Michael Riordon

the view from where I live

On the table: another war?

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Across the West Bank and in Gaza, Israeli soldiers and police continue to beat, gas, imprison, torture, and kill unarmed Palestinians.  [See posts 65 and 66 on  this blog.]

In Cairo, Egyptian soldiers and police continue to beat, gas, imprison, torture, and kill unarmed Egyptians.  The dirty work they used to do for Mubarak, they do now for Mubarak’s generals and their corporate backers.

In Washington, Congress has just passed a law that will entrench in US law “indefinite detention without trial,” and broaden the role of the military in holding “terrorism suspects.”  At the same time, the definition of terrorism continues to get wider, accommodating more and more people.  In a moment, this law wipes out several centuries of hard-won gains in fundamental legal protection and civil rights.

Simultaneously, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu announced measures this week that will broaden the use of Israeli military detention without charge and military trials.  These ‘measures,’ which have long been used against Palestinians under military occupation, will now also be used, selectively, against Israeli citizens.

Usually in my work I identify and amplify voices of people who resist such measures, often risking their own safety, sometimes their own lives.  Such people need to be heard; their stories offer inspiration, an antidote to despair.  This is why I choose – or try – to keep my attention not on the headlines, the war room, the cabinet office, the CEO’s penthouse where the 1% live with their acolytes, servants and drones, but on the ground where most of us, the 99%, live.

But sometimes – now – the ‘measures’ being constructed over our heads and behind our backs become too overwhelming, too frightening to ignore.   Some connectable dots:

On December 15, Joel Brinkley, former Jerusalem bureau chief for The New York Times, wrote in the Washington insider journal Politico:  “Administration officials are seething over Israel’s refusal to negotiate with its neighbors — even as the tumult of the Arab Spring imposes increasing and unprecedented isolation on Israel.  Still, said Martin Indyk, who twice served as US ambassador to Israel, the Netanyahu government can do more or less what it wants ‘because they know they have Congress in their back pocket.’”  [The same can be said of elected parliaments in Canada, Britain, Australia, and far too many other countries that claim to be democracies.]

In Washington, the carrot/stick that keeps the US Congress firmly lodged in Netanyahu’s back pocket is the Israel lobby.  Others far more learned than I have argued this for some time, with mountains of evidence.  But any attempt to challenge the lobby’s unparalleled power to dictate US political careers and policy is met with instant, ferocious and well-orchestrated charges of anti-Semitism.  Not so much denials, which would be hard to sustain, just very sharp reminders that the lobby is sacred and untouchable in the land of the free.   [In fact its tentacles reach far and wide.  For example, See Fight continues for academic freedom in the US, by Nora Barrows-Friedman, December 15.]

Even star Israel-booster Thomas L Friedman is not immune.  On December 13 he wrote in his New York Times column:  “I sure hope that Israel’s prime minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, understands that the standing ovation he got in Congress this year was not for his politics.  That ovation was bought and paid for by the Israel lobby.”  Of course Friedman came under immediate attack.   His recanting and apology are awaited.

At the same time, as if to confirm his assessment, on December 15 the US House of Representatives passed, by a margin of 410-11, the “Iran Threat Reduction Act,” a ‘measure’ long demanded by Israel’s backers in Washington, among others.  Its stated purpose is to prevent Iran from developing nuclear weapons, its background agenda to ensure that Israel retains its monopoly on weapons of mass destruction in the Middle East.  But behind it is a deeper purpose: to reduce Iran to a client state by destroying its economy and subjecting most of its people to abject misery.  As with Iraq, and now Libya.

According to UN officials, US-driven sanctions against Iraq in the 1990s killed more than 500,000 Iraqi children.  When faced with this fact on the US news program 60 Minutes, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright replied, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price – we think the price is worth it.”  After the sanctions came the 2003 US invasion, and there too, we know who pays the price.

Congress is under heavy pressure to follow the same formula in dealing with Iran:  isolate, threaten, starve and if necessary, smash it.  The so-called Iran Threat Reduction Act is one more step in this relentless campaign.  (Another option ‘on the table’ is a direct Israeli attack on Iran, with US support guaranteed.)

The major characters in the drama are all following the same script.

On December 16, U.S. President Barack Obama gave the keynote address at the Union for Reform Judaism General Assembly, National Harbor, Maryland.  He declared:  “It’s hard to remember a time when the [U.S.] administration gave more support to the security of Israel.  Don’t let anyone to tell you otherwise.  It’s a fact.”

“We have imposed the most comprehensive, the hardest-hitting sanctions that the Iranian regime has ever faced,” said Obama.  “We haven’t just talked about it, we have done it. And we’re going to keep up the pressure.  And that’s why, rest assured, we will take no options off the table.”

Obama received a standing ovation from the thousands of attendees at the Union for Reform Judaism conference.

The chilling phrase ‘No options off the table’ is familiar from the lead-up to the second US invasion of Iraq.  Then and now, only one option is consistently banned from the Washington table: respectful negotiation with the designated target.

These are not remote, abstract issues.  The enduring impacts of war and tyranny reverberate everywhere, in the militarization of culture and in each new ‘measure’ of state violence against dissent, so brutally obvious in other countries, clearly increasing here, even in comfy Canada.

Now many thousands of US troops are on their way home from the nightmare they’ve bequeathed to the people of Iraq.  What’s next on the table?

From the experience of Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, the 1% have seen this:  They can demolish other, weaker countries with no negative consequences to themselves, only immense profit.  They see that with a compliant media at their service (including, sadly, what used to be called public broadcasters), they can steer public opinion any way they like with relative ease.  They see that most of the time, most of us in the perpetrator countries will not risk our own comfort (always a seductive illusion) by opposing their agenda, at least not in ways that will seriously disrupt it.  They also see – or at least assume – that most of us will not resist the ‘measures’ they are currently enacting to hollow out democracy until nothing is left of it but a shell, a decorative ornament.  This is what the 1% have seen.

And the rest of us?  We are offered inspiring models of courage and determination by Palestinians who continue week after week to defy the brutality of the Israeli occupation, by Egyptians who return again and again to Midan Tahrir – Liberation Square – in defiance of the generals’ thugs, and by brave, creative movements of resistance against tyrannies that are rising almost everywhere.

With any luck, these brave souls together might constitute another 1% of humanity.

That leaves the rest of us, the 98%.  A potent force for change, at least in theory.

What we are prepared to do remains to be seen.

Author: Michael Riordon

Canadian writer and documentary-maker Michael Riordon writes/ directs/produces books and articles, audio, video and film documentaries, plays for radio and stage. A primary goal of his work is to recover voices and stories of people who have been silenced or marginalized, written out of the official version: First Nations (aboriginal) youth, Mozambican farmers, inmates in Canadian prisons, traditional healers in Fiji, queer folk across Canada, Guatemalan labour activists. Michael also leads courses, workshops and seminars for community organizations, trade unions, schools, colleges and universities.

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