Politics and pop, past and present.
It’s a simple distinction, but somehow it’s been overlooked by a lot of those who support the decision by PEN to give its “Freedom of Expression” award to Charlie Hebdo. Those who signed the protest against the award (I was one of them) agree that Charlie Hebdo had a right to publish cartoons about Islam, no matter how disgusting, and not be killed for doing it. The question is whether Charlie Hebdo should be given an award for publishing them.
I’ve been a huge fan of Katha Pollitt for decades. In defending the PEN award in The Nation, it’s clear that she understands the distinction here. But a lot of others don’t. For example, David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, said “It was right to defend Salman Rushdie when he was under attack and it is right to defend those under attack now.” But we all agree that Charlie Hebdo should be defended. The question is whether their cartoons should be celebrated. The writer Kurt Andersen declared that “this is one of those incidents that makes a clear line, and you’re on either one side or the other.” He means that if you’re against the award, you’re for the murderers. Actually I’m not, and neither is Joyce Carol Oates or Rachel Kushner or Peter Carey or Francine Prose, former president of PEN, all signers of the protest letter.
The issue is the cartoons. We are told we don’t understand them; Katha says they are really “indictments of the racist and anti-immigrant views of right-wing French politicians.” Others have said the cartoons “speak truth to power.” The most objectionable one I’ve seen is labeled “Mohammed,” and shows the Prophet naked on his hands and knees with his ass in the air, inviting anal sex; the cartoonist has drawn a star over his anus, and the caption says “a star is born.” In a second cartoon, an ugly naked Mohammed figure in the same pose is asking the director filming him, “Do you like my ass?” The line is Brigitte Bardot's, in Contempt, from 1963, and the director in the cartoon is Jean-Luc Godard--a brilliant reference, but easy to see why young Muslims might not get it. (you can see the cartoons at http://csglobe.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/01/Charlie-Hebdo-Fired.jpg )
The Charlie Hebdo cartoons, Katha says, are really “the opposite of what they seem to American readers”; you have to be “immersed in French cartoon culture” to understand them. Maybe so—I’m certainly not. In fact, the context of the cartoon “a star is born” is not hard to find: Charlie Hebdo was commenting on the notorious YouTube video, “The Innocence of Muslims,” released in 2012, which, according to The New York Times, depicts the Prophet Mohammed as “a buffoon, a womanizer, a homosexual, a child molester, and a greedy, bloodthirsty thug.” Charlie Hebdo here seems to be piling on, rather than indicting the French right for racism. It’s hard to imagine that a French Muslim would see these “star is born” cartoons in Charlie Hebdo as anything other than horribly offensive. Sometimes, as Katha says, “the road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom”—but what exactly is the wisdom one arrives at on this particular road?
Garry Trudeau and others criticized Charlie Hebdo for ridiculing the weak and the powerless in France today. In response, Katha argues that the cartoons in fact mock the powerful—fundamentalist Muslim authorities who oppress women. But take a look at those cartoons again; they’re not about defending Muslim women from fundamentalist imams; they are about “Mohammed” inviting anal sex. I doubt that secular or moderate French Muslim women would see these cartoons as representing their views or defending their position; I imagine it would have the opposite effect and draw them back into the fold to defend Islam.
If Hillary Clinton were portrayed in the same pose as Mohammed in these cartoons—naked ass in the air, inviting anal sex—and then some angry feminists shot and killed the editors who published the cartoon, we would all defend the editors’ right to publish. But would PEN give them an award? I doubt it—even though you might say it would take “courage” to publish such a cartoon. As Francine Prose said, I’m glad the ACLU defended the Nazis’ right to march in Skokie, and I’m also glad they didn’t give the Nazis an award for marching in Skokie. (That’s not to say the murdered Charlie Hebdo’s editors were Nazis—they were “aging sixties leftists”—my people!)
And yes it’s true that Charlie Hebdo also ridiculed Christianity and Judaism. But they are not getting an award for ridiculing Christians—and PEN would never give them an award for having the courage to ridicule Jews.
Read Next: Jon Wiener on the ACLU’s new ‘mobile justice’ app
The ACLU in California today released a free smart-phone app that allows people to send cellphone videos of police encounters to the ACLU, automatically—and the ACLU will preserve the video footage, even if the cops seize the phone and delete the video or destroy the phone. The app, “Mobile Justice CA,” works for both iPhones and Android users. It’s available at Apple’s App Store and at Google Play.
The app features a large red “Record” button in the middle of the screen. When it’s pressed, the video is recorded on the phone and a duplicate copy is transmitted simultaneously to the ACLU server. When the “stop” button is pressed, a “Report” screen appears, where information about the location of the incident and the people involved can also be transmitted to the ACLU. The video and the information are treated as a request for legal assistance and reviewed by staff members. No action is taken by the ACLU, however, unless an explicit request is made, and the reports are treated as confidential and privileged legal communications. The videos, however, may be shared by the ACLU with the news media, community organizations or the general public to help call attention to police abuse.
The app is available in English and Spanish. It includes a “Know Your Rights” page.
The value of the Mobile Justice app was dramatized this month in the Los Angeles suburb of South Gate, where a bystander taped cops detaining people in her neighborhood. A second person was recording her, and in that video, a lawman rushes at the first woman, grabs her cell phone, and smashes it on the floor. The second video ended up on YouTube. (South Gate police later said the officer was not a local cop but rather a deputy US marshal.)
Meanwhile in Texas, a proposed law would make it a crime for ordinary people to videotape police actions—on the grounds that it was “interference” with police activity. In California, on the other hand, the state senate this month approved legislation providing clear legal protection to people who videotape police activity without interfering with investigations.
“People who historically have had very little power in the face of law enforcement now have this tool to reclaim their power and dignity,” said Patrisse Cullors, director of the Truth and Reinvestment Campaign at the Ella Baker Center, which is working with the ACLU of California to support the launch of the Mobile Justice CA app. “Our vision is that this app will ultimately help community members connect and organize to respond to incidents of law enforcement violence, and then share their experiences and knowledge with others.”
The Mobile Justice CA app complies with California law. ACLU affiliates in other states have developed other versions for use in those states: residents of New York should use the “Stop and Frisk Watch” app; in New Jersey, it’s the “Police Tape” app; in Oregon and Missouri it’s the “Mobile Justice” app. These work in different ways: with the New York app, shaking the phone stops the filming; the New Jersey app does not transmit the video automatically—the user must choose to send it to the ACLU-NJ for backup storage. Not all of them are available on all platforms and not all are available in Spanish, as the California app is. However, video submitted from anywhere via the California app will be stored and available to those who submitted it, an ACLU SoCal official said. (I'm a board member of the ACLU Foundation of Southern California, where the app was funded through donations by Susan Adelman and Claudio Llanos and their family foundation.)
“This app will help serve as a check on abuse,” said Hector Villagra, executive director of the ACLU of Southern California (ACLU SoCal), where the app was developed. It will “allow ordinary citizens to record and document any interaction with law enforcement,” he said, including “police officers, sheriff’s deputies, border patrol, or other officials.”
Read Next: Jon Wiener on Vietnam in the battlefield of memory
One of the “stupidest” decisions Barney Frank ever made, he says in his new memoir, Frank: A Life in Politics, was bringing Secretary of Defense Robert McNamara to Harvard in the fall of 1966, at the height of the Vietnam War. I agree; I was there. But the story Frank tells in his book is, to put it generously, incomplete. What he did was even stupider than he acknowledges.
McNamara, Frank says, was “temporarily captured by a mob of Harvard students.” That was Frank’s fault, he acknowledges. At the time he was director of student affairs at the Institute of Politics at the Kennedy School. In bringing the secretary of defense to Harvard, Frank says, he was only trying to “facilitate genuine conversation” between Harvard students and “important people.” What could be wrong with that? Everyone understands that Harvard students need to converse with important people, and of course these would be “private sessions that were closed to the media.” But, Frank concedes, by the fall of 1966, “the government’s conduct of the Vietnam War had become emblematic of antidemocratic secrecy and a lack of public accountability.” So it was stupid to think some people wouldn’t object to McNamara and the war he was running.
But there was a lot more to it. To Frank’s credit, he doesn’t make the same mistake many have made—describing that demonstration as an effort to prevent McNamara from speaking on campus. Many have written that he was “shouted down” at a “speech.” That’s completely wrong. Antiwar students were demanding not that McNamara be silenced, but precisely the opposite: that he speak to the public, that he agree to a public debate about the war. Barney Frank left that part out of his book. Harvard-Radcliffe SDS proposed that McNamara debate a young editor of Ramparts magazine named Robert Scheer. Sixteen hundred people signed a petition demanding a debate. That’s what Barney Frank refused to agree to. He insisted that all McNamara’s “conversations” be scheduled at closed, invitation-only events—with Barney Frank in charge of the invitation list. Of course none of the anti-war students were invited. Nevertheless SDS promised not to disrupt McNamara’s private meetings with students.
SDS also promised we would “physically confront” the secretary when he left his private meeting in Quincy House, “asking him either to agree to debate Scheer or answer questions right there” (the quotes are from the SDS newspaper New Left Notes). Quincy House residents hung sheets out their windows that declared “Kill the Cong,” “Back Mac,” and “Napalm SDS” (along with another that read “Black Day for Gordon Linen,” which had unwittingly provided the sheets). Loudspeakers blared “Mack the Knife” across the courtyard.
Close to a thousand demonstrators ringed Quincy House. Barney Frank sent a decoy in one direction and then tried to sneak McNamara out a back door, but a dozen SDSers spotted the two of them and sat down in front of the police car where they took refuge. A thousand kids began running toward McNamara. “Within moments,” the SDS newspaper reported, “he was surrounded by what must have looked to him like a mob of howling beatniks; they were actually normal Harvard people, delighted to have trapped the Secretary.”
McNamara agreed to answer questions and got on top of the car with Michael Ansara of SDS, who had a microphone. McNamara opened by saying he had been a student at Berkeley, “doing some of the same things you’re doing here. But there was one important difference: I was both tougher and more courteous.” Then while the TV news cameras rolled, he shouted vehemently, “I was tougher then, and I’m tougher now!” The kids laughed and jeered.
The first question was about the origins of the Vietnam War. “It started in ’54-’55 when a million North Vietnamese flooded into South Vietnam,” McNamara said. “Goin’ home!” somebody shouted.
The next question was about the number of civilian casualties in the South, “We don’t know.” Mac said. “Why not?” people shouted. “Don’t you care?” Mac tried again: “The number of casualties….” but he was drowned out my cries of “Civilian! Civilian casualties! Napalm victims!” A few Progressive Labor members in the front were screaming “Murderer! Fascist!” At that point “a flying squad of Harvard and Cambridge policemen” arrived, as Barney Frank reports in his book, rescued the secretary and his young host, and conveyed them to his next meeting—with Harvard professor Henry Kissinger.
“This had been Barney’s Baby,” The Harvard Crimson wrote a few days later, “and he took the protest in a very personal way.” (That piece was written by Robert J. Samuelson, the future economist.) Although the day had been a disaster, Barney Frank writes in his new memoir, there was one thing he “greatly admired” about the entire story: not the students who sought a public debate on the most pressing issue of the day, but rather McNamara’s “composure” after the confrontation as he “proceeded to carry out the rest of his program.” And, he adds, the students he admired were not the ones who petitioned for a debate about the war but rather the two who started a different petition, one apologizing to McNamara. They were “students of mine,” Frank writes, “and would be close political confederates throughout my career.”
So what made Frank’s actions so “stupid”? He concluded that the whole thing had “inflicted political damage on the Democrats,” who lost a lot of ground in the 1966 midterm elections, which came a few days after the McNamara incident. The students’ tactics and goals, he says, split the Democratic Party and opened the door to Nixon. In fact, however, Johnson had run for president two years earlier promising that he would not send “American boys nine or ten thousand miles away from home to do what Asian boys ought to be doing for themselves”—but by the time McNamara came to Harvard, he and LBJ had sent almost 400,000 “American boys” to Vietnam. Barney Frank is wrong about the “stupidest” thing he did. It wasn’t bringing McNamara to Harvard—it was his failure to join the movement calling for an end to the Vietnam war.
Jon Wiener was a grad student and member of Harvard SDS in 1966; he wrote about McNamara at Harvard for the SDS publication New Left Notes.
Read Next: Jon Wiener on Edward Snowden and General Patraeus
General David Petraeus has agreed to plead guilty to a misdemeanor charge of mishandling classified material and will serve no jail time for his actions. Let’s give the same deal to Edward Snowden.
True, their crimes are different: Petraeus gave classified info to his biographer and girlfriend, Paula Broadwell. Snowden gave classified info to the American people.
There’s another difference: as The Washington Post reported, Petraeus “initially lied to FBI investigators”—he told them he “had never provided Broadwell with classified information.” That was in an interview at CIA headquarters. Snowden in contrast told the truth about what he did, and why he did it. That was in an interview in Laura Poitras’s Oscar-winning film Citizenfour.
And there’s one more big difference: Snowden has done a lot more to defend Americans’ freedom than Petraeus ever did. In fact you might say Petraeus made America weaker as US commander in the Iraq war starting in 2007, a war that created more enemies for the US.
Petraeus’s deal, as The New York Times noted, allows him to “focus on his lucrative post-government career” as “a worldwide speaker on national security issues.” A similar deal for Snowden would probably make him a worldwide speaker on national security issues, but without the “lucrative” element.
And while we’re giving Snowden the same deal that Petraeus got, let’s release Stephen Kim, who’s serving thirteen months in prison for talking to a Fox News reporter about a single classified report on North Korea. Let’s apologize to, and compensate, former CIA agent John Kiriakou, who served almost two years in federal prison from 2013 to 2015 for disclosing the name of a covert CIA officer to a freelance reporter—a name that was not published. While we’re at it, let’s punish the torturers, not the people who leaked information about torture.
Read Next: Jon Wiener on why it took ten years to publish the diary of a Guantánamo detainee
Sunday is America’s annual concussion carnival, the Super Bowl. Steve Almond knows a lot about it—he wrote the book Against Football: One Fan’s Reluctant Manifesto.
Jon Wiener: Let’s review the evidence. Are you sure that football players get head injuries that lead to brain damage—or is that just liberal whining?
Steve Almond: I’m sure it’s liberal whining, but one of the stories that got obscured earlier this season was an actuarial report the NFL commissioned in response to the lawsuit filed by former players. The NFL’s own actuaries estimated that 30 percent of former players are going to wind up with long-term cognitive ailments. In America’s most famous workplace, the employers say that nearly a third of their employees will wind up with brain damage.
I’ve heard that football is big business. Is this true?
It’s about $10 billion for the NFL, the tax-exempt NFL. The college game is probably more than that. There is the game of football, which is beautiful in many ways. Then there’s this rapacious industry that has grown up around it, which is essentially American capitalism on steroids.
Were you ever a football fan?
Oh yeah. Forty years. And I still love the game. As a form of entertainment it’s absolutely thrilling. It reconnects us to the intuitive pleasures of childhood. It’s watching greatness, grace and heroism on display.
But for football fans, isn’t part of the fun of the game witnessing the violence, the head injuries? “Hit ‘em again, harder!”
Almost any fan you talk to will say, “I don’t watch the game to see the violence.” There’s something disingenuous about that. I will say, as a recovering fan, that I did watch for the violence. That’s part of the charge of football. It’s a collision sport, which separates it from most other sports. That’s why they replay all the big violent hits; that’s the reason they have those parabolic microphones on the sidelines. You can hear it in the crowd when there’s a big hit. Touchdowns get really loud cheers, but there’s nothing like that “oooh!” sound of 50,000 people who’ve just watched a player suffer some kind of brain injury in a big hit. Football allows us to indulge in our blood lust without facing the blood part of it.
You say in your book that the problem goes beyond violence and includes racism. But isn’t football a place where black people excel and become heroes—and also wealthy men?
There is a tiny sliver of the total number of men who want to play football who wind up becoming wildly famous. But the reason they become famous that they play a really violent sport that’s a profound risk to their own health—for our entertainment. It’s the most decadent kind of plantation system you can imagine. It’s a highly monetized version of a slave auction. The only rubric by which these young African-American men are being judged by the representatives of the white owners—note the word—is how fast they can run, how high they can jump, how strong they are. Football is a way to control and channel our own misconceptions and distorted thinking about male sexuality, especially African-American males.
Is there any way to make football safe for the players?
It’s not a concussion problem. It’s not a violence problem. Football has a physics and physiology problem. The physics are simple: mass times acceleration equals force. The players have gotten more massive, much bigger than they ever were, and they run faster than they used to. Therefore—do the math—the force is much greater than it’s ever been in the game. But the brain remains what it always was, a soft organ encased in the hard shell of the skull. The players can no longer safely play the game because of the physics of our bodies. Any of these ideas about a different helmet or a rule change are just magical thinking. No responsible neurologist suggests the sport is ever going to be made safe, especially because the real danger is not concussions. It’s the accretion of the hundreds and thousands of sub-concussive hits that leads to chronic traumatic encephalopathy, this form of dementia that’s associated with football at every level—not just the big catastrophic hits, but the dozens of hits that are part of every single football play.
Read Next: The Super Bowl’s military fables
Rabbi Leonard Beerman of Los Angeles, who died December 24 at age 93, was a great fighter for social justice and peace over the last sixty-five years. His lifelong commitment to nonviolence, Beerman explained, came out of his experience in 1947 in Jerusalem, when he joined the Haganah fighting for Israeli independence. “Luckily, I was spared” killing anyone, he told the Los Angeles Times. “And when I came back, I became a pacifist because of what I had seen: People transformed to just hating, hating, hating. It is no way for humankind to live.”
In 1949 he began working as the first full-time rabbi at Leo Baeck Temple and soon became “one of the most important figures on the social-justice landscape in Los Angeles”, says David Myers, who teaches Jewish history at UCLA and was a close friend of Beerman. He was fearless, even in the face of his own congregation: when Julius and Ethel Rosenberg were executed for conspiracy to commit espionage in 1953, Beerman included them on his list of names read on the Sabbath during the Kaddish prayers, which honor the dead—despite angry protests from some.
In the 1960s he was a passionate critic of the Vietnam war; after Watts, he spoke out for black people in LA; after 9-11, he defended Muslims. He was co-founder of the Greater Los Angeles Partnership for the Homeless, and co-chairman of the Jewish Committee on Los Angeles Sweatshops. But he was best known as one of the nation’s most prominent Jewish voices defending Palestinian rights and supporting a two-state solution in the Mideast. He met with Yasir Arafat in Jordan in 1983, and at Leo Baeck he did not allow the Israeli or American flags to be flown. “Nationalism and faith should not mix,” he said.
When Reagan revived the Cold War in the mid-eighties, Rabbi Beerman helped organize the Interfaith Center to Reverse the Arms Race. Michele Willens, whose father Harold was a leading peace activist alongside Beerman, recalled that “Leonard and the Episcopalian Rev. George Regas of Pasadena’s All Saints Church would speak at each other’s entities on a regular basis, hold press conferences, and support pacifist initiatives. The center was considered hugely radical at the time, and both Leonard and Regas initially took heat from their own congregations. But it went on to great success.”
Rabbi Beerman was also an important member of the Nation family. He was a member of the magazine’s Circle of 100, the group of financial backers formed in 1979, and he presented the Nation Institute’s Ron Ridenhour Award in 2007 to Jimmy Carter, declaring that “in the geography of Carter’s conscience there are no borders.” He had been scheduled as a featured speaker on the Nation Cruise this past December, but had to cancel because of poor health.
Over the last decade Rabbi Beerman was part of a small group of Jews in Los Angeles that met regularly to formulate a progressive voice on Israeli politics. David Myers was another. “For the most part,” Myers explained, “it was a loud and unruly bunch in whose midst Leonard would initially remain silent. One wondered whether the great sage had been rendered mute in his advanced years. But then, just as the meeting was about to break up, typically without any consensus, Leonard would begin to speak. In perfectly formed, paragraph-length sentences, he would clarify, summarize, and propel forward the discussion, insisting that we never escape our obligation to speak truth to power. Those in attendance were simply stunned by the clarity of mind and of moral vision.”
His last sermon, on Yom Kippur last October at Leo Baeck temple, made page one of the LA Times: “Another Yom Kippur,” he said. “Another 500 children of Gaza killed by the Israel Defense Forces, with callous disregard for their lives.”
Despite his courage and fierceness in denouncing injustice, he was a warm and modest person with a twinkle in his eye and wonderful sense of humor. Victor Navasky described him as “a soft-spoken and frequently funny crusader for peace and sanity.” Richard Kletter, a writer living in LA, called Rabbi Beerman “a force for goodness in the world.” That’s the way I will remember him.
100 years ago, on Christmas Day, 1914, in the middle of World War I, British and German soldiers put down their guns and stopped killing one another. The terrible industrial slaughter had already taken the lives of hundreds of thousands of young men. But on that day, thousands of troops climbed out of the trenches in France and Belgium, sang Christmas carols, and exchanged food, gifts, and souvenirs. They traded German beer for British rum. They even played soccer. It’s a unique event in the history of modern warfare.
It’s unique in another way. Those who fought in wars—“the fallen”—are regularly remembered and honored, but remembering and honoring those who refused to fight is pretty much unheard of (except for commemorations sponsored by pacifist and anti-war groups). And yet, this season, the Christmas Truce of 1914 is being commemorated officially, especially in Europe, with a wide variety of government-sponsored memorial events.
“It’s quite remarkable,” Adam Hochschild said in an interview—he’s the author of seven books, most recently the award-winning history of WWI, To End All Wars: A Story of Loyalty and Rebellion, 1914–1918. “The Christmas Truce has always been marked unofficially. But this year every school in the United Kingdom received a packet of materials about it—photos, eyewitness accounts, student worksheets. There’s a children’s competition in Britain to design a memorial to the Christmas Truce, and one of the judges was Prince William. In Belgium a memorial soccer field was inaugurated, the British and German ambassadors came, and they are holding a soccer tournament in memory of those Christmas Truce soccer games, with youth teams from Britain, Germany, France and Austria.”
Perhaps most amazing is the three-minute TV commercial running in Britain, featuring a high-budget reenactment of the truce, where, after a soccer game, a British soldier trades a chocolate bar with a German soldier. “It’s from the supermarket chain Sainsbury,” Hochschild said. “The commercial is for a commemorative chocolate bar. The proceeds from this chocolate bar will go to the Royal British Legion, the official veterans’ organization. It’s another kind of official commemoration of this startling outbreak of peace.”
What is it about this refusal to fight that makes it safe to be officially commemorated? “I’m curious about that,” said Hochschild, who wrote about the Christmas Truce for TomDispatch. “First of all, the Christmas Truce only lasted for a day or two. The war in its full fury resumed very quickly—and went on for another four years.
“Also the Christmas Truce did not represent a breakdown of military discipline. It was sanctioned by officers on the scene. Officers as high-ranking as colonels came out to greet their counterparts from the other side in no-man’s-land.”
Hochschild points to one additional factor: “Commemorating anything these days can be big business. First World War tourism in northern France and Belgium is a huge industry. In Belgium alone, the government of the Flanders region is investing $41 million in new tourist facilities for this four-year commemorative period. That’s not counting private investment. I’m sure they are thinking, ‘if we can add a few peace sites to the existing war sites, so much the better.’”
The other profit-making industry that’s gotten involved is professional soccer. “It’s a huge business,” Hochschild says, “particularly in Europe. Five of the ten most valuable professional soccer teams in the world are in Great Britain, and it’s no accident that the trade association for professional soccer is one of the groups financing this packet of information going to all the British schools. The European soccer association is sponsoring the tournament in Belgium.”
But there are no official celebrations of many other events where soldiers refused to fight in World War I—the more radical and subversive acts. Hochschild lists several of these acts—of fraternization, desertion and even mutiny—that occurred later in the war: In the spring of 1917, after the Russian revolution, photos show Russian and German troops celebrating and dancing together in couples; on the Eastern Front, a million Russian soldiers deserted and simply walked home, and German soldiers began deserting in 1918; and in 1917, hundreds of thousands of French soldiers refused orders to attack. “These folks should all be celebrated,” Hochschild says, “because they helped bring the war to an end.”
Finally, Hochschild says, we ought to celebrate the anti-war leaders who opposed the war from the beginning and paid a heavy price: in Germany, Rosa Luxemburg spent more than two years in prison for opposing the war; in Britain, Bertrand Russell served six months in a London jail for his anti-war advocacy. And in the United States, Eugene V. Debs was imprisoned for urging resistance to the draft; he was still in the Atlanta federal penitentiary in 1920, two years after the war ended.
Now the US government is planning an official commemoration of the 50th anniversary of the Vietnam War. It’s being organized by the Pentagon, which has declared the purpose to be “to thank and honor veterans of the Vietnam War…for their service and sacrifice.” But more than 1,000 people have signed a petition insisting that “no commemoration of the war in Vietnam can exclude the many thousands of veterans who opposed it, as well as the draft refusals of many thousands of young Americans, some at the cost of imprisonment or exile.” Anti-war activists “are the real heroes that period,” Hochschild says, “and we have to be sure to remember and celebrate them.”
Read Next: Why no one remembers the peacemakers
Hidden in the Senate torture report are stories of some heroes—people inside the CIA who from the beginning said torture was wrong, who tried to stop it, who refused to participate. There were also some outside the CIA, in the military and the FBI, who risked careers and reputations by resisting—and who sometimes paid a heavy price. They should be thanked and honored.
But President Obama hasn’t mentioned them. Instead, he praised the CIA officials who presided over the torture regime as “patriots.”
We should “celebrate the ones who stood up for what was right,” says David Luban of the Georgetown University law school, author of Torture, Power and Law. Jane Mayer of The New Yorker, author of the definitive book on Bush administration torture, The Dark Side, calls them “the real torture patriots.”
The opposition to torture within the CIA was so strong, Mayer reports, that the CIA Inspector General, John Helgerson, “conducted a serious and influential internal investigation.” That led the Justice Department to “ask the CIA to suspend the torture program”—at least “until it could be reconciled with the law.”
The heroes in the torture report include Ali Soufan, former FBI agent and interrogator of terrorists who, according to Lawrence Wright in The Looming Tower, came closer than anyone to preventing the 9/11 attacks. Soufan has argued publicly against torture and in favor of “rapport-building” as the best technique to get information from suspects. The CIA heavily censored his memoir The Black Banners in what Wright called an effort “to punish a critic and to obscure history.” He was featured in a Frontline documentary made by Martin Smith and James Gilmore.
Another hero: Alberto Mora. As general counsel of the Navy in 2004, Jane Mayer reported, he tried to stop the torture program. He told his superiors at the Pentagon that the Bush torture policy violated the Geneva Conventions’ prohibition of torture and “outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” He described the Bush program as “unlawful” and “dangerous,” and warned that the torturers could face criminal prosecution. He was featured in the documentary Taxi to the Dark Side by Alex Gibney (which won the Best Documentary Oscar in 2007).
Some of the heroes were ordinary soldiers, like Sgt. Joe Darby, who first revealed the Abu Ghraib abuses. As a result,” Luban points out, he “had to live under armed protection for six months.” Others were high officials, like Philip Zelikow, an adviser to Condoleezza Rice, who, Luban reports, wrote an “anti-torture memo” that the White House “attempted to destroy.”
And there was Ian Fishback, an army captain who reported that his own unit was abusing Iraqi prisoners. Eventually he wrote an open letter to Senator John McCain, asking, “Do we sacrifice our ideals in order to preserve security?” His answer: “I would rather die fighting than give up even the smallest part of the idea that is ‘America.’ ”
Finally we have the case of Guantaánamo prosecutor Lt. Col. Darrel Vandeveld, who refused to prosecute a teenager who had been abused in US detention in Afghanistan and Guantánamo. For that decision, Jameel Jaffer and Larry Siems report, Vandeveld was “barred from the prosecutors’ office, confined to his residence and threatened with dismissal from the Army.”
The Senate torture report describes CIA personnel “profoundly affected…to the point of tears” by witnessing torture, but it doesn’t reveal the names of those whose protests led to the inspector general’s internal investigation. We need to know who they are—so we can thank them for trying to do the right thing.
Obama has made it clear from the beginning that there will be no criminal prosecutions of the torturers, even though their actions violated the federal Torture Act. The least he could do is publicly honor those who tried to stop the crimes conducted in our name.
Torture is a crime, a violation of the Federal Torture Act. Those who engaged in the torture documented in such exhaustive detail in the Senate Intelligence Committee’s torture report should be prosecuted, and those who conspired in that torture should also be prosecuted. They include UC Berkeley law professor John Yoo, says Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of the Law School at the University of California Irvine.
Yoo was co-author of the infamous “torture memo” of 2002, when he was Deputy Assistant US Attorney General in the Office of Legal Counsel of the Bush Justice Department. In the memo he declared that—in the words of Jane Mayer in her book The Dark Side—“cruel, inhumane, and degrading treatment of detainees could be authorized, with few restrictions.”
Yoo’s memo “directly led to the torture policy that resulted,” Chemerinsky said in an interview, citing Mayer’s evidence. “That’s being part of a conspiracy to violate a federal statute. Someone isn’t excused from criminal liability just because they work for the federal government.”
The Federal Torture Act defines torture broadly, as “an act committed by a person acting under the color of law specifically intended to inflict severe physical or mental pain or suffering…upon another person within his custody or physical control.” The penalty for violating the Torture Act is imprisonment “for not more than 20 years.”
Most important for the case of John Yoo, the Federal Torture Act specifically includes conspiracy, stating that “a person who conspires to commit an offense under this section shall be subject to the same penalties…as the penalties prescribed for the offense.” That means Yoo could be sentenced to up to twenty years in prison if found guilty.
“I think he should be,” Chemerinsky said. “All who planned, all who implemented, all who carried out the torture should be criminally prosecuted. How else do we as a society express our outrage? How else do we deter it in the future—except by criminal prosecutions?”
Chemerinsky, an authority on constitutional law who has argued cases before the Supreme Court, is the founding dean of the law school at UC Irvine, a sister campus of Berkeley in the University of California System. He is the author of hundreds of law review articles and eight books, including most recently The Case Against the Supreme Court.
Yoo defended his work on torture in an op-ed published by the New York Daily News. “In 2002,” he wrote, “I believed that the federal law prohibiting torture allowed the CIA to use interrogation methods that did not cause injury—including, in extraordinary cases, waterboarding—because of the grave threat to the nation’s security in the months after the 9/11 attacks.” He added that he was “swayed by the fact” that he believed “the CIA would use the technique only on top Al Qaeda leaders thought to have actionable information on pending plots.” He said the Senate report was wrong in its conclusion that torture was ineffective in exposing plots, citing CIA head John Brennan’s statements to that effect.
But, Chemerinsky said, there’s nothing in the federal torture law that provides an exception for “pending plots.”
For a law school dean to call for the criminal prosecution of a law professor at another campus of the same university is unprecedented. When demands were raised in 2008 that Berkely fire Yoo, the dean of the law school at Berkeley at the time, Christopher Edley Jr., said that, while he agreed that “Yoo offered bad ideas and even worse advice during his government service,” he believed that advocating “bad ideas” was protected by academic freedom, and such advocacy “would not warrant dismissal” from Berkeley. The only ground for dismissal, he said, was specified in the official university policy: “Commission of a criminal act which has led to conviction in a court of law and which clearly demonstrates unfitness to continue as a member of the faculty.”
Chemerinsky’s argument is that Yoo has committed a criminal act—conspiracy to torture—and that he should be put on trial for it.
Listen to the full interview with Chemerinsky, courtesy of KPFK radio:
The morning after a dark night for Democrats, California stands as the great exception to the national pattern of Republican power. In the state, not a single Republican was elected to statewide office. In the nation’s most populous county, Los Angeles, the election of progressive Sheila Kuehl will transform the all-powerful Board of Supervisors to a pro-labor force.
Voters approved a sweeping transformation of the state’s drug laws, reducing penalties for possession of heroin, methamphetamine and cocaine to a misdemeanor instead of a felony. As a result of Prop. 47, 40,000 offenders a year—mostly young men of color—will get lighter sentences. Voters also reduced petty theft—stealing property worth $950 or less—from a felony to misdemeanor.
Governor Jerry Brown, elected to an unprecedented fourth term with 59 percent of the vote, is committed to fighting climate change; despite Republican control of Congress, he said, California already has the political will and financial resources to forge ahead with reducing carbon emissions.
In the Bay Area, San Francisco passed a $15 minimum wage, with support from 72 percent of voters. Anti-Chevron candidates in Richmond swept to victory despite Chevron’s massive financial backing for a pro-oil-company slate. The Contra Costa Times called it “a resounding political defeat for the company and its campaign tactics.” The city council had sued Chevron after a disastrous refinery fire. And a county south of San Francisco banned fracking.
Last year the state legislature made it easier for women to get abortions, permitting nurses, Nurse practitioners, certified nurse-midwives and physicians’ assistants who complete specified training to perform the procedure.
The state’s gun control laws are among the strongest in the nation. All gun sales require a ten-day waiting period and are recorded by the state. Private sales of firearms are prohibited except through licensed dealers.
California Republicans have been stuck for years at around 40 percent of the electorate. Yesterday’s results provided few signs that the pattern is changing.