“You are killing the nation, not emos”: more from Iraq

An Iraqi holds up pictures of his friend Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, before and after his murder: Saad Shalash, Reuters

1. Rumor and responsibility

What do we know about the anti-emo campaign now?

For a start: Iraq’s Ministry of the Interior, you’ll recall, sent forth a statement on February 13 calling for “eliminating” the “phenomenon” of emo youth in Iraq. This offered an official imprimatur, and arguably incitement, to vigilante violence against “deviance.”  One result of the uproar against the killings, and against the Ministry’s weird words, came about this week. The incriminating statement vanished from the police website.

You could argue this is an attempt to quiet the fears their warnings roused. Or you could say, more plausibly, they’re trying to cover their tracks. I feel mildly prescient for having imagined they’d do this; I screensaved the original proclamation. You can find it here.

Even if you take into account the impromptu comments of  government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, last week –that “there is no prosecution for belonging to the emo phenomenon  in the country … The security agencies are obliged to protect freedoms” — it doesn’t particularly sound as if the state is backing away from its anti-emo rhetoric. The Ministry of Interior’s February 29 statement, accusing emos of “destructive effects on the structure of communities,” is still up there on the Web. And this week the Ministry of Education stepped up its actions. Those bureaucrats, as I’ve noted, were responsible for a still-secret memo I’ve seen dating all the way back in August 2011: it urged prompt action “in response to the Emo phenomenon insinuating itself into our society”:

  • Deterrent legal and administrative measures should be taken against students who engage in this deviancy inside schools.
  • Cooperation and coordination are necessary between school administrations and the Interior Ministry’s social police, by reporting these cases to eliminate them and take legal measures against the perpetrators.

Wear what I tell you to: Iraqi schoolkids, from Al-Shaafaq

Last week, according to Al-Shaafaq News, the Ministry of Education followed up with a circular urging schools to impose uniforms “of gray and yellow colors” for all students, because those hues  “please the eye” according to a Quranic verse (found in Sura al-Baqara, for the curious). This should protect kids from “exotic trends.”  Killing them also helps, as we now know.

The army also got into the act — with a message exploiting Iraq’s sectarian divide. Lieutenant General Hassan Baydhani, Chief of Staff of Baghdad Operations Command, told Al-Sumariya News that “unconfirmed intelligence information” suggested that the reports of murdered emos were not just lies but a Sunni plot. Claiming that “security forces have not recorded any cases of killings of these young people,” he accused the President of the Association of Muslim Scholars, Harith al-Dhari, “in coordination with al Qaeda,” of spreading these rumors. Their motive?  “To confuse the security situation in Baghdad prior to the Arab summit.”

Harith al-Dhari

Let’s unpack this for a moment. Harith al-Dhari is one of Iraqi Sunnis’ most respected religious figures; his family has a long history of leading insurgencies against British imperialism. The post-Saddam Shi’ite governments have repeatedly accused him of collaborating with Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia (he’s denied it, claiming the group killed four dozen of his relatives).  At month’s end, Iraq is hosting an Arab League summit for the first time in two decades, a considerable source of national pride. Al-Dhari has urged the region’s leaders not to lend legitimacy to the increasingly repressive Shi’ite leadership now in power. The general’s slightly paranoid story suggests the government is exploiting the emo reports as a handy chisel to chip away at al-Dhari’s credibility before the summit starts.

Curiously, Dan Littauer and his unreliable website Gay Middle East have spread the exact mirror version of the same rumor, which they got from an (equally sectarian) anti-Shi’ite blogger outside Iraq. According to that side of the story, the killings are really happening, but it’s all the extreme Shi’ites fault: Moqtada al-Sadr, head of the Mahdi Army militia, “wants to embarrass Prime Minister Al-Maliki [by] exposing him and his party’s Bard organization, as unable to protect their own people in front of the Arab League.” (He means the Badr Organization, associated with both the government and Shi’ite religious leader Ayatollah Sistani.) So the Sadrists are murdering emos to make the government look bad in front of other Arab leaders.

Are you following all this? Lord, I hope not. It’s all speculative and slightly ridiculous. It’s highly unlikely the anti-emo campaign was meant to embarrass the government: if it were, the killers would have worked much harder to get publicity from the start. (Instead, it was pretty much quiet bloodshed until the end of February.) Any militia wanting to expose the fragile security situation could do so far more spectacularly and with greater economy of means than by slaughtering some obscure kids. For instance: they could embark on the monstrous bombings in 20 towns and cities across the countries yesterday, terror attacks that killed dozens. (Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia has apparently claimed responsibility.)   But the way these twin rumors, precise inverses of one another, appeal to credulous people inside and outside Iraq indicates both the matching fears that fester on either side of the Sunni-Shi’ite divide — and the tenuous state of truth in an uncertain country where hard facts are hard to attain.

 2.  Voices of opposition to murder

Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi

In Najaf on March 12, Ayatollah Bashir Najafi (one of the highest Shi’ite leaders) joined Moqtada al-Sadr and Ayatollah Sistani in condemning the killings. In a fatwa issued by a spokesman, he said that the “proper position” toward the young is “advice and guidance, and religious institutions and the ministries of education and culture carry full responsibility in this regard…. The position toward emo is not to murder them, but to support our youth through reformation and direction.”  There is “no permission for this spilling of blood.”

The controversy over emos continued in Iraqi media all week — though driven from the headlines today, to be sure, by the bloodbath of bombings yesterday.  And the public, political indignation over the pattern of killings has been the only hopeful thing about the whole horror.

MP Khalid Shwani spoke in Parliament, claiming that 53 emos had been killed across the country, including 13 in Baghdad, and repeated demands for an investigation. A spokesperson for the Iraqi List — a party mainly representing secular Shi’ites — accused “unnamed actors of sponsoring campaigns to  to intimidate young people. She declared that “the children of Iraq are not demons or taking directions or instructions from Israel or other countries,” and demanded that “we respect and value the youth population”:

We should look at the big dreams they hold in their heads, the  aspirations and faith and courage in their hearts, and give care and support for their future.

Youth identifying as emo smoke a pipe in the southern city of Najaf: AP

In the press, one commentator drew on Wikipedia to answer the question “What is the difference between emo and Satanists?” — finding that there was one, at least.  Even in addressing less sensational concerns, though, a certain sociological disdain continued to media approaches to the issue. As in most moral panics — such as 1950s fears in the US about comic books, or 1960s paranoias about mods and rockers in the UK — a consensus persists among liberal thinkers in Iraq that the kids in question are a Problem, and even if violence is not the answer, some kind of professional intervention is. Some emos were given space to speak in the media: but their words were filtered through a heavy layer of Concern.  One emo girl “denied that the emo phenomenon was linked to worshipping Satan,” but “members of the group confirmed a tendency to commit suicide as a result of chronic depression, which eventually leads to psychological disorders and perhaps to an inclination to abuse drugs.”

There are three voices I want to echo, though. Writing with both sympathy and sophistication, Nazmi Kamal Fares, an academic and researcher, tried in Al Rafidayn to place the “emo stigma” in a larger context — that of the “chronic Iraqi fear of freedom.”

The emo crisis today alerts us again to the need for sustained determination to raise the issue of civil liberties in Iraq, specifically the question of the relationship of the majority to the minority …  Once again, there has been made clear the inability of the majority to structurally absorb the freedom of the minority, and the failure to establish a humanitarian perspective toward the difference of others.

And in the columns of Al-Seyassah in neighboring Kuwait, an Iraqi writer issued a j’accuse: “You are killing the nation, not emos.”

Finally, with all this going on around him, a seventeen-year old emo boy opened a page on Facebook.  The defiant darkness of what he wrote on it in English has its own kind of stylized courage:

♥ Put On Your Armour ♥
♥ Ragged After Fights ♥
♥ Hold Up Yours Sword ♥
♥ Your Leaving The Light ♥
♥ Make Your Self Ready ♥
♥ For The Lords Of The Dark ♥
♥ They’ll Watch Yor Way ♥
♥ So Be Cautious,Quit And Hark ♥
♥.♥ A Thousand Years Gone By ♥.♥
♥.♥ Too Late To Wonder Why ♥.♥
♥.♥ I’m Here Alone ♥.♥
♥.♥ If In My Darkest Hour ♥.♥

 

He headed it:

 ►►►┼ BE CAREFULL YOU ENTER MY ZONE OF DEATH ┼◄◄◄

 

 

The drone at the window and your pregnant credit card: Notes on privacy

A great South Park episode once featured panicked parents, terrified of child abductors, forcing their kids to wear “Child Tracker” helmets that made them look like crosses between Marvin the Martian and a 600-channel satellite dish. Technology has gotten sleeker, if not simpler, since those innocent days. Now, if it’s 10 PM and you wonder where your child is — what opium den or white slave ring she’s wandered into — you can check the data your personal, aerial drone is feeding you.

They’re not just for repressive governments (and human rights organizations!) anymore. The new thing is the DIY drone — for “do-it-yourself”; rhymes, I think, with “die.” Forbes magazine, a great promoter of cheap consumer technology, cites a Canadian technie waxing enthusiastic about the little devils’ potential:

People are often most frightened by the state’s growing interest to monitor what we do online. Here in Canada for example, the government has proposed a law that would require telecommunications firm have the ability to record, and save, everyone’s online activities. But technology to monitor people offline, in the physical world, is also evolving. More importantly, it is becoming available to ordinary citizens. …

The neat thing is that, instead of a telescreen giving the State a window into your private life, you can have a hovering camera outside your neighbor’s window to watch theirs.  The work of keeping tabs on thoughtcrime is thus not only decentralized but, in conservative fashion, privatized. “It is entirely conceivable,” he writes,

that, in 5-7 years, there could be drones that would follow your child as he walks to school. You can of course, already choose to monitor your child by giving them a cell phone and tracking the GPS device within it, but a drone would have several advantages. It would be harder for someone to destroy or “disconnect” from your child. … This may all seem creepy to you, but if such a drone cost $100 dollars, how many parents do you think would feel like it was “the responsible thing to do.” I suspect a great deal. Even if it was only 5% of parents, that would be a lot of drones.

And of course there are thousands of other uses. Protestors might want a drone observing them, just so that any police brutality could be carefully recorded for later. Cautious adults may want one hovering over them, especially when going into an unfamiliar or unsafe neighborhoods.

Drones (upper R) classical style: Put those clothes on, young lady! Your mother can see you!

In fact, why wait till you go into a neighborhood?  Why not keep the drones hanging constantly, like Saruman’s White Hand, over doubtful places where darker people live? I don’t know how it is up placid Toronto way, but in the Big Apple white people are tired of that flaming sword of fear preventing them from entering Bed-Stuy to price the housing.

For some years New York City civil libertarians have been diligently at work (presumably observed by the FBI and other notekeepers) recording where surveillance cameras in Manhattan operate. As this map they’ve produced reveals, there’s a wealth of such devices downtown, but a distinct dearth north of 125th Street.  This means, reassuringly, that white folks in lower Manhattan are protected from Harlem’s poorer tribes attempting an incursion across the Great Wall; but when it comes to knowing what the barbarians are doing over their own campfires, no one has an idea. A few drones whizzing over Lenox Avenue and Sugar Hill could put this to rights.

If you think back 20 years ago and told someone you were going to give them a device that would enable their government to locate them within a few feet at any given moment, they would likely have imagined some Orwellian future. But this is, functionally, what any smart phone can do. Looking forward 20 years, I ask myself: would my child feel monitored if he has a drone helping him get to school? Or maybe he will he feel unsafe without it? Or maybe it will feel like his Hogwart’s owl [sic], a digital pet?

I never trusted those goddamn owls. Satanic.

An expert on privacy and robotics (another thing you wouldn’t have seen outside a sci-fi novel 20 years ago) observes that while “you might think [private citizens'] drones would already be ubiquitous,” the Federal Aviation Administration has slapped restrictions on  unmanned aircraft systems. However, police and other “public agencies” are lobbying to rolle these back.  “Recently the state of Oklahoma asked the FAA for a blanket waiver of eighty miles of airspace.” (What the hell could be going on in Oklahoma?) “The FAA faces increasing pressure to relax its restrictions and is considering rulemaking to reexamine drone use in domestic airspace.” Meanwhile,

Agency rules impede the use of drones for now; United States privacy law does not. There is very little in our privacy law that would prohibit the use of drones within our borders. Citizens do not generally enjoy a reasonable expectation of privacy in public, nor even in the portions of their property visible from a public vantage. In 1986, the Supreme Court found no search where local police flew over the defendant’s backyard with a private plane. A few years later, the Court admitted evidence spotted by an officer in a helicopter looking through two missing roof panels in a greenhouse. Neither the Constitution nor common law appears to prohibit police or the media from routinely operating surveillance drones in urban and other environments.

Dead diva: Easier with a drone

The author argues that drones’ noisy intrusions will actually galvanize the law into acting against all these violations. They’re just too extreme: “Drones may help restore our mental model of a privacy violation. They could be just the visceral jolt society needs to drag privacy law into the twenty-first century.” But I wonder; especially if, as he indicates, the media get involved, and TMZ and Perez Hilton have their warring aircraft locked in on the radio frequency of Lindsay Lohan’s ankle bracelet. You may be offended when it’s your own intimacy that’s invaded, but fascinated when it’s somebody else’s.

The National Enquirer infamously printed a photo of Whitney Houston’s corpse last month, and while sales figures haven’t been released, you can bet — judging by the fact that CNN got 10 times its usual Saturday viewing audience just for showing mourners’ minked backs trudging into the funeral — they spiked. Consumers want the famous, live or dead, splayed for inspection. Incidentally, Forbes separately tells us that  a hanger-on beautifully named Raffles van Exel snapped the doleful photo, and apparently hawked it to the Enquirer for six figures. If you were an editor, and could get the same shot cheaper from a birdbot spying through a stained-glass window, cutting out the middleman in the process, wouldn’t you jump?  And how many would buy it!  The economics are not on the side of indignation.  What, too, if Peter Tatchell got his hands on a drone?  Run for your reputations, sexually healthy civil rights heroes! Not even Martin Luther King would be safe. I can see Peter proclaiming that he caught Martin masturbating to Rawhide in his grave.

Forbes also carries more sceptical approaches to the DIY drone question. Venkatesh Rao, an aerospace engineer, worried in its pages three weeks ago that the current bubble is a bit weird. Although he admits that “Heck, my wife is now insisting that I help her build one,” he says: “I don’t get it. What exactly do people expect to do with their own private drones?” In addition to the Superpaparrazo idea, he cites some other options:

  1. Start a revolution. If drones are the new guns, and the burgeoning political movement to ensure a “right to bear drones” succeeds, you and a few hundred of your friends can secretly build a drone swarm. …
  2. Attach guns to drones. There is absolutely nothing stopping drone hackers from doing this technically, and there is almost no conceivable scenario where this will ever be legal, but if you’re on the wrong side of the law already, for murder say, what’s one more charge for “attaching gun to drone”? The mayhem possible with a bunch of armed drones would make Columbine look like a kid’s tea party.

And he’s not very sanguine about the idea that citizen drones offer people a liberatory way around the government:

[The] only advantage the world of private citizens has over the military-industrial complex is sheer numbers. If, as some commentators speculate, drones are going to be citizen weapons to act as a check-and-balance to absolutist police-state tendencies, it will be through sheer numbers. A handful of extremists maintaining serious drone capability could be sneezed out of existence by any modern military within minutes. The trend only becomes serious if drone ownership becomes as common as gun ownership.

Great. Every Minuteman will have a Minuteman; every band of lunatics, its own Luftwaffe. The universe of Mad Max, where they only had trucks to fight with, will seem the Peaceable Kingdom by comparison.

Drone (upper R), classical style: My eagle doesn't like what you've been doing

Surely the government will restrict the technology before then — not for the sake of privacy, but for safety. (Not ours, its own.) The real question, though, is what will happen to our intimate lives when not just the state but the corporate order have vastly expanded their abilities to spy. Business, after all, equally surely has its (remaining non-mechanical) eye on this new opportunity both to collect information on citizen-consumers — by camera, infrared, and any other legal means — and to commodify it in its turn. For whether the subject is a celebrity or an ordinary credit-card holder, information is power, and power is money, and somebody will pay.

Forbes, once again, has a story (via the New York Timesthat’s not so much a cautionary tale — who will be cautioned by it? shoppers never beware — as an allegory of the age. Target, the US megastore, hires its own statisticians devoted to “consumer tracking.” The firm “assigns every customer a Guest ID number, tied to their credit card, name, or email address, that becomes a bucket that stores a history of everything they’ve bought and any demographic information Target has collected from them or bought from other sources.”

Marketeers pant particularly damply for the new-parent demographic, eager to get them hooked early, before “they turn into rampant — and loyal — buyers of all things pastel, plastic, and miniature.” Babies need so many things these days; the last time a new mother stayed with me, the neighbors thought an army regiment was moving in.  And Target’s 50% revenue growth from 2002-2010 may partly be owing to statisticians “helping the retail giant corner the baby-on-board market.” The nerds used Science. They

ran test after test, analyzing the data, and before long some useful patterns emerged. Lotions, for example. Lots of people buy lotion, but [they] noticed that women on the baby registry were buying larger quantities of unscented lotion around the beginning of their second trimester. Another analyst noted that sometime in the first 20 weeks, pregnant women loaded up on supplements like calcium, magnesium and zinc.

They identified “about 25 products” that, taken together, added up to each shopper’s “’pregnancy prediction’ score. More important, [they] could also estimate her due date to within a small window, so Target could send coupons timed to very specific stages of her pregnancy.”

Unfortunately, this sometimes backfired: not by being wrong, but by being more right than the humans. One teenage girl’s father reacted with rage to the coupons his daughter was getting. She had to tell him she was pregnant — not a confession she’d planned.

Target is in retail, not the revelation business. This wouldn’t do. So, a store statistician explains, they got cannier — “started mixing in all these ads for things we knew pregnant women would never buy, so the baby ads looked random.”

We’d put an ad for a lawn mower next to diapers. … That way, it looked like all the products were chosen by chance. And we found out that as long as a pregnant woman thinks she hasn’t been spied on, she’ll use the coupons.

“So the Target philosophy towards expecting parents is similar to the first date philosophy?” Forbes comments. “Even if you’ve fully stalked the person on Facebook and Google beforehand, pretend like you know less than you do so as not to creep the person out.”

We’re all on blind dates with the information buyers these days. And stalking, far from being criminal, is studied in business school.

... is you.

Poem of the day

The Typists (by P. K. Page, 1916-2010)

They, without message, having read
the running words on their machines,
know every letter as a stamp
cutting the stencils of their ears.
Deep in their hands, like pianists,
all longing gropes and moves, is trapped
behind the tensile gloves of skin.

Or, blind, sit with their faces locked
away from work. Their varied eyes
stiff as everlasting flowers.
While fingers on a different plane
perform the automatic act
as questions grope along the dark
and twisting corridors of brain.

Crowded together typists touch
softly as ducks and seem to sense
each other’s anguish with the swift
sympathy of the deaf and dumb.