Little Boy in Tehran

In the first of a pair of June 7 photos, a man clad in black guides a little boy—three years old, perhaps—out of a second story window. As the child’s tippy toes touch a narrow ledge, his little black tennis shoes and his little blue jeans and shirt sliding up over his chubby belly evoke the innate cuteness of a precious toddler. The second image shows the man in black anchoring his right leg and hand to the window opening while his opposite, open palm extends down in line with the cement face of the building. Below, just out of reach, the sweet little boy is still gazing and stretching toward the first man, while a rescuer wearing basic white body armor reaches up to grasp the child below his armpits.

All violent death is brutal, and I have no interest in claiming that one recent tragedy is worse than any other. There is no shortage of such human horrors to contemplate—Tehran (June 7), London (June 3), Kabul (May 31), and Manchester (May 22) provide an incomplete list. Aside from quantifying the number of deaths (Kabul had over 150), each event provokes a multiplicity of subjective narratives that reflect the way people perceive the tragedies.

For me the photo described above is compelling because the sight of a toddler being evacuated emphasizes the tragedy of violent death. In terror attacks, where all of the casualties are innocent bystanders, but also in deliberate conflicts in which non-combatants often suffer the most, children are among the innocent people whose miraculous existence is extinguished for almost no reason at all. When a child—who possesses no fault for being born at a random place and time—suffers violent circumstances from their environment, it also illuminates the level of arbitrariness in terror and brutality. Arbitrary violence is disturbing because we cannot immunize ourselves against it through our own actions. For those of us who feel rather safe, our own insecurity increases as we empathize with the individuals and families who find themselves in the circus of traumatic violence. Why does the little boy in Tehran have to be dangled from a window in order to escape potential murder while my son and I are casually selecting tasty snacks at our local health food store? What is the likelihood that something like this will happen to me some day?

Those photos are an emotional starting point from which to understand other disturbing facets of the ISIS terror attack which killed at least 17 people in Tehran. The political context is totally disgusting. The U.S. has historically undercut democracy in Iran and supported totalitarian government, though increasingly over the past two decades it has served Washington’s agenda to demonize Iran’s rigid, conservative policies. The reality that the Iranian nation-state has been growing more moderate doesn’t suit the Axis of Evil narrative. In fact, immediately after the moderate candidate was re-elected in the Iranian Presidential election on May 19, Donald Trump vilified Iran as he addressed leaders of Muslim-majority nations during his state visit to Saudi Arabia.

More recently, Saudi Arabia, the UAE, Egypt, and Bahrain cut diplomatic ties with Qatar because that country supposedly backs Iran. Bizarrely, their break may have been at least partly due to a fake news story created in Qatar by Russian hackers. After that announcement from those four Middle Eastern nations, Trump seemed to take credit for encouraging their move, baffling the rest of the U.S. government which knows that Qatar is one of our military allies in the region. All of these dynamics together imply that the current administration is instigating conflict with Iran, which is consistent with its foreign policy agenda—if it has one—since it began in January. Needless to say, it is yet another political farce in which our allies (Saudi Arabia) are even worse than the enemy (Iran).

Let me take a step to the side before I return to another Trump tweet and to the sweet little boy being rescued in Tehran. The unsurprising big news during the president’s Saudi Arabia visit was a renewed and expanded arms deal with Saudi Arabia, a perennial human rights violator and ISIS supporter. A major arena in which the U.S. is supporting Saudi Arabia is Yemen, which has come to rival Syria as one of the worst humanitarian crises since World War II. Trump and his team have also ramped up activity in that country, where Saudi Arabia and Iran are fighting a proxy war. The botched Navy Seal raid on January 29 killed at least 10 Yemeni children. Another SEAL raid in Yemen on May 23 killed 1 child and wounded 5 others. So again, children and other innocent people are dying from horrific violence through deliberate conflict that is tangentially related to the politics of demonizing Iran.

Back to Tehran—where after the June 7 terror attack, President Trump expressed his regards but added that “states that sponsor terrorism risk falling victim to the evil they promote,” implying that Iran got what it deserved. It is a sick suggestion in response to violent death, and again this tragic element becomes more pronounced when one contemplates the image of a three-year-old among the chaos. Did that little boy sponsor terrorism because he was born at a certain longitude and latitude, or because of the chosen religion of his parents, or because of his citizenship or the color of the skin?

Sadly, though, the president’s comment is mainly untactful rather than untrue. It is both logical and historical that nations with violent records are susceptible to some amount of retribution. And for that reason we should not only be empathetic with the boy who escaped harm in Tehran—along with his fellow nationals who did not escape–but we are forced to be acutely aware that the arbitrary component of mass violence (as well as the historical one) makes us vulnerable. Understanding that terror can affect us as well (though it is statistically extremely unlikely) should in turn deepen our empathy for those abroad who suffer. When I see the sweet little Iranian boy being lifted down from the window, spiritually I see my own precious son in that traumatic situation, and I ache for peace, joy, and safety for him and for all of humanity which ought to be capable of surviving with less brutality.

Photo Credit: Omid Vahabzadeh/Fars News, via Agence France-Presse — Getty Images //

A Lesson from France

Yesterday Macron won in France as expected, defeating white nationalist Le Pen by a comfortable margin—65.5% to 34.5% per preliminary results. The definitive victory of a “moderate” capitalist over an overtly fascist far-right leader is a relief after witnessing the 2016 electoral disaster in the United Sates.

The media had eagerly compared the French and American candidates—Le Pen to Trump, Macron to Clinton, and Mélenchon (or the less popular Hamon) as the “French Bernie Sanders.” The analogy is accurate as white nationalist movements seek to take power throughout the West while radical movements refuse to allow the right or the center to proliferate oppression across the globe. Le Pen is very Trumpian in that context, while the anti-Le Pen sentiment far outweighed any direct enthusiasm for Macron among the electorate.

While the comparison between the two elections is easy to imagine, a major difference should be just as obvious to the casual observer of politics. In France, the parliamentary system and the two-round election process ensured greater democratic participation and prevented the worst-case candidate from being selected, while the two-party, presidential system in the U.S. facilitates the empowerment of a more hated person. If Americans had participated in a multi-party election with a two-round run-off, Trump may have lost with a margin similar to Le Pen’s defeat.

There are two reasons why a run-off would have prevented an unpopular, fascist victory in America. Hypothetically, let’s re-run Trump, Clinton, Sanders, Stein, and Johnson as candidates from five distinct parties. (I believe there were eleven candidates in the first round in France). Knowing that the first vote would narrow the race to two candidates rather than decide the final outcome, voters would typically feel free to vote for their preferred candidate rather than vote “strategically” for “the lesser of two evils.” The votes would have been more evenly distributed among the various parties, and there would have been an increased chance in somebody other than Trump or Clinton making the second round. In any case, the results would reflect a more accurate political spectrum than a single-vote process. In France, for example, the top four candidates each won between 19 and 24 percent of the votes.

Next, let’s assume that Clinton and Trump still emerge as the top two candidates after a competitive first round election with several choices. At this point voters no longer have an option to vote for a “third party” candidate because those have been eliminated. Therefore, no votes for Stein or write-ins for Sanders would “steal” the election from Clinton. Also, since the process would allow people to vote for their first picks during the initial round, I think they would be more likely to go ahead and vote for “the lesser of two evils” rather than “stay home” out of spite and bitterness.

The problem is that there is almost no chance of developing a more democratic voting process in America in the near future. Indeed, we are struggling not to lose ground as the two-party system—though primarily the Republicans—erodes what voting rights the public has. But what we can learn broadly from France nonetheless is that the democratization of the process matters as much or more than the campaign of a particular candidate.

While implementing something like Instant Runoff Voting (which the U. S. Green Party has supported for a couple decades) at the federal level seems unlikely, we can begin by pushing for greater democracy in all of our smaller institutions, such as local government, classrooms, workplaces, neighborhoods, and religious organizations. We need to practice democracy in our daily lives while mobilizing our broader system towards more empowerment. Otherwise, we will only ever have two terrible choices until the end result of that false dichotomy takes us so far that we don’t have any choices at all.

Unholy Week

The non-Christian, anti-Christ president—who 80% of white evangelicals supported in November—has marked one of Judeo-Christianity’s most sacred calendrical periods with a series of hostile events that imply the possibility of three or four major, murderous campaigns, if not a rhetorical or actual Third World War. Nobody knows the intentions or outcomes of the administration’s actions, but it is hard to imagine any narrative that contextualizes them in an optimistic fashion.

On April 7, the U.S. bombed a Syrian air base in retaliation for the Syrian governments alleged use of chemical weapons on its own people. There are at least four major problems with this. First, the bombing killed several Syrian civilians including children. Second, although there is no doubt that Assad is a horrible dictator, there remains the need for some investigation to prove that he was responsible for the sarin gas attack. Third, the Assad regime is allied with Russia in the fight against ISIS, so the U.S. bombing appears to have fueled tensions with Russia. Fourth, the Assad regime used that airbase to launch missions against ISIS, so attacking the Syrian government and its military infrastructure can be seen as an indirect support to the entity that our governments claims to be its number one enemy. If all of these problems can be combined into one generalization, it is that the devastating conflict in Syria is complex, and a macho, knee-jerk reaction is counterproductive to any effective strategy in the region.

Similarly the week before, the U.S. announced an increase in support to Saudi operations in Yemen, an arena that has grown to rival Syria as one of the most tragic crises in the last 70 years. The U.S. is lending equipment and expertise to the Saudis as they combat the Iran-backed Houthi rebels. At the same time, the U.S. has run its own mission to undermine the regional Al-Qaeda group in Yemen, including the disastrous Navy SEAL raid in January. In that particular case, the Yemeni people who are more or less aligned with Al-Qaeda are fighting the Houthis, so they are at once our allies as well as our enemies. This amounts to the U.S. supporting both sides of the Yemeni conflict, which should be a despicable aberration except that it is typical of U.S. intervention, as we have observed in Syria. The U.S. is fully willing to support Al-Qaeda-aligned rebels in Syria against Assad, yet the SEAL raid Yemen was claimed to be a “highly successful” mission to gather “vital intelligence” on Al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula.

If the Trumpian military responses to the humanitarian crises in Syria and Yemen aren’t adequately foreboding, then his decision to challenge North Korea’s longstanding nuclear bluff by dispatching an aircraft carrier group to the Korean peninsula should punctuate the week of military maneuvering nicely. Clearly North Korea is a horribly oppressive state under the Kim dynasty, but a cavalier show of force may not be the most tactful effort. Meanwhile, on the opposite side of Eurasia, Trump has done an about face and called for a stronger NATO, and now American soldiers are stationed along Poland’s border with Russia.

I will barely mention that the U.S. is sending military personnel into Somalia for the first time in two decades in order to fight terrorism and that we dropped the largest non-nuclear bomb in our arsenal on an ISIS cave and tunnel complex in a remote area of Afghanistan. In 2017, Holy Week has been a coldhearted display of Trump’s eagerness to use unholy violence. He seems so ready to massacre enemy combatants as well as innocent civilians that he is setting himself up for any of a number of possible wars around the globe. It would be wonderful to see ISIS, Al Shabab, Assad, and Kim eliminated from our troubled world, but common sense as well as history have demonstrated that cultural chauvinism, disrespect, macho posturing, and careless military massacre will always be counterproductive in the dismantling of extremism.

Yemen from the Ground

I attempted to write a little about Yemen last month despite it being fairly new territory within my own worldview. Yesterday I read a phenomenal piece on The Intercept by Iona Craig, who has reported on the ground in Yemen for years. This article is beautifully written, and it clearly presents the voices of the people who were attacked by the terrible SEAL mission as well as the sociopolitical context. Superior journalism.

Yemen Goddam

Journalists and human rights organizations have appropriately condemned the suffering in Syria as the worst humanitarian crisis since World War II, and the recent Amnesty International report of the state’s sadistic torture and mass executions at a prison near Damascus makes the hellish disaster appear even more horrific. While regional hegemons meet in board rooms and raise or stay refugees from the eastern-most shores of the Mediterranean like poker bids, another crisis is worsening at the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula in Yemen. The stories of the people of Yemen deserve a more complete narrative—and, more importantly, comprehensive action—but I can only sketch a few scenarios that point to the relationship between their struggle and the violent conflict of power-hungry states.

In 2015, Saudi Arabia began an attack against Iranian-backed Houthi militants who had ceased control of Yemen’s capital, and in the first year of the war over 900 children had died. Additionally, the Saudi-led coalition has bombed four Doctors Without Borders hospitals.

Although the Obama administration eventually blocked some specific arms deals with Saudi Arabia due to high civilian death tolls in Yemen, in recent years Saudi Arabia has been the largest recipient of American-made weapons, including a $30 billion deal for 150 new and repaired F-15 fighter jets in 2011. The U.S. government defended the deal with the oppressive Saudi state by claiming that the transaction was good for the American economy. The U.S. is by far the largest weapons exporter in the world.

A couple weeks ago, the U.S. executed its own operation in Yemen, with the Trump administrating approving a SEAL Team 6 raid that killed 24 people. Initially, the U.S. claimed that there were no civilian casualties, but in fact local sources say that 9 of the victims were children, and some accounts dispute that any of those killed warranted significant military attention. The U.S. suffered the death of one Navy SEAL, and three others were wounded. Additionally, a $70 million aircraft was destroyed. The White House has declared the raid a success, citing the attainment of valuable intelligence.

Two sick narratives in particular seem to intertwine among so many disturbing details of this mission. The first involves the death of the 8-year-old daughter of Anwar al-Awlaki, who was an Al-Qaeda leader and American citizen that the U.S. assassinated with a drone strike in 2011. His 16-year-old son had also been killed with a drone two weeks after his own execution. Now the recent murder of his young daughter raises the question of whether her death was a coincidence or whether Trump was making an early example of his campaign claim that “when you get these terrorists, you have to take out their families.” The other problematic narrative has to do with the brutality of SEAL Team 6, a premier counter-terrorism unit that was also responsible for the execution of Osama bin-Laden. Leaks and testimonies from the unit show patterns of revenge killing and battlefield mutilations. Trump’s heartless attitude and SEAL Team 6’s desensitized violence pair well in an exhibition of the lowest form of American foreign policy.

For Yemeni civilians, unfortunately, the direct destruction of a Saudi-Iranian proxy war is compounded by an even broader impact, as 3.3. million people in that nation are acutely malnourished. Fishing boats, farms, and homes have been bombed, leaving families who are suffering from violence, hunger, and disease. As of July 2016, the UN reported 2.2 million internally displaced persons within Yemen, as well as 180,000 fleeing to neighboring countries. Those combined figures equal about 10% of the nation’s population.

Yemen is 8,000 miles away from me, yet the starvation of children and the bombing of homes feels closer when American-made F-15s are flying over such carnage. The longstanding relationships between the U.S. and Saudi Arabia, as well as the U.S. history of helping to undermine pluralism and democracy in Iran, sets a context for understanding the complicity of the U.S. government and its patriotic taxpayers in such horrible and unnecessary suffering. Tragically, intervention is the rule, not the exception, and the greatness of America, in terms of economy and power, corresponds to direct hostility and indirect negligence abroad. Regardless of the U.S. share of the blame compared to that of other oppressive states such as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Turkey, or Russia, for example, the U.S. has some power to affect positive change only if it replaces its America-First doctrine with a more humanitarian foreign policy.

Sources and Further Reading:

Human Slaughterhouse: Amnesty International Says Up to 13,000 Hanged at Syrian Prison

The bloody consequences of US hypocrisy are on full display in Yemen

Bombing of Doctors Without Borders Hospital in Yemen Kills at Least 15

U.S., Saudi Arabia agree to $30 billion deal for F-15s

Yemen Aftermath: Trump’s First Military Raid Continues To Raise Questions

The Crimes of SEAL Team 6

Yemen’s food crisis: ‘We die either from the bombing or the hunger’

UNHCR Yemen Situation

Antichrist President as a Self-Fulfillment of Morbid Eschatology

Donald Trump is an antichrist. He is a person who claims to be our nation’s savior while embodying the opposite characteristics of Jesus of Nazareth, as he appears in the gospels. Trump has spent his entire life promoting a personal brand, and he has never done anything in the interest of helping others. He has discriminated against people of color in his housing. He has violently assaulted his former spouse and other women. He creates enemies then turns to them with hatred and retaliation. He condones torture and the killing of children.

The devil who entices this false messiah, then, is Steve Bannon, a white-supremacist Christian-nationalist who pursues the possibility of pushing America into a cataclysmic conflict against Islam and the East in which millions of innocent people would die and suffer. Bannon sits beside Trump and whispers his hot breath into the presidential ear.

It is not so ironic, however, that 80 percent of white evangelical voters elevated an antichrist to the most powerful political office in the world, since their faith in white nationalism tends to dominate their zeal for Christ. Furthermore, their morbid eschatology demands fire from heaven and gathering armies, so why not go ahead and empower an antichrist in order to realize their prophesy? After all, if secular humanism and an inclusive liberation theology gradually bring about a more harmonious society, then moral progress would leave evangelicals looking like members of an archaic death cult.

The American Reluctance to Fight Nazis

This piece also appears in the February 2017 issue of the monitor .

There is a righteous scene in the 1992 film Chaplin where a German diplomat with a swastika lapel pin greets the title character. When Chaplin responds to the man’s outstretched arm by saying “I’m sorry, I prefer not to shake hands with Nazis,” the other partygoers become embarrassed and apologetic. The exchange was invented for the film in order to represent Chaplin’s anti-Nazi position, but the situation that it represents is very real.

For at least the first five years of Hitler’s rule, American government and media largely downplayed the Nazi party’s militant anti-Semitism, and prior to the German invasion of Poland, the majority of the American public opposed accepting Jewish refugees from Europe. The growing atrocities of the German state were not entirely unknown however, and Jewish-Americans and anti-fascists had opposed Nazism from the beginning while mainstream America avoided the Hitler dilemma until the German conquest of Europe forced them to respond. For the majority of Americans, sentimentality and patriotism, rather than a disgust of white-supremacy and fascism, caused their hatred of Nazis.

In 1941, the United States officially began to fight against the Hitler regime for two basic reasons that coalesced with Germany’s Dec. 11 declaration of war—the Nazis were at war with our nation’s allies, and they themselves were an ally of Japan, who of course had just attacked Pearl Harbor. Additional anti-German sentiment derived from America’s horrific fight against the Central Power during the previous generation. If the American people and their government had been primarily interested in intervening against white-supremacist imperialism, then they should have tried both to undermine Hitler earlier and also to mobilize against their own violent Jim Crow culture.

Seventy-five years later, something very similar to Nazism is gaining ground throughout Europe and the United Sates as right-wing demagogues are summoning political strength from the pervasive fascism that fills their respective national boundaries. While millions are pushing back against the disgusting power-grabs of elites like Trump and Erdogan, the critical mass remains entrenched in the sentimentality and fear that entice nationalism. Whenever the refusal to stand for the national anthem offends people more than their government’s direct or indirect involvement in genocide and torture, then a body of people is embracing a superficial and nihilistic model of patriotism at a great cost to humanity and the planet.

In the 1930s, the Nuremberg Laws in Germany and the Jim Crow laws in the United States made Jewish and Black Americans, respectively, second-class citizens and facilitated widespread violence against them. While thousands of people lived in daily opposition to such oppression, hundreds of thousands remained ignorant, indifferent, or impotent to such atrocities, which allowed the oppression to grow into indescribable magnitudes of suffering. Now, as the U.S. executive publicly condones torture and bars refugees of the greatest humanitarian crisis since World War II, the time has come for those of us who find resistance uncomfortable to acclimate to conflict and sacrifice and to help proliferate dissent. If we, along with our families, friends, and neighbors, overemphasize our personal legacies, then our collective human inheritance will become the ultimate tragedy. We must overcome reluctance in order to enact the freedom and security that we desire.

Russian Misdirection

The Russian state may or may not have tried to intervene to sway the recent election for Trump, and they may or may not possess an embarrassing sex tape of the president-elect that could be used to blackmail him. Although these may be legitimate concerns for U.S. intelligence agencies to investigate, they are not crucial developments. On the contrary, they are sensational diversion from more important political events.

If Putin directed Russian hackers to compromise the private emails of the Democratic National Convention in order to portray Hillary Clinton in a negative light, then his plan was not very effective since, after all, Clinton won by 2.8 million votes. But even if we assume that Russia interfered in such a way to nudge Trump to the victory in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, DNC email leaks make an underwhelming argument for Trump compared to the preponderance of reasons to have voted against the candidate. And while the “intelligence community” along with our political leaders has not yet presented any evidence of Putin-directed hacking of the Clinton campaign, the media has moved on to broadcast the even more specious narrative of Russian possession of an embarrassing sex tape of Trump that they could use as blackmail. The problem with this news story is that the “Russian Dossier” is admittedly based on hearsay and is thus totally unreliable.

When opponents of Trump claim that he is an illegitimate president because leaks of real DNC emails by the Russian state swayed the election, they are taking a flimsy and fallacious stance. The result of investing in the sensational position is that Trump’s proponents can dismiss the arguments as partisan whining. At the same time, there is ample solid ground on which to denounce the election, such as Clinton’s distinct victory in the popular vote, systemic disenfranchisement, and the refusal of key states to allow hand recounts despite voting irregularities. While spies and sex are alluring, serious efforts to express a democratic system demand honest and effective tactics.

All this is not to say that we shouldn’t be concerned about the extent to which the Russian government may have tried to affect the election, nor should we underestimate the implications of a Trump-Putin alliance. My point is that media and intelligence organizations should research and scrutinize narratives of Russian collusion rather than occupy the headlines with sensational speculations. Finding a scapegoat for Trump’s presidency diverts attention and energy from the strength of American fascism which allowed him to emerge as a successful candidate.