Egypt’s “gay wedding” furor: A ship of fools

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

Hand in hand: Detail from the famous video

In Egypt any man can harass, brutalize, and rape a woman. It happens all the time. The State will ignore it for as long as possible; the media will say she asked for it. Just try a harmless expression of mutual, consensual desire, though. They’ll hound you to within an inch of your life.

Let’s start with the video. It came out of nowhere, but by Saturday morning it was everywhere. That day — it was August 30 — I spent with some young, impeccably liberal Egyptians. They kept staring with stunned fixation at their smartphones, repeatedly hitting “play,” watching it go viral, wondering what was going to happen to the men.  The YouTube comments could have told you what was coming: “They’re outside of prisons; they should worship God within them,” one outraged viewer wrote. That night I met with some of the men in the clip. One of them kept breaking uncontrollably into tears. They were trying to report the invasion of privacy, get YouTube to take it down. No use: By next day, it was on the website of Youm7 — the tabloid that’s been carrying on a homophobic campaign for months — and on TV. You think you are just a private person, contained in the fences of your skin; then suddenly you find you’ve escaped yourself, become a common spectacle and possession, a fetish cupped in the palms of everybody’s hands. No doubt this is why politicians and movie stars are so vacuous, stripped of self; but imagine sitting in ordinary obscurity and abruptly discovering you’re now an infinitely duplicable, circulating flash of light. “Mirrors and copulation are both abominable,” Borges wrote — it was one of the aphorisms of his invented world of Tlon — “because they multiply mankind.” But that was before the Internet.

Yesterday, some of those accused of being in the video went on trial. They face years in prison. The whole fiasco reminds many Egyptians of another moral panic that crushed innumerable lives: the Queen Boat show trial of 52 men, back in 2001.

I won’t link to the video here; the men have been exposed enough. It lasts little more than a minute; it shows some kind of party on one of the boats that cruise the Cairo Nile. (You can buy a ride individually or rent the felucca for a group.) The cameraphone tilts and pans past some celebrating people; there’s a cake, and two seem to exchange rings. When it went viral, it was instantly dubbed “Egypt’s First Gay Wedding.”

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Mohamed Sobhi attempts to keep gay marriage from spreading to him

Some of the men I talked to asserted the whole thing was a joke. One of the alleged grooms called the popular talk-show of Tamer Amin to say as much — that he had a girlfriend and was just “playing around with rings.” If it was a marriage between men, then in a sense it was intrinsically unserious, since the law doesn’t recognize that. Nor does the law punish playing at marriage. The furor kept mounting though. Amin, on his show, called for retribution. (Tamer Amin is eager to anathematize people he thinks are gay, but equally happy to excuse rape. When a Cairo University student was sexually assaulted earlier this year, Amin told viewers that “She was dressed like a prostitute … The sexually repressed boys couldn’t control themselves … I blame her for dressing like this, and her parents for letting her leave the house in that dress.”)  Mohamed Sobhi, an actor notorious for his paranoid rants against Jews, demanded the State “respond’ to the “the spread of the phenomenon of gay marriage.”

And the banned Muslim Brotherhood, the dictator’s most feared opposition, berated the regime that overthrew it, for going soft on perversion. A former MP for the Brotherhood’s own Freedom and Justice Party warned that “For the first time in Egypt, we hear of gay marriage. The coup leaders embrace the Western agenda of demolition and decay of religion, and Egypt is converted into a brothel.” She added that the “authority of the coup” lay behind the wedding.

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

We will find you: Major General Magdy Moussa (from Vetogate.com)

The supposed ceremony thus became a political crime. The State took up the challenge: it started arresting people. Last Wednesday, September 3, police picked up at least 13 people in the streets around Ramsis Station, and interrogated them about the video. The next night, they seized an unknown number as they were leaving a club downtown — I’ve heard figures as high as 26. Most were released, but somebody pointed an incriminating finger. On Saturday, the media announced that men from the film had been arrested, by police directed by Major General Magdy Moussa. (The exact number is still not clear. Most news reports say seven people were arrested; Al-Mogaz says two more are being sought; Youm7 claims ten are involved, and even after a confused hearing Tuesday, where the lawyers were denied access to court papers, it’s impossible to verify a figure.) [NOTE: The Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights has now confirmed eight defendants have been arrested.] Youm7 showed grainy video of people being hauled to jail. The full names of nine victims, some presumably still at large, appeared in the press.

Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

We will hurt you when we find you: Prosecutor General Hisham Barakat

The charges against the men aren’t clear, but they reportedly included incitement to “debuachery” (fugur, the legal term in Egyptian law for homosexual acts), and “publication of indecent photographs.” The images showed “the purpose was the celebration of attachment to one another, in scenes deemed shameful to the maximum degree.” Egypt’s Prosecutor General, Hisham Barakat, personally intervened in the case to show its seriousness, ordering quick action. Egypt’s Forensic Medical Authority conducted anal examinations on the arrested men — an intrusive, abusive, torturous and medically worthless procedure. They found no evidence of homosexual conduct. That didn’t stop a court, on September 9, from ordering the men jailed for another 15 days so the furor can continue.

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medica Authority, who said the "bride" had turned out "normal"

Dr Hisham Abdel-Hamid of the Forensic Medical Authority, who said the “bride” had turned out “normal”

I spoke to one of the men trawled up in the police nets last Wednesday night: picked up at 3:30 AM on a street near Ramsis Station. This is his story:

I was standing with a friend — he had tight jeans, that was probably why they thought we were gay. Suddenly a policeman came out of nowhere and grabbed us. We were thrown into a microbus nearby. I tried to scream and the policemen told us to shut up. There were about 13 of us crammed in there, all picked up in various places.

In the past, Cairo police often looked for gays by riding in a microbus with an informer, who pointed out victims passing in the street. Almost a third of the Queen Boat defendants were arrested that way (not on the boat!) This time, the microbus took them to the Mugamma, the huge Stalinist building in Tahrir Square, a symbol of State bureaucracy. There police broke the men into groups for interrogation. One man “scampered off by a different door” — possibly he was the informer.

Soldiers in front of the Mugamma in Midan Tahrir, January 2011, by Joseph Hill

The Mugamma looms above Tahrir Square, guarded by soldiers, during the Egyptian revolution, January 2011: by Joseph Hill

My group was me, my friend, and another man I didn’t know. We were taken up to the 12th floor, the “Adab” [morals] division.
At first the police were very aggressive with us. They beat us with sticks, and called us many names. Then the boss came in to question us.

The boss was very civil. He said for months they had been arresting gays as a way of stopping the spread of AIDS, because these men were having sex without condoms.

This is false. So far as we know, no evidence that anyone transmitted HIV through barebacking has been presented in any cases so far. The manipulation of public-health rhetoric is a bit strange coming from a government that claims it can cure AIDS by turning it into sausages.

But now, he said, there is this video. He said we have a new president, and Sisi is determined not to let this kind of thing happen, and will not let the Muslim Brotherhood get any benefit from it. I told him I didn’t know anything about the people in the video. All the same, they took our phones and made backups of all the information on them.

We were kept there for six hours, till after 10 AM. After the boss left the other policemen came back and made fun of us, calling us female names and asking if we were carrying condoms. My friend and I were set free; they held on to the third guy who was with us, because they said there was a theft charge against him. I don’t know what happened to the others.

The information on the phones — particularly if passwords were stored on them — could help the police open the victims’ Facebook and other social-media accounts. Plenty more could be rounded up that way.

Don't blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

Don’t blame Sisi: Cairenes light candles during a blackout. Photo by Islam Farouk for Al-Masry al-Youm.

This whole uproar raises several issues. First: why now? The men I spoke to told me the video was made last October. One theory, seized on by the press, is that someone released it now to get revenge on a participant. It’s not implausible, though, that the authorities somehow obtained it earlier, and have been waiting for the moment when it might prove useful. There is plenty to distract people from in Egypt these days. Rolling power outages afflict the country; September 4 was promptly dubbed “Black Thursday” because the blackouts were so severe. Meanwhile, no sooner did Sisi win his rigged Presidential election than he announced massive cuts to fuel subsidies, pushing up prices for many basic goods. In such straitened circumstances, the spectre of “gay marriage” has long-proven value as a distraction. In Morocco in 2007, a YouTube video allegedly showing such a ceremony provoked riots — and jail terms for participants — in the town of Ksar el Kbir. In Kenya in 2010, similar stories stirred up vigilante violence in Mombasa. In Egypt itself, the first, sensational press reports in the famous Queen Boat case said a same-sex wedding was taking place on the raided vessel; some months before that, the press had pounced on unproven rumors of a marriage in the Delta town of Zagazig. “Gay marriage” has become a perfect encapsulation of cultural powerlessness before the imperial West.

Second, of course, the video leaked amid a months-long campaign of arrests and vilification of people accused of homosexual conduct or of dissident gender expression. Transgender people in particular have been rounded up in clubs and on the streets, and seized in private homes. These arrests continue. In early August, police arrested a woman and two men in Rehab City, a gated community on Cairo’s outskirts, and charged the latter with homosexual conduct. I’m reliably told the cops stopped one of the men at a checkpoint, on his motorcycle; finding him suspicious, they went to his home, and found the conclusive evidence — condoms. (So much for the officers’ concern for public health.) Later that month, “security forces” arrested ten people in what they called a “prostitution ring” in Giza, in western Cairo. They included, it seems, a trans woman, whose photo was singled out to appear in El-Watan. (Only the eyes were imperfectly blacked out; obscuring the face was done by me.)

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

Arrested August 26 in Giza: Victim of moral panic

But it’s not just alleged gays and trans people who are victims of the atmosphere of repression. The police presence in downtown Cairo is formidable now. Just under three weeks ago ago, cops raided a host of sidewalk cafes, forcing them to shutter because they had tables on, well, the sidewalk. (I recall when Recep Tayyip Erdogan moved similarly against street life in Istanbul’s bustling Beyoglu district, Western conservatives condemned it as creeping Islamic totalitarianism. When Sisi does it, nobody bothers.) The next day, they cracked down on street vendors. Grim, barred trucks from Central Security palisaded the avenues, filling up with hapless men whose crime was hawking scarves and jeans in the passageways off Qasr el-Nil. There is a general campaign of social control going on, and a general rehabilitation of the reputation — and power — of the police. Homosexuality is simply another convenient bogeyman. Its particular convenience, though, is that it unites several things Sisi despises: “Western” influence (as in those marriages), abnormal gender roles, and the youth culture and revolutionary decadence symbolized by the downtown world. Attacking “debauchery” allows him to set the State firmly against all those debilitating forces.

Third: the fact that the latest arrests came after criticism by the Muslim Brotherhood shows where Sisi senses his greatest vulnerabilities. Having overthrown the conservatives, he needs to prove his moral credentials. It’s significant that no comparable wave of repression happened under the Brotherhood itself: they had no credentials to prove. (It’s also significant that this panic has burgeoned during the week the government sentenced several Brotherhood leaders to decades in prison.) Sisi’s Minister of Religious Endowments — who more or less controls all the country’s official mosques — explained the official line elegantly to the media last week. Every Egyptian should reject “all anomalies” such as homosexuality, “because in the end they only serve the forces of extremism and terrorism, which claim to be the protectors of religion and morality.”

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gomaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Homosexuality causes Islamism: Mokhtar Gumaa, Minister of Religious Endowments

Finally, what all this produces is fear, comprehensive and immobilizing. No one can guess what will come next, how far the crackdown will go. There are vague stories the State has planned a massive trial of alleged homosexuals for later this month, or next month; no one knows whether this mini-Queen-Boat is enough for them. Cairo Scene, a English webzine for the privileged party set, has claimed the police are already arresting gay men over Grindr; no one has been able to confirm a single case, but the rumor only adds to the terror. My sensible colleagues are pruning their phone lists, taking down photos from Facebook, and waiting — waiting for what, nobody can tell. Even I have drawn up a list, for friends, of things to do if I’m arrested; when insouciant I behave that way, you know something is wrong. A full-fledged moral panic is spreading in Egypt. It even has a song — by an Egyptian band, proclaiming that something must be done to stop the she-men with skinny jeans:

The panic infects political discourse, turning everything to triviality. The contrast between the indifference accorded real and terrible stories of violence against women, and the seriousness with which a mock wedding is reviled, remains ominous. The men on the boat may have been careless or presumptuous, but the whole country increasingly resembles a ship of fools. The absurdity isn’t innocuous, though. The point of moral panics is that they can always find new victims.

 

When genocide is permissible

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family -- Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Palestinian mourners gather around the bodies of three siblings of the Abu Musallam family — Ahmed, 11; Walaa, 14; and Mohammed, 16 – killed by an Israeli shell in Beit Lahiya, northern Gaza Strip, July 18, 2014. Photo: Lefteris Pitarakis/Associated Press.

Today a blog post under that title appeared on the Times of Israel’s website. Not long after, it came down, replaced by this dour tombstone:

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But the Internet lives by “Never Forget.” You can find the entire post, mummfied, here; and here is the text:

When Genocide is Permissible
YOCHANAN GORDON
AUGUST 1, 2014, 5:36 PM

Judging by the numbers of casualties on both sides in this almost one-month old war one would be led to the conclusion that Israel has resorted to disproportionate means in fighting a far less- capable enemy. That is as far as what meets the eye. But, it’s now obvious that the US and the UN are completely out of touch with the nature of this foe and are therefore not qualified to dictate or enforce the rules of this war – because when it comes to terror there is much more than meets the eye.

I wasn’t aware of this, but it seems that the nature of warfare has undergone a major shift over the years. Where wars were usually waged to defeat the opposing side, today it seems – and judging by the number of foul calls it would indicate – that today’s wars are fought to a draw. I mean, whoever heard of a timeout in war? An NBA Basketball game allows six timeouts for each team during the course of a game, but last I checked this is a war! We are at war with an enemy whose charter calls for the annihilation of our people. Nothing, then, can be considered disproportionate when we are fighting for our very right to live.

The sad reality is that Israel gets it, but its hands are being tied by world leaders who over the past six years have insisted they are such good friends with the Jewish state, that they know more regarding its interests than even they do. But there’s going to have to come a time where Israel feels threatened enough where it has no other choice but to defy international warnings – because this is life or death.

Most of the reports coming from Gazan officials and leaders since the start of this operation have been either largely exaggerated or patently false. The truth is, it’s not their fault, falsehood and deceit is part of the very fabric of who they are and that will never change. Still however, despite their propensity to lie, when your enemy tells you that they are bent on your destruction you believe them. Similarly, when Khaled Meshal declares that no physical damage to Gaza will dampen their morale or weaken their resolve – they have to be believed.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Palestinians inspect a car destroyed in an Israeli air strike in central Gaza City, July 8, 2014. Photo: Ali Jadallah / APA images.

Our sage Gedalia the son of Achikam was given intelligence that Yishmael Ben Nesanyah was plotting to kill him. However, in his piety or rather naiveté Gedalia dismissed the report as a random act of gossip and paid no attention to it. To this day, the day following Rosh Hashana is commemorated as a fast day in the memory of Gedalia who was killed in cold blood on the second day of Rosh Hashana during the meal. They say the definition of insanity is repeating the same mistakes over and over. History is there to teach us lessons and the lesson here is that when your enemy swears to destroy you – you take him seriously.

Hamas has stated forthrightly that it idealizes death as much as Israel celebrates life. What other way then is there to deal with an enemy of this nature other than obliterate them completely?

News anchors such as those from CNN, BBC and Al-Jazeera have not missed an opportunity to point out the majority of innocent civilians who have lost their lives as a result of this war. But anyone who lives with rocket launchers installed or terror tunnels burrowed in or around the vicinity of their home cannot be considered an innocent civilian. If you’ll counter, that Hamas has been seen abusing civilians who have attempted to leave their homes in response to Israeli warnings to leave – well then, your beginning to come to terms with the nature of this enemy which should automatically cause the rules of standard warfare to be suspended.

Everyone agrees that Israel has the right to defend itself as well as the right to exercise that right. Secretary General Ban Ki Moon has declared it, Obama and Kerry have clearly stated that no one could be expected to sit idle as thousands of rockets rain down on the heads of its citizens, placing them in clear and present danger. It seems then that the only point of contention is regarding the measure of punishment meted out in this situation.

I will conclude with a question for all the humanitarians out there. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu clearly stated at the outset of this incursion that his objective is to restore a sustainable quiet for the citizens of Israel. We have already established that it is the responsibility of every government to ensure the safety and security of its people. If political leaders and military experts determine that the only way to achieve its goal of sustaining quiet is through genocide is it then permissible to achieve those responsible goals?

This is all over the Internet today; the Times of Israel might as well never have bothered to hide it. The ToI hasn’t actually ventured to explain why it posted the thing. Its Twitter feed is phlegmatically full of the usual stuff, praise of the Israel Defense Forces, excoriations of the UN, but it did add at end of day:

toi copy

No doubt we’ll hear, in time, that there was a mistake, someone pressed the wrong button, an intern will be fired. There’s always an intern.

Except that the Times of Israel also featured today a bloodthirsty op-ed by Irwin E. Blank, formerly of New York City, and “Formation Committee Chairman of the NY Salute to Israel Parade from 1978-1982″:

G-d had demanded that Saul (or the “prime minister”)  enter into battle with the Amalekites (Hamas and its savage partners) and destroy them utterly even if that means to the last child, cow and goat. As cruel as this appears, it is a lesson that teaches a nation in terrible danger that it has a legitimate obligation to put a definite end to a substantial threat.   The end of such a conflict must make it impossible for that enemy to rebuild and continue to vex one’s nation forever.

And another piece by one Zev Berger, “PhD candidate in Political Science at the University of Michigan,” which meanders through various ways of deciding how much killing is enough, and decides that indifference justifies everything: “What’s a reasonable death toll? I imagine people don’t really care.”

One thing you notice about all these opinions is: They come, ultimately, from the United States. (Yochanan Gordan is a certified public accountant in New York City, and part of the Lubavitcher community.) As imports, they parallel the Times of Israel itself. The ToI‘s founder and chief investor is Seth Klarman, a Boston billionaire hedge-fund manager. Klarman’s “political giving favors Republicans,” according to the Jewish Daily Forward, though — in a telling sign of how social liberalism and international neanderthalism can cohabit — he has partnered with vulture capitalist Paul Singer on a super-PAC meant to push the GOP toward accepting same-sex marriage. But the bulk of his philanthropy promotes right-wing and settler interests in Israel:

Klarman gives money to settler groups: the Central Fund of Israel,which pays for settlers’ “security needs” in the occupied West Bank, and Ir David, which is digging up East Jerusalem and displacing Palestinians. He gives $1 million in a year to Birthright, the program to send young American Jews to Israel to fall in love with the Jewish state. He supports the rightwing propaganda organization, the Israel Project (he’s on their board), gives big money to the Friends of the Israeli Defense Forces, and to top it off, Klarman is chairman of the board of the David Project, the group that has targeted Arab and Muslim intellectuals on college campuses.

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman's investment advice

But not for Gaza: Seth Klarman’s investment advice

In other words, Klarman exemplifies the increasing confluence between the Israeli right wing and militaristic American neoconservatism, increasingly obsessed by the same Arab and Muslim enemies, increasingly promoting the same extreme solutions: colonization, killing. Klarman told the Forward:

My own interest in Israel has become even stronger post-9/11, when the threat of terrorism and the danger of radical Islam collided with a global campaign on many fronts to delegitimize the Jewish State.

With all the Times of Israel‘s professions of political neutrality (belied by its ruling passion for the IDF), Klarman as media mogul seems to represent a respectable ego as against the rampant id of Sheldon Adelson, the American casino owner whose ferociously Likudnik rag Israel HaYom is the most popular newspaper in the country. (Adelson, whose cash kept Newt Gingrich‘s abortive presidential campaign going long beyond its expiration date, has trafficked in the ids of several countries.) But the id keeps peeping through in Klarman’s publication too, as witness Gordon’s short-lived screed, or Blank’s, or Berger’s. It’s as if all these Americans project onto Israel their own fantasies of a country freed from the restraints of normal politics or morals, indifferent to scrutiny, infinitely willing to kill, pseudo-democratic but with all its parties united around a common lust for death: Israel as the United States of Id.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

Israeli missiles strike Rafah, southern Gaza Strip, on July 9, 2014. Photo: AP.

As Lady Bracknell said: “To lose one parent may be regarded as a misfortune; to lose both looks like carelessness.” To publish one op-ed approving genocide in a day may be an intern’s mistake; to publish three looks like you mean it. The three pieces run a strange but comprehensive gamut of justifications for mass killing. Blank offers familiar fundamentalist ravings, only meaningful if you know and care who the Amalekites were (but many do, many do). Berger gives us a woozy bureaucratic relativism, precise figures making precise judgments impossible, ethics suffocated by an avalanche of statistics. Gordon alone takes genocide fully seriously, understands that it is a moral choice. It means giving absolute moral priority to your own people, recognizing that this is a death sentence upon other peoples who get in the way. Or as Gordon seems to have tweeted today (if this is him):

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In another blog post for the Times of Israel, back in May, Gordon wrote about the tension “we experience regularly as Jews in a modern world. We are faced with the perpetual question of are we meant to bend and conform to the morals of suburbia or fight and remain steadfast on the age-old values as our grandparents did in Siberia?” Plenty of Jews have felt such tensions, and plenty of others as well, without wanting to kill people. But you can see where the kid is coming from: growing up amid the split-levels of Nassau County, where no sublime calling ever vindicates the daily void, he longs for some higher morality of struggle to transcend mere neighborliness. Some other child might play video games, or shoot up the local middle school; but for him, there’s Gaza. Of course, he can disguise his personal dilemma in a bastardization of Hasidic language, but it meanwhile finds its imaginary fulfilment in a frontier Israel where the battle, he believes, is real. This voice is familiar. It’s the voice of that suburban nonentity, the nebbish Himmler, dressed up in an imposing uniform and speaking to the Gauleiter in Poznan in 1943. It’s stripped of authority and the drag, but the timbre is there. About the extermination of the Jews: “To have seen this through, and — with the exception of human weaknesses — to have remained decent, has made us hard and is a page of glory never mentioned and never to be mentioned.” Decency and morality inhere in those with courage to kill for us. The dealers in death stand vindicated because they stood up against their natural, debilitating qualms. Virtue lies in resistance to the blandishments of morality as it is commonly, suburbanly, merely understood. As Hannah Arendt wrote, “Although the organizers of the massacres knew full well that murder is against the normal desires and inclinations of most people,”

Evil in the Third Reich had lost the quality by which most people recognize it – the quality of temptation. Many Germans and many Nazis, probably an overwhelming majority of them, must have been tempted not to murder, not to rob, not to let their neighbors go off to their doom (for that the Jews were transported to their doom  they knew, of course, even though many of them may not have known the gruesome details), and not to become accomplices in all these crimes by benefiting from them. But, God knows, they had learned how to resist temptation.

To resist temptation is a … well, a tempting stance, luring us to emulation, to imitate the Lone Ranger, the stoic hero. No wonder, of these three pieces, it was Gordon’s that the Times of Israel deemed dangerous enough to take down.

I don’t believe these editorials represent the majority of Israeli opinion, or even a substantial minority. If anything, as I say, they are a sort of palimpsest: American fantasies of power, innocence, and freedom projected onto an abject territory, another episode in Israel’s strange colonial history.

Nor am I one of those who believes that genocide is taking place in Gaza now. The legal definition of genocide (enshrined in the UN’s 1948 Genocide Convention, and the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, and indeed in Israel’s “Crime of Genocide Acf” of 1950, which carried the Convention’s terms into national law) requires the “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.” I don’t think that comprehensively destructive intent lies behind the crimes against humanity being committed in Gaza. But reading Gordon compels me to add: Yet. The two-state solution is dead; everybody sees that, on right and left. What remains, in the immediate future, is one state on Israel’s terms, from the river to the sea. A state in which much of the population is stateless, deprived of the basic rights of citizenship, subjected to continuous surveillance and control, condemned to bare existence as subalterns, even the freedom of movement suppressed, cannot sustain itself without a steadily expanding machinery of violence. Such a state will give up any shred or semblance of the rule of law, of the distinction between young and old, civilian and combatant, guilty or innocent; the only difference that will matter is them and us. A state like that is a killer state, pure, untrammeled. It’s good that Gordon’s words haven’t entirely disappeared. They carry, as he undoubtedly intended, the undertone of prophecy.

Note: In an “apology” posted today on the website of his father’s suburban New York newspaper, Yochanan Gordon writes: “I never intended to call to harm any people although my words may have conveyed that message.” You decide.

Meeting of signatories  to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R:  Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention's chief proponent.

Meeting of signatories to the UN Genocide Convention, 1950. Seated, L-R: representatives of Korea; Haiti; Iran; France; Costa Rica. Standing, L-R: Assistant Secretary General for Legal Affairs; Secretary General Trygve Lie; representative from Costa Rica; and Raphael Lemkin, the Convention’s chief proponent.

Government by moral panic

A separatist militiaman looks at  the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

A separatist militiaman looks at the wreckage of Malaysian Airlines Flight 17. Photo: Dominique Faget/AFP

I met Pim de Kuijer once or twice, perhaps, and Martine de Schutter once, I think. He lobbied in the Dutch parliament on behalf of Stop AIDS Now; she fought for universal access to HIV prevention at Bridging the Gaps. They were both smart and young and full of enthusiasm, and they are both now dead somewhere in a field in eastern Ukraine. The enthusiasm is what I will remember. You can rebuild expertise, reconstruct lost formulae of scientific knowledge, but whatever you do you can’t recapture that intangible spirit which wants more than anything for the world to change. It seems to me that the loss of that spirit alone has set AIDS activism, which has never had much time to lose, back years.

Martine de Schutter

Martine de Schutter

Still, the mourning for them and other colleagues who were on the way to the 20th International Aids Conference in Australia was disserved and distracted by a numbers game. Less than 24 hours after Malaysian Air Flight 17 crashed, a Murdoch paper reported:

More than 100 AIDS activists, researchers and health workers bound for a major conference in Melbourne were on the Malaysia Airlines flight downed in the Ukraine.

It is believed that delegates to the 20th International AIDS Conference, due to begin on Sunday, will be informed today that 108 of their colleagues and family members died on MH17.

International media have been tossing this figure around for days, The airline has released the flight manifest, and there’s no sign that anywhere near a third of those aboard were actually bound for the Melbourne conference. The figure may have come from an interview with a single person, in shock but with no direct knowledge of who was on the plane:

images cIn a slower era, journalists might have checked what he actually knew before reporting, but this is the age of short attention spans. In fact, the International AIDS Society (IAS) has identified six passengers as traveling to the conference. More may be named in time, but those deaths will certainly be “an order of magnitude smaller than what has been reported,” as Chris Beyer, the IAS’s incoming president, said. This is one of many confusions in the speculative fog. (Fox News, for instance, reported that 23 US citizens died; in fact there was one holder of dual US and Dutch passports.)  It’s minor; except it means that some chronicler of AIDS activism, looking at the real toll of six dead against the initial reports of eighteen times that, will say, “It wasn’t so bad.” An ersatz relief, impossible without the initial extravagance of error, will blur the real gravity of the loss: a small affront to the dead, to what they did, to their incendiary enthusiasm to do more.

Nearly everybody believes that Russian separatists using Russian weapons shot down the plane: everybody, it seems, except for the Russian media, its readership, and regular viewers of Russia Today. Unanimity is itself cause to preserve a sliver of skepticism. We still don’t have absolute proof, and the forensic investigations haven’t even begun. (This is largely thanks to the separatists: they’ve moved the bodies, tampered with the wreckage, seemingly looted the site, and held investigators at bay.) Nearly all the evidence points that way. But David Remnick, in the New Yorker, keeps the focus on what we do know:

What’s far more certain is that Vladimir Putin, acting out of resentment and fury toward the West and the leaders in Kiev, has fanned a kind of prolonged political frenzy, both in Russia and among his confederates in Ukraine, that serves his immediate political needs but that he can no longer easily calibrate and control.

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Is that a microphone in the ceiling? Pavlovsky speaks

Remnick interviewed Gleb Pavlovsky, a former Putin adviser who broke with the boss in 2011. If a parasite could guide you through the guts of its host, it couldn’t speak with more exactitude than Pavlovsky does of the Russian security state and its intestinal windings. He knows Putin’s interests in Ukraine well. Remnick delicately omits this, but back in 2005 leaked tapes (possibly doctored, possibly released as part of a Kremlin power struggle) implicated Pavlovsky in the poisoning of Ukrainian presidential candidate Viktor Yushchenko, dosed with lethal dioxin midway through a campaign in which he condemned Russian interference. But let Pavlovsky speak:

Pavlovsky said … Putin has “created an artificial situation in which a ‘pathological minority’—the protesters on Bolotnaya Square [two years ago], then Pussy Riot, then the liberal ‘pedophiles’—is held up in contrast to a ‘healthy majority.’ Every time this happens, his ratings go up.” The nightly television broadcasts from Ukraine, so full of wild exaggeration about Ukrainian “fascists” and mass carnage, are a Kremlin-produced “spectacle,” he said, expertly crafted by the heads of the main state networks.

“Now this has become a problem for Putin, because this system cannot be wholly managed,” Pavlovsky said. The news programs have “overheated” public opinion and the collective political imagination.

“How can Putin really manage this?” Pavlovsky went on. “You’d need to be an amazing conductor. Stalin was an amazing conductor in this way. Putin can’t quite pull off this trick. The audience is warmed up and ready to go; it is wound up and waiting for more and more conflict. You can’t just say, ‘Calm down.’”

Putin has been running a historically unusual sort of government: government by moral panic. He promotes pandemics of fear, viral outbreaks of outrage at imagined enemies. And he doesn’t conjure threats to security or values just to boost popularity, but as a basic tool of governance.

You could say that dictators and demagogues do this a lot, but Putin’s different. Hitler kept up an unceasing propaganda war against the Jews. Stalin’s ferocious demonology exorcised enemy after enemy – Social Revolutionaries, engineers, Trotskyites, German spies, eventually the Jews too, always with some overlap between them. But totalitarian ambition subordinated public outrage to state power. The occasional “spontaneous” pogrom in Germany, like Kristallnacht – carefully stage-managed, in fact — quickly gave way to the action of the police, the Gestapo, the forces of order. The anger enabled but never displaced the task of expulsion and the ultimate end of genocide, which only a dispassionate bureaucracy could efficiently commit. Meanwhile, under Stalin, in 1930s Moscow, anybody holding a spontaneous, unauthorized protest against enemies of the State would have been declaring himself an enemy of the State too: here I am, a Kautskyite deviationist, Kolyma here I come. It wasn’t just that Stalin was an “amazing conductor.” He shot the orchestra members one by one, while the audience stayed frozen in their seats, hands on the armrests, humming patriotic songs in unison, no sudden movements allowed.

Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, alleged gay Uzbek, July 2013, from a social-media page

Russian Neo-Nazis abuse a kidnapped, allegedly gay “Uzbek,” July 2013, from a social-media page

Putin’s panics, on the other hand. whether about evil Ukrainaians or subversive homosexuals, aren’t meant to efface other movements and players, to erase other institutions in a coordinated exercise of power. They enlist the Church, the neo-Nazis, school administrations, nationalist intellectuals, diasporic allies in the near abroad — but without subordinating them. It’s all chaotic. The government’s bloodthirsty rhetoric charts a general direction, but everybody is set loose to follow it as best they can. This is in the best tradition of moral panics, which offer wide scope for what the sociologists call “moral entrepreneurs,” opportunists of anxiety, to stake out arenas for action and go after enemies in their own way. The anti-homosexual legislation may be the best example. Draconian though it is, almost nobody has been prosecuted since its passage. The State hasn’t actually done much. Rather, the law encourages everybody from priests to foreign “pro-family” ideologues to right-wing gangs to launch their own campaigns. It asks them, in fact, to support the State, which desperately needs their help in rooting out perversion. In its weird way, it’s thus an instrument of that most stereotypically American of political practices – coalition-building, uniting disparate interests into a party of shared goals. The dictatorial law seems almost democratic in the way it works.

Or consider Putin’s strategy in Ukraine. Pundits and politicians compare it to Hitler’s seizure of the Sudetenland and its ethnic Germans. Yet what’s missing in Russia is the triumphal confidence that State power can always prevail. Look back at Nazi propaganda during the Sudeten crisis; it showed German might irresistibly smashing the country cousins’ chains:

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Poster for a “yes” vote on annexation to the Reich, in a referendum held in the Sudetenland on December 4, 1938

Or it depicted Hitler as savior to little blond Sudeteners dreaming of deliverance:

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

Propaganda postcard sent to Sudetenlanders during the 1938 crisis

By contrast, Russian propaganda on Ukraine has a pathetic stress on victimhood. There’s a genocide going on in the potato fields, Russians are being exterminated, but Russia seems powerless on its own to prevent it. (The #SaveDonbass hashtag campaign, which started on Twitter a couple of months ago and showed ostensible ethnic Russian victims, almost exclusively exploited images of sheer wide-eyed helplessness.)

images

Hence the reliance on militias, generously armed but semi-independent rebel groups, uncoordinated actions compensating for what the State can’t do. Neither Stalin or Hitler would ever have tolerated this wild welter of assistance. The Gestapo would have rounded up the anti-gay thugs with their vigilante delusions, and the insurgents would have been handed not missile launchers but tickets to the Gulag. Something’s changed.

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

Ethnic Russian self-defense forces stand in front of a government building, Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: AFP

You could point to many things, but one is overriding. Russia is a nuclear power and a near-dictatorship, but it’s a weak state. This is paradoxical given the overweening authority Putin manages to project, but it’s true. Putin has full authority over the security establishment, but that is no longer enough to endow unquestioned solidity upon the state he built. For one thing, Russia is no longer an isolated command economy. It’s been integrated into the capitalist world. While Putin has bullied the unruly Yeltsin-era oligarchs into submission, that still doesn’t help him control the country’s livelihood, dependent instead on international vicissitudes of supply and demand. This is particularly true since a single commodity sector — energy — dominates everything, and prosperity rides on fluctuations of markets out of the government’s hands. You can police dissidents, but you can’t police the price of natural gas abroad. If the old Soviet economy has been “privatized” — more precisely, in neoliberal fashion, parcelled out to a bunch of ill-coordinated players — so, too, have other parts of Soviet power. Corporate conglomerates, a military-industrial complex, rich and insecure churches, noisy social movements (more of them on the Right than the Left), local governments carving out their own extortion zones, and many more mini- and mega-oligarchies multiply. As happens when a once coherent power is privatized, each tries to establish its own small dictatorship over whoever it can influence. This Russia, one scholar says, is ” a highly corrupt state that still cannot fully control its borders, monopolize the legal means of violence, or clearly articulate its role in the contemporary world.” For all his shirtless preening, Putin is no muscle-man able to wield top-down control. Instead he must exhort, scare, cajol, and distract the rest of society till he gets his way.

Government by moral panic is a way of governing when the government fears impotence, as in a morning nightmare where your legs won’t move: its power shaling into paralysis, its strength sloughing off like sand.

We’re going to see more of this. We live in an era of weak states. The most authoritarian among them can’t muster half the authority its ancestors did. The neoliberal state has big biceps to flex, but it hobbles along on crutches. How can a leader feel secure in his position when foreign bankers who price your bonds can make or break your popularity, your ministers, your country?

Vote if you want to, it won't make a difference: Thatcher's mantra of neoliberalism

Vote if you want to, it won’t make a difference: Thatcher’s mantra of neoliberalism

More and more, continent after continent, governments are promoting moral panics as ways to govern. These conflagrations of fear can convulse society, but they convince people they need the state again, for all its frailty and fecklessness. Look at Egypt, where a military regime reestablished control over a fractious country through a year-long campaign of demonizing (arresting, shooting) Islamists,and journalists, and refugees, and Palestinians. Or Israel, where Netanyahu’s administration hid and lied about the deaths of three Jewish teenagers to aggravate a fever of popular panic and rage, and stoke pressure for a saving intervention by the state’s favorite instrument: its troops. Or, for that matter, the United Kingdom, where a weak coalition government (the first of its kind in almost a century) keeps looking for bogeymen to justify its existence. It’s tried Muslims and Romanians so far, with limited success, but there are more to come.

Or the United States. America is always different — exceptional, they say; it’s the home of private enterprise, after all. And the panics are privatized too. Occasionally, true, you get governments whipping up people’s anxieties. (Remember those color-coded terror alerts of the vigilant Bush years? Today my Fear is Orange, Mr. Ashcroft!) But just as often you see entrepreneurs drumming up the fear and loathing for their own ends.

Increasingly the US is a classic weak state, a casualty of neoliberalism in its several forms. Years of right-wing amputations whittled its government down, and now conservatives committed to a big-business version of Russian Nihilism refuse to allow the legislative process to exist. Its politicians still praise it as the “indispensable nation,” but it governs itself like Somalia. Like any weak state, it falls prey to warlords, though they have offshore accounts and paid talk-radio pundits rather than weapons caches. Usually they stir up panics to pressure the government into deploying its dwindling powers on one of their pet causes. It’s a competition: to get what’s left of the state on your side. Immigration is a wonderful source of panics, all in this entrepreneurial spirit. The goal almost always is to get the government to abandon its remaining responsibilities to people inside the border (food, jobs, health care, those vague things called civil rights) and devote all its energies to policing the border itself. Imagine you have a plot of land, and a limited number of bricks. You could waste the bricks building a house to live in, or you could put up a nice thick wall around the whole vacant lot. The answer — Who needs a roof, anyway? — becomes more obvious as the panicked voices keep shrieking, Do something! They’re walking on the lawn! 

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

I told you to build that wall: Anti-immigration cartoon from 1891

Moral panics come in many kinds, but one feature is consistent. They always have victims. Scapegoating is intrinsic to the package. Governing by moral panic means governing by exclusion.

Immigrants, minorities, the irresponsible and perverted, sex workers and trans women, the sick and susceptible, wayward young or useless old: somebody’s going to suffer. As our states get weaker, those marked for marginality multiply. In a kinder, gentler, more condescending era, states justified themselves by providing for people’s welfare. In the neoliberal age, states will justify themselves increasingly by their capacity to exclude. Legitimacy will derive from the quantity of victims.

i started with the fog of speculation shrouding a terrible disaster, uncertainty created by the compulsory celerity and fake urgency of the Internet. These days, rumors have wings while facts slog in leaky galoshes. This, too, makes government by moral panic possible. Strong states survived on facts. How large was the grain harvest? How many gallons of water in the reservoir? What is the average height of army conscripts from the southern province? Only that kind of exactitude made their interventions, whether for welfare or security, work. In the world of moral panic, facts disappear. What’s left are speculations; and governments that want to rule, politicians who want to keep their power, learn to surf the waves of supposition, like a traveller in a dream who realizes the road has become a river.

Everything that’s solid melts. Those floating numbers of the dead– six? eight? 100? 108? — are a symptom of our fluid and oblivious condition. They speak of a world of nameless panics and unattributable terrors, inaccessible to the consolations of proof, where the one thing certain is that there will always be more victims.

Ethnic Russian self-defense units stand guard at of  local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

Ethnic Russian self-defense units at local government headquarters in Simferopol, Crimea, March 2014. Photo: Thomas Peter/Reuters

On the slaughter of innocents

“Civilian casualties” in Gaza and Israel, and before, and beyond

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City. (Photo: Mahmud Hams / AFP / Getty Images).  ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

Palestinians collect their belongings from damaged houses in Gaza City, 2014. (Photo: Mahmud Hams /AFP /Getty Images). ABC News in the US later misidentified this picture as showing Israeli victims.

The injunction against killing civilians in war is now basic to international human rights and humanitarian law, along with the prohibitions against genocide and torture: so much so, it’s easy to forget it’s not even 70 years old. Like the latter standards, it’s been at least as much honored in the breach as affirmed in the observance. Even more than them, it carries a host of slippery justifications to support the breaches. Nobody argues that committing genocide is all right because it’s so hard not to, or because the victims obstreperously refuse to leave or keep getting in the way; whereas whenever civilians turn up dead in a place of conflict, this is just the susurrus of exculpation you hear. Yet the moral horror around the slaughter of civilians overpowers any legal vagueness.  Soldiers may have been conscripted into an army against their will, with no idea what they were getting into, with no responsibility for the war; they may never have fired a shot; but photographs of their corpses, gone viral on our technologies, inspire no shock of indignation like the outrage that greets images of the innocent dead clad in everyday dress, unprepared for extremity, unarmed. Clothes make the man, and they make the meaning. The anger is an ethical absolute, a line in the sand, a call to action. Sometimes, it’s a rallying cry for further slaughter.

I’m not questioning the rightness of this anger, or the Fourth Geneva Convention, which gave it legal force in 1949. I’m wondering where the idea of “civilians” came from.

“Civilian” is not a very old category.  The term itself, in the sense of “non-combatant,” is first attested from the early 19th century. It comes, though, from the Latin civilis, “civil” or “civic”: a word describing qualities that befit a “citizen” but also any dweller in a town or civis. It pitted the urbane against the uncultivated, the cosmopolitan against the pitiable provincial.

And for millennia the worst atrocities of war as we now assess them, the killing of people who were not soldiers, overwhelmingly meant murdering the inhabitants of cities.

Battle with the Mongol army at Liegnitz, Poland, in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

Fall of  Liegnitz, Poland, to a Mongol army  in 1241: by Matthäus Merian (1593 – 1650)

A siege of a fortified town routinely ended with the slaughter of the inhabitants. When Genghis Khan took Samarkand in 1220, he ordered the population “to evacuate and assemble in a plain outside the city, where they were killed and pyramids of severed heads raised as the symbol of Mongol victory.” When the Mongols captured Urgench a year later, the chroniclers say that each of 50,000 victorious soldiers was commanded to detach 24 towndwellers’ heads. Do the math; no one today believes the figures, but they are a quick shorthand for an incalculable bloodbath. Acts like these were the barbarians’ revenge against the arrogantly urbane, a reaction from the edge of the known world against the soi-disant central and civilized. Yet they made a kind of sense. Citydwellers were parasites. They were symbols of useless indolence. They produced no necessities for themselves, living off the agriculture and sweat of others. Invaders would do better to eliminate the burden. By contrast, you could rape or rob rural populations, but massacring them made no sense. Those people could feed armies.

The Capture of Constantinople: Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

The capture of Constantinople: by Tintoretto (1518-1594), Ducal Palace, Venice

This wasn’t just a monstrous propensity of non-Europeans. After the Fourth Crusade’s soldiers of 1204 — the flower of Western Christendom — overran Constantinople, they killed thousands, down to the children and the nuns. Those Crusaders were exacting vengeance on an effete city of palaces and eunuchs, a place too beautiful and pointless for them to bear; they came from a plough-bound, manure-smelling fringe of Europe where Paris, the largest town, was no more than a village with attitude.  I could go on forever; ask the dead of Drogheda, or Tenochtitlan.  In 1209, when a papal army took the heresy-ridden Cathar town of Béziers in southern France, someone asked their commander, the Abbot of Citeaux, what to do with its ten or twenty thousand citizens. Not all were heretics, surely. “Kill them all,” the Abbot said. “The Lord will know his own.”

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

Cortés attacks Tenochtitlan: Anonymous, Second half of the seventeenth century, Library of Congress

The link between the “civilian” as victim and the city lasted a long time. In the Second World War, the defining horror of the last hundred years, so many of the monstrosities – from Hitler’s eradication of Warsaw to Truman’s obliteration of Hiroshima – involved destroying cities and their peoples. The material justification, which the Allies were particularly good at laying out, was that urban areas sheltered industries and centers of command and control. There was a symbolic side too, though, a dreamlike logic, in which the war leaders melted into Genghis Khan contemplating the fleshpots of Samarkand.  Hitler especially indulged fantasies of utterly annihilating cities that annoyed him. Rural populations could survive as dirt-digging helots; but the capitals had to go. “Moscow must disappear,” he said, as if he were a Roman ploughing Carthage under the ground with salt; or – in the words of his High Command:

The Führer has decided to wipe the city of St Petersburg from the face of the earth. We have no interest in the preservation of even a part of the population of that city.

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Tokyo burns under B-29 firebomb assault, May 26, 1945

Cities to him stood for the mongrel blending of races he hated; they bred Jews like lice. For the Allies, meanwhile, cities embodied the fundamental reasoning behind the carpet-bombing and, finally, the atomic bomb. They were complex economic and social mechanisms in which everyone was connected, every inhabitant’s labor furthering a mutual goal. Given those links, if the state was guilty, everyone was guilty. A five-year old girl in Nagasaki whose father worked in a shipyard was fully accountable for the horrors of Bataan. If Hitler looked on the urban world like a savage mythologist, the Western powers analyzed it like sophisticated sociologists. In each civic community they saw an intricate interdependence that translated into shared complicity. The end was the same on both sides, the sociology fading back into the myth: collective punishment, common death.

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

Part of central Tokyo after the Operation Meetinghouse air raid of March 9-10, 1945 later estimated to be the single most destructive bombing raid in history

After the war, the victor nations rejected that, at least on paper. A renewed campaign against torture, the prohibition of the new crime of genocide, both came about in the new world order. So did a code of safeguards for civilians in war, in the Fourth Geneva Convention, adopted in 1949. The protections were imperfect, but at least just living in a belligerent state should no longer be reason enough to kill you. On the other hand, the victorious Allies had an ambiguous relationship to civilian protection standards. Unlike the Germans, they hadn’t committed genocide in the war (never mind those old colonial problems), or systematic torture (well, not much), but they had taken the German technique of incinerating civilians with carpet bombing and perfected it, in Tokyo and Dresden. Thus the new Geneva Convention had a bit of guilty secret as well as promise about it. This may explain the why it remained broad and relatively elastic. (An additional protocol in 1977 more specifically prohibited direct attacks on civilian targets, as well as attacks “of a nature to strike military objectives and civilians or civilian objects without distinction.” It has not been ratified by a number of states that ratified the Convention itself, Israel and the US among them.)

If this is all a prelude to speaking of Israel and Palestine, perhaps it reflects my reluctance to come to the point, because there is no point that can help anyone at all. Yet history matters. Both sides there believe in collective punishment (a war crime under the Geneva Convention) yet both dispute that they are doing wrong. Each – like the Allies explaining the carpet bombs — has its story about the other to justify the sweep of what they do. Universal guilt abides in the opposing population. Either Israel is a militarized settler society in which every citizen is a real or potential soldier, a participant in repression. Or all Palestine is a partisan movement hidden in a general population, where lines between warrior and non-combatant melt

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s (from http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html)

Settler society and its discontents: British propaganda poster against the Mau Mau rebellion, Kenya, 1950s

An insecure state that can’t afford to excuse any of its members from the task of violence; a popular movement that by definition does not even have a state to enforce distinctions. Neither side can make out individual features in the other; they see each other in totalizing terms, inhospitable to differences. This leaves you where a lot of commenters on the situation, particularly in the human rights world, like to be: with Balance, the equable belief that everybody’s wrong.

Most observers — most organizations in the international human rights world, most of the international community — focus on condemning civilian casualties as if they’re determined to defeat this totalizing logic, and to extract the thread of distinctions from its tangle. But they end up with Balance again, that place where everybody is the same: both sides endanger civilians, both are in the wrong.  Does this focus have its limitations? What do you get from emphasizing the “innocent” civilians, instead of other categories of innocence, involvement, blame? Does it blind us to the causes and motives of the violence, restricting us to asking how well the violence is performed?

My old home, Human Rights Watch, insisted for years –from Sri Lanka to Iraq– that it takes no sides in conflicts. “Human Rights Watch does not ordinarily take positions on whether a party to a conflict is justified in taking up arms,” in order to preserve its own objectivity in evaluating abuses. “Rather, once armed conflict breaks out, we generally confine ourselves to monitoring how both sides to the conflict fight the war, with the aim of enforcing international standards protecting noncombatants.” This is no longer entirely true; the organization increasingly advocates and promotes certain wars under the rubric of “humanitarian intervention,” idealistic incursions to prevent abuses. (But when these wars then cause further abuses, is Human Rights Watch’s objectivity in documenting them compromised?) Even if you take the statement at face value, though, applying it to Israel and Palestine reveals certain limits.

What happens when a human rights organization begins evaluating wars? In the late 1990s Human Rights Watch pioneered methodologies for interpreting physical evidence to determine whether the warmakers were trying hard enough not to kill civilians: beginning with NATO’s assault on Serbia in 1998, continuing through the US air war against Iraq, through Israel’s attacks on Gaza in Operation Cast Lead in 2009. These studies were excellent, groundbreaking, a vast advance in human rights advocacy from moral exhortation to highly specialized judgment. But these reports are a also guide to minimizing civilian casualties to suit the Geneva Conventions, adjusting impact through a range of algorithms. In this way, human rights organizations have actually begun offering militaries informal advice, not on how to stop violence – that would mean not having a war – but on how to cap its consequences at a legally acceptable level. Too far down that road, and they become micromanagers of death.

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

Limits: Meme from the International Committee of the Red Cross

The Israeli architect and philosopher Eyal Weizman has analyzed how groups like Human Rights Watch participate, inadvertently and from admirable aspirations, in the science of war: their “collusion … with military and political powers.” Their methods involve a shift “from a focus on the victims of war to an analysis of the mechanism of the violations of law.” Law itself, once broken, is treated as the chief victim; the individuals whose lives were at stake fade away in the descriptions of the offense almost as they did in the choosing of targets. This elision, however unwanted, is built into the methods. “Today’s forensic investigators of violence move alongside its perpetrators, morphing into them,” according to Weizman. “Humanitarianism, human rights and international humanitarian law,” he writes, “have become the crucial means by which the economy of violence is calculated and managed.”

He looks particularly at the story of Marc Garlasco, my old friend who joined HRW as its investigator of military methods, its lead critic of how bomb-droppers selected targets — after a career in the US military machine, as a Defense Intelligence Agency analyst who selected targets. He was effective because he knew exactly what the targeters were trying to do and how, when they killed: because he’d done it. Marc was an earnest and brilliant fellow who, in his relentless interrogation of the Israeli Defense Forces’ strategic decisions, got more flak than he deserved. He had a keener intuitive apprehension of his position’s moral contradictions than did, on the whole, the people who hired him. The moral contradictions did not go away, though. Marc could say, without much irony, that he stayed at the Pentagon through the Iraq war out of an ethical obligation:  “I wanted to do it in the best way I could,” adding, “I had responsibilities to the pilots and the civilians” (emphasis added).

You cannot reconcile the contradictions of killing people in the best way possible unless you translate “responsibility” into the most bloodless terms: make it a duty you owe to abstract principles and not specific people. Legalism triumphs. This arcane realm is where the logic of this work leads the committed human rights activist, away from the actual experiences of victims. Weizman quotes Garlasco: “After being in Afghanistan, Iraq, Georgia, Burma, I can no longer say if this destruction was wrong or right. I can only say whether it was legal or illegal.”

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

Shock and awe: Smoke covers central Baghdad during a massive U.S.-led air raid, March 21, 2003. Photo by AFP.

The focus on civilian casualties generates a strict, technical approach to the question of responsibility. The individual story is subordinated not just to the lawbooks, but to the slide rule.  No side can ensure absolutely that it will prevent civilian casualties, as long as it’s at war and killing people. So no side is completely devoid of guilt. But since the Geneva Conventions give a certain latitude for trying but failing, even killers can make a claim to innocence as well. The authority to evaluate such shades of inculpation gives enormous power to the human rights investigator and his organization, power over fine mathematical gradations of right and wrong: much greater power than simpler, starker, less technologically advanced modes of assessing morality could endow.

But this focus buries other questions, broader ones, about responsibility for the conflict as a whole. These are exactly the questions that Human Rights Watch long said it wouldn’t answer. Now that it is more and more involved in advocating – in effect, helping to cause – conflicts in the name of humanitarian intervention, it’s hard not to feel that the technical assessment of purely localized responsibility is, in some degree, a sophisticated and scientifically unimpeachable way of shouting: “Look over there!” Technical evaluation of a technological responsibility toward civilians is necessary work. Pursued in isolation from other ways of defining responsibility, though, it becomes a darker thing: a distraction.

Distraction from what?

Well, first, the balance that abstract principles impose – everybody is in the wrong – fails. In Israel and Gaza, the death tolls are out of balance. Israel has killed at least 100 people, probably more than 120, an unknown number of civilians among them (two reportedly died this morning in a strike that hit a charitable association for the disabled). Meanwhile, Gaza’s rockets have killed no Israelis. (Nine “have been treated for injuries, dozens more for shock.”)

This reflects an immense disparity in technological power. Israel is armed with one of the largest, most advanced military capacities in the world. It could defend most of its citizens without firing a retaliatory shot. (Israel developed the Iron Dome missile interception system with a $205 million gift from the US government; now European countries, India, Singapore, and even the US itself may be lining up to buy back the finished product, making it not only protective but profitable.) When it does shoot, the impulse is political and the damage is overwhelming. Israel’s defenders talk a great deal about the its pinpoint attempts to target specific “terrorist” sites, while Hamas just fires rockets into the air. But the random rockets haven’t killed so far, while the precision aiming has:

A Israeli raid flattened the Fun Time Beach cafe in the southern Gaza Strip in the early hours of Thursday, killing nine people and wounding 15.

All that is left of the popular seaside cafe — where dozens broke their Ramadan fast on Wednesday night before settling down to watch Argentina play the Netherlands — is a large crater and a few mounds of sand.

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

Palestinians search for bodies in the southern Gaza Strip, at a beach cafe hit the night before by an Israeli air strike: July 10, 2014

These disasters are not really about the indistinguishability of civilian targets amid a militarized population (an Israeli claim Abby Okrent dismantles here). They are built into Israel’s vast technological superiority itself. Better machines don’t make for more precision. Precision is a quality of judgment, and judgment is a quality of human beings. The aim of Israel’s various “operations” in Gaza is not just to take out specific people, but to cow a population. (Even the famous text messages that supposedly warn residents a bomb is about to blast their home have, as Gazans can tell you, at least as much to do with showing off the invisible, terrifying omniscience of a military surveillance system. We know where you are.) Unleashed with that intent behind them, weapons – however “smart” – will terrorize, not just target; the very targeting is an aspect of terror, a reminder of superior knowledge as well as superior means, but spillover is equally intrinsic to the effect. The message inevitably exceeds the “purely” military purpose, and the collateral damage itself becomes the point: a sign of exultant excess, the means drowning the end. You can’t go on talking about equivalence without acknowledging Israel’s military domination, its unmeasurable ability to destroy. And to cap its technological triumph, it is (and has been for forty years) the only state in a thousand-mile radius with nuclear bombs.

Second, that technological dominance is part of the disparity in political power. The occupation has gone on for 47 years. (Gaza, ostensibly freed by fiat nine years ago, remains encircled and controlled). Everyone knows this (even those who deny it) so there’s no point expanding on it. The confrontation between popular rebellion and a rapacious settler society isn’t just an old, cowboys-and-Indians story that we can look on with disinterest or restrained amusement. It’s here and now. It demands choosing, and not just in a childhood game.

Cigarette Cards, "Heroic Deeds," UK, 1890s. on Decmeber 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo  in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under   Major Allan Wilson. From http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html

Cigarette Cards, “Heroic Deeds,” UK, 1890s. On December 4, 1893, rebel Ndebele soldiers near Bulawayo in present-day Zimbabwe wiped out an entire British detachment under Major Allan Wilson. From http://exhibitions.nypl.org/africanaage/essay-resistance.html

Moreover, demanding (as Israel does) that stateless people protect civilians, or clearly mark civilians in their own midst, carries a certain irony. “Civilian,” as I’ve said, is deeply connected to the idea of citizenship. Citizenship comes from states. It’s exactly what the stateless are denied. States ratify identities, assign them to combatants or non-combatants, stratify and sort society. Absence of agency to do this is precisely the situation to which Israel consigns the Palestinians. The demand itself reveals the gulf between those with power and those without.

Third, insisting on equivalence ignores how this specific crisis came about. Israel’s government was the main actor. Mouin Rabbani notes that while, in the Western media, “the latest round of escalation is dated from the moment three Israeli youths went missing on 12 June,” this ignores the incendiary effect of earlier IDF violence against Nakba protesters:

the shooting death of two Palestinian boys in Ramallah on 15 May—like any number of incidents in the intervening month where Israel exercised its right to colonize and dispossess—is considered wholly insignificant.

Even if you take the Israeli teenagers’ kidnapping and brutal killing as the starting point, though, Netanyahu’s government provoked and worsened the situation, raising palpably false hopes so that disappointment would incite rage. In the Jewish Daily Forward, J. J. Goldberg writes:

The initial evidence was the recording of victim Gilad Shaer’s desperate cellphone call to Moked 100, Israel’s 911. When the tape reached the security services the next morning — neglected for hours by Moked 100 staff — the teen was heard whispering “They’ve kidnapped me” (“hatfu oti”) followed by shouts of “Heads down,” then gunfire, two groans, more shots, then singing in Arabic. That evening searchers found the kidnappers’ abandoned, torched Hyundai, with eight bullet holes and the boys’ DNA. There was no doubt.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu immediately placed a gag order on the deaths. … For public consumption, the official word was that Israel was “acting on the assumption that they’re alive.” It was, simply put, a lie. …

Nor was that the only fib. It was clear from the beginning that the kidnappers weren’t acting on orders from Hamas leadership in Gaza or Damascus. Hamas’ Hebron branch — more a crime family than a clandestine organization — had a history of acting without the leaders’ knowledge, sometimes against their interests. Yet Netanyahu repeatedly insisted Hamas was responsible for the crime and would pay for it. … His rhetoric raised expectations that after demolishing Hamas in the West Bank he would proceed to Gaza. … The Israeli right — settler leaders, hardliners in his own party — began demanding it.

And in Gaza, it wasn’t Hamas that struck first.

On June 29, an Israeli air attack on a rocket squad killed a Hamas operative. Hamas protested. The next day it unleashed a rocket barrage, its first since 2012. The cease-fire [informally in effect since 2012) was over. Israel was forced to retaliate for the rockets with air raids. Hamas retaliated for the raids with more rockets. And so on. Finally Israel began calling up reserves on July 8 …

Later that morning, Israel’s internal security minister Yitzhak Aharonovitch told reporters that the “political echelon has given the army a free hand.” Almoz returned to Army Radio that afternoon and confirmed that the army had “received an absolutely free hand” to act.

And how far, the interviewer asked, will the army go? “To the extent that it’s up to the army,” Almoz said, “the army is determined to restore quiet.” Will simply restoring quiet be enough? “That’s not up to us,” he said.

You can tell what happened. The killing of the three boys was monstrous, as was the revenge killing of an Arab youth. But these were not “civilian casualities,” because they weren’t murdered by soldiers in a war, but by individuals. A different government of a different state might have confined the response to arresting and prosecuting. But not Israel,  not Netanyahu, not the military occupation. The story of the American “war on terror” repeated itself: a crime became a casus belli, guilt rested with whole societies, the response was not justice but retribution. Two interlocking logics took over: the primitive one of collective punishment, and the sophisticated one of advanced technologies of killing, the tools of military technocracy. Things are in the saddle, and ride mankind.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

Untitled, by Cecil Skotnes (1926-2009),. Woodcut, 1980.

I started by maintaining: before the term “civilian” ever assumed its present meaning, killing non-combatants largely meant slaughtering the dwellers in cities. That was a rebellion by brute force against the abodes of civility, against the comfortable, empowered, but arrogant idea of civilization.

No more. Every value is transvalued. When we speak of “civilian casualties” in most places now, we mean the war of advanced technology against raw human flesh. Today, the killers aren’t the ones combating the immense technological sophistication of civilization; it is entirely on their side. This ease of murdering is our modernity; our highest achievements aren’t buildings but the bombs that destroy them.  Our phones and drones are smarter than we are. Against that overwhelming power of civilized slaughter, people dwindle; their lives shrink to what Giorgio Agamben calls bare life, helpless nakedness in the face of amoral machinery. David Jones, a Welsh poet, in a long poem about the First World War, described in lines of beautiful stoicism a British private blown apart by a shell:

He thought it disproportionate in its violence considering the fragility of us.

That’s the “proportionality” that matters now.

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Iraqi armored personnel carrieres, tanks, and trucks destroyed on the Highway of Death from Kuwait, during Operation Desert Storm , 1991: Photo by US Department of Defense

Our laws and activists keep drawing finer distinctions between civilian victims and combatants.  Perhaps that isn’t the real distinction that needs to be drawn. What’s urgent now is the divide between our technological civilization on the one hand,  and all its victims on the other. Those victims are so impotent before its crushing power that it can exterminate soldiers as casually as the unarmed. They are insignificant as the Iraqi recruits whom American bombs roasted alive in their tanks in 1991. Those with weapons, like the Palestinians in Gaza, are nonetheless effaceable by the remote control of a technology beyond control.  The imperative to contest this power transcends identities and uniforms. Human rights, if they mean anything, are not the rights of humans to be killed efficiently. Human rights are their rights to live.

"Massacre of the innocents," from Codes Gertrude, 10th  century AD  (Poland)

“Massacre of the innocents,” from Codex Gertrudianus, 10th century AD (Poland)

Sodomy in Zambia

James Mwape (in mask)  and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by Lusaka Times

James Mwape (in mask) and Philip Mubiana (head covered in a brown coat) led away in chains after a court hearing, May 2013: Photo by the Lusaka Times

On July 3, a court in Kapiri Mposhi, in Zambia, acquitted Philip Mubiana and James Mwape. They had been held in jail for almost fourteen months, charged with homosexual sex under Zambia’s sodomy law, which carries a sentence of up to fourteen years. (NOTE: see comments) The presiding judge didn’t comment on the justice of the law itself; he only found that there was no substantive evidence against the accused, who were arrested on hearsay and suspicion, reportedly turned in by family members.  According to the blog 76 Crimes, which has followed the case from the start, Zambian LGBT and human rights activist Juliet Mphande said: ““We have fought long and hard and this victory does not belong to us but to all Zambia’s sexual diverse and gender variant children.”

The triumph for the two is mixed; with their faces and names published all over Zambian media, their lives in the country are wrecked. Still, the court’s decision reflects the strength and persistence of Zambian LGBT campaigners. It brings back memories for me, vivid and piercing. I first visited Zambia sixteen years ago, in 1998, when the country was in the midst of a huge collective frenzy about the dangers of “homosexuality.” With every public figure from university professors to the President himself taking turns deploring the incursion of perversion, it seemed unlikely that there would ever be a Zambian LGBT movement, much less a court victory to celebrate. What happened back then holds lessons not just for Zambia, but for other movements today. Some indulgence in my own memories of sodomy in Zambia may thus be justified.

Back then, I worked for IGLHRC, the International Gay and Lesbian Human Rights Commission. The turmoil in Zambia in 1998 had one identifiable origin. On July 13, a young man named Francis Yabe Chisambisha, who is one of the bravest people I’ve ever known, decided he’d had enough of self-concealment, and he wanted to come out. It says something about anomie in Zambia’s shifting society that for him, this meant coming out not to friends or to family, but to the biggest audience imaginable. He walked into the largest national newspaper’s offices in Lusaka, told them he was gay, and asked if they’d like to interview him. They did. Next day, The Post published his photo on its first page with two-inch headlines: “I’m 25, gay, with 33 sex partners …” Inside the three-page article, Chisambisha explained why he wanted to speak:

“Firstly, what I want is to tell society that this gay thing has been there even before our generation.  I want society to be aware that it is happening in Zambia and there are people who want to be respected for their choice.  It’s just that in our African culture, it’s believed to be taboo and hence people do it in hiding … But the fact that I am doing it, shows that this practice is there and will continue to be there as long as man is there.”

And then a massive moral panic started, the most mammoth I’ve ever seen. As I wrote later,

The response was instant.  The day after Chisambisha’s confession, the Post was already receiving hand-delivered indignant letters.  “There is totally nothing good in being gay that one should feel that it is an achievement to come out in the open,” one read. The rest of the press scrambled to rival the scoop; when, weeks later, a headline screamed “Another gay surfaces,” it seemed like relief for desperate reporters.

Homosexuality had never been openly discussed in Zambia; now the country talked about nothing else. Daily headlines and nightly news stories boomed and threatened and condemned the danger. At the end of November I went to Zambia on behalf of IGLHRC to witness first-hand what was going on.

I reached Zambia on the third day of my first trip ever to Africa. You have to plumb my inexperience to grasp how we did human rights work back then. I’d landed in Johannesburg and spent a night in a doss-house run by awful white people. The next day I flew to Harare. There, I had one lovely evening with Keith Goddard and Romeo Tshuma and other members of Gays and Lesbians of Zimbabwe (GALZ), drinking beer around a glowing braai in their garden, under the jacaranda leaves and the unfamiliar stars. Early the next morning Keith came to my cheap hostel, rousted me from hungover dreams, drove me to the far edge of the city, and left me by the road to wait for the bus to Lusaka.

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

How I thought I would look in Lusaka

It started as a demure urban bus, prim passengers carrying suitcases. Approaching the Zambezi, it became more and more one of those rural nightmares, the luggage giving way to chicken coops, then to chickens that scrabbled neurotically up and down the aisle. Near midnight, nearing Lusaka, the obsidian windows showed buildings billowing up, distended, surreal; with each dis- and embarkation, as if in a Cinderella story, the chickens turned back to suitcases again. I scrambled up to the driver and asked if he could leave me near a taxi stand. “Do you know where you’re going?” he demanded. I said I didn’t have a hotel. He looked at me in utter astonishment. I had an acute sense of the absurdity of my whiteness, a pale incarnation of presumption. In the end he parked the bus on a clogged street in the center, got out with me, took me to a churning café, and handed me over personally to a taxi driver. “Guard him,” he told him dramatically, “like an egg.” The inns were all full. It took two hours to find a motel on the margins of Lusaka, where spiders the size of espresso saucers kept watch like sour theater critics on the wall above my bed.

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in The the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

How I actually looked (Figure of Clergyman, by Thomas Ona Odulate, active 1900-1950, Nigeria, in  the Hunterian Museum and Art Gallery, University of Glasgow)

The next day I started trying to decipher things. Speaking to Francis, it was clear they’d gone very, very wrong. After Chisambisha came out, a local human rights Big Man had taken him under his wing. I’ll call him Mr. Mubanga; he led an NGO, the Zambia Independent Monitoring Team (ZIMT). They’d made their name doing election monitoring, so their interest in gay rights was, if welcome, slightly weird.

Yet Mubanga (who insisted he was heterosexual) quickly positioned himself — so I later wrote – as “the country’s main spokesperson on the issue of sexual orientation.” He showed courage; at a forum about homosexuality before infuriated college students, he “narrowly escaped lynching,” a newspaper said. But he was also dangerously, deliberately provocative. Almost immediately after Chisambisha’s coming-out, he told the press – completely falsely — that “We have been visited by Netherlands and US-based gay organizations who have expressed desire to sponsor the protection of gay rights in Zambia and lobby for the removal of statutes that are against those with a variant sexual orientation from the Penal Code.” He fed reporters bluster, declaring one day that Zambia had 10,000 homosexuals, another day that there were half a million. He announced plans to form an LGBT organization, LEGATRA, under ZIMT’s auspices.  He talked as well about establishing a branch of IGLHRC in Zambia, or a version of ILGA. All his language seemed calibrated to confirm that gays were both a huge threat and a foreign influence. And the more outrage crescendoed, the more he made the case for money. Whenever I sat with him, he spoke not of Francis’ situation or LEGATRA’s status, but of grants and aid. How much did IGLHRC have, and where did it get it?  His assistant took me to a party at the Finnish Embassy. I chewed reindeer meat – the only time I’ve ever eaten it was under bougainvillea trees in Lusaka – while he buttonholed diplomats and demanded how much they would give to help the endangered gays of Zambia. Mubanga’s rapacity was personal.  He’d cadge money from me every afternoon, saying he needed it for gas to drive to Libala or Kabulonga to meet some endangered gay man. I stopped giving it when a woman who worked for him hissed to me, “You know he’s using the money to go visit his mistress.” But these were peccadilloes next to the harm he did to lives he was defending.

Forced to choose sides, the rest of civil society uniformly condemned Chisambisha and “homosexuality.” A dean at the University of Zambia intoned that “Every society has minimum standards of acceptable behavior and those for homosexuality championing those filthy practices should not be condoned at all.” Another election-monitoring NGO called it “a matter of urgency that the campaign for the rights of homosexuals and lesbians be nipped in the bud.” The President of Focus for Democracy (FOD) told Francis Chisambisha in a public panel, “You chaps are sick. You need help. You need what I call sex therapy…. I wouldn’t want any of my children to be spoiled just because of you chaps.” Leaders of mainline churches lined up to voice indignation, but evangelicals found the most fodder. One newspaper reprinted materials from Exodus International, providing it one of its first firm footholds in African public discourse. When, in September, the Norwegian Embassy gave ZIMT a grant, partly for its work with the still-imaginary LEGATRA, the issue became political and diplomatic, and “homosexuality” wound up still more isolated. The Minister of Health and the Vice-President blasted the move, and in October, in a speech on Zambia’s thirty-fourth Independence Day, the President himself said: “Homosexuality is the deepest level of depravity. It is unbiblical and abnormal.  How do you expect my government to accept [it]?” The Times of Zambia warned:

We have reason to suspect that many of those behind the alliance formed by gays and lesbians in Zambia are money-mongers who are more interested in donor funds which … the West has promised them.

Zambia's President Chiluba: in the big chair

Zambia’s President Chiluba: in the big chair

In fact this was more or less true of Mubanga, though not of the “gays and lesbians in Zambia,” who had no say in what was said on their behalf. Neville Hoad, a South African scholar, has written that Mubanga

needed threats of state oppression and expressions of national homophobia to mobilize an international gay and lesbian constituency and, more problematically, to obtain funding for its attempts to use homophobia to produce a local constituency. “More than 20 gay and lesbian Zambians” joined LEGATRA. Where were the five hundred thousand, or even the ten thousand? While these numbers were clearly fabricated, they were important in establishing a movement that transnational activists could step in and claim to support. Yet given the short-lived nature of the debate and the actual numerical support LEGATRA could muster, it is far more likely that the movement has been an effect of transnational organizing rather than a grassroots movement.

Hoad is broadly right. However, there was no real “movement”  at all– it was a fabrication — and neither was there much “transnational support” for ZIMT, beyond the one Norwegian grant. That too was mostly smoke and mirrors Mubanga tossed up.

In Hoad’s intepretation, the months of outrage helped cement a particular version of a “homosexual” (or “LGBT”) identity in Zambia. In a flagrantly Foucauldian way, even enemies collaborated:

The state needs to produce its population as always already heterosexualized in reaction to the traumas of globalization. The transnationally fueled local organizations need to produce a population always already homosexualized and in need of protection from the defensively homophobic state. What both camps collude in foreclosing is the diversity of desires, practices, and possible identities and communities

This is true to the extent that “homosexuality,” a word almost never heard before in Zambia, became a catch-all for those desires and practices post-scandal. Yet it was itself a word in flux. In all the brouhaha, nobody treated “homosexuality” as if it had a pinned-down meaning. They didn’t use it for specific kinds of “carnal knowledge against the order of nature,” the terminology in the colonial-era law. It ballooned away, unmoored to any dictionary, meaning whatever the speaker thought was bad: Western values, Western money, atheism, misplaced development priorities, youth led wild. This is of course exactly the environment in which a case like the recent one can flourish, without evidence or prospect of proof. An identity was developing, but it was elastic in the hands of its enemies.

Only rarely did I talk to people (other those who actually called themselves “homosexual”) who used the word more stringently. These conversations weren’t encouraging. ZIMT had a project on the rights of traditional chiefs. One of the chiefs was in the office one day, an old man in a dark blue suit, frowning in the involuntary way the well-educated often do among idiots, unhappily shuffling papers. I sat across the table from him; he asked what I was doing in Zambia, and when I explained, he nodded. “It’s nonsense to say those people didn’t exist,” he said. “Of course, we always had those people.” He thought a bit. “The punishment was, we used to throw them on a fire and burn them alive.” It turned out he didn’t know of this actually being inflicted. It was a theoretical punishment, like plucking out the offending eye: the rhetoric had its own dissuasive value. I didn’t ask – I wish I had – how old he thought these rigors were, or whether he thought them inflected by Christian custom, or a lot of other questions. Relative to all the weirdness whirling outside the room, he seemed almost a voice of pragmatic calm.

When I came back in 2000, I encountered a purely modern understanding of homosexuality, untempered by any pragmatism. I met with the head of the Criminal Investigations Division of the national police – more or less, the FBI.  He was a carefully-spoken man disfigured by teeth that went wildly widdershins, as if somebody had inserted a small model of Stonehenge in his mouth. He launched on the usual stuff about how “homosexual” sex didn’t exist in his country. I asked why he thought these practices, absent in Zambia, seemed so common in the West. He mulled this. “In countries where life is full of plenty of stress and nervous agitation,” he said, “it is to be expected that people should engage in many mentally deviant activities, such as ‘gay and lesbian’ ones. Therefore it is no surprise that they should capture young men and engage in unnatural acts upon their bodies, and kill them, and preserve their body parts, and eat them …”

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

IGLHRC logo, 1998: Enervated by Western modernity, those continents are eating each other alive

I realized that the most powerful policeman in Zambia had derived his own definition of “homosexuality” entirely from reading about Jeffrey Dahmer. I also realized that my IGLHRC card, lying belly-down on his desk, said “Gay and Lesbian” prominently on its face. I felt an overwhelming impulse to retrieve it before he looked at it. All I remember of the rest of the meeting are a series of furtive snatching attempts, my hand twitching like a hedgehog. I don’t recall whether I got the card back. Probably not.

If I wanted, I could tell the whole story as if written by V. S. Naipaul, or his brilliant and reprehensible brother Shiva: those tales of poor Southern people driven crazy, by the paucity of inner culture that Naipaul superciliously deplored. But there was no paucity. Nor was the craziness crazy. Under the panic were perfectly sane, consistent logics. One was a narrative most Africans know all too well: economics.

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by  Chewe Chabatama

The key question in Zambia: Cover of a study by Chewe Chabatama

Civil society, pace Hegel, is not a natural aspect of humankind. It happens when both citizens and donors want it. Before the 1990s, the big money men – the IMF and the World Bank – saw no need for civil society. It meant unpleasant aggregations of people who stood in the way of dams. However, as the lenders began bringing their favored neoliberal nostrums, called structural adjustment, to Africa, they saw the wisdom of paying for a new social stratum. Structural adjustment meant forcibly stripping the state of its old functions: health, education, welfare. It would be convenient for an NGO sector to arise and take over some of these tasks (the ones that couldn’t be purely done for profit). The official line of the international lenders was that these organizations would be less “corrupt,” more “transparent” than governments. Bilateral donors, mainly Northern governments, followed the lenders’ lead. They all waved a wand, and lo! there was civil society. Development NGOs, service NGOs, even human rights NGOs sprouted across Africa like mushrooms after rain.

Meanwhile, structural adjustment plans, downsizing the government ruthlessly, disrupted the traditional, secure career path of educated youth – formerly straight into the arms of the state, the civil service. These kids were forced to build a new, entrepreneurial middle class; and the ones who didn’t like private enterprise went into nonprofits. On a long Lusaka taxi ride, a young gay professional offered to write the contact info of “all his NGOs” for me, since he didn’t carry business cards. There were three. I only remember the last: He was President of the Zambian Youth Anti-Smoker’s League. As he scrawled this in the back seat, he was puffing his fifth Marlboro.

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

Let them eat, um, something: Cartoon on structural adjustment programs

The problem was, predictably, that the sudden growth outstripped the available funds. People founded NGOs on hope, then found the grants didn’t come through. By the late 1990s resources were drying up, and all civil society withered in the drought. To a thoroughly entrepreneurial mind like Mr. Mubanga’s, discovering the LGBT issue was like finding an untapped aquifer. There were organizations doing gay rights in the West; this meant there had to be resources. From a certain perspective this was funny, since the available funding for LGBT rights then was a mere fraction of the (inadequate) figure now. Still, my salary that year (about $35,000), which barely kept me afloat in New York, could power a small NGO in Lusaka. You might not give a shit about gays, but if you cared about feeding your employees, building an IGLHRC in Zambia made a certain sense.

A side-effect was that this opportunism fed other, malign popular fantasies about homosexual acts.  One of these was a belief I also heard in Zimbabwe: no sensible African man would do that kind of thing except for money. (I’ve encountered this explanation in many countries, but it seems especially potent in places where white settlers outlasted settler colonialism, and where the structural – and sexual – power that had been political now took economic form.) If that were true, then gays in the great Abroad must have a lot of cash to corrupt people. Stories about how individuals could be debauched turned into myths about how societies were.  “Homosexuality” looked less and less like sex, and more like a conspiratorial nexus between foreign money and foreign morals; it acquired something of the character that Jewish or Masonic conspiracies had in other, more European mythologies.  These fears comprise an excellent way of yodelling up resistance, as any number of fascist movements know. A clear line stretches from the rhetoric in Zambia to what has happened in Uganda.

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L, need I say) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: "In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia.  I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls."

Tony and Marge Abram, of Abundant Life Ministries (L) in Zambia in 2005: http://www.abundantlifecrusades.com/. Their story, linking prayer and white supremacy, is typical: “In 1966, when Marge and I drove through what was once Southern Rhodesia and elephant country in our old Volkswagen beetle, to the most beautiful falls in the world, we could look across the falls and see Zambia. I told Marge then, that one-day we would preach there and God would give us many souls.”

But as the donor spigots tightened, politicians and activists and ordinary folk turned to another source of money and expectation, infinitely greater than anything poor foreign queers could offer: the vast largesse of religion.

In 1996, Frederick Chiluba, Zambia’s first democratic President, changed the constitution to define his homeland as a “Christian nation.” Chiluba was a trade-union leader who’d unseated the longtime dictator Kenneth Kaunda partly on a wave of rage against structural adjustment. He turned around to enforce structural adjustment (and make himself very rich) in office; militant Christianity undoubtedly helped him feel there was moral backbone behind his copious betrayals, but it also gave the people he betrayed a bit of hope, however gossamer. And it lent him support, some ideological, some financial. Western preachers descended on Zambia like locusts, in a preview of what would befall Uganda a little later. They bought up friendly politicians’ services and souls. Before apartheid’s fall, most of these ecclesiastics’ energies had been confined to the congenial white-ruled countries to the South. Now their “Rhodesian” passport stamps were no barrier to infesting democratic Africa, and they needed a regional base.

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

Tony Abram (R, need I say) with worshippers in Zambia, 2005

In Zambia, religion became an export good. By the mid-1990s, the country was sending missionaries to the rest of southern Africa. Whenever I flew out of Lusaka to Harare or Joburg, the plane was full of earnest, suited young Zambian men studying Bibles.  Returning  in 2000, I found one of the three TV channels had been handed to Christian programming. These were mostly US and Canadian televangelists I’d never heard of; one of them sat in a gold chair and talked nonstop about getting rich, and I learned volumes about the prosperity gospel. It would be easy to suppose these principally ensnared the poor and desperate. In fact, I think, their main appeal was to the new entrepreneurial middle class – the businessmen and activists whom structural adjustment had made, now worried for their status and their future. The preachers told them they were right to be rich (richer than their parents, anyway). The added message that homosexuals were after their prosperity was wired to set their anxieties violently in motion. And Mr. Mubanga knew just how to push those buttons too.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

European Couple Walking the Dog, by Thomas Ona Odulate (active 1900-1950, Nigeria), Fowler Museum at UCLA.

The 1998 panic over homosexuality was dreadful: not just a practice run for what later happened in Uganda, but a disaster in its own right. It destroyed lives. Estranged from his family, jobless, facing death threats, Francis Yabe Chisambisha left the country; he spent a decade trapped in the dystopian asylum process in South Africa, hiding in Hillbrow in poverty and limbo. When I came back to Zambia in mid-2000, almost every lesbian or gay Zambian I’d met eighteen months before had also fled, or gone deep underground. Nascent communities were devastated, some people arrested, a few imprisoned. LEGATRA, which had never really existed, was conclusively banned, and Mubanga eventually lost interest. In 2000, ZIMT collapsed, amid charges he’d embezzled money.

You can’t blame Mubanga exclusively for what happened, but he and the enormous forces of repression, apparently at violent odds, were actually joined in a bizarre tango-like tandem. They used him to whip up public anger; he used them to wheedle for international support. Trapped between were not just Francis Chisambisha and the few who joined LEGATRA, but all those who had “gay” sex or “gay” desires in Zambia, dissident and gender-dissonant bodies, folks who mainly just wanted to find ways to live their lives, but got caught up in a conflict they never planned.

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in cases of difference

Zambian seal: One nation, not applicable in case of difference

Inexperienced as I was when I climbed down from the bus in Lusaka, I figured out fast enough that this lopsided confrontation wasn’t going to help anybody’s human rights. IGLHRC, at least, did what it could to defuse the situation; I stayed out of the media mayhem, struggled quixotically to temper Mubanga’s financial dreams, provided what little moral support I could to Chisambisha and those around him, and tried to warn the “international gay and lesbian constituency” against ladling help that wouldn’t help Zambian LGBT people. The scandal eventually died down. The long-term damage was that it left no space for Zambians to organize around sexuality or gender identity or expression, for many years. In the ruins of communities, there was little room to discuss what identities were relevant or what freedom might mean. (You’ll notice that Francis Chisambisha insisted in 1998 that being “gay” was a “choice.” The space for that kind of heresy also shut down.)  In 2008, Friends of Rainka, an LGBT-identified organization, was founded in Zambia, and others have arisen since. That’s a ten-year gap, a lost decade. Those activists combine bravery and strategy with building a real constituency. They’ve campaigned courageously against clerical hatred, media incitement,  state repression. They’ve defended the persecuted and jailed, even as some (like the HIV activist and human rights defender Paul Kasonkomona) were jailed themselves.

Friends of Rainka member speaks out about the human rights of LGBT people while calling into a program on Radio Phoenix, April 12, 2013. Posted by http://76crimes.com/tag/zambia/

Still, if 1998’s fiasco were happening in some other country today, I’m afraid things would be much worse. Plenty of international groups and activists wouldn’t even ask whether a figure like Mubanga actually could speak for a social movement at home. They too would join the tango, needing his deceptions as he needed their press releases. There would be petitions, blog posts, boycotts, Twitter campaigns, and lots of fundraising. Nobody would care much whether they succeeded; isn’t raising awareness the point?  It’s LGBT people in the country in question who would lose, and probably on a larger scale.

I have another group of memories of Zambia which I think matter here, though I confess I am not sure how. They are all about death. Dying was everywhere in the country. New undertakers’ shops seemed to stand on every street corner, crisp plywood coffins stacked outside the threshold, the only growth industry. Wherever you travelled beyond the capital, funeral processions stretched down the road in the long light of evening, with women keening in the back of open trucks. A friend late for a morning meeting explained that her neighbor had died during the night. People spoke about death casually; it was more predictable than the weather. Someone had a fever one day; the next they were gone.

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174

HIV/AIDS indicators in Zambia, 2001-2005, from http://www.youthalivezambia.org/?page_id=174. DHS = Demographic and Health Surveys.

HIV/AIDS prevalence among adults in Zambia had reached somewhere between 12 and 20 percent by 1998. There were more than a quarter of a million children orphaned by AIDS, most living on the streets. (A lesbian I knew, thrown out by her family, had moved to a tin shack in a mud flat on the edges of Lusaka, where she worked with orphan street children.) Among the factors contributing to the catastrophe, global capitalism’s exigencies played a role. As late as 2005, out of a million or more Zambians living with HIV/AIDS, less than 45.000 had access to anti-retroviral therapies, largely due to pricing and Western corporations’ patents. (By 2013, the numbers of the fortunate with a chance to survive had at last expanded to nearly half a million.) Structural adjustment had also done its bit to ravage people’s bodies. As soon as it began to destroy the country’s health care systems in the 1980s, the rate of tuberculosis infection began to rise. From 100 per 100,000 in 1984, it more than quadrupled in the next twenty years.

Top graph: From "The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce," at www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

Top graph: From “The Impact of Tuberculosis on Zambia and the Zambian Nursing Workforce,” at http://www.nursingworld.org. Bottom graph: UNAIDS.

One memory stands out. In 2000 a Zambian lawyer friend and I rode in a microbus to Kabwe, north of Lusaka, to get the court files in a case of a man convicted under the sodomy laws the year before. After we found the record of his five-year sentence (“accuseds behavior is alien to the African Custom.  … We are living in an HIV AIDS area and this behaviour couldn’t be condoned by this court”) we went to a prison farm not far away, Mukobeko Prison, to try to see him. Past the gates and barbed wire, in the visiting room, we spoke to the victim, still stunned and inarticulate. Afterwards, the commandant, a genial man inordinately proud of his efforts to sustain the institution on a desperately inadequate budget, showed us around parts of the penitentiary. (Twelve years later, the Vice-President of Zambia would call conditions in Mukobeko “hell on earth.”) We came to a shedlike cell where some forty men were sprawled. All lay on the mud-and-concrete floor except for one man, who’d been given a filthy foam-rubber mat. I went up to him. He was obviously dying. Possibly he had TB, probably AIDS; his eyesockets were rimed, his breathing labored. He could have been anywhere between thirty and sixty. I took his hand. I asked him some questions about medicines. He said something else to me; it wasn’t about drugs. I have no memory of what he said. I only remember that he stared deep into my eyes. In a long life of seeing various forms of suffering, I have infrequently been so close to someone so imminently about to die. I do not remember his face, I only remember his eyes. I held his hand. We had to leave, and we left him there, and I do not know his name.

We die alone; the “we” vanishes with the breath. I suppose if I remember that so vividly, and if I think the memory is relevant here, it’s because it brought home to me how deeply death is loneliness, the limit-point of the “we,” beyond help, insusceptible to documentation. Our activism is a struggle against being alone. Two years earlier Francis Chisambisha said to me, explaining why he came out:  “I was alone and I wanted not to be, and I wanted to help others not to be. I found out that being alone was legal. Wanting not to be alone was criminal. Wanting to help others was the worst crime of all.” This fails, like most things. There is loneliness, and that too is a memory of Zambia.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a lockup, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.org.

Family members show support for James Mwape and Philip Mubiana through the bars of a police lockup in Kapiri Mposhi, May 2013: Photo from 76crimes.com

 

LGBTI refugees and Western saviors: Ugandans facing violence in Kenya, and how you can (and can’t) help

Housing in "community areas" of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

Housing in “community areas” of Kakuma refugee camp, Kenya, 2010: Photo by Matija Kovac

My friend Victor Mukasa, a distinguished Ugandan human rights activist, helped to found Sexual Minorities of Uganda (SMUG) many years ago. Now he’s leading a Kuchu Diaspora Alliance for Ugandan LGBTI people abroad; yesterday the group posted its first videos on YouTube. They describe violence beleaguering Ugandan queers who fled the country and now subsist in a refugee camp in Kenya. They’re based on Victor’s phone interviews with the victims.  I urge you to watch:

… the sequels are here, here, here, and here. This is my summary:

In Kakuma camp, there are 58 known LGBT Ugandan refugees. 23 who came earlier — before the Anti-Homosexual Bill was passed — have moved into the camp’s more permanent sections, which have small, dirt-floor huts. 35 more recent arrivals are in the camp’s “reception” area, where housing consists of tents.  

Other residents have steadily harassed the Ugandans. On Friday afternoon (June 27) a group ganged up on a Ugandan in the reception area and beat him badly, saying “This camp is for refugees, it is not for wild animals.” When he ran, they chased him and started beating other Ugandan LGBT people. Some of the victims went to the camp “security organ” to complain, and were reprimanded: “Why do you show that you are gay?”

All 35 Ugandans decided to march in protest to a UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) office near the camp.to demand protection against the ongoing violence. It took two hours. The head of security at the office opened the gates, let them enter, and gave them mats to sleep on in an area that also had toilets and working water taps — scarce commodities in the camp itself. The next morning, though, “UNHCR officials” told them to leave, and turned off the water. When they insisted on remaining for a peaceful sit-in, the officials called in Kenyan government representatives: someone “in charge of refugee affairs,” and the “regional police commander” for the area. These ordered them back to the camp, threatening to use force. One refugee watched the regional police commander make a call to someone, saying “come in and take control of this area.”  At 5 PM, some 70 “military” (it’s not clear to me whether these were police or soldiers) arrived.

After discussions, the refugees decided to go back,; UNHCR officials told them a “safe place” had been prepared. When six got in the truck, the soldiers started beating the rest, throwing them inside and insulting them: “This is Kenya, you shouldn’t have come here! We should apply Kenyan law on you.”

Back in Kakuma, they found their tents in the reception area had been reallocated to others, and the harassment continued. Eventually they were relocated to an area on the margins of the camp, with little water, in a “desert.” They’re still terrified, and they report that the ringleader of the Friday attack — who at first was taken into police custody — has been released. 

Already this year, there’s been huge publicity about LGBTI people fleeing “Africa” (it’s always treated as a single country) to the friendly West to escape persecution. “Will the next decade see Wall Street’s millions build an underground railroad from Lagos to New York, whisking Africa’s LGBT youth to safety and freedom?” a writer asked in a US gay magazine. No. As this story shows, it’s not so easy. I’ve accumulated some experience in asylum and refugee issues over the last 20 years, and in 2009 I worked with regional groups in a successful project to help LGBT Iraqis targeted by death squads leave the country.  Here are my reflections on this disturbing story: what’s the background, and what well-meaning Westerners can and can’t do to help.

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the "reception areas" are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

L: Kakuma in northwest Kenya (map from UNHCR). R: Google Earth map of Kakuma camp; the “reception areas” are Sectors 12 and 13 (map from Malaria Journal)

1) What is Kakuma camp?

Kakuma (its name supposedly derives from a Swahili word for “nowhere”) is an enormous refugee camp in the remote northwest of Kenya. It’s hellish. An online zine on refugee life published within the camp says stoically, “The area has always been full of problems: dust storms, high temperatures, poisonous spiders, snakes, and scorpions, outbreaks of malaria, cholera, and other hardships. The average daytime temperature is 40 degrees Celsius, or 104 degrees Fahrenheit.” The region is semi-desert — earlier this year, “huge sandstorms … swept through the settlement, which was believed to be the root cause of fire outbreak of which more than ten incidents were reported.” But it can become a swamp: “The camp is near a dry river bed that is prone to flash flooding after heavy rains,” making it a malarial breeding ground.

The site was picked for its remoteness: Kenya wanted to shunt refugees as far from Nairobi as possible. Some 125,000 lived there at the beginning of this year, according to UNHCR. Now it also hosts almost 40,000 South Sudanese who have fled their disintegrating country and reach the dusty mud flat at the rate of nearly 500 a week; by June, the swollen population neared 170,000.

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Flooding in the reception area of Kakuma camp, March 2014: Photo by Mats Wallerstedt/Lutheran World Foundation

Kenya held some 540,000 refugees as of December 2013; with the torrent of South Sudanese, the figure is now closer to 600,000. Almost half a million come from Somalia. Its camps are gorged to overflow; Dadaab, a concentrationary complex in eastern Kenya, is, with over 400,000 inmates, the largest refugee camp in the world.

Till a few months ago, the camps weren’t the only option. Refugees who could support themselves, or who needed special medical care or other attention, could settle in Kenya’s cities. In March, though, Kenya’s government abruptly ordered all refugees to the camps — and began raiding homes and rounding them up. Authorities suspected Somalis in urban areas of aiding Al-Shabaab, the feared terrorist group, in retaliation for Kenya’s military incursions in Somalia. (In this sense, the refugees were victims of indirect blowback against US imperialism in Africa; Obama has prodded US allies into a proxy war against Somali Islamists.) A few refugees, including some LGBT Ugandans, hang on in Nairobi, evading constant police crackdowns in search of illegals. But most are now locked behind camp walls.

The  camps are bad news for women, LGBT people, and others vulnerable to violence. Hugely overcrowded (all the more so since the dual influx of onetime urban residents and South Sudanese), they offer little privacy; security forces patrol the fences, but are inadequate to control what’s inside. An extensive study of sexual and gender-based violence against refugees in Kenya found 530 cases in Kakuma in 2011 (469 against women, 61 against men). While the researchers interviewed LGBT refugees in urban areas, they apparently couldn’t find similar communities in camp environments. Thus nobody has tabulated incidents of homophobic violence so far, but the absence of evidence is mainly evidence of people in hiding. Those who are gender-nonconforming or suspected of being LGBT are targets for punishment. The study did conclude that many available care options for survivors of sexual violence in the camps were easy potential targets themselves, and “were not able to handle serious security issues.”

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

In the dry season: Tents in the reception area at Kakuma. Photo by James Macharia/Lutheran World Federation

2) What does it mean to be a refugee in Kenya?

Both for Western readers and for Ugandans who read this, it may be helpful to explain how the refugee process works.

A refugee is different from an asylum-seeker. To oversimplify, an asylum-seeker goes directly from danger to a safe country, and appeals to its government to stay there. A refugee usually flees to a country that isn’t safe, or will not accept her, because it’s the only accessible place to go; then she appeals to be resettled in another country. Until she is moved from the “second country” to the safer “third country,” she’s trapped in limbo.

Much of the distinction between “second” and “third” countries has to do with wealth. Built into the system is the assumption that poorer countries cannot be burdened with permanently absorbing large refugee populations — it’s an obligation the rich developed world should shoulder. The poorer countries agree to be waiting rooms. Unfortunately, because rich countries admit vastly fewer refugees than our violent world produces, the waiting rooms turn slowly into makeshift homes.

You get refugee status, mostly, through the UN. It’s all about waiting. A Ugandan fleeing to Nairobi would go the UNHCR office to register as a refugee applicant. She would be given a date for a face-to-face interview, the main basis for deciding whether her claim is valid. So she waits for the interview. After the interview, she waits for the UNHCR’s decision — Refugee Status Determination (RSD).  If the answer’s yes, she is eligible for resettlement, but she has to wait while UNHCR shops her file around from embassy to embassy, looking for a country that’s willing to take her. Times vary from one UNHCR office to another, but each stage of the process can take months, even years.

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: "I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers]." Man: "I can't return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it's to die I will die here."

Cartoon on RSD from Kakuma refugee camp, at kanere.org. Woman: “I am so disappointed with UNHCR. Their logo shows protection sign but since I came in camp the year 2004 I still have not gotten mandate [papers].” Man: “I can’t return to my home country because there is still war going on. If it’s to die I will die here.”

Egypt, where I am now, has massive numbers of refugees (from Sudan, South Sudan, elsewhere in Africa, and Syria). With so many people to process, it has one of the slowest UNHCR offices anywhere. I know of Syrian migrants newly arrived in Cairo whom the UN assigned an interview date three years away. Some Sudanese have been in Egypt waiting for resettlement since the last century.

Kenya is not that slow. In 2010, though, the wait between arrival and RSD averaged over two years; it’s probably longer now. That doesn’t include the wait to get resettled after you get a positive RSD. After the claimant is recognized as a refugee, she gets official papers that are supposed to give her legal status in Kenya and protect her against being deported. (There’s still bureaucratic confusion about whether these papers should come from UNHCR or the Kenyan government, however.) She’s also eligible for limited material support from UNHCR. Migrants who haven’t been given refugee status yet are largely unprotected, get very little financial assistance, and mostly depend on the charity of NGOs working in the country.

UNHCR is a sluggish bureaucracy which I’m loth to defend, but it has a serious responsibility to protect migrants and refugees. In recent years, it’s become more sensitive to the needs of LGBT migrants, and has dedicated staff in Geneva to address the issue. But its powers are limited. It can’t override the laws and sovereignty of the host country. Kenya’s decision to “warehouse” refugees, confining them to camps, violates human rights law — freedom of movement is protected in Article 26 of the Refugee Convention and other international treaties —  but UNHCR can’t change it. Mainly, they can complain to the host country’s authorities, and I wish they’d complain more loudly; but it’s up to those authorities whether they pay attention. In Turkey, I found that the government regularly put LGBT Iranians (along with other Iranian refugees) in small towns in the conservative eastern part of the country, where they were harassed constantly. Some of them begged us to advocate for camps, because at least they would be isolated from the local Turkish public. UNHCR was sympathetic, but powerless to change the Turkish government’s policy.

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From Kanere.org

Drawing showing policemen beating a refugee in Kakuma camp: From kanere.org

From Victor’s account, though, there are some serious problems with how UNHCR dealt with this situation in Kakuma. Calling the Kenyan police to evict refugees staging a peaceful sit-in is dangerous and excessive. You may not be able to change how Kenya’s authorities treat LGBT people, but you don’t need to give them opportunities for abuse, either. (UNHCR should have learned its lesson. In 2005, Sudanese migrants staged a sit-in outside the UNHCR’s Cairo office to protest slow resettlement and the constant violence they confronted. UNHCR eventually summoned the police to break up the demonstration — and they killed at least 27 protesters.)

Aside from not calling in the cops, there are at least two things UNHCR needs to do to protect LGBT refugees in Kakuma.

a) While UNHCR’s powers are limited, they still formally administer the camp. Security is difficult, but with a small, cohesive (and conspicuous) LGBT population, solutions should be available: more available (unfortunately) than for the much larger population of women vulnerable to sexual assault. Segregating LGBT claimants in a protected area may be one answer, though since I don’t know the topography or specific conditions of the camp I can’t say this for certain.

b) In 2009-2010, we persuaded UNHCR to offer accelerated resettlement for LGBT Iraqis stranded in Lebanon and Syria, because the “second country” environment was also homophobic and unsafe. This meant prioritizing RSD decisions for those applicants. It only worked, however, because some “safe” countries were also willing to speed up their own approval procedures and accept them — mainly Norway, Sweden, and the US. The LGBT Ugandans in Kenya are a small enough population that UNHCR could attempt this. But it will require commitments from other states too.

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, from kanere.org

Kakuma as Guantanamo: Cartoon of a UNHCR interview, by Elias Lemma, from kanere.org

3) What can you do? Start with this: Don’t give to amateur Kickstarter fundraising efforts for African refugees. So far, these are just part of the problem.

I know of at least three crowdfunding projects on the Internet to raise money for LGBT Ugandans to leave their country. All radiate good intentions and a sincere desire to help. Best-known by far is the “Rescue Fund to Help LGBT People Escape Africa” started by Melanie Nathan, a San Francisco blogger; it got her named a Grand Marshal of the city’s Pride parade last weekend, giving the effort further publicity. Several people in the Kakuma camp, and some in Nairobi, seem to have got there through Nathan’s assistance. Melanie dislikes me (I have an e-mail folder full of long messages expressing this fact), so any criticism I make will undoubtedly stand accused of partiality. I’m not the only critic, though. South African activist Melanie Judge wrote:

Dislocated from Africa-based struggles for social justice these feel-good interventions offer no long-term solution to the systemic issues that drive homophobia. At best they are palliative and patronising, at worst they reinforce the victimhood of Africans and the saviour status of westerners.

There’s a lot of saviorism in these projects; the biggest donors to Nathan’s fund were offered a token “Ultimate Savior” title (though she later changed this to “Total Escape”). A political critique of the initiatives would note how they depict all “LGBT Africans” as desperate not for change but for visas, and that they idealize the US and Europe as Edens of acceptance. I’m more interested in the simple fact that when she launched this project, Nathan seems to have known nothing about the refugee process, and did nothing to prepare her beneficiaries for it.

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan's first Indiegogo appeal

Masked men: Screenshot from Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal

The breakdown of expenses in Nathan’s first Indiegogo appeal from March says:

100% of the funds raised will be used for fees for passports, visas, transport out of the countries, and safe shelter and food, pending, in some instances, escape:
$100 pays for passport
$200 pays for a visa
$350 provides food and shelter for a month in Africa pending escape
$800 – $1,600 buys an air ticket 

kakuma sign

Road to nowhere

Nathan seems to have thought that Nairobi would be a quick waystation for LGBT Ugandans in a refugee process that would be short, sweet, and easy: a month “pending escape,” then a ticket out of there. (In fact, UNHCR pays air tickets for refugees it resettles.)  I can’t imagine where she got this idea. Internet research could have told her that the waiting time for RSD alone in Kenya was at least two years. From what I understand — and I’m still reaching out to Ugandans now in Kenya — some people got to Nairobi and found the funds were in no way sufficient for the long wait ahead. With the money cut off, they were stranded. I have reports, not verified, that some resorted to sex work, and were arrested. Some are still hanging on in Nairobi; others were sent to Kakuma.

Two weeks ago, Nathan did an about-face and announced on her blog that Ugandans in Kenya were not spending “a month in Africa pending escape,” but were trapped in Kakuma camp for the long run. She still didn’t realize that driving refugees into camps was now Kenyan government policy –and that she should have told people about this if they sought her aid after March. Instead she wrote, “Some have been forced into the camps, due to their particular circumstances and inability to survive outside the camps.” Nathan added, with obvious surprise: “It seems that the resettlement process can take up to 2 years.” She should have known this, and warned applicants, from the start.

Nathan’s well-meaning fund is drawing people to places like Nairobi, then leaving them in the lurch. There are three deep problems with all these projects:

a) You can’t undertake something like this if you don’t know something about refugee law and the refugee process. Nathan is not even taking counsel from experienced organizations who have done this work. Without that, you can’t give informed advice, evaluate situations and people’s prospects, or make informed decisions about who to support and how. Failing to explain to migrants what they will face in a place like Kenya is unethical and irresponsible.

b) The project is ad-hoc and almost guaranteed to fail to meet migrants’ long-term needs. Nathan promises support without having resources on hand; then goes out and tries to raise money for a first tranche of immediate needs; then, when new needs arise and the money’s exhausted, is left trying to play catch-up with a new funding appeal. For instance, a first round of support goes to get person X from Kampala to Nairobi; but then X is left helpless in Nairobi once the funds run out, and has to wait for a new Kickstarter to kick in. Such skin-of-the-teeth strategies only compound the desperate uncertainties that destroy refugees’ lives. Anyone experienced in refugee work  will tell you that you don’t make promises to refugees unless you know you can follow through; unless you can give them a clear idea of what the future holds depending on their choices; and unless you have ways to assess needs and urgency objectively. These projects have none of that.

c) Nathan et. al. do all this from a distance. You can’t work with refugees without a physical presence in the place where they’re going. The Internet is no substitute for on-the-ground wisdom.

I dwell on these projects, so magnanimous and good, because they reflect an unsettling (literally) side of international activism today: call it the Konyfication of everything. Like the Kony 2012 campaign, humanitarian entrepreneurs drum up viral urgency with emotional appeals, discount cooperation or coalition or local agency or specialized skill, and insist that because something needs to be done, anyone can do it. The world of refugees, by contrast, is intricate and dangerous as the minefields some must cross to reach imperfect haven. You can’t work if you don’t know what you’re doing. The notion that Tom Sawyeresque idealists can step in, rescue, rinse, repeat may satisfy populist American fantasies about knacks and know-how. But it’s wrong.

"Come on boy, it's now time for your rescue." Cartoon (against "warehousing refugees" from Osire refugee camp, from kanare.org.

“Come on boy, it’s now time for your rescue.” Cartoon (against “warehousing” refugees)  from Osire refugee camp in Namibia, from kanare.org.

The harshness of Uganda’s homophobic crackdowns has driven hundreds of people into exile. The numbers are not as overwhelming as the rhetoric of “underground railroads” would suggest. 58 refugees in a camp of 170,000 are the signs of a crisis but not a flood. The US publication The Advocate interviewed activists in Nairobi who counted 102 Ugandan LGBTI refugees there; that number’s certainly an underestimation (among other things, many Ugandans are likely in hiding, or have not registered with UNHCR to avoid the camps) but it still doesn’t unveil a whole population in flight. The fact that relatively few have fled Uganda despite the draconian law (and the promises of money from Western saviors) confirms what I’ve always said: exile is such a devastating experience for most people, such a loss of meaning and value and belonging, that few would undertake it except in the last extremity of need. These refugees deserve to be treated with dignity, not the abuse they face at Kakuma. Their numbers, limited so far, mean that if UNHCR and refugee organizations take their needs seriously, solutions should not be impossible to find.

If you want to help, here are some suggestions:

a) Support established refugee assistance organizations with records of working both in East Africa and on LGBTI issues. The American Jewish World Service and HIAS have both, and you can start by reaching out to them to make sure they understand the urgency of what’s happening in Kakuma, and to find out what they can do.

b) Press the UNHCR to come up with effective answers for LGBTI refugee protection in Kenya, including accelerated resettlement. You can do this by talking to your own government about how they can strengthen UNHCR’s work. Or you can contact UNHCR directly here.

c) If you come from North America or Europe, pressure your government to offer accelerated acceptance for LGBT refugees in East Africa — as well as for other vulnerable groups, such as women who face sexual violence.

 

"Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write": Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

“Even if you stop me to speak and write, I will still speak and write”: Cartoon from Kakuma refugee camp, by Falay Atibu, at kanere.org

Policing Pride

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Stonewall riot, New York City, June 27, 1969

Forty-five years ago yesterday, the Stonewall riots began, the reason Pride happens at this season. I have a Dark Gay Secret: I’ve never enjoyed most Prides. Mostly it’s because of how I deal with crowds. Prides are peculiar marches, not about specific goals but about visibility itself as a general good; the exultant pointlessness, which is the point, disconcerts me slightly, and I feel like a guy who comes to a lazy cocktail party thinking it’s a fancy-dress ball. I swing into a different state of mind, perversely, if there’s a chance the police or a mob might attack. Then I’m poised to document, record, act, a good human rights gnome, as I’ve done at tiny embattled Prides from Budapest in 1992 to Zimbabwe in 2000 — or at probably hundreds of other demonstrations from Romania to Egypt. That I know how to do. But otherwise I stand around wondering what’s the value of my personally being visible — does anyone want to see me? — and why the hell I’m there.

This is by way of explaining that in sixteen or so years of living in New York, I only went to Pride once. It was 1998. A friend and I staked out sidewalk space on lower Fifth Avenue and watched the platoons go by. It was fun till we heard a roar of exuberant welcome, a surging surf of cheers, billow down from a few blocks before; as the thunder neared we saw a blue-uniformed brigade the crowd was wildly applauding, and someone told us it was the first-ever contingent of LGBT police officially allowed to march in the parade. This was nine months after Abner Louima, a Haitian immigrant, had been raped by policemen in a Brooklyn jail. I turned away. I asked my friend: how could they go all jismic over an institution that, however many gays it hired, was historically their oppressor, still firmly in the business of oppression? (This was the warm noon of Giuliani time.) He frowned dourly. “They love power,” he said.

Today is Pride in London. (A few years ago it was renamed to avoid the whole annoying question of whose identities were included — L? G? B? T? Q? — and make it more a self-lauding celebration of the city’s own diversity, however unspecified.) A good if only slightly jargony article by Huw Lemmey asks questions similar to mine in more detail. He describes how the festivities welcome the Metropolitan Police, parading in full uniform.

Their bodies are used as symbols, building an image of the police as an inclusive and tolerant body reflecting the makeup and values of society as a whole. …It is wrong to say Pride is now a depoliticised event: it is more politicised than ever. It has been turned over to the service of the dominant ideology, and so is harder to distinguish from the cruelties and injustices of everyday life. We have lost Pride.

We'e here, we're queer, don't move, motherfucker: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

We’e here, we’re queer, we love you, really: Metropolitan Police march in Pride in London, 2013

As this shows, it is easy to see the privileged police participation as symbolic of things a lot of people dislike about Prides these days, though fewer and fewer find language to resist them: their mainstreaming, commodification and corporatization, symptoms of a movement demobilized. For “corporate and state institutions,” Pride’s an opportunity. The “’visibility’ of their employees on a public march associated with youth, diversity and openness became a positive boon.”

Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

We’re here and fuck you: Police kettle Climate Camp protesters at the G20 summit, London, 2009

It’s equally sensible to see in the cops’ presence a more precise historical wound: an insult to those who preserve the memory of police violence, whether against an Abner Louima in New York or a Jean Charles de Menezes in London, or the many others whose unreported stories they represent; or a white- or pink-washing of the ways security forces deal with less anodyne demonstrations. Faced with gatherings more militantly “diverse” than Pride and more impelled by politics than pleasure, British police crack down hard. They routinely “kettle” or encircle any nonviolent protest, isolating it from public view, enabling brutality, dangerously crushing the participants. The Guardian calls this a method for “authoritarian governments” that “brook no opposition and contrive a compliant society.” Since I haven’t been to a demo in London since 1993, I’ve mainly seen the practice in open, diverse, democratic Egypt, where twice I was almost trampled to death in a protest constricted by a tightening security cordon. Meanwhile, the Mayor of London has bought three watercannon for his city this summer, to soak menacing subversives who cannot make it to the beach.

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

State Security (Amn el-Dawla) forces encircle a small anti-war demonstration, Sayyeda Zeinab, Cairo, Egypt, Feb. 15, 2003: photograph by Scott Long

Since in New York or London (like so many other patrolled and guarded cities) victims of state violence tend to be people of color or other marginalized minorities, critiques of the police presence also resurrect suppressed questions of identity and justice within queer communities themselves. When “law enforcement become[s] part of the corpus of Pride,” Lemmey writes,

other bodies are necessarily erased. …  how can we ask people materially, psychologically and physically oppressed by the police (or the financial services institutions, or the Army) to “come out” and be proud of a collective political project which so visibly and proudly features those institutions that oppress them? …. By excluding those bodies from Pride, we perpetuate a public image of LGBT people limited to those who have no conflict with the police in their daily lives, ensuring a vicious circle of erasure for the excluded.

There is a fourth issue, which also grows out of the troubled history of LGBT people with policing. As long as the police are around (and, as Raymond Chandler wrote, no one has figured out how to say goodbye to them yet), they’ll be called on to protect LGBT people against violence, as well as to eschew homophobic violence themselves. All the sensitivity trainings and diversity hires and appearances at Pride serve this end: opening the institution to the benefit of people it’s supposed to serve, but hasn’t. The ability to claim the state’s protection when you need it is a constituent part of citizenship. But protection against whom? When these establishments promptly move on to identify other enemies, other aliens, new outsiders, new victims, are these vaunted openings also making LGBT people the privileged clients of repression? And when does a client become an accomplice? “I must distance myself from this complicity with racism, including anti-Muslim racism,” Judith Butler, declining the “Civil Courage Prize” she was offered at Berlin’s Christopher Street Day in 2010, said: 

We all have noticed that gay, bisexual, lesbian, trans and queer people can be instrumentalized by those who want to wage wars, i.e. cultural wars against migrants by means of forced islamophobia and military wars against Iraq and Afghanistan. In these times and by these means, we are recruited for nationalism and militarism. Currently, many European governments claim that our gay, lesbian, queer rights must be protected and we are made to believe that the new hatred of immigrants is necessary to protect us. Therefore we must say no to such a deal. To be able to say no under these circumstances is what I call courage. But who says no?

That’s still a question.

Police raid a migrants' camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

Police raid a migrants’ camp in Munich, Germany, 2013

World Pride, a putatively global confab, has been going on in Toronto, Canada this week.  Although people can attend panels to hear about particular abuses by particular police forces in, say, Uganda or Russia, one subject that’s unlikely to come up is how security techniques, surveillance, and control have gone just as global as Pride has. Yet Toronto’s cops learn from Giuliani’s how to deal with the intrusive and unwanted, and a rich cross-fertilized discussion of how to round up people and neutralize or kill them goes on between those enlightened cities and Cairo or Sao Paulo. Mike Davis warned a decade ago that the defining question of the twenty-first century city will be how to police the poor. This is ever more evident. Queer Ontario has put out a “Statement of Concern Regarding the TAVIS Policing of the Downtown Eastside during the World Pride Event,” and I will reproduce it in full:

Queer Ontario is very concerned about the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) policing initiative of the downtown eastside scheduled to coincide with the World Pride (WP) event. As many visitors to Toronto are expected during this major tourism event, we are concerned that the police are stepping up their intervention and surveillance of marginalized and vulnerable downtown eastside residents. We are concerned that the police are using a global tourism event as a pretext to crackdown on the area’s poor residents, the homeless, street-based sex workers, drug users, and others essentially engaging in an “undesirables cleansing” of the area.

We are concerned that the rights of our most vulnerable citizens will be violated during the TAVIS policing effort as its policy of targeted ‘prevention’ of crime does little to address the social and economic marginality that the area’s residents face — a social and economic situation marked by poverty, racism, gender violence, homelessness and discrimination. Especially vulnerable are the area’s female and female-identified transsexual and transgendered street-based sex workers and the local drug-using population. Adding to the problem is the fact that the downtown eastside is where many of the social services that the residents rely on are located – forcibly displacing local residents would thereby compound their difficulties.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

Anti-poverty activists demonstrate against TAVIS in advance of World Pride, June 2014.

As the TAVIS policing effort is contemporaneous with the World Pride event, we are especially concerned that the World Pride Committee not remain silent on this issue facing our poor and disenfranchised residents of the downtown eastside, and area which is adjacent to the Church Street Village and which is home to many of the city’s LGBTQ population. We are asking the World Pride organizers not to remain silent on this issue and to remember the history of policing in our LGBTQ communities. Heavy-handed and discriminatory practices by the police are not unknown to LGBTQ folks, past and present. Everyone has a right to the city and to unhindered access to the services many need to survive; not a few of whom will be directly affected by the TAVIS effort will themselves be LGBTQ people, and are, by and large, unable to afford many of the events WP has to offer.

We at Queer Ontario urge you to take this issue seriously as there are many people in our communities and beyond who are expecting World Pride organizers to remember our queer history and to act accordingly, working with the police to temper their activities during this time. We hope WP does not choose to engage in a shameful silence when the cops do the work of violating the rights of some of the most vulnerable members of the public and our poor citizens. We urge you to consider your role, as leaders of global events attached to a Human Rights Conference to not become a force for denying the same rights that queers/trans folks have had to fight for decades to obtain.

This is a very important issue for how events are going to be organized in this city now and for years to come. We ask that WP organizers step up and make their voices heard for the more marginalized citizens in the downtown area. We request that they not let a major global event become a handmaiden of short-sighted policing efforts and the displacement of the poor and marginalized, which have often accompanied such global entertainment and sporting events worldwide.

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

Sitting pretty: TAVIS forces on patrol in Toronto

TAVIS, a “police unit that swoops into violence-prone pockets of the city to gather intelligence and connect with regular people,”  has severely “strained relations with heavily policed communities,” the Toronto Star phlegmatically reports:

TAVIS officers stop, question and document citizens at the highest rate of any other police unit, as they are expected to do. They also have the highest degree of carding of blacks, which, to be sure, is partially a reflection of the demographics of where they are most often deployed. …

With 22,000 arrests to its name in five years, TAVIS scares a lot of people — although not the city’s white, rich, criminal, drug-smoking mayor. But the anxieties about World Pride also draw on events like the 2010 Vancouver Winter Olympics, where police sweeps and harassment drove sex workers and other undesirables out of their neighborhoods, doing serious harm to their livelihoods and (by limiting their access to health services) lives.

From ‏@stonewalluk  , 2013: "London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne's Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!"

From ‏@stonewalluk , 2013: “London Met Police came to visit us at the Pride family area, St Anne’s Churchyard and took a couple of our stickers!”

Large urban Pride fests like New York’s or London’s are not just celebrations for LGBT communities, or for their host towns. They’re tourist events, chances for neoliberally refurbished cities to show off their vibe and neutered variety to a consuming world. Queer Toronto gets the broad point right: Prides are now in the same class as giant sports carnivals — which, as I’ve written before, always feed fears of alien identities tarnishing the urban image, and always lead to policing the unwanted into either prisons or invisibility, the latter sometimes temporary, sometimes lasting. Among folks expelled from view when Pride comes to town may well be many ostensibly fitting into the LGBT lineup, but in practice not: sex workers, migrants, people of color, the poor.

There’s a growing number of studies of how sports events provide pretexts for social cleansing, from the London Olympics to the Rio World Cup. So far as I know there have been no similar investigations of how Pride is policed: who benefits from “protection,” and who are its victims. Absent such knowledge generalizations are irresponsible, but it needs looking into. (As one starting point, note this statement from the North Star Fund in New York, highlighting the coalition work of three of its LGBTQ grantees — the Audre Lorde Project, FIERCE, and Streetwise & Safe — to combat discriminatory policing.) The police presence at Prides is hardly just the nice symbolic gesture of marching and carrying flags. The logic of security forces does not brook their being decorative. Police also intervene in the layout and life of the city, to mold them to the Pride image; their appearance among the marchers promotes a certain apathy toward what they may be up to at the margins. How much violence happens in the name of safety? Look at that picture of Stonewall at the top. Then, next time you’re at Pride, ask yourself: Which side of the barricade are you on now?

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

Security forces encircling an antiwar protest at the Cairo Book Fair, Egypt, January 31, 2003: Photograph by Scott Long

 

Vultures over Iran: The Human Rights Campaign follows the money

vulture-9Why is the Human Rights Campaign hanging out with the friends of homophobe Gary Bauer?

Some background: HRC, the richest US gay group, has gone international. More and more of the news on its website features hard-to-pronounce foreign places: Brunei, Abuja, Alabama … And now “Iran,” syllabified by most Americans as “Satan.” Yesterday, HRC published an account of a Congressional event with which it seemingly had little to do. Two small House subcommittees held a hearing on “One Year Under Rouhani: Iran’s Abysmal Human Rights Record,” and one-quarter of the testimony dealt with LGBT rights. What’s interesting is the fine print.

The hearing itself (snippets here) was undramatic. The International Gay and Lesbian Human RIghts Commission (IGLHRC) sent its Middle East program officer to testify. Generally, when human rights organizations speak at congressional hearings, it’s because they want to advance a policy goal. In this case, though, it’s hard to define what policy goal for LGBT people’s rights in Iran could involve the US Congress, given that the US has neither sway nor leverage in Tehran. “The United States and other Western countries are in a unique position to make a difference in the future of Iran and in the surrounding region,” IGLHRC said — but they are not. (See note at end.) At least, any difference they’ve made so far has been almost uniformly for the worse. (See Iraq.) If ever there was a situation where the US government should acknowledge the primacy of internal social movements beyond its leadership or control, it’s the issue of sexual rights and state repression in Iran.

No, what’s interesting is how a writeup on this –“Congress Explores Iran’s Persecution of LGBT Community” — got onto HRC’s site, because it wasn’t written by anybody at HRC. It was “submitted” by Toby Dershowitz, vice-president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD). HRC has a new partner organization, and thereby hangs a tale.

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

FDD: FIghting for wars that we will not fight in

I always quote Glenn Greenwald on FDD: “basically a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” More politely, they are a DC-based neoconservative lobbying group with special interest in the Middle East: “founded,” in their own words, “shortly after 9/11 by a group of visionary philanthropists and policymakers who understood the threat facing America, Israel and the West.” (We’ll get to the identity of those donors later.) From the beginning it drew on the High Hawkish tradition of the Reagan ascendancy, with figures like Jeane Kirkpatrick and Robert McFarlane conspicuous in its ranks; the Cold War being over, though, enemies of Israel displaced the Soviet threat in its demonology. The clearest idea of what they’re up to comes from listing some of the research interests of their fellows:

Iran, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Pakistan, Syria, Iran – Human Rights
Iraq, Iran, Lebanon
Iran, Iran – Energy
Iran – Energy, Israel, Europe, Iran – Human Rights
United Nations, Arab Spring, Iran – Energy, Iran – Human Rights
Iran – Energy, Europe

It’s like a Symbolist poem. The main function of the Foundation these days is to drum up support for a US assault on Iran. To do this, it courts various constituencies in the American public, from energy conglomerates to women’s groups. Gays are one of them, increasingly endowed with clout; FDD adopts the language of human rights, plants op-eds. colonizes the gay press, and otherwise strives to shock and appall the homintern about the wiles of Sauron in Tehran.

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

Let me research your family: Gary Bauer

This is not without complications. I first noticed FDD when one of its fellows, Ben Weinthal, published a bizarre piece in New York’s Gay City News three years ago, accusing Iran of an ongoing “anti-gay genocide.” When I paid a visit to FDD’s web page, I found that on their staff and board sat such luminaries as Frank Gaffney (a vicious and paranoid Islamophobe), Andrew McCarthy (perhaps the US’s most vocal advocate of torture) — and Gary Bauer. I remarked that it was strange for a gay newspaper to get into bed with right-wingers boasting such connections. The chipmunk-cheeked Bauer is one of the main strongmen of Christian fundamentalism. He served for eleven years as caudillo of the Family Research Council, named in 2010 as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center for its “false claims about the LGBT community based on discredited research and junk science.” “I don’t believe a healthy society can endorse, subsidize, or encourage” such a “destructive lifestyle,” Bauer said about the sodomites in 1998. (Bauer’s own lifestyle, padded by a web of consultancies and sinecures, is well-subsidized enough to ensure his health.) But he is also a Christian Zionist, militantly intolerant of any criticism of Israel, flush with evangelical faith in the Likud; so there was Bauer’s name, right on the list of FDD’s advisory board, a warning that its love for the homos had limits.

I flatter myself that the FDD learned from my research. Since then the organization, which like most neocon groups was never exactly crystalline about its connections, has become even less transparent. It erased the list of board members from its website. Instead, a short paragraph says,

FDD’s distinguished advisors include Sen. Joe Lieberman, former National Security Advisor Robert “Bud” McFarlane, former FBI Director Louis J. Freeh, former State Department Under Secretary Paula Dobriansky, Gen. P.X. Kelley (ret.), Francis “Bing” West, Wall Street Journal columnist Bret Stephens, syndicated columnist Charles Krauthammer, Weekly Standard Editor William Kristol … [Emphasis added]

This neatly obscures the question of who else is “included,” or whether Bauer still belongs to the family. Still, problems persist. Another “Distinguished Advisor” omitted from the list is KT McFarland; she flaunts her FDD title on her own website, though, and on others. McFarland, now a “national security analyst” for Fox News, ran for the Republican Senate nomination in New York in 2006. Midway through, scandal surfaced when New York magazine revealed how she had shunned and insulted her gay brother, who died of HIV/AIDS ten years before. She

couldn’t abide his sexual orientation. Shortly after she discovered Mike had AIDS, she wrote her parents lengthy, angry, almost Gothic letters in which she outed her brother, blamed her father for his troubles as well as those of her and her other siblings, and cut off contact with her parents. “Have you ever wondered why I have never had anything to do with Mike and have never let my daughters see him although we live only fifteen minutes away from each other?” she wrote. “He has been a lifelong homosexual, most of his relationships brief, fleeting one-night stands.”

This was too much even for the GOP; she lost the nomination, and the privilege of getting steamrollered by Hillary Clinton. No wonder she’s quietly disincluded from the FDD page; she’d crimp the outreach.

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain't heavy, and he is not my brother

KT McFarland does Fox: He ain’t heavy, and he is emphatically not my brother

One advisor FDD proudly names is Bill Kristol — he’s too big, and full of himself, to omit. Kristol edits the Weekly Standard, a conservative rag sweeping in its influence. (Dick Cheney, in the days when he ran the country, would send for 30 copies each Monday morning.) His work there has drawn the praise of no less than Austin Ruse, fanatical campaigner against LGBT rights, women’s rights, and reproductive freedom. “Do a site search at The Weekly Standard on social issues,” Ruse writes,

and you find – alone  among conservative magazines? – a publication that  has never wavered on them. …A great deal of credit for the Weekly Standard not abandoning the social issues can be given to one man, William Kristol. …

Where does this come from? Perhaps it’s the influence of friends. For years, the Kristol family took a summerhouse with Gary Bauer and his family. … For this, we all owe Bill Kristol a mountainous debt of gratitude and our regular prayers. He could have caved. But he never has. Bill Kristol is square and getting squarer.

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol does Fox, and answers the big questions

Kristol has called those who deviate from “traditional marriage” “pathetic.” He’s perhaps best known as the divine voice who drew the Pucelle of Wasilla — the armor-clad Joan of Alaska, Sarah Palin– into the national fray. Long before he blessed the mama grizzly and anointed her Veep-to-Be, though, Kristol was staking out his orthodox, orthogonian positions on morality. In 1997, he gave the closing speech at a Washington conference meant to expose homosexuality as ”the disease that it is.” Afterward, he helped assemble a collection of essays on “Homosexuality and American Public LIfe,” actually about keeping homosexuality out of American public life: a book for “activists who want to keep the ‘hetero’ in ‘sexuality,'” as one right-wing reviewer said.

It goes without saying: any organization counting Bauer, Kristol, and McFarland among its patrons has no genuine interest in the rights of LGBT folk, in Iran or elsewhere. On moral matters, they are more likely to empathize with Ayatollah Khameini than to abhor him. (Mozilla got slammed with a boycott for way less than FDD has done.) FDD’s attempts to seduce American LGBT communities are opportunism, and riddled with the contradictions of the right-wing ideologies they promote. That doesn’t stop them, though, from trying to bury the paradoxes and insinuate themselves into the good graces of LGBT organizations; and HRC is a very powerful one.

What does HRC get, though, for associating itself with Gary Bauer and company?

Money.

One of the two big donors who offered HRC $3 million to start its international program last year is billionaire hedge-fund owner and vulture capitalist Paul Singer. Singer, a major funder of the GOP and other right-wing agglomerations, is also the second-biggest donor to the Foundation for Defense of Democracies. He gave it $3.6 million between 2008 and 2011 alone.

The details of my life are quite inconsequential ... Paul Singer

The details of my life are quite inconsequential … Paul Singer

Singer isn’t just a “visionary philanthropist,” as FDD calls him; he’s an investor; his generosity expects returns. When HRC announced it was getting Singer’s largesse, one naturally wondered what Singer would demand back. The answer’s clearer now. He wants HRC’s cooperation with his other pet causes, including his lobbyists for the Likud. As The Nation observes, “Singer is a huge supporter of groups advocating for hawkish policies against Iran, including promoting the use of military force against Tehran.” He presses HRC to lend space to the war brigade.

The quote Singer approved in the HRC press release about his donation said:

LGBT individuals face arrest, imprisonment, torture and even execution just for being who they are … Some of the worst offenders in this area also happen to be the same regimes that have dedicated themselves to harming the United States and its democratic allies across the globe.

It’s evident which offenders he wants his philanthropic objects to focus on: not Egypt or Saudi Arabia, US clients, but anti-American miscreants like Russia or Iran. This conflation of LGBT people’s rights with a particular set of geopolitical exactions radiates through the little piece he asked HRC to publish. It uses the LGBT issue solely to bash a possible nuclear agreement, reproducing the legislators’ most belligerent rhetoric — Republican Ed Royce, for instance:

Let’s imagine that Iran and the [US] come to an agreement next month are we comfortable leaving this regime with much of the critical nuclear infrastructure in place. [sic] How can this regime which holds the noose in one hand be trusted with the keys to a nuclear bomb in the other?

It quotes Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (a conservative Republican whose interest in LGBT rights draws urgency from the many White Party gays in her Miami district), speaking “with an obvious sense of exasperation”:

Rouhani knows that all he needs to do is smile, and tweet, and promise the US and the West that he will cooperate on the nuclear issue … it’s way past our time for our administration to stand up to these thugs and to stand up for the people who cannot stand up for themselves. If we won’t do it, who will?

All this armchair-heroic stuff — voices for the voiceless, saviors with drones — is war talk in its essence, and HRC is endorsing it. FDD suppresses any mention of IGLHRC’s one concrete, pacific ask, that the US fund technological fixes to help Iranians circumvent Internet censorship. (See the note below.) The Foundation doesn’t want LGBT Iranians to surf the Web freely. It wants LGBT Iranians to die, with their compatriots, under a rain of bombs.

The moral compromises involved in an association with Paul Singer are intricate, and, for HRC, likely to be incessant. When you deal with the devil, don’t expect to be released from the contract. As I wrote last year, Singer’s fortune comes from one of the least ethical activities in the world of international capitalism. His vulture fund, Elliot Management, buys up distressed countries’ debt at bargain prices when they’re verging on default; he then goes to court in other countries, to force the states he’s scamming to repay the face value of the debt in full. The profits are astronomical, and some of the world’ most impoverished populations (Congo-Brazzaville, for instance) have been among his victims.

I'll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

I’ll take my ball and go home: Singer, by the Financial Times

Last week, a few days before the Iran hearing, the US Supreme Court ruled on Singer’s case against Argentina. 13 years ago, he began buying some $2.5 billion of Argentina’s then-cheap government debt; he held out fiercely for his full return, defying two negotiated debt restructurings in 2005 and 2010, when most other creditors accepted around 30% of face value. The Supremes handed Singer a victory, allowing him to start ransacking Argentina’s assets in search of money to repay him. They also opened the door for other vulture extortionists to move on the country, meaning Argentina could be compelled to pay $15 billion to opportunistic creditors — or could be manhandled into default. An economy that slowly rebuilt itself after the chaos of a 2001 collapse faces a new cycle of catastrophe.

“The decision makes no economic sense,” a prominent economist said. But Daniel Loeb, a fellow hedge-fund billionaire and the other megadonor to HRC’s international work, praised his colleague: “Whether it is gay marriage or Argentina or affecting the political landscape, Paul is intense and tenacious in seeing things through. He is intensely focused and result-oriented yet extremely principled.” It’s a study in how donors ostensibly supporting human rights define “principle.”

Argentina has a comprehensive battery of legislation protecting LGBT people, and the single most progressive law on gender identity recognition anywhere in the world. In the confrontation between a supportive Southern country and foreign capitalists who want to demolish its democratic governance, do you think HRC would put out a press release in Argentina’s cause? Do you need to ask?

(Struggling to win over US opinion in the Argentine debt battle, Singer didn’t hesitate to launch a campaign accusing his Buenos Aires enemies of ties to the definitive American bête noire — Iran.)

Meanwhile, Singer’s inflows of money continue to find new use. in May, he donated $1 million to American Crossroads, a super-PAC for Republican candidates run by conservative conspirator Karl Rove. What will HRC say? Can one expect “the nation’s premier gay and lesbian civil rights group” to find new and unpredicted virtues in Turd Blossom‘s career? Yes.

Argentinian poster: "Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture"

Argentinian poster: “Paul Singer, the Most Wanted Vulture”

NOTE: At the Congressional hearing, IGLHRC specifically praised the Obama administration’s promise to provide technologies Iranians could use to circumvent Internet censorship — in particular, building independent communications networks for linking to the Internet. As Gandhi said of Western civilization: It would be a nice idea.

Many observers note that the US program has gotten nowhere in the last three years, and so far seems to envision only clunky, conspicuous and incriminating hardware — suitcases of stuff bristling with antennae, smuggled in over the mountains. I’ve voiced reservations about this project in the past; and even the New York Times has warned: 

Developers caution that independent networks come with downsides: repressive governments could use surveillance to pinpoint and arrest activists who use the technology or simply catch them bringing hardware across the border.

To which you might add, in our post-Snowden era, that if the US erects the network, it can monitor everything that’s said on it. Move over, Ayatollah, the earphones are mine!

Moreover, as Omid Memarian has written, the blaring publicity the administration has given the program suggests it’s mainly for American consumption: “Many Iranians I spoke to about this news were shocked that the plan has been revealed; bringing such plans to the attention of the Tehran authorities may put people in danger.” He concludes:

The United States’ current plan to change the Iranian Web landscape is simply not realistic. In fact, the current plan makes me suspect that the U.S. isn’t taking Iran as seriously as it ought to.

Open-source, low-profile software tools such as Psiphon, originally developed at the University of Toronto, so far appear more useful to Iranians seeking to evade the censors’ grip.

Yara Sallam in jail, and the moral bankruptcy of the United States

Yara Sallam

Yara Sallam

Note: Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about these arrests. Other important links are at the bottom of this post.

Yara Sallam is a human rights activist and a women’s rights activist. She is also a feminist. The distinction may seem captious, but I am careful to draw it. Rights activists (of whom I’m one) want to change the rules of the world. Feminists want to change the world itself, its deep structures of power; to have new players in a new game, on a different, still dormant field. The rules are bad; the game as we play it now is stacked against almost everybody except those who keep the score; to instill some modicum of fair play is essential. Yet nobody with much of a mind who’s worked in human rights for long escapes feeling this is palliative, a tinkering with superficies, and that however impossible a deeper change may be, the labor cannot carry on without a tinge of the impossibility that inhabits only our anger and our dreams. Why are we addicted to the game we are losing? “The roulette table pays nobody except him that keeps it,” Bernard Shaw wrote. “Nevertheless, a passion for gambling is common, though a passion for keeping roulette tables is unknown.” Check how the ball is weighted, calibrate the points. But in the long run someone also has to say: break the wheel, step away from the table, stop the game.

Boys will be boys: Men's rights activists John Kerry and General Abdelfattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Boys will be boys, I: Men’s rights activists John Kerry and General Abdel Fattah el-SIsi meet in Cairo, June 22

Yara is a friend, and she is under arrest tonight, in the Heliopolis police station in Cairo. June 21 was an international day of solidarity against Egypt’s anti-protest law. The law – a decree introduced in November — clamps draconian punishments on demonstrations, including prison terms of 2-5 years for anyone “calling for disrupting public interests,” that is, criticizing the state. It was meant to bolster the rule of the military counter-revolution by choking the rich protest culture that grew up in Egypt after February 2011. Two days after the law was promulgated, activist Alaa Abd el-Fattah joined a demonstration against military trials for civilians. Two days after that, police broke down his door, slapped his wife, and arrested him for violating the protest law. This month, a court handed him and other defendants 15-year prison terms. Last month, another judge gave Mahienour el-Massry, a well-known rights lawyer, and eight others two-year sentences for demonstrating against the torture and murder of Khaled Said — a victim of Mubarak’s police whose killing helped spark the 2011 revolution. “The military authority stands now on the remains of its opposition,” a dissident said.

June 21 was meant to show support for the victims of Egypt’s new, systematic oppression of dissent.

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

Protest march in Heliopolis, June 21, minutes before it was attacked: Photo by @KhalidAbdalla

The anti-protest law protest in Cairo wound through narrow streets toward the Presidential Palace in Heliopolis. At every open space, hired thugs — the baltageya who were the Mubarak regime’s enforcers against dissent — and security forces assaulted them. Armed with the full power of the law, the regime still enlisted extra-legal violence — against a few hundred marchers. Mina Fayek, one of them, says 

We were attacked by thugs who beat us with broken glass bottles and stones. Then suddenly they disappeared and instantaneously the state security forces appeared and started firing tear gas and “sound guns” …  I saw a police officer directing the thugs with my own eyes, so they [would] stall the protesters till state security cars could make their way to them.

Photographs (taken from @Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Photographs (taken from Youm7) show coordinated onslaught of civilian attackers and State Security vehicles: via @Amosaadz)

Dina Youssef, another protester, says: 

When the police and people with them started throwing glass bottles and tear gas at us, I couldn’t run and hid behind a tree! One of them found me, and started threatening me with a strange knife, so I ran and jumped into a ground floor balcony in a nearby building.

Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Boys will be boys, II: Photographs reportedly showing two of the baltageya who attacked the June 21 march

Two other boys and four girls joined me, and they started crying hysterically. I tried to calm them down because the man with the knife had seen us. He was stalled as protestors started throwing stones at him, so we all ran from the balcony to the street and started chanting ” police are pigs”! They then shot tear gas canisters at us and as we ran, we were chased by a huge man with a big stick.I managed to make it into a building to hide … This is how they treat demonstrations in Egypt because we asked for #noprotestlaw.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces seize Omar Morsi at the march. Salwa Mehrez, left, was also arrested because she refused to leave him.

Security forces arrested over thirty people. Seven were freed this afternoon; the rest, at least 24, will be brought before a prosecutor tomorrow. They include Yara and Sanaa Seif. Sanaa is Alaa Abd el-Fattah’s youngest sister, a student activist and artist from a distinguished family of dissidents who have racked up years of imprisonment between them; according to her aunt, the novelist Ahdaf Soueif, she was arrested “when she refused to escape and leave 3 young men to the police.” Reportedly they will face charges including illegal protest, “attacking public and private property,” and “possession of flammable materials and explosives during participation in such a protest.” Soueif writes, “We never even fired a firecracker!”

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

Leaked charge sheet against the arrested protesters

My friend Yara is brilliant, charismatic, and kind. A lawyer educated in Egypt, France, and the United States, she has worked for the African Commission on Human and Peoples’ Rights (ACHPR) in The Gambia; as manager of the Women’s Human Rights Defenders program at Nazra for Feminist Studies, in Cairo; and as a researcher for the the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights (EIPR). In 2013 the Pan-African Human Rights Defenders Network gave her its North African Shield award for her work in support of other women’s rights activists. Last year she explained the roots of her feminist commitment:

The first time I read about feminism as a theory was in 2010 while I was doing my master’s degree, but I didn’t need to read the theories and the books to practice feminism. I was lucky to be raised in a leftist family that believes in equality between men and women, and applies these values. My mother is, by anyone’s definition, indeed a feminist, but still refuses to call herself one because of the negative connotations associated with who is a “feminist” and whether this implies an aggression toward men. For me, growing up seeing a strong woman like my mother, who fought her own battles bravely in the public sphere, struggled while growing up, takes strong stands in her personal life despite social stigmas, is what inspired me and made me the feminist I am today. She taught me about feminism in her day-to-day struggle, and I will be grateful for her all my life.

 Yara Sallam interviewed after receiving the North African HRD Shield award, 2013

I know her family is desperately worried for her as she sits caged in a cell. Their fears run like rainwater into a pool of fear. They join the fear that families of Muslim Brotherhood supporters felt after thousands were slaughtered in Rabaa or dozens in Abu Zabaal. The tears of the secular and of the religious are equally salt. Having massacred and suppressed Islamists, a government determined to cement its power increasingly turns its gaze upon the remaining liberals and the revolutionary young. A few days before Yara’s arrest, the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights released a report she had taken the lead in researching: an investigation of state responsibility for the rampant killings in the summer of 2013.

August 16: Old woman wounded by birdshot at Rabaa El-Adawiya collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

August 16, 2013: Old woman wounded by birdshot in the massacre of Muslim Brotherhood supporters at Rabaa El-Adawiya, Cairo, collapses on hospital floor. From @SharifKaddous

The day after Yara’s arrest, John Kerry came to Cairo. He brought news that the US “had quietly sent an estimated $572 million to Cairo in military and security assistance this month,” gun money that had been suspended since October over human rights concerns. He also came with a promise of 10 Apache attack helicopters to keep the dictator secure: “The Apaches will come, and they’ll come very very soon,” he intoned, sounding remarkably like John Wayne. He spoke of the US’s “historic partnership” with Egypt — or, as a “senior State Department official” told reporters on the plane:

I  think that the Secretary is going to make clear that we want to be as supportive as possible of Egypt’s transition … [There is a] recognition that Egypt has been going through a very difficult transition. There’s a strong desire on the part of the United States for this transition to succeed. Egypt is a strategic partner and we have a longstanding relationship with Egypt. It’s a partnership that’s based on shared interest, strategic interest.

It was a great festival of making-clear. “Egypt and its people have made clear their demands for dignity, justice and for political and economic opportunity,” Kerry said. “They just had a historic election for president.”  Indeed: Egypt has seen three contested polls for president in its history. In 2005, Mubarak triumphed; in 2012, Morsi narrowly won; and then there’s Sisi’s landslide. This democratic avalanche is the first where the winner gave himself more than 95% of the vote. Truly historic! Even Mubarak’s faked ascension showed more modesty.

Kerry came to Egypt disguised as a diplomat, but acting like a criminal accomplice. The United States colludes with murder. (The same day Yara was jailed, an Egyptian court confirmed mass death sentences on the leader of the Muslim Brotherhood and 182 supporters — gleefully envisioning the execution of the political force that won Egypt’s only free elections, ever.) The Obama administration has policies of a sort on human rights; but they are not about change. They are about keeping the misery inconspicuous. At best where our most suasible allies are concerned, they envision a slight tinkering with the rules of repression to make the violence palatable. But the United States will keep furnishing the means of murder to its friends. The Apaches are coming.

These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they're both coming.

Boys will be boys, III: These days the Apaches are the cavalry. And they’re both on the way.

You can see this everywhere. Two days before Yara’s arrest, under pressure from homebound constituencies, the Obama administration announced punitive measures against Uganda’s government for passing the horrific Anti-Homosexuality Bill. These included visa bans on the worst offenders — good — and some adjustments to humanitarian aid, more carefully targeted than most observers expected. Oh, yes, and there was a slight change in the US’s intimate military relationship with Museveni’s dictatorship. “We have also cancelled plans to conduct the Department of Defense’s Africa Partnership Flight exercise in Uganda. This was intended to be a United States African Command (AFRICOM)-sponsored aviation exercise with other East African partners.” Tremble, puny generals! But the rest of the massive military support the US provides Museveni remained untouched. The means of killing that Obama gives the dictator are literally incalculable: just try to come up with a solid dollar figure. The regime is usefully repressive. So long as it’s stable, it remains a pillar in AFRICOM’s efforts to fight back terrorism in East Africa, and retain American hegemony over the region’s resources, including a growing likelihood of lots of oil. Never mind that those arms and military expertise go to kill thousands in Uganda’s north, and are the key props of the same government that arrests lesbians, and gays, and trans people. The Apaches will keep coming — at least, till somebody says: Stop the game.

“The U.S. government is mindful of the wide range of issues encompassed by our relationship with Uganda,” the administration’s statement said, including “a partnership that advances our security interests in the region.” American gays applauded Obama’s service to human rights. Wasn’t it proof that LGBT rights can actually coexist with America’s “security interests” in seeing people killed? The Human RIghts Campaign said Obama had “put all world leaders on notice.” He’d affirmed his “deep commitment to advancing the human rights of all people,” etcetera. Then everybody got ready to go to the White House and shake Obama’s hand. But you should be careful shaking the hands of those who shake the hands of killers. Blood rubs off.

Visit the Egypt Solidarity Initiative website for resources on the #noprotestlaw campaign, including a list of Egyptian embassies to write about the detentions, as well as images, placards, and other materials.
A June 22 statement on Yara Sallam and other women human rights defenders arrested in the protest, from Nazra for Feminist Studies, is here. A June 23 press release from the Egyptian Initiative for Personal Rights and 11 other groups is here.
Visit egyptprotests2014.tumblr.com for updates about the detainees, further protests, and the law itself. 

 Sanaa Seif interviewed about the role of women in the Egyptian Revolution, 2011

ISIS in Iraq: Real atrocities and easy fantasies

FIghters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014.: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor Read more: http://www.al-monitor.com/pulse/originals/2014/01/al-qaeda-terror-spread-iraq-lebanon.html##ixzz34oYO5Rg3

Fighters under the ISIS flag parade in Tel Abyad, Syria, near the Turkish border, Jan. 2, 2014: photo by Reuters/Yaser Al-Khodor

ISIS – the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant — says it likes simple things. When I was in Iraq in 2009, a gay man told me how Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, the militia from which it grew, had murdered his partner five years before in Baghdad’s al-Dora quarter.

It was at a time when there was a general cleansing of people they thought were immoral. Barbers who pluck out hairs with a string could be targeted because that was haram. They murdered ice-sellers because there was no ice in the time of the Prophet.

My boyfriend was hanging out on a street corner with a bunch of friends, and they saw a group of bearded men pull up in a car. They asked for him by name. He tried to run but they surrounded and cornered him. They tried to get information from him, asking for names of gay friends. People came up and saw there was a disturbance—so they just shot him and drove away.

There were no guns in the time of the Prophet, or getaway cars either. The fierce essentialism of the militiamen’s standards cannot alter all aspects of the present, or roll back the complexities of the world. Perhaps they don’t try too comprehensively in the end; they’re content with the paradoxes, slaughtering ice-sellers while paying car dealers. Consistency only impedes the freedom to kill. It’s the clash of values itself that empowers them. Their angry absolute beliefs are like a bar of heated iron, plunged into history as into a pail of water. Steam billows up and clouds the air, and in that blinding, enabling confusion the killers can work.

A lot of people in Iraq want to kill, and therefore multiple parties tend to find confusion congenial. A Twitter account “associated with” ISIS over the weekend posted pictures “apparently showing their fighters killing many Shia soldiers..”

201461624556763734_20The account, which was closed down before its exact provenance could be determined, claimed the victims were captured Shi’ites from the Iraq army. “Hundreds have been liquidated,” it said; a figure of 1700 was cited. According to the New York Times,

The photographs showed what appeared to be seven massacre sites, although several of them may have been different views of the same sites. In any one of the pictures, no more than about 60 victims could be seen and sometimes as few as 20 at each of the sites, although it was not clear if the photographs showed the entire graves. The militants’ captions seemed tailor-made to ignite anger and fear among Shiites. …

The Iraqi army itself appears unsure how to respond, initially casting doubt on the reports, then “confirm[ing] the photos’ authenticity” but dropping a zero from the number claimed dead. It’s more a question of strategy than of truth: if you say the murders happened, you might discourage your troops from surrendering (which they’ve been doing en masse) but encourage them to desert (ditto). So an atrocity story virtually admitted by the killers, one you’d think would be a propaganda present to a tottering regime, remains underexploited. Even death goes to waste.

But if the Iraq regime survives on confusion, it’s nothing like the confusion that comes from outside. Western policy on Iraq has been all about killing or letting-be-killed, and therefore promotes a comprehensive, cloudy unclarity in which killing can just occur, agency reassignable, responsibility ambiguous, story in the passive voice. Stuff happens. Decades of dishonesty and blowing smoke; that was the point of the yellowcake, the weapons of mass destruction, the “untidiness,” the whitewashing of the crimes of people like Maliki.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraq bodies were buried, either.

Bush looks under the White House furniture for missing WMDs: from an official Presidential humor video, 2004. No word on where those 100,000 Iraqi bodies were buried, either.

It wasn’t just an opportunistic sacrifice of truth; truth was the target, as much as Saddam Hussein. The years of war appear in retrospect as a gigantic experiment to create a model country where nothing could be known and anything said, no certainties had but speculation. The oleaginous Tony Blair reappeared yesterday, a wholly indigenous cross between Mr. Chadband and Dr. Phibes. He denies everything. Nothing that happened happened, and it wasn’t his fault:

We have to liberate ourselves from the notion that ‘we’ have caused this. We haven’t. We can argue as to whether our policies at points have helped or not: and whether action or inaction is the best policy. But the fundamental cause of the crisis lies within the region not outside it.

You can omit the fact that by urging us to “liberate ourselves,” Blair seems to be calling for an auto-invasion. No: Western leaders never propped up Saddam Hussein in the years when his mass murders were at their height, never switched sides afterward and invaded, never left him to slaughter his opponents in the invasion’s wake, never starved the whole Iraqi people into delirium in hopes they would overthrow him, though those victims never installed him in the first place; they never invaded yet again, never unleashed a civil war. Those are non-facts, “a bizarre reading of the cauldron that is the Middle East today” (the mixed metaphor – who “reads” a “cauldron”? – itself suggests Blair’s fixed unwillingness to describe reality, or perhaps a will to replace reality with interpreting the magic brew, like the witches in Macbeth). “We have to put aside the differences of the past and act now to save the future”: thus Blair.

It’s in this context of the right wing’s constantly metastasizing lies that a small thing caught my attention this weekend. Tarek Fatah tweeted it, then Ben Weinthal.

tarek fatah bs TWOBoth these guys have impeccable neoconservative credentials. Fatah, a Canadian journalist for the right-wing Toronto Sun, is one of those quondam Muslims that Islamophobes love. He blames Islam for everything: “The worldwide cancer of terrorism by some Muslims is inspired by the teachings of Islam. To deny this fact is intellectual dishonesty.” He regularly emits the required warnings about takeover by creeping shari’a:

fatah sharia copy–and cheerfully imitates the foreign policy stylings of the rabid Dinesh d’Souza:

Fatah obama copyWeinthal is also a self-styled journalist, principally working through the Foundation for Defense of Democracies, a think-tank Glenn Greenwald called “a Who’s Who of every unhinged neocon extremist in the country.” One job of the Foundation’s paid fellows is to drum up support in various constituencies for a war against Iran, and Weinthal somehow acquired the gay portfolio. Pursuing this, back in 2011 he published a vociferous piece in Gay City News accusing Iran of “anti-gay genocide.” I responded that the usual definition of accomplished genocide requires that people be dead, and there was no documentation of executions for consensual homosexual conduct in Iran since at least 2000. Weinthal has never forgiven me for this. As bête noire and “Iran apologist” I still haunt his Twitter feed, his occasional dispatches for the Jerusalem Post, and no doubt the recesses of his dreams.

“Don’t miss the niqabi!” Sure. The photo seemed off to me. It wasn’t hard to find out where it came from: certainly it shouldn’t have been complicated for two experienced pseudojournalists like these. The picture itself, as you can see, has a watermark, which says “Al Ghad”: the name of a newspaper in Jordan (Tomorrow).

BqB2G4mCMAAh9meThe photo isn’t from Iraq at all. Here‘s the original article from Al Ghad (with plenty of other pictures too). It’s from a mock anti-terrorism exercise conducted at the big SOFEX (Special Operations Forces Exhibition and Conference) confab held from May 5-8 this year in Amman, Jordan. That’s a chance for all sorts of doubtful mercenary, paramilitary, and private-security gurus and arms salesmen to hawk their wares to jittery governments. A rescue of “hostages” was staged by “counterterrorist” forces after a costumed “jihadist” group kidnapped them, and this is one image. The show stirred up a controversy in Jordan, implying as it did that “terrorism” was a conservative Muslim speciality. The Islamic Action Front, Jordan’s main religious political party, condemned the exercise, as did Salafists and many Facebookers — for spreading exactly the stereotypes that Fatah and Weinthal also deal in.

The sequel: "Counterterrorist special forces" capture "jihadists" at the SOFEX show in Amman

The sequel: “Counterterrorist special forces” capture “jihadists” at the SOFEX show in Amman

That’s not the point, though. The point is that doing a reverse Google search before circulating an image is good (journalistic) practice — especially in a tendentious situation, with people being killed. Interesting, too, is how the photo got redubbed. Tarek Fatah obtained it from the Twitter account of Raja Arsalan Shah, a Lahore-based journalist:

image recapitulated copyShah in turn got it from a Twitter account called “Proud Syrian”:

proud syrian copy 2All we know about “Proud Syrian,” who tweets pretty exclusively in English, is this:

proud syrian id copy“Proud Syrian” obviously found the photo somewhere and seized the chance to enlist it against ISIS. At least he, or she, included a disclaimer (attributing the ISIS link to social media); in its later peregrinations, Weinthal and Fatah shucked off any such caution. Strange that Weinthal, who campaigns aggressively for US intervention to overthrow Assad, is recirculating deceitful propaganda from an anonymous pro-Assad account.

When I pointed to the original source of the picture, Ben Weinthal became enraged: not at “Proud Syrian,” or himself, but at me. In fact, his answer, retweeted by Tarek Fatah, was downright churlish.

Shut up, Ben explained

Shut up, Ben explained

Is that even an answer? Perhaps it’s to be expected that people who give unquestioning credit to pro-Assad propagandists should also place faith in the nasty personal vendettas of the litigious Peter Tatchell. They’re equally reliable. Undisgraced, undiscredited, and undismissed, I still have to admire Ben’s talent for alliteration if not for accuracy. I feel I ought to imitate it somehow. Yet it’s hardly fruitful to waste belletristic tricks on such unrepentant people, disinclined to honesty and incapable of honor: dyspeptic, disingenuous and destructive propagandists for prejudice.

Neither Weinthal nor Fatah ever clarified the truth about the picture. This makes it harder and harder to call them journalists.

So the picture spread (as you can see, it got 700+ retweets from Fatah’s account alone), and it’s still cropping up here and there on Twitter. It’s picked up by Australian xenophobes:

tare12k 3 copyBy fans of the Dutch racist politician Geert Wilders (as well as, in this case, of head Indian Islamophobe Narendra Modi):

"Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?"

“Not sure about Islam? Or was Mr. Wilders right after all?”

And by anti-feminists anxious to prove that Western feminism has got things wrong, or that Elliot Rodger was in some weird way right:

tarek 4 copy 2ISIS is a violent organization with a long trail of victims. It takes little trouble to find documented atrocities it has committed; so you have to wonder why so many people leapt on this picture, this fake back story. Weinthal’s and Fatah’s propaganda needs are clear. Even now, though, it’s conspicuous that while both cling to this tale, neither’s Twitter feed contains anything about ISIS’s own claims to have executed hundreds of soldiers. The probable atrocity has been driven out by the fake one.

I have two explanations. One’s in the picture itself; the jeans-clad women, with blond or dyed hair … I haven’t been to Mosul, but I’ve been elsewhere in northern Iraq, and I recall very few women who looked like that. The whole point of the Jordan exercise from which the picture came was to make the fake hostages look like us, a different us, not like ordinary Jordanians or Arabs: like Western or Westernized victims, just the people Special Forces are meant to rescue. Shi’ite soldiers shot by jihadists rouse a mixed response in the American or the neoconservative breast: on the one hand, we oppose any generic Muslim terrorists automatically, a non-sectarian instinct to battle and bomb; on the other hand, shooting Shi’ites is, from a geopolitical perspective, perhaps a Good Thing. It’s not just the anonymity of the violence in the ISIS pictures that inhibits identification. It’s a complicated if not necessarily informed political response. But with the fake photo, there’s no confusion of loyalties. These are our kind of slaves.

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

White slavery: Jaroslav Čermák, Abduction of a Herzegovenian Woman, 1861

And that sympathy can’t be separated from their gender. There’s partly the tradition of women as the territory on which clashes of civilization are fought: a history stretching from colonial conquests down to Bush’s war in Afghanistan. There’s the titillating promise of actually watching women taken as “slaves”: part of a growing body of political pornography that sexualizes Muslim men as masters in a seven-veils version of Deep Throat, or Debbie Does Damascus. (Think the fantasy of “sexual jihad,” the myth that Islamists lure or force women into servicing fighters in Syria or Iraq — an Orientalist wet-dream sold by the sensationalist media in the United States, but one that’s been plagiarized in Egypt and elsewhere.) And there’s the excitement of watching women turn against women, which to guys threatened by feminism and all that women’s solidarity stuff is both ideologically satisfying and erotically thrilling. “Dont miss the niqabi with gun guarding the captives!” tweeted Fatah. It’s like lesbian mud-wrestling, but with automatic weapons.

Political pornography — and that’s what this is — reduces our thinking, our ability to respond, in many subtle and unsubtle ways. But one is this: it acclimates us to accepting that only visible abuses are real. The only violations that count are what our eyes can consume; our hungry seeing is the sole criterion for believing.

ISIS knows this too. When they took over Nineveh, also in northern Iraq, they released a document with sixteen rules for residents. These imposed hudud punishments (amputation for stealing), and banned alcohol and drugs. They also told women that “stability is at home and they should not go outside unless necessary. They should be covered, in full Islamic dress.” (This is a paraphrase, by the Washington Post.) 

Certainly, this reflects their version of religious precepts; but in a larger sense it’s a sweeping and familiar mandate on women to remain indoors and invisible, in a realm where abuse and agency will be equally unseen. No melodrama here, just the usual relegation to the usual rooms. Weinthal, Fatah, and the rest of the voyeurs on Twitter, obsessed with images of women herded off as “slaves,” won’t notice this violation, exactly because it places women beyond and beneath notice. Violence inflicts the worst wounds when it takes the form of denying visibility. To consign people to pure privacy is the severest privation. As long as our emotions and our politics are driven by pictures, in an orgy of exposure, trying to make sense of the thousand-word Babel they echo or imply, this will be the unattended message: the word we won’t hear.