The latest Carandiru: Somalia and Palestine

Parallels with Palestine: Islamic court militias on street patrol in Mogadishu after assuming full control of the war-ravaged Somali capital, 20 June 2006. They have brought relative calm to the city, once notorious for insecurity perpetrated by various armed groups loyal to ‘warlords’. (Abdimalik Yusuf/IRIN)


On Monday, Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman moderated a debate between Gil Troy and Norman Finkelstein over the current controversy over President Jimmy Carter’s book, Palestine: Peace Not Apartheid. If debates are scored in cogency and temperance, then Troy lost in spades — if that’s possible — while Finkelstein was the clear winner.

Troy is an American history professor at McGill University, and he markets himself as the author of Why I Am a Zionist: Israel, Jewish Identity, and the Challenges of Today. Meanwhile, Finkelstein is famous for a series of books criticizing Zionism and the Israeli occupation, his most recent being Beyond Chutzpah: On the Misuse of Anti-Semitism and the Abuse of History. It would be rude to presume that with a book title like Why I Am a Zionist and a proclivity for colonial-settler narratives, Troy would be excitable, defensive, and a bit on edge. But alas he was.

Troy’s argument on Democracy Now was a moving target, a firework display of one-liners that someone, somewhere is compiling for The Idiot’s Guide to Defending Zionism. His tenor went from bold to shrill, as Finkelstein schooled him like an unruly freshman.

However, among the more interesting things that emerged from this debate were Troy’s framing tactics, or the way he constructed meaning. Particular examples included the way he harped upon suicide bombings, the “vicious and ugly” Palestinian political culture, and the notion that Carter “was good friends with Yasser Arafat.” The implicit message is akin to statements like, “she likes to date black men” — it explains nothing, implies anything, and forecloses debate with an assumed, often racist, moral sanctity.

Such framing says more about Troy’s excitability than it does about Arafat, Palestinians, or terrorism. And it is without coincidence that we see similar Malthusian logic applied to the United States’ so called “war on terror,” where terrorism has become the euphemistic reference point for both the right and left — even environmentalists speak of the threat of global warming in relation to that of terrorism. It has produced a cult of mortality obsession, no less absolutist than Islamic, Jewish, or Christian fundamentalism. And only those who declared this war and adopted this frame have the propriety to say who is and isn’t a “terrorist,” just as religious fundamentalists define the “infidels.” In this sense, the “war on terror” is not, as critics have suggested, a “war on everything,” but a war on anything.

In no place is this more apparent than the convergence of Israeli and American security discourse since September 11, 2001. The ongoing federal prosecution against Chicago resident Muhammad Salah illuminates this point. Salah is an American citizen whose philanthropy work in Gaza in 1993 led to his detention by Israel’s Shin Bet security agency. On pain of torture, Salah “confessed” to a host of far-fetched allegations, including being a military commander of Hamas. Although his indictment had nothing to do with U.S. security matters, his case has been resurrected for political points in the new demand for bureaucratic performance outputs by Homeland Security. To date, the trial has wasted millions of taxpayer dollars to fly in “expert witnesses” — including right wing political pundits — and Shin Bet operatives, who were allowed to testify anonymously and without cross examination.

Aside from the ongoing abuses in Iraq, the latest convergence point for this war on anything is Somalia, where U.S. air strikes by AC-130 gun ships annihilated a village in the Ras Kamboni region on Tuesday. Pentagon officials indicated that the strikes were based on “credible intelligence” that al-Qaeda operatives responsible for the 1998 bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania were in the area. The village death toll is reported to be “at least 27,” according to news sources, but one can assume it is much higher.

Even commentators from traditionally hawkish backgrounds were quick to address the ironies of this debacle. “It’s akin to the heart of darkness, just shooting into the jungle,” Bob Baer, a former CIA agent, told the 10 January 2007 Guardian. “At the end of the day you are just making more enemies.” In a separate report the same day, Richard Cornwell, a senior research fellow at the Institute for Security Studies in Pretoria (South Africa), told the Guardian: “The AC-130 is an appallingly blunt instrument and I very much doubt it can be used to target individuals. To kill alleged terrorists regardless of collateral damage is highly hypocritical.”

Meanwhile, the proprietors of the “war on terror” have remained on the wagon. Pentagon officials’ only remark about casualties was a confirmation that bodies were seen on the ground, as if to only say, “mission accomplished.” By Wednesday morning, news reports indicated that the Tuesday strike had killed one of these al-Qaeda suspects, Fazul Abdullah Mohammed, and that U.S. helicopter strikes in the northern village of Haya had taken more lives — the Pentagon said “between five and 10,” while Haya residents reported 31, among them two newlyweds.

On Tuesday evening, the NewsHour with Jim Lehrer’s Ray Suarez hosted a segment on the Ras Kamboni incident. He opened with television footage of the 1998 embassy bombings, framing America’s indiscriminate killing of Somalians in relation to — and visually aided with — the victims of the 1998 terrorism. The message was clear: We had to do this, they left us no choice. But then, so was Suarez’s pathology: Let us not think that we too are terrorists. Accordingly, his news segment said nothing of the “collateral damage,” and his two “expert” guests talked about abstract strategies in “counter-terrorism,” without ever disagreeing.

A few things are missing.

First, people like McGill University’s Professor Troy, and White House spokesman Tony Snow did not come here to fight some “war on terror.” Their only interest is to reproduce it. Were this not the case, they wouldn’t speak in bumper stickers. But the same goes for activists on the left, who refuse to engage thoughtfully in Israeli politics, or who fail to make connections between Somalia and Palestine.

Somalia, like Palestine, is part of the global Carandiru. For those not familiar, Carandiru was Latin America’s largest and most notorious prison complex. In 1992, Brazilian military police stormed the Carandiru facility of Casa de Deten, massacring 111 defenseless inmates. Preceding this awful incident was an increasingly shameful public consciousness over the conditions of Carandiru: HIV transmission and drug abuse were rampant; overcrowding produced nightmarish sanitation problems. The military police were not murdering human beings, they were cleansing the public conscience. Besides, they were all a bunch of criminals, right?

This brings us to Black Hawk Down, the faceless masses of savage Somali gunmen, mutilating the corpses of American GIs, killing one another. And now we have the nightly news… Stop yourself. Stop yourself now.

Zachary Wales is a regular contributor to the Electronic Intifada.

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