Justice Is for The Bad Guys
Our weekly Discontents 11/15/21
Back in June, during a session of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Congressperson Ilhan Omar (D-MN) asked Secretary of State Antony Blinken a pointed question about international justice. Given that the United States rejects the authority of the International Criminal Court to judge US military personnel, Omar asked, how could the victims of possible US war crimes hope to find justice? The question sparked an interesting exchange:
Blinken: Thank you. First, let me just say at the outset that it is impossible not to be profoundly moved by not just the loss of life in the recent violence and conflict, but especially the children whose lives were lost. And we all have a tendency to throw statistics and numbers out there, but we are talking about boys and girls, Israelis and Palestinians, as well as men and women. And I think none of us, from whatever perspective we come, can lose sight of that, so that’s one thing that’s very important. Look, you know our views on the ICC and its jurisdiction. We continue to believe that absent a Security Council referral or absent the request by the state itself, that that’s not appropriate. I continue to believe that, whether it is the United States or Israel, both of us have the means-
Omar: Mr. Secretary. I do understand that, your point, and [inaudible] this is available to them.
Blinken: I believe that we have, whether it’s the United States or Israel, we both have the mechanisms to make sure that there is accountability in any situations where there are concerns about the use of force and human rights, et cetera. I believe that both of our democracies have that capacity, and we’ve demonstrated it, and we’ll need to continue to demonstrate it going forward.
It has long been standard DC operating procedure that, when asked why the chief paragon of the international Rules Based Order refuses to subject itself to the international rule-adjudicating ICC, officials are to respond that it would be superfluous for the United States to accept ICC jurisdiction because the US legal system is more than capable of investigating the crimes of the US military and of enforcing punishment for those crimes when necessary. In an era of deep partisan division, this is at least one point on which both Democrats (Blinken) and Republicans (former National Security Adviser John Bolton) can agree.
For daring to ask this question, Omar was of course publicly lambasted. Her critics, who by now should be pretty well-established, were furious that she’d insidiously compared the United States and Israel to the Taliban and Hamas. She had, of course, not done this, except to make the completely factual observation that they’d all been accused of committing war crimes, but that didn’t matter. Omar just didn’t seem to get that Israel and the United States are The Good Guys, whose commitment to justice can be assumed because they are Good, while Hamas and the Taliban are The Bad Guys, who ipso facto have no commitment to justice because they are Bad.
I dredge this exchange back up because so far this month we’ve seen two fairly explicit cases that undermine Secretary Blinken’s assertion that the United States has the “demonstrated” “capacity” “to make sure that there is accountability in any situations where there are concerns about the use of force and human rights.” Let’s consider them briefly.
The first of these cases involves the August 29 drone strike in Kabul, the Pentagon’s parting shot on its way out of Afghanistan. After first insisting that the strike was a “righteous” one that had prevented an imminent Islamic State suicide bombing at the overcrowded Kabul airport, the US military acknowledged weeks later—and only after a New York Times investigation turned up no evidence to support that initial claim—that its attack had in fact killed ten civilians and zero would-be bombers.
You will no doubt be pleased to know that the Pentagon announced earlier this month that it had investigated itself—excuse me, it had undertaken an “independent probe” into its own activities, a contradiction in terms if ever there was one—and concluded that it hadn’t done anything wrong. Sure, mistakes were made, accidents happen, omelets, eggs, etc., and the Pentagon intends to make case payouts to the families of the victims in “compensation” for having killed their loved ones. But the important thing is that the US military looked into what it did and found that, whatever it was, it definitely wasn’t a war crime. Case closed, I guess.
Case two emerged this weekend, though it reaches back to the last days of the war against the Islamic State’s “caliphate” in 2019. With IS’s remnants having taken up position in the eastern Syrian town of Baghuz, on March 18, 2019, the US military undertook an airstrike on a large crowd of people huddled in a field just outside of town. That strike killed at least 70 people. we now know, thanks to another New York Times investigation, that they, or most of them, were civilians. More than that, the Times investigation shows that the Pentagon knew they were civilians, because one of its drones filmed the crowd and the strike. Nevertheless, military officials quickly moved to cover it up.
In this instance the Pentagon opted for another of itsinternal investigations. This one was so internal, in fact, that the investigation was carried out by a special forces unit known as “Task Force 9”—the same special forces unit that had called in the attack in the first place. Task Force 9, which was responsible for overseeing ground operations in Syria, had developed a bit of a reputation for calling in airstrikes in “self defense” even though its personnel were supposed to stay well behind the front lines. Designating a strike as “self defense,” as it happens, avoids any obligation to conduct a time-consuming review and approval process—a process that is supposed to prevent civilian casualties. The March 18 strike was, like so many previous ones, labeled “self defense” and so it was carried out immediately, without review.
Charged with determining whether or not they themselves had committed a war crime in orchestrating this airstrike, the members of Task Force 9 unsurprisingly concluded that they had not. And the Pentagon was happy to let that be the last word and to leave the March 18 incident to languish in obscurity, despite several internal whistleblower reports to the contrary—until the Times investigation reached the publication stage. Now the Pentagon has acknowledged that the airstrike took place but is insisting that it was legitimate. It claims the death toll included only four confirmed civilians along with 16 IS fighters and 60 people whose circumstances could not be determined.
There is ample reason to believe that even under the US military’s own interpretation, in which it opted to shoot first and ask questions later (or never) about a crowd of people whose combat status was clearly unknown, this airstrike could be considered a war crime. But because the US military is allowed to investigate itself, a privilege that only agents of national security or law enforcement are permitted to exercise, we’ll never know, and the victims of the Baghuz strike will likely never have justice. Their families will see even less than the pittance the Pentagon intends to give to the families of the Kabul victims.
Your mileage may vary, but personally I see nothing in either of these instances to suggest that the United States can be trusted to investigate its own atrocities. What I see instead is imperial hubris on display, a profound sense of impunity rooted in decades spent as The World’s Only Superpower™ and as humanity’s Shining City On A Hill™. The United States is Good and therefore it must Do Good, and any evidence to the contrary must either be dismissed or buried. Bringing an objective legal body like the ICC into the mix might disrupt the illusion Washington has crafted to sell the public on the righteousness of US militarism. And we can’t have that.
It’s time to turn things over to the rest of the Discontents crew, but before I leave I hope I can convince you to subscribe to our little collective effort here. We’re trying to offer a different approach to the overcrowded newsletter market and we use your support to help make this project a success. Subscribing costs you nothing and ensures you’ll never miss an issue, and if we can build our subscriber base maybe we can get some attention for this effort:
If that doesn’t work, maybe we can start a university.
On Read Max last week, we explored the chief cultural achievement of the 1990s: The Dad Thriller. The post included many helpful diagrams that both explained what the Dad Thriller was, and indirectly identified the particular overactive and missing lobes in my brain. Be aware, if you saw this post last week, that the list has been updated, this time with a new category: Movies Where Doctors Are in Distress. If you're looking to build a nice viewing list for an upcoming holiday, check it out.
Dad thriller discussion continued on Friday, including an exploration of the question: Did Ben Affleck single-handedly kill the Dad Thriller? The link roundup post also included a fun real-estate listing surprise, cursed adapters, and eco-terrorism. Please check it out, and thank you for reading.
Welcome to Hell World
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The thing about the unhoused is that they don’t just disappear into thin air when you kick them out of where they’ve been living — as much as many people would probably wish they would. Continuing our series on the displacement of the people from encampments around Massachusetts (read more here and here), I spoke last week with a volunteer from Court Watch, a group who have been on hand every day in the ad hoc jail-courts in which a number of the uprooted people are being processed into the carceral system instead of receiving real help of any kind.
“The first week of the jail court has proven it to be a farce. Multiple people were sent to jail to detox overnight without medication in potentially lethal situations.” Read that piece here.
I also shared a chapter from my most recent book that is newly relevant given the Kyle Rittenhouse trial. “And to think all this time all of our other mass shooters could have just been doing shit like this and gotten a pass. They might have gone out and only killed two or three ‘Antifa thugs’ at a go and they could have become right-wing celebrities overnight.”
In somewhat lighter news I shared a few chapters from a book me and my friend Dave Wedge — the co-author of multiple NYT best-selling books like the recent Last Days of John Lennon and Hunting Whitey — have been working on with Max Collins better known as “The Eve 6 Guy” about his rise and fall in the music business, struggles with alcoholism, and his latter day revival as a Tier One Poster. “If there’s one job that’s more ridiculous than being a rock star it’s being a former rock star. The climb up is absurd but the descent is hilarious.” Read that one here.
Wars of Future Past
Kelsey D. Atherton
Ghost Robotics’ Vision-60 Q-UGV is not the first robot to carry a gun. It also isn’t the first dog-shaped robot to be built and marketed at military customers. Yet in October it was this dog-shaped robot, with a gun mounted on its back, that captured the imagination of the internet, as Twitter rehashed Terminator with a Black Mirror update.
In the latest Wars of Future Past, I took a deep dive on dog-shaped robots, and what it means to see mechanical death sold in a walking form.
In motion, the robot feels animal. I know how limbs and joints move. I can hear it in the water, see it in the grasses around the robot’s feet. When it stands in the mush on the edge of gravel before the ramp, I get a sense memory of the shallows at a swimming hole in the Jemez Mountains. No tracked robot has ever invoked the sensation of sinking my toes into mud and algae. In motion, if you can overlook the desert-beige casing, it does a pretty good impression of alive. At least, until it pauses to read a QR code and then park with its back exposed to an open doorway.
The Vision-60 is remote controlled, like a host of armed and tracked robots. Yet its appearance makes it feel more alive, which makes it impossible to avoid questions about what autonomy would mean, even if that autonomy is still years away for the specific device. It’s good, I think, for us to be asking these questions now. Nothing about robots is inevitable.
Jordan Uhl & Rob Rousseau
In the wake of former President Barack Obama’s extremely condescending and paternalistic COP26 speech—in which he lectured young people to vote like their life depends on it, while somehow neglecting to mention his own role in creating the kind of cynicism that has led many of these people to no longer believe this process is really accomplishing anything—we brought on David Sirota, former Bernie Sanders speechwriter and currently of The Daily Poster and Meltdown, to try and break it down. David, predictably, also had a lot to say about the current trajectory of the Biden Administration and the much-discussed “Build Back Better Framework.” This one qualifies as a must-listen.
Gaby Del Valle & Felipe De La Hoz
Communities along the US borders with Mexico and Canada rejoiced this past week as entry to the United States for vaccinated visitors was opened up again after a year-and-a-half of restrictions triggered by the COVID-19 pandemic. While people in the rest of the country tend to think of the border as a bright-line bifurcation of countries and cultures, in actuality the border zone can often be its own self-contained community with unique characteristics and a way of life that exist on either side of the border itself.
The restrictions on so-called nonimmigrant travel—the catch-all for visitors with nonpermanent status, like tourists—had impacted border economies and kept friends and families from seeing each other. Now, nonimmigrants who are vaccinated can again enter the country through the land border. One group who were left out were asylum seekers, who are still subject to expulsion under the Title 42 policy. Many highlighted the absurdity of having the border reopen for shoppers and tourists but remain largely shut for those seeking humanitarian protections.
At the same time, the Biden administration did away with a number of region-specific air travel restrictions, applying the same rules for travelers regardless of where they were flying in from. These include a negative COVID test three days prior to travel for vaccinated people, and the day of travel for unvaccinated ones—a restriction that applies regardless of status. There have been so many shifting and confusing U.S. travel restrictions throughout the pandemic, affecting different people in different ways, that we dedicated last week’s BORDER/LINES to untangling how they came to be, and exactly what the restrictions are and have been for different types of travelers.
Is it time for a general strike? A number of post-left YouTubers and other fringe figures held a “summit” over the weekend to discuss just that—but, as I reported, the lineup was hardly conducive to left-wing politics.
Included in the “stars” headlining the event are Jimmy Dore, the podcast and streaming star who’s seldom met a right-wing conspiracy theory or personality he won’t endorse; Niko House, a Tulsi Gabbard fan with a deep, abiding friendship with white nationalist Jack Posobiec; and anti-vaxxer Fiorella Isabel.
There are other, marginal figures associated with the so-called summit: the Vanguard podcast, far-right militia platformer Comrade Misty; and Twitter personality Jackson Hinkle—who contributed to the push for a general strike by marginalizing nurses, teachers, and Netflix employees from the working class in general in a rant largely copied and pasted from Wikipedia.
Meanwhile, in the Houston area, an actual labor action is taking place at big box store Kroger.
Workers at the company told me they’re fed up with mistreatment.
That penny-pinching at workers’ expense bleeds into other aspects of the job. The company expects too much of employees that only make around $11.25 an hour.
Kroger was always supposed to be a temporary position for Jane. But the pandemic hit and as someone in her 60s, she had little choice but to continue to work—there just weren’t any other realistic options.
She hopes to leave soon, though.
“This is the worst company, as far as taking care of their employees, that I have ever worked for,” Jane said.
Sign up today—and stay tuned.
Last week Spencer wrote about “one of the War on Terror’s organization men,” Ken Wainstein, who was instrumental in getting the notorious Section 702 of the FISA Amendments Act passed. It’s a great post about consensus reality and all the hard work that goes into manufacturing it.
And I wrote about one of our favorite topics, namely the art of Jack Kirby, this time in the context of Chloe Zhao’s strange, not wholly successful adaptation of his 1970’s science-fantasy The Eternals. If this seems off-topic, please know that the CIA features prominently in the piece, since Kirby’s work was essential to both a complicated fraud scheme involving a theme park with jet-pack-wearing security guards, and also a major CIA-led exfiltration.
IN THE CASE OF LORD OF LIGHT, producers Barry Ira Geller and Jerry Schafer proposed to reuse Kirby’s ornate sets as attractions in an unlikely-sounding Colorado amusement park, Science Fiction Land. The conceit was pure Kirby: “Science Fiction Land will offer 2,000 hotel rooms and, after completion, will be tied to Colorado Springs and Denver by a jet-powered transit system, [Schafer] said,” according to an article in the Nov. 19, 1979 edition of the Grand Junction, Colo. Daily Sentinel.
The park, he said, will have a heliport located atop three 10-story statues, with each of the statues housing a major restaurant.
One of the park's major structures will house three children's theaters and a 1,000-lane bowling alley manned by robots who will collect money and give customers their bowling shoes, Schafer said.
Security officers in the park will be outfitted with jet packs developed by the Army and capable of lifting the guards 20 feet off the ground for short distances, he said.
Possibly obviously, Schafer was ultimately tried for securities fraud; angry backers told detectives he had convinced them to invest in his project after misrepresenting the ironclad nature of the Bank of Canada’s interest in the project. An old issue of Starlog aggregates the relevant reporting well. (Schafer had also tried to market a perpetual motion machine, according to a separate Los Angeles Times article, marking one of the few instances when violating an immutable law of physics has carried criminal penalties.)
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Michael Franczak delivered his third and final Foreign Exchanges piece from the COP26 climate summit last week, focusing on its failure to support climate adaptation efforts in the developing world:
The second half of the speech, however, was supposed to be a jolt of optimism. Gore listed statistic after statistic (as he is wont to do) on the growth and scaling of renewable energy technologies. Ninety percent of newly installed electric capacity last year globally came from solar and wind, Gore told us, which are now cheaper than coal and gas in two-thirds of the world. He’s right: the cost of renewables is indeed plummeting, which is great news for mitigating climate change and meeting net zero commitments. Last year in China, 63% of new electric capacity came from solar and wind; in India, 70%, and in the US, 81% (more Gore figures). Even the famous coal museum in Kentucky just put solar panels on its roof to save money. “The markets are moving forward,” he insisted in his final remarks, citing GFANZ as a prime example. “This is not greenwashing.”
There may be some truth to that, but mitigating emissions is only half of the problem. Take the small island developing states (SIDS), which a) barely emit anyway and b) need immediate aid to literally stay afloat. Gore stated that if every party at COP-26 kept their current net-zero pledges, then by 2050 we will be able to hold global temperature rise to 1.8 degrees Celsius—still higher than the 1.5 target declared at Paris, but enough to avoid the extremely dramatic consequences of 2.5 or 3 degrees in most rich and middle-income countries. Sea level rises have already harmed coastal communities in emerging economies by salinating drinking water and spoiling fertile land, e.g., in the Mekong Delta. But for the SIDS, sea level rises and extreme weather events mean not just economic loss and displacement, but outright extinction.
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