Saturday, May 14, 2011

American Vendetta

"He who seeks revenge should remember to dig two graves." - Chinese proverb

America's decade-long quest to find Osama bin Laden has ended, and its conclusion was as messy and violent as its journey.  24 Navy SEALS in two Black Hawk helicopters (with an apparent stealth capability) raided Bin Laden's Abbottabad compound, killing Osama's courier in a firefight as well as killing four other unarmed people, including Osama.  One chopper's rotor clipped the concrete walls of the compound, and had to be destroyed after it crashed.  The raid was described as a "kill or capture" operation, but commandos were told that Osama should be considered to wear a bomb vest unless he was naked.  This represents a weak cover up of what had been a targeted assassination from the beginning.

Official accounts on the raid have been contradictory and often false.  Robert Booth at The Guardian has already gone over the changing stories in the first two days after the raid.  Most notable were the reports that Osama was armed and engaged in a firefight with the SEALS, and that he used his wife as a human shield.  The falseness of these claims were blamed on "the fog of war," but these kind of disinformation tactics have been used frequently during America's War on Terror.

Design docs from the upcoming Call of Duty
This is the graphic that appears on The Daily Mail's story for the raid, with Navy SEALS dodging bullets like Neo and facing down Osama as if he was the stage boss in a videogame.  It's not surprising at all that the conservative British press would portray Osama's death in such terms of militaristic wish fulfillment, since it was the Times of London who initially portrayed the Tora Bora base as a hollowed out Bond villain lair back in 2001.

No Mr. Bush, I expect you to die!
Portraying Osama and Al-Qaeda in such larger than life terms gives the false impression of an immense threat to the United States and the world.  It's difficult to justify overwhelming military force against a small band of fighters, so giving Al-Qaeda the capability of a small military retroactively vindicated the military invasion of Afghanistan.  Most Americans tend to consume a low amount of information, and likely won't follow the stories about "Operation Neptune's Spear" beyond the first day or so.  Disinformation coming from the White House and the Right Wing Press are designed to sate the need for vengeance and retroactively justify the occupation of Afghanistan over an organization that's been effectively dead for years.  Claims that Al-Qaeda are responsible for several terrorist attacks since 9/11 are dubious at best.  These attacks are often carried out by Al-Qaeda affiliated jihadists in local countries, but their reporting gives the impression that they were carried out under Osama's leadership.
"There is no umbrella organization. We like to create a mythical entity called al-Qaeda in our minds, but that is not the reality we are dealing with." - Marc Sageman, CIA
Osama's death represents the loss of a wealth of potential information, most of which was likely deemed to be buried by the Obama administration.  What kind of questions could Osama have shed light on?

Allegations of CIA involvement with Al-Qaeda have been ubiquitous since 9/11.  Generally they claim Al-Qaeda represents blowback from the CIA's support of the mujahideen in Afghanistan.  Yet Arab mujahideen were largely funded themselves or from other Arab nations, and did not require CIA support.  Even though it's not likely that the CIA supported Bin Laden's organization in particular, the success of the mujahideen in Afghanistan served as a boon for anti-Western jihad.  People forget that resistance to communism in Afghanistan was not based on any kind of liberal notions of freedom or self-determination, but because the communists attempted to modernize Afghanistan and achieve gender equality.  Communism was the western influence which the mujahideen struggled against, and shedding light on this issue has uncomfortable implications for the CIA's involvements elsewhere.

The Taliban has been supported by the Inter-Services Intelligence (Pakistan's intelligence agency) since its inception in 1994.  Taliban leadership were initially trained at refugee camps in Pakistan, and recently declassified CIA documents reveal that thousands of Pakistani regulars were fighting as Taliban during the 1990s.  This was an effort to quell warlordism following the collapse of the Communist regime and to keep Afghanistan on a short leash, but the Taliban proved noncompliant.  The practice likely still continues in an effort to push the Taliban out of Waziristan and back into Afghanistan.  Osama's affiliation with the Taliban likely meant that he received real support from the ISI, something that they would absolutely want to keep under wraps.  The ISI has likely given up information leading to Osama's assassination in order to give the United States a pretext to withdraw from Afghanistan and end Obama's destructive drone war in Waziristan.

Perhaps of most significant concern to the United States is the involvement of several Saudi royal family members in supporting and financing Al-Qaeda.  This kind of information calls into question the efficacy of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as fronts in the War on Terror, when wealthy financiers and US allies like the Sauds continue to surreptitiously support global jihad.  This is an uncomfortable reminder for terror warriors that non-state actors like Osama are often the tools of deep cover state agendas.

Documents gathered by lawyers for the families of Sept. 11 victims provide new evidence of extensive financial support for Al Qaeda and other extremist groups by members of the Saudi royal family, but the material may never find its way into court because of legal and diplomatic obstacles.

The case has put the Obama administration in the middle of a political and legal dispute, with the Justice Department siding with the Saudis in court last month in seeking to kill further legal action. Adding to the intrigue, classified American intelligence documents related to Saudi finances were leaked anonymously to lawyers for the families. The Justice Department had the lawyers’ copies destroyed and now wants to prevent a judge from even looking at the material. (emphasis mine)

The Saudis and their defenders in Washington have long denied links to terrorists, and they have mounted an aggressive and, so far, successful campaign to beat back the allegations in federal court based on a claim of sovereign immunity.  - The New York Times (June 3, 2009) 
Capturing Osama also presents a number of problems for the United States.  General anti-Muslim sentiment in the military has already reached a fever pitch, so it's almost certain that Osama would be tortured by his captors at some point.  Any such event would call into question the moral certitude of America's war.  Furthermore the questions of jurisdiction would go unanswered.  Should Osama be tried in a criminal, military, or international court?  What rights of his would be guaranteed if at all?  Bush administration stooges like John Yoo would insist that Osama has no rights, and any fair treatment by the Obama administration would serve as terrorist coddling.  In the end, it's much more convenient for the United States to simply murder Osama bin Laden.

The American people did not choose this fight.  It came to our shores, and started with the senseless slaughter of our citizens.  After nearly 10 years of service, struggle, and sacrifice, we know well the costs of war.  These efforts weigh on me every time I, as Commander-in-Chief, have to sign a letter to a family that has lost a loved one, or look into the eyes of a service member who’s been gravely wounded.
So Americans understand the costs of war.  Yet as a country, we will never tolerate our security being threatened, nor stand idly by when our people have been killed.  We will be relentless in defense of our citizens and our friends and allies.  We will be true to the values that make us who we are. And on nights like this one, we can say to those families who have lost loved ones to al Qaeda’s terror:  Justice has been done. - Barack Obama's address to the nation (May 2, 2011)
This assassination does not represent justice, but the fulfillment of a decade of American vendetta against  Osama bin Laden and all who could (allegedly) support him.

My most distinct memory of 9/11 is standing in front of my class while waiting for my friend to show up.  When he did his face was flushed and seething with rage, "Who did this?  How could they do this to us?"  I remember because I was feeling the same thing: vengeance.  The collective bloodlust that drove the US to invade Afghanistan was then later used to justify the invasion and occupation of Iraq as a second front in the War on Terror.  Americans do not understand the costs of war, because if they did as Obama claims, they would feel shame for the evils we've unleashed upon the world.

As of August 10, 2010, US military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan number 5,554, with suicide becoming an epidemic.  Civilian deaths in Afghanistan number 8,813, while civilian deaths in Iraq could be between 100,000 and 900,000 depending on who you ask, with millions of people displaced in both countries.  All of this death and suffering was inflicted as a reaction to the deaths of 3,000 Americans in the WTC and Pentagon, in wars that have little to no relevancy to general counter terrorism methods.  This is not to play a numbers game and say that we are worse than Osama bin Laden, but that the US-led Coalition and Al-Qaeda are morally equivalent.

But rather than feel ashamed people felt vindicated.  Why?  Because America has a long history which supports the culture of vendetta.

Revenge is a common theme in media.  It's the primary motivation behind many of the best westerns, and vengeance for wrongs justify the death of untold scores of people.  Films which contradict this culture of vendetta like Kick-Ass are few and far between.  There's also a significant problem when these portrayals are digested by society as a whole: they portray acts of individual retribution for personal wrongs.

The vast majority of Americans weren't wronged by 9/11, only in a general sense of cultural tribalism were we all "attacked."  Conservative and Christian ideologues have even gone so far as to conflate this sense of tribalism to a conflict between the West and Islam in general.  Those who actually did experience personal loss on 9/11 have expressed mixed reactions to Osama's killing.  Killing Osama will not bring their loved ones back.

A Del City, Oklahoma man was recently pinned down, had the word "RAPEST" tattooed on his forehead, and was beaten unconscious with baseball bats.  One of the accused claims he tried to have sex with her, and the particulars of the case have all the signs of a public shaming ritual more commonly known as scapegoating.  Colonial Americans practiced public humiliation all the time, with entire communities engaging in bizarrely choreographed rituals designed to shame or exile an individual, regardless of their guilt or innocence.  The practice died out in the North, but continued in the Old South as rural lifestyles gave primary importance to the social implications of honor society.  Duels and blood feuds continued unabated, with sometimes entire clans being wiped out in acts of mutual retribution.  This is why when considering our modern wars it does not matter who killed who, because acts of vengeance are taken out constantly by multiple sectarian parties.

Because vendettas and blood feuds created inescapable cycles of retribution, most of the world's governments ended the practice and claimed a monopoly on the legitimate use of force.  Once the US government claimed that monopoly, it also became the arbiter of social vengeance.  Victim's justice holds sway in the American judicial system, which often means that brutal punishment is meted out to those who commit heinous acts like murder or rape.  From 1968 to 1976 there were no death sentences carried out in the United States, but when capital punishment was reinstated by Gregg v. Georgia the use of the death penalty became even more popular.  The death penalty as it is practiced is very convenient for those seeking vengeance.  Because the state fulfills deadly retribution, there is no one to take vengeance upon.  Those who seek the death penalty like victim's advocates and prosecutors are protected by incorporating themselves into an odious machine which confers responsibility to no individual group or person.  With vengeance being popularized in this manner, most people have forgotten that ancient Chinese adage.

The retribution for Osama's murder would be inevitable, and on May 13 it has already happened:

ISLAMABAD – A double Taliban suicide attack Friday that killed 66 paramilitary police recruits represented the deadliest terrorist strike in Pakistan since the killing of Osama bin Laden. It sent a strong signal that militants mean to fight on and to try to avenge the al-Qaida leader...

In claiming responsibility for Friday's attack in northwest Pakistan, which also wounded about 120 people, the Taliban said it was avenging the May 2 death of bin Laden. It cited anger at Pakistan's military for failing to stop the unilateral U.S. raid on bin Laden's hideaway.

"The Pakistani army has failed to protect its land," Ahsanullah Ahsan, a spokesman for the Pakistani Taliban, told The Associated Press in a phone call. - AP (May 13, 2011)
Americans must train this culture of vendetta out of our society, and re-think our notions of justice.  We could all take a hard lesson from Mohammed Kinani, a man denied the simple retribution of an apology from Blackwater (Xe) for the murder of his son Allawi in the Nisoor Square Massacre.

When it comes to the question of Osama and justice, I'm inclined to agree with Tim Kreider.
Suggested Reading:
Honor and Violence in the Old South by Bertram Wyatt-Brown 
The Culture of Vengeance and the Fate of American Justice by Terry K. Aladjem

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