Thursday, April 08, 2010

It's Hard To Watch

A collage of thoughts.

On my cruise in March, I met a friend, Tom, who believes the U.S. will fall like Rome of old, because corruption will rot its core until, finally, everything falls apart.

We'll see. But whatever happens, it's painful to watch. U.S. politics seems to have become utterly nuts. I had hoped Barack Obama would help bring people together, but to my astonishment the polarization that the Bush administration seemed to revel in only seemed to get worse under Obama, despite the new president's attempts to establish bipartisanship. It seems these days like straw men are a thousand feet high.

Listening to the right--now the majority, if the ratings of Fox News mean anything--the policies of the great Ronald Reagan (or was that George W. Bush? who's can remember, it was so long ago) have been swept aside by the tyrant Barack Hussein Obama, who will bring socialism (or has already done so) and take the unprecedented step of drowning the country in debt.

From where I sit, the new boss looks too much like the old boss. The Bush Administration started a warrantless wiretapping program and passed a bill (with Obama's vote) to give immunity to cooperating telecomms; Obama is continuing to prevent information about the program from leaking. Bush passed a stimulus package for megacorporations worth hundreds of billions; Obama passed another one. Neither bailout had conditions to prevent excessive executive compensation. Bush started two wars; Obama is continuing them. Bush raised the debt over $4 trillion; Obama ambitiously continues the trend. Bush catered to big business interests; so does Obama.

How is Obama different? Well, he passed a health care bill. Or as Dennis Kucinich called it, "insurance care": a plan only barely better than the status quo, that takes care to protect big insurance company profits. Oh, and he's more intelligent... but less experienced. His skin color is slightly different... that's gotta be worth something. He's pledged government transparency... but half the country will find reasons ("talking points") why this and every single thing he ever does is A Bad Thing.

What's scariest to me about American politics is not what's going on at the top, but at the bottom. The country seems saturated with extremists. People watching Fox News and MSNBC instead of CNN. People listening to Glenn Beck, O'Reilly and Limbaugh as if they were Walter Cronkite, Larry King, and 60 minutes. Shouting matches instead of debates. And above all a disregard for truth, honesty, and ethics. Too many Americans seem to be confusing "right" and "left" with "right" and "wrong", while many others would rather just watch American Idol and, when they get to the polling booth, punch a chad beside the first name they recognize. Damn sheeple everywhere.

I'm really worried that corruption is killing the United States. Not just at the top, but at the grass roots too. Why does it look like the fringes are taking over, like mold spreading across a slice of bread? If the grass roots were healthy--if the common man were ethical and did not tolerate lies--maybe they could reign-in the craziness in the federal government and the mainstream media. But without people that cherish truth, balance, love and reason... maybe American politics is the result.

WikiLeaks recently released a video from the point of view of a U.S. gunship that shows it mowing down a group of people including 2 Reuters journalists and two children in a van. They say at least 12 people died (the children survived). I wonder if the mainstream media will give it much coverage.

If you're one of those war-monger types, please do watch the video (17 or 39 minute version), lest you brush it off again as no big deal. Around 2:00 (39 min version) when the guy says "Have five to six individuals with AK-47s", I challenge you to find a single AK-47 on the screen, let alone any evidence of hostility (unless I'm mistaken, in war-torn countries it is not uncommon for individuals to be armed, so merely possessing a weapon shouldn't get you killed by our tax dollars.) For those with softer hearts, there is a transcript (now if only there was one with pictures.)

The only thing in this video for which the attackers could be forgiven is at 2:34, where they mistake a large camera for an R.P.G., probably because they only see it for a few seconds and the way the man leans against a building looks rather like taking cover or preparing to fire. Hell, maybe some RPGs do look like that.


Anyway, on the whole it's truly amazing. A group of people calmly walking around--no sign of hostility toward anyone, most of them appear unarmed, no weapons in-hand, standing on the street, none of them near cover, most of them seeming unaware of the gunship's presence--and they just "light em up".
"Keep shootin'".
...
"Keep shootin'".
...
"Keep shootin'".
The bullets take a full two seconds to reach their targets, and the helicopter may have been up to 800 metres away (source), explaining why the civvies seemed to take little notice of it at first.

Later a van comes by, which apparently had been picking up bodies or wounded, and tried to rescue one of the journalists. No sign that the van's occupants are armed or hostile, but god damn how the gunship guys chomp at the bit!
"Let me engage"
"Can I shoot?"
"Request permission to engage..."
"Picking up the wounded?"
"Yeah, we're trying to get permission to engage."
"What's goin' on, let us shoot!"
"Request permission to engage."
"This is bushmaster 7, roger, engage."
After that I'd had enough. I didn't need to watch that shit.

According to WikiLeaks,
After demands by Reuters, the incident was investigated and the U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own "Rules of Engagement".
I'm ashamed to say I have seen several short "snuff films", graphic videos of real people actually dying by accident or by murder. By the numbers this is the worst snuff film I have ever seen, but it has a low-quality black and white picture, and given what evil I have exposed myself to before, it doesn't leave quite as vivid an impression on the memory as a close up full-color death. Still. It's keeping me awake.

So what does this have to do with American politics? Since 9/11 I've seen several Americans on the internet posting filthy tirades against foreigners. Afghanistan? Bomb it! Iraqis? Bomb them! Maybe we'll hit a terrorist or two by chance and that will make it worthwhile. And I am reminded of how they--we?--treat a human life as worth so much less if it's an Iraqi, or any foreigner not from a wealthy western nation. What comfort it is that we need not even try to measure the death toll in these places. Is it 200,000 dead in Iraq or a million? Who knows, who cares. What really matters is that 4287 U.S. soldiers died and 139 journalists. Mind you, one dead Micheal Jackson gets more press than 1000 dead soldiers. Some Americans have leftover appetite for war, but maybe less appetite for news about it.

We ruined Iraq. After keeping the country poor with onerous sanctions for many years, we downgraded it from a ruthless dictatorship to a lawless cesspool of poverty, evil and death, and finally, tired of letting the suicide bombers get all the kills, we join the party, pop open a few civilians ourselves, and don't worry about it too much because the rules of engagement were followed. The bad guys kill so many civilians, what's the big deal if we get a few too?

When I saw that group of 9 civvies in the crosshairs it reminded me very much of the online video games I sometimes play. It's such a great feeling to blow up three or four other players with a single group of stickybombs in TF2, or sneak up on a group of enemies in CS and light 'em all up with a grenade. I wonder if these fucking murderers in a real gunship got the same feeling when they saw all "five to six" of their supposedly AK-armed targets, plus a few bonus points, all clumped together out in the open where they could kill them all in a matter of seconds.

It's hard to watch. So for the most part we don't watch it, and we allow the government to censor it indefinitely. But once in awhile a WikiLeak comes along, and you're forced to wonder how many other events like this have occurred. When the official word is that the U.S. killed X number of insurgents--as it was in this case--how often is it true, and how often does "insurgent" mean "unidentified civilians walking down the street"?

I must admit though, I really can't focus on the worst of it most of the time. To dwell on it too long destroys one's happiness. And yet my birth country did commit this atrocity and cover it up. They did cause the whole mess in Iraq. And I just can't believe people would think it's okay to just start a war and destabilize a country because ... because what? My mother could list a hundred reasons. Iraq had aluminum tubes for making nukes! They had secret trucks filled with chemical weapons! Even if the reasons weren't complete fabrications, we still shouldn't have been buying the war.

But the truth is, I think about Iraq very little. There's nothing anyone can do about it now; for all I know, withdrawing the troops could make the situation worse there. Dwelling on unsolvable problems is very draining, trust me, I do it a lot. But before this WikiLeaks thing, I gave no thought to Iraq for quite some time.

We have this nice little feature in our brains that lets us ignore things that we're used to. Like the dirty clothes blanketing my bedroom floor. But people seem to think this absolves them of responsibility for evil in society, family and government that they could eliminate, but don't because they're used to it. Damn it, everybody, stop being sheeple. Mind you, I have to admit, I don't change society much myself. I want to, but the evil is piling up and I feel as though it's crushing my will. What can I do? It's just little me and a few nonprofits versus the big bad world. Over time I have been shrinking from it more and more, save for a few outbursts like this one when, for once, I feel like something needs to be said.

I understand that it is easier not to try to improve the world. It's less painful. So understandably there is this group of non-political people just living out their own lives and ignoring the wider world. But I'm afraid--maybe justified, maybe not--that time is running out. While so many people concern themselves with family values and fiscal responsibility (to be accomplished by replacing Democrats with Republicans, I guess), they allow dangerous trends to go unchecked: rhetoric is getting more extreme. Lies are tolerated. Wars are tolerated. Investigative journalism is replaced with punditry. Every man can now choose facts to fit their opinion.

I'm sort of a pundit, you know. One that almost no one reads, but still. Punditry is easy: all you have to do is have an opinion and share it in an entertaining way. It helps if you know some facts but it's by no means required (just make them up or find an official-looking page on Google), and you don't have to spend much money to produce a story that grabs eyeballs. You can't blame pundits for being cheap, I mean, it costs less. But they are no substitute for more substantive news, where money has been spent to gather data, and to carefully analyze it, and editors have tried to make sure a story is fair and balanced. They say traditional news is too expensive to produce when the internet makes everything free. Can't we find a way to fund it? Or is it too late, now that so many think it is enough to take the word of their favorite pundit as gospel?

I'm committed to giving 10% of my income to good causes. I have plenty of money after all, provided I keep my job. So recently I gave 1200 or so to United Way, 500 to Red Cross Haiti Relief, 500 to the EFF, 500 or so to Avaaz, and I'm thinking of giving 500 to WikiLeaks after seeing this video and hearing about threats to this vital source of truth, such as the U.S. government. I have to get over a little mental barrier when giving to my favorite charities though, because they are not tax deductable. EFF and WikiLeaks are based in the U.S. so Canada (yeah, I'm up North) doesn't recognize them, and Avaaz wouldn't be tax-deductable anyway because it "engages in political lobbying". I'm sure the regular tax-deductable charities like United Way and Red Cross do good things, but aren't they kind of like Advil, easing the symptoms instead of curing the disease?

It's been hard to reach the full 10%. Not because I am unwilling, but because like so many other people I'm so wrapped up in my own life. Just about every night I escape the world with a video game or a TV show. All that real-life stuff is either boring or depressing. A lot of important goings-on are probably slipping by unperceived as I do this, but dammit, where's the encouragement? I don't have a lot of energy to do things on my own when no one else seems to care.

So please, if you're reading this, do something good in the world. Good people are holding the world together. Ethics, fairness and reason are keeping it together. Love for one another is binding us together. Oh, and get educated. Frontline's documentary on Hugo Chavez taught me how a people's general lack of skills and education can hinder a country's development. Do good and let others see it, so that those of us who want to do good know we are not alone, and can gain courage from you.

Oops, it's 4:17 AM. Good night.

Note: Reposting because I was originally not logged in as myself.

4 comments:

smg.rhill said...

Morning David,
Hope you enjoyed your cruise.

If I have this right you are a US citizen who lives in Canada ? I'm from grey old Nor'n Iron and live in sunnier France.

Reason I am here is as I may have said before - First World War. Yet as I was saying to friends we Brits have also forgotten about the goings on in Iraq or Afghanistan. Or rather we are going through this whole hand wringing - was Tony Blair right or not. But battle casualties go somewhat unremarked.

Not sure about Obama's Healthcare programme because in Europe we take medical care so much for granted that the idea that Americans (richest people on the planet) do not have access to it seems weird. I can just about follow the reasoning behind why the companies are worried that they will have to pay for coverage for people who have never contributed (we Euro folk do of course pay through the teeth via taxes etc. But nobody loses out).

Coming from Northern Ireland where we have had plenty enough violence (including yet another car bomb only a few days ago). May I make one comment about the gunship incident (I couldn't watch the video as I am on a dial up).

Mistakes do happen and whilst we should not condone the perpetrators of such mistakes there is truth in what the bad guys think.

Terrorists can kill, maim and destroy at will without fear of anything worse than a proper trial where evidence will come into play. We have to play by our rules, they don't: until they get caught when they will claim all the rights that they have been fighting against.

Back home, if the terrorists (of either persuasion) blew up civilians that was the fault of the British Government. They don't give a monkey's about 'collateral damage'. We do. We even apologise now if in war we kill some civilians.

The soldiers are there to protect not kill and destroy. For me that is the difference between the two opponents.

If our guys get it wrong then we should investigate. But labelling them as murderers for me plays into the hands of the other side.

You feel that the US troops simply decided to join the party by killing. I seriously doubt that.

I am not certain that we are capable of combating these people - wherever in the world - without incurring errors of judgement.

But to say that we are now just out there in order to kill anybody willy-nilly does the soldiers an injustice. Or at least I certainly hope so.

We see these deaths as errors - the folks who car bomb cities, be it Baghdad or Belfast, want to destabilise the order of things. If people die - tough.

Nice talking to you again.
Simon

Qwertie said...

I know most of the terrorists in Iraq don't "play by the rules". In most suicide attacks, killing civilians is the whole goal! That doesn't mean it's perfectly fine for the good guys to lower their standards. According to WikiLeaks,

'After demands by Reuters, the incident was investigated and the U.S. military concluded that the actions of the soldiers were in accordance with the law of armed conflict and its own "Rules of Engagement".'

This statement suggests (1) killing a dozen people and wounding children was not in itself sufficient grounds for to investigate who died or whether the rules were followed and (2) the military found that the rules were followed, which means that if the U.S. were to do this kind of thing every day they'd still not clue in that something was wrong.

At least that's one interpretation. Another is that they knew they had done wrong and decided to cover it up, which begs the question of how commonly such cover-ups are done.

(A third interpretation: WikiLeaks is lying. But I don't think so.)

And do we blame the soldiers themselves or their training? If it's the latter ( as advocated by http://www.salon.com/news/opinion/glenn_greenwald/2010/04/06/iraq ) then we can expect other pilots tend to behave the same way (kill people on the flimsiest of suspicions, then spend the rest of their lives with PTSD); if it's the former then we've just got a couple of sickos eager for an excuse to "light 'em up" (and a military willing to look the other way). In either case, something is wrong and something needs to change.

My post isn't about blame, it's about dispair: the apparent reality of the situation is too painful to tolerate.

smg.rhill said...

Hi David

The hard part in any conflict like this I suppose is trying to give the combat troops experience. That is difficult because in training you don't actually get killed or court martialled for making mistakes.

US troops have carried out a number of things that I don't agree with. For example they had (have ?) the habit of firing at people who don't stop at road blocks.

In Northern Ireland that is considered out of order because once the vehicle has passed it is no longer a danger to those in the patrol. One could argue that those who drive through check points realise the risk (which is was why it became a game for youngsters in Belfast - modern day 'chicken').

It is not a case surely of the US realising that something is wrong with their rules of engagement.

Is it not more for us to accept that going off to armed conflicts means that people will get killed.

Training men for armed conflict means psyching them up. Watching American sports teams with all their cheerleaders, group hugs, high fives, aggressive talk ups... no surprise that by the time you are talking War that the USA 'can-do' mantra puts the soldiers on a high.

I despair of the fact that we have meddled for possibly good reasons without having any long term answers to age old rivalries.

Of course the end of the First World War and Anglo-French imperial designs set the ball in motion for all of this.

If only we had known.

Do we now just throw in the towel and let them get on with it ? That is a difficult call.

The authorities may have tried to cover up the film of this incident - and as I said I can't watch it. But is there not hope for us in the fact that there IS a film.

Don't despair too much. If we were really intent on covering everything up cameras would not be involved.

I am off this weekend with a Canadian General and party of the 48th Highlanders of Canada to commemorate the Gas attacks at Ieper in 1915.

During that war we had a nasty tendency to send our fellows forward and then shell them ourselves. As for letting the public back home know what was going on - that was controlled 110 percent. They could only judge by the casualty lists.

War by its very nature is messy. We reckon that when fighting with the Americans you are generally safer standing in front of them.

Simon

Qwertie said...

Something I found out much later is that the fuzzy thing that I thought was a camera might have actually been an RPG all along, since an RPG was said to have been discovered on the ground afterward. So there's that.

I should have focused more on the broader context, because examining the military is too narrow. It's not the military's fault that the U.S. invaded Iraq. And it's not the military's fault that the U.S. carelessly destroyed the government of Iraq and failed to make a serious effort to rebuild the country.

The biggest lesson here - which many politicians, policy makers and voters still haven't learned - is that war is not the solution. Because if you start a war, terrible things will happen. That's guaranteed. When I wrote this I despaired that the military leadership was unscrupulous, but even if they did their best to fight the "right" way, they'd still kill a lot of civilians, albeit less often.

Even after ISIS arose from AQI, I think a lot of people didn't connect the dots. How many in the US are consciously aware that ISIS wouldn't exist without the military-only strategy employed by the US? How many people know that ISIS armor, vehicles and weapons mostly come--quite accidentally--from the US? How many people know that a third of Iraqis believe the U.S. actively supports ISIS? Hawks may not be as popular as they once were, but they're still allowed to squawk their awful strategies on TV.