Friday, September 10, 2021


Speaking of Which

As you probably know, this week is the 20th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and hence of the US invasion and occupation of Afghanistan (although more like the 42nd anniversary if you count the "covert" action initiated by the CIA in 1979). There's been a fair amount of press on that, some noted below. And while the number of people who realize what a bad idea that war was has significantly increased in recent years, there are still a lot of important people who want to crank the war up again.

I was in Brooklyn that morning, with Laura Tillem for a visit with Liz Fink. From her apartment, we could see the streak of black smoke drifting east from the burning towers, against a bright blue sky, and we could look down on Grand Army Plaza and watch people trudging home from jobs in Manhattan. That's about three miles in from the bridges, so one of the first things I was struck by is that the adrenaline of pedestrians fleeing the scene had worn off. New Yorkers are used to difficulties, and this was worse than usual, but no need to panic -- unlike the politicians and media who quickly whipped up their "America under attack" chyrons.

Liz and Laura were glued to the TV, which I could hear from the other room, where I was thumbing through a book called Century, with often gory pictures covering the whole of the 20th century, from the Boxer Rebellion and Boer War to the bombing of the USS Cole. Liz predicted the TV would become unbearable in a couple days, but the bad ideas had yet to harden into even worse policies. Even before the second plane hit, Liz intuited who was doing it, and why. My reaction was that this was a moment for introspection: a wake-up call for Americans to reflect on and get right with God. Alas, there was little evidence of that. Even friends who were trusty leftists with long histories opposed to American militarism lost their minds.

Early afternoon we walked into Park Slope and ate in a Middle Eastern restaurant, doing brisk business -- probably the last day it was possible to do so without encountering American flags. We came back, and watched more TV. I remember John Major and Shimon Peres cackling about how at last Americans will understand what terrorism means, and will appreciate how much they can learn from British and Israeli expertise in such matters. Then there was Senator Hillary Clinton, on the Capitol steps, complaining about closing the session and daring the terrorists to take her out. It was already getting weirder. That evening, the media got some grainy video of a missile attack in Kabul, so they started celebrating "America strikes back."

We were locked down for most of a week. When the subways were clear, we rode into Grand Central Station to eat in the Oyster Bar. No sooner had we entered the Station than we saw a phalanx of firefighters marching to busses for the trip downtown. When the planes started flying again, Laura left for Wichita, and my sister-in-law flew into New York, having been stuck in Las Vegas. She brought horrible news: her daughter-in-law, my niece, was working in WTC and was one of those killed. I rushed down to my nephew's house, where everyone was stunned. A few days later Liz took a planned trip to California, leaving me alone in the apartment for another week or two (with the television never on, so I was sort of cocooned from the madness developing across the nation. In fact, I had never heard of "9/11" until a friend picked me up and drove me to where I had parked my car in New Jersey. But I can say that I attended an antiwar demonstration in Union Square Park, much like many I had been to (and many more to come). I had a project to do in New York -- that's when I built Robert Christgau's website -- and spent spare time prowling around bookstores looking for something to read to help me make sense of the world. I didn't find much at the time, and wound up reading a book on British "hill stations" in India. Intuitively, I knew this had something to do with colonialism.

This week is also the 50th anniversary of the Attica Prison massacre. I don't recall any discussion of its 30th anniversary 20 years ago, most likely because the civil case still hadn't been settled. Liz Fink joined the Attica Brothers defense team straight out of law school, shortly after the event, and stayed with the case until it was finally settled in 2005. There was some sort of a 40th anniversary, and this year there are more remembrances organized around the 50th anniversary. I watched the first two panels of Attica Is All of Us on the 9th, with two more coming up on the 13th. But what I really recommend you watch is the HBO Max documentary Betrayal at Attica, which draws a line from the lynchings and labor wars of the 19th century to recent killings by police, and finds Attica in the center, featuring narration by Liz Fink.

I had a rather troubled adolescence, but in 1971 I started to take control of my life. I got a GED, and entered college at Wichita State. I took a philosophy class, and when Attica happened my professor was so disturbed by the events that he put aside his plan and spent a whole session delving into what happened. That stuck with me, and various things caused it to reverberate over time. I have a cousin who taught political science at SUNY Buffalo, and she and her friends got involved in the Attica Brothers defense, so I followed the case more closely than I otherwise would have. Later I met and fell in love with Laura, and it turned out that her closest friend from college was Liz Fink. I got to know Liz fairly well over the years, and met several of her clients and fellow lawyers. When my nephew (Mike Hull) moved to New York in 2000, I introduced him to Liz. It took a while for them to click, but he's done several films and a lot of video editing, and offered to take Liz's Attica files and digitize and archive them. The film is derived from the archive, but the archive is public and will be a resource for anyone else who wants to find out what happened 50 years ago. But others will be hard-pressed to match the narrative power of Mike's film (or the economy and insight of Liz Fink). I should also mention that Mike has continued to interview participants, which will add to amount of information on Attica.

Robert Christgau wrote a terrific review of Mike's film, Out of the Box. I'm not finding many more reviews, but there are several reviews of Stanley Nelson's new Attica documentary (here and here and here). The latter is scheduled for the Toronto Film Festival, then later on Showtime (don't know when). Nelson is a famous documentarian (26 previous films, MacArthur Fellow, three Primetime Emmy Awards, etc.).


Afghanistan:

Matthieu Aikins, et al.: Times Investigation: In US Drone Strike, Evidence Suggests No ISIS Bomb: "It was the last known missile fired by the United States in its 20-year war in Afghanistan, and the military called it a 'righteous strike'" -- it killed 10, including "a longtime worker for a US aid group" and seven children. A little something for the Afghans to remember us by. Also see Ben Armbruster: New report: Post-9/11 US airstrikes killed upwards of 48,000 civilians: so the last airstrike wasn't exactly an exception to the rule.

Emran Feroz: The Enemies We Made: "Haunted by Predator drones in the sky and death squads on the ground." This is a big part of the US legacy in Afghanistan and elsewhere, and despite all the democracy propaganda, this is the part the imperial mandarins want to keep going with their "over-the-horizon" plans. Feroz also wrote: The Whitewashing of the Afghan War.

Anand Gopal: The Other Afghan Women: "In the countryside, the endless killing of civilians turned women against the occupiers who claimed to be helping them." Gopal's 2014 book No Good Men Among the Living: America, the Taliban, and the War Through Afghan Eyes was one of the few I was tempted by, as it was one of the few to try to represent how a variety of Afghans saw the US occupation. He focused on three figures: a Taliban commander, a member of the US-backed government, and a village housewife. This article focuses on the latter. While he's critical of the Taliban, it's hard to read this and see anything the US was able to do right.

Meredith McGraw: Trump wanted out of Afghanistan. Now he wants to bomb it. This long and rather confusing article tries to round up what Trump and his people are saying these days on Afghanistan. As for Trump himself, all you need to know is that he viewed troops-on-the-ground as separate and independent of bombing. He saw that keeping troops in war zones was a liability, but had no qualms about bombing, even after the troops were gone. He liked blowing things up, and was happy to go along with anything the Pentagon offered. He wasn't what you'd call a deep thinker, and he was easily steered by subordinates who had their own agendas (like McMaster, Bolton, and Pompeo).

Paul R Pillar: The biggest problems in how the Afghanistan story has been told: "Not considering the alternative, or whether there was one"; "believing an exact scenario can be predicted"; "focusing more on the dramatic than on the important."

Storer H Rowley: An "Over-the-Horizon" Strategy for Afghanistan: There are no words to express how bad this idea is. The overwhelming evidence is that drone strikes are counter-productive: they almost inevitably kill bystanders, generating more anti-American sentiment than any conceivable practical value; they alienate the host country, not least by mocking sovereignty; they tempt target groups to embrace their own "far enemy" strategy (as Al-Qaeda did in 2001). The US actually has considerable experience with "over-the-horizon" targeting, especially in Pakistan, as well as Yemen, Libya, and Somalia. The result in the latter cases has been to further destabilize their political systems, increasing the jihadist tendency. As for Pakistan, resentment against US drone strikes have been routinely dismissed, but ISI support for the Taliban has proven decisive. Syria is another case, showing how the US predilection for bombing has drawn the US into internal political strife, making peace even harder to find. The only other nation which behaves so arrogantly toward other nations is Israel, especially in Syria, which Israel bombs periodically, with seeming impunity. America's neocons have always suffered from a severe case of Israel-envy. At this point they would like nothing better than to treat Afghanistan like Israel treats Gaza: as an arbitrary punching bag. This is bullying on a national (or for the US global) scale. It is an assault on humanity, even our own.

Adela Suliman: Lindsey Graham says United States 'will be going back' into Afghanistan: "The Republican senator predicts a clash between the Taliban and Islamic State will force Washington to re-engage." Shows how little he knows: ISIS was able to take over a quarter of Iraq because Sunnis were excluded from the Shiite-Kurdish ruling alliance the US left in power, a crisis which led the latter to invite the US back, temporarily; ISIS-K, on the other hand, is a minor faction competing for the Taliban's own ethnic and religious turf, which should be easy enough to control as long as the Taliban doesn't ally with the US. In the unlikely event that the Taliban needs foreign assistance, their obvious ally is Pakistan, which has its own reasons for suppressing the "Pakistani Taliban." The bigger question is why Graham would entertain, much less fantasize about, such a request. Is he really that hard up for countries to invade?


Everything Else:

Brian Alexander: The GOP's War on Public Health Officials: Not among the examples here -- suggesting there are too many to enumerate -- Republicans in Kansas passed a law which strips our Democratic governor from being able to declare health emergencies, and another which allows counties to overrule state mandates. The former was quickly ruled unconstitutional, but the intent is that governments will never in the future be anywhere near as effective as they were in 2020. That's a gross error on the wrong side of history -- most of us who lived through it weren't all that impressed, but it takes a special kind of myopia to think that if only we hadn't had those lockdowns the economy would have boomed and we'd be so much better off now. As I recall, one country did try that strategy (Sweden), and had to admit it was a complete failure. It's bad enough that Republicans insist on doing stupid things here and now. It's even more insidious when they use their temporary power to future governments from ever correcting their errors. Nor is this a new strategy on their part. It's the key idea behind their obsession with packing the Supreme Court.

David Atkins: Donald Trump May Still Destroy the GOP, After All: You would think that the unique combination of toxicity and incompetence Republicans have embraced, especially given how vividly Trump exemplifies both, would have already sunk the GOP to levels beneath what Republicans suffered in the 1930s, but it hasn't happened. Atkins may be right that the longer Trump pushes his luck, but harder the party will eventually fall. But Trump's continued popularity within the party rests on two foundations: blind faith that he is a winner (even when he isn't), and dumb belief that it was Trump who finally saved the party from the insipidity of the Romneys, McCains, Ryans, and Bushes who have repeatedly failed the faithful, and who proved their treason by doubting their fearless leader.

Matthew Cooper: Democrats Are Better at Running FEMA. They Just Are. That's probably true of all branches of government, even ones that Republicans supposedly approve of (like the Defense Department), even ones that do nothing useful at all (like, uh, the Defense Department). After all, Republicans start with the assumption that government is bad, so it's easy for them to fall for self-fulfilling prophecies. In many cases, they even see that as a plus: if people see that government doesn't work well for them, they'll become doubters, which inclines them to fall for Republican propaganda. That's pretty obvious, but if government is really worthless, why do Republicans connive so to control it? Two answers: one is that it's a huge and potentially corrupt patronage machine, and that can be used to reward donors and even some followers, and that can be used to grip power ever more tightly; the other is that it keeps the Democrats from power, and using the patronage machine for their own purposes (or worse still, for public good). Still, FEMA is a special case, because its failures are so glaringly public -- partly because the media loves a good disaster, so this is a rare case where they are paying attention, and partly because the transition from planning to action is so abrupt (generously assuming that when you aren't in crisis you're preparing for future crisis, which doesn't seem to be the case when Republicans have been in charge). Cooper's data here could hardly be more clearcut, so why don't more people realize this? It's a point that's always been true, but as we're coming to recognize the link between global warming and increasingly intense disasters, it needs to be reiterated at every opportunity. Sure, we need to do something long term to limit and even reverse climate change, but even the most optimistic scenario (which I don't have any faith in, but still) is way out, ensuring that we'll have a lot of disasters in the meantime. And in those disasters, competent, honest government matters. To have any chance of that, we need to keep Republicans far from the levers of power.

Liz Featherstone: The Severe Weather Event We Routinely Ignore: Poor Air Quality: "Air pollution is just as fatal as hurricanes, and it profoundly affects our well-being. Yet we no longer treat it as a crisis." Also: How to Live in a Burning World Without Losing Your Mind.

Garrett M Graff: After 9/11, the US Got Almost Everything Wrong: "The nation's failures began in the first hours of the attacks and continue to the present day. Seeing how and when we went wrong is easy in hindsight. What's much harder to understand is how -- if at all -- we can make things right." Isn't the first step toward "making it right" to stop making it worse? I could write a whole book on this. While I would shade things a bit differently, Graff's article could work as my outline. Section heads:

  • As a society, we succumbed to fear.
  • We chose the wrong way to seek justice.
  • At home, we reorganized the government the wrong way.
  • Abroad, we squandered the world's goodwill.
  • We picked the wrong enemies.

Some more 9/11 anniversary comments:

  • Spencer Ackerman: How Sept. 11 Gave Us Jan. 6: Author of Reign of Terror: How the 9/11 Era Destabilized America and Produced Trump. I'm not especially comfortable with this tendency to view Trump as a malady that must have some external cause, but he's so reflexive it's hard to ascribe agency to him. But I do think it's true that decades of war have sorely distorted the American political system, in ways much more profound than the usual tally of lives and treasure wasted. Also see the interviews: Transcript: Ezra Klein Interviews Spencer Ackerman; and America is still stuck in the world 9/11 built.
  • Tariq Ali: The War on Terror: 20 Years of Bloodshed and Delusion. Notes that Chalmers Johnson published his critically important book Blowback: The Costs and Consequences of American Empire a little more than a year before the 9/11 attacks. The term "blowback" was one that Chalmers had learned as a CIA analyst, but I doubt if it ever appeared in the CIA's daily briefings for the president, either as an explanation for the attack, or as a prediction for the planned American rampage.
  • Zack Beauchamp: The war on terror and the long death of liberal interventionism. Whenever the powers that be decide to invade some country, you can count on the warmongers to deploy a few liberals to claim the high moral ground and provide camouflage for those out to kill and maim, conquer and plunder. Even if their aims are sincere, the means inevitably redefine the ends: the only reason for projecting violence is intimidation and subjugation. Sooner or later said liberals realize they've been had -- sooner when the real power brokers, like Bush-Cheney, are sworn enemies of liberalism at home.
  • Matthew Cooper: The Lost Journalistic World of 9/11: "The terrorists maimed out cathedrals, as she [Nancy Gibbs] wrote in Time. But two decades later, we've done a pretty good job of defacing our institutions all by ourselves."
  • Michelle Goldberg: How 9/11 Turned America Into a Half-Crazed, Fading Power: "We launched hubristic wars to remake the world and let ourselves be remade instead, spending an estimated $8 trillion in the process. We midwifed worse terrorists than those we set out to fight." You know, one of my early insights into 9/11 was that it wasn't the airplanes that brought the towers crashing down; it was gravity. All the planes and fuel did was weaken the structure a bit; dead weight did the rest. The problem with the title is that America was already "a half-crazed, fading power" before 9/11. It's taken decades for some commentators to realize that, but the structural flaws were there from way back. If you recall Clinton's periodic bombing of Iraq, you should recognize a fading superpower which had become petty and vindictive. That's also a pretty apt description of the logic behind the Carter-Reagan support for the Afghan jihadis, or for that matter the blockades of Cuba and North Korea.
  • Suzanne Gordon: A September 11 Reckoning: Calculating the Full Cost of War: Despite numerous efforts, I fear that the full costs of the 9/11 wars will never be known, and will certainly never be agreed on. Focus here is on the staggering costs of health care for veterans -- a big chunk of the Stiglitz-Bilmes calculations -- but other costs are no less real for the difficulties in establishing baselines. For instance, 20 years of war correlate well with increasing gun violence and fetishism in the US, which accounts for more than 50,000 deaths per year. Worse still may be the wars' contribution to the rightward drift in US politics, which added to economic woes, infrastructure weakness, more inequality, the climate crisis and its attendant disasters, and much more.
  • Theodore B Olson: The tragic price of forgetting 9/11: I'm too much of a student of history to let anything be forgotten, but some people need to give it a break. Olson's screed is insane: "Twenty years ago, 19 savages commandeered four commercial airliners carrying unsuspecting civilian passengers and used them to take down New York's World Trade Center towers and crash into the Pentagon. . . . For years prior to 9/11, our people, institutions and military had been victims of terrorist attacks at home and abroad. Our responses had been, to put it charitably, tepid and ineffectual. . . . But the 9/11 attacks were too horrible, too shocking and too audacious for the shop-worn, mostly symbolic responses of the past. This time, we had to do something; we had to mean it. . . . But the Taliban and the terrorists with whom they collaborate do not forget. They are driven by a cruel, rigid, harsh and unrelenting religious zealotry. They dominate and oppress their own people, subjugate their women, and torture and behead anyone who dissents or departs from their barbaric regime. . . . Yet it takes immense resources, tenacity and, sadly, loss of lives to fight them. The effort and cost can be enervating. We grow tired; we want to wish them away. We start to forget. . . . We fantasize that if we just put our arms around them, they will be nice, civilized, decent. . . . So we talked ourselves into believing in a kinder, gentler Taliban. . . . Remember how well that worked with Hitler. . . . We will sadly soon realize: We can fool ourselves into thinking that we have made peace with terrorists. But terrorism has not made peace with us." What I couldn't forget was the myriad other uses of that "savages": a word that kicked off innumerable massacres. (For a refresher, check out Sven Lindqvist's "Exterminate All the Brutes".) Olson may cling to one memory, but he's stripped it of all context, and shown us how oblivious a person can be to the memories and perceptions of others.

Harvey J Graff: There Is No Debate About Critical Race Theory: Sen. Tom Cotton managed to pass an ammendment to the $3.5 billion infrastructure bill which "bans federal funds from going to K-12 schools that teach critical race theory. It passed 50-49." So while there may be no substantive debate about the theory itself, there is the matter of "bad-faith arguments from Republicans to sow dissension and fear."

Joanna L Grossman: The Texas Abortion Law Is a Nightmare for Pregnant Teens. I could link to a lot of articles on why SB 8 is a nightmare, but this does a particularly good job of describing the practical impact.

Adam Tooze: What if the Coronavirus Crisis Is Just a Trial Run? Economic historian, adapted this piece from his forthcoming book, Shutdown: How Covid Shook the World's Economy. He cautions us: "The challenges won't go away, and they won't get smaller. The coronavirus was a shock, but a pandemic was long predicted. Thee is every reason to think this one will not be a one-off." But he also points out (and Republicans will gag on this): "We can afford anything we can actually do. The problem is agreeing on what to do and how to do it. In giving us a glimpse of financial freedom, 2020 also robbed us of pretenses and excuses. . . . Now if you hear someone arguing that we cannot afford to bring billions of people out of poverty or we cannot afford to transition the energy system away from fossil fuels, we know how to respond: Either you are invoking technological obstacles, in which case we need a suitably scaled, Warp Speed-style program to overcome them, or it is simply a matter of priorities." Also see Zack Beauchamp's interview with Tooze, "Neoliberalism has really ruptured": Adam Tooze on the legacy of 2020.