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When the Detainee Is American . . .

“The corpses pile up like sandbags along the planet’s geopolitical borders….”

The Free Press WV

The corpses pile up like sandbags along the planet’s geopolitical borders.
“Perhaps his condition deteriorated and the authorities decided it was better to release him in a coma than as a corpse.”

So said an expert on North Korea recently, quoted in the New York Times following the death of 22-year-old Otto Warmbier, six days after he had been released in a comatose state from a North Korean prison. He had been sentenced to 15 years of hard labor a year and a half ago because he had taken a propaganda poster off the wall in his hotel. He had been with a tour group.

Oh Lord. The shocking wrongness and horror of this young man’s death — the absurdity of his arrest, the razor slash of his tears — is all over the news. Of course. Who couldn’t identify — with him, with his parents? He had been dehumanized. He had a future, but it got pulled away from him by uniformed lunatics, or so the news presents this tragedy: in the context of America and its enemies.

And there’s no enemy out there with less legitimacy than North Korea. Any time the country and its supreme leader, Kim Jong-un, show up in the news, they look, you might say, like evil cartoon characters. But they possess, as the Times story informed us, “nuclear arms and missiles capable of striking the United States.”

And this is the context of the news and the limit, apparently, of the consciousness of the U.S. media. But the arrest, abuse and death of Otto Warmbier took place in a context more complex than good vs. evil. It’s still a horrific tragedy, a wrong that should never have occurred, but the devaluing of human life isn’t simply a game played by the so-called bad guys.
International politics is mostly a game of “interests” and war. It’s a game of winning and losing, and human beings be damned. And the fact that the United States plays this game as aggressively as anyone, at home and abroad, belittles the death of American citizens who wind up innocently caught in the game themselves.

The day the young man died, for instance, a 15-year-old lawsuit on behalf of another group of wrongful-arrest victims wound up being dismissed by the U.S. Supreme Court. In 2002, the Center for Constitutional Rights had brought the suit against a number of officials in the George W. Bush administration — including former Attorney General John Ashcroft and, ironically, Robert Mueller, former FBI director who is currently heading up the Trump-Russia investigation — on behalf of several hundred South Asian and Arab non-citizens who were rounded up and jailed after 9/11.

“Based solely on their race, religion, ethnicity, and immigration status,” according to the CCR, “hundreds of men were detained as ‘terrorism suspects’ and held in brutal detention conditions for the many months it took the FBI and CIA to clear them of any connection to terrorism. They were then deported. . . .

“Our clients were held in a specially-created Administrative Maximum Special Housing Unit . . . in solitary confinement. They were purposefully deprived of sleep, denied contact with the outside world, beaten and verbally abused, and denied the ability to practice their religion.”
That kept us safe.

And people outside our borders had even less security and fewer rights. Some years ago the New York Times ran a rare account of one man’s experience as a Gitmo detainee and U.S. torture victim. Lakhdar Boumediene, who in 2001 was living in Bosnia with his wife and daughters and working for the Red Crescent Society of the United Arab Emirates, was accused of being a terrorist and arrested one morning, shortly after the 9/11 attack, when he showed up for work in Sarajevo. He wound up imprisoned at Guantanamo for seven years. In 2009, a federal district judge, after reviewing the U.S. case against Boumediene and four others arrested with him, found them innocent and ordered them released.

During his imprisonment, he wrote, “my daughters grew up without me. They were toddlers when I was imprisoned, and were never allowed to visit or speak to me by phone. Most of their letters were returned as ‘undeliverable,’ and the few that I received were so thoroughly and thoughtlessly censored that their messages of love and support were lost.”

Regarding his treatment at Gitmo: “I was kept awake for many days straight. I was forced to remain in painful positions for hours at a time. These are things I do not want to write about; I want only to forget.

“I went on a hunger strike for two years because no one would tell me why I was being imprisoned. Twice each day my captors would shove a tube up my nose, down my throat and into my stomach so they could pour food into me. It was excruciating, but I was innocent and so I kept up my protest.”

The more you read about American torture practices, the worse it gets. The mostly classified 6,000-page Senate report on this topic, released in 2014, contains almost unbearable data about CIA “enhanced interrogation” methodology, including “rectal rehydration,” threats against the detainees’ children and parents, quasi-drowning, mock executions and “revved power drills” held near their heads. And many detainees died and many remain imprisoned without cause.

Reading about all this in the context of North Korea’s imprisonment and apparent murder of Otto Warmbier doesn’t lessen the hell he went through as a victim of “hostage diplomacy,” but it does, I think, change one’s sense of who the enemy is.

Robert Koehler, is a Chicago award-winning journalist and editor.

Feed the Hungry, Treat the Sick: A Crucial Training

“On June 15, 2017, the New York Times reported that the government of Saudi Arabia aims to ease the concerns of some U.S. legislators over U.S. weapon…”

The Free Press WV

On June 15, 2017, the New York Times reported that the government of Saudi Arabia aims to ease the concerns of some U.S. legislators over U.S. weapon sales to Saudi Arabia. The Saudis plan to engage in “a $750 million multiyear training program through the American military to help prevent the accidental killing of civilians in the Saudi-led air campaign against Houthi rebels in Yemen.”
Since entering the war in Yemen, in March of 2015, the Saudi coalition’s airstrikes, with U.S. assistance, have destroyed bridges, roads, factories, farms, food trucks, animals, water infrastructure, and agricultural banks across the north, while imposing a blockade on the territory. For a country heavily dependent on foreign food aid, that means starving the people. At least seven million people suffer now from severe acute malnourishment. 

U.S. assistance to the Saudi-led coalition has included providing weapons, sharing intelligence, targeting assistance, and aerial jet refueling.  “If they stop the refueling, that would stop the bombing campaign literally tomorrow,” says Iona Craig, who frequently reports from Yemen, “because logistically the coalition would not be able to send their fighter jets in to carry out sorties without that help.”

The U.S. has also provided “cover” for Saudi violations of international law. On October 27th, 2015, Saudi Arabia bombed a Yemeni hospital operated by Doctors Without Borders. The airstrike went on for two hours, reducing the hospital to rubble.

Ban Ki Moon, then Secretary General of the UN, admonished the Saudi government for attacking a medical facility. The Saudis responded that the U.S. had similarly bombed a Doctors Without Borders hospital, in Afghanistan’s Kunduz province, which indeed the U.S. had, earlier that same month, on October 3, 2015. The U.S. airstrikes continued, in 15 minute intervals, for an hour, killing 42 people and likewise reducing the Doctors Without Borders hospital to rubble and ash. 

How would the U.S. military train the Saudis to prevent the accidental killing of civilians?  Would they teach Saudi pilots the military parlance used when U.S. drones hit an intended target: the pools of blood that sensors detect, in place of what was once a human body, are called “bugsplat”? If someone attempts to run from the site of the attack, that person is called a “squirter.” When the U.S. attacked the Yemeni village of Al Ghayyal, on January 29th, 2017, one Navy Seal, Chief Petty Officer Ryan Owen, was tragically killed. That same night, 10 Yemeni children under 13 years of age and six Yemeni women, including Fatim Saleh Mohsen, a 30 year-old mother, were killed. U.S.-fired projectile missiles ripped apart Saleh’s home in the middle of the night. Terrified, she scooped up her infant and grabbed the hand of her son who was a toddler, deciding to run out of the house into the darkness. Was she considered a squirter? A U.S. missile killed her almost as soon as she fled. Will the U.S. train the Saudis to engage in U.S. exceptionalism, discounting the lives of alien others, giving priority, always, to so-called national security for the nation with the most weapons?

Over the past seven years, I’ve noted a steady increase in U.S. surveillance of Afghanistan. Drones, tethered blimps, and complex aerial spying systems cost billions of dollars, apparently so that analysts can “better understand patterns of life in Afghanistan.” I think this is a euphemism. The U.S. military wants to better understand patterns of movement for its “High Value Targets” in order to assassinate them.

But my young friends in the Afghan Peace Volunteers, (APV), have shown me a life-giving kind of “surveillance.” They conduct surveys, reaching out to the neediest families in Kabul, trying to establish which families are most likely to be hungry because they have no means to acquire rice and cooking oil.  The APV then work out ways to employ widows to sew heavy blankets, or compensate families that agree to send their child laborers to school for half a day.

I told my young friends in Kabul about the dire straits Yemeni youngsters face. Now, along with conflict driven starvation, the nightmarish spread of cholera afflicts them. Save the Children has warned that the rate of cholera infection in Yemen has tripled over the past 14 days, with an average of 105 children contracting the disease every hour – or one every 35 seconds.

“It’s too much for us to learn these statistics,” my young friends gently responded upon learning about the staggering numbers of Yemeni people who could die from starvation or disease. “Please,” they asked, “can you find someone we could get to know, person to person, through a Skype conversation?”

Two friends in Yemen said that even in the major cities, Yemenis are isolated in terms of international communication. After the APV learned that the conversation they envisioned might not be possible, a few days passed before I heard from them. Then a note arrived, saying that at the end of Ramadan, the month during which they’ve been fasting, they typically take up a collection to help share resources.

They asked me to entrust their collection, meager though it might be, to two Yemeni human rights advocates in New York who are more or less marooned there. This Yemeni couple wonders when commercial flights to Sana’a, Yemen’s largest city, might resume. The APVs, who understand all too well what it means to face an uncertain, precarious future, want to alleviate hunger in Yemen.
They set an example of what could be done — what should be done– rather than make hideous preparations to target, maim, torture, starve and kill other people. We should, individually and collectively, do all that we can to prohibit U.S. supported Saudi-led coalition onslaughts against Yemeni civilians, encourage a silencing of all the guns, insist on lifting the blockade, and staunchly uphold humanitarian concerns.

“Would You Like a Drink of Water?” Please Ask a Yemeni Child

“This week, in New York City, representatives from more than 100 countries will begin collaborating on an international treaty…”

The Free Press WV

This week, in New York City, representatives from more than 100 countries will begin collaborating on an international treaty, first proposed in 2016, to ban nuclear weapons forever. It makes sense for every country in the world to seek a legally binding ban on nuclear weapons. It would make even more sense to immediately deactivate all nuclear weapons.

But, by boycotting and disparaging the process now underway, the U.S. and other nuclear armed nations have sent a chilling signal. They have no intention of giving up the power to explode, burn and annihilate planetary life. “The United States is spending $1 trillion USD over the next thirty years to modernize its nuclear weapon arsenals and triple the killing power of these weapons,” says Ray Acheson, programme director at Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom (WILPF). Acheson also notes that the excessive spending for nuclear weapons contrasts with U.S. cuts to vital anti-poverty programs.  On June 19th, more than a dozen people blocked the U.S. Mission to the UN entrance to protest Washington’s boycott of the negotiations. They were arrested for disorderly conduct, but I believe it’s incomparably more disorderly to plan for nuclear war.

During the past weekend, to support the negotiations for a treaty banning nuclear weapons, WILPF called for “Women’s March to Ban the Bomb” actions in cities across the U.S. and around the world. Jane Addams, who helped found the League in 1919, was a Chicago woman who understood the crucial need to put an end to war, all war, and instead care for the neediest people. She dedicated herself to assuring that many new immigrants in her city were treated with respect, given assistance to meet basic needs and encouraged to live and work together, peaceably. Addams worked passionately to prevent nations from sleepwalking into the horrors of World War I, and she vigorously campaigned to stop the United States’ entry into it.

Upon return from visiting soldiers who had been maimed while fighting in the trenches of World War I, she spoke of how the young men couldn’t have carried on the war without mind-altering substances -sometimes absinthe, sometimes extra rations of rum. Families were sending laudanum and even heroin to the front lines in hampers. The soldiers couldn’t kill, she concluded, if left in their right minds. 

The WILPF gatherings help us ask hard questions about our capacity to prepare for massive obliteration of entire cities, through nuclear weapon buildup, while failing to meet the needs of children, like those in Yemen, whose survival is jeopardized by war and indifference. Can we persist in perfecting our nuclear arsenals, indifferent to millions of children at risk of starving to death or dying because they lack clean water — and because U.S.-supported Saudi airstrikes decimate the infrastructure that might have supplied food and water, –can we do so and claim to be in our right minds?

WILPF gathered us in Chicago where we took time to remember a remarkably brave former Chicagoan, Jean Gump, a mother of 12 whose altruism led her to help dismantle an intercontinental ballistic missile. On March 28, 1986, Jean and her companions in the Plowshares movement enacted the biblical call to turn swords into plowshares. Picture it in the words of Lila Sarick’s article, “The Crime of Ms. Jean Gump:”

The early morning sun was beginning to glow red over the horizon as a trio ran through the dew-soaked Missouri field.

Silently, a young, bearded man cut the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire, while his two companions, another man and a woman, hung banners beside the scarlet sign that warned them not to enter.

Beside the warning sign, the pair hung a photo collage of the woman’s 12 children and 2 grandchildren. Alongside it, they hung a pennant that bore the group’s logo: “Swords into plowshares — an act of healing.”

The trio then clambered through the hole in the fence and entered M-10, a Minuteman II missile site at Whiteman Air Force Base, Knob Noster, Missouri.

The missile site resembled an abandoned railway yard. Rust-colored tracks ended abruptly in the middle of the site. Tall signal arms and white concrete bunkers dotted the landscape.

Wordlessly, the three set to work. Ken Rippetoe, 23, swung a sledgehammer at the railway tracks, designed to launch a nuclear missile with the punch of one million tons of TNT.

Larry Morlan, 26, snipped the wires on the signal arms, which pointed blindly toward the sky.

And Jean Gump uncapped a baby bottle filled with the trio’s blood and poured it in the shape of a cross on the gleaming hatch from which a missile could emerge. Underneath, she painted the words “Disarm and live.”

For this action, Jean Gump was sentenced to 4½ years in prison. The following year, her husband, Joe Gump, performed a similar action, believing Jean was right about assuming personal responsibility to deactivate nuclear weapons. The couple galvanized a group of Midwesterners to form a 1988 campaign, the “Missouri Peace Planting,” which involved dozens of people climbing over barbed wire fences onto the grounds of nuclear weapon silos in Missouri, and planting corn on top of the missile silos. I remember entering a nuclear weapon site in Missouri’s Whiteman Air Force Base, planting corn, and shortly thereafter finding myself kneeling in the grass, handcuffed, as a soldier stood behind me with his weapon pointed toward me. I lasted about two minutes in silence, and then started talking about why we did what we did and how we hoped the action would benefit children that he loved as well. And then I asked him, “Do you think the corn will grow?” 

“I don’t know,” he responded, “but I sure hope so.” And then he asked me, “Ma’am, would you like a drink of water?”  I nodded eagerly.  “Ma’am,” said the soldier, “would you please tip your head back.” I did so, and he poured water down my throat. Recalling his kind offer to give me water jolts me into awareness about the relationship between the nuclear weapon below us, that day, and massive numbers of people, then and now, who acutely need clean water.

Imagine if his question, “Would you like a drink of water?” were asked, today, to people living in Yemen. Now, as the U.S. insists on having an exceptional right to dominate the planet, insists on being armed with enough explosive fire power to obliterate entire cities, suppose we were to ask people in Yemen, millions of whom now face cholera and starvation, if they would like a drink of clean, pure water?

Or, let’s bring the question closer to home and ask people in Flint, MI, whose water is contaminated, “Would you like clean, pure water?”
And as we grope for solutions to the signs of climate change, including severe droughts and the rush to privatize dwindling resources of potable water, imagine asking the children of future generations, “Would you like a drink of water?”

President Eisenhower was right to equate possession of nuclear weapons with commission of crime.

Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and are not clothed. This world in arms is not spending money alone.

It is spending the sweat of its laborers, the genius of its scientists, the hopes of its children.

It’s a big “ask”:  get rid of nuclear weapons. Along with planning and joining protests, another way to remain awake and focused on preventing nuclear annihilation involves recognizing how interconnected we are with others, so much so that the suffering and death of another person diminishes our own lives.

This wakefulness entails abiding care for others. Jean Gump and Jane Addams practiced such care throughout most of their lives. We, likewise, can work toward justice for those who live in communities like Flint, MI; we can seek sane approaches to the climate crisis; and we can insist that those who are targets of war, like the cholera-ridden, desperately hungry children of Yemen, be spared from aerial terrorism and given full access to clean, life-saving waters.

Disengaging with Cuba

“President Obama’s engagement with Cuba was one of his administration’s success stories. The policy shift was based on the entirely realistic as well as humanitarian…”

The Free Press WV

President Obama’s engagement with Cuba was one of his administration’s success stories. The policy shift was based on the entirely realistic as well as humanitarian assessment that permanent estrangement deepens enmity, isolates two peoples and separates families, reduces opportunities for improvement in the quality of life in Cuba, inhibits the two-way flow of information, and prevents cooperation on common problems. But the Trump administration, pressed by Senators Marco Rubio and Robert Menendez, is still fighting the Cold War, as evidenced by Trump’s disengagement order this week.

Let’s recall how Obama, in defiance of right-wing critics, reinforced his policy direction and personal visit to Cuba by issuing a legally binding order—Presidential Policy Directive 43—on October 14, 2016, just months before leaving office. PPD-43 makes the case for normalization of relations with Cuba, recites the extensive diplomatic exchanges that have occurred, outlines cooperation in areas of mutual interest, and expresses the hope of improvement in Cuba’s human rights, economy, and regional integration—all while reassuring Cuba that regime change is not US policy. Department by department, the document recites the numerous collaborative ventures ongoing and possible, such as on public health, food security, private investment, environment and ecology protection, immigration, travel, counter-narcotics, and joint scientific projects. One specific step taken by the administration at this time was to remove the ceiling on imports of Cuban rum and cigars. But the one thing Obama could not do was end the embargo, where right-wing members of Congress have always had their best chance to limit engagement.

Obama left Donald Trump with a substantial list of new interactions with Cuba, some of them—such as money transfers to Cuba, and a major increase in tourism—designed to support small businesses and civil society. Obama also left Trump with some unresolved issues with Cuba, such as a sharp increase in Cuban immigration to the United States (in part thanks to the upward pressure on prices due to US tourism), regulatory blockages, and the slow pace of Cuban economic reform. Such problems normally would be resolved over time. Under Trump, however, progress made with Cuba was bound to be set back, just as it was with Iran.

Fidel Castro’s death prior to Trump’s inauguration ordinarily might have been a time for a sympathetic note to Havana and an opportunity to deepen the accords already reached. Instead, Trump tweeted: “If Cuba is unwilling to make a better deal for the Cuban people, the Cuban/American people and the U.S. as a whole, I will terminate deal.” The implication was that the US would demand changes in Cuba’s human rights and political system in return for continued engagement and a softening of the embargo.

Trump’s partial reversal of Obama’s engagement with Cuba in June 2017—partial because diplomatic relations and most types of tourism remain in place—is more likely to undermine than promote the slow improvements in Cuban civil society that engagement has produced. Independent journalism and private entrepreneurship are reemerging there. Trump’s limits on general US tourism greatly reduce interactions between ordinary citizens of the two countries, and restrictions on how US dollars may be spent undercuts small Cuban businesses. (Surely coincidental is that new American hotels that might compete with future Trump hotels are prohibited from opening in Cuba.) Maintaining the US embargo is also highly unlikely to ease Cuban restrictions on human rights, and making the latter a condition for easing the former is sure to arouse official Cuban anger. As one expert in US-Cuba relations (William LeoGrande) observed, negotiating economic and travel arrangements is one thing, sovereignty is another. Cuba’s memory of US interference is long, and Cuba will not countenance another such era.

The Trump administration’s abandonment of full-fledged engagement with Cuba leaves untouched reassessments of policy toward other, and far more destructive, authoritarian regimes, including the Saudi monarchy, Putin and the Russian oligarchy, al-Sisi’s military regime in Egypt, and Duterte and his henchmen in the Philippines. Once again, a US leader has chosen to ride the wrong horses.

Mel Gurtov, is Professor Emeritus of Political Science at Portland State University.

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