An Intifada against intellectual terrorism

Well, I used to be disgusted, but now I try to be amused.* It’s hard to say which has done more damage to my stomach lining this week: the reports and images of yet another Sharon-instigated massacre—adding to what a BBC interviewer today referred to as “General Sharon’s rather impressive tally of blood-letting”—or my repeated run-ins with the Thought Police, who come in all shapes and sizes and no know borders. The insidious policing of our public thought processes and moral assertiveness dampens possibilities for constructive politics and meaningful change just as effectively as a tank pointing its gun turret in one’s direction.

Despite growing and irrefutable evidence that the IDF has committed war crimes in the West Bank, despite a multitude of statements by respected international human rights organizations that the IDF is in grievous breach of international law and countless calls for the atrocities to stop immediately, in spite of demands issued by President George W. Bush that Israel withdraw its troops and cease all incursions and attacks on Palestinian cities, Ariel Sharon still enjoys a healthy coating of political Teflon, thanks to legions of people willing to lie, threaten, strong-arm, and terrorize anyone willing to say: “Here, Ladies and Gentleman, is a war criminal in the same class as General Augusto Pinochet, Slobodan Milosevic, and Saddam Hussein.” And he is. You could look it up, as a famous baseball player used to say.

But what happens when one tries to say these things publicly in North America? Here are some pages from my media activist diary from March 29-April 8:

29 March 2002: It’s very clear, from watching BBC this morning, that something wicked this way comes in the West Bank. Adding to the general fear and foreboding that this realization brings, I open my email and learn the following from a friend with whom I and others launched, in early 2001, an internet petition campaign to indict Ariel Sharon for war crimes:

Dear Laurie,

One creepy thing after another has happened. In the morning, I tried to log on to AOL and found my account “suspended” and the dialog box gave me a number to call. I didn’t get around to that until the afternoon and had a bizarre conversation with AOL. You will go nuts. The short version is that AOL has literally “confiscated” both of the Sharon accounts—Indict Sharon and Arrest Sharon (the latter was the one created first, and then we converted to the Indict). Seems there was some type of a campaign against the two screen names, and AOL “suspended” my entire account in order to accomplish their goals with the Sharon accounts.

Here is the story: AOL’s “Community Action Team” decided, on the basis of “information brought to its attention,” that the two screen names represented “a political statement.” Moreover, I should understand that the “political climate in the USA has changed since September 11th,” and that “a lot of people feel that targeting one person [Sharon] is targeting the whole group.” The screen names are a violation of AOL policy “because they target an individual and by extension a group.”

Because of the “volatile nature” of the screen names, “they are now locked and any information in the accounts” cannot be retrieved. Basically what has happened it that AOL overrode the existing passwords for the two Sharon accounts, as well as for my other accounts that I need desperately for my work. While a representative gave me a temporary password to get into this account, she would not/could not give me passwords for the Sharon accounts, meaning that everything inside these two accounts (our mail) is irretrievably lost. AOL has confiscated our mail. As the representative said, I can have “absolutely no access” to the accounts of these two screen names, and “there is no way we can release a password for these two accounts.”

Then it got really bizarre. I was told that I had to “agree to delete both accounts immediately.” I asked for them to put this, and the other part of the story, in writing, and I was told that they could not do this. So AOL basically was asking that I delete my own accounts, at their request, but they would not confirm that the request came from them, giving them possible deniability in case of a lawsuit. A solid argument can be made, obviously, that the Sharon screen names do not violate the guidelines, particularly as he is a very controversial public official, and these accounts were established before he became prime minister.

I am so incredibly swamped that the last thing I want to do it fight this battle…The issue for me is bowing to pressure after the accounts have been in existence for over one year, and the most important issue is the confiscation of the accounts and their contents (the mail) without warning or any opportunity to appeal. Very scary stuff. Cyberspace is not immune from manipulation by organized forces protecting butchers.

April 8, 2002: At the university where I work, the press and media relations office learned that I lived and worked in the Middle East as a journalist and a researcher. A very capable woman called me from the press office and interviewed me. An hour later she sent me the following press release for approval before she disseminated it to the local media and posted it on the university web site:

MIDEAST AGGRESSION A “WAR CRIME”: The sustained aggression by Israel against Palestinian civilians in the occupied West Bank constitutes a war crime under the guidelines of the Geneva convention and international law, says Dr. Laurie King-Irani, an instructor with U. ***’s anthropology department. “The Palestinian suicide bombers are also committing crimes, but they don’t have the weight and organization of a formal state and its decisive military apparatus behind them,” says King-Irani, who, as a Fulbright Scholar, conducted field research in Israel on the participation of Palestinian citizens in Israeli politics. King-Irani co-founded a website, “The Electronic Intifada”, that undertakes media critiques and now posts eye-witness accounts from human rights workers still in occupied territories now off-limits to the media. She has also worked as a journalist in Beirut in the 1990s and served as editor in chief of the Washington-based Middle East Report magazine from 1998-2000.

The next day, my husband gets a phone call from a man he met in town at a professional function. The man tells my husband, with seeming earnestness: “I’ve done my best, and I am not sure I have been able to repair the damage, but your wife’s comments on the university’s web site have caused a whirlwind of angst and acrimony in the local Jewish community. I hope you will impress upon her the need to speak more responsibly in the future!” This was soon followed by an anonymous email I received informing me that people who say things such as I have are “responsible for the burning of synagogues in Canada.”

This, friends, is intellectual terrorism. This is psychological occupation. We must work together to shake it off. That’s why we need a media intifada. I hope all who are reading this will refuse to give in to fear, threats, and emotional blackmail when the time comes to speak truth to power and call crimes by their proper names. And that time is now. We must responsibly stand up to those who would use ugly accusations of anti-Semitism to dissuade us from saying Stop the Occupation Now! Stop the killings now! I say this for the sake of Israelis as much as for the sake of Palestinians. Peace must be based on justice, and there will be no justice until the occupation ends and the settlements are gone.

*apologies to Elvis Costello for stealing the opening line of his song, “The Angels want to wear my Blue Shoes.”