William Ayers: “extreme vandalism”

Walter Shapiro has posted a fine interview with the notorious William Ayers at Salon.com.

Ayers supports Barack Obama’s claim that the two men were merely casual acquaintances, not close friends. But I am more interested in Ayers’s recollection of the Vietnam War era, and the circumstances that drove the Weather Underground to bomb American buildings.

The New York Times headline on the morning of Sept. 11 was “No Regrets for a Love of Explosives; In a Memoir of Sorts, a War Protester Talks of Life with the Weathermen.”

That headline “No Regrets” was also the headline of the Chicago magazine article a week earlier and it was the headline of several articles. And remember all these interviews were done before 9/11. What I have said continually, and I still say, that while I regret many things (you can’t be 63 years old and not have many, many regrets), what I don’t regret is opposing the war in Vietnam. A murderous, violent, terrorist war against an entire population. I don’t regret resisting that war with every ounce of my being. […]

By 1968, when we really had won the argument about Vietnam, we thought that the war would really come to an end. Especially when [then President] Lyndon Johnson announced that he would step down. […]

What I remember [about the night of Johnson’s announcement] was this great feeling that we had brought about this phenomenal substantive change. And that peace would come. Four days later, King was dead. Two months later Kennedy was dead. And a few months after that, Henry Kissinger emerged with a secret plan to extend the war. And, at that point, the question that pressed itself on us, was how do you end this war?

William Ayers, Bernardine DohrnAyers and his wife, the founder of the Weather Underground, Bernardine Dohrn
Chicago Tribune photo by Chris Walker

This is where we probably part company. One of the reasons, in my view, that Nixon got away with pursuing the war was that, in part, the violence of the Weather Underground — and some of the other extreme parts of the antiwar movement — discredited the overall antiwar movement. And that led to a further polarization of American life, which led to the first round of demonology involving yourself.


The case of the dog that didn’t bark

In the week or so leading up to the election there was:

(a) No massive attack on American forces in Iraq; and (b) no pot-stirring pronouncement courtesy of Osama bin Laden.

On the latter point:  could it be that the kidney-challenged cockroach has departed for that virgin-diddling Paradise that Muslims of his ilk fantasize about?

Seven years later, 9/11 just makes me angry

Like most people, I vividly remember “where I was” on September 11, 2001. The day’s events plunged me into a near depression that lasted a week or so. I had to consciously force myself to turn away from the horror for the sake of my mental health.

I had flipped on the TV early in the morning, after the first plane had struck the north tower of the World Trade Center. All the TV stations were covering it. But at that point, everyone assumed it was merely a tragic accident.

Next came the images of the second plane, which struck the south tower. The screams of onlookers, watching in horror from the streets below. That perfect, gut-wrenching video of the plane turning on an angle before it sliced into the tower like a hot knife through butter.

There came the profound realization that this was no accident, but a deliberate act of terrorism, on an unimaginable scale.

A little later, I was standing in line at a bank. (I had “important” business to do:  something about a student loan.) A TV was turned on in the corner, with the sound down. Standing in line, I saw the third stunning visual of the day:  the shocking, devastating collapse of the south tower.

A bank employee called for me at just that moment, but I didn’t register it at first. My mind was spinning wildly, trying to make sense of this abomination. I can only imagine what my face looked like. The first lucid thought to pass through my mind was, “The USA will soon be at war with someone.”

Terrorism on such a large scale must surely have a state sponsor:  someone who could be held accountable for it.



Seven years later, 9/11 just makes me angry. The collapse of the twin towers (plus the attack on the Pentagon, plus the crash of United Airlines Flight 93) are no longer isolated events in my memory. They are inextricably linked with the war in Afghanistan, the war in Iraq, Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo Bay, torture, extraordinary rendition, Maher Arar, the bald-faced lies of the Bush Administration (yellowcake uranium; "America does not torture" ), disregard for the Geneva Conventions and the American Constitution, the suspension of habeus corpus, the no-fly list, widespread surveillance of U.S. citizens.

To use a trite metaphor, these things are two sides of the same coin. On one side, the inexcusable evil of Osama bin Laden and the puppet men who surrendered their will to him. On the other side, the disproportionate reaction of President Bush and the neoconservatives who egged him on. I cannot pull these things apart, intellectually or emotionally.

They ought not to be pulled apart.

9/11 was tragic. And yes, it was evil. But the American response to 9/11 made things much worse, and on a global scale.

Events did not have to spiral out of control as they did. Cooler heads could have made wiser decisions (e.g. to keep the focus on Afghanistan, the Taliban, and Osama bin Laden — a single theatre of war). The cost of that misguided, disproportionate response has been enormous:  in “blood and treasure”, and in making the world a more anxiety-ridden place than it needed to be.

Such a tragic, senseless waste. And it goes on and on, in Afghanistan, Iraq, and now Pakistan. Meanwhile, some “hawks” (including John McCain … though McCain assures us that he hates war) are rattling their sabres in the direction of Iran and Russia, and ratcheting up the rhetoric against China while they’re at it.

Those were my thoughts yesterday, on the seventh anniversary of 9/11.

Make it stop, please. It didn’t have to turn out this way, and it doesn’t have to continue.

RNC protestFreedom on the march, last week, outside the Republican National Convention. Read a reporter’s eyewitness account via Andrew Sullivan.

Terrorist shootings at a Jerusalem yeshiva

Details plus my response at Emerging From Babel.

The struggle for the soul of Islam, part 3

(If you’re wondering where parts 1 and 2 are, I’m reaching back a bit:  more than two years! See Fuel for antisemitism in the Qur’an and The struggle for the soul of Islam in Canada, both posted in July 2005.)
Johann Hari tells the story of a Somali woman, Ayaan Hirsi Ali, who fled fundamentalist Islam for sanctuary in the Netherlands. Hari says that Ayaan is deeply conflicted. There are “two Ayaans … with clashing and contradictory views on Islam.” On the one hand:

She has no time for what she sees as the ignorant, woolly Islam-is-peace message of Western liberals, insisting: “I see no difference between Islam and Islamism. … Sayyid Qutb [the thinker who inspired al Qaeda] didn’t invent anything, he just quoted the sayings of Mohammed.”

On the other hand, reform of Islam is possible:

She insists, “It’s wrong to treat Muslims as if they will never find their John Stuart Mill. Christianity and Judaism show people can be very dogmatic and then open up. There is a minority like Irshad Manji and Tawfiq Hamid who want to remain in the faith and reform it. …

Can you be a Muslim and respect the separation of church and state? I hope a large enough number of Muslims will agree you can, and they will find a way to keep the spiritual elements that comfort them and live in a secular society.”

The struggle (= jihad) for the soul of Islam is dramatized in Ayaan’s ambivalence. I hope the part of her that dares to hope for reform is right. All of us have a stake in the outcome of this particular struggle.

The interview is gut-wrenching. Ayaan continues to live in grave danger:

The internet is littered with pledges to torture and slay Ayaan Hirsi Ali. … When she describes the people who want to hack her body to pieces, it is in paragraphs that feel pre-packed. Perhaps it is all she can bear to show.

The government of the Netherlands used to provide security services for Ayaan, but now they have thrown her to the wolves. Sam Harris hosts a site where you can make a donation to help defray the costs of private security.

Why the Bush Administration resorted to torture

The one thing we know about torture is that it was never designed in the first place to get at the actual truth of anything; it was designed in the darkest days of human history to produce false confessions in order to annihilate political and religious dissidents. And that is how it always works: it gets confessions regardless of their accuracy.

Andrew Sullivan has been brilliant in relentless pursuit of the torture issue this week. The post quoted above continues with a hypothetical scenario:

On 9/11, [Vice President Dick] Cheney immediately thought of the worst possible scenario: What if this had been done with weapons of mass destruction? It has haunted him ever since — for good and even noble reasons.

This panic led him immediately to think of Saddam. But it also led him to realize that our intelligence was so crappy that we simply didn’t know what might be coming. That’s why the decision to use torture was the first — and most significant — decision this administration made. It is integral to the intelligence behind the war on terror. …

But torture gives false information. … It is perfectly conceivable that the torture regime — combined with panic and paranoia — created an imaginationland of untruth and half-truth that has guided US policy for this entire war.

Sullivan’s hypothesis makes one wonder how catastrophic the failure of the American intelligence agencies really was. Not merely a failure to prevent 9/11; but also, perhaps, a catalyst for the reprehensible torture policy; which then became the source of doubtful information that has led to a series of disastrous policy decisions.

Maybe, maybe, maybe — it’s a series of guesses. But sometimes verifiable facts are unavailable on crucial issues. In that case, the best you can do is to propose a hypothesis that accounts for those facts that are known. With that in mind, consider this:

On October 11, 2001, a month to the day after the terrorist assault on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, President George W Bush faced an even more terrifying prospect. At that morning’s Presidential Daily Intelligence Briefing, George Tenet, the director of central intelligence, informed the president that a CIA agent code-named Dragonfire had reported that Al Qaeda terrorists possessed a ten-kiloton nuclear bomb, evidently stolen from the Russian arsenal. According to Dragonfire, this nuclear weapon was now on American soil, in New York City.

Now one pictures a terrified President receiving terrifying briefings each morning. A President who makes decisions on a worst-case-scenario basis, when hindsight tells us that the worst-case-scenarios weren’t about to happen.

In my view, Sullivan’s guess about the Bush Administration’s motives is plausible. Regardless, Sullivan insists that it doesn’t excuse the ongoing errors and sins of the Administration:

It has equally become clear that the possibility for an attack on this scale has been over-estimated. And the right response to more information is to adjust accordingly. … It was possible to abandon the torture policy after it had been revealed to be counter-productive and illegal.

To continue in this vein — against the violence [sic: I assume Sullivan meant to write “against the evidence”] — and to repeat the hysteria with respect to Iran after the fiasco of Iraq is not, in my judgment, merited by the true nature of the threat we face. It is an idee fixe, perpetuated by a fundamentalist psyche unable to seek evidence outside itself and its own ideology.

To cap it off, I invite you to read the heart-wrenching account of one man’s desperate, false confession. You’ll find it here.

What’s the harm?

CIA officials have said that they never tortured the detainees and that they operated within the law.

Ultimately, some of the terrorism suspects confessed. But the coercive techniques made even some CIA officials skeptical of whether their confessions were believable, much less sustainable in any court, one former CIA counter-terrorism covert officer said.

Khalid Shaikh MohammedThe LA Times explains that the FBI has been brought in to reconstruct the cases against Khalid Shaikh Mohammed and fourteen other accused Al Qaeda leaders being held at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. The CIA used “enhanced interrogation techniques” (aka torture) to obtain information from the detainees. The FBI has been using other, non-coercive methods to obtain evidence that might actually be useful at trial.

Mohammed has claimed that he was the mastermind of the 9/11 attacks.

During the more than three years he spent in CIA custody [Mohammed] boasted that he had killed Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl and orchestrated more than two dozen other terrorist plots. Several senior counter-terrorism officials said they believed that Mohammed falsely confessed to some things, including the Pearl slaying, under duress or to obscure the roles played by operatives who might still be on the loose.

U.S. authorities are worried that Mohammed might win the right to a trial. If that happens, the prosecution would not want to rely on evidence obtained through the use of torture. Such evidence might be declared inadmissible and might expose CIA agents to legal jeopardy. Moreover, the techniques themselves would likely become the focus of public attention during the trials.

Federal law enforcement officials believe they have gathered enough admissible evidence to try the high-value detainees. “We’ve redone everything, and everything is fine,” one official said. “So what’s the harm?”

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