Hitchens, Mos Def & hip hop’s strange histories

July 12, 2009 at 6:41 pm | Posted in Music, Art, Etcetera, Terrorism, U.S. Politics | 13 Comments

Blame Reagan for making me into a monster
Blame Oliver north and Iran-Contra
I ran contraband that they sponsored
Before this rhyming stuff we was in concert

Jay-Z – ‘Blue Magic

First, I might as well endorse Ben Thompson’s positive review of the new, ‘implausibly impeccable’, Mos Def record. It’s been 10 years since Dante Smith’s exceptional debut, and in the intervening years he’s seemed more interested in his acting career than mouthing rhymes into a microphone. For that reason, The Ecstatic is an unexpected delight. Musically & lyrically, it’s the most enthusiastic, eloquent & interesting thing he’s produced since Black On Both Sides and should be regarded as one of the best hip hop records of recent years.

But as good as that album is, this post isn’t really about that. Instead, I want to discuss an incident which Thompson briefly refers to in his review; an awkward, awful exchange between Smith and Christopher Hitchens on HBO’s Real Time with Bill Maher:

Obviously, neither of the two men covers himself in glory here. Smith’s habit of repeatedly proclaiming – and then defending – his ignorance about Al Qaeda & the Taliban (to the point of mixing the two groups up) is cringe-makingly embarrassing, and Hitchens is at his sneering, condescending worst, delighting in dishing-out put-downs to someone he clearly considers an intellectual inferior. But Mos Def certainly isn’t the idiot Hitchens assumes him to be; whilst wasn’t lucky enough to go from private schooling to Oxford and then various journals of world renown, he is a dextrous rapper, a fine actor and a man who can speak eloquently on a number of subjects – just not the beliefs of Islamic militants. For a kid from public housing in Brooklyn, that ain’t half bad.

But what I found interesting in Smith’s contribution was the parallel he offered between these Islamic militants and the case Assata Shakur. Shakur was a political activist and Black Panther who was indicted of 10 crimes throughout the 1970’s, including robbery, kidnapping, attempted murder and murder. She was eventually convicted of murdering a state trooper at the New Jersey turnpike, but has always denied the charge. Her defenders insist to this day that she was a political prisoner of the United States and – years after escaping from prison – she successfully claimed political asylum in Cuba. Rightly or wrongly, she is still widely celebrated as a living martyr for black emancipation, and her life story is cited as ‘proof’ of the federal government’s mistreatment of African Americans and why the state shouldn’t be trusted.

What I think Smith was trying to get across – with difficulty given the rude belligerence of Hitchens – was that the people from his community who believe Assata Shakur was a political prisoner won’t automatically believe the federal government and media when they describe Islamic terrorists as a mortal enemy. With such a history of grievance about how the levers of power have been pulled against them, distrust of the state can be a reflex reaction, and that can occasionally lead you to some pretty unorthodox – and sometimes unsavoury – positions.

I think he’s wrong, of course: Osama Bin Laden is no Assata Shakur, Al Qaeda are no Black Panthers and the ideology, aims and practices of bomb-throwing Islamists are infinitely more deadly, malevolent and morally debased than anything the Black Panthers did to advance their own goals. But by inviting that comparison, Mos Def does (albeit inadvertently) demonstrate that the distance between a government and a deprived, disenfranchised community allows for the growth of conspiracy theories as a way of explaining the world around them.

The conspiracy theory is something Mos Def should know plenty about, for they abound in his realm of hip hop. Listen to a few rap albums and it won’t be long before you find an ‘interesting’ interpretation of history: the Jews’ role in black oppression, the CIA flooding the ‘hood’ with heroin, giving black people HIV, killing Tupac & Biggie, or George W. Bush being responsible for 9/11. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that this wealth of crank theories happens to originate from people who’ve lived in some of the most isolated & impoverished communities in America.

There are many different explanations for why conspiracy theories form and how they spread, but I think the most important cultural/political aspect is how they’re often reactions from peoples or communities who feel distanced from & distrustful of the establishment. If you reduced that amount of alienation, you’d probably reduce the number and the power of these strange alternate histories. In the end, if you feel so powerless, the government must seem a hell of a lot more powerful than it actually is.

Update: Lou Perez wrote about the same incident a while back and has some interesting thoughts.

The Torture Memos

April 17, 2009 at 1:34 pm | Posted in Barack Obama, International, Terrorism, U.S. Politics | 2 Comments


From the moment Barack Obama became President, there was much debate inside his party over how the new administration should investigate and prosecute any crimes committed by his predecessor. Of the two most widely-discussed proposals, liberal activists argued for a Special Prosecutor to take action against officials at all levels of the government, from CIA interrogators who conducted torture to anyone in the White House or Justice Department who may have sanctioned it. Others have embraced Sen. Patrick Leahy’s idea of establishing a bi-partisan ‘Truth Commission’ which would try to lay out the facts as impartially as possible, but with the primary aim of establishing truth rather than prosecuting crime.

Thus far, neither of these proposals have materialised, but following the release of another round of DoJ ‘torture memos’, the case for an independent inquiry becomes much stronger – as does the conflict between the pursuit of truth and the search for justice.

The four memos released by the Department of Justice are at once shocking and unsurprising. They shock not just because they provide further evidence of the depths the Bush administration sunk to, but because of their clinical, legalistic, matter-of-fact descriptions of depravity. That said, the steady drip-drip-drip of leaked stories and accusations from Guantanamo detainees have already prepared us for much of what is contained in these documents, and to that end, they only serve to confirm what many people suspected.

But what will keep this story running for months – maybe years – to come are the important questions these documents dare us to ask. As Spencer Ackerman writes:

What the memos leave unclear is how much the CIA jumped into the torture game and how much the Bush administration pushed it. The memos are written to be responsive to the CIA lawyer — the malefactor going to the priest to give his work absolution. They’re written to guide the interrogators. But they leave unclear — as does most of the narrative so far — who’s compelling Rizzo in the CIA counsel’s office to keep pushing for more. The senior leadership of the agency? The heads of its directorate of operations, which overseas the interrogators? The Counterterrorist Center leaders? Without this information, we don’t have a clear sense of moral culpability for the torture. And then we’ll need to know what kind of pressure they were under from the Bush administration. Who was pressured? Who was eager to comply? Who resisted? Who pressed his or her colleagues into acquiescence or insubordination? All of these questions are related but separate to the question of legal culpability.

Reacting to the release of the memos, President Obama argued that this is a “time for reflection, not retribution”, and warned against ‘spending our time and energy laying blame for the past’. A nice sentiment, perhaps, but he must surely know that by releasing these memos, the call for more information, for investigations and for the commencement of criminal prosecutions is becoming irresistible. According to Glenn Greenwald, there is clearly enough evidence already in the public domain to prosecute several individuals for war crimes, and that’s without anything like the kind of far-reaching investigation which is now being demanded.

But the Obama administration remains reluctant to talk about prosecutions, and for a number of reasons. First, I think the (admittedly rather weak) Nuremberg Defense reflects a desire to (a) avoid embroiling a department which should be fighting terrorism in accrimony & accusations, and (b) to avoid a repeat of the situation where someone like Lynndie England was made a scapegoat for abuses which went much higher up the chain of command. Second, the ultimate responsibility for sanctioning these acts of torture looks likely to rest on some very senior figures in the CIA, the Justice Department, and possibly the White House itself, and with that comes the risk of engulfing the Obama administration in the kind of highly-charged partisanship not seen since Bill Clinton’s impeachment.

By releasing these memos, I think the Obama administration is attempting to reveal the truth of America’s torture regime whilst (for now, at least) resisting the call for justice. I can’t see how this will succeed in the long run; these revelations have only prompted calls for more information, and as Guantanamo Bay begins to close down and more inmates tell their stories, the administration will be forced to reveal even more about what the prisoners were subjected to – and who was ultimately responsible. The steady trickle of horror stories about the Bush administration’s brutality hasn’t stopped yet, and those responsible may yet drown in it.

Spinal Tap meets Jihad

January 6, 2009 at 9:01 pm | Posted in Media, Terrorism | Leave a comment

If the new Chris Morris satire catches just a glimpse of the farce and amateurish absurdity of wannabe terrorists, it’ll be well worth watching:

Deirdre Steed, who worked with Morris to secure funding for the film, said the satirist, who fronted The Day Today and Brass Eye, has spoken to terrorism experts, imams, police, secret services and hundreds of Muslims to research the film.

“Even those who have trained and fought jihad report the frequency of farce,” she said. “At training camps, young jihadis argue about honey, cry for their mums, shoot each other’s feet off, chase snakes and get thrown out for smoking. A minute into his martyrdom video, a would-be bomber looks puzzled and says ‘what was the question again?’ On Millennium eve, five jihadis set out to ram a US warship. They slipped their boat into the water and carefully stacked it with explosives. It sank.”

If it comes anywhere close to Brass Eye, it could be hilariously brutal…

The grave uniqueness of 9/11

October 19, 2008 at 6:15 pm | Posted in International, Terrorism | Leave a comment

There’s a great deal to admire about Stella Rimington; not only did she give the best years of her life to keep the country safe, but her practically-minded critique of the government’s approach to anti-terrorism legislation fatally injured the notion that to oppose 42 days detention was to be ‘soft’ on protecting the public. Still, you can’t be right all the time, and about halfway through this interview she makes a statement which seems as incorrect as it is inartful:

The response to 9/11 was “a huge overreaction”, she says. “You know, it was another terrorist incident. It was huge, and horrible, and seemed worse because we all watched it unfold on television. So yes, 9/11 was bigger, but not … not …” Not qualitatively different? “No. That’s not how it struck me. I suppose I’d lived with terrorist events for a good part of my working life, and this was, as far as I was concerned, another one.”

Hmmm. I suspect this kind of dispassionate detachment is more of a virtue when you’re working for the security services than it is when you’re a member of the House of Lords. Now, arguing that 9/11 provoked a ‘huge overreaction’ isn’t particularly controversial – that argument, or some variant of it, has been deployed in the context of the Iraq war and against the panicked, draconian anti-terror measures seen both here and in the United States. No, the problematic part of this interview is her assessment that 9/11 wasn’t qualitatively different from other, non-televised terror attacks.

To know whether this is actually true, I think it helps to ask the following questions: In the immediate aftermath of 9/11, did MI5 undergo any kind of internal reassessment of its threats, targets and modes of operating, and did this lead to any operational changes? It’s a question Dame Rimington could answer better than anyone, and if her answer is, as I suspect, affirmative, then surely that would reflect the enormity of what happened on that September morning.

Beyond that, I think it’s misguided to assume that events can be separated from their consequences, particularly when some of those consequences were inevitable. Leaving aside the unanswerable question of whether a more competent administration could’ve stopped the attacks from happening, it’s safe to assume that a President Gore would’ve responded by invading Afghanistan and authorising a vast expansion of anti-terror legislation. We can also be fairly confident that a Prime Minister Hague or Kennedy would’ve participated in said war and introduced their own anti-terror measures. It wasn’t the fact that we could see the carnage unfolding on TV that gave 9/11 its grave uniqueness; it was the terror of learning what these fanatics were capable of and the deep sense of foreboding that even more carnage would follow.

Update: Norman Geras has some related thoughts here.

A tortured interpretation

July 4, 2008 at 12:10 pm | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Terrorism | 1 Comment
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Michael Otterman: After having been waterboarded, Christopher Hitchens recognises that it is torture. But still he defends its use:

Still, Hitchens cannot escape the grip of American exceptionalism that has so permeated his work since 9/11. “Any call to indict the United States for torture is … a lame and diseased attempt to arrive at a moral equivalence between those who defend civilization and those who exploit its freedoms to hollow it out, and ultimately to bring it down,” he huffs.

For Hitchens, in America’s pitched battle with “tormentors and murderers”, the ends justify the means. I disagree. Communist techniques hinged on the infliction of pain elicit bad intelligence and helps fan the flames of hatred against the US. In the case of the “water treatment”, poor means corrupt good ends.

One gets the feeling when reading this that Otterman either stopped reading the Vanity Fair article about two thirds of the way through, doesn’t understand some of the big words or is quite wilfully misinterpreting his views. True, Hitchens does offer one argument in mitigation of waterboarding and chides those who claim there is an equivalence between this and the depravities practiced by terrorists (Waterboard is pretty tame, for instance, when compared to beheading).

But then goes on he defer completely to the views of Malcolm Nance, an counter-terrorism expert, who states that the information gathered through waterboarding is unlikely to be accurate, puts captured American prisoners at risk of similar treatment (surely a national security risk?) and opens the door for far worse torture treatments to be used in the future.

Otterman misrepresents Hitchens by bizarrely claiming he is so in thrall to American exceptionalism that he can excuse waterboarding. In fact, he argues the opposite; that waterboarding not only damages America’s world standing, but compromises its ability to fight terrorism. To believe in American exceptionalism, you need to be opposed to torture:

One used to be told—and surely with truth—that the lethal fanatics of al-Qaeda were schooled to lie, and instructed to claim that they had been tortured and maltreated whether they had been tortured and maltreated or not. Did we notice what a frontier we had crossed when we admitted and even proclaimed that their stories might in fact be true? I had only a very slight encounter on that frontier, but I still wish that my experience were the only way in which the words “waterboard” and “American” could be mentioned in the same (gasping and sobbing) breath.

I don’t know whether Otterman was just being sloppy or disengenuous, but either way he is madly, badly wrong

Hitchens on waterboarding

July 2, 2008 at 10:53 am | Posted in Christopher Hitchens, Terrorism | Leave a comment
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Perhaps I should have more faith in the man, but you know it’s a strange, inverted world when your first reaction to the news that Hitchens opposes waterboarding is… relief. Every once in a while, the frustrating, belligerent old Trot writes something so good that it makes you want to hug all his old essays. This is one of ’em:

You may have read by now the official lie about this treatment, which is that it “simulates” the feeling of drowning. This is not the case. You feel that you are drowning because you are drowning—or, rather, being drowned, albeit slowly and under controlled conditions and at the mercy (or otherwise) of those who are applying the pressure. The “board” is the instrument, not the method. You are not being boarded. You are being watered. This was very rapidly brought home to me when, on top of the hood, which still admitted a few flashes of random and worrying strobe light to my vision, three layers of enveloping towel were added. In this pregnant darkness, head downward, I waited for a while until I abruptly felt a slow cascade of water going up my nose. Determined to resist if only for the honor of my navy ancestors who had so often been in peril on the sea, I held my breath for a while and then had to exhale and—as you might expect—inhale in turn. The inhalation brought the damp cloths tight against my nostrils, as if a huge, wet paw had been suddenly and annihilatingly clamped over my face. Unable to determine whether I was breathing in or out, and flooded more with sheer panic than with mere water, I triggered the pre-arranged signal and felt the unbelievable relief of being pulled upright and having the soaking and stifling layers pulled off me. I find I don’t want to tell you how little time I lasted.

Read the rest here. If you have the stomach for it, the video’s here.

Supporting David Davis

June 16, 2008 at 1:00 pm | Posted in Big Brother Britain, British Politics, Conservative Party, Terrorism | Leave a comment
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I really hadn’t intended to write anything more on David Davis’ resignation. For a start, the whole job-hunting thing is still an unresolved faff and I’m spending more time wondering whether to abandon Sheffield for the land of rats and rogueish Mayors than I am wondering what Sir Lancelot’s up to. There’s also the fact that BritBlogLand is already engulfed with opinions and I doubt there’s much insight or profundity I can add to the wealth of well-argued posts that are far more worthy of your time. The other reason is that in the past 72 hours I’ve found myself swinging between two extremes and I don’t suppose anyone wants to survey the carnage that occurs when I have an argument with myself. But since someone’s had the impudence to challenge me to put forward a semi-coherent position, I suppose it’d be a good idea if I actually had one. So without further ado, here’s another tract of interminable twittering about the Courageous One and why we should/shouldn’t vote for him. 

A question: if you were a Labour voter/party member in Haltemprice & Howden rather than Barnsley West and Penistone, would you vote for Davis? Would you campaign for him, even? Would your answers to these depend on whether MacKenzie stands, or whether Labour fields a candidate? This Labour party member would vote for him if he could, and I’m waiting for the Internets to provide a means to donate to the otherwise unsympathetic Tory’s self-destructive crusade.

I suppose one reason Davis’ decision is so significant is that it gives a great jolt to people like me who’ve managed to trudge through 24 years of life with the stubborn vow that I would never, ever vote for a Tory. Whilst the by-election renders this vow as pretty self-defeating (Kelvin MacKenzie’s intervention reminds us there are far more noxious options than voting for a Conservative), it refuses to go away because an election that’s ostensibly about a single issue will result in electing someone who will then vote on every other issue. Since Davis is militantly right-wing, I’d be in the position of helping elect someone who will vote against my beliefs 99% of the time. This is where the gag reflex comes in, and makes me have a great deal of sympathy for Unity’s suggestion that voters back a fringe candidate or spoil their ballots.

And yet I’m conscious of how significant a large, cross-party vote for Davis on the issue of 42 days could be, and how it might have the effect of stunning some of those Labour MPs who voted for sensible terror-averting tactics internment to think twice before they reach for the battering ram of the Parliament Act. Since stopping this heinous bill from becoming law should be the primary aim, we should welcome any opportunity to demonstrate our opposition. If that means helping Davis win a landslide majority in a symbolic stunt of a by-election, then we may just have to swallow it – acts of symbolism don’t get much more potent than those delivered at the ballot box.

I don’t like him, I don’t trust him, I disagree with him on almost every issue ever to have faced mankind and most of the time I just wish he would bugger off. But when it comes to 42 days detention, David Davis is indisputably right. On this issue alone and for one night only, I would break the habit of a lifetime and vote Conservative, and I urge all those who actually live in Haltemprice and Howden, whether Tory, Labour or Lib Dem, to do the same.

Update: If that’s not enough to convince you, fans of schadenfreude would surely have some fun watching Murdoch’s sneering little sock-puppet – a liar, a devout enemy of working people and an All-Round Bad Guy – being dealt an embarrassing punch in the jaw by the people of Haltemprice and Howden.

On poverty and terror

June 11, 2008 at 7:27 pm | Posted in British Politics, Conservative Party, Gordon Brown, New Labour, Terrorism, Working Class Britain | 1 Comment
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Taken by Flickr user davepattern (Creative Commons)

So you know this plan to threaten a school with closure if it fails to meet its targets? I was wondering; any chance we can apply it to governments, too?

For those who still care about that nebulous concept called social justice, it’s been a pretty wretched week: health inequalities are becoming sharper, the number of children in poverty has increased by 100,000 and the number of poor pensioners by three times that amount.

Since the poverty rate also increased last year, we can no longer view it as an aberration, but as the beginnings of worrying trend. Given the increases in food and fuel prices and the unlikelihood that Darling’s 10p tax ‘compensation package’ will reimburse everyone who lost out, it’s likely to rise next year as well. Thanks to the financial straightjacket Brown has imposed on his government, we face the very real prospect that by 2010 – the target Blair set to halve child poverty – the figure will continue to creep back towards pre-Labour levels.

At this point, it’s difficult to know to respond without reaching for clichés: sure, we can say Labour’s been subservient to big business & the super-rich, too obsessed with their middle class marginals to bother with sane social policy and so petrified of tongue-lashings from the Tory press that they’re happy to adopt any authoritarian measure that’ll keep them quiet. We can say all of this, but it won’t really get us anywhere.

Instead, we need to look at Brown’s actions since becoming PM and try to deduce whether his government has either the ability or the resolve to correct its mistakes and pursue the new ideas needed to close the gap between rich and poor. The evidence is… well, what do you expect?!

Where to start? We’ve seen him brutishly declare British Jobs For British Workers, shamelessly announce troop withdrawals during the Tory conference, sign the Lisbon treaty when he thought no one would be watching, give inheritance tax away, abolish the 10p tax band to pay for a middle class tax cut and reclassify cannabis despite there being no evidence it’s required.

But perhaps most reflective of Brown’s approach to politics can be seen in the awful, unnecessary, and ghastly authoritarianism displayed in passing 42 days detention. As has been noted elsewhere, there have been no coherent arguments about why the bill is required now, nor why 28 days was so dangerously insufficient; there have been a paltry number of cases that’ve even gone close to original limit and a Home Office Minister suggested the new power might never even be used – arguing, laughably, that it will just be a benign safeguard in case counter-terrorism officers encounter a villain who could evade even Jack Bauer.

No, the prime motivation behind this bill, just like so many other actions he’s taken as Prime Minister, is a craven brand of politics. Faced with worse polls ratings than Michael Foot, Brown’s spent weeks scrabbling around for an issue with which to begin his ‘comeback’, and since the opinion polls are in favour and both the Tories and Liberals are opposed, he gets to ‘fight courageously’ for Britain’s security against the ‘hug-a-terrorist’ brigade who bleat about human rights.

Yeats once wrote “the best lack all conviction, while the worst/Are full of passionate intensity.” This isn’t always true. In fact, when looking at Brown I’d argue the worst all lack conviction. Since becoming Prime Minister, Brown’s modus operandi has been calculation and triangulation, surrendering key policies for short-term gain & scoring cheap points on trivial issues. Above all, his Premiership has been defined not by a desire to govern well but by a desire to win. He has been successful in neither.

You don’t go into government to beat the Conservatives; you go into government to help those who most need it. And when your desire to beat the Tories and save your own skin prevents you from helping those your party represents, then you really must question whether you’re fit to lead Labour into next week, let alone the next election.

Change quickly, Gordon, or resign – there are millions still living in poverty and they just can’t afford you.

Photo by Flickr user davepattern (Creative Commons)

Words are crimes

March 10, 2008 at 8:56 pm | Posted in Big Brother Britain, Terrorism | Leave a comment
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Intrepid policework: In May of last year, police raided addresses in Birmingham and Leeds. Hasina Patel, the widow of Mohammad Sidique Khan, her brother Arshad Patel, Imran Motala and Khalid Khaliq were all arrested and questioned on suspicion of terrorism. A week later, only Khaliq was charged with any wrongdoing; accused of possessing an Al-Qaeda training manual for which he has today pleaded guilty.

Now, it may be that Mr Khaliq is a dangerous little hate-mongering runt who wastes what little brain power he has daydreaming about bringing mass death to our nation’s streets. If so, a long and miserable prison sentence is richly-deserved. But…

Am I the only one who feels slightly queasy about arresting someone for what they may have read? There are many documents on the internet claiming to be Al Qaeda training manuals; I even downloaded one this evening (warning: they’re atrociously-written and there’s a bizarre line about how the Rotary Club is evil). Does that mean I should be considered a terror suspect?

The other apparently damning piece of evidence released to the media was that Khaliq was pictured light-water rafting with two of the 7/7 London bombers. So on top of being guilty of possessing words, you’d have to make him guilty of free association, too. What country was this trial held in again?

Let’s be clear: the CPS has provided no evidence that Mr Khaliq was masterminding a terror plot or even volunteering for one, nor has it been suggested that he was a member of a terror cell or had been pimping bilious bigotry on the street. At the end of high-profile raids that saw three other suspects released without charge, all they managed to charge him with was possessing something that’s easy to obtain over the internet.

Yes, cases like these are often more complicated than the media coverage suggests; there are often details that can’t be revealed and if this belch of self-righteous bluster is later revealed as wince-inducing naivety, I hope I’ll have the decency to admit it.

I just wish he’d done something more dastardly to deserve his sentence, that’s all.

Update: There’s another book that’s been adopted as a chilling training manual. A superb bit of snark by Gavin Whenman:

Seemingly unknown to the rest of us, it is now an offence to own and read certain words, arranged in a certain way. The Government and Parliament are worried that public exposure to “extremist” or “terrorist” literature will turn us into jihad-declaring murderers, regardless of our previous moral or political beliefs, and so have decreed that we may now read from only an authorised list of documents, be they books, essays, articles, blog posts or some other form of written communication.

Naturally enough, during this time of heightened security, we are not to be told what documents are out of bounds to our easily manipulated minds, instead, after these documents have fallen into our hands, we shall be judged as to whether they are “likely to be useful to a person committing or preparing an act of terrorism”. The sheer lunacy of this situation should be apparent to anyone. Convicting a person merely for possession of a document is one step removed from a thought crime – the offence of holding certain beliefs which the State finds abhorrent – and in a liberal Western democracy such an offence should simply not exist.

Alas, this is further proof, it would unfortunately seem, that the Government do not treat Nineteen Eighty Four as a work of fiction, but as a government training manual.

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