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)

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.

 

Resources about Syria

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

An image distributed by the opposition Shaam News Network, August 23, 2013, shows a relative mourning a family member killed during an alleged chemical attack in the eastern Ghouta area on the outskirts of Damascus

Bombings killed 80 people yesterday in Iraq, the country the US and UK saved ten years ago. The night before that war started, President Bush spoke on TV and turned his ferrety eyes toward the Iraqi people.

We will deliver the food and medicine you need. We will tear down the apparatus of terror. And we will help you build a new Iraq that is prosperous and free. In a free Iraq there will be no more wars of aggression against your neighbors, no more poison factories, no more executions of dissidents, no more torture chambers and rape rooms. … We will not relent until your country is free.

That worked out so well. Iraq, where the news is mostly bad, doesn’t get much press anymore. The UN says violence killed 1,057 in the country last month. Putting all that in separate news stories — 20 dead Monday, 40 Tuesday, and so on — would only confuse readers, leave them wondering what day it was and why the headlines never seem to change, just the ads. Better not to bother them. Anyway, the old imperialists knew the truth about these things. To colonize is to forget, because after that anything that happens on the soil reflects your own crimes. And while it is permitted to know others, it is dangerous to know yourself.

In that spirit, the US and the UK are now lurching toward intervening in Syria. It’s so reassuringly changeless, how these things happen: the long delays, the agonizing reappraisals, the moral quandaries, the TV debates, and then the red line crossed and suddenly the bombs are falling. It’s like the line from Hemingway: “”How did you go bankrupt?” “Two ways. Gradually, then suddenly.”

Syria confuses me and leaves me in despair. I don’t know what to do; I’m not even sure what to feel anymore. Perhaps others are in the same darkness and uncertainty, particularly at this eleventh hour while the cruise missiles are being made ready. I don’t claim to know anything. But I can share some readings that left a few things less confused for me, in the hope that somebody else may make a sense of them that I’m denied. I don’t agree with everything here. And if you have other readings that taught you something and that you’d like to share, please do so in the comments.

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

Free Syrian army soldiers help a fighter wounded by a Syrian army sniper, Aleppo, 2012: AP

General resources

Syria Deeply, a news aggregation site for all things related to the conflict, is “an independent digital media project led by journalists and technologists, exploring a new model of storytelling around a global crisis.” On Twitter at @syriadeeply.

The opposition: Under the acronyms

Some overviews of the factions:

Economist,Who are the Syrian opposition?” (June 2013)

BBC, “Guide to the Syrian opposition” (transcript of a broadcast, March 2012)

Elizabeth O’Bagy, “Syrian opposition fragmented by choice,” Gulf News  (July 2012; O’Bagy is an analyst at the ominously named Institute for the Study of War)

Who are the Syrian opposition?Global Post (November 2011) 

A more detailed account: “The Syrian File: The Role of the Opposition in a Multi-Layered Conflict,” a report by Cinzia Bianco for the Istituto Affari Internazionali (June 2013)

Chemical attack and intervention

What happened in the last few days? What happens next?

Julian Borger, “Syria Intervention: Key Questions Answered,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Frank Ledwidge, “Syria intervention: The 5 questions MPs should ask,” Guardian UK (August 28)

Omar Dahi, “Chemical attacks and military interventions,” Jadaliyya (August 2013). “It is hard to avoid the hopeless feeling that Syrians have lost almost all agency over their collective future….Whatever actions take place, continuing to claim them in the interests of the Syrian people is simply an exercise in public relations and deception.”

Musa al-Gharbi, “Toxic discourse on chemical weapons,” Your Middle East (August 27; from SyriaReport.net, a pro-Assad website).  It is disquieting that these chemical weapons incidents seem to occur at these critical moments of progress for the regime, when the rebels find themselves in desperate need for more assistance.”

Juan Cole, “At Hussein’s Hearings, U.S. May Be on Trial,” TruthDig (2005). Cole recently drew attention again to this article on how the US both abetted and alibi’ed Saddam’s chemical slaughter in Iraq, back when his regime was an ally. It’s particularly relevant today.

Citizen journalism image from the Media Office Of Douma City: a man mourns over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

An image distributed by the Media Office Of Douma City shows a man mourning over a dead body following an alleged chemical attack in Douma, August 21, 2013

Blogs

Razan Ghazzawi is a friend, feminist, and sterling human rights activist, arrested repeatedly for her brave part in the anti-Assad struggle. Her blog is worth reading in its entirety. For a sample, a recent post, “Back,” lyrically describes her return to the beleaguered country after months of absence.  

Maysaloon is a well-known Syrian blogger who writes mostly in English. For recent posts, see “Airstrikes on Syria” and “A rant for Syria” (“That’s how it always is in Syria, we never hear of good news until it’s too late”). Also read “How to Square a Circle“: “One can oppose Assad and still support the Palestinian cause, not because of a contradiction but because the issue is one and the same. It is a sense for justice which makes the death of all innocent people equally outrageous, and whether it is Gaza or Homs that is being bombed, the condemnation of those doing so should not be subject to geopolitical convenience.”

Syria Freedom Forever is a blog, partly in English and partly in Arabic, run by Joseph Daher of the Syrian Revolutionary Left Current. See an interview with him on the site, “Imperialism, Sectarianism, and Syria’s Revolution.”

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

A man carries a wounded girl, after an explosion targeting a military bus in the Qudssaya neighborhood of Damascus, June 2012: AFP

Other articles

Ghaith Abdul-Ahad, “How to Start a Battalion (in Five Easy Lessons),” London Review of Books (February 2013). “Last November, under pressure from the Americans, and with promises of better funding and more weapons from the Gulf nations, all the opposition factions met in Doha. A new council was created, called the National Coalition for Syrian Revolutionary and Opposition Forces. … But the promised flow of weapons never materialised: there were small amounts of ammunition, but no major shipments.” 

Aslı Ü. Bâli and Aziz Rana, “Why There Is No Military Solution to the Syrian Conflict,” Jadaliyya (May 2013).  “But the failure to take diplomacy seriously underscores a profound moral hazard generated by the international community’s prevailing framework. While basic international commitments to provide humanitarian assistance … have been honored in the breach, external actors fulfill and exceed their pledges of military support.”

David Bromwich, “Stay out of Syria!” New York Review of Books  (June 2013). “The untold story of Syria concerns something beyond the atrocities on both sides. It has also to do with the sinews of war—the financial motive and muscle that keeps it going.” 

Patrick Cockburn, “Is it the End of Sykes-Picot?London Review of Books (May 2013). “By savagely repressing demonstrations two years ago Bashar al-Assad helped turn mass protests into an insurrection which has torn Syria apart. … The quagmire is turning out to be even deeper and more dangerous than it was in Iraq.”    

Bassam Haddad, “The Growing Challenge to the Syrian Regime and the Syrian Uprising,” Jadaliyya (June 2013). “Divisions within the Revolution: It was bound to happen. And we are simply witnessing its tip: growing opposition to the militant opposition, on similar ethical grounds used to critique the regime.”

Bassam Haddad,  “Perpetual Recalculation: Getting Syria Wrong Two Years On,” Jadaliyya (March 2013).  “If I had a dollar for every time someone wrote about the “End Game” in Syria during the past eighteen months . . . .”

Bassam Haddad, “The Idiot’s Guide to Fighting Dictatorship in Syria While Opposing Military Intervention,” Jadaliyya (January 2012).  “It is one thing for analysts living outside Syria to oppose and condemn foreign intervention (which this author does unequivocally). It is another to assume that all those calling for it in Syria under current conditions are part of a conspiracy.  … Imperialism is not always the issue for everyone. To not recognize this is to lose the fight against imperialism.”

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Syrian men carry a wounded protester who was shot during an anti-regime rally in Dael on the outskirts of Daraa, October 2011: AFP

Amal Hanano, “The real me and the hypothetical Syrian revolution,” Jadaliyya, Part 1 (February 2012) and Part 2 (March 2012). “Our real names have been swallowed by our pseudonyms; our real faces have disappeared from our profile pictures — replaced with flags, historical figures, or composites. We erased the key components of our identity to use our voices in a way they have never been used before. We encoded ourselves so we would stop speaking in codes. To call things by their real names, things like murder, torture, rape, repression and humiliation. And to call for what we never thought we would dare to in our lifetimes: freedom, justice, and dignity.”

Peter Harling and Sarah Birke,The Syrian Heartbreak,” MERIP (April 2013). “There was a distinctive sense of national pride in Syria. … Syrian pride, too, fostered a strong national identity and a calm self-assurance, even among Palestinian refugees, chased from what is now Israel.”

Yusef Khalil, “Why the left must support Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (April 2013), and “Understanding Syria’s revolution,” Socialist Worker (July 2013).  “The vital question facing the Syrian opposition is how to get aid from sources that can provide what the revolution needs, including weapons, while maintaining independent Syrian decision-making. This is a tough question to answer, but not impossible. But those who support the regime because they claim the uprising is being manipulated by the West are dishonest.”

Ghayath Naisse, “Prospects for Syria’s Revolution,” Socialist Worker (March 2013). “The traditional left in Syria, as well as regionally and internationally, has a miserable and opportunistic position towards revolutions … During the last three years of revolutions in our region, there has been a realignment of the left … This mirrors to some extent — without exaggeration — the realignment of the international left after the First World War.”

Yassin al-Haj Saleh, “Open Letter,” Syrian Observer (July 2013). “Every now and then we hear from American and Western politicians that there will be no military solution for the Syrian conflict, but where is the political solution?”

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Citizen journalist image, provided by Lens Young Homsi, shows buildings destroyed by Syrian government bombing and shelling, in the Jouret al-Chiyah neighborhood of Homs, July 2013.

Finally

A friend showed me a poem by Mahmoud Darwish a few months ago: “Iraq’s Night Is Long,” published in 2008, the year he died. There is not enough poetry to confront the prevalence of catastrophe in this world. What he wrote for Iraq will have to do for Syria, for now. The wreckage is so hard to distinguish, and I doubt that he would mind.

Iraq, Iraq is blood the sun cannot dry
The sun is God’s widow above Iraq
The murdered Iraqi says to those standing at the bridge:
Good morning, I am still alive.
They say: You are still a dead man searching for his grave …

Who is killing whom in Iraq now?
Victims are shards on the roads and in words
Their names, like their bodies, are bits of disfigured letters
Here prophets stand together unable to utter
The sky’s name and the name of the murdered

Iraq, Iraq. So who are you in the presence of suicide?
I am not I in Iraq. Nor are you you
He is none but another
God has abandoned the perplexed, so who are we?
Who are we? We are nothing but a predicate in the poem:
Iraq’s night is long
Long!

Translated by Sinan Antoon, from Athar al-Farasha (Beirut: Riyad El-Rayyes, 2008)

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

Mahmoud Darwish, drawn by Ismail Shammout, 1971

VOTE on SF Pride! Do you want a) an anti-war whistleblower, or b) a pro-war, bomb-promoting, racist, rape-inciting float in your Parade?

DECISION 2013The God’s honest truth is, I forgot that the Bradley Manning fiasco isn’t the first time I have been irritated by San Francisco Pride. A year ago I wrote about this really remarkable float that materialized in the Parade:

We must take all measures necessary to stop Iran from obtaining dildos NOW: Iran180 float at SF Pride, 2012

We must take all measures necessary to stop Iran from obtaining dildos NOW: “Iran 180″ float at SF Pride, 2012

That racist, rape-excusing representation of a leather queen forcibly sodomizing an Iranian politician decked a float which was crowbarred into the 2012 festivities by the neocon, astroturf, pro-war front group Iran 180. After I described it, the image began to haunt my dreams so intensely and disturbingly that only a truckload of sleeping pills and a botched prefrontal lobotomy could excise Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and the nuclear-tipped dildo from my fantasies.

But now I remember; now I see. It’s OK in the eyes of SF Pride officials to embrace a float indulging in racist stereotyping, promoting war, and inciting sexual assault. What’s not OK is to invite an antiwar activist who exposed US human rights abuses and lies. Kapish!

Glenn Greenwald wrote yesterday about all the corporate miscreants whom Pride welcomes while barring Bradley Manning, because, after all, unlike Manning, they have money. But I think the Rape Float is in its own special category.

No doubt the honchos of Pride would insist that they don’t actually censor floats at the Parade; just Grand Marshals. First off, I don’t believe them. If the God-hates-fags fanatics at Westboro Baptist Church tried to fit a float in the procession, would the Board agree? If the KKK offered its decorative services, would they be gratefully accepted? Doubtful; It’s just anti-Iranian racism that in the current circumstances passes muster. And second: Bradley Manning was elected Grand Marshal of the 2013 Parade, by a somewhat larger electorate than the nine-member Board. Nobody voted for the Ahmadinejad grotesquerie, except the paid flacks and propagandists of Iran 180 and their funders.

US Special Forces patrol the sector of Market Street near Duboce Ave., just outside the SF Pride headquarters

They free us for our hatreds: US Special Forces patrol the sector of Market Street near Duboce Ave., just outside the SF Pride headquarters

SF Pride, however, has promised a new Dawn of Democracy in the Bay Area, possibly facilitated by US military occupation of its offices. The official statement by Lisa Williams, Administrator of the Coalition Provisional Board of Directors of SF Pride, condemned

a system whereby a less-than-handful of people may decide who represents the LGBT community’s highest aspirations as grand marshals for SF Pride. This is a systemic failure that now has become apparent and will be rectified. … [A]s an organization with a responsibility to serve the broader community, SF Pride repudiates this vote. The Board of Directors for SF Pride never voted to support this nomination.

The Purple Revolution comes to the Castro: You should see my other organs

The Purple Revolution comes to the Castro: You should see my other organs

Great!  Since the Board of Directors is suddenly conscious of its “responsibility to the broader community,” I suggest the broader community help it out by practicing that most elemental of democratic freedoms, the one the US promotes with such success from Florida to Fallujah: Voting.  Cast your ballots now! The question is:

Would you rather have Bradley Manning at Pride — an antiwar activist who exposed US secrets and is certainly controversial? Or a rerun of the Rape Float — from a secretive group claiming falsely to be “grassroots,” promoting war and inciting dildo-wielding racial hatred, and uncontroversial only because from its comfy PR offices it takes easy shots at politically easy targets?

You can cast your votes by writing SF Pride at info@sfpride.org;  social@sfpride.org; and donations@sfpride.org. Or you can call them at +01 (415) 864-0831.

Send them your vote now!  After all, as even Binyamin Netanyahu knows, when it comes to our tools — sexual and otherwise — our choices are the most important thing.

Netanyahu-bomb-9-1

Bradley Manning, Bayard Rustin, and the perversion of Pride

Can I join?

Can I join?

That eminent critic and activist Edward Said was given, from time to time, to quoting Hugh of St. Victor, a twelfth-century mystic:

The person who finds his homeland sweet is a tender beginner; he to whom every soil is as his native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom the entire world is as a foreign place. The tender soul has fixed his love on one spot in the world; the strong person has extended his love to all places; the perfect man has extinguished his.

Said was, of course, a terrorist, and that is just how terrorists think. “Mystic” is another word for “fundamentalist”; and praising foreigners and rootless people? You’re siding with disloyalists, Luftmenschen, cosmopolitans, Jews! (I mean Muslims, sorry.)  In these confusing days when any displaced or misplaced or misprinted person could be a mad bomber — Saudi nationals, Moroccan high school students, dead Brown University undergrads, or citizens of the Czech Republic — it is imperative to find a refuge from the roiling chaos of mistaken identities, to settle on the facts you know when you don’t know anything about the folks around you, and to REMEMBER WHO YOU ARE. Fortunately the gays are good at this. Decades of practicing identity politics have left them secure in their own labels. The heroism of role models like Michael Lucas and J. Edgar Hoover has taught gays to be grateful to anybody who gives them a promotion. Thank you, Barack, thank you, Hillary, for handing us our rights!  We love you forever!  This is our country, and no one can take it from us, and please bomb all those places that are foreign as much as you damn well like!

Michael Lucas, gay role model and former head of the FBI, prepares to waterboard a suspect

Michael Lucas, gay role model and former head of the FBI, prepares to waterboard a suspect

I was reminded of our queer community’s collective patriotism by fast-moving happenings last night in San Francisco. To summarize: SF Pride held a vote and Bradley Manning — the gay or trans (it’s not entirely clear how Manning identifies) soldier who disseminated the great Wikileaks trove of secret US documents — was elected a Grand Marshal of this year’s shindig, which will happen in late June. There are a bunch of Grand Marshals every year, and each one gets to ride in a car during the long parade, wave at the crowd, and accept adulation. In Manning’s case,the soldier was in no position to do the accepting. Manning is under lock and key at Fort Leavenworth, facing charges including “aiding the enemy,” which under the military code can carry the death penalty.  Daniel Ellsberg, the great whistleblowing opponent of the Vietnam War, agreed to join the festivities in Manning’s place.

J. Edgar Hoover, porn star and gay icon, gets ready for his cum shot: They hate us for his freedoms

J. Edgar Hoover, porn star and gay icon, gets ready for his cum shot: They hate us for his freedoms

No need; within hours the board of SF Pride stepped in and rescinded the honor. Lisa Williams, the board president, issued a statement. “I am against honoring Bradley Manning,” she said, “as he was a traitor to the good old United States of America. If we all had felt the way he did back in the Forties, Hitler would have ruled the world.”

Soldiering on: Lisa Williams, board president, SF Pride

Soldiering on: Lisa Williams, board president, SF Pride

Oh … I’m sorry again. It’s early in the AM where I am, and I haven’t had coffee, and I keep screwing up. What Lisa Williams actually said was just about the same, but with slightly different wording. From her statement: 

Bradley Manning will not be a grand marshal in this year’s San Francisco Pride celebration. His nomination was a mistake and should never have been allowed to happen. … [E]ven the hint of support for actions which placed in harms way the lives of our men and women in uniform — and countless others, military and civilian alike — will not be tolerated by the leadership of San Francisco Pride. It is, and would be, an insult to every one, gay and straight, who has ever served in the military of this country.

I get confused, you see, because Lisa Williams — in addition to being “president and owner of One Source Consulting, a firm which does political consulting, ” and the former “Northern California deputy political director for the ‘No on 8′” gay-marriage campaign — is also the chair of the political action committee of the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition. That’s an estimable group that tries to promote black LGBT political participation in the Bay Area. And the quote above, the one about Hitler and the traitor — well, it was actually about Bayard Rustin; so you can see how I mixed them up. Rustin, if you remember, was one of the great figures of 20th-century America: a pacifist, a war resister, an icon of civil disobedience, and the key organizer of the 1963 March on Washington. (Also a gay man). Rustin spent three years in Lewisburg Penitentiary as a conscientious objector during the Second World War.  The quote (slightly tweaked) came from a citizen of West Chester, PA, back in 2002, who objected to naming a school after Bayard Rustin. After all, the traitor broke US law, encouraged others to do likewise, and opposed the military and domestic policies of the United States.

Interesting, then, that Lisa Williams works for the Bayard Rustin LGBT Coalition. Because her story shows that you can honor somebody like Rustin– indeed, even serve an organization named after him! — without caring or sharing what he believed in. Since that’s true, there’s really no reason SF Pride shouldn’t honor Bradley Manning.

But Pride is not a protest march, Mr. Rustin. These days we have nothing to protest.

But Pride is not a protest march, Mr. Rustin. These days we have nothing to protest.

I don’t mean to imply that Bradley Manning is Bayard Rustin redivivus, or in any sense his spiritual or political heir. In fact, we know remarkably little about Manning, and a cloud of speculation, much of it absurd, still surrounds his motives. Even that pronoun “his” is questionable. (Speculation persists, supported by chats Manning apparently had with an inquisitive hacker, that she identifies as a trans woman and that advocates and attorneys are suppressing this fact: perhaps to preserve Manning’s “respectability” for the trial. In an attempt to respect the uncertainty, I alternate pronouns.)  The fact that Manning’s been held incommunicado allows everyone to project whatever politics, priorities, or fantasies they like on the mute figure. For homophobes, Manning is a disgruntled and untrustworthy gay man, a living argument for ask, tell, and expel queers from the armed forces. For military interventionists like Dan Choi and Peter Tatchell, he’s an emblem of the kind of inclusive army they’d like, one where all your government secrets will be safe if the officers just welcome the homos with open, loaded arms.

We do know that brutal treatment has been inflicted on Manning while in US military jails. The UN Special Rapporteur on Torture — denied an unmonitored meeting with Manning to investigate his well-being — warned the government that “imposing seriously punitive conditions of detention on someone who has not been found guilty of any crime is a violation of his right to physical and psychological integrity as well as of his presumption of innocence.”  And the Rapporteur, Juan Mendez, a distinguished human rights activist from Argentina who was himself tortured under the US-supported miitary dictatorship, told the press:

I conclude that the 11 months under conditions of solitary confinement (regardless of the name given to his regime by the prison authorities) constitutes at a minimum cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment in violation of article 16 of the convention against torture. If the effects in regards to pain and suffering inflicted on Manning were more severe, they could constitute torture.

Of course, that’s the UN for you: a gang of Communists. Good American gays reject it and all its works and pomps. The UN, writes young neocon and would-be gay mercenary Jamie Kirchick in our favorite gay news source The Advocate, is “more often than not an actively pernicious force in world politics.” (Kirchick loyally tweets about Manning as “traitor Bradley Manning,” because, after all, who needs a trial?)

Advertisements for my elf: Young Kirchick promotes his twittery on treason

Advertisements for my elf: Young Kirchick promotes own published typing, misspells “Marshal”

Why exactly was this UN fellow Juan Mendez tortured? you well might ask. There’s no smoke without fire; you don’t pull out people’s fingernails unless there’s something under them you want; you don’t torture people unless they were asking for it. Surely he was a Communist, which explains why the UN hired him. Really, how can you appoint a torture victim to investigate torture? How can he be objective? And these UN bigots always defend those gays in foreign lands who don’t appreciate the United States; they never give the US credit for how well it treats gays here. How dare the sissies diss us!

Juan Mendez, tortureworthy pro-treason opponent of enhanced interrogation methods working for the Communist International: not a gay role model

Juan Mendez, tortureworthy pro-treason opponent of enhanced interrogation methods working for the Communist International: Not a gay role model

Now, in some other, more sensitively disposed polities, evidence that a suspect was tortured would give occasion to drop the charges. Not so in the United States, which has acquired an admirably stoical attitude toward inhuman treatment!  In this, though, one detects what perhaps is the root of Manning’s own difference with his country’s policy. Manning didn’t like torture. Irrationally, he didn’t like it even before he was tortured. He didn’t like his country’s complicity in torture; he didn’t like the abuses and crimes that the US committed and encouraged in its occupation of Iraq. And he saw enough of that first hand.

It was from Iraq that Manning sent materials to WikiLeaks, and in Iraq she was arrested. Kevin Gosztola writes — and it’s worth quoting at length:

In 2010, while stationed at Forward Operating Base Hammer in Baghdad, Pfc. Bradley Manning decided to approach a superior officer in his chain of command to voice his concern about something he had stumbled upon in his capacity as an intelligence analyst. His unit had been helping Iraqi federal police identify suspects for detention and discovered that fifteen men had been arrested for producing “anti-Iraqi literature.” … Manning discovered that the writing was hardly criminal; it was a “scholarly critique” of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. But his superior officer did not want to hear about it. Manning knew if he continued to assist the police in identifying political opponents, innocent people would be jailed, likely tortured, and “not seen again for a very long time, if ever,” as he told a military courtroom in Fort Meade, MD … Hoping to expose what was happening ahead of the Iraq parliamentary election, on March 7, 2010, Manning shared the information with WikiLeaks….

Since his arrest, the media has focused on Manning’s mental problems, his poor relationships with family members, his sexual orientation, and the fact that he considered becoming a woman. Such a caricature, of an unstable youth rather than of a soldier with a conscience, has enabled the government and other detractors to maintain that Manning had no clear and legitimate motives when disclosing the information.

Bradley Manning

Bradley Manning

But in fact Manning’s first statement in court offered a clear account of what led her to the leaks. She

included an explanation for why he released the video that would be titled “Collateral Murder” by WikiLeaks, and which revealed an aerial attack on media workers and Iraqi civilians, including children. Manning said: “The most alarming aspect of the video to me was the seemingly delightful bloodlust they appeared to have,” Manning said. “They dehumanized the individuals they were engaging and seemed to not value human life by referring to them as quote ‘dead bastards’ unquote and congratulating each other on the ability to kill in large numbers.” …

Of the cache of over 250,000 US State Embassy cables, Manning said: “The more I read, the more I was fascinated by the way that we dealt with other nations and organizations. I also began to think that the documented backdoor deals and seemingly criminal activity didn’t seem characteristic of the de facto leader of the free world.”

Here, at least, Manning distinctly does share something with Bayard Rustin.  For Rustin, at his best, fought US rights abuses at home and abroad. He was no less an internationalist than Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, Jr. John D’Emilio, his brilliant biographer, describes how his rejection of US warmongering led to repeated confrontations with the law:

At the height of the Cold War, when sirens blared, all Americans were supposed to duck for cover. Rustin and a few other comrades said, “This is insane,” and they sat instead in City Hall Park in New York. Indicted and found guilty, they did it again, and again, until many thousands of Americans followed their lead. Rustin organized protests against nuclear weapons in the Nevada desert, the south Pacific, and the Sahara. Soon, the nuclear powers abandoned atmospheric testing.

You may be right, Mr. Rustin. But we can teach democracy by invading other countries and killing people. Can't we?

You may be right, Mr. Rustin. But we can teach democracy by invading other countries and killing their population. Can’t we?

During the Vietnam War, Rustin protested in terms almost exactly applicable to the US’s current exercises in humanitarian killing. He called it

a useless, destructive, disgusting war …We must be on the side of revolutionary democracy. And, in addition to all the other arguments for a negotiated peace in Vietnam, there is this one: that it is immoral, impractical, un-political, and unrealistic for this nation to identify itself with a regime which does not have the confidence of its people … I say to the President: America cannot be the policeman of this globe!

Well, it can still try.

Rustin urged that those who rejected the US’s domestic and foreign criminality wield a variety of tools and strategies: “Non-violent strike, economic boycott, picketing, non-payment of taxes, mass emigration, noncooperation, and civil disobedience.” Whistleblowing wasn’t on the list, but there was no Internet and no WikiLeaks in his day.

And for all this, of course, Rustin was called a “traitor,” and still is, by the Jamie Kirchicks of his time, and ours. I have no idea how he’d feel about Bradley Manning. But I have a fair idea how, as a civil rights activist, a war resister, an anti-miliitarist, and a gay man, he’d feel  if he read the rants of Manning’s opponents. For instance, “Stephen Peters, president of American Military Partners Association,”a brand new non-profit of unknown provenance, declared: 

Manning’s blatant disregard for the safety of our service members and the security of our nation should not be praised … No community of such a strong and resilient people should be represented by the treacherous acts that define Bradley Manning.

The “strong and resilient people” are apparently Pride’s attendees, whose resilience has not been tested by torture, but nonetheless is surely there. Meanwhile, Sean Sala, an LGBT Military Activist, wrote (with free, Germanic use of capitalization):

Bradley Manning is currently in Military tribunal for handing over Secret United States information to Wikileaks’ Julian Assange. … San Francisco has spit in the face of LGBT Military by using a traitor to our country as a poster child. … Manning makes Gay military, the Armed Forces and cause of equality look like a sham. He deserves no recognition … This is a sensitive time for the LGBT Community, we have spent fifty years trying to garnish equality and Manning cannot and will not represent Gay Military patriots.

They said the same kinds of things about Bayard Rustin.

Kiss me, honey, those big guns turn me on

Kiss me, honey, those big guns turn me on

SF Pride’s decision, of course, shows what gays value in the course of “garnishing equality,” at this self-congratulatory, triumphant, but still above all “sensitive” time.  Equality doesn’t just mean the right to marry, or the right to wear a form-fitting and extremely attractive uniform. It’s not just symbolic. It’s both privilege and responsibility, and don’t you forget it. It means equal and uncomplaining participation in the full panoply of the United States’ domestic injustices and imperial extravagances. It means an equal right to repress, in redress and revenge for all that history of enduring repression.  It means you no longer have to lobby the government for anything; your only job is to lie back and endorse whatever it does. It means that you can rest in the serene knowledge that other people are being tortured, and you won’t object, because torture is a great equalizer, a silent democracy of abasement. It means that you finally get to be one of the killers, instead of the killed.

One weirdness of SF Pride’s swift retraction is that they claim to be defending some kind of superior democratic process, against a dictatorial “systemic failure” related to how we let actual people influence our nonprofits. Board president Williams declares that

what these events have revealed is a system whereby a less-than-handful of people may decide who represents the LGBT community’s highest aspirations as grand marshals for SF Pride. This is a systemic failure that now has become apparent and will be rectified. In point of fact, less than 15 people actually cast votes for Bradley Manning. These 15 people are part of what is called the SF Pride Electoral College, comprised of former SF Pride Grand Marshals. However, as an organization with a responsibility to serve the broader community, SF Pride repudiates this vote. The Board of Directors for SF Pride never voted to support this nomination.

Americans bringing democracy to Iraq

Americans bringing democracy to Baghdad

This is a very bizarre conception of democracy — not, in fact, unlike the one the US imported to Iraq. The system SF Pride has followed so far allows the general public to vote for a slate of Grand Marshal nominees, while an “electoral college” of previous Grand Marshals has the right to choose a few more. It seems that the electoral college chose Manning; but even if he got only 15 votes, that’s rather more than the Board of Directors could provide, since it has only 9 members in total. “Less than a handful” indeed! Moreover, the Board of Directors elects itself. It may feel a “responsibility to serve the broader community,” but it doesn’t let the community choose its members. Meanwhile, that “electoral college” mostly includes ex-Grand-Marshals who were picked in the public vote; it’s more democratic than the Board.  So SF Pride proposes to close itself down still more, retreat into its Green Zone, and become still more a model of corporate governance, insulated from the desires or decisions of the people it asserts it “serves.”  This is a rather perverted vision of community. On the other hand, Paul Bremer would probably feel happy on the Board.

I’m not in the US now; I’m sitting in Egypt, writing early in the morning. I feel I’ve become one of those imperfect people, not yet alien to all places, but alien to my ever-less-comprehensible native land. I certainly feel alien to whatever SF Pride represents these days: a sorting of people into the loyal and disloyal, the us (the US) and them, that stands at odds with the evanescent but putatively redemptive values of which queers and other rebels were once able to be proud. Plenty of immensely “strong and resilient people” in two hemispheres of alienation have memories of US overt or covert interventions:  Cubans and Nicaraguans, Dominicans and Haitians, Guatemalans and Iranians, Afghans and Iraqis. Apparently that resilience isn’t the sort that counts; or it’s eminently forgettable amid the fogs of San Francisco Bay. We remember our own kind, not the sufferings of others.

I’m afraid that the gay movement in my country, if it still moves at all, has aged into the matronly complacency that John Betjeman once described, as he imagined a respectable English lady offering a prayer in Westminster Abbey during the Second World War:

Gracious Lord, oh bomb the Germans,
Spare their women for Thy Sake,
And if that is not too easy
We will pardon Thy Mistake.
But, gracious Lord, whate’er shall be,
Don’t let anyone bomb me.

This is what democracy looks like

This is what democracy looks like

Thunder on the left

Last month Karma Chavez of WORT FM in Wisconsin did an hour-long interview with me about various things LGBT and global: Iraq, Iran, homonationalism, neocolonialism, ethical activism, Peter Tatchell, and other usual and less-usual subjects all came up. Here’s the whole thing. You have to skip over the scree-scraw noises at the beginning where a failed attempt to Skype me — I was in a remote foreign land — led to an explosively resounding reverb effect. Thunder on the left, the Romans thought, was a sign that Jupiter was pleased.

“A war against me, inside and outside”: Security forces, denials, and emos in Iraq

Graphic picture of murdered emo Iraq

From a video allegedly showing a murdered emo youth hanged from a bridge in Iraq

In the Iraqi media, Sawt al-Iraq and Al-Mada both reported on Friday, March 23, that “security sources” are suggesting there will be a lull in attacks on emos until the Arab League Summit in Baghdad, scheduled for this week, ends. The sources also said, though, that girls will be targeted when the attacks resume:

Informed sources warned that the coming days will see the targeting of girls under the pretext of belonging to emo, indicating that the militant groups that carry out these actions are waiting for the end of the Arab Summit to be held in Baghdad in order to resume their activities.

A security source said early yesterday that  “the militant groups reduced their operations against emo youth in this period in conjunction with the proximity of the Arab summit in Baghdad at the end of this month,” emphasizing that they are “waiting for the completion of the summit and then they will launch a new campaign.” … The source did not rule out  “the involvement of some elements of security operations in targeting emo,” expected “to begin a new campaign in the coming month of May.”

If the delay is true, it’s presumably not because the killers want to spare Iraq embarrassment during the summit, but because security measures imposed since last week’s massive bombings have the capital on lockdown, with checkpoints and traffic jams slowing traffic to a standstill.

The papers noted, though, that in official statements “security authorities played down the significance” of civil society groups’ claims that up to 100 may be dead, “denying the existence of cases of killings.”

Kamil Amin: Nothing to see here, move along

Al-Shaafaq spoke last week to Kamil Amin, director general for monitoring and protection in the Ministry of Human Rights. He reiterated the official denials.  “There are no cases of murder. This was confirmed by the Ministry of the Interior”:

“Today if an emo young man or teenager in Iraq is killed, real information will be available about his death. The situation has been confused. A story circulated in Sadr City of a young man who was accused of being a homosexual or effeminate man and kidnapped and  killed there; the work of the Ministry of Interior has proved the case was criminal.”

The last reference is presumably to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20-year-old murdered in Sadr City on February 17. It’s not quite clear what the final comment means; but it seems Amin is trying to distinguish between killings for emo “identity” and killings for suspected homosexual conduct. Of course, as many Iraqis have pointed out, the two blend into one another as linked forms of “deviance” in the popular mind. Amin admitted, on the other hand, that names — along with death threats — had been posted on walls in Baghdad neighborhoods. “I don’t deny that thing, this talk; banners were circulating, it is easy, there are computers and printers everywhere, and you can easily write up names and existing lists. The issue came up because of ideological extremist groups.”

Graphic picture of emo death in iraq

Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi

Asked what the Human Rights Ministry was doing about the situation, Amin temporized and called on the shrinks for aid:

“I think the Council of Ministers offered assurances that personal freedoms are protected, and that there was no spread of the phenomenon of emo in Iraq, only individual cases most of which don’t go beyond a matter of fashion, which is not aggressive.  On the contrary, we found that a lot of emo have talent — for example, poetry or drawing. Some of them are superior people and they imitate emo only in terms of dress and  accessories …

“Emo is a phenomenon between the ages of 12-17 years. If it continues with the teenager after this age, it is a medical condition, and the parents should send their children to doctors and psychologists to stop it.”

Meanwhile, according to Al-Mada, the chair of the parliamentary committee on displaced persons, Abdul Khaliq Zangana, accused security forces of “arresting and intimidating young people under the pretext of the emo phenomenon”:

“Restoring security has become a pretext and an excuse for the security services to arrest young people, who are supposed  to be the future of Iraq … Some young people who had agreed to return to Iraq through the parliamentary committee have expressed sorrow that they returned to suffer from these arrests and intimidation, under the pretext of establishing security.”

This long and horrible video has been circulating inside Iraq and out; it claims to show an executed emo hanging from the railing of a bridge. I cannot vouch for what it claims to be: any number of what are, in effect, snuff videos or close to it emerge from Iraq regularly, spoor of the regularity of death there. US soldiers used to pick them up on Bluetooth (or, where their relationship to the atrocities was nearer, film them themselves) and bring or send them back home, like trophies.

Finally, what follows is a long letter I received from a gay-identified man in Baghdad. It describes both the immediate fears caused by the killing campaign, and a longer and deeper burden of anxiety. I have edited it slightly for continuity and to eliminate all identifying references.

You can’t imagine my delight when I received the message you sent me on [a gay website]. I was so happy I started crying because there are others in this world who sympathize with our suffering and the dark life we’re living here in Iraq. …  I’ve almost lost any hope for living the free and fulfilling life I aspire to and I remain confined to my home…

I live near Al-Sadr city [Baghdad’s huge Shi’ite slum] … I was born just over 30 years ago and from early in my life, I started feeling that my sexual leaning is different from that of other members of my sex. I started discovering that I’m attracted to men- yes, I started discovering that I was homosexual  (mithly al-jens) or a sexual deviant (shaz jenseyan). At this point my torment started in the conflict with my family and the society I live in on one hand, and with myself on the other. There was a conflict between me as a man and my sexual desire. I kept repressed inside me that feeling which tormented me all my life, especially at the beginning of my youth. I was supposed to be enjoying the best years of my life like others, but I was far from this. …

My problem now is that someone has photographed me having sex. That person blackmailed me and when I refused to pay him, he published the photos online. I’m in constant fear that one of my relatives or co-workers might find out about these photos, at which point they will have no mercy on me and might even kill me. I was threatened that the photos will be sent to everyone that knows me and to my family and relatives. I’m always afraid when I go down the street to buy bread, for example, or when the door bell rings. I fear that someone came to assault me. That feeling of fear dominates my life almost daily.

I’ve encountered many horrors that I was saved from almost miraculously. I was once walking on Palestine Street, when a car stopped beside me. There were three scary looking men in the car and one of them got off the car and approached me. He asked me why I had insulted his friend, because the way I was walking would attract attention in the street. The three started attacking me, so I said let’s go to the police. They were nearby. As I walked before them, they left me and went back to their car. I ran away to the side streets but they were chasing me with their car. I was running while crying and was scared to death they might catch me again. The concrete blocks  in the middle of the road saved me however, because they were not able to go through these with their car.

Concrete barriers being installed on a Baghdad street as an anti-car-bomb measure

I was assaulted and robbed of my wallet many times when I went out at night. I can’t describe the fear I feel whenever leaving my house, which makes me stop going out most of the time. One day I was at al-Zawra’a Gardens [the biggest park in central Baghdad] with a friend of mine when a policeman noticed us and then came over to arrest us. They took us to the police center where we met a[nother] police officer. The policeman who brought us said that we were “practicing sodomy” in the park, which was not true. They interrogated me and my friend separately and said they would put us in jail. We had to pay them for our release.

I was raped many times by policemen under the threat of their guns. They also threatened to surrender me to extremist groups if I refused. For me, the previous era was a golden era, because homosexuality was tolerated. I’m scared now because I expect death or beheading at any moment. Islam considers homosexuality to be a sin and the Shi’ite authority Ayatollah Al-Sistani published on his website a call to kill homosexuals. …

We as gays do not exist in this country and we have nobody to represent us. We’re vulnerable prey for whoever wants to attack us and nobody will protect us or stand by our side. We’re excluded by most people, including our own families. One day when I was at work, my sister looked into my stuff and found a CD that had a gay porn movie on it. She knew about me, especially because she used to try to listen to my conversations on the phone with friends. She told my parents about what she found and they turned on me with hate and disgust. They  began seriously thinking about forcing me to marry a female cousin to prevent any possible scandal. They pressured me and even threatened to kick me out of the house and expose me to others if I didn’t marry her.

Worse than all this is that a few days ago I received a phone call from someone who said he knew where I live and [where I work]. He said he has a film of me having sex and threatened to send it to my workplace and to my family if I didn’t agree to what he was asking. He wanted me to give him the names of my emo friends so they can target them. Now in Baghdad young people who wear black tight clothes and have pics of skulls and let their hair grow long are called emo female “wannabes.” These people are being killed by gangs called “Asa’ib” [presumably Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous,” a Shi’ite militia whom some blame for the current attacks] and by the Iraqi police. To these gangs emos and gays are two faces of one coin. Photos of their victims were published online and a lot of dead bodies were found in different areas of Baghdad.

ubiquitous mobiles in Iraq

I refused to give any names to that caller who threatened me, and I blocked his number. However, I still receive threats through other numbers that I don’t recognize. I’m scared to death that these criminals might find out about my full name and my address through my account with the phone company I receive service from. Because if you know somebody that works at the phone company, you can very easily obtain more information about any number you have. This has happened to me once when I talked with someone on the internet and we exchanged numbers. It was only a few days before that person called and told me my full name and address. He obtained that information through my my mobile number.

The Iraqi government stands with the criminals by denying the brutal murders which take place now in Iraq and which they cover up. Gays have always been the easy victims who can’t resort to anyone to protect them — because everyone in this society excludes and ostrasizes gays. As I’m writing, my tears are pouring, because I know I might die for being gay. I wish I’d never been like this, to a degree that makes me want to die and think about suicide constantly. Sometimes I meet a close friend of mine and we hug each other and cry for how miserable our lives are. I’m a human being and we have a right to live with dignity. Why do they kill and slaughter us in the most brutal ways?!  …

Iraq today is governed by people of religion who do not tolerate any dissent and kill people with no mercy. I have friends in many places who were killed in the most brutal ways and in public for being gay. The number of people killed in the latest wave has risen to more than twenty people. Until recently I had some hope that my country’s conditions might improve and that the human will be respected in Iraq. But after what’s been happening recently I’ve lost all hope and realized that my country is heading towards the unknown…. I’m scared that I might be exposed at time at work or that my family might find out about me. I’m threatened with death because of the  murders that target emos, because society here believes that gays are emos and that they’re responsible for such lifestyles. I can’t leave home without trying to hide. It’s a war against me, inside my home and outside.

(Thanks to Samir, an Egyptian activist, for translating this. Be sure to read his own remarkable blog, on secularism, sexuality, democracy, and other cogent issues, here.)

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

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

1. Rumor and responsibility

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Harith al-Dhari

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

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

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

 2.  Voices of opposition to murder

Grand Ayatollah al-Najafi

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

He headed it:

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

 

 

Death and life in Iraq: Obama death cabs, vampires, Ministries, and murder

Choose your weapon: Iraqi anti-emo graphic

If you want to know what life and death are like in Iraq, here’s a story. When a colleague and I went there during the killing campaign in 2009, among those we met were three men, best friends, all calling themselves “gay” in English, though two had wives.  I’ll name them (as I did in HRW’s report of that year) Hamid, Majid, and Idris. Hamid could barely talk to us: he’d developed a severe speech impediment after his partner’s murder, three weeks before. Armed, black-masked raiders had taken the man from his parents’ home. The next day, his corpse was found thrown in the garbage, castrated, with his throat torn out.

The following night, they came for Hamid.

They entered my house and they saw my mother, and one of them said: “Where’s your faggot son?” There were five men. Their faces were covered. Fortunately I wasn’t there but my mother called me after they left, in tears.

He went into hiding. His two friends took care of him. Their homes had been raided too, but they’d escaped; the three moved from cheap hotel to cheap hotel, till they got our phone numbers through some still-serving grapevine.

We were trying to help the most endangered men we encountered get out of Iraq. We offered to assist the three — we almost begged — but they hesitated. They wanted to be sure they would stay together, wherever they were ultimately accepted as refugees. The two married men wanted to bring their wives.  I could promise all that with reasonable certainty; but I couldn’t promise that, if they filed refugee claims based on sexual orientation, their wives wouldn’t be told the grounds. They went back to Baghdad to consider it;  after a week or two we couldn’t reach them by phone anymore. It was one of the worst stories we heard in Iraq, made worse by the fact that we couldn’t do enough.

I’ve spent the last few days posting on 500 or so gay Iraqis’ personals ads on various websites, warning them about renewed killings, trying to get additional information. Idris was one who replied.

He told me that in 2009, about a week after Hamid finally returned to his family home, militias broke in and kidnapped him. His body appeared in the neighborhood next day, his head and penis chopped off.  And Majid? Last year in December, a group of Iraqi policemen beat him up on the street. His skull injured, he lay on the sidewalk for two hours before anyone helped him; some passersby insulted him as jeru (puppy, slang for “sodomite”). Emo was another, newer word they used. He died two days after. Idris managed to flee to a European country a month later. Now he is seeking asylum.

The terrible thing in Iraq is that violence is everywhere. It turns from side to side from time to time like a lighthouse beam, and casts its ghastly attention on a new target. The killing, though, seems a uniform impulse, almost indifferent to who is killed. It’s irrational and unintelligible as background noise.

Here are some things I’ve learned about the emo killings in Iraq:

1) The Ministry of Interior has blood on its hands. It’s the ubiquity of violence the makes the Ministry’s actions unforgivable. As I’ve noted here, in mid-February the Ministry issued a statement designed to whip up hatred and fear of “the phenomenon of ‘EMO’ or Satanists.” It wielded the loaded language of “eliminating” the problem. The Ministry then followed up, on February 29, by announcing a “campaign” against emos in Baghdad’s Kadhamiya neighborhood, after finding a shop that sold emo “clothing and accessories” there: “The phenomenon is contrary to the customs of Iraqi society and has destructive effects on the structure of communities.”  By that time, murders had already started. They merited no Ministry condemnation.

Instead, faced by public indignation and a demand by members of Parliament to investigate the killings, the Ministry came out with a third statement on March 8. It warned “radical and extremist groups attempting to represent themselves as guardians of morals and religious traditions” not to engage in “any conduct against people based on fashion, dress or hairstyle.” At the same time, it baldly claimed no violence was happening. “There have been no cases of murder,” it said; “the Ministry of Interior categorically denies all these lies.” Menacing the messenger, it threatened “necessary legal action against those who try to highlight this issue and blow it out of proportion.” The bullying wasn’t a bluff: Iraq’s police have dealt with dissent increasingly harshly. To press the point, a few days later Baghdad police arrested a Russia Today news team trying to film a story about slaughtered emos, confiscating their footage.

The moral panic about straying youth in Iraq certainly predated the Ministry’s brusque interventions. I have seen a memo from the Ministry of Education, apparently dated August 2011 (it was shared in confidence and I can’t show it here.).  “In response to the emo phenomenon insinuating into our schools,” it urged steps including:

  • Male and female students should be barred from leaving school grounds during the school day on flimsy excuses, as they have been seen congregating in nearby cafes, shops, and arcades to engage in these foul practices.
  • Female students should be barred from wearing immodest clothing and should comply with the approved uniform. …
  • The parents of students (in Emo cells) should be advised to cut off Internet service in their homes because it is a prime cause of this deviancy …
  • Deterrent legal and administrative measures should be taken against students who engage in this deviancy inside schools.

November 4, 2011: Moqtada al-Sadr on emos

It wasn’t until February, apparently, that the Education Ministry decided to invite the police into schools to further the work. But in the meantime, mosques and media helped fan the fears.  In November 2011, the Shi’ite leader Moqtada al-Sadr condemned emos. In Q & A form like most fatwas, his statement is worth quoting in detail:

Q: Sheikh Ali al-Sa’ady: It is obvious now that there is a new social phenomenon in our society known as the “the emo” which means being “rebellious and sensitive.” This emo thing was first known in North America years ago, among teenagers from both sexes calling themselves “devil’s friends.” Some of their weird thoughts are sadness, grief, depression, pessimism, silence, shyness, drawing tattoos, wearing black and dark outfits and tight pants …. They also like to take certain hallucinatory drugs. …. So, Sir, as you know, while this awful occupation is still in place, these kinds of groups are now appearing in Iraq. What would you say to religious figures and parents in order to prevent such social manifestations?

A: Moqtada al-Sadr: Regarding what you mentioned, Sir, in your question, they are a group of lunatics and are a disease in a Muslim society, so those who are responsible should get rid of them from the outset, in accordance with the law.

However, “in accordance with the law” is a key phrase. It helps explain why the Ministry of Interior’s irresponsible proclamations last month not only incited but legitimated violence against emos. Here were the law enforcers, urging “elimination”!

In fact, all the evidence suggests the Ministry’s interventions had a key impact. Al-Sadr’s website approvingly republished and expanded on the Ministry of Interior’s first February statement — explaining how emos were linked to drugs, prostitution, and homosexuality. And after its second February statement, the “head of the security committee of the Kadhimiya local council, Ali Al-Shammari,” told reporters that “detachments of national security and community police in the area informed us about suspicious movements of people who imitate the emo.” He added that the fiends “absorb blood from each others’ wrists.”  “Vampires in the Holy City of Baghdad!” Al-Sumariya News headlined it.

Moqtada Al-Sadr, at least, has distanced himself from the violence. In a new statement he reiterated that the phenomenon should be dealt with “by the relevant authorities,” not vigilantes, and “in accordance with the law.”   But the Ministry is still in denial.  You don’t talk about “elimination” in a country filled with death squads, and expect nothing to happen. The Ministry carries a heavy burden of guilt.

2) Who and how many? Nobody knows exactly who’s inflicting the violence. Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and a breakaway Shi’ite militia, Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq (League of the Righteous) are often mentioned; but that seems to be simply because they loosely control areas of eastern Baghdad where several deaths have been reported. Militias in Iraq, in any case, are not tightly structured military entities. They’re loose agglomerations of angry young men; people come and go, and the pattern of belonging is as diffuse and random as the prospect of death.  Men affiliated with a militia might be killing without central control; different groups, Sunni as well as Shi’a, may copycat one another. (Contrary to what some bloggers write, Sunnis may well be involved. I’ve heard reports of attacks in the Adhamiya part of Baghdad, which is decidedly Sunni.) Most major Shi’ite militia forces have infiltrated the police, and officers sometimes wear their official hats, sometimes moonlight in the murder racket.

Police have apparently actively participated in the crackdown. One story repeated to me by two sources  had officers arresting several emo girls at an intermediate school in the Karrada district; no one could say whether they had been released.  However, there have also been instances of sheer mob violence. Al-Sharqiya TV said on March 7 (in a report I’ve cited here before) that a crowd brutally beat two young women in the al-Mansour neighborhood, because they wore  “fashionable clothing.” They had to be taken to a hospital.

Nor can anyone say how many have been killed. Human Rights Watch has confirmed 6 gay-identified people murdered — “confirmed” in the sense of having the deaths reported by a source with direct knowledge. By the same standard, I know of two non-gay people killed. Anonymous sources in the police gave the Associated Press numbers:

An Interior Ministry official said 58 young people have been killed across Iraq in recent weeks by unidentified gangs who accused them of being, as he described it, Emo. Sixteen were killed in Sadr City alone, security and political officials there said. Nine of the men were killed by bludgeoning, and seven were shot. No arrests have been made.

Al-Sharqiya claimed 90 dead a week ago. Rumors in Iraq run as high as 100 or 200. Those figures are probably too high. But stigma certainly dissuades the families of dead children from reporting a killing as emo- or gay-related — so that no exact figure will ever be forthcoming.

What we have are images and stories.  Several Iraqis sent me a video this week that purported to be an emo kid strung up from a bridge: slowly twisting like an broken pendulum.  YouTube removed it as “shocking and disgusting.”  Another video offers a tribute to Saif Raad Asmar Abboudi, a 20 year-old beaten to death with concrete blocks in Sadr City on February 17:

I spoke to a heterosexual man in his twenties, from a city outside Baghdad, who had started a heavy metal band with three friends some years ago. They found themselves ostracized in town for their long hair, black clothes, and angry sound. “People everywhere started calling us Satanists.”  Last week, he heard that two of his fellow band members had been murdered on the street. He’s in hiding, unable even to speak to his family, desperately afraid. “Why are they doing this to us?”

“I am facing killing threats from armed militant groups,” a 23-year-old gay man in Baghdad wrote me. “I don’t know where to go or live.”  Several people reported getting direct death threats.

I have been threatened with death on my personal mobile if I don’t cut my hair and change the way I dress and start wearing loose-fitting clothes instead of tight clothes and jeans. If I don’t do as they say I will be imprisoned or killed. I am a beautiful lady boy … I cannot do as they say. So I ask you please to help me urgently, I want to live in dignity and freedom away from threats and terror.

Then there are the rumors. This warning appeared on an Iraqi emo webpage: “About the killing of emo and metal and rap. A  Chrysler 300C (Obama) yellow-colored (taxi) was seen driving away in the Zayouna district [a wealthy, mixed Sunni-Shi'ite neighborhood] near Tariq ibn Ziyad Junior High. They are killing young innocent people.  Please beware of them and publish this alarm … you might save a boy or girl’s life.” The Chrysler 300c is one of the most popular cars in Iraq: it’s nicknamed “Obama” because Barack once drove one.

And there are the lists. The fliers spring up like fungus on the walls in mainly poor Shi’ite districts like Sadr City — though some have shown up in tony Zayouna too. They’re never signed. The same thing happened in the killings of gays in 2009: the threats are anonymous, the threatened named. “To every licentious man or woman, we are warning you: in case you don’t stop these filthy actions within four days God’s punishment will come upon your heads by the hands of those who fight for His own name. Remember that we warned you.” Here are some pictures sent me from Baghdad (the photos spread fear more widely than the posters themselves), all with more or less the same message, and slews of nicknames (Allawi the Brassiere, Mohammed the Rose):

3) What is to be done? Let’s be honest: nobody really knows. Given the degree that Iraqis see “deviance” among the young as a Western disease, spawned by military occupation and cultural invasion, I doubt that asking Western leaders to speak out against the persecution will get you anywhere. If demanding it makes you feel better, then by all means feel better. But don’t imagine your signature means the situation is on the way to being solved.

The one hopeful sign is that prominent Iraqis — religious leaders and politicians — have spoken out against the killings. Both Moqtada al-Sadr and the revered Ayatollah al-Sistani have condemned vigilantism. And Sawt al-Iraq reports that even a government spokesman sounded considerably more liberal than the Interior Ministry’s hard-line written posture, when confronted on the issue at Tigris University:

Ali al-Dabbagh said during a conference …  “there is no prosecution for belonging to the phenomenon of EMO in the country,” saying it was “personal freedom”; stressing the state’s duty to protect them as citizens exercising their freedom, he said, “The security agencies are obliged to protect freedoms.”

Good for him. Few dared be so outspoken back in 2009, when gay and “effeminate” men were being killed. The atmosphere then throughout Iraq was more inflamed, the militias more powerful, the state weaker; but the moral opprobrium upon the victims was also even stronger. Now the fact that children are dying gives parents, parliamentarians, and others both cause and courage to speak up.

For that reason, as I’ve said before, an exclusive emphasis on the gay side of the present killing campaign is unlikely to help anybody in Iraq much: not gay men, who will find the murderers’ attention to them only increasing as the skewed perspective filters through the media, and not emos, who will find stigma only intensified. The one thing that will curb the campaign is to strengthen and amplify the Iraqi voices who are already speaking out. Quiet support for their courage, by governments and by international civil society, is crucial.

If you want to offer help to emo or gay Iraqis, well, go online and do so; it’s what I’ve been trying to do myself, in my lone capacity. Visit them on manjam.com, or on the emo pages on Facebook, and try to communicate. I’m impressed, too, by how vampire, goth, and emo communities in the US and elsewhere have been collecting and spreading information on what has been going on: amazing solidarity work. There’s something else that can be done, though — pressure North American and European governments to offer accelerated acceptance to victims of the moral panic when they apply as refugees.

The US has a special category, called “P-2″ (Priority 2) for refugees “in particular need of resettlement.” The category offers accelerated approval to applicants, as opposed to the cumbersome procedures the US (like other governments) usually imposes.  Only a few groups qualify for it, mostly determined by highly political critieria: they include Cubans, Iranian religious minorities, and Vietnamese.

In Iraq, the US now extends P-2 status only to applicants who can prove they have worked with the US occupation forces. This is a sensible admission that we have a moral obligation to people who sacrificed for what we billed as a liberatory project — but which put their lives in desperate danger.

For people facing a sudden, swift-moving moral panic, though, accelerated refugee acceptance may be the only way to save their lives. They need to get out of the country fast, because the threat is imminent; they can’t wait on bureaucracy. By a quirk, the 2007 US law on Iraqi refugees (one of Senator Ted Kennedy’s last generous works) gives the Secretary of State the exclusive power to designate new categories of Iraqis as eligible for P-2 (whereas with other nationalities, Congress must approve the move).

If you want to assist emo Iraqis and others who face persecution and panic because of their nonconformity, sexuality, or gender, you can urge Secretary Clinton to extend P-2 status to them — or find another solution to get them quick refugee relief.  Great Britain joined the US-led invasion; it has the same obligation to the invasion’s victims. And other European countries that pride themselves on liberal domestic policies on sexual orientation and gender should move just as fast.

One gay Iraqi wrote me, about the killing:

thanks for that but If you want the truth your People Brought that with them … so please don’t come talk about human rights because you do not know anything about it, sorry for that but is the truth

It’s not as though there wasn’t ample violence wrought on Iraqis under Saddam Hussein. But the state held the monopoly on it; you at least knew who had the guns. The US unleashed the pent-up anger of a population trained in the ways of violence by its constant infliction. In that sense, Americans and their allies brought the killing with them. No one can undo that, and we can’t pose as saviors a second time to clean up the mess of death we made; but the onus is on the guilty governments to do what they can for the victims.

 

CORRECTION: Human Rights Watch got the figure of six deaths (cited above) from news bureau contacts, not from family or friends of the deceased, so it’s not precisely fair to say they’ve been “confirmed” as killings due to the campaign. Wildly different figures float around depending on whom you read or talk to. I should think it’s best not to take any of them as fully informed or valid, but to concentrate on combating the atmosphere of violent paranoia about “deviance” that the Ministry has helped create.