Thursday, February 27, 2014

On Social Media PART I: The Ghost In The Network

If you have ever seen The Matrix you will be familiar with the concept of life taking place in two places: one in the "real world" and the other in a digital mainframe that constitutes an ideal representation of our world. In the film the matrix can physically be entered and exited through a series of wires and servers that transmit a persons' consciousness to and from the mainframe. Freedom— it is said in the film—comes when one is able to unplug from the matrix at will and even master it by bending "reality" from the inside.

"Do not try to bend the spoon—that’s impossible. Only try to realize the truth", an enlightened boy posited to Neo, the main character.

"What truth?" he replies.

"There is no spoon." 

We don't (yet) plug into a simulated experience like humans do in The Matrix, but we do create avatars of ourselves that think like us, feel like us, and act like us. My question is: when does the avatar start thinking for us?

What if I were to propose to you that we have already begun the process of forming, living in, and assimilating into the matrix (or what I am going to call "the Network") here in the real world? Social media has created a whole 'nother universe that parallels our own which is slowly starting to become the catalyst for real world interactions. In this five part series, I would like to pick apart the uses of social media in order to evaluate its purpose in society and its potential for molding the real world around us. You don't need me to convince you of the power of the social network. You probably ran across this blog post through someone in your network. Its ubiquitous nature is undeniable, but its power has largely gone unchecked or unevaluated. This is my attempt…

Before I begin in detail I would like to set out a few presuppositions before you. First, I am assuming that the brain works in a network. Each synapse in your brain correlates to a certain idea, construct, or action and is connected to other synapses via electrical and chemical firings that are prompted by external or internal stimuli. (Where this impetus comes from no one [that I know of] knows) Likewise, I am assuming that the electrical wiring that makes computers—and consequently, the Network—function also fires between nodes in a similar manner.

Input --> connection^x  --> pattern --> output.

The now infamous Edward Snowden leaks revealed something interesting about the nature of digital imprints. The NSA, he said, can gather bulk data on users including their social media posts and create webs of associations and patterns of activity. Now, if webs and patterns can be formed by persons' activities does it not stand to reason that these patterns—which will most likely replicate themselves over time due to the nature of behavioral patterns—could be interpreted to predict behavior? Furthermore, could these patterns of digital connections essentially mirror brain activity? For example, let's just that synapses X, Y, and Z are being used to form idea A^1. Now if that same idea is expressed within the network then a pattern will also manifest in electrical impulses in the electronic world. Let's call that pattern A, B, and C = A^2. Therefore, it would stand to reason that X+Y+Z = A+B+C. The only difference is the realm or world that the pattern takes place in—either the real world or the Network.

If real world experiences are indeed mirrored in the Network then a ghost—or a digital imprint of those recorded activities—exists permanently within the ether of the Network. If enough of these patterns form and replicate over time then they could form a metapattern that could essentially predict behavior in the "real world" given certain stimuli. The advantage that the Network has is that it functions with the might and power of the processing capabilities of the servers on which they are housed. Due to the multi-billion dollar backing of the Network by The Corporation—for all practical purposes—these connections are made instantly. Therefore, for the avid social media user their lives are being mirrored; interpreted and processed; and conclusions and predictions drawn—all in real-time.

Are there any benefits to this process? Surely. The advantages are that if someone is self-criticizing enough then they can monitor their patterns and alter them based on their desired outcome (their ideal avatar of themselves). The disadvantages are more numerous. Not many folks take the time to look backwards and evaluate their words and actions. Mostly they continue along their own linear timelines and make decisions based on the illusion that they have a choice. (Behavioral patterns and inclinations are predetermined even if individual actions are not.)

If every move you make is recorded on the Network then a ghost of yourself is imprinted there that—thanks to privacy policies and content agreements—exists apart from yourself. In short, a ghost of you exists in the digital world that has a life of its own. You don't control it. (Even scarier—someone owns it.)

In a recent interview on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, Michio Kaku a theoretical physicist and all around smart guy noted that the Obama administration has approved a $1B project to map the connections of the brain to make a person's personality available to future generations after their body has died.[1] If a stationary map can be made of the brain then why could not some catalyst charge give it the impetus to repeat its patterns? It could think. You could think. Outside your body.

Now, humans are meant to be in community. No person exists outside of the connections they've made with other living beings or the "outside world". If your personhood is stored and firing in a digital file that produces a personality and we are a compassionate society then you would think that we would try to connect your newly extrabiological and transcendent presence into a community of like-minds (see what I did there?).

I think that social media is the first step in mapping these connections in a community. By creating patterns of our actions, affections, and platitudes we are creating a digital imprint or ghost in the Network. We are creating idealized portraits of ourselves to interact with other people's idealized portraits of themselves. In this way we are creating a rudimentary parallel world where these ghosts interact. One day this process holds the potential to hold our consciousnesses and allow them to exist solely in the ether. We can't plug in yet, but the mapping has begun.

I do think that the ghosts are starting to act on our behalf. Do I think that our digital imprints have somehow gained consciousness and are purposefully affecting or daily decisions? No, not yet. However, in the little under a decade or so that social media has exists think about how many electrical (neural) pathways have been created between people, ideas, activities (history), and a plethora of other experiences. These pathways (or patterns) have already begun to be processed. How do you think that advertisements are tailored just for you? I recently read an article that said that megachain Target's algorithm can predict when a woman is pregnant before even she knows based on her activity.[2] If Target can do it think about what the higher sciences can do. Furthermore, how many “real life” arguments have you had thanks to a wrong “like” here or messaging the wrong person there? Why did it matter? Because your pattern is you.

In this five part series on social media I want to explore the reasons why I (and we) use this Network and if it is worth being plugged into the matrix. In the interest of transparency I will warn you that I am writing this as a sort of meta-external-processing in which I am going to try to figure out whether I want to continue plugging in. This is my journey evaluating and attempting to check the power of the Network before it has the power to say, "I am" (and I am not).

The Network seems to offer four basic functions: Entertainment, External Processing, Networking, and Medicine.

PART II coming next week... 

Thursday, February 20, 2014

The Table Of Brotherhood Or Race—Can We Talk About It?

I recently read an article written by a dear friend, Christopher "Flood the Drummer" Norris, on race relations that moved me deeply.[1] I had such a poignant mixture of emotions to what he wrote that initially I honestly didn't how to respond. However, I'd like to. I'd really like to engage with this conversation in the public forum and I think that was the point of his article so I have decided to write, but before I begin I want to take his advice and check my privilege at the door. I recognize that my having a voice in this forum on this issue on this Internet with these words takes place in a context and there are many experiences within that context that I cannot speak to, understand, judge, or for which I have the ability to empathize. However, I write this with a hope—perhaps naïve—that I can add something constructive to the conversation. With that said I sincerely hope what I have written here will be taken in the spirit that I have intended it—love.

I am a white male who grew up in neighborhoods that were occupied predominately by people of color. As such I have had a unique experience that I find difficult to talk about these days with white folks and people of color given the systematic structures of oppression that exist that keep me and people who look like me on top by default. However, in Atlanta (where my growing up happened) I found myself in many conversations with people of color about their experiences with oppression. They were never held in forums, town halls, or meetings on community relations; we were just kids talking about life.

In elementary school I remember we talked alot about Dr. King's dream of "sitting down together at the table of brotherhood" and what that meant.[2] We were told the histories of what happened to black folks throughout American history (albeit the condensed, watered down, barely recognizable versions of history that are easier on the privileged stomach), but also that we were to treat each other equally without bias. Therefore, as I grew up I tried to engage folks on these issues. It was never a problem for me to talk about race with people of color or other white folks. I knew shit was fucked up. I saw it. My friends went through it every day and told me about it. It was an open secret that the world treated some people different. My job—it seemed to me—was not to act like the world, but to do my best to sit at that table of brotherhood and talk with the folks sitting there with me about what to do about it.     

Later, I moved to Lookout Mountain, GA/Chattanoooga, TN where I attended a Christian college (that in and of itself being a privilege seeing as how LOTS of people from where I am from where not given the same opportunity [I went to school on scholarships]). I will spare you a lot of details but suffice it to say that I spent a lot of my time there in Churches devoted to racial harmony because they were convinced that—as it is written—"there is neither Jew nor Gentile because [Jesus] broke down the dividing wall of hostility in his flesh." (Ephesians 2:13-18) Now, I know that there is a lot of historical context to explore in that passage and I will gladly do that with anyone who would like, but for our purposes here we took it as a command to be a new people; a new race; a holy race… if not in the world, at least in the Church. We didn't do it perfectly, but we tried. We tried really hard by attempting to be upfront and honest and about our fears, inclinations, assumptions, hopes, and dreams. Now, when I moved to Philly and got involved in the activist scene everything changed...

One poignant example was one of the electrified general assemblies that I facilitated early on at Occupy Philly. A few people of color came to the front of the assembly and demanded the microphone to address a couple of pressing issues they had with our camp. I gave it to them. They accused the Occupy movement of purposefully practicing racism and berated our lack of attention to the causes of the traditionally marginalized. As you might imagine this caused an uproar. When I was given the mic back I attempted to calm the crowd by saying "We aren't racist here!" Two women—one of which who I have worked very closely with since—yelled back "yes, we are!" I didn't know how to respond. I was flabbergasted. "Why?” I thought to myself. I was operating under the assumption that we were there to act and be the change we wanted to see in the world. I couldn't imagine anyone there saying that they wanted to be racist so I couldn't understand their reasoning.

Since, I have come to understand their point. They were telling me and the crowd that racism is inherent and systematic. It is—as a close friend of mine likes to put it—a poison that we can't help but breathe. Like the folks who brought their concerns to the general assembly they were trying to instill in me and us the fact that there are systematic structures that inhibit certain people groups from achieving X, Y, and Z in America and those structures mold our actions and who we are. What I still don't understand is why we are content to let this poison kill us.

The Apostle Paul likened the Holy Spirit to a down payment of things to come in the new world (Ephesians 1:13-14). In other words the very Spirit of God would come upon believers to empower them to be able to live a resurrected life that was a reflection of the world to come which would be characterized by love, righteousness, peace, and joy (Romans 14:17). In other words: (through the Spirit) be the change you want to see in the world. My naive belief was that we, at Occupy Philly's Dilworth Plaza encampment, were trying to model the world we wanted to see. I facilitated as many, if not more, general assemblies than anyone there and I, nor my fellow facilitators, ever—to my knowledge—purposefully prioritized a white male voice over traditionally marginalized and/or oppressed peoples. On the contrary, we tried our best to act (and structure general assemblies) in such a way to empower those voices. Did it work perfectly? No. Hell, no. But was it a step in the right direction?

Here is my issue: I think that purposeful practice of the world we want to see and open dialogue about that world is progress. I think that babies taking their first steps to walk are something to be celebrated not lamented because they cannot run marathons right away. However, so many of my activist friends are so compelled to call out racism that it is all they can see. They are so overwhelmingly convinced of the presence of the poison that they can't smell the fresh air, even when they are temporarily immersed in it. There have been times in activist circles when I have been lambasted for parading my privilege like I don't know I have it when I have been thinking about these issues my whole life and living and loving among many loved ones suffering from it, but I am reprimanded in the moment. By merely expressing an unpopular question (such as "Can we talk about this? Can you help me understand?") I have been told that I am exercising my privilege and not taking into accounts the feelings and experiences of the oppressed. More times than I can count I have been told by activist people of color: "It's not my job to help you understand your privilege— talk to other white people about it." Then how am I (and we, for the matter) to understand? Can the blind lead the blind?

I was taught in Church and in school to love people. It is a spiritual issue for me. But how am I supposed to interact with the issue of systematic racist institutions and attempt to dismantle them over time when every time I attempt it I am put in a box? (The irony of the question does not go over my head) How am I to be an ally when I ask a question and the only answer I get is "that's not my job to figure that out for you—talk to other white people”? What if none of us know? How are the privileged supposed to dismantle racism in a way that reflects the community of the oppressed if the oppressed don't give us guidance? Even if I developed the perfect response to the racist regime it would still be the workings of a white male who has been given a voice on the issue without asking for it.

All of this is why I loved Chris' article. I think that anyone who would call him out with negative titles should look at themselves in a mirror before they pass judgment. I am not a perfect man, far from it. Neither is Chris. But I call that man "brother" because I have the naive belief that we, as people, can make a choice to not be held captive by our pasts but can run to the future together as one because we have purposefully broken down the dividing wall of hostility with our love. If the institutions that America has built are racist then I choose revolution, but I can't do it alone. And I will never know who my comrades are if I cannot talk to them about these issues. Fear is a powerful tool. I believe "the Man" knows that well which is why he keeps the well intentioned divided. But only love will save us; only love can break down the dividing wall of race; only love will bring us together. Whether we choose to practice love is a daily decision and not an easy one because history HAS been unfair; it has enslaved; it has oppressed. But can we do better? I hope so. If not on an institutional level (yet) then at least on a personal level. I'll be waiting at the table of brotherhood for anyone who would join me. I believe this is what Chris is trying to say: let's talk about it openly and honestly until we dismantle the ubiquitous foundations of racism together. Can we?

I submit this to you with the utmost humility. Honestly, I'm scared. I'm afraid this will be taken in a negative way; will be seen as just another expression of privilege; and will be an inhibition to progress. But I don't have a choice. I am so tired. I am so tired of being alienated from my brothers and sisters because of a world that was built without my permission. I submit this to you in the hope that in the spirit of love we will overcome.


Tuesday, February 18, 2014

InterOccupy: A People's Digital Toolkit Or "A Committee Of Friends"

As the Occupy movement has progressed over the past few years I have been the most impressed with our foundation building. Most movements take several years to develop the kind of coordination and coalition building that we accomplished in a matter of months with most of this made possible by the Internet. Social media has got to be the best organizing tool ever devised by humanity. In just a few short weeks tents were being raised in public parks and streets were being taken all around the world. Occupy Wall Street became Occupy Everywhere within a matter of months. Why? Because we have been able to communicate and collaborate on a mass scale almost instantaneously. As a result, our ideas have spread like wildfire. However, connection is not always the X factor in successful coordination: there must also be an infrastructure.

In my experience, InterOccupy has been the most consistent and prolific so far.[1] Early on in the movement we were not satisfied with communicating in messages on walls. We wanted to hear the voice and passion of our sisters and brothers around the world. To that end a group out of Occupy Wall Street's Movement Building Working Group put together a conference call to attempt to get occupations from Seattle to Kalamazoo to Atlanta to Toronto to talk to each other. it worked. That first Monday night call there were more than 200+ Occupiers fresh from their newly formed General Assemblies who came on the call to hear how things were working elsewhere and offer any advice they'd gleaned. These conversations were so long and fruitful that they became a weekly staple.

Then we realized the potential. If we applied the principles of the movement (i.e. transparency, openness, and democracy) to these services then we could create a virtual organizing space in which we could organize statewide, regional, national, and international actions and campaigns. In the months that followed the movement had used this system to organize the November 17th national day of action, the west coast port shutdown, the National Gathering, the one year anniversary of Occupy Wall Street, and most important to date—IMO—Occupy Sandy.

But those of us who have been involved since those first couple of conference calls realized the potential of building this network so we sought to develop it. First, we came up with the Committee of Correspondence network. On October 20th, 2011 the Messaging working group of Occupy Philly sent a communiqué to the rest of the movement. In the words of Nate Kleinmen, one of the penmen of the document, it essentially expressed, "that we should try to organize ourselves nationally as we do locally." Therefore, just as we sought to abide by our principles on our calls we also wanted to appropriate our ideas in our organization. Therefore, working groups were formed all over the country that were dedicated to inter-occupy communication. We ended up forming bonds that will last the rest of our lives. The Committee of Friends may even be a more accurate title for the network.

We have used this network well. Inter-occupational campaigns are far more common these days. Even local on-the-ground disaster recovery became a national affair. What once was a group of loosely connected allies has evolved into an international network of activists committed to the same goals with the same principles. In short, we have built an underground network for a revolution. All that's left is to utilize it.

From listservs to wikis to online forums and calls, InterOccupy has packaged a tool kit that can plan coordinated national actions or mass gatherings from the bottom up... for free. If we are going to win the battle of titans then we are going to have to unify in purpose and in spirit for to fight the battle with the enemies weapon is to lose the war in principle. Thankfully, InterOccupy has developed and continues to develop an Occupy created, owned, and cooperatively operated social network which the world can use to organize itself into a People's Revolution. The time has come for the people to take the power back. I'll meet you online to discuss how to do it.


Tuesday, February 11, 2014

Who Will Watch The Watchers? Or The Character and Consequences of Edward Snowden

Edward Snowden, America's disowned international man of anti-secrecy, recently sat down with a German news organization to discuss his life, now infamous NSA revelations, and hopes for the future.[1] According to a couple of unconfirmed sources in the blogosphere this interview is apparently slowly being taken down from various websites so I decided that I would write about it in order to examine three areas of covered in the interview: Snowden's character; the NSA's capabilities; and the consequences of his revelations.


I must begin where the mass media so often falters. They call Edward Snowden many names from traitor to turncoat, you do not get that impression from the well dressed, clean cut, articulate man who sat down for this interview. Despite regularly having threats made on his life from government officials he still speaks softly with candor and conviction.[2]

The interview started with many aspects of Snowden's personal life. For example, Snowden admits that he has always been a lover of computers and electronic technologies even from an early age, which explains his prodigious proficiency and skill. He is also asked about his former desire and attempt to become a US Army Ranger during the Iraq war.[3] This piece of information often raises eyebrows. Why would a lifelong computer geek turned human rights activist (his words, not mine) ever want to train with an elite fighting force? “Not all Special Forces are combat units”, he argued. His desire to participate was precipitated by the notion that he could become a specialist who could be dropped behind enemy lines to empower the local population with skills and resources that would "allow them to determine their own destiny." Snowden never got that change because he broke both of his legs during training and was discharged, but his skills were nevertheless noticed and recruited. He didn't want to talk directly about how he was recruited only that he was. He worked for the CIA and as a contractor for the NSA through a company called Booz Allen Hamilton.[4]

When asked for the reason he made his now famous revelations he pointed to one instance in particular when James Clapper, the Director of National Intelligence, blatantly lied to Congress under oath about the NSA's spying apparatus. When asked whether they collected bulk data on American citizens he simply responded "no".[5] Snowden believed (and still believes) that this lie was in direct conflict with the values of transparency and public knowledge essential to the democratic process. He felt it his moral duty given his unique technological capabilities and access to leak the extent of this lie by releasing the NSA's capabilities for the public good. Snowden used the phrase "for the public good" more times than any other phrase in this interview. His second most used phrase was (loosely) “journalistic value judgments.”

The interviewer several times asked Snowden about the extent of the NSA's surveillance from “how many German leaders had been spied on” to “whether information on German citizens was given directly to the German government by the NSA's surveillance apparatus” (blatantly illegal). Each time he was asked about the specifics of the spying apparatus Mr. Snowden—though he had the answers—differed to the integrity of those journalists to whom he had given the information. Though he is painted by a large cross section of the mass media as a power hungry attention-hog he made it very clear that his intention was not to divulge more information than journalists thought necessary or prudent. That is not the character of a megolomaniac, but a whisteblower concerned with the state of our democracy. That is the man Edward Snowden.

What continues to fascinate more than the character of Edward Snowden is the content of the revelations themselves. I could go on for days about what has thus far come to light, but for the sake of brevity I will limit myself to two salient points from this particular interview: catalysts and capabilities.


Firstly, who is involved in the global spy machine? Snowden refers to a group of five countries that are Orwellianly referred to as the "Five Eyes". These countries—US, UK, Canada, Australia, and New Zealand—comprise a pack of post-WWII anglo-allied states that have agreed to cooperate and share the cost and resources of international spying with each other. All five have agreed not to target citizens in each others countries however the documents that bind them make it perfectly clear that these laws are not intended to restrict movement, but simply to maintain state sovereignty. In other words, the UK is not suposed say "OK NSA, can you keep an eye and a trace on British citizens X, Y, and Z?” They aren’t supposed to do it themselves because that would be illegal under their own laws. However, they do not restrict each other from gathering bulk data from wherever, drawing their own conclusions, and sharing that data with each other. In essence, they break each other’s laws for each other so as not to break their own laws.

So, If a collection of "allied intelligence agencies" (God, it sounds like a world war pack) can gather bulk amounts of data and share it with each other the next logical question would be: what kind of data can they gather?


Mr. Snowden several times mentions the difference between targeting individual citizens and gathering bulk data. The former he argues is much harder to justify without the specific order from a FISA court (though it does happen on a regular basis), but the latter he reveals happens en toto. A few times during the interview he points out that if you (yes, you reading this) turn on your smartphone, swipe a credit card, shop online, log into a network, check your email, receive an SMS etc. then you are leaving a digital fingerprint that the NSA (and consequently those in within the circle of trust) has the capacity and capability to record and track. They even have the ability to tag any activity that they feel is suspicious, which makes every move the person in question makes vulnerable to being tracked in real-time on an individual basis.
Through a front end search engine program called “XKeyScore” the NSA literally has the ability to track anything that any of us do that has a digital imprint.[6] It can access global communications from email addresses; networks that tagged individuals have accessed; and even build webs of associations. Due to weak security protocols built into corporate, government, and foreign servers the NSA has free reign into every piece of digital information. President Obama even alluded to this capability in his "major speech on intelligence gathering" when he asserted that though the government could gather all this data doesn't mean that they should, thereby implying that they could (!)[7]

Now, if the NSA and their partners can gather every bit of digital information what kind are they targeting? Are they sticking with political concerns or extending further? While Snowden did not want to get into the specifics, due to his commitment to journalistic considerations, he did say—albeit vaguely—that NSA spying was not limited to security concerns but also included economic espionage on behalf of US interests as well.

All this he asserted was the direct result of privatizing security functions. Keep in mind that Snowden had access to all this sensitive information as a result of his position as a contractor for the NSA (staffing the XKeyScore station) through Booz Allen. These for-profit corporations—he argues—do not have the public interest in mind, but are by definition profit-driven. Therefore, because they have the capability to do so these corporations make the argument to government agencies that there is a need to gather every piece of digital data. The consequences are such that private citizens with very little authority or supervision are given access to almost every bit of digital data for profit, not the public good.


When asked about the political consequences of his actions Snowden characterized the official response as a "circling of wagons". At first President Obama condemned Snowden's actions as the immature acts of an attention seeking misguided traitor. Since then the administration has begun to acknowledge the overreach of the NSA and has even formed a panel to investigate the legality and efficacy of the programs. Though the panel was made up of Obama's people—according to Snowden—they nevertheless have issued statements condemning the breadth of the program and offering recommendations for systematic reforms.[8] The only act they found that was even close to being worthy of consideration that had been flagged as a result of the NSA programs was an $8,500 wire transfer from a cab driver. Hardly worth a systematic dismantling of civil liberties.

"What then shall we do?" was the question inevitably asked at the end of the interview. Will the law change? One option the interviewer suggested was creating "national Internets" that could house their own data. Snowden's response was as poignant as it was cheeky: “’walled gardens’ aren't going to keep the NSA out.” Though national Internets may raise the level of sophistication of gathering the data, if the NSA wants it—they'll get it. Moving data around isn't the solution. The solution is creating international standards for securing private data, argued Snowden.

What of Edward himself? What are the long-term consequences for him? Will he stay in Russia for the rest of his life? The interviewer asked what other countries he had applied to for asylum. The list was long, but superfluous to reiterate here for no one had yet granted it to him. Snowden hoped that as time went on the US government would see that the information he had given journalists—not foreign governments—was not harmful to the national interest, and therefore he would be allowed to return home.

Currently, Snowden is charged with breaking the Espionage Act of 1917.[9] However, he was quick to point out that this law was intended to prosecute those who willing gave information over to foreign governments with the intent to undermine their own countries' national security. There was never a caveat for those would give information over to journalists for the public good. The government apparatus wants him to "face the music”, but Snowden asserts that the music would simply be a show trial for the crimes he is charged with do not guarantee a jury trial, especially considering the government’s vilification campaign. His chances at a fair trial are negligible, if not impossible, given the political ramifications of the outcome. 

The New York Times recently published an editorial exhorting the White House to end the vilification of Mr. Snowden and grant him clemency so he can come home.[10] "What is lawful is distinct from what is right-ful", Snowden claims. I think his actions speak louder than his words. His revelations have caused no harm except to expedite the shame of the policies of administrations past and present that have baselessly eroding civil liberties. That is what is heating the embers of this fire, not the actual breaking of a law. I have mentioned a few times that more than any other statement in this interview Snowden pointed out that he did what he did for the public good. Why does the NSA do what they do? For the corporate good. Now ask yourself who really deserves to be put on trial here? Given the character and intent of Mr. Snowden’s actions I stand with the New York Times: he should be granted clemency and the NSA spying apparatus should be overhauled.
History will judge the patriots from the terrorists. I for one stand with Mr. Snowden.


Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Washington's "Dirty Wars": Do We Care?

I watched a documentary today called Dirty Wars. It is the story of a journalist, Jeremy Scahill, a war reporter whose credentials include coverage of the conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, Yemen, Somalia and a host of other countries engulfed in US wars. He has been to the battlefield, talked to survivors and perpetrators alike, and has seen firsthand the horrors of war. I would continue with his resume but suffice it to say that this guy is no novice. 

This particular story centers around a trip that Mr. Scahill took to Afghanistan. He goes to one of the areas that is normally left untouched by mainstream journalism due to its volatility. In the film he marks that the road to get there is designated black, that's NATO-speak for "you don't go there." He braves the dangers because he wants to investigate a couple of Afghan civilian deaths. 

I will leave the full account of his journey to the film, but basically what he discovers is that a family was having a gathering with eating and dancing before US soldiers showed up and started firing on their house. They kill two men and two pregnant women. One of the men killed was an Afghan police commander who had been trained in several US run programs. Was he considered an enemy combatant? What about the pregnant women? The official story released by the Pentagon initially said that these deaths were perpetuated by Afghans themselves as "honor killings." However, eyewitness accounts by family members and photo/video evidence prove otherwise. They were killed by bearded Americans. There was clearly a cover up. The questions Mr. Scahill left with was who and why? 

Through a series of investigations his attention is drawn to a military unit that is solely under the direct supervision of the White House called JSOC. JSOC is a joint agency that is responsible for caring out special operations. What is uncovered throughout Mr. Scahill's investigation is that JSOC's operations a) do not have to be in a designated warzone (as demonstrated by another situation covered in the film of a cruise missile being fired on civilians in Yemen) and b) are not under NATO command (even the CIA and local US occupied bases claim to have no knowledge of their soldiers' movements). There are many exhibits in the film that are much more convincing of these points than I can or should offer here, but presently I just want to paint some broad strokes of just how secretive and unaccountable these units are in order to illustrate their clandestine yet ubiquitous nature. Civilians are being killed in non-warzones in secret by American forces (even American citizens without due process in the case of Anwar Al-Awlaki) yet the US government will not even acknowledge that they are happening. 

My purpose here is not to go too far in detail about the specifics of each case. I simply wish to point out to you, the American citizen, what is being done in your name behind closed doors with your tax dollars with no accountability in order to ask you a question-- do you care? 

I am not a scholar of international diplomacy or war. I am not a soldier. I am not a politician. I am simply a tax paying citizen who cares what his country does abroad. I am also a human being who cares about the lives of innocent people. I also live under the presupposition- though I am not so inclined to really believe it these days- that we live in a democracy and I therefore have the right of a voice and the responsibility of action. 

There was a time when the general feeling (and law for that matter) was that the President needed Congress' approval in order to go to war. It is my deduction that if the President needed the authority of Congress then it implicitly needed the approval of the people who politicians are supposed to represent. Since W Bush that mandate has been circumvented at best and blatantly ignored at worst. No longer do Presidents seek the approval of Congress or the people to go to war. Now Commanders-in-chief have kill lists that are subject to no one except their own conscience, which I think we can safely say are beholden more to the corporate interest than to the blind hand of justice these days. 

My question is how long do we let these politicians run amuck drunk on power like this? Not only is the US defense budget more than the next 26 largest other countries in the world combined (all allies) while domestic spending is cut more and more year by year (food stamps just took an $8.7B cut), but wars are not even being fought in the traditional ways that precipitate the need for such a budget. The targeted killings that are being done on the battlefield of planet Earth are carried out (again without transparency or accountability) by a small group of special forces (JSOC, CIA, etc.). We don't go to war with countries anymore. We go to war with ideologies which can and will spring up anywhere, especially when the seeds of dissent are watered with the blood of martyrs. These small elite agencies are carrying out a world war under everyone's noses under the veil of darkness from the shadows and we are paying for it

Correct me if I am wrong but in a democracy if we pay taxes then it is my understanding that we get a voice in where that money is spent. Did you ever give your consent for your hard earned money to be used for sniper rifles, apache helicopters, night vision goggles, and the salaries of mercenaries and generals? Did you ever give your consent that billions and trillions of dollars worth of war machines be shipped overseas to kill children at weddings? Did you ever say it was ok to send a drone to fire missiles into fields of unidentified civilians? If your answer is "no" then I would ask you why is continues? Do you approve of such things being done in your name? Do you want to pay for those guns and missiles? Then I would urge you and myself to action.

Maybe I am naive. Maybe things can't change. Maybe the government really is bought off by the corporate interest and my voice is muffled to silence under the mountain of money my concerns are buried under. Maybe the US military will continue taking a majority of our money to kill innocent people and perpetuate a never-ending cycle of bloodshed that not only kills but creates terrorists in the process. Maybe we are doomed to be spied on even in our own homes. Maybe it is  possible that your or my name could be put on a kill list on the President's desk. Or maybe we could do something about it.

Maybe we could call our representatives and demand that they address the blatant abuses of the US military in foreign lands. Maybe we go to Washington D.C. and occupy the offices of those who purport to represent us while being beholden to the corporate interest. Maybe we stage rallies at national monuments to let our fellow citizens know what their government is doing in their name. Maybe we shut down traffic with our limp bodies to give a depiction of the dead lying in fields in Afghanistan, Iraq, Yemen, Somalia, and Palestine. 

I don't know the answer. I am just a man. But I also know that I am sick and tired of being complicit in the murder of hundreds and thousands of innocent people under the guise of a war that will never end and only profit the war machine. I am tired of this being done with my money; I am tired of this being done in my name. 

This post is only about war. I have not even touched upon the domestic issues and systematic oppression that plague hundreds of millions of citizens here are home. It becomes clearer and clearer to me every day that this government and their corporate puppet masters have gone too far. It is definitely time to fight back. The only question I have is-- do we care?