Summer of Hate: From Ferguson to Ukraine to Afghanistan
September 7, 2014
Patricia J. Williams / The Nation & Dan Roberts / The Guardian
Commentary: Why is there such persistent political paralysis in Washington, DC? Why does it seem that politicians are afraid to challenge entrenched power? Could it be that part of the answer is contained in the highlighted section of the following essay?
Summer of Hate
Eric Garner's death marks a darkening mood fifty years after Freedom Summer
Patricia J. Williams / The Nation
(September 4, 2014) -- This summer, the fiftieth anniversary of Freedom Summer, has been a very bad season for any instantiation, anywhere, of Martin Luther King's "beloved community."
From our immobilized Congress to explosions in Pakistan, from corruption in Afghanistan to war in Ukraine, from the rise of Hindu fundamentalism in India to the ungoverned spread of the Ebola virus in West Africa, from the breakdown of negotiations in Gaza to deadly confrontations between police and unarmed citizens from Philadelphia to Albuquerque, a restless undoing boils across the globe.
As I write, I listen to a radio remembrance of the useless toll of World War I, with its millions of honorable dead. Following that, a spoken essay about the birth of the atomic age at Hiroshima. Rumination about the shooting of Archduke Franz Ferdinand is mixed with speculation about whether we are playing with fire on the dry-kindled brink of something like World War III.
"Chickens coming home to roost" is what a voice says about some catastrophe. It's the aphorism -- of which my grandmother was quite fond -- that catches my attention. She always used it to describe the legacy of slavery: the way in which children are born full of light and joy, but later, when they're old enough to work the fields, return at the end of the day with cruelty lurking behind their eyes.
My thoughts shift to the Blackwater guards who gunned down seventeen innocent civilians in Baghdad in 2007. Weeks before that incident, which proved a tragic turning point in the supposed quest to win Iraqi "hearts and minds," the State Department had launched an investigation into the criminality and chaos for which Blackwater was already responsible.
That investigation was blocked outright: Blackwater's spokesman in Iraq told the State Department's lead investigator that he should watch himself, because the Blackwater executive could kill him "at this very moment and no one could or would do anything about it." The investigator was later ordered home for "disrupting" the American Embassy's relationship with Blackwater.
I think, too, of the violent breach of medical and military ethics in our government's attempted deployment of doctors to monitor the administration of torture at Guantánamo Bay. My scattered thoughts roll on to the general public-health emergency posed by our failed health system -- including the fact that 40 to 60 percent of those who land in jails or prisons are suffering from untreated mental illness.
This in turn floats me to Rikers Island, the jail where so many of those arrested under the New York Police Department's "broken windows" policy (which targets those who commit "quality of life" crimes and other very minor infractions) end up. Rikers is a holding facility, not a prison, meaning that the vast majority of inmates are not convicts but are awaiting arraignment or trial. Yet Rikers inmates suffer staggering rates of abuse requiring hospitalization.
The use of force has more than doubled in the last five years, even as the jail population has declined. The impunity with which those beatings take place is beyond doubt, because many of the assaults have been captured in surveillance videos. Sometimes guards evade even this monitoring by beating inmates in the medical unit -- often in the presence of distressed medical staff.
According to a four-month investigation by The New York Times, it has been "common practice -- ‘normalized brutality' -- for beatings to go on at the clinic, because there were no cameras there." Despite thorough documentation by the city's Department of Health and Mental Hygiene, by the Board of Correction, by the Department of Correction, by the Office of the Chief Medical Examiner, there have been no prosecutions of guards to date. Said the Bronx district attorney's office: "Some of these cases, from Rikers Island in particular, some of the witnesses get scattered."
There were witnesses to the July death of Eric Garner, however. Garner was the New Yorker who died after police throttled him as they arrested him for selling individual loose cigarettes without a license.
A cellphone video of the confrontation, taken by a passer-by, has gone viral. While police maintain that they were simply "bringing a person to the ground the way we're trained to do," the medical examiner's office concluded that Garner's death was a homicide, the result of the long-banned choke hold.
While the sad politics-as-usual around that incident rage on, I am most struck by the behavior of the emergency medical technicians, who stood alongside the police and did nothing, idly peering down at Garner as he lay unconscious, watching him die, administering neither CPR nor defibrillation, even as gathered onlookers shouted at them to do so.
According to the National Comorbidity Study and the National Institutes of Health, approximately 3.5 percent of the American population suffers from post-traumatic stress disorder. About 14 percent of New York City firefighters have PTSD, as well as 20 percent of Iraq War veterans, 31 percent of prison guards, more than half of all prison inmates and, according to a study by the Safer Foundation, up to 68 percent of incarcerated women.
On the radio, someone is calling President Barack Obama "chicken" for not having "gotten more involved" by sending more soldiers to Syria, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Libya, Iraq.
The witnesses scatter. The chickens come home to roost. I remain curious about the explosive histories that sent those chickens flying into distant disorder, but which we consign to oblivion as they glide back to earth, drifting like embers and ashes, the regrouping phoenixes of reiterated traumas.
I turn off the radio, left with an ominous vision of flocks of mean-spirited birds, broken-winged and brooding, gathering in unnatural silence, as though before a storm.
Blackwater Trial Reaches Emotional and Legal
Climax as Prosecution Rests
Dan Roberts / The Guardian
WASHINGTON (August 27, 2014) -- One of the darkest days of the US occupation of Iraq was relived in a Washington courtroom on Wednesday as the prosecution of four Blackwater security contractors accused of killing 14 civilians in a mistaken attack in Baghdad reached an emotional and legal climax.
Seven years after the bloody shooting in Baghdad's Nisour Square that left a total of 17 Iraqis dead and more than 20 seriously wounded, jurors were told of the "shocking amount of death, injury and destruction" that saw "innocent men, women and children mowed down" by private guards working for the US State Department.
In closing arguments, assistant US attorney Anthony Asuncion claimed three of the four defendants were guilty of manslaughter and a fourth of murder for showing extreme disregard for human life in retaliating against what they mistakenly believed was a car bomb attack on their convoy.
But the defense summed up its case with a blistering attack on the government for ignoring evidence of alleged incoming machine gun fire at the convoy, which it also accused Iraqi police of helping to cover up.
The controversial case, which will go to the jury next week, is one of the few in which US forces have been tried for civilian deaths in Iraq and has already been abandoned once after an earlier judge questioned the way evidence was gathered.
But federal prosecutors pulled no punches on Wednesday as the closing stages of the second trial, which has lasted for 10 weeks, saw emotional scenes from attorneys on both sides.
Pointing at the four accused -- Nicholas Slatten, Paul Slough, Evan Liberty and Dustin Heard -- Asuncion said: "These men took something that did not belong to them; the lives of 14 human beings ... they were turned into bloody bullet-riddled corpses at the hands of these men."
After he described at length the fate of individual Iraqi civilians attacked by the Blackwater convoy, Asuncion's voice was shaking, and he was asked to repeat a key line for the court stenographer to hear. "[The witness] opened the door and his son's brains fell out at his feet," Asuncio told the jury a second time. "As [the witness] put it, ‘the world went dark for me'."
Dozens of witnesses and relatives from Iraq have been flown over for the trial, some showing jurors the scars on their bodies and giving evidence that caused one juror to be recused after she said she could no longer sleep at night.
"It must have seemed like the apocalypse was here," said Asuncion in his closing argument, as he described how many were shot in the back, at long range, or blown up by powerful grenades used by the US contractors.
"There was not a single dead insurgent on the scene," claimed the prosecutor. "None of these people were armed."
He also recapped evidence from Blackwater colleagues who testified against the accused, claiming they acted with contempt for Iraqi civilians and boasted of turning "a guy's head into a canoe" and "popping his grape".
Earlier in the trial these witnesses had spoken of telling the accused to "cease-fucking-fire" after the attack, which one described as "the most horrible botched thing I have ever seen in my life".
But defense attorneys argue the men were acting in legitimate self-defense after suspecting a car that was rolling toward them at a busy traffic intersection could contain a bomb.
Brian Heberlig, lawyer for Paul Slough, said the ensuing "hectic firefight" was heightened by an earlier car bomb attack on another Blackwater convoy and accused prosecutors of ignoring witnesses who had spoken of hearing AK-47 fire from possible insurgents in the area.
"I felt I was in the wrong courtroom, he said. "The argument was long on emotion and rhetoric but short on citation of the evidentiary record."
Heberlig acknowledged that fears of a bomb attack were ultimately misplaced but said the defendants responded with an appropriate escalation of force given what they suspected was happening.
"Perhaps their perception was erroneous, perhaps the [Iraqi police] was trying to help," he said. "It does appear that this was not a [car bomb], it does appear that this was a medical student and his mother, but our clients did not know that."
However he ridiculed the prosecution's suggestion that AK-47 shell casings found near the scene were normal on the streets of the Baghdad -- "as common as finding cigarette butts in the streets of a US city or finding sea shells at the beach," claimed Asuncion -- and therefore not necessarily proof of any incoming fire.
"If these were just ‘sea shells' why, four days later, were the shells no longer there?" asked Herberlig. "We will never know how much [Iraqi police] scrubbed the scene after the attack; what else was gone".
US District Judge Royce Lamberth told jurors he would probably send them out to consider the case on Tuesday after a day or two more of closing arguments.
Blackwater, which settled a separate civilian claim following the attack, has since been renamed Xe and then Academi in efforts to improve its reputation.
A fifth security guard in the convoy, Jeremy Ridgeway, pleaded guilty to manslaughter before the trial in exchange for a more lenient sentence and was one of two contractors to give evidence against his former colleagues.
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