Wednesday, September 22, 2004

Other People's Hands: A World Governed by Zarqawis

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

A Minimal-Choice Election: The Killers Win No Matter What

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.

Failure to Enforce the Murder Laws: Life in this Pre-Civilized World

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.

Presidents and Terrorism: Using Blood to Heighten the Global Drama

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.

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