Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Am I Not Human? When Security Trumps Compassion

In considering human rights abuse for the "Am I Not Human?" campaign, instead of focusing on one group, I will explore a number of examples of a pattern that appears in such abuse, and one America, as well as other powerful nations, must come to grips with: the conflict between security and compassion, between looking at others outside one's "group" as fellow human beings, or as threats.

One of the most obvious cases where this conflict is played out is in the War on Terror. It's easy to simplify the War on Terror as a conflict between Good - us, people who believe and claim they love democracy and freedom - vs. Evil - them, people we claim hate democracy and freedom, aka, the "terrorists".

But if one examines this issue more closely, it's obvious that there's more to it than that. In my last post for this blog campaign, I examined the inhumane treatment of Palestinians by the Israeli government, and also by those countries who ignore the plight of the Palestinians, especially in Gaza. But many argue that the Palestinians support and foster terrorism, attacks on civilians by suicide bombers in peacetime situations, such as markets or theaters or, famously, the Olympics. The Israelis' treatment of Palestinians, they argue, is directly a consequence of those terrorist acts, which Israel must defend itself and its people against. It's a security issue. The apartheid wall, the collective punishment of entire families in Gaza for the acts of a few, the constant checkpoints, the deprivation of jobs, income, or basic food and other supplies, are all explained as necessary security measures.

The War on Terror was begun after 9/11 as a security measure. Suddenly we were attacked, unexpectedly, by Islamic terrorists, in the most horrific way. To defend ourselves and our country, Bush initiated a war against terror - with a huge backing of popular and congressional support. The creation of the Department of Homeland Security, the surveillance of all communications coming in & out of the country (as much as that is possible, and with certain perimeters), allowing the torture of terror suspects, the establishment of military tribunals and a detention center at Guantanamo Bay, detaining terror suspects indeterminately without legal recourse, extraordinary rendition, prison ships, the invasion of Afghanistan and ultimately the invasion of Iraq, Somalia and other lesser-known places - all these measures, now widely criticized as violating people's basic human rights, were enacted in the name of security.

Air strikes on targets that may include civilians - not just mistakes, but knowingly - are also allowed in the various battlefields in the war on terror. This is a deliberate calculation to gain the greater "good" - victory in war and then they hope enactment of "higher goals" such as democracy or access to oil - at the expense of the value of human life.

These air strikes have many strategic reasons - such as minimizing the risk to U.S. soldiers. That is all well and good. But it doesn't necessarily remove the "sin" of taking innocent lives. We're talking about children, women, families. These people did not ask the U.S. to invade. They do not understand exactly what's going on. And their support for the U.S. "mission" is shaken every time civilians are killed. Of course, the Taliban and al-Qaeda are killing civilians, too. Their concern for humanity, is touted as the reason for their war. They say the U.S. and Israel kill Muslim women and children, and so these extremist groups justify their attacks as a "defense" of "their people" against the American "aggressors". It's a matter, to them, of "security".

Saudi Arabia is extremely security-conscious. They are run by a sort of "benevolent" Mafia, the Saudi royal family, including thousands of princes, who get the lion's share of the country's substantion income from oil revenues. They use religion to maintain the loyalty of their citizen-subjects, and try to "modernize" their country in order to keep people happy and obedient. But women in Saudi Arabia, as showcased by the case of the girl from Qatif who was sentenced to whipping for being gang-raped, supposedly because she was with a man who was not her husband or brother. Only public outcry caused the King to ultimately pardon her, but without such publicity she would have had to endure punishment for being the victim of a heinous crime.

This is because in Saudi Arabia, women are still largely considered the "property" of their husbands or male relatives, and have few rights, not even the right to drive a car (unlike some other Muslim gulf states, for example). They are not allowed to appear in public except when covered completely from head to foot in black robes. Although many justify this as "Islamic", many more Muslims would disagree. There's nothing in and of itself wrong with head-covering - as long as it's voluntary. But morality-police enforce these laws, and women are severely restricted in their movements, ability to work or do much of anything outside the home, since they must always have a male relative escort. Many women in Saudi Arabia are huge Oprah Winfrey fans, as she discusses issues that women face in a compassionate way, helping some of these women deal with their lives and feel they have a purpose. Sometimes, under these conditions, women wonder if men believe they are in fact human.

Men in Saudi Arabia justify this attitude with what amounts to another security issue. They want to protect their privileged position in society and their ego-pumping "superiority" without the bother of "uppity" women, who pose a huge security risk for such men. Apparently the men do not think compassion for women involves consideration for their personal needs and pride, or just the ability to support themselves in the event their male relatives should die.

From Hitler's unspeakable atrocities which were justified by a need for security and "superiority", to slavery in the U.S., also justified by the need for "security" and prosperity in the agricultural South, to racist behavior around the world, often justified by the need to "protect" the supposedly "superior" group from some imagined destruction, invasion or "adulteration" by the "other", "inferior" groups, to the latest fear of "terrorists" which title is frequently applied to anyone Muslim... all these represent choices in favor of security and self-protection over compassion and consideration of the rights of others.

Even on a lesser scale, whenever security trumps consideration for the human element, oppression begins, and oppression is the greatest obstacle to true democracy and free society.

First, a free society cannot be created, maintained, inspired or made by force. That means war is out as a means of achieving it. Therefore, the War on Terror is doomed to failure, if its goal is making the world safe for democracy. War cannot make the world safe for anything except war.

Second, excessive infringement on human liberty cannot promote security, if it only acts on rigid, written laws and doesn't have the flexibility to act on the ground in a human way between human beings.

Here's an example of this in Dahr Jamail's lates article as he describes the situation he saw at an airport:

TSA is one of several security gifts from the Bush administration, or rather, from the twisted conjunction of corporate business and state power that oversees and safeguards our "freedom" and "democracy" through an elaborate system of control mechanisms.

Immediately in front of me, an elderly gentleman in a wheelchair was trying to reason with the security guard who was asking him to take off his sandals. "What do you want me to do? I didn't wear socks so you could see my feet since I'm unable to bend over and take off my sandals."

"Sir, you must comply with policy," the guard said in a raised voice, as three other TSA agents moved in behind him, arms folded ominously across their chests, and surrounded the elderly man in the wheelchair who requested their assistance, doing what he could to "comply." None of the guards stepped forward to take off his sandals for him in order to check his feet.

In exasperation he shouted, "I'm asking for help, and you won't do it, so what do you want me to do? What the Hell am I supposed to do? What are you afraid of? I'm an old man in a wheelchair! Are you afraid of my sandals?"

The guards would not allow him through the x-ray until he eventually lowered his voice. We must never upset the status quo, because that is an important pillar of a system that holds change in dread. Do not rock the boat, and don't you dare speak up, lest it indicate that something is wrong.

It requires no crystal ball to see that we are embedded in a system that has no qualms about harassing old men in wheelchairs or making pregnant women walk through x-ray machines. It is the same system that is killing scores of Iraqi and Afghan civilians daily, and killing the planet systemically. It is a system that requires us to be sleepwalkers, rather than alert and sensitive humans.

Sometimes the security-frenzy can taint people on the ground who act as vigilantes, as in this attack by Israeli settlers against Palestinians:

Last night 40 Jewish settlers went on a rampage in the long-suffering Palestinian city of Hebron, throwing rocks, smashing windows and slashing tires. One Palestinian resident reports:

“The stone-throwing tonight was not rioting, it was with intent to kill … Settlers threw stones at us from the fifth floor. I picked one up and it weighed at least a kilo…

“We’re eight families, 60 people in all, and we are constantly threatened … Yesterday huge stones just barely missed two of my cousins. If they had been hit they would have been killed.”

Why not turn to the IDF for protection?

“He claims his family had asked Border Guard officers to form a separation between them and the settlers, but that the latter had continued throwing stones indiscriminately at both parties.

Al-Jabri went on to say that after a settler had threatened to slaughter his entire family he complained to IDF soldiers, but they didn’t respond. “He took out his gun, put it to his mouth, and said, ‘Deir Yasin, Deir Yasin’, referring to the massacre in the village of Deir Yasin in 1948,” he said.

“I was shocked to hear a soldier tell me, ‘There’s nothing I can do, and there’s no use complaining, the settlers and we are one,” al-Jabri added.”

And, indeed, none of the pogromists have been arrested so far, despite many of them undoubtedly being repeated offenders.

In this latter case, the police (enforcers, protectors) and vigilantes unite against the "other" group, who have been branded as a threat, and hence, in security terms, fair game.

It's telling that Israel refuses to attend the U.N conference on racism, where they reasonably expect they would be castigated for their human rights violations against the Palestinians. But others make a valid point that this is not the only case of racism or denying human rights and should not somehow be showcased to the detriment of help for other oppressed people, such as those in, for example, Myanmar, or even North Korea, both of which nations seek a high degree of security and power concentrated in the hands of a very few.

It seems that militarism often clashes with compassion, and it is that very conflict which played out in the 2008 election, where Barack Obama's election signified to many a mandate for compassion instead of hyper-securityism or militarism that the GOP ended up signifying after the Bush administrations many misadventures. Let's hope this really does become Obama's legacy: the triumph of compassion over fear, which is the only true road to lasting security.


opit said...

Let's hope Obama does affect the situation where 'Land of the Free' is satire.
Even the most enlightened supporters of the Constitution and Bill of Rights seem reluctant to embrace the implications of 'The New World Order' proclaimed most clearly by the elder Bush, the former President.
Today the situation of 'Freedom' is less protected by law than it was at the time the English nobility revolted against complete untrammeled authority of the state in 1215 - the declaration of the Great Charter.
The simplest explanation of reversion to fascism is the most odious
'Occam's Razor' is a nasty tool of logic.

Anonymous said...

People all over the world are in need of protection. From government officials to celebrities, security is in great demand. It's a great service to be employed by considering it's top pay and rewarding benefits. There are many companies that offer security guard services.

Omyma said...

Obit, thanks for your thoughtful comments, and the link. "Plutocracy" does seem to describe what has become the GOP Way. Being as there will always be liberals and conservatives, my hope is that people on both sides will be both more thoughtful and more pragmatic, as well as compassionate, which will lead to the sort of consensus dialogue - something we've lacked for too long - is supposed to produce.

That, again, is the hope from Obama. But the way the definitions are going, with "liberal" meaning solving every problem with government problems (not true!) and "conservative" meaning democracy by hostility, force, and protection of the rich & powerful (also not true!) -it's a tall order.