Free and Rich While His Former Employees Go Down on Murder Charges."

That does it for our show. I’ll be speaking in Vienna, Austria, Friday at an event hosted by ORF, Austria’s public broadcaster, then on Saturday I’ll be speaking at the Elevate Festival in Graz, Austria. Check our website for details at

News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 11:03:28 -0400
Violence Against Women Can Be Stopped if Everyone Is Invested in Preventing Abuse

Domestic violence against women is a global human rights and public health emergency. Recent estimates suggest that a third of women worldwide have experienced partner violence at some point in their life, with wide-ranging implications for their social, mental and physical well-being.

While a small number of interventions have successfully reduced violence among direct programme recipients – for example women empowered through micro-credit schemes or men attending gender discussion workshops – methods to prevent violence in the wider community have proved stubbornly elusive.

But one groundbreaking programme in Uganda has seen dramatic results. The Centre for Domestic Violence Prevention, based in Kampala, has been working intensively since 2008 in three parishes in the city to implement SASA!, a community intervention to prevent violence against women and reduce HIV risk. The results, recently published in BMC Medicine, show that women living in SASA! communities are now half as likely to experience physical partner violence as women in communities without SASA involvement!

Not Acceptable or Necessary

Underpinning high rates of violence in many parts of the world are beliefs that it is an acceptable, even necessary part of life. “I have come face to face with many men who thought that controlling their partners and disciplining them whenever necessary was normal,” says Tina Musuya who heads the centre’s team. “I heard many community members say that violence was expected, it’s a private matter and a sign of love and that I shouldn’t meddle in people’s private lives.”

Designed by Raising Voices, a Ugandan NGO, the SASA! intervention mobilises whole communities to challenge these norms that make women vulnerable to both violence and HIV, and to address the imbalance of power between men and women that legitimises men’s control of women, limits women’s power to refuse sex or insist on condom use, and leads communities to turn a blind eye to violence.

In the words of one community activist: “Before SASA!, I thought that a woman is supposed to be submissive to the man and that she was there to receive mistreatment. But now I learnt that a woman is like a man – they are not different.”

It is through community activists like this one that much of the intervention programme is delivered; regular men and women who are selected and trained to conduct activities among their own families, friends, colleagues and neighbours. Local government, cultural leaders, police and even healthcare providers also receive training to promote equality within their institutions and strengthen responses to women experiencing violence.

Systematic Anarchy

In one sense SASA! is slightly anarchic. Activities are not rigidly proscribed, but evolve in response to community priorities and characteristics. However, this anarchy is embedded in a highly organised structure. SASA!, which means “now” in Kiswahili, is an acronym for the four phases of a systematic process: start, awareness, support and action, designed to move communities from an initial contemplation of what constitutes violence through to shifts in normative attitudes and behaviours.

And throughout this process, activities revolve around discussions of “power”, its uses and abuses. While many people, especially men, may be put off participating in activities billed as “gender” or “domestic violence” related, most people remember situations or periods in their lives where they felt powerless. So they respond to the idea of using their power to create positive change.

Over a three-year period, more than 400 activists carried out a total of 11,000 activities in their communities. These documented activities – including community dramas, door-to-door discussions, poster discussions, and film shows – actually represent the tip of the iceberg. Community members are repeatedly exposed to SASA! ideas as they go about their daily lives; chatting to an activist in the market or a local bar, talking to family and friends, or perhaps consulting a traditional marriage counsellor. An activist might help a man to stop using violence, while a healthcare worker might take action on behalf of a woman experiencing abuse.

One community activist described how the community around her was changing:

People closer to me have changed … the moment they notice that there is a woman being beaten they know what to do … people have started taking action even in my absence.

These changes are confirmed by the results of a randomised trial. Between 2007 and 2012, researchers from the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine studied eight communities in Kampala, four randomly chosen to be SASA! communities, and four designated as comparison communities. They found that after three years, the SASA! community members were less accepting of violence, and reported half the level of physical partner violence against women, as compared to their control counterparts. Crucially this is the first intervention trial in sub-Saharan Africa to show community-wide impacts on levels of violence.

Following successful implementation in Kampala, SASA! has been rolled out more widely, and is now being used by more than 30 organisations in the Horn of Africa, East and Southern Africa. While it does not offer an easy pre-fabricated solution, its methods can be adapted for use in different settings. According to Lori Michau, director of Raising Voices: “Because SASA! works on the core driver of violence against women – power inequality – rather than the manifestations of violence, it is largely applicable in settings which are very different.” And for this reason, other organisations from around the world are interested in adapting and translating the programme for use in their own communities.

News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 10:43:41 -0400
More Than a Number: Violence and Freedom of Expression in Honduras

In Honduras, investigative journalism is declining due to fear and the corrosion of fundamental freedoms. The obstacles faced by reporters reflect the lack of open discussion in a country that has a long way ahead to defend human rights.

“When we allow impunity for human rights violations, we see the crimes of the past translated into the crimes of the future.”

-Bertha Oliva, Co-ordinator of the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH)[1]

Article 72 of the Honduran Constitution states that all citizens shall enjoy the liberty of expression. Thoughts can be legally transmitted through any channel, as long as they do not corrupt the constitutional values of society.[2] Yet, in today’s Honduras, the inalienable freedom of expression has been violently repressed in the form of frequent attacks committed against journalists. Since 2003, 38 journalists have been systematically murdered; approximately 70% of these occurred after the 2009 coup, an event that augmented the political partition. Although most attacks were carried against supporters of the Libre party, reports include victims from all points of the political spectrum.

There are five confirmed cases that verify such crimes were directly related to the investigative occupation, but most unresolved crimes have become demonstrations of impunity.[3] In addition, numerous reports indicate that an alarming number of journalists have received death threats before being gunned down. According to the Committee of Relatives of the Detained and Disappeared in Honduras (COFADEH), more than 100 reporters and social commentators filed reports of aggression and death threats, even though not all were physically attacked.[4] In fact, between 2009 and 2010 the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights (IACHR) issued more than 400 orders to the Honduran government demanding the protection of journalists and activists. However, most of these directives were ignored.[5]

38 Is Not Only a Number

A number of police blotter reports insist that the assaults are often unrelated to the profession of journalism. Although there is indisputable evidence that establishes many of these attacks were specifically targeted at reporters, they are often treated as ordinary street crimes. That means they attract minimal resources, and little time is invested in trying to accurately identify the intellectual authors. For example, one journalist received text messages and phone calls jeopardizing her life if she continued to “talk trash.” Others report having their cameras and equipment destroyed by assailants.[6]

Government authorities argue that nearly two thirds of the attacks remain unresolved due to the low funding that is allocated to investigations. Honduras’ office of the Special Prosecutor for Human Rights is assigned nearly 7,000 investigations in a given year, while it is forced to operate with merely 16 staff members.[7]

The most common targets in these cases are journalists who address delicate subjects such as drug trafficking, human rights, and corruption. Not only are journalists routinely threatened, but many have been accused of sedition. There have been no investigations conducted to clarify whether reporters have published inaccurate or offensive material, or if the information was in fact revelatory. The lack of investigation leaves a huge gap that can naturally create a national debate amongst citizens with two opposing views. One side blames journalists for libel and for extorting money from tainted sources, while the other maintains that it was the reporters’ responsibility to disclose controversial issues and all the information covered was true. It is also unknown whether every attack was meant to silence, but ample evidence demonstrates a good percentage of the threats were aimed at their profession. Thirty-eight is not only the number of deaths, but an indication that open political discussion is a high risk occupation in Honduras.

Attributing Faces to the Numbers

Erick Martínez Ávila was a journalist and spokesperson for LGBT rights in Honduras. He declared that hate crimes had significantly increased since the 2009 coup and that the Constitution lacked adequate protection for LGBT members. Martínez Ávila disappeared days after he made an announcement to run for the Libre Party.

The Committee to Protect Journalists (CPJ) carried out an investigation that revealed Nahúm Palacios Arteaga was murdered soon after he turned Channel 5 into an opposition station against the coup. Additionally, Palacios covered a drug cartel kidnapping, a story that could have angered gang members.[8]

Aníbal Barrow claimed he received threats after he transferred his program to GloboTV. He once wrote, “Ideologies distract us like a circus. Journalists should contribute with the truth and leave the media show aside.” [9] His family and friends affirm he seemed anxious after receiving various messages that had threatened his life. He was later abducted by approximately 10 armed assailants and was found dead in July 2013, with signs that indicated he had been tortured. The last text message by Barrow, sent on his cell phone, read “The truth prevails and triumphs sooner or later.”[10]

Alfredo Villatoro was well known as a news coordinator for the radio station HRN. He was kidnapped in May 2012 after receiving threats and was found dead six days later. The assassins responsible were apprehended early in 2014, but the intellectual authors remain unknown. In addition, an aggravating factor is that no investigation has been carried out to find the motif for his killing.[11]

Among the recent victims, it is possible to find journalists who supported the coup as well. Joseph Hernández Ochoa, an entertainment journalist, was driving with a friend, Karol Cabrera, a reporter at Channel 8. Ochoa was fatally shot, but Cabrera believes she was the real target, since she had previously received phone threats due to her support of the coup that ousted Manuel Zelaya. In addition, Cabrera’s daughter was attacked in a similar fashion by criminals believed to support Zelaya.[12] This case illustrates the bifurcation of politics in Honduras and that attacks are carried against everyone on the ideological spectrum.

These are only three cases out of the 38 journalists who have been murdered since 2003. In Honduras, the media plays an essential role in the diffusion of information. In many cases, there are attempts to silence smaller news outlets due to the nature of information they distribute. For example, 36 members of the Council of Indigenous and Popular Organizations of Honduras (COPINH) have been accused of sedition for allowing the residents of San Francisco de Opalaca to object the election of the new mayor.[13]In fact, minorities often face obstacles that prevent them from voicing their concerns.  Smaller outlets definitely face numerous challenges because they are more likely to cover anti-corruption and human rights issues.

An Analytic Approach to the Freedom of Expression

John Stuart Mill once wrote that if someone’s opinion is silenced, then humanity is robbed of an opportunity to disseminate truth. Mill considered open discussion a necessary element for the functioning of democracy. He claimed, “the only way in which a human being can make some approach to knowing the whole of a subject, is by hearing what can be said about it by persons of every variety of opinion, and studying all modes in which it can be looked at by every character of mind.”[14] The media’s role is to relay different points of view in order to facilitate a dialogue. However, those denied access to the marketplace of ideas when open discussion already has so many obstacles, indicates the importance of an open society.  John Dewey holds a similar belief and affirms that good citizens enrich each other by deeming everyone as equals. That does not entail uniformity amongst citizens, but an acceptance that every person is unique. Citizens communicate with each other to express their interests and beliefs, and the most well-rounded people are those who are able to listen to the opinion of others. However, some journalists succumb to self-censorship when they fear that their opinions will invite an upheaval or retaliation, and therefore stick to favoring the status quo.

The Honduran landscape presents a series of obstacles when it comes to communicating information. On one side of the debate, people believe that journalists are targeted because they make false claims. However, the Constitution states that every citizen is entitled to the freedom of expression and evidence shows that certain media workers were attacked for this very reason. Consequently, freedom of expression allows for the creation of an open dialogue and a society where its citizens are encouraged to discuss distinct points of view. The professional goal of journalists is to investigate and report their findings. However, in Honduras investigative journalism is declining due to fear and the corrosion of fundamental freedoms. In fact, studies reveal that in many cases victims were attacked before finding compromising information, but were targeted simply for investigating.[15] The obstacles faced by reporters reflect the lack of open discussion in a country that has a long way ahead to defend human rights.

In memory of the deceased journalists/reporters, media workers, and the families who have been afflicted.

1. German Rivas
2. Carlos Salgado
3. Fernando González
4. Bernardo Rivera Paz
5. Rafael Munguía
6. Osman Rodrigo López
7. Gabriel Fino Noriega
8. Nicolás Asfura
9. Joseph Hernández
10. David Meza
11. Nahúm Palacios
12. Bayardo Mairena
13. Víctor Manuel Juárez Vásquez
14. Luis Chévez Hernández
15. Georgino Orellana
16. Carlos Humberto Salinas Midence
17. Luis Arturo Mondragón
18. Israel Díaz Zelaya
19. Henry Orlando Suazo
20. Héctor Francisco Medina Polanco
21. Luis Mendoza
22. Adán Benítez
23. Nery Jeremías Orellana
24. Medardo Flores
25. Luz Marina Paz
26. Fabiola Almendares Borjas
27. Fausto Elio Valle
28. Noel Alexander Valladares
29. Erick Martínez
30. Ángel Alfredo Villatoro
31. Adonis Felipe Bueso Gutiérrez
32. José Noel Canales Lagos
33. Julio César Cassaleno
34. Ángel Edgardo López Fiallos
35. Celín Orlando Acosta Zelaya
36. Aníbal Barrow
37. Herlyn Espinal[16]

38. Dagoberto Díaz


1. Owens, Kaitlin. “Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity.” (2014): n. pag.Pen International. International Human Rights Program at University of Toronto.






7. Owens, Kaitlin. “Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity.” (2014): n. pag.Pen International. International Human Rights Program at University of Toronto.








15. Owens, Kaitlin. “Journalism in the Shadow of Impunity.” (2014): n. pag.Pen International. International Human Rights Program at University of Toronto.


News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 10:24:37 -0400
Social Media and Marissa Alexander: Freedom Mobilization and Victim-Blaming

2014 1023 maris fwJustice for Marissa Alexander protest in Oakland, July 20, 2013. (Photo: Steve Rhodes)

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Social media has been a powerful tool in building support and raising funds for Marissa Alexander's defense, while providing creative ways to discuss domestic violence and self-defense, particularly among black women.

This piece is the third story in a three-part series exploring the intersections of domestic violence, race, the criminal legal system and the case of Marissa Alexander. The first is in the link above and the second is here.

The trial of Marissa Alexander - the Florida mother facing 60 years in prison for firing a warning shot against her abusive husband - is approaching on December 8, 2014.

A large part of the mobilization for Marissa's freedom is happening via social media, where it ties in with broader discussions about violence against black women - both domestic violence and state violence. Through hashtag campaigns, an online store, fundraising and creative efforts - such as an ongoing Twitter campaign in which tweeters upload videos of themselves reading Nikki Finney's poem, "Flare," about Marissa Alexander - activists have been drawing attention to not only Marissa's case, but the core issues that have allowed it to play out as it has. The campaigns encourage people to think about the ways that black women, as victims of domestic violence, have been historically denied rights to self defense.

And so, while social media platforms are useful spaces for conducting freedom campaigns, they - particularly Twitter - have also served as forums for open discussions of the victimhood of black women.

Twitter has also served as a vehicle for basic facts: Since most mainstream media have ignored Marissa Alexander's case, much of the news about it has been publicized through social media. The conversations sparked by this publicity have oftentimes been productive and contributed to movement building. They have called into question stereotypes of who is seen as "vulnerable" and who traditional media outlets produce as "real victims" of violence.

Sometimes, though, loud, blatant and explicit forms of racism and gender-based stereotypes have been blasted throughout social media in response to the facts about Marissa's case. In real time, we are watching conversations that challenge the idea of black women as victims. In these conversations, people often use victim-blaming language that directly implies that Marissa and other domestic violence survivors are inherently responsible for their own assaults.

People who would have possibly not known about Marissa's case, if not for social media, are being made aware of her unjust criminalization - but they don't always assess it as "unjust." I have seen statements such as, "Why did she stay?" Or, "Why did she marry him if there was a history of abuse?" These types of questions are used to make survivors of domestic violence appear like they are not "real" victims. In fact, they are made to appear like perpetrators or even complicit in their own violence.

Some of the discussions of domestic violence and intimate partner violence on social media also reveal another dominant cultural tendency: They lack any acknowledgement of black women's pain.

While groups in Chicago and elsewhere were mobilizing for Marissa's freedom last month, the nation was circulating the video of Janay Rice being explicitly attacked by former Baltimore Ravens player Ray Rice. In an article in Ebony, Damon Young calls reactions to this video "explaining it away." Many people attempted to "explain away" the assault of Janay Rice, even though there was considerable evidence, through videotape, that she was in fact a victim, not a perpetrator. Similarly, in the case of Marissa Alexander, considerable evidence shows that Marissa endured abuse at the hands of her estranged husband - and he himself admitted this. Yet these assaults can be "explained away," in a world where dominant narratives do not give black women the status of victim.

Conversations that cast doubt on Marissa's right to defend herself become a simultaneous justification of assault against black women. They deflect from the fact that Marissa - along with so many others who've been in her place - was in fact a survivor and not a perpetrator. In addition to flat-out victim blaming, this refusal to acknowledge black women's pain shows up in questions about how much Marissa was abused, or how severely - as if, when it comes to women of color, it is appropriate to ask, "Was her pain bad enough?" Even with overwhelming evidence like a videotape or an abuser's testimony, black women are still not seen as "real" victims by dominant forces.

This refusal to acknowledge victimhood has harmful effects in and of itself. "Explaining away" or denying domestic violence further criminalizes and punishes women, particularly women of color, for violence that has been perpetrated against them (including violence by the state).

However, a very particular moment in the United States, as it relates to domestic violence, is here. With the publicity around Janay Rice, major institutions like the National Football League (NFL) and the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) have been forced to address issues of domestic violence due to pressure from social media. The NFL, especially, has seen a major push through social media activism to address its lack of policy for issues of domestic violence among players. Issues of domestic violence are playing out on the stage of national athletics, as well as in a courtroom in Jacksonville, Florida, for Marissa Alexander. Although it brings out all kinds of responses - some of them counterproductive - this is still a moment that can be seized to raise much-needed awareness and draw attention to the movements that are already happening.

As October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, Free Marissa Now, the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander and various other groups are immersed in a "Keeping Marissa in Mind" campaign, drawing attention to Marissa Alexander's case - as well as the "cases" of all women of color, who are not seen as victims of violence with rights to defend themselves.

Social media has been used as an incredible tool for mobilization on behalf of Marissa Alexander. It has also been used as a medium for "explaining away" domestic violence. It is up to us to continue to mobilize, building our own narratives and speaking out about black women's pain, as we work toward Marissa Alexander's freedom.

For more information on what you can do to help Marissa, please consult the Free Marissa Now Mobilization Campaign's website to Get Involved! For further information on how to develop a prisoner defense committee, to support people involved with the criminal legal system, please consult the Chicago Alliance to Free Marissa Alexander.

News Thu, 23 Oct 2014 09:34:00 -0400
Turning Fear Into Power: An Interview With Unarmed Peacekeeper Linda Sartor

2014 1023 fear swLinda Sartor standing on a Soviet tank outside of Kabul, Afghanistan. (Photo: Peggy Gish / WNV)Linda Sartor is not afraid to die. Dedicated to nonviolence, she spent 10 years after September 11, 2001 traveling to conflict zones throughout the world as an unarmed peacekeeper, with roles ranging from protective accompaniment to direct interpositioning between parties when tensions were running high. She documents her work across the world — in Israel/Palestine, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sri Lanka, Iran and most recently Bahrain — in her new book, Turning Fear into Power: One Woman’s Journey Confronting the War on Terror. Inwardly quiet and exceedingly humble (she chose to sleep outside for eight years of her adult life), her courage and conviction are not only refreshing, they’re infectious. I recently had the privilege of spending a day with her to discuss her travels and the ways in which they have changed her as an individual, as well as her relationship to nonviolent action.

Is there a nonviolent response to terrorism?

I think George W. Bush misused the word “terrorism” so much that it really has no meaning. When protesters in the Occupy movement are portrayed as terrorists, that really changes the meaning of democracy too. If there is such a thing as real terrorism, I think it is often a last resort cry for help by people who are being severely abused and mistreated and who don’t have any other way to be seen and heard by those who could bring justice to a situation. A nonviolent response to terrorism is anything that brings more justice into the world, including more equity in our global economic system so that all people have their needs met and no one can abuse anyone else for their own economic advantage.

What does activism mean to you?

I think the word activism most often means protesting against something, but I am more excited about Gandhi’s idea of constructive program. I prefer the focus on creating models of what we want as opposed to protesting against what we don’t want because I believe that when we put energy against something it actually gives that something more power.

You worked for an organization doing constructive program, which is at the forefront of international unarmed peacekeeping, the Gandhian dream of the Shanti Sena, or Peace Army. Can you tell a story illustrating that kind of nonviolence at work?

The day after a massacre in a Christian Tamil village on an island in Sri Lanka, we Nonviolent Peaceforce unarmed civilian peacekeepers were greeted by the priest who took us to see the bodies. The people of the village were all excited to tell us what they had experienced the night before when the 11 people were killed. Each story confirmed that the killers were of the Sri Lankan Navy. The way it worked in Sri Lanka was that the bodies had to stay in place until the judge looked at them. When the judge arrived walking down the street, she was accompanied by Navy and police. So as soon as the villagers saw the group coming, the women and children all quickly went inside the churchyard and the men clumped closer to each other on the side of the street across from the church. The tension was palpable.

I positioned myself on the side of the clump of men, so the Navy, police and judge walked past me first and then past the village men. As they passed, I smiled and waved and that proved to be totally disarming of the tensions. At that moment, I felt a bodily knowledge that I was safer because I was unarmed than I would have been armed. No one had any reason to be afraid of me, so I was not in personal danger. From that morning on, until the villagers decided to move from their village into a refugee camp, we were able to provide a protective presence to the people and they felt a sense of security that the Navy, which was supposedly responsible for their security, could not provide.

You are one person. What makes you hopeful that you can make a difference?

After 9/11, I couldn’t sit still. I felt a longing to get into some sort of action to take a stronger stand than I had ever taken before. In the 10 years of my life that I portray in my book, I don’t know concretely how much of a difference my actions made in the bigger picture. Like the Afghan Peace Volunteers I spent time with in Afghanistan, I don’t necessarily expect to see the changes I am committed to working toward come about in my lifetime. But I believe that I have to work toward those changes anyway. It is like the line in the song “The Impossible Dream” that says, “And I know if I’ll only be true to this glorious quest, that my heart will lie peaceful and calm when I’m laid to my rest; and the world will be better for this.”

On another level, if I see something out there in the world that is not okay with me, I believe that if I look inside myself and ask something like, “Where is that violence in me?” then I have a place within myself that I can work to heal. Maybe that is the only place where I really have the power to make a difference. I do believe that that little bit of healing does contribute to the healing that’s needed in the world.

I have been inspired by the words of the poet Clarissa Pinkola Estes, when she says, “Ours is not the task of fixing the entire world all at once, but of stretching out to mend the part of the world that is within our reach. Any small calm thing that one soul can do to help another soul, to assist some portion of this poor suffering world, will help immensely … We know that it does not take everyone on Earth to bring justice and peace, but only a small determined group who will not give up.”

Your book is about transforming fear into nonviolent power. Fearlessness was one of Gandhi’s key characteristics of the nonviolent soul, or satyagrahi. In his 1928 work, “Satyagraha in South Africa,” he said, “A satyagrahi bids goodbye to fear.” What role do you think fear plays in perpetuating violence in our world?

I see that the powers of domination that seem to be in control of the world today thrive on creating and perpetuating a culture of fear. Fear is contagious and easily blown out of proportion by our imaginations. I see that especially when it is at a distance. For example, people who don’t live in California are afraid of earthquakes and since I have never been in a tornado I fear that. I realized when I was preparing for my first trip — which was to Israel/Palestine — that for everyone back home it would seem like I would be in danger all the time. But in reality, there were only a few moments that were quite scary, and the rest of the time was not.

We can learn to let fears be our teachers and when we accept, or even embrace, a fear and let ourselves learn what we have to learn from it, it has less control over us. It’s not that we ever get rid of fear, it is just that we can be with fear in a different way. The more I am able to be with my fears, the more freedom I have to do what my heart is calling me to do, and the more alive I feel in the end.

Do you recommend that everyone travel to conflict zones as you have?

I encourage people to recognize that they don’t have to do what I did, but that their own hearts have unique callings that are right for them. I trust that if each of us does that, it can lead to solutions that we can’t find when we only think about the problems from our heads and from the perspective of what we’ve done before.

Opinion Thu, 23 Oct 2014 10:02:09 -0400
The Importance of Being Exceptional: From Ancient Greece to 21st Century US

The origins of the phrase “American exceptionalism” are not especially obscure. The French sociologist Alexis de Tocqueville, observing this country in the 1830s, said that Americans seemed exceptional in valuing practical attainments almost to the exclusion of the arts and sciences. The Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin, on hearing a report by the American Communist Party that workers in the United States in 1929 were not ready for revolution, denounced “the heresy of American exceptionalism.” In 1996, the political scientist Seymour Martin Lipset took those hints from Tocqueville and Stalin and added some of his own to produce his book American Exceptionalism: A Double-Edged Sword. The virtues of American society, for Lipset -- our individualism, hostility to state action, and propensity for ad hoc problem-solving -- themselves stood in the way of a lasting and prudent consensus in the conduct of American politics.

In recent years, the phrase “American exceptionalism,” at once resonant and ambiguous, has stolen into popular usage in electoral politics, in the mainstream media, and in academic writing with a profligacy that is hard to account for. It sometimes seems that exceptionalism for Americans means everything from generosity to selfishness, localism to imperialism, indifference to “the opinions of mankind” to a readiness to incorporate the folkways of every culture. When President Obama told West Point graduates last May that “I believe in American exceptionalism with every fiber of my being,” the context made it clear that he meant the United States was the greatest country in the world: our stature was demonstrated by our possession of “the finest fighting force that the world has ever known,” uniquely tasked with defending liberty and peace globally; and yet we could not allow ourselves to “flout international norms” or be a law unto ourselves. The contradictory nature of these statements would have satisfied even Tocqueville’s taste for paradox.

On the whole, is American exceptionalism a force for good? The question shouldn’t be hard to answer. To make an exception of yourself is as immoral a proceeding for a nation as it is for an individual. When we say of a person (usually someone who has gone off the rails), “He thinks the rules don’t apply to him,” we mean that he is a danger to others and perhaps to himself. People who act on such a belief don’t as a rule examine themselves deeply or write a history of the self to justify their understanding that they are unique. Very little effort is involved in their willfulness. Such exceptionalism, indeed, comes from an excess of will unaccompanied by awareness of the necessity for self-restraint.

Such people are monsters. Many land in asylums, more in prisons. But the category also encompasses a large number of high-functioning autistics: governors, generals, corporate heads, owners of professional sports teams. When you think about it, some of these people do write histories of themselves and in that pursuit, a few of them have kept up the vitality of an ancient genre: criminal autobiography.

All nations, by contrast, write their own histories as a matter of course. They preserve and exhibit a record of their doings; normally, of justified conduct, actions worthy of celebration. “Exceptional” nations, therefore, are compelled to engage in some fancy bookkeeping which exceptional individuals can avoid -- at least until they are put on trial or subjected to interrogation under oath. The exceptional nation will claim that it is not responsible for its exceptional character. Its nature was given by God, or History, or Destiny.

An external and semi-miraculous instrumentality is invoked to explain the prodigy whose essence defies mere scientific understanding. To support the belief in the nation’s exceptional character, synonyms and variants of the word “providence” often get slotted in.  That word gained its utility at the end of the seventeenth century -- the start of the epoch of nations formed in Europe by a supposed covenant or compact. Providence splits the difference between the accidents of fortune and purposeful design; it says that God is on your side without having the bad manners to pronounce His name.

Why is it immoral for a person to treat himself as an exception? The reason is plain: because morality, by definition, means a standard of right and wrong that applies to all persons without exception. Yet to answer so briefly may be to oversimplify. For at least three separate meanings are in play when it comes to exceptionalism, with a different apology backing each. The glamour that surrounds the idea owes something to confusion among these possible senses.

First, a nation is thought to be exceptional by its very nature. It is so consistently worthy that a unique goodness shines through all its works. Who would hesitate to admire the acts of such a country? What foreigner would not wish to belong to it? Once we are held captive by this picture, “my country right or wrong” becomes a proper sentiment and not a wild effusion of prejudice, because we cannot conceive of the nation being wrong.

A second meaning of exceptional may seem more open to rational scrutiny. Here, the nation is supposed to be admirable by reason of history and circumstance. It has demonstrated its exceptional quality by adherence to ideals which are peculiar to its original character and honorable as part of a greater human inheritance. Not “my country right or wrong” but “my country, good and getting better” seems to be the standard here. The promise of what the country could turn out to be supports this faith. Its moral and political virtue is perceived as a historical deposit with a rich residue in the present.

A third version of exceptionalism derives from our usual affectionate feelings about living in a community on the scale of a neighborhood or township, an ethnic group or religious sect. Communitarian nationalism takes the innocent-seeming step of generalizing that sentiment to the nation at large. My country is exceptional to me (according to this view) just because it is mine. Its familiar habits and customs have shaped the way I think and feel; nor do I have the slightest wish to extricate myself from its demands. The nation, then, is like a gigantic family, and we owe it what we owe to the members of our family: “unconditional love.” This sounds like the common sense of ordinary feelings. How can our nation help being exceptional tous?

Teacher of the World

Athens was just such an exceptional nation, or city-state, as Pericles described it in his celebrated oration for the first fallen soldiers in the Peloponnesian War. He meant his description of Athens to carry both normative force and hortatory urgency. It is, he says, the greatest of Greek cities, and this quality is shown by its works, shining deeds, the structure of its government, and the character of its citizens, who are themselves creations of the city. At the same time, Pericles was saying to the widows and children of the war dead: Resemble them! Seek to deserve the name of Athenian as they have deserved it!

The oration, recounted by Thucydides in the History of the Peloponnesian War, begins by praising the ancestors of Athenian democracy who by their exertions have made the city exceptional. “They dwelt in the country without break in the succession from generation to generation, and handed it down free to the present time by their valor.” Yet we who are alive today, Pericles says, have added to that inheritance; and he goes on to praise the constitution of the city, which “does not copy the laws of neighboring states; we are rather a pattern to others than imitators ourselves.”

The foreshadowing here of American exceptionalism is uncanny and the anticipation of our own predicament continues as the speech proceeds. “In our enterprises we present the singular spectacle of daring and deliberation, each carried to its highest point, and both united in the same persons... As a city we are the school of Hellas” -- by which Pericles means that no representative citizen or soldier of another city could possibly be as resourceful as an Athenian. This city, alone among all the others, is greater than her reputation.

We Athenians, he adds, choose to risk our lives by perpetually carrying a difficult burden, rather than submitting to the will of another state. Our readiness to die for the city is the proof of our greatness. Turning to the surviving families of the dead, he admonishes and exalts them: “You must yourselves realize the power of Athens,” he tells the widows and children, “and feed your eyes upon her from day to day, till love of her fills your hearts; and then when all her greatness shall break upon you, you must reflect that it was by courage, sense of duty, and a keen feeling of honor in action that men were enabled to win all this.” So stirring are their deeds that the memory of their greatness is written in the hearts of men in faraway lands: “For heroes have the whole earth for their tomb.”

Athenian exceptionalism at its height, as the words of Pericles indicate, took deeds of war as proof of the worthiness of all that the city achieved apart from war. In this way, Athens was placed beyond comparison: nobody who knew it and knew other cities could fail to recognize its exceptional nature. This was not only a judgment inferred from evidence but an overwhelming sensation that carried conviction with it. The greatness of the city ought to be experienced, Pericles imagines, as a vision that “shall break upon you.”

Guilty Past, Innocent Future

To come closer to twenty-first-century America, consider how, in the Gettysburg Address, Abraham Lincoln gave an exceptional turn to an ambiguous past. Unlike Pericles, he was speaking in the midst of a civil war, not a war between rival states, and this partly explains the note of self-doubt that we may detect in Lincoln when we compare the two speeches. At Gettysburg, Lincoln said that a pledge by the country as a whole had been embodied in a single document, the Declaration of Independence. He took the Declaration as his touchstone, rather than the Constitution, for a reason he spoke of elsewhere: the latter document had been freighted with compromise. The Declaration of Independence uniquely laid down principles that might over time allow the idealism of the founders to be realized.

Athens, for Pericles, was what Athens always had been. The Union, for Lincoln, was what it had yet to become. He associated the greatness of past intentions -- “We hold these truths to be self-evident” -- with the resolve he hoped his listeners would carry out in the present moment: “It is [not for the noble dead but] rather for us to be here dedicated to the great task remaining before us -- that from these honored dead we take increased devotion to that cause for which they gave the last full measure of devotion -- that we here highly resolve that these dead shall not have died in vain -- that this nation, under God, shall have a new birth of freedom.”

This allegorical language needs translation. In the future, Lincoln is saying, there will be a popular government and a political society based on the principle of free labor. Before that can happen, however, slavery must be brought to an end by carrying the country’s resolution into practice. So Lincoln asks his listeners to love their country for what it may become, not what it is. Their self-sacrifice on behalf of a possible future will serve as proof of national greatness. He does not hide the stain of slavery that marred the Constitution; the imperfection of the founders is confessed between the lines.  But the logic of the speech implies, by a trick of grammar and perspective, that the Union was always pointed in the direction of the Civil War that would make it free.

Notice that Pericles’s argument for the exceptional city has here been reversed. The future is not guaranteed by the greatness of the past; rather, the tarnished virtue of the past will be scoured clean by the purity of the future.  Exceptional in its reliance on slavery, the state established by the first American Revolution is thus to be redeemed by the second. Through the sacrifice of nameless thousands, the nation will defeat slavery and justify its fame as the truly exceptional country its founders wished it to be.

Most Americans are moved (without quite knowing why) by the opening words of the Gettysburg Address: “Four score and seven years ago our fathers...” Four score and seven is a biblical marker of the life of one person, and the words ask us to wonder whether our nation, a radical experiment based on a radical “proposition,” can last longer than a single life-span. The effect is provocative. Yet the backbone of Lincoln’s argument would have stood out more clearly if the speech had instead begun: “Two years from now, perhaps three, our country will see a great transformation.” The truth is that the year of the birth of the nation had no logical relationship to the year of the “new birth of freedom.” An exceptional character, however, whether in history or story, demands an exceptional plot; so the speech commences with deliberately archaic language to ask its implicit question: Can we Americans survive today and become the school of modern democracy, much as Athens was the school of Hellas?

The Ties That Bind and Absolve

To believe that our nation has always been exceptional, as Pericles said Athens was, or that it will soon justify such a claim, as Lincoln suggested America would do, requires a suppression of ordinary skepticism. The belief itself calls for extraordinary arrogance or extraordinary hope in the believer. In our time, exceptionalism has been made less exacting by an appeal to national feeling based on the smallest and most vivid community that most people know: the family.  Governor Mario Cuomo of New York, in his keynote address at the 1984 Democratic convention, put this straightforwardly. America, said Cuomo, was like a family, and a good family never loses its concern for the least fortunate of its members. In 2011, President Obama, acceding to Republican calls for austerity that led to the sequestration of government funds, told us that the national economy was just like a household budget and every family knows that it must pay its bills.

To take seriously the metaphor of the nation-as-family may lead to a sense of sentimental obligation or prudential worry on behalf of our fellow citizens. But many people think we should pursue the analogy further. If our nation does wrong, they say, we must treat it as an error and not a crime because, after all, we owe our nation unconditional love. Yet here the metaphor betrays our thinking into a false equation. A family has nested us, cradled us, nursed us from infancy, as we have perhaps done for later generations of the same family; and it has done so in a sense that is far more intimate than the sense in which a nation has fostered or nurtured us. We know our family with an individuated depth and authority that can’t be brought to our idea of a nation. This may be a difference of kind, or a difference of degree, but the difference is certainly great.

A subtle deception is involved in the analogy between nation and family; and an illicit transfer of feelings comes with the appeal to “unconditional love.” What do we mean by unconditional love, even at the level of the family? Suppose my delinquent child robs and beats an old man on a city street, and I learn of it by his own confession or by accident. What exactly do I owe him?

Unconditional love, in this setting, surely means that I can’t stop caring about my child; that I will regard his terrible action as an aberration. I will be bound to think about the act and actor quite differently from the way I would think about anyone else who committed such a crime. But does unconditional love also require that I make excuses for him? Shall I pay a lawyer to get him off the hook and back on the streets as soon as possible? Is it my duty to conceal what he has done, if there is a chance of keeping it secret? Must I never say what he did in the company of strangers or outside the family circle?

At a national level, the doctrine of exceptionalism as unconditional love encourages habits of suppression and euphemism that sink deep roots in the common culture. We have seen the result in America in the years since 2001. In the grip of this doctrine, torture has become “enhanced interrogation”; wars of aggression have become wars for democracy; a distant likely enemy has become an “imminent threat” whose very existence justifies an executive order to kill. These are permitted and officially sanctioned forms of collective dishonesty. They begin in quasi-familial piety, they pass through the systematic distortion of language, and they end in the corruption of consciousness. 

The commandment to “keep it in the family” is a symptom of that corruption. It follows that one must never speak critically of one’s country in the hearing of other nations or write against its policies in foreign newspapers. No matter how vicious and wrong the conduct of a member of the family may be, one must assume his good intentions. This ideology abets raw self-interest in justifying many actions by which the United States has revealingly made an exception of itself -- for example, our refusal to participate in the International Criminal Court. The community of nations, we declared, was not situated to understand the true extent of our constabulary responsibilities. American actions come under a different standard and we are the only qualified judges of our own cause.

The doctrine of the national family may be a less fertile source of belligerent pride than “my country right or wrong.” It may be less grandiose, too, than the exceptionalism that asks us to love our country for ideals that have never properly been translated into practice. And yet, in this appeal to the family, one finds the same renunciation of moral knowledge -- a renunciation that, if followed, would render inconceivable any social order beyond that of the family and its extension, the tribe.

Unconditional love of our country is the counterpart of unconditional detachment and even hostility toward other countries. None of us is an exception, and no nation is. The sooner we come to live with this truth as a mundane reality without exceptions, the more grateful other nations will be to live in a world that includes us, among others.

Opinion Thu, 23 Oct 2014 09:37:13 -0400