In Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, an army helicopter has just gone down, undoubtedly stirring mixed reaction among villagers in the area.
On the one hand, the crash -- reported by Jakarta's Metro TV as a shootdown -- killed officers of the hated Indonesian armed forces, TNI, the force that, in effect, occupies Aceh, a historically distinct region that wants independence. But on the other hand it is sure to bring the most terrible retribution if the TNI decides to say that rebel fire brought down the copter.
Day-to-day the TNI abuses Acehnese for fun (the rapes), for profit (the extortion and theft), and to break them (rape, torture, murder, school burning and reeducation camps), and to provide an excuse for their own existence in an Indonesia with few external enemies. But on those occasions when the outgunned Aceh rebels (GAM, the Aceh Freedom Movement) actually attack the army or police, the security forces strike back disproportionately, sometimes at the spouses and children.
Last week Amnesty International released a report on Aceh noting that "human rights abuses ... are so pervasive that there is virtually no part of life in the province
which remains untouched" ("New Military Operations, Old Patterns of Human Rights Abuses in Aceh," Amnesty International, October 7, 2004). They spoke of recent "extrajudicial executions of civilians by the military" -- local activists say hundreds of them -- including "the unlawful killing of women and children," a fact which is not surprising, given that the Indonesian army commander has said that anyone who criticizes military rule is GAM, and that the national TNI chief has said of GAM: "hunt them down and exterminate them" (Anatara, the government press agency, quoted Gen. Ryamizard Ryacudu as saying, on December 8, 2003: "People who dislike the military emergency in Aceh are GAM members. So if they have the same voice as GAM members, this will mean that they are the younger brothers of the separatist movement." Amnesty quoted Gen. Endriartono Sutarto at a May, 2003 military briefing).
Aceh is actually one of the worst cases of repression of civilians in the world, but, for various reasons the world doesn't see it even though the scale is comparable to that of, say, Palestine. The economy is based on the revenues of a vast Exxon/Mobil-run natural gas field -- or, it would be if those revenues found their way back into the hands of poor Acehnese (2001 central government statistics said 21.6% of Aceh toddlers were malnourished; a later internal World Bank estimate put the percentage twice as high).
Though Aceh is officially part of Indonesia, in May of 2003 the TNI launched a full-scale invasion of the place, explicitly modeled on the then-recent US invasion of Iraq. The invasion featured much talk from Jakarta authorities about "shock therapy," "embedded" journalists, and the political "blessing of September 11" (as the Indonesian president's main political aide, Rizal Mallarangeng, put it [Jane Perlez, "Indonesia Says it Will Press Attacks on Separatists in Sumatra," New York Times, May 23, 2003]), as well as "numerous extra-judicial executions of civilians by the Indonesian military (TNI)" ("Aceh Under Martial Law: Human Rights Under Fire," Human Rights Watch Briefing Paper, June 2003). The Indonesian Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda was quoted by the BBC (May 9, 2003): "Honestly, what we are doing or will do in Aceh is much less than the American power that was deployed in Iraq."
The TNI sealed the point with bombing runs from US supplied F-16s, and low-level strafing from US OV-10s, a plane that also figured prominently in Vietnam and in occupied East Timor.
But TNI has had to be sparing with those Aceh raids because they are hurting for spare parts. US military aid and sales were severely curtailed due to US grassroots activism in the '90s, but now the Bush administration is pushing to restore training and subsidized weapons sales to Indonesia and Attorney General Ashcroft wants to formally classify the Aceh GAM rebels as "terrorist."
President Bush senior once gave a good, objective definition of terrorism. In his Vice Presidential foreword to a Pentagon/State Department report on the subject, Bush the elder wrote: "terrorists deliberately target noncombatants for their own cynical purposes. They kill and main defenseless men, women and children ... Freedom fighters, in contrast, seek to adhere to international law and civilized standards of conduct. They attack military targets, not defenseless civilians."
Unfortunately, though, the Bush definition is not currently in use. If it were, US allies like the TNI would be targeted for US action rather than aid, and the old president's son would be facing trial -- or worse -- for sponsoring terrorism.
Tuesday, October 12, 2004
The Things that Terrorists Do: "Kill(ing) and Maim(ing) Defenseless Men, Women and Children," in this Case, in Aceh
In Indonesia's westernmost province of Aceh, an army helicopter has just gone down, undoubtedly stirring mixed reaction among villagers in the area.
Friday, October 8, 2004
The current thrust of US Democratic criticism on Iraq is that Bush has been too soft: he didn't send enough troops in the beginning and now he's too timid with insurgent strongholds. Thomas L. Friedman says there is a Rumsfeld Doctrine: "just enough troops to lose."
This characterization of the Bush team as peaceniks is partially true in a tactical sense. Though their goal is to provoke and use violence in a spectacular way to enhance their power, they are smart enough to know that they have to take some precautions in how they do it.
There are at this point in history only loose, minimal political constraints on the number of foreigners they can kill -- when asked after the 1991 Gulf War how many Iraquis the US had killed, then - Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman Colin Powell replied "It's really not a number I'm terribly interested in." (Patrick W. Tyler,"Powell Says US Will Stay in Iraq 'For Some Months'," New York Times, March 23, 1991) -- but they do have to avoid sacrificing too many US troops.
Vietnam was a fiasco for the US establishment not just because they lost the war, but also because a substantial portion of the US public rose against it. Its rightly assumed that two major reasons for that rising were the fact that the draft was still in place and the fact that roughly 58,000 US troops were killed (the more than two million Vietnamese dead were a contributing, but less politically important factor). The solution to these problems was to abolish the draft and then to alter tactics, using foreign surrogates and long-range bombing and shelling as substitutes for US ground troops, and trying to henceforth only attack countries and armies that couldn't defend themselves. If US ground troops had to be used, the rule was to get it over with quickly, before activists and those close to the victims had a chance to mobilize.
Now Democrats criticize the Republicans' tactics because the Democrats are out of office, but they will face the same problem if they win: how do you go around staging wars in a political environment where the public has inconveniently decided that they will place a high value on at least one kind of human life -- in this case the lives of US soldiers? It is a fundamental constraint -- and also a fundamental accomplishment of the anti-war movements that began in the '60s.
But imagine if the progress toward civilization continued and the fair-thinking people of today were able to engender an environment in which all human life was valued? That wouldn't and shouldn't abolish war -- sometimes, unfortunately, violence is necessary for self-defense or justice -- but it would make it vastly more difficult for rulers to stage war for insufficient reasons. Imagine if Colin Powell didn't have the luxury of saying he doesn't care, and the political price paid for, say, killing an Iraqui civilian equaled that for losing an American soldier.
Though Bush is vilified by Democrats he has actually killed fewer Iraquis than did Bill Clinton (the Clinton era sanctions killed well in excess of 400,000), but he has dramatized a fact that has prevailed in big powers throughout history: wars and mass killings can be staged for marginal reasons, almost for the hell of it. But that won't work if enough people mobilize and start counting every soul.
Thursday, October 7, 2004
When Charles Rangel, the anti-Iraq-war Democratic congressman from Harlem, first proposed reinstating the draft he was widely ignored, but this week the pro-war US House leadership made a point of bringing his bill up for a vote for the explicit purpose of defeating it (The vote was 402-2) ("House Overwhelmingly Stomps Out Bill that Would've Reinstated Draft," USA Today, October 5, 2004).
They wanted to scotch concerns that the draft might be revived because, as they aptly feared, such public belief could hurt the reelection and war plans of President Bush.
It was the influential Republican economist Milton Friedman -- a man with a deep grasp of the theory of self-interest and incentive -- who was among the first to propose undermining the anti-Vietnam-war movement by abolishing the draft. A summary of William F. Buckley's 1969 write-up of Friedman's plan was read with enthusiasm by President Nixon, who ordered his staff to follow up on "this intriguing idea." (Richard Reeves, President Nixon, Simon and Schuster, New York, 2001, p. 51).
The draft is a tough issue. On the one hand, it forces people to be ready to kill and die for a state whose leaders are not bound by the murder laws, but on the other hand it makes it politically less likely that the killing will happen in the first place.
What do you think the US campuses would look like today if we had a real, random draft, one in which even the young George W. Bushes of the country could be sent to Fallujah if they got unlucky? Its undoubtedly true that such a draft would be realistically impossible -- the rich would still manage to buy their way out, but much of the middle class wouldn't and that would still be sufficient to put enough campuses into an uproar that Washington would be less able to wage its wars of choice and whim.
Wednesday, September 22, 2004
The tape of the latest beheading in Iraq -- this time Jack Hensley was decapitated, reportedly by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi -- exposes the evil of the perpetrators and their appeal to the lowest instincts (they apparently think -- maybe correctly -- that such recordings will rally some people to their side), but it also opens a rare window on how power politics really work.
There are many dozens of armies and security forces worldwide that torture, rape or kill screaming captives. But such crimes -- when known -- are rarely reported with the prominence and feeling they deserve, especially if the perpetrators are agents or allies of a dominant state. When they are reported it is frequently in abstract, sanitized or calming language: "human rights violations" "extrajudicial executions," "prisoner abuse."
But in real life the acts are concrete, rancid, and mind-crushingly agonizing. My friend Jafar Siddiq Hamzah (in Indonesia) was abducted, bound, had his face sliced off, and was stabbed to death. My friend Lukki Orellana (in Guatemala) reportedly had her hands hacked off (I saw Jafar's tormented body, but the report on Lukki was second hand from inside the army since, like roughly 40,000 others, she was "disappeared," her body never found. In neither case was anyone arrested, and in neither case did the US government stop supporting the military in question).
Imagine if all such acts were taped and we were all invited to watch and hear them. There wouldn't be time, of course. TV and the internet would be flooded. But at least we would have a better understanding of how life and politics really are.
Its not as if isolated evil has suddenly sprung up and must now be combated. In fact it is much worse than that. Evil has office and legal protection. We are governed by Zarqawis -- those willing for political motives to cause the torture and death of defenseless people. Its just that most of them are stealthy enough to avoid doing it on screen, and fastidious enough to arrange for other people's hands to do the chopping.
Sunday, September 19, 2004
On Monday, September 20 Indonesia is due to hold a presidential election which the country's murderous security forces are due to win no matter what.
Megawati Sukarnoputri, the incumbent president, took power three years ago behind army cannons (her predecessor, undercut by the armed forces, was impeached and she, as vice president, ascended) and later publicly told the military not to "worry about human rights" ("Indonesia's Megawati tells troops not to worry about rights abuses," AFP, December 29, 2001). But she is widely seen as incompetent, and, polls say, may be voted out for a smooth-talking former general, Susilo Bambang Yudhoyono.
As is often the case in minimal-choice elections -- which is to say, most elections in most countries -- this one has turned to an important extent on culturally resonant trivia (in this case, the general's poll ratings soared after he was personally insulted by the president's husband), and on voters being compelled to make fine, far-fetched, often grim, distinctions.
Dewi -- the pseudonym of a resident of a poor kampung in a major city -- says that her family and friends have been thinking that though they fear and loathe the army they might vote for Susilo anyway in order to thwart the police. Their calculation is that bad as the army is, for them the police are worse, and since the army and police are bitter rivals having an army man on top might marginally weaken a police force that has gotten "big heads" under Megawati.
Though its the army that does most massacres of civilians, most of that killing is geographically focused (in pro-independence Aceh and Papua, two of the country's 32 provinces) and most of the army's extortion is concentrated on the rich. It is mainly the police who abuse the poor nationwide. That is the division of labor. Last year the police locked up Dewi's step father and beat him until the family managed to buy his freedom with 2 million rupiah ($180 US dollars) -- the equivalent of four months' wages. A few months later her cousin was beaten to death on the street by a drunken gang of preman police informants. "[O]n a daily basis," a US Marine Corps study concluded, "the Police are the most visible instrument of government oppression" ... "one of the most disliked/hated organizations in the country" ("Indonesia Joint Cultural Intelligence Seminar," US Marine Corps Warfighting Laboratory, January 14, 1999).
If an Indonesian wants to vote against terror by their country's US-armed-and-trained security forces, they can't. No candidate represents their position. They are instead reduced to arcane calculations about which killer will be less prolific.
Midfielder Ahmed Manajid of the Iraqi Olympic soccer team said of President Bush: "How will he meet his god having slaughtered so many men and women?" (Sports Illustrated website, August 19, 2004). The answer is: fairly easily. The Bible is full of massacres, as are the Koran and the Torah. Much religious authority seems based on slaughter: if you don't obey God, God will get you -- or, more precisely, his messengers will. Many aspects of many societies have advanced beyond such barbaric thinking, but the right of authority figures to massacre is still embedded in the modern state.
Bush has said:"The hand of God is guiding the affairs of this nation." (Bush clip in "CNN Presents: The Mission of George W. Bush," August 28, 2004). But he doesn't really need to invoke the Almighty to assume the right to bomb Iraqi cities or to sponsor a local military that assassinates labor leaders in Colombia. He could be a strictly secular president leading a strictly secular nation and his right to cause the death of civilians would still go equally unquestioned.
This is because in today's pre-civilized world the murder laws are not enforced when the crimes in question are committed by people acting in a high state capacity.
There's a growing body of expert opinion that says that Bush is making terrorism worse, and that this is therefore evidence that his policy is failing. But this criticism, while factually grounded, completely misses the policy point. The increase in anti-US terrorism shows that the President's policy is succeeding. Whether or not he consciously wants to make it worse, more terrorism serves his interests. And perhaps equally important, more terrorism is fun for him: it puts him at the center of a global drama in which he plays a delicious role. Were peace to break out tomorrow, Bush would be a weakened and diminished man. But as long as the pot keeps boiling he only goes from strength to strength.
The rapper and actor Ice-T recently said: ""I'm scared of Bush. We need a peaceful president, not someone who is entertained by war."
But why should we need to depend on a president's character being "peaceful?" A president should be constrained by law. He should be bound by civilization. If he starts killing people for glory he should face charges like anyone else who commits a homicide without a valid explanation of self-defense.