War on Drugs, War on Terror, War on the Poor

Coming to a New York near you: Soldiers map Afghanis for future waterboarding

“Human mapping”?  This has something to do with DNA, right? You plot out all those genomes, and pretty soon you can rebuild Einstein from some vitamin pills and a teaspoon of battery fluid. Before you put that primeval soup on the stove, though, be aware the phrase means other things.  In Afghanistan, “‘human maps‘ help fight Taliban”:

 “I’m 105 years old,” said Bismiullah, an old man stopped by a patrol in southern Afghanistan as part of military efforts to map the population in the battle against the Taliban. …

Troops in the region and across Afghanistan are gathering photographs, fingerprints and employment details as well as canvassing opinions from local residents to find out what they want for the war-racked province. The goal is to strengthen relations between pro-government forces and the local population.

But the information gathered can also help troops catch Taliban fighters, for example by matching fingerprints on home-made bombs or guns.

Formally known as human terrain mapping, the process is a key strand of the strategy to build better ties between pro-government forces and local people as the war enters arguably its most important year.

Yes, fingerprinting centenarians is a great way to win hearts and minds!  As with most counter-insurgency efforts, however, those organs are less important than controlling musculature and movement. In Vietnam or Malaysia, the imperial powers isolated populations in “strategic hamlets” to keep them away from rebel forces. Now you use information and the associated technologies to identify people, fix loyalties and locations, survey where people go. “The guerrilla must swim in the people as the fish swims in the sea,” Mao said, more or less. The old idea was to drain the water and leave the fish exposed and flopping.  Now, you tag it with an electronic beeper, and later set a drone after it. Politics as animal control!

We don’t have guerillas here in the United States, but you can never be too careful.   That, at least, is the argument behind the New York Police Department’s recently revealed, hugely controversial surveillance plan to keep tabs on Muslims. The Associated Press’s reporting on this in the last few months has unveiled an enormous domestic intelligence program, arguably the most insidious since the COINTELPRO probes honeycombed the Left back in the 1960s.  There were “mosque crawlers” sent to infiltrate places of worship; there were spies on student groups at jihadist caravanserais like Yale; there was “human mapping” of “communities of interest” and “Locations of Concern.”  A “Location of Concern,” so the cops’ secret papers say, is a

–Localized center of activity for a particular ethnic group.
–Location that persons of concern may be attracted to.
–Location that individuals may frequent to search for ethnic companionship.
–Location that individuals may find co-conspirators for illegal actions.

Or: a “Popular hangout or meeting location for a particular ethnic group that provides a forum for listening to neighborhood gossip or otherwise provide an overall feel for the community.” Just watch these terrorists:


And there are literal maps:

In addition to Egyptians, Afghanis, and Nigerians in teeming Newark, the NYPD also mapped out Brazilians and Portuguese. Each fado may conceal a fatwa, if you play it backwards. The flame of the churrascaria burns in the eyes of the martyrs.

Plenty of people have condemned New York’s spy system since the story broke, but the Obama administration has been quiet. Today, though, we learned that US government money went to pay for the local secret-police work:

The money is part of a little-known grant intended to help law enforcement fight drug crimes. Since the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, the Bush and Obama administrations have provided $135 million to the New York and New Jersey region through the High Intensity Drug Trafficking Area program, known as HIDTA….

The White House HIDTA grant program was established at the height of the drug war to help police fight drug gangs and unravel supply routes. It has provided about $2.3 billion to local authorities in the past decade.

The War on Drugs morphed, like a late-model Terminator, into the War on Terror. “After the terror attacks, law enforcement was allowed to use some of that money to fight terrorism.” We don’t know exactly how much is some: “NYPD intelligence operations receive scant oversight in New York. Congress, which approves the money for the program, is not provided with a detailed breakdown of activities.” $1.3 million of the money, though, went to buy cars that “have been used to photograph mosques and record the license plates of worshippers.”

the Eye of Sauron

In addition … the White House money pays for part of the office space the intelligence division shares with other agencies in Manhattan. When police compiled lists of Muslims who took new, Americanized names, they kept those records on HIDTA computer servers. That was ongoing as recently as October, city officials said.

Many NYPD intelligence officers, including those that conducted surveillance of Muslim neighborhoods, had HIDTA email addresses. Briefing documents for Kelly, the police commissioner, were compiled on HIDTA computers. Those documents described what police informants were hearing inside mosques and which academic conferences Muslim scholars attended.

When police wanted to pay a confidential informant, they were told to sign onto the HIDTA website to file the paperwork…

The truth is that governance in the US has been slipping fully into the modes and mindset of a security state for a long time. The government sees large parts of its population not as citizens or constituencies, but as potential objects of a counterinsurgency campaign.

The security state no longer legitimates itself by safeguarding the general welfare. Neoliberalized and mortgaged up to its testicles, it’s given up on that.   It defines itself by its ability to defend the borders: to provide military triumphs, a sufficient if never unquestionable sense of safety, and some colorful, invigorating rah-rah . Since there is a limit to how often threats from outside can be conjured or concocted, it eventually turns to other enemies, internal, intestinal.   Its purpose becomes defending part of the population against another part.

The War on Drugs, far from being a placid predecessor of the Terror Games, was a perfect template. It identified marked, ethnically defined groups within the citizenry as Communities of Interest (and don’t think I mean the white suburbanites who recharged the coke market in the ’80s).  It mapped out Locations of Concern, and helped resegregate the Interestees in them.  It charted a new geography. It plotted out the ties of import and exchange that linked Concernful places inside the boundaries — in inner cities, in shuttered crack houses, in the muling guts of migrant women — to strategic Concerns and enemies abroad, from Colombia to Kandahar. The internal crisis became a cause for external action. We devastated Panama, or seized the poppy fields of Afghanistan, because invisible tendrils tied them to our own neighborhoods. The sense of mysterious linkage made for menace, but out of it we recuperated the knowledge that we were different, and better. (Steven Soderbergh’s weird, fantasy movie Traffic, about the drug trade, makes the myths explicit: he filmed the Mexico scenes on old, yellow stock, as if foreign air were made of different chemicals and, once immersed in it, you start swimming through molasses.)   War at home and war abroad cooperated. Other nations’ sovereignties surrender to our impotence over what happens within our own. Most recently, the US presided over a massacre in Jamaica: local police and military killed dozens of civilians in order to capture a single drug lord who had offended against the Americans. What we ask of our allies in South America or the Caribbean is that they become slightly less chaotic versions of Waziristan.

This means, too, that the Wars on Drugs and on Terror amount in essence to a single War: the big one, on the Poor.   Mike Davis wrote a decade ago about the coming urban landscapes where states will control unemployed and disenfranchised masses of migrants with force. That’s what you’ve got in Brazil. What the US pushed Jamaica’s government to do, Dilma Roussef did at her own discretion (with, to be sure, the added push of cleaning up Rio for the coming Olympics): she called in the military to invade and clean up the favelas. 

The NYPD, I’m afraid, is onto something. It’s true that the closest thing to a terror attack on the city in the last decade was foiled, not by their millions in surveillance money, but by a T-shirt vendor who noticed an oddly smoking car in Times Square. But for Mayor Bloomberg, this only means we have to enlist the entire T-shirt vending community as permanent informers. Faced with the fact that “The NYPD routinely monitored the websites, blogs and forums of Muslim student associations at colleges including Yale, Columbia University and the University of Pennsylvania,” he answered: “If going on websites and looking for information is not what Yale stands for, I don’t know.” We need an enemy, and if a sophomore blogger is what we’re stuck with, run with what you got.  The watching cameras multiply. This is our new world, where all the wars are civil wars.

Hired guns, generals, and billionaires: policing in New York and Cairo


Scrooge McDuck's Money Bin

Juan Cole compares how Egypt’s ruling military, and America’s ruling oligarchy, respond to demonstrations demanding change.

In two protests thousands of miles away from one another on Saturday, a similar spirit of demand for government responsiveness to the people was made. In both cases there was a police crackdown and some clashes broke out. But in one case, the government showed flexibility and attempted to take steps to calm the anger of the people. In the other, the government was silent and no changes were envisioned.

While the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF) cleared Midan Tahrir of protesters Saturday, they also offered some tentative concessions on the upcoming elections and the transfer of power. Meanwhile,  New York’s Mayor Bloomberg, safe in City Hall, instructed his police to lure hundreds of demonstrators into a trap and arrest them. 

 Cole says:

American government is often a kind of elective dictatorship, where politicians and bureaucrats feel that once they cast their ballots, the people should sit down and shut up and let those elected run everything and make all the decisions (even if those decisions clearly run counter to what the electorate was signalling it wanted). … When will American government show the flexibility and willingness to compromise on issues with an engaged democratic public that the generals in Cairo are showing?

Cole goes way too easy on the bemedalled mafiosi who now rule Cairo. #FuckSCAF is a popular hashtag on Egyptians’ twitter. And rightly. Until SCAF takes the crucial step of scrapping the emergency law — the century-old provisions that enable a regime of arbitrary arrest and torture — the generals will continue to fuck the country over in royal fashion.  No cosmetic changes can substitute for the army’s pulling out on this one.

Meanwhile, neither Bloomberg nor Obama has exclusive power to remedy the Wall Street Occupation’s grievances, which strike close to the heart of the economic and political system. But surely Bloomberg sees his job as something larger than safeguarding his fellow billionaires. Right?  Surely Hizzoner could, at a minimum, refrain from siccing his cops on peaceful demonstrators just because they point threatening middle fingers at his tax bracket.

Or could he? The New York Police Department is almost — not quite — as notorious for torture as its counterparts in Cairo.  There’s nothing aberrant about this. As Mike Davis started arguing a decade ago: in the next century, cities will stop being centers of production, and turn into guarded, gated havens where the monied enjoy culture, surrounded by teeming slums of migrants without jobs or future. Policing, in this divided world, will become a matter of protecting the transnational rich  — those plugged into global capital flows — against the encircling urban chaos of the dispossessed and hopeless poor. Brutality will be increasingly essential to keep the enclaves of money safe from those outside.

It’s Bed-Stuy against the Trump Tower, Embaba against Zamalek, and the forces of public order will morph more and more openly into a hired security squad defending the latter. That’s a dystopic vision. But Bloomberg may have just offered us a preview glimpse.