Steve Bannon and the green card smokescreen

We know about two things Trump senior advisor Steve Bannon has done in the past few days:

  1. Overruled a Department of Homeland Security (DHS) interpretation of the travel/refugee ban executive order that, saying that green card holders were also subject.

2. Get a seat on the National Security Council (NSC) while removing the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

#2 is unprecedented, a power grab by an advisor with no relevant experience. It’s a clear signal that Trump would rather displaced senior leadership than learn from it.

I’m not usually a conspiracy theorist, but I think the two are linked. The travel ban has been such a media focus that the NSC issue has mostly been noticed by watchdogs tracking post-9/11 changes to homeland security. The insistence by Bannon that the ban apply to permanent residents has made this issue so explosive. If only refugees or temporary visa holders were targeted, these protests would not be nearly as large. But the EO seemed primed for maximum chaos- it was both broad and vague.

It remains to be seen how long the rest of the executive branch will stand by while a half dozen rookie advisors take their authority away.

The #MuslimBan, broken promises, and the Great Default

Tonight, a lawsuit by the ACLU stayed the executive order that aims to ban immigrants and refugees from an arbitrary collection of nations for varying amounts of time, from a few months to indefinitely.

screen-shot-2017-01-28-at-9-26-57-pm
From Bloomberg here

The ban was expected. That it was extended to green card holders (permanent residents) was surprising. Thus in addition to new refugees and family members on travel visas, you have this case at LAX:

One detained traveler was an Iranian woman who’d held a green card in the U.S. for five years and whose citizenship swearing-in ceremony is in two weeks, Cunnings said.

The woman has an 11-month old child with her who is an American citizen.

A CNN feature on the chaos surrounding the creation and implementation of the order includes this passage:

Friday night, DHS arrived at the legal interpretation that the executive order restrictions applying to seven countries — Iran, Iraq, Libya, Somalia, Syria, Sudan and Yemen — did not apply to people who with lawful permanent residence, generally referred to as green card holders.
The White House overruled that guidance overnight, according to officials familiar with the rollout. That order came from the President’s inner circle, led by Stephen Miller and Steve Bannon. Their decision held that, on a case by case basis, DHS could allow green card holders to enter the US.
Fundamentally, this order is a series of increasingly large promises being broken. People who followed the rules, did everything conservatives have asked immigrants to do, get nothing for their sacrifice. Translators for the US military who risked their lives in exchange for residency, nothing. Religious and ethnic minorities fleeing the Syrian civil war and ISIS, nothing. And people who were promised permanent residency, nothing. America has always been a land of broken promises, but for 2017 this is particularly sharp sting.
This is the beginning of what I’m calling The Great Default, where any prior promises and commitments made before Jan 20, 2017 should be considered conditional and uncertain. Climate agreements, trade agreements, foreign alliances, ethics rules, civil liberties, religious freedom. It’s a fire sale. The immigration ban is telling every other country that the US is willing to do things without consulting its own government, let alone yours. For those that say the system will ameliorate Trump and make a trade war with China impossible, well, what about now? Bannon and Miller overruled the part of the government that actually has to implement policy. They don’t want to learn, they want to extend their will. Bannon has been given a major national security position, letting those who said “it’s just an advisory position!” know that yes, that too is conditional.
There is no honeymoon period. Get the sandbags, close the storm windows. Nothing is sacred.

#WhoIsBurningBlackChurches? Cultural erasure in America

The black church has been a nexus of power and hope for centuries. Urban congregations were the basis of the Civil Rights Movement; in 1963 in Birmingham, no matter how violent and chaotic it got, the 16th Street Baptist Church was home base where nonviolent protestors marched, were scattered and arrested, and came back to again and again. Shortly after the Campaign, the whole church was dynamited by KKK members, killing four girls. The symbol of black resistance was destroyed, part of a campaign of white supremacist terror.

The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963
The rubble of 16th Street Baptist. September, 1963

Not only was the sanctuary of the church desecrated by the massacre of nine people in Charleston, this open wound has been salted by a string of church fires. As of writing, the number of fires is eight, with three confirmed arsons and four without a cause yet.

The lack of interest by many media outlets in the story spawned the hashtag #WhoIsBurningBlackChurches. The answer is both “we have no idea” and “we have a very good idea”. Who specifically? Investigations are ongoing. Who generally? White domestic terrorists, the sort that have dominated the history of terrorism in America. While Islamic extremism has been the dominant focus in America for the past two decades, outside of September 11th, 2001, domestic terrorism by racist and “patriot” extremists has always been a more relevant threat- since 9/11 almost twice as many people in the US have died from right-wing attacks than by Islamic radicals. The 1990s had the Oklahoma City Bombing, which was the deadliest action before 9/11. Going back far into the past, America was defined by lynch mobs, church bombings, slave patrols, etc. Beware media stories that call this some kind of anomaly. Given the past, and American society’s lack of interest in confronting systemic racism, we should not be surprised that black institutions are defiled and destroyed.

The question “who is burning black churches?” reveals that the War on Terror has never directed resources into confronting the dark heart of domestic terror. The Obama administration and Congress seems to be more interested in bombing peasants in Yemen than in churches being destroyed in several Southern states. No big effort has emerged to systematically protect churches and the black communities that they reside in. As with many social problems, the oppressed groups are told to deal with it on their own.

At the Unitarian Universalist General Assembly last week, Dr. Cornel West stated that if all this violence was matched in the way that white establishments do, there would be no peace. Violence against black America happens so often that it would be a continuous civil war. What makes church burnings like this series strange is that few, if any comparable actions are taken against white-led churches or other institutions. When property is destroyed in racial conflict, like the CVS in Baltimore, there is a media obsession with it. Several historic churches, with great cultural and social importance, get nowhere near the same coverage- simply because the group that committed the crime and group who suffered it were different than they were in Baltimore.

I was born in 1990, about a full generation after the end of the capitalized Civil Rights Movement. Church attacks were taught to me as historical, emblematic of a hostile, racist society that no longer exists. But there is no separate, post-racial era. This is just a modified version of Jim Crow. Same inequality, same terrorism.

What our wars create: ISIS and the persistence of terrorism

ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty
ISIS soldiers celebrate. Credit: AFP/Getty

A conservative Facebook friend posted a story from the YoungCons website (you know it’s a great right-wing website when one of the top results is “is this site satire?”) about the battle of civilizations- America vs. Islamic fundamentalism. It suggested that the US take after Jefferson and his war against the pirates in Tripoli- use force against these Islamic powers, and don’t back down, surrender, or be held for ransom. Those three things being what the Obama administration is currently doing re: ISIS. Apparently.

Here was my reply, and a reply against the US policy in the Middle East since 9/11:

Islamic fundamentalism post-dates Jefferson. It is a creation in response to colonialism and perpetuated by Western anti-terror actions that lead to far more civilian casualties than militant ones.

We’ve been actively killing people in the Middle East for thirteen years and radical fundamentalism is stronger than ever. A secular leader in Iraq was overthrown, the armed forces disbanded, and a Sunni insurgency created by former officers let loose with their training and weapons. The strongest terror-backed entity is using American weapons to massacre civilians.

So when is America going to bomb the Islamic world into prosperity and peace? Or perhaps basic history shows that’s not the case, and we’re actually fighting a war against groups that would not exist without the weapons and instability from Land of the Free, Home of the Brave, the United States of America.

Now please note that I am not a Hussein apologist, but we need to be honest and see what the early-stage plan in Iraq was, and how in toppling one dictator we sowed the seeds for others to come.

ISIS with captured tank
ISIS with captured tank

With ISIS, we must stop the ongoing nationwide amnesia about the two main wars fought with 9/11 as justification, and confront the new, post-Coalition Iraq. Any additional use of force in the region has to be weighed against what has happened with past uses of force. ISIS may not be a direct creation of the United States (with an assist from early 20th century France and Britain), but its current structure and power is related to US actions, and the War on Terror philosophy that terrorism must be stomped out using overwhelming force.

This is a terror group which is now confirmed to have access to chemical weapons. Just this week another Iraqi Army base was overrun, giving ISIS access to huge amounts of US-provided weapons and transportation.

The biggest discussion since 9/11 that nobody in the government or national media doesn’t want to have is a huge one: what it terrorism, and how is it persisting despite sanctions and military action? Central to this indefinite War is the justification of force without the analysis of its consequences. The Sunni insurgency comes from how the initial invasion of Iraq was manage, and how the Shi’ite and Sunni constituencies have their own paramilitary groups that can act independently of governmental authority. ISIS is a product of dysfunction, and there is no way to remove Coalition action from that dynamic.

Patriotism is a cheap word these days. Only brash, simple action can be patriotic, and dissent is met with ambivalence, if not outright hostility. No matter what ideology you subscribe to, what the United States does or does not do in the Middle East has a body count attached to it. Its size is important, as well as how we take responsibility for collateral damage, if at all.

War brings people together. War gets dissenters thrown in prison.

 

Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.
Eugene V. Debs- socialist, labor organizers, snappy dresser, jailed for opposing World War I.

Hopefully this will be part of a trend towards a more critical approach to how World War I affected the United States: The Atlantic published “Why Wars Always End Up Hurting the Most Vulnerable Americans” yesterday. A choice quote:

Most Americans have forgotten how repressive a period World War I was. “You can’t even collect your thoughts without getting arrested for unlawful assemblage,” quipped the writer Max Eastman. “They give you ninety days for quoting the Declaration of Independence, six months for quoting the Bible.” Walter Lippmann said Woodrow Wilson’s administration had “done more to endanger fundamental American liberties than any group of men for a hundred years.”

What it comes down to is that there are two sides to any event, like a war or a terrorist attack, which rallies people together. There is union, but also violence and repression to those that are in the wrong place (or of the wrong race, or nationality) at the wrong time. Triumph over Nazi Germany and imperial Japan gets so much romanticism, but for 100,000+ Japanese-Americans who were herded into camps, they suffered because of the drive to war. Intellectuals of both liberal and conservative background have often welcomed war as an engine for social good, but as Randolph Bourne thought, “using war powers to achieve domestic reform is like using a firehose to fill a water glass”. Social solidarity in wartime comes with special symptoms: jingoism, inflexibility, and mob sanction.

1917 wasn’t just about giving the Kaiser a good licking, it was about government-led oppression against trade unionists, socialists, and anyone who opposed the war. That legacy remains with us- Edward Snowden, should he end up in US custody, would face charges under the Espionage Act of 1917, which doesn’t even allow him any kind of legal defense. Any justification, no matter how good, is irrelevant. That was the dark mentality of America at the time. You’re with us, or against us. No extenuating circumstances, no middle ground.

Expansion of ISIS into Iraq, another bloody stalemate?

From The Economist (http://www.economist.com/news/middle-east-and-africa/21604230-extreme-islamist-group-seeks-create-caliphate-and-spread-jihad-across)

What used to be, in Neolithic and Bronze Age times, the Fertile Crescent, is a complete mess. Not that it’s unusual- on any scale of time the region is unstable and its political powers shifting.

ISIS/ISIL has won stunning victories in Iraq, after more measured and slow success in Syria. Part of that may have been the crowded and diverse ethnic and religious makeup, where they were hemmed in by Kurds, the Syrian government, and other rebel groups. Taking over the Sunni-dominated portion of northern and western Iraq was a bit simpler. Anonymous Twitter account @wikibaghdady throws in suggestions that the displaced Baathist regime is bolstering ISIS/ISIL. Its success was not instantaneous, and its progress was underreported in Western media. Now it is gaining weapons, money, and a population base to tax (or perhaps extort) funds from. There are certainly benefits in a shift from a terrorist militia to a political state. It cements power and creates a structure for expansion and resistance to attack.

The big-scale forces seem to be restraint and stockpiling weapons, intelligence, and resources. Each side in Iraq- the Shias, Sunnis, and Kurds- have a rope pulling them back towards the land where their faction holds a strong population advantage. The Kurds are now openly selling oil on their own terms, and have gained Turkish support that they didn’t have during the independence campaign by the PKK and others within Turkish borders. With Kirkuk, their territory in Iraq is more or less as big as it could realistically be without currying a civil war with the government in Baghdad. While that government is gaining significant popular support from Iran and the Shia population, as long as ISIS/ISIL has a base in Syria to launch reinforces, long term occupation of Sunni lands seems untenable. As the linked story shows, shrine cities will be fought fiercely for, but more distant towns with no religious significance?

ISIS/ISIL is doing the expansion right now, but it remains to be seen if Baghdad could realistically fall (and how long it could be occupied). At some point, eastern advancements get close to the Iranian border.

It seems that stalemate is a likely result in the weeks and months to come. After all, that’s what Syria has devolved into- even if one side is gaining the upper hand, it takes an long time for any advantage to become clear.

These situations of a civil war reaching an equilibrium can be seen in Africa as well, it’s not a recent phenomenon or a Middle Eastern phenomenon. From a policy perspective, the question is what can be done beyond humanitarian damage control. Refugee camps in Jordan or Lebanon that persist for years point to a social and national structure that is collapsing. Social services are very limited, education is spotty and inferior. It all leads to populations that are losing an ability to proceed, to rebuild economies and governments if and when the conflict ends.

Without strong policies that try to build (or maintain) healthy social structures, any peace will by nature be fragile. There are certainly many civil wars, in many different areas and continents, where nothing of value is learned.

If nothing is learned…

Same groups
Same factions
Same weapons
Same refugees
Same suffering
Same stalemate.

The chilling effect of surveillance.

A few weeks after the high-profile closing of secure email service Lavabit (followed by several similar services) in the face of increased US surveillance pressure, the long-running legal blog Groklaw has shut down due to similar unease.

Lavabit was the service used by leaker Edward Snowden, and thus shut down in response to government demands for information. Since then, there has been a definite chilling effect. Beating the US government to the punch, other sites deleted their files and ceased service. Even though Groklaw was unlikely to have data of interest to intelligence agencies, the situation spooked Pamela Jones:

I sound quaint, I suppose. But I always tell you the truth, and that is what I was feeling. So imagine how I feel now, imagining as I must what kind of world we are living in if the governments of the world think total surveillance is an appropriate thing?

I know. It may not even be about that. But what if it is? Do we even know? I don’t know. What I do know is it’s not possible to be fully human if you are being surveilled 24/7.

We are witnessing important sites grinding to a halt due to the increasing evidence that NSA surveillance is far broader than we have been led to believe. The impacts are social and economic. Jones pointed out that without secure email she doesn’t know how to safely conduct business. For jobs that require heavy encryption, the lack of email and storage services puts them in a bind. As with peer-to-peer services in the past decade, some groups will relocate to countries like Switzerland where the laws are more in favor of privacy. But NSA conduct will cost jobs, hinder innovation, and disrupt social ties. This ignores the paranoia and unease that permeates all media users, which is hard to quantify yet very real.

The costs of the War on Terror are massive. People have died by the thousands. Civilians in Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen, among others, have dealt with the terror of drone warfare. American politicians did not adjust the budget for huge military operations, and the economy is worse for it. Trillions of dollars have been used for destructive purposes rather than renewable energy, infrastructure, education, and healthcare. The NSA scandals are just the latest burden on the public towards a hazy goal we are unlikely to reach.