Profits_of_doom_cover_350Vulture capitalism has seen the corporation become more powerful than the state, and yet its work is often done by stealth, supported by political and media elites. The result is privatised wars and outsourced detention centres, mining companies pillaging precious land in developing countries and struggling nations invaded by NGOs and the corporate dollar. Best-selling journalist Antony Loewenstein travels to Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti, Papua New Guinea and across Australia to witness the reality of this largely hidden world of privatised detention centres, outsourced aid, destructive resource wars and militarized private security. Who is involved and why? Can it be stopped? What are the alternatives in a globalised world? Profits of Doom, published in 2013 and released in an updated edition in 2014, challenges the fundamentals of our unsustainable way of life and the money-making imperatives driving it. It is released in an updated edition in 2014.
forgodssakecover Four Australian thinkers come together to ask and answer the big questions, such as: What is the nature of the universe? Doesn't religion cause most of the conflict in the world? And Where do we find hope?   We are introduced to different belief systems – Judaism, Christianity, Islam – and to the argument that atheism, like organised religion, has its own compelling logic. And we gain insight into the life events that led each author to their current position.   Jane Caro flirted briefly with spiritual belief, inspired by 19th century literary heroines such as Elizabeth Gaskell and the Bronte sisters. Antony Loewenstein is proudly culturally, yet unconventionally, Jewish. Simon Smart is firmly and resolutely a Christian, but one who has had some of his most profound spiritual moments while surfing. Rachel Woodlock grew up in the alternative embrace of Baha'i belief but became entranced by its older parent religion, Islam.   Provocative, informative and passionately argued, For God's Sakepublished in 2013, encourages us to accept religious differences, but to also challenge more vigorously the beliefs that create discord.  
After Zionism, published in 2012 and 2013 with co-editor Ahmed Moor, brings together some of the world s leading thinkers on the Middle East question to dissect the century-long conflict between Zionism and the Palestinians, and to explore possible forms of a one-state solution. Time has run out for the two-state solution because of the unending and permanent Jewish colonization of Palestinian land. Although deep mistrust exists on both sides of the conflict, growing numbers of Palestinians and Israelis, Jews and Arabs are working together to forge a different, unified future. Progressive and realist ideas are at last gaining a foothold in the discourse, while those influenced by the colonial era have been discredited or abandoned. Whatever the political solution may be, Palestinian and Israeli lives are intertwined, enmeshed, irrevocably. This daring and timely collection includes essays by Omar Barghouti, Jonathan Cook, Joseph Dana, Jeremiah Haber, Jeff Halper, Ghada Karmi, Antony Loewenstein, Saree Makdisi, John Mearsheimer, Ahmed Moor, Ilan Pappe, Sara Roy and Phil Weiss.
The 2008 financial crisis opened the door for a bold, progressive social movement. But despite widespread revulsion at economic inequity and political opportunism, after the crash very little has changed. Has the Left failed? What agenda should progressives pursue? And what alternatives do they dare to imagine? Left Turn, published by Melbourne University Press in 2012 and co-edited with Jeff Sparrow, is aimed at the many Australians disillusioned with the political process. It includes passionate and challenging contributions by a diverse range of writers, thinkers and politicians, from Larissa Berendht and Christos Tsiolkas to Guy Rundle and Lee Rhiannon. These essays offer perspectives largely excluded from the mainstream. They offer possibilities for resistance and for a renewed struggle for change.
The Blogging Revolution, released by Melbourne University Press in 2008, is a colourful and revelatory account of bloggers around the globe why live and write under repressive regimes - many of them risking their lives in doing so. Antony Loewenstein's travels take him to private parties in Iran and Egypt, internet cafes in Saudi Arabia and Damascus, to the homes of Cuban dissidents and into newspaper offices in Beijing, where he discovers the ways in which the internet is threatening the ruld of governments. Through first-hand investigations, he reveals the complicity of Western multinationals in assisting the restriction of information in these countries and how bloggers are leading the charge for change. The blogging revolution is a superb examination about the nature of repression in the twenty-first century and the power of brave individuals to overcome it. It was released in an updated edition in 2011, post the Arab revolutions, and an updated Indian print version in 2011.
The best-selling book on the Israel/Palestine conflict, My Israel Question - on Jewish identity, the Zionist lobby, reporting from Palestine and future Middle East directions - was released by Melbourne University Press in 2006. A new, updated edition was released in 2007 (and reprinted again in 2008). The book was short-listed for the 2007 NSW Premier's Literary Award. Another fully updated, third edition was published in 2009. It was released in all e-book formats in 2011. An updated and translated edition was published in Arabic in 2012.

Israeli life isn’t a protection against real anti-Semitism

My following story appears on US website Mondoweiss:

“Europe will forever be tainted”, wrote Haaretz journalist Anshel Pfeffer in the wake of the terrorist attacks against Charlie Hebdo magazine and the kosher supermarket in Paris. “It will always be the continent of expulsion, blood libels, numerus clausus, ghettos and the Final Solution.” 

It was an ominous warning to European Jewry that it “may be too late” to save them from discrimination, hatred and violence. “Freedom of speech is shrinking in Europe”, Pfeffer concluded, “hemmed in on all sides by libel laws, political correctness, financial pressure and religious intimidation.” Jews would inevitably flee, he argued, if “freedom and tolerance” didn’t survive across Europe; instinctively Jews knew the history of pogroms, expulsions and death camps and never felt safe away from Israel. 

This is the debate that never goes away. It’s a discussion that lurks under the surface of almost all arguments on the future of the Jewish people and the Jewish state. Terror in France has unpicked a scab that never heals, unleashing insecurity over what it means to be a Jew in the 21st century and where to live it. Growing numbers of French Jews are moving to Israel, claiming they feel safer there than in their birth country, happy that they can openly wear a kippah [skullcap] and comforted with an army to protect them. There’s little comment about what that military actually does to the Palestinians, occupying and brutalising them daily.

It was a highly selective argument forcefully made recently by Israeli prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, telling French Jews that they were only secure under his nation’s protection, though he was slammed for shamelessly appropriating a tragedy for political gain. Israel even pressured one of the Jewish victim’s families to be buried there.

Too much of the discussion in the last weeks has revolved around a clash of civilisations narrative, with refined Europe, Israel and the west on the one side and barbaric extremism of the Muslim fanatic on the other. This is a gross insult to the truth. Moroccan-Dutch writer Abdelkader Benali explains that the reason so many European Muslims are disenfranchised, and a tiny minority are attracted to violent jihad, is because “Muslims are every bit as European as the Roma, gays, intellectuals, farmers and factory workers. We have been in Europe for centuries and politicians and the press must stop acting as if we arrived yesterday. We are here to stay.” Both Said and Cherif Kouachi, the Charlie Hebdo killers, had a long history of radicalisation against France, the US and Jews.

Increasing numbers of Muslims have argued that Islam itself needs to become far more capable of both tolerating and accepting blasphemy in a non-violent way and acknowledging that virulent antisemitism, not simply in response to Israeli violence in Gaza or the West Bank, is a rising problem. Not all anti-Jewish hatred is about Israeli crimes in Palestine (though it is one of many causes). The Jews of France have felt increasingly targeted for the act of being Jewish. Historical anti-Semitism was always about targeting the “otherness” of Jews, playing on stereotypes that today finds an expression in Islamist attacks on Jewish centres of learning. Muslims also face deep discrimination for their faith, practices and alleged association with terrorism. In fact, separatist groups are the largest majority of perpetrators of political violence in Europe, not Islamist jihadis. For example, in 2013 there were 152 terror attacks across Europe and only two were “religiously motivated”, according to Europol.

Israel is hardly a good model of tolerance and plurality; there’s a reason European boycotts are surging, more young Israelis are refusing to serve in an occupying military and prominent Zionist groups decry intermarriage as treason. It’s a delusion to believe that Jews are either safer in Israel than in Europe or more able to live peaceful lives. The narrative pushed by Netanyahu that all Jews of the world should move to Israel – 90% of his election funding comes from American Jews, proving that a Jewish diaspora remains an essential support base for maintaining Israeli policies – cynically expands the belief that Jews are the eternal victim (despite now having a country with nuclear weapons). Islam is framed as the enemy, an image recently tweeted by the Israeli embassy in Ireland.

Instead, Israeli writer Orly Noy explains, it’s easier to “promote a worldview in which there is no national conflict, no occupation, no Palestinian people and no blatant disregard for human rights. There are only Jews and Muslims. Turns out we look a lot better fighting a religious war than we do running an occupation.” Free speech is constantly under threat in Israel with a vocal and active far-right, Jewish fundamentalist movement. 

Hypocrisy over free speech principles defines this debate. Muslims are accused of having no sense of humour over depictions of the Prophet Mohammed and yet Israel and its backers routinely try to censor images critical of the Jewish state.

France, with its historical and ongoing record of colonial adventures in Africa and the Middle East, claims to believe in free speech but wants to silence those with whom it disagrees. The Charlie Hebdo massacre should enlighten us to the real power of satire and how it affects those with and without power. Is it a false comparison to say that if you can insult the prophet Muhammad, you should be able to poke fun at the Holocaust? Does British journalist Mehdi Hasan have a point when he says that “Muslims are expected to have thicker skins than their Christian and Jewish brethren”?

British political parties such as the UK Independence Party have mainstreamed anti-Muslim rhetoric of the type once experienced by Jews. “The cold truth is that organised suspicion and denigration of Islam is the new antisemitism”, argues historian John Keane. Islamophobia is a scourge despite the term being dismissed by the French prime minister.

So what are Jews to do from Australia to Europe to America? In a recent survey, a majority of British Jews said they couldn’t imagine a long-term future in England, concerned with rising anti-Semitism. This Jewish feeling of insecurity is real and can’t be easily dismissed. British police have recently stepped up patrolling Jewish communities and soldiers in Belgium are guarding Jewish sites. The threat exists.

The answer isn’t more state surveillance, as proposed by Australia, Britain, France and the US, nor mass emigration. The facts speak to a vibrant Jewish diaspora that has the right, in light of the 20th century, to settle and be safe wherever they want. Fleeing to Israel isn’t the answer. It would be a “blatant capitulation to terror”, suggested Israeli reporter Chemi Shalev.

Israel has framed itself since its inception as a “light unto the nations”. “There is no demographic or practical existence for the Jewish people without a Jewish state”, Netanyahu proclaimed in 2010. But the vast bulk of global Jewry feels secure in their own multicultural country with full rights and responsibilities, a transformation from 100 years ago when Jews were often ghettoised.

Living in Israel isn’t the solution to antisemitism, though many like the concept of a Jewish state despite its racial exclusivity. Modern Jewish identity isn’t about cowering in fear but should be about building decent communities that accept the diversity of human existence.

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The devastating cry of Guantanamo Bay inmate Fahd Ghazy

A powerful short film from the Centre for Constitutional Rights on Yemeni man Fahd Ghazy who has been imprisoned for 12 years. No crime. No guilt.

This is what causes terrorism and resistance:

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The ongoing importance of Wikileaks

My weekly Guardian column:

The secret CIA files appeared just before Christmas. One detailed how CIA operatives could maintain cover, using fake IDs, when travelling through foreign airports. Israel’s Ben Gurion airport was said to be one of the hardest to trick.

The other document, from 2009, was an assessment of the CIA’s assassination program. It raised doubts about the effectiveness of the program in reducing terrorism. Likewise with Israel’s killing of Palestinians.

In Afghanistan, the CIA discovered that murdering Taliban leaders could radicalise the militants, allowing even more extreme actors to enter the battlefield. The Obama administration ignored this advice and unleashed “targeted killings” in the country. Unsurprisingly, the insurgency is thriving.

These vital insights into the “war on terror” were released by WikiLeaks and received extensive global coverage.

Since 2010, when WikiLeaks released Collateral Murder, showing American forces killing Iraqi civilians, there have been multiple covert – and public – attempts to silence the organisation. Julian Assange has now been stuck in London’s Ecuadorian embassy for two and a half years fighting an extradition order from Sweden over allegations of sexual misconduct. There is an ongoing US grand jury examining the organisation’s role in publishing war and State Department cables. On Christmas Eve, WikiLeaks revealed that Google had turned over the Gmail account and metadata of a WikiLeaks employee in response to a US federal warrant.

The organisation’s ability to stay afloat – and continue to source and release insightful documents – among all this is remarkable.

There is some good news: Visa and MasterCard are being sued for refusing to allow funds to flow to WikiLeaks, and Assange’s lawyers are confident that the current impasse with Sweden will be resolved (although the irregularities over the case are deeply disturbing).

But the reality remains that the public image of Assange has taken a beating after years of legal fights, the botchedAustralian WikiLeaks political party and constant smears by journalists and politicians. We apparently want our heroes to be mild mannered and non-combative. We supposedly need them to be polite and not uncover countless, dirty abuses by western forces. We clearly don’t forgive them for not being perfect. Or perhaps we have a limit to how many war crimes we want to hear about with nobody facing justice? That’s hardly WikiLeaks’ fault. The group has made mistakes, and will make many more, but as a supporter since its 2006 inception, I’m struck by its resilience.

WikiLeaks has been warning against the dangers of mass surveillance for years. The 2014 Assange book, When Google Met WikiLeaks, features an insightful essayon the dangers of Google’s desire to lead American interventionist foreign policy. The book gained headlines across the world. In the month of its release, the organisation offered new documents on German company FinFisher selling its spying equipment to repressive regimes.

The emergence of NSA whistleblower Edward Snowden and his ability to live a relatively free life in Russia is partly thanks to WikiLeaks, which helped him escape Hong Kong and claim asylum in Moscow. Snowden remains free tocontinue campaigning against the dangers of global surveillance, unlike Chelsea Manning who is now suffering in an American prison for bravely leaking American cables. WikiLeaks’ Sarah Harrison, a British citizen, lives in exile in Germany due to fears of returning home after working to protect Snowden. This is the definition of heroism.

Just because WikiLeaks’ Assange and Harrison no longer appear in the media daily doesn’t mean their contribution isn’t significant. Take the recent report published by Der Spiegel that showed western policy in Afghanistan aimed to kill as many Taliban leaders as possible, regardless of the number of civilians caught in the crossfire. The thinking was summarised by the head of the International Security Assistance Force (Isaf) intelligence in Afghanistan, who once said during a briefing: “The only good Talib is a dead Talib.”

This story built on the 2010 WikiLeaks release of Afghan war logs and uncovered yet another level of the “kill everything that moves” mentality that’s been unofficial US military policy since at least Vietnam.

The danger of discounting or ignoring WikiLeaks, at a time when much larger news organisations still can’t compete with the group’s record of releasing classified material, is that we shun a rebellious and adversarial group when it’s needed most. The value of WikiLeaks isn’t just in uncovering new material, though that’s important, it’s that the group’s published material is one of the most important archives of our time. I’ve lost count of the number of journalists and writers who tell me their work wouldn’t have the same insights without the State Department cables. My recent books have been similarly enriched.

States across the world talk of democracy and free speech but increasingly restrict information and its messengers.

“This war on whistleblowers is not ancillary to journalism, but actually it directly affects it,” says Trevor Timm, executive director of the Freedom of the Press Foundation. “It’s making it much more difficult for the public to get the information they need.”

WikiLeaks remains at the forefront of this struggle.

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Free speech in a time of terrorism

Yesterday’s massacre in Paris at the offices of satirical magazine Charlie Hebdo is shocking and unforgettable. The publication may have been frequently racist against Muslims and a whole host of “enemies” but the right to offend is a key attribute in a democracy. This doesn’t mean we have to applaud editors and writers who trade in racial stereotyping.

As a journalist, such an attack affects me deeply. The only response is standing up for what we believe and stating it strongly and frequently. We will not be silenced. We will write. We will speak out. We will continue to tell the truth. We will reject the onslaught and say that talking honestly about Islam, Palestine, Israel, terrorism and the “war on terror” is vital.

My friend George Burchett, currently based in Vietnam and the son of famed journalist Wilfred Burchett, penned the following today and it seems apt for the moment:

Charlie was a good friend from my high school years in Paris, in the early 1970s.

Charlie Hebdo was a child of May 68, France’s youthful rebellion.

It was a good time to be in Paris.

You could see the latest Fellini, Antonioni, Bertolucci, Visconti, Tarkovsky, Godard etc.

Sartre was still around.

You could attend public Foucault lectures at the College de France, watch the inscrutable Lacan or the great mythomane André Malraux hold forth on TV.

Where are they all now?

The gunmen who spread Charlie Hebdo with bullets and assassinated four of France’s best and wittiest cartoonists among others have also fired bullets in our collective psyche.

Nothing is fun any more.

This is real.

A binary hyperreality as defined by G W Bush & Co: with us or against us.

What happened yesterday morning in Paris was unthinkable some 40 odd years ago.

Yes, there were Red Brigades, Baader Meinhof, the PLO, the War in Vietnam, the coup in Chile and so on, but there was also hope, solidarity, love, tenderness, humour, poetry.

Going to the Quartier Latin to see Felini’s Satyricon or Easy Rider, one passed the black vans of the CRS, the riot police, parked on the Boulevard Saint Michel and Saint Germain.

You’d spot them inside, playing cards, ready for action at any hint of “trouble”.

The same game of youth versus authority was played in the very same places in medieval Paris, between the king’s constabulary and mischievous students.

It was all part of the great French tradition of youthful rebellion against authority, King & Church or, after the Revolution, the much despised bourgeoisie.

It inspired a rich poetic tradition: Villon, Ronsard, Rimbaud, Verlaine, Baudelaire, Appolinaire, Prévert, to name but a few from a very long and bright list.

Charlie Hebdo was part of that wonderful centuries-old tradition of biting satire and irreverence.

Nothing was sacred.

Every now and then Charlie was banned for a particularly outrageous issue.

It used to run a serial called Les Aventures de Mme Pompidou (The Adventures of Madame Pompidou).

Occasionally Mme Pompidou and her husband, Monsieur le Président Georges Pompidou were not amused and all copies of Charlie Hebdo were seized.

But that was an innocent game compared to yesterday’s massacre.

Something has changed in the world.

Too much blood has been spilled since 9/11 and now the entire planet is soaked in it.

The age of Enlightenment and rational thought is making way to medieval faith-based intolerance.

G W Bush declared a Crusade, and enough lunatics have answered his challenge.

We must answer them by saying: JE SUIS CHARLIE.

Charlie lives as long as there is humour, laughter, tenderness, satire, love, poetry, art.

If we give up on that, the forces of darkness win.

And the light goes off.

We can’t let this happen.

WE ARE CHARLIE.

George Burchett

Ha Noi, 8.1.15

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South Africa’s Noseweek interview on vulture capitalism

During my 2014 visit to South Africa, as a guest of Cape Town’s Open Book literary festival, I was interviewed by one of the country’s leading independent publications, Noseweek. The feature has just appeared:

Nose183loewenstein

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Charlie Brooker’s 2014 Wipe

The annual yearly round-up by the brilliant Charlie Brooker (plus Adam Curtis) on a period filled with ISIS, insane amounts of inane TV and a little optimism:

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Russell Brand’s “Revolution” hits anti-capitalist mark

My weekly Guardian column:

Political success for society’s invisible souls is rare. So when US investor Westbrook Partners announced last week that it had withdrawn from evicting families at the New Era estate in East London, it was cause for celebration. Instead of building expensive properties, the company sold its development to Dolphin Square Charitable Foundation, an affordable housing organisation. People who faced skyrocketing rents now have security and hope before Christmas.

British writer and comedian Russell Brand was key to this victory. His support of the campaigners on the ground and on social media led The Independent to describe New Era as “Proof that [his] revolution may actually be working”.

After New Era, it’s harder than ever to mock him as “the voice of the discontented wealthy”, as the Observer’s Nick Cohen did in his review of Brand’s book, Revolution. On the contrary: protest organiser Lindsey Garrett said Brand’s involvement “gave us a bigger voice. And rather than taking over, he gave us a much bigger audience to speak to”.

Accusations of hypocrisy and shallowness are also getting harder to make. When it comes to inequality, housing, income – all the things the left is supposed to be interested in – Brand seems to understand that the personal really is the political. As he wrote on New Era:

“Drawn in initially by the importance and ubiquity of the cause, housing is the issue of our time, I was compelled to stay, as if held by the heart, by a deeper issue, both social and personal. By something I didn’t even know I was grieving; the loss of community, our connection to each other.”

More broadly, his thinking on issues like climate change – he says agreements like Kyoto are “not worth a wank in a windsock” – accords with the thesis of (among others) Canadian writer Naomi Klein, in her bestselling book This Changes Everything. Admittedly, Klein’s language is rather less fruity.

Now it seems to be Brand’s turn to do the mocking: of the insular world of star fucking that permeates our culture; of the ennui and flatness of modern life; and of the insularity of the media elite.

He is convincing a legion of followers that there’s more to life than, “do a gram, drop a pill, download an app, eat some crap, get a slap, mind the gap, do a line, Instagram, little grope in the cab”. He acknowledges his luck and wealth while constantly taking the piss out of himself. He likes having money but fears losing it.

Squarely in the 1%, even as he reminds us “the richest 1% of British people have as much as the poorest 55%”, Brand enrages his critics because his celebrity and wealth give him easy access to media and money.

Case in point: he is making a documentary about inequality that’s reportedly funded by some of the big bankers he’s going after. Does this neuter his anti-capitalist message? Surely it could instead be seen as a savvy way of culture jamming an establishment that thrives on extravagance.

The filmmaker Michael Moore, director of hugely popular documentaries challenging US hegemony and capitalism, was plagued by similar accusations of hypocrisy. One New York Times bestseller, Michael Moore is a Big Fat Stupid White Man, is devoted to these kinds of attacks.

So what if people like Brand and Moore are sometimes pompous, or narcissistic, or populist, or inconsistent? Or if they don’t correspond with the cliche of the ascetic Marxist revolutionary? What matters is what these multi-millionaires do with their money.

Moore has produced any number of films that both entertain and challenge orthodox views of state violence, health care and capitalism itself. Earlier this year, he joked wryly that, “Entertainment is the big dirty word of documentary. ‘Oh no! I’ve entertained someone. I’ve cheapened my movie!’.”

Or as Brand puts it: “The revolution cannot be boring.”

A public feeling economic anxiety, at turns enraged and defeated, might agree. People flock to hear the stories Moore and Brand have to tell, no matter how much scorn is poured on them by critics.

“Aren’t we all, in one way or another, trying to find a solution to the problem of reality?” Brand writes in Revolution. What his solution looks like might depend on how you see him: media darling, irritant, inspiration, guru, reformed drug addict, former husband to singer Katy Perry, author, founder of daily news hackThe Trews, opponent of voting or man of the people. Take your pick.

Plenty have picked “hate object”, which, like the accusations of hypocrisy and selfishness, will be harder to justify after the New Era win. Surely it’s time to acknowledge that Brand – like Michael Moore – is actually a working class voice who belongs in the mix?

As he told Democracy Now, “If you sort of go, ‘Hey, I’m actually from a background where people are affected by stuff like this. This is what we think. Can we talk about this in a different way?’ people are so fiercely territorial and protective, it’s interesting”.

Brand isn’t the messiah (or just a naughty boy, for that matter) and his messagepisses off plenty of people. So does his method, sometimes. But his apology to an RBS worker whose lunch inadvertently became a casualty of a film shoot is heartfelt:

“Jo, get in touch, I owe you an apology and I’d like to take you for a hot paella to make up for the one that went cold … When I make a mistake I like to apolgise and put it right. Hopefully your bosses will do the same to the people of Britain.”

He’ll apologise for the small things; many of the established columnists who dump on Brand won’t apologise for getting it wrong on the big-picture issues, like the wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, Libya and Syria, national security and the like.

On these stories, Brand speaks for the mainstream far more than many self-described national security experts. A 2013 Pew poll in the US found that a majority of citizens were more worried about civil liberties than terrorism. His recent comments on the Sydney siege nailed the way governments implement excessive state surveillance after a terror attack – increasingly a mainstream concern.

Nevertheless, anybody famous who proclaims themselves dissatisfied with society’s options is bound to be accused of wankery and ungratefulness by some. So be it. But Brand is a fascinating man, who dares to ask a huge audience to question the causes of housing shortages, corporate power and state terrorism. He is also ready to swing his star power behind the cause of a few dozen families facing eviction before Christmas. And he makes these issues relevant to millions.

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Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post on the Sydney siege

After last week’s siege in central Sydney, Al Jazeera’s The Listening Post analysed the media coverage and found it severely lacking. I was asked to add a comment (starting at 9:25):

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US Senate report on torture shows state violence goes unpunished

My weekly Guardian column:

The details shocked. Shackled prisoners were treated like cattle, watched by their CIA interrogators. Testimony from one observer stated that men blindfolded and tied “were made to run down a steep hill, at the bottom of which were three throws of concertina barbed wire. The first row would hit them across the knees and they would plunge head first into the second and third rows of wire”.

This wasn’t CIA torture after the September 11 attacks, exposed in detail in a recent Senate report, but the Phoenix programme, instituted by the CIA and US, Australian and South Vietnamese militaries in Vietnam between 1965 and 1972 to “neutralise” the Vietcong. The result was more than 60,000 people tortured and killed. No senior politicians, generals or decision-makers were prosecuted for these crimes. A culture of immunity, despite occasional media and public outrage, thrived across the US.

Questioned before a US House operations subcommittee in the late 1960s to investigate widespread Phoenix-inspired torture, future CIA head William Colby used language that sounds familiar today. It’s just the official enemy that has changed. The “collateral damage” was justified, he said. Phoenix was “an essential part of the war effort … designed to protect the Vietnamese people from terrorism.”

In 2007, decades after its cessation, the CIA was still worried that the public felt Phoenix was an “unlawful and immoral assassination programme targeting civilians.” Instead, they claimed, it was “pacification and rural security programmes”.

Compare this to today’s CIA head, John Brennan, who defends his agency’s behaviour in the “war on terror” as doing a “lot of things right.” This arrogance only exists in an environment that doesn’t punish those who sanction abuses at the highest level and a mainstream media that gives equal time to torturers while virtually ignoring the victims. American torture’s grim legacy in Afghanistan is one of the least reported aspects of the last decade.

While it was the French who first introduced electrical torture to Vietnam, it was the Americans, writes journalist Mike Otterman in his book American Torture, who advised the Vietnamese “how to make the torture more painful and effective. Under American supervision, Vietnamese interrogators often combined electrical torture with sexual abuse”.

Otterman reminds us that US torture wasn’t an invention after the terror attacks of 2001 but part of a continuum of unaccountable US cruelty from Latin America to Asia, the Middle East and beyond. It’s revealing that this pedigree is so rarely explained or investigated in the rush to condemn (or praise, depending on your worldview) Washington-directed brutality under George W. Bush and Barack Obama.

This history is relevant during the current debate over post September 11 torture. The Senate report is an important contribution to the public record but the lack of any prosecution, censure or official condemnation goes to the heart of modern political culture. Obama has acquiesced in this position. The effect, writes journalist Andrew Sullivan, is that America has ensured that these crimes will occur again: “That will be part of his legacy: the sounds of a torture victim crying in the dark, and knowing that America is fine with it.”

A culture that celebrates television shows such as 24, Homeland and Spooks, where torture is central to capturing the bad guys and glamorises its use, makes real-life torment easier to justify or ignore. An Amnesty poll this year found 29% of Britons, higher than in Russia, Brazil and Argentina, believed torture could be justified to protect the public.

A Washington Post-ABC News poll taken after the release of the Senate torture report found that 59% of Americans felt that the CIA’s treatment of suspected terrorists was justified. This is in spite of the fact that one of the key findings in the US Senate report was that CIA torture was ineffective in hunting down extremists. Evidence from a US Senate armed services committee report into torture in 2009 found that such abuses were only guaranteed in bringing false confessions.

The Senate torture report has brought a handful of politicians demanding full transparency of their government’s role since 2001. The head of Britain’s Commons intelligence and security committee, Sir Malcolm Rifkind, wants Washington to release all documents showing London’s role in the CIA’s rendition programme though it’s sad he acknowledges London’s relative weakness when “requesting” the USA to hand over the details.

The silence has been deafening in Australia with no major politicians demanding openness from Canberra on its role under former prime minister John Howard in sanctioning the illegal incarceration of David Hicks and Mamdouh Habib. Independent MP Andrew Wilkie is one of the few modern politicians with a history of questioning the pernicious role of group-think in government. In 2004, he published a searing book, Axis of Deceit, on Australia’s real reason for overthrowing Saddam Hussein, and it wasn’t weapons of mass destruction. Thus far Wilkie has not commented on the CIA report, although he has accused the Abbott government of crimes against humanity for its treatment of asylum seekers.

The failure to punish torturers in the US fits neatly into a wider social malaise. The powerful don’t go to jail; it’s the weak that suffer for their foibles. The lack of any substantial prosecutions for Wall Street illegality is symptomatic of the rot inside the political class. Rolling Stone’s Matt Taibbi’s shows in his book The Divide how this occurs. “Obsessed with success and wealth and despising failure and poverty”, he argues, “our society is systematically dividing the population into winners and losers, using institutions like the courts to speed the process.”

When “we” break the law, it’s with benign intent and good intentions (an editorial in the Australian makes this spurious case). But when “they” do it, they’re criminals who should be punished. Elites protect elites. Where was the outcry when the CIA hired private mercenary company Blackwater after 9/11 to assassinate “enemies” in Afghanistan?

Instead of trials for those accused of endorsing torture, we’re left with articles, essays and works like The Trial of Donald Rumsfeld, “a prosecution by book”, written by the Centre for Constitutional Rights’ Michael Ratner. It’s a solid tome but desperately short of what’s required in a healthy democracy for individuals at the highest levels of government who order harsh crimes.

The ability of the state to retroactively justify illegal behavior when caught is a feature of every nation on earth, not just the US. But demanding other countries abide by international law, when western nations so blatantly ignore it, is the height of hypocrisy. The shocking details in the US Senate report demand accountability but there’s little public appetite for it.

Retired Navy JAG John Hutson warned in 2008 against trials for post 9/11 crimes because “people would lawyer up”, a tacit admission that the legal system is gamed by the wealthy and powerful to escape justice. There’s hardly a more illustrative example of the modern state’s failure.

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Triple R radio interview on politics and terrorism in 2014

It’s been a crazy year filled with ISIS, war, Tony Abbott, terrorism and much in between. I was interviewed by Triple R’s Spoke about it all:

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Al Jazeera America interview on Sydney siege part 2

During this week’s Sydney siege I was interviewed by Al Jazeera America to offer analysis of the event (the first interview is here). Here’s the second interview:

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Al Jazeera America interview on Sydney siege part 1

This week’s horrific terrorist attack in Sydney, a crazed self-styled cleric held people hostage in the Lindt cafe in central Sydney killing three people including the gunman, has shocked the country and generated global headlines. Too much of the media coverage was exploitative and sensational, framing the event as led or even inspired by ISIS. Rupert Murdoch’s outlets were particularly egregious.

I was asked to comment about the wider political issues for Al Jazeera America. I wasn’t an eyewitness to the siege so offered some context for such events in Australia and globally:

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