Fiction, violence, propaganda = War, war and more war

FEAR

Huffington Post version of blog HERE

Red Letter Christians version of blog HERE


First it was Clint Eastwood and The American Sniper. For the sake of educating myself on all things mainstream I endured two hours of this peculiar Western devotion to fiction, violence and American exceptional-ism. As suspected, Eastwood stayed true only to Hollywood’s profit formula: Omit war crimes, illegal invasions, missing WMD, some 100,000 dead Iraqi civilians and any truth that could dilute the endorphin rush of blind patriotism– and, therefore, the almighty moviegoer dollar.

I left the theater nauseous. Eastwood’s candy coating was too much. As film credits and real-life photos of Navy SEAL sniper Chris Kyle crawled heavenward, moviegoers sat motionless or shuffled out in reverent silence. A woman next to me stared wide-eyed at the screen and whispered to her date:

“I didn’t know this was a true story.”

Two weeks later my tongue continues to heal. I bit it that hard.

Now it’s Israeli Prime Minister Bibi Netanyahu and his Game of Thrones. More cherry picked storytelling, more simulated violence, more of the same tired narrative depicting Middle Eastern Arabs as Islamic savages intent on eradicating the Good Guys. In this case, Israeli Jews. To hear Bibi tell it, if not for the benevolence (read: fat wallets) of Washington and its Christian-majority electorate, Israel — cast as the best friend Americans have in the Middle East — would be wiped clean off the planet and the West would be further exposed to militant Islam.

At the U.S. Capitol on Tuesday, with easy command over a glad-handling GOP, Bibi used the tactics of Hollywood and Washington to omit from his speech an uncomfortable all-important truth: If Israel is the best friend Americans have in the Middle East it’s only because Israel creates so many enemies for the United States.

Israel flaunts international law (e.g., collective punishment of the masses, illegal occupation of lands obtained in war; discriminatory laws based on national origin; to name just a few of the violations cited by the United Nations) by relying on Washington to provide cover on the U.N. Security Council and money militarily. The fact that Israel rides roughshod over East Jerusalem, the West Bank, most Palestinians, and a laundry list of international laws is the largest obstacle to peace in the Middle East. It’s also the primary reason my dark blue passport can feel like a liability when I travel there.

This U.S. complicity with Israel’s crimes greatly erodes Washington’s influence for change in the region and helps drive the very thing Bibi crowed about on Capitol Hill:

“Iran and ISIS are competing for the crown of militant Islam. … Both want to impose a militant Islamic empire, first on the region and then on the entire world.”

He then evoked the dark violence of a fictitious HBO series with his sloppy blurring of fact and fiction. 

In this deadly ‘Game of Thrones,’” the protagonist Bibi declared, “there’s no place for America or for Israel. No peace for Christians, Jews or (for) Muslims who don’t share the Islamist medieval creed; no rights for women, no freedom for anyone.”

I’ve heard it said the best way for Washington to create peace in the Middle East is to stop providing U.N. cover for Israel and eliminate the U.S. money that fuels Israel’s defiant behavior (more than $20.5 billion given just during the Obama Administration). In effect, it’s Parenting 101: Make Israel responsible for its actions.

Before Navy SEAL Chris Kyle was killed Feb. 2, 2013 at a shooting range in Texas he’d said that most U.S. civilians were clueless about Iraqis, a people he painted in one broad brush. Savages, he called the Iraqis. “The public is soft,” Kyle told reporters. “They have no idea.”

And they still don’t– at least not about the true nature of Arabs and Muslims. For that we can thank Hollywood’s greedy devotion to feel-good narratives and the GOP’s propping up of an Israeli “protagonist.”

The Iraqis that Kyle knew from the scope on his rifle were defending a sovereign nation from an invading army. (Would Americans resist or roll over if, say, China stormed across their borders?) The Islamic nation(s) and militants that Bibi depicts as humanity’s biggest threat are, in large part, creatures of U.S. foreign policy and Israeli arrogance.

The other night at an Uno’s bar near Washington, D.C., the discussion turned to movies. I chimed in with “Kingsman” as my recommendation for the best movie I’d seen this year. Another patron voted for “American Sniper” and called it the greatest move ever made. Another patron and another and then the bartender all agreed.

My tongue hadn’t healed. I couldn’t bite it again. So, in an unpopular rebuttal, I argued against it for many of the same reasons I discuss here. I was immediately, politely dismissed.

“Okay, maybe the whole thing wasn’t entirely true and accurate and all of that,” a kindly woman offered, helping to ease me from the discussion. “But Kyle is still an American hero. You cannot argue that fact. He was over there protecting us!”

Oy vey.

Toward the end of his diatribe to the GOP, Bibi offered up a simple remedy:

“If Iran wants to be treated like a normal country, let it act like a normal country.”

Presumably, that would include following international law.

Great plan, Bibi.

Heed it.

No Protagonists in War on Terror: Washington, ISIS, Israel, Hamas all antagonists

A memorial scene for slain American journalist James Foley, killed by ISIS (the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria) on Aug. 19, 2014.

On cue the feigned shock, manly thumping of chests and tribal war dance began anew.

The videotaped beheading of another U.S. journalist, this time Florida’s Steven Sotloff, two weeks after the execution of New Hampshire’s James Foley, predictably sent the White House’s Nobel Peace Prize Laureate onto Washington’s moral perch and Israel’s propagandists into overdrive.

We know the script and its actors well by now.

Protagonists live in the West, or at least resemble Westerners in general skin tone and/or style of dress. They deploy working class soldiers and use expensive weaponry to shear, shred, pulverize, burn, incinerate and decapitate heads, flesh, bone, bridges, roads, electrical grids, mosques, schools, bunkers, homes, hospitals, sons, daughters, fathers, mothers. In other words, to kill en masse all enemy combatants and unfortunate civilians.* The latter is a well-documented result of dropping bombs into heavily populated areas, but it gets dismissed with a common impersonal euphemism: collateral damage. The good guys, Americans and Israelis, know full well that the “War on Terror” kills at least tens of thousands of civilians, injures and maims hundreds of thousands, and displaces families from the Persian Gulf to the Gulf of Guinea. But, since the protagonists know what’s best and they have us glued to CNN and Fox News, we view collateral damage as a penny-ante expense.

Not so for the antagonists. In the Middle East the penny ante has become heavy and unforgivable. So the antagonists kill up close and in our faces; close enough to get our attention, so close they hide their despicable faces. Cloaked in black and wearing a robber’s mask, they crave the media attention and villainous role. Since they lack the West’s crazy expensive, imprecise “precision bombs” they can’t generate mass destruction. Instead, they kill in fewer numbers and exploit each for mass effect. Their psychological warfare is less about collateral damage, more about disturbing our sleep.

The protagonists curse them, threaten them, promise to hunt them and eliminate them, yet without the antihero we wouldn’t be fooled by the heroic costume of our protagonists. You see, ISIS (stands for “Islamic State in Iraq and Syria” but its Hebrew pronunciation is, apparently, “Hamas”), similar to Al-Qaeda and Cold War Communists, etc., plays the foil to the West and its heroic allies. These days, Israel.

So, same as last time, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin “Bibi” Netanyahu will declare the villainous ISIS to be no different than Hamas, and then he’ll imply that black-clad killers are par for the course in Gaza and Israeli-occupied West Bank. It wouldn’t surprise me if he used the threat of ISIS to justify Israel’s arrogant theft this week of 990 Palestinian acres near Bethlehem. Evidently, heroes and their allies operate outside international law, accountable to no one.

Meanwhile, the Washington-Wall Street Military Industrial Complex will be doubling down on its Middle East expansion (aka imperialism). On Tuesday, President Obama approved the deployment of 350 more American troops to Iraq. Soon after the video of Sotloff’s murder was deemed authentic, Obama gave a stern message to ISIS, sounding very much like he was guarding Gotham.

“We will not be intimidated,” he declared, then warned Americans to brace for another long (read: costly) fight. These “horrific acts only unite us as a country and stiffen our resolve to take the fight (to) these terrorists. … Those who make the mistake of harming Americans will learn that we will not forget and that our reach is long and that justice will be served.”**

In that way he has begun to sound like his predecessor “protagonist” and war industry pitchman, George W. Bush. Beheadings, after all, are good for business, all the more if they are captured on film. American outrage is a commodity famously leveraged for financial gain.***

Surely, ISIS knew this. Right? It had the script.

Last month, on cue after the beheading of Foley, Israel’s conservative English-language daily, The Jerusalem Post, stretched this headline across five columns of its front page:

“Obama calls Islamic State a ‘cancer’ after graphic beheading.”

In words measured and (self) righteous, Obama presumably spoke for Americans – and common decency — when he said that he and “all of humanity” were appalled by Foley’s murder. Later in the story, Secretary of State John Kerry played the role of a Judeo-Christian politician rushing off to do battle with Old Testament darkness:

“There is evil in this world, and we have all come face-to-face with it once again. Ugly, savage, inexplicable, nihilistic, and valueless evil.”

This was the same day the Twitter account of the Israeli Prime Minister posted a still photo of Foley’s execution, as if it justified bombing the bejesus out of Gaza. “RT THIS: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas. They’re enemies of Peace. They’re enemies of all civilized countries.”

Followers did as ordered and retweeted Netanyahu’s propaganda 889 times before the post was deleted for its questionable use of Foley’s image.

Screenshot credit: Haaretz newspaper

Hours later it resurfaced with Foley’s picture replaced by the Arabic logo for ISIS. This tweet included an additional outrageous claim for any politician — Middle Eastern or Western — to make. It said the truth was simple (never the case in Jerusalem or Washington) and implied that Israel was on the side of it.

“The simple truth: Hamas is ISIS. ISIS is Hamas.”

Screenshot credit: Haaretz newspaper

The following day Israel resumed bombing a dispossessed Muslim people with $110,000 American-made, American-bought Hellfire missiles fired from $20 million American-made, American-bought Apache helicopters. The casualties in Gaza had already exceeded 2,000, the majority of the dead civilian.

A week later, with Israel’s stock of American-made whoop-ass apparently running low and its Iron Dome draining military coffers, Washington routed a boatload of Hellfire missiles to its shore and put a rush on an extra $225 million for its Iron Dome missile defense. Just a little bump to cushion Israel’s annual $3.1 billion American allowance. (Another $126 million bump is due in November.)

Anything, it seems, for Washington’s heroic sidekick.

Or is that backward?

Is Washington the sidekick?

The New Yorker’s Connie Bruck, in an article aptly titled “Friends of Israel,” dissects the influence that Israel lobbyists exact on Washington. In the Sept. 1, 2014 story she describes a tail-wagging-the-dog scene where an influential cadre of senators — Democrats Harry Reid and Tim Kaine; Republicans Mitch McConnell, John McCain and Lindsey Graham — work overtime in late August to ensure Israel is well stocked with U.S. money and missiles. Graham, a hawkish senator from South Carolina and a major recipient of pro-Israel campaign donations, was jubilant after the 11th-hour triumph. Speaking to reporters, he made the extra hundreds of millions of American tax dollars sound like a game of penny ante.

“Not only are we going to give you (Israel) more missiles, we’re going to be a better friend. We’re going to fight for you in the international court of public opinion. We’re going to fight for you in the United Nations.”

 

 

* If you count just the civilian deaths in Iraq, included in the field reports of U.S. soldiers dated 2004 to 2009, more than half (66,081) of the killed Iraqis were civilian. The dead do not include Iraqis killed during the war’s heaviest fighting in 2003 (when, for example, the U.S. dropped more than 500,000 tons of ordnance on Iraq) or by most coalition forces other than the U.S. military. Iraq Body Count, the British-based nongovernment project that began tracking Iraqi deaths in March 2003, estimates that between 128,431-143,705 civilians in Iraq were killed from the ongoing violence that began with the U.S.-led invasion in March 2003. A database of the deaths is available at Iraq Body Count.

** Lest we count, say, Israel’s attack by air and sea on the USS Liberty, June 8, 1967, killing 34 U.S. crew members and injuring 171. Or, maybe, Rachel Corrie, run over and killed by an armored Israeli Defense Forces bulldozer on March 16, 2003 in the Gaza Strip. She was attempting to block the demolition of a Palestinian home. Eye witnesses say the IDF crushed her on purpose; Israel disputes the claim.

*** For example, if you track the stock dividends of just the perennial top five “defense contractors” based on the New York Stock Exchange (NYSE) you find dizzying increases in the decade that followed September 11, 2011: Lockheed Martin (LMT) equals 680 percent increase in per-share stock dividends or 161 percent increase in Earnings Per Share (EPS); Boeing (BA) +250 percent or +635 percent EPS; Northrop Grumman (NOC) +250 percent or +187 percent EPS; General Dynamics (GD) +336 percent or +191 percent EPS; Raytheon (RTN) +190 percent or +400 percent EPS. Source: The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq

(Loud) Voices for Peace in the Middle East

SEE VIDEO COVERAGE: https://vimeo.com/104305684

                       Video of Peace Rally and Bassam Aramin’s Speech

Ten days ago Tel Aviv spoke in a loud and collective voice– Hebrew and Arabic, Jew and Muslim, Israeli and Palestinian.*  The night was electric and passionate. There was sweat and anger and frustration and loud demands for saner minds to prevail.

In the Middle East ten days can feel like forever.

On that balmy night of 16 August 2014 there was a fragile truce. Optimism had quickly swelled. In that moment Israel stopped obliterating all things Gazan; Hamas stopped littering Israeli skies with $800 rockets.

Ten days can feel like ancient history.

These are some of the headlines as the sun rose over the majestic Mediterranean on 26 August 2014 (Israel Daylight Time):

U.S. missile shipment delay over,” i.e., A boatload of $110,000 Lockheed Martin Hellfire missiles (fired into Gaza by $20 million Boeing Apache helicopters) are en route to Israel, thanks to the eternal benevolence of the Washington-Wall Street Military Industrial Complex and the White House’s own Nobel Peace Prize laureate.

16 Palestinians killed, two Israelis seriously wounded as Gaza op continues,” i.e., The deaths of a Palestinian mother and her four children from an Israeli (Hellfire?) missile strike on Gaza marked the 89th Gazan family to be wiped out in Operation Protective Edge; meanwhile, facing another day of 100-plus rocket attacks from Gaza, the Israeli Air Force continued its escalation of strikes.

“There’s no way to completely stop rocket fire, top Israeli officer says,” i.e., Southern Israel’s kibbutzes will always be vulnerable to enemy rocket fire. So, similar to Washington-Wall Street’s vaguely defined “War on Terror,” Israel has an indefinite excuse to continue its military buildup and aggression.

UPDATE: Today’s headlines (28 August 2014) are more encouraging, but for how long?

“With Gaza war over, massive reconstruction awaits: Urgent tasks require $367 million; international private donors have already pledged $177m…”

Palestinians threaten to turn to ICC if date not set for return to 1967 lines: Netanyahu and Abbas held secret talks before Gaza truce signed; no official Palestinian, Israeli or Jordanian source confirms that meeting in Amman actually took place…”

Netanyahu gave up on defeating Hamas terror: If Israel had applied overwhelming force against Hamas at the start of the Gaza conflict, it could have proven more merciful and briefer for both sides than the demolition derby that ensued.”

* The peace rally on Saturday, Aug. 16, 2014 is believed to be one of the largest in Israel’s history. Local media estimated the crowd to be 10,000 to 15,000.

 

Ten reasons why (more) war is inevitable

Damascus, capital of Syria. Photo credit, James Gordon, Los Angeles, Creative Commons license via Flickr.

Seems like just yesterday the United Nations and the world population appealed to the good sense of Washington … and then learned it had none. Good sense, that is. Today I feel as if we’re watching a sorry remake of Groundhog Day, except, unlike Bill Murray’s character, there is very little we can do to alter the foretold consequences. We’re trapped in a badly broken political system.

If not Syria this week or this month or this year, it will be next week or next month or next year. And if not Syria, it will be Iran, Lebanon or North Korea, or some other “threat” that needs eliminating.

Why am I so jaded and cynical about Washington and its motives? As a journalist who’s traveled through the Middle East a half dozen times in pursuit of interviews, perspective, news stories and books, I can immediately think of ten reasons:

1. Washington does not listen and respond to the general tax-paying public or world at-large. From my experiences and reporting it listens and responds foremost to deep-pocketed political donors and their lobbyists, e.g., Wall Street and K Street.

2. Wall Street and K Street are motivated primarily by self-interest and cannot be trusted by the general public in the United States or abroad. Why? The U.S.-Congressional Military Industrial Complex produces profits for the wealthy and jobs for key political constituencies. With those come job security for politicians and beach homes for the wealthy.

3. Washington has become a country club for Wall Street and K Street, and it is today a (willing) tool for repeated schemes of greed and deception.

4. This latest deception is no different than many others, e.g., the invasion of Iraq. The script depicts good-guy Washington standing on moral ground threatening to bomb an “evil” dictator because of unproven allegations. Yes, that’s redundant. For a reason. I’m stressing this point: These charges are unproven.

5. After dropping hundreds of thousands of tons of bombs and ammo (many with depleted uranium) onto Iraqis (see HERE a declassified military count of just the first 30 days of the war), the only place Washington can successfully pretend to be moral is in the eyes of the U.S. media and electorate. The rest of the world knows better, especially citizens of the Middle East. To a person, every Middle Easterner I’ve ever interviewed is dumbfounded by Washington’s ability to fool its electorate again and again. (Remember, Dubya was reelected after botching the invasion/occupation of Iraq.) Yet, here we are. Again. Hooah! Go ‘Merica. Support the troops! We’ll be watching on CNN.

6. Twelve years ago when Washington ramped up its role as Middle East protagonist the stock dividends of the top five U.S. “defense” (aka war) contractors ballooned, e.g., Lockheed Martin’s per-share stock dividends increased 680 percent between 2001-2011; General Dynamics’ 336 percent; Boeing’s 250 percent; Northrop Gruman’s 250 percent; Raytheon’s 190 percent. (Those numbers are from my reporting in “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.”) And, evidently, the war biz is still thriving. Read (HERE) a September 2013 report on record high profits and stock prices for U.S. military contractors.

7. In the United States there is an insane disconnect between the civilian population and its military, i.e., less than one percent of Americans served in uniform during the last decade, which was the nation’s longest-ever stretch of sustained conflict, according to Defense Department and Pew Research Center reports. In effect, if working class kids (in general) want the opportunity to go to college or find well-paying jobs they must first serve four years in the Washington-Wall Street-Israeli Military Industrial Complex because there are so few manufacturing jobs left in the United States. This arrangement serves the U.S. middle and upper classes (where I reside) very well. Our kids don’t have to put their lives and mental well-being on the line fighting the Crusades in the Middle East while trying to secure Israel’s “right” to ignore international law. (Anyone who thinks U.S.-Israeli politics do not travel hand-in-glove in the Middle East needs to climb off their Judeo-Christian air-conditioned tour bus and walk around Jerusalem, Bethlehem, etc.)

8. This comfy arrangement will remain intact indefinitely because it enables the rich to get richer (aka Wall Street and K Street) without the majority of the U.S. electorate having to worry about their sons and daughters dying in a far-off desert or coming home with PTSD. Meanwhile, the 99 percent of us who didn’t wear a military uniform during the last decade are too busy paying bills and/or managing our beach homes to give much attention to the Washington-Wall Street profit schemes.

9. Unless the United States reinstates a military draft — thereby forcing the overall electorate to examine the real motives that drive Washington’s warmongering — American military aggression will continue to spread regardless of the opinions/advice of the United Nations and the world at-large. Congress knows this. Therefore, I don’t anticipate the reinstatement of military conscription. Washington hasn’t used it since 1973.

10. I suspect Washington’s outrage about chemical weapons isn’t about dead Arab civilians or Syrian President Bashar al-Assad. Tens of thousands of civilians in Iraq and Afghanistan have been killed by the U.S. military. In Iraq, the Pentagon claimed it wasn’t even keeping score. Washington’s shock and outrage over Syria is more about theater. War’s theater, specifically. (Ever read Naomi Klein’s “Shock Doctrine“?) Washington wants to get at Iran, Hezbollah, etc. To repeat, these allegations leveled at al-Assad’s regime are just that– allegations. It seems plausible that outsiders (the Mossad? Rebels? Terrorists?) could have deployed the Sarin gas in order to draw history’s mightiest and most gung-ho military deeper into the conflict.

Of course, all of this is from the admitted jaded perspective of a cynical Washington journalist. Me. So to add balance I sought the input of a more optimistic world traveler, a wise Catholic priest working on the gritty side of the world’s widening economic divide. Rev. Joe Maier was the subject of my first nonfiction book, “The Gospel of Father Joe: Revolutions & Revelations in the Slums of Bangkok.”

This is what he had to say on Monday about the “wisdom” of Washington bombing Syria:

“Pope Francis said (yesterday?), ‘Never has the use of force brought peace in its wake. War begets war. Violence begets violence.’ … One might write a piece about fasting and penance and prayer, and that the present solutions of the kingdoms of this world ain’t really working too well. … If you read or see the latest Hobbit movie, notice that when the dwarf king tells Gandalf that there is a terrible evil force lurking, and that they (the good guys) need a huge force to combat and conquer, I believe Gandalf tells the Dwarf king, ‘No … what we need are countless acts of goodness and kindness.’

“The world needs to make a huge statement about helping the (Syrian) refugees and starting schools and hospitals. I think that might do far better than bombs, etc.”

Speaking to my own cynicism about Washington and Wall Street, Father Joe added, “That’s what happens when you can no longer trust your sacred institutions such as government and church. Therein lies the crux of the matter.”


FOR MORE PERSPECTIVE ON WAR & PEACE, see the last minute of Greg’s speech in Boston HERE.

Gay marriage issue is ‘manini’

Hawaiians have a great word for the gay marriage debate, a word I still use 14 years after moving from Oahu. Manini. In the Native Hawaiian language it means “small, insignificant.” Relative to trillion-dollar wars, untold civilian and military casualties, illegal drone attacks, the Israeli strangling of Gaza and occupation of Palestinians, a global economic divide that results daily in the unnecessary deaths of tens of thousands of “the least of these,” gay marriage is manini.

So why is this — THIS —  issue so important? Why does it get so many Christian churches and their pastors riled up? It allows churches and pastors to armchair quarterback something and pretend to be doing the work of “God” — for which congregants tithe handsomely. Meanwhile, priests like Father Joe Maier and holy women like Kathy Kelly (another Catholic, by the way) are in life’s trenches doing all of the heavy lifting.

The only thing that upsets me about the gay marriage issue is that it’s an issue. Churches, media, etc., are lazily distracted by it at the cost of matters that are truly critical. And for what reason? Because of a sentence in a chapter of a book (Leviticus 18:22) that Moses may or may not have written? Same chapter that tells me in all seriousness to skip the whole kid-sacrifice thing because it shows contempt of God?

Oy vey.

Let’s please put this issue to bed. No pun intended.

Avery’s Run to Freedom (or Our White Noise of Modern-day Warfare)

NOTE: Avery Bargar, age 23, delivered the scripture reading before I spoke on Sunday, March 10th at First Baptist Church in Newton (MA), eight miles southwest of the Boston Marathon finish line. Five weeks later he was near that finish line at about 2:50 p.m. when he felt two explosions. He sent me this essay. The insight he shares about the “techno-media echo chamber” is especially valuable. Please read to the finish. And please circulate. 

Guest Blogger Avery Bargar

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

By Avery Bargar

BOSTON— On the morning of the 117th Boston Marathon, I opened the Lindt Chocolate Store in the Lenox Hotel in Copley Square, right at the intersection of Boylston and Exeter Street. There were thousands of people lining both sides of Boylston as I squeezed my way through the crowd to work. In the store, our view of the race could hardly have been better — we were a hundred yards or so from the finish line — so as the front runners of the women’s and men’s races took the title, we watched. My coworker and I both marveled at the feat of will, determination, and faith that it must take to make it to the front of the Boston Marathon.

I left work at 2:40 to jam with someone at Boston Conservatory. Outside of the store, I found myself instantly amidst an enormous crowd. I had to walk slowly away from the finish line, bumping my backpack filled with sheet music into everybody on either side of me. I laughed a bit at the pomp of this whole event—thousands of people; cameras and corporate advertising everywhere—New Balance having cleverly co-opted the themes of social upheaval of the last two years into several historical, Boston-related slogans, including “Run to Freedom”—and in the middle of it all, runners streaming by, pumping their fists in the air. Ten minutes later I had barely made it a few hundred feet from Lindt when I heard a massive BOOM.

Instantly the tone of the crowd changed. Cheering stopped. I turned to face the street, confused, noticing bewilderment and disorientation on a thousand faces. I saw a large plume of white smoke rising a couple hundred feet down the street. As soon as this registered, there was another explosion, and people began to scream. The shock tore us away as fast as possible. Let me make this clear— I was not one of the extremely brave people who ran into the heart of the attack to help the wounded. I was a couple hundred yards from the explosions, amid an enormous terrified throng. We ran south, fast. I alerted other pedestrians and drivers along the way, lent out my cell phone, donated blood an hour later, and I tried to call my coworkers, but I did not double back into the heart of the carnage to help. I did not notice that as a possibility, and I am in awe of those who did. There was intense confusion from the start; the immediate experience of it was obscured by this odd emerging technological phenomenon that is both a web and a barrier; connecting yet dividing us.

A week later, this is one of the hardest things for me to unpack about my experience of these attacks— the use of what I’ll call the “post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber” as a political medium. We carry it with us everywhere, even if we don’t have a smartphone.
As I ran away from Boylston Street with thousands of other frightened Bostonians and tourists, I noticed the waves of communication unfold. The first was with the emerging reality— we all witnessed two violent explosions.

“Get away, fast. There could be more.”

The second wave was with the other people in the area.

“Are you ok? Let’s go, keep running.”

I saw a mother and two boys weeping in fear. I lent my phone to a woman much closer to the blasts than I was— right at the finish line when they went off. She was traumatized from what she had seen, which has already been repeated in what will probably be weeks of reports. Which brings me to the third wave, brought through digital devices— calls and texts with family and friends. I tried to call my coworkers to see that they got out.

And in the fourth wave, we distanced ourselves just a bit from the immediate moment, those around us, and our friends and family, and focused on information. We wanted the facts. As we wandered away from the blasts, the sounds of police and ambulance sirens screaming through Back Bay, we became the second hand consumers of our own experience. We turned to our electronic media to help us interpret our confusion and terror, and joined the intended audience of these attacks. Because the key to the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber is this: the attacked and the witnesses are not the intended audience; we were simply players, acting out the role thrust on us. The real audience is you, out there, watching on your now unavoidable screen— which has followed you from your local cinema into your living room, then into your businesses and restaurants, your lap, and now your pocket.

But how did this echo chamber come to be?

I walked through Boston and into Cambridge, then took a cab to Medford. Stopping at a pizza shop, I saw coverage on the TV of what I’d just seen firsthand three hours earlier. One thing nearly as traumatic as escaping bombs is having them follow you on screens for hours. Here I was in Medford, tired, shaken, hungry, confronted with four new angles of the blasts I’d just run from.

“And look, there’s a scared crowd running for their lives; how awful!”

Within a matter of hours, I’d gone from running for my life to watching my performance on screen, playing a young man running for his life from the danger and bewilderment of a Postmodern Nightmare. Except it’s a nightmare within a nightmare, because the techno-media echo chamber follows us everywhere we go. And this brings me back to that first point— the use of the post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber as a political tactic. Indulge the digression, please. It is relevant.

The assumption I learned in high school history was that World War II was the last World War due to the threat of mutually assured nuclear destruction. World War III could only be nuclear, and since there has been no nuclear war, we’re not there yet. YET! Which is why we took out Saddam! And bin Laden! And Gaddafi! And are looking out for Ahmadinejad! And Kim Jong-Un!

But what about the “Cold War?” Where was it cold? The US, USSR, UK and Western Europe, all sites of World War II. Where was it hot? South America, South East Asia, Central Asia, North Africa, and the Middle East, ending with the disintegration of the USSR, and resulting in regime changes the world over. The difference here is that the media learned to bring the spectacle from American cinemas on news reels into American living rooms on TVs, with spin. A hot war in a cool package. Could this be a candidate for the title of World War III?

But what about the “War on Terror,” or the “Long War?” This one has been pretty well hidden, and yet, “terrorist attacks” and American invasions and interventions made the evening news, the papers, and online news sites; there’s leaked video on Youtube and Vimeo— Twitter, Facebook, and the blogospohere offer platforms for sharing information and perspectives unavailable from the mainstream media. The justifications for this war crumbled under international scrutiny years ago, and yet the drones fly forward, largely un-examined by the mainstream. Could this be another candidate for the title?

Maybe World War III wasn’t nuclear; maybe it came and went, and Americans watched it on TV. The Long War could be World War IV, better hidden, though not for much longer, in the internet age. Rather than World Wars becoming increasingly obvious in their destruction, perhaps they’ve become more psychological, because they’re tied to our entertainment. We did not get a new World War, instead we got The Real World: War.

 

The normalization of violence through movies, video games, TV, and the news is part of this war, and the techno-media echo chamber, which evolved again on 9/11, has been essential to this process. And further, since five years ago, we carry it with us everywhere! At all times we can access a wealth of perspectives and contacts, yes, but the echo chamber has one main message: DANGER, AROUND THE CORNER— Stay Tuned! From the very format of the Hot Leading Story — “Now to you Tom, at the scene of the blast”— the media feed us the same formats again and again. Tragedy is our New York Times Bestseller, America’s Greatest National Export. And the antidote? “Security.”

In other words, the techno-media echo chamber co-evolved with a culture of international violence, and in shaping our perception of that violence it became a political medium. But it is a battleground only because it insists on being simplistic. It refuses to ask hard questions. And since World War II it has so succeeded in branding and re-branding war, and has amplified itself so absurdly, that we now carry it in our pockets. As a friend told me, “It’s like there’s a town crier at every corner.”

People have learned how to use it against us, and this has only gotten worse since 9/11. It is a crucial tool in modern warfare— whose home front is not a nuclear battle ground or worse, if possible; it is simply a battle against consciousness, against possibility.

As I ran away from this attack, I was in shock, jolted totally awake, and in that state, I was not surprised, to be honest. This is what happens when we live in ignorance. The victims are not at fault. “At fault” is not the right term. “Collateral damage” is closer. I don’t know why this happened, but my main point is that civic dialogue, a practice of open discussion and patient engagement, has gradually been lobotomized. The spaces where it happens are few and far between, increasingly de-funded, or expensive. The intended audience of these attacks is all of us caught in the din of this post-9/11 techno-media echo chamber.

I bring up the “Cold War” and the “War on Terror” and “Terrorists” because they are misleading labels, propagated via the echo chamber, that reduce a few perspectives into “facts” to be memorized and regurgitated,and  then sold in textbooks and on TV, erasing other more nuanced interpretations, and concealing violence.

“Cowards ruined a great event.”

“A tragedy in Boston’s fine history.”

“Increased security will of course be necessary.”

We have to step back and ask the question: WHY IS THIS HAPPENING? We have to ask! “Random, senseless violence” is insufficient.

Further, I’d like to know more about all of this military equipment local and state police forces have rolled out. How much did it cost? Where else could that money have gone? Now that a precedent has been set to use hundreds, if not thousands of high-tech weapons to catch one man, what limits will be put in place for future use?

We have been unconscious as this behemoth has grown.. It has lured us into its den. It spins half-truths and lies, and coins terms that force their way into our language, cannibalizing many more specific terms. It demands that we watch.

My sympathies to the victims and their families. I won’t be forgetting what I saw and heard at the Marathon, and how totally it fit with the logic of Postmodern America.

As bombs fell, Iraqi Good Samaritans rescued American Christians


At the rebuilt Rutba General Hospital in January, 2010. Back row, left to right, nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq and physician’s assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil, Rutba local, Muslim Peacemaker Teams founder Sami Rasouli, and the rest are Rutba locals. Front row, kneeling left to right, Rev. Weldon Nisly, Cliff Kindy, and Shane Claiborne.  

The synopsis below was published by The Albany Times-Union in advance of an event where I’m speaking on Saturday, March 16. The event, hosted by the Capital Region Theological Center, is titled, “Finding Your Calcutta: Where Does God Call You.” You can register and/or read more about it HERE.


On a sunny Saturday 10 years ago this month three Christian peacemakers from the United States were injured in a car accident that ended violently in a remote desert ditch of war-torn Iraq. It was March 29, 2003, nine days into the Pentagon’s “Shock and Awe” campaign. The U.S. Air Force was dropping on average 941 bombs per day on a sovereign Islamic nation, according to data I gleaned from an April 30, 2003, military report titled, “Operation Iraqi Freedom: By the Numbers.” Those numbers don’t even include ordnance fired by ground troops or allied air forces.

The Christian peacemakers squeezed into a taxi that morning had chosen to reside in this bombardment with the war’s most obvious victims— everyday Iraqis caught in the cross fire between a dictator and history’s most powerful military. Some labeled the peacemakers “human shields.” Others wrote them off as suicidal. They were neither. Simply, their profound spirituality would not allow them to sit idly while their government killed innocent people. In the purest (read: apolitical) sense of the word, they were diplomats. For Christ.

Before going to Baghdad in March 2003, Philadelphia peacemaker Shane Claiborne had explained his motivation in a letter penned like a last testament. In part, he wrote:

“I am going to Iraq to stop terrorism. There are Muslim and Christian extremists who kill in the name of their gods. Their leaders are millionaires who live in comfort while their citizens die neglected in the streets. I believe in another kingdom that belongs to the poor and to the peacemakers. I believe in a safe world, and I know this world will never be safe as long as the masses live in poverty so that a handful of people can live as they wish. … May we stand by those who face the impending wrath of empire and whisper, ‘God loves you, I love you, and if my country bombs your country, I will be right here with you.’”

Weeks later, the Americans found themselves stranded and bloodied in a highway ditch. Indiana organic farmer Cliff Kindy’s scalp was split open and gushing blood. Mennonite minister Weldon Nisly from Seattle had a fractured sternum, shoulder, ribs and thumb. Claiborne, with a separated shoulder, was the least injured. But he felt sick with dread. In the Pentagon’s War on Terror, he feared that Iraqis would see the Americans as the terrorists.

When three Iraqi men in the first vehicle that came to the scene helped the Americans into their truck, Claiborne couldn’t decide if he was being rescued or kidnapped.

A half-dozen miles southeast of that hard ditch, 270 miles west of Baghdad, is a desert town named Rutba. It was the westernmost outpost for Saddam’s Ba’athist regime. Three days earlier, on March 26, 2003, a Special Forces unit from Fort Campbell, Ky., had bombed a suspected ammo depot adjacent to the region’s only hospital. Rutba General Hospital had burned to the ground. So the Americans were taken to a squat building with no electricity and no running water. It’s where Rutba General Director Dr. Farouq Al-Dulaimi, physician assistant Jassim Muhammad Jamil and nurse Tarik Ali Marzouq were treating Rutba’s sick and wounded, and where they would patch up the Americans.

Hearing that the Americans were similar to the Rutba townspeople —peaceful and unarmed — Dr. Farouq told Claiborne, “You are safe in Rutba. We will take care of you. We take care of everyone — Christian, Muslim, Iraqi, American. We are all human beings. We are all sisters and brothers.”

Seven years later, when the peacemakers returned to Rutba to find the Good Samaritans and medical staff who had saved them, Jassim told them that when he heard they had returned, he thought they had left something and wanted to reclaim it.

“I never thought that you came back to say thank you,” he said. “Is it possible that you came back for a simple service [we] provided?”

He later remarked at how the American Christians were behaving like good Muslims, only without the daily prayers.

When the peacemakers left Rutba and the reunion in 2010, they promised to keep telling the story of Rutba’s Good Samaritans. Hearing this, Tarik and Jassim offered to also do their part to bring peace and reconciliation.

“As you do when you go back and you tell your people about Rutba,” Tarik said, “we also are committed to tell our people about your visit and your noble mission.”

Greg Barrett traveled to Iraq in 2003 as a correspondent for Gannett News Service and is the author of “The Gospel of Rutba: War, Peace, and the Good Samaritan Story in Iraq.” He is speaking Saturday, March 16, at the Capital Region Theological Center’s event, “Finding Your Calcutta” at Lisha’s Kill Reformed Church, 2131 Central Ave., Schenectady. For more information go to http://www.capitalrtc.org.

Hey, Middle East! Are you listening?

Here’s hoping/praying that the Middle East and all of its violent players (e.g., Israel, the United States, Iran, the Taliban, Palestine, Egypt, etc.) will someday grow the heck up and absorb life’s lessons.

For example, Ubuntu.

Ubuntu (“OO-boon-too”) is something Desmond Tutu preaches: “It is about the essence of being human, it is part of the gift that Africa will give the world. It embraces hospitality, caring about others, being able to go the extra mile for the sake of others. We believe that a person is a person through another person, that my humanity is caught up, bound up, inextricably, with yours. When I dehumanize you, I inexorably dehumanize myself.The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms and therefore you seek to work for the common good because your humanity comes into its own in belonging.”

Of course we see a living example of this in Father Joe Maier in The Gospel of Father Joe. It’s the same sort of oneness that he discusses in James Lingwood’s documentary, “Father Joe and the Bangkok Slaughterhouse.”

So, yo, Netanyahu! Are you taking notes? Please, for the love of God, Allah, the Buddah and all of humanity, grow up.

Evolve.

Iran? Hell No, My Kids Won’t Go

No wonder Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan credit Guthrie as an influence on their music.

I maintain that if a general military conscription were in place in the U.S. in 2003 (instead of an economic conscription that drafts our working class kids) the American electorate would’ve never allowed the 2003 preemptive invasion of a sovereign nation, i.e., Iraq. No friggin’ way. Our middle class, upper middle class, upper class and so-crazy-wealthy-I-can’t-classify-you parents would not have allowed the Washington-Wall Street military industrial complex to send their kids to go pick a fight and possibly die 6,000 miles from American soil. Think real hard about that before we invade Iran.

Would you let YOUR kid go?

Me? Oh, hell no. 

I first posted this to my Facebook page on Sept. 26, 2012. In response a politically savvy reporter friend of mine wrote:
 I was explaining executive power to my son the other day and how we need to return to an ironclad Declaration of War in order to, you know, declare war and send troops into harm’s way. We’ve gone down a slippery slope. Additionally, any official Declaration of War should automatically trigger a national draft. That would give such an action the gravitas it should have and would not be entered into lightly. I’m tired of politicians on both sides of the aisle gleefully committing the sons and daughters of minorities and rural Americans to bolster their patriotism in advance of their next election. It’s immoral.

On 9/11, Remembering the Enemy Within

A Kindred World

Four years ago during the homestretch of the U.S. presidential election the Democratic and Republican nominees were asked about the existence of evil by an evangelical Christian pastor who supported the 2003 military invasion of Iraq.

At his super-sized McMansion church in Orange County, Calif., Southern Baptist pastor Rick Warren quizzed Sens. Barack Obama and John McCain separately and in front of a live TV audience. Among other things, Warren asked each this question:

“Does evil exist? And if it does, do we ignore it? Do we negotiate with it? [How] do we defeat it?”

Two weeks ago, during another presidential homestretch, I sat on a 9/11 panel at a social-justice Christian festival in Oregon. Four other authors and speakers and I were asked to discuss, in effect, how our political and religious leaders could have better responded to the terrorism of 9/11. Of course hindsight, like insight, has its advantages. At least it should. But in listening to how our 2012 presidential nominees plan to fix an ailing economy I’m not convinced that Republican Mitt Romney has learned squat from history. Obama is reducing our gargantuan military budget and is making a light-hearted attempt to tame our Wall Street military. Romney, on the other hand, promises 12 million new jobs and an expanded military budget. (Mix those two promises together and see what explodes.)

So on Sept. 1 at the Wild Goose Festival in Corvallis, Ore., I recalled the very different and revealing responses given to Warren at the Saddleback Church on Aug. 16, 2008. In context and possible consequence it is important, I argued, because Obama’s perspective possesses a global breadth that eclipses any nearsighted nationalism expressed by hawkish Republicans.

Obama to Warren: 

“Evil does exist. I think we see evil all the time. We see evil in Darfur. We see evil, sadly, on the streets of our cities. We see evil in parents who viciously abuse their children. I think it has to be confronted. It has to be confronted squarely. … [But] one thing that I think is very important is for us to have some humility in how we approach the issue of confronting evil, because a lot of evil has been perpetrated based on the claim that we’re trying to confront evil. … One thing that is important is having some humility in recognizing that just because we think our intentions are good doesn’t always mean that we’re going to be doing good.”

Then came McCain and the right-equals-might posture of the GOP.

Warren: “How about this issue of evil. I asked this of your rival. … Does evil exist and, if so, should [we] ignore it, negotiate [with] it, contain it or defeat it?”

McCain: 

Defeat it. Couple of points: One, if I’m president of the United States, my friends, if I have to follow [Osama bin Laden] to the gates of hell, I will get Osama bin Laden and bring him to justice. I will do that. And I know how to do that. I will get that done. No one — no one — should be allowed to take thousands of American, innocent American lives. Of course evil must be defeated. … My friends, we are facing the transcendent challenge of the 21st century — radical Islamic extremism.”

The churchgoing crowd that had crowded into Saddleback Church exploded in applause for McCain. Woot-woot. It sounded like a Christian war cry (a contradiction in terms?)

You see, to McCain and profit-driven hawks, evil is the dark force that exists only as something out there. Something to call out, point at, condemn. Like gay marriage and atheists. Or religious extremism called by any other name than Christianity.

It’s this sort of spiritual myopia that keeps humanity locked in its primitive cycle of violence. Like an alcoholic who sees no problem with his drinking, Washington, Wall Street and our military industrial complex will never defeat evil because it lives and breathes on willful ignorance. Until we see the evil in capitalism infected by corporate greed and economic conscription we will continue to kill and be killed and sow nothing but violence for our children. Live by the sword, die by it.

Read the responses again. Now watch video of the nominees answering Warren’s question on evil: first Obama and then McCain.

One party’s candidate expresses an evolving perspective on evil and the role we all play.

The other party is doomed to repeat history.

This blog was originally published by The Huffington Post and on Patheos on Sept. 11, 2012 and Sept. 17, 2012, in that order.

Column published Sept. 11, 2012

Column published in Patheos, Sept. 17, 2012